An Interview with Eric Basso: “Nothing Is Too Weird”

Basso interview--interior

Eric Basso (1947 — ) is an American poet, novelist, playwright, and critic, born in Baltimore, Maryland. His novella “The Beak Doctor” has had a cult following among avant-garde gothic writers since it was first published by the Chicago Review in 1977. Since then he has published a novel, several plays, many poetry collections, and a book of nonfiction. In part, “The Beak Doctor” reads like a modern, more Joycean version of the first selection in The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Stories, Alfred Kubin’s “The Other Side,”  in that the nameless city is plagued by a strange sleeping sickness. Despite being criminally overlooked, Basso is an important part of the landscape of weird fiction. Those interested in Basso and his work should also read his interview with Kirpal Gordon, which can be found online at Unlikely 2.0. In addition to facilitating detailed discussions and readings of a variety of his works, including select poems in their entirety, it also brings great insight into Basso’s mindset and writing: “I like presenting ambiguous situations. It seems to me a great part of our inner and outer lives are ambiguous, if we’re honest about it. Maybe I’m a realist, in that respect.” We recently interviewed Basso about weird fiction and his writing via email. Click here for a complete selection of Eric Basso’s books. — The Editors So much of your writing is infused with what readers could consider a “weird” imagination. How do you choose to define weirdness as you see it in literature and art?

Eric Basso: “Weirdness” has never been the word that comes immediately to mind for the type of literature, art and music I admire. What most readers would consider “weird” about my own work doesn’t strike me as such. When the Chicago Review published “The Beak Doctor” in ’77, I’d describe my friends’ reaction as bafflement and, in one or two instances, irritation. What kinds of weird or strange literature did you encounter growing up? Which writers and stories have stuck with you in an important or formative way?

Basso: I wasn’t a particularly bookish child. As an adolescent, I began reading a lot of European history, and many of what I’d describe as the “standard” American and European authors I encountered in anthologies. I also enjoyed anthologies of authors whose stories were associated with Weird Tales magazine: Blackwood, Lovecraft, Saki and Oliver Onions are the names I can still remember. I also enjoyed Poe. I came upon Bierce and, through a friend, Fitz-James O’Brien when I was in college, and even read classic gothic novels like The Castle of Otranto, Vathek, The Mysteries of Udolpho, The Monk and The Vampyre, to name a few. But none of those writers were influential on my own literary development. When I was nineteen, I discovered modern French poetry and, later that year, Rimbaud, Baudelaire and Lautréamont. This was a revelation. I was never the same again. These poets, with a few others, laid the groundwork for the modern tradition in literature. Then I read all of Proust, Roussel, Joyce, Kafka, Beckett, Blanchot, Pinter, “absurdist” playwrights like Adamov and Ionesco, and the authors of the nouveau roman, Robbe-Grillet, Butor, Simon, Pinget, Sarraute and Duras. Of American novelists, only three, Nathanael West, Djuna Barnes and, above all, John Hawkes. If you could choose one story in particular that’s a touchstone for you, which is it, and why?

Basso: It’s hard to give a definitive answer to that. I can tell you my single favorite short story, though. Gogol’s “The Nose.” That may sound surprising, at first. But, in its humor, and in the way Gogol makes the absurd plausible enough for the reader’s suspension of disbelief, it’s among the earliest of the “modernist” masterpieces, and the most hilarious. Also, the stories and plays of Henrich von Kleist, years before Gogol, prefigure some of the themes later explored by Kafka, and were a crucial influence on his work. Do you believe a work of literature or art can be “too weird”? How do you digest such commentary when a reader tells you your work is weird?

Basso: I look for a fiction, a poem, a painting, a piece of music to take the top of my head off. So, for me, nothing is too weird. For example, John Hawkes’s novel, The Beetle Leg, was so far “out there” that even I couldn’t understand what was going on. But it was great! And that was more than enough for me. My answer to the second part of the question is that, long ago, I became inured to incomprehension — the bafflement I mentioned before — and negative criticism of my work. When my essay, “Annihilation,” was published in the Chicago Review in 1980, it was torn to shreds by a critic in The Chicago Tribune. I loved it! I’ve always thought an artist has to learn, early on, not to take adverse criticism too seriously. The real trick, though, lies in not taking praise too seriously. What do you want to see more of, in regards to literature and art?

Basso: The Monty Python blokes want to see more fairy stories about the police. I just want to have the top of my head taken off. There’s no formula for that. A work capable of doing this, like Maurice Blanchot’s Death Sentence, comes from out of the blue. It’s unexpected, original. What do you see as being the biggest or most important purpose of your writing, the central goal of it? What kinds of questions most often lie at the heart of and drive your work?

Basso: This is a very difficult question for someone like me to answer, right off the bat, in a concise way. I think it’s best answered by what attracts and preoccupies me in the work of others. My essay, “Annihilation,” and the “Prolegomenon” to the first volume of my book of dreams go a long way to explaining how I’ve tried, in my own work, to carry the ball further. In regards to your body of work, you’ve published so much poetry and drama in comparison to your nonfiction writing and your fiction. What would you say accounts for that difference?

Basso: Pure chance. The dice fell a certain way at a certain time. When I was nineteen, I thought it would only be fiction. I began writing essays when I was twenty-five, poems when I was twenty-eight, and plays when I was thirty. “The Beak Doctor” is such an important part of The Weird. It has this haunting, disorienting quality that accurately ties a connection between the experience of the characters in the story and the experience of the reader encountering it. What was the initial spark for this story?

Basso: A friend showed me the woodcut of a 17-century beak doctor. The image was so arresting I had to pursue it. By the way, there’s a beak doctor scene in the film, Restoration. During the London plague, Robert Downey, Jr. dons the beak mask. It’s something to see. How would you describe the process of writing “The Beak Doctor,” especially in regards to the work you produced before and after that story? What kinds of insights did you gain from the experience?

Basso: In all my work, except the poetry, I laid out a paragraph-by-paragraph outline, and didn’t write the first word of the fiction, essay, or play, until I knew exactly where it had to end up. This was particularly useful in cutting down the actual time of the writing. You don’t get bogged down in rewrites or in having to recast the structure midway through. It also allows you to gauge the effect a sudden inspiration might have when you’re halfway through the work. Sometimes even a brilliant inspiration can unbalance the overall effect you want to create, and you’re forced to leave it alone, which is hard. But the pivotal work — the work central to the “before” and “after” — is not “The Beak Doctor.” It’s my drama trilogy, The Golem Triptych. The Triptych was the sum of all that came before, and the origin of what came after. In 2006, the first volume of your dream journal, Revagations, was published. You’ve often spoken about the role dreams play in your writing and your documentation of thousands of dreams. As someone increasingly fascinated in the role dreams and the subconscious play in the imagination, I want to ask: how did you come to the state where you could observe them so lucidly? What kind of “conditioning” does such attention require?

Basso: I was a great admirer of the principles of Surrealism, the daring mind-experiments they performed on themselves, which really carries back to Rimbaud. So I began, at nineteen, to experiment on my own consciousness, particularly the process through which we pass from the conscious to the unconscious every time we fall asleep. What most would regard as an eccentricity became a discipline with me. I was able to remember and recount the bizarre and illogical journey that takes place, on a daily basis, in our heads. I learned to lie still, immediately after waking from a dream, so I could seize the memory of it before it slipped away. I would also keep a small tape recorder by the bed, and mumble the dream’s broad strokes into it. I never based any of my works on a dream. Once or twice, when it fit, parts of a dream would be inserted into a poem or a play. But I always thought using dreams as inspiration would be cheating. You’d be surprised how much of “The Beak Doctor” depicts places, people and things seen. Can you share with us a dream or two you’ve had just recently?

Basso: The six years I spent taking care of my invalid mother so disrupted my normal sleep that it wiped out what had once been a prodigious capacity to remember my dreams in detail. The dream parade did, at least, last from 1966 to 1996. Finally, what would you consider the weirdest story you’ve ever read or encountered?

Basso: Dostoevsky’s The Eternal Husband.

One reply to “An Interview with Eric Basso: “Nothing Is Too Weird”

  1. I’m a big fan of Brian Evenson and I’m looking for other writers like him – with a similar macabre, deadpan approach and surreal bent. I love how his works are always challenging my epistemological presuppositions and raising questions of belief structures that are easy to take for granted. Any recommendations?