Brian: My favorite aspect of your novel, one that other “Armageddon” narratives mostly miss, is that the sky may fall, but still nothing is more terrifying than one’s own death (or even one’s own life). I guess this is a statement posing as a question.
Colin: I like this. Thanks, Brian.
Brian: A writer friend and I debate over concept v. character. I don’t consider your book to be a “postmodernist rewrite.” But some might. Did you envision this book in that light? To what extent do you see yourself as an “experimental” writer?
Colin: I don’t view it as a rewrite so much as an interpretation, and a loose one at that. Obviously I pick and choose which elements from the Book of Revelation I’m interested in working with. I set down a frame on a particular section of a particular translation and worked with those elements. I’m working with the material much in the way that the characters are. I’m responding to a limited set of external stimuli, drafting a story in response.
As for the “experimental writer” thing…I’m going to go ahead and say I would accept being called as much by someone else, but I wouldn’t necessarily say it about myself. In a literal sense, Revelation is a long-form experiment. In one sense, especially early on, I was balancing a variety of narrative modes against one another to see the effects. But I also feel like “experimental” has become a way of describing a certain style of work that resists recognizable trends in “realist” fiction. This is going to date me a little, but I think of a band like Modest Mouse and how everyone would always describe them as “indie,” even long after they were on a major label. It had more to do with their sound than anything else. There’s a certain “indie” feel to it. This is done all the time. Bands have an “indie” sound, or writers have an “experimental” vibe, even though most of the work that’s out there being called “experimental” is as heavily codified and traditional as what people often call “traditional” (by which they most often mean “realist” or narrative).
Brian: This is interesting. I focus on what some call “unnatural” narratives. That is, anti-mimetic strategies that stretch the reader’s cognitive parameters. Problem is, “unnatural” strategies, such as, say, the experimentations of postmodernism, are very quickly “naturalized,” or incorporated into a set of parameters readers have come to expect. Do you feel pressure to challenge those parameters? Are we always trying to be one step ahead of incorporation? What does the MFA workshop, which wants you to be able to sell your books, say about this?
Colin: I’m interested in working with the expectations of the reader. For certain projects, I’ll engage with familiar tropes or narrative modes, recognizable genre ticks, references of one kind or another, etc., and use them in specific ways. Of course, it’s impossible to predict how people will ultimately respond to a provocation or proposition, regardless of the thought and care that went into it. And I’m also interested in this. I find it fascinating and extremely useful that you can introduce elements of the “familiar” by opening a story in a particular way, or saying a particular thing at a particular time, and yet every reader will have a different set of associations to a “familiar” thing. So what you’re really doing is loading the work with a moment of recognition. It’s a tool in the toolbox. The thing is, the “parameters” you’re talking about, what tricks are “naturalized” or “familiar,” those are shifting all the time. So it feels pointless to me to challenge them directly. Rather, you can use them to enhance or complicate the work in some way. I gave my grandmother a copy of Revelation because she was very excited about the fact that I had written a book and someone had published it, etc. But I talked to her a few months later and she said she had to put it down because she felt she wasn’t familiar enough with the Book of Revelation to read it. Her plan was, and I suppose still is, to reread the biblical version of the story in order to prepare herself for taking this book on. Now if you’ve read the book, you’ll know that’s entirely unnecessary. Maybe it would enhance your read in some way, but everything that needs to be there is in the book itself. At least in my opinion. But I’m interested in the way her expectations of the book shift due to a structural conceit. If she ever returns to Revelation, studied up and thoroughly “prepared” for the material, the questions at the center of the book will be as present as they would have been otherwise, only maybe she’ll feel them more deeply because they will resist the information she’s brought to the book with her. Where, she might ask, is the God I’ve come to know? Why is the believer in the same position as the non-believer? What/where is salvation? But this book is not the Book of Revelation. It’s not even a re-telling, really. It’s something else entirely. It functions on its own terms, even though it incorporates and uses a variety of familiar narrative modes. Alternatively, if I had attempted to write something that was a direct challenge to those modes, I feel like it could no longer be said that the work functions on its own terms. I’m tempted to say that if I wanted to “challenge” the Bible, I would just hand out copies of the Bible to as many people as possible.
But back to your question, I think we want to innovate. That means different things to different people. Most people want work that explores new ground, digs a little deeper, maybe, or addresses something abandoned or untouched, or recasts the die, etc. This is as true of the “experimental” writer as it is of the YA novelist. So, as you’re making work, it helps to know what you’re ambitions are. And I think young writers tend to feel that more than know it. No one in my MFA program was too concerned with me selling my work. In fact, when I pressed faculty for information, everyone seemed just about as confused and unsure of the game as I was. I won’t go into it here, but it’s obvious that the face of publishing is changing and has been for some time. The people I listened to most at school were those who encouraged me to make the work I wanted to make, and trust that if I kept at the whole publishing thing I would eventually land on my feet. At the very least, during those desperate nights when you feel you’ll never make it as a writer, that no one will read your work, let alone pay you for it, that your “career” is a joke, etc. (we all have these nights, right? Or maybe some poor souls feel this way in the morning…), but at the very least you’ll have a folder full of work that you love and that means something to you. That’s not enough for everyone, but at one point it was something that kept me going. It got me to this point, where I’m a little more comfortable with myself. I don’t ever think you can shake the fears, the doubts, the reservations, but you can make it to a point where they’re no longer driving the car. This is something a teacher of mine once told me, another thing that stuck, that you’ll never get rid of fear and self-doubt, but as long as you don’t let them take control, you’ll be alright. They can even be useful.
Brian: That’s beautifully put. Thank you. We have Marcus’ whole life in a slim volume. Did you always envision this book as being relatively minimalist? Why did this approach speak to you the most?
Colin: I knew the book would need to be spare. I wrote a lot more than is included and edited it out or set it aside knowing it would never go into the book in the first place. I drafted the in-between scenes and most of what (in the book) happens off stage. For example, the letter Marcus is obsessing over in the second chapter, I have that written out and saved in a folder on my computer. The exact wording of the letter is irrelevant for the book, because for that scene what matters is not what the letter says, but the way Marcus is reading the letter.
Also, throughout the book, I wanted a clear sense of how things had moved in the characters’ lives. I needed to be able to write each new chapter as if it were continuing a story, rather than picking up at some random point and beginning again. I was interested in a story that feels clear and direct and yet is full of gaps. The book is a kind of distillation. There is a story here, but it is obviously not the “full” story. In fact, I’m skeptical of the idea that there ever is one.
I’m interested in examining our relationship to the unknown, but I didn’t want to be withholding without purpose. I think the gaps introduce elements of the unknown without tendering purposeless obfuscation. The gaps make the world feel bigger. I heard a story once, and I’m likely remembering this wrong, that when Gil Evans was working with Miles Davis on the album Sketches of Spain, Evans wanted to include “quiet” in the composition. Not silence, but “quiet”. The way he went about it was to instruct the players to play a large instrument (like a gong) softly. So, it was actually a fairly loud sound, but it created a sense of quiet because that loud sound was loaded with the possibility/sense of an enormous sound.
But there were a lot of things that made this approach important. Another major one was speed. I wanted the book to move quickly, or to have the feeling of something that is moving quickly. This isn’t an articulate way of saying this, but the book needed a kind of “woosh” to it.
Brian: Is this because death “wooshes” us?
Colin: Oh god, if we’re lucky. I hadn’t thought of it this way, though. Life certainly does from time to time. David Byrne had it right. And here’s the annoying part of the interview where I include a hyperlink to a Youtube video.
Brian: There’s some interesting textual variety here. Why fill up the page sometimes, sometimes not? Is there a relationship to poetry there?
Colin: I suppose so, in the sense that I was interested in graphic interruptions. I think the white space on the page guides the way we read and can dramatically alter our interpretations of and engagement with the text, and that’s something many poets are concerned with. Certainly more than most fiction writers. But I’ve just finished two books of poems and that feels very, very different. It was something else entirely, really. For Revelation, I was interested in certain moments standing alone, or inserting gaps here and there. Slowing things down or speeding them up. I wrote the book in standard paragraphs, and it wasn’t until we were editing the book that I spaced it out like this. Once I had done it I immediately thought, oh, this is right. This is perfect. Then I had to edit everything all over again.
Brian: How long did you work on Revelation, from the first intuition of the concept to the final edit?
Colin: I wrote the first draft of the book in a month. Or, about three weeks. During that time, it was practically all I did. I sent it to readers then and spent a few months editing. Then I Quixotically sent it out to publishers and agents. Mutable Sound got back to me in a matter of months. We went for it. Following that, I spent maybe three months editing and re-formatting the book. I took it to Martha’s Vineyard and immersed myself in it in the way I had done when I first wrote it. The book was published exactly a year after I finished the first draft, but I was sending them “updated final versions” up until the last possible second.
Brian: Talk a little bit about your web presence. Your site does some interesting things.
Colin: Ha! My web presence. First please allow me a tangential anecdote: about a year ago I was in Austin doing a reading at 5 Things!, a monthly reading series held down there. At the time, Amelia Gray was involved in running things and she was the one who invited me to read. After the reading we were all hanging out at Amelia’s and eating tacos and I was being drunk and Amelia said something about the fact that I had a kid. When I said, I do not have a kid. She looked at me a moment and then said, well you need to work on your web presence.
That’s been the resounding cry from all concerned ever since. I recently started working with a publicist (Lacey Dunham at Atticus Books, she’s amazing) in preparation for the release of A Long Line of Diggers, a pair of novellas I wrote that they’re releasing in 2013. One of the first things she said to me after we introduced ourselves was, we should talk about your web presence.
I mean, to be honest, it is primarily jokes with myself. That’s about it. I just thought to write, it’s all a desperate attempt to be funny…but that’s not entirely true because if I’m posting something, it’s almost always because it’s making me laugh to myself at that moment. So I guess it’s kind of selfish…
The website is a pride of mine. My friends Rebecca Elliott and Heather McShane helped me do the code for it. They helped me realize what was a very specific dream. It does exactly what I wanted to do. It is an extension of my outlook in certain ways. It is a random assortment of images that are related to my work in specific ways and excerpts and stories and interviews and what have yous. There is no way to “successfully” navigate it, meaning the only way to potentially ever access all of the material is to keep going back and trying over and over again, although you’re just as likely to get nowhere or cycle through the same thing over and over. Like I said, it’s random. I imagine it’s terribly frustrating to many. But I find it immensely pleasing. (Not frustrating people, mind you, but the site itself).
Brian: That’s why I love it! These are interesting moments you describe, when folks who want to market you “need to talk to you about your web presence.” How comfortable are you, in general, with the prospect of marketing yourself, or, altering aspects of what comes naturally for you for the sake of marketing?
Colin: Thanks, Brian! I get the idea and use and even necessity of an “artistic persona”. I think it’s not only a marketing tactic, but also a tool for guiding readers as they approach your work. That said, I’m a terrible actor. So my “artistic persona” or my “web presence” has always just been an extension of my normal, social self. An exaggerated extension, sure, a distillation, but one that, as you say, “comes naturally” to me. Lacey is an amazing publicist and we never did wind up making any serious changes to the website or any of the other ways I’m using the internet: social media sites, etc. After we started working together a little more closely, I think she got a handle on where I was coming from and things started to gel for both of us. She might not have even been concerned initially, but rather looking to make sure we were on the same page. And I think we are. I’ve been called “strange”. The work is “strange”-seeming, at least to some. And my web presence is certainly “strange” in particular ways. But I think once you see the whole picture it starts to make a certain kind of sense. So, in answer to your question, I’m fine with the idea that artists or writers might work to present themselves in a certain light, I think we’re all doing this all the time anyway. But I think it’s important that the presentation/illusion be in some way a part of the work, or that it help us to better understand the work or inform us as to the terms on which we are to engage the work. However, in terms of serious alterations to the self, I’m just not a savvy enough fellow to stray too far from home.
Brian: Some very exciting things are happening for you in the near future. How do praise, fame, etc. affect your work?
Colin: There are some exciting things happening, yes! Or things I’m excited about, at least. There will be the book of short stories Animal Collection out in September 2012 (Spork Press) and then two novellas will be released by Atticus Books in 2013, as I said earlier. I’m excited for all of that and to tour and on and on. As for the second part of your question…I’ll need to see your sources.
Brian: What about the not-so-near future? Do you have ambitions for bigger projects, different modes, more experimentation, etc.? Do you feel the need to evolve as an artist?
Colin: I just finished two new projects I’m really excited about. The first was a book of poems collaboratively written with another poet, Ben Clark. It’s called Kate Jury Denton Texas. Most recently, I finished a book-length poem. Right now it’s called And We Will Stay That Way. These were the two “ambitious” projects on the horizon this spring, but now they’re finished and out in the world being read and hopefully they’ll soon find a home. I’m also about halfway through a new novel that is doing some strange things. It’s a lot of fun to work on, but it feels very odd moving back into fiction after being so heavily steeped in poetry for the last few months. To me, every project feels singular, though I’m sure you could locate patterns and identify developments in style, etc. if you were to look closely after the fact. I’m interested in making work that is exciting to me, and part of what excites me is examining new ground, or the same ground in radically different ways. I don’t feel pressure to “evolve” as an artist. Or, if there is a pressure I feel, it is not on those terms, necessarily. I feel pressure to keep myself interested and fully invested in the work. But I don’t look at it as a progression as I move from project to project. But if I were to use the language of a linear progression, I would say I work “backwards” as much as “forwards,” and of course “side to side”. As I see it, I’m sifting through and rearranging a network of constantly shifting ideas and associations. It’s a mess up there and out here. Each project is a momentary organization of a set of needs, ideas, impressions, etc. Let us look to the T-1000. Ideally, each book would enter the world like one of his blades or needles, exacting and perfectly fitted to a specific use, and yet the full effects of the introduction of that new element are unpredictable. That’s one of the motivating factors behind sharing the work, I suppose.
Sigh. That is the second time in two days I’ve brought up Terminator 2. Something is wrong with me.
Brian: Well, I don’t see too much wrong with Revelation, or with the way things are going for you. Thank you so much