I’ve heard you say (because of course, I am you) that poets have influenced your work. Can you tell us how they influenced Contents May Have Shifted in particular?
I went to graduate school in a creative writing program that housed both Mark Strand and Larry Levis, unquestionably two of the greatest poets of their time. I almost couldn’t help but to have learned to revere poetry–Strand’s compression of big ideas and Larry’s gut wrenching associative leaps.
What reading poetry has taught me, I think, is that when meaning gets made associatively, rather than logically or chronologically, we feel it in a different part of our bodies, and, I would argue, we feel it more strongly, like a punch. One of the things Contents is about is memory, the way a killer whale might make you think of a strand of white-heart trade beads, which might make you think of a drink your father used to order called a Negroni. Also, when you are raised by alcoholics, there is almost no such thing as chronology, no such thing as one thing logically following another; and everything that is told is always told slant.
One poet in particular whose work I was thinking about the whole time I was writing this book was Carl Phillips, his book Riding Westward in particular, which I think wrestles with some of the same questions Contents does.
And what questions would those be?
Is it a writers’ duty to allow herself to be driven by her more insidious compulsions? How can I be a decent human being and this other, darker thing all at the same time? What about belief, and the problem language has representing the ineffable? Can the image stand in? Sometimes? Almost?
Speaking of identity, I noticed that your name is Pam and your narrator’s name is Pam, but Contents May Have Shifted says right on the cover, “a novel.” WTF?
Yeah, and now the interviewer’s name is Pam too, so all of a sudden there are three of us here!
The simplest reason it says “a novel” on the cover is that the W.W. Norton designer first showed us that photo without the cloud, and my editor and I thought it represented the book well, but was maybe a little cold. Then they added the cloud, and that warmed it up but made it, we thought, too sentimental. Then we put the words inside the cloud and that cut down the sentimentality factor enough so we felt we could keep the cloud and the warmth it provided.
A more complete answer would be that I am happiest working in between things. Between fiction and nonfiction, between something you might call prose poems and more traditionally shaped chapters, between the novel and the shorter form. I even live, literally, on the top of the Continental Divide in Colorado where half of the water goes east, and the other half west. I wrote a whole essay about this inclination of mine to split the difference between categories called “Corn Maze,” to be published simultaneously with Contents May Have Shifted, and you can find it on the Hunger Mountain web site, and eventually in a book Jill Talbot is editing called Metawritings (forthcoming from Iowa in May.)
But the short version is, I want to be able to write primarily from my own actual experience, and I want the freedom to shape the story in ways that give it power, which often involves altering what actually happened in any number of ways. Additionally, I don’t believe we are capable of ever really telling a story the way it really happened, because of the ultimate failure of language to mean, because of the failure of memory, because of our failures of courage, because of our desires, because of the twenty-five people who saw the same car accident, and so on.
Also, when I was in grad school there were only two choices: fiction or poetry, and I chose fiction. I understand that for some people it is very important to say, “this really happened to me,” and I have all the respect in the word for what those people are doing. It is not important to me to be able to say that. What is important to me is to pay strict attention out in the world and collect things that are story worthy, and then to try to shape the story the way the story asks to be shaped.
Who were your early influences?
The first book I remember really loving was Doctor Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra, which was about a secret alphabet—26 more letters beyond the 26 we are familiar with that you could use to describe all kinds of marvelous creatures. After that it was pretty much straight to the Modernists: Joyce and Faulkner spoke to me in particular, but one of the first reviews of my first books said, “These are the stories that might have emerged if a smart woman had followed Hemingway around.” If you take the three writers I admire most of all: Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, and Don DeLillo, it would be hard to find the tiniest residue of their work in mine. And yet I think it is probably in there, way under the surface. If nothing else their books gave me a kind of permission. I do hear actual echoes of a few other writers I love in my own work: Ron Carlson, Lorrie Moore, and Amy Hemple. When I read a Ron Carlson story, I can usually feel what he is up to in there…can feel how the story got made, even as I am blown away by its power. In his case it may be because we had the same editor and the same teacher, but it is almost as if I can hear him thinking as I read. When I read Jazz, on the other hand, it’s like I’m watching magic performed right under my nose.
What influences you besides the work of other writers?
Music is the first thing that comes to mind. It’s hard to imagine Contents May Have Shifted existing without Wilco’s, A Ghost Is Born, just to name one example. It’s hard to imagine being a person at all if I hadn’t listened to Jackson Browne’s Late For The Sky ten thousand times when I was a teenager. Leonard Cohen is, even now, teaching me so many things about sex and faith and how to move through the world with a sense of grace and wonder. It’s possibly that nothing makes me as instantly and profoundly happy as seeing Mavis Staples say “Beautiful!” right as the Staples sing the last notes of The Weight in the film The Last Waltz, Martin Scorsese’s tribute to The Band, a film I have watched at least 50 times and require everyone who comes to the ranch to watch with the speakers turned up, as the film instructs, loud. Throw in Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen (I am from New Jersey after all), and more recently Counting Crows, Bright Eyes, and Modest Mouse (especially when I am really angry), and I wouldn’t know how to begin to disentangle that soundtrack from my writing or my life.
Musicians, I have always felt, have better access to their emotions than writers, because they have the ability to express them two ways at once. Writers taught me how to think, by and large, but musicians taught me how to feel.
What have you read lately that got you really excited? (This is always my favorite question so of course I asked it of myself.)
1. Cheryl Strayed’s new memoir, Wild. It made the other people on the airplane afraid of me because I was either crying or shaking the chairs with my laughter.
2. Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds. Gorgeous meditation on what it means for a woman of a certain age to come fully into her own voice.
3. Yiyun Li, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl. The novella this collection contains, “Kindness,” might be the most elegant and powerful thing I read all year.
4. Colm Toibin, The Empty Family. This collection grew on me and grew on me for weeks after I put it down. Which is to say, I loved it while I was reading it, and in the weeks to come I realized I was still living with it in all the best ways.
5. Thomas Pletzinger, Funeral for a Dog. This was the last book editor Carol Houck Smith had her hands on, and it is weird and kind of wonderful…and no, I don’t just like it because of the dog.
6. Jon Davis, Preliminary Report. A poet who recalls Levis in all the best ways, but is very much his own man. I read “Loving Horses” to anyone who will listen…friends, my in-laws, the guy who delivers the propane…