An Interview with Patrick Somerville

Interview by Tobias Carroll

Last month, I reviewed The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, Patrick Somerville’s second collection (following Trouble) and third book overall. Since then, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature has been getting inside my head — its use of dreamlike logic, wrenching situations, and thoroughly flawed characters combined to create a bold and resonant whole. (It shares an unconventional use of science-fictional images and devices with Charles Yu’s fine How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe; the two would make for an interesting pairing, I suspect.)

The Universe in Miniature in Miniature is a memorable book on its own, but it’s also notable for being memorable in an entirely different way than Somerville’s novel The Cradle, a deftly crafted and neatly structured book touching on issues of parenthood, politics, and trauma. The differences between these two books, and the working methods used in their creation, were two of the topics up for discussion in this conversation, conducted via email earlier this month.

One of the first things that struck me about The Cradle was the neatness and precision of its structure. Given that many of the stories in The Universe in Miniature in Miniature have a more surreal, dreamlike quality, I was curious — were the stories and the novel written in approximately the same timeframe? Was there any influence that one exerted over the other?
Well, yes, and no.  The two books overlapped a little, but The Cradle was pretty much done and on its way before I started to think about the structure of The Universe in Miniature in Miniature,  The real moment came when I wrote the title story, which I think sets the tone for the whole book and which I wrote as my own kind of private response to The Cradle.  I think a debate I have with myself, all the time, is whether I think a more traditional, linear structure–like a quest story, like The Cradle–can still be effective in 2010, after there’s been almost a century of formal innovation and so many brilliant writers working–sometimes deliberately working–to completely blow up the idea of a “straightforward” story.  Part of me is old-fashioned, though; part of me thinks that clear and well-crafted storytelling, no matter how linear or predictable, is the most emotionally powerful form there is, and that what people like to call “experimental” these days–weirdness, unexpected language, broken plots, modulation in the rules of reality–is actually a more tired and exhausted form of storytelling in our time  There’s something very boring about let’s get crazy!  So I wrote The Cradle in that mindset, but when I was through, I was kinda like, “Wait.  I like weird.  A lot.”  And I wanted to write a book that loops around in circles and comes together in very strange and unexpected ways, but still try to retain a feeling of linear and coherent stories on a smaller scale.  I don’t know.  I’m looking for some kind of balance, some formal place where I don’t feel constricted in either direction.  It might take more books to find it; right now I’m drifting and looking and learning.

When I spoke with Zach [Dodson, of featherproof] at a recent reading in New York, he mentioned that “The Machine of Understanding Other People” had been written after the rest of the stories in the collection. What prompted that? And how did you balance writing a story that stood on its own with your knowledge of its place in this collection?
It took a good while to figure out how I was going to make the stories fit together–what I did know was that I wanted the last story to serve as a kind of key that retroactively unlocked some answers in the reader’s head, answers that were already there but just didn’t make sense without the final story.  And I knew that I was going to make it a big adventure story, and have the helmet as the item in question.  So I had to wait until everything else was done, just so I would know how to fold in mentions of the other people.  It seems super-complicated, but in a weird way it’s actually easier to work that way, because you’ve got all these latent seeds sitting around, already planted–the other stories and characters–and you can use whatever you need to get from A to B to C in the story.  Usually when you’re trying to write something like a novella, you’ve got to slowly conceive of the backstory.  But this is why I like linked stories so much: they steep the reader in an atmosphere for a long time, and things that wouldn’t quite make sense–like why the helmet matters so much of why Eliza is pretty convinced the world is going to end–make more sense.  And you therefore don’t have to explain it.

The world that we see in the title story and “Hair University” feels very familiar and close to our own in some ways, and surreal and alien in others. How much of its underlying logic — of, say, how its institutions came to exist — did you have mapped out before connections between the stories were made?
Not very much, honestly.  But I think this is just an outgrowth of how I write anyway, trying to get after some in-between realm that connects to our world in ways but still has somewhat fantastical institutions and still retains some serious weirdness.  It’s fun to write about institutions being the strange things and people being somewhat normal and recognizable instead of the other way around.  I think that’s partially just a reflection of my own worldview, but also, it’s a guess at the future, I think–just this morning I was reading about Julian Assange in hiding somewhere in England and I was thinking that deep deep down, I’m both terrified and fascinated by what’s coming for us in the next fifty years.  When was the last time a small institutions rattled the major governments of the world, not through violence but through the dissemination of information?  Ever?  I feel like people born around where I was born–the late 70s or the early 80s–are straddling two different eras in history, one in which such things were not possible and one in which they are.  I was born in 1979.  I’m old enough to remember there NOT being computers but young enough where they don’t seem completely alien to me.  But every year that passes, the world seems to be getting significantly stranger.  Is that just me projecting the experience of aging?  Maybe.  But things are getting weird.  I do believe there should be an institution like Pangea, and maybe if things get weird enough, there will be.

Both The Universe in Miniature in Miniature and Trouble feel very thematically distinctive. (I’m thinking especially of how Trouble returns to an image of people sliding out of control in a winter landscape.) What was the process of choosing stories for each like? Do you have a sense of what a third collection of short fiction would contain?
I’m not sure how that works.  What I believe, and believed when I wrote Trouble, is that you just have to follow where your psychic energy is, pursue the stories that feel relevant to your imagination and your heart because those are the ones that are going to end up feeling authentic, the ones that are actually your voice.  If you write about something that doesn’t matter to you, it might come out technically crisp and nice, but there’s a good chance it’ll be missing something…hot and bothered.  I do have an idea for a third collection of stories, but I think I’ll have to spend the next five years getting worked up and hysterical and neurotic about it before I start writing.

“Vaara in the Woods” includes Somervilles (though I have no idea if they’re real or fictional), and the narrator of “The Peach” is never named. Did this collection find you drawing more on your own familial history?
Sometimes yes, sometimes no.  I think people within my family can probably see where a good deal of the stories come from.  But it’s always somewhere in between.  Then again, my mother read the novella and wrote me a very terse email that said something like, “Patrick, these people are very disturbed.”  She didn’t mean it as a compliment.

In the acknowledgments for The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, you include a section thanking “wonderful, talented, and oft underappreciated science fiction and fantasy writers.” (I can definitely relate.) Are they genres you’ve kept up with? And are they genres that you’d ever want to try writing in?
I drifted away when I got to college and began to feel as though it was somehow inappropriate, not “serious,” which is silly, but I just didn’t feel like I understood anything and was overwhelmed with the question of taste, or the question of how to even analyze literature or assess it or think about it in your own way.  I mean I knew that I loved it.  I just didn’t know what the fuck I was doing or what to even think or say about it.  But I’ve found myself drifting back toward the kinds of books I read when I was younger, just because I know myself as both a reader and a writer a little better and it’s not as frightening to me to now say, “I like both realism and fantasy,” or, “There are times when I don’t care at all whether the prose is any good, I just want plot.” This guy was at my house a couple years ago and started making fun of me for having a big Tom Clancy novel on my bookshelf and it suddenly occurred to me how idiotic and blind snobbery is, how much I hate the whole project people undertake to classify what’s cool and not cool.  I think the whole conversation about mainstream vs. indie or commercial vs. edgy or cheesy vs. authentic is completely bankrupt.  That doesn’t mean I don’t have my own sense of what’s good and not good.  Maybe it’s just more my own.

I’ve started reading newer sci-fi, anyhow–in the last year I’ve read a number of novels by Richard K. Morgan and Alistair Reynolds.  And yes, I would love to one day write a science-fiction trilogy.  Not like The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, not playful and self-reflexive like that.  I mean like hard core science fiction set in 4200.

In the essay you wrote for Largehearted Boy recently, you focus on revisiting the work of Douglas Adams, and of the way that narration functions in his work. Do you see that approach to tone as having had any influence on your own work?
Maybe so, but I’m not sure about how.  I like banter.  I like people shooting the shit and talking at cross-purposes and talking over one another.  And I think I got some of that from Adams and the radio dramas.  On radio, people really can talk over one another, but in text it’s harder to create that feeling unless you start doing some awkward layout stuff.  So I guess I try to get the spirit of it in there.  As well as the spirit of Slartibartfast.

Throughout The Universe in Miniature in Miniature, you return to a stabbing and its aftereffects. I was struck by how this put a number of human faces on what had initially seemed like something that would occur in the background of another story, and I was curious as to how that series of stories came about.
Someone I knew vicariously got stabbed in the neck in Chicago a few years ago–he was just walking down the street and a guy snuck up behind him and cut his throat with a big razor.  He didn’t die, but he almost did, and he was in the hospital for a month.  And that’s always stuck with me, not only because it’s horrible and terrifying, but because it’s a simple story that gets at something I hope The Universe in Miniature in Miniature gets at: our very frightening powerlessness in the face of nature, accident, and arbitrary events.  You can be the best human being in the world and have a fucking icicle fall on your head from the top of some skyscraper.  It’s totally unfair.  I don’t mean that as a complaint, either.  I’m just fascinated by how much it feels like we’re in control, and how we do make choices and are responsible for things happening, and how we’re also not at all in control of anything that happens.  That’s the paradoxical space where I’m going to pitch my tent and live throughout my career as a writer.