Wonderbook Interview with Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson is an influential American writer of hard to classify dark fiction that often seems surreal or Kafkaesque. He is also a translator of French literature and former Chair of the Literary Arts Program at Brown University, as well as a senior editor of the Conjunctions literary journal published by Bard College. Evenson’s critically acclaimed story collections include The Wavering Knife (2004) and Fugue State (2009). Strange or absurd happenings occur with frequency in his fiction. He’s also written media tie-in novels and collaborated with Rob Zombie.

What role or roles do your nightmares and dreams play in your fiction?

Actual dreams and nightmares I’ve had rarely play a significant role in my fiction, though every once in a while one might make its way in somewhat altered form. But the kind of logic of dreams or the way I’ve felt in certain dreams or nightmares, does figure very strongly and is one of the formative principles behind the mood or feeling of many of my stories. I think that writing satisfies a similar need for me that dreaming does, so much so that when I’m writing extremely well I tend to dream very little or at least don’t remember my dreams. When the writing isn’t going well or when I’m not doing it for some reason or other my dreams become very, very vivid and also very lucid: I find myself adjusting them and revising them as they’re going on in the same way I adjust or revise a story. So, I guess I’d say for me, on some very basic level, dreams and writing are the same. Though of course on many levels they are not the same at all.

To what extent is your work autobiographical, and what’s the process of “cooking” autobiography into fiction for you?

There are often strange little fragments of autobiography in my work, sometimes where you least expect it. My most realistic stories sometimes have the fewest autobiographical elements to them. But in, for instance, a story like “Windeye”, available online, there are things that are directly tied to my childhood–so much so that when my sister heard me read them she broke out laughing. In that story the mention of the kids locking one another in the toy box and then pretending to leave is something my sister and I used to do to one another, as well as a few other things. In terms of cooking it, I don’t really either consciously use it or consciously avoid using it. Those small details when they come up seem to come up naturally and in a way that allows me to invoke something in regard to the overall impact of the story. It’s not that I’m trying to “sneak” my autobiography in there or say something about my actual life but more like I’m borrowing something from the real world because it opens a certain kind of door in a fictional world. It’s similar, I think, to what I do with borrowing the mood or feel of a dream for a story, and the loyalty is always to the fiction rather than to the autobiographical nugget.

Can you describe your writing process—what’s usually in the rough draft and what’s not?

I try, in the first draft, to get a fairly solid structure, order, and narrative progression in place, though that doesn’t always happen: often I find myself turning the story inside out in later drafts and rearranging everything. My character names rarely change after the first draft. The structure of the piece can change, but I like it better when it’s established by this point. When I do the rough draft, I write by hand to a point where I’m not sure of myself and then type what I have into the computer. Then I print it out, revise the hardcopy with pen, and continue writing when I reach the end of what’s been typed. Then I write to a new point where I’m not sure of myself, enter the changes and the new text in, and print things out and start the process again. So, often by the time I have a complete draft of a story, I’ve revised the beginning a half dozen times and the later elements less so.

How does the inexplicable inform your fiction?

There’s so much in this life that’s inexplicable, and I think the closer that you scrutinize it, the less explicable or solid it seems, and I think a lot of my fiction is about that, about the collapse of our ability to feel that we can genuinely apprehend the world. Luckily, though, we rarely have to confront this directly. Just a few months ago, my wife Kristen and I were walking through Golden Gate Park and we came across a horse paddock in the middle of the park. All the horses, four or so, were lying in the dirt, unmoving, as if they were dead. I was pretty sure that they weren’t dead, but at the same time they literally didn’t move or do anything to let me, from the distance I was at (maybe 30 feet or so), know for certain they were alive–I couldn’t see them breathing, their tails weren’t moving, their eyes weren’t moving, they didn’t make any noise. We stood there waiting for the evidence to tilt one way or the other, for the horses to prove themselves alive or prove themselves dead, and even after we did finally have something that we felt was definitive (though just barely) proof, I went away from the experience haunted by that feeling of suspension, of not knowing…

How much do your stories change in the telling of them, and do you often wind up someplace very different than you expected?

For a novel I often (though not always) have an outline that I stick relatively close to. For a story, I don’t usually know where I’m going. I have a spark of some kind, something I’m curious about, and that’s what carries me forward. It’s usually not until a bit into the process that I realize where things are going, and even then I might realize a bit later that they’re in fact going in yet a different direction, one that I’d subconsciously prepared for without realizing it in the beginnings of the story. That ends up being both a very exciting process for me and also a frightening one: usually there’s a place within a story where I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing and it’d be better to give it up, that the story is a disaster. But then something clicks…

For novels, do you outline, and if so, to what extent? What is an outline to you in terms of your process?

Some novels I outline and some I don’t. I didn’t outline Immobility, but I did work off, to a greater or lesser degree, a brief summary of the book I’d written for a website when the book was still imaginary. That both gave me a sense of direction and a certain amount of flexibility. When I’ve done contract novels, like the Dead Space books or the Aliens book, I had a detailed outline I’d written, usually at the request of the editor, around 15-30 pages, and I stuck pretty closely to that, which I found worked quite well. When I co-wrote my book with Rob Zombie, I was working of a movie script, and that gave me a structure and a pattern of events that I could embroidered around, adapt and change. So, different projects I’ve done different ways. I’m not sure that one way works better than another, though I do think that having an outline tends, at least for me, to make the writing go a lot faster. At the same time, sometimes sticking too closely to an outline potentially can prevent you from seeing certain possibilities.

On the page, what are the worst ways that a talented writer can self-sabotage or self-betray?

I think the biggest danger for a talented writer is that they can become self-indulgent. As you become more recognized, certain editors become more reluctant to call you out on things they probably should be calling you out on. So, I think you have to remain very strict with yourself and not let yourself get away with things that you shouldn’t get away with.

What’s the worst type of writing advice, about the art of it, that you’ve seen, and why?

I think “Write what you know” has been repeated so often and been so misunderstood that it’s become the worst sort of writing advice, particularly since it’s so often used by proponents of bad realism to dismiss quite good fantastic fiction. I like the way Ron Carlson talks about this. He suggests that experience consists of three things: “a writer’s own experience, experiences the writers has heard or read about, or experiences and notions that a writer ‘makes up'”. If we can see that as experience then yes, I think I’m okay with writing what you know. But any writing advice that becomes a kind of severe restriction I think is problematic. I think guidelines are good but are made to be broken by good writers.

Why do you write?

I don’t know. I find writing as an activity really satisfying. I love the act of constructing worlds out of language. I like what it teaches me about my own thinking and what it reveals to me about my understanding of the world. It’s not exactly that every second of it is fun when I’m working on a novel or a story, but there’s always something great and satisfying for me about the process, particularly when it leads me to a story I’m happy with.