“A Book is a Machine for Stories”

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An Interview with Gregory Howard

Gregory Howard and I met in the late 90s when we’d both transplanted ourselves from large cities to the cornfields of Illinois to study fiction with intimidatingly smart teachers and to intern in literary publishing. Greg had come from a background of Jesuit boy’s school, literature-and-gender studies at Boston College, the mid-90s Boston indie and punk scenes, and a job at Brookline Booksmith, all of which made him about the most literary person I’d ever met. He introduced me to the work of Georges Perec and to Calvino’s Six Memos. Since then we’ve always had many favorite writers in common. He holds an M.A. from Illinois State, a PhD from the University of Denver, teaches on the creative writing faculty at the University of Maine, and has a debut novel—Hospice—just published by FC2, which gave us this chance to catch up.

Hospice is a comic novel, an absurdist novel, a fairly dark psychological novel, and what I would call ambulatory—not a story about walking but a story that itself likes to walk. Its three parts cover different periods in the life of its protagonist, Lucy: 1) the disappearance of her brother from her childhood, and the return of someone who looks like her brother but isn’t; 2) her ill-fated period of babysitting, first for an imaginary dog and then for two very strange children; and 3) her time working in a hospice, during which she becomes obsessed with finding a fabled hospital that travels from place to place and that is apparently a portal to the afterlife. 

The book is full of “tales,” like a storybook, but the larger narrative that contains them is anything but simple. Events seem random but take on meaning, but then lose meaning and seem random again. Characters are not really sane or insane but rather some variation of both. As the title suggests, death looms, and is often welcome, or sought, or possibly has already arrived, and we are on the far side of the mirror. Not that the book actually says that, but that’s the feeling it gives me: life has been flipped, and now we are going to go through it all again, backwards.

—Martin Riker

I. GOOD-BYE, GOOD-BYE, GOOD-BYE.

THE BELIEVER: Before we talk about the book I thought I’d ask about your complicated relationship to the concept of “home,” which you write a lot about in Hospice and elsewhere. In your essay “The Object is Always Magic,” for example, you write: “The uncanny, we know from Freud, is that feeling of the unheimlich, or the unhomely—the feeling that we are not at home in our home or at home in a place we should not be at home.” 

Elsewhere you talk about “the mysteriousness of home, the foreignness of home.” Why is “home”—usually the embodiment of wholesomeness—in your hands so disorienting?

GREGORY HOWARD: Well, home is a complex and resonant idea. Even just the word itself, that long “o" sound that seems to evoke both contentment and haunting. As a kid I was terribly susceptible to feeling vulnerable even in the safest of places. I was very small for my age, which either created or amplified the feeling. And also I was drawn to, while remaining thoroughly terrified by, ghost stories and horror. Sometimes just the idea of horror movies, like just the plot outlines friends would recite, stayed with me so vividly that I couldn’t sleep. I can remember turning out the lights downstairs and running up to my room so fast, just possessed with the wild terror and the certainty that there was something in the dark coming to claim me. 

So in some ways my interest in home and in the uncanny in Hospice and in essays and stories has this personal excavation, a way of externalizing fears and anxieties into a phantasmagoria that I can work with. This is often my approach to writing, even when I don’t know it’s happening. Hospice, for example, contains a lot of chopped-up, distorted bits of autobiography, stuff only I and maybe a few family members would recognize. 

This material—setting and scenes—just began to attach itself to the book as the focus became more and more clear. I got a lot of creative juice out of lightly distorting memories and putting them in fictional locations. Or placing purely fictional events in places I knew and could describe intimately. The whole idea of the uncanny challenges our sense of self, which to me is always interesting and important. In the end the interest in home is interest in identity. What does it mean to think of yourself as a self? How are we foreign to ourselves?

BLVR: Personal estrangement seems a good place to jump into Hospice, although it is actually just one of the many kinds of strangeness going on here. Even formally, there’s insanity inside of insanity, or melancholy inside of hilarity inside of absurdity, all of which only works, as far as I can tell, because the book manages to constantly press “reset” on the normality button. Is that a type of reality-making you grew into, or did you take the idea from somewhere?

GH: I like that description of what the book does, and I think my answer is a little of both. I mean, there are certainly books very dear to me that do what you are talking about. Both At Swim-Two-Birds and The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien present the reader with one set of rules for the world, for what’s “normal,” and then shift the ground, sometimes radically, and expect the reader—and the often the main character or other characters—to keep up, or at least hold on. And, of course, there’s  Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, maybe the primary example of this kind of thing. Alice sometimes feels so important to me—in its lunacy, satire, and sadness—that it feels like air.

But okay, with Hospice there were a few different things at work. When I started writing what would become the book I found myself constantly writing these pieces that opened with a dramatic situation, and then as it moved toward completion of the action, would suddenly swerve away to talk about or describe or narrate something else, leaving a gap. 

At the same time I was reading a lot about trauma and narrative and how those who undergo a traumatic experience are simultaneously drawn to the origin of their trauma but are also constantly avoiding it. They are attracted and repulsed without knowing why. And one more thing, I had this phrase in mind, this thing that just got stuck in my head: a book is a machine for stories. So as the initial pieces kept metastasizing into a larger story, I began to understand that I wanted the book to be a mechanism that contained many different stories and I wanted these stories to reflect Lucy’s own story, but I didn’t really want Lucy to know her own story. It was the effort at working with not-knowing that prompted me to keep pushing her into situations that reset the “normality.”

BLVR: In terms of stories, and also of Flann O’Brien: I should clarify that there’s Lucy’s own adventures but also the self-contained “tales” other characters keep telling her along the way. These tales are the closest the book comes to O’Brien, I thought, and reminded me in particular of the ending of At Swim-Two-Birds: “Well-known, alas, is the case of the poor German who was very fond of three and who made each aspect of his life a thing of triads. He went home one evening and drank three cups of tea with three lumps of sugar in each cup, cut his jugular with a razor three times and scrawled with a dying hand on a picture of his wife good-bye, good-bye, good-bye.”

It’s not just the parody and comedy but the ghoulishness that you seem to have mined. It’s the ghoulishness that lets the fantastical elements of your book feel something other than just charming.

GH: Isn’t that ending the best? It’s one of my favorites in all of literature. For one thing: it comes completely out of the blue, which suits that book entirely—how else could it end?—and, two, for me, it completely alters my understanding and feeling toward what I’d been reading the whole time. It recasts the book in terms of a sadness and despair I didn’t realize was there because all of the foregoing is just so flat-out funny and antic. 

But to answer the question: I’m definitely attracted to the ghoulish, and in Hospice I was interested in teasing out for myself the relationship between the ghoulish and the comic. When the comic can mask a deeper, darker more emotionally impactful monstrosity, something that can emerge in the text briefly and disrupt things, in the way I talk about Flann O’Brien doing at the end of At Swim. It’s a weird and tricky balance. I don’t want to revel in it because I think that can be too simplistic. Darkness gets mistaken all too easily and often for seriousness. Instead I wanted the book to have both comic and emotional shocks, for those to reinforce but also contradict each other. This feels more interesting to me as a writer, and also maybe a bit more true in terms of literature as an intuition of life.  

That all of it comes from the other characters that Lucy meets maybe stems from my desire to have those characters function as doorways for Lucy. Each one is a kind of possible future depending on what actions she might take or not take. So the book becomes a kind of labyrinth. Which door does Lucy choose? Monster? Monster? Monster?

BLVR: “Darkness gets mistaken all too easily and often for seriousness”?

GH: Yeah, definitely. I think there’s a notion that a fiction or work of art that explores or represents the darkness of the world is doing this job of troubling the status quo by showing us what’s really going on. There’s a romance to that idea, as well as a fetishization, in the sense that it becomes the single aspect worshiped, extracted from the whole.

BLVR: Maybe it’s a difference between grotesque as “truth” and grotesque as art. On that subject—the grotesque—I have a follow-up on Hospice’s structure: One effect of having Lucy’s own adventures interspersed with these tales people tell to her is that the book ends up feeling partly like a modern psychological novel (Lucy and her story) but mostly, to me, like a road novel, unfolding as a string of episodes and tales, or like a basket of surprises: and around this next corner lies the most extraordinary thing. 

Structurally, it is not an overly tidy book, and it makes me think about why I (and you, I know) are such fans of what I might call “messy” literature, books that don’t quite add up, or add up to something distinctly irregular.

GH: I hadn’t really thought of Hospice as a road novel/picaresque. Do you think it’s because work that doesn’t add up and is messy or irregular strikes a kind of strange balance between fiction as art and fiction as intuition of life? Like the episodic nature of it speaks to life as succession of moments but the artifice of creating small narratives and scenes that must work on their own and then arranging them into something larger give is its own distinct aesthetic thrill? There’s certainly something more spacious for me in these kinds of books.

BLVR: I think for me it’s more about energy. I like the energy of a well-orchestrated mess.

GH: You know, around the time I began to write Hospice—and ever since—I’ve been really interested in installations that work with narrative. There’s this work I’ve been obsessed with—called The House, by the Finnish artist Eija-Liisa Athila—and it tells the story of a woman struggling with mental illness during a retreat to a country house. It’s a film. And in the work the film is projected onto three screens at the same time and each screen shows a segment of time from the linear narrative. The woman arriving, the woman getting the house ready, the memories that become material. But it’s all happening at the same time and so it’s simultaneously comic and sad and terrifying and quietly transcendent. There’s something about this I want to recreate on the page so badly, as ill-conceived as that is. I love the idea of literature as a room or series of rooms that allow you to be present as it slowly unfolds itself in all its capacities. Maybe the thing about the “messy” text is that for me it does more with the variety of pleasures and experiences that fiction can bring.

II. CONNECTION AND ESCAPE

BLVR: Let’s talk about character and story. You said earlier, “I didn’t want Lucy to really know her own story.” What is her story and why doesn’t she see it (I agree that she doesn’t)?

GH: In the book her brother disappears and it has a profound effect on her. The book keeps the reasons for the brother’s disappearance coded. I was interested in writing a child’s understanding of a cataclysmic event—something experienced in fragments, whispers, viewed from around corners—and it seemed to me a child would try to understand it through stories and games, which distort and change the experience, then become the experience. But I also wanted to create in Lucy or for Lucy the experience of being born along from event to event while under the surface of her life images and gestures are reaching out to other images and gestures, creating patterns and connections she can’t see. Like walking across a lake of clouded ice while strange creatures swim underneath you.

But so what is Lucy’s story? I think generally her story is the desire for connection, for wholeness, and she sees this in absolutes. So it’s a story about "growing up” and resistance to “growing up” or what does a fiction look like that simultaneously demands and resists this for its protagonist.

BLVR: It’s funny you say “connection” because I was thinking the opposite. There’s a passage I pulled as particularly meaningful—although probably I could have pulled any number of other passages and decided those were the meaningful ones. But mine is when Lucy is living in a house full of girls and there’s a girl who had left but now has returned, a prodigal girl, and you write about Lucy that she “would sit on the bed and stare at the clothes and imagine that she was that girl that had left and come back. Or maybe she was about to leave and would never come back. She might have been someone like that, someone desired, whose memory would be tended with care and devotion.” Everywhere characters want to escape into dream, or into death, or into some mysterious haze while also being able to watch themselves missed. That made me think “escape” more than “connection,” although I suppose in this instance they aren’t very different things. You’ve talked about “the uncanny” and maybe the touchstone here is Kafka, his story “The Burrow,” the one about the paranoid creature who builds an elaborately fortified underground home then stations himself outside, watching the entrance from afar, as if hoping someone will finally attack it.

GH: That relationship between connection and escape is important to me. I was interested in how the desire to connect turns into the desire of escape when the idea of connection is confronted with the reality of what it means to create and sustain connections—the messiness of that. I have these moments I remember—and, to my detriment, enshrine—where I felt totally connected to a person or a situation, where everything felt emotionally saturated and time was full and slow, and then I’ve tried to recreate that exact experience, thinking that this is what it meant to be with other people or in the world, and the whole thing is a farce. In thinking about this dialectic (connection and escape) escape does a couple things. There’s the sense of just fleeing into something that buffers Lucy from the world and her own desires; so, safety. And there’s also the thing you describe, escape as a means to watch how other people create you in your absence, which feels like a way of managing connection that obviates the very possibility of it. Kafka is definitely an influence in this, but also Walser. His work, besides being funny, has this interest in the small and tender that I find really appealing. The apocryphal story, which I don’t think is true, about Walser, after being institutionalized, saying, "I came here not to write but to be mad,” was like a secret mantra of the whole composition of this book.

III. FEEDING THE LAKE

BLVR: We’ve thrown a bunch of writers’ names around and I think that makes sense because, although not overtly referential, Hospice strikes me as a novel that has a stronger-than-usual interest in other novels, in how it belongs to various literary traditions and in what it adds to those traditions. It wears its traditions on its sleeve. Maybe I think this only because I know you and I know those are things you care about.

GH: There’s this Jean Rhys quote that I love where she talks about literature being a big lake and that the responsibility of the writer is to feed the lake. You can feed it in huge torrents like a Dostoyevsky (that’s her example, but you could insert someone like David Foster Wallace) or in a small trickle, which was how she thought about herself. But the importance is to feed the lake. I find this very moving and important because it shifts thinking about literature from like “capital I” importance or commentary to thinking about it as this web, this network, this relationship. It becomes about contributing to something large and wondrous and life-giving (it’s a lake, after all). It becomes art as conversation, which is way more interesting to me than art as statement. My reading and my influences have been fairly eclectic. Early on I got captivated by Woolf and Calvino and Cortázar. And when we met, learning about the traditions that Dalkey Archive Press valued was like getting my brain scrambled and shoved back inside my head. There’s been so much that formed me and continues to form me. If there’s anything about Hospice that reads as idiosyncratic it might be the product of trying to think about what kind of writer I wanted to be and how to talk back to all these various influence. Like for example: we’ve known each other for a long time and I think you know how important Beckett has been to me and I was really happy to write a book that I felt honored my love of him but in a way that was relatively free of the stylistic sway he held for so long. I know that as a writer I’m trying to, in some small way, return the gift that I got, and maybe provide a reader the kind of experience that has changed my life.

BLVR: And so you’ve packed into Hospice so many of your obsessions, literary and otherwise. Post-Hospice, do you have obsessions left? Or will you be writing very normal books from now on?

GH: Hospice was a very personal book—in oblique and strange ways—and one that did exhaust certain ideas and images I’d been carrying around, caring about, for a while.  And afterward I did feel like I needed time to reset.  But one of the things I prize most about being a writer is its license—you could even say injunction—to be curious, to follow anything anywhere and see where it might take you, how it can transform you, whether in content or form. Sometimes I think of writing as becoming this antenna that picks up the vibrations all around me in order to find out how and where next I’ll be steered. So I guess I’m saying I don’t see myself running out of obsessions, literary or otherwise.

Like one of my favorite books is Cesare Pavese’s The House on the Hill. In its way it’s a fairly straightforward, realist novel.  It tells the story of a teacher in Turin during the Allied bombings in WWII. As the novel unfolds the teacher’s relationship changes to Turin and to his friends and the war itself, as the war enters its final stages. I’ve thought about this book a lot over the past ten years, as we lived through a state of war, though separated from it, buffered. It seems to me that The House on the Hill is doing something very strange, in a subtle way, with the war novel, something I want to think about and formulate for myself and then try out. And there’s always something like this, something needling at me. There are so many people right now producing exciting and challenging stuff.  Plus sentences and paragraphs and scenes and chapters of many different stripes I just return to again and again, trying to figure out the art and craft.

There’s a Brazilian artist named Cildo Meireles who I’m thinking about a lot right now, because of the new project I’m working on. He created these amazing installations and conceptual pieces that invoked and challenged the culture and power structure during the violent rule of the Brazilian military dictatorship. But he did so through the creation of spaces that deployed powerful symbolic images, images that spoke about the violence without naming it directly. I keep thinking about how I can create something that has immediate impact but then also reveals itself slowly in this way. How can this be created in language, using a medium that works (most often) sequentially in time?

Science is also important to me. Hospice certainly worked with trauma theory, but a lot of other material that got cut—but stayed with the book in spirit—had to do with neurological studies of injuries to the brain and how people’s whole identities can be rewired after having a brain injury. People lost their emotional selves or their logical selves and became different people. The precariousness of who we think we are is just amazing. I think some of this research had something to do with the way the book resets itself over and over. The important thing is to always be in search of something.

And then strangely enough some of the stuff I thought I’d exhausted is working its way back into the new project I’m writing.

Martin Riker’s fiction and criticism have appeared in the Baffler, Conjunctions, NYTBR, WSJ, and the London Review of Books, among other publications.