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author-photoI’d like to begin by thanking you for taking the time to speak with me.

You’re very welcome. I suppose it must seem odd though, to be addressing questions to yourself.

 

Indeed. Yet at the same time, I seem to recall your remarking that when you reread this book, by which I mean your recently published story collection This is a Dance Movie!, it almost felt to you as though the work had been written by another person.

That’s very true. The majority of these stories were written and published between 2008 and 2011.

hiresthalia2016_side_benedicte-verleySo you call Experimental Animals a reality fiction. . . . What’s so great about reality?

It’s a trick word: this thing we think is full of facts and histories, but then suddenly we become aware of all that’s invisible in it, all the energies that can’t be represented or known. (I’ve heard there are people who believe that there’s nothing that’s not on the internet.) Then suddenly reality is just a fantasy and all the categories blur. “Realism” was a 19th century phenom that had to do with telling tales of subjects who’d been left out of sight in the popular genres—combined later with a penchant for ‘research.’ Experimental Animals also shows characters and arguments that widen the concept of what we’ve taken for ‘reality,’ to include other kinds of subjectivities.

anneraeffcredit-dennishearneYour work is very tied to history and to the effects of cataclysmic, violent events on individual lives. Can you talk a little bit about the role of history in your fiction and fiction in general?

We are all shaped by the past, by our individual experiences and by the combined experience of all human beings. That is what history is. In Spanish the word for “history” and “story” are the same, which makes sense to me. I think I am especially conscious of “history” as “story” and “story” as “history” because of the history/story of my family and also because my father was a historian, so I grew up learning a lot of what we call “history” while at the same time I was learning my parents’ and grandparents’ “stories,” especially those that intersected so dramatically with the Holocaust, war and revolution, all of which are considered part of “history.” For me they were part of the same narrative. What I try to do in my fiction is what all fiction tries to do—evoke the connection between individual lives and the narrative of humanity.

maMy favorite questions involve food so let’s start there. What did you have for breakfast today?

My husband and I have been going to this diner in Eagle Rock since I moved to LA in 2011. They have traditional diner fare, but they also have a Thai section of the menu (the place is run by Thai women). Our favorite thing to order is a dish called Dr’s Special. It’s basically a stir fry with chicken, mushrooms, onions, green peppers, and tomatoes, and it’s really really good. It comes with two ice-cream scoops of rice. I like to add a combination of Thai chilis and fish sauce to this and spice myself out. I also had a glass of apple juice and a coffee.

katherine-a-sherbrookeYou’ve said Fill the Sky, while fiction, is based in part on an actual trip you took to Ecuador. Is it true a shaman spit cologne on you?

Yes, as crazy as it sounds, that part is true. It was the first shamanic ceremony I had ever experienced. None of the others were quite so…sticky.

 

Wait, you didn’t go running from all shamans after that?

Actually the harder part, is when a shaman tells you things about yourself you know are true at some level and yet still don’t understand, or are unwilling to admit.

 

Like what?

Well this particular shaman basically told me I was “tired,” which I took offense to since I had left the company I had founded a year before and had been napping religiously ever since. How could I be tired? What he meant though, I understood later, was that I had yet to find what gave me fuel in my life, and so I was destined to feel continually drained if I didn’t figure that out.

lamar-herrin-author-photoA question to clear the air: Are you one of those authors who follows a set plan of attack, the ending included, or one who follows his nose and hopes his nose is inspired?

Here’s an extended metaphor, and it’s the best I can do. Say you’re taking a canoe ride on the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio (where I once lived) to Louisville, Kentucky (where I have visited).   Distance approximately 100 miles. You know Cincinnati and to a lesser extent your destination, Louisville. You know the larger towns and cities along both banks, and the major tributaries. You intend to get to Louisville, that is, your ending of your novel, and you have certain characters and certain events (those towns and tributaries) in mind. But you have never been on the river. The currents, snags, small islands, smaller tributaries, the drudgery of day to day paddling—the dispiriting drudgery, the innumerable temptations to give up. You know it all in the abstract, but you don’t know what it’s actually like. Everything could change in a day, and Louisville, if you ever reach it, might not bear much resemblance to the city you have in your mind. That combination of the mapped-out and the powerfully and subtly unforeseen is, metaphorically, how I’d describe the writing of a novel.

blk-wht-3

What is a favorite story you would recommend to everyone?

“Honey Pie” by Haruki Murakami.  Oh, it just crushed me.

I think this is the best possible experience a person can have with fiction – to be crushed by it.  Or maybe “tenderized” is a better word for this.

 

What is the most challenging part of writing a book?  

I like this quote by E.L. Doctorow:  “Planning to write is not writing.  Outlining, researching, talking to people about what you’re writing is not writing.  Writing is writing.” To sort of echo this idea, for me the most challenging part of writing is just doing it. Writing is incredibly frustrating a lot of the time, so making the daily choice to do it instead of doing anything else is the great and ongoing challenge.

One specific challenge that I faced with this book was how to use coincidence to bring characters together without it being too distracting or implausible.  Around the time this had me stopped-up, I was reading something unrelated and encountered the “Birthday Paradox” – which states that in a room of only 23 people, there is a 50% likelihood that two of those people will share the same birthday.  In a room of 70 people, that likelihood is over 99.9%. Isn’t that incredible?  I know nothing of math, so had to stare at the explanation for this statistic for a while to understand (vaguely) that it’s true, and why it’s true.  And although it didn’t relate directly to my work, this line of thought about probability and the “overlap” of people helped me push through my misgivings about writing coincidence.

color-author-photoOkay, I know you’ve been really nervous about this self-interview, but why don’t you just drink a cocktail, grow a pair, and I’ll ask you some questions.

(The author makes a vodka gimlet.)

 

So, who are you, Micah Perks?

That’s exactly why I didn’t want to do this. I knew you were going to be like that.

 

Like what?

A wiseacre.

carolineheadshotI hear there’s a juicy story behind Cruel Beautiful World?

Not juicy as much as tragic. When I was in high school, I sat behind a girl who was smart, funny, and engaged to a man in his late 20s, whom she said was a “little controlling.” I never understood it. When I was in college, I heard that her fiancé had stabbed her 43 times. Then I was haunted. I didn’t understand how you could stay with someone controlling until I had a two year relationship of my own with a guy who never raised his voice, and was so quietly, verbally abusive, that I thought I was losing my mind as well as my self. He didn’t want me to eat (I went down to 95 pounds). He didn’t want me to see my friends and he monitored my writing. When I finally was able to leave, I happened upon something online from the sister of my high school friend, who was still trying to process what had happened and why. And I sat down and started to write.

fuentes-author-photo-by-brittainy-laubackBecause even when I am talking to myself, I am talking to other people, I asked the writers (my friends) Shamala Gallagher, Kristen Gleason, Prosper Hedges and (my husband) Thibault Raoult for some help. Their questions are interspersed with my own and ones I have been asked in the past, some ordinary, some not.

 

Your novel, The Sleeping World, just debuted. Since it’s your first novel, the autobiography question must be asked. Is it about you?

Yes and no. The setting and events are very distant from my own life, yet there are emotional parallels throughout the book. The Sleeping World follows four college students during the political turmoil of Spain’s transition to democracy. The narrator, Mosca, is looking for her brother who disappeared two years ago. One year before I started writing the book, my brother fatally overdosed. I kept this loss to myself and wrote through it, instead of speaking of it. Mosca and I are both haunted by our lost brothers. I wanted/needed to explore haunting and how death fundamentally alters one’s world. The desire to be haunted turns ghost into a verb. From that a new space is created, with its own rules, its own realities.

headshot_vhWhat’s your book about?

I write about immigrant families navigating a new America, straddling cultures and continents. From a Hong Kong movie idol fleeing a sex scandal, to an obedient daughter turned Stanford pretender, from a Chinatown elder summoned to his village, to a Korean-American pastor with a secret agenda, the characters in the collection illustrate the conflict between self and society, tradition and change.

matt_fogarty

Matt, you’re a big fan of making ridiculous lists as a way of generating material for these weird little stories you like to write and which Stillhouse Press has kindly decided to publish in a book titled Maybe Mermaids and Robots are Lonely. So why don’t we try that here.

Cool, sounds fun.

 

Great. Let’s start with this: list your five favorite emerging or emerged writers that many people probably haven’t heard of.

Okay, right off the bat, that’s hard. And, also, I thought this was supposed to be about me?

 

Just … just answer, dude. Get over yourself. We don’t need the commentary.

bluvaasheadshotWhat prompted you to write Beneath The Coyote Hills?

I was walking down the hallway in a Berkeley motel, demoralized after a disappointing reading tour in the Bay Area to promote my last story collection, Ashes Rain Down. Only six people showed up at my S. F. Central Library event, including three homeless folks, fewer at Book Passages in Marin County. I’m thinking, “What’s the point? Maybe I should quit.” Not writing, but give up trying to gain attention for my work. To hell with it!

It hit me at that moment how obsessed we all are with success and failure, myself included. It’s in our DNA, our collective madness. The cause of so much despair and moronic Donald-Trump boasting. Right then, the concept for the book popped into my head. I had to write about this madness.

michellecroppedDo you feel weird interviewing yourself?

Um, not really.

 

Say more.

When I was in junior high school, I wanted to be Phil Donahue (not to be confused with Dr. Phil who is neither as smart nor as badass). I raced home during my forty-five minute lunch break, turned on the tube, made myself a sandwich, and tried to figure out what piping hot question Mr. Donahue or one of his audience members would ask next. I prepped for these sessions by interviewing myself, using a hairbrush as a mic, and trust me, it was a whole lot easier guessing my next question. After the show was canceled, I moved on to Oprah, Charlie Rose, and my current idol, Terry Gross.

Barrett, Igoni (Victor Ehikhamenor)Just like Sean Carswell’s self-interview, I, too, asked my wife, Femke van Zeijl, who is a journalist as well as being the only person who knows why I dread dreaming of toilet bowls, to ask me questions as if she didn’t already know the answers. And then I rewrote her transcription.

 

First of all: why aren’t you interviewing yourself?

Because I know what questions to ask myself that I find impossible to answer—the kind of questions we keep asking until the day we stumble off this mortal coil. And so, in my head, this self-interview had grown into an existential issue that would require an entire novel to answer. I consider the publicity-oriented parts of writing as disparate from the creative process. The public appearances, the press interviews, etcetera, are all part of the writer’s job, yes, but interviewing myself is too close to the creative process. Thus I figured I would turn to my in-house journalist, since she knows nearly everything there is to know about me. That’s the closest I could come to a self-interview. Besides, journalists enjoy meeting deadlines, while I almost unfailingly miss mine.