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November 1, 2010 | Interview

An Interview with Shya Scanlon (Part 1)

Matthew Simmons

An Interview with Shya Scanlon (Part 1) photo

Once upon a time, there was a journal called Monkeybicycle. There is, of course, still a journal called Monkeybicycle, but there used to be one, too. And way back when, one of the guys editing that journal was a guy named Shya Scanlon of Seattle, Washington. And one day I sent a story to Monkeybicycle. And then I waited a while. A while. But, hey. He took it. When the story appeared, it was an issue of Monkeybicycle that flipped over and became and issue of Hobart. Small world.

Shya Scanlon’s latest work is a novel called Forecast, which he initially serialized online, each of the 42 chapters on a different blog or journal. Forecast now has a print publisher, Flatmancrooked, and should be available mid-November. I know a bit of the early history of the book, having been a friend of Shya’s throughout the writing of the book and beyond, so I asked him a little about it and his other prose work.

NOTE: Because of the length of the interview, it has been split in two. The first half appears here on Hobart. The second will be posted simultaneously on HTML Giant, where I am a contributor. As I stated, Shya is a friend but I share this with both (very likely overlapping) readerships not simply because he is a friend, but because he is a fantastic writer and an interesting guy.


How old is Forecast now?

I started writing it in 2002, I believe. I wrote for a little over a year, and then entered a difficult period during which I entered a rather unhealthy relationship, lost my job, was doing a lot of drugs, and stopped writing. This itself lasted a little over a year. Then I started writing again, moved to New York, kept writing, went to Brown and finished it soon thereafter, in late 2006. It sat around for the remainder of my time at Brown, and was dormant until I serialized it online, which was in the second half of 2009. I spent the next several months on a couple of heavy edits in partnership with the folks at Flatmancrooked, and then began working on the logistics of putting it into print. That pretty much brings us up to date.


And how many novels have you produced since you wrote it? I seem to recall you having a hugely prolific period after you finished it. There was, I believe, a novel before Forecast, but it was one you don't really talk too much about now, yes? One that you have essentially offered to the group of friends who were around you as it was being written? (I have some sense that the book is autobiographical—might mean something very specific to the group of people you dedicated it to, yes?) When Forecast ended, do you think a switch flipped that led to a flood of new writing? ("I understand how to do this now! Time to get to work.")

There are a lot of questions here, but I’ll address them together. I’ve written three novels since finishing Forecast, and am presently perhaps halfway through a fourth. My time at Brown (and in the year that followed) was indeed prolific. I made up for this by writing nothing new throughout most of 2009, of course. The prolific period you’re referring to is no doubt in large part due to being in a program that required very little of my besides sitting alone in a room. But I’m also fairly disciplined. When I’m working on a project, I write nearly every day, in the morning. I find that having a routine helps me not only keep the pages coming, but enter the headspace more easily. Writing a novel is a deeply immersive process, and there’s always a part of your brain that’s thinking about the book. But of course you’d be a mess if you couldn’t emerge and deal with life (e.g. buying and renovating an apartment, which I’m doing now, and which takes an absurd amount of energy, emotional and otherwise). So setting aside some regular hours helps me keep it separated, but alive. It becomes a kind of room I can visit, and think about visiting, but as easily leave. And that process of traversing the boundary gets easier over time, until I can pick up a line right in the middle and keep writing after 24 hours as though I’d just glanced up from my monitor to see a squirrel eyeing me through the window. That damn squirrel is a menace. Is there such a thing as Squirrel Season? In Manhattan?

But yeah, I think there’s also an understanding of how to write a novel that I achieved, or that I’m in the process of achieving--I’m no master by any means. The first novel you mention above was indeed highly autobiographical. It was a kind of what-if alternative reality. What if me and my friends decided to form a drug cartel? So the book was populated by characters I named and described after my actual friends, and there were many parallels between events that transpired while I was writing that went straight into the book. The parents of one of these friends actually mistook the book for full memoir, and had a fit. But it was structurally very messy, really just a way for me to see if I could write something long. It was 500 pages. So I figured I could do it again.

Forecast started as a short story, but when I was searching around for a subject for my second novel attempt, it presented itself. I was quite surprised, really, because it was quite unlike anything I’d written before—I was writing these parable-type stories at the time, for one. Also, I’d never read much sci-fi. At any rate, the world took shape quite organically, and it was really the most fun I’d ever had writing.


First, what do you think of Forecast as it is now? Is it “better?” If so, do you feel any tinge of regret that a earlier version was serialized online? That there is a Forecast 1.0 and a Forecast 2.0?

It’s better, and I do feel a tinge of regret. But not that an earlier version was serialized. Everything I changed and cut from the earlier draft (which wasn’t really the first draft anyway, which was a more evolved version than the first book I gave Brian Evenson back in my first semester of grad school) I miss. It was more messy, and the narrator, Max, was more hidden. I liked the idea of a narrator slowly taking over a text. Someone invisible who slowly rises to the surface like a body from the bottom of a lake. There were problems with my execution, and so I believe where I arrived with Forecast makes for a stronger novel, but the kernel of that earlier idea was lost, or at least changed beyond most recognition, and so I might try to find another way to do it, sometime. In my dotage.

Other than that, the changes I made clarified a lot of the things I still hadn’t adequately worked out in 1.0, as you call it--the serialized version. It gave me an opportunity to emphasize some connections that were only hinted at before, or were presented as some of many possible connections. (Again, I miss some of that ambiguity. I came to an author after finishing Forecast who deals in rich ambiguity quite nicely, who doesn’t shy away from unanswerable questions: Laird Hunt. But since he gave me a very lovely blurb for 2.0, I must not have gutted everything strange and mysterious from the book.)

Also, I like the idea that people can compare earlier and later versions of the book. It will likely be a long, long time before a completist visits my oevre--please see me grinning ridiculously at having written that sentence. But what the fuck. The record is there. I like that. I’ve actually thought about posting the two other books from that trilogy, just because. It would probably be self-sabotage, but it’s compelling. Have you ever thought about just posting everything you’ve ever written? Or at least, say,Happy Rock? I know it’ll be handsomely published, but surely you went through some ambivalence about it at some point. Why not just post it! Forget getting published! Set it free! Etc.


Next, why long-form fiction more often than not? (You were working on something you told me was a book of short stories, but I think at some point it became more of an episodic novel, did it not?) What attracts you to the long arc instead of the brief one?

There is no good answer to this question. I defy any author to explain why they write what they write. But of course one tries. I think it helps me slow down. Working on a longer project helps me, to quote Billy Brown from the excellent film Buffalo 66, “span time.” There’s a continuity it gives my life that I don’t find elsewhere. Work is the same thing every day. Life is largely the same every day. So writing novels gives me a sense of creating epochs.

In the case of the short stories, then, yes, they began as short stories. But even upon starting the second one, I knew they were connected, and from that it just happened organically. Whether we call it a book of linked short stories, or a novel-in-stories, is beside the point, from the perspective of “why.” If they become connected in any way, if I can feel like I’m “returning” to the page, rather than just looking at one, it feels bigger, more substantial. It provides a level of purpose adequate to the task of placating my screaming ego. It’s probably for this reason that I like to think of Forecast and the two novels I wrote subsequently as a “thematic trilogy.” I mean, really, what kind of bullshit is that? But it felt right at the time, or rather necessary. And I can make an argument for it. Playing the devil’s advocate, however, you might as well call any number of books, written by the same author, which explore similar themes, a trilogy.


And at one time, what we today would call a book of short stories was called a novel. (Leonard Michaels’s I Would Have Saved Them If I Could has no short story/novel distinction in the edition I have, but each piece is separated by a bold-faced title and a long white space gap from piece to piece. And yet, a blurber on the back refers to it as a novel.)

There is plenty of pressure from publishers today, I believe, to package a book as a novel. The novel is, for whatever reason, a kind of idealized unit of measurement. Look at how many qualifiers it requires to communicate a “book of short stories,” or a “collection of short stories.” The subordinate position of short fiction is built directly into the language we use to speak about literature. Oddly, we don’t use the term “story” interchangeably with “novel.” The question, “What’s that story?” tacitly requires us to break apart the text into composite elements, e.g. story, theme, etc. For a novel, a story is something ithas. For a short story, it’s something it is. I don’t know if any of this plays out when considered more rigorously, but it’s interesting to note. Look No Further, my novel-in-stories, has titles, too, for each, well, story. And the idea of taking them out, which I’ve considered, poses not only an ontological challenge, but an almost hermeneutical one as well. Would people read the sections the same way? Would they look for and/or expect different things, different markers, while reading? Would they understand it differently? I still haven’t decided what to do, and it will be interesting, I think, to hear what the publisher (assuming there will be one) will recommend.


My brother—a fairly smart reader, I think—thinks that Ishiguro wrote An Artist of the Floating World as a way of rewriting A Pale View of the Hills—an attempt to perfect the first, thematically, structurally, etc. So many writers seem to approach the next book by dismissing the last as “finished,” in it’s final version, carved in stone. The “stone” on which you carved the first published (serialized) version of Forecast is, of course, much, much more forgiving. Flatmancrooked has done a beautiful job with the book, and I know you are excited to see it in a form that is friendlier to read from**, but I wonder if you might, all print media being equal, prefer the one that allows you to tinker. Can you imagine a world where writers can have a new version of a book every couple of years without having to worry about the means of producing yet another bound volume, or even expecting people to buy another copy. A reader buys a book, and has that book for it’s life, can watch it evolve, can re-experience it as the writer is allowed to re-conceptualize it.

The first thing this makes me think of is the book Diamond Age, by Neil Stephenson. Have you read that? In it, there’s this book called The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer, and it’s basically a book that adapts to the reader. In this case, it’s meant to educate a girl from childhood to adulthood, and it does this through artificial intelligence. Saying that, I know I’m a little off-track. But the idea of an endlessly mutable text is certainly interesting.

On the other hand, I think your idea runs counter to what might be a very critical aspect of publishing--the sense of completion. Perhaps it’s not for everyone, but I think the completion is an important sensation/experience. It’s important to me as a human, and it’s important to me as a writer. I can’t say for sure, of course, but I could imagine the idea of texts out in the world constantly able to be edited turning rather quickly into texts asking, and then demanding, to be edited. Of readers impatient to mark whatever changes you might dream up. Of publishing contracts insisting on changes to texts like updates to software, persistent, ongoing, exhausting. It’s frankly a relief to move on, to say that, though something may not be perfect, it’s a reflection of who one was as a writer at a certain point in time. And perhaps that’s an important part of it.


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Check out part 2 of this interview on HTML Giant.

image: Forecast Cover Design