November 29, 2010
Patrick, your wife recently suggested, very seriously, that you “avoid being masturbatory” during this interview. What did she mean? And how will you avoid it?
I’ve thought a lot about this, Bartholomew, and here’s how I’ll handle it. First, I’ll no longer refer to “this interview” in order to get out of that self-reflexive, seductive trap that’s only been exacerbated by the internet redefining our methods of communication, and instead I’ll proceed as though the interview itself doesn’t actually exist, which is often how I manage both emotional crises and interviews in the first place, so no problem there. (ROTFLOL.) I’ll also use verbal illusions that imply I’m being interviewed by another person.
Can you tell us what The Universe in Miniature in Miniature is about?
It’s about the difference between giving and taking.
Can you be more specific?
Not unless you want me to open that suitcase.
Can you talk about the plot?
I would be happy to. It’s a collection of linked short stories, so there’s not one big overarching plot. The book tells the stories of different kinds of people, all of them contemporary, most of them in either Chicago or a fictional city called “Grayson,” which I thought of as a very very hazy and fuzzy Green Bay, where I grew up. There is one through-line in the book about a random stabbing in Chicago, and a number of different characters either witness it or play some kind of role in trying to save the victim. And there’s also a novella at the end of the book that binds the stories together in a different way. That last story is something of an adventure—it has a mysterious inheritance and explosions. By the end, the stakes are the fate of the entire world.
Is that supposed to make us want to read the book?
I sometimes feel that way, too—I sometimes feel as though the only way for literature to be “serious” is for the events, the content, the representation of the world…for a book to only adhere to a strict realism that doesn’t ask me, the reader, to spend all of my reading energy taking leaps of faith and thinking to myself, “Oh, okay. In this book things are this way.” And reading amazing contemporary short story writers who’ve dominated the last 30 years of literary culture—people like Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Jayne Ann Phillips, Stephanie Vaughn, and Mary Gaitskill—you get into this mode where you start to think that it’s “light” and “childish” to spend time away from raw and real experience of the world, and that the stories of a mature writer must necessarily keep their stakes interpersonal, and yet find scope and scale and beauty there, within the interpersonal. It’s something I feel deeply conflicted about, because I find those authors I listed to be extraordinarily powerful, and yet growing up, when I really became infatuated with reading, I was losing my shit about books like The Elven Nations Trilogy, which is set in the Dragonlance world, or Asimov’s Foundation books, or Dark Sun novels, or Timothy Zahn’s extension of the Star Wars saga. And at the same time, I’m also sensitive to sentimentalizing the experiences of childhood or fetishizing shit like the Thundercats, which is disgusting, let’s admit it. I feel as though there’s a narrow, narrow bridge, the intersection of a few important spheres, that can lead to a place where the interpersonal stakes still matter the most, and yet where the stories don’t have to all be about neurotic people sitting in apartments talking to one another. I love plots, I love adventures, I love love stories. But I also love the moment in “The Barracks Thief” where a man very quietly and weirdly rubs lotion on another man’s hands, or when the father’s folding bicycle collapses in a heap while he’s riding it. I think, with this book, I was trying to write my way into the tiny intersection of straightforward fiction and wildly speculative fiction. I think that I’m such a fractured reader that I wanted to write a fractured book that attempts to gobble up all the aesthetic experiences I appreciate. And somehow make it all cohere.
Did it work?
I tried my best.