The last time we talked we learned you were born in a log cabin and the illegitimate son of the Queen of England, what good that did anyone is hard to say, but I see you have another book coming out. Quite the coincidence.
I’ll say, and thanks for asking. Yes, it’s a horseracing, record collecting, and insane asylum novel called Whirlaway. It’s also about psychic evanescence, which is existing and not existing at the same time. It’s a funny book, I’ll add, but what else would you expect from the illegitimate son of an English Queen?
I understand you’ve used an unreliable narrator for perspective. What are you thoughts on this? Have you done this before?
Never intentionally. And I don’t like it as a rule. In my opinion, the writer should be doing the heavy lifting for the reader, being as clear and succinct and accessible as possible, but in Whirlaway my narrator is an escapee from a psychiatric hospital, a diagnosed and heavily-medicated schizophrenic, so I really had no choice. Poetry is supposedly the art of indirection, the way spaces become bridges and that sort of thing. Also at the heart of Whirlaway is a death mystery, and I found an unreliable narrator quite useful for this.
Tell us how the idea for how Whirlaway came about.
An old racetrack and drinking companion of mine, who also collected and dealt records, told me one day about his brother who’d died jumping from a famous San Diego sea cliff called the Clam. Years later I was told by another friend that the brother jumped but did not die. The book was born then, though it took me twenty years to figure out all the angles.
Why do you think it took so long?
Lots of angles. And I’m a slow-goer obsessed with each sentence fitting the one before and the one after into a constitution of paragraphs that all fit into a chapter, and when you put this into the context of an entire full-length treatment with lots of angles, it’s not only mind boggling, it an enormous amount of work. I also, for about two years, had some mental issues myself.
Tell us about Sweets the Telepathic Dog.
There’s plenty of largely ignored evidence available that suggests that many animals, especially those who live socially, are telepathic. Birds, for example, can react more quickly in flock than they can individually. Ditto fish in schools, yet they are moving in complex fashion, you might even say flowing, flawlessly. It is almost impossible to explain how birds or fish achieve this kind of regimental symmetry, or how dogs hunt successfully in packs, unless you allow for telepathy. Most people will admit that their dogs know when they’re coming home before any evidence to indicate an arrival is available.
I think humans have the potential for telepathy, too (are you not aware most of the time when someone is staring at you?), but we reject it for many reasons. The complexity of the cerebral cortex, the way it filters and waffles billions of incoming signals, is another impediment. But my schizophrenic narrator doesn’t see the world the same as everyone else, and so telepathy and therefore unspoken communication with a dog he befriends, becomes a very natural thing.
You’re sixty-two. Tell us your goals for writing at this point.
My goal has never changed. It is to be struck by magic. Magic in art is quite rare. Countless writers of merit were never once touched by magic. Others just once or a few times, Salinger for example with Catcher, Johnson with Jesus’ Son, Melville with Moby Dick, Ernestine Hill with The Great Australian Loneliness. Acquiring magic I think is a matter of putting yourself in the right place, usually at risk (Salinger carrying Catcher in his pocket across the slaughterhouse arenas of WWII, Johnson drifting toward the EXIT signs in Heroin Theater, Melville as a volunteer sailor upon treacherous seas, Ernestine Hill traveling with nothing but a swag and a typewriter over ten thousand miles of savage wilderness) but even then it’s a whim of the gods and also quite possibly a mortal blow in the end.
You said somewhere that the rules of art are similar to the rules of madness and death.
If you accept the premise that there are rules, yes, and I know it’s counterintuitive to suggest that a writer should abandon language to find the truth, but if language is the descriptor of human experience but not the truth of nature, the writer seeking truth has no other choice than to leave language and enter the languagelessness of nature. Pirsig does this in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and loses his mind. My narrator, because he’s already nuts, does this with some success in Whirlaway.
I’ve tried it myself several times but only managed to get lost, or if I was lucky enough to discover a truth it could never be recorded or shared with others upon return, like that dream you have where the secret of life is revealed and you scribble it down but wake up with only night in the windows.
And I suggest that this process is very much like both Madness and Death in that those beyond cannot tell us what it’s like, perhaps obedient to some universal law, or possibly once again the problem of reducing experience to the imprecision of letter symbols.
This leaves us faith, dreams, intuition, and a variety of other processes commonly referred to as “delusion” or “genius” (a word with the same etymology as “genie”) and other less rationally sound methods of making sense of or explaining or seeing the world we live in. But it does open the door to the heretofore mentioned magic, I don’t mean by this sorcery or conjuring, but what might be found or contained in nameless luster at the heart of all great works of art.
POE BALLANTINE currently lives in Chadron, Nebraska. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Sun, Kenyon Review, and The Coal City Review. In addition to garnering numerous Pushcart and O. Henry nominations, Mr. Ballantine’s work has been included in the anthologies The Best American Short Stories 1998 and The Best American Essays 2006.