The History of Impossible Towns: An Interview With David Leo Rice

Describing David Leo Rice‘s new novel ANGEL HOUSE is the stuff out of which madness arises. There’s a godlike being answering to mysterious, ominous superiors; there’s a town created spontaneously from a blank landscape; there’s a running subplot about filmaking; and the lines between consciousnesses occasionally blur. (I should mention here that I’m not entirely unbiased regarding ANGEL HOUSE, by which I mean that I blurbed this book.) Rice has created something here that conjures up memories of the works of Julio Cortazár and Michael Cisco: it’s primally unsettling and unnervingly compelling. I asked him some questions about it on the eve of its release this week.

Many of your stories have centered around a specific and unique place, from the title location in A Room in Dodge City to the bizarre histories of New England you’ve published at Vol.1 Brooklyn. Where did the phantasmagorical small town in which ANGEL HOUSE is set come from? 

As the town developed, it became a composite of all the small towns I’ve been in, as well as a more Platonic ideal of “small town-ness,” since, in the book, it’s the only town in the known universe. It’s thus both an example of a common type of place, and also the only such place. The two biggest real-world influences were Northampton, the New England town where I grew up, and S’Agata, a tiny town in Tuscany where my parents have been going since the 70s, and where I spent a lot of time as a child. The biggest literary influences were Bruno Schulz’s Street of Crocodiles, Marquez’s Hundred Years of Solitude, and Faulkner’s and Krasznahorkai’s books. In terms of film, the big ones were Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg and Fellini’s Amarcord.

In those works, as in ANGEL HOUSE, the towns have the non-Euclidian conundrum of being both too big and too small at the same time: they’re simultaneously a tiny speck in a vast and indifferent universe, and also a zone that somehow contains that universe. This is certainly how my town felt as a child, since I was aware that it was a small place in a big world, but I also felt that it was where my entire schema of existence was developing and taking root, and thus the world was only one aspect of the town.

If this book had only been about strange happenings in a small town, it would have already been magnificently unsettling — but the way that you factor in elements of both cosmic horror and metafiction make this book even stranger. How did you determine how big — or how weird — to make this book’s setting? 

This was all an evolutionary process. I wanted to convey something of the terrifying energy that I felt as a teenager in my hometown, the feeling that untold realms of demonic and erotic possibility were lurking in familiar places, but that they could never quite be drawn out. They only existed through intimation and the shadowy sense that there was always more going on—both physically and metaphysically—than met the eye.

There was a kind of dual terror in this: on the one hand, the terror that these things would emerge fully-formed as monsters (as they eventually do in the book); on the other hand, the terror that they never would, and that I would thus be trapped in a limbo between the natural and the supernatural. I think this is a terror that many people feel, and they deal with it in various ways, art and religion being the main ones. We know the world is somehow both more and less enchanted than it seems to be, and we can never decide if we’d rather it went all the way in one direction or the other, or stayed hovering in the middle. For me, the horror of not knowing what’s real, and also not knowing what I want to be real, is deeper and more productive than the horror of running from something that’s unambiguously real.

I remember falling in love with Francis Bacon’s paintings when I was twenty or so, but feeling torn between being disappointed that these horrible yet alluring images didn’t correspond to anything in my own life, while also feeling very, very glad about this same fact.

Did you have an ideal reader in mind for ANGEL HOUSE?

In the first draft, which I started the year after college when I moved to Berlin, I was really just trying to get down on paper some version of the anxiety described above. I didn’t have much concept of the reader—I was purely invested in turning myself into a writer. But then, once I came back to the States and tried to read the gigantic mass of pages that had accrued—which actually took longer than writing them—I had to switch from thinking about myself as a writer, to thinking about a potential reader. I remember this very creaky, painful transition from asking myself, “what do I need to write?” to asking myself, “what can I honestly claim someone else needs to read?”

After this transition, I’d say the ideal reader became anyone drawn to the synthesis between the Weird and the mundane, which is to say anyone open to the idea that life is much more complex than it looks on the surface, and that a certain kind of heightened, even extreme art might be one way of interrogating that complexity. I imagine the book will resonate most with people who grew up in small towns and then moved to big cities, and who have a fraught set of feelings about that move, but I hope it will resonate more broadly, as well.

This is a novel that abounds with stunning images, including the creation of the town where much of the novel is set. What were some of the challenges you faced in terms of translating those visuals into words on a page? 

Something I realized over the course of many drafts was how fully these physical instantiations of psychological notions had to be imagined before I could convey them in writing. A crucial piece of feedback that a friend gave on an early draft was, “I’m perceiving imagery here, but not yet seeing images.” A lot more work had to be done to clarify what these things actually looked like, and how they worked. It was a question of physics more than anything else. There’s the idea that “writing is a kind of thinking,” which I’ve one hundred percent come to believe, but in the early drafts I was frustrated by how many times I had to write and rewrite these scenes in order to think them through.

My goal in creating these images was to take abstract notions, like this sinister Professor receiving Lectures from some alien source, and reify them to the point where they were like sculptures. This is the essence of the “Word made flesh” notion, which Cronenberg is a master at deploying. Kafka too: the simplest example is just taking the complex welter of feelings moving through Gregor Samsa, and turning them into the physical form of an insect. This transformation can be interpreted as a metaphor, but it’s also highly physical, uncomfortably so. That’s the effect I was going for.

One of the most memorable elements of ANGEL HOUSE for me was the way that filmmaking was incorporated into the plot. At what point in the process of writing the novel did you decide to incorporate an entirely different art form?

Very early on. My earliest note for the book, which appeared in a running list of concepts that I’ve kept since I was a kid, was, “William Blake drags an actual angelic landscape into a small town, which he sets up as a circus funhouse that only children can enter.” So, I started by thinking about circus, childhood, and performance. This whole subplot eventually got cut and became my story Circus Sickness, but it led from there to film, because I wanted the idea that everyone in town was both a real character and an actor, and that there was a desperate, shared hope that everything they couldn’t understand in real life might make sense if they could watch it as a movie.

This was a feeling I had a lot as a child, as my best friend and I were constantly involved in making a pretend movie, which was a filter we could place over our entire lives: everything that happened might have no real significance, but we were reassured to think that it had cinematic significance. This is perhaps a version of the religious belief that this life, which is full of suffering, is only a rehearsal for the next life, where everything will be as it should.

In high school, I segued from pretend movies to real ones, and thus spent a lot of my adolescence making short horror films with my friends and whomever else I could rope in. I think being a small-town director, able to recast familiar people into unfamiliar roles, is both an appealing fantasy of local power (like, “behind the camera, I can turn this town into what I’ve always imagined it should be”), and also a fantasy of escape (like, “I’m going to use these small-town films to transform myself into an international director”).

I’ve moved more in the direction of fiction lately, but the entangled duality of that aspiration is still very much there.

Much of the work of yours that I’ve read has been more intimate in its scope. Do you think you’ll return to writing fiction at this scale again? 

Lately, I’ve been transitioning out of this very personal, small-town phase, which includes ANGEL HOUSE, the Dodge City books (Vol. 2 comes out later this year), a book about a reclusive sculptor based on Joseph Cornell, and the short stories, and into a more outward-looking phase.

The new book I’m working on is called The Berlin Wall, and is about a version of European history where the Berlin Wall became a living, conscious entity. It takes place in the present day, when the atomized pieces of the Wall are trying to find each other, amidst a backdrop of technological and environmental collapse and paranoia. It’s less about my specific experience, and more about just living in the world at this moment in time (though, of course, that’s a personal experience too: perhaps I should say it’s less about the past, and more about the present).

I wouldn’t say it’s more intimate, but it’ll definitely be shorter than ANGEL HOUSE. When I think about a book now, I see it as a specific, delimited project, whereas ANGEL HOUSE, at least while I was working on it, was all-consuming and in some ways scarily unbounded. Never say never, but at this moment I can’t imagine writing something that long again.

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