Brian Evenson’s words unsteady the best of readers. They stretch circumstance to convey the uncertain and unsettling; they confuse, morph; lead you to a room in your house that nobody else can see.
The stories in A Collapse of Horses (Coffee House Press), likewise, are treacherous things: a teddy bear is brought to life by a miscarried fetus’s heartbeat; an off-planet mining operation slowly saturates with dust and dead bodies; two men are stoned by the inhabitants of a walled town; a man is imprisoned in a facility where torture is randomized. These stories are devastating and treacherous, yes, and yet, so many of the conceptual underpinnings here reveal the fundamental strangeness and precarity of life today.
Below, I speak with the author about writing life under quarantine, the idea of ‘safeness’ in literature, and the structure of this collection—one which lends a narrative to the book as a whole; an arc of gradual collapse.
Hi, Brian, thank you so much for taking the time out to chat with me! Where are you writing from, and how are you holding up?
My pleasure, Gauraa. I’m in Valencia, which is in Los Angeles county, just outside of the city proper. I’m doing okay—just sheltering in place, teaching my classes by Zoom and by an asynchronous learning site, and trying my best not to go crazy. We’re lucky enough to have a pool and a good yard, which makes things easier. But we also have a seven year old, who has been doing second grade online. Sometimes there’s a lot of competition for bandwidth…
How have you been spending your time in quarantine?
We’ve mainly been at home. We’ve been walking in the morning and in the evening, a total of six or seven miles a day. We live in a neighborhood with something like thirty miles of paseos (extra wide paths to walk on) so that’s been great. I’ve spent a lot of time preparing online classes—I find it takes me about three times as long to prepare, since part of it is asynchronous—and between that and switching off with my wife to help my son Max with his online school, I feel like I have a fraction of the time I normally do. So far, we’ve all stayed safe and healthy. I’ve managed to do some writing but not nearly as much as I’d like…
A lot of your stories seem to coalesce around people’s varied perceptions of reality, and, previously, you’ve spoken about how you grew up observing “the disjunction between people’s certainty and science.” I’m curious: given the events that continue to transpire this year, has 2020 steered your writing and philosophical investigation in a particular direction?
One of the first stories I wrote during the pandemic was a short short about two people who were ill who had to share a breathing tube, and about one of them taking advantage of the other being slightly more ill. That’s probably my most direct take on 2020. I showed it to several editors, who found it too much for the current moment, until I found an editor who liked it exactly for that reason… Other stories include one about an artificial human who doesn’t really know he’s not human who watches his only companion (who is human) die (I haven’t placed that one yet), a story about a young boy who calls a supernatural hunter down the chimney (just out in Southwest Review), a story about someone who goes through an invisible door and gets trapped in a space that doesn’t exist, a story about an 1810s trapper who accidentally stumbles out of the world, and a story based on a terrific, and incredibly disturbing, photograph by Marina Black. That’s about all I’ve managed to write since March. I’d say all of those things are translations of the angst that seems associated with the pandemic, but so many of my stories tap into a particular angst that I don’t know that they’ll feel all that different from my other work. But to me they feel like metaphorical responses to this particular moment in very deliberate ways.
Reading “A Report” in insolation felt exquisitely uncanny. There’s a line that still haunts me: “And here is the real difficulty with such confinement: it is not that you are kept in, but that the world is kept out.” How have you been constructing the world this year? Has isolation impacted your process in some capacity?
Yes. I do feel that some of the stories in A Collapse of Horses feel strangely relevant to this moment, and that story is certainly one of them. Our isolation these days is so strange in that we have this potential constant, and often very shrill, filter of “information” from the news and from social media that can feel quite alarming, as well as a lot of unspent social energy that gathers into a kind of explosive resentment. We have two couples that are in our social “bubble,” who have a similarly strict sense of protocol for the pandemic that we do, and we’ve become very close to them: it’s amazing how much they can feel like a lifeline, and how happy I can be to see them, how close I feel to them since I almost never see anyone. I had to go up to campus the other day to get a book and happened to run into a (masked) colleague who was also up there, and it was amazing how great it was to stand about ten feet away and talk for ten minutes… All that said, I think I’m one of the lucky ones since I have a significant other I like and who likes me—we like being around one another, and our son likes hanging out with us. So, I feel isolated, but not necessarily lonely. But I also haven’t had a haircut in about eight months, and haven’t sat in a restaurant since March…
I’m not sure I’ve really answered the question. I was talking about this with my friend China, and we both realized we kind of do fairly okay with isolation. I love to read, and read a lot. When I was growing up, my family used to drive to, say, a beach house for vacation, and then we’d all sit around and read books. I’ve got a lot of books here, and love to read. I don’t think I’d mind the pandemic that much if I could see the two or three people I’d really love to see, if my son’s school stuff didn’t take as much attention on my part, if all my time wasn’t taken up by online teaching prep, and if I felt comfortable going out to a restaurant once a week or so. The impact on my process has largely been due to not having as much time to write as I normally would have…
A Collapse of Horses has a such a crisp, starched texture—a sustained mood that continues to destabilize the reader, story after story. How do you organize the order of the stories in your collection to preserve that sense of collapse for the reader?
Starched is a really nice word for it. I like that. When I’m arranging a collection, I spend a lot of time thinking about a) what should go into the collection and b) what order it should be put in. I usually print out every story’s title page and arrange them in a row on the floor and think about what belongs where, how stories placed next to one another either talk to one another in an interesting way or potentially replicate one another. It’s a slow, intuitive process, but I feel like I managed to reach a good place for that collection. With A Collapse of Horses, I knew I wanted to start with “Black Bark” and end with “The Blood Drip,” the idea being that by the time you reached “The Blood Drip” “Black Bark” would be distant enough that the details of it would feel like a dream if they were repeated. Everything else was a careful negotiation that had as much to do with figuring out how to control the effect on the reader, how to offer little ups and downs that would, ultimately, continue to destabilize the reader without the reader putting the book down.
You’ve mentioned before that you often write stories in response to films — you once said that “The Dust”, for example, was a direct response to the Sean Connery film Outland. Have you watched anything lately that has compelled you to write in response to it?
I do sometimes write in response to film, and in response to other art in general. I mentioned that one of my stories is a response to a Marina Black photograph. I did a few stories that are responses to found photographs as well. “The Dust” is my own specific response to Outland, for sure—though I don’t know that anybody would see that if I hadn’t told them that. My latest collection, which will be coming out in August of 2021, called The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell, has a story in it that’s a response to David Cronenberg’s films, the film Shivers in particular. It also has a story that’s a response to Stefan Grabinski’s fiction. I feel like my work often response to other things I see or watch or read and think “I could take this in a different direction.”
What does the idea of ‘safeness’ represent to you in literature?
This is a difficult, smart question. In life, I strongly believe that people should feel that they have a safe place to live and breathe. But in my fiction, I want to put people in a position where they feel off-balance or unsettled, destabilized. I do recognize that a great many people feel that way in their day-to-day life, that that’s their basic condition, that depending on your class and color of your skin and gender you are probably experiencing life differently. What is the effect of doing it in literature? I suppose it puts a sort of person who never, or rarely, feels destabilized in a position where they can at least at a second order of magnitude experience it.
When I was growing up Mormon (I’m a happily excommunicated Mormon now) in Provo, Utah, the Mormon prophet at the time suggested that we should all keep a journal but that we should only record the good things. At the time that seemed crazy to me, exactly the wrong thing, and it still does. I think this country is in the position it is today because of all that we’ve swept under the rug and ignored. Fiction can allow us to begin to look at the difficult things that we should have been looking at all along. It can also allow us to experience things at a slight remove and, maybe, increase our empathy. So much of my fiction is about disaster, collapse, anguish, and unsettlement, but for me that pain is something that can be shared, and that should be shared. I don’t know that I feel that literature should provide safety, but I do think that it should somehow manage to unsettle people in similar ways and by doing so express a kind of kinship in pain.
When I think about the authors that influenced me most profoundly, I don’t think any of them really qualify as safe. There was Kafka early on, then Beckett, then Dambudzo Marechera, a really interesting Zimbabwean author, then Muriel Spark, who looks safe until you look at her closely, then Antoine Volodine, whose project seems to me to be, among other things, the extermination of fascism. But then again, maybe there’s a safe space for a reader like me in the eccentric spaces they create.
How have your motivations as an artist changed, or stayed consistent, over the past five years?
I’m 54 now, so five years seems like a lot less time than it did 20 years ago… I think over the last five years I’ve become an author much more literate in genre and its possibilities. I’ve found writers like Robert Aickman, and returned to writers like Kelly Link who end up putting one foot on each side of the genre/literature divide. I’ve also started looking again at writers that were important to me when I was in my early teens, like Gene Wolfe and Michael Moorcock, and seeing new things about them. At the same time, I’ve discovered Gerald Murnane, who strikes me as a truly great writer, and explore pretty thoroughly the writing of R. A. Lafferty and Cordwainer Smith, who are terrific SF writers… I’ve also found writers like Kristine Ong Muslim and Cassandra Khaw, who are doing really interesting, smart things, in a genre space. I read through all of Algernon Blackwood’s short stories, and found a few lesser known stories that had a huge impact on me—one of the stories I mentioned writing above is a story that reworks a Blackwood conceit and takes it in another direction. I’ve read around 1200 books in the last five years, and that’s certainly had a huge effect on me. Is it visible to others? I don’t know for sure. It’s definitely visible to me.
In addition to penning literary fiction, you’ve also published a number of science-fiction books under B.K. Evenson, four works of nonfiction, and several works in translation. How do you tend to separate your projects?
I find it pretty easy to shift from one project to another, and often do so when I feel stuck. The B. K. Evenson work is written relatively fast, probably five times as fast as the Brian Evenson work, but I’m still proud of it. The nonfiction I write when people express an interest in having me write it: I wrote the book on Coover because I was asked, during a job interview, if I would be interested in writing it. Of course for the purpose of the job interview I was, and then, after I didn’t get the job I found I still was. The book on Carver was based on an article I wrote back in the 90s, the publication of which was blocked by Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow. Writing that was a way of exorcising all the notes and work from my life. The book on Yummy Fur and Ed the Happy Clown is part of a long obsession for me, but also a way for me to think very concretely about the difference between a graphic novel and a comic book. Reports is a kind of book of short-short semi-nonfiction in which I think about very, very small distinctions… The translations I often am asked if I will do, but sometimes I translate something because I feel like having it available to American writers will have a positive effect on American literature. That’s certainly the case with my translations for Manuela Draeger…
In terms of separating my projects, I don’t. I go back and forth between short stories, novels, as well as B. K. Evenson projects and translations when they come up. I find that the most productive way of approaching it.
Do you find that teaching benefits you in some way as a writer?
It makes me think a lot about writing, and I find that useful. It lets me teach books I’m interested in, and lets me think about them both privately and out loud. A lot of the classes I teach are ultimately about genre and what genre is, and I find that very useful for me as a writer. I’m teaching right now a speculative fiction workshop and it’s great to be able to think through what the speculative might be. I’m also teaching a class on fairy tales, and I find it incredibly interesting to think about how fairy tales develop.
Do you have a daily writing routine? A day, or place, or time, perhaps, where you prefer to write? What does your process generally look like? And, does it vary from project to project?
I used to write every day, which I think can be an excellent practice. But after doing that for something like 25 years, I gave myself permission not to write every day. What I find now is that if I go for a few days without writing I become anxious and find I have to do it. But I do tend to do something related to writing every day, though sometimes that ends up being translating or teaching/talking about writing.
If I go more than three or four days without writing, I begin to have incredibly vivid and intense dreams, which makes me think that writing and dreaming are very much related for me. I’ve sometimes found myself spending time writing just so I can stop the dreams.
In terms of process, I write almost everything by hand first, partly because I can type nearly as fast as I can think, and writing by hand slows me down. Often I will type as much as I’ve written of story into the computer, print it out, revise it, and then continue it by hand, then type the revisions and continuation in. Often by the time I finish a story, the first few pages will have been revised six or seven times.
What are you working on at the moment? Do you find yourself drawn to any one form?
I’ve been revising proofs of my next story collection, The Glassy Burning Floor of Hell, which will be out in August of 2021. I’ve also written four or five new stories which may well be in the next collection. I would very much like to continue a novel I started working on a few years ago, but I’ve found it difficult in the pandemic to find enough time to work on it.
I’ve always been in awe of the breadth of your reading list. What have you been reading lately? Have you been focusing on any specific genre(s) this year?
I tend to read really eccentrically: whatever seems interesting I end up picking up. So no, not really focusing on any genre… In terms of the stuff that’s stood out for me this year, Rose Andersen’s The Heart and Other Monsters is a really good memoir, as is Rick Moody’s painfully honest The Long Accomplishment. I liked Iain Reid’s Foe better than his first book I’m Thinking of Ending Things. I’ve been reading and rereading a lot of Gene Wolfe’s work, partly because he died recently. Kathryn Scanlon’s The Dominant Animal is full of really sharp, crystalline stories that I love. I liked Mary Gaitskill’s This Is Pleasure a lot, and Helen Phillips’s very different The Need. Sabrina Orah Mark’s Wild Milk is great as is everything that Dorothy A Publishing Project publishes. Nnedi Okorafor’s Binti series really worked for me. Amina Cain’s Indelicacy is a kind of perfectly balanced, super appealing book. I loved Charles Yu’s Interior Chinatown and Adam McOmber’s weird and sacrilegious Jesus and John. Namwali Serpell’s The Old Drift was astonishing and Zin Rocklyn’s The Night Sun was an impressive debut. I mentioned I read a ton of Blackwood, and I think he’s such a great, great writer—he had a huge effect on me this year. Carribean Fragoza’s Eat the Mouth that Feeds You is a wonderful debut. Blake Butler’s Alice Knott is severe but great. Stephen Graham Jones’s The Only Good Indians is just perfect—the kind of book I wish I’d been able to write myself. He’s wonderful. Andres Barba’s A Luminous Republic is strange and good. Percival Everett’s Telephone I loved, as I have all of Percival’s work. Paul Tremblay’s Survival Song is great horror, as are Matthew Bartlett’s books, which I’ve been rereading. I thought David Hollander’s Anthropica was ambitious in a way I wish more books were, and very rewarding. And I loved Robert Aickman’s The Late Breakfasters and The Model—which people have been telling me aren’t as good as his stories, but they are, just in a different way. I also read a bunch of William Sansom this year, an overlooked British writer. He’s very good at his best, but not always at his best. But there are a few stories of his that I found almost revelatory… Usman T. Malik’s Midnight Doorways: Fables from Pakistan I heartily recommend to anyone interesting in slightly creepy genre fiction. I’m sure there are other books I’m forgetting.
Lastly, is there an independent bookstore you’d like to recommend to our readers?
In Los Angeles, I’m very fond of Skylight Books. Any time I’m visiting Minneapolis, I always visit Magers & Quinn. Whenever I’m in Portland I visit Powell’s. In Reno, Nevada, I visit Sundance… There are so many great independent bookstores in this country, and any time I visit a city I find a new one.
A Collapse of Horses is published by Coffee House Press, and available wherever books are sold.