|Interview with Scott Esposito, of blog Conversational Reading, for THE CHATTAHOOCHEE REVIEW
SE: The first thing I wanted to ask you is, I really like first-person novels. I'm intrigued by the voices. So I'm curious where the voice came from for Emile, our narrator, this 84-year-old man who was a collaborator with the Nazis during World War II and sent thousands of Jews to Germany.
EM: I was thinking about my own tendency, if I’m guilty, to return to the scene of a crime. I also had my father's family in mind. He was born in Poland in 1930 but as a small child escaped to pre-mandate Palestine, while all the rest of his family was exterminated during the Holocaust. Though I’m from California, I wanted to address the Holocaust, as it colored the background of my upbringing, yet address it in a tangential way, as I did with my first novel. Though that first book is set in colonial Sri Lanka – Ceylon -- on another level it acts as an analogy about Palestinian and Israeli ideas of utopia and turf. Another motivation in Crawl Space was my question about how I would have acted had I been a nonJew living during World War II. Would I have been one of the people – say, the Catholic farmers -- who helped save people or not? This may be a question that continues to dog me, given our contemporary morass. So it became interesting for me to enter the head of evil as it justifies itself, and so set up a number of parameters for myself. Also, writing in the voice of an old man from another era comes much more easily for me than writing in the voice of a contemporary California woman.
SE: So you set these historical and thematic parameters and the voice sort of came from theme?
EM: Yes, similar to the way in which, when you write music, the rules of counterpoint form boundaries and then the music gains greater coiled, potential energy and springs out from within the rules.
SE: I'm interested in what you said about addressing the Holocaust tangentially. Reading a lot of the review coverage for this book, it seemed like a lot of the people said "Okay, this is a book about Jews in World War II." It seems that whenever you have a book or movie or whatever that touches on the Holocaust there's this tendency to—boom!—this is a book about the Holocaust. But clearly there's a lot more going on here. So I'm curious to your reaction to these reviews. Do you even read them?
EM: I do. I aim to read them and forget them, to not take the bad ones too hard and not get too puffed up by the good ones. I've always liked that concept of Benedict Anderson's—the imagined community—the community across the page. I love this feeling of the novel set out in the world like a little babe in a raft bumping downstream and finding its ideal readers, its unexpected community of readers who read it and get it. But getting back to your question, I wouldn't say this book is solely about Jews in the Holocaust. Certainly it explores that reality, but I wouldn't think that was the singular, definitive topic.
SE: It seems like this willingness to look at the book only in terms of the Holocaust is something very American. You have a quote in the book where the narrator is talking about an American character. "A happy explanation for everything. This must be the American trait I've heard about. Everything signed, sealed off. This person good, that one bad, this person evil, that one respectable." In Europe, they're more likely to see guilt in shades of gray, and things like the Holocaust seep in more to the everyday, whereas with slavery, it's something that we feel like we can consign to the past. As someone who's lived in France, what's your take?
EM: Well, I think it’s important to signify which population one speaks of. In different sectors of America, people will easily say slavery can be consigned to the past while others will see it active in every social interaction. More generally speaking, I think there's a great gulf between guilt and shame: as anthropologists will say, guilt is a very personal, lonely enterprise whereas shame is a socially held concept. So in certain areas of France, people will seem less concerned about guilt and more about shame. In the small village I lived in near the Pyrenees, social standing was so important, and gossip so important as its connective tissue, whereas here we seem less bound by those social strictures. In America we tend more toward being the lonely atomized person toting around guilt, as we have so few of those structures of shame binding us. You can see this issue of shame firing up Madame Bovary just as much as you can see it today. Not to be reductive, but consider Emerson next to Flaubert and you see what I mean.
SE: And your book makes it seem like the Holocaust guilt, or the collaboration with the Nazis, is something that's still felt today in France. So this is something you found while living in France? And did that loom larger than France's involvement in Algeria, which would seem to me to be the thing the French are more burdened with today.
EM: Well, first off, keep in mind that most of the book was written before 2001. At the time, while I was living in France in this small village, I was really distressed by the way the Muslim youth were spoken of. Of course, now this occupies the center of the discourse, given the recent attention to the burning cars in the banlieus of Paris and many other moments, but back then, as a creeping discourse along the margins, talk of the disaffected, unemployed Muslim youth had this insidious but accepted xenophobic tonality which gave me a useful, if sad, portal into seeing how Jews might have been spoken of in, say, 1937. Whereas the contemporary anti-Semitism I saw in France in the marketplace or at dinner parties had this humor-tinged frank air, as if it were empirical, like: bien sur, my friend, we know this is how Jews are, n’est-ce pas? Then again, the majority of commentators on, say the op-ed pages of the big liberal newspapers, say, Le Monde for instance, will often be Jewish, and each Jewish journalist bears his own relation to the Holocaust, either repressing it into unusual mutant forms or bringing it forward. So France’s actions in the 1940s always function as a kind of backdrop to discussion in contemporary France, even when the discussion might ostensibly concern Muslim girls’ right to cover their heads in the public schools. In 1999-2000, it did seem to me that there was a great lack of self-examination about xenophobia and attitudes toward the maghrebins, who are often third- or fourth-generation immigrants from North Africa.
SE: While now this seems to be a more central concern in France. There was a movie with Juliette Binoche, Cache, and there's been other movies in France about these issues, a movie on French public television about October 17, 1961.
EM: These things travel in cycles, the way they emerge into the zeitgeist.
SE: Yes, and in the book you kind of get into the mechanics of that. You have this group of people, Jews who were deported from France during the Holocaust, and you have this group of young people in their twenties, who are much more ambiguous about the Holocaust. They desecrate a statue of a Resistance fighter, and they seem not to even have much knowledge of wartime France. It seems like you were trying to establish a relationship between this one group carrying around guilt and another disconnected from it.
EM: Yes, I like that as a summation of the novel. In France I definitely got a sense of an ahistorical consciousness among the young, like: enough already, we have our own issues, we should move on. Yet I don't like to preach about this through the form of the novel; I much prefer for people to reach their own conclusions. From the younger generations in France, though, I did get a sense of people feeling that it did little good to be stuck in the past. These concerns flow in waves, and it seemed like a certain retro-hippie, anarchistic consciousness of anticonsumerism and so on – a la the protests against the World Bank summit meetings -- was just spreading through France as I was living there.
SE: I noticed that Cerb-X, one of the wastrels, the neo-hippie people, has a line of rings down her face. And this was her own kind of disfigurement, which was parallel to Emile's—he's born with a hump on his cheek, which is surgically removed and leaves a scar. Cerb-X says she wanted to do this because she wanted to see if people would look beyond her disfigurement. Cerb-X chose to have her disfigurement, whereas Emile was born with his, which is paralleled with Emile being pushed into his role as a collaborator and Cerb-X choosing to become a wastrel. Do you think people tend to "see the scar" and not look past it?
EM: I think we tend to come to people with lots of baggage. Cerb-X has an illusory sense of agency when she believes she’s the author of her own destiny or identity. And with her character -- not the world's most beautiful person -- I think what I was interested in was the sting of agency linked with this idea of one martyring oneself. There are many ways that Emile martyrs himself because of his hump, and Cerb-X willfully martyrs herself: these scars interested me in terms of personal agency. To what extent do you feel like you pull the strings in your own life? It's interesting that you point out the parallel. Looking back, it's clearly there, but when I was writing the book I wasn't conscious of drawing a comparison between them, though I did want the two to bump up against each other.
SE: Well, that's what makes reading so interesting, that people can see so much in books.
EM: Right, right, it's interesting what one gets out of it. At some point Cerb-X says something about being her own pornographer. So I look at the rings as her desire to seize control of how people interact with her, whereas Emile thinks himself a hapless victim of society, so for me, again, it remains a question of personal choice, but I like what you said.
SE: I wanted to ask you more about how the character of Emile and the novel came to you. Was Emile based on anyone, or how did you come to construct this history of him?
EM: This is what I love about the serendipity of writing. My original idea was to make the book about a male filmmaker who's coming to document the life of war refugees, as a search for his father. As an aside, I do think all stories are about some kind of search for the father -- detective fiction, ultimately, on some level. But anyway, so I got to France. I was in a train station -- incidentally the same station Salvador Dali in which woke up from a drug trip and said "this is the center of the world!"-- and this woman gave me this random tip that sent me to this small town in the Pyrenees, which eventually became the setting of the book. So I'm living there and suddenly there's this trial of Maurice Papon, a war criminal. I go to see it in Paris, and right away there's all these French journalists there because this 80-something-year-old man has skipped out on the trial. And this took over the novel. At first I wrote it from these multiple perspectives, but then I decided to make it just from Emile's perspective.
SE: Was this a major revision? Had you been at work on it for a while?
EM: Well, my process is that I like to just write and get lost in the story and then afterward I impose structure. I sometimes have students who like to save themselves time when writing and just start with the structure. But I feel that if you do that the writing just becomes illustrative, not painterly.
SE: That way it's always a surprise where it ends.
EM: Yes, and I think that when you're surprised as a writer, then your reader is also surprised.
SE: It seems like if you could map the whole thing out from the beginning, it would be a boring book. So in Crawl Space, the identity of the narrator is very slippery. He's trying to figure out who he was and who he is. When you were writing the book, did Emile ever just change on you? Did he surprise you?
EM: I think it's always a matter of making a character who is deep and full of contradictions, but you don't want to go too far to the point where the character is no longer that character. When I was writing Emile, sometimes I found myself feeling increasingly sympathetic toward him, which I liked because it would put the reader in a morally untenable position. And at that point I began to appreciate the possibilities.
SE: Anything in particular that made you sympathize with him?
EM: To write, I have to be able to really identify with the character, so with Emile I was growing really empathetic. And the more I wrote Emile, the more I felt for Emile as an older guy who has outlived his moment, living out his version of the right life but ending up an older man pushed around.
SE: Was that a problem? He is a war criminal . . .
EM: Exactly. What my hope is for the book is that the reader says "okay, I'm beginning to question some of my categories." I wanted to create an uncertain space around ideas of good and evil so that you couldn't just snugly fit Emil into one category or another.
SE: I definitely got that from reading the book, but I wonder if you could even put that in a review. The reviewers I read just called Emile a war criminal and that was that, even though the reality is much more complex. Do you think this is a case of people not getting the book, or people just not feeling like they can't sympathize with a war criminal in a review in a major paper?
EM: Well, if I had written it as a series of Socratic dialogues instead of a novel, it would have been a series of questions to try to get somebody to have this turn in their mind. So why is that not okay to do in a novel? Where you're asked to identify with a character and this kind of identification ends up making you question your assumptions.
SE: Right. And as I read the book, I thought it was a little arbitrary that Emile's the one that everyone dumps on. All the major characters—Izzy, Arianne, the wastrels—they all have these bad sides of them. Arianne and her husband Paul, who led the Resistance, they arguably sent some Jews off to die and definitely executed some Resistance fighters.
EM: It's true that quantity plays a role. With Emile, we are talking about thousands.
SE: That's true. But then again, Emile was very manipulated. If you're going to ask was he or Arianne pulling the strings more. I mean, she was the one who put him in the position he was in as a collaborator. He might have played a more direct role, but would he even had been there if not for her?
EM: What you're speaking of is the question of whether or not evil exists as a force in the world. Are some people more of a repository for evil than others? And I don't think I believe that. My vision may dovetail with yours. Some people may have the bottleneck in their psyche that means that societal evil happens more forcefully through them, and they're the ones we send off to jail. I’m not always a believer in collective guilt, but I’m a relativist on this question of individual guilt, and tend to be an optimist about the perfectibility of human nature.
SE: And so is Emile it seems. He's fighting with this guilt, trying to determine if he's evil or not. I noticed you had a quote by Sebald up on your website. There's this one quote of his that reminded me very much of Emile. "Writing is the only way in which I am able to cope with the memories which overwhelm me so frequently and unexpectedly. . . . Memories lie slumbering within us for months and years, quietly proliferating, until they are woken by some trifle and in some strange way blind us to life." It seems this is just what Emile's doing, dredging through all of these memories that have stuck with him for so long.
EM: It makes me think of what happens as you age, say, into your seventies. You get older and there's a metaphysical switch that goes on, a desire to sum up your life: is it a failure, does it have meaning, is it a success? That Ericksonian question about the late-life challenge being the choice of generativity versus despair. I think we all probably do it to a certain extent, even when you're a young person, but as you grow older the impulse gets stronger. The one thing I'm probably semi-evangelical about is this avoidance of our comfort zones, our habits of assigning huge categorical absolutes to areas of our lives.
SE: That's Emile's problem. He wants to sum up his life, but it's not that simple. And in Emile's case it's been summed up for him—criminal—even though it's really not that cut and dried. A lot of the book he's battling, trying to say, "well, is that my summation?" He even has that will that he's continually rewriting, as though he's trying to get a firm grip on his past. Do you think the process of writing is similar to that process of going through your past and imposing some order on it?
EM: There's that Romantic idea that you can order the chaos through art. Right now with this next novel—linked to being a girl growing up in California, girlhood sexuality, dystopia, death penalty -- I'm consciously trying to cannibalize parts of my past. It's much harder for me to do it directly, given that one of my loves in fictionwriting is that you get the chance to try on all these subjectivities. I don't like fiction where you have event X plus Y leading to epiphany Z, but rather fiction that pushes at these boundaries. Right now, while trying to write very self-consciously about certain periods in my life—the way music mattered, for example— your question becomes a daily one for me as I write: how to order the chaos, especially because I like to avoid simple equations. On some level, the memoir writers show a certain kind of bravery. Not all of them do it successfully, of course, especially those more locked into a hermetic subjectivity, the solely confessional kind, but when they really do it right, they impose order but retain some fluidity in how they view the stages of their own lives.
SE: Sebald seems like a good example, the way his books seem so arbitrary, but really they're built upon such order.
EM: They're really not arbitrary, but it's so seamless. And Kundera says in one book -- The Art of the Novel, I think -- he likes to pose hidden questions for each set of chapters and then write elliptically around them, but of course he shows his hand philosophically.
SE: That's what I think is brave about Sebald. He never even comes close to revealing his hand. The amount of trust he must have had in his readers, or maybe he just didn't care at all. Maybe he just thought people read differently.
EM: Coming from a different paradigm. Yes, I think that's true. The way Europeans read as opposed to our American impatience.
SE: Switching gears, Crawl Space is very much about identity, so I wanted to ask you about seeing yourself from another person's viewpoint. I think it's difficult to understand your own identity until you've seen how another person sees you.
EM: It's always come naturally to me to take on someone else's subjectivity. I feel that occasionally the opposite is almost harder for me: truly knowing my own likes and dislikes.
SE: Do you think this has made it easier for you to know characters? To a certain extent, your identity is based on the ideas people have about you. Like with Emile seeing himself as a victim, whereas others see him as a monster.
EM: I think of it as triangulating: you as reader see how the character sees himself, how you see him and how other characters feel about him. Out of the space built by those different views, a three-dimensional character emerges. That's my goal, to create that identity through triangulation. To go back to Madame Bovary, there's that scene where Emma's on the balcony and below a pompous mayor holds forth at some sort of rural festivity while Emma and Rodolphe discuss him and their relation at the same time. There's that doubleness on the page and it helps to create a three-dimensional character.
SE: Kind of like a parallax . . .
SE: So to extend that question to a larger scale, do you think Americans can understand their country if they haven’t traveled, until they've had that other perspective?
EM: No. For example, I grew up in Berkeley in the '70s and '80s filled with ideas about every kind of equality you could imagine. So then I was in Sri Lanka and I lived in one kind of house for two weeks, a mansion. And there was a guard whom I felt was mistreated because he slept outside and ate poorly. So I slowly started giving him food and inviting him in, and then he ended up, because of what I did, stealing a lot of things and disappearing. And my Sri Lankan friends told me I was importing these ideas of American democracy – just like certain benighted nongovernmental organizations! -- and that I had messed up the indigenous hierarchical system. When you travel, you automatically become an ambassador of America, this symbol and exemplar of received ideas, and it brings home to you what these ideas really mean. A similar thing happened when I was in France and found myself harangued by people about American policies, and it made me think about them differently.
SE: But can't you get a sense of that in America too?
EM: Well, you can, if you pay attention and read widely. But I think there's also this corporeal part, as with Emile, in which one discovers the evil within, discovering the part of you that is unabashedly American and has these traits. Digging down to that essential level you wouldn't see if you were in America.
SE: Fair enough. Speaking of identity, I also wanted to ask you about the reporter SV. There are all these journalists in town to cover this story of Emile, who's skipped trial, and he's one of them. I think he's a very interesting character.
EM: I had to cut lots of stuff about him. I could have gone on and on.
SE: Well, maybe that worked to your benefit, because what I liked was that we never actually saw him directly. The one time we see him, he's in disguise, and we don't find out that it was him until much, much later. Other than that, we only see him through these second-hand stories, and they're wildly different. On the one hand, his fellow reporters lionize him as this God-like creature, but then there's these French peasants who come upon him having sex in the bushes and for them he's this big object of mockery. So it's very hard to get a firm grasp on him. Even his name, Essvee, these impenetrable initials SV.
EM: Well, I'm not sure what to add to that, but I will say that I always had this secret longing to be a journalist. Essvee is lampooned and the other journalists are lampooned, and there's a quality of satire that creeps into this, but the truth is that some part of my psyche would have liked to be a war journalist, to travel around the world, always able to get the story but also able to help others. So on some level I would love to be Essvee.
SE: I think we all would a little bit. Driving around on his motorcycle . . . it's kind of a romantic lifestyle.
EM: He's kind of like the Wizard of Oz, except he's not this small puny man behind the curtain, and he does end up getting the story.
SE: He seems like one of those guys that it all gets served up to him. I mean, everything seems so easy, and you wonder, how does he do it?
EM: Yes, right, like Hemingway's grace under pressure. In a way he is a counterpoint to Emile—he's always in the right place at the right time, as opposed to Emile who is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
SE: It's funny that we're getting so carried away talking about him, but we only know him through stories of stories. But to get back to identity, there's a lot of groups in the book. There's the Jews, who obviously cohere around the concept of being Jewish and being victims. And there are the wastrels, who cohere around negativism, this anti-everything. And there are the reporters who get caught up in their little reporter-gossip. Then there's Emile seems to transit the groups, from being this criminal Vichy official to joining the wastrels and being purposely ahistorical, to being even Jewish in the sense that he's been on the run for ages and he really has no home and sees himself as a victim. What intersection do you see between a personal identity and the groups a person belongs to?
EM: I'm somebody who has always been fascinated by groups but who has never really belonged to one. I always find myself on the margins, in that zone where groups intrigue me while I also have a very anti-institutional streak. A small example being that when I came to Yale as an undergrad, I saw the school as a monolith and so hid in a leather jacket and my sense of myself as bohemian and thought "I'm determined to be against the monolith." It was a very kneejerk reaction, like that which the wastrels have. It’s the romantic, solipsistic sense of one’s life looming tall against the life of the group. You see it now with teenagers walking around with their iPods, listening to their own private soundtrack. I wonder, though, what one gives up by not letting a group claim you. So it's something I'm interested in, exploring that edge where my individuality dissolves into groupness, or how I resist that.
SE: Yes, very much like the wastrels, who have a very strong sense of themselves, but they also dissolve into that groupness. But they feel good about their group because they've chosen to be anti.
EM: That's the thing, that they believe they’ve "chosen," that pesky idea of agency. It's a self-deluding, romantic belief about agency, and a very American thing to say that you've chosen to be this or that, when there's a vast gray area between what you think you choose and your birthright.
SE: So I have a few general questions I'd like to ask. First off, when you're writing a novel like Crawl Space, what's in your mind?
EM: For me, it’s communication. I was something of a mute kid and books saved me. I'm not writing solely to the lonely kids or teens of the world, but for me writing remains a very important communication, a necessary part of the day. Sometimes I feel that I learned how to speak after grad school. I've explored all the arts but writing for me feels like my channel, the best way to communicate.
SE: So could you as a speaker ever match up to you as a writer?
EM: Never. I've been in the world of books longer than I've been a speaker. When I hear myself talk, it sounds paltry by comparison. I can never achieve the way I hear it in my head. I’ve often found that if you gather a bunch of writers together, you’ll learn some inciting incident related to speech in their childhoods: someone was a stutterer, someone else was shy like me, or else they found that no one was really listening to speech. There’s a beautiful preface to William Gass’ In the Heart of the Heart of the Country where he discusses finding his personal voice in others’ books before he found himself as a writer.
SE: There was an essay Jonathan Franzen wrote in How to Be Alone, where he cites this author who said similar things about children who grow up to become writers. As it being an outlet for communication. So you felt this urge as a child, where'd you go from there?
EM: Well, everyone in my family is a scientist. And I thought that what one did as a profession was not what came most easily to oneself. So I entered college as a biology major and thought, at one point, I might become a science writer, but majored in Studio Art, painting for most of my time there. Then my senior year of college I took a class with Peter Matthiessen -- he wrote At Play in the Fields of the Lord, In the Spirit of Crazy Horse. along with many other novels and naturalist books —and he recommended me to a New York editor and nominated me for some prize and things took off from there. So he was the one who gave me this sense that I could do this. But still, I had these romantic ideas of the Beat-era masculine writers, and I think that I had to live those ideas out in my own biography. On a certain level, I didn’t find real good models of woman writers. Of course now there are many more models, but in my generation I didn't feel I had found a woman writer – non-self-combusting! -- whom I could use as a lodestar. Incidentally, for whatever it’s worth, I feel very male in my writing personality. It's much easier for me to write from the perspective of old men than young women.
SE: You felt sort of in the shadow of the Beats?
EM: Yes, and I had to live that out before I could come into my own sensibility as a writer.
SE: So then after college?
EM: I lived in a shack in LA after college, had every kind of job you can imagine, including being fired from several waitress jobs, and at that time I was thinking one must endure great sacrifice to be a writer, give blood, whatever. I published in some journals and then decided to go to grad school up here in the Bay Area. I went to Mills College for an MFA in creative writing, where I particularly liked the literature classes.
SE: In what ways?
EM: Well, I’d been mostly a painting major as an undergrad but I became a writer up here. When I was an undergrad, Yale was in the throes of deconstruction – I felt I had to be really involved with the theory side just to enter my love for any book, to think it really exciting if Shakespeare used O seventy times in Othello. But in grad school, I felt like I could really be involved with the book itself. I especially loved spending a whole semester on Henry James.
SE: Is there anything you like about theory?
EM: Recently I was directing the MFA program for New College, a program with lots of theory in its veins, and I saw firsthand how theory allows people to become rigorous and think about literature in a certain way. The danger is that certain texts offer little to no resistance to theory, and are really quite easy to squeeze into any category, Marxist, feminist, structuralist, whatever, and when a reader tries to make literature fit into a preconceived template, you risk losing some kind of original kernel. Do you find theory useful?
SE: Well, I guess it gives you a general way to think about the books. Like if you say these books are part of the postcolonial school, you have a general classification for them. You've put them in a certain box, but there are limits to how useful a definition that can be.
EM: Right, right. I remember when my first book came out, they called it historical fiction. And I thought "what?" I totally did not mean to write historical fiction. I mean, you say "postcolonial fiction" and it's such a wonderful semantic boundary, and I know what writers you're referring to, but then it's such a danger too. What if you're Jhumpa Lahiri? Do you have to consider X or Y writer your colleague in some singular, communally advanced endeavor like Sarvodaya or are life and art more complex than that?
SE: Exactly. It's helpful, but if you get too caught up in it . . .
EM: Right. And this again goes back to the desire we always have to draw boundaries and not see the world as a bouquet of gray. Then again, we still have to use words to communicate.
SE: Which is very much at the heart of your book. Recently I read something that said the best literature in the late '70s and '80s was being written by theorists.
EM: That's interesting. I think I'd agree in this particular sense: that Foucault and Roland Barthes inspired so many of that era’s best fiction-writers and theorists.
SE: And it seems like then in the '90s a lot of the thoughts of theorists filtered down into novels.
EM: Though it may be a bit chicken-and-egg, because couldn't you say that already in the '60s people like Donald Barthelme, who were playful in the world of stories, were already actively subverting ideas about narrative and that these subversions filtered down into the early theorists of the '70s, who were also influenced by the ‘60s theorists?
SE: Oh, absolutely. And even now it seems like fiction writers are reclaiming some of that ground again
EM: Sure. David Foster Wallace is interesting because he overtly uses the critical theory in his work and merges the boundaries, but he's still very playful.
SE: Richard Powers is another one.
EM: Yes, I love his work.
SE: I like the way they bring science into their work. Not science as science, but science as concepts. This bridges on another question I wanted to ask, which is, who are your influences?
EM: I really like J.M. Coetzee. Gracy Paley was important at one point. More recently I've been getting into Alice Munro. I really liked Kundera early on. Philip Roth . . . in certain moments, but not all the time.
SE: It's interesting that you say Coetzee, because your style is so . . .
EM: I know, I know, I'm a maximalist.
SE: You ever think you might write a novel like that?
EM: Well, my first novel was thin, oblique, poetic, readable by a cult of five, and then my editor said "make it bigger.” Now, in this new work, I’m using what someone could probably call a few experimental techniques in order to address my maximalist tendencies while using a minimalist structure.
SE: Do you like that kind of experimental writing, for lack of a better word?
EM: I do. I know that Crawl Space has a more conventional external form, but I tried to do some different things within its blood and tissue. My heart is really with experimental writing, but at the same time, I like to offer a certain amount of entertainment. You know, the loaded gun that will go off and which keeps you moving through the text.
SE: It's a fair question, where do you draw the line?
EM: Right. But on the other hand, I do know that as a reader, if I pick up a book and read a paragraph and it has false stylistic notes – language that seems to have been written in bad faith or with bad phenomenological instincts -- it's very hard for me to continue reading. Sometimes style can become an all-consuming concern, which links back to the idea of experimental writing.
SE: That's another good question. I mean, I'm a really big fan of Haruki Murakami, but I don't think he's much of a stylist, at least judging by what I read of him in translation. The prose is flat and has this sort of monotone, but then on a structural level I think he's a genius. So it's hard to dismiss him based on style because these other parts of his books work so well.
EM: That's true, that's true. But I feel like I'm not able to write any differently. I have to obsess over style in my own writing. Like with Sebald, everything he writes is just so beautiful. It's hard not to want to write like that.
SE: Well, it certainly shows in Crawl Space. It's a great book and I really enjoyed it. I'd like to thank you again for taking some time to sit down for an interview.
EM: My pleasure.