02 July 2004

A Conversation with Alan DeNiro

I first discovered Alan DeNiro's work when I read the first of the Ratbastards chapbooks. Over the next few months, I found myself corresponding with Alan about the possibilities and limits of contemporary fiction and poetry. It's not often you find somebody who can discuss definitions of hard science fiction and space opera along with the poetry of Lorine Niedecker and Jack Spicer.

The release of a third Ratbastards chapbook gave me an excuse to drag Alan into a public interview.

First, a bit o' bio: Alan De Niro has been published by Strange Horizons, Fence, Minnesota Monthly, Trampoline, and Polyphony 3. He runs Taverner's Koans ("A One-Room Schoolhouse of Experimental Poetics"), is a founding members of The Ratbastards, and has been shortlisted for such awards as the O. Henry.

If, for some perverse reason, you're interested in more of my thoughts on his writing, I wrote a post about his story "Tetrarchs" in May.

And now for some conversation...


What were your goals when you put together the first Ratbastards chapbook? Have those goals changed at all?
Although I can't speak for everyone, I think we were trying to create, and still are, little islands of misfit toys. Or, er, stories. Stories that, for whatever reason, might be hard to place elsewhere, that were just off, but in a good way...

The big and obvious difference is that the editorial process changes when you're looking outward to try to fill slots. The first chapbook with our own work was a good first step in that way; it let us get our feet wet with actually having a physical product out there, and I think it helped us gain confidence for the subsequent works.

Another goal has had a lot to do with recent zine culture and how that has affected the science fiction community. Although this isn't earthshattering or anything, it's interesting how the specific types of production have had a direct effect on the aesthetic experience itself. E.g., the pulp digests were, and are, coming from a specific cultural context, and that context shapes the reading experience, and what ought to be put in between those pages. It's not the only factor, of course, and editors work against the grain of that all the time. But it's there and to be reckoned with. The zines are coming from a much different place, and I think in some ways a more generous place. Seedlings for an alternative community within the field that couldn't be easily pinned down (which is, of course, overlapped and accretive with other communities within the field). Lady Churchill's has had a profound effect on the field not only because of the high caliber of fiction it was producing, but it broke out of The Matrix of "high pay rates = high quality of work". (Not that I think that Gavin and/or Kelly are Keanu Reeves-esque or anything).

Anyway, in an odd way it was hearkening back, too, to the mimeographic fanzine tradition of older SF, which I'd known nothing about (and still don't know nearly enough about that as I ought to), which was a big topic at the Wiscon panel on zines in 2001. It was after that panel and Wiscon that we decided to try to put something out there. So for lack of a better term, the cheapness of the whole project, on one level, is also empowering.

I hope that we're putting out off-kilter stories that catch people's attention, and that we keep doing it in conjunction with a lot of other great zines out there. And that certainly hasn't changed from the first Rabid Transit.

But there's a difference, isn't there, between digests like Analog and F&SF?
Sure, but that has to do with the content itself. The physical product and the packaging are still an uber-framing device for the stories. (Although F&SF has some pretty nice covers more often than not.) Typography and production matters -- whichever direction you want to go with it.

Look at Third Alternative -- sometimes its design goes a little overboard in terms of readability, but on the whole it's a visually striking magazine. I think that goes a long way in providing a vibe (wow, did I say that word) in approaching the fiction, which leans towards the edgy as well. Which, again, isn't to say that other digest-sized magazines are metaphysically incapable of putting out bracing, intriguing work. But the framing devices often determine how that work is received -- coldness, warmth, or indifference.

Now for a thought experiment about reading...

Imagine two people (I'll call them Gertrude and Robert, though those may not be their real names or genders, given that they're imaginary constructs): Gertrude has an MFA from a prestigious creative writing program, subscribes to ten literary magazines (as well as Poets & Writers), and secretly thinks everything she's ever written is, well, boring.

Robert didn't finish college, though he spent enough time to major in five different subjects (everything from acting to zoology) at a prestigious school of some sort, and he is a voracious reader of science fiction whose prized possession is a personal rejection letter from Gardner Dozois at Asimov's. He has published a couple of stories in the SF field, but he feels that his writing is lacking something, and he's even discovered that most of what he reads doesn't particularly excite him anymore. He spends far too much time playing X-box now and trying to discover web links that Cory Doctorow will pick up for Boing Boing.

Anyway, the question: What would you suggest for these two people to read?
Vague Anthropomorphic Entity #1: Jonathan Carroll (particularly Bones of the Moon and Sleeping in Flame), Her Smoke Rose Up Forever by James Tiptree Jr., The Night We Buried Road Dog by Jack Cady, The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories by Gene Wolfe, Ring of Swords by Eleanor Arnason, Lafferty in Orbit by R.A. Lafferty, China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh, Gateway by Frederick Pohl.

Vague Anthropomorphic Entity #2: The Angle Quickest for Flight by Stephen Kotler, Justine by Lawrence Durrell, Super Flat Times by Matthew Derby, The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead, Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance by Richard Powers, The Arabian Nightmare by Robert Irwin, The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender, Emporium by Adam Johnson, The Stories of TC Boyle, The Sea Rabbit by Wendy Walker, The Lost Steps by Alejo Carpentier.

Set one could be easily interchanged with set two and vice versa.

Does your attention to poetry, and your writing of it, affect your fiction?
I've been thinking about this a lot -- that maybe there's some kind of undersea cable that connects the two. Well, let me backtrack, I think there are two ways to answer this question.

First, on a purely craft level, learning the "basics" of writing poetry is extremely useful with an apprenticeship with fiction writing: attentiveness to language, concision when it's called for, knowing when to stop and let the absences kind of breathe on their own. I'd always written fiction here and there -- though I thought of myself as a "poetry writer" from high school right to when I finished my MFA. That was the point I stopped writing poetry for a good year or two and started plunging into the thickets of fiction, particularly science fiction, magic realism, experimental fiction, etc. etc., whatever. And it was always a matter of compartmentalizing the two different parts of my head -- I'd either be in a "fiction mode" or "poetry mode" and rarely the twain would meet. It's only been in the last, say, two years or so that I've been worried less about "mode" I'm in, and just tried to be a writer instead of a poet or fiction writer. And so on many days science fiction feels to me like a form of poetry that happens to be in sentences instead of lines. A lot of this has had to do with reading more Language poetry and other recent work that has been spun off from it in the last decade. And other branches from the tree -- poets influenced by Jack Spicer, for example. The British poet J.H. Prynne has been another huge influence on me, both in the fiction and poetry. I mean, with Jack Spicer -- God, talk about a poet steeped in science fictional and mythic iconography. But never in a cloying, stilted way.

And there's something there, a similar attraction to both forms (experimental, Language-based poetry and science fiction) that's difficult for me to pin down, though I know it's there, even though they might seem like radically different ways to go about it, they rupture consensus reality in similar ways. To use an oversimplification, they both show that language can create worlds. Delany's talked about how science fiction is a way of reading as much as anything else, and there's something attractive about that, that poetry and science fiction (by the way, I'm using SF as a very very wide blanket term for a lot of different fiction that I like, some of which may or may not be set in the future...ok, disclaimer over) are orientations or alignments of the mind more than anything else. They provide methods to interpret textures in language.

Well, to what purpose? And I guess that's the kicker to this rather long-winded answer. To what purpose? Not to crank them out for their own sake, hopefully.

Whether I write a poem or a story, they're both coming from the self. Which might seem self-evident, but with science fiction in particular, it's not, because there is all of this cultural baggage, er, I mean, architecture, about the requirement that the stories reflect, and at best inform, empirical realities. I mean, what does story X involving hard science (just as an example) tell us about the person who wrote it? Not the ideas and the historiography, but the person.

I like reading stories and poems where you get the sense that the writer needed to write something; kind of like how some Replacements songs are always on the verge of falling apart, that there's this desperation. It's that falling apart-ness that is in itself an emotional argument. Poets (well, many of the poets I like) are very good at letting the frayed edges show. Someone like David Bunch did the same; he had the confidence to risk total chaos in his stories.

This goes beyond stylistic ornamentation -- someone could write a very minimalist story that has this edginess and passionate precision. And maybe that's what's so fascinating -- that working in very material forms (which I consider SF and poetry to be, although in different ways) allows for a really rich symbol-set for exploring personhood. What does a planet mean? What does an alien mean? What happens when you let them become, say, your inner demons or the staging area for your own pathos or your late night terror about dying? We all have odd ways of looking at the world, we all have really hermetic sensibilities that we rarely put out in the open -- both poetry and SF are superb vessels for doing just that. So maybe that's how I see SF as a form of prose poetry. Bruno Schulz did this quite well with Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hour Glass.

But there's more to fiction (and poetry) than symbol-making, isn't there?
Absolutely. The symbols themselves have to breathe, jitter, do cartwheels, whatever. They have to position themselves in relation to other symbols. So maybe it's syntax-making instead of symbol-making.

How do you know when you're writing well?
When I finish a story or poem. I have a horrible inclination to leave things unfinished. Whether I'm revising a piece well is, of course, a whole other question, and that's not easy to feel around either. I think it's harder to know when you're revising well, even though that might be even more crucial than writing a first draft well.

Do you have any particular approach to revision?
Not really. I just keep printing out the story, make line edits, and make the changes, and print the story out again. Also as a half-revision step: when I type the story into the computer in the first place (I've been writing most of my stuff by longhand the last year or so). It's technically just word processing, but I can get in a zone just transcribing words and little things that I didn't notice before pop out at me. (So much of revision is typography! Seeing the words in different ways.)

I'm not in any sort of writing group, which is both good and bad, I guess. But it's been valuable in some ways to muck around on my own through a story for the first few drafts. I have some first readers that I rely on a lot who are invaluable; my wife has a huge influence on me in this regard. We're both very different types of writers, and we help balance each other out.

Daniel Green has suggested that the picaresque is a form that has nearly been lost to contemporary fiction writers, and that we might be able to broaden our sense of what is or isn't a viable story if more writers were to experiment with it. What kind of thinking will help writers (and readers) discover interesting structures for their work?
I'm not sure the picaresque will ever be lost, although it will certainly be mutated. Is Lethem's Amnesia Moon a picaresque novel? Maureen McHugh's Mission Child? The picaresque always works well with absurdities, and I don't think life is going to get any less absurd any time soon. Literary tradition and historical circumstance, that intersection of the old and the new, will more than provide enough soil to dig into. It's just a matter of reading a lot and being attentive to little permutations in different ways to tell stories, or even to interrupt or thwart them once in awhile. Reading stories in translation is also certainly a good way to discover interesting structures -- things that might seem quite wild to our eyes but fairly normal in other cultures. Those arcs might turn into rollercoasters or steep, unending plummets or ascents -- whether it "works" or not is up to the writer, what he or she does with it, not the structure itself.

Do you think there are any elements that are essential to fiction? (People have suggested conflict, change, etc.)
Nah. Useful, sometimes very useful, but not essential.

What, then, distinguishes fiction from poetry or essays?
Ok, so we can say that fiction is (a) prose, and has sentences instead of lines; and (b) a portion, or all of the shit therein, is made up. Those are the essential elements. Everything else is fair game in terms of structural elements. But even this doesn't really satisfy me; what about fiction created to be treated as if it's nonfiction (e.g., some religious texts)? Obviously I'm just stumped, and sounding dorkier by the sentence. But I think that fictive forms are very malleable, and in different cultures have entirely different uses.

What about audience? Isn't it pretentious and arrogant of writers to use structures and techniques that alienate their audience?
Everyone's pretty much alienated from everyone else. I don't mean that in a pessimistic way. For the most part going through day to day we skate over the surface of our inner lives (our under-lives). Obviously, nothing wrong with that, that's the consensual reality that we live in. But deeper in there are a lot of un-understandable things, fragile things. Writing is a way to move to where that estrangement and fragility is, not to capture it but to be aware of the fact that it exists at all. It might unlock something in the reader, it might not, who can say. It's good to know what other people think but not to worry about it too much, except maybe as a personal bar to work against the grain of audience expectations once in awhile.

This is not to say that "difficult" writing is inherently uncommunicative -- far from it. (Difficult can mean many things, by the way -- the stories I've been writing lately have been both plainer and more hermetic). But if the writer can put something out there that is dense, textured, and nuanced, maybe it has a greater durability in the long run. Maybe.

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