Q. When you were writing the stories of A History of the Imagination, did you intend for them to assume the form of a novel, or did they naturally organize themselves into one?
A: I would say, rather, "accidentally." I came to write the first stories, which would six years later become A History of the Imagination, as a game of chance. I was reading Cage. I liked the possibilities for play in his aleatory games. I wanted to make a box full of Duchampian readymades. I wanted to fashion some toys for myself.
I have a book on the shelf, a first edition of African Game Trails, written in 1912 by Theodore Roosevelt. The book belonged to my great-grandfather. For reasons unknown to me, I decided one July afternoon to write a brief African fiction. I wrote it in the manner of Hemingway. I liked the result. I decided to write another and remembered the book and, opening it at random, plundered - or, as I called it then "colonized" - descriptive bits on the African flora and fauna for my own text.
I liked the result. The piece had authenticity.
I did it again.
And again. I wanted to see if an entire fictional universe could be built up from randomly seized (appropriated) bits of the Roosevelt.
A world opened. An Africa of the Imagination. (Not a real Africa at all.) And as I played with my texts, I forgot the rules of the game: that only cribbed bits of the original text be used in composition. I found my own stories. Roosevelt's real-life characters (for I had appropriated them as well) became transformed into my own characters. His Mombasa became my Mombasa.
It came to be all of a piece.
A year into the writing, the first of the historical figures walked on stage: Méliès. He was there, on the edge of the text, looking in at the action, observing. A decoration. (A whimsy!) A small, walk-on role. I wasn't even conscious of him as an actor. But my subconscious was, had to be - for Méliès changed the course of the book. It soon became what it is. The first dozen stories were discarded, as one might discard cards that are dealt one to no advantage. I had discovered a narrative possibility, an adventure. A hand to play out. A novel. A novel written by accident. A book I did not dare to call a novel, until R. M. Berry did. It was he, who saw, in the book's more or less continuous experience, a novel.
Q. What writers have had the biggest influences on you?
A: I am, if I had to describe myself as a writer, a fabulist. Or an expressionist. Or a fantasist. I fashion artifices. I am more likely to be moved to delight by Klee and Miró, Matisse and Joseph Cornell - his boxes, than by an author, unless the author is Agnon, Beckett - of the late works such as Ill Seen, Ill Said, Company, Ohio Impromptu, Buzzati, Borges, Calvino, Cortázar - his Cronopios and Famas especially, Duerrenmatt, Hildesheimer, Ionesco, Anderson Imbert, Kafka, Kharms, Landolfi, or Schulz. The preponderance of influence on my work lies outside the American and British tradition, obviously. Unless the American is Donald Barthelme or Kenneth Koch (a magical presence in my artistic life for 30 years), or the wonderful Edson.
I have read "Tender Buttons" and am mystified, as I am sometimes in the presence of one of Cornell's boxes. I am amused. I play Stein's games. I like sometimes to be mystified. I read it again and again to please myself.
I like fables and fairy tales. They show the bones of the world, or its sickness. They are often homicidal. And dangerous. I was taught in college to despise them. I went to college in the '60s; but that despite lingered for a long time, until 1977 when I discovered Ionesco, Arrabal, and Duerrenmatt, who are also dangerous and fantastic.
To know what a person reads is interesting. That the reading each of us does may not be the same reading is also interesting. The difference advances the sum of knowledge for us all.
I dwell on all this because I believe one is the sum of his influences. The sum and then some little more, hopefully, which is, finally, his own.
I should tell you that A History of the Imagination has some fragile connection in my mind to Raymond Roussel's Impressions of Africa, which I read twenty years ago and did not understand. But it proved to be a powerful experience of language. Roussel also takes a turn in one of the histories.
Finally, there is Gordon Lish - his work and friendship. It is the latter that has proved to be a singular influence on me. His work, which I read and adore, has had no influence that I can see. But perhaps - who knows? - it has. I discount nothing.
Q. You've traveled to, and have been published in, many countries, including Spain, Germany, and the UK - to name a few. How would you say that your travels have affected your work?
A: It is my work - the plays and the stories - that have traveled, while I sit at home and write. I have always been drawn to the foreign, the alien, the exotic. The landscapes I create in my fictions are imaginary, or drawn from literature, or a conflation of the two. They are places I do not know, except as one knows them in a dream.
I do not profess to be a Realist, so the accuracy of the places I devise is of little matter, at least to me. They exist - the places do - ultimately within my imagination and - it is to be hoped - that of my readers.
They are as real or as illusory as painted backdrops are in a theater set.
I believe Joseph Cornell never left Staten Island - yet how cosmopolitan is the charm and magic of his boxes!
Q. Your publications and activities include not only fiction-making, but also poetry, drama, radio, and film. Would you say that you have a particular favorite?
A: I have had my season in each. I wrote poetry in the late '60s and early '70s; stories and unpublishable novels until 1980, when I wrote my first play. I wrote exclusively in the dramatic form for the next twelve years; since the early '90s, I have written, largely, short prose.
My interest in the theater was renewed last month by the entry into production of a play written in 1989 and long since forgotten - by me, at least. It will have its premiere in Los Angles in mid-April. If it is successful, I may be moved to take up the form once again, although my first affection is now for the short story.
I adore fiction, for the gorgeous possibilities of its language, for the elaboration of ideas, and for that neglect of an onerous "reality," as it is commonly understood, which fiction allows. While I have written plays reminiscent of European mid-century anti-naturalistic, anti-representational work (which is not in thrall to the visible world), American theaters and audiences , with their Realist or Naturalist expectations, have - with few exceptions - not welcomed them.
Q. Is your writing at all influenced by your work in the theater?
A: My fiction has been called theatrical. This is very much to the point of my enterprise. Text as stage. The white page "blocked" with notations for the actors of my little stage engines that produce sometimes nothing more important than an ape dressed in yellow gloves and spats dueling with cigars for the love of Mrs. Willoughby.
Sometimes my ideas are significant. Sometimes my theaters presume to take on the age's profound metaphysical questions. Why should they not? I am of my age and think the big thoughts that all men and women think.
I believe that the value of my work lies in its inclusiveness, which cannot be apparent in the reading of only one or two stories.
But, yes, to return to your question - yes: the structure in the more spacious narratives is dramatic. It also pleases me to treat of my stories as if they were plays - and playhouses. The reader may encounter, in my fictions, stages, proscenium arches, theater sets, and lighting instruments. They all combine to enhance the illusion, or perhaps destroy it.
I love the artificiality of opera and the commedia dell'arte and may, in my fiction, simply be indulging my love for those forms.
As I have said, there is always, for me, the idea of play, of amusement, and of the game in my work. Which is not to say, the work does not take up serious themes.
Q. Is there anything going on in experimental literature, or literature in general, that you find especially interesting or exciting today?
I must confess to knowing little of what is being written by my contemporaries, and younger writers. I read almost exclusively in the works of those writers I have mentioned. And look at pictures.
Of those writers I have read but not yet mentioned, I would add Diane Williams, Brian Evenson, and Gary Lutz. Brian is an extraordinarily powerful writer. His work excites and impresses me greatly. Diane Williams' fictions have more bite and dash and intelligence and eccentricity of language than anything else I can think of at the moment. Gary Lutz deserves the attention of the larger world.
Gordon Lish's work is tremendously interesting and important to me, although he may no longer be considered as occupying a place at the forefront of the avant-garde. I leave that to those who make contemporary literature their study. For me, Gordon Lish is, like Stein and Beckett before him, a quintessential figure of experimental literature.
I am sorry I am not well read in my contemporaries. I probably owe them that. But making a living as I do make mine leaves me little time.
Q. Do you have anything new in the works?
A: I am writing a short novel where language is structured with a precision and a rigor not yet attempted by me. In it, language is foregrounded to the extreme. There is a story, but it is not there that I look for pleasure - it is to the words. I am hoping to achieve - in the language of this work - a little of what Faulkner does in Sound and Fury and what Emily Holmes Coleman does in her extraordinary novel The Shutter of Snow. That book, I believe is little known; I would recommend it to any writer or reader whose interest in writing centers on the formal elements of language and rhythm. The novel tests the extremes of narrative composition and the representation on the page of mental disorder and does so with supreme artistry and control. I do recommend it.
If I am permitted to mention it here, I have just now had published by Triple Press a collection titled Trio, which contains my Grim Tales, Émigrés, and Joseph Cornell's Operas. It can be purchased at triplepress.com.
Fiction Collective Two is an author-run, not-for-profit publisher of artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction. FC2 is supported in part by the University of Utah, the University of Alabama Press, and private contributors.