A Conversation with Laird Hunt (cont'd)
(read part one of the interview here)
THE REIFICATION OF FICTION
Ruland: When last we talked, you recommended some books...
Hunt: I read The End that you recommended to me.
Ruland: You did? You're one up on me. I can't even remember the names of the writers you recommended! You were inspired by, I believe, a Portuguese or Bolivian writer who wrote really long sentences. Am I close?
Hunt: Oh yeah, yeah, I was inspired by two writers actually, one in particular, named Friedrich Durrenmatt. He was a writer in the '60s and '70s who had an international reputation. He's not as well known these days. He had a book called The Assignment. It's a murder mystery. Each chapter is one sentence. What I liked about them is they were long, but they weren't meandering, like the earlier translations of Proust that had this flowery long gorgeosity to them. Slow. These were really fast, muscular, and taut. I thought, Wow that's kind of interesting. And so I read about 15 pages and shut the book because I knew I wanted to do something with it. And then Jose Saramago, I'm thinking about works like Blindness, his sentences don't go on for pages and pages, but a page-and-a-half or two pages.
Ruland: And Ray of the Star came out of these experimental impetuses?
Hunt: There are two sparks for this. One is the formal thing. What can I do with the sentence? A kind of constraint or prompt or irritant. As for the content, I was a pretty new father at the time, and pretty angsty about the worst possible thing that could happen. I think a lot of new parents are. So I just projected that on to the idea of a book. What's the worst thing and how could that be the prime mover for a work of fiction? I imagined this person who has lost his nearest and dearest. When you've lost something, you've received a sentence. This idea of being condemned. And so these long sentences that go on and on and won't stop mirror the situation.
Ruland: So it was the form that inspired you. The long sentences.
Hunt: Now there's a critical mass that occurs when the words start to pile up and the sentence isn't propulsive anymore. I didn't want to go over the tipping point where the reader's mind is falling asleep, like with a Tomas Bernhard 200-page block of text. I wasn't interested in that. I wanted a sense of relentlessness about this experience. I don't think when you're in that, and thank god I haven't had to live through it, but it seems to me that when you're recovering from great grief you don't get a break. It keeps coming at you in these waves. That was the idea.
Ruland: What about the setting?
Hunt: When Eva was less than a year old, my wife did a poetry festival in Barcelona and I went along with her. It was just a week. I spent a lot of time wandering around and they have this great central boulevard lined with all kinds of shops and markets and these really elaborate living statues, which I got intrigued by. And by the city, too. Going to Gaudi's cathedral and the buildings he designed and thinking about the way his spaces were designed. You know you're in a room, but it doesn't feel quite like a room. You know this is supposed to be a kitchen, and yet everything is just slightly off. It felt like a great reification of what you could do with fiction.
Hunt: Making real of things that experimental fiction is intrigued by: spaces that are recognizable, but they don't align with what we deal with in reality. That kind of thing. Barcelona was a piece of it, and the sentences, and these living statues. It was kind of a cocktail of those elements. So it's a guy who falls in love. In the throes of grief but starting to get over it and maybe thinking he's escaping from it, he goes to this city that he visited in his youth. He's a middle-aged guy, he falls in love with one of these living statues and gets this harebrained idea that the way to woo her is to become one himself, so in this fictionalized version of Barcelona, there are stores for living statues where you can get kitted out for the work. And he's given a kind of bargain basement Don Quixote costume and some body paint. He's very quickly told by these authorities of the boulevard that he's not suitable material for living statue work. But if he wants to there are other things he can do. It's kind of reductive but he ends up in a half-sized model of a yellow submarine, which is positioned opposite this silver angel he has fallen in love with. It's a haunted city. These authorities telling people what they can and cannot do aren't just that. They've had a role in his life unbeknownst to him. So there's a ghost story aspect to it. It's never called Barcelona but it's based on it. It's one of those placeless places that adheres to certain aspects of reality but isn't slavishly attentive to it.
Ruland: Is it safe to say Ray of the Star is haunted by Barcelona in the same way that The Exquisiteis haunted by New York?
Hunt: In The Exquisite it's clear where we are; in Ray of the Star it's not. It's a weird torquing of the language that happens because it's all being poured through a thin pipe, in a way, so if you get too involved in scenery, it diverts it. I discovered I didn't really need it.
THE THING THAT CANNOT BE SEEN
Ruland: One of the things that is interesting about your books is that it's possible to write flap copy where you wouldn't get the feeling that they're experimental at all. They're rooted in human experience that's easily identifiable. There are layers, of course, and genre elements, often intentionally mystifying....
Hunt: I never wanted to be an experimental writer. I don't mean that I wanted to be a realist writer either. I just wanted to write. I find it curious that in the U.S. when I have a book come out, the label of "experimental writer" will surface; but when I have a book come out in France, I'm just a writer. And having had the books come out regularly in France, its intriguing to see how there isn't that division, there's no ghetto for experimentalism, there's just this idea that one will do what one can, and say what one has to in a way that one has to say it without being prescriptive about that. I want to be an American writer. I'm not a snob about how enlightened the Europeans are, it's intriguing to me that we have this. In America, there is this firm sense of self, this sense of aesthetics, but it can be crippling. It's very easy to overlook rich strands of possibility.
Ruland: I wonder how you see that carrying over, both inside and outside of the traditions.
Hunt: It's an intriguing position for a writer to be in, someone who writes books that don't fit the larger culture's idea of what a book should be and look like. I remember when The Exquisite came out, Coffee House was trying to figure out if they should do it in hardback and then try to sell the rights, which is what they did with the first two and still have not succeeded in doing. Allan Kornblum [at Coffee House Press] said to me, You know, if you want to have one of these bigger houses pick you up, you're going to have to have more standard plot. I said, I'm not interested in that. I know, financially that would be nice, but I'm not interested in doing that for the sake of doing it. In other words to make a sale. I think he was relieved to hear that, he was just telling me, but I've thought about that since, of what that means for all these writers who are trying to write books and going with this cultural injunction: if you want to get an agent and land a nice how-ever-many-figure deal and then get critical acclaim in the New York Times or Washington Post or the New York Review of Books, it's going to have to be this thing that we recognize. You can push it here, you can push it there, but it's got to have this. We have to be able to see it. It can't be that thing that can't be seen because it's different from what has come before. And I think about how that shapes young writers who are trying to do something. It works on me, too.
Ruland: That thing that cannot be seen is hovering over the publishing landscape right now and I think listening to it is a bit like taking directions from a doomed enterprise.
Hunt: It's all crumbling and you still have this model of Let's throw a ton of money at five young writers and see what hits. And so 200 hundred writers who are no longer young and perhaps not towing the line so much get nothing and maybe don't get published anymore. Ultimately, it's debilitating for the possibilities of what literature can be. Having said that, I've had so many emails from people [who used to be a major houses] asking about independent houses. I've talked to other people and they're getting the emails, too. So there's this huge influx of interest in what the indies are doing.
Ruland: What do you think that means for independent presses?
Hunt: I think it's kind of a fabulous time to be published and supported by a press like Coffee House. Doing what they can do, because there's a stigma attached to independent houses with respect to review attention, et cetera. So many fabulous books are coming out from independent presses. I had lunch with Percival Everett a couple days ago and he's with Graywolf and doing great things, His books are getting great attention. It took forever for this to happen for him, but it's wonderful to think of him with a terrific independent publisher.
Ruland: Has he always been at Graywolf?
Hunt: He's had multiple publishers. University of New England Press did one of his books I like very much Erasure, but I don't know all of his history. I try to keep examples like his in mind. Coffee House has been very good to me. And to be published by a press that's doing Brian Evenson and Mary Caponegro and so many other writers of fiction, not to mention the poetry. That's good company.
Ruland: I imagine you share a lot of readers.
Hunt: We do, actually. I'm doing a reading with Mary and Brian in October [Ed. Note: of 2009]. In fiction there's always been this idea that we don't need this other paradigm when there's the possibility of fame and money and acceptance. You've got to do it yourself. And even if you can't start a press, support those who can. Review books that are on smaller labels. And it's going to get even more acute in the next 10 or 15 years as publishing rearranges itself. The poets figured out 25 years ago that we're not going to get any love from the big houses, so let's start our own presses, have our own contests, make our own paradigm.
Ruland: I can't think of another time when technology is in favor of the independent. It's never been easier to make something interesting.
Hunt: It's all so much more possible. It's always about finding ways to get said book into people's hands. How do you make it known? That's the piece that a lot of people are missing. I think collectives can really help. It's about how we can make communities and use the web and technology to our benefit.
Ruland: And do it in a way so there's not this huge redundancy of effort. It will be very interesting to see how it all gets sorted out.
Hunt: For fiction writers, the model of this lone wolf who sits back and cashes royalty checks is really going to have to be reinvestigated, even if it was only a myth, it's gotta be reinvestigated.
Ruland: Any advice for the young experimental writer feeling anxiety about all these forces at work?
Hunt: I think it is one of the more exciting times to be working in an experimental vein. I remember several years ago I was talking with Michael Ondaatje about when he first published his first works that had fiction, like The Collected Works of Billy the Kid. He was working in relative obscurity when he wrote those books. So he wasn't yet the guy who wrote The English Patient. He had done some poetry, but no one knew his fiction. He felt this extraordinary freedom and power to maneuver. I think experimental fiction writers, for better or worse, have been gifted to do these things and there are a growing number of presses who are interested in writers who are creating new shapes and re-envisioning what it means to be a fiction writer. I think it's a really hopeful time. A lot of opportunity.
Ruland: So you're optimistic, rather than discouraged?
Hunt: I think the thing to think about is: What would it have been like to have been an early abstract expressionist painter? Was Jackson Pollock thinking, Man, what's the academy doing and how should I be thinking about my work? The academy couldn't give a crap really. That's still the case. There's so much possibility in fiction writing, why not think about that? Or think about what was going on in blues and jazz where people were working outside of the mainstream for all kinds of reasons, racial and otherwise. I think looking elsewhere for models is useful. And there's a lot of good stuff going on in experimental fiction. Exploratory fiction, whatever you want to call it. I feel pretty positive about it and hope that younger writers feel that way, too.