5x5: Brian Evenson

 Illustrations by Josephine Demme

In this series five different writers talk to one writer about five (or more) of his different books. In this second interview, Matt Bell talks to Brian Evenson about The Open CurtainRead the first interview with Colin Winnette.

Matt Bell in Conversation with Brian Evenson

The Open Curtain was the first of Brian Evenson’s books I read, after hearing Dan Wickett of Dzanc Books and Aaron Burch of Hobart gush over it at a post-reading get together in Ann Arbor, shortly after the book’s release in 2006. I can remember much of their conversation focusing around the book’s third part, “Hooper, Amuck,” and for good reason: It’s a third act that rearranges and reimagines much of what came before, reopening the book’s mysteries in one of the finest refusals of easy resolution I’ve ever seen. Reading The Open Curtain rearranged what I thought novels were capable of, what I thought I wanted from endings, and reading the rest of Evenson’s body of work offered similarly disorienting and entrancing experiences. At AWP in 2009, Evenson gave a talk as part of a panel on “Truth and Consequences in Non-Realist Fiction” where he shared an anecdote about one of the best compliments he’d ever received about his fiction: “Someone wrote to tell me that after reading one of my books he woke up in the middle of the night and went into the bathroom and turned on the light and found he could not recognize himself in the mirror. You could argue that this is simply an indication that you shouldn’t read certain kinds of fiction before bed, but it resonated for me in that that same questioning of, and loss of, self is something that I experience every time I write.” There are many such lovely and wounding and transformative losses of self in Evenson’s work, and I was grateful to get to talk to him about how the ones in The Open Curtain came to be and about how that novel paved the way for the books that followed.

—Matt Bell

I. THE ONES THAT CAME BEFORE

MATT BELL: The Open Curtain was published in 2006, and was (I believe) your seventh book and second novel. Since then, if I’ve got my count right, you’ve published two other novels and two short story collections under your own name, plus four books as B.K. Evenson, plus eight works of translation, by Christophe Claro, Manuela Draeger, and others. That’s an incredible five years of literary productivity, and I wonder if it makes The Open Curtain seem longer ago for you than it was. The time between The Open Curtain and now isn’t necessarily enormous, but the art distance between them is sort of staggering: I’m having a hard time thinking of a literary writer who’s produced more strong work in such a short time. There’s a similar effect for me as a reader: The Open Curtain was the first novel of yours I read, and even though I’ve read it twice since there’s still a sense in which it’s my “first” Brian Evenson experience, with all the rest of your writing following.

How do you see The Open Curtain, when you look back at it? Do you have a sense of how it was different than the work that came before it, or how it might have anticipated what came after?

BRIAN EVENSON: Well, it’s a little tricky in that even though The Open Curtain came out in 2006 it was finished in 2004 and it was something I’d been working on for almost five years before that. It’s the book I’ve worked on the longest, and really does span a time when my work was changing and developing, when I was becoming more open to genre, when my narratives were becoming fuller and more developed, where I was starting, I think, to complicate the minimalist gestures of my earlier fiction with something else. And so, I was working on it when I was also working on The Wavering Knife, for instance, and I think the fact that that book ended up winning an International Horror Guild prize opened up some doors for me with The Open Curtain. The positive reception in the genre world that The Brotherhood of Mutilation (the first half of Last Days) got in 2003 also was important. Both those and several other things were instrumental in terms of changing my sense of what I was able to do as a writer, and I think that The Open Curtain began as one sort of book and only could come to its own after I’d really changed both as a human and as a writer. 

The Open Curtain was also something I thought of as a book that would teach people how to read my earlier books and it did something that I hadn’t done to that point: It has two at least relatively straightforward sections followed by a third that cracks open the reality so far created. It took me a long time (literally years) to come up with the recursive gesture that I use in the first several chapters of that final section, but that, I think, ended up opening something in terms of the fragmenting of reality that would end up being important both in the short fiction I’ve done since and in Immobility. I think The Open Curtain is the book I’ve learned the most doing, and definitely an important transitional moment for me.

MB: I’m interested to hear you say you wanted The Open Curtain to teach people how to read the earlier books, both because I’m curious what they’d been missing, and also because I think it’s interesting to consider the role of the writer in molding the reaction of readers over a body of work. What had readers gotten wrong about the earlier books? Was there any part of this desire that stemmed from your own changing understanding of the previous works?

BE: It wasn’t that readers had gotten anything wrong, only that some readers had a difficult time figuring a way into the work, or were repulsed by the violence, or came to the work, because of what they’d read about me in reviews, with preconceived notions of what they were going to read. I think the idea I had—and I didn’t have this when I began the book, only once I was in it—was that the book would mimic being relatively straightforward and then would get weirder as it went, and would finally crack open with the third section. I hoped that I’d bring certain sorts of readers in with the early pages and then gradually complicate things so that they were entering into a very different literary space almost without knowing. That seems to have worked, since that book was a finalist for the Edgar Award. The way I used to talk about the book that would become The Open Curtain when I was in the very early stages was that I wanted to write a book that was a series of three novellas, each of which would make you reconsider the ones that came before, each of which would in some senses erase or destroy what came before it so that you’d be left at the end with nothing, not knowing exactly what had happened to you. It doesn’t do that exactly, but it makes some gestures toward it, and the beginning of part three does it in lesser form. Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy does in fact do this, being a series of three novels, each of which makes you question what you thought you knew from the first one.

 

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"If something looks wrong there is probably something wrong."

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River Valley—from Transfigurations (32”x40” Gelatin Silver Print)

Bucky Miller in Conversation with Photographer Michael Lundgren

In Michael Lundgren’s kitchen there is something called the cabinet of death. It houses mostly artifacts that the photographer collects in the deserts of the Southwestern United States and Northern Mexico, but among the expected seed pods, mammal skulls, and dried-out lizards are some dusty, mysterious bits of technological evidence. The most memorable of these is a half-melted and charred orange pill bottle that has fused to the digital camera memory card it contained, creating a reliquary for something unknowable but entirely relatable.

The cabinet is a reasonable parallel to Lundgren’s picture-making. His first book, Transfigurations (Radius, 2008) was akin to a Sonoran landscape survey performed by a magical realist. The work he’s made since, which he calls Matter, is a bit different. The landscape has remained the same, but Mike’s relationship to it has evolved.  A selection of those pictures are on view at Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco as part of the exhibition Where There’s Smoke from July 10—August 23. On a recent and unexpected drive through the Arizona desert Mike and I started talking about the shift in his picture making and I started recording.

—Bucky Miller

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Untitled—from Transfigurations (20” x 24” Gelatin Silver Print)

I. LOOK AT IT

THE BELIEVER: Your first book really was entrenched in the history of landscape photography, and I think the new work is less tied to the generation of photographers who influenced you. It deals with landscape in a way we aren’t used to seeing.

MICHAEL LUNDGREN: Exactly. The older work, I’ve been noticing more and more now looking at it, was really my way of digesting history, tracing the path of history in terms of photography in general, and specifically landscape photography. It charts the path of my understanding of my predecessors. It’s much less mine, even though I had thought it was mine at the time.

The new work has much less precedent, and the precedent is not in landscape photography. Even though it’s connected to the landscape, the precedent is in work that’s maybe only become possible because of the pictures generation.

BLVR: Like what?

ML: The idea that photographs come from other places. The idea that a valid art photograph does not just come from the solo artist with a vision, but that one can glean things from contemporary culture, from the vernacular, from advertising. That generation changed the way we see pictures. Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel are probably the largest, most obvious influence.

BLVR: Evidence.

ML: Yeah. They are the biggest influence in the known world. In the unknown world, which is where the best work is, other artists are important.

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Hari Kondabolu and Alex Edelman in Conversation

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When two comedians have their first really long conversation—usually after hours, in the back room of a comedy club—there’s this kind of pleasant squaring-off. The pair sort of kick their frames of references into alignment, marking out likes and dislikes, talking shop. You circle, and size each other up. It’s like wrestling but very gentle.

Hari Kondabolu is a comedian and former organizer genuinely interested in the stuff he talks about onstage: baseball, music, family, social justice. Which was why I decided I wanted to sit down with him and my Windows phone and his iPhone in Brooklyn last May. Our afternoon begins with our getting lost in Park Slope on the way to a meal—Were you following me? never follow me—and continues over omelettes. We skip some things: Kondabolu’s time spent as writer and correspondent on both seasons of the recently cancelled FXX show Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell, for instance, and we spend as little time as possible talking about race, a subject that has come up in “literally every interview [he’s] done” about his new album, Waiting for 2042. We don’t talk much about the album either.

—Alex Edelman

I. DIFFERENT KINDS OF SILENCES

HARI KONDABOLU: It should be noted that I’m Hari Kondabolu and I’m using my iPhone to record the interview.

ALEX EDELMAN:It should be noted that I’m Alex Edelman. I’m using my Windows Phone to record this interview. We have competing recordings.

HK: Is this print?

AE: This is print. Some unlucky intern will have to sift through this recording and bang it out. [1]

HK: Is it a paid intern?

AE: I hope it’s a paid intern. I would never do unpaid internships. That’s tantamount to slavery.

HK: It’s not tantamount to slavery.

AE: Well, “slavery” is a broad word.

HK: It’s not a broad word. It’s very narrowly defined. Internships are some kind of upper-middle class slavery. Which isn’t slavery at all.

AE: Well, then this is the end of the interview, I guess. Me offending you.

[Laughter.]

AE: I’ve run into you in auspicious places.

HK: Where did we meet?

AE: We did Morgan Venticinque’s show together.He had this show in a basement and there was a beam directly in front of your face and every performer mentioned it.There was a loud group in the corner—

HK: Did I yell at them?

AE: You did yell, but you were in the right. I remember thinking This is a guy who knows what his comedy is worth.

HK: I hope I finished that set and then stormed out.

AE: Ugh, why? There’s no glory in that.

HK: Every now and then you find a little bit of magic when you’re forced to adjust your material to the room, and some gold comes out of it. There’s a difference between offense and defense, to use a sports analogy. That’s defense, to get something out of a tough room. When a crowd loves you, that’s offense. When you have a good crowd, you can push further a little bit because they’re with you for the easiest parts. When you’re on defense, you might not get to any part of the joke, but being pushed against makes you force yourself to push back. And pushing back makes you come up with stuff.

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