Some writers seem like they walked straight out of one of their own stories—the punky novelist who writes about freakishness, or the Bohemian who writes about lost worlds of Europe, for example. Fiction writer Brian Evenson is just about one of the most cheerful, good-humored authors one can encounter. He wears sweaters and texts his daughters on his iPhone and is married to children’s book author Kristen Tracy, and one wouldn’t know it on sight or even if one had a polite conversation with him at a cocktail party, but he also has one of the most disturbed, savage literary intellects currently walking around this side of sanity (but how does one know which side one is on anyway). For those who have not yet had the profound experience of having one’s mind/value system/sense of philosophical peace (delightfully) put through the shredder of an Evenson story, his are novels of nightmarish puzzles in which limbs are systematically amputated, tongues go missing, and youthful love decays into religious perversion. These are stories in which human nature is explored at its most foolish and cruel, society has devolved into barely functional hierarchies driven by cultish fanaticism, and the “good guys” are some version of the anti-Christ. Evenson’s fictional worlds are complicated by the dark beauty of his prose, which alternates between decadence (typically regarding the bizarre and grotesque) and icy focus (typically regarding the metaphysical).
Last year, Evenson published a new short story collection, Windeye, as well as a novel, Immobility. Windeye includes depraved revisions of (already nasty) fairy tales and Sladen suits in which characters disappear (a Sladen suit, by the way, is one of those creepy, old diving suits from back in the day). Immobility is basically about the end of civilization and how much humans suck and how unwittingly one can work very hard to repeat the stupid tragedies of history even more stupidly than before (misanthropes: draw a hot bath and get the bourbon; nervous types: you’ll need your smelling salts). His chapbook, Babyleg, published in 2009 by Tyrant Press in a limited edition of 400, has become something of a cult hit, featuring a twisted, rather revolting seductress who, indeed, has a baby leg.
Interview by Rachel Cole Dalamangas
Many of your stories begin as a puzzle, but rather than allowing a reader to put the pieces together, there are more and more pieces, but never the one that would complete the picture. Where do these puzzles come from? Do you ever set yourself up with a puzzle to write and decide to abandon it?
I think it’s less that I have a puzzle in mind and abandon it and more that I’m really suspicious of knowledge as a concept. I really have a hard time believing we can ever know anything for certain, but at the same time I feel that so much about human experience is about interpreting signs, making connections, making leaps, finding ways of defining different experiences and different realities as significant. That puzzle-solving impulse is very human, I think, but at the same time it’s so easy to start to see things as significant that probably aren’t, to believe that the world around you is “telling you something.” The line between the normal human process of interpreting signs and the overinterpretation of them that can be a symptom of madness is pretty thin. My work, I think, both enjoys that puzzle-solving impulse but also is very skeptical of it, and tries to get at the basic human frustration of never being quite able to make as much sense of the world as we’d like.
Tell me about your writing process. Your narratives tend to pull off acrobatic feats of destabilized perspectives, broken flashbacks that turn out to be copies of the past and future, and paradoxes taken to the edge, but all this is still reliant on a linear movement of plot. Do you write your stories straight through? Or in pieces? Do you always know how they’ll end?
I generally do write them straight through, from one end to the other, though over a number of days, and often revise the first pages of something before continuing on as a way of trying to give a sense of continuity and flow. I’ve spoken about this with Jesse Ball, a friend of mine, who writes work that looks like it’s discontinuous but which he usually writes straight through. I think for me (and maybe for him) there’s something about the excitement of those jumps and breaks coming as I’m writing that makes them more meaningful and significant—there’s an element of risk, I think, to suddenly allowing things to swerve. I do revise a lot when I’m writing something, but very early in the process I get the structure in place—I end up revising rhythm and wording and pacing rather than taking a chunk of a story out and moving it—though I do sometimes make big cuts. I am, as you mention, a fairly linear writer, but I don’t know where I’m going or how it’ll end. If I do figure out too early how a story might end, I usually stop writing it because I get bored . . .
As I recall, over coffee you once told me that you began writing as a child. Your mother wanted time to write and would assign writing projects to you and your siblings to distract all of you. Do you have or recall any of these old stories that you wrote as a child? Did you ever read your mother’s work?
I did read my mother’s work. She wrote just a couple of stories, which were Mormon science fiction stories and which negotiated in curious ways between Mormonism and science fiction. I think that was one of my first exposures to work that participated in several different genres (though very different genres than most mixed genre work). I still have a few of the stories I was writing back then. They included a story starring a rock who lived in the center of the earth, a story in which the Messiah is living in a cabin and refusing to hold the second coming, and a story that’s a retelling of the Stormalong tall tale.
The title, Windeye, comes from the etymology of the word, window, which means, literally from Old Norse, “a wind eye.” Do you study etymology? Where do your titles come from?
I’m interested in etymology. I’m interested in languages in general and the relations between languages. My titles come from all over—sometimes from a line or moment in the story. Often that’s the last thing I settle on with a story. Usually my titles are a little understated, tending toward the minimal. I don’t know why I like that, but I do.
In your three most recent books—Baby Leg, Windeye, Immobility—reality is destabilized and the reader, along with the usually pitiable narrator, is unsure of what is “true” within the texts. This, and the surreal-sci-fi qualities of your stories, operate in tension to the use of literary techniques that are hallmarks of realism: random details that speak to the chaos of life, sophisticated moral problems, natural dialogue. Can you tell me about your tendencies to genre-bend?
I read a lot and tend to read in all sorts of different directions, and tend to read very different things back to back or at the same time. I think that naturally encourages a tendency to genre-bend that’s probably more deep-rooted in an attitude about the world. When I was growing up my father was very insistent about using the “right” tool for the “right” job, whereas I just really felt like you should use anything that works and be able to see the virtual possibilities in non-tools. So, instead of using a screwdriver to tighten a screw, know when you can use a dime. I think I was naturally looking for ways of doing things that didn’t really follow the rules, and I like the tension that comes from bringing different generic regimes together to interact.
Even though you’re known as a genre-bender, it seems that “horror” is the label most often applied to your work. Does this nucleus of horror in your narratives signal a philosophical attitude?
Hard question. I guess I would say that there’s a philosophical attitude toward the world that informs all my work, and that it’s something that probably is friendly with ideas of horror. I think of horror as an art form that, at least in certain of its aspects, is very interested in the unknowability of the world and of what that makes us think about the condition of being human.
One thing that’s interesting to compare between the stories of Windeye and Immobility is the way the object-world is focused on technology. Windeye contains a number of archaic objects—my favorite: the sladen suit—and Immobility contains both objects of the future and objects of wreckage. Where does the object of the book fit into the progression of technology?
I think of the book as a very sturdy sort of technology in that it doesn’t rust, lasts for a long time, and has very few parts that can break to make it non-functional. It’s also easily replicable and proliferates—and now is able to proliferate in electronic form as well almost instantaneously. Even when it’s an object of wreckage, the printed book is quite accessible and assimilable. I guess I see the book as related to the wheel and the e-book as something like the car: the first technology is something long-lasting and likely to continue: the second technology is more recent and not likely to last more than a few centuries (if that). But after the car is gone, something will still be around that is made possible by the wheel.
I don’t know if you saw Steve Pinker’s non-fiction book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. Pinker argues, essentially, that humans are slowly getting better, not worse. The leftover societies in Immobility are heavily considered and critiqued by Horkai, the narrator, and the Kollaps that brought about the wasteland is alluded to as a human error. Do you think humans will do themselves in with their own technology and if so, do you think there will be any writers left over? What will they write about?
I do think that we as humans are likely to do ourselves in, though I’m not sure if we’ll do this simply culturally (as we’ve done a time or two before) or in a way that annihilates our species. At the very least, I think we’ll need to really change the way we think about our place in the world around us. I do like the idea of a writer being the last one to survive and essentially ending his/her account of humanity with something like Wittgenstein’s “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” as a kind of summary of his inability to explain or understand what humanity did to itself. The idea, too, of a writer leaving a record that he/she knows won’t be read, but being compelled to write it anyway, is something I like very much.
Beyond horror, there’s the perpetual discussion of trauma, usually from some sort of absence: a missing body part, a lost sister, a major lacuna of memory. These absences also tend to be a portal by which to access knowledge beyond what could be retrieved in reality. How does one approach the writing of what can’t be known, since language is the way that we report knowledge?
Language is both the way that we report knowledge and the way that we come to understand the limitations of that knowledge, to show the contours of what we can’t understand or depict, but also, inversely, to suggest the limits of language itself. I think I got a sense of this first with negative theology, which was complicated later by my reading Kant’s notion of the sublime, which has been further complicated for me by all sorts of writers who end up getting something across almost at cross-purposes. But yes, the question you ask is one of the big questions, and one that I keep trying to find temporary answers to.
In these unsettling literary worlds, death isn’t even certain and final. Most often, the unthinkable nightmare only perpetuates. How do you think fiction writing relates to the human tendency to create elaborate narratives around death?
I think even though there’s a focus on death and dying and its uncertainty in my writing that, paradoxically, there’s very little memorializing in my fiction. I do think the connection probably has to do with the way that so often we continue to think of the dead as still alive, speaking of them in the present tense, still seeing them as present even though we know they’re not. Pieces of mine like “Dark Property” just cut out that intermediary step of the dead living on in our memories of them and simply let them live on even after they’re dead. That’s probably partly influenced by Jean Genet’s The Screens, though without the political dimension. Certainly there’s an science fictional element in it as well.
What forthcoming projects do we have to look forward to?
I’m just finishing a short book about the relationship between Chester Brown’s graphic novel Ed the Happy Clown and his comic book series Yummy Fur (in which the Ed story first appeared). My daughter Sarah and I also just translated David B’s graphic novel Incidents in the Night, which should appear any day now. Other than that, I’m about 2/3rds of the way done with a new story collection, slowly getting there, and trying to figure out what the next novel might be. I have an idea for a sequel to Immobility, and that may well be the next book.