A Haiku and an Interview: Jonathan Ball in Toronto Review of Books

John Wisniewski was kind enough to interview me recently, which reminded me of a haiku of mine that is also online in the same publication. (Best interview title ever? Well, I’ve had some good ones….) He had to edit for space, so I am posting the complete interview below in case you are interested.

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Could you tell us about your earliest poems and other writings — were they experimental in nature?

My earliest writings were poems that resulted from failed transcriptions of song lyrics. I used to write out songs I had taped from friends who had gone into the city recently, since where I grew up there was no radio station that played modern music and no music stores. Anyway, when I became able to purchase CDs through the mail and look up lyrics online, I noticed a host of deviations between what I thought they were singing and what they were really singing — probably because I listened to mostly grunge and heavy metal and it’s harder to make out the vocals in those genres due to the singers having a tendency to mumble or scream. In every instance, I preferred my misheard deviations to the original lyrics. After discovering this, I began to write my own lyrics and poems.

Now, reflecting upon these early “writings,” it’s stunning how close this accidental composition was to experimental processes of copying, reframing, corrupting, or remixing texts — even though the stuff I was writing had very little experimentation to it, ultimately. However, after discovering Radiohead and Nirvana, I quickly began working with fragmentary and surrealistic images. Then I discovered Salman Rushdie and Stephen King around the same time, and became interested in architectural book forms and aggressive, assaultive imagery.

Ex Machina explores man’s relationship with machines — could you tell us about this?

The title effectively summarizes my core idea: that once one removes ‘God’ (Deus) from the cosmic picture, one ends up in a universe without a guarantor of humanity’s place near the top of some hierarchy of being. At that point, it’s easy to see yourself as an evolutionary step towards the rise of technology. Related to this is the idea that technology actually alters humanity in some essential way, now that we have no guarantor of any sort of permanence/essence, so that the category of the human begins to break down, even during what we might otherwise view as ‘normal’ uses of technology.

Since these are well-worn science-fiction themes, I grafted them onto what is probably my real interest: the way that artworks like Ex Machina might be considered a species of technology, and also something that we exist simply to create and service. I’m interested in the cultural anxiety produced by postmodern ideas — so, the modernist vaulting of art into something that might take the place of religion, which develops into a postmodernist devaluing of both art and religion for their metanarrative force, is something I’m transmuting as a nightmarish situation of conceptual violence.

The Politics of Knives explores words and violence. Is there violence in words?

In his book Violence, Slavoj Žižek wonders “What if, however, humans exceed animals in their capacity for violence precisely because they speak?” and notes that “there is something violent in the very symbolization of a thing, which equals its mortification … When we name gold ‘gold,’ we violently extract a metal from its natural texture, investing into it our dreams of wealth, power, spiritual purity, and so on, which have nothing whatsoever to do with the immediate reality of gold.”

Žižek’s connection of language to violence, and of symbolization as a form of death, is hardly original — however, what I find interesting is how language and narrative both get viewed as having a violent potential in postmodern thought, and yet the abandonment of language and narrative is seen as creating what is possibly a more nightmarish situation than their maintenance. So you end up with all of these attempts in experimental art to undermine narrative and the communicative qualities of language (which are seen as having negative political implications), alongside an acknowledgement of the impossibility of this, and sometimes even the undesirability of this. That space of anxiety is the space I want to occupy — and possibly escape, but without retreating towards some sort of conservative position.

Whom are some authors and artists that influence you — do you like the work of Artaud? 

I used a quotation from Artaud’s letters as the epigraph for my book Clockfire — “… the pool of energies which constitute Myths, which man no longer embodies, is embodied by the theatre’ —although I find Artaud’s actual theatre less interesting than his ideas about the theatre. What Artaud missed, and what I try to suggest with Clockfire, is that a true theatre of cruelty would present the audience with horrors on the Lovecraftian scale, pushing forth a cosmic or conceptual horror rather than confining itself to the artistic and social situation.

My influences range widely, and depend on the project, since I read and research in relation to specific projects — so, for example, with Clockfire the major influences were Artaud, Lovecraft, Italo Calvino, and Yoko Ono.

Probably the largest luminaries in my artistic life have been (in no order) Guy Maddin, George Toles, Solomon Nagler, Dennis Cooley, Robert Kroetsch, Christian Bök, Natalee Caple, Derek Beaulieu, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Maurice Mierau, Robert Majzels, and Suzette Mayr. David Bergen made some very powerful comments to me early in my writing career although he doesn’t remember it (I’ve re-met him since).

In a more general and less personal sense (i.e., people I don’t know), my largest influences (again, in no order) would include a host of musicians, and the aforementioned Lovecraft, King, and Rushdie, alongside David Lynch, Franz Kafka, Lisa Robertson, Shirley Jackson, Tony Burgess, and the Freud/Lacan/Žižek trinity. I just wrote a book on John Paizs, which should be coming out probably in January 2014, so he looms large as well.

I consider myself a horror author, and I think of myself as a novelist. So my longer list of influences would no doubt surprise someone who doesn’t think of me that way, since people generally consider me an experimental poet.

Could you tell us about writing Clockfire — are these glimpses or sketches of possible stageplays?

It would be more accurate to call them glimpses or sketches if impossible stageplays — one requires the destruction of the sun, another requires you to burn down the theatre with the audience inside, and so forth. I have always been ambivalent about the theatre. I love the theatre in theory, but I always feel disappointed when I see actual plays.

Writing Clockfire required me to think about what kind of theatre we might produce if we weren’t shackled by morality, mortality, and physics. Also, I’m interested in books that make demands on the reader and require reader engagement, and with Clockfire readers are ultimately responsible for “staging” the plays in the theatres of their imagination. This pulls the book closer to Fluxus art and its scripts for “happenings” than conventional poetry, which is why I decided to write in a prose-poem form, although I remained attentive to the language and its rhythms.

This desire for reader engagement is also why I released the book under a Creative Commons license, which allows and encourages “remixes.” My other two books have been released under the same license. Gary Barwin did a great series where he reversed a number of the plays, so that instead of unfolding into horror (as mine often do) they progress toward states of grace.

Your writing requires the reader to actually create, in that he can use your images to build on his own. Do you find this to be true, that your writing challenges the reader?

I would like to think that I challenge the reader, in a way that is engaging rather than frustrating. I pay a lot of attention to how I think the writing is possible to receive, and try to both anticipate and subvert or upset reader expectations. For me, what’s exciting in literature is the way that it disturbs your ideas of what a book is or should be.

Does Writing Get Easier?

When I talk to beginning writers, they often say something that makes it clear that they think writing gets easier. Sometimes they flat-out ask me if it gets easier. I don’t know what to say.

On one level, it gets easier. I have been publishing articles, reviews, stories, and poems fairly regularly since 2000. I have published three books since 2009, one of which recently won a Manitoba Book Award, and I have a fourth book under contract for 2014. It has gotten easier in the sense that I know I can publish. I’ve published, and I could do it again. Barring stroke or injury, I will always be able to write publishable work.

It also gets easier in the sense that people start asking you things. They ask you to submit to their journal. They ask you to teach a course. They ask you to give a reading. You get invited to do a lot of things for which you earlier spent time begging. I don’t really have that big of a reputation, and I imagine that things will get even easier in this regard as my reputation grows (assuming it grows!) and things will get a good deal easier if I have any large success.

On the other hand, it doesn’t get easier. I still get rejections – even after I’ve been invited to submit. The other day I was watching an interview with Stephen King. He was talking about how he sent the short story “N.” to The New Yorker and they considered it but ultimately turned it down for reasons of length. Think about that for a moment. Stephen King is still getting rejections.

Recently, I moved my three published books onto my computer desk. I put them right beneath the screen, spine-out. My name facing me. I did this because I observed that when I was writing, I felt as if I had never written anything before. Sometimes you just forget that you’ve done it before. Now when I feel that way, I just look down. Oh, look! Books with my name on them! I’ve already published some books! It doesn’t get easier.

The Gunslinger (Stephen King)

  Now that I’ve progressed far enough in the 95 Books challenge to feel confident I can read 95 books before the year is out, I decided to take on a sub-challenge: completing Stephen King’s lengthy multi-book epic The Dark Tower (the entire series is not too far shy of 4000 pages).

Great minds think alike, and fellow 95-Book-er William Neil Scott is also reading the series, although he’s reading it much faster than me. His own take on The Gunslinger is here.

Neil calls Roland “relentless” and singles his character out as the most interesting thing about The Gunslinger. I’d agree with everything Neil says on Roland and his overall praise of the book. The Gunslinger is one of my favourite (if not my favourite) of Stephen King’s books. That’s saying a lot, because despite his many flaws as a writer, he remains one of the writers I most admire and enjoy. Not because he’s the greatest (he’s not), but because I discovered King young—I started reading Stephen King and Salman Rushdie in grade school, and in-between King and Rushdie I decided that I wanted to write broad, sweeping, ambitious books as well, books with lots of thrills and chills. My tastes have changed, and I don’t go in for the broad and sweeping as much as I used to (I’m more partial to the focused and stripped), but I still maintain a love for both King and Rushdie—so I’ve decided to catch up on my King/Rushdie reading, since I haven’t bothered to check out much of what they’ve been up to for almost a decade now. Why not start with The Dark Tower, King’s epic? If you’ve read any King, you’ll know that The Dark Tower resonates throughout books and stories that appear on the surface to have nothing to do with one another or the series itself.

I read half of this book and then stopped and went back to reading it from the start—because I was at a garage sale and bought a nice hardcover reissue, the “revised and expanded edition.” I thought it’d be curious to see how exactly King had revised and expanded the book. The idea of going back to a published book and rewriting it is either an author’s dream or nightmare, depending on the day. I tinker endlessly with things but am pretty good of letting them go once they’re published, so I thought it would be interesting to see what was different between the two versions of The Gunslinger, what King just couldn’t leave alone.

It’s a very different book from the original, in many ways. Basically, it boils down to this: the original version is better as a series of related short stories and as a unified, self-contained book. However, the revised version is better as the first book in a series and gives a fuller sense of the story’s world. Neil complains that King seems like he was “making it up” as he went along—and he was. He’s admitted to it in print (aside from having a rough idea of the whole) and it’s obvious if you just go back and read The Gunslinger after reading a few other books in the series (while young I read I-IV, although I didn’t finish IV).

Most of King’s changes are embellishments meant to more fully paint the world of the story for us, now that King has written the other books and crafted the world and isn’t any longer “making it up” as he goes. For example, early on in the book the Man in Black raises Nort from the dead. In the revised edition, he also implants into Nort secret knowledge of what it was like in death—and leaves a note for a barmaid taunting her and stating that if she says the word “Nineteen” to Nort he will tell her of death, and that this knowledge will drive her to madness. This helps to motivate the scene that occurs later, where the townspeople all seem to lose their minds and attack Roland, which always struck me as odd and somewhat unmotivated in the original. Instead of the barmaid Allie begging him not to shoot, she begs Roland to kill her—a real shift that makes his later betrayal of a companion in the book carry more weight since it appears as his first such betrayal.

Other revisions are basically corrections—fixing things in the original that later books contradicted. King cut a reference to Roland reading a magazine, because later books establish that paper is prized and rare in this world, for example. A reference to Roland not knowing where Cort was is changed to a statement that Cort was dead. A lot of small words and references are changed or added to, again, flesh out the world since it’s more clearly defined by the time of this revision.

You can argue that King is a messy writer and nobody should need to make revisions like this. But consider that the series developed organically—King has always despised outlines and even openly despised over-emphasis on plot, unlike most so-called “genre” authors—so this shouldn’t be a surprise or a disappointment to his readers. And consider that he began writing The Gunslinger in 1970, only published it in 1982, and only finished the series in 2004—writing it over a 34-year period and publishing it over a 22-year period. These kinds of inconsistencies are inevitable with this kind of a process, and in fact we should be shocked that there aren’t even greater inconsistencies and that the book doesn’t need more revision.

Should King have had a clearer plan when he began? Probably, but sometimes that’s just not how the stories work or even how they grow and refine themselves. Until I finish the series and reflect on it as a whole, I don’t think I’ll be able to make real judgments on it. However, as a single title, The Gunslinger is, for my money, one of King’s best books and worth reading by itself, even if you never intend to follow the story further.

— Jonathan Ball