The term “unreliable narrator” was first coined in 1961 by the critic Wayne C. Booth, and since then it has become one of fiction’s most recognizable elements. While initially viewed as something of an exception — narrators, after all, are presumably reliable folks — writers have since given readers reason to be suspicious of all narrators. Far from a mere storytelling strategy, the unreliable narrator is a manifestation of a very basic principle of life among humans: you’re reality is different than mine. Perception is determinative. We may be lying to each other without even realizing it.
Booker’s debut collection, ARE YOU HERE FOR WHAT I’M HERE FOR?, was released last spring from Bellevue Literary Press. In seven stories, he confronts the reader with seven scenarios in which the health and sanity of his characters is not taken for granted, and therefore everything they say must be taken with a grain of salt. The author isn't necessarily trying to trick you, and neither are his characters. Like you, they themselves are in the process of learning the pitfalls of subjectivity.
Booker was kind enough to talk with me via email about his interest in illness and the challenges of both writing long stories and preserving octopus tentacles in resin.
This a diverse collection in terms of style, setting, and time period, but there is a motif of illness that runs through it (both physical and mental). What is it about illness that attracts you as a writer?
Illness is something I’ve always worried about—this is handed down through families—and we take the things we worry about and incorporate them into our writing, because writing is always to some degree a coping mechanism. There’s a also pleasure in worry—as a reader I want to feel the swell of dread, of anxious anticipation, and as I writer I want to create this experience for my readers. Illness is a plot. A chain of causation has been set in motion whose origin and end are both shrouded in uncertainty. It’s one way of tilting the frame of a character’s world, defamiliarizing the ordinary. It’s one way of getting at the mysteries. Illness separates the sufferer into a different realm of experience; I guess I’m attracted to what unfolds in this realm of charged solitude, which can be tragic, comic, or some mixture thereof.
So I’m attracted because of my upbringing and experience but also my reading. Illness is a recurrent obsession in many of the writers who have been most important to me: Mann, Kafka, Woolf, Nabokov, W.G. Sebald. Sebald’s writing is like a balm for melancholics. I like the way he writes about madness. He never reduces the experience to a medical category or political allegory. But the allegory is there. Without being ham-handed or didactic about it, he draws our attention to how these particular lives unfold within systems of power and political economy, which he doesn’t hesitate to characterize as utterly mad. History is a record of pathology. The cultural moment in which Sebald came of age was one of profound compartmentalization and cognitive dissonance. He writes about broken people, and has a tremendous sensitivity to this brokenness and the beauty it reveals. He also writes about the distant aftermath of historical trauma, which registers in the experiences of vertigo and the uncanny, as well as in strange physical ailments. I love the way he continually evokes the persistence of the past. And how he turned this backward gaze into a kind of prophetic vision.
Illness as plot is really interesting to me. I’d never thought about that before. It’s a great way in, though: it’s universal but also peculiar. We’re all dying, but the thing that you’re dying of is maybe different than the thing that I’m dying of, and that by itself creates suspicion and conflict. Do you think the “swell of dread, of anxious anticipation” is better suited for short fiction, or do you look for that in novels as well?
I love the way you name that suspicious “my illness vs. your illness” tension. (Actually that’s a good story idea—can I have that?) It raises a question Wallace was obsessed with, about the double sense of “communicating” our fears. Catharsis vs. contagion. Whether on some deep level we’re all in this together…or not really. It gets at the question of why shame plays such an outsized role in our lives and stories.
The beautiful thing about a short story is that the whole thing can be shaped by a single pulsation of unease, a single sustained “swell of dread.” Sometimes it rises to an insane pitch and the story just ends, leaving your brain ringing. That’s why Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” is such a beloved earworm of a story. In the stories of Paul Bowles, there’s often an ambient dread arising from the setting—Robert Stone does this too—where there seem to be moments for characters to act decisively in some way, to assert their will, but that setting is always waiting, Other and ineluctable. Flannery O’Connor, in her own metaphysical register, is a master at this. Films are akin to short stories in that the whole thing is going to build over a couple of hours and finish. For some reason I’m drawn to the slow build, in my reading, in my stories, in most of the films I like, and a lot of readers don’t have the patience for it.
I guess the highest form of this kind of pleasure does come in novels. It involves much more complex patterning to sustain a long swell of dread, which must be variegated with short swells, not only of dread but of neutral breathing room, comedy (which, if done well, offers relief while quietly tightening the screws of the dread), digressions for thinking, etc. In other words, the central “swell of dread” is more richly entwined with other concerns and impulses, including desire and longing. Death in Venice is a great example of an obsessional novella that links illness and eros, and that builds such an oddly long ramp to the launching-point of the swell. But once it launches, the arc is elaborated so exquisitely. I never thought of Nabokov’s novels as thrillers when I began reading them in college, but now I totally do. I haven’t read many epidemic novels, but I’m kind of obsessed with Randy Shilts’ And the Band Played On, not only for the history it reveals but because it reads like a novel—not of the monomaniacal type I’m accustomed to, but something more traditionally omniscient. The idea of a single horror emerging in pieces, with agonizing slowness, through multiple points of view, people at varying distances to the disease itself, is just fascinating to me. I’ve only touched on epidemic in my own writing. It will be interesting to see how our body politic reacts to the next epidemic. Look at how we reacted to Ebola in 2014, which was happening in a continent across the ocean. We had like four cases here. Yet people were losing their shit.
The stories in this book tend to run around 30 or 40 pages, which is on the longer side for a contemporary short story. I encounter a lot of writers whose stories always end, almost reflexively, at 20 or 25 pages. And much shorter stories have been very popular in recent years. Is that something you’re conscious of, that you write longer stories? What attracts you to that, do you think?
Self-sabotage? A perverse disregard for my own livelihood? I don’t know. This question has actually sent me into a paranoid spiral of self-doubt.
The following are all possible:
a) I’ve suffered some kind of gradual neurological deficit that hampers my faculties of compression.
b) My unconscious keeps trying to kick off novels but I refuse to take the hint.
c) I’ve grown more appreciative of the long story as a form.
I just looked through my bookshelves and I see that many collections have at least a few 30+ pagers. It’s possible that long-story collections like Robert Stone’s Bear and His Daughter and David Foster Wallace’s Oblivion made an outsized impression. I also notice some favorite longies by Tolstoy, Chekhov, Graham Greene, Alice Munro, Andre Dubus, and Charles D’Ambrosio. When I open a collection now, I gravitate toward the longer ones first—maybe as I’ve aged I want a more immersive, involved one-sitting experience.
But I also notice, terrifyingly, that many of the stories I read all the time and think of as long stories are not nearly as long as I think of them as being. Stories by Bolaño and Bowles, Dan Chaon, Mary Gaitskill, Edward P. Jones, Tessa Hadley, Joy Williams, William Trevor. Which speaks to how rich and dense these stories are, how much they accomplish in 20 or 25 pages.
Editing is horrible. My agent had me cut “Here to Watch Over Me” from 14k words to 10k words, over a number of drafts. That was a lesson in turning your eyes into laser beams, just hunting through each sentence for the faintest whiff of superfluity.
That’s sort of the idea, especially in short fiction: there should be nothing on the page that doesn’t serve the story. And yet, if you took that to its furthest logical extent, everyone would sound like Carver or Hemingway. How do you decide what is superfluous and what is necessary? So much of a writer’s voice seems to be determined by how much fat he trims (or doesn’t).
Right. I remember one writer talking about how his MFA experience (in this case Iowa) had taught him how to grind his sentences down to pea gravel. And, you know, who would want to eat a dish with no fat? Fat mediates flavor. Plus, I think we need it to make neurons and various tissues. (Side note: none of my teachers at Iowa advocated for pea gravel.) I mean, we all want our sentences to be polished, tight, lapidary. But sometimes the voice has other intentions. Sometimes ugly sentences are effective. And sometimes lapidary sentences accumulate into moments, beautiful moments, that don’t advance the story in any obvious or reducible way. And yet they’re integral somehow. I was just noticing some moments like these in a Mary Gaitskill story I was teaching. Short standalone paragraphs that contain some odd bit of setting, something the character is noticing, like people sitting on a bench waiting for a bus, or a squirrel crossing the street. They immerse you a little deeper in the story. They maintain surface tension while pulling things slightly askew. They work, I think, because they involve images, and images can participate in a story’s meaning in mysterious ways. They have to feel like symptoms of the character’s way of seeing things, rather than insertions of curios the writer likes. I guess if a writer is obsessed enough she will find ways to smuggle in her curios one way or another.
This doesn’t even touch on the questions of backstory and exposition, where the hell it goes, whether you need it at all. The mechanics for dispensing information in a story gets mind-bogglingly complex if you start to analyze it. Probably why we’re supposed to not think about it too much.
How much are the voices of past teachers or workshop mates in your head as you write? Some writers seem to need to detox after the MFA, to try to find their own rhythms again. Did you experience that at all?
Voices getting into your head sounds horrible. (So does detox.) I don’t think that happened to me so much, maybe because I started my MFA program as a relatively older person. So my head already had a thick caul or callus around it. I was maybe less vulnerable (or open) to specific things the voices were saying. What made an impact was the presence of the collective voice, the fact that there is this group of highly intelligent critics waiting to receive your work. It came to seem agonizing by my last semester, but having those deadlines was crucial. It forced me to be less lazy. Ultimately the particular voices that stay with me are those workshop mates who became friends. If someone shows you they really are capable of getting pleasure from your work, you want to make it better for them, and their tips stick. You assimilate these voices into your inner audience, the entity you’re writing for. The rest you just tune out. I have to write in my vein of obsession no matter what. So I’m lucky to have writer friends who “get” that vein and can advise me on how maneuver better within it (or can tell me if I’m out of it). In terms of teachers, what I took from them was primarily their teaching voices. They taught me how to teach. Without them I wouldn’t know what I was doing in the classroom. They also turned me onto writers I wouldn’t have encountered otherwise. It’s hard to overstate the value of that.
You said you started your MFA as a relatively older person. What did your writing life look like before that? Have you always written?
I did things in a weird, out-of-order kind of way. I did the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center fellowship before I applied to MFA programs. And before that, I had been in a PhD program at NYU for many years. (I had actually just defended my dissertation a couple weeks before leaving for Provincetown.) Which is to say, some of those years were doing coursework and writing academic stuff but most of them were teaching composition. It became a full-time gig. Looking back, this wasn’t a bad way to go about things. I did almost all of my fiction writing in the summers, which I guess is not unusual. My fiction writing was unrelated to any other professional responsibility or academic affiliation. It was a thing that I did by myself on my own time. I loved it being that way—I mean, I didn’t know any other way, but looking back it seems like a good way to go. Every fall, when teaching or classes started up again, I’d finish revising my stories and send them out in manila envelopes. It was a yearly ritual. I look back with nostalgia on the tradition of the acceptance letter (rather than email). I think I got my last one of those in 2005. I also got a phone call once, from the editor of The Antioch Review, Robert Fogarty. That was great.
What does your current writing routine look like? Is it fixed? Do you have enough time to work?
You know, I really don’t think I could come up with a compelling thing to say about my writing schedule, because it’s filled with bad habits. And the particular bad old habit of making summer “the writing season” and the academic year the teaching season. I tell my students what I was told as an MFA student, which is to write every day, even if it’s only a sentence. And I think most of them do. They seem to be always excited to write, excited to discover what they’re going to write next, or they have some burning idea that has to be realized. They’re scared but in a happy, exhilarated way. The problem is when you fall into the habit of having gaps in your work, especially long gaps, the fear builds up—fear of the difficulty, of losing touch, of not being able to find your way back. The only way to dispel the fear is to start writing again for several days in a row and be reminded that it’s always reinventing the wheel, and that you always have to re-generate that youthful sense of urgency by actually getting started and slogging through. I have to slog toward the urgency these days, it doesn’t just descend on me like tongues of flame. Maybe little tongues of flame.
What are you working on now? Have you attempted a novel?
Yes. It was not bad, but it ended up being a kind of ramp to nowhere, or a spiral staircase to a basement. But that was years ago. Since then, I’ve continued to gather notes and materials for that story—the folder is bloated and enormous, with many sub-folders. It might be better if I used none of it. I think I have more tools now, having spent time on longer stories. I’m pretty excited to attempt it now. If I do some or most of the things I’m always telling my students to do it could work out okay.
Do you plan to write more short fiction? Are there any other forms you’re interested in trying your hand at?
Yes, definitely more stories, and I hope a novel. I’d like to get back into making visual art—manipulating physical materials with my hands. Also, for what it’s worth, I think I might be a poet manqué.
I didn't realize you were so multidisciplinary. What kind of visual art did you make? How does that process compare to writing?
There are pictures on my website. I guess in both the stories and the boxes, I’m trying to embed pieces of the world—material objects in this case, such as preserved or dried biological specimens and clippings of found text—in a transparent or translucent medium (such as resin) with some degree of depth and dimensionality. I’m trying to fix things in a way that seeks to satisfy the desire to render them permanent. I’m trying to curate a finite environment with a kind of obsessive care. There is always room for chance and accident when you’re embedding things in resin; the curing process is quite violent, it generates heat and toxic fumes, things sometimes shift or crack or change color. The end result sometimes has brilliant color and depth but the permanence is illusory. As years pass there are subtle changes as the materials age. You can’t predict how it will go. An octopus tentacle may be fixed in alcohol or formalin; it’s going to keep its form and vivid color for a long time, but not forever.