Name: David Hollander
Current publication: David Hollander's Anthropica was published in 2020 on Animal Riot Press.
Recommendations: The novel War & War, by László Krasznahorkai. And the song "Not", by Big Thief.
If you enjoyed this David Hollander interview, visit his rather unusual homepage Long Live the Author.
When did you start writing- and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about literature and writing that drew you to it?
There are many ways I might answer this question. In a sense, nothing drew me to literature, and I’m not a fiction writer; I’m using what people call “fiction” to ask questions about systems and the limits of human knowledge (and of language itself, which as Wittgenstein said, amounts to a “form of life”). If the question is answered in this way, I would then say that my early passions and influences were Kant and Wittgenstein, and then Daniel Dennett and the crew of mind-and-language philosophers that were in his orbit in the 1990s. But I could, alternatively, talk about how, as a teenager, I fell in love with the speculative fictions of Harlan Ellison, which delighted and haunted me, and made me realize the power stories have to transcend everyday reality.
Or I could try to synthesize these answers and tell you that the day I wanted to be a fiction writer was the day I read Robert Coover’s “The Babysitter” (I was around 21 at the time) and realized that some of what interested me in philosophy could be explored more aggressively in fiction. Fiction could ask the same questions as philosophy but could do it with fangs bared.
In the end, these answers are just stories I’ve been telling about myself for so long that I’ve convinced myself they’re true. In reality, the praise of teachers, who always seemed to think I had a “way with words,” may have been just as influential as any of the above. I may have simply wanted, in some way, to make someone proud. (But who? Who am I trying to please?)
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
It’s just as you say. Once I realized I wanted to write fiction and that I probably wouldn’t be pursuing a PhD in Philosophy, I started falling in love with things and trying to emulate them. This was in my years as an undergraduate (which came late for me, as I had a terrible period post high-school that I had no business surviving, though I’ll spare you the details) and in the years that immediately followed.
So I was reading Beckett, for instance, and wanted to write like Beckett. Or I was reading Carver and wanted to write like Carver. Or I was reading Virginia Woolf and wanted to write like Virginia Woolf. And so on. But eventually I realized that my life experience (I was a poor kid raised by uneducated parents in a dilapidated subdivision surrounded by strip malls) did not in any way resemble the experiences that led these writers to write what they wrote. Then it was a question of striving to become myself on the page. This takes years and years. I had to accept that my unglamourous, lowbrow, television-saturated childhood was what I had to work with, like it or not.
And I had to stop being so consciously unfunny and let my irreverence get onto the page. A slow and painful process, to be sure.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
While I identify as a father and husband and teacher, I don’t bring these identities to my writing, at least not consciously. I’m trying to identify, in my work, only as a human being. This is probably why the work is so anthropological. I’m trying to see human activity the way aliens might from an orbiting spacecraft. “What are these creatures doing, and why?” That’s the kind of broad question I’m interested in.
This way of seeing is not exactly in vogue right now. I find identity and culture and the small-bore sociopolitical rancor that fuels a good deal of our discourse to be absurd. The human race just got here and will be gone before the universe can blink. (I like to read, a couple of times a year, Carl Sagan’s “A Pale Blue Dot,” which is a reminder that we are all in this together, come what may.)
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
As with the opening question, this one could inspire any of a dozen narratives. Sometimes when I do interviews I feel like everything is a lie. Not because I’m consciously lying, but because the reality of how I got from A to B won’t surrender to a clean narrative.
In the beginning, then, I was rebelling (in my stories when I was in graduate school, for instance) against the then-prevailing fictional mode, which honored “organic” stories, stories whose narrators were largely invisible and that were meant to seem as if they’d materialized from stardust or something. I remember telling a grad school friend that I didn’t want my fiction to “grow,” I wanted it to bleed. (I know, I know, the words of a young person. Brash and full of unjustified arrogance.) To continue this narrative, over time I’ve come to realize that rebelling can only get you so far, and that eventually you have to embrace something.
But I could probably also construct a narrative in which the main challenge has not changed at all over time; it is very, very hard for me to get myself to sit down and write. I am pretty sure I have undiagnosed attention deficit issues. And the 21st century’s digitization has made the slow and contemplative process of making art from words harder to engage in than ever.
How do you see the relationship between style, form, plot and storytelling – and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
Language, form, structure, voice, i.e. style, are what matter most. If I ever have to stop to ask myself, “What should happen next?”, something has gone wrong. Nabokov said there were three potential roles for the novelist: storyteller, teacher, or enchanter. I’m least interested in the first of these.
Observation and research are often quoted as important elements of the writing process. Can you tell us a bit about your perspective on them?
I feel like the only time I am truly observing the world is when I am writing about it. If I find myself suddenly needing to describe a wooden bridge running over a clear stream, the writing itself seems to conjure this bridge into existence in a way that actually walking over such a bridge would not. I spend my life as if wandering through a dream and extraordinarily little makes a lasting impression on me.
This may be one reason that it is very important that I write; only in writing does the world become real to me. Only when writing can I slow observation down enough to get molecules to stay still and to congeal into material stuff. I recognize that this is a weird contradiction or paradox, but that’s the way it is.
As for research, my rule is, only when necessary, and only as much as is absolutely needed. David Mitchell said something about how the more research you do, the more necessary (and the harder) it becomes to hide the research. So I will excuse my laziness as an attempt to avoid this conundrum.
How do you see the relationship between conscious planning and tapping into the subconscious; between improvisation and composition? When dealing with the end of a story, for example, do you tend to minutely map it out or follow the logic of the narrative as it unfolds itself?
Once I get deep enough into a project I construct an outline for how I might proceed. The outline is always wrong. But having it is comforting and allows me to get a few miles further down the road. Once I realize the outline is flawed, I make another outline. This process can repeat itself dozens of times. I can’t remember who I’m stealing this metaphor from, but I feel like I’m on a hundred-mile long car trip, driving through the dark; I don’t need to see my destination in order to arrive at it, but I do need to see the next hundred yards of highway. That’s the basic idea.
Improvisation, especially in sentence writing, is the fun part of writing for me, and is the reason the outlines are only provisional. You might have a plan, but the language will force you in new directions, and you can’t fight it. Or you can fight it, but then you end up with something really programmatic and devoid of energy. You arrive exactly where you intended to, but the trip is lame and the destination sucks.