“Investigating the Nature of Reality”: An Interview with Brian Evenson

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Photo of Brian Evenson

Recently, Sonora Review‘s 2017-2018 Co-Editor-in-Chief, Patrick Cline, interviewed Brian Evenson, writer of numerous works of fiction and our 2017 Fiction Contest judge.

First off, thank you so much for judging our Spring fiction contest. We love your choice, Kate Berson’s “Luz, Milagro,” and are thrilled to publish it in Sonora Review #72. What do you admire about this story, and what led you to choose it out of the other submissions?

I found it a subtle story, and somewhat elusive–which I mean as a great compliment. It’s the kind of story that gave me just enough to move forward but also maintained a certain amount of mystery. It’s also not necessarily the kind of story I would naturally gravitate toward, and so it had to work a little harder to draw me in. I found it an exceptionally well written story: that, above all, was what convinced me to choose it.

As a semi-frequent contest judge, can you give us a sense of your process in this role, both in this case specifically and generally speaking? What do you look for in a story, and what do you pay attention to? Do you see any tendencies in your choices?

I try to go into each contest with an open mind. It’s more that I’m waiting for the story to convince me that it should be chosen than that I’m looking for something specific–which I guess means I’m looking for something well-written, original and convincing. But, honestly, the story that I chose for the last contest I judged and Berson’s story are radically different. The only thing they have in common is that the people writing them are thinking really actively about language and what it can do.

You are often asked about your work’s relationship to the horror genre, and the line you often trace is that you write “epistemological horror.” While bodies may be violently harmed in your work, and monsters may appear, the terror your fiction focuses on is the instability of one’s perspective on reality and one’s sense of self. In your most recent short story collection, A Collapse of Horses (Coffee House Press, 2016), this theme is readily apparent–characters fear that they may have gone mad without noticing, they may have harmed others and forgotten, that their surroundings, their companions, their families and they themselves behave in some opaque and threatening manner that they can never quite figure out–and it has been a consistent aspect of your work since your debut collection, 1994’s Altmann’s Tongue. What aspects of this theme do you find so essential? Can you track an evolution of your treatment and perspective on it through your work, and has it changed as you have achieved a wide following and many of the milestones (personal and professional) that are supposed to lend a stability to one’s sense of self and place? Simply put, has your skepticism softened over time?

I don’t really see it as a theme so much as a mode, or even a way of thinking about the world. I do honestly believe that there’s something profoundly contingent about reality and a lot of my work is really about trying to figure out the parameters of that. But it’s less a theme than it is an exploration of how I think about the world, with each new work or new story trying to shift things slightly to explore a different facet or aspect of it. I think my way of seeing the world has certain things in common with a schizo-affective version of the world, though from a more controlled perspective: there can’t help but be commonalities between how such a mind reworks the world and how a certain kind of imaginative mind does. I guess I think that Altmann’s Tongue is more direct and stark in its critique and that my later work is more nuanced, but I’d say that my skepticism has deepened over time rather than weakened. It’s probably more intense, or differently intense, in my most recent novella, The Warren, than it is in Altmann’s Tongue. I guess the other thing that’s happened is that I’ve become more concerned with exactly how that epistemological horror has ontological repercussions. That’s really what The Warren is about–the horrors and limitations and joys of being a kind of discontinuous sheaf of selves.

Stylistically, your work demonstrates a commitment to clarity and precision–the world your characters inhabit may be inexplicable and murky, but their thoughts, actions, and perceptions are rendered tightly and unambiguously. This distinguishes you from many writers who share an interest in confusion, violence, and madness, and affect a much more, well, purple style to approximate this psychology (Poe and Bernhard, both avowed influences of yours, come to mind). How do you understand your style in relation to your subject matter?

I tend to think you should be precise and clear unless there’s a very good reason not to, and that, as a writer, you should be sure that a movement away from clarity isn’t an excuse for not doing something that would be difficult to pull off. I love the effect of a story that’s clear and precise and yet really maintains its sense of mystery nonetheless. But I’ll also quibble a little: I think Bernhard’s quite clear and quite precise–in a way not dissimilar to the way Henry James can be totally precise: wonderful sinuous sentences in which it a slight change can really transform everything. They demand attention, but that attention pays off. I think some of my work in a way says: “Look, I’m easy to read,” but that at the same time I’m working with rhythm and sound and subtle variations in syntax to make other things happen, to bring off certain effects. When that works best, the story does something to you as a reader in a way that you can’t quite pin down.

I’m sorry, I did not mean to suggest that Bernhard didn’t have reason for or control of his affect (or Poe for that matter), but rather that he employs a style that is immediately overwhelming and mimics the disorientation of his narrators–a clear match between theme and affect. In your writing, rather, I find a sort of dummy-realism, where initially clear worlds are unsettled and undermined by the end, perhaps similar to Flannery O’Connor’s stories where characters confident in their perspectives are humbled by certain inexplicable events. O’Connor wrote her fiction to evangelize–as she has stated, “your problem [as a writer] is going to be difficult in direct proportion as your beliefs depart from [your reader]”–and I wonder, is there an element of this goal in your writing? Why invite the reader in so welcomingly, as you indicated (“easy to read”), before pulling out the rug?

Well, if we think about fiction as having a mimetic quality, then realism ends up imitating the surface of that–presenting worlds that “look like” the world that we know. Someone like Bernhard is more interested in imitating what goes on inside a particular kind of frantic mind. Some people argue that that’s a different kind of mimeticism, a different sort of imitation, but I think the problem with thinking about it in those terms is that it accepts the premise that what fiction should be doing is imitating life, whether it be interior or exterior life. I think a more interesting way to look at it, which I think you hint at, is to think of it as affective or intensive or experiential. What makes Bernhard so great is less the way that he imitates a certain kind of mind and more the way in which he makes you feel like your own way of thinking is being disoriented and reoriented. It’s less about something being shown and more about making us have an almost embodied experience that changes you.

In terms of my own relationship with reality and realism and the reader, I think that reality exists but that we perceive it so incompletely as to have only a partial relationship with it. A good part of our lives as humans involves living as if we do have a solid relationship to the world around us, but there are always these moments of rupture that reconfigure us and disorient us and make us wonder if we understand anything at all about the people we thought we knew, about the world, etc. I guess I feel that my fiction is inviting people into that process in an aesthetic way, offering something that’s aesthetically pleasurable and at the same time asking you to undergo by proxy an intensive and difficult experience–but that’s of course a very different thing than actually living through those experiences. I hope that my stories, when they are at their best, will continue to work on you after you put the book down.

While your writing doesn’t deal directly with real location–the area outside of the immediate action of your fiction is almost never described, or even named¾one can see a lot of the American Southwest in your fiction, especially in earlier works: deserts, horses, murderous cowboys, barbed wire, etc. As a longtime resident of Providence RI, where you ran the Brown University MFA program for many years, many of your stories feel in concert with the New England setting as well–a coldness, a curtness of character, a bleak and gothic atmosphere that fits the buildings and the people (I’m speaking as a native New Havener). How do you see place and region as playing a roll in your work? Do you think your recent move to Southern California, to teach at the California Institute of the Arts, might have an influence on your writing? It is hard for me to imagine a sunny, balmy Brian Evenson story.

I think of myself as a Westerner, and think a lot of the laconic attitudes of the characters in the stories come pretty directly from that (though I saw some of that in certain places in New England as well, sometimes in different ways). There’s a kind of fatalism that’s specifically Western that I see as very much informing my work. And the landscape that’s closest to my soul is the desert landscape of the West. I have to say, I never felt completely at home in New England despite living in Providence for a dozen years–there was something attitudinally that I never quite connected to–but coming to California the landscape immediately felt like home. I guess the Los Angeles I relate to is the one that’s more inland, more obviously desert.

Can you expound a bit on the fatalism of the Western? Another prominent writer of Western settings, Cormac McCarthy, certainly seems to share the belief that a bleak fatalism adheres to the landscape.

I see it as really very much about how people lived in the West originally, and those ideas and attitudes having been passed down from generation to generation. My ancestors were part of that westward expansion in the mid-19th century, and I think life was pretty hard at times, but they kind of just leaned into it, accepted the difficulty of it, accepted that they’d lose a certain percentage of their crop and their animals each year, would probably have a few children die, would face resistances of all kinds. But it’s not nihilism; it’s a functional fatalism has a different feel to it. I think a good Western novel understands that as a prevalent attitude in the region, inherited from generation to generation.

I worry you may be sick of discussing the relationship between your writing and your former membership in the Mormon church, and subsequent rift following Altmann’s Tongue, but I am curious to follow up on a question Ben Marcus asked you in an interview during this period (http://www.webdelsol.com/evenson/beven.htm). He had located in your work an interest in creating a disturbance (or unsettlement) within your readers, which had been amply demonstrated by the Mormon Church’s extreme response to your collection. At the time, Marcus wondered if it might affect your work to move from writing within a community that experienced genuine and personal disturbance from your writing, to a literary community that experienced that disturbance in a more proscribed, intellectual, and embracing context. Now that this move is 20 years old, and many readers (very much including this one) relish precisely your ability to unsettle, I wonder, was Marcus right? Do the stakes feel like they have changed, and has this affected how you approach either your readers through your work or your intentions in your writing? (BTW, I understand that this was a long, rambling, intrusive question–feel very free to answer with a simple “No.”)

I was worried that my leaving the Mormon church for good (I was formally excommunicated about fifteen years ago) would change my relationship to my writing, but what it did was make me feel less like I was writing in opposition to something and more in a position to pursue the investigations I wanted to pursue. I write work that unsettles largely because that’s an experience that I crave as a reader–I’m trying to write work that I want to read. I’ve been very lucky to find an audience who shares that.

I think the best thing leaving Mormonism did for me as a writer was to make me feel like I was no longer under siege. There was a fear in me that I was writing the way I was partly as a response to Mormonism. What I found once I was no longer Mormon was that the same concerns were still important to me but in more varied ways. 

What the negative Mormon response to my work gave me was an understanding that I was writing work that mattered to people–even if only because they objected to it. That’s something that a lot of writers never feel over the course of their career, let alone early on. It also made me feel that since I was likely to lose my religion and my marriage if I kept writing that I had to be seriously committed to what I was doing. That I was playing for keeps. I still feel like I’m playing for keeps, and that there’s something at stake in my best stories.

In an email to me, you loosely identified yourself as a member of The New Weird, a group of writers unified by a porousness toward genre convention and tropes, unsettled and fantastical conceits and worlds, and a dominant atmosphere of, well, weird. I have also head this aesthetic named Slipstream, and the New Fabulists, with membership as diverse as George Saunders, Amelia Grey, and Jeff Vandermeer. While many members have been working in weird for over twenty years, lately it seems that group has swelled rapidly, found each other in magazine and anthology and terminology, and may be the closest contemporary American fiction comes to a unified and dominant aesthetic school. How would you define the New Weird, and how do you see your work fit in? What aesthetic and philosophical concerns do you share with the other members, and why do you think it has lately become so prevalent? Finally, what other weird writers should we definitely check out?

I’ve never really thought of myself as Slipstream, though I know that term circulated. New Fabulist I’m more comfortable with, but I also am not always sure that much is gained by using that term rather than just saying “the fantastic”. The idea of the Weird and the New Weird is something that’s developed over time–Jeff Vandermeer was originally really skeptical of the term, for instance, but then adopted it. What I like about that term “Weird” is that it has a connection to early 20th century genre fiction, includes work that is on both sides of literary and genre divide, includes some aspects of horror, some aspects of SF, and a connection to the occult. At the same time, it’s not really a school–more a series of discontinuously connected ways of manipulating the relation of genre and literature.

I’ll also say that for my own work it’s as important for me to trouble the line between the realistic and the fantastic. I’m not a realist–or rather I don’t care from story to story if my work is or isn’t: realism strikes me as a meaningless generic distinction. But my work from the very beginning has been about investigating the nature of reality and perception. So, I feel on the one hand kinship with certain writers of the Weird, but I feel just as much kinship with a writer like Muriel Spark because she does what she does so well and does it in a way I draw on (in ways probably invisible to anyone but me) in my own fiction. I read a lot, several hundred books of year, and try to read very eccentrically, and gain a lot from seeing other writers do things that I haven’t realized could be done–the more eccentrically you read, the more such things you see.

Hmm. I wonder, what do you see as the value of these sub-genre terms? Strictly speaking literary schools (with self-identified members and manifestos) are a thing of the past, and new organizing terms are most often imposed from the outside in (by, for example, people like me). Is there a discomfort in being associated as such?

I largely see them as a valuable as a way of leading readers to work that they’d like but might not find otherwise, in the same way that the Amazon algorithm is sometimes capable of recommended a book to you that you might not have found otherwise because of what you’ve read or bought. I’ve read enough stuff that gets labelled “Weird” to feel connected to those writers, some more, some less. Slipstream just never caught on for me–maybe I was reading the wrong work that was labelled in that way. I don’t find them a discomfort, though I do like some terms more than others.

Semi-related, I wonder if you could talk a bit about Gordon Lish’s influence on the writers of your generation. While you were not involved in his classes, your work was championed by him at the same time as many other strikingly unsettling, and strikingly successful, contemporary writers (Sam Lipsyte, Ben Marcus, and Diane Williams come to mind). Could one locate a school in this kinship?

I did take several of Lish’s week-long workshops when he taught them on the West Coast and worked closely with him on my first book. I have about seventy pages of notes on those classes, which were simultaneously helpful, interesting, performative, provocative and maddening. I also had a decade or two of correspondence with Lish, my side of which is in the Lilly library in Indiana. I was looking over his letters to me the other day (I just sold my archive to a university library and was sorting it) and finding those similarly performative and provocative. What I think Lish was exceptionally good at (among other things) was getting people to focus on the dynamics of the sentence, the way in which all the sonic, syntactic, rhythmic and other parts of an utterance could be used together to create a resonant impact. Some writers that worked with him, however, got so focused on the sentence that they had a hard time seeing the larger picture–had a hard time moving from sentences to paragraphs or from paragraphs to larger works. The writers you mention (among others, like Christine Schutt, for instance) managed to both gain a great deal from Lish and also develop in their own unique direction. I love their attention to language, but it’s hard to think of that as forming a school, exactly, since they’re so distinct in terms of what they do and what their thematic interests are. So yes, I feel connected to someone like Ben Marcus, but just as connected to genre writers like China Miéville who do amazing things within a genre space.

In terms of Lish, I spent a summer looking over his papers at the Lilly Library years ago and was pretty amazed to see how aggressively he’d edited people like Barry Hannah, Mary Robison, and Raymond Carver (among others). The Carver edits you can get a quick sense of by comparing What We Talk About When We Talk About Love to its earlier version, Beginners (both of which can be found in the Library of America Carver volume). Both versions have the same stories (sometimes with different titles) but Beginners is twice the length. One story “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit” is cut in What We Talk About… to about 1/5th of its original length, and nearly all of those cuts are Lish’s edits–he cuts whole pages and then rewrites bits to string what’s left together. So, I see him as having an even more decided impact on the generation of writers before me, and as the person in essence who created minimalism and a whole style of writer that people like me were reading when we were young writers and beginning to develop.

While primarily known for your literary fiction, you have also published several more straight-forwardly horror genre novels under the name B.K Evenson (most recently the adaptation of Rob Zombie’s film Lords of Salem). How do you see this work cross-pollinating with your “Brian Evenson” work? Does one inform the other, and have they mutated in response to each other? In short, is there room for epistemological terror in B.K Evenson, and jump scares and gross outs in Brian Evenson?

The most recent one is actually something co-written with James Demonaco [who did the Purge movies], a book called Feral. I see B. K. Evenson and Brian Evenson as connected but distinct, kind of like cousins who are also, somehow, non-identical twins. The stuff I do under the name B. K. Evenson are all works that play in someone else’s sandbox: it’s me collaborating with someone else to adapt their screenplay (Lords of Salem or Feral), or me writing fiction set in the world of a video game I like (Dead Space or Halo) or a movie world I like (the novel I did for the Alien franchise). They’re a lot of fun to do, but they have different constraints to them, and the kinds of investigations I usually like to do are a little hampered by those constraints. Still, they’re totally fun to write…

 Has the influence operated the other way around–have you felt your literary work change in response to writing commercial fiction, in structure, device, or content? Just as a small example, I notice in A Collapse of Horses there is a story (“Dust”) about roughnecks in distant outer space who are disappearing one-by-one. Was this inspired by playing in the Alien sandbox?

I think writing the commercial fiction taught me how to write, and to appreciate, plot, and certainly that’s something I’ve brought back (in admittedly a curious way) to my literary work. Honestly, I don’t think “The Dust” was inspired by Alien (which admittedly I love)–I see it more as a response to Outland if you know that movie, but with other sorts of things thrown in philosophically. But yes, I hope I’ve become more and more capable of writing stories that appeal on multiple levels–aesthetically in terms of the language, on a story level, in different ways on a genre and literary level. That’s the hope anyway: that I become more and more capable of writing something that has a kind of multi-tonal quality and resonance…

BRIAN EVENSON is the author of a dozen books of fiction, most recently the story collection A Collapse of Horses (Coffee House Press 2016) and the novella The Warren (Tor.com 2016). He has also recently published Windeye (Coffee House Press 2012) and Immobility (Tor 2012), both of which were finalists for a Shirley Jackson Award. His novel Last Days won the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel of 2009. His novel The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press) was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an International Horror Guild Award. Other books include The Wavering Knife (which won the IHG Award for best story collection), Dark Property, and Altmann’s Tongue. He has translated work by Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, Manuela Draeger, and David B. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship. His work has been translated into French, Italian, Greek Spanish, Japanese, Persian, and Slovenian. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches in the Critical Studies Program at CalArts.

PATRICK CLINE is Co-Editor-in-Chief of Sonora Review, and an MFA candidate at the University of Arizona. He came to the Sonoran Desert to grow tomatoes and write about witches.