Fiction Spotlight: Benjamin Percy

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Way back in issue #7, Memorious published a knife-long work of fiction from Ben Percy. In the delightfully grotesque “Revival,” the young narrator and his friend consider what it means to be undead, and what hope there might be for a future with zombies in it. Tinged with horror and the desire for more to come, the story serves as an abstract of Percy’s larger works, of both his two short story collections, The Language of Elk (Carnegie Mellon) and Refresh, Refresh (Graywolf), as well as his novels, The Wilding (Graywolf) and Red Moon (Grand Central/Hachette).

This week, though, Percy releases his third novel and his most anticipated project yet: The Dead Lands (Grand Central/Hachette). The work is a raucously warped and re-imagined vision of the famed Lewis & Clark expedition west, viewed here through the lens of a post-apocalyptic and desiccated United States, one burned by nuclear war, obliterated by disease, and ravaged by nightmares of mutated beasts. But what most plagues this new America is the purulence of men attempting to exert their wills over the last settlements of humanity.

Caught in the middle of an extremely busy period in his life―his current projects include developing a crime series based around the North Dakota oil boom for the Starz Network (called Black Gold), writing for the Green Arrow comic franchise, and, of course, prepping for The Dead Lands book tour―Percy was excellent enough to recall the story he published with us eight years ago and the journey he’s been on since.

Percy_TheDeadLandsLet’s start off by tracking back to “Revival.” From what you remember, what was the genesis of this story or of similar stories you were writing at the time?

I was crushing out a lot of short stories then that blurred the line between literary and genre. Some read almost like fables. Like “The Tree” (published in Ecotone), about a ponderosa pine that falls dangerously in love with a girl, and, after she leaves for college, it pursues her with crows and wasps and spores sent to the wind. Or “Heart of a Bear” (in Orion), which was about a bear that wishes to be human; it was inspired by Frankenstein, the scene during which the creature spends the winter holed up next to a cabin and studies language and behavior through a chink in the logs, and when he finally approaches the family, they are horrified and their rejection embitters and enrages him. There were others—maybe fifteen or twenty altogether. I don’t write short stories much anymore, but I hope to one day cram all of these weirdo hybridized literary-genre fairy tale speculative whatevers into a collection.

Where “Revival” is a character study of a boy whose best friend dies violently, it’s darkly tinged with influence from the zombie and horror genres. What would you say are some good examples of short stories from other genres that writers in the literary tradition would do well to study?

I don’t really identify boundaries the way some of the stiffs in Literaryland do. What makes someone genre? That they have a plot? Or some speculative strangeness occurring? Shirley Jackson, JG Ballard, Richard Matheson, Ursula K. LeGuin, and Ray Bradbury write sentences so pretty you could hang them on the wall, characters so real I’m thinking about them years later.

Getting into The Dead Lands now, you’ve spoken in other places about how you were steeped in the history of the Lewis & Clark Expedition, and how that history informed the structure of the journey in the novel. What’s an example of some more subtle research you did in preparation of writing the novel that your readers wouldn’t know about otherwise?

Most of my research concerned the environmental and evolutionary effects of radiation and heat and age, since I’m leaping one hundred fifty years into the future, when nuclear fallout and a super flu have made a husk of the world as we know it. I grew up on Lewis and Clark. Stopping along the trail, visiting Fort Clatsop, reading their journals, watching documentaries. I’m no historian, but because I grew up in Oregon and because my mother is a kind of amateur scholar of the expedition, I have a deep well of knowledge to draw from, and I’ve always known I wanted to write their story, arguably the greatest adventure in American history.

In terms of process, then, what did the early iterations of The Dead Lands look like? Did one of the voices in particular seem to drive the narrative more so than the others? What decisions were you making along the way as to which character would get to run the chapter?

Road trip stories are problematic. You’d think the drive to get from A to Z would be enough to create a propulsive narrative, but so often the stories become episodic instead of causal. “And then this happened and then this happened” is how they read. (For evidence of this, see The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Heart of Darkness, Nebraska, etc.) I made a few decisions, some of them structural, to antidote this. One was varying the point of view, making it swirl among the different perspectives, each with their own competing desires. The other was to switch back and forth between the expedition and the Sanctuary (post-apocalyptic St. Louis, which the citizens believe to be one of the last outposts of humanity). So I had the quest alongside the fishbowl scenario, and I would cut away from each one right when I reached a moment of emotional or physical peril in order to create an addictive, momentum-driven narrative.

Lastly, we’re curious about what you’ve read recently that’s most surprised you or that’s just really impressed you. What’s been in your reading stack as of late that you would recommend?

I’m writing the Green Arrow series for DC—the primer issue drops in May, the first full issue in June—so I’ve been binging on comics. The Sandman, Saga of the Swamp Thing, The Massive, The Long Halloween, Batgirl, Southern Bastards, Wytches, Hellblazer, The Longbow Hunters—God, it’s been so much fun. Pure pleasure mixed up with analytical study of how all these rock stars are pacing their stories, arranging their panels, balancing exterior action with narration and interiority.

—Barrett Bowlin, Contributing Editor

For original fiction, poetry, and art song, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Memorious at AWP: A Guide to Contributor Book Signings

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Many of our readers and contributors are headed to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Minneapolis this upcoming week. In the past, we have hosted a bookfair table and a variety of both official and offsite events where we have gotten to meet you. Readers and contributors, we have loved seeing you every year!

But this year we want to spend more time getting out and discovering writers at readings and panels, and we want to turn our attention to what is the heart of our magazine: the work of our contributors. I’ve gone through the AWP Bookfair author signings list and created a list of our contributors who will be there signing their books. We hope you’ll find this guide useful. Print it out, take it with you, and if you buy one of our contributors’ books, I hope  you’ll tell them Memorious sent you!

See you in Minneapolis,

Rebecca Morgan Frank

Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief, Memorious.org

Author Signings by Memorious Contributors

AWP Bookfair, Minneapolis

Dan Albergotti

Thursday 11- 12 Table 336

Mary Biddinger

Thursday 2-3, Black Lawrence Press, table 2030

Kelly Cherry

Thursday 2-3, University of Wisconsin Press, table 507

Michael White

Friday 10-11:30, Persea Books, table 1424 and 1422

Lisa Williams

Thursday 11-12, New Issues Poetry & Prose

G.C. Waldrep

Thursday 2-3, BOA Editions, table 832 and 830

Adam Day

Thursday 4-5, Sarabande Books, table 909

Michael Bazzett

Friday 11:30-12:30, Milkweed Editions, table 702-4

Karin Gottshall

Friday 10-11, Fordham University Press, table 425

Friday 2-3, The Journal, table 1218

B.J. Hollars

Friday 10-10:30, University of New Mexico Press, table 608

Traci Brimhall

Friday 10:30-11:30, Crab Orchard Review, table 827

Andrea Cohen

Friday 11-12, Four Way Books, table 1425-1423

Anne Valente

Friday 11:30-12:30, The Cincinnati Review, table 1730

Angela Ball

Friday 1-2, Mississippi Review/Center for Writer, table 924

Nickole Brown

Friday 1-2, BOA Editions, table 832-830

Oliver de la Paz

Friday 1-2, University of Akron Press, table 933

Jason Koo

Friday 1-2, Brooklyn Poets, table 625

Caki Wilkinson

Friday 1-2, Persea Books, table 1424 and 1422

Tyler Mills

Friday 1:30-2:30, Crab Orchard Review, table 827

Tarfia Faizullah

Friday 2-3, Crab Orchard Review, table 827

Jehanne Dubrow

Friday 2-3, University of New Mexico Press, table 608

Timothy Liu

Friday 2-3, Saturnalia Books, table 1519

Kimberly Johnson

Friday 3-4:30, Persea Books, table 1424, 1422

Sarah Rose Nordgren

Friday 4:30 PM – 5:00 PM, University of Pittsburgh Press, Table 1504, 1502

Eric Pankey

Saturday 9:30-10:30, Milkweed Editions, table 702 and 704

Cathy Linh Che

Saturday 1-2, Alice James Books, table 1009

Sara Eliza Johnson

Saturday, 3:15-4:15, Milkweed Editions, table 702 and 704

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(If you are a contributor who has a bookfair signing that wasn’t listed in the AWP directory, post it in the comments and I’ll add it to the list. Contributors only, please.)

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Contributor Spotlight: Michael Bazzett

Bazzett.BWMichael Bazzett’s You Must Remember This (Milkweed, 2014) is a book of contradictions. The poems contradict themselves, negating what they have already told the reader, so that in “A Woman Stands in a Field,” the narrator implies a stand of oak trees with “Perhaps she is/ searching for acorns,” then pulls the ground out from under us with the reversal, “upon closer inspection, it turns out the trees are/ not even oaks.” This negation, or absence, is in play throughout, constantly asking readers to imagine the lack of something: ink that can’t be seen but that whispers to a note’s recipient, a divorce acted out in mime court thanks to “the unspeakable nature” of the couple’s differences, or a list of what the night is not in “Clockwatcher.” The poems’ wordplay mixes diction, juxtaposing the colloquial with the mythic, so the phrase “how// utterly it sucked” describes the situation of Odysseus lying in wait in the Cyclops’ cave, bringing the mythic closer to our own lived idioms and breathing new life into it. The poems blur boundaries between the domestic and the surreal; in “The Orangutan,” a family discovers, to their embarrassment, that their new orangutan is actually electric and not in fact alive, and has been hiding its uneaten bananas behind the furnace. In fact, orangutans make multiple appearances, echoing disturbingly and hilariously throughout the book. I loved entering the inventive world of You Must Remember This and being brilliantly conned by the speakers of the poems as they played fast and loose with the truth.

You Must Remember This was published as the winner of Milkweed’s 2014 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry. Michael Bazzett’s poems have also appeared in many journals, including issue 23 of Memorious. He is the author of the chapbooks The Imaginary City (OW! Arts) and The Unspoken Jokebook (Burning River Press), as well as the winner of the Bechtel Prize from Teachers & Writers Collaborative. He kindly answered my questions about putting together a full-length manuscript, the artistic potential of denial, and poetic family trees.

As someone in the process of putting together my first full-length manuscript, I’m really interested in how people structure their books. Can you talk a little bit about how this book came into being? You’ve also published a couple of chapbooks before this full-length collection. How is putting together a full-length manuscript similar or different to putting together a chapbook?YouMustRememberThis_PGW_300dpi3

My wife deserves huge credit here.

Given that the prize asked for exclusivity, and that what I considered to be “my book” manuscript was already submitted to a half dozen presses, I decided to come up with an utterly new manuscript for Lindquist & Vennum. I had a small core of what I thought might become “my second book” and I gave the pages to her, along with about 160 other pages of poetry, some old, some brand new, about 200 pages total. I included some new work almost as a lark. She spent two days reading and sifting through the work, all the while examining a number of books we admired, and then she composed the book as a mix-tape, cutting it down to 70 pages in the process. Even the title was hers.

The process was simultaneously a huge relief, a leap of faith, and a little frightening. She included poems I’d never even submitted, let alone considered putting in a book, and the truth is I felt quite vulnerable putting it out there. (Well, not that vulnerable. Who ever thinks they’ll actually win?) But it gave me fresh eyes for the work, and a lot of the juxtapositions and threads she discovered certainly helped the whole transcend the sum of its parts. She also didn’t include a handful of “solid poems” that had found homes at great journals (something which always clouds my judgement). They didn’t fit her vision, so they had to stand in the hallway and listen to the party. I think I trimmed three poems, after the fact, but other than that, the shape of the collection is her work completely.

She’s always my first reader, (she writes fiction, and I return the favor as her line editor), but this was a true gift from a true partner. At 1-0, she can now retire undefeated as a poetry editor.

The chapbook was much smaller, and I simply used the title (The Imaginary City) as the defining metaphor. I asked myself: Could this happen in the imaginary city? If so, then it found a place in the streets & architecture of my vision-world. Which is like ours, but weirder.

There’s a lot of negation and denial in You Must Remember This: the loss or absence of sight/sound, as with the silent ink in “The Sinclair Gift Emporium” and the loss of sight in “The Last Expedition” or the court case told by mimes; and the denial of existence or experience as with “Memory” in which the speaker denies having a brother he has already told the reader about. Can you talk about the creative possibilities of denial or negation?

This is an intriguing observation; I guess I’d never thought about it much before. Robert Hass does something like this in a little poem I truly love called “The Problem of Describing Trees” which starts with the line, “The aspen glitters in the wind” and then sort of revises itself into a very different space right before our very eyes and ends with the stanza:

Mountains, sky,

the aspen doing something in the wind.

I think denial is inherent in trying to use words to speak the unspeakable. Sometimes the world seems remarkably unaware of its need to be explained.

Your book plays with language and diction, moving between very heightened and musical language and a more casual/slangy expression, sometimes within the same poem (I’m especially thinking of “Cyclops,” which contains the phrase”how/ utterly it sucked the hear the oaf stirring in his stupor,” which manages to be both mythic and colloquial at the same time). What function does wordplay serve in your poems?

Often, in initial drafts, sound drives sense for me. I’ll come home from a walk with the sound of a line in the soles of my shoes and I’ll grab an envelope as I walk into the door to write it down. Often these lines don’t make it to the final draft, but serve as the pit that feeds the fruit. I usually only learn what a poem’s about once I’ve spent some time eavesdropping on it.

And it’s true I’m fond of the merging of the mythic and the colloquial. I mean, I love the idea of Athena and Odysseus sharing asides at the back of some bizarre faculty meeting. Or the Mayan jaguar-god coughing up a tremendous hairball. Or someone unwittingly bumming a cigarette from God, while waiting for the bus.

 

In your writing, how does conscious choice meet up with that idea of “eavesdropping,” or letting yourself create without knowing what you’re doing yet?

I often write poems because I want to uncover how they end. I follow the sound of the words — which become footprints somehow — and listen for a rustle in the brush. I trust that a real animal made those prints, even if I don’t fully know what kind of animal it is. When this happens, I know the poem’s smarter than I am, and that’s good. It has a life of its own that I try to glimpse with my shaky hand-held camera made of words. Sasquatch poetics.

Conscious choice comes in later, mostly during revision, where I maybe see a connection that intuition led me to, blindfolded, as it were. Then I pare away excess, and try not to do too much damage, etc.

Your poems’ use of orangutans (especially “The Orangutan,” which features an electronic version in a very surreal domestic situation) reminded me of James Tate’s ape poems. If you were to draw yourself a poetic family tree, what poets do you see yourself descended from? How do they come out in your work?

Oddly, I’ve discovered a number of influences after the fact. Charles Simic, James Tate, Francis Ponge, George Saunders. I actually started reading all of the above after people noted a perceived influence on my work. Sometimes, as a high school teacher, I reread texts so often I feel out of the loop, so it’s been a wonderful way to discover writers with a shared sensibility. I guess these after-the-fact influences that arrive via the zeitgeist would be the roots, feeding the tree from below.

But, as far as the tree itself:

There would be a Polish branch, where Wislawa Szymborska and Zbigniew Herbert would roost, with dark jackets and glinting eyes and the intelligence of crows. (I think my soul might be Polish.) And there would be a dusty evergreen Portuguese branch where José Saramago & Fernando Pessoa would settle into the lavender dusk, like owls. Virginia Woolf’s syntax would inform the pattern of the branches. Emily Dickinson would form the heartwood of the trunk, Homer the pith. (I think I’ve spent more hours reading Dickinson than any other poet.) Whitman would be photosynthesis itself, transforming sunlight into food. The Scottish poet Robin Robertson would be a broken limb, heartwood opened to the light.

And so many leaves: Langston Hughes, Antonio Machado, Elizabeth Bishop, Pablo Neruda, Paul Celan, Jane Kenyon, Octavio Paz, Jorge Luis Borges, Robert Hass, James Baldwin, Li Po, Louise Glück, Gwendolyn Brooks, Mark Strand, Don Paterson, Kay Ryan, Li-Young Lee, Delmore Schwartz, Yeats, et al., into ∞

Russell Edson would be in the tree, just sitting there, wearing a cardigan.

Novelists are big for me: Ishiguro, Saramago, Ellison, Garcia Marquez, Gordimer, Woolf, Morrison. I love the deadpan creepiness and psychological resonance of Patricia Highsmith. And Pu Songling’s “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio” is a book I return to again and again. I love the imagination of Ray Bradbury. The brilliant wreck of Philip K. Dick. I’ll end with Heaney, as his three word definition of poetry is taped to my wall: Exact, Truthful, Melodious.

And finally, what are you working on now? What’s next for you?

I’ve recently finished a translation of the Mayan creation epic, the Popol Vuh, which will be coming out later this year with Milkweed Editions; I’m finishing up the introduction right now. It was a fascinating ride, and as far as I know, this version will be the first verse translation in English.

I have little book of linked prose poems I’m polishing up about a tribe of “others” who live among us, almost invisibly – it’s part reflection on homelessness, part Jane Goodall primate study, part Sasquatch fable, part ghost story. I’m also working on a manuscript tentatively called untitled & invisible, consisting solely of poems I forgot to write. Or maybe I’ll call it Self-Portrait as Another Man. In any case, I’m planning to have iTunes download it onto everyone’s machines for free. I imagine that will be very well received.

Christina Rothenbeck is the author of two chapbooks, Girls in Art and the forthcoming Erasing Innocence, both from Dancing Girls Press. She is a doctoral student at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.

For original poetry, fiction, and art song, visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

 

 

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Big Loves: Andrew Allport on W. G. Sebald’s Austerlitz

_MG_1814_BW_smallToday’s contributor to Big Loves is Andrew Allport. Andrew is the author of the book the body | of space | in the shape of the human (New Issues Press, 2012) and the chapbook The Ice Ship & Other Vessels (Proem Press, 2008). He holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California, and lives in Colorado.

I began reading Austerlitz in the fall of 2001 on a train heading east from Geneva, up the Interlaken valley and eventually to the tiny station at Hasliberg-Hohfluh, in the middle of the Swiss Alps. I had forsaken the United States after the 2000 election, which, as I saw it, had exposed a political system dependent on money and ignorance, offering two candidates whose inability to distinguish themselves from each other only underscored the fact that no substantial difference existed. In short, I was young: naïve, quick to judge others, and life in America seemed to involve an intolerable compromise of principle in order to survive.

The first uncanny quality of the book was that it, too, was populated by emigrants. The plot, such as it is, involves an unnamed German-born narrator who teaches in Britain, and the history of his chance encounters and interviews with Jacques Austerlitz, who is only gradually learning the story of his own life. It isn’t fiction, or at least it isn’t recognizable as fiction, but its symbolic structure is of a kind only possible through fiction—that is to say, through the reader’s apprehension of something unsaid. You never know the narrator’s background (you might assume he and W.G. Sebald are the same person), but as you follow him and hear the story of Austerlitz, as you pass through towns in Wales, Holland, Germany and France, you grow slowly aware of recurring images (sometimes these are actual photographs): doorways, lakes, monumental buildings, eyes, signs in foreign languages. Sometimes the photographs are explained by the surrounding text, but mostly their connections are implicit, and any specific relation to place and time is overridden by their resemblance to each other; Sebald seems only to be documenting a landscape of uncanny similarities. In this way, it’s closer to the experience of reading poetry than prose. But the cadences of the book are those of prose; the Sebaldian sentence, sometimes extravagantly long, often begins with an initial supposition that is gradually eroded by the speaker’s doubt and hesitancy, until the only firm ground is the grammar and rhythm of writing itself:

If language may be regarded as an old city full of streets and squares, nooks and crannies, with some quarters dating from far back in time while others have been torn down, cleaned up, and rebuilt, and with suburbs reaching further and further into the surrounding country, then I was like a man who has been abroad a long time and cannot find his way through this urban sprawl anymore, no longer knows what a bus stop is for, or what a back yard is, or a street junction, an avenue or a bridge….All I could think was that such a sentence only appears to mean something, but is in truth at best a makeshift expedient, a kind of unhealthy growth issuing from our ignorance, something which we use, in the same way as many sea plants and animals use their tentacles, to grope blindly through the darkness enveloping us.

In Austerlitz, no one lives in the present; the past is the only relevant territory. Therefore, nothing happens that has not already happened, and the movement of the narrative depends not on rising action, but uncovering what has already been done—monstrous things, most of the time. The confusion and passivity that such a structure engenders in its characters is, I think, an accurate reflection of how we perceive our position in relation to our vast ignorance: as creatures living in the darkness of an ocean floor, reaching out with tentacle and voice. For Sebald, the only possible representation of atrocity is the representation of its lack of representation: illustrating the ways that the unspoken crimes of fathers and grandfathers lie just beneath the surface of civic life. When the narrator travels to Nuremberg, he notices sturdy shoes and a mania for tidy yards and streets, and he remarks, “I could not see a crooked line anywhere…nor was there any other trace of past history.”

The second uncanny moment: on the afternoon of September 11, 2001, I had taken a walk down the mountain to the grocery store, where I filled up a backpack with bread, coffee, cheese, salami, chocolate and tuna fish to last the week. I decided to take the tram back up, since the walk from the station, while equally long, would be along the flat path that traversed the mountain. An old man with thick glasses and a purple scarf was listening to a hand-held radio in the tram, and through the fog of my poor German I could make out the outline of a small plane accident in New York City. In the following days I called family and friends in New York, and when I could finally access the internet, I watched the impact and collapse of the towers on Youtube, the streaking shapes of men and women jumping from the highest floors. Then I listened to a song that someone had written and sent to me—It’ll never be the same again, it went. Everyone I talked to seemed angry, resolved, fearful. I didn’t feel any of this; I had been reading Walter LaFeber’s Inevitable Revolutions and the COINTELPRO Papers, and to my mind, the government had amassed such a record of atrocity that a retaliatory attack was, if not deserved, unsurprising.aust photo

Needless to say, this position alienated me even further from American political discourse. It was with a mixture of companionship and awe that I kept turning back to Austerlitz, whose observations about architecture and capitalism seemed eerily prescient on 9/11: “outsize buildings cast the shadow of their own destruction before them, and are designed from the first with an eye to their later existence as ruins.” I admit that this kind of language may strike some as intolerably abstracted from the actual events, and if this passage struck me at that moment as an insight into the falling towers, it was an insight made possible by my vantage point of safe remove. However, Sebald’s genius, like Virginia Woolf’s, endows abstraction with morality; like Woolf, he writes a mannered prose that is both aesthetically conservative and politically radical. For me, Austerlitz and Sebald revealed a new mode of political expression, relying on the tools of literature rather than the tools of rhetoric, and whose final goal is a recuperation of the truth, rather than an accusation of the lying parties. As he writes in “An Attempt at Restitution,” “There are many different kinds of writing…only in literature, however, can there be an attempt at restitution over and above the mere recital of facts, and over and above scholarship.” History will be reshaped and retold, and facts, of course, can change with power and influence; literature confirms what remains unknown.

For original poetry, fiction, art song, and more interviews, visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Big Loves: Claire Fuller on Barbara Comyns’s Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

Today’s contributor to our Big Loves column is Claire Fuller. Fuller’s first novel Our Endless Numbered Days will be released by Tin House books on March 17th. Fuller’s mysterious and captivating novel travels with Peggy Hillcoat who, at the age of eight, is taken from her home by her survivalist father to live in the forest. claire fuller Here, she shares her big love for Barbara Comyns.

I like to collect book titles* and Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead is one of my favorites. First published in 1954, this short book tells the story of the Willoweed family’s involvement in a series of macabre deaths in an English village in 1911. I was introduced to Barbara Comyns’s books by my husband who owns four of them. I loved their off-beat sangfroid writing style so much I sought out all of Comyns’s fiction, and her one memoir.

The first line of Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead—“The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows’—is an excellent foretaste of what is to come. Grandmother Willoweed has vowed not to walk off her own property (when she wants to go to a funeral she get around this by going in a boat); her hen-pecked son, Ebin, dreams only of escaping; a cat is squashed by a falling woman; the butcher slits his throat with his own knives; chickens and pigs drown. Most of the characters I love to hate, apart from the three Willoweed children – Emma, Hattie and Dennis.

Peculiar things happen on every page, but what makes me love it, is Barbara Comyns’s dead-pan way of writing about English eccentrics. Everything is written in beautifully clear prose as if each outrageous event is an everyday occurrence and when Comyns suspects her reader is becoming complacent, she will slip in a simple line or two at the end of a chapter to bring us up short:

“…Emma almost hated her father and was disgusted and terrified of her grandmother. The only person she had to love was Dennis – and the dim lovers of her imagination.
That evening the baker’s wife ran down the village street in a tattered pink nightgown. She screamed as she ran.”

comyns

Similar to We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson, or Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, but for adults, this book looks at life (and death) from a skewed angle. But it’s not all grimness and horror – characters are sometimes nice to each other. The scenes when Emma cares for her younger siblings, taking them to the river with picnics of ‘honey sandwiches with ants on them’ and ‘queer tea that always comes from a thermos,’ are very tender. And when Dennis can no longer look after the grass he plants in a little bowl and cuts with scissors, his sisters sit on his windowsill and cry together.

Writers are told to be careful with point of view; it shouldn’t jump too often from one character’s head to another, or the reader will be lost. But in Who Was Changed And Who Was Dead, Comyns breaks all the rules. It is written like a game of relay: When one character passes another in the street the narrative and the point of view is handed over; when a character thinks about someone else that person picks up the point of view baton. And it works. I am never lost.

I have re-read it several times and have found only two things to be wrong with it: it’s too short – it is over in a few hours. And I think you should assume that quite a few animals were hurt in the writing of it.

*Below are some of my other favorite book titles. What are yours?

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

We Were The Mulvaneys

Behind the Scenes at the Museum

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths

Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow

A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush

Love in the Time of Cholera

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Fiction Spotlight: Tom Cooper

TomCooper_AuthorPhotoThis week, Memorious contributor and short story rounder Tom Cooper releases his first novel, The Marauders (Crown), to a bevy of critical and popular acclaim. Born out of Cooper’s longstanding history with New Orleans, the book is a wry and sprawling study in character and setting, with the fictional port of Jeanette still logged with the bodies of Hurricane Katrina and the sludge of the BP oil spill. Similar to the not-quite-right character in his story, “John Laroquette” (featured in Memorious 12), the cast of The Marauders includes a one-armed treasure seeker, psychopathic twin drug dealers, a father & son pair of shrimpers, company men, and a pair of lay geographers hunting for an island not shown on any map, each of them dogged by circumstance and the belief that they are in charge of their own fortunes.

To mark the release of his novel, Memorious was fortunate enough to talk with Tom Cooper about his work, his influences, and his relationship with the place he’s called home for years.

In The Marauders, each character seems to be haunted by history. I’m curious, then, about how history fits into your characters’ designs. Could you walk us through the process of building one of your characters in the book and how you’ve structured their back story?

It was, and always is for me, a tentative process of discovery. I always end up with much more material than I use, which I suppose is the case for many writers. But for several months, maybe for up to a year, I gather stuff—words, images, music, photographs, characters, jokes, dialogue, anything—like a bowerbird. By the time I have enough stuff, it’s just a matter of putting it together. Nothing is structured or premeditated until this point.

Actually, I’m always gathering material. I have a file cabinet with about three thousand Post-It notes stuffed inside. No exaggeration. Maybe a little OCD?

Speaking of history, the fictional town of Jeanette in the novel feels like its own character at times. It seems like it’s based on a place or places that are very familiar to you. Why did you choose to set the story here? What did the bayou afford you that your adopted city of New Orleans couldn’t?

Well, New Orleans was affected differently. My next novel—what I hope will be my next novel, who knows—is the yin to The Marauders’ yang. The sister book. The Marauders being the brother and male-centric. The next explores how New Orleans is affected, the sinister chain reaction that occurs during the same summer. Concurrently, and in kind of a Pulp Fiction fashion, one or two of the ancillary characters in The Marauders make an appearance in the next book.

But The Marauders. The Marauders had to be set in a small coastal community. Jeanette is an amalgamation of many of the coastal towns I’ve visited, and worked in, over the years.

Let’s talk about the research you accomplished in preparation for writing The Marauders. Where did you start? What went into the research project itself? What was the most surprising find you made in your search?

So much weird research went into writing this book. I’m one of those guys who carries a Moleskine pad in his back pocket. Not ostentatiously, though, or so I hope. You know those guys. But I always write down images, character sketches, snippets of dialogue.

Aside from this usual process, I was teaching down in Thibodaux, Louisiana, at a small state school, and this community was one of the hardest hit by the oil spill. I heard stories every day. Every day. And many of them were horrific.

I read a lot, of course, but much of my reading was off-center. Obscure books about southern lore and the pirate Jean Lafitte. Newspaper archives. Many books about the marshland, the oil spill, the irreversible damage to the environment. It’s something I care about, having been born and having grown up close to the Everglades, a similar ecosystem that’s been gouged and hacked into oblivion.

Man, all of this sounds like a downer, doesn’t it? I guess it is. Except don’t worry: the book isn’t preachy or overtly political. I don’t want to bludgeon readers with the obvious.

In terms of literary tradition and inspiration for the book, which writers would you say have been most influential here and why? On top of that, what books would you say have haunted you in the design and progression of The Marauders?

This is a great question. Well, I favor novels that are character-driven and atmospheric, but with a sinister vein—a foreboding sense of imminent doom for at least one, if not more, of the characters—and this vein gives the narrative a pulse. A direction. At least a Hitchcockian MacGuffin. John Gardner called this quality in fiction ‘profluence.’

Random House is pushing the novel as a mystery and thriller, though they feature it in the literary section of their catalogue. I think it’s a little bit of both, but some mystery readers won’t like the novel much if they’re expecting the usual beats, the usual dead body by page ten, the usual pedal-to-the-metal pace. I like my novels much looser than that. I’m thinking of certain episodes in the work of Flannery O’Connor and Joy Williams, in stuff by William Gay, Larry Brown, Denis Johnson, passages which don’t advance the plot per se, but which illuminate character, which give the book some breathing space. I’m thinking Elmore Leonard, his jazzy passages that are nothing more than characters shooting the shit. Oh, and Graham Greene, too, of course. He had his “entertainments” and his “serious novels,” but often the former were better than the latter. And I guess you can say the same thing about William Faulkner.

In the end, I think all of my favorite literature is darkly comic, but not goofily so. Something has to be at stake. Our lives now, times are desperate and times are strange. So I like desperate characters in desperate situations. That’s when we discover our true natures, and of what we’re capable.

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—Barrett Bowlin, Contributing Editor

For original poetry, fiction, and art song, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight with Caki Wilkinson

Caki_1_photoCaki Wilkinson’s second poetry collection, The Wynona Stone Poems, inhabits quite a different space than her debut collection. Like in Circles Where the Head Should Be, Wilkinson’s formal adeptness is still on display throughout the collection, but this time, the poems are all focused on a single character: Wynona Stone. Wynona has some characteristics of an everywoman: she is concerned with fears we all know too well, such as self-doubt and the feeling of being in a rut. We have all asked ourselves what Wynona wants to know: What am I doing with my life? While some of Wynona’s anxieties are familiar, she is utterly unique and multifaceted. After moving back to her hometown, Wynona unenthusiastically dates the local weatherman and spends her time outside of her unsatisfying job making clay models. Throughout the book, Wynona’s childhood memories bleed seamlessly into poems about her present, and we all make the intrepid journey into “real” adulthood with her, recognizing ourselves in her experiences and rooting for her small triumphs along the way.

The Wynona Stone Poems is the winner of the 2013 Lexi Rudnitsky Editor’s Choice Award (Persea Books). You can get a sneak peek at some of the poems from the collection in Memorious. Caki answered some of my questions about what it was like to write a poetry collection so unique in scheme and scope.

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Circles Where the Head Should Be was formally “strict,” so to speak, whereas in The Wynona Stone Poems you experiment more with other forms, like prose poetry for example. Can you talk about how you made this shift and what you think this experimentation with form brings to this book?

I can be pretty obsessive about balance (e.g. the middle section of Circles Where the Head Should Be, a series called “The School by the Zoo,” is made up of sixteen, sixteen-line poems that all follow the same meter and rhyme scheme). My impulse is to impose order, but I was constantly working against this impulse in The Wynona Stone Poems, understanding that variety was going to be important—along with a certain amount of messiness. If things were lined up too neatly I would risk the element of surprise that helps keep the collection moving forward. Individually most of the poems follow some kind of metrical pattern, but I made a point to vary their shapes and sounds, and I tried to be open to breaking their rules.

Speaking of form, you’re often referred to as a formalist poet. Do you see formalism as a part of your poetic identity? What draws you to writing in form?

I never know what to say about formalism. I think about form all the time—and I’d say that’s true of most poets—but I don’t think very much about formalism as a movement or aesthetic or anything like that. I love and read all sorts of poems, and I hope I’ll continue to experiment with different styles.

For me, though, restrictions are generative. Following some formal scheme helps to push me past my own blinkered way of seeing; it forces me to assume a wider and stranger stance. This is true of other poetic rules too, and I’m always giving myself these private challenges: Can I write a poem in which all the lines are anagrams for the first line? Can I write a cross-rhymed poem without punctuation? Can I write a stanza that includes the words adagio, jellyfish, and butt?

Can you talk about the impetus for the character of Wynona Stone? Was there something in your own life that sparked the idea, or did she come from somewhere else entirely? 

When I started writing the poems, I knew I wanted to do a longer project, and I thought the project would focus on several characters. I had all these notes and ideas about setting it at a museum, but my initial plans for a plot never really took off. Wynona was in the first poem I wrote, and I never could move past her. I was drawing some from my own life—more than I realized at the time—but this comes out less in the specific plot than in the mood of the poems. I wrote half of the first draft in a pretty isolated place where I was alone all day creating these characters and their town. I wrote the second half after moving and starting a job in an office, and it was hard to make the transition; suddenly my head was filled with lots of real people and concrete responsibilities. That tension made its way into the poems too: there is one Wynona who works in a museum and visits the Weatherman; there’s another who goes home and builds clay models.

I know that you and Wynona have some similarities, like playing basketball, for instance. What other elements in the book do you think were drawn from real life? (Other characters maybe?) Can you talk a little about the idea “writing what you know” and how to turn life into poetry?

Yes, I played basketball very seriously from age eight until my freshman year college. I never intended to make it part of Wynona’s history too, but it became one of the ways I connected with her younger self. Sports were such a central part of my life growing up that it was hard for me to imagine what else she would have done with her time.

As for the other characters, a few are composites of real-life people (though there was never a weatherman—much to my family’s relief), and I borrowed plenty of little details. For example, a friend who had recently moved back in with his parents told me he came home one night to find them dead asleep in separate rooms, separate TVs blasting separate programs. I thought that was the perfect image for Mr. and Mrs. Stone. Mostly, though, I needed Wynona and the people of Pleasant Bluff to feel a little mysterious; it’s what pushed me to keep writing.

“Write what you know” is one of those rules that makes sense if you don’t think about it very hard. And, too, people often assume it means “write what happened,” which isn’t the same thing. Robert Lowell reportedly used to tell his students, “A poem is an event, not a record of an event.” I like that. Sometimes the poem’s event is its own kind of knowing.

Unlike many poetry collections, this collection sticks with one character throughout. Can you talk about how this was a new challenge for you? What drew you into Wynona’s character and made you want to continue writing about her? How did you find the process of delving deeply into one character’s life and psyche, rather than writing a more “traditional” poetry collection linked by theme or form, for example?

For me, one of the hardest things about writing poems is that you are constantly starting over. Every poem is its own occasion, and when you finish one it’s back to the drawing board. This can be liberating, but it’s a lot of pressure. When I was writing The Wynona Stone Poems I got to build a whole world. At first I doubted whether or not the project would succeed, but working on the poems was fun in a way that writing hadn’t been in a long time. Eventually I learned to trust the fun I was having and stop worrying (mostly) about everything else.

I think I was drawn to Wynona initially because of her flaws, which were alternately funny and sad in ways that made me root for her. Wynona is a compressed, distorted version of a real person, and there are moments when her circumstances seem ridiculous, but I think her motivations are very human. She’s a person trying to come to terms with a bunch of small failures, and she wants to hope there’s something better ahead of her.

 -Susan Elliott Brown is a poetry reader for Memorious. Her poems have appeared in such places as Measure: A Review of Formal Poetry, The Atticus Review, The Ampersand Review, and the Best American Poetry Blog.

For original poetry, fiction, interviews, and art song, visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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