Interview: The Weird and Brendan and Anna Connell

"Art in general is a way for us to deal with our demons"

Brendan Connell was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1970. He has had fiction published in numerous places, including McSweeney’s, Adbusters, and the World Fantasy Award winning anthologies Leviathan 3 (The Ministry of Whimsy 2002), and Strange Tales (Tartarus Press 2003). His published books are: The Translation of Father Torturo (Prime Books, 2005), Dr. Black and the Guerrillia (Grafitisk Press, 2005), Metrophilias (Better Non Sequitur, 2010), Unpleasant Tales (Eibonvale Press, 2010), The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children (Chomu Press, 2011), and The Architect (PS Publishing, 2012). His has also worked as a translator, with works appearing in such places as Literature of Asia, Africa and Latin America (Prentice Hall, 1999), and The Weird (Tor Books, 2012). More information about Brendan can be found on his blog.

Anna Connell was born in Lugano, Switzerland, in 1966. Her first book collection was the “Tarzan” series. She has worked on translating a number of authors from Italian into English, including Luigi Gualdo, Luigi Ugolini, Alberto Nessi, and numerous Futurist writers. She currently works at Little Earth School, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as a pre‑K and K teacher assistant.

I recently interviewed the Connells over the Internet about various topics, including Brendan’s writing, Brendan and Anna’s work in translation, their experiences translating the work of Guido Gozzano (published elsewhere on this site), and their general attitudes and opinions about the Weird.

Questions About Brendan Connell’s Writing… What modes of fiction have most influenced your own fiction?

Brendan Connell: I would think, to some degree, almost every mode. It also depends on the time of my life. As a child I read a great deal of fantasy — Tolkien, Poe, C.S. Lewis. As a teen-ager I became attracted to French classics, such as Dumas and Voltaire, and also such things as Carlos Castaneda. After that I began to read just about anything I could get my hands on, especially translations from Sanskrit, Tibetan, Japanese and Chinese. In the fiction that has so far been published, however, probably the thing that stands out the most would be the influence of the naturalists, decadents and symbolists. These are of course rather loose terminologies, and are often misused, but I think in my case they do to some degree apply. How long have you been writing and how has your writing changed over the years?

Brendan: I have been dabbling in writing since my early 20’s. I began to be serious about it when I was 25. The first thing I ever had published was when I was 29 or 30. A lot of the themes of my early writing remain about the same, but I hope that the contents have matured somewhat. Also, some of my newer as-yet-to-be-published material I think starts to take different turns. A lot of what I have written has been for markets I felt myself capable of entering. Now I really write what I want to and take the risk that it won’t be accepted for publication, or if it is it won’t find an audience. Eventually I hope to learn how to write. What do you try to convey in your fiction? Is it a feeling, an observation, a message, some grappling with a recurring theme, or…?

Brendan: It really depends. A lot of the horror and decadent material I have written was meant to give the reader an uneasy feeling. More recently I have been thinking more along the lines of offering diversion, some other views of reality that are disconnected from technology. I think there is often an underlying message, but I would hope that it is never too obvious, because obvious messages rarely have their desired effect. I have worked a lot with the recurring theme of obsession, but have probably done just about enough in that area, so am currently interested in more subtle themes. With which contemporary writers do you feel the most affinity?

Brendan: I feel the most affinity with those who don’t base their identity on the internet and who rely on the work itself rather than social media and networking to build an audience. The people involved in certain anthologies, such as Strange Tales, Leviathan 3, and, most recently, Dadaoism I feel an affinity with — not because the goals of all involved are the same as mine, but there are similarities. I also feel an affinity for Alasdair Gray. Does fiction have a responsibility? Of any kind?

Brendan: I don’t think there is one answer to this question. People write for different reasons. Orrie Hitt turned out seemingly countless sleaze novels in order to feed his family. So his responsibility was making money, even if he had to write ‘immoral’ fiction in order to do it. Ultimately a writer’s responsibility is to themselves. Since society is rarely faithful to artists, I see no reason artists need be faithful to it. Art in general is a way for us to deal with our demons. If we can’t do it in a story or novel or painting, then where can we deal with it? In the chair of a psychoanalyst? Certainly many politicians and generals would do well to look inside themselves with art before they heave themselves into positions of power. But maybe fiction does have a responsibility — it has the responsibility of being good. Is there a question or issue or thought about fiction that you’ve been grappling with lately?

Brendan: Well, in a public sense, I find myself more and more uneasy around various ‘genre’ labelings. They seem extremely inhibiting and certainly bad for writing as an art form. My inclination is to disassociate myself from them, if possible — though it seems difficult since publishing is currently being called an ‘industry’. But my distaste for labels is part of the reason for writing my forthcoming book Lives of Notorious Cooks—a work which certainly holds elements of many genres, but doesn’t easily fit into any. On a somewhat deeper level, I personally wonder if the idea of fiction itself is not rather old-fashioned. After all, most non-fiction is nothing more than works of the imagination. The current day forms of the novel and short story are by no means ancient, and I suspect that they might have just about done themselves in. So I think a lot about other narrative possibilities that depart from the current popular forms, and other ways to write that might help communicate certain thoughts and ideas that seem unwilling to let themselves be corralled into basic ‘fiction’. What role does humor play in your work?

Brendan: “Shakin’ but not stirred,” as the phlegm said to the pair of dice. There is a semi-autobiographical film by Federico Fellini called Intervista. At some point in it, he mentions talking with some famous director or actor or someone in the business, who gave him the advice, “Always end with a ray of light”. I am not sure if I am quoting it correctly, but that is the general sense. I think that is a very profound statement though. To end things with a laugh, or a bit of hope or something, rather than anguish. Humor also is the hardest thing to pull off well. To make someone shudder or cry is simple; to make them laugh, extremely difficult. I have never been interested in writing straight comedy, but to make someone laugh is to give them pleasure, and reading, if not a pleasure, is more often than not a burden. What have been the most interesting responses to your work?

Brendan: I suppose my answer to this ties into that of the previous question. As I have said, I consider most of my writing to be on the light side. Deviant, yes, but lightly deviant. So, when I started seeing a lot of reviews coming out about how books like Unpleasant Tales or The Life of Polycrates and Other Stories for Antiquated Children were the darkest, most gruesome things people had ever read, I was more than a little surprised. The reviews were all good, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain. But in those instances I did find it interesting that, where I saw these ‘rays of light’ others saw shadows and darkness. In the end though, once a book is published, it only legally belongs to the author. It is the reader’s to read in any way they see fit. What are you working on now?

Brendan: I have several works in progress, though none of them are translations. I am trying to finish up a sequel to The Translation of Father Torturo, which I hope to have done by year’s end. Another project I am working on is a book that is rather different. Earlier this year I wrote a sort of hard boiled children’s book that takes place in New Mexico in the 70’s, and though it hasn’t found a definite home, there seems to be some possibilities. So I am also beginning another book that is not really a sequel to that, but takes a similar narrative tone — a tone that is fairly removed from most of my other published fiction. I am also finishing a Dr. Black novel.

Questions About the Connells’ Translations… How does the process of collaborating on a translation work for you?

Anna Connell: The process has a number of steps. I do a first draft, a more or less literal translation from Italian to English. The fascinating work really starts however once the first draft has been completed.  As I’m not English mother tongue, I often feel very curious about how Brendan will translate a passage that to me seems extremely difficult or even almost impossible. Once he is done with the second draft, I look it over again and check for possible errors. If there are any points of uncertainty, we discuss them, and work on it until the tiniest details have been clarified and we are both happy with it. Sometimes, if there is an especially difficult point, we ask my father, who was a teacher and knows Italian very well. How important is a literal translation versus rendering a work readable in the language you’re translating the fiction into? Or is that the wrong question?

Anna: For me, a literal translation is like a black and white copy that lacks depth. It is however the necessary starting point. The subsequent steps focus on finding the right colors and poetry to match the artist’s work. There are also idiomatic expressions, exclamations, and proverbs that cannot always be translated literally and it’s always interesting to work these out together. It also helps me improve my English.

Brendan: I try to stick as close as possible to a literal translation, while using an English I think is fitting to the author. It is best not to add words, take them away, or change them. Occasionally it is necessary, but it is best to avoid this as much as possible. The most important thing however is that a good story or poem in, say, Italian, should not turn into a bad one in English. Is there ever a sense that there is some indefinable thing in the text that you cannot bring across the divide between languages no matter your best efforts?

Anna: There are times when the poetry of the language expresses things that go beyond the direct words. I would call it an emotional legacy of the language that embodies the culture and history of its environment. Gozzano’s vocabulary is often in Turinese dialect and this requires research and comparison, which leads to the discovery of other literary works, and this is exciting. There have been a few occasions when I really would have loved to have had the chance to talk to Guido Gozzano personally to ask him questions like, “What did you mean by that?” or “What were your feelings when you wrote this?” Yes, it would be nice to go back in time and take a stroll in the park with him. How did you discover the work of Guido Gozzano?

Anna: At high-school we covered the Crepuscolari; it was part of the Italian Literature curriculum but like many other things, they ended up being almost forgotten. One day, Brendan suggested that I read one of Gozzano’s short stories that he wanted to translate.

Brendan: In Italy Gozzano is almost exclusively known for his poetry. I however first discovered his short fiction, reading a story called “Un voto alla dea Tharata-Ku-Wha” that was reprinted in an anthology of Italian science-fiction. This led me later search out the rest of his body of work, both fiction and poetry. What about the work did you most enjoy?

Anna: I was impressed and happy to discover its beauty and eccentricity.

Brendan: Translating is hard work, so I am not sure that I get a lot of pleasure out of it. I suppose the pleasurable part is reading the work and doing research prior to translation. The translation process itself can often be rather tedious. But it is satisfying to offer something new and, hopefully, good to people who don’t have access to the work in its original language. Can you give us a sense of how Gozzano fits into the history of Italian non-realistic fiction and continental European fiction as a whole?

Brendan: In Italy, and Europe as a whole, the separation between non-realistic fiction and other types of fiction only appeared more or less after the Second World War. In the USA it appeared before that, but in Europe not really. What divided fiction was the ‘literary’ and the feuilleton. Some writers, such as Dickens, managed to bridge the gap between these, but generally the writers of feuilletons were those that were more read, but less respected. In these there was a great deal of fantastic literature. But if one looks closely, it seems that almost all the writers of those early periods at least dabbled in the fantastic. Especially when it came to short stories. Of Gozzano’s contemporaries, a great many, if not most, did write at least a few things that would be considered fantastic. Gozzano however clearly was more inclined in this direction than most. Officially, Gozzano is categorized as one of the Crepuscolari, or ‘twilight’ writers, and is considered by many to be the best of this loosely connected group. He himself however never aligned himself with any particular movement. What makes him stand out from other writers of his period, and in what ways is he similar to them?

Brendan: He did not live to be very old, only 33, so if he had lived longer it is hard to say how he would have compared to later Italian writers who came into prominence. But during the time in which he lived, he was one of a handful of truly great Italian writers. Is what makes him stand out is that, previous to him, almost all Italian poets were licking the feet of Gabriele D’Annunzio. Gozzano was able to do something very unique by taking the influences of D’Annunzio and pulling them into more mundane quarters, thus creating a softer type of literature that in a sense blends the real world and dream world. For his fiction, there is not really a lot the history books can tell us, since it has been mostly ignored, overshadowed by his poetry. But is what truly stands out, in the sense of his stories, is that they combine a lightness of tone with hinted-at depths — a sort of whimsical madness that is truly unique. Were there particular challenges to this translation?

Brendan: Gozzano, for all his simplicity, is incredibly difficult to translate. He has a very particular style that would be easy to lose in translation if one were not to approach the process with a certain amount of delicacy. Also, because the stories were written for newspapers and not collected in his lifetime, there are occasionally places where the writing itself lacks elegance or is even factually incorrect. The temptation is always there to try and fix such things, but in the end we opted to leave possible errors and places where the style was somewhat rough, since that is the way he himself left the work. Why is it important for English-language readers to encounter Gozzano?

Brendan: I think it is a good thing, not only for English-language readers, but all those interested in good literature to encounter Gozzano. I also feel that his fiction is very much neglected, even in Italian. Most people who know Gozzano well are unaware that he wrote fiction. In English a number of books of his poetry have been published, and one of his travel writing. Of these however, only two are worth reading, as the translations on the others are very inaccurate. But to answer the question: anyone who is interested in European literature should be interested in Gozzano, as he was one of the most important Italian writers. Do you each have a favorite story of his? And why is it a favorite?

Anna: “A Spiteful Day.” I love this story, which is about melancholy. I love the honesty, the powerful insight and the disarming powerlessness of the character, which I would not call weakness.  In the story he says: “The fact that I’m conscious of being in the wrong is exasperating, forcing me to carry on with my cruel words.” Melancholy is like a powerful demon that takes over the man’s will but leaves him with the gift of consciousness, which makes the event even crueler.

Brendan: The story published here [on], “The Real Face,” is one of my favorites for its absurdism. Another of my favorites is called “Alcina” which deals with a man falling in love with a beautiful English dwarf while visiting Sicily. Again, the crazy absurdism of this piece makes it for me especially enjoyable. How does it change you as a writer and/or reader to do translations?

Brendan: I am not sure the translating has a huge effect on my writing. If anything, it does give me insight into the instability of a text and how what I write, by the time it reaches some future reader, might to some degree change. When reading books in translation, it does make me more aware, I think, of what the original might be like. What other translations have you completed?

Anna: Brendan has done various translations on his own, including some poems of D’Annunzio that were recently published by Hieroglyphic Press in their journal Sacrum Regnum. Together we translated a lot of things for various businesses. For literature we have translated poems by the Swiss-Italian poet Alberto Nessi, and a number of short stories, including one by Luigi Ugolini that was published in The Weird.

General Questions About the Weird… What writers were your introduction to the “weird”, whether the Weird Tales kind of weird or something even stranger?

Brendan: As a child, my mother found the Complete Works of Poe at a university book sale and bought them for me. It wasn’t a complete set, as I recall, but surely that was my first introduction to what might be termed Weird. The story that most impressed me was called “The System of Dr. Tarr and Prof. Fether.” For a seven year old child, this story was especially fascinating. I also had an edition of Monkey for children that was very strange and delightful. My father also bought me a book about pirates, where they would commit atrocious acts of violence and drink rum with devils and the like that was rather weird. Later, as an adult, I tried, yes I tried, to read people like Clark Ashton Smith and Lovecraft. But I found them morbidly childish — much more so than the work I had read as a child. I also did pick up reprint editions of the old Weird Tales and, for the most part, found the writing unreadable. Is there such a thing as “too weird”? 

Brendan: Yes. His name is Willard. What’s the weirdest thing you ever read?

Brendan: There are a great number of Chinese books that are incredibly weird — non-fiction books on Taoism. There are also numerous Indian books, such as The Life of Naropa, which are beautifully weird. For something more accessible to the general reader, I consider the Saragossa Manuscript to be one of the masterpieces of European weird fiction. Do you see a difference between “horror” and “the weird” and does it matter to you?

Brendan: In the sense of current genre labels, there is a difference, though ultimately it doesn’t matter. Horror is things that disgust or scare you, but that are not very-well written. Weird fiction serves the same purpose, but is purported to be somewhat better written. When the weird in weird fiction fails for you, what’s usually the reason?

Brendan: Many contemporary writers imitate older writers who, for me at least, were not terribly amusing to begin with. Such as writers of ghost stories. Very few people have ever written good ghost stories, yet people persist in trying. Unless you are Oliver Onions or Blackwood, it is unlikely your ghost story will be very good. For something to succeed at being ‘weird’ it necessarily needs to cause a sense of uneasiness or unfamiliarness in the reader. But in this, many try, but few succeed. So many headless horseman, zombies, and vampires are being tossed about that I would feel far more comfortable meeting one for lunch than a childhood sweetheart. In general, it seems as if many writers think that by weighing down their fiction with the trappings of weird, it will make them weird, instead of looking inside themselves, inside their dreams, nightmares, visions or what have you, to discover those subconscious, hazy elements that are the most strange. What would you like to see more of, weird-wise?

Brendan: I would like to see more Asian and European fiction rendered into English. I would also like to see the editors of the various important anthologies and magazines shift towards a contents that reflects a post-Joycean world.

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