The Unfathomable and the Traditional: An Interview with Dolan Morgan

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The title isn’t a metaphor. Dolan Morgan‘s debut collection, That’s When the Knives Come Down, features surreal scenarios and unlikely structures that lead to works about heartbreak, loss, and the process of putting  lives back together. There are also knives, and they are real, and sometimes terrifying. I’d first met Morgan via his work for The Atlas Review, and if you’d like to hear more of that, I would heartily recommend his Almost Live at Mellow Pages appearance with Natalie Eilbert. We spoke via email about the processes inspiring some of the stories in the collection, where he sees his own fiction fitting in, and much more.

A few months ago, you wrote an essay about the difficulty you’d had convincing some indie bookstores to stock your book. Given where your release party took place, that isn’t the case with all indies, but I was curious–has anything changed since that piece ran?

I remember that essay! I asked one small bookstore in my hometown about stocking my first book and was shocked by the clarity and simplicity of their reply: “We’re a small independent bookstore, so we can’t really work with small independent presses.” It just kind of blew me away – both because 1) it feels super counter-intuitive at face value, and 2), on closer inspection, it makes a lot of sense.

Of course, thinking these parties might easily get along is not too crazy. Independent presses and independent bookstores both tirelessly promote new literature. Both depend on fostering communities of book lovers to survive. And both are allied in pushing against and/or through the tide of industry destabilization brought on by places like Amazon. At a broad level, they share many of the same customers, interests, conflicts, and purposes, so it’s understandable to think small independent presses and small independent bookstores might find healthy and rich common ground. Sure, that all makes sense, yes, but it doesn’t always work out as such – and for good reason.

For example, if an independent press makes a small run of books, each copy is precious and can’t be sent off to every small store across the country. Likewise, most independent bookstores are physically small and have limited shelving space – they can’t just stock every book that comes their way, especially those with relatively low demand. Casting a wide net is expensive, and both small presses and small bookstores have unique (and often dire) financial realities to contend with that inhibit opportunities to connect. I don’t own a bookstore and I don’t run a small press, but it’s easy to see why my idyllic/foolish vision of the world can’t stand up to the physical and monetary constraints that these establishments face everyday.

That said, I still believe it’s worthwhile for small presses and small bookstores to find ways to get along and intersect. But how? For me, it goes back to fostering communities of readers and writers, and the shared dependence on that. That is, it may not make sense for a bookstore to stock a book that will, at surface level, mean nothing to their customers and that will be just another name and a cover. But what about a book that recently received some coverage in a local blog or was featured at a nearby reading series? And it may not make sense for a press to sell their books through a random retailer with no way of making it stand out in a sea of choices. But what about a retailer that maintains and highlights an indie press book shelf and hosts small press events? A blind marriage between retailers and presses is not in anybody’s best interest: not for writers, sellers, publishers, or readers. But building a relationship between a press and a bookstore by leveraging shared community? That could work.

WORD in Greenpoint is a fantastic example. They maintain a dedicated small press section on their shelves, organized by publisher. They frequently run events that celebrate small press books and authors. Their community of readers is treated kindly and maintained through thoughtful, caring communication. There are countless other stores like this all across the the city, the country, and the world, too. The key, I think, is treating stores and presses not as representatives of the collective industry as a whole, but as their own unique entities. One place and one book at a time.

So I’m not sure how much has really changed since I wrote that essay, but now, when I think about the initial answer, “We’re a small independent bookstore, so we can’t really work with small independent presses,” I think to myself: well, in fact, you can, but it’s super hard, so I understand why you don’t. And when a small press says that it’s hard to work with bookstores, I totally get it, but think: what have you done to foster a home for your books in a particular store’s community of readers? And I recognize too that making that happen is super hard, so I understand why it doesn’t always come together.

But, I don’t know, I’m holding on to the idea that it’s worth trying. I’m really happy with the way WORD and I worked together for the release of That’s When the Knives Come Down. We managed to put the book on their top ten sellers list for August, which was a wonderful shock for me, but also a testament to the idea that small presses and small bookstores can benefit from working together.

And I think it’s important to note that I didn’t pick that other, initial bookstore at random. I approached them hoping to leverage an assumed sense of shared community. The bookstore was the one that nurtured my love of reading in the first place, in the town where I grew up. That doesn’t amount to much really, I’ve learned, and so something that has changed for me, quite clearly, is facing how divorced I am from my past. I left that town 13 years ago, and it holds a mystical place in my mind and heart, in the way that childhood is enormous and ethereal, along with all the objects and places that underscore it. But that world and its parts do not regard me in the same way. How could they even. I am not an enormous ethereal figure hovering over the town. If only! In many ways, returning home to find my old bedroom transformed into an office feels much the same. Or finding a new family living where I was raised. There’s nothing missing really, and in fact something gained, but a narcissistic emptiness sort of dawdles out of your heart where nothing used to be. And if I compare this to my relationship with a bookstore like WORD, a place that once seemed so alien to me, a place that arrived in my neighborhood and which made me think, hey, what is that unfamiliar thing, but which now is a kind of warm, welcoming pool in my mind – it’s striking how community can sneak up on you. Suddenly a place is not only where you are but where you’ve been, and suddenly these strangers are not strangers but your friends, people you’ve known for years, without explanation or reason. And that’s exactly how I like my nice things to arrive: without purpose or explanation, yet still able to melt away how woefully incorrect I am about my life and everything else. Nothing nicer than dissolving my stupidity with sudden bursts of nowness.


When I’ve been describing your collection to people, I’ve been referencing the likes of Steven Millhauser and Donald Antrim–which might also be shorthand for the fact that your work eludes easy description. How did your style evolve? Was more experimental work what you initially set out to write?

I feel lucky to be even distantly associated with those authors. As for the idea of experimental work, it’s not something I’ve ever set out to do. In fact, I think of myself as a bit of a traditionalist. What tradition? I guess I don’t know. The tradition of treating literature as a kind of stand-in for sex, maybe. Every story should be measurable or mapped as a type of orgasm, or at least its imminent approach. This thinking is old news and kind of regrettable, but I find myself susceptible to it, and so I think that makes me a traditionalist. I feel conservative as a writer. I try to create things that I would enjoy as a reader, and I count on the fact that I am not a unique person, that there are many people out there quite like me. So if I craft something that suits my particular tastes, and I’m honest with myself about that, then some other schmuck with similar interests might also enjoy it. It’s one of the perks of being a humdrum person. And so that doesn’t feel like an experiment, but a kind of conservatism. Another way to say what I mean is that I don’t believe experimental fiction exists. Or: what is it. What is being tested. Who is the control group. Where does the data go. What technologies will be borne out of the results. It’s an absurd metaphor. Another way of saying what I mean is that all work is experimental. You wake up in the morning and put one foot in front of the other to gauge the state of the world. Is it still there. Will I die. Can this sentence function here. Does a door open. Everything is a test because who the fuck knows what’s going to happen and all we have is language and hands. And if I can say that both everything and nothing are experimental, then the notion of “experimentation” is in trouble. Or maybe just useless. Which is fine by me, of course. I’m a fan of the useless. And that brings me to my point: uselessness is perhaps the best answer to your question about how the style in my work evolved. By relying on the idea that useless things are okay, are good, are needed, I can move forward. If literature has any virtue, it’s in affirming this fact. Putting sentences together at all can feel pretty futile, especially to describe things that are invented and fabricated, but in this way the process of writing becomes a simulacrum of life in general. Because, you know, it’s all pointless, etc., bla bla bla. Your feelings, your things, your choices. People, places, thoughts. It hardly amounts to anything. And there’s a real freedom in that, finally. So, for me at least, it’s the same with writing. I step into the nothing in front of me and flail about. I allow myself to be dragged into improbable and arguably meaningless places, uselessly, and with real joy. I want very much to show you the dance I do when the full weight of my work’s futility finally falls over me each time I write a story. It happens every time, somewhere midstream in the process, and I slip into a giddy little well of possibility because nothing works. The most important point for me is when I absolutely hate myself and think there’s no reason to be doing what I’m doing. Rather than turn away or overcome, I walk right into that loathing and lack of reason as if into a little bath. Now the whole world can be stripped away, I think, because it wasn’t there to begin with. Now who I am and what I want can be forgotten, because neither were possible in the first place. And then, of course, I move onto the next sentence.


The selection of readers at your book release party represented a host of different styles. What prompted you to ask them? Is there a type of bill you prefer to read on?

Chelsea Hodson and B.C. Edwards are both fantastic writers whose work I greatly admire, so that’s probably the main criteria. Everyone should find their books immediately, and hear them read as soon as possible. I love what they do, both on the page and before a crowd, and I was honored to have them bring all that into the room for the launch. And I suppose I didn’t really think of them as offering very different styles, though you’re right to say that they do. I believe my inability to recognize that fact is due in large part to my filing them both in my mind under the simple category: “awesome writers.” In that respect their styles are very similar. Chelsea brought a kind of austere and impressionistic essay, a personal and sad and gutting work, while Carter (B.C) delivered a hilarious piece of satirical fiction, at once riotous and pointed and loud, and so in that respect, yes, they really couldn’t be any more different. But that’s just when considered from the vantage point of genre and overall tone. Other angles reveal a lot of overlap. Their sentence-level work is similarly gorgeous and refined. Both have a kind of cynical, dry humor rumbling at the center. Most importantly, though, I think what attracts me to both of them as writers (and as people) is a shared temperament, or a sense of being-in-the-world, an underlying stance that acts as glue in their work – something like an approach to the life in and around us that revels in both the terror and beauty of impossible things. And by impossible things, I mean most things, all things. Everything is impossible, and from there spills new language. I’m reminded of an essay by Vilem Flusser about “The Gesture of Smoking a Pipe,” in which he asserts “that religious experience is an experience of the absurd, that ‘God’ is manifest as that which is inexplicable, indefensible, ‘good for nothing else’” – just swap out “God” for “literature” and I think we get at something that defines much of the writing I admire, something that I see expressed in Chelsea and Carter’s work. A kind of cynical wonder and/or giggling anger that effortlessly bridges different styles and tones. In other words, they both remind me that being human and being alive is unthinkable and beyond comprehension, in both the best and the worst ways, and that’s the kind of reminder I’ve come to rely on. I’ll give you an example. Maybe 90% of the emails I’ve exchanged with Chelsea are about Papa John’s Pizza. We sing its praises. There’s no reason or justification for it, or really there’s endless justification, everywhere you go and look and feel. This might seem unimportant, or stupid, but it’s not. Emailing about the wonders of Papa John’s Pizza is one of the most important things anyone could ever hope to do. Carter and Chelsea both have a lot of praise for Papa John in their work, whether that’s immediately evident or not, and it’s something I strive for, too. So that’s why I invited them. For their irrefutable and beautiful ability to give ill-advised glory unto Papa.


What prompted you to base a story around a series of postulates? 

The simple answer is: Jess Mack. Jess Mack is an artist I’ve collaborated with in the past, and she told me to write something based on Euclid’s five postulates. So I did. The broader answer is that for quite a while I’ve been obsessed by using science and mathematics as foundation for writing. Multiple stories in That’s When the Knives Come Down embody this obsession, as does a lot of my writing elsewhere. This preoccupation stems from multiple impulses. Certainly, one is the sense that math, science, and literature are unfairly regarded as being wildly different pursuits, when in fact they are each attempts to make sense of an inexplicable world through language and abstraction. Many attempts to marry these disciplines, especially through literature, are marred by gimmickry or whimsy or formulaic tradition – so I think it’s important to honestly ask what mathematics has to offer literature, not just as data, but aesthetically, structurally, and emotionally. Another thing that attracts me to something like Euclid’s postulates, or equations or chemical properties or astronomy, is the notion that discovering humanity in unexpected places is rewarding. That is, when you see yourself in a mirror, this is mundane. Recognizing yourself there prompts very little self-examination. In a film, it is a cliché to express a character’s emotions by having them consider a mirror image. Conversely, recognizing yourself or your problems or passions in something unexpected, like a wagon wheel or shoe or tennis game – this transcendence of incongruity has narrative and emotional impact. An extreme, but emblematic example, is Sufjan Stevens’s song, “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” The song relays in broad strokes the facts about the famous mass murderer, and the terror of his crimes. But the emotional core of the song resides in its sudden turn toward an almost impossible empathy: “in my best behavior / I am really just like him,” Stevens sings. Gacy is an unlikely muse for invoking a sense of being alive, but analogs are only emboldened by the increasing disparity of their constituent parts. We so often bury the threads that stretch out from the labyrinth of our own lives back into the world of others, and it is painful and strange to have them exhumed, even more so to follow their lengths out from a well-honed solipsism. Yet the act of recognizing ourselves in something Other is in fact the most human thing we can do. Sciences and mathematics are often regarded as dry, dense, and laborious, but this only makes it more joyful and rewarding to discover parallels for the things we feel and experience every day. I’ll stand by the sense that you can come vividly into focus through an unexpected equation or unfathomable biological process, but that no one has ever actually seen themselves in a mirror.


As was pointed out during the Q & A at the event at WORD, you have a interest in learning more about email scams. Is this something you’ve ever thought about expanding on in a nonfiction piece?

I struggle to even believe in the idea of nonfiction (that it’s real or that it exists), and based on that fact alone, I probably won’t be writing nonfiction about email scams any time soon. But I can share with you a peculiar experience I had with a “Nigerian prince” SPAM email. When I was in college, a dorm room of mine had this very special phone line. Somehow, through crossed wires or who knows what, the line was connected to someone else’s home. That is, if I picked up the receiver, I might hear someone I didn’t know talking to another person I didn’t know. And if I was on the phone, at any moment the real owners of the line might come on and wonder what was happening to their world. Everyone I talked to on this phone had to have the understanding that if this occurred, if the owner picked up, we should be silent and then slowly hang up. The bonus to this arrangement, for me at least (but certainly not for the owner – wherever you are, I apologize), was that long distance calls were free. So, when I received one of those Nigerian wire transfer scam emails, I knew I had to get this guy on the phone. For about a week, we talked every day. He promised me that he could get plane tickets for me, and for all of my friends, that we could join him across the sea, that riches awaited us all. We talked about what we might do with the money, and the problems in our lives that we could overcome. He constantly thought of new ways to try to ask me for personal information, but I always politely skirted around the issue. His keen interest in making that transfer happen, though, kept him on the line, and we were able to connect in ways that I never could have expected. I think of him often now and wonder how he is doing, if he ever managed to find what he was looking for. Sometimes I imagine him contacting the real owner of that magical phone line – and see them working it all out together. In so many ways, that has to be exactly what happened.


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