Last fall, I interviewed Luke B. Goebel at Greenlight Bookstore about his excellent debut, Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours: A Novel. (You can hear the audio from that interview as part of Greenlight’s podcast.) In this book, Goebel does stunning things with narrative and voices, shifting from haunting realism to surreal archetypes and back, all within the context of a larger (and heartbreaking) narrative. That layering was one of the topics that we discussed, as part of a wide-ranging conversation.
You talked a little about the title already; when you look at it, you see “Fourteen Stories, None Of Them Are Yours,” and you think, “Okay, it’s a story collection.” And then you see that it’s a novel. But there are also, clearly, these memoir-like elements in there as well. When did the structure of the book and the form of the book become apparent to you?
I was just writing stories, really, at first. There was never any idea of making it into any other genre than a story collection. I didn’t even know if I was writing a story collection–I was just trying to write stories that were decent. And then things happened in life. I share a lot in common with the narrator. I lost my brother. I lost…Catherine. So I was just writing stories. I sent it out as a collection to four or five places and got a couple of bites and a couple of offers, from small presses. I signed something, and then I heard from FC2. They called me one day; I’d forgotten that I’d submitted it to one contest. They told me that I won, and I said, “Okay! …shit.” So I called my other press, and they said, “That’s great; go with it.” So I did. And I wasn’t fulfilled; I think I was just sending it out to see what would happen. I said, “I don’t want to put it out like this.” So I bought this old RV, a 31-foot coach, and I took my stuff on the road, thinking I would just have a generator and could run my keyboards and printers and shit, and I’d edit the stories. And I started having these adventures out there, these experiences, and I started writing them in to stories that I didn’t really think were finished.
First, I ordered them, and I saw that they were already in conversation. It was already a very linked collection. And one thing after another happened. I felt like there was something more to say about the people that I love. So I said more. Part of that was having to take on this persona in order to make it all work together. Certain opportunities were afforded. I guess that’s why I don’t call it a memoir. People keep asking me that. It’s just fiction; it’s the freedom of fiction, you know? Because of the opportunities that are presented and the way that it takes shape, it’s not what I set out to put down–it’s the relationship between language and story and the world and whatever the hell is happening with the RV.
What percentage of the book remains the same as what was written before you left in the RV?
All of it–it’s just that there’s more now. I’m sure I cut a few lines here and there, but I think it all remains.
You talked a little bit when you introduced the section you read about your use of parentheticals, and the different kinds that you use throughout the book. Were those generally things you were putting in, or were they there from the outset?
Those are all added. There are stories that are there, and they’re invaded and exploded. I didn’t really know how parentheticals worked, or what the rules were for double parentheticals or brackets, but I invented a way that works. Brackets tend to be the most recent time period; parentheticals tend to be things that were refrained and re-adjusted. And then there’s double parentheticals. I think I got them all right.
As someone who’s read it, it made sense to me.
Good. That was the thing that surprised me: that it actually worked. As I read through it, I thought, “This guy’s never gonna pull this shit off. This narrator’s never going to be able to do this–he’s crazy.” And somehow, it started to actually take shape in a way that you could follow, where you could keep the narrative elements in play.
There are moments in the book where the narrator seems to be using language to push people away.
Like calling them “cocksuckers.”
Yeah, exactly. When did that decision come about, to have–
That kind of provocative–
Even in the original stories, in the first story, “Insides,” there’s a provocative nature. He’s a provocateur, which, I think, was to counterbalance the vulnerability. You can’t say too many true and sensitive things in a row without getting purple. That’s what Gian used to call it. Enough sentimentality! There was an element of provoking as a way to push off before bringing it back. And also because it’s tender stuff. I want to say it, obviously. I want to go back in time, I want to go places not afforded to me in the present reality. I want to push off before bringing people, or myself, back into that territory. And part of that was wanting to bring in larger contexts and issues and themes of America and the world and other people and where we’re at. Not that there’s anything wrong with memoir, but I didn’t want it to be that. Or at least stories that were autobiographical, that were serving me. I wanted to be bringing people into a world that was larger than I am, or they are, and have us all looking at ourselves.
New York, as a space, looms as this ghostly presence in the book, even when you’re not there. You’re based in Texas now–do other places had a similar way of getting into what you’ve written?
I think I’m definitely inhabited by a lot of spaces. I don’t know how to explain it, other than parts of my imagination are in different spaces. I don’t mean “imagination” like “little green guys that dance with french fries.” I mean, places that are part of how I feel the world and how I imagine the world in my expansiveness. There are things that make me feel like I’m in California, and there are things that make me feel like I’m in New York. I don’t know how to explain this. I’ve lived a lot of places; I’ve been all over the country. From a young age, I was very interested in movement, and getting out and exploring the world, going on road trips with my dad. That trope in America of the endless kind of journey. Having lived all these different places, yeah, I think they inhabit me, also.
Although this trip to New York, I’m a fucking basket case. Sometimes the city’s great, and sometimes the city’s….not, you know?
Some of the descriptions that this book’s gotten have referenced Faulkner and Barry Hannah, and you have a blurb from Padgett Powell. Do you see your work as being in a relationship with this archetypal Southern writing?
Hm. I’d never even thought of that.
I mean, you’re not from the South, but I feel like there is that quality to it. I don’t think those comparisons are off-base.
I’ve been living there for about four years now, and it does change you in some ways. You’ve got to have a different way about you when you’re in Texas. My impulse is to say that they’ve also mentioned other writers who aren’t Southern. I’d never thought about that. I think some of that is because the stories take place, some of them, in the South. Some of it’s because I was in those places. Some of it is in conversation. I definitely think that my imagination has been shaped by these people. I was twelve when I read On the Road and when I read Cuckoo’s Nest, and I picked up the phone and called Ken Kesey, and we talked, and I ended up studying from his best friend. I was always obsessed and interested in those kind of narratives, which provide us with some kind of a framework in informing who we are. But that’s a shaky framework, because it’s based on lies and fictions.
In “Tough Beauty,” there’s a part where the narrator takes on a pseudonym, and in “Apache,” the next story, there’s also this additional layer of a story within a story within the story. Is that something like the parentheticals, where that nested structure came about as you were revising it?
These stories work allegorically. There will be the main narrative, which is as it is. There are a few stories, I call them vertices, which go higher and lower and deeper and expand and explore themes that are in the main narrative. In those stories, he’s definitely taking on a different character, and pretending to be other people. We’ve got a kid named Kid, who’s named by this Apache who may or may not be a real Apache guy. The kid has lost his brother, and his mother is the same mother, and it’s definitely the same story, just guised under these characters. What I think “Tough Beauty” adds to the novel is a larger context. It gets out of the self and gets to talk about, and show–we’re talking about “America, the Beautiful” throughout the novel. It’s a portrait of America, but through a guy who’s really lost his shit, who fried his beans on too much peyote. It’s talking about larger contexts and looking at the larger world and getting out of this self and offering people to build a larger world.
I don’t want to just be me. I heard Rushdie yesterday, and I thought that he did a great job, in saying that the project of fiction and art isn’t just to say “this is my context and this is who I am and this is my identity.” We have enough of that shit, Instagram and everything else. “This is me, I’m real, I’m an object, I fit–this is where I’ve been, this is how I identify, and this is my guilt and my responsibilities.” With art, you’re supposed to go all over the place. It’s like that question about influences–I took that stuff on as a young kid. Maybe I didn’t have a full identity, but I don’t know who does.
About a quarter of the way through, the narrator talks about coming of age in the church, and wrestling with that, both embracing that and denying it. Is that something that was originally a larger part of the book? Is it something that you’re thinking about returning to in other work?
I haven’t thought about continuing on with that. I was raised Catholic. (laughs) My narrator, he smoked some DMT. And that drug makes you leave your body. And when he left, he went to a church. The church that his parents were married in, the church from his hometown. Maybe a church that I also went to. And he saw the stained-glass windows, and the light doing these wild things. And he felt completely one with God, and then he came back, and the car flew off the cliff. An hour later, when he hitchhiked out of where he was, and they rescued these kids. The church came in because the church was part of the trip. Obviously, you could just make stuff up, but…I don’t know how to do that. Totally make stuff up? If there’s something I want to say or share or convey, I don’t know how to just swap it out for something else.
It’s like with the names. I didn’t want to switch out the names, when it was all said and done. What’s so wrong about some things being real?
Have you been working on something new since finishing this?
Are you following a similar structure with that?
It’s a different kind of structure. It’s a different person. It’s moving. But the lens is so close. I’m always writing the interior, ever since I started. In my first stories, nothing happened, for ten years. Nothing happened; they were just worlds of the interior. This one’s doing that, but there’s also a big…plot. There’s stuff happening! Big stuff is happening. But we’re really in the perspective. It feels more like first, but it’s third. It’s experimental in its own ways, but not with interruptions or parentheticals and any of the syntactical loopholes I invented. This one’s different.
I’d noticed that: the way that “Bald Eagle” is always capitalized in the book. Did you have any ground rules for doing things like that, or was it just when it felt right?
Yeah; feeling. And Padgett, who was amazing to provide that blurb, and who I harassed relentlessly, until I said, “God damn it, Padgett–pick it up and read the first couple of sentences, and if you don’t like it, tell me it’s shit!” And he responded with that blurb, and he gave me twenty pages of line edits, which I couldn’t believe. And he said, “prosecute a voyage — make sure you catch every error.” There’s two errors.
I was following what I felt. I think it makes sense. It’s consistent. I did what I wanted to do.
That’s one of the things that struck me the most about it–it has this very organic feel, but you’ve clearly spent a lot of time working on it and refining it, but there’s still this underlying rawness to it.
People keep saying that. A review came out today at Full Stop, and it said something about Gary Snyder. People keep grabbing on to these moments in time, these artistic moments that are very direct. I don’t know how that happened. I’m direct. I don’t have an answer. But I think there’s so much expectation that you have an answer, that writers should know exactly how to express or say why they’re doing what they’re doing. I have things that I know how to pay attention to. A lot of it, I learned from studying with a teacher here in New York. But I know how to pay attention to things like recursion and repetition and sound and things like that, but I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing when I’m writing. I don’t want to know. I’m all the way in it. I don’t know how to talk about it all the time.
This conversation has been edited.