Being bad. Being stupid. Being unworthy. Being unread. Being misunderstood. Being irrelevant. Being out of my depth. Being overlooked. Being complacent. Being bad.
One counts twice. One is two things.
Speaking of being bad, the early reviews of The Guild of Saint Cooper seem pretty mixed. Do you think they’re fair?
You tend to be kind of long-winded in interviews but I’m not getting that here.
I usually become loquacious when I’m nervous because I try to cover up the fact that I don’t really know what I’m doing.
You’ve been struggling to articulate something about that recently. In your mind.
There’s a growing demand for authors to explicate exactly what their books are about. Part of this has to do with the constant need for online content–hey let’s have authors talk about shit! But another part has to do with the growing number of writer-academics. Many writers come up in a context wherein they’re constantly being asked to contextualize writing and speak workshop-ese, so it’s a very natural thing. They satisfy the unquenchable thirst for content while in the same stroke hijacking/preempting a public discussion of their work with falsely authoritative/privileged perspectives.
When in fact…
If the author did in fact die, what we have here is a bunch of author-zombies spouting their zombie-opinions. What’s the opinion of a zombie? I prefer Beckett’s approach to speaking about his work, i.e., silence.
And yet that silence seemed thematically consistent with the work itself, which was always hurdling itself against the limits of knowability. This doesn’t seem really appropriate for your kind of… maximalist prose, for lack of a better term. Isn’t it true that you’re just creating a convenient defense for a striking lack of historical context for your work because you didn’t get a degree in English and so all of your reading has been haphazard and counter-canonical?
How much context is enough context? Besides, didn’t we cover this with the fears thing? Why are you being so aggressive?
I’m not being aggressive, I’m just not being polite. Just about every author I talk to is scared shitless about very real, human feelings of inadequacy and the prospect of failure, and I like to hear about this from other authors so I feel less alone.
So are you saying that my whole thing about falsely privileged perspectives is bullshit?
Not exactly. But some writers fit perfectly into this new authorial space that blurs the boundary between author, teacher, and pundit. Does it get them locked into certain expectations vis a vis cultural trends? Maybe. But that’s probably a small price to pay, not only for notoriety but for community too. Authors build readerships by participating in public dialogues about issues dear to their hearts. When it’s time to publish their fiction, then, they have what the ad business calls a “platform.”
Sounds like you think I’m holding a grudge.
Well, you’re resistant to telling people what your book’s about.
My book is about home, family, fear, loss, and, in the face of all this, inaction.
People seem to be much more interested in the structure of Guild than in the human themes you just listed. Why do you need such a fucked up structure–which elsewhere you’ve compared to a tsunami–to talk about family and loss?
Believe me when I tell you that I don’t know. If I could tell a straightforward story I probably would.
No, you’re right, I probably wouldn’t. But okay, what’s more scary than a story about loss?
The loss of the ability to tell stories.
That sounds too clever to be true. Besides, doesn’t then the story become more about the storytelling than about your ostensible themes?
Why does it have to be either/or? Is The Garden of Forking Paths a logic puzzle or a story about spies in WWI? It’s about both. And I think that Borges wouldn’t want the reader to choose, to quarantine his story away from alternate approaches and meanings. He’d want different readings to infect one another. He wrote for readers able to suspend disbelief and read critically at the same time. Not that I’m drawing some parallel between my work and that of Borges. But most of the authors that have had a significant impact on me have this in common. I grow bored with straight, unselfconscious realism the same way I do completely self-referential postmodernism a la Robert Coover’s interminable fairy tale deconstructions. There are different ways to shoot for this sweet spot, of course, and the work of maybe Tom McCarthy and Ben Lerner come pretty close. But I prefer a bit more comfort, a more plot than either of them permit. Their hybrid narratives leave me a little cold, though I find their work inspiring and fascinating. I want to read Ben Lerner mixed with Lorrie Moore. Throw in some Philip K. Dick-style paranoiak psychedelia and you’d come close to what I’m after. And before you say it, yes, I realize that I’m contextualizing my work.
Yeah, because I was going to say.
Right. It’s inescapable. Of course all writers have their personal canons. I don’t want to shy away from expressing that, exactly. In fact part of what I did in Guild was try to recapture the energy of a first novel. I’d written a couple books that for one reason or another seemed too staid. I mean I felt myself holding back. I wanted to recapture what it was like to bring personal material to bear, which is why I shamelessly used well-known, perhaps even overused, work, such as The Idea of Order at Key West. This was a text that had a huge impact on me and I wanted to show that, pay homage. I say shameless because it felt that way, a little, as though to be taken seriously I should really be citing a lesser known poem or poet. Something more insider-y. God-damnit.
Well, I don’t even have to–
You mentioned “complacency” as one of the things you’re afraid of. What’s that about?
I often wonder whether I’m trying hard enough. Well, let me be more precise: I often accuse myself not trying hard enough.
Do you mean, rounds of revision? Put this in practical terms.
Sure, rounds of revision, hours of writing, there are the matters of degree, and that’s part of it. That’s important. But it’s also somehow, and more insidiously, a matter of self-deception. Some quiet, barely conscious acknowledgement that a sentence, passage, chapter, entire book could be better and the consequent sly sublimation of said acknowledgement.
You think you do this?
I can’t be certain, but I fear that I do. How would I know?
There’s the rub.
The only rub that tickles.
So now that you’ve firmly stated your skepticism about the value of authors explaining their own work, would you like to explain why Twin Peaks? Why fan fiction?
I believe my best statement about the importance of Twin Peaks is over at the Believer Logger, so I won’t rehash it. Let’s just say it was a seminal show for me, and that in my mid-thirties I began rewatching it again and again, which I wanted to acknowledge. Couple that with Guild being a book about home, as I’ve said, and I think the answer to your first question begins to take shape. But the second question is maybe larger and more difficult to explain. The appetite for/acceptance of fan fiction seems to largely exist in extreme poles. On the one hand, you have websites dedicated to publishing massive amounts of fan fiction about pop culture figures, or popular genre work. This type is not taken very seriously, despite some hugely successful authors that have come out of it (E.L. James). On the other hand you have people endlessly “adapting” Shakespeare (West Side Story, Ran), which seems to me a type of fan fiction. Or a book like Me and Orson Wells, which dramatizes Wells’ rise to fame from the perspective of a young actor under the great director’s influence. The message seems to be: the more literary your source material, the more acceptable the appropriation. One of my favorite works of fan fiction is Bret Easton Ellis’s Lunar Park, in which the author cannibalizes his own material and fame. This clearly blends the tradition of fan fic with that of the increasingly popular and acceptable practice of fiction/memoir hybrids, which has excitingly exploded beyond it’s safe position as roman a clef. But there’s also another contemporary art form that, if not influencing authors directly (though for me that’s the case), is informing the culture in which we work–the hip hop mixtape. This art form is a very bold, unapologetic approach to something similar in spirit to fan fiction–the appropriation of another artist’s work in the creation of one’s own. Of course mixtapes were predated by Burroughs’s cut-ups, and before that by the “newsreel” sections of Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy, and before that by Dada. I suppose the bigger surprise is that, with such imprimatur, more authors don’t incorporate fan fiction elements in their work. Probably a testament to the litigiousness of our pop culture landscape.
Speaking of which, are you worried you’ll be sued by David Lynch?
Well, kind of. It would probably be good for sales! But honestly, I think my use of Dale Cooper is well protected by fair use laws. The character is clearly being used satirically.
Doesn’t seem that satirical to me. Let me tell you a story. Samuel Beckett’s older brother William (named after their father) ran a small publicity firm in Dublin called Waxwing. Waxwing clients were primarily labor unions, notably the Dublin Employer’s Federation, but after WWII it also provided consultation to European governments seeking to reestablish public faith in governmental service. At any rate, through consultation in Stokholm, Waxwing had occasion to work on many public communications projects in collaboration with Ragnar Sohlman, a chemical engineer who became Alfred Nobel’s assistant in his later years, executor of Nobel’s will, and ultimately the creator of the Nobel Foundation. And it was through access to the Nobel Committee’s deliberations leading to the award being given to Hermann Hesse that gave rise to William’s conviction that his brother, who had just published a story in Sartre’s journal Les Temps Modernes, could stand a chance to win that prize. Samuel of course balked at the idea, and to be sure he was just beginning his career. But William wouldn’t let go of the idea, and despite his younger brother’s protestations began to form a long-term strategy involving careful analysis of each winner’s work and, perhaps more importantly, the sculpting of Beckett’s public persona. William’s crucial insight was that there would inevitably be a time when the literary world would champion not the kind of public/political figure often chosen by the committee, but an artist who embodied the very essence of art itself, a cryptic, solitary figure closed-off from the passing fads and attentions given to writers recognized for their synecdochic relationship with a particular people and place and time. Beckett could easily have become another regional writer—in a region already “owned” by another looming authorial spirit, nonetheless—but it was by stripping his work of its context that William opened the author up to something more universal. It’s a secret closely guarded by the Beckett Estate, but William and Samuel had a relationship not unlike that of Lish and Carver. To cite just one example, Beckett’s initial draft of Endgame took place in Dresden in the year 2015, and involved a post-apocalyptic landscape peopled by literally dozens of secondary characters. In this version, Hamm was the proprietor of a huge, one-stop grocery and department store that escaped destruction due to Hamm’s side deals with the Russians. Clov was the store manager but also a spy who communicated the goings on of Hamm’s business through an elaborate semaphore using the store’s window’s shades. Obviously, William had to reel all this way back in until what was left was the barest skeleton of the original idea. But as I said, William’s role wasn’t exclusively editorial in nature. He also hired a tailor and photographers to create Becket’s public image, and gave his younger brother extensive media training. Counter-intuitive as it was to many in the beginning–an artist who refuses to talk about or interpret his work for the press–it nonetheless proved highly effective, and interest in this strangely aloof “genius” only increased throughout the 50s and 60s, being helped in no small degree by the rising public interest in “outcast” pop culture figures like James Dean circa Rebel Without a Cause. Though sadly William did not live to see his brother finally triumph, his crowning achievement was undoubtedly the whittling down of Beckett’s never-read 1000 page opus Stories and Texts for This, That, and Everything Else into what is now seen as a perfect distillation of the Beckett we know and love, which carries the title Stories and Texts for Nothing. One can only hope that one day society will be ready to face the reality that the relationship between fine art and commercial opportunism can be highly productive. It’s rumored that some or all of this came to light during Knowlson’s interviews for Beckett’s only authorized biography, but the final title alone (Damned to Fame) is evidence that the great artist took his secrets to the grave. At least, he wanted to.
Wow, huh, I didn’t know any of this. But what does it have to do with satire?
SHYA SCANLON is the author of the In This Alone Impulse, Forecast, Border Run, and The Guild of Saint Cooper. He lives in New York City and Woodstock. Visit him online at www.shyascanlon.com, and at www.twinpeaksproject.com, where he’s always on the lookout for new essays and reflections about Lynch’s seminal TV show.