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June 1, 2008 | Interview

An Interview with Steve Gillis

Anna Clark

An Interview with Steve Gillis photo

Temporary People is subtitled "A Fable." What does that mean to you? And how do you think the fable adapts to long-form fiction? And one that's acutely aware of world history and politics at that... 

In all honestly, I always wanted to be a character in that Fractured Fairy Tales cartoon and I figured this was as close as I'd ever get. Seriously, the notion of calling Temporary People a "fable" came late in the game though I suppose the idea was there from the inception. 

To me, TP is a fable in the sense that it takes these very vivid and real ideas and exaggerates them in order to make an even stronger point about the real world. It is a novel, without question. My idea in labeling TP a fable was to give the sense that the reader would be entering a story where there are moral themes and questions to consider, a romantic – though in no way romanticized – sensibility where there is a beginning, middle and end as in a fable, and in the end the reader is left to assess the consequence of the hero. This, to me, is what a fable does; it takes the reader on a very specific journey. 

While TP is a story, a fable if you will, as you see in the end – and as some reviewers I am glad to say noticed – I do not attempt in any way to tie things up neatly. The world is not a neat place. One question leads to the next. Again, not to go off on a tangent, but by describing TP as a fable, I let the reader know from the start they are in for a specific sort of ride. I hope they enjoy the journey. 



Bamerita, the novel's setting, is an imaginary country with parallels to other modern-day places. Using little textual space, you evoke a tremendously disturbing history, a hybrid culture of mixed ethnicity and influences, a particular Bameritan geography, pop culture, and mythology. In your creation of this country, how do you orient the reader without overwhelming him or her with text that reads like an encyclopedia? 

Ahh, very good question and this took a good deal of work. How to say just enough without tipping the scales. (I hope by your question you feel I pulled it off; I hope I did, as I was very conscious of this dilemma) 

It was imperative that the reader has a sense of what life in Bamerita is like and has been like. In this way, my need was to make the environment itself a part of the story – a la Under the Volcano or 100 Years of Solitude, for example – and then, when the history is set, allow the action that follows to fall into place naturally. There were very many ways I might have established the history – and ways in earlier drafts I tried – but ultimately I decided to just let the main character, Andre, give a very brief overview and then move things forward through his own story and recent sense of history. Once this is done, the book can proceed on its own. 



While the novel opens with a first-person narrator, your story veers into omniscient third, closely following a number of the novel's characters, before returning again and again to the voice of Andre Mafante. In a short novel, the juxtapositions of point-of-view are striking. How did you come to this craft choice? Did you consider using other characters as your first-person base? 

In a novel such as TP, where much is going on in and around the protagonist, I felt it was important to show as many diverse points of view as possible; all of which directly or otherwise lead back to Andre. I settled on one first-person voice and then set a series of related actions – like spokes from a single hub – spinning, to give a full effect of what is going on in Bamerita. Each time Andre's story moves forward through him, there are a series of parallel actions taking place that are important to the overall arc of the story. I felt this was a more effective way to bring the novel to life than to set it singularly through one character. Ultimately, what this achieves – I hope – is to show that while TP is a very intimate book, in the end all stories are bigger than the one individual. 



Why didn't you decide to use first person for the other characters – Nick, Katima, and the rest? 

With Andre providing the first-person narrative, I wanted the other characters to be in third-person so that I could explore them from a different vantage, to get inside of them, Andre and the circumstances going on in Bamerita from a more omnipotent perspective. The personalized firs-person is the closest view to the events transpiring, but the third-person allowed me to paint with a broader brush, to emphasize that everything's spiraling around Andre. 



(SPOILER ALERT) In one of the more affecting devices of the novel, your first-person narrator dies towards the end of the novel. The story continues without him. Experiencing this as the reader, my expectation of returning to Andre's voice made the realization of his death come upon me slowly... and I missed him in the novel's final pages. How did you control for this affect? 

As noted, it is imperative to me as a writer to recognize that nothing happens totally through one set of eyes. While many, many, many great novels have been written solely in the first person, and it would have been easy for me to construct TP only through Andre's voice, I felt it was necessary to let those people affected by Andre and living in Andre's world at the same time, also speak – albeit in the third-person. As for the end, Andre's death has an effect on other characters – his daughter, Nick, his friends, Katima – and also an uncertain impact on the future politics of Bamerita. This is important to see, and can only be achieved after Andre is dead. It is also important to note the decision Andre makes leading up to his death. 



In many ways, the novel hinges on intertexts. We see this particularly with Andre's quotations of Mohandas Gandhi, and with Nick, American citizen, quotes poetry. What's curious is the changing affect. In the context of turbulent revolution, the intertexts are sometimes points of revelation, and other times points of disassociation. That disassociation is best illustrated when Andre watches a young friend make an awful choice; he obsessively recites Gandhi's words to himself as we readers move through the dense paragraph that delays revelation of the young man's action. 

Can you talk about that ambiguity: how words of wisdom, words the reader might recognize from "real life," are manipulated for the characters' revelation and disassociation? 


I wanted at times to lay the beauty and brilliance of Gandhi's ideals smack against the reality of the world. Gandhi himself suffered these experiences – as is noted late in TP – and so at times it's necessary to quote Gandhi in a way where the reader can go: "Yes, I love that. What a great philosophy." And then at other times to present the same ideology, but show how it ultimately will fail because the world isn't made for such clear logic. You can sing all you want about giving piece a chance, but when you have madmen and dictators running governments that would just as soon kill you as enter into any dialogue, well, you can see that even the most remarkable philosophy, such as what Gandhi proposed, will find itself more than hard-pressed to succeed. 

This is the core of the novel, really. When must we recognize that our best-laid plans are folly and the real world will cause them to fail? Not that we should ever give in or compromise our principles, but that it is also naive to ignore the reality. 

In a nutshell, if I can, I was motivated in part to write TP because America has been taken over by a despot named George W. Bush, and what good does logic and good intentions do in trying to assert our will against a man who is brain dead and basically evil? We must find a better way, or we, too, will ultimately fail. This is not to condone violence – though the book offers arguments on all sides – but to not underestimate the capacity for evil and violence in men such as the General in TP and GWB in America. 



How did you find a balance for how the intertexts affect the pace of the narrative? It seems that quotations slow down the text, while simultaneously opening it out. A.S. Byatt makes the most of these affects as well... in my copy of "Morpho Eugenia," intertexts (excerpts, passages, and manuscripts that exist outside the strict narrative of the novella itself) appear on at least 52 of the 184 pages! 

Again this was a very conscious decision of how much to use Gandhi quotes, how many song references, etcetera, and to be sure the balance works effectively. 

I believe in using the Gandhi quotes as I did (and there aren't that many), I was looking to make Gandhi a character within the text himself, to show the reader how these readings impacted the decisions of Andre. I never wanted to insert too many references and only drew upon quotes when I thought that Andre would be considering a particular passage or when the reference helped move the action along in total. It is very important to me to keep the pace of the novel moving fluidly, and I do not use a quote or external references unless it aids the book. 



These intertexts are nearly always self-reflective. Nick and Andre quote the words of others to themselves. Both men, it's worth noting, never meet each other, and while they use quotations in similar ways, they rely on dissonant genres... I feel like I'm edging towards a question here, with this observation, but I can't quite articulate it yet... 

Well, yes, I wanted to come at Nick and Andre from opposites sides. Though both men are quite alike, and Nick as you know has a great and unexpected impact on Andre, they are both well-intended individuals with a clear and righteous philosophy that nonetheless ends up going to hell because of external factors beyond their control. 



Besides quotations, Temporary People builds on other narratives. For example, One Hundred Years of Solitude, a banned book in Bamerita, and the articles pasted thickly on the makeshift memorial tower that Andre's been building for years. At the same time, there's a strange and terrible visual culture on the island, with the dictator's regime endlessly filming a costumed populace in a sort of "reality movie" that destabilizes the citizens' understanding of what's real and what's not. 

How does the running thread of language's use and misuse relate to Bamerita's visual culture? 


Well, the making of the film plays on modern culture's acceptance of reality based on what they can see. Reality TV is an oxymoron, yet it's now ingrained in our culture. European countries laugh at American news programs, which are all propaganda distorting the truth for the sake of entertainment. I mean, we have freaking Katie Couric delivering our nightly news! So, I wanted to play on that, look at what would happen if a dictator actually turned a whole country into a film project and reinvented the truth. 

As for language, history shows the first thing a despot does when he takes control is seize the press and ban books. Language is essential to communication, to forming history and reporting accurately on each age. As a writer language is essential to me, and the less articulate characters in TP – i.e. the General Teddy Lamb's obsession with film - are typically the characters less interested in truth. 



This insistence of the novel's purpose to deliver truth is particularly curious in context of the current – and continuing – memoir issue in U.S. publishing. Why do you think writers are labeling what might've been novels as nonfiction – and why are publishers and readers quite literally buying them? And why are we so scandalized when the, well, the truth of the fiction emerges? 

Ahh man, you hit a nerve here with me. First, I feel all integrity has been lost in America as a culture. We are so freaking adrift, it is shameful. People confuse value with celebrity and anything that shows up in the papers can be sold. It's a sound bite mentality. Integrity is just gone from these writers; it really does bother me. 

As for the readers of these 'memoirs,' I don't think people take the time to think about truth. The draw to the 'memoirs' is the draw to gossip, to the sexiness of the 'true story.' This latest case (of Margaret Seltzer's Love and Consequences) took place over a number of years. One little embellishment leads to another to another...and then suddenly she's in it so deep. I've seen the giddiness of first-time authors – I had it myself – and sometimes the dangling carrot of getting published leads people to cheat to get there. (Seltzer) should be indicted – a lot of people put a lot of work into her book under false pretences. 



What does Dzanc Books do to protect against plagiarism and other authorial sins? 

As a small press, our fact checking resources are limited. But we have several well-read people read everything that we may publish – if it sounds familiar in any way, we look into it. One of our imprints is publishing a nonfiction book, and we looked hard into the sources. 

The people we're dealing today are above board. We need to be responsible. 



Temporary People wrestles with the most pivotal and painful choices of how to respond to oppressive violence. On an island with a cyclical history of revolution, Andre draws hope from scores of stories in history of successful nonviolent resistance. But strikes and marches also seem futile when thousands are being killed. 

It's hard to ignore the parallels with our real world – and not just in the Latin American dictatorships evoked by the setting. Temporary People serves up no pat answers. Can you talk about how your understanding of this modern moment led you to write this story? 


I am strongly opposed to the war in Iraq. It is a war started by evil and ignorant men who should be recognized as such if history has the courage to record them for what they really are. I began TP by asking myself the question – what can I do? 

The answers came at me fast and hard but none was certain. Passive resistance? Sure, it's noble, but will it work? What if one is totally ideological or so completely skewed one way because of their personal history that they undertake foolish choices in their opposition to a despot? Likewise, what if those aligned on the just side nonetheless resort to violence prematurely? I wanted to explore all these possibilities. Violence confuses me. I can understand its existence intellectually but emotionally it baffles me. How did all the shit that recently happen in Kenya actually get started? Will neighbors so swiftly take to hacking their fellow countrymen to death? How far are we in America removed from such a response? What keeps us in check? Take away a few of our privileges – TV and grocery stores – and how soon do we become murderers? 



Now that you're at this end of the novel, how did writing Temporary People influence you're thinking on violence in the world – and what your responsibilities as a human citizen are? 

I entered the writing of the novel with very firm convictions – against war in general and the war in Iraq specifically – and a very clear revulsion toward the violence that people of every culture seem capable of inflicting on themselves and others. The writing of TP allowed me to explore the issue of what we can do – as individuals and collectively - to bring about change. In writing, I was able to explore how extremely hard it is to stop the sort of violence which is, sadly, a part of the human condition. We are fundamentally animals. This is a strong statement but totally true. 

TP was a good exercise for me, really. I'm a pretty dogmatic guy, very left-leaning, but I didn't want to write "Steve Gillis' Dogma." I wasn't sure, at first, if I could honestly explore all sides of TP's story. 



Do you feel that writing, then, in present-day America, and particularly writing fiction, is revolutionary? 

I feel it is important to take the "big" topics on, to try and tackle significant themes in one's writing. This can be done by exploring relations between the sexes, between cultures, by tackling political events, social issues, and so on. A great story addresses something of importance on a very specific level, and coupling this with the challenge of an artist to be unique in their work, then yes, I believe all writing should be taken on as an attempt to create something revolutionary. 

And you know what? There's a lot of great writing out there today. You don't get it pushed in your face so much – the top 30 bestsellers are absolute junk. I don't care if that sounds elitist. Nothing against people who are looking for a quick airport read, but I'd love to see the tremendous storytellers of today get their due attention. We'd all be better for it. 



This is one of the only novels I've read that makes nonviolent resistance a pivotal piece of the plot. In a complete coincidence, I happened to be reading Gandhi's autobiography when I picked up your novel. I've been trying to learn and participate more and more in nonviolent resistance in my own life, but I've got to admit: reading your novel reminded me of what a relatively privileged and safe context I'm operating in. I mean, would I do what your character Daniel does, if I were in his place? Good lord, I don't know... 

I about fell over myself questions of nonviolent resistance emerged in your plot. My reading of various movements and leaders is, of course, full of biographies, histories, and independent periodicals. What do you think that fiction can reveal that "true story" mediums cannot? 


Wow, I could write on this forever, and I guess I kind of do (insert laugh here). 

Let me say this: god bless journalists, but most papers by their nature distort the truth or only provide half-truths. They give grocery list facts – what they perceive as facts, what they want to present as facts. There is no real "truth" in news or the "true story." To explore "truth" one must look at all sides, and this can best be done with fiction. 

It is a great comedy in my mind that fiction is by definition the art of make believe, yet nothing – nothing! – must be truer than fiction. A novel that lies, that has characters that don't ring true, is worthless. I don't mean novels must be realism only – as clearly my writing is not – but that the story must follow a logical arch. Conversely, as I practiced law many years ago, people expect the law to be true, but let me tell you, lawyers don't give a damn about the truth. They are by definition advocates, which implies they will lie to get the result they want. So, in short – which this isn't I know, sorry – a novel best serves the purpose of getting at the truth, as it is the best venue for presenting all sides. It is why in my novels – and particularly TP – that while I personally have strong opinions about nonviolence and my opposition to the right wing and war, I don't write my novels to present dogma, I look at all sides, how things happen and what the consequence is for every action, good or bad. 



When millions of people have been part of nonviolent movements around the world, it seems strange that it's so rarely evoked in fiction. Why do you think that is? 

I think maybe writers are initially put off by the idea, as they don't know what to do with it. I mean, novels involve a course of action and the idea of nonviolence may seem stagnant on the surface; antithetical to anything actually happening. 

To me, the idea of nonviolence in a world otherwise filled with daily mayhem was extremely exciting, the very juxtaposition to me suggested a huge dynamic and I was excited to write about it both in terms of exploring the philosophy and in creating a work of fiction. 

Incidentally, I'm a big believer in passive resistance, but it has to be at the right time, right place. If you don't approach the world realistically, then what are you doing? It can slip into an exercise of an ego. You need to pay attention to the realities in front of you – which is exactly what Bush has not done. 



The phrase "moral fiction" has been thrown around for a long time. What do you think of it? Would you consider yourself a writer of moral fiction? 

Terms serve no real purpose other than to offer convenience to people looking for a particular type of read. I don't want to be typecast but at the end of the day, sure, yes, I suppose my three novels – and many of my stories - do explore philosophical dilemmas and look for a moral understanding. It's important to note again I never offer dogma; I try as best I can to present the moral question. At the end of TP, who was right and who was wrong? I don't know, but I surely want to look at the question. If we fail to so much as ask these questions, we ignore morality altogether. 



We're doing this interview in spring 2008 – an awfully scary time in world happenings, what with the war in Iraq, exported torture, mass scale poverty, and a climate crisis. It's a litany that can be maddening, or numbing. What have you observed about how artists – writers, and other sorts – are or are not responding? 

Well, you are gonna get me in trouble here. I think the majority of writers – and this is their right – do not see themselves as having any unique responsibility toward addressing hot topic issues. I simply happen to disagree. Not that all my work takes on a topic such as I did in TP – indeed TP pushes it the furthest, though The Weight of Nothing offers hints of things to come and Walter Falls surely has moral questions. I think writers have to do what moves their souls individually. I would love to see more writers get involved in larger issues but then again I don't want to be preached at by anyone. It's a tough question. 

Long and short, I feel individuals should get involved in their community and with the issues that concern them nationally and beyond. Dzanc Books is currently involved in putting together a book of essays that came out of Kenya during the recent crisis. 



What are you working on these days, fiction-wise? 

I have a collection of stories that will be published in 2009. I am currently working on the third draft of a new novel and when I come up for air, I write a story or two. I'm one of these obsessive-type writers and I write everyday. 



An imprint of Dzanc Books, which you co-founded, publishes Temporary People. In fact, all proceeds of your writing return to support Dzanc. How has the process of editing and preparing this book compared with that of your other two books? 

Good question. Actually, TP was acquired by Black Lawrence Press almost a year before BLP became an imprint of Dzanc. With my first three books, I was disheartened by the lack of support my publishers provided. My first two novels were each twice finalists for two national awards, yet my publisher sat on his arse and let the books die. This was one of the reasons – and there are many – why Dan Wickett and I started Dzanc. We feel when a book reaches the shelves, the publisher's work isn't over its just beginning. It's important to get behind each and every writer we publish. I admit to being a control freak, so having my novel now in-house where I have some control is fantastic. 

I also felt it would be rather foolish of me to be a co-founder of Dzanc – and now with BLP and OV Books as imprints – and publish my books elsewhere. I have the track record now, so my work has some merit – I hope – and it's hardly self publishing; as said, the editors of BLP acquired TP months before the idea of BLP becoming a Dzanc imprint was ever considered, and the Adirondack Review(which is a part of BLP) had published one of my stories in 2006. So, long and short, I am proud to have my work in-house. I have great peace of mind now and hope I can do my editors and partners proud. 



Speaking of Dzanc, how's that going for you? I gotta say, I'm awfully impressed with what Dzanc's accomplished in its short life. Besides publishing tremendous short fiction, novels, and the upcoming 'best of the web' anthology, Dzanc's engaging with its community by offering the substantial Dzanc prize for socially involved writers, and it facilitates a writers-in-the-schools program throughout southeast Michigan. 

Dzanc is going great, thanks. I could write again for hours telling you how proud and pleased I am with Dzanc. We have great people involved and our list of books we will be publishing over the next three years is unbelievably strong. Our writing programs, our Dzanc Prize, our residencies, everything is moving forward and we are truly looking at Dzanc being a strong voice in the community and publishing world for years and years to come. 



When you hear grim news about the state of the independent press, how do you respond? Got any words of wisdom to offer upstarts who might want to start a press of their own? 

Well, first I don't take seriously any assessment of grim news. I just leap in with both feet and see what I can do and don't worry too much about anything else. This isn't to say I am naive and ignore clear realities. I just believe truly that if you think too much about anything you will wind up paralyzed. I mean, how can anyone write a novel if they thought about it too much, you know what I mean? 

So, as far as starting an indie press, I – along with my partner Dan Wickett – had a clear idea of what we wanted to do and could do. That said, I am no fool and have been involved in business and nonprofits long enough to know it was essential to have all our ducks lined up and our money in place. It's crazy to start an indie press without funding. We have nice seed money and Dzanc will be around for many many many years to come. 



You're also involved with 826michigan. Tell me what resonates with you about your work there. 

I love the idea of teaching writing to kids, of showing them how to construct a story, how to bring form to their amazing imaginations and not be intimidated by the blank page. When I founded 826michigan in 2005, my hope was to bring writing programs to Detroit, Ypsi, Ann Arbor and beyond. With Dzanc Books now doing full school year writer residencies and workshops not only in Detroit and A2 and beyond, but also in NY and with our eye on national programs, I am very fortunate to be able to further the goal originally started with 826michigan. 



As a whole, it seems that you're transforming the idea of "writer" from the historical archetype of the isolated and rather tortured genius into something new: the writer as embedded in ground-level social justice work, the writer as one that connects art-making with community-making. Does that ring true, or am I full of it? 

Well, I have played many roles, for sure. I have done the starving artist, the isolated artist. I am still by nature a hermit and reclusive and am clearly tortured – the professor, and then the social activist. 

In my heart, I have always believed it is important to give back to the community in which one lives. It's something of an internal paradox with me, as by nature I am withdrawn but I am also very driven Type A personality, and I believe strongly in getting things done. Not just complaining but doing. And so I just throw myself into community-minded projects and do my best to be involved.

image: Temporary People cover design


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