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?
I lead a highly structured life, and I have routines for everything except writing, because life and writing have always seemed to repel each other and make the most of their incompatibility. The proverb “Don’t shit where you eat” probably applies here, though I’ve never understood it.
A typical day goes like this: noon, afternoon, evening, night, additional night, even more night, furtherest night, then bedtime, though I don’t have a bed or furniture of any kind. When I do have the energy and the concentration to try to write, it’s usually in the summer, and it’s usually in the afternoon, and there are usually too many convenience-store likenesses of bagels and croissants within reach. My writing style is mostly carbohydratal.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how did you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
I’m thinking of a recent story of mine, called “A Low-Hanging Towel,” begun merrily in the mid-1990s, set aside in piecemeal, printout-y fashion with other unfinished stories in a box sealed pretty strenuously with a great many strips of heavily reinforced packaging tape (the word “OLD” had been markered on every surface of the box), then recovered while rummaging through a closet for something else (another frockish nonesuch or suchnot bought in another quickly dimmed whim, no doubt), and brought to uneasy completion only months ago.
I’d never had any ideas for it (my stories never begin with ideas or thoughts or outlines, though index cards sometimes accumulate in unvacuumed corners), but there was a mood I must have been trying to get across. The mood is one that had never left me in the intervening decades, and I typed up a lot of new sentences that seemed to steepen or memorialize the mood for me. The mood, I guess, was one of enlivening defeat.
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 observe this and that, here and there. I try to look at people in particular. The people I find most beautiful are usually the ones that others write off as homely, and the ones that others say are beautiful look unnatural, even manufactured, to me.
I don’t do any research for my writing. Any research I ever do involves fugitive interests, passing preoccupations, symptoms, pocket radios, aboveboard forms of employment, thyroidal ill fortune, endearingly cheap gadgety substitutes for things that others pronounce essential to life. I love how the substitutes fall short. I love doing without.
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?
I’m deeply indebted to my subconscious for anything that emerges in my fiction. I wish my dreams would be a little more giving—but they snatch most of their bounty away before I have a chance to grab much of anything.
The best of my dreams typically set me down in some district I’d never explored in places where I’ve lived. Those districts rarely exist in postslumbrous life, but they feel so real, I get frustrated and dirgeful for the rest of the day. They’re usually narrow retail streets where little shops sell inexpensive novelty items in flimsy windowless boxes. The districts are always adjacent to actual districts, typically in Pittsburgh, near where I live. (The Pittsburgh in my dreams has been enlarged by dozens of low-end commercial precincts.)
The closest I’ve ever come to one in real life was a place I found a few days before I left Syracuse, New York, after living there for a little over four months about a decade ago and feeling that I had walked just about everywhere within the city limits. This was an Italian district with banners on the light poles, close to downtown but isolated from it by maybe an obscuring elevatory highway or bridge. It had the feel of an enclave having grittily and antiquedly materialized in an instant just to give the pinched day a little more breadth. Walking those few blocks of restaurants and dry cleaners and curio shops was as close to a waking dream as I’ve ever experienced.
Another set of dreams I savor are the ones in which I’m listening to unreportedly lost music by singers and bands I adore—entire, definitive-sounding albums that are gone for good as soon as I wake up.
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?
I have to be feeling either really miserable or, worse, slaphappy to even think of writing. Mere contentment abolishes any desire in me to get a word stuck up on a screen.
What are the most important conclusions you've drawn from the changes in the publishing landscape? How do they affect your writing? What role do social media play for your approach?
I’m committed to small, independent presses. My collected-stories book was going to be brought out by one of the Big Five, or Fantastic Four, or however many of them are left, but when the editor abruptly let it drop that the small-press publishers of my books would be expected to stop reprinting them and pull any remaining copies from bookstore shelves, I backed out. (It was sad to see a big, prestigious literary house behaving no differently from megastores driving the mom-and-pops out of business.) I’m loyal to the small presses that have supported me through the decades.
I never think about publication when I’m writing, though. I was once on Facebook for about a month, without ever posting anything except a list of movies I liked at the time. I've been on Twitter for about six months.
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’m mostly visual, though my eyes need a lot of work. I usually wear one pair of reading glasses over another for maximum clarity and definition. My hearing is pretty much shot. I’ve always had one bad ear, and the other has been catching up. I wear an amplificatory device in certain social settings and wish that life came with closed captioning. But I wear earplugs most of the time anyway, and I’ve got a couple of those white-noise machines that approximate the sound of electric fans so uncannily that I can feel the air blowing right over me. My taste buds are getting on in years, but the world as I inhale it mostly still stinks, so my nose must be okay.
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?
I’m not a political writer, but there are strains of certain societal trends—gender upheaval, queerity, feminismo, asexuality, and long-undiagnosed autism—all over the place in my writing, just as they are all over the place inside me.
Despite the radical experiments of the 20th century, the basic concept of writing and storytelling is still intact. Do you have a vision of literature, an idea of what it could be beyond its current form?
I have no notion of where anything is going or whether anything might still finally happen, but if I wanted a story, I’d rather watch a movie than open a book. I don’t watch many movies, though. I still have one of those stocky old little TVs with a VHS player built in to shred my old videocassettes.
In daily, undappled, sun-affronting life, I give a wide berth to storytellers and anecdotists. I like divulgers, people who come right out with the inner damage, people who shout “Theatre!” in a crowded fire. I like one-liners, or whatever needs the least buildup. Conclusions are best, as long as I get the wrong idea. I can do without befores and afters. I don’t care whether it’s correlation or causation as long as there’s no caramelization. I like to-go food eaten on-site with the bag set upright on the table to hide the chewing teeth.
The future, in short, has yet to come. I haven’t seen any signs of it, except maybe the virus.