What It Would Be Like to Fall: A Conversation with Brian Evenson

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Brian Evenson is the author of a dozen books of fiction, including the forthcoming story collection A Collapse of Horses (Coffee House Press, 2016). Coffee House Press will also be reissuing his American Library Association’s award-winning novel, Last Days, as well as two more novels: The Open Curtain and Father of Lies. He has translated work by Christian Gailly, Jean Frémon, Claro, Jacques Jouet, Eric Chevillard, Antoine Volodine, Manuela Draeger, David B., and others. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship. Brian’s new collection and reissued novels are set to release from Coffee House Press in February of 2016. I was lucky enough to ask Brian some questions this past fall about the new and reissued works.

Was there any question of who would be publishing (and republishing) these works, or did your history with Coffee House make the decision easy?

Coffee House has been really committed to me since I published The Open Curtain with them in 2005. Sometimes I’ve gone to other publishers for specific projects—I published Immobility with Tor for instance and Last Days with Underland Press—either because I already had a lot scheduled with Coffee House or because there was something about the project that made it interesting to publish it somewhere else. But when Chris Fischbach at Coffee House expressed an interest in publishing the new collection and reprinting three earlier novels, the decision was very easy. Now the majority of my books are available from Coffee House, and they’re exceptionally good about keeping them in print and available.

What can readers, and authors for that matter, gain from reissued texts?

Both Father of Lies and Last Days have been out of print for a little while, so readers who have been looking for them will now be able to find them. That’s the most obvious thing. The reissues are coming out with introductions as well that give context: Peter Straub introduces Last Days, Samuel Delany introduces Father of Lies, and Matt Bell did an intro for The Open Curtain. They’re all good, smart introductions that provide good entries into my work, and even taught me something about what I was doing.

What did I gain as an author? There’s something about reading over the work again carefully, seeing it set on the page in a different way, experiencing it again partly as if I hadn’t written it, that allows me to take stock and refocus, figure out where I’ve been and where I want to go next.

What was your thought process when deciding which of your books would be reissued?

Chris Fischbach and I spoke about how to approach things and decided to start with reissuing the novels (with the exception of Immobility, which is in print with Tor), that that was a good place to start. The intention is in the future to perhaps do a collected novellas volume and a selected (and new) stories volume. The Open Curtain was close to going out of print when we started talking, so it made sense to include it. Father of Lies had never been published in paperback, so I was very happy for it to have that second life. Last Days had been out of print for a few years as well, and it’s a personal favorite despite being a somewhat insane book, so I was happy for that to reappear too.

You’ve done quite a bit of translation work, how does the writing process differ when you shift from an authorial position to translator?

I find translation is a lot like working in a fixed poetic form: there are limitations on what you can do (in this case based on the words in the original) but there’s still a lot of room for creativity. I find it a really challenging but also satisfying process to try to render books I like from French into my own language in a way that preserves what’s great and interesting about them.

Similarly, you translated David B.’s Incidents in the Night, did the switch from prose to graphic literature pose problems for the process?

It didn’t pose problems exactly—on one level it was a lot easier since there are so many fewer words in a graphic book than in a novel. On the other hand, it posed a few unexpected challenges. Like the fact that you had to translate in a way that would make the words fit inside an already-drawn speech bubble or like the fact that there are certain things a French reader would get immediately from the image but that the reader might need sorted out a little. I cotranslated those two David B. volumes with my daughter and I loved doing them—I hope I’ll translate more graphic novels. Part of that has to do with David B.: I think he’s one of the greatest and most distinctive cartoonists living and it was an honor to translate him. I just interviewed him as well, and found him great in that context as well.

No stranger to graphic literature, you wrote a book of criticism on Chester Brown, are there any plans (fingers crossed) for a comic or graphic novel of your own?

Yes, I wrote a book on Chester Brown’s Ed the Happy Clown and Yummy Fur, which I’ve been obsessed with for a long time. Zak Sally and I did a short graphic piece together which was published in Mome and appeared as well in my collection Fugue State (Zak did art for the cover and for each of the stories in that book as well). And Caitlin Skaalrud did a comics adaptation of my story “Younger.” Jesse Ball, Lilli Carré, and I all collaborated on a little book called The Deaths of Henry King, which is not exactly a graphic novel, but is a kind of illustrated book, which should be out in a few months.

I’ve got partial scripts for a couple of comics that I’d love to get back to if I found the time. I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a graphic novel based on Last Days, but it’d be a very weird book. And I’ve also had the urge to take the old Deadman comics and use the same art, but rewrite them to be something else. Of course there are all sorts copyright issues that make that complicated. Still, I’d love to do something else graphic, though I’m not a visual artist, so need to find the right person to collaborate with.

Fear lingers in most, if not all of your writing. Can you speak some about that emotion and your employment of it?

When I was a kid I was afraid of all sorts of things, largely because I had an intensely vivid imagination. Above all, afraid of the dark and afraid of heights. Afraid of sharks, too, but since we lived in Utah that was less of a problem (it was more of a problem when we lived with my grandmother in Hawaii for a year). I remember once when my family went on a drive through the mountains and came to an overlook I refused to get out of the car because I just could imagine too vividly what it would be like to fall. Over the years I learned to control and harness those fears, largely out of necessity. Fear of the dark, I still have, but only when it’s exceptionally dark, almost void-like—I can remember as late as when I was in my twenties being caught out in the mountains after dark on a moonless night and it being pitch black, and being afraid enough to start to run even though I couldn’t see where I was going, and at the same time part of me calmly thinking, huh, I’m still afraid of the dark. Fear of heights I finally managed to get over when I worked a construction job where I had to set roof joists. I had a few dizzy, vertiginous awful days, and then I could do it. But that doesn’t mean the fear’s gone. It’s still there, vividly, in some part of me and I draw on that part for my fiction. Fear’s an emotion tied very strongly to the imagination and thus something that seems a natural part of the fictional experience for me. It’s also something that’s a lot more fun to experience vicariously rather than actually.

Besides horror, elements of science fiction, noir, and the Western genre seep through your stories. Does it seem that the literary world is becoming more accommodating of this mixing of genre and literary fiction?

It’s much more accommodating than it used to be. When I was first publishing, around twenty years ago, I got told all the time that my writing was good but it’d be better if I’d just stop playing around with genre and write realistic stories about so-called real people. I’m something of a contrarian, so I just kept on doing what I wanted to do and after a while people got used to it. At this point, people have come to accept the mixing of genre and literary fiction as a viable and interesting mode, and I’d like to think I’ve been a small part of helping that happen.

What about your popular fiction writing—I’m thinking here of the Dead Space novels, and the rest of B. K. Evenson’s bibliography—what can the MFA writer gain from similar opportunities? Surely it is a hell of a lot of fun!

It’s great fun. I kind of stumbled into doing those sorts of books but have enjoyed them a lot. And when I do them I take them fairly seriously, try to make them the best contract novels that they can be. It also taught me to do all sorts of things that I didn’t know how to do before—like how to write a plot-driven book, for instance, or how to work within a fictional world that had been created for a video game. I think writing them made me a better, more versatile writer.

Besides the reissued novels, Coffee House Press is also publishing your new collection, A Collapse of Horses, how, if at all, do you see this collection relating to the novels, thematically or otherwise?

I think there are certain concerns that keep coming up in my fiction, and that’s definitely the case with A Collapse of Horses. The stories in them mix genres in ways that you can see in the novels as well, in Last Days in particular. They fracture and unsettle reality in a way that’s not unlike The Open Curtain or Father of Lies. I love the short story—you can do a tremendous amount in a short space and they’re lean and deadly …

***

Daniel Miller lives in Missouri, where he is finishing his MA in Creative Writing. His work has appeared in Heavy Feather Review, Whiskey Island, Zone 3, and Puerto del Sol among other places, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.

For more information about Daniel and his work, you can go to his website, danielscottmiller.com, and follow him on twitter: @danielmiller01.

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1 Comment

  1. I want to see an Evenson graphic novel. It can’t be any weirder than Grant Morrison’s Invisibles or The Filth or Doom Patrol. Or can it…

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