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Sunday, July 1, 2012

#41 Shya Scanlon

20 Questions with Mourning Goats
Shya Scanlon

Shya is awesome. He's written poetry, fiction, and just had his novel, Forcast, come out, again. We'll get to that. It's my pleasure to introduce you to someone that wears a lot of hats at a lot of different organizations, and an all around great guy.

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

Those goats that fall over when scared. Or are they sheep? I don’t remember the species, exactly, but have you seen those crazy videos? I think it’s fainting. Fainting goats. Though I don’t think they’re actually fainting, they’re just pretending, so maybe they should be called feinting goats instead. Hell, maybe they are called feinting goats. Or swooning. Swooning is similar to mourning. At least we’re in the same vowel-sound ballpark. But which one is more literal?

2. When I first came to you, last year, you said that you would like to wait for the interview, when your book was coming out again. How did that come in to play?

Well, first of all, thank you very much for humoring me. I asked for the extension for a couple of reasons. When you contacted me, it was just after another interview had gone live, and I figured no one would be interested in hearing me blather on again so soon. But also I felt like there needed to be an occasion. Call me old fashioned. Honestly, it seems strange to speak about myself as a writer, despite the fact that I’ve spent the last couple years working on a new novel. I’ve been pretty reclusive lately, going to very few readings, not visiting the go-to online literary communities like HTMLGiant, Big Other, The Nervous Breakdown (except to publish other people’s reviews), etc. I’m a naturally gregarious person, but I find that participation in those venues leads me to be more self-conscious, and is a detriment to my work. Perhaps I’ll dip my toes back in a bit once I’ve finished my book, but answering these questions is exercising a rather atrophied muscle.

3. You have some pretty heavy hitters blurbing your first book, including Peter Straub and Brian Evenson, how did that happen?

Brian was my thesis advisor at Brown, so he read an earlier version of the book and helped me make it better. I met Peter through my friendship with his daughter, the very kind and talented Emma Straub, whose first published book was a novella put out by Flatmancrooked. Strangely, I’d originally become aware of Peter because Brian had brought him in to read at Brown, and I quickly discovered that he was a supporter of the kind of literature people alternately call “slipstream,” or “cross-genre,” or, more broadly, “speculative,” and had edited an issue of the fantastic journal Conjunctions dedicated to “The New Fabulists.” I had a hunch that he’d enjoy Forecast, so I put it in his hands. I couldn’t have been happier, or more surprised, with his superlative comments about the book.

4. What did the John Hawkes Prize mean to your career?

Very little. John Hawkes is probably one of the most under-read literary titans of the second half of the 20th century. Most people probably assume that it’s associated with the actor from Deadwood. That said, it was nice to get the award.

5. Originally, Forecast was serialized across multiple sites, is it still available online or was it taken off once it was published?

Well, most of it is still available (http://shyascanlon.com/forecast/), but some of the sites have since been taken down. It’s been a while since I went through and checked, but last I did I believe all chapters but two or three are still available. It’s an interesting archive—the book changed considerably since that serialization. A big press would probably have asked me to take it down, but both the presses I’ve worked with so far haven’t even questioned its digital life—I think there’s a tacit acknowledgment among the small press community that what was born online should remain there, at least in the form it was first given.

6. You had a lot of contact with your agent before she accepted you on, what happened?

I met Erin Hosier socially, though I didn’t know her very well, and she actually passed on Forecast. She ended up taking on another book, called Uno Che at the time (it has since been renamed Border Run), but couldn’t sell it. We received the usual talented-writer-unsellable-book crap from maybe a dozen people, then decided to shelf the project. I felt it might need some more work, anyway… (For a continued discussion of this topic, see question #20.)

7. What was it like writing a dystopian novel, is it scary to see that kind of future?

Well, is it scary to look around yourself at our world? Yes and no. Some of the issues we face are indeed terrifying to consider or logically extend, but you can’t live your life in a state of panic. At least, not your sheltered, middle class life. And that’s what most of the people in Forecast live. Honestly, I’m discovering that this is really “my subject”—something I return to in book after book. The question of how people live with large scale atrocity or imminent cataclysm in the background, but with rather banal, interpersonal and/or internal issues to deal with in the meantime. I try to push these things into relief more than they are in reality, but it’s an attempt to establish something that should be familiar. At least, it’s familiar to me.
8. Your undergraduate degree is in Germanic Studies from Earlham College, what did you originally want to do with that degree?

Read Nietzsche. Honestly, getting a German degree was just my way of returning to college, which I dropped out of after the first semester. I just couldn’t think of a good reason to go, but I’d always enjoyed German thinkers and writers, and I thought learning a language and travelling to Germany could do the trick. I spent six months over there, and actually picked up the language pretty well. Though I didn’t end up reading any Nietzsche, I did read some wonderful work in the original, including books by Kafka. Anyway, by the time I got back from the study-abroad program my only option was to major in German if I wanted to graduate without taking additional coursework, so I did. Barely. Actually, I’m quite certain I should have failed, had my professors judged me by the books. I think they felt sorry for me. I was a lousy student, and very depressed throughout those years. Thanks for bringing that up!

9. An MFA from Brown in 2008, what do you think of MFA's? Are they necessary for a budding author?

Certainly not necessary. Brown is free. You get a living stipend. They made me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

10. Do you think serializing the novel got you to write it differently? Do you think it would have been the same novel if you went at it in a more traditional way?

Actually, I didn’t write the thing while it was being serialized. That would have been quite a feat! No, I’d spent nearly seven years writing the book by the time I decided to give it away. I’d frankly had quite traditional aspirations for it throughout much of that time, as I mistakenly considered it quite mainstream. Of course by the time of the serialization the eyes of my eyes, as cummings wrote, were open.
11. Who’s your first reader? Why?

Literally, my first reader is myself. Once I finish something I put it down for a while—as long as I can stand—then read it again with as much objectivity as possible. (Which is to say: none. But I try.) Of course, you’re probably asking about someone other than myself. And for that I’d have to say my wife Erin Flaherty. She’s got a great ear, but as importantly, she knows exactly what kind of feedback I need at the moment.

12. What are you scared of seeing happen in the future?

This is one of those questions that can only be answered by picking something at random. There are innumerable things I’m scared of, and most of them could happen in the future. But rather than site something specific, I’ll answer generally: the deepest tragedy I can think of would be for humans to lose our humanity, and then forget that we’d ever possessed it.

13. What's it like working for The Nervous Breakdown?

TNB is a very tightly knit community of hundreds of people. Paradoxical as that may sound, one has the singular sense, being part of it, that one’s in the company of both a closely connected crew, and a vast swarm. It’s gone through some pretty dramatic changes during the time I’ve been involved—each time growing more professional—but it’s always been an interesting project. And of course with the tireless Brad Listi at the helm, how could it be otherwise? I started as one of the fiction editors, but then my interests (and the fact that I was already a fiction editor with Monkeybicycle) led me to splinter off and form an official Book Reviews section, which Brad has let me run and develop fairly autonomously. Being a reviews editor has been enormously gratifying—not only do I get to provide coverage for books I find deserving, but I get to work with a varied stable of smart people who read voraciously. The free galleys don’t hurt either.

14. Do you write every day? It seems as though that's important to most.

I try to. Right now I’m in the midst of revising a novel I finished at the end of the year, and I spend a couple hours on it every morning before work. On the weekends, I’ve been renovating a cabin in Woodstock, so I haven’t been able to devote as much time as I normally would to it, but actually, I’m writing this now from the porch of that very cabin, which, aside from a couple small details, is finally finished. I’m taking this coming week off work to “catch up” with where I should be, revision-wise.

15. I feel like those who were poets first choose their words wiser than the rest of us, what do you think about that? Do you agree?

What I can tell you is that my own experience with poetry has actually been something I’ve had to consciously overcome in order to write the kind of fiction I’d like to write. An over-emphasis on words led me to write far too much prose with underdeveloped characters, settings, scenes, and story.

16. In 2010 you got engaged, published your first poetry book, published your first novel, and bought a house, how could you beat that year?

I’m going to answer this seriously. I hope that I’m always learning how to be a better human—a more conscientious spouse, a more responsible citizen, a better friend, a kick-ass-er writer. But I’m also chronically self-critical. You seem to be paraphrasing a Facebook post in which I may have rattled these accomplishments off in some attempt to remind myself that I’m doing okay. Mostly that’s not the way I feel. This is one of the things I’m trying to improve.

17. I see that your book is on Kindle, what do you think of the e-book revolution?
I don’t have strong feelings about it one way or another. I think if people spent half as much time writing and reading as they do quibbling about the relative merits of text delivery systems, we’d all be better off.

18. What's it been like working with different presses, do you notice a lot of big differences?

There have been small differences, sure. And at root, republishing something is probably a different animal than publishing it for the first time—though of course it was never for the first time with Forecast, because it had already debuted online. But generally, all people who volunteer their time, attention, and paycheck to make sure books with inherently small audiences are nonetheless available have more in common than not. And God bless them.

19. Before you leave, tell us about MonkeyBicycle.

MB has been around long enough to weather different literary fads, yet has remained true to its voice. Ultimately, it’s Steven Seighman’s baby. He does it with much love, he does it with devotion, and he does it at his own speed. I think of each issue of Monkeybicycle as an event—one I’m happy to play a role in. In fact, issue 9 just dropped, and is extremely good. The best way to learn more about it than that is to check out the website (updated twice weekly), and buy a copy.

20. What's next for Shya Scanlon?

(con’t from #6) A couple months ago, a writer and editor named Zack Wentz solicited work from me for his online journal of speculative fiction called New Dead Families. Instead of sending him a story, I sent him a short novel called Border Run. Despite needed a little work, I thought it would be great fun to post the entire thing, and to offer it as a free downloadable ebook. He wasn’t quite certain it would be a good idea until he read the book, and in the intervening weeks has helped me fix much of what was wrong with the manuscript, such that I’m finally really quite happy with it. I think it will go live early this month (July), and I couldn’t be more pleased. I’m including a synopsis below, but I encourage anyone reading this to go to www.newdeadfamilies.com and download a copy (available in both .mobi and .pdf formats). It’s free! Free fiction! And I’ve been told it’s “maybe brilliant.”

UNO CHE is a dystopian story of love, loss and redemption set on border of Arizona and Mexico. Jack Lightning is the proprietor of a theme park about illegal border crossing. While trying to keep his business running smoothly and preparing, despite the suspiciously gathering Native American protesters across the street, for an annual fair on the grounds of his park, Jack’s ex-girlfriend Jo shows up, accompanied by a stranger who asks to use Jack's land as a cover for smuggling area illegal alien into the country--the clone of Che Guevara. As long-held secrets are revealed on the day of the festival, both Jack and Jo’s allegiances will be tried, and they will face difficult decisions about their family, and the future.

Thank you!


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