Interview: Brian Evenson and the Weird

"Fiction can disorient and make things that should feel ordinary seem odd"

Brian Evenson (1966 – ) is an influential American writer of hard to classify dark fiction that often seems surreal or Kafkaesque. He is also a translator of French literature and the Chair of the Literary Arts Program at Brown University, as well as a senior editor of the Conjunctions literary journal published by Bard College. Evenson’s critically acclaimed story collections include The Wavering Knife (2004) and Fugue State (2009). Strange or absurd happenings occur with frequency in his fiction, and nothing could be odder than the events that occur in “The Brotherhood of Mutilation” (2003), later expanded into the novel Last Days (2009). The novella is a modern classic of weird ritual, mixed with noir and horror.

Recently, Stephen Graham Jones taught a weird fiction class at the University of Colorado. We have previously featured materials created for and from that class, including a Flowchart of the Weird and an extolment of Georg Heym’s “The Dissection.” One of his students in that class, Matthew Treon, decided to interview Evenson about his writing and weird fiction after reading extensively from Evenson’s short stories and novels. The following is the complete transcript of that interview.

Treon is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Colorado in Boulder. He recently published a story at SpringGun Press and is currently working on a new novel, a “cracked-out western ontological thriller” he claims is already seeing the influence of the weird fiction he studied under Jones. He is deeply thankful for the opportunity to interview Evenson, just as we are thankful to feature this interview. – The Editors

Matthew Treon: As a genre/mode, what do you think of when you think capital‑W Weird fiction?

Brian Evenson: I tend to think of Lovecraft, for starters, probably since I live in Providence, RI where he’s from. But I also think of fiction that has a macabre element without slotting into any one of the traditional genres, fiction that ends up having something sublimely odd about it and that refuses to remain comfortably within genre lines.

Treon: Who/what are your favorite weird writers/stories?

Evenson: Tough one. I like Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness” a great deal and also his “The Whisperer in the Darkness.” Laird Barron’s work I think is terrific, and Michael Cisco’s too. M. John Harrison has a story about a fly god which I’ve forgotten the title of [Editors’ Note: probably “Settling the World,” most recently reprinted in Harrison’s short fiction collection Things That Never Happen]. I personally think David Ohle qualifies as well, and I like his work. There are lots of others.

Treon: Have you read much of The Weird, either before or after the anthologizing? Any particular thoughts on being included?

Evenson: I know a lot of the stories in the compendium and was glad to see what Jeff and Ann included. I’m particularly happy to see writers like Amos Tutuola who normally don’t appear in his context next to writers like Eric Basso, and pieces by Borges and Jean Ray next to Clark Ashton Smith and H.P. Lovecraft.

Treon: In class we’re trying not to rely too much on Justice Stewart’s old know-it-when-you-see-it argument — we try not to limit our definition of weird fiction to a feeling. But it’s hard because sometimes you finish a weird story and it’s exactly that feeling, without explanation, that you have, where it puts you as the reader in a strange space where you’re equally curious and uncomfortable to know more about where you are — to use a SGJ phrase, “…not explained in a connect-the-dots way but in an emotional sense…” — and this space is often where I’m left at the end of your stories. Is this a space you actively put your reader in?

Evenson: As a reader, I like stories that continue to work within me after they’re done, and I think that’s the thing I tend to shoot for with my own work. Uncomfortable and curious is a nice way of putting it. I tend to think of stories as having affect, of having an impact on readers that has a kind of emotional resonance, and I’m also interested in the uncanny, in the way fiction can disorient and make things that should feel ordinary seem odd, and I’m interested as well in thinking of the act of reading as an intensive experience. All those things probably come together to create a sense of the weird.

Treon: To you — after having extended “Brotherhood” into Last Days—does “Brotherhood” mean something different to you standing alone versus being read as part of Last Days?

Evenson: The book and concept had its first life as Brotherhood, and I’ve always thought of it as potentially a separate unit. When it becomes Last Days, the second section complicates things in a way I really like, but “Brotherhood” creates a world and then moves the reader very quickly into it. I like the speed of it, and like as well how surprising that first entry to the world is likely to be for the readers, the way they end up having to share Kline’s confusion.

Treon: You often use a voice/prose style that employs what you’ve referred to as “ethical blankness” (especially in “Brotherhood” where you describe a murder as straightforward as a character getting a glass of water) that creates a sort of tension where the reader projects themselves onto characters/situations. In “Brotherhood” this seems to directly relate to phantom limbs as well as empathy. Is this ultimately a means of empathetically melding the reader with Kline (much the same we he’s melded with the “gentleman with the cleaver”), so that at the end of “Brotherhood” we ask ourselves “what would I do?” / “I’ve been giving myself away psychologically, bit by bit, trying to understand, as Kline’s been giving himself away physically, limb by limb — how much of me is left, and where was the turning point?” / “where is the line for me?” (?)

Evenson: Yes. I think that a lot of my work ends up focusing on ethical choice, but does so in a somewhat odd way, but creating a fictional space where either there seems to be an ethical  vacuum or where the readers are observing characters make choices whose consequences are not clear. That’s implicit in “Brotherhood” and becomes more explicit with the second half of Last Days, where Kline keeps asking himself the question “When is the moment that I stop being human?” My writing style in general is fairly phenomenological, with spare details but the details that are there described in a way that feels experiential to the reader, so there’s an ethical blankness coupled with a lot of thought, say, about what it’d be like to be missing a hand, a kind of palpableness to what the reader is experiencing.

Treon: I read somewhere where you had mentioned what you call the “murmur” of the world, and it seemed to refer to that which is incomprehensible when faced straight on, something that you sort of look away from but try to keep in the corner of your eye — or under your breath, to keep with the metaphor. This also seems similar to a recurring theme in your stories (e.g., “One Over Twelve” / “Jesus Barcode”) where characters (especially narrators) are dulling their senses in order to better comprehend something overwhelming in their world/situation — paradoxically hindering their ability to fully understand something as a way to better understand it.

Evenson: The term “The Murmur of the World” comes from an essay by Alphonso Lingis with the same title and is about the relation of noise/murmur/background noise to communication. But which also in a way communicates. He argues that when we understand we don’t only abstract the message but we take in the rasp of the throat that speaks it as well as all the material circumstances that lead to an utterance, and that in those details that are “non-communicative” the other makes tangible demands on us as a material body. My story “The Polygamy of Language” in Contagion plays with the notion of trying to hear language in pure form, by eliminating all sorts of distractions (including living ones) and sensory input, and it might be argued that what he’s trying to do is eliminate this murmur and get to a purified form of language that doesn’t deal with it. Of course it fails. Often my characters seem to feel like they’re on the verge of seeing or hearing something that is just out of reach and that they never can quite get to, and it may well be tied to their ability to detect the murmur but their simultaneous resistance to acknowledging it.

Treon: Your stories seem to put readers in a place where by the end we feel a certain way, have let our personal morals permeate the story, and now maybe feel differently about ourselves, but can’t necessarily turn around, point to particular words in the story, and say, “That, there, those words add up to the meaning…” Do you think this idea plays into the way you’ve rendered Kline in “Brotherhood”/ Last Days, the way he hardly ever analyzes his own actions for us, and how, with a very little amount of his thoughts written out for the reader, we only have his actions/deeds by which to think of him, actual physical deeds instead of abstractions? And is this what you mean when you write in the afterword to Altman’s Tongue, “…a neutrality of voice, an absence of authorial commentary…” / “…draw the reader into a sensation in which sensation outweighs mimesis…”?

Evenson: I think stories when they work best work in a way that we can’t see what they’re doing to us. If we can figure out how they have the effect they have, the impact is just not the same. That’s ultimately my problem with someone like Raymond Carver: most of his stories work well the first time you read them but when you reread them, you can see too easily how he puts them together and how he creates his effects. And once you’ve read a few Carver stories, the others don’t surprise in the same way —you see the bones of the story even the first time you read them. The stories I really admire are stories that I can’t put my finger on how they accomplish what they accomplish, that stay strong on multiple readings. And I’d hope in my own fiction that it’d be hard to pin down what I’m doing to the reader, that you know that something is happening but not sure what until it’s too late (which fits thematically with what happens to Kline, that sense of always already too late). I think of reading as an intensive experience, as something you undergo or live through, as something that has an effect on you and changes you in a similar way to what lived experience does. Since I think of fiction that way, I’m less worried about what it depicts (i.e. whether it depicts an accurate, mimetic representation of reality) than about what it does to the reader. It’s not that I don’t take a great deal of care with how I describe things, only that those descriptions are never simply in the service of representing reality. Instead, they’re in the service of doing something to the reader. So there’s often a subtle slant or coloration to how I approach things.

Treon: The dangers of abstraction seem to be exemplified in your stories “Younger” and “Girls in Tents”. If read as two sides of one set of experiences (but not necessarily the same moments), the two stories could be read as two narratives, constructed retrospectively, that now essentially create two different past realities, each mutating it in a way that doesn’t really allow for what “really happened” to exist. These mutated narratives (especially with the two sisters in “Younger”) also seem to now be having a sort of menacing, maybe even violent, effect on the present/future. And this seems to be doing what your stories often to do, which is take what may be a character’s/reader’s monolithic view of the world/set of beliefs, break it up, and shine a light in the cracks just long enough to let the character/reader see they’re there, then cut the light, giving them the choice and even responsibility of taking a second look. Would you say this is something you’re actively setting out to do in stories such as these?

Evenson: Yes, I don’t actually believe very strongly in the idea of something “really” happening, since everything that is experienced is experienced through a consciousness which colors, shapes, and changes it. I think we’ve all probably been in experiences where our experience of events is different from those around us, and even if we allow ourselves to be convinced by others that our perception was wrong, a part of us still remains loyal to the way we experienced the event. I do see “Girls in Tents” and “Younger” as paired stories, with one showing a kind of experience from the perspective of an older girl in a duo and the other from the perspective of the younger girl, and I think those two stories are having a conversation that can be read in the way you suggest. Another story that I feel talks to both of them, though it’s somewhat different, is “Windeye.” I think people can find my work unsettling because it often is interested in showing how much of what we like to think of as permanent and solid is contingent, and I suppose if there’s a project I have overall it’s to break up the structures and beliefs that we take for granted but which are a great deal less solid than we like to think.

Treon: What’s the weirdest story you’ve ever read?

Evenson: Hmmm. Tough one. I’ve got so many stories I like and teach and think about. I don’t know if I have a favorite… For a weird movie, probably Audition. But for weird stories, I’d have to think a lot. A recent favorite is Peter Straub’s novella “The Ballad of Ballard and Sandrine.”

Treon: There were a couple times reading your stories where being down in it I got a little freaked out, wanted to look away from the page for a minute before continuing (namely while reading “The Munich Window”, and much in the same sublime way that Kline can’t stop looking at Ramse’s torn lip early on in “Brotherhood”). Have you ever had to stop writing a story (either totally, or at least long enough to tell yourself everything’s okay) because just writing it was too uncomfortable?

Evenson: “The Munich Window” was the most difficult story to write, I think. It was very tough and exhausting and I imagine reading it would be similar, considering the proximity you have to the main character’s thought processes and ways of self-justifying himself in the world. I do tend to break things up a little, though once I’m in the swing of something sometimes it’s hard to stop, I just have to keep going. I suppose the protection is that part of me is so concerned about language and getting the words right that I can look very analytically at what’s going on with the language rather than the content and that carries me through. But I remember that when I wrote “The Munich Window” I wrote it by hand and then typed it out in a public computer lab on the University of Washington campus, and another student in the lab, someone I knew, at a certain point came up and shook me and asked if I was all right. Typing in the voice had made the room vanish around me and I’d fallen deeply into the story and apparently looked distressed. That’s when I realized it was a decent story.

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