Thursday, July 23, 2009

author talk: Rose Hunter + Dorothee Lang

Rose Hunter is the editor of the poetry journal YB and the author of Another Night at the Circus, a collection of linked short stories launched in spring.
Dorothee Lang is the editor of BluePrintReview and the author of in transit, a collection of transit stories that also launched in spring.

In June, the two authors started a mail dialogue about their books, and themes connected to the stories included: story locations / life situations; layers of identity; accidental intimacy; linked short story collections; going places (London, Mexico City, Asia), the gap between anticipation and reality and the stories coming from there...

The dialogue developed in circles and zigzags, this is a cleaned-up and sorted version of it. For fun reference in time, some dates are still included. The talk is followed by a list of links and a bibliography.

AUTHOR TALK - July 2010

Dorothee (27.6.):
I read Circus while completing in transit, and when I returned to it last week, the first paragraph drew me right in again. What stood out for me is the vastness of its scope, with the story locations reaching from Canada to Texas to Australia, and the life situation of Alex [who works in the sex trade industry] a different one in every chapter.

While moving from one chapter to the next, I felt that your use of the scenes, the way they are like pieces of a story, but aren’t giving away the complete story, open the read to a larger dimension. I found myself wondering about what happened in between the places / chapters. At the same time, those blank spots between the chapters were a vital element to the collection, I felt, the space for Alex to withdraw to, and for the reader to reflect on. Much like life, in fact, where we usually only get to know episodes of the whole story.

Also, following the Circus theme, and the carousel image, I thought that the stories are in fact taking the readers on a ride, and are spinning into each other, without defined start and stop. From end, you could go to start again, and go on one more round.

What I wondered: are there more stories of Alex, stories that aren’t part of the collection?

Rose (29.6.): Thanks for your comments on Circus, very interesting and helpful to me. In fact there may have been other stories that didn't end up making it in there. I say maybe, because the book is quite old; the first drafts for it were written in 2003. The original drafts were lost a long time ago, in various moves.

Re the blank spots, gaps - I had an idea in my head about what a linked collection of short stories was supposed to be, which was precisely this, swooping down to pluck a moment in time, out of an ongoing, larger story, which wouldn't be told, or would be told only in fragments. For me that was the difference between it and a novel.

I'm not sure all this was conscious, but in retrospect it seems to be a form that suits the mental state of the protagonist/narrator. I don't think a person like Alex even thinks in terms of whole stories, in the sense of ones with the "beginning, middle, and end". She doesn't have that coherent sense of her own identity, or belief in the sense in the events around her. I tried to build this into the collection at a few points, for example, when a john asks her for stories, and she isn't able to deliver the kind that he wants - they're not his idea of "stories" either.

Dorothee: What got to me here is how Alex clearly can analyze her situation, but isn’t able to pull out of it. For example in the story “The Worst Part of the Bird”, when she lives with Steve: The extra money did not however, improve things between Steve and me, and the nastier he got the more I felt I couldn’t live without him.”
In contrast to that, there are those singular moments that show another side of her, or even another self of her. The first is placed right in the first story: I started thinking also how before I came here, I hadn’t been this kind of person at all. .. It occured to me that if there was someone else I’d been before then there was also someone else I still could be now.”

And then, at the end of the “Bird” chapter, there is this line that almost feels like coming from another place, or from another part of her self, pointing to a world that is out of reach for her, but that comes with a quality she is still aware of, depite all, or beyond all:
“I had the idea that something genuine was offered here and encouraged myself to take it whether I deserved it or not. This sort of thing was so rare I reflected, that to toss it away was an unforgivable carlessness, a spit in the kind world’s face.”Rose (29.6.): This is not so much to do with the above, but I feel compelled to add it: a recent reader has commented on what he calls the "unrelenting sarcasm" of the book - I think this hits its greatest fault on the head, and it's for this reason I can’t really look at the book now.

But it's interesting that you pick out the ending of "Bird." When I read that I immediately thought (from memory, because I can't look at it), oh, but she means that sarcastically - but thinking again, no, she doesn't. Then I remembered, oh right, it's the implied author who means that sarcastically, like what a dope, this Alex chick, she actually thinks this is kindness? But that's not it either - I think it actually is a moment of kindness. Something in the style makes it seem like it's not though. Like there's no room for it within the kind of relentless(ly sarcastic) framework. But it still seeps through there.

Moving back to the carousel image again, your spinning comment is very apt I think. Alex lives her life in fragments and while I think you're right, there's some ability to analyze the situation, it's nothing that can't be promptly squashed down with booze and drugs, when it hits too close to home. So she stays in that same cycle. Yes - she's not getting off the carousel any time soon. And at the end there is another thing she needs to drink and drug over. This isn't a state in which a person makes changes to their life.

Dorothee (30.6.): Following the carousel, and the aspect of story structure, I remembered a series of blog posts on the theme of interlinked short stories that was up in Cliff Garstang’s blog Perpetual Folly.

In the introduction to the series, Garstang explained:
I've been thinking a lot lately about linked short story collections .. and begun collecting a list of books that fall into this genre.”
It turned out that most collections he read were not really closely linked, he writes: Having said that, the book is as "linked" as most. There are overlapping and repeated characters (although, like the stories themselves, these characters are at times indistinguishable); the stories are all set in the vicinity of the same small town in roughly the same time period..”

In fact, he found only 2 books that really worked as linked collections, Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried" and Elizabeth Strout's novel in stories, "Olive Kitteridge”. He writes: “While the linkages in the book aren’t as strong as one might expect from a novel in stories, and the story arc for the novel isn’t really clear until the end, the setting and the appearance of Olive and her various friends and family members do tie the stories together more than many of the linked story collections I’ve read. It’s an excellent example of the form.”

Seeing it from that point, I think the structure you found for “Circus” is working very well as linked collection – and it also is very fitting, as it reflects the character of Alex.

Rose (6.7.): Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son (on the Perpetual list) - was actually one of the books that was in my mind when I was working on Circus. I don't really agree with the idea of a collection that's linked only by theme as a "linked collection" - I think most books of short stories have some link like that, between the stories, otherwise it's kind of just like a: here's my hard drive, of all the stories I've written and liked, and throw them in a book.... So I think there needs to be linkages there, in any book. Which is easy to get at since humans are such linkage creators....

So for me a collection of "linked short stories" usually indicates something on a narrative level - recurring characters, a continuity of situation between the stories - etc. But I'll shut up about that now because arguments like this about categories usually get tedious and I'm boring myself already. So let’s return to return to our characters.

Alex flits all over the place, although hers are not destinations that she chooses in any determined way. The situation where she is becomes unbearable to her mind, so she flees it. Or a guy says, let's go to Texas, and off she goes. Etc. There's very little agency - that she'll admit to anyway.

The characters in your book, in transit, travel in a different way. One of the many things that delighted me about them was their tendency to read guidebooks. Full disclosure: I'm quite addicted to Lonely Planet and don't care how unfashionable that makes me. I think people object to them if the only things you seek out when you travel are things in Lonely Planet. And then there's the environmental impact, OK this is off-track; one of those journeys I can't get to this trip :(

Dorothee: Lonely Planet - I dig their guides, too. It actually was their travel forum that got me into corresponding in English on a daily basis, after returning from my first trip to Asia. Back home, I missed those travel / world / talks. And then found them in the Lonely Planet forum, in their general lounge. But it’s also true that the guides enhance a certain approach to a place: how to get there, what to see, where to eat, which itinerary to follow, what to expect...
Rose: I liked that tension that's often there in your book, between anticipation and experience. It made me think about how the experience of travel - of being in a place - differs from the other ways in which we can be transported, for instance, by lifting the tab on a perfume ad in a magazine (in your poem Tonos Intensas); seeing it on TV (in your story Berlin, Alexanderplatz), or sitting at a Judd exhibition in Dusseldorf, versus opening a catalogue, and looking at other Judd pieces, around the world (in the travelogue Room 2). This travelogue seems to point to a clear answer to this question, with the differences between the two Kandinskys - or does it?

Dorothee (29.6.): The two Kandinskys: the reprint pinned up at home, and the original painting in real size, in slightly different colors. Yes, that would be a good symbol for the difference between anticipation and reality: "Some rooms further, a close encounter. A composition in blue, by Wassily Kandinsky. The painting, I saw its reprint in a shop window once, and couldn’t resist. I pass it every day ever since, on the way to the kitchen. And now, here, the real blue. Same size, different touch, telling about the difference between original and copy."
Taking this a step further, it made me think that the tension is a returning element of the stories, as it induces most of the stories. If you go somewhere and all is beautiful and balanced, and you sit in the place and everything is just like you imagined it, this rather leads to a pastel-colored-beauty-of-the-world-sunset-photo, but mostly not to a story.
Rose (6.7.): That’s interesting, this idea that the difference between anticipation and experience is an easy/ natural way to drive a narrative engine in a travel story. I liked this bit in “The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha: “A school?” I ask, still startled by the fact that a place where hundreds of people were tortured to death can look so casual in a street. That it is not somewhere remote, but right in the middle of a neighbourhood.
A related strand I really connected with was the sense of unreality the characters/ narrators/ speakers in in transit often have, when reaching the actual place. How you can be in a place and not really feel like you're there. (Still "in transit?") Lost in transit?

This happened to me recently, during my trip - the Mexico City leg of it. Even after returning, I still feel like I haven't been to Mexico City. This is related I think not just to the scope of the place, but to the fact that I meant to go there for so long, so there was all this anticipation....

I saw this question also in a recent blog post of yours, the one about Cuban writers ("currently reading", link). The context is different, but the question similar: "Und wenn ich wirklich reise?" The "hopes, ideals, and worry of diminishing those hopes when arriving there." ....

Dorothee: (9.7.) Yes, the parallel to the Cuban writer who dreams of going to New York, and the more he dreams of it, the more he is afraid that his dreams might overshadow the reality. “And if I really travel?”

In contrast to that, a line from a book I recently read, “84 Charing Cross Road” – a friendship in letters, between Helen (a woman who lives in NY), and Frank, the bookshop guy in a London bookstores where Helen tries to order some books that are out of print. The story starts in the 1949, and in a letter from 1950, Helen writes:
Please write and tell me about London – a journalist I know, who was stationed in London during the war, said that tourists arrive in London with such fixed expectations that they exactly find what they are looking for.”

About Mexico City – I have to admit, I have no real picture of it in mind. I just picture googled it - what a mix of styles: skyscrapers, old cathedrals, Aztec ruins, highways, and blue mountains in the background - google picture link

Rose (13.7.): I found myself wandering around Mexico City with precisely that in mind. Thinking, “this isn’t what I expected….” I’d heard about the hustle and bustle of the Zocalo and also people telling me how insane and dangerous it was, and instead I found a huge (but kind of sleepy!) main square, with more police and military than civilians (preparing to have people watch the World Cup there).

Much to my disappointment, the people who gathered for the World Cup were restrained and well-behaved, which is not surprising, considering all the heavily-armed cops. Still, all around, not what I was expecting.

I needed to remind myself that I was in the actual place, now, and leave my expectations behind. But overall, I had a strange feeling of not really being there, because of this gap, between expectation and “reality,” at least how I was experiencing it.

Dorothee (29.6.): The gap between reality and expectation – there’s this friend of mine, we met in London, and went to a place at the Thames riverside, and then crossed London Bridge.

It was there, in the middle of the bridge, that my friend held in, and said:
“This is me in London. This is me in London.”

She explained that it is her way of connecting to a place, of letting the realization of being there sink in. There is a second way to read this, of course: if we are somewhere else, in another environment, with other persons around, this also reflects on our personality, and brings out other aspects of ourselves - makes us someone slightly different.

This also shines through in the transit story “These Laws of Space and Time”, when the narrator June is on a long distance flight, and there is the passenger next to her, a man, asleep. And then he wakes, and there is this accidental closeness between them - here's a quote: "She turns to the passenger next to her, to the one still sleeping. So close to her. His head, turning in his dreams, almost resting on her shoulder. His breath, touching her skin. And she, feeling comfortable with the closeness. This almost tenderness. I could cross it now, she thinks. Cross the invisible line, just for a second. The thought, it lingers between them for a moment. The thought, it wakes him up."

Rose (6.7.): Yes, I really liked that story, "These Laws of Space and Time," with the intimacy between the two people who happen to be seated next to each other on the plane. Falling asleep next to another person is one of the most intimate things you can do really; it's you at your most vulnerable. Unlike the narrator in your story I often feel uncomfortable being that close to another person in a plane, and not just for purely practical reasons. It seems like too much to see, of a stranger. It's really lovers' territory. But as you express in your story - it's one of those "travelling laws" - it's all about context....

Dorothee (12.7.): Going through our dialogue again, I just thought: it’s both surprising and beautiful that from all parts included in the 2 books Circus and in transit, we now have those 2 very different, but also very human and close moments of unexpected intimacy included: Alex at the end of the story “The Worst Part of the Bird,” and June in the plane with the stranger who sleeps and wakes next to her.

Another parallel: this underlying thought of in transit, that when we travel, there sometimes is another self coming to the surface. This also connects to the realization Alex has in your Circus:
”It occurred to me that if there was someone else I’d been before then there was also someone else still could be now.”
And interesting: When we started this conversation, I thought we first would look at one book, then at the other, and that there wouldn’t be much overlap. But it’s so interesting to look at those 2 books and discover the differences and parallels.

-- To be continued, in zigzags, shorcuts and detours and ?s ...

links / bibliography:


  1. i was listening to a speaker in denver about landscape and place- how we identify with certain landscapes more than others. his advice was that we each had to leave what was familiar in order to later realize what parts of our landscape was truly a part of ourselves. this sense of tapping into who we are (or not) when we are somewhere else comes through in this interview.

  2. Hi Sherry! Thanks for reading, and your comment....

    I think it's absolutely true, this idea of identification with certain landscapes. There are many landscapes I appreciate the beauty of, objectively, but don't feel a kinship I guess it is, with; a personal sympathy.

    I suppose it's to do with ideas of home, in terms of a soul home. Even though Australia is where I was born, it's never felt like home. Whereas when I came to Mexico for the first time I had a feeling of: Ah - well! Here it is. Maybe this is home.... A lot of this has to do with landscape (although Mexico has many different ones of course so I'm already thinking of a region(s) I suppose, too), and culture as well, attitudes; the feel of a place. All of which is often inextricable isn't it...?

    But yes, I like how a different place (for me at least) produces a different self. I wonder who "I'll" be, somewhere else? It's a good reason to travel I think....

    Hope that made sense.

  3. SO funny you mention Cliff's list. Cliff went to the same MFA program that I did. He has a very nice collection of linked short stories himself :)