Me: In the interview with Ben Marcus you talk of using pseudo-scientific mechanisms in your revision process but they only get you so far before there’s a need for intuition that arises. In a story like “Polygamy of Language,” a character uses sticks and stones to show him all language. I wonder what in your own fiction triggers these same sort of intuitive responses.
Brian: Well, that’s a good question. I think there are things that you can do with a piece where you can go through and look very closely at rhythms and things. That I suppose is what I must have been talking about when I was talking about pseudo-scientific practices¾looking for patterns, pursuing patterns, but I think that it’s not enough in a piece to just do that. It’s not a question of just regularizing a piece. You really have to move beyond that. In terms of intuition. I don’t know. It’s a good question. It’s intuitive and so it’s very difficult to talk about. I suppose that the things that would be the equivalent of the touch stones, seer stones, that you find in “Polygamy of Language” would be a willingness to listen to impulse and a willingness to kind of let things pursue their own path. I like to think of a story as something that pursues a certain trajectory or that engages on a certain path with a velocity to it. Knowing what that path is or guessing where the swerves are going to be is something that’s intuitive, but I don’t know beyond that. Maybe sometimes being willing to let meaning, not thinking about the meaning of the piece so much as the rhythms and the sounds, and that sometimes leads you to other possibilities and other times being willing to focus on one or two things that will sometimes lead you to surprising results. But I don’t know. That’s a good question. I wish I had a better answer.
Me: Earlier in that story, the main character dismembers the polygamists in the underground hole that they’re living in, and with practice, dismemberment grows simpler. Does writing grow simpler the more that you find yourself doing it or does it generate its own new sets of complications?
Brian: It’s generated its own new sets. Altmann’s Tongue does certain things but once they’re done I’ve been trying to do different things. For me actually writing’s become more difficult with time. I’m not as willing to be satisfied with things that I think succeed very well in that book, but you have to keep moving beyond them.
Me: So what kind of things are you finding that next time you would do differently?
Brian: Well, I don’t know that it’s even so much that but a question that you don’t want to repeat yourself. You do certain things to accomplish something, if you do it a second time, it’s no longer an accomplishment. I suppose that’s what it is. It’s things like, yesterday at Colorado State, they had an afternoon meeting, and they asked me to read some short shorts. I read them the Altmann’s tongue short short piece and then I read them the piece I read at Naropa before I read “By Halves,” that “Calling the Hour” piece . . .
Me: The one that appears in Conjunctions . . .
Brian: . . . right, the Conjunctions piece, which are at two very different ends of my career. As I was reading them side by side it really made me think, “All right, well, what’s going on in one that’s not going on in the other?” And I don’t think that one’s necessarily better than the other but the strategies are very different from piece to piece.
Me: What sort of strategies do you see yourself employing in both of those stories and where are they the same and where do you think they’re different?
Brian: They’re both short shorts and they both participate in that form a little much. “Calling the Hour” is much more oblique, the syntax is much more complicated. “Altmann’s Tongue” turns on a paradox; that’s the philosophical interest, this notion of paradox, which is essentially an epistemological notion, and then when you get to “Calling the Hour” the question that’s at stake there is this question of being. It’s an ontological question. It’s this confusion of selves, this sense that this woman has had her uncle kill himself in a way that affects her. It’s not clear that it’s her uncle, I guess, from the piece, but had to be someone. There’s a switch to different philosophical concerns and with that switch there’s an interest in the possibilities of language that’s very different from what’s interesting in Altmann’s Tongue. It’s close in some ways to the “The Munich Window” I suppose, but even that, that’s a voice driven piece. This is third person narrator and there’s other things going on. That seems to be the thing. There’s certain kinds of stories I can do very easily, but I think that the challenge for all writers is to keep on moving to a place where things are not easy and trying to complicate things. The stories in Altmann’s Tongue are generally quite a bit shorter than the stories in Contagion. I think I found that I had done certain things with the short form and wanted to explore longer forms, I thought there were other things I could do. And in fact I think that’s true. Then when I’ve gone back to the short form with “Calling the Hour” I’ve come back to it informed by different concerns.
Me: And you had published a novel (Father of Lies) by that point. Do you think writing a novel shifts the perspective on the short story?
Brian: Maybe in some ways. I mean it was the first novel, I’ve written other novels, but it was the first one I published and the first one that really feels complete to me. That shifted the way I think about all those things in some way. It shifted the way I think about novels as well. I think that novel succeeds in some ways and fails in other ways. Right now I’m working on another novel and I’ve taken a very different approach.
Me: Aren’t a lot of times your failures more interesting than your successes? I think with successes people rest on those laurels and with failures it gives them a little bit of a kick in the ass.
Brian: It propels you. Again, you’d like to hope as a writer, even if you succeed at something you’ll still propel yourself, but you’re right. It’s the same with fiction, short fiction, I can see certain stories that seem to me that a significant step has been taken for me, and that lets me write in a different way, lets me explore things. I don’t know that it’s visible to anyone outside of me but you’ve approached things from a different perspective, explored things in a different way.
Me: Your characters instead of offering resistance to outside forces, or inside forces also, they choose to make “its way (their) own,” whether that way is a hand unbuttoning a shirt, collecting keys or molesting children, and when they do accept something as wrong, the cause of the action doesn’t seem to be their own.
Brian: There’s a lot of issues of responsibility in my work. There’s a refusal to take responsibility for things, a kind of passivity, characters who drift through life and characters as well who seem like they’re carried along by other things. Some of them do that in a way that they think they’re unscathed, and I think that maybe some times they are. But others do it in a way that it’s clear there’s some kind of restraint that they’re not willing to participate in, the situation, not willing to enter into it fully. It goes back to “Killing Cats” I guess, you have this situation where the narrator is asked to do something that he thinks is relatively benign and then the things that he keeps on getting asked are such that they draw him into the circle. There’s no point, there’s not enough momentum in him, not enough moral momentum or something, for him to say no at any point. And even though you have at the end of the story the gun’s held to his head, there’s no bullet in it and still it’s not clear what’s going to happen.
Me: So they’re lacking a moral momentum or lacking a philosophical base?
Brian: I think they lack an ability to respond. Unwillingness to connect themselves fully with what’s going on around them, and so even when they are committing atrocious acts, there’s a distance often, a kind of splitting or dislocation that seems to have taken place inside them.
Me: A lot of times in your stories people are writing their own books or reading books by people they know. What basis does that play for you?
Brian: There is that meta-fiction element, that reflexive aspect. Often when they are reading books or writing books, they’re books that make some claim on understanding their own truth. In “Polygamy of Language” there’s the father’s book that he’s written and other books. I guess that it’s important to me as books as a distillation of ideas or philosophy that people are forced to respond to. I don’t know. I’d have to think about it more. It does appear a lot. In fact, the most recent story I did is about a guy who has been writing a critical work on an author and then he reaches a point where he can’t write it anymore. I guess I’m interested in script and the way in which a kind of metagogic like a book has an affect on people’s lives, even though the characters very often seem to take very little from the book or read it very very selectively. There’s a story in the chapbook, Prophets and Brothers, “Prophets,” there he thumbs through the Bible and has what he calls seven or eight false starts before he comes across what he decides is the message for him. So there’s this kind of selective reading as well. A similar thing happens in “Two Brothers” not exactly the same thing but there’s a phrase he ends up keying on.
Me: Find that also in “Contagion,” “Watson’s Son” and “The Blank.”
Brian: “Contagion,” certainly it’s there. Also he’s keeping a record, there’s a sense he has to keep a record, there’s the writing on the walls but also the fence checker’s book is something that’s important. “The Blank” it’s pretty small isn’t it?
Me: With that though Thornton’s providing the notes which he may or may not be providing so a lot of times it seems that they’re going to the books for some sort of instruction.
Brian: I guess that comes from growing up in a religion where things were based on the word and you were encouraged to go to the Bible for personal revelation, the Book of Mormon, and this sense that the word somehow had a power that could help your life. But I think it’s always ironized in my work. It’s dealt with suspicion if not by the characters then by the narrative itself.
Me: By the narrative itself, it provides the reader with the possibility of seeing the irony even if the character doesn’t. And where there may not be a narrative or authorial judgment, the real judgment of these characters, even though it should be coming from themselves, a lot of times it comes from the reader.
Brian: I do give a lot of responsibility to the reader to make decisions about what goes on. It must be very important, it comes up again and again. Even in Father of Lies there’s this interest in transcription, documentation . . . there’s a narrative but there’s also the psychiatrist notes.
Me: While many of your stories are not directly religious they’re still critiquing the human condition, so would you consider them almost morality tales or parables.
Brian: I think that some pieces have elements of parables to them. I’m a little reluctant to use the term morality tale. Little of them are actually religious even though the characters in them are obsessed with issues that concern religion.
Me: Perhaps more of a moral philosophy?
Brian: Well, I’m a little reluctant . . . moral in the sense of someone like Albert Camus who has this kind of blankness to his prose that allows his reader to make judgments of things. I think he would consider himself very much an ethical philosopher, and I suppose, in that sense, yes. But I think that for me the main thing about the prose is that there’s a lot of openness to it, very little authorial judgment, a lot of ambiguity within the work itself. So if it’s a moral philosophy, it’s a moral philosophy that refuses to postulate an over-arching morality. Moral in the sense that it demands something of the readers, demands a response. I suppose the response is finally a judgment in some way or another, so it’s maybe even a meta-moral philosophy if you want to call it that. Alphonso Lingus talks about my stories as something where the characters are proto-human in some sense. They don’t have the responses we’ve grown to expect as humans. I think maybe that’s why it’s moral because those responses seem to be largely abscenes so people feel like they have to substitute (?).
Me: Perhaps providing archetypes for people to flesh out.
Brian: Either that or I like to think of it as a catalyst. Reader engaged with the text in a way that the catalyst of the reader and the text leads to something larger.
Me: I find that a lot of your interior landscapes, whether they be a psychological landscape or whether they be the interior of a building, are specific whereas your exteriors are deserts or jungles or other barren places.
Brian: I think that’s probably true and I’m not sure why that’s the case. Even my interiors, in something like “Two Brothers,” there’s specific objects, specific rooms, but in that fourth section of the piece it’s very hard to figure out how all the rooms fit together. There are these interiors that seem specific but there’s a kind of blurring of them. Whereas you have something like the “Watson’s Boy” story you have interior space where you have a lot of halls defined, certain rooms, moving toward getting lost. Even with the interior I think there’s this kind of move toward dissolution. My works not exclusively that way, but a lot of it seems to be. Isolation, I’m very interested in isolation of characters. So something like “The Blank,” one of the earliest stories in Altmann’s Tongue, you have people within a situation where there seems to be no exterior. That isolation is something that allows some kind of change to occur for them in fairly malignant ways. “Hébé Kills Jarry,” another early piece, again there’s a sense that you can’t leave that spot, but there are other stories like “Her Other Bodies” where you are moving through a landscape, very specific landscape in some ways.
Me: Your use of disease and labyrinth, we’ve touched a little here on the labyrinth, but commonly there’s a disease that seems like ebola. In “Contagion,” “Down the River,” “Prairie,” the disease is slightly different there, and also in “Dead Child.” There’s people bleeding through their skin. Is this showing the transparency of the flesh perhaps into the interior, or is that again creating isolation allowing change.
Brian: There is an interest in flesh and there’s an interest in decay that is certainly there. I think the interest in decay expands to the decay of spaces and mental decay. Disease is an important part of that. “Contagion” is very strange illness that is never really specified and it’s an illness that the two travelers, the way they read it is well this means we just can’t touch anything, we can’t touch any living thing. So they begin to become very delicate with each other, they mask themselves, and so there is a sense of isolation certainly in that which culminates in their separation. There’s also an interest, connected to that interest of disease and death, is an interest in crossing over the boundary between life and death. In something like the “Dead Child” things that continue to function on after they shouldn’t. There’s a novella of mine which hasn’t been published yet but which will be published in book form next year which is about a group of people who go around and sew up the dead and kind of bring them back to this really strange life. So that’s connected to my interest in disease is this interest in death as a boundary.
Me: There are a lot boundaries in your work, “Watson’s Boy” has the terminal wall, “Contagion” they’re crossing into the southern lands, and not just physical boundaries but psychological boundaries too.
Brian: In the siege stories, (“The Blank,” “A Slow Death,” “Extermination,” “Usurpation”) you have the boundaries of the fortress, in “Two Brothers,” the house is something of a boundary.
Me: Although they do break through it at first
Brian: They break through but come back. There is a crossing of the boundaries in the boundaries themselves. In “Watson’s Boy” it’s very prevalent, and with “Watson’s Boy” there’s a sense of trying to control the world that exists for him using the means that he has on hand, which of course ends up being a disaster. A lot of my work is either concerned with movement or the inability to move. Even when the characters move they move on paths that are very specific. In “The Father, Unblinking” his movement is only between house and barn out to get the ax. He’s kind of like a dog where he’s moving along these paths and repeating the same paths. In “Contagion” it’s a movement always south, but there’s a kind of trajectory to their progression. “Her Other Bodies” there’s another movement that keeps following again south, but it’s a very specific movement and that movement is coupled with murder. In something like “The Munich Window” you have movement that is defined in specific places, you have a train station, you have the train, you have an apartment and you have this country he’s come from, and really what he wants to do, he’s coming so he can go back as quickly possible and as safe as possible to where he came from. These characters if they have motivations, it’s often motivations to get somewhere or motivations to move through something. Boundaries are of course important in that regard, penetrating boundaries, destroying boundaries. In “Polygamy of Language” it’s a movement back and forth between this survival shelter and the woman’s house and very little seems to exist in between.
Me: In the Marcus interview you talk about how explanations are like nailing a dog to the floor, interesting to examine but try getting the dog to fetch. Do you find yourself nailing them down to examine them and then prying them back up so they can fetch?
Brian: No, I really don’t. I offer explanations when I get interviewed or when I do readings. They’re all really tentative. There are other things I could look at. I’m only giving parts of the story. I think again it’s an intuitive thing. I don’t take a story after I’ve written it and say symbolically oh, well, here’s what’s going on or formally here’s what’s going on. I can recognize certain things. I know that when I revised “Killing Cats” I made certain hard sounds more prominent in the piece ks and that kind of sound. It’s stronger than in other pieces I’ve written, it’s stronger than the norm. At the same time I can’t give much of a philosophical reason for that. I think especially thematically if you start to try to nail things down then that can be a problem, and so I don’t really do that. I find that I do go back to certain things, situations that keep coming up to me, my interests are very much involved with philosophical notions, but it’s the transmutations of those notions into the prose that changes them. I think I constantly in my work pose questions of both ontology and epistemology, questions of how can you know anything. Because I think those questions are harder for me of epistemology which is a questioning of the term. A lot of my stories there are moments where what’s enough, how do you know, how can you know anything at all? That happens in “Contagion,” the unknowability of the disease. There’s a lot that’s unexplained in the work. It’s a kind of world that has its own terms that doesn’t refer really too much to the real world. And then the questions of being to me are pretty important. What does it mean to be an individual? A lot of my stories now are concerned with this confusion of selves. “By Halves” is that way. People trying by brute force to create something out of themselves and failing.
Me: Interesting you say that, a lot of your characters fail miserably with horrible outcomes. Is this failure a shortsightedness or that they don’t possess the ability to move?
Brian: I think it’s both. Sometimes it’s self inflicted and sometimes it has to do with them being shortsighted and sometimes I do think it’s just circumstances. There are a lot of stories in which two characters are psychologically at tension with one another. Either that’s never resolved or it’s resolved in a way that seems to be a loss for both of them. I don’t know why that is, there is a sense in my work, I think it’s a fairly pessimistic work finally in some ways. Even though I think there are moments that are optimistic, but really it’s a lot about failure.
I don’t know that authors are always the best to talk about their own work. And that’s the thing is you should take it all with a grain of salt. There’s obviously things under other circumstances I might forefront.