Neck Goozle or Adult Acne: An Interview with Lindsay Hunter

by Blake Butler

lindsay

 

This Fall saw the release of the debut collection from one Lindsay Hunter, aptly and majestically titled Daddy’s. If you’ve ever seen Lindsay read in person you probably were hiding in your closet with your head between your legs covering your junk quivering about this monster, a collection of short texts trapped inside a tackle box. Lindsay’s language is somehow both frightening, gut-bunching, weirdo, home, cover your face, open your mouth, transcendent, and of heaving sound. At times like if Gummo turned into words and date-raped Mary Gaitskill’s language then went to the gas station to buy tissues to clean up the messies and bought you a snack of discount heat lamp chicken. Underneath it all, this weird American convulsive heart that sounds like someone if we haven’t been, at least we remember getting beaten up in middle school.

Over email, so as to not get bit, I traded q’s with Ms. Hunter re: the book, humor, music, inspiration, fear, performance, and all the rest.

BB: I love how Daddy’s operates in reading almost as a series of rotations in a brain of what some would call trash life: each of the stories in the collection often concerns sex, food, and body fluids. The sky is referred to in turns from piece to piece as if it is shifting through a section of a place that does not change: and yet each story feels so singular. Was this variation something you were super aware of while you were writing the stories, or did the voices just keep coming out? By what means was this book written?

LH: I don’t know that I was aware of this as I was writing each story, but looking at the book as a whole, it definitely feels like there is a town in which these people live and it is the same town. I generally start with the first line of something and then see where that leads me. I’ll have first lines in my head for days, or sometimes I’ll get one and I’ll need to sit down and just fucking follow it. Every now and again I’ll have an idea for a story, like some kind of situation or glimpse–like in “That Baby” I wanted to write about the jealousy of babies–and I’ll wedge my way in and try to write what I see.

I think these stories are what they are because I tend to go sentence by sentence and edit as I’m writing–I can’t move on until each sentence is just right, and if I’m bored by a line it feels wonderful just to delete it and start over. That’s my main thing–I hate boredom and being bored and boring writing and cliches and puns and double entendres and cleverness. So I try to eviscerate all of that. But watch, I’ll open up my book and see the phrase “and that was the end of that” or “new lease on life” or “make love” and I’ll have to face some pretty ugly truths about my inner life.

 

BB: I find the voices that come out of you often really surprising, both as image and in the odd colloquial phrasings and manners of speaking. Is this entirely invention, or does it come out of a place you grew up or spent time, or a mash of both? Do you ever scare yourself?

LH: I think there is a more specific way to get at an image than to rely on something people are used to reading. Like “yellow sun.” Or “crowded teeth.” These phrases get the point across but they don’t tell you anything unique about the brainspace the character inhabits, and they aren’t accurate enough visually, they just aren’t. Like right now I am having a hard time not rewriting those phrases to something like “pee dribble in a sky wedge” or “gums like a collection of driftwood,” and even those phrases aren’t enough, aren’t it.

So I think the cadence in the language and the accent is maybe something that comes from a place I hold dear, but the phrasing is all invention, I feel confident in declaring that.

I’ve scared myself plenty, and I sometimes want to get up and walk it off, but if I stay and keep going, man that shit is good. That moment of surprise, if you can shock yourself like that, that’s all the reason in the world to keep going.

This is an aside but today my friend Sarah made me listen to “I See a Darkness” by Bonnie Prince Billy and after about 30 seconds of it I had stopped caring about the Word document I was formatting at work or any of the objects on my desk, or the thought of dinner and a drink, or anything really, I could not think of one thing I had the energy to care about anymore, and I had to listen to The Chronic after that, and then a series of YouTube videos that I knew would build back up my boner for life, and I went back to being convinced that formatting that Word table meant something, even if it only means something to a few people in this world. And I think writing can be like that – there are moments when you read something so fucking great that it just levels you, or you are just existing and you are leveled by something banal, like a Steve Winwood song that the last time you heard it you were depressed and sticking to your sheets, and you don’t care to go on, why would you really, you are bored and worse, you are boring, and the last sentence you wrote had the word “guiltily” in it…but then if you push through that ennui death wish, if you get pissed off enough at yourself, and you write something unexpected because you’ve given up so who cares anymore, or because it’s all you have, that one sentence, if that happens, and it does every once in a while, you remember why you do it, why it matters to write a sentence about something so recognizable but to write it in a way that is at first unrecognizable to yourself and if you’re lucky, to any readers who come across it. It’s tenuous – that filament that keeps you connected to your writing or the world or anything really, but it’s so precious.

(I am listening to Thunderstruck by AC/DC on a loop right now.)

BB: I love the way you said that. Exactly. Exactly. Was there a time in your writing when you hadn’t figured this out yet? Like, did you have a period where you were learning and maybe wrote more traditional or boring to you things and then found this mode of sudden juxtapositions and self terror? If so, or if not, what jarred you into finding those modes? What, if anything, outside you was an influence on Daddy’s?

LH: (Now I am listening to “Zombie Prescriptions” by Snapcase on a loop)

Hell yes there was a time when I was trying to be Alice Munro and feeling really frustrated. I wanted to make people feel the way she can make people feel, but her style is just not my modus operandi, it’s just not, and it took a long time to find out that was okay. I remember taking grad classes at my undergrad and being told there were very specific rules to fiction writing, like you couldn’t write from the perspective of a dead person or an animal, and everything had to have that narrative arc with the denouement and the climax and and and and

So then I went to the Art Institute and I remember reciting these rules for a professor who looked at me like I was vomiting from the eyes, who finally cut me off and said “Yeah, you can do whatever the fuck you want.” And I took that to heart, it was wonderful.

But even then, I was writing things that were weird just for the sake of being weird, but they weren’t really weird in any sort of authentic way. And I’d be hearing these sentences in my head and trying to lay them out nice and run an iron over them so they’d be presentable, and then one morning I just dumped them on the page in this kind of breathless rage, and when I sat back and read it over I felt pretty good about it, I felt like I was finally working, I was making something that was mine.

There’s a lot that influences me. For Daddy’s specifically I was reaching toward awkward, ugly moments that seemed (and seem) more real, more telling to me than when people are at their best. So Cruddy is a huge influence, as are country music and shred metal and coke rap and Cormac McCarthy and (this shames me to admit but I will devour) anything murder-related, like one of my prized possessions is a book of 19th century daguerreotypes of all these murdered people in France…obviously my childhood provided ways in to some stories as well…so ultimately my fascination lies with the ugly parts of people, the awkward, from farts during sex to that trapped feeling you get when everything is fine to what drives a plump quiet nerd of a man to choke his sister out.

And I’m always listening for voices. When I was little we were pretty religious and my brain used to play tricks on me by saying “I worship the devil” or “I love Satan,” and that scared the shit out of me, I had no control over it, and that’s kind of how the sentences come now, they just slide in, only now I want them to.

BB: I think in addition to being brutal, Daddy’s is hilarious. I found myself laughing out loud, or repeating phrases incredulously throughout, which is really hard. What writers or other things do you find funny? Are you parents funny?

LH: In my house growing up you didn’t get any respect unless you could laugh at yourself. My dad was downright vicious sometimes, picking one of us at the dinner table to ream each night, pointing out zits and big feet and chubby knees (“just like your mother”) and wayward hair until we’d run from the table, but the next night it was someone else’s turn and we’d laugh and laugh until they ran to their rooms to cry. It could be brutal but man, we learned quick how to laugh at ourselves, which was the only way to get him to let up. When we got older, we turned this same laser focus on him, pointing out his neck goozle or adult acne or general old mannishness, and he still laps it up, I don’t know if he is ever more proud than when my sister says something like “Shut it, fatty” to him.

So I’d say my dad is a huge influence on my sense of humor. He also obsessively taped comedy shows on HBO and Comedy Central and would watch them over and over again, and I am pretty sure a large part of my family’s communication was and is just repeating lines we stole from Brian Regan or Richard Pryor or whoever else.

I respect comedians as much as I respect my favorite writers, and just like my dad I’ll listen to their albums over and over and over, deconstructing them, or trying to. Patton Oswalt and his extremely precise word choices are a current obsession.

Writer-wise, I think Amelia Gray is stunningly funny. Her fiction is like a bus to the face. I will probably get shit for this but I think A.M. Homes is hilarious. Frank Stanford had a great sense of humor. Lynda Barry, yes please. Sometimes I laugh reading Cormac McCarthy because he is so brutal and he is so right. Like, it’s funny because it’s true.

BB: One thing I love about your writing and performance of it is how well you traverse that black humor, in such a way that people just eat it up. So much black humor to me will be really funny but no one else will be laughing, but you have this weird hyperstance that kind of feeds it in exactly, it’s so powerful. I feel like the performance of the pieces is almost inherent in the language, like they are monologues written both for speaking and for the page in different ways. Like heaving heard you read I can’t get your voice out of my head but on paper the sentences take on this other logic also. It’s a wonderful translation, and nice to be able to do both. Did you ever perform theater or music or something? You also keep mentioning bands, what you are listening, does music influence your writing specifically? What were you listening to when you wrote Daddy’s?

LH: I wanted to be an actress so bad growing up. And to me being an actress meant having this power to make people feel–sad or happy or disgusted or aroused or angry, whatever it was. So I did some theater and I studied a semester at the Lee Strasberg Institute in New York, and while I was there I realized Fuck, I don’t love this enough to spend my life hoping for that one good part that is nowhere near guaranteed to come around. And my whole life I’d been writing, it was just what I did, no big deal, I wrote stories and I had a zine (ugh) and for a while I wrote poems (UGH) and I thought maybe I could make people feel through my writing, and when I got back from New York I set out to see if that could work. So I got pretty serious about it after that–the writing anyway, not the reading. The reading in front of people came later, and I sucked at it. My first reading I had the flop sweat and I couldn’t breathe, it was awful, and I thought maybe reading is like that, you stand in front of a silent crowd and just have a complete meltdown. And that reading happened to be with Peter Markus, and I remember asking him if he was nervous, and he was like, Naw man, I love reading, I’m excited! and I thought, Well, he’s a fucking liar. But he killed it and there was no flop sweat. So a while later Mary and I started Quickies!, and the audience was mostly our friends at first, and reading in front of your friends is such a pleasure, because you get to fuck it all up and not hate yourself afterward. So we got to experiment, and come out of our shells more, and find our voices in front of an excited crowd, and my style just evolved from there. Now I get what Peter meant about loving to read and being excited, the man is not a liar. And it is possible to make people feel from your words–it’s incredible, the varying emotions you can bring out of people that you never even expected.

Music is huge, huge, huge for me. My mouth waters just thinking about music. I will listen to anything, I don’t give a fuck. Most of my favorite bands are the ones that were really hard to listen to at first, and then slowly over time the beauty and the sense starts to surface, and God that’s so rewarding…my dad is also obsessive over music, he’d play the same song over and over and over (You hear that? That right there!), and I do the same thing, I just can’t believe what I’m hearing sometimes, how lucky I am to be hearing it. Lately I’ve been really into metal–sludge metal, shred metal, drudge metal, drone metal, whatever. Some of that shit is really hard to find a foothold in, but once you do oh man brace your balls…I also love country music and rap and I am not fucking kidding when I say I will search out the adult contemporary station in any city and be elated when they play some Genesis or some Steve Winwood or some Fleetwood Mac.

I don’t generally listen to music when I write. Sometimes I will pre-writing, but once I’m in something I don’t listen to music because it distracts me…like the song is going in one direction and I’m going in the other, or something.

BB: So, how does it feel to have your book in the world? Does it feel like you would have imagined? What is coming now? I know you are working on a novel. I know you are on fire.

LH: It feels great and strange and terrifying and blasphemous and awful and wonderful. I don’t think I had any expectations in terms of how it would feel, other than that I’d be glad and proud, so all the rest of it is a surprise. I continue to be shocked at how grossed out people get about some of the stuff in the book, and the ways in which people are touched (angered, titillated, horrified, amused) are so varied and amazing. Recently someone pointed out that there are two instances where cheese is melted over a dessert. Someone else asked me if I ever thought about hurting myself. Every piece of feedback is like a gift.

Now I’m working on a novel. However, currently that novel is a mere pile of pages brooded over by a cumulonimbus of thought. And peppered with doubts about my capability to write something that length that is any good at all. Also part of what surprised me about the book coming out was how much work it is to put a book out, after it’s out. And I have a day job too, so the time I’ve had to work on this novel has been paltry and sporadic. But it’ll happen! I might take a month off from everything and get it all out, because it’s there, I just have to type it.

Amid everything I continue to write stories. I like to read something new at every reading, it keeps my shit fresh.

* * *

[You can read excerpts from and pick up a copy of Lindsay Hunter’s Daddy’s now fromFeatherproof.]

An Interview with Birds, LLC

by Guest Post: Joe Hall

The editors of Birds, LLC were kind enough to answer a few questions this summer about their unconventional editorial process and what went into Trees.

Joe Hall: How is Birds, LLC’s editorial process different than that of other independent presses? & what made you want to foreground the editorial process?

Dan Boehl: The way we approached the editorial process was to say, “Let’s be awesome and do dope shit.” We knew that Chris and Elisa had great manuscripts, but they are not getting published anywhere. Once we decided on the authors, we looked at the manuscripts and decided to make them be awesome. It took a lot of work. Each manuscript was assigned an editor. Justin for Chris, and Sam for Elisa. After the assignments, all the Birds editors read both manuscripts and gave feedback. Then a new manuscript was created by the poet/editor combo, and we repeated the process.

 

Chris Tonelli: i think we’re just kind of old fashioned. we want to spend a lot of time with the author and designer to help make that happen. each book is assigned a lead editor based on a variety of things, and he and the author, with feed back from the other four editors, work up new versions until everyone is satisfied. same with the design…the editors and designer work up versions to show the author and make changes as necessary. nothing fancy. but with so many friends unhappy with how their presses have edited, designed, and promoted their books, it does seem kind of novel…with a few exceptions.

 

 

Joe H: The editing of “The Wasteland” is so extensive it can almost be considered a collaboration between Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, Lucille Clifton became lifelong friends with Toni Morrison during the editing of Good Woman, Klaus Kinski and Werner Herzog simultaneously considered murdering each other while making Aguirre: The Wrath of God, and producing records in the 70s meant feeding musicians’ appetites for blow. Who in Birds is Toni Morrison? Who has plotted to kill who? Who depends on booger sugar to make art?

 

Chris T: if only we were that cool. i mean, i freak out when i drink coffee.

 

justin was so familiar with my work already that i pretty much trusted what he had to say, and if i really wanted to push back about a suggestion he went with it. and there was very little line edits…maybe a few here or there. but it was mostly about order, sections, and what poems to cut/leave in. many of the poems in my book are really old at this point so were pretty done when it came time to put the manny together. and it also helped that justin just had his book come out and had some similar issues. sections that were fairly distinct from one another and showed a sort of early-career progression. sam and elisa can talk more about their experience.

Justin Marks: Where I felt like the majority of my editorial energy went was to help keep intact the larger themes of the book while cutting old poems and adding new ones. To me, the book had an almost mythological journey feel to it blended masterfully with domesticity and–yes–the development of the poet himself.

 

What I actually did to help maintain that theme was say to Chris on occassion, “dude, stop revising/worrying or you’ll totally fuck up your book.” Chris can be really OCD about his work–which is part of what makes him/it great–but he can certainly go too far. I remember one day he was really obsessing over what I felt were very minor details. It seemed as soon as I talked him off the ledge about one thing, he was right back up there with another. I thought to myself, “this must be what it was like to work with Axl Rose on Chinese Democracy.”

That’s about as “tense” as it ever got. We’ve known each other and have been reading each others’ work for 12 years. The report is totally second nature at this point.

 

 

Chris T: yeah…i’m super anal and self-loathing. a great combo to work with. justin is such a lucky guy. he helped me focus on big picture stuff. cut this poem. include this poem. order the poems this way. here’s how the sections should work. that kinda thing. i was more “should i break the line before or after the ‘the’” of a 5 year old poem. really constructive stuff i’m sure.

Joe H: Final questions from a creepy motel in Zanesville, Ohio: So in addition to the comments of the lead editor, each MS receives comments from the other 4 editors. That’s a shit load of editors. Some questions come to mind: What does this stack of commentary look like? Do some of you tend to focus on particular aspects of the MS? Do you feel like you’re coming to these manuscripts with a relatively unified aesthetic or do your aesthetics diverge? How do you manage all these voices?

Dan B: The important thing about the editing process was to have a lead editor for each book that worked as a filter for all the comments. An editor who could take into account the other editors’ quirks, hang ups, and off the wall suggestions. It is sort of like having a team captain.

 

 

As for aesthetic, I always thought of the five of us existing on a continuum sort of like this:

Traditional Aesthetic                                              Experimental Aesthetic
Chris—————-Justin—————-Matt—————-Dan—————-Sam

Everybody is probably going to go apeshit for me laying out that continuum, so I better say it is just something I think about, not a finite structure.

Dan B: Actually, the continuum is more likely like this:

Traditional Aesthetic                                               Experimental Aesthetic  

Chris—————-Matt—————-Justin—————-Dan—————-Sam

Though there could also be something like this:

Matt—————-Chris—————-Justin—————-Sam—————-Dan

Dunno.

Chris T: although my continuum would be different, the point is a good one. each of us will provide an author with our own approach, while at the same time trying to make a manuscript the best it can be, on it’s own terms, not on our terms.

Justin M: seriously, dan’s continuum is a bit crude. i take issue with it. but it serves it’s purpose, which i guess is to show that there’s a wide range of taste, but at the same time we’re all sort of coming form the same place. ultimately we wind up generally agreeing about the really important stuff when it comes to manuscripts.

 

anywho…the literal process of editing chris’ book was mainly done over the phone. i’d read what he sent me, make notes to myself, and we’d discuss it. that was our 20th century way of doing things.

but we’re also both on g-chat and we did a lot of conversating that way about what was/was not working for the book.

***

Joe Hall is the author of Pigafetta Is My Wife (Black Ocean Press). Other reviews are out there somewhere and a recovery of Paul Blackburn is forthcoming in Octopus.

Long Ass Interview with Tao Lin part 2 of 2

by Guest Post: Stephen Tully Dierks

tao_hook

 

[Hi, this is Stephen Tully Dierks. I interviewed Tao Lin re his second novel, Richard YatesThis is part two of the interview. You can read the first part here.]

Are there any other artists with whom you’d like to collaborate, either directly or indirectly?

I would like to draw the album art for any band that I like. I would like to be the cover artist for an issue of McSweeney’s or Best American Non-Required Reading.

I think I feel like not collaborating on writing things at this point, unless it is a letters-type thing, like hikikomori with Ellen Kennedy.

Haley Joel Osment states in the book that Nobel Prize winners used to be depressed existentialists and now they are sociologists. Could you expound on this idea?

I think he was being sarcastic to a large degree. He maybe had some vague idea that people like Camus, Hermann Hesse, Sartre used to win the Nobel Prize and that there has been some kind of change, and that different kinds of writers now win the Nobel Prize, ones focused more on how people are like within a culture or a society, rather than within the universe, maybe, in that the “write-ups” about them seem, to Haley Joel Osment, to always mostly focus on their political or gender-issue or cultural themes (Haley Joel Osment assumes, though, that that’s just the journalists “doing their thing” and not an accurate portrayal of the writers; for example many articles connect Kafka to Prague rather than to “existential issues” or something).

Who do you think Haley Joel Osment would say is his favorite Nobel Prize winner for literature?

Maybe Knut Hamsun.

By what writer do you feel most interested in reading a review of Richard Yates for what venue?

Maybe a 5000-word review by Dennis Cooper that is somehow in New York Times Magazine(don’t think they publish reviews).

 

In his Bookforum review of Richard Yates, Joshua Cohen makes a number of subjective assertions re the novel and your work/life, including that all of your books to date have been “beside the point”; that your graphic art is “hideous”; that “Richard Yates is called what it’s called because it is about an unhappy couple living in suburbia”; that the character names are “two empty names of two empty child celebrities”; that Richard Yates is “documentary fiction” and as such its story should be compared with that of previous documentary fiction covering the Holocaust and the Battle of Stalingrad; that the “depleted language of [your] depressed books is the same depleted language of [your] depression, evident online”; that your “prose is interchangeable with anything written online by the under thirty commentariat”; that it is only your “essential conservatism that has [you] writing books at all, as opposed to full-time bloggery”; and that “one hopes [you will] either gain scruples and write a book not about [yourself] or entirely lose scruples by transitioning into performance art.” What is your response to any of this?

I think that’s what he thinks, or what he thinks within the context of a book review of a certain word count for a certain venue and within the context of his other book reviews, or what he chose to reveal as his thoughts, in this instance. In that sense I feel that the review is factual and that I don’t have a response to it, in the same manner that I don’t have a response to a tree or a rock; if I like the tree or rock I will look at it or try to engage it in some manner, if not I will go look at or engage with something else, I think.

In the Village Voice review of Richard Yates, your prose works and the characters’ dialogue therein, conflated as one, are called “passive-aggressive, noncommittal” and “listless.” Your characters are said to “make no effort to learn” the elements of “successful human connection” that “elude them,” namely “friendship, love, [and] small talk.” In the closing paragraph, it is suggested that fiction is largely written by and for solitary, lonely people, and that “most writers see an abyss to be bridged” between people, in order to make one feel “unlonely,” per David Foster Wallace. Do you have any thoughts re the nature of your characters or re the “abyss to be bridged” in fiction?

I think maybe one of the most common ways that people try to “connect” with other people is by telling stories in a factual, concise manner that doesn’t “explain” or “over-explain” things or attempt to convey ideas about the meaning of the story. For example when two people who like each other a lot first meet they seem to like to tell each other stories about their childhood or previous relationships, and if they like each other a lot there usually isn’t a need to explain things, for example they wouldn’t say things like “the story I just said is interesting to me because the part about ____ was funny and emotional” and then explain why it was funny or emotional. I feel less lonely when someone I like tells me stories in a concrete manner. I feel less lonely when I tell someone I like stories in a concrete manner.

I think Hemingway said something like that if he wanted to cause a reader to feel something his technique would be to focus on an emotion he had felt before and discern the concrete elements that caused him to feel the specific emotion, and then write those concrete elements, so that the reader would hopefully feel a similar emotion. I remember that technique and think that it works and would sometimes remind myself to do it. In Richard Yates and Shoplifting from American Apparel I would sometimes focus very hard on what concrete elements were experienced, and exactly what thoughts (what words exactly) occurred in the character’s brain, in what order, and to what degree, that caused the character to feel a specific emotion, hen attempt to convey those concrete elements and thoughts in what I felt to be the correct order. In Bed I would sometimes describe the emotion directly, without concrete specifics, and I think that works also. Any time a book makes me feel an emotion that seems familiar—and maybe every emotion seems familiar—I feel less lonely, to some degree, for an amount of time, I think.

If you could choose the title of your autobiography or biography in the future, what would you choose? [Examples: Damned to Fame (Beckett biography); Smile Please (unfinished Jean Rhys autobiography); The Autobiography and Sex Life of Andy Warhol (Warhol oral biography)]

Maybe “[factual #, for example 1st or 2nd or 47th] Biography of Tao Lin]” so people can more easily organize the biographies in their head, view the evolution of the biographies, read them in order, rate them in top-10 lists for The Huffington Post or The Millions, and other things of that nature.

What fictional scenario is most appealing to you and why: ability to stop time and do whatever one wants to the frozen people/things for any length of time (The Fermata); procedure whereby one revisits memories of a relationship in reverse as they are erased (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind); opportunity to experience an alternate world in which one had never been born (It’s A Wonderful Life); expedition up a Himalayan mountain in search of one’s long-lost brother, trapped in the spiritual realm between this life and the next (“Bardo”) alongside other monks and climbers by an evil goddess via a powerful curse, along the way fighting off the angry souls of those trapped via “freeing their souls” (Cursed Mountain video game)?

The scenario in The Fermata seems lonely and scary to me, I think. I see myself walking around with a confused facial expression, feeling lonely and scared. I think I’ve read 3-10 pages of The Fermata.

I like revisiting memories but I don’t like erasing them. I don’t think I would revisit memories if they would be erased, in the manner of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I like that movie.

Re It’s A Wonderful Life I think I would like to experience an alternate world where I wasn’t born, if I could return to this world after I did that. I’m not sure though. Also seems lonely and scary, to some degree.

“Bardo” seems scary and stressful and physically uncomfortable. I don’t think I would like to be in that scenario.

Cursed Mountain seems fun maybe. Depending on if I would die if I died in the game, and what would happen after the game, and if I could socialize with other monks and if there would be girls, and what I would eat in the game, I might want to be in that scenario.

Why did you want an index at the end of the book?

Some things that occur or are mentioned early in the book are referenced, many times in a narrative manner, later in the book, but in a manner that I feel a reader won’t notice or will only vaguely notice. I wanted them to be able to find the earliest mention of certain things. In the beginning a violin is mentioned and the same violin is mentioned later. In the beginning a field trip to a museum in Manhattan is mentioned and it is mentioned later. At one point a “heart monitor” is mentioned and it is mentioned two other times. A steel bridge is repeatedly referenced. A pole is mentioned then referenced. The author Richard Yates is mentioned six times in the book, in a manner that one could analyze, if they could easily read them in sequence. That is one reason. I also wanted the reader to read the final page of the book then turn the page and see an index, which, in some manner, puts the book in the perspective of “real life,” causes the reader, maybe, to view the book as something a person created and that exists in concrete reality, rather than a “world-in-itself.” When I say I “want” the reader to experience these things I completely only mean that if I read a book like this I would, myself, want to experience these things. And I’ve tried to write what I want to read.

Do you view the index as suggesting the autobiographical or, to some degree, non-fictional nature of the novel?

No. If it were a fantasy novel I would also want it to have an index if it had dragons or wizards that reoccurred in an uncommon or rare manner. In terms of what it “suggests” I think maybe, if anything, an index affects the tone of the novel, and of the author’s “relationship” to the novel, slightly and in a manner that I like. It “suggests,” to me, that the author has a detached or “deadpan” or “acclimated” view of the novel. Maybe not unlike how a person who has been around dead bodies a long time, or something, would, performing an autopsy, want to calmly index each organ and [whatever], whereas someone who has never seen a dead body would be less focused on indexing and more focused on [something else, maybe on “finishing quickly,” with a vague idea, maybe, of indexing the organs later on, when more detached/acclimated to the body].

Were you influenced by Zachary German’s use of an index at the end of Eat When You Feel Sad?

Yes, in that we talked about indexes. I think we were finishing our books around the same time. I’m not sure what we talked about. I think at one point one or both of us thought it would be “cool” if we both had indexes. I’m not sure who thought of having an index first. I think Zachary first thought about publishing indexes of other people’s books, like an index for Chilly Scenes of Winter, as a small booklet or something.

Do you view the last word in the index as a Sixth Sense joke, amongst other things?

I don’t think so. Isn’t the last word, “zombie,” the last word “simply” because the index is alphabetical? I’m kind of confused. Can you elaborate a little?

It occurred to me that zombies are dead people, sort of, well, “technically” they are “the living dead,” and then I thought of “I see dead people” from The Sixth Sense. Seems “zombie” is incidental as the last word, from what you’ve answered. Nevermind, I think, re this question, unless you have thoughts on zombies.

I like zombies. They seem funny.

* * *

[Stephen Tully Dierks is a writer living in Chicago. He edits a limited-edition art/literature print magazine called Pop Serial and maintains a blog.]

 

Long Ass Interview w/ Tao Lin pt 1 of 2

by Guest Post: Stephen Tully Dierks

Tao-1

 

[Hi, this is Stephen Tully Dierks. I interviewed Tao Lin re his second novel, Richard Yates.]

STEPHEN: Potentially, every aspect of this novel unsettles one’s preconceived notions, from the use of title to character names to the treatment of charged themes (statutory rape, child abuse, etc.) to the notion of fiction versus non-fiction. Did you make a conscious effort to do these things, and did you have a goal or desired effect in mind?

TAO LIN: I focused, if anything, on not doing anything—or, rather, on not doing anything “extra” (the prose style, tone, perspective, focus, content of Richard Yates probably will, either as a side-effect of the aforementioned or the current “cultural climate” or the amount of preconception of the specific person reading the book, cause some preconceived notions to be unsettled, but I think any book that exists will unsettle preconceived notions, depending on who is reading it)—that I would perceive as “attempting to unsettle preconceived notions,” I think, by avoiding the defense or support of any of the characters’ behaviors, except that which the characters sometimes expressed naturally, within the narrative.

I didn’t include sentences conveying that in different contexts—for example [various cultures/subcultures over the past few thousand years]—a 22-year-old having sex with a 16-year-old, a person killing oneself, or someone vomiting food would not be notable. I didn’t want to attempt to include anything like that for any of the possibly “controversial” topics.

It doesn’t seem taboo to the “literary mainstream” of America, at this moment, to write about confusion, depression, meaninglessness, or uncertainty, and those are the things I feel focused on in Richard Yates, in my view.

What was the writing process like for this book? What is the history of its composition?

I wrote a short story in an early version of the final “prose style” of Richard Yates~February/March 2006. Different drafts of that short story are published on bear parade and in an issue of Noon. That story is, to a large degree, about the character referenced in Richard Yatesas “headbutt girl,” and I think I originally wanted Richard Yates to include maybe 3000 to 5000 words before where Richard Yates currently begins. I began writing things that are in Richard Yates, in different form, ~June/July 2006. I worked on it “idly” (maybe 1-6 hours 70-80% of days) until ~March 2008 when I worked on it “pretty hard” (maybe 2-6 hours 90-95% of days), until ~August 2008 when I sold shares in its royalties, gaining $12,000, and stopped working at my restaurant job, and worked on Richard Yates “very hard,” 6-12 hours ~98% of days, until ~October 2008. I felt it was finished. I emailed it to my publisher. They read it and said some things about it. ~December 2009 I worked on it 6-12 hours a day ~15 consecutive days. I felt it was finished. I emailed it to my publisher. They felt it was finished. ~February 2009 I asked them if I could work on it again. They said I could. I worked on it 6-12 hours a day ~25 consecutive days. I felt it was finished. ~November 2009 I worked on it 6-12 hours a day ~20 consecutive days. I felt it was finished. ~February 2010 I worked on it 6-12 hours a day ~20 consecutive days. I felt it was finished. Galleys were printed June 2010. I asked if I could work on it again. They said I could. I worked on it ~50 hours in a ~80 hour time period. I emailed it to my publisher. There were a few more emails where I changed 4-10 more non-typo things. The final draft was completed July 6 2010. A few more changes were made July 9 2010 to the PDF of the final draft.

 

What is a memorable change you made to the text during the editing process?

I changed “What is my life, anyways?” 10-20 times, to things like “What is my life anyway” and “What is my life” and “My life doesn’t matter to me,” before feeling satisfied with “My life doesn’t matter.”

At some point I replaced all non-literal uses of “took,” for example I changed “took a photograph” to “photographed.”

I changed the title from Second Novel to The F-Word with 16 Ks to Freedom in Capital Letters with 19 Exclamation Marks After It to Werner Herzog to Richard Yates.

Did you do anything different during this editing process than in previous ones?

I think this editing process was similar to previous ones except I edited more. But I’ve increasingly edited my writing more, with each new thing, so in that sense it’s the same.

Is there any sentence or word you edited “a fuckload” or an “abnormal” amount of times?

I edited the last sentence of the 2nd-to-last paragraph of the book maybe 50 times. I edited all the instances where Haley Joel Osment’s thoughts are revealed in a “verbatim” manner many times.

Why did you name the main characters Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning?

I didn’t have concrete reasons when I first find-and-replace’d the names with Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning. It was sudden and intuitive; maybe 10-18 months into writing I said “I should name the characters Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning” to someone in Gmail chat and they encouraged me.

Some times in the next 10-20 months I felt uncertain about it. I thought things like “I think it will be funny and desirable to me if people focus on the names of the characters, because I like when people aren’t focused, in interviews, on ‘themes’ or ‘literary’ things” and “It seems like I want to avoid, for autobiographical things, using names like Michelle or Dan or something, and I also want to avoid using my own name, because I’ve read books where both methods are used, and feel that I want to do it a different way; using celebrity names seems to avoid this.”

I also thought things like “It seems to ‘undermine’ the book as a ‘serious work of art’ in a manner that, to me, is more artistically satisfying than if I did not undermine it in this manner, in the same manner if there was peer pressure on me to not do a certain thing, in middle school, of which I had no concrete reason not to do it, I would want to do it,” all of which caused me to feel more confident in the choice and eventually “do it.”

How do you view Haley and Dakota’s dynamic as a couple?

I feel their relationship was direct and honest—each person’s intentions were available and, to a large degree, not “strategically available”—and “not malicious” in that there seemed to be little to no behavior designed to make the other jealous or to hurt the other person in order to gain power over them. Dakota Fanning’s lies aren’t honest, but I feel that they were “endearing, to some degree,” to me, and “not malicious,” said “in desperation,” to some degree, in order to extend the relationship in a manner that is focused on a long-term relationship.

I think the relationship in Richard Yates differs from many “dysfunctional” relationships in literature and movies and TV, where the characters cheat on the other, lie to the other (in a manner that the person who is lying is lying in order to “keep” the other person as a sort of “stand-in” for a future, anticipated person), scream profane words or “hateful” sentiments at the other, or do things like sabotage the other by breaking their cell phones or burning their dresses, or something. Those things don’t happen in Richard Yates. But those things, I think, maybe somehow seem less malicious, troubling, and harsh than how most readers, I think, will view the relationship in Richard Yates. Those things seem funny somehow. Maybe it is just the tone of those movies.

It seems much more difficult for me to summarize in a humorous manner the relationship inRichard Yates than relationships where people are breaking into the other person’s house to see if they are cheating on them or to openly physically attack them—maybe because in those cases someone is “acting out” in a kind of desperation, from not getting what they want, whereas inRichard Yates “acting out” doesn’t seem to be an option for either of the characters because they each seem focused on a long-term relationship with the other, and they feel focused on achieving that without violence, manipulation (or “strategy”), or a rhetorical kind of irony/sarcasm (in that they don’t want to say “I hate you” if they don’t mean it), while also not “blocking out” any dissatisfactions, which is difficult, for them at least.

I’m not sure though. I think what I described is mostly in the period after the Gmail chat where Haley Joel Osment says “I think we’re fucked.” Before that the relationship seemed “conventional,” in that the characters seemed to “block out” dissatisfactions or view dissatisfactions as evidence that the relationship would not last, and a few times they would ignore the other instead of feeling like ignoring the other was not an option.

Everything up until the Gmail chat where Haley Joel Osment says “I think we’re fucked” could maybe successfully be filmed as a sitcom or “indie movie.” After that Gmail chat it seems more difficult—even more difficult than if they were violent to each other or manipulative, I think—to film it as an “indie movie” or sitcom where the audience could view it as humorous. I’ve thought sometimes that the closest thing in movies or literature, in my view, to the second half of Richard Yates are Lars Von Trier movies that feature women whose actions and thoughts seem logical and rational and “life affirming,” and are in contexts that seem realistic and not malicious, but then somehow all this results in the main character suffering a lot, certain people seeming “evil,” and there seeming to be no “solution.”

Haley Joel Osment’s New York friends tell him that he is thinking of Dakota as a “mutable concept.” What is meant by this?

I think Haley Joel Osment thinks the friend who said that means—in a vaguer, probably intuitive manner—something like “Dakota Fanning is 16, and you are 22, and I think because 16-year-olds do not have a strong or defined identity you are, in your interactions with her, sort of ‘hinting’ to her that she act a certain way, in order to please you, and you are, combining that influence on her with how you ‘want’ her to be, mutating or molding her as one would Play-Doh or something.”

Can you relate in real life to the part of the book where Haley lectures Dakota and has her write down things in a notebook to remember, or is that section a fictional/artistic device?

I can relate to that. I don’t think, at this point, I would put something in a book I couldn’t relate to, either because I have done it myself or feel able to pretty easily imagine myself doing it.

Do you think Dakota ever has power in her relationship with Haley? If so, when and why?

In my view she has power over Haley Joel Osment at most times until the Gmail chat where Haley Joel Osment says “I think we’re fucked.” Then Haley Joel Osment has power until Dakota Fanning says she is going to the hospital. Then Haley Joel Osment has power in one sense and Dakota Fanning has power in another sense (in that Haley Joel Osment, though willingly, feels “compelled” to “help” Dakota Fanning). Throughout they both have power over each other, in that each other’s actions have a strong effect on the other’s emotions. I think I began and ended the book in a manner where I did, in part, because I wanted the entire book to be focused on a period where they each had power over the other.

Would you agree or disagree with the opinion that Dakota seems increasingly desperate and “at the mercy” of Haley’s patience from the point where he begins lecturing her and becoming increasingly disappointed by her to the end of the book?

I would agree, to some degree. Both characters seem sort of increasingly desperate. Haley Joel Osment is still focused on Dakota Fanning at the end of the book, so is still affected by her to a degree that he affects her, I think. There is a point near the end when Dakota Fanning says “Don’t worry, everybody’s fucked” or something, where she seems calm and Haley Joel Osment seems desperate.

Did you ever have doubts about writing down this story?

I don’t think I had doubts in terms of if it would be a book I would want to read and would feel satisfied and excited reading and writing. I had doubts about the effect the book would have on my life and certain other people’s lives the characters in the book are based on. I felt that a number of people would intensely dislike me, think I’m an “asshole,” or feel that I’m “unseemly” after reading the book and assuming it is non-fiction. I felt less doubts about how it would affect other people in the book, because I feel strongly that most people would view the main character as unsympathetic and the other characters as sympathetic, based on how the book is written and what happens in the book.

Seems like I’ve had some kind of ideal, in the past five or six years, that I would like all information that is true, and that is related to me, be made available. If I feel that people are going to dislike me for releasing information that is either true or “fictional but artistically satisfying” I also feel that I don’t want to allow myself the choice of censoring myself. If I did something that a number of people will dislike me for doing I would want every person who met me to know that I did that thing, so that they can act accordingly, so that we can either be friends or not be friends.

I feel uncomfortable with having secrets, thinking that I can “hide” information from people to make them like me more, or other things like that, in part because it seems unsustainable, but also because of other things, because life itself is unsustainable, and it seems logical, in a context of limited-time, to “do whatever it takes” to achieve certain results. In that sense secrets seem logical and functional. But for other reasons I prefer not having secrets. I feel uncomfortable, or “bored,” maybe, having secrets because it seems satisfying and exciting to live a life without secrets—in the same manner I feel that it’s satisfying and exciting, for me, to never shit-talk anyone, or to view art only in terms of likes and dislikes, rather than good or bad.

One reason those ways of doing things seem exciting to me is that it is nearly impossible, or maybe impossible, to find a writer who has not shit-talked another writer at some point or who has not imposed their likes and dislikes onto someone else, if only implicitly, by using qualitative words when describing something that is presented as art. In addition to logical, moral (within an existential framework), and accuracy reasons there’s an element of “what would happen if I [did something that seems rare to do, and did it within a certain context, for a certain amount of time]” (in the same manner I might think “what if I compared ___ to ___ in [a certain metaphor]” to not viewing art in terms of good or bad.

If you were dating a girl whose context and goals, you were aware, included such things as “I don’t want people I don’t know or trust to know the potentially embarrassing or emotionally vulnerable things I say or do in an intimate relationship,” would you write about the things she said or did in your relationship anyway? If so, why?

If she told me not to write about something I wouldn’t write about it, at this point in my life, and at all points up to this point in my life, I think. When someone tells me not to tell other people something, or to not write about something, I don’t write about it or tell people about it, currently, in my life. In part because I don’t think I’m “right” in wanting to reveal information. I think whatever someone wants is “right” for them and that’s currently what I “defer to,” in terms of imposing [any person’s worldview] onto [any other person].

When you reread Richard Yates now, or as you wrote it, how did it make you feel? What emotions did you feel at the time or more recently?

I felt (and feel) happy and excited and emotional when I read the Gmail chats where the characters are “making jokes” continuously. I felt, at times, emotional and “uncomfortable” when I read the Gmail chats and emails where the characters are in some kind of power struggle.

Currently I don’t feel “uncomfortable” reading any parts of the book, I think. Much of the time while reading the book I feel that I want to live the events in the book, even the “excruciating” parts, but this feeling might be deceptive, in that if I were placed in events in the book I might want to leave, but I’m not sure if that’s true either. Maybe I would want to stay; probably depends on what I’m currently doing in “the present.”

For the purposes of “reliving” the events in the book, would you rather play “Richard Yates: The Video Game”; be an extra/one of the main characters on the set of Richard Yates (the movie), directed by Joe Swanberg/The Duplass Brothers/Michel Gondry/?; or would you rather attend the MoMA’s opening night gala event for Richard Yates (the interactive conceptual performance art exhibition)?

I would definitely want to be an extra on the set of Richard Yates, mostly because I would want Joe Swanberg to direct the movie. His first movie, LOL, in like 1999 had a lot of internet and cell phone things and had relationship that began on the internet, I think.

What do you think would be the differences between a Joe Swanberg versus a Werner Herzog film adaptation of Richard Yates?

I think the Werner Herzog one would have much less dialogue. There might be very little dialogue, and it would have a lot of shots of the characters doing things alone. I can see the two main scenes in a Werner Herzog version of the movie being when Haley Joel Osment is walking alone on the field and the parking lot and when Dakota Fanning is walking to the train tracks to kill herself. It would show Dakota Fanning going to Rite-Aid to buy Burt’s Bees products maybe. Or it would show Haley Joel Osment walking around in the house and driving Dakota Fanning’s mother’s car to the train tracks. There would be more neutral facial expressions and not that much crying or desperation that is shown, maybe.

I think the Joe Swanberg version would have a lot of dialogue, and would maybe show the Gmail chats happening on the screen. Seems like he would be open to that and want to do that. The two main scenes might be when Dakota Fanning’s mother screams at Haley Joel Osment to “Shut up” and when Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning are upstairs in a room alone on Thanksgiving.

I feel highly interested in watching both versions.

* * *

[Stephen Tully Dierks is a writer living in Chicago. He edits a limited-edition art/literature print magazine called Pop Serial and maintains a blog.]

[To be continued in Part 2, appearing  tomorrow.]

A Dementedly Long Interview with Ben Greenman by Jaime Karnes

by Jaime Karnes

(Editor’s Note: A while back Roxane Gay reviewed Ben Greenman’s really fine short story collection, What He’s Poised to Do. Ben has another book coming out in early October, Celebrity Chekhov.)

“As an artist you have to have the confidence that it will be original once it passes through you.”

Ben Greenman is an editor at The New Yorker and author of numerous books of fiction, including Superbad, Superworse, A Circle is A Balloon and A Compass Both: Stories about Human Love, Correspondences, and Please Step Back.  He also writes satirical musicals about the likes of Britney Spears andSarah Palin; pens a political column by an earth ball; and maintains a website called Letters with Character that invites readers to write their favorite (or, in some cases, least favorite) fictional person.

This summer, Greenman’s What He’s Poised To Do was released by Harper Perennial; the Los Angeles Times called it “astonishing” and publications ranging from the Miami Herald to Bookslut agreed. His new collection, Celebrity Chekhov, publishes later this month. I met Ben in midtown and we wandered over to Bryant Park, where we discussed everything from a story collection’s “Albumness” to the potentially one-fingered Seth Rogen, whom Ben is famous for writing a comic letter to after the movie Superbad (same title as his book) was released.

 

Jaime Karnes: I thought we would start by talking about cupcakes. A moral compass, if you will.  I believe you agreed to this interview because I promised you cupcakes.

Ben Greenman: Laughs.  No, I agreed to the interview for two reasons: a) I like interviews; b) Because you had a suspicion of What He’s Poised To Do at first because of its cover. And then the suspicions were laid to rest, and I wanted to find out why.

Karnes: Well, there’s a faceless woman on the cover.  I mentioned how boring and predictable I found it to be.  When the cover of your book popped up on my computer screen, I thought fuck, here we go again, another faceless woman, another collection.  Still, I read on and on.  I then got in my car. I went home and read the entire collection. I got on your Web site, emailed you, promised cupcakes. I abhorred the outside cover of your collection, yet loved everything in the pages that followed.

Greenman: I know the painter; she’s a friend of mine. I love the painting. But also, I wanted a narrative painting.  I think the front cover is a little misleading because you can’t see the man on the back cover.

Karnes: Is the cover art from the title story?  Is the woman on the bed the receptionist from What He’s Poised To Do?

Greenman: We didn’t create them in concert, but that’s the closest story to it.

Karnes: Tell me how you feel about the marketing of books with faceless, most times headless women on their covers.  Is it a necessary marketing strategy?

Greenman: I guess if it was a male painter, and the guy was in the foreground and she was on the back, murdered, it would have bothered me. But it seems more interior and justifiable. I don’t know.

Karnes: Was it for your book?

Greenman: No, no, it was done in 2006. I like the feel of it. I wanted it to feel a little old fashioned. It has a sort of starkness and sadness.

Karnes: Clearly music is an influence for you as a writer.  You’ve ghostwritten Gene Simmons’ memoir. You write satirical rhyming plays. You wrote a novel that is about a fictional Sly and the Family Stone. Can you point your readers to your musical influences in this new collection?

Greenman: There aren’t any. I tried to keep pop culture out of here, mostly. I was reading in Boston earlier this year and a woman asked this same question. The only way music figures in this book is that the stories are organized like an album. There are short story writers like Mary Robison or Donald Barthelme who write a series of great singles, and so you can collect them in different ways. You can collect them as 40 as 60; you could put three.  They may disagree. This is my theory. When I put a book together, on the other hand, I am obsessed with order, with which story starts, which follows, which closes the collection. I think of it as an album. The next to last story in this collection, “What We Believe But Cannot Praise,” is the “Layla” of the book.

Karnes: But many of the stories were published separately, and, in my opinion, they all stand alone.

Greenman: They do stand alone, but with the book I have to decide what to put in or what to take out and then I have to choose an order. So I took out this story that was one of my favorites because it wasn’t working in the order. Maybe it’ll go in the iPad version. For my next book, Celebrity Chekhov, we added a book into the iPad version after the book was done, which seemed strange.

Karnes: How does that work with your books’ non-techy mission? You argue often that we no longer communicate in effective ways, or that technology has somehow altered or severed real communication.

Greenman: Oh, I’m not a Luddite.  I mean I’m not. I use email more than anybody. But if that’s your only reference point, there’s a problem.  I mean I love technology, I have this stupid iPhone, I’m on Facebook, and for this book I got on Twitter.

Karnes: I was just about to give you shit about that.

Greenman: Oh, I will totally accept it; it’s all warranted.  Harper Perennial kind of bullied me on there.  What happened is they said if you don’t do it, you’re just not going to be able to reach everyone when you go on book tour.

Karnes: So your book argues for the superiority of letters. But is email any less permanent than a letter from the post? I don’t clean out my inbox.

Greenman: I think it’s actually more permanent. But email doesn’t have the interesting gaps that letter writing has.  If you and I write letters, you have mine and I have yours.  We don’t have our own. I have to remember what I said, and I have to feel like I’m sending you something valuable.  With email we all have all of it all the time.  I don’t clean out my inbox either, so we have the full record of all conversations. It’s not mysterious anymore. It’s not spacious.

Karnes: So you feel people don’t consider the emails they write?

Greenman: I think it’s more direct.  You’re also writing to a person instead of a destination. Letters used to go to a place. Now, email moves around with the person. When you text, it goes right to the other person. It’s like firing off a smart bomb. There’s not the same kind of breathing room.  And I do think unless you’re careful it can start to suffocate you a little now. You want an answer back right away, and then you have to answer back right away.  A lot of time is spent saying nothing.

Karnes: But you talk about the permanence of feeling, right?  You’ve said that how a person feels when they write a letter the receiver must then assume that the writer still feels the same by the time they receive it.  Do you think this is really obstructed in email?  Say I write an email to Donald Trump tomorrow, and I say, ‘Your show’s a pile of crap, your dynasty is falling, and you have a bad comb-over.’ Am I going to change how I feel in a week?  In a month even?

Greenman: It’s not that everything changes. It’s that you own that set of feelings differently. And there are of course exceptions to every brilliant rule I invent. I was on the radio in Minneapolis this summer, a call-in show, and a steady stream of exceptions called in: a soldier, a guy who had to leave Somalia, an elderly man.  They were all preserving the space and elegance of letter-writing, even when they were using emails. So of course there are kinds of emails that follow those patterns: very permanent and very heartfelt and extremely powerful.  But sometimes now, texts go back and forth, and there’s so much micro-clarification, and anxiety that goes along with it.

Karnes: Speaking of anxiety, what about the mother in your story “Her Hand”?  She’s desperately waiting for a letter from her son, who is away at camp. She’s pilfering the mail, shaking out catalogs. Isn’t that anxiety still alive via postman?

Greenman: Oh there’s always anxiety.  I just think it’s different when you’re at home and you wait for a letter than when you’re on your Gmail and the header suddenly switches over from Roman to bold. To me, a font change isn’t enough. Again, it comes down to the balance between mystery and clues. When my Gmail tells me I have a new message, it also tells me who it’s from, starkly. When I have a physical letter in my hand, the clues come in at different rates. What’s the handwriting like? What kind of envelope? Thick? Thin?

Karnes: So for you it’s really about the physical object?

Greenman: I just think that maybe kids that are nineteen now won’t learn to read all of those clues.  Of course, they’ll be grappling with different clues as they beam information directly from earring to earring.

Karnes: You cited Goethe, and specifically The Sorrows of Young Werther as an influence for What He’s Poised To Do.  I can see that.  Great book.  But you’ve also taken from Goethe his quote on originality: “Everything has been thought of before, but the difficulty is to think of it again.” You put his quote on a little poster and then, beneath that, had yourself saying the same thing. Are you in search of a patch of originality?

Greenman: Yes. I’m not sure all writers are. Some want to show you the world as it is. Some want to use familiar forms to imagine the world as it should be, or shouldn’t be. I am preoccupied with the idea of originality, though. I like making things up that are a little risky. I’m not sure it always works to my advantage. Last year, I invented 3*TYPE, a 3-D type process that would capture all the excitement of 3-D movies. The invention was just a press release, very deadpan. But it was, I thought, all-new. Then a Belgian newspaper did something similar, and for a few days I was devastated.

Karnes: It’s like something that Raymond Carver said about The World According to Garp not actually being that at all.  He said it was the very specific world according to John Irving.  Is this the type of originality that you and Goethe are seeking?

Greenman: I can’t speak for him, but I will. Yes. Early on, I wanted to be the most original.

Karnes: But people called you clever.  That’s not a nice thing to be called.

Greenman: It’s not? I see what you mean. It can seem dismissive, or trivializing. But cleverness is part of humor, or good design, or children, and as a result it’s part of me. With a story like “Blurbs,” from Superbad, I think I invented something completely new: it’s blurbs about the piece “Blurbs.” It’s also a satire of how people receive books, how reading happens, how opinion crystallizes.

Karnes: But you said satire is dead, right?  Didn’t I read that you want to build a satirical graveyard?  Of course, implicit in that comment is satire rearing or roaring its hilarious head.

Greenman: Yeah, I said it was dead.  It’s not dead. But it’s easier than ever to find out who else has done it, and how, and that has a chilling effect. When I did “Blurbs” or a story like “What A Hundred People Real and Fake Believe About Dolores,” which is a kind of surreal mini-Rashomon, I was trying to make something entirely new, to blow the doors off the car. Obviously as you get older, as you become more aware of other writers, you can find other stories that are like yours. I look around long enough, say at every experimentalist from the 60’s, I will find something similar to that piece.  Still, at the time, I thought I invented it.  I wasn’t sitting with a figure model and copying. As an artist you have to have the confidence that it will be original once it passes through you.  I’m not intentionally copying anyone but I’m also not stupid enough to think that an idea necessarily originates with me. It is just that this version of it does. It’s why I have stayed, I think, kind of experimental, even though readers might not agree.

Karnes: It seems that you’re exploring this idea of the human condition more so in this collection than previous works.  I’m not going to assume a personal maturation on your behalf, but I must admit, that stuck in my mind as I read your work from new to old, in that order.

Greenman: You can assume that.

Karnes: There is something wildly different here from the character interactions in A Circle is a Balloon and Compass Both.

Greenman: Well, that book, which I published in 2007, was cartoonish to me. I don’t mean that in a bad or self-annihilating way at all, but the register was different.  As I wrote it, as I thought of the women who inspired it, and the writers who were in my head as I wrote it, I imagined it all as bright colors, dots and things like that. Those stories are more idea-based than real-people-based. I think ultimately they’re complementary to the new ones in a way, but I don’t think maturation is the wrong word. I think that there may be a greater willingness on my part to articulate sadness. For a long, long time when I would do readings I would only read funny stories.

Karnes: Audience participation through laughter?

Greenman: Right. I couldn’t tell the difference between rapt attention and indifference. If I’m sitting here reading to you and you don’t respond, I don’t know how to read you.  I’m not a performer.  Maybe real performers can tell the difference, like classical musicians or serious actors.  I have no idea, so it always scared me to read something serious, and so initially I leaned toward the funny side of the spectrum.

Karnes: Who was reading your books then?

Greenman: This is back in the early days of McSweeney’s.  The audience was self-selecting: lots of young people, smart people, who wanted to see the world at a weird angle. I think a lot of us – Dave Eggers, Neal Pollack, myself – went to great pains not to be put in a ghetto of clever guys of a certain age.  Fairly quickly, we all dispersed and did our own work. But there were articles at the time about the McSweeneys scene, and it felt like some people imagined it as a club, you know, like a writers room at SNL or something.  Like we’d get together and Dave would say, “Hey Neal, which famous writer haven’t we parodied yet?” and I’d run out to get cigars and burritos. It was never like that.  But I think we all maintained an interest in balancing comedy with sadness. I’m not sure if those guys, or anyone else, would agree, but that’s how it seemed to me.

Karnes: What do you think is funny in your new book?

Greenman: I think there are things about the Govindan story, which is about a karmic boomerang factory, that are funny. Some would say “quirky.” There are things about “A Bunch of Blips,” which is about a woman’s affair with a French intellectual, that are funny. But ultimately all of them are fairly sad.  They’re much more about disconnected people and failure to right the ship.  When they are happy stories, they tend to be more sentimental.

Karnes: Sentimental is a negative word in our vocation, isn’t it?

Greenman: Yes, but I would say that “To Kill The Pink” is sentimental in a good way. The protagonist is trying to figure out how he is going to do right by this person that he loves, which is a question people ask themselves all the time.

Karnes: And the story “Hope”?  Not sentimental, but definitely a story of a man trying to find his way, if you will. A man trying to answer questions about interminable love that doesn’t even exist!  I mean he can’t even mail the letters he writes; he has no address for this mysterious woman he met only one time.

Greenman: Yeah, “Hope. “ I have a friend who loves it.  I have a friend who hates it.

Karnes: Not a close friend, I hope.

Greenman: Smiles. Let’s say she’s a friendly acquaintance.  But she hates it violently.  Something about the register of that story really bothered her.  Perhaps the fact that the protagonist isn’t afraid to say things like “her mother was considered a great beauty.” That kind of language she saw as very…I don’t know if she would say lazy, but she saw it as very limited in its effect, and confined to a certain time. I don’t think that’s the case at all. I think the character, Tomas Tinta, is so much stranger than that: he’s writing letters to someone he doesn’t have and maybe never had. I guess my point is that I disagree with people who hate my work. But look, the funniest thing about any story collection is that they are Rorschach tests. No two readers ever like the same story.  Like if I put you under hypnosis and I said okay let’s rank all the stories in What He’s Poised To Do, or Celebrity Chekhov, your ranking would be different from anyone else’s – and maybe different from your ranking a week from now, or a month from now.

Karnes: Does that bother you?

Greenman: I try really hard not to read reviews. My wife will sometimes send me snippets, but I probably stopped two, three books ago.  What’s the upside? I know writers who agonize, or writers who get their heads artificially inflated. What I do know is that any critical response to any book will be, and should be, all over the map. I am highly suspicious of universal acclaim, just like I’m suspicious of universal derision. How many things are that clear-cut? It’s also why I am suspicious of The Big Novel, or The Crafted Tale, or The Absurdist Satire, or lots of other genres that people practice, some extremely well. I am always admiring of Jonathan Lethem, or Jonathan Franzen, or Nicole Krauss, or Gary Shteyngart, or Rivka Galchen, or Sam Lipsyte, or Darin Strauss, or Marcy Dermansky, or dozens of other writers. They do what they do so well, because they are themselves. Some of them enjoy more critical acclaim, or more commercial success. But again, they do it because they are true to themselves. That’s the only real target to hit, right? If I do the things I want to do as best as I can, and this book is a critic’s darling, and the next one is pulled out into the public square and beaten to death, that is a kind of success, believe it or not.

Karnes: Some reviewers were upset with the ending of the story “Down a Pound.”  If I may inject my newly MFA’ed mind, I would charge that story with what we liked to throw around the round table (though I’m not convinced everyone knew what it meant): a “pat” ending.  It ties up so neatly, seemingly forced.  Did you have that ending in mind as you wrote, or did it come organically?

Greenman: I’ve heard all the same rules as everybody.  Don’t kill the main character: that’s an easy way out. But still and all…

Karnes: Fuck rules, right?

Greenman: I agree.  And I think that you really have to think about why those rules are there.  People don’t. Classes are taught. But if no rule were ever broken, we’d have fiction that’s product. With that said, there are some people who have read that story and are genuinely shocked and saddened by that ending.  Some people read it and say Oh! I didn’t think she was going to die. Why did you kill her? They are betrayed by my choice. My feeling is that it is like anything else. Say you look at a painting and you wonder why is it this size, or why doesn’t it have fewer inches at the top.  I don’t know.  I mean sometimes it’s because the canvas comes in that size, but sometimes it’s because you as an artist see it that way.

Karnes: The world According to Ben Greenman.

Greenman: Yes. I know why I killed her.

Karnes: Is it fair to say that story earned its ending?

Greenman: If a collection is an album, each story is a song, and songs end in one of two ways. They either have an outro where the volume goes lower and lower, a fadeout, or they’re done quick with a strummed chord or a cymbal crash.  I like the idea, formally, of playing with that.  Some stories trail off; they have equivocal moments. Some crash out.

Karnes: Are we talking about plot-driven stories?

Greenman: Plot, yes. But even just the way the language carries you.  People don’t like it; they think it’s too showy to end with “and then the bomb in the suitcase blew up.” They think that kind of thing belongs to genre fiction.  But one of the most interesting things to me as a writer is how people end things. David Gates, for example, is great at ending chapters.  In a book like Jernigan or Preston Falls, it’s objectively true that every chapter ends well.

Karnes: So we turn the page.

Greenman: Yes. But they aren’t necessarily cliffhangers. There’s just something there that pushes you forward into the next moment in this invented world.

Karnes: I spoke with Victor LaValle about this earlier this year, concerning his novel “Big Machine.” I already knew Stephen King had influenced him, but I wanted to ask about his novel’s form. In other words, why am I so dedicated to beginning the next chapter when I’m tired, or need a break, or just naturally expect chapters to give readers pause.  He said he did nothing original.  He suggested I go back to Melville, go back to Moby Dick. But let’s segue back to endings, okay?  How do you know when a story is finished?

Greenman: Often the end is written, or at least conceived, before the middle, in the sense that I know if I want the story to end with a certain note. They can end with a meaningful moment with a character, they can end with a symbol, with dialogue.  Just technically there are a limited number of ways a story can end. You pick which conventions you’ll respect. I guess the best example I can use (and it’s not a good one but I’ll use it anyway) is Curb Your Enthusiasm, where throughout the story you know – because of how Larry David has built the show, or how he built Seinfeld – that all the threads are going to come together.

Karnes: No severing off of characters or small players?

Greenman: Right. And if he did that, it would be a hugely subversive move for that format.  If two minor characters surfaced, say a bum and rich guy, and they didn’t somehow have a conflict in the final act, you would say that was the most experimental Curb ever.  Like what happened?  Did they pour acid on the videotapes before airing? With stories you have a lot more freedom. In previous books, experiments were higher on my mind, like the mobius strip story that John Barth published in “Lost in the Funhouse”: there’s a story that you’re supposed to cut-out and put on a turntable, and, it says “Once upon a time  / There was a story that began” and you’re just supposed to watch it spin round and round like that forever.

Karnes: Thus, of course, never really ending.

Greenman: Never really starting either. I’ve always been preoccupied with experimental fiction: the questions it asks, the way it works.  I do think, for What He’s Poised To Do, I wanted it to be more conventional.  So I set aside some of the construction of the product that has preoccupied me in the past—pairing stories off, making sure there were tons of internal echoes.

Karnes: Are these stories speaking to one another?

Greenman: Yes, but not in the same way as before. I thought about having characters surface with the same names, but that seemed too much. Though it’s something that interests me. If you were reading a book of stories, and two stories next to each other had characters with the same name, you would assume (like ninety-nine percent of all readers) that they were one in the same.  In theory, of course, the men might be two different guys named Steve, but if you were an editor, you’d nix that as a bad idea. The way that people experience this media, you’d say, prevents us from having two different Steves in consecutive stories side.  Too confusing.

Karnes: You think names are arbitrary?

Greenman: They can be. Bob Mankoff, the New Yorker cartoon editor, and I have spoke about this at great length, because, you know, the New Yorker has the convention of generic names for business types: you know, “Robinson, report to the file room.  There is someone there to see you.” And then, I don’t know, there’s a dinosaur in the file room. You can’t name that guy a strongly ethnic name because you’re bringing too many associations into the cartoon, where you want the joke to be skeleton, clockwork. In Superbad, I played around with names quite a bit: names that were the reverse of other names, rhyming names, similar names. I wrote a piece that was a big fight scene between two men named Ray.  So it’s Ray and Ray, and by the third sentence it’s totally confusing, you have no idea who’s winning. I probably have an over-developed interest in how people read.  You know, like all the weird little markers: what’s at the bottom of the page, what happens when you turn the page.  When Superbad came out I put typos into the book on purpose.

Karnes: Intentionally?

Greenman: Yeah, and then I wrote a piece for McSweeney’s about it.  Because if you’re reading a book and you notice a really egregious typo, you could have a couple different reactions. You could think, oh he has a bad editor, this is a cheap house. Or you could feel yourself moving into the book more intensely. It depends on the reader and the text and the relationship between them.

Karnes: Not that I’m supposed to go back and reread for something I may have missed?

Greenman: It can give you ownership of the book in a certain way.  It can embed you deeper in the book.  And so I’m interested in that, but I think the trick to being that kind of author is how to balance that kind of text engineering with the more basic but maybe more difficult process of just giving someone a good story.

Karnes: To be conventional, or not.  I get it.  Back to names.  Did you know that a possible anagram of your name is BARN GENE MAN?  Mine’s Insanely Mean Jerk, but we can wait till the interview is finished for you to comment on that. I have a three-part question to go with this. BARN we’ve already covered. GENE is Gene Simmons, whose memoir you ghostwrote.  Gene makes me think of a question about reality, and in his case reality TV. Is reality real in the sense that we experience it episodically?  Is what we see on his television show the man you wrote about?

Greenman: You mean the World According to Gene, like that kind of idea?

Karnes: Yeah.

Greenman: I think that Gene is a very different kind of person than I am.  I think that’s fair to say.  But I have a type of admiration for his type.  Which is that he years and years and years ago he made this thing: this man, this brand, and he’s fairly shameless, but not in a horrible way.  He’s just about extending his brand. It’s Trump-like.  That mentality.

Karnes: Did you learn anything writing his book that has informed your own fiction?

Greenman: Yeah, I think for Please Step Back it did. I heard stories about rock-star debauchery and about the business. But on a more fundamental level, I got to see that Gene’s identity was always hidden behind make-up so his real self was safe. Gene was very deliberate in separating rock n’ roll Gene from normal Gene. To me it’s curious, because writer hides behind different kinds of things, but they still hide.

Karnes: All right, so back to your anagram.  We’ve covered BARN and GENE, now for MAN.  Where are all the gay men in your writing, or rather, why do these stories only deal with heterosexual relationships?

Greenman: I don’t know.  Because I’m not gay and I wouldn’t presume to say that gay relationships are exactly the same as the ones I’ve been having, maybe? That’s not to say that they’re so different, or even different at all, but that’s for the reader to decide, not me. A gay man can read my book and identify with it, but should I write gay characters?

Karnes: You’re not black, and that didn’t stop you from writing “Please Step Back,” which was a novel about a funk-rock star from the late sixties.

Greenman: That’s true, and some people objected. It’s a good counterexample to my argument about presumption. I guess I’d say that the characters could easily be gay in some cases but it never occurred to me. So many of these things for me are about pretty specific experiences. Then I have to distort them to make them fiction and decode by switching to the other side and imagining the woman’s role.

Karnes: Which you do well.

Greenman: Thanks. But to answer your question, I don’t know why there aren’t any gay characters.  It’s an interesting question. I wonder what percent of gay writers write mostly straight characters.  I was reading in Philadelphia and some guy asked me why there weren’t Asians in my novel “Please Step Back.” I couldn’t remember, because as I was writing it, it was very heavily a black/white book about race relations in the sixties. The guy accused me of being slightly xenophobic. The reading ended. Later on, someone sent me a post from a Web site. I had judged a fiction contest and I had called someone xenophobic as a joke. That guy had started a campaign where he would send people money if they went to my readings and accused me of being a xenophobe.

Karnes: Did it go viral?  Were there picketers?

Greenman: It went minor viral.  It wasn’t like bird flu.

Karnes: No antidote necessary?

Greenman: No. But it’s such an odd idea, to do a census of a book. Any work of fiction is necessarily exclusive, unless you deliberately set out to include everyone, and that’s an experimental novel.

Karnes: Are these stories autobiographical?

Greenman: Yeah. I think they’re fairly documentary. Say I have a friend and I notice that she starts to act differently to her brother, and then I investigate further and I find out that this guy that she’s dating sort of resembles her brother in some way, then that’s an interesting arrangement that I would then try to draw out in fiction.  I’m not trying to come to conclusions about that person’s life but I am identifying and exploring oddness.

Karnes: Speaking of oddness, you have a story set on the moon.

Greenman: Right. “17 Different Ways to Get a Load of That.” It’s the second story I have set there. For me, the reason is simple. It’s about alienation. It’s getting harder and harder to feel far away from people. One of the things about email is that if your girlfriend is in India, she is no further away than if she is in Indiana. You can reach her in a fraction of a second. I thought I could overcome that by setting it on the moon where there really is distance.

Karnes: In Steve Almond’s review of your book in the Los Angeles Times he refers to you as a “reluctant romantic.” Are you?

Greenman: Well if I were reluctant I wouldn’t admit it, would I? I think it’s an odd word, again because I think it conveys a kind of dopiness, or laziness.  Like it has an implication of idealism, in that you aren’t seeing the world for what it really is, and eventually you’re going to be disappointed. But if he’s saying that I am reluctant because I am resistant to those poses but am, deep down, sympathetic to the possible result, then he is right.

Karnes: How do you manage to work full-time as an editor at the New Yorker, write books, write musicals, be a good husband, I’m assuming, and raise your sons?

Greenman: The boys raise themselves. As it turns out, though I would have never guessed it, I have a lot of energy for people.  A few people: close friends, mostly. But I talk to them about their lives, which either exhilarates or upsets me, and then I have to make sense of it on paper.

Karnes: When or how did the fiction writing figure in?

Greenman: It was there early. I’m not one of those writers who will say that all of my early stuff is bad. Some of them were good; they were just written by an eighteen-year-old, you know? And then in my early twenties when I was in grad school, I started writing more, and I had good success for about a year and I thought this is pretty easy, like I must have an original perspective or something.

Karnes: The Midas touch.

Greenman: Yeah. So then after about a year I started getting a lot of rejections and I hated that, so I stopped trying to publish. I never really stopped writing. But for three or four years, I took it very hard. I got angry at myself and at them.  All the bad aspects of my personality were on stage. People would write these really nice, encouraging rejection letters and I would go to sleep and dream of going to that person’s house and chopping their head off. It’s the worst rookie mistake you can make as a writer, to not prepare yourself for the ninety percent rejection even as you bloom inside from the ten percent acceptance.

Karnes: To build on that: What’s the difference between people who publish books and people who are writing in to your Web site Letters With Character? These aren’t “writers.”

Greenman: No, and in fact, it’s been fascinating how well-written the vast majority of them are.  I think the professionalization of writing is a really vexed question because the points of entry are so numerous now. When I was a kid, even making a zine required lots of tools and a certain amount of capital.

Karnes: It required effort.

Greenman: Yeah. And now the distance between thinking you want to express yourself and expressing yourself is greatly shortened.  That has some great effects and some bad effects.  One of the effects is that it exposes large numbers of people to an affliction that used to only affect a small number of people, meaning writers: your ego can come to depend so much on whether people like what you’re putting in front of them.

Karnes: You’re talking about your audience.

Greenman: But who knows what that even really means anymore. This summer a man wrote me to say he was highlighting sections of my book and his wife accused him of having a crush on me. He had access to me via email. He made use of it.

Karnes: And?

Greenman: And so when those kinds of messages come in you feel gratified for a certain amount of time.

Karnes: But it’s fleeting?

Greenman: It depends on who you are. But I’m probably like a lot of writers. My wife says that a good piece of feedback will satisfy me for 10 minutes, and a bad piece of feedback will stick in my head for three years.

Karnes: I don’t think that’s uncommon in our field.

Greenman: No. That’s why I stopped reading reviews like three books ago. But it’s probably necessary in a good way. I mean as a creative person, if you only filter for the good things, I don’t see how that could benefit you.

Karnes: I wanted to steal from your own interview with Rhett Miller and throw a lightning round at you? What’s the most difficult letter that you’ve had to write?

Greenman: I would say the hardest letter I wrote was to a girl in my early twenties – I don’t know if it ever reached its destination – I was living with a girl in Chicago (she was a painter) and we were having a bad time of it, and I went on a trip so we could think about things and when I came back she was gone and all my stuff was shoved in to a closet. And I wrote a letter trying to make sense of it.  It was the first big emotional injury done to me in my life.  So I wrote a letter asking what the hell had happened? Though I’ve written many angry letters.

Karnes: I know. Like the one to Seth Rogen where you threatened to chop off his finger with a hatchet.

Greenman: We met at the New Yorker Festival shortly after that. David Denby was interviewing Judd Apatow and Seth. He was very nice. For about four seconds I felt bad about threatening him.

Karnes: I have a crush on him.

Greenman: If I see him again, I’ll get you a finger. No, wait: I’ll get them all for you.

Karnes: That’d be lovely. So what’s the one story that makes you cry?

Greenman: Well it wouldn’t be a story; it’d be a novel.  “Where the Red Fern Grows,” which is maybe true for every boy.

Karnes: It’s a guy thing.

Greenman: What’s yours?

Karnes: “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” by Amy Hempel.  Gets me every time.

Greenman: Good one.

Karnes: What’s the one story – or I suppose we can open this to novels – that pisses you off?

Greenman: I’ll only answer that evasively, which is to say that if something starts to make me angry I go in to analytical mode as an effect.  Take Tom Robbins. As a kid I really liked him.  Now I really like him.  But in my twenties something went haywire and I didn’t.  In a way he’s like a relic; post-hippie sex fiction that can come off as counterculture cliché if you’re not paying attention.  Now, as I say, I like it again. I can see the things I like. But I went through a period when he made me mad.

Karnes: For me it’s Nam Le’s “The Boat.”  It pisses me off because it’s so fucking good, you know?

Greenman: Oh, so for you it’s envy?  Well then I guess I should add a footnote to what I said before, because I don’t read many of my contemporaries. I hope it’s not envy. It might be, slightly, but it’s more about keeping channels clear.  That and I like to go back, go far back, and find the stylists, the people who did extremely interesting things with prose in extremely interesting ways.  They don’t have to be Henry James or Laurence Sterne. There’s Barthelme, and Cheever. There’s Mary Robison.

Karnes: Okay, so we already know that Cotezee and Goethe and Nabokov were influential for your epistolary endeavors. My question is who are your three female literary heroes? I’m going to ask you something dirty about them, so choose carefully.

Greenman: Alright, I will say, although the reasons are very strange for all these women, like they are for any hero. Let’s say Mary McCarthy for one, for rigor and intellect. Then George Eliot for the sweep of the prose and a certain broad vision. And then – this is a weird one. There’s this book, a Vintage paperback in the called Elbowing the Seducer. It’s a book about New York and sex and the art world of that time.  I remember reading it and thinking it was a good, solid, unpretentious novel. It was written by a woman named T. Gertler.

Karnes: So assuming Mary McCarthy, George Eliot and this T. Gertler are all alive, I want you to play Marry, Fuck, Kill with them.

Greenman: I knew that was coming.  So if they’re all alive, I guess Fuck is probably Mary McCarthy. That seems like the logical thing to do.

Karnes: I agree.

Greenman: Um, I guess reluctantly I’d kill George Eliot. I’d feel terrible, but I’d drown her.

Karnes: No?  Like rocks in her pockets? You’d Virginia Woolf her?

Greenman: Yeah, I’d take her to the river and tell her to stand near the edge.  I’d tell her it was just research for her next book.

Karnes: So then that only leaves one choice.

Greenman: Well, T. Gertler I don’t really know anything about, I just really liked the book, so I guess I’d marry her.  She’s probably the closest in age, too.  I’d have to say that it was a formative book. Looking at this androgynous initial, right, wondering if it was a woman writing. I was young and that was meaningful.

Karnes: Last question.  I was going to ask you what’s next.

Greenman: The new book is called Celebrity Chekhov. It’s been marinating in my brain a while. There are all these Chekhov stories about love that I go back to over and over again; I think he’s a very different writer than I am, but he’s always really good at insights of people. I’m not saying anything new; everybody knows that. He’s Chekhov, for God’s sake.

Karnes: And?

Greenman: And I think because the dominant translation of these stories is old-fogeyish, the characters seem much older than they are. I think he’s writing about very contemporary people in way – in terms of their envy and the way they deal with class and negotiating public and private space. But it’s hard to see them as contemporary with gas lamps and coachmen. SO I had this idea of replacing his characters with modern celebrities. Conan, Britney, Letterman. Oprah.  The effect of it is very strange, because these are very moving stories, and there are celebrities that mesh with them in fascinating ways. Sometimes the fit is perfect. Sometimes it’s intentionally, surreally bad, and sometimes the pleasure is in the disorientation.

Karnes: Your entire posture just changed. You had a lot of fun with this book, didn’t you?

Greenman: Oh yeah, a lot of fun.  What Harper Perennial and I are interested in seeing, I suppose, is how it’s received. It’s hard to say if it really matters, but it’s interesting, because this, as opposed to What He’s Poised To Do, is a book that exists, in a way, through its audience.  In other words, we’re saying to the audience: this is how you have been reading these stories, and now it will change slightly. Do you want to push back, or go quietly, or some third thing?

Karnes: Are you really saying that to the audience? I mean how many people who watch Oprah read Chekhov?

Greenman: No, and that’s what’s interesting about it, because they know who Paris Hilton is.

Karnes: So they’ll want to read your pop culture version?

Greenman: Who knows? Who knows who ever wants to read anything? Still, after this very intense book of stories that are, on some level, entirely about people that I know, it was a relief to suddenly step back and do the opposite. Speculate wildly! Be irresponsible within limits! Both are part of writing.

Jaime Karnes teaches fiction writing at Gotham Writers’ Workshop, and English at Rutgers University. Her work has appeared in Storyglossia and Willard & Maple. She works at Granta Magazine and lives in Manhattan.