2013 Contest: An Interview with Fiction Judge Brian Evenson
Interview by JAKE KINSTLER
Black Warrior Review: Both Fugue State and your new book Windeye are self-contained and complete works interested in (it seems to me) how story collections can function as a singular artistic work. In Fugue State, there are repeated themes and echoes: being unable to escape or return to a home, isolation, a post-apocalyptic struggle for normalcy, and an inability to communicate, all of which build to and appear in the climactic title story. In Windeye, however, the title story opens the collection, and serves more as a tonic which the subsequent stories riff on, vary, and complicate. Do you write towards these story collections intentionally, or does this formal and thematic coherence arise naturally from your writing process? And relatedly, I guess: did you write “Fugue State” and “Windeye” specifically as anchoring stories, or did they strike you the title stories while shaping the collections?
Brian Evenson: A little bit of both, actually. I think I tend to start by just writing stories and at a certain point I begin to feel that something is happen, that echoes are starting up, that I’m moving toward a collection rather than just writing individual stories. At that point, I do sometimes write stories that are about filling out voices in the conversation the collection is having, but more often I end up realizing that certain stories fit with the collection and others don’t, are to be saved for later or never collected. I tend to shape a collection up until the last possible moment, which can drive my editor crazy sometimes. So, there are often some pretty significant differences between the story collection that was accepted and the one that’s finally published, and often as many as four or five stories that have been added, several that have been dropped. That was definitely the case with Windeye. And with Fugue State at least one story, “The Adjudicator”, was added very near the end. “Windeye” was written before a lot of the other stories in that collection, and almost could have been included in Fugue State, but I also thought that it was shifting the ground of the discussion in the way that made it belong to another collection. I always liked the title, and I do think that story does in a very clean way what a lot of the other stories are doing, so for me it’s a kind of distilled representation of the collection as a whole. “Fugue State” if I remember correctly, was written fairly late in the development of that collection. I think (hope) titling the collection that directs people toward certain ideas and attitudes found in the other stories as well, but sometimes in a more veiled way.
BWR: Many of the stories in Windeye withhold information from both the characters and the reader (“Legion” and “Hurlock’s Law,” for example). Sometimes there are one or more ‘reveals’ that alter the reader’s perception of both the preceding and following narrative, and other times that information remains hidden. How do you decide what the reader (or characters) needs to know? And how much do you, as an author, need to know?
BE: I think that decision is pretty closely based on the story. Some stories can thrive while revealing very little, others need to give a little more. I tend to think of the world as a mysterious place and probably overall tend to reveal less than most writers, but I do like to reveal enough to get people’s minds working, to get them to share in the creation of the story, in filling out the details. My ideal story, as a reader, is something I read and then continue to think about afterwards, something that I can’t shake. As a writer, I’m trying to give my readers that experience as well.
I usually reveal all that I know, but tend to be the sort of person who is pretty comfortable with the idea of uncertainty, and even get a certain joy out of ambiguity and out of the fact that it’s pretty difficult to know most things with absolute certainty. So, it’s usually not that I know something and am not telling it. Usually, I tell what I know–though I can often guess where it might go from there. But part of the pleasure of reading is following those multiple possibilities out in your head, and I probably end often at a point of ambiguity because of that.
BWR: You’re occasionally referred to as a writer of “horror” stories, and I admit that your stories disturb me more than any other author. (“The Sladen Suit,” in particular, continues to fuel nightmares). But rather than tapping into physical or primal fear, you seem more interested in plumbing the depths of, I don’t know… philosophical fear? That is, rather than death or injury being the threat in your stories, eternal life is, or losing control of yourself is, or unknowingly passing into another world is, or crossing some invisible line and falling victim to The Organization is, etc. Why do you gravitate to these more metaphysical consequences rather than physical ones? And how do you feel about being classified as a horror writer (or a “sci-fi” writer or a “literary” writer or any of the dozen other classifications critics place you in)?
BE: Philosophical fear is an interesting way to describe it. I’ve thought of my work as a destabilization of the nature of the world and one’s relationship to it, which I think is what makes it disturbing. I do think that destabilization is philosophical in the sense that it’s phenomenological writing, concerned with a kind of embodied notion of reality, and that if you can create that sense of a perceived reality and then call it into question it can be very unsettling. As bad as it is to have something quantifiably bad happen to you, it’s all the worse to have something happen and then not being sure exactly what’s happened or what effect it’s had on you. There’s so much we take for granted about our relationship to the world and to our bodies–and indeed we have to if we’re to be able to function in the world. But if you begin to call these things into question, it doesn’t take long to realize that reality is a lot more contingent than we care to believe. Much of my work tries to bring my characters and readers into contact with that contingency.
Categories and classifications are often problematic, in that they predetermine how we come to something. I don’t mind being called “literary” or “SF” or “horror,” but like it a lot better if I’m called several of those things rather than any one of them, like the way categories can stack up and short circuit. My book Immobility was published with Tor, a science fiction press, and so gets seen as SF, but I also had the opportunity to publish it at a literary press, and if I had it probably would have been seen more in literary terms. But I liked the idea of seeing what would happen if I published it with Tor, the complication of that for certain readers who thought they knew my category. That’s another thing my work is increasingly concerned with: the way in which genre works and the way that it can be toyed with.
BWR: Amputation, both voluntary and forced, appears in Windeye and your novel Last Days. You’ve explored the uneasiness caused by feeling a limb where there isn’t one, and by having a limb when it feels there shouldn’t be one. What is it about these misalignments of the physical world and the mental world that compel you?
BE: I don’t know. I’m fascinated by the way perception is an embodied experience and how perception shifts or changes when our body changes. I’ve got all my limbs. When I was five, I lived across the street from a man missing his hand and was fascinated by the way he did things. But I also think that the absence of a limb stands in for all the smaller shifts that we absorb sometimes without noticing: the way my vision has changed, for instance, as I’ve gotten older, the way I favor one leg. There’s also the interesting way in which we modify our behavior to fit the world behind it: rather than getting a new key we learn to jiggle the old key just right. We also do the reverse: we often interact with our notion of who a person is rather than with the person herself, and as a result often understand those around us in both quiet and dramatic ways. Those alignments, misalignments, and realignments strike me as being at the heart of what it really means to be human, but also are something that are rarely explored in any sort of depth.
BWR: Many of your stories contain other stories within, or take the form a direct address. However, this often feels natural rather than metafictional. What role do stories or storytelling serve in your fiction, such as in “The Second Boy?”
BE: Storytelling is a big part of my writing, and part, too, of the fragmenting of the world. We use stories to sort out reality, make sense of it, but also in the process those stories can modify reality, change it, destroy it. We tell stories to comfort ourselves or simply to pass the time or to escape, or… But stories don’t, as “The Second Boy” suggests, always behave.
BWR: If you happened to judge a story contest, what would you look for? What excites you most about new fiction?
BE: I read a fair amount and like reading in all sorts of different directions. I most like fiction in which I feel like the author is paying careful attention to language but not just paying attention to language: well-written work that has resonance and larger depth. I like new fiction that either surprises me or does something exceptionally well.