Interviewed by Curtis Smith
Brian Evenson is the author of over a dozen books of fiction, most recently Another Way to Fall, which is given away for free (including shipping) by the Concord Free Press in an effort to encourage altruism. His other books include Last Days, which won the ALA-RUSA prize for Best Horror Novel of 2009; The Open Curtain, which was a finalist for an Edgar Award; and the story collection Windeye, which was a finalist for a Shirley Jackson Award. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes, an NEA Fellowship, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches at CalArts.
Evenson also released this year Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love: Bookmarked from Ig Publishing. Bookmarked is a series featuring titles where the author explores, in-depth, a book that was influential to their writing life.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on your entry to Ig’s Bookmarked series. I really enjoyed it. When you started kicking around ideas for the project, was it Carver or nothing else from the get-go or did you entertain ideas for other books? What, in the end, steered you to What We Talk About When We Talk About Love?
Brian Evenson: I began with the idea of writing about Franz Kafka’s stories, which were very important to me when I was first starting to write, and sent a long note about how I might do such a book (I still hope to write about him at some point somewhere). I also suggested Beckett’s novel Molloy as a possibility, and Paul Bowles’ Pages from Cold Point, and Muriel Sparks’ The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie—which is one of my favorite novels. I mentioned, in an offhand way at the end of the email, that I had read Carver’s What We Talk About as a freshman at BYU, the Mormon University, and how much it had shocked me and also changed my thinking about writing. After I sent the email, I found myself thinking more and more about Carver and realizing that, partly because of my own publishing experience, I had a lot to say.
CS: There’s only one other offering in the series that takes on a story collection (Charles Holdefer’s recent entry on Pastoralia). Do you think the structure of a collection made it harder to attack than a novel? What was the process like for you? In my talks with other authors in the series, I’ve found that some dive right into while others struggle to imagine the book’s shape before they can move ahead.
BE: It did take a little time to figure out how to approach it—not so much because I was working with a story collection but more because of the generic flexibility of the series. The Bookmarked books offer a mix of criticism and memoir and literary history, some moving more in one direction and some more in the other, so for me I think the trick was figuring out what balance the book needed. I read all the books in the series and that was extremely helpful—each one offered me something different to bounce off of and helped me to think about my own project. But I think it was the first book I read, Aaron Burch’s Stephen King’s The Body, that ended up being the most useful: Aaron is very honest about what was happening in his relationship at the time he was writing the book. That kind of gave me a way in to the project and allowed me to think it might be all right to start with the moment I almost died in the hospital in 2011.
CS: Early on, you write about Carver’s work coming to you at the right time of your career. Can you elaborate on that a bit? What was it about him—and you—that made the timing right? Have there been other authors whose work you’ve discovered at pivotal points in your career? Conversely, are there other authors you’ve returned to and loved and realized the timing on your end wasn’t right in your initial encounter?
BE: I came to him early enough that I don’t think the ripples of his influence had begun to be felt, so his work felt really fresh and new to me. He was writing something that struck me as different from what anybody else at the time was doing. I think if I’d come across him even a few years later, enough people had started to write in a similar mode that it wouldn’t have felt nearly as revelatory. Also, I was pretty young and not around a lot of people reading the latest contemporary fiction, so that helped as well.
And yes, there have been a few other writers that I’ve come across at the right moments in my career, but very few of them American. My father read Kafka with me when I was fourteen (he was a very atypical Mormon father) and that had a tremendous impact on me, probably more than Carver. Up until that time, I’d mainly been reading science fiction and fantasy. A few years later, I came across Beckett and that was similarly pivotal for me. Then Carver. Then in my mid-20s Thomas Bernhard and Leonardo Sciascia—the two longest stories in my first book Altmann’s Tongue owe a tremendous amount to them. And then, after the book was accepted but before it came out Cormac McCarthy really shifted my sense of literature in a very productive way. Others include James Purdy, Dambudzo Marechera, Muriel Spark, William Goyen, Walter Abish, Jim Thompson, Robert Aickman, J. G. Ballard, a few others. Probably the most recent pivot was seven or eight years ago when I reread Gene Wolfe, an SF/fantasy writer—I’d read him in my teens, but hadn’t really seen fully what he was doing. Honestly, as you get older I think that pivot or redirection happens less and less often, or when it does happen it isn’t nearly so reorienting.
Wolfe’s one of the few I’ve read later and realized that the timing wasn’t right the first time. I’ve read his The Book of the New Sun three times in the last seven or eight years. When I reread Ballard’s short fiction, the surprising thing was realizing how much of what he does in his short stories are things I did in mine, how much I’d absorbed without knowing it early on. There are others who I came to at the wrong moment: I like Salinger, but have never been influenced by him. I never had the David Foster Wallace or Kurt Vonnegut phase that a lot of writers I know have had. And, despite teaching a lot at Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac school, I’ve never really gotten the appeal of On the Road.
CS: How cool is it that your father read you Kafka when you were fourteen. You have children, both young and older. What authors/books have you most enjoyed sharing with them? Have they, in turn, turned you on to material you wouldn’t have checked out otherwise?
BE: Yes, that was great for me; I’m really glad he did it. With my own children, I’ve been pretty open about what I like and also in allowing them to read a little beyond their level: some of my favorite memories as a child were of reading books that were too hard to me, that were challenging and intriguing. I read a lot to my kids as well. When my daughters were young we read Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events together, and they found it both fascinating and alarming. Now that they’re grown, they often recommend books to me (and vice versa). My son is five, and I allow him to take whatever he wants to out of the library, which means we end up with some not so good books, but also some amazing ones that we wouldn’t have come across otherwise.
CS: It’s hard to talk about Carver without talking about minimalism. I’ve gone back and forth on it over the years, and I guess I enjoy it when it’s done well—but I think it is, despite its surface simplicity, really difficult to pull off. From your perspective, what are the advantages of minimalism—and on the other side, what does an author sacrifice when he writes in this style?
BE: I know people have very different feelings about minimalism, and it might come down largely to aesthetic preference. The best minimalist stuff I like a lot, but sometimes it does become too oblique or obscure or slight—I probably have a higher tolerance than many, but still. I think there’s a European minimalist tradition that is interesting—late Beckett, for instance, or Marie Redonnet’s Nevermore to name two—and I think that the best American minimalism is in conversation with that. The tricky thing about minimalism is that it seems easy to imitate, and there is a lot of minimalism that mimics the gestures but not in ways that seem earned or essential. What you say is exactly right: it’s difficult to create that seeming simplicity effectively…
For me, I’m less interested in whether something is minimal or maximal (my first book has stories in both those modes as well as things in between) and more interested in how thoughtful it is about its language and composition. I think a similar thing can be said about maximalism as what you say about minimalism: a lot of people think it’s easy to put in everything but the kitchen sink, but the best maximalist stuff is really attentive to how it constructs itself and even very picky. And there’s a lot of good mimetic realism that uses the techniques of minimalism, maximalism or even poetry but is very good at hiding it: most things that seem like they’re using fiction as a window are attentive to language but making different choices, at least partly hiding their technique.
For me, Carver’s What We Talk About… was really effective, partly because it felt new when I read it. But once something like that is written, repeating it becomes less interesting. I do think that Carver’s influence did lead to a lot of young writers seeing what was easily imitable in his fiction and copying it, which led to stories that were okay, but rarely good. Minimalism works these days for me only when it’s thinking about the minimal in new ways instead of using the techniques like a cookie cutter. But that’s true, to be honest, for me with every genre or style…
CS: The book addresses each of the collection’s stories—but it then takes on a twist, almost like a detective movie, of you investigating the relationship and influence of Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish. And the story delves even deeper when you explore your own relation with Gordon (which I didn’t know about until I read the book). Lish is well-known to folks our age, but I don’t think he’s as well-known to younger writers. Can you give us a perspective of his influence at the time? And can you follow up with the influence he had on your work and career?
BE: When you and I were young writers, Lish was quite well-known. He edited not only Carver but Barry Hannah, Mary Robison, Amy Hempel, Rick Bass, and Diane Williams. Then, later, people like Sam Lipsyte, Noy Holland, Ben Marcus, and Gary Lutz. He was a very visible editor at Esquire then for many years a major editor at Knopf as well as the editor of magazine called The Quarterly that was much talked about when I was young. He taught classes which were well-known and controversial, took on the moniker “Captain Fiction”, and was well-known as a provocateur. He had (and still has—he’s 84 now) very strong views about fiction, could be a fairly aggressive editor, and didn’t tolerate fools gladly. But he can be seen as the driving force behind minimalism and as someone who redirected the course of American fiction. He was, as I discuss in the book, responsible for bringing Carver to attention. I think it’s undeniable that he had a major impact on American fiction, and I tend to think that impact was for the better, but not everybody feels that way, or thinks that way only with qualifications.
For me, Lish began as this almost mythic figure that I heard other young writers talking about with reverence. I ended up working with him almost by accident: I sent a manuscript for what was basically a novella to Ashbel Green, another editor at Knopf who I had seen profiled in Writer’s Market and Green didn’t think it was for him, but he was kind enough to pass it along to Lish, who telephoned me. When he telephoned, I thought it was a friend of mine playing a joke on me. I published a number of the stories that were in my first book in The Quarterly and Lish edited my first story collection at Knopf. He was extremely good at getting me to think carefully about language and how it was working, and that, I think, got me started on a good path as a writer. I’ve published about a dozen books since that first book, which was the only one I did with Lish, and many of them are books that I suspect Lish wouldn’t like much (though I don’t know for certain), but I do think that those later books wouldn’t be nearly as good as they are without that first experience with Lish. I’m very grateful to him.
CS: Much of your book explores a kind of ethical dilemma surrounding the Lish-Carver relationship—and we come to the point of wondering how much editing is too much and when does one vision supplant another. I enjoyed how you let us look at this through a number of different lenses (and books, especially when you compare What We Talk About to Cathedral). So many other art forms—music, movies—are collaborative—yet we have different expectations for writers. When you were done reflecting on the whole matter, did you come away thinking these expectations were fair? Or were they even valid—and the only thing that matters should be the reader’s experience?
BE: It’s an incredibly complex issue. But what I’ve thought over the years was that I was very glad to have What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in the form I had it—which was heavily edited by Lish (which I didn’t know at the time). Having read Beginners, the version of the book that existed before Lish edited it, I’m positive that if it had been published in that form instead of the Lish edited form it wouldn’t have had an impact on me as a young writer. I needed that book in the form I got it. At the same time, as you find out some of the details of the editing of that book and find out that Carver wanted to reverse some of the editing, even begged Lish to let him do so, it’s hard to not feel a certain amount of sympathy for him. And of course that affects the reader’s experience: it’s impossible to read in a vacuum. I think it’s going to take Lish and Carver both being dead and part of literary history for a few decades before there’ll be anything like general agreement about Lish’s editing of the book, but again, I wouldn’t be the writer I am without it.
CS: Both Lish and Carver were very influential—and I think it’s fair to say they were both geniuses. In terms of storytelling, what do you think was the greatest gift of each? And conversely, what, if anything, were their most glaring shortcomings?
BE: I think they had a good symbiotic relationship for the stories they worked on together that made Carver’s first book, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? With that book, I think their attitudes and ideas about fiction and their ethics were relatively close, and that book was a finalist for the National Book Award. At least as far as I can tell from letters in the Lish archives, it wasn’t a conflictual experience. In many ways, I think it’s a better book than What We Talk About. It’s a fairly bleak book, but I think Lish and Carver were on the same page about that bleakness. But by the time you get to What We Talk About, Carver’s life was really different. He was sober and he was with someone he really liked, so my guess is his notion of life must have shifted, becoming much more sunny. In any case, as a letter from him to Lish suggests, he felt alienated by Lish’s editing of that book and tried to reverse it. If he’d been successful in getting Lish to reverse a number of the edits, I don’t think What We Talk About would have had the same impact. But Carver was really injured by it at the same time. Cathedral he seems to have published with much lighter edits by Lish, and that’s a book that many people think of as his best book (I don’t think that, but I’m probably in the minority, and I do think it’s quite a good book). But it’s also important to note that a fair amount of Lish’s reputation as an editor was based on Carver’s success. So, I think they both needed one another to get to where they were going, but the very nature of their intense relationship probably insured that it would eventually fall apart. I think, based on what both have said, that they both ended up feeling betrayed by one another. That’s too bad. But I also think it’s unfair that people resent Lish for editing Carver as he did while at the same time admiring the work that resulted from it: you wouldn’t have Carver without Lish, nor Lish without Carver. I also think it’s unfair to see Lish as this evil New York editor and Carver as someone who was taken advantage of, particularly since they were friends in San Francisco before Lish started editing him—there may be a hint of anti-Semitism in such a view, or at least less awareness of the dynamics of their relationship than is ideal.
There are a lot more “But also”s. It’s a very complicated issue.
CS: What’s next?
BE: I just published, with Paul Tremblay, a book called Another Way to Fall, which is available for free from the Concord Free Press. They’ll even cover shipping the book to you as a way of encouraging altruism. That’s probably the easiest (and definitely the cheapest) way to get a sense of what I do with my fiction if you’re interested after reading my book on Carver. And I have a new book of short stories scheduled to come out in 2019 from Coffee House Press.