The other day I was amused to find my husband walking back and forth in front of our bedroom window without any clothes on.
As we live in a forest and are surrounded by trees, we are not overly concerned about the view into our windows. It’s not that we don’t have neighbors. We do. Our houses up here sit on 1-2 acre plots and back up against Roosevelt National Forest. But the trees between us do create a natural privacy border of sorts. And still, if somebody were looking, they could see us.
On one side of us is a beautiful modern cabin built only a few years ago. The man who built it went to high school with Scott’s mom and sometimes comes over for drinks. There are a lot of trees between us and him.
On the other side of us – the bedroom side – is a rather large home inhabited by a couple which has recently acquired a dog. I point out this seemingly banal detail only because we have received several phone calls from them to inform us that our dog was over there sitting at their back door. Once we got a call from them to let us know that our dog was “making footprints in [their] dirt” and that short of calling the sheriff, they didn’t know what to do.
I’m admittedly curious to see how this new dog of theirs fares.
For the past several years, the man in this couple – I’ll call him Dave – has been actively involved in thinning out the trees surrounding his house. As there are hundreds of trees on his property, this is no small task. In the nine years we’ve live here, we’ve grown accustomed to the loud buzz of his chainsaw as it chews its way through the lodge pole pines between his house and ours.
Scott and I like to joke that he pulls out the chainsaw whenever he and his wife are arguing. Or maybe he is sexually frustrated and can only find relief by hoisting heavy logs. But really, we have no idea why he is so hell-bent on razing his forest to the ground.
When he is finished disassembling the tree into branches and burnable split logs, he stacks them on one of several giant piles surrounding their home. I have heard him say that the reason he is thinning his trees is for fire mitigation purposes – as if a massive fire in the surrounding trees of our properties would stop short because of a few extra feet between house and trees. My father-in-law is a catastrophe adjuster and snickers at this idea. He once saw an adobe house in the middle of the California desert that had caught fire from embers that blew from several miles away. At any rate, the massive dried out woodpiles around his home would most certainly compensate for any gap left between his structure and the forest. Even burning through the wood during the winter, he has at least a 15-year supply of fuel out there. Possibly 20. We are talking about at least a dozen cords of wood, conservatively.
A few weeks ago I dreamt that I woke up to find that he had taken out all of the trees between us and that we could see into each other’s houses as clear as if we lived in a Denver McSuburb. A couple days later I awoke to find that the US Forestry Service was on the forest border thinning out trees at an alarming rate. The dream followed by the reality…it was sort of a Simon Smithson moment.
For several days they were out there raising up a mighty chorus of chainsaws. Every few minutes someone would shout and another tree would come crashing to the ground. I wanted to cry.
Occasionally, I would glance out the bedroom window to spot “Dave” next door staring wistfully toward the forest. I can’t be certain, but I think I spotted a glint of jealousy at the sheer chainsaw power so close, and yet so out of his reach.
Once I looked out to find that they had brought in a prison work crew to help them with the project. I am no genius, but it seemed odd to me that anyone would mix convicts and chainsaws. We made the kids go inside.
As this was happening, I was getting madder and madder at what they were doing to the forest. Our forest. We hike out there all of the time and know those woods well. They have become a part of our lives and daily experience. And now – because of a leftover George W. Bush policy – forests all over the nation that run along private property are being mowed down in the name of fire mitigation.
It sounds good: fire mitigation. But let’s be serious. If we have a forest fire behind our house, there will be no saving it. Our house is built from stone and cedar planks. We have a dried out shake roof from 1967. We have frequent lightning storms accompanied by upwards of 60 mph winds without a drop of moisture to be felt.
Smokey the Bear would definitely not approve of our domicile.
But even more to the point, the Forestry Service did not clean up after themselves. After glutting themselves on chainsaw grease and sawdust, they left the trees felled on the ground, stripped of their branches, which they then threw into giant 10 ft. piles.
Here is a picture of the piles they left:
Every 20 paces, you will run into another one. They are everywhere within the 200 yard cutting zone, which incidentally is not barren of trees – only thinned. They are giant bonfires waiting to happen. Branches waiting to kick up in one of our infamous windstorms and head straight toward our roof.
When my husband walks naked past the window for the 10th time in a row, he smiles smugly at me and winks. He knows he can’t stop the legacy of Bush and yet another poor policy decision. That glory train has already been set into motion. What he can do is hope that through the trees the neighbors catch a glimpse of his march. And when they see his raw determination, they will agree to put down the chainsaw and give a man some peace.
Way back in 1971, the strangest thing started happening to me. Whenever I was tired or trying to sleep, it felt as though there were ants crawling in my legs. I told the doctor. He said it was all in my head. Believe me when I say that I was carrying around enough crazy as it was; it didn’t help for people to also think I was imagining bizarre symptoms. Over the years, I would mention the symptoms to doctors now and then but I always got the same “you must be a nutcase” reaction.
Finally, decades after it began, I went to the doctor when my mom was slowly killing herself on purpose. I told him I thought I could get through her whole protracted suicide thing, raise five children, take care of the dogs and the cats, keep my husband mollified, get dinner on the table at 5:30PM every night, if he could just stop the ants crawling in my legs. I didn’t really have much hope, but still I was hoping he’d give me some pill that might help me cope. Surprisingly, this doctor sent me to a sleep specialist and I got a small dose of medicine that is ordinarily given to Parkinson’s patients. The sleep doctor gave a name to what I had: Restless Legs Syndrome. It really was inside my head.
RLS is a sleep disorder. Whenever I was tired, or sitting in one place for a long time (such as an airplane or in bed trying to relax to go to sleep), I got the feeling that there were hundreds, even thousands, of ants crawling inside my legs. I could stop it. I had to get up and move around and it stopped. The problem was that I couldn’t go back and relax in bed because the ants returned as soon as I stopped walking or dancing or doing the treadmill. I barely got any sleep until I got my glorious medicine.
Another component of RLS is Periodic Limb Movement Disorder. Here is this wrinkle: even after I took the medicine to combat the RLS, my legs or arms started kicking or flailing about, usually while asleep, but it could also happen when I was awake. If PLMD didn’t wake me up, it still jiggered my sleep from a deeper stage to a shallower stage. For this reason I woke up tired, even if I thought I slept. I took more amazing medicine for this.
Once, I was on an airplane bouncing my legs up and down in my seat as usual. Suddenly my right arm flailed out and slapped the lady next to me right across the face. She didn’t speak English. It was awkward.
I just recently managed to cross into a whole new stage of the disease that I didn’t even know about before. I don’t even know what to call it yet. (I’d at least like an acronym.) For now I’m going to call it New Muscle-Cramping Thing, or NMCT. When I have taken enough medicine to help stop the ants and the flailing, there is now the muscle- cramping component. If I relax in front of the TV in the evening, for example, after a few minutes the muscles of my feet and toes and my hands and fingers will start going into painful spasm. Now I’m on an outstanding medicine for that.
You would think that all of this would be enough sleep disorder for one person.
But no. There’s Victor.
Victor is another of my sleep disorders.
Victor is buckets of fun when he is awake. Just look at how sweet he looks!
Victor is very bossy in his sleep. He’s been sleep-bossy for 41 years.
At least three times a week, Victor yells at me to do something while we are both asleep. I sleep lightly, but since I am asleep and not thinking straight, I always think he is telling me to do something for a good reason.
I sit up and ask why I have to sit up, but he’s asleep.
He pushes me right off the bed.
It’s a high bed.
I ask him what’s wrong, but he’s asleep.
“You don’t belong here!”
He shakes me angrily and hard.
I ask him what’s wrong, but he’s asleep.
I leap off the bed and grab the phone. I ask what I should tell the operator, but he’s asleep.
“Who do you think you are?”
He pokes his index finger in my chest repeatedly, seemingly furious.
I tell him I only think I’m me, but he’s asleep.
“Stop that right now!”
I ask stop what? but he’s asleep.
“You have no right to be here!”
I explain that I do, but he’s asleep.
“Where’s Irene? Irene should be here!”
He pulls my arm until I’m sitting up. I tell him I’m right here, but he’s asleep.
Last night it was:
“Get away from me!”
Victor shoved me right off the bed again.
Last night was a bit worse because I had thrown out my back several days before.
The landing wasn’t any fun.
Victor sleeps like a baby through it all. He never remembers any of it.
I never get back to sleep.
There is no medicine for Victor Sleep Disorder, or VSD.
The book trailer for Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon’s acclaimed novel about the unlikely intersection of three disparate lives. The book, he says, “can trace its roots back to my childhood, to the stories and novels that I loved when I was a child. I grew up in a very tiny town in Western Nebraska, one of those villages of the great plains that grew up alongside the Union Pacific railroad line, with a tower of a grain elevator at the center and a little smatter of houses around it. Population, approximately 50.”
J.E. & J.C. talk to Dan Chaon
Dan Chaon is enjoying more success than ever with his critically acclaimed new novel, Await Your Reply. (And for those of you who don’t know how to pronounce his name, it’s pronounced Shawn.) Recently, Jason Chambers and Jonathan Evison interviewed Mr. Chaon for their celebrated lit column Three Guys One Book, which is now a regular feature here at The Nervous Breakdown. The results—the first batch, anyway—can be found right here. Look for a second round with Dan Chaon soon. In the meantime, go out and read Await Your Reply. You’ll be glad you did.
During the summer of ’89, I took my lover on walks along the Wall. I failed to tell her I had another girlfriend and she kept quiet about her affairs. Susie’s hair was dyed black, and her skin was so pale it almost looked green. Both of us were Grufties, Goths, black swans, sad to the bone, dwelling in a deep and peaceful melancholy mixed with profound half-truths and shiny morsels of philosophy. We were grouchy children of the Cold War, knowing that if Russians and Americans decided to go to war against each other, they would do so in Middle Europe. We were self-indulgent, sorry for the times we were living in, pitying ourselves and taking for granted that the world would soon come to a violent death. Sex we gave freely, as if handing out tissues to mourning friends.
I had met Susie three months before. Getting off the subway train at Leopoldplatz after a day of working as a movie extra, I saw a girl in front of a poster for a pedigree show. She stood slightly stooped, her head raised to inspect the two dogs. Her knees were slightly bent and knocked together. I stopped at the photo booth to check on the blood in my hair and on my forehead. The blood lent me a dramatic air, I decided, as if I had just barely survived a car-crash. It had been my last day as an extra for a TV mini-series about the Third Reich. In the past two weeks I had been a boss of industry supporting the development of the radio, a soldier in the German Navy, and today I had played a servant being killed in a bombing.
“Which dog do you like best?” the girl asked me. I answered that I didn’t like the dog with the bow on its head, but she disagreed.
“I think it’s a beautiful red; it’s a rather beautiful bow.” She nodded her head slowly and smiled as children do when they let you in on a secret. She had a high forehead and her black hair looked like a fantastic crown, a dark version of the Statue of Liberty. She smiled as though embarrassed when I asked her where she lived, and pointed vaguely in the direction of my own apartment. She bared her gums ever so slightly in a smile that ended abruptly.
As it turned out, we lived only a block away from each other. Walking along the cemetery on Turiner Straße, I pointed to my building, which stood overlooking the park-like yard. Bullet holes from the war, which nobody had cared to repair, were still showing in the facade.
“I have a grave here,” she said, a smile touching her face. “I’m taking care of it. It was in really bad shape, and I thought, ‘This grave needs some care.’ Maybe you’ve seen me before.”
Her apartment, to which I followed her without invitation, was cold despite its being a warm evening. Susie took pink champagne from the fridge, crunching bread crumbs and cereal with every step. A dried pancake with a face drawn on it hung above the stove. Greasy spots had soaked the white paint.
Three walls of her bedroom were covered with flowered wallpaper, orange and yellow blossoms. The fourth wall, a bed at its foot, had been left bare except for an enormous eye, taking up the whole space, painted in black and white. A large tear hung in its corner.
Clothing lay humped on the small black desk, on every chair, on the bed and all over the floor. Worn pantyhose, sweaters, and a dirty-white bra. Half-empty bags of gummi bears and potato chips were scattered on and around the mattress.
Sitting down on her bed, I pulled her closer, but she wriggled free of my embrace and laughed. Something in that laugh made me push her onto her back. Susie kept laughing till her head landed on the mattress, then her face froze with anticipation. I put my tongue in her mouth, but she bit me and started laughing again. I pressed her face to one side and bit her neck. Suddenly her arms were around me, and she gave little moans.
Pressing her down with one hand, I pulled off her long skirt with the other. Then I grabbed her pantyhose and slip and pulled them down too.
Stop,” she said, sitting up and panting. When I did, she unbuttoned my shirt, undid my pants, watching me curiously. “You have a good body,” was her judgement, “but your stomach could be flatter.” Then she took off her black sweater and shirt and pulled me close, further inspecting me. “You have nice hair; it’s soft. Like a little duckling’s fuzz,” she whispered. Her body was lazily curved, her skin colorless, showing blue veins. She seemed as naked as someone’s laughter in church.
Susie had attended a high school for the super-talented, for those students who in normal institutions perform poorly because they grow bored with the pace of their classes. After receiving her diploma, her Abitur, she enrolled at the Free University of Berlin, in German and Philosophy. But there, her struggles started all over again. Reading Adorno or Kant over the course of weeks bored her into drowsiness; writing papers which were not challenging enough and which she could draft in minutes, led her to never finishing them. She never handed in a single one, then dropped out.
I had dropped out for other reasons. I wanted to become an actor, yet didn’t want to do away with my Robert Smith hairdo and make-up. I was undisciplined and worked in obscure off-off-mainstream projects where young and not-so-young men and women worked without pay or success.
Susie seemed to make her own time, was never distracted and always gave me the feeling I was her only lover, even when I knew I wasn’t. On run-down heels, she staggered along the Wall, pausing to slip a hand down my pants, or show me that she wasn’t wearing a bra. Time followed her awkward steps, never running off or out.
To us, the Wall was like an odd, but good friend. We had been born twenty years after the war and unlike older generations or people with relatives in the East, we had never had any trouble with the existence of the two Germanys.
The German Question, as everyone called it, was no question for us. What kind of question was it anyway? In my eyes, Germany had not deserved any better. Time had slowed down after the war, leaving the country, its culture and arts, in shambles. It should have stopped once and for all in Germany, but time, just because she wasn’t trained to do anything else, went on, aimlessly and off pace, like a disappointed runner who knows that she has already lost.
What had happened to Berlin after ‘45, we appreciated deeply. West Berlin was a country of its own. The presence of the Allies’ armed forces, the division of the city into sectors, assured me that the Germans were kept at bay. “The Germans” were those who did not live within the confines of the Wall, those who were responsible for the Holocaust and two World Wars. West Berliners felt that the war had been forced upon them and that the Nazis had conquered and raped the Weimar metropolis. Now they stood surrounded by the Evil Empire, and were therefore absolved from all guilt. Their city was the last holdout of the free world, the last enclave of the brave and undefeated in the heartland of communism.
A strip several yards wide in front of the Wall — on the western side — was still Eastern territory. This was mostly ignored by Westerners, but to Susie and me it made our walks all the more exciting; it added the flavor of danger. We would ride the subway to a point close to the border — often to Gesundbrunnen in the north — and then walk, sometimes for hours, until we’d be close to another subway or Stadtbahn station.
At certain intervals, there were tiny doors in the Wall, which East German soldiers could open from their side to patrol in front of the Wall, and Susie assured me that, in fact, they did this frequently at night.
I was shocked to hear this, I didn’t want to imagine that my island had porous walls. The sense of peace I had felt during the walks with Susie vanished. Like a King being told that the Barbarians are threatening the borders, I had to see for myself how bad the situation was. So one night we decided to walk to the Reichstag and take a close look at the Wall.
During the day, people played soccer on the huge lawn in front of the Reichstag, called the Place of the Republic, and Turkish families held their barbecues there in summer. Busloads of tourists came every day to have a look at the museum inside the Reichstag and at the Wall. The city had even erected wooden scaffolds to give tourists a better view of the Wall and what lay behind it. At night, however, what was left of the crowd were empty film-wrappers and overflowing trash cans. The area was dead, with only an occasional police car patrolling.
Susie wore a black skirt, fishnet-stockings and black pointed shoes with several straps and shiny buckles, which gave off a jangling sound. She looked like a queen, dark and regal. We walked halfway around the Reichstag and closer to the Spree river, so we could see the Wall running directly behind the building. A Death Strip stretched between the Wall, as could be seen from the West, and a smaller, less imposing inner wall, which stood entirely on Eastern territory.
We climbed the stairs of one of the scaffolds facing a concrete watchtower
inside the Death Strip and waited. To the right, through the trees, we could make out the gleam of lights where the Brandenburg Gate stood, and we could also see the torchlights of the nearby Soviet Honor Monument. Even though the monument was placed in West Berlin, two Soviet soldiers paraded in front of it, day and night. In front of us, jeeps were patrolling the Death Strip, going back and forth between the numerous towers along the Wall. Yet none ever stopped near us.
Susie had brought along a bottle of Valpolicella, and we drank and watched the watchtower, and, when nothing happened, she crawled over to me, sat down in my lap and asked, “Do you think they’ll come if we do it?”
They didn’t. But during the second night we went to the Reichstag, three soldiers in a jeep took off from the watchtower driving toward the Wall. When they came close to reaching it, they disappeared from our view. After several minutes we saw the Wall open in a place where I hadn’t been able to see the door. Two soldiers, their weapons tightly gripped, came through the low opening. For a moment Susie and I stood frozen, expecting the soldiers to shout at us. But they walked a few yards to the left to inspect something we couldn’t see, while a third soldier guarded the hole in the Wall. This man lifted his eyes and he must have seen us, but didn’t show any reaction. After only a few minutes, his two comrades returned, and one soldier after the other passed through the door and disappeared. The door was shut; the Wall was seamless again.
My favorite graffiti was one near Bernauer Strasse. It read “Fighting for Germany’s reunion is like fucking for virginity.” This walled-in city was my place and nobody would be able to take it away from me. Any other thought was ridiculous.
November 19, 2009
Dan Chaon is enjoying more success than ever with his new novel, “Await Your Reply” (see our coverage here), and we at Three Guys couldn’t be happier about it, because, well, the dude deserves it. Great book, great guy. And for those of you who don’t know how to pronounce his name, it’s pronounced /Shawn./ Last week, JC and I threw some questions at Mr. Chaon, who was so gracious as to field them. The results, the first batch, anyway, are after the jump. Look for a second round with Dan Chaon soon. In the meantime, go out and read Await Your Reply.
JE: Okay, so this is something I’ve been dying to ask you about, given the narrative structure of AYR,which required so much finesse in order not to tip your hand: how did you approach this trio of stories? It has the polished feel of a narrative which has been scrupulously plotted and outlined, and yet I sense there must have been a learning curve, and a lot of discovery along the way, resulting in a lot of reverse engineering, and editing, and shuffling, and re-plotting, and re-allocating of information.
DC: This started out as three separate short stories. I often write groups of stories that are connected by theme and certain narrative tropes, but in this case I had a presentiment that they were somehow part of the same (longer) story.
For most of the first draft, I didn’t know how they were connected. I was just writing forward with each of the three narratives, nervously feeling my way into blank space. A lot of the time during the first draft I was anxious because I thought I might have to throw the book away, and when it started to come together toward the end, I was surprised to discover that a number of the characters weren’t who I thought they were. It’s cool when you can manage to fool yourself.
Of course, you’re absolutely right that the “plot,” as it is now, is a work of reverse engineering–once I figured things out in the first draft, I had to go back and make a lot of the earlier chapters fit into a jiggered timeline, and a reorganized concept of who was who. But it was surprising to me how much was already there, too, as if I had left clues for myself without even knowing.
One of my personal favorite stories that I’ve written is a piece called “Thirteen Windows” (in Fitting Ends, my first collection.) That story came out of an exercise that one of my teachers gave me. She pointed out that I repeatedly wrote scenes in which characters looked out of windows, and she gave me an assignment in which I had to write a story where every single scene featured a window. I think she thought she was going to break me of a bad habit. Ha!
In any case, I think this novel is a little bit like that. Ultimately,a lot of the architecture is not so much “scrupulous,” as it is simply obsessive-compulsive. I run along the same tracks in my mind over and over, and I do the same thing here: versions upon versions of the same idea, which luckily ended up suiting the plot and theme.
JC: You spend a great deal of time dealing with the concept of identity in this novel — not just identity theft, but identity abandonment, as well. One of the great lines is “who would you be if you were not yourself?” which opens a whole boatload of interesting philosophical questions. How did that theme come about in the writing of the book, and what do you make of this identity shell game?
DC: Tonight my younger brother and I happened to be driving through Twinsburg, OH, and I made note of the fact that Twinsburg annually hosts a“Twins Days!” Festival. Twins from all over the country come to celebrate their special connection.
“Ugh,” said my brother. “Twins are creepy.”
And I was silent for a moment. “Hmm,” I said.
“I would never want to have a twin,” my brother said. “I would always be nervous that he would try to kill me. “
I laughed at this–it’s kind of non sequitur, right? But actually there is something serious at the bottom of it, which is the idea that we have that we are unique. But what do we mean when we conceptualize a “self,” a “me?” Why is it so important to believe that a person exists as a single continuous unbroken narrative through time, as an “individual? ” I pointed out to my brother that most of the twins I have known began to distinguish themselves from one another from an early age. By adulthood, even the identical twins that I have known look remarkably different from one another.
We like the idea that the individual self is a snowflake, inimitable, and that having a twin could be somehow unnatural and even dangerous.
But wait! Why shouldn’t you have more than one life, more than one self– why not dozens? hundreds? With the internet, we now have at our fingertips the ability to try out any number of avatars, to play act any number of different personas. And yet we still like to hold on to the idea that there is some essential, true core that exists.
At the end of *Await Your Reply, *one of the main characters thinks: “You could be anyone.” And it might be the ultimate freedom, but it also might be a terrible negation: if you are anyone, then you are also no one.
It strikes me that the central theme in this book is actually quite conservative. The characters are all at loose ends, adrift, and it would be harder for them to transform if they had other people who knew them, who held them in a stable grasp. It occurs to me that we are us because of the people we love–our family, our friends, our community–who hold us to a consistency.
JE: Identity being the major theme of AYR, I’m curious if (or how) the fact that you were adopted has impacted your own sense of identity, and how this might possibly color your fiction.
DC: the simple answer is that adoption has deeply affected my sense of self from a very early age. I remember, for example, a picture book for adopted children that my parents used to read me, which explained that my parents had “chosen” me because I was “special.” And I remember fantasizing about the lives of my biological parents, in a way very similar to the way that Ryan and Lucy fantasize about the Other Lives they want for themselves.
For me, the adoption stuff has continued to complicate my life in a whole variety of ways well into adulthood. I met my biological father when I was in my late twenties, and I’ve had a very close relationship with him and his family ever since. (In fact, my biological half-brother, Jed, who is 24, has been living with me here in Cleveland since my wife died last year–so I have truly, for all intents and purposes, moved into a different life.) At the same time, I have a separate, and complicated, relationship with my adoptive family (my adoptive parents both died in 1996;) and there’s also my biological mother, who I have only spoken to a couple of times, and who has kept my existence a secret from her own family.
Whew. Did that even make any sense??
All that being said, adoption wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when I was writing this. More pertinent, I think, was the fact that my wife was gravely ill when I trying to finish the book. Her impending death ultimately colored the emotions of the book a lot. That last chapter, and that Carlyle quote that Hayden uses,and just the general sense of loss and finding oneself alone. The longing for that one person and the certainty that they will disappear.
JC: In your acknowledgements you give a hat tip to a number of writers who have influenced you, including, surprisingly to me, a number of horror and fantasy writers like King, Bloch, Lovecraft. What is it about those genres, or those authors, that you’ve found so influential in you’re own writing.
DC: I’m kind of surprised that you’re surprised, JC. As an avid consumer of fantasy and horror, the connections seem really apparent to me; but of course that’s looking at it from the inside.
On the one hand, I rarely work in a mode that is overtly supernatural, but I feel like a lot of the moods that I’m most attached to–dread, and a sense of uncertainty about reality, and the difficulty and dangers of trust–are all tropes that find their most vivid roots in horror. I’m friendly with the horror writer Peter Straub, and he once told me that he thought that most of my stories struck him as like ghost stories, even if the ghost never appears. I think that’s a good assessment.
In **Await Your Reply**, I found that I was being drawn into a world that was peppered with iconic dark fantasy stuff–evil twins,hypnotists and magicians,mysterious disappearances,past lives and dismemberment.
There are a number of fairly direct citations within the text. The house in Nebraska where Lucy and George stay looks a lot like the house in * Psycho,* for example, and George’s mother has a Hitchcockian quality, though she’s less like Norman Bates’ mom and more like Bruno’s mother from* Strangers on a Train. *Patricia Highsmith’s *Talented Mr. Ripley *stalks around the edges, as does Daphne Du Maurier and Shirley Jackson. To some extent, I conceptualized Lucy as a modernized Du Maurier or Shirley Jackson character.
Miles and Hayden’s relationship draws on all kinds of stuff, from Jekyll and Hyde to Frankenstein to the old 1970′s Thomas Tryon bestseller *The Other, *which features a pair of twins called Niles and Holland. Meanwhile, Peter Straub’s *Ghost Story *features a mysterious woman who appears in the lives of the main characters in various guises, under different names, and Lovecraft’s sense of unspeakable ancient societies and secret worlds underpins a great number of Hayden’s obsessions.
The idea behind this was that the “real” world of the novel would be shot through with a kind of eerie artifice, that real locations would also have the quality of a dream, or a stage set, or a certain deja vu. All the characters are in the process of reimagining themselves, and this is always, it seems to me, an act of confabulation.
I had some fun with this. Hayden, I think, is a true Fortean. He truly does believe in a world full of cryptohistories and conspiracies, asdo his Russian compatriots, who (if you translate the Russian in Chapter 5) are eager to talk about recent breakthroughs in telekinetic research.
But the other characters–Miles, Lucy, Ryan–aren’t so secure about what’s real and what’s not, and I was interested in the way the fantastic intruded in their realist lives.
The “Russian Mobsters” who Ryan encounters in Chapter 14–straight out of central casting–are actually real guys. The conversation Ryan has with them is taken practically verbatim from an encounter I had with a trio of friendly, drunken tourists I met when I was in Las Vegas, and the sense of “threat” comes from the movie cliches that Ryan (and, perhaps, the reader) imposes upon them.
On the other hand, one of the big supposed villains of the novel is a horror movie nerd who freaks out at the sight of real blood and carnage.
In short, I was attracted to the idea that the real and the fantastic would share the same space in the novel, layered upon one another. And–as in all the best ghost stories–we never know how much is just a reflection of the characters’ psychological states.
JE: Okay, everything you just said illustrates one of the reasons why your fiction is great: because there is so much going on beneath the surface, so many ideas, so much intertextuality, and awareness of what came before you, the sum of which could very easily result in work that was convoluted, or heavy-handed, yet your story is so crisp and focused and efficient in its execution, that the effect is a kind of electricity that pulses beneath the work, palpable but invisible—charged, the whole work is charged, like each sentence has the energy of all the sentences which were cut in order to arrive at the one that remains. And yet you’ve stated that you were groping in the early stages of composition. Don’t you get the feeling sometimes that our stories exist somewhere already, fully formed, and that our unconscious mind (or perhaps even something outside ourselves) just leads us to them through a distillation process? Almost like the act of composition—the rough, rough, rough drafts—are just an act of faith? Or am I just too stoned again? Fuck, I think I’m too stoned again. Does that make sense?
DC: Yes, you’re probably too stoned again. But join the club. There’s a big stoner in practically every book I write. I love you guys.
I truly believe in the power of the subconscious. I don’t outline, and I don’t know what is going to happen when I begin a story or a novel. I have images, and characters, and glimmerings of plot, but no real outline.
There is something suicidal about this approach, because it means that you can get to the middle of a book and realize that you have nowhere to go. I’ve had this happen a couple of times, and it is a terrible experience.
But at the same time, I find that I’m not really interested in a narrative in which I already know what is going to happen. The problem with outlining is that it seems to me that the characters become flat, that there’s a kind of determinism at work in which you’re basically reiterating what you already know about the world. The thing I like about fiction is that it offers this chance of discovery.
Have you seen this new TV show, *Flashforward? *It’s not particularly great, but I’m interested in the premise. Basically, there is an Event in which everyone in the world has a Vision of the Future. The big question of the show is whether you can change this vision, or whether is it fated to happen no matter what you do.
To me, that’s my big question. What does free will mean? And that is why I write the way I write. With the hope that the characters will somehow show me the way….that I’ll be able to grope through based on imagery and situation. And I suspect that actually I came to this method based on watching television, rather than on reading novels. I’m embarrassed to say that I probably learned novel structure from the episode arc of shows like **The Soprano*s and *Lost** and *Dexter. *The classic structure of books like *The Great Gatsby *or *To the Lighthouse–*two novels I love–don’t realistically have much influence on how I actually work. * *
As it happens, the next piece that I’m working on might be a television series. I’m working lightly on a possible television pilot about a medical process which allows you to bring the dead back to life, at a cost. It’s sort of ER meets Six Feet Under meets Dead Like Me. The Resurrected are kept in a kind of medical ghetto, in cold storage, where they can be visited by their loved ones. The main character is a guy who tries to commit suicide in the first ep. Only to find that his wealthy wife has had him resurrected…to his dismay.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
November 19, 2009
A few years ago, an ex-professor of mine wrote to tell me that she was up for an “Excellence in Teaching” award. She asked me for a letter of recommendation. The following is that letter. Some names have been (poorly) changed. Some haven’t.
92819 Deadwood Creek Road
Deadwood, Oregon 97430
30th December 2002
Dear Excellence In Teaching Adjudication Committee:
School doesn’t pay—you pay school. This is not the case with Professor Linda Ross. I realized this one day while at the University of Miami, which as you might know is located in balmy Coral Gables, Florida.
I had just finished having sex with my girlfriend in her dorm room, Room 307 in the Eaton dormitory, when she, in post-coital lucidity, mentioned that I might want to investigate these odd little white notices that kept appearing under my door each day. Something about the “cancellation of classes,” if I recall correctly.
Oh, I remember it all so clearly… The underpaid minority groundskeepers buzzing all around me as I walked up the cobblestone steps to the Office of Financial Aid. Then, the well-dressed gentleman leaning over the counter, telling me that I was to vacate the premises immediately—post haste. Looking back on it, I don’t know if it was that or the single file lines of friendly UM students in green and white embroidered polo shirts so kindly helping me move my stuff out of my dorm and into my small Hyundai…but something told me it was my time to leave.
I seem to have strayed from my topic sentence, the one about Linda Ross paying—either in some sort of tangible or perhaps more metaphorical way—but sit tight, oh inaccessible teaching excellence adjudication committee; I shall return to my point shortly.
After I got the news, I went to see the only person who could console me: Linda Ross. She invited me over for dinner that night for what was to become the first of many life-altering dinners at Linda’s. By now I’ve had so many that I’ve thought of making a movie called “Dinners at Linda’s.” At this first dinner, after she had gotten me thoroughly drunk on boxed wine and jerked chicken, she showed me a painting. This painting was to change the direction of my life forever. The painting, quite simply, was a painting of her naked. It was done by an old boyfriend of hers, shortly before committing suicide. Now, I know this isn’t exactly Dead-Poets-Society-level shit, but despite my inebriation, it was a very sobering night.
Fast forward three years and now we are in the present, wherein I am broke and live on a commune in Oregon. Here Linda comes through again. She tells me, over email, that if I write her an award-winning letter, she will split the 4,000 USD prize money with me. What luck! So you see, ladies and kindly gentlemen of the Excellence in Teaching Committee, while with school I am some 40,000 USD in the hole, with Professor Linda Ross, I’m 2,000 to the green.
Most humbly yours in erudition,
John L Singleton