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Sunday, April 15, 2012

#36 Brian Evenson

20 Questions with Mourning Goats
Brian Evenson

Brian was recommended to me from a friend and I am super happy that I had the chance to talk to him. He's written for the Alien franchise, his novel Last Days won the award for best horror novel of 2009 from the American Library Association, and his girlfriend works at Alatraz! He's an amazing guy and gave us a great interview. Go read the interview and then pick up his new book, Immobility, which came out a few days ago (4/10/12)!

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

I'm walking down a dirt road and passing a fenced sward in which three goats are gnawing the bark off the fence posts. When they notice me, they straighten up. "Good morning, Brian," the goats say to me. I tip my hat and return the greeting: "Morning, goats."

2. Your work is pretty dark, does that kind of material come easy for you, or is it just as hard to write as it is to read?

It can be tough to write, but I think that dark, difficult situations often reveal things both about language and about human nature that are harder to see in less troubling settings. When writing something I do sometimes get caught up enough in the language that I eventually forget how dark the content is, until I'm reminded by reading it aloud or because someone points it out to me (by asking me, for instance, "What the hell's wrong with you?"). But I do think that part of that forgetting is due to the way we use language to sort through and surmount difficulty, that language is a key tool for trying to navigate, survive, and shape the world.

3. On your Facebook page the first two things that intrigued me were "Ex-Mormon" and "Anarcho-nihilist, what do those two words mean for you?

Ex-Mormon means I'm an excommunicated Mormon, with my name stricken from the records of the Mormon Church. "Anarcho-nihilist" means I was probably tired and a little bit grumpy the day I filled out my Facebook profile.

4. You spoke in one interview that you can speak French, Spanish, and English. Do you think that knowing more languages helps your understanding and use of the language you write in?

I used to be good enough with Spanish that I reviewed a few books and did some translating, but I've let it slide over the last few years. My French I've kept up, and I read and translate it pretty regularly. Yes, I think it's been incredibly useful in terms of how I think about English, but also how I think about writing. French allows me a range of possibilities that might not come readily in English, and it also gives me a place I can stand so as to look at English differently, as if it were a foreign language. My knowledge of French defamiliarizes English for me and makes it seem fresh.

5. Most of your books are on Kindle, what do you think about literature going electronic?

I'm not opposed. I don't think I'm likely ever to switch over completely since I do like the smell and feel of books, but I do have an iPad. I find I read books on it a lot when I travel but not that often at other times (unless I find something that I want to read in that format for a fraction of the price of a print book).

6. What do you think the biggest difference is when you publish hardcover, paperback, and mass market paperback, since you've done them all?

I think there's probably a different audience that gravitates toward different formats. The nice thing about hardcover is that a paperback can follow, so often there's a built-in second life. But also hardbacks look nice, have a sense of heft and solidity to them, and often garner reviews in venues that ignore paperbacks. Trade paperbacks have a nice feel to them: I think I prefer to reading them to heavier hardbacks, particularly if a book is large. And often, at least for some kinds of books, the trade paperback is followed later by a mass market paperback. Mass market paperbacks are great for disposable reads--you can take them to the beach and get sand in them without worrying about them. Ideally, it'd be nice for a book to appear in all three.

7. Your book, Baby Leg, appeared at the beginning of Mourir Aupres de Toi, a Spike Jonze film, how does something like that happen?

I haven't the faintest idea. Giancarlo DiTrapano, the mind behind New York Tyrant and the publisher of Baby Leg, noticed that moment early in the Spike Jonze film, but I really don't know how it happened. Either it was just blind luck or Jonze or one of his crew moved the book into the shot. If I knew how it happened, I'd try to make it happen again.

8. On multiple sites people refer to you as a prolific writer, what drives you to always be writing? What pushes you?

I think someone started saying that and then all sorts of people picked it up. I do write a lot but I'm not absurdly prolific, I don't think. Lots of people publish more books, and much longer books, than I do. But I do like to write and I find a real satisfaction in constructing realities with language--there's nothing quite like it.

9. What was it like getting the fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts so early in your career? Did it change everything?

It came at a very important time for me, just after I'd run into all sorts of problems at Brigham Young University over my first book, Altmann's Tongue, and after they'd told me that I could stay at BYU only if I promised never to write another book like it. I was raising a young family. I was dirt poor, trying to support four on a salary of $28,000 a year and was driving a car with the floor rusted out and 300,000 miles on it. I used the money to buy a new (well, only slightly used) car and pay some bills. But it was more than just the money. I needed the encouragement that the NEA offered to be able to take the risk of giving up my job and moving elsewhere, starting fresh and continuing to explore my writing. I don't think that I'd have ended up where I am now if I hadn't gotten the NEA. I've always been extremely grateful for it.

10. Your new book, Immobility, came out a few days ago, what was your favorite part about writing this one?

The book is set in a devastated version of Utah, sometime in the future, along the path from Provo to the Salt Lake Valley. The funnest part of it was looking at the route on Google maps and basically destroying things along the way, spending time thinking about what they might look like after having been through some sort of apocalyptic event and being left to sit for years. There were also two characters, named Qatik and Qanik, who are versions of one another and who I loved writing.

11. Did I read that your girlfriend is a volunteer at Alcatraz? How awesome is that? Does she have any stories? Any of your own?

Yes, my girlfriend Kristen Tracy is a volunteer gardener on Alcatraz and is helping to restore the gardens there. She's fabulous. She's got lots of terrific Alcatraz stories, but since she's a writer herself (both a poet and a teen novelist) I'll let her tell them herself. Where I've benefitted is that she has access to places that normally you can't go on Alcatraz, so I've been able to do things like explore the basement and former moat, see the laundry and the prison hospital, go down the tunnel, etc. (there are a couple of pictures of those spaces on my Facebook page).

12. You won the O. Henry Award for "Two Brothers," what was that like? How did it happen?

Ben Marcus very kindly accepted that story for a little magazine called The Dominion Review and I think we were both a little surprised that it was something the O. Henry people found and liked. I think I ended up getting a call from Larry Dark saying that they wanted to published it for the O. Henry anthology and that was how I found out I'd won. That's probably my best known story since it was reprinted in the Anchor Book of New American Short Stories, something I'm also very grateful to Ben for, and it remains a favorite story of mine. That was the first of three O. Henry Awards I've had, the other two for "Mudder Tongue" and "Windeye."

13. Do you think you would have eventually turned to writing if your mother never had any short stories published?

I think probably I would have. It just would have taken much longer. But maybe I'd have become a paleontologist, which is what I wanted to be when I was six.

14. You were in the Velvet Anthology, Warmed and Bound, with a lot of Mourning Goat interviewee's, how did you get involved?

Caleb Ross solicited me and kept at me until he got something. He was very encouraging, very helpful, and very persistent. I knew the work of a lot of the writers involved and felt like it was good company, and was very glad to see the anthology introduced by Steve Erickson, a writer I greatly admire. It was a fun, worthwhile project.

15. The Last Days, limited editions are gorgeous, how did this come about?

It was something that Victoria Blake, the publisher at Underland, wanted to do and that I was very happy she did. Yes, I think it came out really well. She's got a good eye and a good attention for detail.

16. You've said that you have a different view on your own work published under different names (B.K.Evenson, Bjorn Verenson, etc.), what did you mean by that?

I think a kind of personality goes with each of those names, and with the name Brian Evenson as well. They're all related, of course--B. K. Evenson and Brian Evenson more closely to one another than to Bjorn Verenson--but for me there's a little bit different feel to each name. B. K. Evenson is more deeply and unrepentantly invested in video games than Brian Evenson, though they both learn from one another and Brian Evenson is coming around. B. K. Evenson can co-write a novel with Rob Zombie; Brian Evenson can only dream of doing that. Bjorn Verenson, on the other hand, is a little bit more obviously nuts and that can show sometimes (for instance his letter in Birkensnake #1).

17. You teach at Brown University, what are your favorite things to discuss in your classes? Do you have a favorite story or author that you really enjoy focusing on?

I often like to read books that I haven't read before in my classes, but there are a few people that I constantly return to. One is Muriel Spark. I think she's a terrific writer, and not nearly as well known in this country as she should be. I'm teaching The Driver's Seat this semester. Samuel Beckett is another person I return to, particularly Molloy, and Thomas Bernhard. Peter Straub's "Bunny is Good Bread" I love to teach because I think it turns what people think they know about genre on its head--his recent "The Ballad of Ballard and Sondrine" does great things with reality and perception as well. Kafka I teach often too, especially "A Country Doctor", and Henry James, whose short stories I think are incomparable. There are lots of others.

18. Since your work crosses a lot of borders, do you see a lot of different types of readers at your readings?

Yes, I do. I like thinking of the fiction as somewhere that different sorts of people can meet, and like that a lot when it happens physically as well.

19. You're a relatively new user to Facebook, how do you think social media is changing writing and communication? Do you think it's helping or harming?

I guess that my answer would be the same as above. I like the way it allows for interactions that I might not have otherwise. It's a very surface-y interaction, but with curious moments that dive below that, and I like in particular the way sometimes I can find out something really interesting about someone I thought I knew that I might not have learned from face-to-face interaction. There are weird aspects of that, of course--the strangeness for instance of having someone post your grade school class photo to your page where it can be seen by colleagues, friends, and just about everybody. An ex-girlfriend of mine often worried about that mixture of worlds, but I've come to think of it as not controllable and actually kind of interesting and dynamic: what kind of person do I perform when I'm posting something that can be seen by my daughters, some of my colleagues, writers I admire, my former students, old friends from high school, all at once? It's like: How do I act at a party when both my church friends and the friends that I do drugs with show up? The answer is, I guess, you make a choice about who you are and you kind of have to stick by it. Either that, or you limit your page and who can see what, which seems to me a much less interesting solution.

20. What's next for Brian Evenson?

B. K. Evenson's got the project he's writing with Rob Zombie coming out sometime late in 2012. For Brian Evenson, I'm not sure: am spending time reading and thinking and trying to decide where I'm going next. Last year was a tough year: went through a very difficult lung collapse, broke up with my then-girlfriend, death in the family, and so on. This year has been great--wonderful new girlfriend, healthy lungs--but I still feel like I'm regrouping, trying to get my bearings on where my writing's going to go next.

Thank you!


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