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Aaron Peck
Aaron Peck is the author of The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis and Letters to the Pacific.

Articles Available Online


The Abyss Echoes Back: Judith Schalansky’s ‘An Inventory of Losses’

Book Review

January 2021

Aaron Peck

Book Review

January 2021

Early in Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses, the narrator describes the way an ancient form of writing survived oblivion. The soft clay tablets...

Book Review

May 2018

Harry Mathews’s ‘The Solitary Twin’

Aaron Peck

Book Review

May 2018

Imagine a small fishing village on the edge of the world. Its inhabitants are progressive and content. The surroundings...

The first story in The Dominant Animal, Kathryn Scanlan’s 2020 collection, is called ‘The First Whiffs of Spring’ It starts with a bus passing an old dairy, and covers some kind of journey: ‘Where was I going – it was something to do with a family It may have been my family When I arrived, there was a large frosted cake, boxes of wine, and a pyramid of sparkling plastic flutes’ The scope of her stories varies – some might be about objects and others about families – but the scale is consistently granular, and the reader is invited to build a sense of the bigger picture from moments, places or trinkets A recent story, ‘Meditation’, published in the 2022 issue of NOON, blooms from tea: ‘I pour the tea until it reaches the top of the cup and then I pour a little more up above the brim – I want one of those tight, trembling, difficult domes I want more than my cup can hold’   Scanlan’s first novel, Aug 9—Fog (2019), is based on a stranger’s diary, which she cut up and then reassembled from scraps Her latest, Kick the Latch (2023), derives from interviews with a horse trainer named Sonia Whether writing in the first or third person, voice is tightly controlled in her work, in service of the characters she inhabits What’s consistently distinctive and hypnotic about Scanlan’s work is its texture; the stories feel like stones or shells, shapes that seem surprising when you’re in them, but inevitable once you reach the end – fractal, or crystalline   We spoke over video call, on a morning in LA for her, and an evening for me in London, about a fondness for objects and animals, playing with form and structure, and a frustration with being asked to list and label things She said she’d felt disappointed with her speaking self in the past, so was careful with what she decided to say, and how she chose to say it   QThe White Review — How did Kick the Latch come to be? Were you planning a novel when you found Sonia, the woman whose life the book draws from?AKathryn Scanlan — No, I wasn’t planning anything. The first time I talked to her was in 2018. I was waiting for Aug 9—Fog to come out and editing The Dominant Animal. I call my parents every other week or so to catch up with them – they live in Iowa, where I grew up – and at some point my mother started talking about this woman she’d met, Sonia. She would tell me stories Sonia had told her about her life, and they sounded so interesting. My mother was like, ‘I think you really need to meet this woman.’ So I planned a family trip to coincide with an outdoor market where both Sonia and my father were going to be set up. My mother arranged it – she’d told Sonia about me, too – and when I got there, my father introduced us. I sat with her next to her stall and we ended up talking for almost four hours. At the beginning I’d said I was interested in writing about her, but that I didn’t really have an idea of what I might do. By the end of our conversation the book was taking shape in my head.QThe White Review — What was your father selling at the market?AKathryn Scanlan — It was a flea market. My parents sell antiques.QThe White Review — Is the story about a locket in The Dominant Animal related to your parents’ work?AKathryn Scanlan — I have been interested in old objects for a long time. I started buying and selling vintage clothes when I was 15 or 16 years old, right around the time my parents became antique dealers. It’s a family business and pastime – my brother and sister-in-law do it, too. It’s always what we’re doing when we’re together: going to estate sales and auctions and things like that. It’s been a large part of my life.QThe White Review — A love of and fascination with physical things comes up in your writing frequently, as does a fascination with animals.AKathryn Scanlan — I grew up around animals. We had lot of pets when I was a kid, and I spent a lot of my childhood alone with animals.QThe White Review — What kind of animals did you have around, as a kid? Sonia is a horse trainer, and that part of her life makes up most of the content of Kick the Latch. Did you grow up around horses?AKathryn Scanlan — Yes – my mother taught me to ride early, and I had a horse of my own from the age of seven or eight. A retired racehorse lived with us for a while, too. We had cats and dogs, and we raised litters of kittens and puppies. My brother had lizards, hamsters, a hedgehog. We’d go fishing in the summer with my dad and bring home what we caught – carp and bluegill, frogs and tadpoles, turtles, crayfish. We’d keep them in our 500 gallon horse tank and release them in the river in the fall. We were surrounded by woods and all the animals who live there – groundhogs, badgers, rabbits, skunks, squirrels, possums, deer, owls and lots of other birds. There’s a lock and dam on the Mississippi just over the hill where bald eagles congregate in winter – we’d see them in our trees or flying from one place to another. In the summer there’d always be toads under the light by our front door. We had salamanders in our window wells when we first moved in but we stopped seeing them pretty early on. I was raised to have an avid interest in and respect for animals and that upbringing continues to determine what I value and pay attention to.QThe White Review — Kick the Latch is your third book. It’s a lot like The Dominant Animal structurally, in that it consists of chunks of prose. It’s also a lot like Aug 9—Fog, your first novel, which was based on a stranger’s diary, in terms of the biographical material, though the method of getting the material and of putting it together are totally different. What do you feel the books you have written so far have in common, and where do you feel they differ?AKathryn Scanlan — I’m not sure how interested I am in trying to describe the books’ commonalities and differences, but I appreciate your observations. I do think Kick the Latch combines the methods and concerns of both prior books. When I was first thinking about how to write it, in my mind it was a continuation of the project of Aug 9—Fog. But, obviously, Kick the Latch is different because Sonia is a living person, and the book draws from living speech. Aug 9—Fog is based on a closed document, a written document, whereas Kick the Latch is based on an oral document. The process was more collaborative in the sense that I was able to ask Sonia questions, show her my drafts, ask for her permission, her approval.QThe White Review — How did Sonia feel about the book, in the end? Was it odd for her to read it?AKathryn Scanlan — I’ve been asked this question a lot, and I’m a little uncomfortable answering, because it feels strange to say, ‘Oh, she loves the book’, you know? But she does love the book, and is happy about it – she’s told me as much, and I wouldn’t have proceeded if that wasn’t the case. I’m sure it’s strange for her to see herself written about in this way – she’s expressed that strangeness to me as well.QThe White Review — Could you describe the process of working with Sonia?AKathryn Scanlan — I recorded our first conversation in October 2018. After that I transcribed the audio file and started working with it, then emailed some samples of what I’d written to her a few months later. I set the project aside for about a year, then returned to it and finished a book-length draft, but I felt I needed more material, more information, so I arranged to speak with her again by phone, since travelling wasn’t an option due to the pandemic. With her permission, I recorded two long calls in fall 2020, then revised the manuscript to incorporate material from those conversations. I mailed her a copy of my draft, we spoke on the phone about it, and I revised the book again. After our last recorded call in March 2021, I did an overhaul of the manuscript and finished the final draft in late April, and again mailed her a copy. I wanted to make sure I had her blessing before submitting it to publishers.QThe White Review — While The Dominant Animal doesn’t transparently draw from life, both your other books have a pretty explicit grounding in biographies. Do you feel it makes sense that all your work is described as fiction?AKathryn Scanlan — Yes, I do. Aug 9—Fog is fiction because a 400 page private diary has been transformed into a very spare, selective, stylised text with a five-act structure and distinct narrative arc. Kick the Latch is fiction because a casual, straightforward, first-person account, delivered orally, has been transformed into a stylised, rigorously structured and titled first-person account delivered by a narrator who is no longer quite Sonia the person, but Sonia the character I’ve created on the page via many formal and personal decisions. Stories in The Dominant Animal were written with similar or adjacent methods: ‘Victorian Wedding Portrait’ is a re-working of text from an old book about Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; ‘Happy Wife, Happy Life’ is drawn from a conversation I had with a bus driver.QThe White Review — Your stories tend to be only a handful of pages in length, and both your longer works are made up of smaller chunks. How did you arrive at this short and sharp form?AKathryn Scanlan — I arrived at it over many years of working and revising and editing and reading. I’ve been cleaning my office this past week, and I’ve come across some old drafts, written when I was in my late teens and early twenties, and I definitely wasn’t always working in this compressed way. I came to it after a long process. It’s the way I’ve found that is most compelling to me, as a reader of my own work.QThe White Review — Biography is a key part of your novels. Do you keep a diary of your own?AKathryn Scanlan — I don’t keep a diary. I have made a few attempts throughout my life, both as a child and as an adult, but the standard diary format always feels wrong to me – even though I admire others I’ve read. I do keep journals. I guess they could be viewed like diaries, but not in the traditional daily entry kind of style. They are much less personal.QThe White Review — Is it all text in the journals? Do you draw in them?AKathryn Scanlan — In the past I drew in them quite a bit. I haven’t been doing that as much in recent years. They’re mostly for keeping scraps for fiction – fragments, descriptions, overheard speech, stories I’ve been told. Also quotes from books I’m reading, quotes from films.QThe White Review — You studied both painting and writing. Is the process of art-making related to your writing?AKathryn Scanlan — I think if you’re someone who makes visual art, or if you’ve been trained in that tradition or mode of thinking, conceptually and physically, you have a certain way of seeing things. You have a visual artist’s eye, a visual artist’s way of framing and conceptualising the world. I think I bring that mindset to writing. I think of my stories and books as discrete art objects.   I studied writing and painting as an undergraduate at Iowa. Then I did an MFA in writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. I went there because it was a multi-disciplinary writing programme. You could take studio art classes, and the critique panels were composed of people from other departments. It was visual artists and filmmakers critiquing your writing, which I thought was interesting. I was a teaching assistant for a class on collecting objects. I worked with some wonderful people, wonderful teachers. If I were going now, I would only go somewhere that paid me a stipend to study. I was a little bit frustrated when I was looking at graduate schools for writing. A lot of them seemed very regimented or narrow-minded. Are you going to apply for fiction, are you going to apply for poetry, are you going to apply for nonfiction? The implication being that that’s the genre you’ll become an expert in. I wanted to go somewhere where you could do everything, anything.   As a student I always felt like I had one foot in school and one foot out of school, because I was working a job – and I’d also met a lot of visual artists and people outside of school, so I spent most of my time with them. I didn’t have that intensive situation of getting really close with a small group of writers while I was in school, it wasn’t really like that at all.QThe White Review — Do you feel like being published regularly in the literary annual NOON has shaped your writing, and having Diane Williams, the writer who founded the magazine, as an editor?AKathryn Scanlan — Absolutely. I consider Diane a mentor. Being able to send her work every year, for many years, has had a huge influence on me. It has been an important part of my training. It helped me arrive at the style and form I wanted for my writing.QThe White Review — Do you think of yourself as an editor?AKathryn Scanlan — Yes, definitely. When I finished graduate school, I worked as the nonfiction editor for a journal my friend had started, MAKE magazine. I did that for seven years. I think working in that capacity as a writer, at least for someone like me, is really important. I am always trying to be my own best editor. The shape and meaning of my work comes, a lot of times, purely through editing.QThe White Review — In Aug 9—Fog, fiction emerges directly through your editing of source material. Could you talk about the form and scope of the book, and how you got hold of the diary it draws from? How did you wrangle that source material into the book?AKathryn Scanlan — The diary, to the best of my recollection, was in a flat of items my dad gave me to look through, to see if there was anything I wanted. The flat was either from an auction we’d gone to together, or one he’d gone to on his own. My memory of the diary is that it was something that was going to be thrown away – that it was in a leftover flat, one that didn’t get a bid – but I’m not certain. This was in 2004, I think.   I loved it as a visual object first – I photographed the pages and thought about removing them from the binding and framing them in groups as wall works. Several years went by before I read it. Then, there were so many odd and excellent sentences and turns of phrase – I started typing what I liked into a word document. In 2009 I sent a composition I’d made to Diane Williams, who published it in the 2011 edition of NOON. That version was one run-on solid block, a little overwhelming and disorienting in the way it felt to read the diary as a whole, which is 400 dense pages long, comprised of over 1800 daily entries, plus a lot of additional writing in the back.   After that, I felt it could be a book, but it would need a different form. I felt the words needed space. For the next seven or eight years I played around with it – trying different page compositions and combinations, cutting and adding, trimming and shaping, going back into the diary again and again and finding new things I’d missed. At some point the death of Vern [one of the few people named in the text], rose to my attention as a central event, one I could structure the book around. I found the five-act seasonal structure near the end of the process, which meant reorganising the pages according to the time of year – each ‘season’ was assembled from five years of that season. Earlier versions were titled ‘Five Year Diary’ and ‘Bare Life,’ neither of which I liked. ‘Aug 9—Fog’ I found written on a scrap of paper – nothing else – and tucked between the pages.QThe White Review — A stranger’s diary is interesting source material. On the face of it, it’s private, personal material, but the act of recording can also be seen as an invitation for someone else to read it. How did it feel to spend so much time with such an intimate document? Do you feel like you got to know its author? Did you have any concerns about adapting it?AKathryn Scanlan — What I like about the diary is its mystery – all the things I don’t know, all the information that’s withheld from me. Reading it was a lesson in stripping away backstory – how compelling that absence can be. If you’re writing a diary about your life, you’re not going to explain who Clarence is or go into detail about Maud’s past. I think the tendency to explain when writing fiction is very strong. It’s something I’m always trying to avoid or remove in my work. Aug 9—Fog was an attempt to build a portrait or an arc of a life with a minimum of information. I wondered a long time about adapting it, but at the same time I felt very free to use it in the way an artist feels free to use found materials in her work. It was an abandoned object, a discarded object. I felt there was something valuable there that I wanted to share. And before the book was published, I was able to find the diarist’s distant relatives online, to share the book and the diary with them, and to get their blessing.QThe White Review — Did you ever write poetry or explicit nonfiction?AKathryn Scanlan — Yeah, sure. I’ve written for Another Gaze, the film journal, and I’ve written about books and writing, and I write art reviews on occasion. I had a manuscript of poetry that I was trying to do something with for awhile, and then set aside. I wrote poetry as a younger person as well. But there’s something exciting about fiction that makes it my main interest. It’s a huge elastic sort of category that allows the most freedom. I like the idea of being sort of mischievous, and sneaking things into the category of fiction that might look more like poetry or nonfiction, or something else; I think it’s fun to play with genre in that way, to make people question what they’re reading.QThe White Review — Is rhythm something that you think about when you write? It comes through vividly in Kick the Latch, in the regularity of the beat: ‘Riders would go down. They’d get steel rods put up their spine. You were on top of the world or the bottom. You’d get hurt and be laid up with no money coming in, but there’d be other weeks where you made real good.’AKathryn Scanlan — Absolutely. I’m not musically trained – my mother’s family is very musical, and I regret that I didn’t get a more formal education in music as a kid – but I do think about rhythm and musicality a lot. I also think about trying to write in a way that might mimic the way certain music functions in terms of feeling and sound, and the way some songs move. You know, the peculiar ability certain songs have, through a combination of elements, to create this swelling of feeling in us. I sometimes think: what if I try to write a story that feels like this? I don’t think I succeed in doing this, necessarily – probably it’s an impossible task – but it’s something I like to keep in mind.QThe White Review — Taste and smell also have a big presence in your work. The story ‘Live a Little’ from The Dominant Animal, for example, is concerned with food, and there are bits of Aug 9—Fog where we get details about peaches and smoked sausages.AKathryn Scanlan — I’m very interested in food, I love details about food in fiction, but this is also an attempt to bring physicality onto a page, to try to bring a body – my body, your body – onto a page. Writing can seem like such a cerebral or disembodied sort of experience, but it’s actually so physical. You know, the act of writing is physically uncomfortable a lot of the time, and being able to to do it is almost athletic, a sort of endurance. Reading, too.QThe White Review — Much of your work borrows from either anecdotes you’ve heard, or people that you’ve met; both of your novels are written from the first-person perspective, and so are many of your stories. Is the use of the ‘I’ in your writing an attempt to get into someone else’s skin?AKathryn Scanlan — One of the reasons I don’t like writing straightforward nonfiction is that I feel hemmed in by the requirement to be ‘myself’. I seem to be physically incapable of writing a personal essay. Fiction is appealing because the ‘I’ can be anything and anyone. I can go wherever I want. It doesn’t need to be me, and I can be other.QThe White Review — Did you always intend The Dominant Animal to be a collection of short stories?AKathryn Scanlan — Yes, but there were a few different versions of it before I arrived at its final form. It came close to being published as a chapbook at one point. When I was assembling the full length manuscript, I ended up omitting some stories that didn’t quite fit. Also there was something pleasing about 40 stories, the roundness of that.QThe White Review — The collection is broken up into sections. Was this a form you had in mind from the outset?AKathryn Scanlan — The sections actually came later, when I was working on the order of the stories with my editor, Emily Bell. As an organising tactic, she’d grouped the 40 stories into little packs according to theme, though she wouldn’t tell me what her themes were. The order shifted around some after that but we both liked the idea of the groups so much that we decided to break up the stories this way in the book. It made a lot of sense to me to create these pauses throughout, because even though it’s a short book and the stories are short, they’re dense, and I felt like it might be nice to have a little place to stop and rest from time to time.QThe White Review — So they’re less like boxes and more like breaks.AKathryn Scanlan — Yeah. The symbol that separates the sections in the US version of the book is something I worked on with the designer, Na Kim. I had been looking at musical rest symbols and appreciated their form and style. It’s a really beautiful little design.   It’s in the same sort of gothic, Old English script – designed by Na by hand – as the title on the cover. Daunt used Na’s script for their edition, too. It looks like it was written with a calligraphy pen – a bold, upward-tilting stroke, a sort of eccentric, interrupted em dash. It has a barbed quality, like a weapon. At one end is a suspended, slightly mysterious black diamond.QThe White Review — I want to ask about the process of the writing itself. Do you write digitally? Or does your writing start with a pen and paper?AKathryn Scanlan — For years I was drafting stories primarily on the computer. Lately, I’ve been writing them out by hand more, because I’m on the computer so much and I kind of hate it. I feel like it sucks the life out of me through my eyeballs.   My writing is really based on my notebooks. A lot of times, I’ll start a story in the notebook. I’ve always had a need to write things out, and I think it’s related to drawing. It’s like a craving or an urge, you know – to write with the hand and to draw and to paint. I feel like writing by hand slows me down in a way that can be beneficial. But I also love the speed and ease of writing and editing on a computer. I wonder sometimes about how much the technology of having a word processing system has affected the way people write.QThe White Review — Are you reading anything at the moment that you particularly like?AKathryn Scanlan — I just started Brian Dillon’s Affinities (2023), and I recently read The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941) by Janet Lewis. Lewis lived in Chicago, she started publishing books in the 1930s, and she wrote this series of historical novels. The Wife of Martin Guerre is a short novelistic treatment of a real court case that was recorded in sixteenth-century France, about a case of mistaken identity. I really loved it. I also recently read Hotel Splendid by Marie Redonnet (tr. Jordan Stump, 1994), and then Being Here is Everything, a book about Paula Modersohn-Becker by Marie Darrieussecq (tr. Penny Hueston, 2017). The form of Hotel Splendid is so interesting. A lot of things happen, but it’s written in such a way that it feels like everything is happening in the present moment, as if the story is happening in real time. It’s very strange and slippery. I feel like I want to just read you some sentences:   I have managed to get rid of the spiders. Ada’s dreams have stopped. But she has pains in her stomach. She can’t bear to be washed. She refuses to let me clean her room. The salesmen never go and see her anymore. They disapprove of her behaviour. I don’t know what to do. It doesn’t look good to the guests that I leave Ada’s room in the state it’s in. But I cannot go against her wishes. The salesmen are afraid of a contagious disease. My sisters give me nothing but worries. The salesmen are completely different now. They have lost their faith in me.   The entire novel is written in that way – sort of breathless and claustrophobic. There are paragraph breaks, which seem slightly arbitrary. They don’t necessarily indicate breaks in anything. There are no chapters or sections or anything like that.QThe White Review — Do you have any books that are particularly important to you?AKathryn Scanlan — In general I have such an aversion to listing books. There’s just there’s too many and it starts to feel weird to pick some, as if I’m trying to show off or put myself forward in connection to these writers.QThe White Review — Do you not like the idea of placing yourself in any kind of pigeonhole?AKathryn Scanlan — I don’t know that it’s really that so much. There are so many writers and books that I love – and love isn’t even the right word. It’s difficult to talk about books in a casual or shorthand way. I’ll say I love a book but it’s more like a book has done something to me or given me ideas, it’s changed my mind about what I can be doing in my work. It’s all so important to me that it feels weird to reduce it to a list.   There’s also something about it that feels… like, someone will ask, what are your influences?, and the writer flashes back with this smart list, and there’s something about it that feels sort of arrogant to me. Or academic minded, kind of like cite your references, cite your examples, cite your predecessors, place yourself in the context of the writing world, place yourself in the canon, or whatever. Of course I’ve done this too, less suavely – it’s sort of unavoidable – but it makes me uncomfortable.QThe White Review — When you read, are you drawn to writing that is similar to your own?AKathryn Scanlan — I do tend to be more interested in shorter works. Part of this is probably my own damaged attention span and intolerance of certain things, but I also think that, in general, shorter books are often more compelling, more ruthlessly edited. A shorter work often feels more complete as an artwork or as an experience – maybe because its impact is more concentrated. Recently I’ve been trying to push against this habit though and read some of the very long books I’ve been avoiding.QThe White Review — How damaged do you feel your attention span is, and what do you think damaged it?AKathryn Scanlan — I don’t know. Life and television and social media, I suppose, although that also seems like scapegoating. I’m a little impatient sometimes, but I also like work that is slow, that can even be sort of boring. So it’s not necessarily a case of wanting to be gripped and thrilled, or looking for a ‘can’t put it down’ experience. It’s not as plain as that.   All of us have a limited amount of time here, right? I respect and appreciate it when I feel like the person who made the art I’m encountering has that knowledge in the front of their mind; they respect that I only have so much time and they’re not going to waste it. 

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May 2017

Aaron Peck

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May 2017

Aaron Peck is the author of The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis and Letters to the Pacific.

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