These are the three authors whose (four) books most moved me/most affected me/most stuck with me this year:
Tao Lin – Taipei
Michael Clune - White Out: the Secret Life of Heroin
Scott McClanahan - Crapalachia
Scott McClanahan - Hill William
To be honest, there were other books that had as great an impact on me, but I don’t have access to those authors (Bret Easton Ellis – Lunar Park, Elizabeth Wurtzel – More, Now, Again, W. Somerset Maugham – Of Human Bondage, John Banville – Ancient Light, …) and none of them were published in 2013 (Ancient Light, the newest of the bunch, came out sometime in 2012).
There was also Jesse Bering’s Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us, which enthralled me because it spoke to everything I had already been thinking and backed it up with research and history (I steer clear of using the word “facts” as I don’t believe in them/they are ever-changing, much the way “social norms” change, the way who we deem “bad” and “perverse” and “mentally ill” changes, from decade to decade, century to century, as you will be reminded by Jesse’s keen book). I actually sat down to write questions for Jesse as well but after a long time staring at my computer screen I had to be honest with myself: I didn’t so much have questions for him as points from the book I agreed with and wanted to champion. A lot of them, in fact. Basically the entire first three quarters of the book. But this isn’t an essay about sex and power and gender and age. Or farm animals. (Speaking of sex and teenagers and farm animals, let me recommend another book: The Last Picture Show.) So…
Let’s just get to the questions (with apologies for sounding insane in them):
EE: While flipping through the "Sunday Styles" last weekend I saw this question, “Phillip Lim, do you feel Asian? And if so, what does that mean?” I immediately thought of you and how I wanted to ask you three q’s and this seemed like one that interests me, so…do you feel ‘Asian’? and if so, what does that mean (to you)?
TL: I don't know. Probably the most accurate answer is that I feel different ways at different times. It's like if I were asked if I feel cold, as a general question. It depends. Sometimes I feel literally cold also, but other times I may feel 'cold', like 'evil' or 'heartless' or something. I wonder how Phillip Lim answered. I try to think less, instead of more, about race over time, I think. So I try not to earnestly engage in defining the term beyond its literal meaning. Hope I'm making sense.
EE: I want to ask you something about your novels – Taipei and Richard Yates – being/seeming semi-autobiographical or “based loosely on” your life or specific moments in your life at least…not sure the exact question, but it having something to do with feeling a responsibility toward the people you write about, if you feel that, if you show these persons/people the novel before you publish it, if you have conversations with persons/people (Megan, your wife, for instance, with regard to Taipei) regarding the writing of the novel, even before writing it, maybe, and how you would feel or approach the writing of a novel, perhaps differently (or perhaps the same) if someone were adverse to being a character in your novel. Does this make sense? Can you address this? Does the author have a moral obligation, and if so what is it, to the persons/people in his/her life who become characters in his/her work?
TL: I haven't asked people for permission much. I'm 100% in support of anyone writing anything in terms of fiction, but have refrained from writing about certain things I've been told not to, because in my fiction I haven't, to my memory, been trying to convey information about certain situations or people, but about the main characters' experience of life. In terms of obligation, I don't understand the word 'obligation' without a context and a goal. The same with the word 'should.' Like if someone said 'you should stop tweeting so much.' If they didn't answer why, like within a context and a goal, the sentence wouldn't mean anything to me except that someone is assuming that they know what my context and goal in life is and that it's the same as their context and goal in life.
EE: How has success (agents/bigger name publishers, people like Juliana Hatfield reading your work, larger advances, $$) changed or affected (or not) your creative process? For instance, were I to offer you 50k or 100k tomorrow to write your next book, would the “next book” be any different, do you think, than the “next book” you will write for a larger press? Or would you be writing the same books regardless of agents, press size, $, audience…?
TL: I don't know. I'm 100% certain that in a reality in which I was given $100k to write my next book, compared to a reality in which I vowed not to accept any money on my next book, my next book would be different in some way, even if it were only a difference in word choice at times, but it seems difficult to discern what those changes would be exactly. Generally, my goal is to write what I want to read. The option, when not knowing what decisions to make in my writing, of thinking 'what do I want to read in this sentence, in this book, exactly?' (and writing that, instead of something else)—that option has always existed for me and I've been okay with using it. Shout out to my editor Tim O'Connell btw. Follow Tim on Twitter here. Thank you for interviewing me, Elizabeth.
EE: Writing/reading about heroin can seem very “romantic” or seem romanticized; thinking of Jesus’s Son and Junky, Requiem for a Dream, Trainspotting, etc. It can give everyday life a cinematic flair, and in some ways, make the writing about every day life more glamorous (even if it is, in fact, anti-glamour: thinking of the scene in White Out in which you and several of your friends are on a NYC building rooftop, on heroin, vomiting…even the vomiting seems cinematic/glamorous/otherworldly here, whereas it probably wouldn’t if you were all vomiting from, say, food poisoning or the flu). Can you speak to the glamour that surrounds heroin, in written works/movies as well as in your personal life, and how that has, perhaps, changed, now that you are no longer using heroin/are “clean”? Is there a concern that your writing will be less interesting or glamorous, that you yourself will be less so, that romantic relationships might be less so, post-heroin? Is there an immediate sort of romantic intensity – literary, personal – to everything heroin touches? Or am I overgeneralizing? Overstating the “glamour” and “romance” of heroin?
MC: I think heroin is ‘romantic’ in two different senses. The first, which I think is more interesting, has nothing to do with the way drugs make you feel when you’re on them, with the ‘drug lifestyle,’ or with the degraded romance that attaches to most versions of suicide. Heroin addiction is romantic in a very specific sense. When you’re an addict, the image of heroin—and its associated paraphernalia—has a quality that no other image has for you. It never gets old, never gets dull, never loses the intensity and freshness of an object seen for the first time. Every time I see a vial, a straw, a needle, a pile of white powder, I’m seeing something that is immune to habit, the habit that snows grey over the surface of the world, that makes us as we age increasingly unable to see flowers, skies, furniture, towns, people. For an addict, the image of the drug is immune to habit, it never gets old, it’s always fascinating and new. And this is romantic because the goal of romantic art and literature is to create an image that is always new, that is timeless. The addict has a disease that art would like to catch. In my creative writing I try to learn from my disease, to infect my images with a little dose of my disease, to make them last in the reader’s mind a little longer. In some of my critical and philosophical writing I try to understand at the level of thought what addiction has taught me about time at the level of perception.
The second sense in which drugs can seem ‘romantic’—the degraded lifestyle, the degraded actions, the degraded thoughts, the degraded and abraded life spent in the orbit of the fascinating image of the drug—actually doesn’t seem romantic to me at all, and I don’t miss anything about it. Sometimes people think being high all the time is romantic. But know this: if you’re an addict you’re not high all the time. You’re basically never high. The brain chemicals that the drug initially triggered to make you feel high stop working. You use because you can’t stand withdrawal. You use because every time you see the drug in your mind or in reality it’s like a magnet, it casts a spell. And then you use and it sucks and you can’t stop. The spell cast by the image of the drug just turns you into a zombie. I think the dynamics of that spell are genuinely romantic, but this is something best appreciated after you’re clean, from a distance. Using is just slavery. Writing about that part of my life was interesting and even fun, in the sense of providing a rich vein of dark comedy that I think can also be fun and funny to read. But the life of an addict is simply retarded. (I mean ‘retarded’ in a technical sense.)
EE: Why did you choose the press (Hazelden) you did for this book, rather than say, a larger press? What was the editing process like at Hazelden? Do you think you were offered significantly more creative decision-making there than you would have been at a larger press?
MC: The world is full of crappy addiction memoirs. I thought mine was different, and so did the friends I showed it to, and so have the reviewers since it came out. But the marketing people at the big presses worried about how to communicate its novelty to readers. I vividly remember my agent telling me about one guy who said: “This is a great book, but you actually have to read it to know what’s so great about it.” That’s the hard problem book marketers have to deal with: how to show people a book is good before they read it. So the big presses that were interested wanted me to make some changes, add some stuff to make people realize how new and different it is before they read it. And I tried, but it wasn’t working. I sympathized with the editors and marketers, I totally get how hard it is to sell a book in a genre as crowded as this one. But what can I say? I liked the way I’d written it originally. And then Hazelden, and the editor there, Sid Farrar, he totally got it. He loved it just like it is. I’m very grateful to him for that. Plus Hazelden stands for recovery, and that’s a big part of my book. Because addiction is a disease that infects time, that opens a hole in time. That hole is shaped like a drug. It’s a very small hole. To recover you need to find a way to transform time in a more basic, more fundamental way. I write about that practice in the second half of the book.
EE: ru really phobic of tornados/weather (recently you were supposed to do back to back readings with me in Columbus, Ohio and Ann Arbor, Michigan, but you had warned me in Columbus you might not make Ann Arbor due to the storms coming in the next day (you did not, in fact, come to Ann Arbor and there were several tornados in the Midwest))? Or were you lying to get out of back to back readings? LOL. If the former, what do you think the fear of weather/tornadoes stems from? Have you ever been in a tornado? If the latter, I understand. Readings, generally, suck, especially when back to back. Do you lie often? To get out of readings, I mean?
MC: I have always had a fear of tornadoes. I write about an early experience of a tornado in the book I’m currently finishing, called Gamelife. I’m much less afraid of tornadoes now than I used to be. Several years ago, my friend Dave told me: “If you think you’re going to die in any better way than getting sucked up into the sky, you’re wrong.” This made sense to me. But I still won’t drive anywhere if there’s tornadic activity in the forecast. I might possibly walk out of my house and stand looking at the sky waiting for sublime death while a tornado approaches. But the idea of getting sucked up while I’m on my way somewhere is repellent.
EE: I found myself stopping, putting down both Crapalachia and Hill William mid-reading at various points, and taking notes for stories I wanted to write about my hometown (and the people in it). This happened to me with Mira Gonzalez’s poetry collection (I Will Never Be Beautiful Enough to Make Us Beautiful Together) too (I stopped at some point to jot down poems). I think this sort of activity speaks highly of a book. Have you had this sort of reading/writing experience and if so, with what book(s)?
SM: No, I just feel more like stealing. The last few lines of Crapalachia are taken from Lucretius. The last lines of the appendix come from Chaucer. Part of the title is stolen from Harry Crews. The whole entire ending of Hill William is almost lifted entirely (minus the "I LOVE YOU" part) from the autobiography of Jean Cocteau. I could go on and on. Plagiarism is pretty much a way of life for me. I guess the key is to start plagiarizing yourself. That's called a career. People earn fellowships for that. Inspiration is overrated.
EE: Your next book is titled Sarah, which was the name of your wife at the time you started writing the book. Now that you and your wife have divorced, will the title remain? What are your feelings about writing people you are close to in your real life into your fiction so “openly”? What was your wife’s feelings about your writing/you writing about her? Has she (or have you) changed the way you feel (about writing about her/the Sarah book) since the divorce?
SM: It's actually called The Sarah Book. I think books with the word "book" in the title are going to be big in the future.
I think in order to do this you have to be able to be a little assassin who can pull the trigger without caring. So many writers I know confuse their politics and morality and completely forget that Celine was an anti-Semite but he was still a genius. I'm not trying to be a good person. I'm trying to write a good book. That's hard as shit without bringing in the rest of that crap.
If you're worried about being a good person then you should sell insurance or start writing like National Book Award finalists. We don't need anymore good people. There's thousands of them and look at where it's got us.
To be honest, Sarah's trying to raise little kids. She could probably care less about the thing.
She has threatened to sue me though. But she has a great sense of humor. Of course, the last time she said it she wasn't smiling but it went something like, "I'll sue you if you try to write it, Scott. I'm serious as fuck. I'll sue you." I think she was kidding though. She's a master of that Buster Keaton deadpan.
EE: I remember in 2009, receiving an email from you, asking me if you could send me your first story collection, Stories. I remember talking about you and your book to friends of mine who had received similar emails/your book. We were all immediately impressed with you and your stories. How did you find us/decide who to send your book to/who to email? Would you recommend this as a way/means to enter into a literary circle?
SM: I wrote because you people were like heroes to me. Like I seriously thought Blake was like Bowie or something. Then you meet people and you realize, "Oh wait, they're just people." I never find that disappointing though. I find that inspiring. Blake and you and Tao and Sam and Adam Robinson and Barry Graham and Noah and Jereme Dean and Kendra Grant Malone and Chelsea Martin and all those HTML GIANT people.
I remember the day Kendra wrote me back in 08 or 09 saying she read my book and liked it. I remember it was cold that day. I was listening to Patti Smith's "Pissing in a River" on my way home and I stopped and got gas and I bought beer and I remember showing the email to Sarah. I'd been alone for so long. I had been writing for so long. I was already writing before but they showed me that there was this other way. They were all like gods to me. And you know what. They still are.
Of course some of these people I've heard snore now. Some of them have taken showers at my house. It's weird. I still feel strange even now when I think about it. They're just people and you didn't have to spend a bunch of money to hang out with them and get a degree to do so. They were like the greatest drivers ed class in the history of the world. You didn't sit around studying about exhaust manifolds or transmissions or "remarkable opening sentences" or Lish shit or whatever. They just showed you that you could take the keys. They showed you that you could push down on the gas. And you could just fucking GO
I will forever be thankful for that.