How Do You Live In A World That’s Not The World You Thought It Was?: An Interview with Brian Evenson

Kyle Minor

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Brian Evenson’s first book, Altmann’s Tongue, was unsettling enough to some members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that its publication set into a motion a chain of reactions that led to Evenson’s departure from his professorship at Brigham Young University, and, eventually, from membership in the church altogether. (Readers interested in this part of Evenson’s career would do well to begin with “The Bad Mormon,” Ben Ehrenreich’s essay-review of Evenson’s novella Dark Property in the May 2003 issue of The Believer.)

In the years that have followed, Evenson has become a kind of elder statesman for innovative fiction. In addition to his dozen genre-defying novels and story collections, Evenson has dabbled in commercial fiction (writing series novels under the sort-of nom de plume B.K. Evenson), has published works of criticism on Robert Coover and the graphic novelist Chester Brown, and, in what amounts to a second career, has become a prominent translator of French language writers including Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, Manuela Draeger, and David B. This year he begins a new teaching position at CalArts in Valencia, California, after a long and influential stint at Brown University.

We corresponded for two weeks by email.

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Kyle Minor: I thought the new book, A Collapse of Horses, was very interesting and challenging. I didn’t like all of the stories, although what I find with your work is that often liking the stories is beside the point, and sometimes the stories that I don’t like are later the stories that trouble me enough to cause me to return to them, which seems to me to be one way art might be measured and valued. What I did think about the book, and what I’ve thought about your work in general for all the years I’ve been reading it, is that it is singular. No one else could have written it and it doesn’t read like anyone else’s work, a distinction especially worth noting in a writer for whom play with the work of others often seems to be so foregrounded.

Brian Evenson: Most of the time when I’m putting together a collection, I think of it as a book more than a bunch of individual stories, and there’s a lot of work done putting stories in and taking them out again. What I’m hoping for in the end are stories that talk to one another, and stories that may take something you think you picked up in one story and rearrange it a bit, skew it. That’s all part of a general unsettling of the work as a whole, and if there are stories that trouble you, that makes me very happy. Usually, they trouble me too. As a reader I’ve always been fascinated by those stories that initially don’t seem to have much effect on me but which worm under my skin somehow and then stay there itching. They’re often not the stories that have the strongest initial impact. There are a couple of stories or pieces of novels that did that to me that I still find myself thinking about all the time, even decades later.

And it’s very kind of you to say the work is singular—I’m happy you think so. I guess it can be a good or bad thing for your fiction not to read like anybody else’s. When I was first publishing a fair slew of reviewers were pointing that out as a negative and saying how I had potential but how much better I’d be once the things that people now see as defining me had been beaten out of me. But at a certain point something clicked and suddenly people began to see those things as strengths. I’m glad they did, and hope it keeps up.

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KM: In the acknowledgments that precede A Collapse of Horses, you make reference to sources that inform some of the stories. “Black Bark,” you say, wouldn’t have been possible without Laird Hunt’s Kind One. You quote from Jesse Ball’s “Pieter Emily” in “The Moans.” And you say that “The Window” came about “when Michael Stewart shared the particulars of an attempted break-in with me.”

This made me think about the implicit relationships between others of your stories and novels with other books, and also with events that are familiar from the public parts of your own life. Of course, this is a thing that writers often shy away from talking about, even though it’s unfailingly interesting to people who like to read books (and lives) against other books and other lives.

BE: I think there are a lot of connections there, especially with books because I feel that other books really nourish me, and I often find my way to ideas when I’m reading another writer and see ways that he could have taken the story or novel but didn’t. That ends up being very provocative, the moment of seeing where you might have written a story differently and then setting out to write a story that has elements of that. But yes, I feel like I’m often engaged in a conversation with other writers, responding to them, even offering things up that might be seen as critiquing their view of the nature of reality, humanity, etc. It’s of course not just books, either—something like “The Dust” can be read as responding to particular films, or stories like “Black Bark” are messing around with a kind of genre western story…

In terms of actual events or resonances with my own life, yes, those moments are there, but often in very strange ways. In “Windeye” there are a couple of moments that are taken directly from life, but they’re not the moments that you might expect, often small, insignificant things that still imbue the story with a kind of seriousness or power, as if making a kind of offering of a personal detail can energize the story in some way. Or maybe give me the feeling that I’m playing for keeps… It doesn’t matter if only I know that those details are there. In “Younger,” the house that’s depicted has the exact layout of a house I owned in Denver, and some of the things that the two girls do/play are things my sister and I used to do when we were young. Those details aren’t really necessary, but they make the story and characters feel embodied in a way that gives them a different sort of grounding—or convinces me as a writer they have a different sort of grounding in a way that translates into something more powerful for the reader.

KM: I’m interested in the long interplay you’ve enjoyed with genre, not just in the category sense (science fiction, horror, whatever people mean when they say “literary”), but also in the broader sense (intertextuality, different varieties of literary and intellectual discourse, play across traditions from different national literatures, etc.)

In A Collapse of Horses, I see tropes out of the Western (“Black Bark,” “A Collapse of Horses”), the clock suspense thriller (“A Report”), the Shirley Jackson (“The Punish”), the folk tale (“Three Indignities,” “Stump”), the Joyce Carol Oates gothic romance (“The Cult”), the urban legend (“Seaside Town”), the whodunit (“Dust”), the George Saunders (“BearHeart”), the captivity narrative (“Scour”), the procedural (“Click”), and, all the way through, horror-in-general. (Probably you will disagree with me about what genre play descriptor belongs with which story, but if so, it’s a response in keeping with the thing I’m wanting to ask you to talk about.)

BE: Yes, I’m interested in all those sorts of things, and I see them as all connected—for me thinking about genre in a categorical and broader sense very much go hand in hand. I also see genre in both senses as a tool rather than a restriction, something that can be used to create certain effects. And yes, I agree, that probably underlying all the stories in A Collapse of Horses (and to a greater or lesser degree most of my short and long fiction) is a collision between horror and the literary, which for whatever reason seems to me a really productive collision one that can be almost endlessly examined. It’s partly I guess because I love thinking about how possible or impossible it is to ever know anything for certain and because I’m very interested in those moments where reality seems to crumble and fall away. Horror’s exceptionally good at making us think in resonant ways about both those issues, and literature is too, in a very different way.

I like the list you give of tropes/connections to the stories, and it’s interesting for me to see what a particularly good reader and a writer I admire (i.e. you) is getting out of them. But yes, definitely our lists would be different in some of their particulars. “Seaside Town” for instance I see as being in a kind of “Strange Stories” vein, a pretty direct response to Robert Aickman, a wonderful and underrated writer. “Cult” is closely based on a story a friend of mine told me about his ex-girlfriend, though the particulars are a lot different, though it may be true that aspects of Oates wormed into it as I wrote it. “Dust” has ties to whodunits, but also to things like Outland and other murderous, claustrophobic SF. And there’s a whole bunch of creepy living doll stories that form a lineage for “Bearheart.” Some of those connections are probably very personal and things that most readers might not see. It’s really about curiosity for me, I think: an interest in what genres and modes can be made to do that they haven’t done already, and how they can be used to literary and original effect.

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KM: So many times in your work, a limb or other body part is missing or goes missing or is excised. Often it seems that the reader is right away invited to begin reading the story in multiple ways, on the literal level, and at the level of metaphor, and in other ways the individual story invites the reader to read.

This is a thing that causes complaint in some readers—the use of a body trouble, a disability. as a metaphor. Other readers might say it’s hard to imagine the work of many writers working in suppressive contexts (censorious regimes, religious constraints, etc.) without these kinds of figurative tools. And, of course, they belong to an older, mythic tradition, which has deep roots in Western literature and Hebraic and post-Hebraic scriptures.

My own childhood background (the Southern Baptists, the educators out of the Bob Jones University tradition, the integration-opposed Christian private school movement of the 1970’s and 1980’s) is different from yours, which I hope I don’t reduce too much by invoking the word “Mormon.” But I wonder if it’s possible to observe your ongoing (obsessive, one might say) dialogue with this variety of the figurative without thinking about its relationship to your own people of origin.

BE: Yes, I think it comes out of that, and from the idea that you read the bible and the holy books simultaneously literally and figuratively. For Mormons that’s something that’s potentially done with every moment, every verse, so things simultaneously are what they are and are something else entirely. It goes even further: the idea that certain old testament prophet’s lives can be a “type and a shadow” of Christ’s life, so that not only can you read a text literally and figuratively, you can read a life as literal and figurative—and indeed many Mormons have a tendency to read their own lives in those terms. Add to that different levels of figuration and you end up with a religion that’s obsessed with interpretation. That’s led with me, I think, to an interest in the instability of interpretation, the way things can slide back and forth a little, the way that we move from the literal to the symbolic and back without noticing, all those sorts of things. It’s not exclusively Mormon, but there may be a kind of Mormon flavor to the way I do it.

KM: When you look back on your journey away from Mormonism, especially now that you have so much time and distance on the person you were when you were young and Mormon, how do you think about what that part of your life was, and what it meant for you then, and what it means for you, and for your work as a writer, now?

BE: It’s strange in that at this point it feels almost like the life of a different person. There have been a couple of seismic shifts over the course of my life and leaving Mormonism was probably the biggest, and the one it took the longest for me to have a clear separation from. I have two older daughters, one of which has stayed in Mormonism, and both my wife and I have parents still involved to a greater or lesser degree, so it’s something we come up against from time to time. When my eldest daughter got married, she was married in the Mormon temple, which meant I wasn’t allowed to attend the ceremony. That was an odd feeling, particularly considering how active and involved I’d been in Mormonism for so many years, and that I’d been inside the temple and participated in those ceremonies I was now barred from dozens if not hundreds of times—so many times that I almost had them memorized.

My connection to Mormonism goes back about six generations, so there’s a whole history there that can’t simply be shaken off, and much about that history, and about the way that I was raised, is still a huge part of who I am. I don’t feel hostile to Mormonism per se (though I’m pretty hostile to religious abuse and hypocrisy, and Mormonism has its share of both), but also don’t feel any temptation to return to it. Getting free of it was a long and arduous process, but now that I’m out I do feel exactly that: free. And I don’t expect I’ll ever have any interest in being a part of an organized religion ever again. I haven’t felt that yearning in the 13 or 14 years since I left Mormonism in any case.

KM: Are there other intellectual preoccupations taken up in your later life that have come to rival the things you experienced as a young Mormon in terms of intensity or formativeness? I guess what I want to know is: What is it like to age and grow into a person whose way of understanding yourself and the world is so radically different from the original baseline understanding of yourself and the world, and how much is the person you are now beholden to the person you were then? In what ways have you worked through these things, and in what ways do you continue to work through them? And do you think these processes are different in kind for a person who comes out of an early life immersed in a religious system than they are for a person who begins and ends in a more-or-less secular life of the imagination?

BE: I think that this may be one of the questions that my work tries to take up, but probably not in a way that’s detectible to anybody but me. I think I’m always asking: How do you live in a world that is not the world you thought it was? So much of my work ends up being connected to thinking through philosophical issues connected to the nature of reality and what we are capable of knowing, and I think that may well be a kind of way of saying “I grew up thinking I had answers, that a religion provided me with answers and a way of understanding the world, then increasingly became aware that those answers were consolations and fictions that allowed me to avoid taking a close and careful and perhaps dizzying look at what the world really was, if the world “really” could be said to be any one thing…”

KM: Here’s another preoccupation I notice in your work: The Double. So often, there are two men, and at first it is unclear to the reader which man is which. Sometimes it seems like in some way it might be unclear to at least one of the men. And then something changes. But always one of the men seems to be a kind of fulcrum the story pushes the other man against.

It’s interesting to me, because although literature is full of doubles (Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer,” Dostoevsky’s The Double, etc.), I think the more common use of two in contemporary literature is a structural use. The two-part set-up/payoff structure, as in those old New Yorker stories or in Tobias Wolff’s “Bullet in the Brain,” or the two-part juxtapositional structure, as in Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream.” Those structural ideas seem distant kin to what you are doing, but they’re easier to parse. They direct the reader to one location where a singular lyrical stress falls, whereas your double narratives, even if they do converge or diverge someplace, seem often to produce a more dissipating or diffracting effect in the reader.

BE: Years ago I had a girlfriend who used to ask me why I liked doubles. No matter what I’d say or how long I’d talk, she didn’t seem to be satisfied. The thing that finally stopped her asking, probably because she didn’t know how to respond, was when I said “Because maybe there are two of them.”

I like all the writers you mention and their work, but the difference between what they’re doing and what I’m doing is that there’s no “maybe”. For them, there’s a two part structure but it’s clearly articulated. I think my interest in doubles comes more out of something like Beckett’s Molloy or Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” where there’s a kind of deliberate blurring taking place and a kind of proliferation. In Kafka’s story you do have that two part structure, but it’s a structure where something’s asserted and then negated, a world built up and then torn down—which is similar to what I do in a story like “Younger” (from Fugue State)—and it’s done in a way that makes it feel like the story is fighting against itself rather than presenting an elegantly hinged formulation. That story offers a proliferation of doubles on all levels (characters, events, structural, etc.), really a remarkable piece. In Molloy, you have a very clear division between two parts of the story but it becomes hard to know how to relate the two parts exactly—their remains a rift or a gap. I like the idea of having a story that is well-made and carefully considered (as both Kafka’s story and Beckett’s novel are) without it appearing so, and gravitate toward structures that welcome a kind of general unsettling of reality and of the reader rather than reaffirming something we know.

I like the Tobias Wolff story you mention, even like it very much, but I also feel like my feet are still on the ground at the end of the story, that there’s still ground for my feet to be on, that despite the difficult thing that happens in that story, and where it gets us, I’m still safe (even if Anders isn’t). But Wolff’s story “Hunters in the Snow” takes that ground away from me a little bit more, starts to get me a little bit off balance.

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KM: When Coffee House Press sent me a review copy of A Collapse of Horses, they also sent me paperback reissues of three of your novels (Last Days, Father of Lies, The Open Curtain). I was delighted to see that when I put the four books together on the kitchen table, their covers added up to a single image, an illustration.

These kinds of publishing flourishes—re-issues, matched sets—don’t usually arrive at the beginning of a writer’s career. And they usually mean some things, such as: You’ve achieved a body of work that others deem to be lasting. You’ve achieved an audience interested in reading across the books. You’ve earned a place of pride with your publisher that brings the special extra effort and waves the big flag in celebration of it.

I remember, about ten years ago, visiting with a poet whose work had just been collected in a celebrated New and Selected edition. I meant to see him out of that kind of celebration, to congratulate him and say that it was right that the publishing house was validating the thing that had already happened in the imagination and interior life of his readers. But when I said so, he was despondent. He said that what it meant was that the life of artistic vitality was over, that he was being put out to pasture, that the volume in question would be, for his readers, the last word, the judgment rendered, on his body of work.

But that’s not what happened. Instead, he just kept writing poems, and publishing them, and because they were good, readers kept finding them and championing them, and he’s still at it to this day, working toward, I’d imagine, the inevitable depression he’ll feel at the publication of his New and Selected Part II, before he gets back again.

I suspect your emotional relationship to your work is more robust than that, but the circumstances of this round of publications must have given you some reason to think about what you’ve been doing with your work, and what it might be as a whole, and what you are pleased to have accomplished, and what disappoints you, and what you might hope to do in the years ahead, in light of what you’ve done already.

BE: The cover illustration is by my daughter Sarah Evenson. Initially, I think, Coffee House was talking with her about doing some sort of broadside or chapbook to go with the books and then suddenly she was designing the cover. I’m very happy with what she came up with, love the way the covers interlock.

I’ve been really happy for the three re-releases to have a new life. Father of Lies is appearing in paperback for the first time, which is great, and Last Days was originally published by a great genre press that was based in Portland, Underland Press, so it’s for it to have a new life and audience with Coffee House.

It was strange to go through the three rereleased books again, to think about them almost as if I hadn’t written them, to have forgotten certain details, to be a little surprised by them. And yes, it did allow for some reflection, and also was a kind of release. I think the thing it felt a little bit like was getting on top of something and being able to see an open vista, to feel once again that there were all sorts of possibilities. It’s been a little bit like removing a weight. Not that I’ll probably start writing stories with happy little elves in them, and there may not be differences that most readers will detect, but it still feels like a moment to gather my breath, consider, and then decide where I actually want to direct my axe.

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Brian Evenson is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes and has been a finalist for the Edgar Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the World Fantasy Award. He is also the winner of the International Horror Guild Award and the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel, and his work has been named in Time Out New York’s top books.

Kyle Minor is the author of Praying Drunk.