Ted Sanders’s debut story collect No Animals We Could Name brings together fourteen stories that could have easily been written by fourteen different authors. The range here is truly incredible. It’s not at all surprising that the book won the prestigious Bakeless Prize. A few are formally inventive: “Obit” is broken up into newspaper-like columns and “Assembly” is right justified on the page and features line breaks more commonly associated with poetry; these don’t behave the way we’re conditioned to expect stories to behave. Others are more traditionally linear in appearance, if not in content. All are erudite and reflect Sanders’s seemingly limitless curiosity about our natural world.
In her introduction, Stacey D’Erasmo writes, “Reading these stories is like looking into the eyes of an animal, finding there both recognition and unbridled otherness, a gaze returned to you that both is and isn’t from a reality you already know that may be ringed with fur, or legs.” Yes—these are strange stories, in the very best way, and each sparkles with its own innate purpose. I had the pleasure of reading early drafts of a few of these stories back when Sanders and I were in a few MFA workshops together at the University of Illinois. His writing astounded me then, at least in those few precious moments that my own blathering and jealous ego allowed it to, and it continues to do so now even more than ever. Our conversation took place via email in mid-May.
As of this writing, it’s two months until the official publication date of your debut book. What’s going through your mind?
Since I don’t have anything left to do but wait for the book to magically arrive, I’m feeling pretty good. It’s my first book, so uncertainty—and sometimes sheer novelty—threatens to overwhelm the excitement. But I try to parcel it, to think of it as one big territory with a lot of odd terrain. I’ve just entered that stage where reviews are starting to crop up, and it’s sort of frightening and cool—awe-larming?—to realize that complete strangers have begun to read the book. This doesn’t have much to do with the reviews themselves, which I’ve been happy with, but rather with the escalation in visibility. Or it’s like now you’re asking for, and getting, a lot more attention, and it feels a little bit like having baked a giant cake and becoming aware that people you’ve never met are helping themselves to slices. And it’s made all the more bizarre because you never get to witness the eating. The consumption is all hearsay, and I find myself thinking, Oh, you came and ate some cake? How crazy of you. As the release date draws nearer, I’m fumbling around with the idea that this exposure was the point of it all—and I guess it is?—but there’s also something really wrong about that. I don’t know if I could put a name to it. I know I’m very wary of letting too much importance concentrate on the moment. I’ve been very purposefully—maybe aggressively—trying to write new stuff this spring, putting some distance between myself and the book. Or rather: between my process and the act of the book becoming real, if that makes sense. But despite all of that I’m pretty happy, and the excitement does mount despite how strange it all is.
What is it you’ve been writing so aggressively this spring? Do you feel pressure (internal or external) to finish a novel?
This spring my motivation has swung, for whatever reasons, toward new stories. No Animalshas a story or two that messes with form, and after working hard with Graywolf to get these looking right on the page—and hearing rumors of other writers actually working and submitting in InDesign—the idea of controlling structure from the front end with a long eye toward the back grabbed me. It’s had a hold of me these last few months. I’ve been working with physical structure on the page, getting fuel from that. I don’t think of myself as a formista or anything, and I’d hate to think it was my thing—I’d hate to think I have a thing—but maybe it’s another response to the publishing process, where you’re basically in a herd of shepherds. And although I’d have to say my technical skills are fairly limp, playing the architect does at the moment seem to be the new tube down which the inspiration flows. Or drains, or whatever it does.
And then I also have other projects underway, including a collection of essays that seems to me to be the thing most likely to emerge next. There’s some form-play in there too, I guess, mostly because I need new things to be happening. The essays are stylized and purposefully varied, so form naturally gets invoked. And yes, a novel, sure. I think the best I can say about that is that the pilot light’s still on. I don’t feel much internal pressure to work on it, and while I’m aware that external pressure looms in theory, there’s no overt force moving me back into it. I’m not drawn at the moment. The novel’s there, though, and alive—when I check on it, it’s breathing.
On another burner entirely I’ve also got a completed middle-grade/crossover novel that I’ve been shopping around this spring. I invested pretty heavily in that project, to be honest, but the writing itself was such payback that the manuscript feels like bonus stuff to me now. If it goes somewhere, it’d be gravy.
These fourteen stories are all over the map in terms of their aesthetics, styles, and subjects. What I like most about the collection, I think, is that I can’t pin it down into a trite, one-line description; it’s not one thing. Can you walk me through your writing process, from the initial idea to seeing it in print?
Yeah, I like the way that’s turned out too, but I think the collection having variation is less a function of some vision of mine and more a function of my disdain for sameness. If I write a realistic domestic piece, I sure as shit don’t want to sit down and write another one right away. And the process changes, too—I just can’t abide routine.
Typically, though, my process is pretty germinative. I thumb ideas into the dirt and maybe I come back to them later with a different head. The initial idea itself could be anything—a line, a real-life event, a formal notion, a voice, a tableau. It’s usually a pretty small nugget. The final story in the book, “Assembly,” came about because at one point I thought that might make a nice title for the whole collection—Assembly, right?—and then I figured I’d better write a story with that title. And so I did. That’s the entire origin of that piece.
Usually the first manifestation of the initial idea takes the form of actual lines. I’ll shape a sentence or two, or maybe a paragraph, taking some time with it—it’s not a toss-off thing—but then the document might sit there in a folder for a week or a month or a year. With “Assembly,” I wrote the first line: Peter Lumley assembles the machine (though it was Charles in the early drafts, later amended because saying “Charles Lumley” gives you marblemouth), and I think maybe I wrote the next few lines too, and then I let those sit for I don’t know how long before coming back to them and letting them start to become a thing. The first ten lines of another one, “Flounder,” were curing in a file somewhere for like sixteen months before they went anywhere, but when I came back to them the story poured out, pretty full-formed, in about a day (though that’s unusual).
In the thick of the process, like most of us, I never really know how things are going to go. And I’m cool with that. I’m fortunate to have an easy transition into the creative mode; I can slip in and out pretty instantaneously. I don’t need anything special, externally. And I’m comfortable letting stuff lie there if it’s not working at whatever moment. I obsess over the language and the rhythm, but sometimes get caught up in big stuff too. One time while revising a longer, flashback-heavy story, I printed out a draft in a super-tiny font and cut it into like twenty sections, and then sat on the living room floor physically rearranging the pieces. For whatever reason, at the time, I needed to see the whole story at once. I work hard at it, I guess, but above all I never let the process get precious. I don’t wear down paths. I’ve never, for example, done that paper cutting thing again. I do what I need to do until I feel done thinking about the story, and then I send it out. If someone likes it and wants to print it at that point, great.
Speaking of “Assembly,” I saw an early draft of that story in our MFA workshop. Then I saw another one some years later when I was at The Southern Review, where your story engendered one of the biggest (literature related) rows I’ve ever seen at an editorial meeting. As I remember it, the magazine offered to publish it only if you chucked the innovative formatting—and you refused. Can you talk a bit more about why that story in particular means so much to you and to this collection?
Okay, so, to clarify: the story is right-justified on the page, giving it a ragged left margin and allowing for the implementation of line breaks. It has short paragraphs that could be called stanzas. It looks sort of poemy. After I submitted it to The Southern Review, Jeanne Leiby—the editor at the time—expressed interest in the story but was only willing to print it if we went with a standard, left-justified format. She felt my format slowed the piece down unnecessarily, and unsuccessfully. I disagreed, but I did think about it for a day or two. I opened up the document and re-formatted it standard style. It was immediately clear that making that change robbed the piece of some things that were, to me, vital; it became a different story, really. So I turned her down. Because, look—she didn’t want to publish the story I wrote. And that’s part of what being an editor is. I disagreed with her reasons, but in the end it was just another editor taking a pass on a story. I was over it pretty quickly, just like any rejection. I think I was polite about it.
I don’t actually know that “Assembly” is all that important to me as a person, though I guess if I’m listing the No Animals stories I’m most satisfied with, it’s in the top five or six. And it does play a pretty important role in the collection because it’s about the creative act itself. It’s an allegory about what it means to create, what it means to work with building blocks that are comprised in part of your own flesh, your own history, your own being. It’s my way of working through how the creative act—which is after all fundamentally an act of borrowing—is nonetheless generative to the point where the creator himself is changed. The manner in which he owns his own life is changed. I’ve joked before that “Assembly” is my “Cathedral,” and while that’s a little bit absurd, certainly some of the same gestures are being attempted.
As a side note, since we were just talking about process, the formatting in “Assembly” is a good example of how process works in reality. I think for those who don’t devote large chunks of time and soul to creating things, artistic endeavors seem sort of mystically endowed, guided by some vision or muse or purity of thought. And while that romanticized account is not entirely inaccurate, it also doesn’t leave much allowance for (or give much credence to) experimentation, which really is the vast majority of what we do. Everything up until the point we release a piece into the wild is experimentation—and in a sense even the so-called finished product is an experiment. With “Assembly,” I first tried the right-justification for a simple reason: the protagonist’s name, Peter Lumley, is repeated well over one hundred times, often at the beginning of lines; visually, it just didn’t sit well. So I experimented, right-justifying the story to avoid the distracting alignment of the repeated name, and almost immediately all these other avenues of structural and thematic import opened up: the potential for line breaks, an unlubricated composition that puts constructive demands on the reader, a format that seems fabricated but begins to feel organic, the visual impact of a partially machined thing on the page (though no more machined than left-justified, really, which hopefully gets you thinking about what we define as fabricated to begin with), and an overall slightly off-kilter sensibility that’s tonally appropriate. But to whatever extent those elements are working, it’s not like I smote that shit from afar; you experiment, you discover, you seek resonance, and you herd things in a direction that seems true.
So how do you know when an experiment has succeeded?
Oh, man, well that’d be the answer to everything, wouldn’t it? What you’re asking about, I think, is the actual mechanism of inspiration. Inspiration isn’t the generation of ideas; it’s recognizing which ideas are worthwhile. Ideas are cheap, but measuring them is not. So those mystical things, those muses or whatever, they do have to come in at some level and whisper a kind of confidence.
How they whisper, and where the confidence comes from, I don’t know. I guess for me, try this: imagine a hedge maze that goes on forever. It doesn’t have an exit, but it doesn’t have any dead ends either. It’s just fantastically mazy. So if making choices while writing is like choosing which turns to take in this maze, the goal then is to know that the path I ultimately choose to leave intact on the page is a trip worth making. And of course I fuck up a lot in figuring that path out. I think making it work is less about choosing right paths—there are so many!—than recognizing wrong ones. To do that, you can backtrack. You can take time away to get airborne, or to get to a place where the twisting path looks like a line—I do that a lot, so that I can forget the turns I took or abandoned, leaving just the path that’s now there. It’ll either feel right-ish: good and true and resonant—or it’ll feel wrong: sick and sad and fucked, like I’ve stumbled into an unfriendly neighborhood, or like I’m watching weekday afternoon network television, or pursuing an ex-girlfriend who smelled wrong. And you get out of there fast, try another turn. I think that’s the muse I know best, a repulsive muse, the muse of wrongstink.
I mean, I’m simplifying. I’m skirting writerly instinct, and the way you get better as nosing out viable paths. But it’s not about being sure my experiments are successful; it’s more about writing until I reach a place where I do not lament, or even necessarily remember, the results of those experiments. A place where I feel no push to experiment further. After all, the goal is to create a path that appears as though it could never have been other than what it is—which of course is the biggest lie writers tell to the world, the whole point of what we do.