"Pain can recalibrate your life."

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An Interview with Aaron Gwyn

Aaron Gwyn’s first book, a collection of stories titled Dog on the Cross, was a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award. His work has appeared in Esquire, McSweeney’s, and Glimmer Train. He teaches at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. 

We talked about his latest, Wynne’s War, a contemporary Western, set among an elite American Special Forces unit preparing to stage a secret mission on horseback in eastern Afghanistan.

—Kyle Minor

I. “THE UGLY FACT IS BOOKS ARE MADE OUT OF BOOKS”

KYLE MINOR: Wynne’s War opens with an epigraph from Cormac McCarthy. What kind of relationship have you had with his novels?

AARON GWYN: I’ve noticed that it’s become fashionable for young(er) novelists who’ve clearly been influenced by McCarthy to deny that influence.  I understand: nothing hurts as much as being figured out.  McCarthy himself, in the first interview he gave after the success of All the Pretty Horses, said: “the ugly fact is books are made out of books.”  I agree (though I don’t wouldn’t call that fact ugly.  I’d call it the “Western Literary Tradition.”

I started writing because of Faulkner, but I’ve developed into whatever kind of writer I am because of McCarthy’s western novels: Blood Meridian and The Border Trilogy.  I make no secret of the fact that Blood Meridian is my favorite book, and that it is, in my opinion, the best American novel after Absalom, Absalom and Moby Dick.  Followed very closely by Philipp Meyer’s absolute masterpiece, The Son.  So, I suppose my Top Five Novels would be:

1. Absalom, Absalom
2. Moby Dick
3. Blood Meridian
4. The Son
5. All the Pretty Horses

KM: What other novelists became important to you as you were deciding what kind of writer you wanted to become?

AG: I like Beckett’s novels. The Molloy “trilogy” and How It Is.  I like Ulysses quite a bit. I like that Nabokov guy (Lolita and Pale Fire, especially). I’ve read and reread Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke which is fantastic and contains the best dialogue of any novel I’ve ever read.  I love Gilead.  Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms is worth the hype (though it’s not as good as his short stories).  You can read Don DeLillo with a minimum risk of blindness: he writes amazing sentences, and every now and then he’ll make you feel a little something.  Ben Fountain’s debut novel is a knockout.  Ron Hansen is an American master (read Desperadoes and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford STAT).  I love John Williams’s Stoner.  I don’t know why more people aren’t reading James Carlos Blake (start with Wildwood Boys).  I’m a fiend for Roth’s 1990-2001 novels, one hit after another.  Everyone who reads this should go get a copy of Richard Bausch’s novel Peace: it’s a stunning “little” 200-page war novel set in WWII Italy.  It’s a complete gem.

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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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