Transcriptions in Trouble
Last summer, when the Columbia, Ohio-based press Two Dollar Radio announced that it had acquired Found Radio, by N.J. Campbell, I knew I would read it as soon as it came out. The form of the novel consists of a series of transcribed recordings of an unnamed journalist talking about his search for the mythical “City of Dreams,” accompanied by commentary from an audio expert, who has since gone missing, along with other people who have handled the strange material. The book promised to take the reader from the Louisiana Bayou to the Mongolian desert, with stops in Hong Kong and Istanbul.
Not only did Found Audio sound like a twisty Borgesian adventure story, but in the interview Two Dollar Radio posted with Campbell, he talked about his work of fiction as if it weren’t fiction at all. In deadpan answers, he explained how the transcriptions had come into his hands and discussed his anxiety about the consequences of publishing them. I loved how the dream-world of the novel already seemed to be invading the real world. As I should have suspected, this is exactly what it is about: the porousness between waking life and dreams and the breakdown of the barriers dividing them.
I read Found Audio in one sitting, a rarity for me. The voice of the novel—which is mostly the conversational voice of the mysterious journalist—is understated yet hypnotically vivid, making way for Campbell’s massive, Borgesian imagination. When I emailed him to beginning discussing his novel, I told him I almost wanted to keep the ruse going with our interview, but that I was too curious about his creative process not to break down the wall between fact and fiction in my questions. He graciously obliged.
THE BELIEVER: What was the seed of this novel—that first spark—and how did it evolve into the book it became?
N.J. CAMPBELL: I have a metal box, and I put all of my story ideas in it. About four years ago, I had the idea to write a story about a bounty hunter that hunted snakes in the bayou. I got the idea from a short article online that announced a bounty hunting season for invasive snake species in the Everglades with prize money for the largest haul. I have no idea why I was researching anything remotely related to this, but then I often find myself looking into things that seem not even tangentially related to whatever I thought I was doing. That was the first "moment" I had with the story. I wrote down a few notes and put them away, as I was busy with other material at the time. The next "moment" I had was two years later when, on a whim, I decided I wanted to literally experiment with voice. Not the voice of a narrator in any traditional sense, but the voice of a human being actually speaking. The only way I figured I could do that would be to frame it as an audio recording of some kind. As it was an experiment, I didn't want to invest any of the material I was particularly attached to at that moment, so I looked through the box for something that didn't seem so precious. The bounty hunter's story worked in more ways than one, so I started there.
As I was working on it as an exercise, rather than as a complete idea, I left a lot of room for play—for things to show up, fall apart, sparkle, dismantle themselves, and fade. I worked my way to the end of what I thought was a short story, and instead of giving up the experiment, I decided to deliberately see how far I could go. "What next?" I kept asking myself, and gradually I found myself starting to explore territory that was very personal to me. I found the questions I had asked with the work I was more attached to showing up more viscerally in the experiment, so I went with it.
By the end, I had three audio tapes from a library in Buenos Aires. There was a short preface about how the tapes had been found in an abandoned radio station in Wyoming, and that was it. I shopped it around, and after a year of rejections and waiting on what I thought was a lost cause in Two Dollar Radio's slush pile without an agent or an MFA, I was asked if the rights were still available. I signed with them shortly thereafter, and then Eric Obenauf, my editor, encouraged me to explore the meta-narrative a bit more explicitly. Six weeks later, I came back to him with what I had done, and at that point I had the book—more or less—in the shape that you see it in today.
BLVR: Were you aware of being under the influence of certain writers while working on Found Audio? Seems Borges and Pynchon are direct influences, as well as Calvino's Invisible Cities and Murakami's Wind-Up Bird Chronicle.
NJC: The tapes in the book bear the mark of a library in Buenos Aires. That is not my hat being tipped, but taken off and held in both hands before the imagination that was Borges'. That was the only deliberate homage I made in the book--to set the library in the city in which he was born and where he had run a library. I see other books in the book, of course—Invisible Cities, Siddhartha, Vasistha's Yoga, Chuang Tzu's The Inner Chapters, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Candide, even Pride and Prejudice, bizarrely enough—but any homage to whatever else I see in the book in retrospect was unconscious.
I think as writers we carry the influence of every other author we have ever read, though I'm not sure how far we carry it. Influence is a tricky, tricky thing. Where it begins and ends is such a complicated question. In a way, it's like if I were to ask you where you begin and where you end. On a physical level, you began at birth, and you will end at death. But is that "you", your subjective sense of self, your personality, your likes and dislikes that are less tangible than dates that adhere to a physical existence? Is the sum of who you are your time of birth and your time of death, or what you like or dislike, or your ambitions, your desires, or your complicated and confused motivations? Is it something ephemeral? Is it the ripples you make with your actions on the fabric of time and space that wash like waves over everything forever? It's a lot to think about for me.
BLVR: In a certain sense, more of the story exists outside the text than what is actually there to be read in the novel, leaving the reader to imagine many key elements of the story—what the circumstances were for the taping of the audio, what happened to the people who have since disappeared, etc. Do you have all of that figured out in your mind, and/or could you share any juicy clues?
NJC: I just got asked this question elsewhere, and I'd like to plagiarize myself and use the same answer: "It's been a bit of a hide and seek game with myself, actually. There are moments when I think I might know, and then there are moments when I know I don't. I really enjoy that, as we're so often left to wonder about life without any way of knowing what might or might not happen."
To add to that, I tend to shy away from making anything explicit about the book that I feel I should remain silent about. For me, to give anything 'more' about the book would be to mangle its weighted balance. As I see it, every book has a kind of balanced mass, and if I were to say anything that could change my book's weight distribution, it might tip over onto itself. I just gave away some of the other books I see within my book, and even that almost feels like giving away too much. I like the way David Lynch handles these types of situations. When asked what one of his films was about, he said "A woman in trouble." If that's not the most deliberately evasive answer ever given about a piece of art, I don't know what is. I laughed hysterically when I heard about that, and yet I recognized and understood exactly why he said it that way. It was an honest answer, and it was also a, 'No, thank you, I don't want to give explanations about my work.' I guess I feel ambivalent about any occasion to do so. I want to share, but not to the point where I'm giving away too much.
BLVR: There are some big metaphysical questions in the novel about what is dream and what is reality. Why is this a fascination for you, and what's your relationship with your dreams?
NJC: I've asked myself that many times, and I'm not sure I have a good answer, but the first time I asked that question was when I was very young. From an early age I had been concerned with what happened after death, the boundaries that people draw around right and wrong, and why I had been born in the first place. I thought everyone had these questions, but it wasn't until a friend came for a sleep over in the sixth grade that I learned that wasn't the case. I started talking about all this stuff and asked my friend what he thought. He was silent for a moment, and then he said, "Nate, I don't think about that stuff." I think we went back to talking about some new movie or video game, and then we went to bed. But as he drifted off to sleep, I wondered why he didn't think about that stuff.
I just have these questions, and I suspect a lot of other people do too, but as I get older these questions seem to become both more and less complicated than they were when I was a child. To use the example of a Matryoshka doll, I think of myself as a craftsman of these figures and the dolls themselves as my questions. I work hard to carve, adorn, paint, and nest one inside another, and because I am who I am, I spend countless hours refining them, contemplating their weight, their balance, and their form, but I never seem to find myself carving either the outermost or innermost doll—I'm just always working.
My relationship with my dreams is not something I'm completely comfortable talking about. There's material there for me, and I don't want to run the risk of repeating myself later on, so I'd like to excuse myself from that part of the question.
BLVR: What drew you to writing a novel—a non-audio form, excluding audio books—whose format and central plot device is a piece of audio?
NJC: I sit and I think and I dialogue with books. I have a hard time reading them, actually. What I mean by that, is that I read very slowly and I tend to stop a lot, to think about what's being said, and to think about what other questions might have been asked or addressed in the text. It doesn't particularly matter if what I'm reading is something I'm enjoying or something I'm not particularly interested in, I'm still thinking about the material, turning it over in my mind, and asking why I do or don't like it, why it even matters.
For me, novels have been the place where I've tended to find questions being asked in interesting and meaningful ways. There are a few philosophers—Plato, Descartes, Camus, and a few religious texts—psalms, the Tao Te Ching, and the Bhagavad-Gita that I find—to one degree or another—interesting and accessible, but mostly it's stories of one length or another that tend to address poignant questions about humanity and existence with ease and dexterity. Young Goodman Brown, Prometheus Bound, Hamlet, some of the stories of Colette, The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon—these are questions in story form.
I don't pause podcasts to stop and think about them very often. I can't easily listen to the same sentence ten times to appreciate its textures, and I'm not very good about following song lyrics. On one level, that's why it's a book. Beyond that, I've written and rewritten just now what I might say about why I chose to do what I did, but none of it rings true. I'm certain there are subconscious reasons, but beyond wanting to experiment with voice, dialect, and sound as written word, I'm not sure what to say.
BLVR: How did the length of the novel take shape? I could easily imagine another version of the book that is four or five hundred pages, but Found Audio weighs in at under 150 pages.
I wanted it to be short. On one level, it's an introduction to my work. It's a, "Hi, I'm new here. I wrote a book. You don't have to invest much to see what's going on." And on another level, I wanted to see how dense I could make it, as in, "How fast and far can I go with this?"
I wrote short form almost exclusively for close to a decade—everything around 1,500 words—in an attempt to learn on a sentence by sentence level what I could do in that amount of space. As writing is a process, I'll never be done learning, but so far, I've found that my stories have tended to benefit from compression. That's not true of all my stories, but that's been true of many.
BLVR: What's next for you?
Aaron Shulman has written for The New Republic, The American Scholar, and The Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. A former Fulbright scholar in Guatemala, his book about the Panero family of Spain, The Disenchantment, will be published by Ecco/HarperCollins in 2018.