Brian Evenson by Blake Butler

BOMB 120 Summer 2012
Issue 120 Bombsite Cover120 548
Brian Evenson 2 Toc Body

Photo by Valerie Evenson.

This interview is featured, along with 34 others, in our anthology BOMB: The Author Interviews.

Expansive, thrilling, attuned, and fearless are all adjectives that come to mind when thinking about the work of Brian Evenson, but so do prolific, generous, thoughtful, and kind. Both on the page and as a human, Evenson is the kind of author any person could aspire to follow in the wake of; I know I have, devouring each of his books not once but multiple times as soon as I can get my hands on them. This year marks the advent of two new works in this continuum: Immobility , a novel released on the legendary sci-fi label Tor, and, this summer, Windeye , Evenson’s newest collection of short fiction, a work as psychologically taut and recursively terrifying as anything he’s produced thus far. Recently, Brian and I talked on the phone, from Providence and Atlanta respectively, about the creation of Windeye as well as his process as a writer, both at the desk and away from it.

— Blake Butler

Blake Butler Windeye seems to have a different texture than any of your previous books. A familiar reader probably won’t be surprised by the content, but there’s a different tone and quality to the way you’re delivering the story this time. Your characters seem particularly disoriented, maybe even muffled by what they’re up against.

Brian Evenson More than any of my other books, this book is about loss. It’s also about characters who are having a hard time navigating their world. In many of these stories, the reality of the world is either collapsing or threatening to collapse—there’s a sense of something having disappeared. I too feel the book is different, but since these are themes I’ve touched on elsewhere, I’m trying to figure out exactly what is different. Contentwise there are stories that could potentially be in my other books. Perhaps the book is more sober? The humorous element is not as prominent, and there are stories here that are much creepier. They’re always creepy, that’s the thing. (laughter)

BB The tone is sober. The narrators seem like they’ve been under pressure from what they’ve been through. And now they’re like, Okay, I’m going to really figure out what’s happening. But the more they try to focus, the more the story pushes their world away.

BE That’s a big part of it. In the title story, the narrator is trying to figure out, to no avail, how he’s lost part of his reality. Finally he just decides that he has no choice but to go on with life as it is, even if he’s certain that something that should be there is missing. That’s a sobering surrender.

BB There’s so much obsession with appendages and grafting. A character loses an ear and then an ear is grafted but it’s not his ear. Another has the same thing happen to his arm.

BE You start to see this in my novel Last Days, where there was a sense that you lose an arm but you still feel like the arm is there somehow. Here it’s the reverse. You have something grafted back on and you’re convinced it’s not yours. This thing both is you and is not you at the same time. It’s unsettling. Weirdly enough, there are aspects of this book that are more autobiographical than my other books. The kids locking each other in the toy box in the title story at the opening of the book—that was something my sister and I used to do to each other. We had this normal-sized toy box, but it had this little cubbyhole in the bottom that was just big enough to crawl into. When I was about four or five, one of us would crawl in and the other person would close you in and pretend like they were going to leave. In that sense, it’s this return to certain things that feel familiar to me. But it’s also a search for these moments that unsettle your sense of reality and then how you, regardless, build a life on top of them. You know, I had a tumor in my neck about a year and a half ago. To get it out, they had to take my left ear and peel it back and then put it back in place. No one told me before the operation that they’d have to cut the nerve so I wouldn’t feel my ear. So, afterward, there was this really strange period where the nerve was there and not there, flailing, trying to reconnect. My brain was figuring out ways to pretend there was something there. There was a period that I described in “The Other Ear” where it felt like my ear was tightening like a fist and then opening wide like a fan. It was like an alien presence on the side of my head, out of my vision. That was the start of that obsession with both feeling connected and distant from myself at the same time. This opened up to larger epistemological issues, starting with the question of how you can know if what you’re experiencing is real. So many of these stories are struggling to find an answer to that question. Their characters are trying to figure out ways to continue on, try to calm the world down so they can feel like they can stand on something, even though it’s no longer solid.

BB Do you put yourself in your characters’ feelings, are they tools, or both? Some of the stories specifically explore the role of the detective as being mostly useless beyond his ability to ask critical questions, while other less objectively described characters’ emotions are formed in the very act of trying to find an answer. The area between those two extremes here is so rich.

BE Yeah, there is an investigation of the nature of character that goes on in the book too. On the one hand, you think of characters as a kind of noise or words on a page. You know, a collection of bits of language that cause a particular effect. On the other hand, we tend to respond to characters as if they’re living, breathing things. Certainly I do; I feel very attached to some of my and others’ characters, like I could have a coffee with them. So there are moments where characters are fairly empty vessels; they’re serving a function within the story. And there are other moments in which they refuse to play that role, they insist on acting human, and they become uncomfortably close. The book as a whole is playing around with the degree to which fiction is something that’s mimetic and producing a reality and the degree to which fiction is something intensive that’s having an effect and making the reader experience something.

BB The book opens with “Windeye,” which sets an oddly emotional tone, developed through the boy’s confusion over whether his sister actually existed. Then “The Second Boy” changes the position slightly, beginning with these boys who also have trouble being sure of what is real. This story falls into a looping mechanism where you tell the same story again and again, and the moments that seem most vivid are the tiny glitches in what carries over. I kept thinking about Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition.

BE It was deliberate to have those two stories at the beginning, because they do mark a continuum for what the other stories in the book do. “The Second Boy” is a kind of ghost story. And also a story about storytelling, about the way in which language works. The funny thing in that story is that a lot of the joy, for me, was in the minute description of the winter landscape—in talking about how the frozen leaves look, about what happens to the bark as it catches fire. There’s an attempt to create a tangible world that doesn’t seem to be located anywhere except in the story. Then, as evening comes, Leppin keeps on having this experience of the reappearance of Dierk. I’m not sure if that’s real or not, and neither is Leppin. By the end of the story, you have the sense that he’s in a trap that could potentially go on forever—the repetition becoming very intense. So, yes, I do think both those opening stories have this poignant quality that you don’t find as much in my earlier work.

BB Have you ever scared yourself?

BE When I was writing “Munich Window” (in Altmann’s Tongue), I fell so deeply into that logical, precise, and yet self-justifying voice that it got to be terrifying. I felt very intimately the evil of it. As time’s gone on, I’ve developed ways of focusing on language more and protecting myself from that. A lot of my stories deal with pretty grim, weird stuff. I try to deal with that material in ways that are not necessarily grim and weird. There are aspects of “Grottor” that scare me a little bit—I don’t particularly like the dark and once I did almost get stuck in a narrow tunnel in a cave. Also, Grottor himself is quite troubling, particularly when he’s dressed as someone else. There are moments when I realize that the stories are inexorably headed to a dark place. That’s when it gets frightening.

BB You said in another interview, “People have a lot less of an internal life and a lot less of what has been called consciousness—at least coherent consciousness—than has been believed.” This book in particular seems embroiled in trying to grapple with the gray area between knowing and not knowing.

BE I’ve been pretty skeptical of the standard ways of describing consciousness. We have these models for understanding how consciousness works—the Freudian model, for instance—but I don’t think they accurately get at what’s going on. So much of what we think is internal stuff is programmed for us by language or by culture. I think that “consciousness” is thinner than we like to believe. I’m interested in Thomas Metzinger’s work—he suggests that consciousness has put us in this kind of tunnel where we are perceiving a representation of the world rather than the world itself. That representation is much less articulated than reality. We recreate this representation of the world in our heads and get rid of all the surrounding noise. Anything that doesn’t seem significant we erase or ignore and then we go ahead and live our lives according to what’s left. This gives us a sense of subjectivity. I buy that. I don’t think we apprehend the world as directly as we like to think. This question of what’s real is very vexed.

BB The story that turned Windeye on its head for me, in particular, was “Legion.” It starts to tell a story and then it says, “Wait! I need to tell you something else before I tell you this.” And then it tells you that the only reason it’s telling you any of these stories is to set up the next, as if we’re both being deceived and, at the same time, prepared for something to be done to us—it’s a keyhole of sorts. There are a bunch of moments like that, where you’re pulling back the curtain.

BE And there are detective stories in the book as well as a story that’s talking about detective stories. There are lots of moments where storytelling becomes the topic of the book—the inability to tell stories or the inability to get to the story you need to tell. You could probably make an argument that fiction for me is this attempt to work through and explain something that just can’t be explained. You tell a story, but it only puts you on the threshold of the next story that needs to be told, the real story that you meant to tell. That ends up opening a kind of void.

BB It seems like it’s not that we’re asking an unanswerable question, but that we’re not built to answer it in such a direct way. There are answers. The book opens and ends with houses. I don’t know if the houses in “Windeye” and “Anskan House” are the same, but I feel like they both know more than anyone else.

BE That’s a really interesting way to look at it. There is this strangeness of having these two almost magical houses at the beginning and the end of the book—there’s a recursiveness to the structure. Both dwelling spaces harbor things that we don’t normally expect dwelling spaces to have—one has a window on the outside that doesn’t exist on the inside and the other has a kind of strange semihuman presence. Repetition is prominent throughout the book as a whole. I don’t know why it’s so panicking to hear the same story twice but in a slightly different way, but it’s something I really love.

BB When I was in Providence to visit your classes and you took me to my hotel, it had this very particular look to it. The first thing I thought was, Is Brian taking me to Anskan House? I never saw anyone else in the hotel, and I felt I was trapped in one of your stories.

BE We always try to do that, rent the whole hotel and just put one person in it to freak them out. (laughter) Houses are critical through the collection as a whole. In “The Moldau Case” someone is upstairs writing about something that he thinks is happening on the first floor. And what actually is going on is happening in the basement. So the house is split into these different areas of knowledge and perception. That’s a response to Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, which speaks very specifically about the metaphorical resonance of different parts of the house in literature. In “Tapadera,” the dead boy keeps on trying to get back in the house. With “The Oxygen Protocol,” it’s not a house so much but an enclosed space within a domed city that is running out of air. Then you have an enclosed ship in “The Sladen Suit.” The suit itself becomes a kind of small house. Not all the stories are set in houses, but a lot of them have people who are trapped in some way or another.

BB That leads me into wanting to talk about your settings; they seem so vivid, and yet they’re not made in any of the ways that we would normally be told to set locations for a story.

BE I do tend to key in on small details that have a phenomenological feel to them, and also on the way in which individual bodies interact with those details. In “Windeye,” what makes the house real for me is the way that the shingles on the side are buckling and coming out so that you can stick your hand up under them. That kind of palpable detail is enough to allow the reader to generate the rest of the house around it. There are some specifics in the way the house is described in “The Dismal Mirror,” for instance, the curtain in the middle of the bedroom the brother and sister share, and in the way that the grounds and the land are described. But still, I don’t give all that many details or give you enough to pinpoint it on a map. I’m more interested in thinking of the reader as someone who is there to help generate the story. My work is not mimetic or imitative of life; it’s more of a catalyst that works with the reader to create an experience. The reader has to invest in it—hopefully what I’m doing with the words is putting the reader in the position where they can do that in a productive way.

BB “Anskan House” has a line that underlines that exactly: “A house stands empty long enough, unlet and uninhabited, and then something comes to be part of it. It’s not a person nor exactly a house, but something in between.”

BE We invest objects and houses with personality. Those things that are closest to us and that we surround ourselves with have gone from being just things to becoming something else—they’ve taken on consciousness. I like that. I hardly use any metaphors in my work. The metaphor is second-order perception, it moves us away from the connection that we have to things and objects, and doesn’t allow us to experience them in the same way. With metaphors, we’re able to make this leap in terms of thinking about things, but that leap strikes me as more of an intellectual leap than a bodily leap. I am interested in bodily perception.

BB Would you say you learned that from Beckett? I know you really admire Molloy.

BE One thing I’ve learned from Beckett is that he lets things happen and doesn’t necessarily explain them. He just figures that you’ll be able to go along with him and catch up. He has these almost synesthetic moments that are very subtly done. Also, I think he has a pretty big skepticism of metaphor and the sense of doing without things. Seeing what you can do with a stripped-down style is something that I’m interested in. I got that from Beckett, very much so.

BB What about Gordon Lish? How was your experience with him?

BE I wasn’t ever in his New York class, but he did publish my first book at Knopf and several of my stories were in the Quarterly. He was really good at making me pay attention to the way in which language was working and to the dynamics and the structure of a sentence. I’ve always been a little bit off in my own space, and it was great that Lish was willing to let me be there, and understood it. I’ve always been more interested in plot than a lot of other writers who worked with him. If you become really focused on the sentence, the danger is that you stay so focused on the sentence that you have a harder time moving to larger structures. So the trick is figuring out how to become focused on the sentence and build that into something that still has drive and momentum to it over the long haul.

BB So how do you balance those two things, plot and sentence, while creating?

BE It’s about keeping a velocity and sense of direction in mind and, at the same time, paying very close attention to each footstep you’re taking along the way. I don’t plot things out in advance usually. For short stories especially, I only have a vague notion of one or two things that might happen, and then things develop from there. In a story like “The Adjudicator,” there’s this moment early on where the character unearths an arm. Until he did that, I didn’t know it was going to happen. That suddenly started to make me interested in his relationship to the arm and ended up directing the story. I find it necessary to be open and allow these moments to happen. Or, for instance, “Anskan House” is a response to the Rudyard Kipling story called “Wish House,” but it’s quite different from it: the Kipling story is a conversation between two older women. Riffing off of that story gave my story a structure I could play around with, something both to follow and diverge from. With “The Second Boy,” I didn’t know the story was going to restart until he’d been wandering in the woods a while and found his camp again. Then it made perfect sense to let it restart.

BB You have a lot of section breaks in most of your stories, little pauses. I like having those gaps; it’s almost like the story gets to think for itself.

BE That breath or pause often allows me to move in a direction that’s more startling than if I were just writing a continuous prose line. That openness keeps me interested. I’ve sat down and written a 60-page outline of something—when I did that, I knew how everything was going to go. But I wasn’t actually interested in writing it any more. (laughter) There is a vertiginous freedom to being able to perceive possibility in the virtuality of the space that’s opening for you. Writers—their conscious minds can often take over things and shut them down. So it’s a question of trying to turn off your conscious mind enough that things can happen, things that will take the story in ways that you don’t expect and that are going to be productive for readers. There are moments when you just shouldn’t have your ass on the chair. You’re better off going on a walk or having a drink, doing something that distracts you and lets your mind do its work without you there. You can’t push it. I mean, with The Open Curtain, I tried to work through the problem by writing page after page after page. I threw all those pages away. The book wrote itself when it was ready to write itself.

BB Do you do a lot of revising?

BE I do. When I revise, I bring out patterns and repetitions a little more. I mean, it’s a combination of both bringing out patterns and hiding patterns at the same time. Feeling something below your skin will have more of an effect than if it is out there really obviously. “Windeye” is pretty close to how it was written; there were one or two minor changes. But many of the other stories in the book were revised a lot. It’s a question of getting to the point where things feel right.

BB I like the subdermal idea. Especially when you are writing a draft in a fast-paced way, when you go back and look at it again you find there’s a whole other thread buried in the story. Finding the right ones to be expanded or trimmed or cut—that’s where the story can take on this other life that we’re talking about.

BE Writing is almost a hydraulic system. You have all these things that you’re regulating. You want to get the levels right. If you’re not careful, something will overflow or go dry. And so a lot of the revision, for me, is about small details, sound, and the repetition of certain kinds of rhythms within the piece. There’s a kind of decisive rhythm that I often use deliberately in my work—it’s focused around significant events. A lot of the effect of fiction is not what you can see on the page, it’s what you feel. I love stories that do something to me in a way that I can’t quite understand. And I love writing stories in which I can’t manage to figure out how I produced an effect, but I know it’s there.

BB I remember reading that when you wrote The Open Curtain you wrote up almost 500 pages trying to get the ending right. After I learned that, I had to go back and read the book again, and it felt like the mental presence of those other endings opened the book in a certain way, as if the ending were surrounded.

BE I’ve reread the discarded parts of The Open Curtain. There are all these ghosts of things that just didn’t work. I had to give them up. So, mentally, for me, there’s this strange layering of different stories, of abandoned alternatives. But, you know, on the finished page, those abandoned possibilities are probably not visible. One of the stories in Windeye, “Grottor,” started with material from the pages of The Open Curtain that I ended up throwing away. So for me “Grottor” feels like the ghost of The Open Curtain.

BB Do you feel haunted by the things you delete?

BE It’s starting to sound like that. I mean, all these possibilities of fiction accumulate. One way that a lot of my stories start is from reading something and seeing it go in one direction and thinking, Hey, I could take this in another direction. In fact, “The Second Boy” originated with a passage from Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives in which a boy falls down “a shaft or pit or chasm up the mountain.” The ambiguity of that phrasing opened something up for me. A lot of my stories come from the path that another story could have taken but didn’t take. They attempt to animate these moments that could have existed but didn’t.

BB So what leads you to your choices? Is it logic or a guttural thing?

BE It’s instinctual, sometimes slightly random. You come to a point in the piece that you’re working on that could go in several distinct ways. I often tend to want to make a less obvious choice. Doing that often gives rise to both anxiety and elation. I’ve always done that, but I started consciously doing it when I was working on the stories that make up Contagion. There was a moment in writing the story “Two Brothers” when I realized that it was possible for the brothers to almost swap identities. That ended up changing the whole landscape of the story and making the house within, which before had been fairly solid, into something that seemed to be expanding and changing. Trying to write yourself out of the narrative corner you’ve put yourself in can be really worthwhile.

BB I wonder if that relates to music. I know you’re really into music that has this kind of ambient effect or mood, but you don’t ever really talk much about sound in your work.

BE I write to music and listen to a lot of experimental stuff, noise stuff, and things like that—Sunn O))), for instance, or Earth or Hecker or Lightning Bolt or Merzbow—but, actually, just a wide variety of very different kinds of things. I can become very obsessed with little details, like the way in which a certain bass line is working, or how things are coming together, and the collision of different things. If I begin listening to a piece of music when I start a story, I’ll listen to it dozens of times while I’m writing it. I don’t talk about music in my fiction very much, but something curious happens when I’m listening. With a lot of the music that I like, I have the impression that if I turn it up a little bit louder, I’m going to hear something in it that I can’t quite hear otherwise—something that’s being kept from me, though I’m feeling it’s there. It gives me the sensation of being on the verge of something.

BB I’m always interested in the way you end things. They are often recursive. Ostensibly your stories could go on forever until the character is dead, but even sometimes when they could be dead it still continues. How do you know when you’ve reached the end?

BE It varies from story to story. There’s this strange dichotomy in several stories where there’s this projection far into the future but also a looking back on something. Also there is often this moment of acceleration or a shift that occurs where the stakes get changed or raised—that’s a way of exiting the story. Or things start to happen in a different way and that allows for a way of stepping out or aside from what’s going on. In this collection the stories have a new kind of urgency. It might have to do with where I am in life. That urgency probably also has an effect on the way in which the endings are working in the collection. Often there is this act of surrender on the part of the characters—they’re on the verge of either giving something up or starting something new. With “Legion” there’s this moment where something is going to begin—it’s horrible, but it’s also this genuine attempt to come into a new sense of consciousness.

BB I think that encapsulates what I was talking about earlier, each text preparing the reader to be more fully opened by the next.

BE It’s ending with this sense of beginning as well. There is the sense of taking an ending and turning it inside out so we move into a more drastic space. We know that something awful is going to happen, and then we go on to the next story.

BB The multiplying tensions elevate the urgency beyond urgency. Instead of trying to describe the indescribable, you make us enter it.

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Originally published in

BOMB 120, Summer 2012

Featuring interviews with Danny Lyon, Tom Murphy, Cass McCombs and Ariel Pink, Brian Evenson, John Newman and B. Wurtz, Ralph Lemon, Eija-Liisa Ahtila, and Wayne Koestenbaum.

Read the issue
Issue 120 Bombsite Cover120 548