Shya Scanlon: The TNB
By Shya Scanlon
November 21, 2010
Let’s start here: I’ve read everything you’ve ever written.
My biggest fan!
And I’ve got to say, I’m finding it a little difficult to find a pattern.
You must have been talking to my agent.
Let’s just say publishers like predictability.
Let’s just stick to the matter at hand. You’ve written very compressed, nonlinear poetic prose, you’ve written baggy, talky verse, you’ve written science fiction novels, and, most recently, a novel-in-stories that’s not only in a fairly realist mode, it’s partially autobiographical. Do you think you have a “set of concerns?” Another way to ask this might be: is there an organizing principle to your work over the years?
That’s a question for critics! But of course I’ve thought about it, and will try to answer—with the caveat that my perspective probably shouldn’t be considered authoritative.
I’d say that, more than anything, what can bridge works as stylistically diverse as the language-based collection, In This Alone Impulse, and the purely character-driven semi-autobiographical novel, Look No Further, is a fascination with subjective experience. As private a creative act as writing may be, I’m of the camp of practitioners who desire it to truly communicate with other people. Who use it, in other words, as an attempt at sincere, authentic connection—and this kind of connection is both made possible and problematic by the premise of distinct subjective individuals trying to make sense of their own experiences.
A bit of personal history: I was one of those people who, as an adolescent, became convinced that I might very well be the only thing that exists. Rather than feel liberated by this, however, I found it positively terrifying. I can only assume that my creative work grew out of this terror in some way.
Let’s talk about Forecast. This is science fiction. I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, Well, it’s slipstream or it’s literary fiction that plays on common genre tropes. Or something equally evasive and insecure. But come on. It’s a sci-fi book. Can we agree on that?
I’m trying to think of something that isn’t evasive.
Ah-ha! So but how does that fit in with what you’ve described above?
I knew you were going to ask me that. And there’s no way this is going to be a simple answer, so I’ll just choose an entry point at random. When I started writing Forecast—probably in 2001, though I can’t quite recall exactly—I thought it was a very commercial work. In fact, though I was writing it out of sincere interest, I kind of thought of it mostly in those terms. I literally called it my “cash cow.” Ha! It’s amazing to me, now, the kinds of things I used to think. Anyway, I was clearly completely clueless, but that’s how I thought of it. Which is relevant here, because it was a dramatic a departure from the kinds of things I was writing at the time, all of which were… well, let’s be polite, and call them allegorical. When I began writing fiction, just about all the stories I wrote grew out of ideas and language. Characters, plot, the “story” parts of the stories all answered to some theoretical fixation or other. So to be telling a story, let alone creating characters with dimension, felt very strange to me, or rather felt, I don’t know, terribly normal.
What you’ve just admitted is that it doesn’t really fit in to this chronic self-interest you’ve said drives your fiction.
Well, I didn’t say my driving focus was self-interest, but an interest in subjectivity. Sure, there’s some self-interest there, there are occasions (many) where it takes the shape of navel-gazing. But Forecast, first and foremost, is a book about subjective experience. We have a narrator, after all, tasked with recreating the internal workings of someone’s mind. And encountering obstacle after obstacle in that pursuit, until, well, I won’t spoil the end, if you haven’t read it.
Is there some other way you think your inward-focused work might be related to the sci-fi stuff? I understand that it’s not just Forecast we’re talking about, but a thematic trilogy of books that address surveillance from different perspectives. What are the other two? Interference and… Uno Che?
Correct. One thing that comes to mind, with both sci-fi—at least the kind of far-flung fabulist kind I’ve written—and the language or biographical stuff, is that none of them necessitate extensive “research.” That is, the fundamental resource is the self. Now, obviously, this is the case with any creative endeavor. But there’s a spectrum. Much contemporary sci-fi, for instance, does its best to remain within the realm of “believability,” extending in some way or another the agreed-upon tenants of current scientific understanding. I’m thinking here of, say, Neal Stephenson. And it’s easy to think of other genre examples: historical fiction, procedurals, etc. Basically, I keep my research to a minimum. I know that kind of flies in the face of a lot of contemporary fiction—even literary fiction is often highly referential (I think we’re living in something of an age of fans or collectors)—but I’m simply more interested in where my imagination takes me than I am in aligning my imagination with particular established subjects or known texts. Not to say that the point is to “break rules,” either, but if they’re broken they’re broken: it’s simply beside the point. Likewise, Forecast adheres to several conventions of the dystopian tradition—but it does so playfully, not out of a desire to contribute to or mock those traditions, per se, rather because they seemed fun and inspiring.
You seem to be dancing around the issue of influence, here. Could you talk about what your literary influences are, either for Forecast or for any of the other work we’ve touched on?
Influences are like parents: you don’t get to choose them. I know it sounds peculiar to put it that way, because from a certain perspective, you do exactly that: you choose what to read, after all. But really, in those formative reading years, how much are you really choosing? You encounter things, read them if they happen to be around, or if they’re forced into your hands by a parent, a teacher you respect, by your peers, etc. And for better or worse, these things stick. For me, the books that stuck were all things I read in between, say, 15 and, maybe 18. Crime and Punishment was one. Crying of Lot 49 was another. New York Trilogy was a third. Then there’s Labyrinths—a Borges book that I think was posthumously published, a collection he didn’t select. I read a lot of e.e. cummings, Dylan Thomas, and though I haven’t had much interest in over a decade, 20th century philosophy made an impact on me. I fooled around with Derrida and Foucault in high school (not through assigned reading, though, so I was just on my own, in terms of interpretation, which may mean something). Derrida was liberating; Foucault almost made me go insane. It’s embarrassingly obvious to map how these books influenced me, but I’ll swallow my pride: Dostoyevsky made me really want to write “serious” literature, which at the time meant literature wherein moral issues were at stake. Pynchon made me realize that books could be playful while still being “serious.” And Auster made me realize how much I valued subverting expectations and playing with the relationship between narrator, text, and author. Though I’ve never returned to him since reading New York Trilogy and Leviathan back-to-back, I think Forecast may owe more to Auster than it does to anyone else.
But all this is still, say, pre-20, correct? Surely you read books that influenced you during college?
Yes, but I’m not sure I learned any “new” lessons from them. Just refinements of lessons already learned. That is, my selection at that point was a little more self-directed, and thus really an extension of the influence of those other books. A symptom, in other words, not a source.
If you could list just two…
Jesus, you’re persistent. Infinite Jest and Underworld. But like I said—
You’re right. I could have guessed based on—
So let’s talk a little about style. The stories from Look No Further, one of which can be found online at Spork, are pretty different from Forecast, beyond just the realistic subject matter. There’s a relaxed diction. Despite how “maximalist” Forecast is, there’s a kind of precious (if you don’t mind my saying so) quality to the language. Maybe that Dylan Thomas influence shining through. Not that I dislike Thomas. He’s brilliant. But on the other hand, the story I linked to above, The Fish, lets language carry scene, not “be” scene. The Fish was written approximately three years after Forecast was finished—5 years since it was begun. How has your relationship with language changed in the interim?
That’s a major question. A person’s relationship with language goes to the heart of what it means to exist. But! I know what you mean. First of all, however, I have to say that you’re not being quite fair to Forecast—the language in it is really the narrator’s voice, with all its faux-formality and shoe gazing. It’s hard to remember, sometimes, because the narrator fades into the background for longish passages—one of the more important aspects of the book, really—but it’s all first person. Anyway, I think what I’ve been interested in more recently is something I’d call the “poetry of the scene.” Meaning, I think, that in my more recent work, I’d say that the basic unit of value has shifted somewhat, from the sentence to the scene. This doesn’t mean I’m not interested in turning a tricky phrase (or use cool conventions like alliteration), but somewhere along the way, I’ve developed a keen interest in creating a resonance that only exists as a cumulative effect of character, language, context, action and in many cases, dialogue. If one of these things receives an inordinate amount of weight, the imbalance throws the reader off-balance, and the resonance is not achieved. To be sure, many things I’d learned to cherish/adore as an author must often be sacrificed toward this goal, sentence-level innovation for one. And that’s something I feel sad about, sometimes, but basically it’s worth it, so far. Which is not to say I won’t return to other modes in the future—it’s just where I’m at, currently. One kind of wants to believe that all the different directions and experiments one partakes in along the way will ultimately resolve into a more perfect “product” somewhere down the line. We’ll see. In the meantime, I’m just writing in ways that interest me as a reader and, perhaps by extension, a writer.
Speaking of perfect products, what can we look forward to over the next year?
Hopefully a lot! Forecast has just been published, so I’m eager to see how it will be received. My agent is also going to be shopping Look No Further around soon. And I’m a couple hundred pages into a new novel presently, and hope to finish a draft this year: another post-apocalyptic Seattle book, actually, the structure of which was inspired by the behavior of a tsunami.
Shya fucking Scanlon.
How’d you know my middle name?