Category Archives: interview

Interview with Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch

I first read Lidia Yuknavitch’s anti-memoir, The Chronology of Water, in 2012, and I have carried my copy in my purse or tote bag ever since. The cover is frayed, impossibly bent, and held together with tape. After being lucky enough to get an advance copy of her latest novel, The Small Backs of Children, I now carry around that, too.

The Small Backs of Children is a book about a girl. But it’s also about art-making, life-making, motherlove, creating family, and overcoming the things life hurls at us. The book centers around The Writer, a woman whose daughter died in utero and was later stillborn. After The Writer is hospitalized, her friends and family rally around her to bring her back. They remember a photograph that she loved; that of a girl in a war-torn village, backlit by an explosion that killed her family. They decide to find that girl and bring her to the States, hoping to ease The Writer’s suicidal depression.

But what happens when people from very different worlds come together? How does one decision affect the lives of everyone involved? What bursts forth from this decision? Through different point of views, the stories in The Small Backs of Children begin to unravel. Continue reading

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THE PARIS RE-INTERVIEW: Ismet Prcic

Ismet Prcic, The Art of Fiction No. 1

Re-Interviewed by Brian Hurley

Shards by Ismet Prcic is the story of a Bosnian teenager who flees his war-torn country by falling in with a theater troupe. We’ve been raving about this novel since July 2009, and it seems to be catching on. Shards was triumphantly reviewed in The New York Times, where it was named a Notable Book of 2011, and today it was nominated for a Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

In the first installment of a new feature here at Fiction Advocate, we asked Ismet Prcic a number of questions selected (stolen) from past interviews in The Paris Review. These questions were originally answered by Woody Allen, T. Coraghessan Boyle, Ray Bradbury, Czeslaw Milosz, Salman Rushdie, and Gunter Grass.

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INTERVIEWER

Were you funny as a kid?

PRCIC

I was a funny-looking kid with a gargantuan head and a big ass. Most of my childhood was spent in a constant state of fear. Humor and clowning around were a way to survive elementary school. At that age I already suspected that the world was rigged. The first day of high school, knowing that nobody would know who I am, I created a funny, uncouth persona who wasn’t afraid to appear foolish, who didn’t care what people thought about him. It was amazing how my life changed after that, how much more fun I had from then on. It wasn’t until college in the U.S. that I learned about something called the performative nature of identity. Steve Martin has a joke about that. Someone asks him how he can be so fuckin’ funny and he answers that every morning he puts a bologna sandwich under each of his arms and he just feels funny.

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INTERVIEWER

Who are the writers who made you first want to write?

PRCIC

The first book that put the seed in my head of one day maybe being a writer was Steppenwolf by Herman Hesse. My mother’s copy of it was interesting to my fifteen-year-old self because the final part of the novel, “FOR MADMAN ONLY,” was printed in bright red. Mother said the book was probably too mature for me, and I should wait to read it. Of course I didn’t listen, and the book messed me up. I still remember viscerally how excited I felt when I realized what freedom a writer had to affect the reader by sheer manipulation of symbols on the page. Later, in Croatia, waiting for my immigration papers to arrive, I read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez and was smitten. That’s the one that actually made me pick up a notebook and start writing a book. I still have it somewhere. It’s called The Man from the Light Bulb. It’s terrible, but you have to knock off some of those early books before you find the one that works.

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INTERVIEWER

Was your family supportive of your writing?

PRCIC

Nobody knew. I finished The Man from the Light Bulb in America while I was staying with my aunt and uncle. It was a little tense living with them for a while. I would walk to a local book store, find a quiet nook, and write until closing time. Once I took a writing class that my uncle paid for. I showed him my first assignment, a letter to an ancestor, and after reading the first paragraph while shaking his head, he told me I should start with action right away, the way Michael Crichton does. It was a foregone conclusion that we should one day find ourselves estranged.

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INTERVIEWER

Where did you do your acting?

PRCIC

In a dusty storage room of a youth center in Tuzla, at the Tuzla National Theater, in the performance space of the Army Headquarters, in an empty pond in the city park, on the streets of Edinburgh (I once almost got my head kicked in by a soccer hooligan in front of a pub in Grass Market district for refusing to get out of character), at the Riverside Studios in London, at Moorpark College, UCSD, and that’s about it, not including acting in real life, which is pretty much constant.

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INTERVIEWER

How autobiographical is your writing? And in what way?

PRCIC

“Life story” is an oxymoron. The only thing life and story have in common is that they have a beginning, middle and an end. That’s where the resemblance ends. I have a problem with autobiographies being called non-fiction. I can’t stand that we as readers are willing to constantly trick ourselves into believing that something as chaotic as a life, perceived through a set of fallible senses and filtered through a biased, fallible brain, translated into imperfect language, shoved into a box of orderly form called autobiography and edited for boredom is considered “true.” Shards is autobiographical in the sense that Ismet Prcic, the narrator, has been to some places I have, and done some things that I have. But Shards is in no way my life story, in no way “true.”

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INTERVIEWER

Can you give us an example of fiddling with the truth in order to arrive at a better fiction?

PRCIC

In order for me to juxtapose what really happened to me in Scotland and how that changed in the book, you would have to trust me that I know or recall what really occurred. Why would you believe me? Why would you believe any human to be capable of doing that? Story is the only truth we can have. We have to be satisfied with that.

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INTERVIEWER

What distortion of yourself do you find most troubling?

PRCIC

The weird thing is that I don’t feel troubled by these distortions of my identity. Other people seem more troubled. I got a pretty nasty letter from my paternal aunt who cursed me and my future children because I “blackened” my father’s name. She didn’t even read the book herself.

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INTERVIEWER

Could you possibly write an apolitical book?

PRCIC

All art is political by default. Even when you consciously try not to be political the absence of politics is making a political statement of sorts.

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INTERVIEWER

So how do you envision man’s future?

PRCIC

Which man? You gotta be more specific.

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INTERVIEWER

You once wrote a poem dedicated to Einstein.

PRCIC

No I didn’t. Who told you that? Eric? He’s lyin’!

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– Fiction Advocate

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INTERVIEW with Michael Moats

Michael Moats runs a web site, Trade Paperbacks, that offers book reviews along with a chance to “trade paperbacks” with the reviewer in a one-to-one book swap. A political speechwriter by day, Moats is writing a book about J.D. Salinger. He recently reviewed the latest Salinger biography for Agni Online.

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Based on your review, it sounds like nobody has written a satisfying account of Salinger’s life and work yet. What’s missing from the biographies that have been published so far? Is it even possible to write a definitive account of Salinger?

Most writers seem to have screwed up in dealing with Salinger’s hostility to their project. Ian Hamilton can hardly be blamed, since Salinger sued him and forced him to rewrite his book twice. But Paul Alexander seems to have gotten very spiteful about it and resorted to Fox News-style ambiguation to make us think the guy was a pedophile or something. The latest one by Slawenski goes the opposite direction and tries to write the book Salinger might have approved of, which really isn’t possible. People can’t seem to let him off the hook for not proving himself either a total prince or a total son of a bitch.

There may someday be a definitive account, but it seems unlikely. A Salinger bio is an exercise in decoding a handful of books and stories along with what little we know about his life, so it becomes very much about the writer’s intuition and not the subject’s history. No one is going to be able to leave out a little bit of their Zembla when writing about him. But it’s not necessarily a bad thing, if they do it right.

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You say that Salinger’s fans imagine him to be a terrific guy, when in fact he was an “unsettlingly odd recluse.” Franzen said something similar about David Foster Wallace recently—that Wallace’s fans tend to overlook the deeply unsettling aspects of his life and writing. Is this a thing? Are readers too optimistic in their assumptions about the authors of their favorite books?

It’s totally a thing, but I take it as a good sign about humanity that most people are able to assume the writer is likable and nice, rather than a prick.

I’ll go you one further on this point: one of the chapters I’m working on has a part in it about how David Foster Wallace is our Seymour Glass—brilliant, populist, sagely, suicidal. How about that for conflating the real author with who you imagine him to be?

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How does the book-swapping feature at Trade Paperbacks work? Are people taking you up on it? Do you really mail them your own books out of the goodness of your heart?

You write me and I send you a book—no trade is actually required; I just thought it was a clever name. Some people are taking me up on it, but only a few so far—which is fine since I am just mailing them on myself.

The idea for TBP wasn’t really to do the trading; it was more of a New Years Resolution combined with a move into a new apartment combined with a pun. I found myself churning through books and not even really being able to say whether they were good or what they were about, so I made a resolution to write about the books so that I would actually pay attention. Then we moved and I had less shelf space, so there were books all the hell over everywhere. Then the name Trade Paperbacks occurred to me and I couldn’t back down after that, even though it is excruciating to part with books.

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What do you like about sharing your books this way, as opposed to joining an online forum like Shelfari?

Shelfari or Goodreads just feel impersonal. I like this being an “among friends” kind of enterprise, something that I know has some traction in my own small group, rather than being tossed out into the vast constellation of a huge Amazon.com-based community. I want people to actually read the writing, which the trading is really just an excuse for.

In other words, the book trading sites are not places where I can appropriately make it about me and my showing off. Whether nerding-out over books on a blog is really an appropriate way of “showing off” is another question entirely. One the Fiction Advocate has some insight on, I suspect.

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What are you working on next (that is awesome)?

Getting married (which is awesome). And planning a honeymoon (which, same). Other than that, I’ve been researching—i.e. reading, with post-it notes—to write a screenplay about the aides de camp to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. These guys were like the original Bad News Bears. Henry Knox was a bookseller before he becameWashington’s Artillery Chief. Alexander Hamilton was an impoverished, illegitimate son who grew up in the Caribbean until he came to the states, or the colonies back then, and ended up asWashington’s closest and most brilliant aide. Then there was Baron von Steuben (seriously) who was not actually a Baron, but did swear a lot and managed to regiment and drill the Continental Army. I want a movie about them. I think I want the soundtrack to be modern music—I have a particular vision of the opening part of Animal Collective’s “Summertime Clothes” and a chaotic battlefield—and I really want that weird guy who talks to God in Braveheart to play von Steuben.

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INTERVIEW with Matthew Gallaway

I interviewed Matthew Gallaway about his debut novel, The Metropolis Case, for Hipster Book Club.

The Metropolis Case is crazy good — gorgeously written, unabashedly emotional, and grand in scale.

Check out the interview here.

The New York Times is raving about the book, too.

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INTERVIEW with Shawn Mitchell

Check out Shawn’s interview of me at his blog.

Shawn Mitchell is a writer, blogger, MFA candidate, and the recipient of a lifetime subscription of books from Two Dollar Radio. He earned his lifetime subscription by getting the Two Dollar Radio logo tattooed on his arm.

How did you hear about the lifetime subscription offer at Two Dollar Radio, and why did you decide to go for it?

I don’t remember how I heard of it, but I think it was through The Rumpus, or Stephen Elliot’s Daily Rumpus e-mails. Or, through a Facebook post by Two Dollar Radio. I think I’ve seen the deal mentioned in all three places.

I also don’t know how to explain the slightly irrational decision. The gimmick appealed to me. They have a good logo. They publish good books, but I’d only read part of The Orange Eats Creeps, so I can’t even say that I was already a huge fan. They seem like good people with a good mission, and they publish a nice-looking book.

I found myself asking my friend Ruthie Awad if she’d tattoo it on me, then I e-mailed TDR and they said go for it, then I had set up a time to do it, then I showed up at Ruthie’s place. Felt like it was out of my control almost at a certain point, or maybe I was casting it that way so I could place the blame elsewhere. Ruthie’s mom is a tattoo artist and so is Ruthie. She has the chair and all the equipment in her kitchen. She’s a baller. She asked me where I wanted the tattoo and I didn’t even have that figured out, but we thought a wrist would be good. She asked me which one and I asked her which one back.

Are you a “tattoo person” in general? Do you have any other tattoos? Were you looking to get one?

Tattoos are so common that I don’t even know what a “tattoo person” would be. Overall, there doesn’t seem to be much of a stigma attached to them. This is my first tattoo, though I’d like to get more. I’d wanted to get one for a while and passed on it, which I’m glad I did. Otherwise I’d have the Eagle Scout badge tattooed on me, or the Community of Christ emblem, or something. Things with which I don’t identify with so strongly or at all anymore. When I saw this deal it seemed like a good excuse to make the jump and get a tattoo. One of my friends described it as the Ultimate Coupon. As such, the deal appeals to my Midwestern roots. And I hope that I will always be a reader.

How would you describe Two Dollar Radio and the books it publishes? What are your favorites?

I jumped the gun on this one above. I’ve been enjoying Grace Kilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps a lot. I read Justin Cronin’s The Passing somewhat recently, and found myself shockingly bored by it as a vampire novel. It was billed as a vampire epic with “LITERARY” characterization and whatnot, but I found much of the novel boring as hell. Somehow, Cronin’s Iowa pedigree seems to serve as an excuse to write a slog of a read. I like the backstory, it just took too long to give it, and the ratio of vampire action to sad, touching character sketches was off. I know it’s a sin to say so publically, but I found myself wanting more vampiric bloodshed and less character development. Kilanovich’s book and lyric language is like a steaming pile of bloody shit that she’s squeezed into a syringe and offered up as a vaccine for Cronin’s turgid prose. I’m looking forward to trying out a few of the other 18 books they sent me.

How do you feel about putting a company’s logo on your body? Do you worry that you’ll regret the tattoo if the company goes under, or if you stop believing in what it makes?

Putting an independent publishing company’s colophon on your wrist is a far cry from getting a Starbuck’s logo tattooed on your ass. It’s not like I got Wal-Mart stamped on my forehead so I could get free Great Value products for the rest of my life. I hope Two Dollar Radio doesn’t go under. They’ve been around for 5 years I think, and with Kilanovich getting named to the National Book Award’s 5 Under 35, it seems like they’re making a name for themselves. They matter. I might not like every book they publish but I don’t like every book any house publishes. They might go under someday; that’s possible. Or they could merge with some other publisher to get by financially. But even so, the logo is fun and cool on its own, so I doubt it would bother me much. And if they suddenly, miraculously, published only celebrity cookbooks and self-help titles, who would even recognize their colophon outside of the niche that reads books that independent publishers put out? To everyone else, it would just look like a boombox. I bet if you took a poll of people on the street on what the McSweeney’s chair is, more than 95% of them would say it’s a chair, not that it’s their logo, here in Carbondale, and probably more than 93% of the people in New York, too. And that’s being pretty generous, I’d guess. I’d just make up a new story for how/why I got the tattoo.

Do you share the goals and values of indie publishing in general? To what extent does indie publishing reflect, or affect, or coincide with your life?

I just believe in language, literature, and good writing/stories/poems/everything. There’s a part of me that’s deeply cynical and I spend some amount of time and mental energy on trying to keep that stomped down with optimism, anti-depressant medications, and forward momentum.

I feel like we’re reaching a point that it doesn’t really matter if a book was published by an indie company or a New York based big house. I would trust anything that Vintage or McSweeney’s, Knopf or Two Dollar Radio endorsed. Would it necessarily be up my alley? I don’t know. But I read pretty eclectically and feel that the uptick in quality indie publishing is just a good sign: people are finding different ways to publish and market literature, proposing new models as alternatives to the Amazon-BigHouse-B&N/Borders/Wal-Mart style of conglomerated corporatized publishing. And books published by small houses are getting recognized for big awards, which is a great thing too. I bet it warms André Schiffrin’s heart any time an indie-press author gets named to the 5 under 35, or wins the Pulitzer, like Paul Harding’s Tinkers.

This is becoming a bit of a ramble, but yes, I’d say that I identify strongly with the indie ethos, but I don’t think you have to commit yourself one way or the other. Selling out went away with grunge metal. It doesn’t bother me at all when Band of Horses or Arcade Fire turns up in a chain store commercial. I’m glad they’re finding a way to get paid, considering most people are probably just torrenting the music itself. And now that e-books are gaining ground, we’re facing the same crisis the music industry did/does, or we might soon. If a press like Akashic, Two Dollar Radio, Hobart, or McSweeney’s wanted to publish a book of mine, I’d be ecstatic. They publish a good product that looks good and feels good, as a print book should to assert its worth over an e-book. But if I got offered a book deal by Random House or HarperCollins, and the editor and marketing team seemed really enthused about working with me, and they offered a reasonable advance, I’d of course go that way. The talk of indie vs. mainstream is sort of moot, given that I don’t have a book of stories or novel tied together yet, but I’d go whatever way was offered to me. In the end we might not have much choice. You can aim to write a book that will appeal to a lot of people and make you money, but you can’t bank on it. The bigger, cost-of-living-maintaining money seems more likely to come from teaching jobs or speaking events than the actual book sales anyway, unless you manage to break free of the midlist and go big, which is incredibly, incredibly rare, or earn out your advance, which is not common, or snooker some house into giving you a huge advance in the first place, which seems to happen less and less now, and which isn’t going to happen for me unless I stop spending all my time on short stories.

What would it take for you to consider getting another tattoo of a company logo? (I hear Fiction Advocate has a lovely stegosaurus…)

Another lifetime subscription? If they publish good books. Or, a lot of money if it didn’t have to be very visible. Or, hell, maybe if Best Buy offered a lot of money. License out portions of my skin like Tao Lin sold off shares of his novel. Become a Nascar body. 4 years of college to get an English major + 3 years working in publishing in NYC + 3 years for SIUC’s MFA program = 10 years dedicated to books in some way, six of those professionally, you could say. I feel like I’m pretty committed to this path, and that I have the skill as a writer to make it if I just keep at it and win the endurance race. And it’s hard to support oneself as a writer, and hoeing myself out for free books or money could seem pretty reasonable within such a system. Do you hear that Tide? I have a forearm available. I promise to include your name in a positive way in all future stories. A character could be washing his clothes with your detergent, right this minute. (Jk, I think, yes)

Also, I’ve been joking that if I manage to publish a book, I’ll get the company’s logo tattooed on my leg, and keep doing that, like fuselage. It’s a fairly common trend anyway, the literary tattoo. You could make fun of someone and call them a hipster for it, but in the end, it just shows how much the person cares about books, you hope, which is a beautiful thing. It could just mean that the person likes to look like they like books, and has no direct correlation to how much time they actually spend reading, but…that’s too depressing to spend too much time thinking about.

As for that sexy stegosaurus, I will do it for a lifetime supply of ink cartridges. How does that sound?

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