Name: David Leo Rice
Current release: David Leo Rice's Drifter: Stories is out via 1111 Press.
Recommendations: My next novel, which comes out in early 2022, is based in part on the life and work of Joseph Cornell, who’s long been one of my favorite artists, so I’d recommend any of his work. Secondly, I’d recommend the short stories of the Argentine horror author Mariana Enriquez—they’re exceptional in every way!
If you enjoyed this interview with David Leo Rice, visit his informative website to find out more, You can also visit him on Instagram and twitter or support him on his Patreon.
When did you start writing- and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about literature and writing that drew you to it?
I’ve been writing fiction for as long as I’ve been able to write at all. When I was a child, I would make up all kinds of strange stories and fragments of quests and adventures, some of which would come out more like plays or film scripts, while others were like stray pieces of some lost, juvenile epic. They emerged from that bittersweet phase of childhood where part of you still believes in magical creatures and monsters and so on, while another part is beginning to suspect that these things may be real but they need an artistic framework in order to exist outside of the imagination.
I’ve always believed that dreams and imagination come from a real place, with its own physics and its own geography. Whether this is “just” a perception about our cognitive circuitry, or “actually” true about the external world is more than I can say, but my creative approach, and thus what drew me to writing as a child, has been to explore this realm in as free and immediate a way as possible, and to try to incorporate and give form to figments and narratives that seem to be stranded on the other side of a desert.
My creative task is thus to keep making trips across this desert and bringing back as much as I can carry. It’s no wonder then that deserts figure prominently in my stories, and attract me as locations to visit all around the world.
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?
This was definitely true for me. After the quasi-mythic phase of late childhood described above, I entered an adolescent phase of imitation, envy, and inspiration. The two writers who had the biggest impact in this phase were Haruki Murakami and William Faulkner.
I took a gap year before college and spent the first half by myself in Australia, first working odd jobs in Sydney and then roaming around the country. This was right when Kafka on the Shore came out in English, so I plunged in there and then worked my way back through all the Murakami books that were available, at least a dozen at that point. Something about the vulnerability that I felt living away from home for the first time, while also being (if just temporarily) off the life path that all my friends were on, made me hyper-sensitive to the emergent strangeness, both alluring and horrifying, that Murakami conjures so well.
Thus, my relation to his work is geographical and architectural as well as literary: I knew I wanted to try in my own way to conjure this giddy feeling about cities and landscapes, the sense that, while remaining “real” places, they could open up onto an array of twilight zones, and that this could be done slowly and subtly, rather than with any abrupt “down the rabbit hole” transition. In this way, I began to see that my path would involve dealing with the fantastical in terms of the real, rather than by pursuing fantasy per se.
Faulkner I discovered a few years later, in college. His influence was equally profound, but more intimate, more about the clammy, incestuous feeling of small towns, and the particular veins of grandiosity, shame, and hauntedness running beneath and throughout American identity, especially in places far from the supposed urban centers of culture.
Most of my books so far have been about small towns that serve as universes unto themselves—I have, over time, built up a psychogeography for my own hometown of Northampton, MA—so here Faulkner, along with Bruno Schulz, was a key influence. Also, Faulkner’s flowing, swooning, often voluptuous writing style, with those long, meandering, self-undermining sentences—at once virtuosic and kind of seedy and degenerate—was a huge influence, one that I’ve tried to work both with and against over the years.
Looking back on this formative phase now, I’ve come to believe that voice/style and content are inseparable. They’re not the same, but I think the only way to arrive at your own voice and style without it seeming affected is to think long and hard about what kind of content you want to engage with, and, most importantly, what emotional effects you want to stir up in yourself so as to transmit to your readers. To put it slightly strangely but I think accurately, every writer has to answer the question of, “who do you want to seem like to yourself on the page?”
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I’ve always perceived different aspects of myself as having both insider and outsider dimensions. This modulation has factored into how my characters relate to places—especially small towns—where they feel, let’s say, ambiguously welcome. I’m drawn to drifters and charlatans, magicians and circuses and roadshows … the whole American array of people on the make who nevertheless are never quite sure what they believe in or where they belong, and whether they’re working with or against their fellow citizens. In this regard, Steven Millhauser is another huge influence.
I grew up Jewish in a small, Protestant town in New England, and, while I never experienced any threat or ostracization, I did internalize the sense that I was different somehow, and that the fate of Jews everywhere—so I was taught—is to live on borrowed time, on land that is never really theirs.
Nevertheless, I wondered how true this still was, or whether, at last, we’d made it to safety. This has influenced my overall relation to America, the question of, “is this finally the promised land, the place where Jews can at last be safe (the end of the desert at last?), after escaping the horrors of Europe, or is it just another Europe/Egypt waiting to happen?” I was raised in an extremely left-wing enclave, so the notion of Israel was a total abomination (the line I grew up with was, “the Jews survived the Nazis only to become Nazis themselves”), and I still view Zionism in a largely negative light, but I can also see that the ability, among American Jews, to totally write off Israel is predicated on the belief that America already is a place of permanent safety and welcome … a question that will perhaps never be answered as fully as we’d like it to be. This is great grist for the mill of literature, if also perennial cause for a certain level of fear.
In this regard, I’ve always had an ambiguous relation to America, as a place I both truly want to love and one that I’m deeply sceptical about. In my writing, I’ve tried to embrace rather than resolve this scepticism, seeing the work itself as the only sure thing, and thus my only true home. Also, on the most basic level, my decision to become a writer was a very Jewish one, as the only advice my parents gave me, which I believe was the only advice their parents gave them, was, “develop a profession you can take with you if need be.”
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
In the beginning, the biggest challenge was maintaining a balance between grandiosity and despair. When I was working on my earliest books and stories, I swung wildly between, “this is the greatest thing ever, and I’m going to be the next Pynchon” to, “I’m a total loser, and everyone is laughing at me for pursuing this at all.” I was terribly afraid that I’d never publish anything, and yet also wildly hopeful that, if I could ever publish, my life would be transformed and I would never, for example, need to think about working a day job again.
This level of grandiosity was crucial in getting me to put in the requisite ten thousand hours, and to throw away hundreds upon hundreds of pages in the effort to write my first book, but of course at some point you need to come down to earth, which I think happens naturally when a book or a few books come out and you start to see how your life both has and hasn’t changed. On the one hand, it’s been absolutely wonderful to see these books come out and a community of readers and fellow writers begin to grow, and to see that I’m not alone in valuing what I value … on the other hand, it’s been sobering to realize that most of the world is unlikely to ever engage with what I’m doing, and thus the grim drudgery of earning a living will likely never be eased.
I wouldn’t say I’ve become jaded—I do still have a sincere belief in the sacredness of pursuing my craft, and it has remained my “home,” maybe even more so than ever—but now I see it as a means of bearing the indignities of adult life, rather than a means of transcending them.
How do you see the relationship between style, form, plot and storytelling – and how would you rate their importance for you, respectively?
For me, the greatest aspect of a book—to a large degree while reading it, and almost entirely while remembering it, which is where the books we’ve read live most of their lives—is the atmosphere or sense of potential about the world that it generates.
Going back to Murakami, the feeling of a totally unknown world beginning to open at the edges of the known—of, say, the Tokyo nightscape revealing dark and tempting secrets just beneath the surface, or, in Blue Velvet, the feeling that a real mystery is lurking just beneath the surface of a seemingly placid suburb, or, in a Pinter play, the growing suspicion that the entire past is subject to menacing revision—is so exciting and galvanizing that plot, style, form, and every other aspect of craft are totally in service of generating this feeling …
Which is not to say these aspects aren’t important, but only that their importance is as a kind of scaffolding or base level, upon which that delicious atmosphere is built, or out of which it grows. These aspects are like the walls, ceiling, parking lot, and restrooms of the playhouse, which are crucial in order to stage the play, even if all the audience remembers is the performance itself.
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 think the best creative work, especially if it involves elements of the surreal and the bizarre, is grounded in a synthesis between internal and external observation. On the one hand, I want to look inward at myself as if I were another person—to encourage a kind of third-person aspect of my mind to examine its first-person characteristics, and vice versa—while also looking outward, at the people, narratives, and culture around me.
Everything we’re caught up in, from personal relationships to politics to whatever we understand our own life path and even our basic framework of sanity to be, is a form of narrative, which means that we’re seeking ways of blending and weaving observed phenomena into something coherent.
Fiction is different insofar as, by claiming at the outset to be fictional, it’s able to examine these narratives as narratives, whereas in the “nonfictional” aspects of our lives, we often feel obliged to defend these narratives as totally real. If I can observe this process and then claim the freedom to tinker with it, I can feel confident that I have something valuable to work with, and a mode of working that can reflect our world back to us in a way that might help clarify its nature.
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?
As in that play vs. playhouse metaphor above, I try to balance these aspects, because I see them as complimentary rather than mutually exclusive. The process can begin either way: sometimes I’ll envision a scene or get an inkling about a feeling or scenario, and then begin to consciously develop it, thinking in as lucid a way as possible about where it could go. Other times, I’ll first think of a fairly coherent narrative, and then try to ruminate and daydream about what emotions or intangible effects this narrative could generate.
In either case, during the drafting process, I try to find a harmony between these modes, so that I have enough of an outline or general notion of what I’m doing to feel confident that I’m working on something—I’ve never enjoyed freewriting without the anticipation of producing a finished piece—and yet not overdetermine this so much that there isn’t room to feel my way along, to surprise myself by an action a character takes, or by what the repercussions of a certain concept turn out to be.
It’s like travel: I can’t leave my house if I haven’t made a preliminary decision about where to go, and yet it wouldn’t be worth going there if I already knew exactly what was going to happen. The best writing experiences, for me, have to do with this sense of being in a new place—they occur when a fictional world is sufficiently developed to feel charged up with unknown potential, and then, while writing, for that potential to reach fruition in a shocking way.
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?
This is an ongoing struggle, especially as I try to balance various gigs in the “age of precarity” or whatever we call our current era of jobs that are both short-term and always one of many. Nevertheless, I’ve mostly been lucky enough to have my mornings free, so this is when I try to get my writing done.
I often find it difficult to get right down to work, as there’s nothing I love more than a slow, calm breakfast routine—if I lived in Italy, I’d definitely become one of those old men sitting out in the piazza every morning with an espresso, a newspaper, and a pack of cigarettes—and yet, pushing against this, is a kind of monastic pressure to “consecrate my day” to writing by diving right in, before I get bogged down in news, emails, and the million other distractions and semi-obligations we’re all trying to navigate.
On a typical morning, I fall somewhere in between: I do spend a little time relaxing with coffee and cereal, and maybe I’ll watch part of a TV show, read a few movie or music reviews, scan Twitter, etc, and then, if I can get a hold of myself, I’ll put on “Freedom,” an app that blocks the Internet for a period of time, and try to focus on whatever is up next in my workflow.
I love to spend half an hour or even an hour reading a real book in the morning too, and I know it’s good for me to do this, but I often feel squirrely reading serious fiction before I’ve done any writing in the day. Maybe, on a subconscious level, I feel that by reading bad writing across random sites on the Internet, I’ll be spurred to do my own best writing as a protest, whereas if I read good writing, I’ll be sated for the day and my creative energy—which may always require a degree of anger at the vapidity of the world, a desire for moral revenge—will burn off. It’s not totally rational, but this is the kind of neurosis I deal with every morning.