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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

#17 D. Harlan Wilson

20 Questions with Mourning Goats

Not only do I think this is one of the best MG interviews, but I'm pretty sure it's the longest. Please take your time and really let the words sink in, I know that he took his time on these questions and it deserves a thorough reading. Now, the one, the only, D. Harlan Wilson interview!

1. What comes to mind when you hear "Mourning Goats?"

Manic depressive businessmen with goat heads. Or vegans grieving the deaths of countless
goats for distribution of ground goat meat in the marketplace.

2. I love that you write what you want to write and don't worry about the money. Has it
always been a labor of love?

I guess so. I don’t really think about it. Over the years I’ve written some things I didn’t want to
write. Generally I’ve done my own thing. I’ve never been in a spot where I had to hammer out a
story or article to pay a bill. Before grad school, I was an international salesman. Student loans
(and my parents) helped me through two M.A. degrees and a Ph.D. And I got a tenure-track job
right after the Ph.D. I didn’t have a lot of money in grad school. I wasn’t destitute, but sometimes,
in retrospect, it feels that way.

I hardly ever write fiction for no payment, unless it’s for an editor who I’m friends with, or a new
magazine or anthology that grabs my attention, or something like that. Recently, for instance, I
wrote a gratis introduction for an anthology of short fiction, Monk Punk, because I liked the idea
and I wanted to write about the evolution of punk literature in the twentieth century. That wasn’t
always the case. When I started out, I was happy to be paid in contributor’s copies by magazines
and journals that published my work. If they were online publications, mere exposure suited
me. Some authors discourage the practice, especially if you’re trying to make a living writing.
There’s merit to this argument. But the publishing industry is a crapshoot, and if you’re new
and nobody knows who you are, it can’t hurt to publish a few things for free. Not that I advocate
self-publishing for new writers. This is an industry of rejection. People need to experience and
negotiate rejection from the beginning if they want to be a long-lasting part of it. There are
exceptions, but most neophytes self-publish because their writing needs improvement and
nobody else will take it on.

As for the literary criticism and reviews I write for peer-reviewed academic journals, none of
this matters. It’s scholarship. Unless you’re a high-powered cultural theorist like Slavoj Žižek or
Frederic Jameson, you do it for free, and once you get tenure, ideally you do it because you like
to do it and are invested in the academic project. Like my fiction, I’ve always written the criticism
I’ve wanted to write, despite the advice of some of my professors, who said that I wouldn’t get
a job. True, jobs for science fiction scholars are virtually nonexistent. But I figured the best
route was to follow my interests and things would fall into place. I’m not currently working for a
university that I’m particularly fond of, but it’s a decent gig. I received tenure in three years, I have
the opportunity to teach a variety of courses, and I have time to work on my scholarship. Also, my
wife Christine has a fulltime job at the same university. Partner hires are difficult to land. In this
economy, things could be a lot worse.

3. What can you tell us about The Dream People?

It’s an online biannual magazine for which I’ve served as editor-in-chief since 2006. It’s been
online since 2002. Before that it was published in chapbook form.

I call The Dream People a “journal of irreal texts.” We’re interested in publishing irreal flash fiction
alongside reviews, interviews, microcriticism, artwork, comics, and other media. Irrealism is
an esoteric category, though, and it’s difficult to write effectively. Most people don’t even know
what the hell it is. So we usually end up publishing a range of speculative and avant-garde stuff.
The managing editor, Stanley Ashenbach, just finished formatting issue #35. Check it out at

4. I have more than one masters degree as well. Do you think your second prepared you for the Ph.D?

Immensely. For most people, a second M.A. is superfluous, or escapist. In my case, I didn’t feel
ready for the rigors of a Ph.D. after my first M.A. in English at UMass-Boston, which took me
two-and-a-half years. I majored in English for my B.A. at Wittenberg University, but I didn’t apply
myself and my grades were mediocre, so I had to do some catching up in grad school. After
UMass-Boston, I thought I needed another year or two of study. My advisor and mentor, Bob
Crossley, turned me on to the perfect place: a one-year M.A. program in Science Fiction Studies
at the University of Liverpool. It was just the thing I needed – an opportunity to live abroad and
travel while furthering my studies, especially in science fiction. When it was over, I felt ready for
the Ph.D. I completed it in five years at Michigan State University and graduated in 2005. The
product of my graduate studies is Technologized Desire: Selfhood & the Body in Postcapitalist
Science Fiction, a revision of my Ph.D. dissertation published in 2009. I’m very proud of this book.
Prouder, perhaps, than anything I’ve written.

5. In an interview a few years ago, you said, "The moment I call myself a writer, I will stop
writing. Ergo—I am not a writer." What do you mean by that?

Tough to say. Sometimes I say things because I like the sound of them, and I worry about
semantics later . . . Let’s see. I think I meant that writing is a term a lot of people throw around,
appropriating it to their identities, despite whether they’ve published anything, or they’re Salmon
Rushdie or somebody. How do we quantify who is a “writer” and who isn’t? Financial returns?
Quality of writing? Quantity? All of these things point to the “writer,” but they don’t necessarily
make the “writer” a “writer.” Whatever the case, I try to exert a healthy disavowal of what I am vis-
à-vis my writing. I write, and I write a lot, and I publish a lot, but I don’t make a lot of money doing
it, although I think the quality of my writing is good—although I think some folks would disagree.
What does this make me? I suppose the real question is: Is our identity dictated by the degree
to which we establish ourselves as fluid capitalists? I’m not a fluid capitalist as a writer. I am as a
professor to some degree. So, according to this rubric, I’m not a “writer.” And yet most “writers”
don’t make much money. The average annual salary for a “professional writer” is something like
$5,000. What does that mean? Dunno. So I’m not a “writer.” It’s easier that way, if only in that
we are conditioned to perceive our selfhoods via capitalist machinery. In the absence of that
machinery, I’m many things. Father, husband, asshole. Philanthropist, bodybuilder. Male. Tall
male. Homeowner. Hater of redneckery and bad drivers. Dietician. Moviegoer. Simultaneous
introvert and extrovert. And so forth. Ultimately categorization problematizes my self-view. I am
not this or that but I am extremely well-rounded and direct and volatile. And loving, emotional.
Cold. In the end, I’m just like everybody else: bipolar, but not really bipolar. Ordinary and angry
and happy.

6. Do you think working directly with the publishers, instead of through an agent, gives
you more freedom?

I suppose so, but only because agents naturally like to work with publishers who will give them
and their authors the greatest returns, and the bigger the returns, the less autonomy most authors
tend to have. Then again, I’ve never had an agent, so maybe I’m way off. I can only speak from
my own experience. The publishers I’ve worked with not only let me write anything I want, they
encourage me to write anything I want, respecting and appreciating my vision. Additionally, ninety
percent of the publishers I’ve worked with are small presses, which I’m deeply invested in. Good
small presses, that is. I’m very selective. There are a lot of bad small presses out there. But the
good ones far surpass what Conglomerate Publishing puts out in terms of quality of narrative, and
I’m an avid supporter of that enterprise. Which is the enterprise to publish unique and different
and transcendent fiction, writing that subverts cookie-cutter aesthetics in dynamic ways. That’s
what I aspire to put out. As a “writer.”

I should mention that boundaries between small and big presses, loosely speaking, are collapsing
in recent years. The publishing industry is going to look a lot different in the next decade. I don’t

know how it will look. I know that my publishers consistently foreground innovation and quality
over formula and vacuous schlock, and I hope that, in the future, we will revisit a kind of high
modernist approach towards literature, one that isn’t unreadable, but that makes an effort to
return literature on some level to a less bastardized form. Who knows what will happen, though.

7. What's it like living in a house with two English professors?

I really value my wife’s intellect. We both write critically and creatively and have read and edited
each other’s stuff, although we have vastly different tastes. But that works pretty well for us. I
don’t think either of us could be married to somebody who wasn’t in the same profession, or at
least a similar field. We love to drink wine and talk about literature and theory. Before we had
kids, we did this a lot. But now we have two small children – Maddie (4-years-old) and Renee (1-
year-old) – and we don’t have much time to hang out. It’s ok – we’ll get it back down the road. For
now our conversations are mainly relegated to what goes on in our classes and with our family
and friends.

Certainly we instill the value of reading in our children, and they’re both interested in books, if only
by being surrounded by them. What they do in the future doesn’t really matter to me. I want them
to have happy childhoods and eventually find a life for themselves that’s fulfilling, no matter what
they do. Much of that inclination comes from my parents wanting the same thing for me.

8. Is your wife your first reader? What does she think of your work?

Sometimes. I had been writing for awhile and had published a few books before I met my
Christine in grad school. She respects my writing and thinks its quite good, but like I said, we
have vastly different tastes. That’s why I truly value her feedback. She’s so smart, and very
frequently she points out things that I’m just oblivious to. As any good editor does. But we have
a certain connection and she knows me and can more effectively guide what I want to express
better than anybody. Even though what I often want to express is the inexpressibility of human

9. Do you think living overseas changed the way you saw the world, and in turn, the way
you write about it?

Sure. Living in Liverpool was especially edifying and inspiring. I loved it, but at times I
experienced a marked xenophobia. Brits are by default anti-American. I can’t blame them for
it. When I was living in Liverpool, for instance, the Clinton-Lewinski scandal was breaking,
and America just looked stupid. As it often does. Consider how much stupider we looked
internationally during Bush Jr.’s presidency. Anyway, it wasn’t a big deal, the xenophobia. It was
more something I eavesdropped on in trains or in cafes. The faculty members at the university
were all great, very helpful and friendly, and I still keep in touch with Andy Sawyer, who ran the
science fiction special collections library and is now the director of the M.A. in Science Fiction

I traveled as often as I could. I had traveled extensively throughout Europe before, but not much
in the UK, so I spent time in Ireland and Scotland, and I went to scores of English cities and
towns and countrysides. My favorite place was the Lake District, which is only about two or three
hours north of Liverpool by train. The Romantic poets are well-known for being inspired by the
Lake District’s pastoral beauty. I was, too, if only on a personal level; romantic melodrama is
more or less absent in my writing, and when it does emerge, it’s in a metanarrational capacity.
Backpacking across the fells became a spiritual experience for me. I found my chi in those fells.
I seem to have lost it since I left over a decade ago. So it goes. One day I’d like to buy a place in
Ambleside or Windermere. When my girls get a little older, I want to vacation there with my family
every year or two. It’s history, and it’s raw physicality, are thoroughly cleansing.

10. Who are some authors coming out that we should be aware of?

I don’t read a lot of new authors, except the ones I publish in The Dream People. I’m a twentieth
century American scholar and tend to read older, canonical stories and books.

One author I’d like to mention is Steve Aylett. He’s not new, but his work doesn’t receive the
attention and acclaim it deserves, and he just came out with three books after a long hiatus. He’s
a satirist, essentially, and too smart for most pop readers, and too crass for “serious” readers, and
too fuck-you-M.F.A.-junkies for academic readers – just the sort of writing I love.

I’m actually in an upcoming film based on Aylett’s LINT, a pseudo-biography of cryptic pulp
science fiction author Jeff Lint. LINT is probably my favorite book of Aylett’s. There will be several
pre-screenings of the film in England and in the U.S. this year. Check out Aylett’s site for details:

11. A full-time English professor, husband, father of two girls, and a writer, how do you do

Anxiety medication. And alcohol. Seriously, though – anxiety medication and alcohol!

Well, that’s not entirely true. I’m a good micromanager and multitasker. I’m able to work on
several writing projects every day, sometimes moving back and forth between projects every few
minutes, ranging from writing fiction, reviews and criticism, to grading papers and fielding student
emails, to helping my kids work through temper tantrums or whatever. Without this aptitude, I’d be
in trouble.

12. What's your favorite part about teaching? Do you prefer writing classes or literature

Most of the writing courses I teach are done in an online format so I have virtually no interaction
with my students on a person-to-person basis. It’s all conducted by email, my course website
(www.wright.edu/~david.wilson), and a program called Pilot. The courses are devised for
students who are self-sufficient, self-motivated, and computer savvy, although many of the
students that enroll can barely use a computer and have to learn the hard way that they need
more hands-on treatment.

I spend most of my time commenting on and grading papers for these online courses. Even if I’m
teaching a creative writing course, it’s not that fun. But I can do it anywhere and customarily work
out of my home, Starbucks, or a café in a bookstore. I like that freedom and portability.

Literature courses are a different story. I refuse to teach them online because I like that one-on-
one interaction with students, and learning about ideas, history, critical thought, the elements of
literature, etc. is a more intricate and nuanced process than learning about, say, comma splices
and sentence structure. Most of my literature courses are small, too – between 5 and 15 students
– so I’m able to attend to each student individually.

I prefer teaching upper level, theory-oriented literature courses where my students and I can
interact on higher plateaus of speculation and exploration. This year, for instance, two of my
favorite courses have been ENG 450: Introduction to Literary Theory and ENG 420: Topics in
American Literature – The Gendered Body. Ideally I act as a mediator, beginning each class
with a short lecture or contextual proviso, then facilitating a discussion between my students.
Of course, not all discussions go the way I’d like, such as when students don’t do their reading.
But my most rewarding experiences as a professor have been to efficiently mediate discussions
between students who have prepared for class and who, throughout the discussions, come to a
greater, more profound understanding of focal texts and themes.

13. Having a book named They Had Goat Heads must make you feel a special bond with Mourning Goats, but what are some of your favorite writing/author sites, other than your own?

I don’t know about specific sites. Author websites don’t really do much for me. I’m more
interested in narrative itself. Biographies, personal bullshit – that’s superfluous, mundane,
although I appreciate writers who are attentive to the imagistic style with which they present
themselves online. More and more, online stylistics matter: you can present yourself as a
vibrant and “successful” author, even if you suck, with a sharp online persona. Then again, what
constitutes a cool-looking website or blog varies with readers/surfers. Flash sites resonate with
some people, for example, whereas others hate flash in favor of static sites, if for nothing else
than flash denotes capitalist desires. The cooler the site, the likelier it is that authors didn’t make it
themselves; their publishers outsourced it, or they have in-house specialists running it, or they’re
simply good webmakers themselves who devote time to the business of writing, meaning the
authors make more money on their books, meaning they write books of higher “quality” (not), in
which case the websites stand for an insignia of the prowess with which they sell books, by dint
of the motion of images, which costs money, and which involves skill on the part of the creator.
There’s nothing wrong with this, by any means. But in general people perceive moving images
as a means to sell them something. I took a webmaking class in grad school and still remember
the advice of my instructor: moving images trigger an awareness of aspirant sales. That was
about seven years ago, and things have changed somewhat, but I’m still skeptical. And while my
website is static, and while I’ve constructed and stylized it myself, it could be a lot better, and I
like flash. But this doesn’t make sense. I’m contradicting myself. What am I saying? Let’s attribute
this response to automatic writing. Which is a myth.

14. You've had some really cool jobs. What was one of your favorite, and why?

In retrospect, I have weird desires for the jobs I’ve held. When I was doing them I hated them. But
now, having done the same thing for so long (teaching), I romanticize what I used to do.

My favorite job at this moment was when I worked as a garbage man. Sounds atrocious, and
sounds like a lie. But my partner and I had a really good rapport, and there were these other guys
who we always used to play practical jokes on. Our boss was an asshole but we had so much fun
razzing him. And I met a girl who I told I was a phrenologist, and she believed me. I don’t know.
History is a precarious demon. It turns into a fiction and lures us in and there’s nothing we can do
about it.

15. The past few years you've gotten in to bodybuilding. Do you think a healthy body helps
for a healthy mind? Especially in relation to writing.

Without question. I rely on a daily flood of endorphins for my mental stability. I’m rather
passionate about physical conditioning so prepare for an extended response . . .

I’ve worked out with weights and done cardio of various kinds, ranging from sports to ellipticals
and treadmills, my whole life, and I can’t really imagine a life without calculated, healthy physical
exertion. I remember in grad school that some people used to look funny at me, wondering
why I was wasting my time. I never said anything, but I always thought to myself: You exercise
your mind – why wouldn’t you exercise your body, too? They feed each other. Plain and simple.
That goes for nutrition as well. The better you eat, the better you feel, and the more fluid and
productive your mind is. The degree to which physical activity enhances mental activity varies
from person to person. But in general there’s no debate that good corporeality enhances and
facilitates good mentality. The problem is that most people don’t know how to eat and exercise
well. In many instances, they don’t want to know: it will simply make them feel badly. I understand

Only in the last few years did I really start taking bodybuilding seriously. When I was younger I
had a fast metabolism. I could eat anything and remain trim. My metabolism slowed in my mid-

thirties. Suddenly I found myself weighing about 260 lbs. I’m 6’5” and could bench 350 lbs., but
that’ still too much weight for a guy my size who wasn’t using steroids. I was carrying around
about 50 lbs. of shit weight, compliments of pizza and beer and basically a primary diet of bread
and pasta. I started doing research and went through a series of epiphanies about my workouts
and food intake. I monitored my caloric consumption using a food diary and revised my training
schedule. Basically I ate whole foods. And I worked out harder. And harder. I lost 50 lbs. in a
matter of months and now I know what I can put in my body and how hard I need to train in order
to maintain a comfortable, healthy weight for a 40-year-old guy. I’m also getting increasingly
ripped and dedicated to the continued development of my physique, partly because of vanity,
partly because of my obsession with setting goals and meeting them, partly for developing my
mental facilities.

I watch my diet closely, but I don’t count calories anymore. One thing I do is give myself a cheat
day every week. I eat anything I want, usually hot dogs, pizza, fast food, whatever. That helps
– clinically, physically, psychologically. It throws your body’s memory and metabolism off, and
the next day, when I revert to whole foods (lean meats, chicken, fish, vegetables and fruits), my
body doesn’t know what’s going on. To deceive the body once a week – it does miracles, and it
provides a much-needed outlet for cravings.

I learned all this in fitness books by Stallone, Schwarzenegger, L.L. Cool J., and various celebrity
fitness trainers. Most influential was Jorgen de Mey’s The Action Hero Body. Pop capitalism at
large. But it works like a goddamn charm.

16. You have really embraced social media and have a ton of interviews on the web. What
do you think about where our culture is going, as a whole because of this connectivity?

I always wonder if it will last and grow exponentially, or dwindle and go away, or evolve into a
different animal. Probably the latter. I don’t really like social media. I use Facebook, Twitter and
Goodreads almost solely for book promotions, and I maintain a blog and website. Sometimes
I romanticize the idea of disappearing altogether from the web, deleting my accounts and
committing online suicide. But I’m too plugged in. Even though I disdain it, my online identity
informs my “real,” offline identity. Many people experience this same crisis, I think. More and
more, electronic connectivity technologizes our desires and alters the nature of communication
and ultimately the human condition. We become closer yet more distant; we crave intimacy but of
a certain impersonal and schized variety. I don’t know if it’s good or bad. It’s probably bad. In the
future, things will probably get worse.

17. What are your thoughts on Ph.D.'s in English and writing? I read somewhere that you
said not to get one, unless you were independently wealthy.

Yes. I still believe that, unless you don’t mind being poor (relatively speaking) and overworked.
It depends on where you do your Ph.D. My experience at Michigan State University was quite
bad. Most of us grad students never knew if they would receive funding from semester to
semester. Nor did we know if we would receive courses to teach along with tuition waivers and
stipends. Faculty didn’t really give a shit. It was a machine, that place, and everybody was a
number, no in spite of merit, accomplishment, etc. I had much better experiences doing my M.A.
degrees. People I worked with truly cared and gave a lot to me. But I got along well with my Ph.D.
dissertation advisor, Eyal Amiran, the editor-in-chief of the academic journal Postmodern Culture
and a staggering intellectual talent, who essentially taught me literary theory. And I finished.
That’s all that matters in the end: a done dissertation. Far less than half of students who begin a
Ph.D. finish it.

That said, I know several people who really liked doing their Ph.D., from start to finish, at different
schools. MSU is a strong but second-rate institution that doesn’t compare to, say, the University
of Michigan, which employs some of the best minds in the nation and flirts with the Ivy League.
In English programs, they also give their grad students full funding and regular teaching gigs for

four or five years while they do their studies. Shit, in addition to whatever courses I could finagle
at MSU, I had to teach as an adjunct at three other schools in order to make ends meet. This was
when I was writing my dissertation, too. It stunk. But it’s over.

No matter how you slice it, though, a Ph.D. is hard. And it should be. Again, most people drop
out. And they should. You have to have a lot of support and a tremendous amount of stamina
and grit to get through. It’s a long, long bed of coals to walk over. If I’m not mistaken, the average
Ph.D. acquired in the Humanities takes 8-10 years. Yikes.

There’s also the shitty economy to consider and the fact that university administrations are
religiously cutting funding across the board. When most Humanities Ph.D.s are flung into the
market, there are fewer and fewer jobs waiting for them. Not that you can’t get a job. You simply
need to apply to 50-100 jobs, many of which aren’t even in your field. Strangely, the jobs you
don’t want and are not qualified for are often the jobs you are offered, and you have to take them,
because you have to eat, right? That’s sort of how it went for me at Wright State University-
Lake Campus. I didn’t want this job in the middle of crummy buttfuck Ohio at a campus sitting
on a diseased, toxic lake. I hate the American Midwest – the ethics, the ideology, the lethargy,
the small-town down-home great-place-to-live birdshit. It’s not a great place to live. It’s obese
trashbags loping in and out of Super Wal-Mart, the center of culture, and then going home to
feed the pigs. I’m much more of a city boy – with close access to mountains, oceans, fresh water
lakes. If I could live anywhere, it would be Boston. Love Beantown. It’s not too big, compared to
New York or Chicago, and there’s the ocean, if you drive out of the city, you can be in the trees
and the hills.

18. There are a lot of writers that stay in their one genre and don't jump around, why do
you think you hit so many different areas in your writing?

I get bored, typically, and I always try to do new things, to push the boundaries and chart new
territory. If I stick to one genre or modality for too long, I feel like I’m limiting myself. I want to do
everything. That’s impossible, but as much as I’d like to shut down that desire, I can’t. This goes
for writing as well as living in general. Something I always say to my wife à la that Bond flic: The
world is not enough. But frankly I’d be better served to temper my cosmic desires. Too often
they lead to feelings of inadequacy, lack and loss. And yet I know that, no matter what I do, it
won’t be sufficient; there will always be something on the horizon that I want to tackle. Too much
testosterone? More likely: too much mania.

19. What advice do you have for up and coming authors?

Be persistent. Become friends with rejection. Don’t self-publish. Seek out the New.

20. What's next for D. Harlan Wilson?

This year, the second installment in my scikungfi trilogy, Codename Prague, came out, and I’m
in the process of revising the last installment, The Kyoto Man, which will come out in 2012 or
2013. The Kyoto Man is about a guy who literally metamorphoses into the city of Kyoto, like,
10,000 times, producing a social, cultural and ecological apocalypse. Other books in the works
include a collection of stories, Battle without Honor or Humanity, and a cycle of novelettes, Curd.
I’m also putting the finishing touches on a book of film criticism on John Carpenter’s They Live
for Wallflower Press’s (soon to be Columbia University Press’s) cultographies series. I’ve been
researching and writing that for a couple of years. There’s also teaching, and my family, and all
that. I’m pretty beat, and I’m gearing up for a long vacation. But it’s worth it. When I’m not writing,
or conceiving of writing, I don’t feel well. I feel displaced and irritated. The world is too annoying
for me in and of itself to not abrogate its antagonism via the written word. A prosaic, romantic
notion. A despicable notion. But, alas, alas – true.

Thank you!


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