Sunday, April 27, 2014

Writer on Writer: Lillian Ann Slugocki Interviews E.C. Bachner

Wreckage of Reason Two (bottom left) & other Spuyten Duyvil and small press titles featured at Guide to Kulchur in Cleveland.

Last week's Writer on Writer featured E.C. Bachner interviewing Lillian Ann Slugocki about Slugocki's story, Street Car Deconstructed. Both writers are a part of Wreckage of Reason Two (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014), an anthology of contemporary women writers experimenting with prose. Today Lillian Ann Slugocki interviews E.C. (Elizabeth) Bachner, about her anthology story, How to Shake Hands with a Murderer. Lillian had a chance to read the full-length version of Elizabeth's story (as-yet-unpublished in its entirety), two excerpts of which are included in Wreckage of Reason Two, while one section was excerpted in the original Wreckage of Reason (Spuyten Duyvil, 2008).


Lillian: In an essay on Tennyson and Eliot, Sarah Eron writes, “Despite the general non-linearity of [Tennyson’s] In Memoriam, the poem does undergo a definite progression. Much of the progression derives from the poet's (or speaker's) ultimate personal reconciliation with Hallam's death.” So what drives the narrative progression in your piece, How to Shake Hands with a Murderer?

Elizabeth Bachner: This piece is a katabasis, a hero's trip into the underworld (and maybe back?). The protagonist is a girl separated, heartbreakingly, from her love, her best friend--she's lost him to various literal and metaphoric deaths--he's become a rock star, or a junkie, he's far away and they can't find each other, he's died and been buried, they've both transformed in ways they can't understand, he was a boy and now he's trapped in her memory, or lost in the dark adult world. Any katabasis is also a story about the process of writing, about where you have to go, and what you have to do to yourself, to get the unspeakable into words. The descent into the underworld to find your lost love or your lost partner-in-crime or your lost self or your lost gods or your lost mother, child, sister, or friend is a crazy, dangerous, and definitely non-linear trip. You might die on that trip. You might transform into something you can't recognize or face.

Lillian: I’m really fascinated with your narrative structure. I’m kind of lit crit geek, and am in awe of this story. It reads like a mash-up of memoir and myth. In particular, the myth of Leda and the Swan is writ large through out it. I often use myth as subtext in my work, and wondered if you would talk about that process.

Elizabeth: Yes, I love myth!! And for me, getting closer to and more deeply inside of the myths I love is one of the most frightening and ecstatic things about writing. When I was working on this sequence, I was reading Roberto Calasso's The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, and also rereading Ovid's Metamorphosis. I'm not sure why I find these themes so intense and electrifying--I guess it's the idea of boundaries between the imagined/imaginary world of art or poetry, and the "real" world of flesh-and-blood bodies being violently crossed or painfully corroded, which is how I experience the writing of lyric work. I like the idea of the genii, a kind of demonic energy that surges through a writer at the moment of inspiration, and can just as easily kill her or make her lose her mind as help her work...these myths about gods and humans erotically colliding, humans visiting the underworld (and maybe surviving), and humans transforming into inhuman things address those experiences--of living in a human body, of (dangerously) experiencing the creative process and the wider universe, things that violate the boundaries of your individual self, or maybe show how those boundaries were an illusion in the first place.

I loved reading your piece on Leda! I have a short one written pretty recently about Actaeon coming upon the virgin goddess Diana in the woods, naked, bathing with her nymphs. In Ovid's story, she turns him into a stag as punishment for seeing her like that, and I was interested in Diana's experience in that version. I've loved Greek and Roman myths since I was a little kid, and my characters and very influenced by those characters--the nymphs, the lovers, the questing heroes with their best buddies, the boy flying too close to the sun in the wings his father made, the jealous goddesses, the mortal girls who make the goddesses jealous, the girls who open the box or eat the pomegranate. The vast, expansive Hindu pantheon has always eluded me, but I find some of those stories coming up in the novel I'm working on now, probably because I'm recently back from a very trippy trip to Nepal. I'm also finding old Jewish folktales popping up in there.

Lillian: The idea of history, real and imagined, seems to travel though the story, and I thought, while I was reading it that the personal really is the political. Would you agree?

Elizabeth: I definitely agree! The protagonist in this piece is struggling with history--her own role in history and whether she'll be remembered, her manuscripts lost under the bed that might never be read by anybody, and also the broader problems of how history has unfolded. How we remember, commemorate, forget, or ignore the dark side of human history--the problems of genocide, rape, slavery, cruelty, and war.

When I write about history or the present, when in think about where I fit in, I try to keep in mind Primo Levi's poem Shema. I try to keep in mind his challenge, his indictment, his wish that if I don't live consciously, if I don't keep in mind these dark, filthy things that have happened in the past, and these dark, filthy things that are happening right now (the people who are being tortured every morning at the same time as I'm brushing my teeth in my safe bathroom, the children who are being raped right now, and right now, and again right now, the asylum-seekers who have committed no real crime who are incarcerated near where I live, separated from their families) that if I, if we, live a life turning a blind eye to these things, we should be cursed. I try to keep this in mind when I'm working, but I'm not as effective as I wish in addressing it directly. This piece you've read (How To Shake Hands with a Murderer) is probably where I'm most overt about it, since my main character is struggling with this very problem. I like to use the personal--work that's apparently confessional and frilly--to lull readers, seduce and trick them, and then pull back the curtain and force them to look. I think any work, prose or poetry, that's truthful and true to itself--that's uncompromising--is politically effective, usually moreso than work that attempts to make a particular political or activist point. The form and process are as important as the content. Working and living as if I'm a real writer whose work matters, who exists in the history of the art form, whose work has an audience that will love it or hate it or reject it or think about it while they walk home at night, an audience who might read it a second time--and trying to keep the work truthful--is something that feels to me like a defiant act. In some parts of the world, truthful writers are still exiled, tortured, or killed for working...and in other parts of the world, the ways that truthful writers are censored, hobbled, or ignored are more subtle. I keep the VIDA statistics in mind when I think about my work.

Lillian: I love the mix of high and low culture--Heidegger and blow jobs, Nicole Kidman and rock stars, Huck Finn and religion. In that sense, it reminds me very much of The Wasteland-- were you at all influenced by Eliot, and if not, who?

Elizabeth: When I was fifteen, I used to walk around with T.S. Eliot poems--mostly The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and Preludes--running through my head like songs. He's the main influence in this sequence of work--not in the sense that I use his poetry as a conscious model for mine, but I just read him and read him and read him and I have his Selected Poems in my bones. I was finishing this piece when I was in my late twenties--ten years ago now. But first love and lost childhood were such central themes in the work that I think the poems and novels and songs and characters from history I loved most when I was fourteen or fifteen, falling madly in love with a boy and getting my heart broken, falling madly in love with poetry and getting my heart bruised, heavily influenced the work: Eliot and Pound, Edna St. Vincent Millay's Prayer to Persephone, Henry Miller and his wife, June, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Molly Bloom and Anna Livia Plurabelle, Anna Karenina and Turgenev's Fathers and Sons. When I was twenty-seven and first working on this, I got nostalgic for that wild, beautiful, sad as hell fifteen-year-old feeling. All that ragged love for boys and for poems.

Lillian: There is a meta element to the story: A self-aware speaker who is both an organic part of the narrative, but who also paradoxically stands outside looking in. It’s an unique point of view, almost like watching a dream unspool. Can you talk about how you handled point of view?

Elizabeth: I'm obsessed with the problem of the protagonist versus the author. I write a lot of memoir that isn't really memoir, just fiction or poetry where I've used something about my body or my life or my self as a kind of medium to work with. Even in my nonfiction, the "me" voice is really a protagonist more than a version of me, the person. The novel I'm working on now is pretty much all about the problem of point of view. There's a line in this piece about how to write satire--in the Celtic tradition, a satire was a song that would curse and harm the person it was about. There is an element of satire or self-satire in all of my work, especially in how I create and characterize my protagonists. I think that writing fiction or poetry is an experience of being all-powerful, like a deity, while at the same time being completely powerless, at the same time having your whole life entirely at the mercy of your work. It's why a lot of the really interesting writers in history have suffered so much, and many haven't survived the process of making their work--or they haven't survived it in one piece. Here, my protagonist sees herself right in the middle of literature and history and her own life, but at the same time she's trapped outside of everything she wants, and her masterwork is just a daydream. In most of my work, I leave this problem of point of view naked and exposed. Most of my characters are also artists, so this problem comes up for them a lot too.


Read Part I of this Writer on Writer: E.C. Bachner Interviews Lillian Ann Slugocki about Street Car Deconstructed

Check out past Writer on Writer interviews, and stay tuned for more!

Two novels about suicide epidemics:
Daniel McCloskey Interviews Bradley Spinelli (Killing Williamsburg)

Bradley Spinelli Interviews Daniel McCloskey (A Film About Billy)

Two novels about adjunct professors:
Dave Newman Interviews Alex Kudera (Fight For Your Long Day)

Alex Kudera Interviews Dave Newman (Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children)

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Writer on Writer: E.C. Bachner Interviews Lillian Ann Slugocki

This installment in the Writer on Writer interview series has a twist: Instead of asking the participants to read a whole book, I asked two writers involved in the same anthology to read each other's anthology piece. The anthology in question is one I'm proud to be included in as well. Wreckage of Reason Two (Spuyten Duyvil, 2014) is the sequel to Wreckage of Reason (Spuyten Duyvil, 2008), and both anthologies feature contemporary women writers experimenting with prose. This week's Writer on Writer features E.C. Bachner and Lillian Ann Slugocki, two New Yorkers whose bold narrative voices pop off the page. Today E.C. (Elizabeth) Bachner interviews Lillian Ann Slugocki about Lillian's story, Streetcar Deconstructed.

Stay tuned, as always, for the second part of the interview, when Lillian will ask Elizabeth about Elizabeth's story, How to Shake Hands with a Murderer.


Elizabeth Bachner: I'm obsessed with the idea of whether there are differences between a character and a person, an author and a self, and I love the brilliant and playful way your feminist deconstruction of A Streetcar Named Desire approaches these questions. What are your ways of thinking about autobiography versus fiction, "real" versus imaginary or invented? How do you use yourself in your work? How does your work change and shape your life?

Lillian Ann Slugocki: My life is like this scrapbook of stories, and people, and cities--and I look at it, dispassionately, as the raw material for my work. But having said that, there are many layers over and under the autobiography. I layer myth--my current obsessions are Leda, Orpheus, Eurydice and Leander--as well as narrative structure--e.g. a conflict and its resolution, as well as intertexuality. I use echoes of T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath, Angela Carter, plus all the lit crit I studied at New York University: Judith Butler, Thelma Shinn, Gayle Green, Mircea Eliade, Luce Irigaray, Julie Kristeva, and Audre Lord. The result is that the I, first person, in my work is me, but not me--an amplified version. Stronger, wiser, certainly more flawed, and certainly more interesting.

People who read my work are usually very quick to assume that it’s straight up autobiography, like when they read The Blue Hours, my novella about the sexual disintegration of a marriage. But real life can be very boring. I’m convinced that even memoirists are not unlike novelists--they use plot arcs, they deconstruct, compress, they add and subtract in similar ways--because it’s all in service of telling a story. And real life doesn’t contain those structural elements. There is an art to choosing where to begin a story, and where to end it, amongst all the hundreds of possibilities. The writer makes those choices, whether the genre is fiction or non-fiction. And I tend to write stories about the things that are of concern to me at any given moment. It could be identity, it could be sexuality or the female body, it could be history--and in writing them, I think I better understand the context of my own life.

Elizabeth: In your deconstruction of Streetcar..., there are so many different ways that you approach and confront Tennessee Williams as a writer, his characters, the fact of playwriting, the fact of theater, the canon. There's parody, lots of wit and fun and adventure, and definitely deconstruction--but primarily I'm left with a feeling of love for both works, yours and his. Could you say a little about your experience of this process?

Lillian: Oh God, I do love that play. I’ve seen so many versions of it-- theatrical and cinematic. Ivo van Hove directed it at New York Theater Workshop, and it was a stunning deconstruction. Life-changing. No sets, no scenery, no props, no costume changes--just a large claw-footed bathtub, stage left. Filled with water. And Blanche, played by Elizabeth Marvel, is naked in that bathtub, submerging and rising up, over and over, splashing water all over the stage and the audience--I got drenched! The spine of that production was the bathtub and the naked woman.

This is the detail the director chose as his point of departure from Williams’ text. And I knew I was going to deconstruct it, too--but it took ten years. It wasn’t until I was reading all of the above-referenced lit crit, primarily in my own ongoing search to define and categorize and reinvent the female narrative, that I thought it was time to revision Blanche. And like van Hove chose the bathtub as the point of departure, I chose the white moth, which is a relatively small leitmotif in the play. But it gave me a point of entrance--it opened the door, if you will, to her revisioned character. In my version, Blanche has a Master’s Degree from NYU (like me), and has read all the same theory, and at that point, the piece practically wrote itself. And I am making fun of the canon, as well as academic culture, of which I am a proud member, but a culture nonetheless that deserves to be made fun of. The canon, as it stands, is ridiculously outdated.

Elizabeth: When you're working--and/or reading and thinking about your own work--how do you think about your readers, your audience? Do you often have readers in general, a particular type of reader, or a particular reader in mind as you work?

Lillian: Initially, I have a word or a phrase or an image in my head that won’t go away. Like the image of the white moth on a hot summer’s night. And at that point, I’m not at all concerned about my audience. I treat my first drafts as letters to myself. It’s not until I’m on the second re-write that I become concerned with issues like: what is the story I’m telling, what is the arc, where does it begin, and where does it end, what is the through-line, what are the sub-plots, is everything resolved by the end of the story. I think my readers are people like myself; intelligent, driven, transgressive, definitely subversive.

Elizabeth: I love the way that bodies and sexuality come into the work of yours that I've read. What inspires you to work with erotic themes?

Lillian: One way to answer that question is to say, I’m obsessed with the intersection between the sacred and the profane. Another way to answer that question, goes to back to my issue with today’s canon. I believe women have to create their own narratives, and female sexuality has been, with a few notable exceptions (Anais Nin, Colette), written through the male gaze. That just has to change, and it is changing--erotica written by women has exploded, some of it is badly written, some of it is really well written, Angela Carter comes to mind. But good or bad, it’s good to see it out there in the world. I think that means that eventually women can reclaim their own sexual identity. Right now, we don’t own it, we haven’t written that definition, or told that story yet. Even as the fourth wave of feminism rises up, female sexuality is still primarily a male trope. And that informs everything. It informs Anna Karenina, it informs Blanche DuBois, Eve, Lilith, Mary Magdalene, Cinderella. Images of women in even the most stable of texts are informed by this trope.

So that’s what it is with me and erotica--it’s another way of reframing or renaming the female narrative. It’s like saying, I've got control of this now, and the story is going to be very, very different from what you’re expecting. And I’d like to think it’s honest and authentic, even if it might be a bit hard to swallow (pun definitely intended). I think a person’s sexual identity is the still point of our turning world. It is foundational, and I’m not even talking about how a person self-identifies--straight, gay, lesbian, bi, whatever--sexuality is a driving and undeniable force in our lives. And it is definitely political. The female body is still a wild and uncharted territory, but again, this is changing. I think of performance artists like Julie Atlas Muz, Deb Margolin, writers like Erin Cressida Wilson, and yourself, Elizabeth--female artists, who, in my opinion, write beyond the ending, who write beyond the white picket fence, beyond happily-ever-after.

Elizabeth: Another of the Wreckage of Reason 2 contributors, Robin Martin, wrote that she was glad panelists discussing the anthology at AWP raised the question of what makes prose experimental. "I don’t think my work is clearly experimental," she wrote, "By that, I mean I feel my work is still very accessible. Perhaps I like the term innovative writing better. Innovative writing has a smaller audience in mind, no pre-determined formula, and exists outside of easily defined narrative conventions." I'm really interested in this question. Do you consider your work experimental? Innovative? Or do you like some other word?

Lillian: I like both words, I like experimental and innovative. Whether I’ve written for the page or the stage, my work definitely “exists outside of easily defined narrative convention.” I pitched a series once to the Director of Artistic Programming at NPR, and when he received the first episode, Earth Sinking Into Water, he said, “This shouldn’t work, but it does.” And even though I was working with an excellent dramaturge and director, Erica Gould, I didn’t understand why it worked, either, except that it did. It was non-linear, it was progressive, but still it packed a strong emotional punch at its conclusion. Now I understand that it worked because it was structured like a piece of music. And today when I’m considering a long form piece, the narrative borrows many elements from the hero’s journey, as in Joseph Campbell's call to adventure, or the refusal of the call, mentors and guides, demons and conflicts, crossing the first threshold, the supreme ordeal. Or the way back, but not the same anymore--transformed, perhaps bearing gifts. I can work with this--it makes organic sense to me.

I just finished writing a novella, How to Travel with Your Demons, and the process began with a formal question: Could I tell a story about a protagonist traveling from Point A to Point B, and leave one central question unanswered which would create narrative tension? And I could. I did. And once I established that framework, then I could create the music around it, establish motifs, smaller conflicts that all circle around the central narrative. When an editor friend of mine read it, he called it "experimental structure with accessible prose." And I thought, yes. That’s exactly what I was aiming for. And I like breaking rules, too. The story is written in shifting points of view--first person, second person, third person. Time is fluid, non-linear, circular. I know the rules, and so I can break the rules, and still tell a story. So in that sense my work is experimental, but I can’t tell a story within the traditional confines of established narrative structure. It doesn’t make sense to me as a writer, it feels foreign and strange. I love it as a reader, but that’s not the same. And I love what you wrote [in our forthcoming interview], Elizabeth, that your Wreckage of Reason Two piece, How to Shake Hands with a Murderer, is “a katabasis, a hero's trip into the underworld (and maybe back?).” Using powerful ancient storytelling techniques in contemporary stories of transformation is something I love doing with my own work. This process is really exciting to me, and maybe the katabasis will be my next method in my own search for the female narrative.


Don't miss the New York launch party for Wreckage of Reason Two, at KGB Bar on Tuesday, April 22 from 7-9pm.

Ealier in the Writer on Writer series:

Two novels about suicide epidemics:
Daniel McCloskey Interviews Bradley Spinelli (Killing Williamsburg)

Bradley Spinelli Interviews Daniel McCloskey (A Film About Billy)

Two novels about adjunct professors:
Dave Newman Interviews Alex Kudera (Fight For Your Long Day)

Alex Kudera Interviews Dave Newman (Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children)