It is difficult to speak of Brian Evenson without sounding hyperbolic. Readers of his fiction know that he has less in common with his contemporaries than he does with those peculiar fabricators of the past that seem somehow disconnected from any particular time: Borges and Buzzati, Kafka and Schulz, Bierce and Poe. To read him is to enter a distinctive world, one demarcated not by discrete boundaries so much as by the absence of supports, or restraints, or safety nets.
It is difficult to speak of Brian Evenson without sounding ghoulish. The work is dark. It’s unsettling. There are depictions of mutilation and dismemberment. It frequently forces the reader to confront the depths of insanity, and to consider the recursive nature of violence, and to question the very parameters of reality itself. While there are laughs to be had, there are also gasps, and whimpers, and instances of that sound that breath makes when it’s being sucked in through clenched jaws.
It is difficult to speak of Brian Evenson without sounding a bit desperate, like you’re selling him a bit too hard, insisting a bit too vigorously that his work is uniquely vital, penetrative, lingering. You risk sounding like a person who fears that he is insane but keeps insisting otherwise. This is only one of the effects of reading Brian Evenson.
You don’t have to like Brian Evenson. You don’t actually even have to read him, if this sounds like a bit too much. But you, the uninitiated, should at least acclimate yourself to that fact that, of all the writers working today, Brian Evenson is one of the few who will still be read a hundred years from now: either by our grandchildren, or by the machines who have killed our grandchildren. It is for the enlightenment of that grim posterity that I conducted this interview with the man himself, on the occasion of the publication of his recent short fiction collection, A Collapse of Horses, by Coffee House Press.
I’d like to start with names, if you don’t mind. Where do your character names come from? If I can generalize, I think that most writers are rather bad at naming characters. It’s a minor artform that people rarely approach with appropriate seriousness. Dickens is known for his apt if eccentric names. There’s also the Pynchon school of character naming, which is sometimes wonderful though other times distracting, especially when someone besides Pynchon is doing it. Your names remind me most of Beckett: Vladimir and Estragon, Krapp and Molloy and Malone. For characters that exist largely outside of a cultural context, Beckett’s names always seemed to contain full civilizations within them. Your characters frequently don’t have names, but when they do they are generally known by one name, and it is generally a surname. They are recognizable as names, are sometimes even names I’ve encountered before, yet they feel somehow alien, as though salvaged from another time or an alternate history. A Collapse of Horses introduces us to Rawley and Sugg, Hovell and Miss Pickaver, Grimur and Orvar, Karsten and Nils. Are there any stories there? I’ve read that you’re interested in etymology. I’ve also read that your character names rarely change after the first draft. Is there a methodology, any sense of allusion or inside joke? Do you choose names based on rarity, or phonetic pleasure, or because they are cognates of something in the story? Do the names ever determine the personality of the character?
I'm not always sure where my names come from. A lot of them end up being Germanic or Northern European, and certainly there are many of those sorts of names in Collapse. They're chosen largely for their sound-I chose Germanic names in particular for that reason since they tend toward harder, blunter sounds-I like to think of them as operating more like axes than contemporary American names do, though I'll use "normal" names when the situation demands it. But there are sometimes meanings involved as well that end up having an effect on how I compose the character, that even direct somewhat subconsciously the plot. For instance, Grimur is an uncommon Icelandic name that comes from an Old Norse word meaning man wearing a helmet or, perhaps, mask. I was probably also subconsciously remembering that, in the Iceland Egil's Saga, a character named Grimr (the old spelling of Grimur) attacks a ship with another man and kills nearly everyone aboard. But I also just love the growl of that name. Orvar, on the other hand, comes from an Old Norse word meaning "arrow." The other names have other echoes that work for me, some of those echoes tied to sound or meaning, some personal, some connected to other books.
Yes, I almost never change a name after I use it in a story, though very rarely I do. I did change "Sugg" from something else, a more common name (admittedly almost every name is more common than Sugg) but that name wasn't working tonally. I kept it for a long time, with greater and greater despair, and then was reading something, I no longer remember what, and came across the Anglo-Saxon name Sugg and quickly realized it was the name I was looking for without knowing it existed. (I won't mention the original name because I feel, unused, it's kind of a ghost now: mentioning it would call the ghost up.)
I grew up Mormon, and in Mormonism names are thought to have great power: when you attend the Mormon temple for the first time to be endowed, you are given a new name, which you are told never to reveal except at one particular place within the temple. This is your true and secret name, and to reveal it to someone potentially gives them power over you. Even though I've long ago been excommunicated from Mormonism, I still remain reluctant to share my secret name. I haven't thought before about what effect that might have on the way I think about names, but there is something about naming to me that seems a very serious act, a kind of game you play for keeps. But for me it's also important to allow that naming to be somewhat spontaneous and not too forced-you have to be careful not to overdetermine a name.
Speaking of calling up ghosts: A Collapse of Horses makes use of a loose framing device, in the way that the final story, “The Blood Drip,” calls back fairly explicitly to the first story, “Black Bark.” Both stories, in their structure (a pair of companions are travelling, one seems to die and then return from the dead to haunt the remaining one with an enigmatic tale) recall the second story from Windeye, “The Second Boy,” and maybe a few others as well from your bibliography. There are a few narrative scenarios that you seem to return to every so often: a group of men trapped in a claustrophobic space, a bureaucrat running afoul of his murderous bureaucracy, an individual grappling with his hold on reality. Do you mean for the reader to consciously make these connections, to see them as echoes of one another? Or do you mean for these structures to sink into the reader’s consciousness so that when an echo of a previous story appears later (pages later, collections later) the reader simply experiences a sense of deja vu? (You said to Blake Butler, in BOMB, “I don’t know why it’s so panicking to hear the same story twice but in a slightly different way, but it’s something I really love.”)
Yes, I like those moments of echo, stories that can be seen as doubling one another, twinning one another in a way that remains somewhat unsettling. That's very consciously done, and if you read very quickly or have a good memory you probably notice it right away. But it may well be more interesting when there's a moment of disorientation and deja vu, which I think is what's likely to happen with the opening and closing stories of Collapse, since there are so many stories between them.
I think the first moment of that in my fiction, or the first moment of that I remember, came in "Younger," and there it's more a question of play, part of the story rather than something happening to the reader. In that, two girls play out a scenario and then replay it in a way that seems to be negating everything they've done before. I'm fascinated with the way the same basic story can turn differently, can do something else told a second time or retold or told differently. We most often think of repeated stories as providing comfort, giving one a grounding in reality-which is one of the reasons that very young children love to hear the same story over and over. But a story retold but slightly twisted can have a very different, even an opposite, effect.
Would you say that unsettling the reader is a specific project of yours? Your work has a reputation for being pretty disturbing. Some writers primarily want to make the reader laugh, or bring them to a state of sublime melancholy, or offer a sort of wry, mudane nihilism. And you have bits of all those things, at times. But, as you said, many of your stories seem primarily interested in placing the reader in a state of panic or discomfort. And not even in the way that a lot of horror fiction does, which is often more a function of suspense and surprise and violence from third parties. In many of these stories — “A Report”; “Seaside Town”; “Past Reno” — the horror is essentially self-generated by the protagonist, or at least deepened by the way the protagonist handles the situation. Do you see yourself as putting forth a cohesive worldview with your fiction, one that says we should be unsettled for our own good, or is it not so purposeful as that?
I guess that the work I like best as a reader is the work that unsettles me, that continues to eat away at me long after I finish it. I want as a reader to be transformed and thrown off balance by what I read, and I try to do that for my reader as well. I think we learn tremendous things about ourselves (even things we might not want to know)-about the limits of our sensibility, about what lies beneath the daily veneer, etc.- if we're put in states of panic and discomfort. Doing that in fiction, where the state of a character in the story can become a mirror for the unsettled reader, allows for a way of experiencing those states cleanly, without all the concomitant problems that would come with them being directly expressed in life. Being unsettled in your head is a lot different than having a panic attack at the DMV, for instance, and is likely to attract few police officers.
If there's a cohesive worldview there, it's not so much "we should be unsettled for our own good" as "there are a lot more holes in reality than we think they are" or "what we think is solid ground really isn't." Reality is much more contingent than we're willing to admit on a daily basis, and it takes having our comfortable illusions about reality perforated or compromised to acknowledge that.
Do you think the short story form is more suited to achieving your desired effect on the reader, as opposed to the novel? A short story is read in one sitting, ideally, so whatever spell the writer is trying to cast has a good chance of working uninterrupted by other stimuli. With a novel, though, which is read in multiple sittings, it seems like there might be a greater chance for the experience to be diluted by the other happenings in the reader’s life. Maybe this question betrays my own bias for short fiction. But you’ve written several collections and several novels: I guess a better question would be, what do you see as the relative strengths of the forms? If you’re trying leave the reader unsettled, it seems like the length of a novel might give the reader an opportunity to build up a tolerance to your madness (since readers — like prisoners — can acclimate to even the most unpleasant circumstances if you give them enough pages).
I think there's a certain unity of effect that makes it more naturally suited for achieving this effect. You can do the same thing with a novel, but it's very hard to maintain the same sort of tautness you can have in a short story: I can start a story out at a certain pitch and never have to bring that pitch down much, or only bring it down in a relative way. If you do that in a novel, it's just plain exhausting.
But what a novel can do that stories can't is give a sense of contrast, peaks and valleys. That can make the peaks stand out more and be more intense, and also allows more of a sharp contrast between normalcy and those moments of unsettling. I think that's what my novel The Open Curtain tries to do: the first two sections are relatively "normal" and that allows the third section to really explode. But in a novel if everything is a peak then what you end up with is a plateau, which is a little bit too much like being in a flat plain. Texture is incredibly important to a novel. It is in a short story, too, but at a different level of granulation.
Your novels tend to be on the shorter side, which I imagine is in part a strategy for controlling the pressure and momentum of the narrative, but also maybe comes from a certain concise personal aesthetic. And yet with the B. K. Evenson novels you’ve shown a willingness to work outside of your preferred corner of literature to tell longer, more plot-drive stories. Have you ever thought about attempting a novel — a Brian Evenson novel — that unfolded over the course of 600 or 800 or 1000 pages? I’m not sure what that would look like from you — maybe something with a lot of disparate parts like 2666, or a mystery like The Name of the Rose, or a more traditional saga like Dune. But I wonder if there’s any temptation there, for you, to try your hand at a big book. It seems like a challenge that might haunt a certain type of writer. And, for better or for worse, big books seem to get the literary world particularly excited.
I do think there are things that can be done with short novels and novellas that can't be as productively done with longer novels. There's a certain surface tension that you can maintain in that form that you just can't in a very long book. You can simulate that, by building it up in different parts of the book, so that you have, say, a series of three taut little narratives that add up to a longer, still intense piece, but there's something wonderful about the elegance with which a short novel can do exactly what it needs to do and no more. A lot of longer novels strike me as being the equivalent of the guy who comes to the party already really stoned: while other people are having coherent conversations, laughing and joking, he wanders around a little, licks a plant, stares at a light fixture, says a few words here and there, and only over the course of the evening do you start to realize there's a kind of performative quality to everything he's doing that adds up to something larger that may be exhausting but also is worth thinking about. Henry James talks about a certain kind of novel as being a "large loose baggy monster" and Mikhail Bakhtin talks about how the novel can swallow other genres. What I like about the short novel is that it isn't baggy and it doesn't swallow. You can still write and have not only every chapter matter, but every paragraph and every word.
Having said that, I do have a long outline and a lot of notes (somewhere around 100 pages) for a novel that would probably be at least twice, and maybe three times, as long as my novels often are. But in a way charting it out might have been enough: I may never actually write it.
Do you ever think about your work in terms of realism versus a kind of surrealism or fabulism? It seems that so far in this decade, in literary prose, we’ve seen both a proliferation of more stylized, fabulist fiction on the one hand and also a more prominent catalog of creative nonfiction on the other. Personal essays and memoir have become very popular, obviously — Cheryl Strayed, Leslie Jamison, Maggie Nelson, Helen MacDonald, Gary Indiana, Paul Lisicky. Nonfiction has become as dominant as fiction within the literary world. And within fiction, it seems to me that the authors who have been generating the most excitement — Ottessa Moshfegh, Valeria Luiselli, Helen Phillips, Amelia Gray, Kevin Barry, Jesse Ball, Joshua Cohen — are, for lack of a better term, not realists. They’re playing with surrealism, with satire, with minimalism, with metafictional structures. Meanwhile, the sort of realistic fiction that was dominant in the 90s and 00s has, if not fallen away, at least shrunk to a less dominant portion of the field. You’re a writer who’s mostly lived in that more fabulist, surreal corner of fiction, even when it’s been less in vogue. (Or maybe you disagree with that categorization.) Do you think the popularity of such writing is cyclical, or that it speaks to the culture of some eras or decades better than others? Or do you think there are limits to realistic fiction that have sapped it of some of its vitality?
I feel like I've always had a strong interest in the fantastic, but I also think that, like some of the writers you mention, I've been interested in blurring that division, that I don't necessarily see realism/fabulism as an opposition but as more a kind of continuity, which allows one to have a foot in both modes and draw from both. I've learned a lot over the years from people who are thought of as realists, and I've also learned a lot by, say, reading a story by a so-called realist that isn't realistic at all. Some of my favorite writers of the past — Poe and Henry James, for instance-are really interested in approaching writing in as many different ways as possible. A James story that has a ghost feels just as much like a James story as one that's set realistically among ex-pats in Italy. If you look at the original collections of a lot of lesser known writers publishing early in the 20th century you'll find they move back and forth between more and less realistic modes from story to story, that there was more of a notion of the possibilities of the collection as a showcase for different kinds of fiction, and a lot of the writers we think of as realists seem exactly that until you start to look at them more closely and realize that calling them realists doesn't explain anything about how wonderful they are. Stephen Crane's "The Monster" is naturalistic, sure, but there's something else going on there, something excessive, something that neither realism or naturalism can really articulate, a kind of becoming-grotesque or becoming-fantastic. And what do you do with something like Melville's Pierre which weaves back and forth between realistic and fantastic conventions, or The Confidence Man which makes all those distinctions meaningless by substituting a series of masks with no face underneath?
So, I'd say I have pieces that are realistic and pieces that are fantastic, but the realistic pieces usually have a fantastic undertone and the fantastic pieces make use of a lot of the techniques of the realistic, even of realism. As someone who was raised Mormon, I grew up believing that you could talk to God, that spirits and angels come down and talk to people, and that I could heal someone by anointing them with oil and laying my hands on my head. All of that was, in a sense, real to me growing up, even if I'm dubious about it now, and so maybe my notion of the real is more expansive-similar to the way Garcia Marquez suggested that magical realism is, in a sense, just realism. But I'm also interested in making people question the real, in undercutting it and taking it apart, so... I guess ultimately I've just always had a sense of what I wanted to do and haven't given much of a shit where it fit generically. For years, I was seen as being a kind of outlier, just kind of doing my own thing and weaving drunkenly over various genre lines. I think I'm still doing my own thing, but somehow the literary world has changed so that I feel a great deal more affinity with my contemporaries and with the currents of literature in general...
Can you talk a little bit about your reading habits? There’s sort of an expectation that a writer keep abreast of contemporary literature. There’s an even greater expectation for a writer to have already read most of the notable works from the past. But there’s so many books. Just in reading your last answer, it occurred to me that I’ve barely read any Henry James. How do you prioritize what to read, and has that changed since you were a younger writer? And is reading other writers as important to you now, so many books in, as it was when you were first developing your voice?
I grew up in a family of voracious readers, and I have vivid memories of going on vacation to somewhere wonderful and then, the moment we arrived, everyone pulling out a book and finding a place to read it in solitude. For me, reading is a really essential thing and it's something I do every day. In terms of keeping abreast of contemporary literature, it's kind of impossible, and you have to find sources and people that you trust that can direct you to certain things. Even then, you'll miss things that you'll only come across years later and think "If I'd read this years ago, back when it first came out, it would have really helped me as a writer."
I don't really prioritize. I think the moment you start doing that, reading seems less like fun and more like a job. I don't think you should care what people think you "should" read, but that you should read widely and eccentrically, and follow your impulses. Reading's a great thing and you shouldn't do anything to compromise your enjoyment of it. As a young writer, the work that was most important to me were things that I came across at random, stuff that nobody was telling me to read: Beckett, Genet, Ionesco, Durrenmatt. Basically I started reading that stuff because I'd had to read Edward Albee's Zoo Story for school and in the notes for that it had mentioned Beckett, who I read and loved, and that led me to a whole bunch of other Grove Press writers, people I could buy for a dollar or so at the used bookstore in town. I came across Kafka because my Dad gave me The Basic Kafka and read one story to me, and it was really different than anything else I'd read. All that stuff has stuck with me, as have writers like Muriel Spark or James Purdy or Cormac McCarthy, who I came to somewhat later. Whereas a lot of the stuff that I read because people told me I should, I can hardly remember. There are a lot of contemporary writers (and classic, too, though definitely more contemporary) that I've read a book or two by and then haven't gone back to, because I felt my time with them would have been better spent elsewhere.
When you're a young writer, I think you have a lot more moments with books where you feel like something amazing is happening, that you're seeing something done on the page that you just haven't seen before, or something written with such style or elegance that it has a real effect on you as a writer. Now, it's different, still necessary and important to me-I still read a couple of hundred books a year-but never with so many of those ahah! moments. But they still come: I felt that reading James Salter recently, or reading Dennis Cooper's The Marbled Swarm, or Jesse Ball's "Pietr Emily", or Rob Roberge's Liar, or Isak Dinesen's terrific Seven Gothic Tales. I love those books that do something that I didn't think a book could do, books that humble me and open me to new possibilities. But, honestly, I only rarely have that experience with contemporary work that everybody praises to the skies. The best books tend to fly under the radar.
Do you have any advice for new writers? Is there anything in your career that, if you could go back, you might do differently?
I probably haven't done my career in the way you "should" do a career, and I've seen a lot of other writers build up more of a visible career with many fewer books. But no, I've been happy with my career, love all its twists and turns, its relation to genre. I don't think I'd trade being more visible for having the loyal and generous group of readers that I currently have and, honestly, if I'd thought more about my career there are a great many of my books I probably never would have written...