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Interview with Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson

The Wavering Knife

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Conducted upon publication of The Wavering Knife in 2004.


Interviewed by TJ Dietderich

Some of your short stories, such as "The Wavering Knife" and "The Installation", seem to deal with the relationship between art and morals, portraying characters that take their passion disturbingly far. Is this an issue that you might apply to your own work? Are you "working through your demons" as one might say?

I think the relationship between ethics and art is a complex and vexed relationship. The art I'm most interested in is art that questions what we tend to take for granted. Ethics, both on an individual and social level, segment our lives, setting up velocities or boundaries, giving us safety nets, regulating our relationship with ourselves and others. Art at the very least causes us to look at our segmentation in a new way, causes us to develop a new awareness of the ethical field that regulates us. But the art I'm most interested in goes quite a bit beyond this: it refuses to be contained, it accelerates the viewer or the reader outside of the known world, and disrupts or dissipates or changes the person subjected to it. Later, one perhaps begins to make sense of it, to sort it out, but that initial feeling of being propelled outside of the human family, of facing an experience that seems impossible to rationalize, is very appealing to me.

I'm not interested in art that's transgressive just for transgression's sake. I think if artists sit down with the intention of transgressing, they very quickly become the negative image of the society they intend to transgress. Dictated inversely by society, the work is predictable and rigidly predetermined in the same way that most pornography is.

The writing that I like best is a writing that gives the sense simultaneously of great authority with the language--of control--and the sense that the writer is as surprised by the direction he's going as the reader is, that he suddenly feels he's leaving everything behind but is willing to keep on going and see what happens because the language demands that of him. I think that's achieved by an intense focus on the mechanics of the story, an attention to individual sentences, to rhythm and sound patterns carried out to such a degree that the dynamics of individual sentences occupy the writer's mind and allows what's subconsciously present to rise unpredictably and appallingly to the surface.

Part of the point has to be that if you're willing to see where language will take you, if you're willing to follow it out, you also have to be willing to face the fact that you may not be able to come back again. In a story like "One Over Twelve" there's an equation of the artistic project with self-destruction; in "The Installation" the main character seems at once willing to do almost anything for his work and also to be using his aesthetic justifications to hide something else. I think several of the stories in The Wavering Knife are about that tension between a commitment to difficult artistic endeavor and human imperfection--the delusions which we all have about what we are actually doing and who we actually are. That's probably most clearly presented in a story in Contagion called "The Polygamy of Language" but there often figures in my work as a kind of tension between the artistic project and the artist.

Early on I was told I had either to leave the religious university where I was employed or agree not to write the kind of work I was writing. Knowing that I could be held accountable, in a very tangible way, for the words I wrote, made me think very seriously about my writing. It made me feel that I had to be willing to stand behind my words. It made me feel that every word mattered, since words could potentially destroy one's career or one's life. I made the choice to choose writing over religion, a decision which I haven't regretted despite its having led to the collapse of my marriage and to a rift developing between myself and the culture in which I was raised.

Your work can be very dark and humorous. I'm actually reminded of instances in "The Intricacies of Post-Shooting Etiquette" where I was trying not to laugh at the horrible actions of the main character. Do you think "horror" or horrible themes are naturally humorous?

Max Brod talks about Kafka reading his stories aloud and chuckling and laughing as he did so. I don't think horrible themes are naturally humorous, but I don't think they're innately anything, perhaps not even innately horrible. I'm interested in the way that humor and the grotesque intersect, the way in which they both feed into one another and give the reader a moment's respite from one another. Humor is at once a device to make the difficulty of the work more palatable and something that makes the reader let down their guard a little. I'm also interested in the way one can have the desire to laugh and then feel ashamed of laughing, feel that it's inappropriate to laugh--that plays into the tensions of my work as well. I do a similar thing sometime with a combination of a very lyrical prose line and very difficult content. The reader feels at once draw to the rhythms and sounds of the prose and repelled by what's actually happening.

A lot of my stories start out slightly funny and then become more serious as they go on, the laughter coming a little more nervously. Some of the stories in _The Wavering Knife_ are more inclined to humor, some more inclined to darkness, but all but one or two have a mixture of both.

You've spoken before about your experience with the Mormon Church and Brigham Young. Religious zealots appear all throughout The Wavering Knife. Can you tell me a little about the impact that religion obviously has on your writing?

I grew up in a religious community, Mormonism, and was for many years a very devout, albeit eccentric, believer. I think what I see in religion in general is our society in miniature and in extremis.

Notions of morality and etiquette and religion circulate throughout my writing. I'm particularly interested in the way that religion can end up dominating a life and allowing someone to justify all sorts of inanities and insanities. Freud postulates mental behavior by beginning with diseased responses and working back to healthier responses, the assumption being that the diseased response is an exaggerated version of the healthy response. I think that Mormonism, as a peculiarly American and extremely conservative religion, is, when it is practiced intensely, the group equivalent of psychosis (when practiced "normally" it only qualifies as mild neurosis). It reveals a lot of things about our current society, a society which strikes me as less and less moral and ethical in any sort of legitimate way and more and more "religious." I have nothing per se against religious people--who are at best genuinely good people, at worst vicious, with the more or less deluded occupying the ground between--but everything against religion. I'm still obsessed by religion and there are certain characters and certain ways of saying things in my work that have very direct connections to my Mormon past, but I made a deliberate choice to formally leave the Mormon Church a few years ago and have no intention of belonging to organized religion ever again. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, I do think it was important for me to grow up within that structure, that I gained as much from being formed within it just as I gained something by leaving it.

Some might call your work violent (or, more appropriately, obsessed with violence) but one could say that violence is a part of life. What is it about this aspect of life that makes you so interested in it?

There's a fair amount of violence in my work, sometimes psychological, sometimes quite physical and even visceral. I think that we see human behavior more clearly, cutting through the stereotypes and preconceived notions, when we see it operating in extreme ways--and that we don't only observe it: we experience it. My work is, I think, profoundly experiential, hard for a reader to get a safe distance from, something I hope you lose yourself in. I'd like to think as well that the violence in my work is very different from that found in movies or in more conventional literature, that it intends to create a kind of intensity of experience for the reader that verges on ritual.

Is there anything new in the works for you?

I've just had a CD come out from Ant Zen records, which consists of me reading stories and two musicians, Tamarin and Xingu Hill, manipulating the tracks slightly. I just finished a novel called The Open Curtain that I've been working on for over four years and which is the last Mormon-themed work I'll probably ever write. Right now I'm trying to start something new, a novel based on a story in The Wavering Knife called "The Ex-Father." It's too early so far to say where that's going to go. I've also been asked to do a limited edition artist's book, which I'm excited about. So things are going well; I'm keeping busy.