Brian Evenson isn’t an author that fans of Cormac McCarthy, Stephen King, or Chuck Palahniuk typically know, but he certainly should be, as his work is every bit as apocalyptic, surprising, and haunting. For years, Evenson’s readers have been slipping copies of his books into the hands of friends, students, and family members. When travelling, I often keep a copy of Contagion (which Evenson graciously allowed my small press, Astrophil Press, to reprint) and drop it into neighborhood lending libraries, and I must admit that I find a little thrill in knowing that I’ve done my small part in introducing people to this pitch perfect collection of stories. I am not alone in this; many of Evenson’s readers border on evangelicals, spreading the dark word of Evenson. This enthusiasm for Evenson’s work is understandable considering his ability to publish tightly wrought, layered stories that often stick with us long after having read them. There are very few authors I can think of who have a catalog as strong as Evenson; his stories feel entirely new and each of his sentences feel entirely necessary.
Since 2000, I’ve had the great pleasure of having a nearly twenty-year friendship with Brian. I’ve seen his work change, not in radical shifts, but in surgical and strategic ways. Certainly, he has tried a good many new things, such as publishing works of genre under the not so distant pseudonym BK Evenson, but the DNA that makes a story uniquely Evensonian is always there, that dark X Factor that makes each sitting with his work a little dangerous. In his latest book, Song for the Unraveling of the World, Evenson neither reinvents himself, nor does he make any stylistic shifts that might surprise long time readers. Instead, he gives readers another tightly crafted collection of deeply unsettling stories, that seem to improve upon the approach he took in A Collapse of Horses, a book that finds Evenson leaning a little more into genre, and we are delighted by his ability to seamlessly blend genre with literary fiction. Evenson’s stories haunt us because his characters are often trapped in an internalized horror, characters whose deep-seated denial blinds them to the unspeakable deeds they commit. In Evenson’s stories, we both recoil and revel in abjection. Simply put: it’s dark stuff. Though his stories are not always without humor, we are nonetheless always unsettled.
My students always picture Evenson as a kind of Gothic outcast, a loner in a strange western town. But in reality, he is warm, funny, kind, and always willing to spare a moment for those who need him. It’s always a pleasure to sit with Brian and talk, and with his book just dropping, I thought it might be a good time to finally interview him about life, writing, and philosophy. This interview was conducted in May 2019.
You are the author of over a dozen and a half works of fiction, which I think is fair to say is a staggering amount of works from an author of your age. Since the publication of your first book, Altman’s Tongue (Knopf 1994), you’ve gone through many changes, personally and stylistically. It seems to me that your subject matter has often transformed with your life. Whereas much of the content of your earlier works seemed to deal with your spiritual and philosophical dilemmas, some of your later work seems to reflect anxiety around parenthood and social anxieties. However, what always remains steady is a kind of (to paraphrase George Saunders) apocalyptic darkness. Anyone who knows you, knows that you’re a giving and friendly person, so where does this darkness come from?
I think that yes, there have been a lot of changes along the way for me. I feel like I’ve lived three very different and distinct lives: the life I had when I was a devout Mormon, a sort of in-between life I had when I’d been excommunicated and had decided that I was opposed to things like marriage and children, and then my life now as someone happily married to another former Mormon with whom I have a six-year-old son. I do think there have been shifts in the emphasis or focus of what I’m writing based on what my current concerns have been, but yes, there’s always been a commitment to seeing the darker side of things, though not without a certain amount of humor.
The question of where the darkness comes from is a difficult one. I’ve always been a fairly happy person, even in my least happy times. I’ve had a good life (or a good three lives, I suppose). I think, paradoxically, that that stability is what allows me to look at the darker side of things without flinching. But there’s also something else that draws me to looking at it, to thinking the darkness through. I think it’s a sort of curiosity about human behavior in general, but also an intense interest in how wrong things can potentially go with human beings.
Of your writing, Bobbie Louise Hawkins one said that there was a necessity for the darkness in your work as it is the only way to approach certain philosophical or metaphysical questions. Do you agree with this and do you find that there are other areas where your dark humor is better suited to get at the subject?
It was very kind of Bobbie to say that, and I agree. There’s a certain set of philosophical problems that my work seems to come back to, having to do primarily with the impossibility of knowing anything for certain and with contradictions of selfhood, though I’m always shifting the way these issues are looked at slightly—that’s what keeps me interested in writing the next book, the realization that I haven’t managed to exhaust the issues. I think, too, that violence and darkness, when handled in a certain way, strips away the layers of culture that we use to insulate ourselves from private and public calamity. I think what I’m doing at heart in my work is trying to capture what it feels like when the security you felt, the certainty you had about the world, about something within the world, is stripped away. To allow readers to experience the vertigo of that, but at remove that allows them to process it aesthetically. That strikes me as an ethical enterprise even when the book gets very dark in that it’s about engaging someone with an intense experience that is not their own (and engaging in it myself as a writer in an even more intense degree) in a way that insists on empathy, but also makes that empathy suspect or uncomfortable sometimes.
Though you’ve written novels, you publish more collections of short stories. In fact, I’ve heard people call you a modern master of the short story. Considering how much of your time is dedicated to teaching and family, is this a matter of necessity or do you find a kind of freedom in the short story that you don’t find in longer work?
I love the short story as a form, and wish it had more respect than it currently does in the United States: there’s so much drive and pressure here for writers to write novels, even if they’re more naturally inclined to shorter forms. I think my favorite form is the novella, though: it strikes me as having the tautness and control of the short story but a kind of philosophical reach that very few stories manage. If I had the time and space I’d probably write more novellas… I don’t really have much of an impulse to write a doorstopper novel, but the short novel is a form I like quite a bit. But, I think I’m most naturally inclined to write short stories: it took many years to teach myself to write in the longer forms.
I don’t think it’s necessarily necessity: the advantage of being a teacher is that I get summers off as well as six weeks or so between semesters. As long as I can get a start on a longer project during those slack times, I can keep on working on it while I’m teaching. But I do find that I have a lot of ideas that come to me that seem more tailored for short fiction than for novels.
Yes, I’ve heard from writers and publishers that a novel needs to clock in over three hundred pages these days. I’ve heard of agents telling authors that they have interest in a book but that they need to make it longer, which seems slightly problematic if there’s isn’t a solid reason for an expansion outside of length preference.
Your comment on the respect for the short story in the United States is interesting to me. I know that it’s increasingly difficult to place collections of short stories these days. However, my students, especially my undergraduate students, prefer short stories over novels. Gore Vidal once said that the short story is the most American form of writing. Do you think there is one style of writing that is more “American” than another?
I think this is outdated thinking on the part of editors and agents, and is one of the reasons that younger people, both as writers and readers, are gravitating to smaller presses, which don’t seem to have the same compulsions about a novel having to be over 300 pages long. There are novels that have enough complexity that they deserve to be quite long—Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 for instance, or Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren or Helen Dewitt’s The Last Samurai—but most long novels I read, whatever their genre, I go away from feeling that they would have been better if they’d been at least 20% shorter. And there are a lot of 300+ pages novels in which I can see the influence of an editor who has taken someone’s 240 page novel and coerced them into expanding it for so-called saleability and as a result it’s a little weaker—when if they’d gone the other way and got them to try cut it to 220 pages it might have been a little stronger. That’s the problem with market-driven thinking: it doesn’t encourage books to get better.
In terms of short stories, I don’t know Vidal is right about the story being the most American form of writing, but that’s probably because most of my favorite story writers aren’t actually American. I do think it’s a great mode, and one particularly suited to our moment, and I have hopes that the prejudice against it is on the wane…
I do as well. But I wanted to pivot a little here into other ways of writing, in this case, genre. Since you were brought on to write an Aliens novel for Dark Horse, you’ve gone on to write some projects for video game franchises and even did a literary adaptation of Rob Zombie’s Lords of Salem. This, for a lack of a better term, genre writing has also made it into some of your collections of short stories. Both A Collapse of Horses and Song for the Unraveling of the World, have stories that have a more traditional genre bent to them. I’m curious if your work as BK Evenson has influence your work as Brian Evenson and if you find yourself thinking in the terms of genre anymore.
I think the B. K. Evenson work (the pseudonym I use for my straight genre work) and the Brian Evenson work have informed each other over the years, and that they’re probably closer than they used to be. I do think that Collapse and Song both are interested in thinking closely about genre and how it works. That’s something that I’ve always been interested in, but the level of attention to the particularities and peculiarities of genre in my work has strengthened. I think in my latest stories I’ve figured out things about the way that genre works that I didn’t know before, and I still feel like I’m learning. But for me with both of those collections it’s more about putting stories with genre elements next to either stories with elements from different genres or stories with more of a literary bent and seeing what happens, how they interact. Both those collections demand that readers go through a number of shifts in terms of how they reader. I’m much more interested in what a carefully composed book of stories can do than I am in any individual story, though of course I have my favorite individual stories too, of course.
That’s interesting. I remember asking you in 2002 what your favorite story in Contagion was and you were hesitant to reply. So, since you’ve opened the door for this difficult question (and I thank you for this); If there is one story from Song that you’d want people to read, which story would that be? (I know, I’m a monster).
I seem to have walked right into your trap.
I like different stories in the collection for different reasons, and in some senses I’m too close to it still for a single favorite to settle. It’s a little bit like trying to decide on a favorite child—though since the stories are written and finished it’s a little bit more like standing in front of your children’s tombstone’s and trying to remember which one you enjoyed playing with the most. It’s just impossible, and also maybe something that shouldn’t be done.
“No Matter Which We Turned” I like for its economy, for how much it gets accomplished quickly—I think you can give those two pages to someone and quickly know if they’ll enjoy the book. “Leaking Out” is one of the creepier stories I’ve written, and one of my favorites in that mode. It’s a kind of companion piece to an earlier story that I’m also fond of “Grottor.” I think of them as connected anyway. “The Second Door” is a personal favorite, largely because of the dolls and how it’s in conversation with Philip K. Dick’s “The Days of Perky Pat.” But the title story is probably my favorite, partly because I feel like I managed to do something a little bit different in it than I’ve managed to do before. I feel it’s like what would happen if William Trevor (a story writer whose work I love) had gone insane and tried to write a Brian Evenson story. I love my stories best when I have the hardest time replicating them, when I feel that some sort of magic went into their composition, and I feel that with that story.
Having known you for twenty years, I know you have a very strong work ethic. At one point, you told me you tried to write for at least a half an hour a day. Do you have a structured way that you approach editing your work or is it something you do as you go?
(Has it really been twenty years? I’m old… My only consolation is that you’re getting old too…) I no longer write for at least half an hour a day, but I definitely do something related to writing every day: translating, answering interview questions, editing, etc. But yes, usually I do write at least that much and often quite a bit more. In terms of editing, it depends a little on what I’m working on. I tend to write by hand, but I’ll often begin the next day by typing what I’ve written in and then revising it by hand on a print-out and then continuing on writing by hand. I do that with stories in particular, so an individual story might have had its first pages worked through and revised a dozen times. And I often make a few scattered notes when I’m coming to the end of the day’s writing so that I’ll have at least a slight push toward being able to continue. Nothing much, just something like:
[the interaction, exploring, the wings][getting used to the faces.][am I changing myself?][And so, I will write no more …] [bodies bound with red thread to hold their wings down, make them look like a garment]
Those are notes on the last page of a story I’m currently writing, and that I’ll return to as soon as I finish these interview questions. They seem cryptic, but each bracketed bit has something in it that’s key for me to remember, or something imagistic, or something that’ll serve as a catalyst to get me somewhere. I thinks case it’s a story that began with a piece of art by Jeffrey Alan Love, so I have his artwork milling about in my head as well. That’s how I tend to proceed: I try to establish enough velocity and momentum that it will carry me forward in a productive way. If I can’t do that, or if I feel the story takes a wrong turn, it can take me months to untangle it, but I usually try to do so if I like the concept. Knowing when the story is ready, when the editing is done, is pretty much instinctual for me.
I’m always encourage my students to leave themselves notes at the bottom of their work when they have to step away from it. Sometimes we look at them to discuss individual approaches.
On the topic of collaboration, you’ve done quite a bit of collaborative projects over the years from stories, to dramas, to graphic novels. It seems to me that with Fugue State, it was less a collaboration than that Zak Sally created illustrations to your stories. Do these collaborations vary in approach or do you find that it’s typically one person responding to another and is there a way that you prefer?
It really varies, depending on who I’m working with and what I’m doing. When Jesse Ball and I wrote The Deaths of Henry King we started when Jesse sent me a note saying something like: “1. His name is Henry King. 2. He dies.” Then we went back and forth exchanging deaths, some of which I wrote while going out of my mind in department meetings. I would write a few deaths, then he would write a few, then me, back and forth. At some point, he began to play around with my stylistic tics and I played around with his. At this point, I’m not completely sure who wrote what. It was a very organic collaboration and as much as anything was a kind of friendship on paper. Though an unusual friendship in that it kills the same hapless man over and over.
Other times, it’s been different, with each of us having distinct roles. Yes, Zak did those drawings for the stories in Fugue State after the stories, but there’s also the comic in that book, where it’s more integrated. Or I have someone else I collaborate with on TV-related that’s absolutely back and forth, where we both feel comfortable enough with one another to substantially revise one another’s writing. On the other hand, when I’m co-translating with someone (another sort of collaboration), if someone doesn’t take the lead and become the final arbiter you can have a lot of struggles and end up with an incoherent set of choices. I think each project and each collaboration has tended to fall into its own rhythm, and I’ve found that when I resist that rhythm the collaboration doesn’t work. But when I give in to it, I find things going in provocative and unexpected directions.
In the short story “Song for the Unraveling of the World,” we are presented with a very Evensonian kind of character, one who suffers from some kind of denial or who operates in a fugue state. This is something I’ve always loved about your work, the way in which you present characters whose worlds continue to uncloud before them in unsettling ways, where the characters typically find that the mystery in which they find themselves are of their own making. It’s not simply an unreliable character but a character who legitimately seems unaware of their unspeakable deeds. What is it about this kind of character that compels you to keep exploring it?
So many people go through life in partial denial. I’ve been close to people before who had excellent self-knowledge in so many ways but who were utterly blind to themselves in one or two key areas, and had unconsciously created an elaborate series of self-deceptions to prevent them from seeing this. And I think growing up in a conservative religion I saw this all the time: otherwise sensible people who had a real investment in not seeing certain aspects of their life clearly. I do think it’s a pretty common condition on a basic level, but I think it’s especially intriguing when it’s so extreme that the character seems (and usually is) unaware of what they’ve done. I suppose it’s all partly about my fascination with the way the mind works, the way memory works, and my general fascination with the brain.
Yes, but you also seem to have a particular interest in philosophy and I find that comes up in various ways in your writing. I’m thinking about “Internal” from Contagion, which reads to me like its mediating a little on Foucault.
There’s a lot related to philosophy in my writing, definitely. “Internal” began as a response to two things: Thomas Bernhard’s novel Frost (which I’d read in French translation since it wasn’t out yet in English) and my accidental discovery at the Oklahoma State University library of a small, almost parodic Swedish book from the 1960s all about reading people’s posture to understand their state of mind. Those two things did probably fuse together with the Foucault of Discipline and Punish, which I’d read and maybe even was teaching at the time—going back and looking at it, I can see that there. I’m a kind of magpie when it comes to philosophy and books I read, and also to things that I run across in other ways: things that interest me kind of hang around in my head until something else comes around that it can have a catalytic reaction with. Philosophy is a huge part of that for me, and, above all, a huge part of how the way I look at the world has been shaped. I see my work as being in conversation with it.