|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 Lillian had a chance to read the full-length version of Elizabeth's story (as-yet-unpublished in its entirety), two excerpts of which are included in Wreckage of Reason Two, while one section was excerpted in the original Wreckage of Reason (Spuyten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
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