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Mary Jarrell, left, with her husband, Flannery O Connor, Peter Taylor, & Robert Humphrey. Courtesy of UNC, Greensboro

 

Mary Jarrell’s late husband, Randall Jarrell, is well known to literary people for his wonderful satirical novel, Pictures from an Institution, for his ingenious criticism, for his translations of Rilke and Chekhov, for his endearing children’s books, and, of course, for his poetry.

In 2002, I had the privilege of interviewing Mrs Jarrell for a proposed documentary on the World War II air war, and the literature that had defined it. Though the project never came to fruition, the interview was, of course, invaluable in its own way, and took on a life of its own. Though in many ways Mrs Jarrell—from the POV of anecdotes alone— didn’t reveal anything that hadn’t already been exhaustively covered in various biographies (including her own memoir, Remembering Randall) being in her vibrant presence, and in the presence of her husband’s memorabilia, was a rich enough experience.

The following interview took place in Greensboro, North Carolina, in October of 2002, at Wellspring, Mrs Jarrell’s assisted living community.

***
Mary Jarrell has survived almost all of her scholarly contemporaries. In person, she is tall and slim, with a face (as was said of Zelda Fitzgerald’s) that is far more beautiful and enigmatic than one would gather from viewing her photographs. It’s apparent that she must have been quite something in her youth, but, as seems to be the phenomenon of old age, all that beauty has migrated to the eyes, and it is through them that one can see her as she must have looked at the time she shared her life with her husband. She lives alone in a retirement community, closely surrounded by neighbors, with a dachshund as devoted to her as a child.

Moments after Mrs. Jarrell (“Mary please”) welcomes me inside, we are joined by a tiny black and tan dachshund that is not a puppy, she says, “but a full grown mini who weighs seven pounds.” She lifts the creature in her arms.

“Meet Schatzi,” she says. “It’s the diminutive for Schatzel; means ‘little treasure.’ Half the dogs In Germany are called Schatzi.”

I’ve already noticed that she seems a little hard of hearing, and as I check the sound level on my recorder, she says, “I’ll just get closer to you…some people have a gentle voice that I don’t pick up very well.” By now I’m ready to start asking her questions, but something tells me not to lead off the discussion of her husband’s work with The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner, and I remark instead on my liking for his treatment of the surrealism of the passing of time in his poem The Face.

“Oh yes…. ‘I haven’t changed/you haven’t looked.’ Randall dreaded it, getting old. He didn’t want it to happen; so the passing of time was very real to him…and he was sorry to have to live through it”, she says.

Though I’m glad my remark has stirred such easy and immediate candor, her response also sets off a tremor of alarm: it seems to steer us in a direction I’d resolved to avoid (or at least not to broach this early in the interview): the lingering speculation that Randall’s death in a traffic accident at age fifty-one had been semi-suicidal.

In her memoir, and in many interviews, she’d of course dealt summarily with this conjecture (it wasn’t so, according to the coroner’s report), and I reassure myself that by now any resentment she may once have felt toward those still perpetuating the rumor in literary circles might have settled into the almost dispassionate objectivity she’d consistently shown on the subject in her writings.

So I decide to start out with Ball Turret, after all.

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.
(“The Death Of The Ball Turret Gunner”)

In Remembering Randall, Mary had elaborated on the fact that the poem was for Jarrell both a triumph and source of consternation, as it was the relentless public demand for the piece that inspired him to worry that he might become a one hit wonder.

“At present, you know, it goes for $250.00 a shot, and is in steady demand for TV as well as the printed page,” she says, gently touching the dachshund’s nose.

“Randall’s poem can be interpreted as being both anti-war and anti-state. But I presume he didn’t question the necessity of the second World War?”

Her answer is immediate and somewhat surprising. “He did …he really did. I was just dealing with that in one of his letters in which takes that up. He was very critical, especially of the Army, because to him in a way… it was an institution, sort of like Academia. And it had certain routines and inescapable requirements. Instead of looking at his past …you know, they knew he had been a teacher…they sent him to interviewing candidates and finally decided to train him to instruct cadets… and when they saw his teaching ability, they trained him for celestial navigation.”

I’m not sure I understand her answer, and rephrase the question. But she frames her reply in terms of her own feelings about the war (Hitler had to be stopped, etc), not Randall’s; and I drop the topic and remark that Jarrell’s brilliant criticism could eviscerate the loftiest reputations. (“Auden is like a man who keeps showing how well he can hold his liquor until he becomes a drunk.”)

“He finally moved away from that sort of thing”, Mary tells me, “He said, I’m not going to write any more severe criticism…it’s not worth it. It happened with his teaching, too. He only taught people that he really admired. Never mind the bad poetry. He didn’t teach bad poets.”

Abruptly, she laughs, relaxing. “You got this on tape?”

I tell her that I do, and ask her if she believes that Randall would have viewed the poetry of this day and age as being in a state of decline.

“Ohhhh, I’m afraid he would,” she answers quickly. “I have a friend that I often see… he’s retired, and divorced and teaches poetry at the Shepherd’s Center. And he likes poetry. But just this past weekend he told me that nobody, even the faculty over there, was interested in poetry. It’s always been a small minority, but it’s marvelous to see those who have lived on.”

Some modern poets (like Jarrell’s good friend Robert Lowell) who have done so, I observe, were surely helped by Randall’s honest praise.

“After some of his {Lowell’s) breakdowns… and after some time had elapsed…he wrote more and more of that ‘my life confessional’ sort of thing… Randall would’ve hated that. But the public liked it. Randall wanted it lyric and he wanted it visionary, and he wished that Cal had stayed with his marvelous historical poems like The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.”

“What about the Beats? In your book you discuss a visit by Kerouac and Gregory Corso to your home, but it would seem unlikely that Randall would embrace the Beats as a legitimate literary movement, judging from his tastes. Can you expand on this?”

She adjusts the dachshund on her lap. “Randall wrote about that better than I could, and he acknowledged that they did have a part in those years; but he never liked the fact that they wouldn’t revise. We met Corso out in San Francisco, and liked him a great deal. But again, he was constantly submitting poems to Randall, but he wouldn’t revise. He’d quit, and start another until he had ten half-written poems, and Randall couldn’t stand that.” We both laugh.

“There’s a quote you might like… just this morning, on the cover of… well, it’ll be on the cover of the book that’s coming out. It deals with Randall’s…high demand on others.” She rises quickly to look for the excerpt and is gone for several minutes, but returns empty handed. “Well…it’s somewhere. But it’s a quote by Robert Penn Warren, and he acknowledged Randall as a very great critic, said that he was generous with his criticism, but that he had such high standards for other poets, and himself; and of course the critic Helen Vendler said that ‘Jarrell put his talent into his poetry and his genius into his criticism.’ And I think he just thought people didn’t spend enough time; he knew how much time it took. He would use the Army phrase ‘wash out’ to describe something in a manuscript that needed to be removed. He’d tell somebody, ‘I think I’d just wash that out’ And he told Eleanor Taylor {poet and wife of writer Peter Taylor} that about her own poems a couple of times”

(Draft page from ‘The Woman at the Washington Zoo’, by Randall Jarrell)

 

My research in preparing for the meeting had given me the impression that for some literary historians, Randall Jarrell’s place in modern American letters had been secured as much through his criticism as his poetry; so if I had true journalistic instincts I’d try to keep Mary talking about that aspect of his career.

But I was afraid (perhaps groundlessly) that she was becoming tired, and I’d promised myself that I wouldn’t leave without asking about what, aside from his criticism and one novel, I personally liked best of all her husbands creations…his children’s books.

“Randall’s lovely poem The Lost Children deals not only, like Peter Pan, with the inevitable loss of childhood from itself, but with a parent’s loss of a vicarious childhood through the children that grow up and away from them into adulthood. I get the feeling from some other of his poems that romantic love, for Randall, was maybe also somewhat a vicarious childhood….and this certainly seems to be the case in The Gingerbread Rabbit. Do you feel that’s true?”

“Yes,” she smiles, and looks out into the garden for a bit.

“Two little girls, one fair, one dark

one alive, one dead,

are running hand in hand through
a sunny house…
They run away from me…

But I am happy…

When I wake I feel no sadness, only delight.

I’ve seen them again, and I am comforted

that, somewhere, they still are”

(“The Lost Children”)

Surely this is Mary’s voice, the voice of his beloved speaking through Jarrell (dubbed “Child Randall” by Robert Lowell in an elegy) and it is this that gives the poem its empathetic tenderness. When, in The Animal Family, the hunter brings a “baby” home, the family unit, so coveted by Randall Jarrell, comes full circle:

“In two days he was sitting on the floor
by the table when they ate, eating with them…

in a week it was as if he had lived with them always.”

***

We walk out into the sunshine toward the awning where we are to board the vehicle that’s to take us to the resident’s dining room (I had been expecting a minivan driven by a retirement home employee) and I get a kick out of the fact that Mary Jarrell, a woman of a certain age, not only drives, but drives a svelte, compact sports car, flaming red, bearing the personalized license plate, “POEMS”.

Since long before writing Remembering Randall, Mary von Schrader Jarrell has, emphatically, been herself. And her answer to my final question strikes me with the realization that maybe it’s her story that I’ve mostly missed.

It had been arranged that we part company after lunch, “not so much for a nap, but to rest my eyes and lie prone with one arm over Schatzi at my side and practice my yoga deep breathing.” As we wait for my cab outside, I apologize for tiring her.

“I’m tired, yes. But happy,” she replies. “It links me to once again quote Benjamin Franklin’s observation to the signers of the Constitution, ‘I’m so old I am intruding in posterity’.” She smiles, and her remarkable eyes are as bright as a child’s in the sun.

“How do you think Randall would have felt about 9/11?” I ask her impulsively.

“Oh, he’d feel it”, she says, “but I can’t presume to say what his feelings would be. I mean, one’s opinions do change, and he didn’t live to see that. He died at fifty-one. But I didn’t.”

I misremember the words of the Shakespeare Sonnet because my book is back at the office: “Those who have power to hurt and yet do none….” It’s something very much like that, and this is the gist of what I want to speak of in terms of mercy.

The power to hurt
It is said blessed are the merciful, they shall receive mercy and so mercy is a force that can only be matched by its return–which should tip us off that it is tied to highest powers. It is both a giving and a withholding. We give love and we withhold judgment. We also withhold pity, sentimentality, and, most especially, the sense of our own superiority. Then: it is the state of love opposite of courtship. In courtship we plight our troth. We adore. In the state of mercy, we do not bend to serve, nor rise to condescend, but find the exact height at which relationship is eye to eye. So to have mercy on another is to level with him or her–to see them face to face. This is why I always thought of Chekhov as the great writer of mercy–because he did not distort, yet he had the power if he wished to fully destroy the other. So mercy is strength that is dispensed in “seeing” the other. “You have seen me brother, you have not turned away.” Thus mercy is deep and abiding witness wrought not of weakness, nor servility, but of a sort of leveling Isaiah implies when he says, “the mountains shall be laid low and the valleys raised.” It is a leveling that is based on power and yet does not seek to defend, attack, or defeat the other. In mercy, seeing, witnessing is everything. And so this is the ground of mercy. And so I know that at the heart of mercy lies a contradiction: power, enormous power that seeks with its whole heart, and mind and soul the equanimity of witness. And there are other qualities:

Charity
Charity is that love mercy carries as its chief defining action. The action of mercy is charitas–which, unlike many gifts, is just the right gift at the right moment. This means it is grace derived good works–not merely good works. It is the work of the Holy Spirit inside someone who has power to hurt and yet chooses, instead to bear witness to the other– to truly “see” them. Again, it has ties to the highest form of what the Greeks call Xenia–the right treatment of the other, the stranger, the recognition of the other’s hidden majesty. This gift raises both the giver and receiver to an almost divine height. It elevates the relational scope of all being. Nabakov speaks of such charity when he says that while he would commend a man who saved a child from a burning building, he would take off his hat and bow in great reverence to that man who went into the fire a second time to retrieve the child’s favorite doll. Why? Because that man is the poet inside us–the one who sees the true heart of the other, who does not merely attend to the material, but goes the extra mile that Jesus speaks of in his preaching. I encountered an example of this aspect of mercy in an essay by the writer, Natalie Kusz. In her essay “Vital Signs” which details a long stay in the hospital, she gives a brief account of a nurse who “sees” an injured child in just the way I am speaking of. Consider this the example of mercy and its action:

And overseeing us all was janine, a pink woman, young even to seven year old eyes, with yellow, cloudy hair that I touched when I could. She kept it long, parted in the middle, or pulled back in a ponytail like mine before the accident. My hair had been blond then and I felt sensitive now about the course brown stubble under my bandages. Once, on a thinking day, I told janine that if I had hair like hers, I would braid it and loop the pigtails around my ears. She wore it like that the next day and every day after for a month.

Janine truly “sees” the little girl who has been in a devastating accident. She instinctively knows the little girl’s crush on her, and she has power to ignore or hurt the girl, yet, not only is she responsive, but, as if with the supernatural eye of a divine being, she sees that her cloudy yellow hair is also the little girl’s–that they share this between them. Her act is the charitas of true mercy–which is power to hurt converted into powerful witness, and an act of love beyond the call of duty. it is the right gift at the right time, with the effortless gesture of grace.

Mercy is always Unprecedented
Because mercy is always particular to an act of witness it can not have precedent, What constitutes mercy at one moment, constitutes mere good manners, or formality at another. mercy is in the moment, of the moment, for the moment, and without a future so to speak. there is a reason for this: acts of mercy are forms of prophecy; they teach us what true justice could be, what true equality, and love, and witness could be. Mercy is both mystery and pedagogy: a mitzvah that creates mitzvah consciousness. Empathy must be taught through stories of mercy. As a child, going to mass, I heard about the woman taken in adultery, the prodigal son, the woman at the well, the good thief recognizing Jesus on the cross, the love of the enemy–over and over and over again. Because stories were always beautiful to me, I took them to heart, saw them as real events. Mercy was everywhere, waiting to be enacted. It ennobled my being, made me want to be someone on the right side of an issue. I was also wild, intense, easily hurt, and I hoped with my whole heart God would forgive me my wildness if I showed mercy to others. I figured that was my only chance. My heart is a wildheart and I cannot do the yoga, serenity, soft-voiced thing people seem to do so well these days. I suspect this niceness has more to do with middle class manners than mercy. I have seen vegetarians show little or no mercy to anyone who does not share their life style. Perhaps I am a strange man, but I feel just as endangered among nice academics as I do among street kids. In point of fact, I always felt more at home with street kids. There, in a world where nothing is polite or well structured or “nice,” mercy visits on a regular basis. I think of Fariha, the kid from Bangladesh who befriended Kajah Jackson, a tough, black girl from the projects who had her mother’s brains splattered on her clothes by her father. He murdered her mother in front of her. Kajah was more than depressed; she was destroyed–talked to no one, played with no one, did the one thing in the ghetto you can’t do: dressed poorly and did not “wash yo ass.” She had “stank” as one kid called it. Farihah was impeccably dressed, brilliant, popular, and had two loving parents, and yet she risked her popularity,her reputation, everything to befriend Kajah. She helped me reach Kajah when I worked with children who had lost their lives–their childhoods. When I asked Farihah why, she said, “I was not always popular, Mr. Joe. Like when 9/11 happened, I was not in the Arab section of town and the kids threw stones at me. They called me names. I was in fifth grade, and I tried to kill myself. My mom cried, and I remembered I didn’t just belong to myself. I belonged to her, too, and I would break her heart. When I saw Kajah, I just knew I should be her friend, and that I was just like her under everything. I took her to my house and my mother called her a dirty little project girl. ‘Why do you hang with such people?’ My mother said. I told her, ‘You should be ashamed of yourself mommy. Kaja is just like me.” It took a long time to see it, but now my mother wants to do Kaja’s hair, and buy her clothes. She wants her to be her daughter.’

This leads me to my final observation on mercy: Mercy, unlike good manners or social nicety, can exist in hell. It can exist in the worst situations. it goes deeper than all wounds. It retrieves the dead from Hades. It barters for our souls when we would sell them out. It is violent in the best sense. It sees and refuses to be blind, Without it, all the welfare programs, and systems, and reforms are useless. Mercy is the majesty of vision, and it is the only true power we have, the one we seem all too often unwilling to exercise.

A prayer to be merciful

Remove the scales from my eyes, oh Lord,
and the scales from my hands.
Replace them with the ferocity of sight,
with the hands by which I wield
no weapon and all grace. Have mercy
on me who is so unmerciful. Give me your love
your eyes, your hands, so that I might see
the stranger, and know you–at once
forever, without hesitation,
in all places high and low.

The seven sections of Colin Winnette’s slim new novel Revelation correspond to the seven angels of the Book of Revelation. They bring with them fire, hail, receding oceans, bitter water, falling stars (and bodies, in a chilling moment), darkness, locusts, sinkholes, and, of course, those pesky horsemen. The seven sections also depict seven stages of the life of Marcus, whose love and despair we encounter intimately. These biblical calamities, very subtly rendered in unique and memorable visages, are backdrops to Marcus’ struggle, a reminder that life’s great apocalypse – its end – is always an intensely personal one. I had a chance to speak with Winnette about his work on this novel, his other projects, and the writing life.

Brian: Can you talk a little about your development? What authors and styles have shaped you? How has attending a program changed your outlook (or not)?

Colin:  Influence is a tricky thing to talk about.  I can say that Ben Marcus’s work was extremely important to me.  It still is, but at one point it totally saved me.  Or, reinvigorated me.  I was finishing up undergrad and I was in love with writers like Beckett, Proust, Chekhov, Joyce, Kafka, these iconic figures who did what they were doing so masterfully that there seemed nowhere to go at all after that.  That was also the result of my age at the time and what being in school can do to you.  I didn’t realize it then, but I had a pretty narrow vision of what it meant to be a writer and what one could do with fiction.  But then I picked up Age of Wire and String and Notable American Women and I was just totally blown away.  It was an entirely different approach to working with and examining language than I had ever encountered before.  Those books led me to Gertrude Stein and William Gaddis and all of these authors who were breaking language apart, yes, but also reclaiming it, making it do new and fascinating things.  And, I mean, they had been doing this for a long time and in different ways, and here was Ben Marcus doing it still in his own way and just killing it.  So I suddenly felt very free again.  It’s interesting the difference between grad school and undergrad.  In undergrad I was constantly being told what good writing looked like.  It looks like Carver.  It looks like Chekhov.  It looks like Pynchon (and indeed it does!).  It looks like Austen.  Etc.  Workshops were little help because they were often the same kind of thing: I think you should do this, or I think this should happen, etc.  Initially I lacked the confidence to assert myself.  Then, when I gained a little confidence, I asserted myself by just ignoring pretty much everybody and only listening to the 2% I thought made sense or seemed to come from a good place.  I started to tune a lot out.  So I left undergrad fed-up, but with a lot of energy.  I wrote and worked and traveled and didn’t write and two years later I went to grad school with a much different attitude.  I used that time to write as much as possible.  I listened to people and read as much as I could, but took the whole thing less…personally, I guess…than before.  I took it seriously, but I knew the conversations we were having in class were often selfish in that we were all interested in enhancing our work by discussing the work of others.  Helping one another wasn’t exactly the point, although we certainly did help one another from time to time.  And I should say I think all that’s great.  The two most important things grad school gave me were time and a sense of purpose.  I felt encouraged to work and I had the hours in the day to do it.  Or if I didn’t have them, I made them because I knew my time was limited.  I taught myself how to make time to write.  I was writing a lot on the train and in bed my first year.  I wouldn’t let myself sleep until I had done a certain amount of work.  I’m not sure I would have had that kind of discipline at first if I weren’t in a program.  Now, it comes much more naturally.  I had to learn how to kick my own ass.

Brian: I found that the discipline angle served as a wheat/chaff scenario in my own fiction writing classroom. The students who wrote well were the ones who put the time in. Is that level of focus and concentration waning in the generations that come after us? Is it something that can be taught?

Colin: Obviously practices vary.  The kind of disciplined work ethic that worked for me in the past just wouldn’t work for everyone.  It’s very personal, I think, and the method I described is one that fits with the way I am, in general, about many things.  I can be rigid and extremely hard on myself, especially when I’m working on something I care about very much.  And it doesn’t even work for me all of the time.  In fact, being too disciplined or too hard on oneself can often be a hindrance, and can drive one to resent something that should ultimately be pleasurable and thrilling.  So another thing I had to learn was to not be so hard on myself all the time.  It’s a balance, I’d say, something I’ll be perpetually tweaking.  But can discipline be taught?  I think yes and no.  You can’t make anyone do anything, really.  Or, who would want to?  But you can give them (and I assume we’re talking about students here) ideas about what to do.  In a classroom setting, I think it’s important to emphasize the variety of ways that people have worked and will work.  I think it’s important for young writers to write often, even if it’s bad.  Especially if it’s bad, maybe.  Just write it all out and use up all your clichés and lazy sentences.  For me it was like I just poured all of this garbage out onto the floor, but in it were these little pieces of rubbish that I actually kind of liked.  These nuggets I could polish and be proud of.  Seeing it all messed together like that, it was easy to start understanding the difference between something I thought was good or attractive or effective and something that wasn’t.  There’s a process of learning to identify what interests you and what you’re trying to do and what helps you do it.  But that’s just how I do things, you know?  As a kid, I was the one who poured all the Legos onto the floor then went digging for the pieces I wanted.  I needed to see it all at once.  But I had a lot of friends who were much cleaner and more deliberate in their selection.  And we both eventually built whatever it was we were building. There’s no right way to do it.  You just have to do it.

Brian: Ben Marcus and Adam Levin speak highly of Revelation. How do mentors shape your work?

Colin: I’ve always had relationships with other writers and artists.  For me, it’s essential.  I’ve also been blessed enough to attend schools with curriculums that involve one on one meetings with faculty, so a lot of my education occurred in that intimate kind of setting.  I learn a lot from other people.  Or, really, I learn everything from other people.  And I love people very much, so it’s always a pleasure to get together with someone whose work I admire or who is really insightful and engaged and talk through things and get to know one another better.  Having Ben Marcus respond to the book was really one of the most thrilling things that ever happened to me.  He’s a champion and I owe him a lot.  Adam Levin teaches at SAIC, where I earned my MFA, so I had the opportunity to work with him both in class and as an advisor.  He has an incredibly active mind and cares very much about fiction, so our conversations were often incredibly invigorating.

Brian: Do you have any interest in teaching your craft?

Colin: I love talking about fiction.  And I love talking about fiction with people to whom it really matters.  People who have a personal connection to writing.  Often, but certainly not exclusively, you meet those people in an academic setting.  You meet people who are trying to figure things out for themselves, trying to better understand their work, trying to improve, and so it can be a wonderfully open and productive environment.  It can also be a hostile and competitive environment.  It’s a mixed bag just about everywhere, I think.  But I’m optimistic.  I’m happy for the good when it comes.  I’ve had a number of teachers who really inspired and encouraged me.  The bad experiences tend to melt away and the good ones still drive me years later.  One of the best gifts a writing teacher can give, I think, is the sense that the work of a young writing student is as important as the work they themselves are doing.  It sounds obvious, but I think it’s much more difficult than most people realize.  I’ve had a number of teachers who did this, but one of the first was Brian Morton, whom I worked with at Sarah Lawrence College.  While our opinions about fiction were occasionally at odds, I always felt that he approached the conversation as earnestly and attentively as I did.  He was studying, his mind was always working, and he was kind and generous and honest.  He was an early guide, but also an attentive friend.  It was a gift.  My interest in teaching writing would come from a desire to give other young writers something like this, because it meant so much to me.  And still does.

Brian: You manage the imagery from the book of Revelation so gorgeously and subtly in your novel. How did this idea occur to you?

Colin: It was really very sudden and intuitive.  Honestly, I was first attracted to the idea primarily as a constraint.  I had no idea why, but it just occurred to me to write a book that was seven chapters long, each chapter of which would be invoked by the sounding of one of the seven trumpets of the Apocalypse.  And I knew each chapter would jump forward radically in time, so that the book covered the entire span of a character’s life.    It wasn’t until I had written the first draft of the book and was beginning revisions that I really started to understand what was interesting to me about using this structure/content, other than the fact that it gave me the push to begin the work as well as a set of loose guidelines to move the project forward.  It’s something I say all the time about the book, that it was a sort of exorcism of certain narrative modes I was steeped in as a kid growing up in a small Texas town, as well as the models of “great writing” I was beaten over the head with as a young writer.

Brian: How important are constraints for anything that you work on? This is, to me, the delightful irony of experimentation. You exhibit freedom and limitlessness through the very limits you impose on yourself.

Colin: I was extremely interested in working with constraints at one point for many reasons, one of which was exactly the reason you detail here.  I followed and studied the Oulipo, and other artists working with constraints, like 60s/70s performance artists or musicians, and many working today.  I’m interested in the idea that we are always working with constraints, only some are more apparent than others.  When I sit down to write a work of “fiction” on my MacBook, in Microsoft Word, a vast number of decisions are made for me before I even begin.  One’s limited knowledge of the tradition in which they’re working can also be viewed as a series of constraints guiding all of one’s production.  Making the conscious decision to impose constraints is a way of acknowledging and engaging with the constraints that are already in place.  There’s a quote from one of the more famous Oulipians, Raymond Queneau, in which he says, “…inspiration, which consists in blind obedience to every impulse is in reality a sort of slavery.  The classical playwright who writes his tragedy observing a certain number of familiar rules is freer than the poet who writes that which comes into his head and who is the slave of other rules of which he is ignorant.”  It is also a way of knowing more about what you are doing before you do it.  For me, it is also a way of incorporating one’s limitations into the work itself.  And, as you and Queneau point out, the marvelous thing is the way in which engaging with limitations or constraints, be they self-imposed or otherwise, can actually be liberating.

Brian: Most other narratives of this type depict a man-made apocalypse and thus morph into social commentary. Some would argue that even the end-of-days apocalypse is man-made, due to sin, etc. What causes the events in Revelation?

Colin: Yes.  Exactly.  It’s funny no one’s thought to ask this so directly before.  The quick and easy answer would be to say there is no answer.  Or, we don’t get to know.  This is something the characters in the book are struggling with, or trying to ignore, or successfully ignoring.  I’m much more interested in the ways we come to understand, deal with, or not deal with traumatic events in our lives, rather than tracing any kind of causal relationship, casting blame, etc.   I’m interested in the stories we tell ourselves.  I think examining those stories brings us closer to an understanding of what it means to be an actively living/seeing/perceiving thing.

Brian: This is a good point. Your answer clearly applies to Marcus. We don’t get to see the ups and downs (mostly downs?) of his life actually happen to him. We’re always, at the beginning of a section, thrown into some sort of aftermath, or dénouement, of another major life change. You have a taste for, as you say, the way we re-present these moments to ourselves, after the fact. I find it would make for a very interesting film. Have you thought of this book cinematically? Does thinking cinematically help you?

Colin: I think it’s hard not to think cinematically at this point, at least when writing a book with such clear scenes and imagery.  I certainly pictured every scene I wrote in my head as I was writing it.  And movies have dramatically impacted the way I imagine things.  This is true of other work I’ve done as well, that the work relies so heavily on the concreteness of a certain image or gesture that I have to really picture it before I can write it.  I have to see it and look all around it and check it for weak spots.  I’ve been so effectively trained by movies and television as to how one looks at and around a thing, that my imaginative eye often examines an imagined thing in these camera-like sweeps and zooms.  I am a slave to the machine.   But I think you’re also talking about the narrative itself here, and I would have to say that in constructing the story I wasn’t thinking at all cinematically.  I also would be interested in seeing a film that moves in this way (I’m sure they’re out there.  In fact, I’m sure I’ve seen a couple without realizing it).  I think most movies emphasize the moments that this book tends to leave out.  We are attracted to stories with high-drama and with rising tension that moves toward a rewarding climax because it makes the events of our lives seem meaningful.  I am not belittling this method of storytelling.  I love it, in fact.  And I’m interested in it.  I’m interested in the ways we construct meaning.  And I think we always draft the narrative of meaning after the fact.  There is a quote, though I cannot remember who said it, that thought occurs in the wake of experience.  This idea has been stated in one way or another by many, I’m sure.  And I like that.  If it’s something that’s been said over and over in myriad ways and contexts, that seems right.