share


Interview with Brian Evenson

There are at least three Brian Evensons, all of them EXCEEDINGLY IMPROBABLE. First, there’s Brian Evenson, the prolific author of crisp, often disturbing novels and short stories, whose first collection Altmann’s Tongue famously scandalised his employers at Brigham Young University and led to his resignation from the Mormon Church. Then there’s B. K. Evenson, the sci-fi novelist behind books set in the Aliens and Dead Space universes and co-writer of the novelisation of Rob Zombie’s film The Lords of Salem. Finally, there’s Brian Evenson, the translator of prestigious French fiction, including the charming and deeply strange novella In the Time of the Blue Ball, a book ascribed to Manuela Draeger, who does not exist. It might seem like an uphill struggle for any book of ‘weird fiction’ to improve on the weird facts, but Evenson manages it with novels like Last Days, about a one-handed detective who becomes a prophet to an amputation cult, and stories like ‘Any Corpse,’ which opens with the line ‘When she awoke, a shower of raw flesh had fallen in the field.’ This is not to suggest that Evenson’s work is at all unworldly: his 2008 novel The Open Curtain revisits the dark history of the LDS Church, while the horror permeating his short stories owes less to Lovecraftian beasties and more to the combination of an abiding uncertainty and the author’s lucid prose.

 

Lately, all these Evensons seem to be operating in uneasy equilibrium. The stories that comprise A Collapse of Horses – published by Coffee House Press along with reissues of three of his novels – venture into increasingly dark, even apocalyptic, terrain while maintaining a narrative control that owes at least as much to the experimental spirit of the Oulipo as to the usual suspects of American weird (Poe, Bowles, Burroughs). The narrator of his latest novella, The Warren, forthcoming from Tor.com in September, may or may not be human, and leaves a place of relative safety to explore a mysterious, devastated landscape where identity itself is on the line. As usual, Evenson persistently disarms his readers even as his fans recognise the crystallisation of his imitable voice along with trademarks like his odd choice of character names (a random sampling of which includes Horak, Orvar, Karsten, Sugg, Qatik and Qanik).

 

Evenson and I have both served as editors for the literary journal Conjunctions and have known each other in several capacities over the years, but I particularly recall a visit to his home in Providence when he was teaching at Brown (a post he held for 13 years). I was struck by Evenson’s prodigious work ethic, which seemed devoted to preserving his stories beyond the least affect, and also his wide collection of Bauhaus side- and solo-projects. Now working at CalArts, I called him at nine his time, midnight mine, after he put his young son to bed and we were free to dig into late night conversation pieces like solipsism, disembodied heartbeats, religious apostasy, and the unspeakable.

 

Q

The White Review

— Most writers go to great lengths to depict a clear, interpretable world. You often go the opposite route, as nearly every story in A Collapse of Horses contains an element of narrative uncertainty. Characters question their initial assumptions, doubt the accuracy of their perceptions, and the reader is often unsure of the extent to which the main action in these stories is being coloured by a narrator’s delusion. What informs this approach to mimesis?

A

Brian Evenson

— There is a sense in my stories of being thrown into something and being a little bit lost, which corresponds to my sense of what life is like. I once had the experience of walking across a parking lot and seeing what I thought was a bird moving very strangely on the other side. I thought, ‘oh, it’s injured or trying to protect its young.’ I came closer but it wasn’t until I was 10 or 15 feet away that I realised that this was not a bird at all, but a leaf being blown around by the wind.

 

I think things like that happen often to certain kinds of people. Ninety per cent of them probably never think about it again. But the other ten per cent have this feeling that reality has been pulled out from under them, that what was once a bird is now a leaf. You realise you’ve been living in a world as if one thing was in fact something else. Many of the stories in A Collapse of Horses are about that experience. You go into the stories and you’re not sure if you’re the one having a hard time or if it’s the narrator, or both. I want my stories to put you into a place where the reality of the world is breaking down or collapsing – both inside the story and for you as a reader.

Q

The White Review

— Often we recognise just enough to get comfortable before confusion sets in. Take a story like ‘Dust,’ which is set in a planetary mining colony that you might encounter in something like Philip K. Dick – but then it doesn’t move in the predictable science fiction direction, instead becoming increasingly opaque. How did you arrive at this unique fusion of genres?

A

Brian Evenson

— For one thing, I never was normalised as a writer. I didn’t go through a creative writing programme and was never told ‘here’s how you should do it.’ I read a lot and found there was something I really liked about the kind of fiction that unsettled me, and I tried to replicate that unsettling in my own work. But it is very much the minority of writers that are interested in that. Most are more interested in presenting things as being quite a bit clearer than what I experience on a day-to-day basis.

 

‘The Dust’ allowed me to go in another direction. It happens to be a fairly direct response to the Sean Connery film Outland, but the story is really more interested in demonstrating how we think about narrative than in residing in any one genre. I like fiction where you have a collapsing reality but also have generic concerns, with all the tropes that come with it. If an author starts to play with the reality of the fiction and the shape of genre in a way that destabilises both of them, it makes for an interesting experience for the reader.

 

The weird thing for me about A Collapse of Horses is that some of its stories are closer to my personal experience than is normally the case with my fiction. A bunch of the details in ‘Past Reno’ are based on an actual trip my wife and I took across Nevada, but the story goes in a weirder direction. Though, to be honest, not all that much weirder than the actual trip – I came very close to breaking out the bathroom mirror described in that story, and did enter a convenience store with an entire aisle of jerky. Same with ‘BearHeart™’, which comes out of learning, when we were getting ready to have our son, that there are companies that will do an ultrasound of your baby’s heartbeat and put it in a stuffed bear for your baby to sleep with. Which is really weird – teaching your baby to fall asleep to the externalised sound of your own heart. Things like that presented themselves to me out of reality, which almost never happens to me, at least not so directly. That made me feel that reality seems to be becoming more like my fiction, which was very unsettling.

Q

The White Review

— Do you think most people are more afraid of other people or themselves?

A

Brian Evenson

— I think that both are terrifying. So many of my characters wonder ‘Is there something wrong with me or is there something wrong with the world?’ Most of them don’t manage an answer. Mentally we construct a version of the world and the people that we interact with, a model that’s fairly accurate but is also more generalised. There are all kinds of problems once you compare that version to the real thing. So much of our sense of the world is based on the pressure we put on our consciousness to reconstruct that world accurately. So I don’t know that those two issues are separable, ultimately – if we’re afraid of others, we’re often afraid of the representation we’ve constructed of them. For me, those are big questions.

Q

The White Review

— In addition to the usual literary anthologies, you’re a regular in fantasy and horror collections. Is there something unique about genre that allows you to get at these kinds of porous realities?

A

Brian Evenson

— I like genre fiction, but it’s only a very small fraction of that genre that provides me with what I can’t get elsewhere. Frankly, a lot of what gets called horror is not that important to me as a writer, but then there is this narrow band of ‘horror’ that can do things that I don’t see anywhere else. I’m thinking of a writer like Robert Aickman, who referred to his output as ‘strange stories’ and who does things in his fiction that are simply remarkable. For example, there’s a scene in his long story ‘The Stain’ in which a character who has this weird stain on his body goes to a swimming pool with a friend. The friend looks at the stain just as they’re about to swim, and then without any real discussion or commentary they suddenly get dressed to leave instead. We never quite learn what happened. Something about that is amazing and very different from the standard sort of horror.

 

There has been an effort to redefine the genre lately, partly due to Ann and Jeff VanderMeer’s efforts. Their anthology The Weird presents a genre connected to horror that I feel closer to as a whole. The notion of a more suggestive horror, which raises the spectre of an insidiously elusive reality, is much more frightening than a lot of what gets called horror, and more realistic than what gets called realism. Stories like Aickman’s ‘The Hospice’ or Oliver Onion’s ‘The Beckoning Fair One’ or Algernon Blackwood’s ‘The Willows’ or Arthur Machen’s ‘The White People’ – which is one of my favourite stories from the early 20th century – have a haunting lightness to them (in Calvino’s sense of the term) that you don’t find in less elusive work.

Q

The White Review

— Your forthcoming work from Tor.com, The Warren, is perhaps your most stripped-down work, where the narrator isn’t even sure if they’re human. Did this emerge naturally from the kind of subjectivity you were exploring in A Collapse of Horses?

A

Brian Evenson

— The question of what is real and what is not real, what do I know and what do I not know ­– which gets asked in different ways from story to story in A Collapse of Horses – certainly plays a role, since your idea of what reality is will inform your answer to the question of what is or is not human.

 

But The Warren also gives me a different sort of space to work out the same concerns, so it’s partly that I see it more as a collision of the things going on in Collapse and the things going on in Immobility (2012, Tor). There’s an investigation in Immobility about just what it means to be human and The Warren opens with the narrator posing a question about a person, and then being asked in return what he means by ‘person’. The notion of what qualifies as human or post-human is for me one of the most interesting thing about what is going on in science fiction right now, and my last few works try to slant the asking of that question in a philosophical way.

 

The Warren, like ‘The Dust’ is a pretty specific response to another text, in this case Gene Wolfe’s The Fifth Head of Cerberus. I came to that particular Wolfe book pretty late, but he too uses, there and elsewhere, the strategy of placing characters in a world that its characters aren’t quite sure how to interpret, letting them and us figure it out (or perhaps fail to figure it out) at the same time.

 

Q

The White Review

— I get the feeling your influences probably extend past platforms like the novel. The Warren actually reminds me a little bit of early text-based computer games like ZORK.

A

Brian Evenson

— I grew up playing those. My father was a physicist and we would buy time on the mainframe in the days before personal computers to play them. I played Colossal Cave Adventure, ZORK, and a few others. You were thrown into situations almost blind and had to feel your way out, and figure out what basic commands to use to get the game to respond to your questions correctly and tell you what you wanted to know. I would guess that that’s part of my makeup, although I wasn’t consciously thinking about that.

 

As far as other influences, there’s William Godwin’s The Lives of the Necromancers, which is a 19th century text in which Godwin talks about different kinds of necromancers and lays out very specific, often grotesque rituals. I took a few moments of language from that for ‘Any Corpse’. But the biggest common thread across my books is probably the Mormon connection.

 

Father of Lies was the first of my novels to be published and it is the most aggressive – almost polemical – in how it’s approaching Mormonism. That’s probably because when I was in Utah I was friends with people who were part of The Mormon Alliance, a group which did a lot of work with what they called ‘religious abuse.’ They looked at particular cases in Mormonism where either religious leaders had allowed someone who was doing something pretty awful to go free or where leaders had committed abuse and had been protected by the larger church. Father of Lies was my chance to explore that. For me the more interesting aspect of that book was how the main character seems to be hallucinating a weird other self.

 

With The Open Curtain, I moved in a direction where the critique of Mormonism becomes more nuanced and complicated. The Open Curtain began when I discovered the William Hooper Young case, which I ran across by accident in my late-twenties/early-thirties. I’d never heard that the grandson of Mormon prophet Brigham Young had apparently murdered a woman and talked about someone named C. S. Eiling (called ‘Elling’ in certain accounts) having done it, but there was no record of Eiling or Elling having ever existed. The more personal aspect of it for me is that I set the book in the place I had grown up in. I was writing that book to recall Utah, so much of that place and the journey that Rudd takes, in terms of how he moves around the city, are based on my recollections

 

Immobility is also set in Utah, but it’s a post-apocalyptic, devastated Utah, and I don’t know that it’s recognisable to someone who didn’t grow up there. I used Google Maps to map from Provo up to Granite Mountain, where the Mormon Records Vault used to be, then destroyed everything along the way. There’s a lot of details that a Utah Mormon would know, and it’s a much more unsettling book if that’s what you are. Honestly, I think all my books are more unsettling for Mormons.

Q

The White Review

— There’s also a very clear French influence. You’ve translated a great deal from French – how did that come about?

A

Brian Evenson

— I had a really good high school French teacher – a very demanding and difficult human being who nevertheless taught me French very well. He gave me the skills I needed to read French literature, even before I was in France doing missionary work for the LDS Church in my early-twenties. But it was when I was doing missionary work that I started buying a lot of Les Éditions de Minuit books. They published things like Samuel Beckett and Robert Pinget and Marguerite Duras. Before going on a mission, while a freshman at Brigham Young University, I was reading a lot of Artaud – I’d found To Have Done with the Judgment of God by accident in the Brigham Young University library while looking for something else and that led me to all sorts of other things. Growing up in Utah, there was a used bookstore called Walt West Books. They happened to have a lot of Grove Press books and so for about a dollar a copy you could get any Absurd play you could think of. Ionesco, Mrozek, Pinter, Beckett and Genet.

 

I was not a great missionary. My own sense of religion was too conflicted and I was more interested in understanding the culture of France than I was in changing the people of France into Mormons. So I spent a lot of time reading and exploring. Between Artaud and Beckett and Marie Redonnet, and, going a little later – people like Antoine Volodine who, for me, is one of the most important living writers – it really had an enormous impact on how I think about fiction in general.

Q

The White Review

— You’ve translated In the Time of the Blue Ball, which is written by one of Volodine’s pseudonyms, Manuela Draeger. Although Volodine doesn’t exist either . . .

A

Brian Evenson

— That’s right. Draeger and Volodine are the same ­­– Volodine is the pseudonym of someone whose real identity is not willingly revealed, and Draeger is a character within Volodine’s work but also a writer in her own right. I think Volodine is really terrific, and the Draeger stuff has this incredible effortless play to it. Many of the Draeger books almost feel like children’s stories, and in fact they were published that way in France. When I asked Volodine about this, about whether they were really stories for children, he said, ‘Yes, they are stories for children. But for very strange children.’ I liked that a lot. I think strange children deserve to have stories written for them.

 

The more Volodine you read, the more you get a sense of an overall project, a complete world. It is intriguing, interesting, very powerful, the way in which he’s envisioned a world that seems futuristic but not irrelevant to our present and divides the world into different camps, each with their own storyteller who writes in his own style. It gets at something quite impressionistic.

 

As a writer, I find translating incredibly useful. The act of translation teaches me how to put language together in a way I don’t usually. It’s a very intimate engagement with someone else’s way of constructing language and the most intense way I know of dealing with the deliverance of thought into language effectively.

Q

The White Review

— Does your colleague B. K. Evenson give you another opportunity to work in a different register?

A

Brian Evenson

— For the B. K. Evenson stuff I took a page from Iain Banks. His science fiction novels were published under the name ‘Iain M. Banks’ and his literary novels were published under the name ‘Iain Banks’. I liked how the name change told you what you could expect to read but did not deny the connection between the two sides of his work. So the B. K. Evenson name is partly that, a way of immediately distinguishing the stuff that I’m doing that’s a little more genre-oriented, a little less philosophical. It gets tricky sometimes because, for example, The Warren is a genre book, but has a more intense engagement with ideas that made it seem like it belonged more in the ‘Brian Evenson’ camp. Also, those B. K. Evenson books are often contract work, where I’m adapting a video game or somebody’s screenplay into a novel. It’s taught me so much about plot, things I could gloss over while writing my literary fiction. B. K. Evenson has helped me better understand how narrative works.

Q

The White Review

— How do you come up with your characters’ names?

A

Brian Evenson

— I spend a lot of time just looking at random names when I’m trying to put a character on the page. So much of it is based on sound and it’s very instinctual. My favorite characters in Immobility are Qatik and Qanik. Those are both Greenlandic names, the first referring to the upper part of the sternum of a bird and the second meaning snowflake. One letter shifts, one phoneme, and everything changes! I think my coming across those names was completely random, the same sort of wormhole you go into when you’re looking at cat videos on the Internet. I was looking at a list of Icelandic names that lead me to Greenlandic names, which are very odd. I also love those Northern sagas because they’re strange without being especially fantastical.

Q

The White Review

— Again, I’m struck by how diverse your reading seems to be. Do you consciously concentrate on specific authors or genres at a time?

A

Brian Evenson

— When you read for breadth, you can miss certain kinds of things. So I’ll do a combination where I’ll read broadly for a while, then I’ll find somebody I really love and read a lot of their work. Recently it’s been Gerald Murnane. The Plains in particular strikes me as brilliant but everything is worthwhile. I often have experiences where I’ll run across someone like that and wonder ‘Why have I not read this before?’ That happened with Muriel Spark, who I’d heard about for years and associated only with The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which didn’t sound like my kind of thing, so I never read her. Until finally writer Keith Waldrop encouraged me to read all of her work – especially Bachelors and The Ballad of Peckham Rye. I put off reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie but when I finally did I discovered it was kind of a perfect book, one I think no one thought I’d be interested in, but which was very much to my taste.

 

It’s partly just trying to stay curious. I read a couple hundred books a year but there are so many gaps, so many things I should have read. I’ll probably still be feeling that when I die.

Q

The White Review

— Given that you began with these Mormon-based horror books and that you’ve come to utilise narrators who are almost pathologically uncertain, I wonder which you think is worse: to be a believer or to be completely adrift?
A

Brian Evenson

— An unanswerable question. Everybody’s probably on a continuum between those two things, and I don’t know if there’s a comfortable place to be anywhere on it. But where else are you going to be? It’s those unguarded moments where you’re teetering or balancing on the cusp of belief or unbelief and not knowing which way you’re going to fall that are really, for me, the most interesting moments in life.
 


ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR


J. W. McCormack has written for The New RepublicBOMB MagazineConjunctions and VICE.


READ NEXT

Fiction

March 2014

The Garden of Credit Analyst Filton

Interviews

Issue No. 1

Interview with Marina Warner

Fiction

The White Review Short Story Prize 2017

Hangnails, and Other Diseases