Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do writing and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
You’re sort of asking the wrong guy. Most of the time I am definitely not writing. I can go months or even years without writing. My routines revolve around my life as a father, husband, and teacher; writing is a thing that happens when it has to happen, usually after a long period of Not Writing. Pressure builds up inside of me, I think, and then eventually I have to write to relieve the pressure. Like a dam breaking.
Once that happens, I try to write most days, maybe even every day when I’m really onto something. But even then the writing is catch-as-catch-can … a thing I squeeze into a very hectic schedule. Maybe if I didn’t have to worry so much about money all the time this would be different. Though probably not. There would be other ways to avoid writing.
Can you talk about a breakthrough publication in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I guess I’d have to fall back on my first novel, L.I.E., which was accepted for publication by Random House back in the year 2000. I was young, still in my 20s, and I thought this meant I had “arrived,” that it was the start of a career as a writer and that my work would be read and taken seriously by all sorts of people.
This isn’t what happened. I wrote five books after L.I.E. that were not published. It took me 20 years to put out a second book, and I felt like an enormous failure much of the time. So it’s hard to answer this question, because the “breakthrough publication” gave me the impression that I would live one kind of life, when in fact I’ve led a very different kind of life, one in which terms like “breakthrough publication” fill me with icy dread and a memory of the ego-driven, youthful, delusional Me.
But I should also say that my life is really good, better than the one I’d imagined. It’s just that it’s not because of anything I’ve published.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Not too happy, not too sad, and able to access a certain state of deep concentration. I don’t really know how to get there, and I have a feeling there might be meditative practices that could help me. I have another metaphor for what it feels like to fail to reach this state of concentration. It feels like I’m writing on a piece of paper with a graphite pencil but that I’m not pushing the point down hard enough to make a discernible mark. Concentrating feels like applying downward pressure to the pencil. Sometimes I can do it, sometimes I can’t. As I get older, it becomes more difficult to will myself into the proper condition.
Words can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for literature and poetry as a tool for healing?
I wrote a story about this, actually … it’s called “The Oath” and was published several years ago in a magazine called PANK. I don’t think it is literature’s job to heal, nor do I think that literature should be in the business of causing intentional harm. But I do think that a meaningful book is often meaningful because the text makes its reader feel seen. There can be a brief obliteration of the walls that separate one consciousness from another, a communion in pain. It doesn’t dissolve the pain, of course, but it momentarily relieves our loneliness. But maybe you intend this question differently?
I know that my first novel, which was largely autobiographical, upset a lot of people who saw themselves in characters and did not like the perceived treatment of these doppelgangers. These days, I wouldn’t publish anything that I thought would cause anyone else harm, though I have on occasion screwed up and failed to see how my work might affect family members (for instance). I feel ashamed whenever this happens.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
I honestly don’t think about this much. I am aware that we’re all now supposed to “stay in our lanes,” but it’s an identity-driven way of seeing the world and I don’t subscribe to it. I feel like culture is a pretty new idea in the history of the universe. If we allow ourselves the freedom to empathize with others who, in some superficial form or other are “not like us,” we quickly realize that pain is pain and that no one is having a great time here.
I may be a middle-aged male, but I can easily understand the pain of my 14-year-old transgender kid. I don’t know exactly what it’s like to “be them,” but I don’t know exactly what it’s like to be another middle-aged man, either. I believe I can extrapolate from my own experiences of grief, desire, shame, fear, joy, triumph, anxiety, etc .., to be able to have some access to the inner lives of others.
As far as “cultural signs and symbols,” I really think everything should be fair game for artists, though I also think it’s very easy to write (or paint or sing) badly, regardless of content.
Literature works with sense impressions in a different way than the other arts. How do you use them in your writing? From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I love the way Anne Carson melds senses in her writing. Autobiography of Red is such a synaesthesiac book … air always seems to have a color and a texture. I also love the way John Hawkes’ novels seem to release a dense, colorful fog.
But I also think that what writing can take on extremely well that the other arts cannot quite handle is consciousness. Painting and photography will always handle sunsets better than writing; music will always be more immediate; but the labyrinthine workings of the mind, this is best left to the writers.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
For me, making art has little to do with increasing social or political engagement. It has to do with suffering, and not knowing what to do with it, and feeling like without some expressive outlet it might kill you. It has to do with telling a certain kind of truth—one that is bigger than political ideologies, and older—that cannot be expressed while in line for groceries. It’s about recognizing that we are trapped inside a system we did not choose, and that it is arbitrary and without objective relevance.
As I said at the outset, I came to fiction to explore philosophical ideas about the limits of knowledge and language. I want to get far above the social and political, to see them as phenomena flashing briefly through an infinitely expanding cosmos that we have no ability to understand.
What can literature or poetry express about life and death which other forms of art may not?
Cormac McCarthy once said that any writer not dealing with death was wasting their time. I like that. I think all good art is probably dealing with life and death. What else is there? I don’t think it’s about what literature or poetry can uniquely express, but how it expresses it. Which I believe I’ve spoken about above, in a few different ways.