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September 5, 2014 | Interview

elizabeth ellen calls aaron burch on all his shit

Elizabeth Ellen

elizabeth ellen calls aaron burch on all his shit photo

This wasn't our idea. A couple months ago Matthew Simmons - Hobart interview editor - made the first mention to Aaron of the idea he had of me interviewing him (Aaron) for Hobart. But I guess Aaron forgot to tell me. He was on tour in Seattle. He probably forgot more than he remembered. At any rate, Simmons wouldn't let his dream die. He followed up with Aaron a few weeks later. By this time Aaron was no longer on tour and remembered to tell me. I thought it was an interesting idea; a way to ask Aaron all the questions that had been troubling me. (Lol.) And so, here they are! Most of them, at any rate. A few things are just best left unasked and/or unanswered (including, probably, at least one of the following).

--e.e.

* * *

let’s start with my most pressing question, one you haven’t answered IRL: WHY DID YOU TURN DOWN BRAD LISTI? Why didn’t you want to be on his podcast? Do you think yr supercool like Ben Lerner or something?

At some point, when I stopped listening to it, I thought to myself (maybe even said aloud?), “I don’t want to / am not gonna do Listi, if he ever asks.” Kinda thinking it was a funny, weird opinion to hold strong to, kinda assuming he’d never ask. Which technically anyway, I don’t think he really did, he never emailed me, all emails were just between you and him. But then, “holding strong” seemed like this thing I was gonna do, even if, as you’ve said and accused me of at time, it was kinda cutting off my nose to spite my face. Whatever. A lot of my stories have Evensonian body mutilation, so maybe cutting off my nose is fitting anyway? And, too, I’m not real crazy about talking about myself/my life. Not while sober, at least. Also, also, I don’t really want to talk about “us,” and I feel like that’s maybe where it’d go?

for a long time you said you didn’t care (that much) about your own writing, that you felt more confident/rewarded as an editor, in editing Hobart. Why was that and what has changed?

I think it was because a lot of stories in Hobart are / have been better than my own stories. And it’s easier to be more confident in stronger stories? I also think, as I can almost hear your inner voice working here, that I probably said that as an excuse for being lazy about my own writing, to spend more time on Hobart than writing, cause it’s “easier” and I’m lazy. I also think, though, that I was maybe overemphasizing, wanting to not undervalue or undersell Hobart, and my belief and interest and involvement in it. I don’t know that that has changed, I think it still kind of goes back and forth. I do think it sometimes still feels as rewarding to accept an amazing story and get to be the vehicle behind sharing that story with a greater audience. (And maybe even rewardinger if I not only accepted it but edited it some and feel like I helped give it that extra push to really be great.)

What is it about Stand by Me that you love so much (the novella and film) (you reference it in Backswing story ‘Fire in the Sky)? What is it you think you relate to? Which of the four boys do you most see yourself in?

This is annoyingly flip but… does anyone not relate to it?

I think I relate to that group of friends, their camaraderie. It feels kinda perfect — it’s funny, it’s sweet. I saw it when I was probably about the same age as the kids in the story and it just seemed so formative. And those themes of friendship, and what it means when you're young vs. later in life, and nostalgia… those are all everywhere in Backswing, whether the stories are specifically referencing Stand By My (like in the fireworks story) or not. “I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

I’m probably Gordie.

why don’t you write more (explicitly) about me? (I asked this q before rereading the stories in Backswing (most of which I hadn’t read since you first published them five or so years ago), which….was surprised how much I am in there…)

Hm. My default answer is always just, “I’m not interested in it,” right?

But, I don’t know why “I’m not interested.” At the reading here at Literati, I got talking with a couple people about writing about place. And I remember saying something about how I didn’t really write about Seattle, or use it much as a setting, until I moved away. And then, I don’t think I wrote that much about Ann Arbor until I moved to Champaign for grad school. And that I needed some kind of distance to be able to write about it. Most of the more explicitly-about-you stuff got written while we were broken up, I think, which is kinda the same idea. I don’t know… maybe if we ever get divorced, that’s when I’ll write The Elizabeth Book?

what was with that Publishers Weekly review that called the wife “prudish”? I want a correction, please.

Ha. That line from the review was funny. It was referencing “The Neighbor,” says the narrator would rather “spend the night in her empty house rather than with his prudish wife,” but his own house is empty, too. It is admittedly only implicit that the wife isn’t there, she’s left him, but she’s only mentioned a couple of times, in past tense. Implication being that his own empty house is too lonely, but the reviewer just assumed, I guess, that if a husband would rather be somewhere other than his own home, it is because his wife is prudish. That seems on him. (Or her??)

you say you don’t have any interest in  what Scott McClanahan and I somewhat jokingly (but mostly seriously) refer to as ‘bleeding on the page.’ Why is that? do you think you can be a successful writer without  bleeding? Is this really just a comment about your wife’s writing?

My wife always TAKES it as a comment just about her own writing, but are any of my favorite stories or books that “kind of thing?”

I actually knew you were gonna ask something like this, and so was thinking about it. Yes, of course, to some degree, if the artist hasn’t “bled on the page” it probably can’t be great art. Probably my favorite piece of art from the last decade is Synecdoche, NY, and Charlie Kaufman bled all over the screen in that, right? I’m thinking here of the word “confessional” and that movie is super “confessional,” (right?) but that’s not one of the first words you’d go to for description, I don’t think. I think, sometimes, “bleeding on the page” is just that, a bunch of blood splattered on the page, and is sometimes left at that, which is fine, whatever, it’s just less my thing. I’m not that into confession. I more want it crafted into more of a narrative. (Which would be my oversimplified critique of a lot of 'alt lit', I guess, although less my critique of my “wife’s writing.” My thoughts on that are more about the difficulties and awkwardness of seeing your wife’s blood on the page, crafted or not.)

what do you think is the most personal story you have written and why is it the most personal?

Oof. I don’t know. Where’s the table of contents?

My immediate impulse was “Prestidigitation,” maybe in part because you’re asking the questions, and the last question was about you, and you always liked that story and thought of, and even said, her is you. It’s kind of magical realist, or whatever, but feels pretty close to real feelings? Really, all these stories feel pretty personal. In “Church Van,” I’m talking about religion more personally than I’d maybe be comfortable outside of writing about it in a short story. Same about some of the aspects of growing up in “Flesh & Blood.”

you include a line from Corinthians as an epigraph for Backswing. (“For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.”) what does that line mean to you and why did you pick it as a lead in to the book?

The oversimple answer is that I wanted a Bible quote as an epigraph, and for a long time the manuscript was called “Perfect” and so I went looking through a concordance for that word.

Then, though, once I found the quote and had it in place, I did think a lot about this idea of wanting and striving for perfection, and what it actually appearing might mean, and would losing “imperfection” be worth it? And, too, I thought a lot, throughout these stories, about knowing “parts” of things, and prophesy. I think, when you put all those parts together, the quote means something different, actually, than what I took from it, but those pieces meant a lot to me while editing the book together and thinking of my themes and what I wanted the book to do and be about.

do you consider yourself a feminist?

I think of the word feminist about as often as I think about myself and what, in general, I do and don’t consider myself, which is about as frequent as I think about being adopted.

tell us about the fallout with Monkeybicycle.

Oh, you know. The past is the past. Eff them.

you used to (have a crush on) read a lot of Aimee Bender. And The Giant’s House lady. And Geek Love lady. Who are some female writers you’re currently reading/into and what about those female writers’ books I mentioned did you relate to at the time?

I think, when I first started reading a lot, in the early oughts, women kind of owned magical realism. Which feels almost sexist to say, but it was kind of true, right? I mean… Tin House straight had a “women of magic realism” issue, right?? And all that stuff seemed so exciting, all this great writing, and all these new kinds of stories I’d never really seen or been made aware of before.

I read Courtney Maum’s new book, and really liked it, and her pop culture/John Mayer stuff. I liked Young God pretty good. I like the “women of SF/LD” a lot. That’s an easy answer, but I don’t pick those books. Chloe’s WOMEN is legit one of my fave reads of the year. I really liked Mary’s California book. You’re pretty good (when the page isn’t so bloody). I’ll pick up whatever Lilli Carré and Julia Wertz do.

Really, though, was that just your way to call me out on not really reading very many women writers? And/or to see if I would or wouldn’t say Battleborn was really good?

Oh! Also, Lindsay and Amelia are my bitches. Obvs. (I can say that, right? Though it is more weird and less cute than if/when, say, you say it.)

you often, somewhat jokingly, refer to your story “The Stain” as "my Matt Bell story.” Explain.

It feels a little Matt Bell-y to me. Actually, it, like a handful of my stories, feels kind of Brian Evenson-y, but maybe like I’m covering a song I heard Matt Bell do, that was itself a cover of an Evenson song that I hadn’t read before?

Also, for a long time, I had like 80% of a story I really liked, but a) still didn’t know exactly what it was about, and b) couldn’t figure out how to end it, which itself is basically because of (a). The story “The Stain” is kind of about, among other things, language going missing, and I remembered one of Matt’s stories that I really, really liked, “The Receiving Tower,” which is also kind of about language going missing, and so, stuck, I re- and re-reread that story, to figure out how it worked, and it ends mid-sentence, with the language of the story literally having gone missing. And so I basically just lifted that move wholesale and grafted it onto my story and it felt cool and clever, but still not “right.” At which point, it helped me figure out that “The Stain” wasn’t so much about things (language, among them) going missing, but a more circular kind of missing/appearing, and that led to the ending that there’s now.

Also, looking back over this all to add a couple things, after we just got back from a walk, and you were asking about the interview, and in contrast to your “most personal” question, you asked about the “least personal,” which would probably be “The Stain,” and when we were in a writing group with Matt, I think you often wanted him to be more personal (to bleed on the page!) and so sometimes I could hear some Elizabeth-voice in my head giving this story the same critique.

whatever happened to that dude who wrote The Beach? Explain your obsession with him (time/place/reasons).

I think he writes, like, video games and movies now. He wrote the newish Dredd movie, which I watched when you were out of town, because you don’t have any interest in watching a Judge Dredd movie. It was pretty awesome.

I really started reading as a freshman in college. I don’t remember reading much in high school. I watched a lot of movies, listened to a lot of music. I guess I subscribed to Entertainment Weekly, though that seems weird — I remember having and reading it, but I lived at home still that year and I can’t imagine my parents taking that. Anyway, I remember reading some kind of blurb in EW that the director of Se7en was making a movie based on a book. (I think it was even before Pitt and Norton were attached?) So I went out and bought the book, and loved it. But I didn’t really know how to find or discover more books. But then I also saw, in another issue of EW, that the director of Trainspotting was making a movie with Leo. So I went out and bought and read and freaking loved that book, too. When he (Alex Garland)(later that year, or maybe the next?) came and read at Elliott Bay Books, I went, and was one of like 8 people in the audience, and he was funny and charming and interesting, and it made me realize readings could be these awesome things to go to (for free!) and also kind of set up the expectation that you could be amazing (he was one of my favorite writers!!) and still only have like 8 people at your reading. I’ve kinda been in love ever since.

you had a notoriously uneventful childhood. Some would call it ‘happy’ even. How do you think this has affected – negatively and/or positively – you as a writer/artist (and btw, would you ever refer to yrself as an ‘artist;’ why or why not?)

Kevin Smith said on the Bret Easton Ellis podcast something about his upbringing, maybe his life in general, being too happy, that because of that he’d never create great art, but that he made pretty good movies, and he was happy with that. That sounds about right.

And, no, I wouldn't.

that said (‘that’ being the ‘uneventful childhood’) I feel like there are two elements of your childhood that ppl seem most interested in/that sort of ‘define’ you. one is the fact you were adopted (and yr brother wasn’t). the other is that you were baptized (at age 8? 9?) in the Mormon church. How do you think both of those …bits of backstory define you as a writer? There are a lot of religious references in Backswing as well as references to brothers, for instance.

I don’t think being adopted affects, much less “defines” me as a writer. I don’t really think it affects me as a person. I never really think about it, except when somebody (you!) bring it up, and then I usually just shrug it off, say, “I don’t ever really think about it.” Which… I guess that kinda defines my writing some. This aspect of the characters not really defining themselves (except through, like, their ideas of manhood, and Stand By Me), not really thinking about things at all, and then sometimes asking, “what does not really thinking about these things say/mean about me?”

I do think the idea of baptism fascinates me, both literally, and this more figurative idea of being “reborn.” Just generally, I grew up with the language of religion; again, both figuratively in that I grew up religious, and also with the literal “language” of religion, and I think both of those things seep into my writing, as fascination and curiosity and just who I am.

there seems to be an inordinate amount of cutting of flesh and dismemberment in Backswing. Is this a reflection of your religious upbringing? Or something else?

I’d say it is a reflection of religious upbringing (the Bible is violent, yo!), plus Evenson inspiration (who himself writes so much about these things because of his own religious backstory), plus trying to make “I’m a pretty normal, boring guy, with a happy childhood, yadda yadda” stories more interesting, one way or another.

Jess Walter, in a blurb on the back (and inside lol) of Backswing says ‘… a diverse, deft collection of stories about becoming a man and other unsolvable mysteries.’ Do you feel yet like you’ve become a ‘man’ and what defines ‘manhood’ for you?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no.

I feel like I’m a good stepdad, and a reasonably good husband. Both of those things are pretty high on my list of the definition of manhood.

On the flip side, like many males, my idea of manhood is my dad, and he can fix cars and do shit around the house and is pretty outdoors-y, and so those are all under the heading of “manhood” for me, and I can’t/don’t do any of them. And feel self-conscious about it almost every day.

I also sometimes wear a tie to work, am wearing a tie right now, in fact, which makes me feel grown-up and fashionable and “like a man,” but my dad hates ties and works outside and would never wear one, so… I don’t know.

a long time ago you went to a party in Toronto at Sheila Heti’s house. Can you confirm? And said afterward she was ‘cute.’ Can you confirm this also? Any good stories from that night?

I did indeed, she was indeed. I don’t really remember her though — mostly all I remember about that party is hanging out in the hallway with Pasha (Malla) and one or two of his friends and very drunkenly plotting out basically an entire full-length zombie porn movie. I’m pretty sure we were very drunkenly excited about having invented the zorn genre.

on occasion, we, you and I, have had… awkward moments/discussions brought on by things I have written, most recently, http://www.everyday-genius.com/2014/08/elizabeth-ellen.html. You often claim you have ‘no interest in writing about myself.’ In opposition to my writing, I suppose, which gets back to the ‘bleeding on the page’ discussion from earlier. But as I was rereading Backswing, I realized you do write about yourself. A lot. Almost exclusively. Less explicitly, perhaps (okay, most assuredly) than I, but still…when I got to one of the last stories in the collection, “The Neighbor,” I was a little freaked out by how…nonfiction’y it felt to me, the description of our female neighbor, for instance, the inside of her house, her bedroom, etc. I felt like you might as well have written her a note, “I fantasize about you on occasion.” ;) thoughts? (I should add I like the uncomfortableness I felt while reading this story because I felt like you were …idk. writing about yourself in a way I could relate to/that made you less ‘saintly’ and more ‘human.’)

Umm… is there a question here?

I feel like a lot of my awkwardness with your writing is based on our history, and I’m not gonna avoid the question, but I’m also not sure how to answer a vague “Thoughts?” question without it turning into a super long essay, and maybe even more “awkward moments/discussions." I’d had the idea to be super awkward and, since you linked to the above piece, quote and link to another piece by you and say how awkward reading shit like that can be, but I couldn’t find it in two minutes of Googling and those two minutes kinda wore me out enough to just forget about it and move on…

In a related (?) note, I took a break from this interview to look at Tumblr (lol) and the first thing I see is this Brian Evenson quote, which seemed interesting, as per our discussion, and also because I think Brian has been one of your biggest literary influences. I remember having to pull you away from him at an AWP event years ago as many others were waiting in line behind you to speak to him. What has he meant to you – his writing – in terms of your own – and what is your take on this quote from him. (“Truth cannot be imparted. […] It must be inflicted.”)

I think his writing has been super important to me because of our shared histories (religion, Mormonism specifically) and there’s also just something about his voice and style, aside from those themes/histories that I connect to, that I love. And yet, on the flip side, what you think of as a typical Brian Evenson is pretty far from what I might think of as my own most natural kind of story. So I think having him as an inspiration has really been good for pushing me, out of my comfort zone.

That quote seems to circle back to a lot of this interview, and the idea that “truth” is going to be painful, it hurts, it gonna “inflict” and/or get inflicted upon you.

In the last year or two you have begun writing poetry (after maybe ten years of making fun of/disavowing poetry – it’s only been in the last couple years, also, Hobart has taken/published poetry on the website). What led you to writing poems? And when will yr collection be out (from publishing genius)?

We went and saw the Watch the Throne concert, and Jay Z and Kanye did “Niggas in Paris” seven times in a row as an encore. And it was ridiculously exciting. We’ve often talked about ways and ideas to bring some of the excitement of hip hop (hype men; people yelling things in the background; “turn my microphone up”) into writing and readings, and I got to thinking about how I could possibly do something like that in a written and/or read piece. And so I wrote “In Detroit.” And it was just really fun. And it seemed like I could do that in a poem in a way that I couldn’t (or at least couldn’t think of or figure out) in a story. And I kept thinking of opportunities for similar ideas, and landed on this John Ashbery/Kanye/Wu Tang mashup, and from there just kinda kept writing poems. I felt more allowed to more explicitly play with pop culture in them, and also maybe to be a bit more explicitly nostalgic.

October?

what do you think happened to Colson Whitehead?

I don’t know.

I was gonna make… I don’t want to call it a “joke,” even, but I was going to jokingLY say I think 9/11 happened to him. Wasn’t the story that he was working on a novel and then 9/11 happened and, like a lot of writers, he kinda thought that book was bullshit in light of the tragedy and why spend time writing bullshit? But then he came back to it and it was Apex? Which I liked, but not as much as The Intuitionist and John Henry Days.

But then I haven’t read the others, so maybe that’s on me? I freaking loved those first two though. Maybe the best 1-2 punch of first two novels ever? OK, maybe not EVER, but… that’d be a fun, High Fidelity kind of game: “Best 1-2 punch of first two novels?”

along w dismemberment/cutting, there seems to be a fair amount of buffalo/bison imagery in your writing (hence, the title of yr poetry collection: Between Buffalo and Bison). Why is that? what do buffalo symbolize for you? why do you like them so much?

I think, like baseball and fireworks and bourbon and hip hop, they symbolize America, and I kind of love America. They just seem… I don’t even know. Hypnotic. Also: I think the first time I saw them in real life was on our family drive across the country, in the Badlands and Yellowstone, and I loved the Badlands and Yellowstone and cross country roadtrips and that roadtrip in particular, and so they kind of remind me of all those things, too.

finally, why aren’t AWP’s fun anymore? Who was yr fav person in the past to drink w/hang w at AWP (yrs truly excluded)?

I mean… drinking with (Jeff) Parker was fun. But that’s another kinda long story, and this is the second to last (penultimate!) question and we’re already at like 4k words...

I think, in the past, AWP itself was new, and people we were meeting for the first, or maybe second time. Newness is exciting. Now, it’s a lot of people we’ve met and hung out with before, and they’re awesome, but it’s a different kind of energy. Also, I’m older and generally drink less now. Life.

All that said, I had as much fun in Seattle as I have at any AWP. Partially because I love Seattle, partially because I readjusted, and then accepted, my expectations. I went to bed early, I skipped parties, I had more energy in the day. I had some great meals, with just a couple friends instead of trying to hang out with everyone. I talked to lots of really, really awesome people at the table.

bonus question: do you think Dave Eggers is still ‘running the numbers’?

I hope so! Should I email him and follow-up?

 

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