Showcased Writer: Scott Dominic Carpenter

Scott Dominic CarpenterInterview by Sally Wies.

It was my original intent to ask if you infused all your work with the humor so evident in “Deaf in Venice,” but reading “The Painting Boy” and “Foundering” put paid to that question. So let me ask you more specifically about your use of humor in “Deaf in Venice.” You obviously had great fun with the title. Did the humor enter on its own accord, or did you intend from the get-go to write a humorous piece?

As you mention, I write in different modes, and it depends on the piece. Some subjects lend themselves to humor, and others don’t. Most benefit from a blend, and although “Deaf in Venice” is wrapped in fun, I’ve tried to evoke more serious matters within the folds.

You bring up an interesting problem: how does one know what tone to use? Some writers (e.g. David Sedaris) whip out the same tone no matter what the topic—which means they avoid topics that may clash with their particular idiom. For better or worse, I like to play the field, so tone is one of the thousand choices I have to address in each piece I write.

In the case of “Deaf in Venice,” I stewed over my notes for about a year and a half. A humorous approach wasn’t obvious from the outset. Writing about Venice is a special problem: perhaps no other place in the world has been so thoroughly visited, scrutinized, painted, described, rendered. How could one ever say anything new about a place whose very hallmark is its age and world-weariness? Irony made the task possible. I was helped by the weird circumstances (sequestered on the cemetery island with a small herd of Danes). My own ineptitude as a tourist also encouraged the humorous vein: if I wanted to include myself as a character, I’d have to show my own bumbling.

In “Deaf in Venice,” your wild description of Venice is brilliant: “It was like a city designed by MC Escher, constructed by a madman, and then torpedoed by a German U-boat.” This essay places you, an American, abroad in Venice, a city you obviously know quite well. Your novel, Theory of Remainders, takes place in France, and your main character is also an American abroad. What is it about this dynamic that so interests you?

First of all, I’d say that writing always means turning your native tongue into a foreign language. That’s not an endorsement for cranking out grammatical blunders or making wild gesticulations. But you want your language to be surprising, unfamiliar. One should describe commonplace objects in ways that suggest we’re seeing them for the first time, stretching words to make them fit. In “Deaf in Venice,” for example, I describe the metal plates that Venetians slide into place at their front doors to keep water out, and I compare them to baby gates. Such gates are so commonplace to Venetians that they don’t think about them anymore: they are invisible. Whether writing about Venice or suburban American, the writer’s job is to render the invisible visible—selectively. For me, this principle extends beyond the use of language, informing how my narrators see, feel, think. They are always some kind of outsider—though usually one who has a foot in the world he or she describes.

I should add that the theme of the American abroad is dear to me partly because of all the years I’ve spent in that role myself in various locations. This history has the dubious advantage of making me feel a little out of place almost everywhere. In any case, it informs my writing, for I’m drawn again and again to the point of view of people who see things from surprising perspectives.

You have published several works of flash fiction, and I have to tell you that “Foundering” just floored me with its quiet devastation. I went back to the title page to see if this was fiction or nonfiction, and then wondered why it mattered. A movement is abroad to publish writing without the determination of “fiction” or “nonfiction,” believing the distinction is irrelevelent; all that matters is a good story. What are your thoughts on this?

At Carleton College I teach a course in creative travel writing—a genre where the line between fiction and nonfiction is particularly confused. One idea I drum into my students is that the writerly challenges of nonfiction are nearly the same as for fiction: you need a story, compelling characters, fresh language, a voice. Moreover, there’s no such thing as pure fantasy or pure documentary. It’s always a blend.

That said, asserting that fiction and nonfiction are related isn’t the same as erasing the line between them. There is the question of honesty. It matters to me whether a piece about global warming is a factual essay or a dystopian novella. I realize, of course, that nonfiction isn’t the same as “reality.” Even in the most objective piece, mistakes are made, opinions skew the perspective, and only some of the facts are presented. But when I pick up a work of fiction, I’m inviting the author to lie to me in interesting ways—while keeping in mind that all good lies are shot through with truth.

In the end, the problem with the labels “fiction” and “nonfiction” isn’t that they are unimportant, but that they are too reductive.

Setting aside for a moment your extensive scholarly publications, you have written flash fiction, short fiction, nonfiction, and your novel, Theory of Remainders. What challenges you when writing in these different forms? Do you prefer one over another?

I don’t have a favorite genre. Each one satisfies a different impulse. Certainly the most consuming enterprise is a novel, for producing such sustained narratives requires withdrawal into another world for very long stretches. (Theory of Remainders took me almost four years to write. During its composition I spent more time with my characters than with all my family and friends combined.) Short stories, however, are especially versatile, and they can serve as a sandbox for ideas. It’s easier to take wild risks with a short story, since all I have at stake is a couple months. If it pays off, I’m more confident about trying something similar in a novel. In this way, testing ideas in short stories allows me to be more ambitious in a novel.

You’ve referred in particular to my flash fiction pieces. I find such compact pieces challenging to write, but they teach the art of brevity. Condensing ten pages to two, for instance, imposes a terrible efficiency. The key is to trim to the bone and make sure that every sentence does two, three, or four things at once. I try to carry this lesson with me into the longer works—such as short stories and novels.

Kirkus Reviews gave you a terrific “starred review,” but I noticed they also referred to Theory of Remainders as your “debut novel.” As the author of several scholarly books and dozens of scholarly articles, not to mention your numerous fiction and nonfiction publications, how did you feel about being perceived as a “debut” novelist with all the attendant misconceptions of you as a “new” writer?

Actually, I find the description apt. I was thrilled with that starred review (not to mention that they named Theory of Remainders to their “Best Books of 2013”), and they were right to consider me a new writer. Of course, I’d done a lot of scholarly writing in the years before, but I turned to creative writing only seven or eight years ago. These two modes of writing are more different than you might think. Academic prose is all about unfolding texts to reveal hidden treasures within them, whereas creative writing proceeds in the opposite direction, enfolding riches—burying them. That was a hard lesson to learn. As I developed a knack for it and my short stories began to appear, I realized I’d become a new and different writer. And, in fact, there were advantages to being considered new: a debut novel attracts a certain amount of attention, and a solid debut bodes well for the future.

To read more about Scott Dominic Carpenter’s work, check out his website.

Showcased Writer: Dawn Manning

dawn-cat-got-your-tongueInterview by Emily Van Vleet

Dawn Manning first caught my attention when I was reading through the slush pile and I came across her piece called “Burning the Bodies.” This poem deals with infanticide in China due to the one child rule. The painful images woven into the piece and the important subject matter stuck with me and made me want to know more about her inspiration and creative process. I conducted a short interview with Manning and was able to get further insight into her creative process!

What inspired you to write “Burning the Bodies?”

The specific impetus for this poem came from reading an article in a newspaper in Hong Kong many years ago about the discovery of a dumpster filled with fetuses in China. Years later, I read a second article about a separate incident in which the illegally dumped bodies of babies were found floating down a river.

Did you draw from personal experience when writing this poem? Where were you when you wrote this poem?

It took me a decade to start writing poems about this particular season in China. I was stunned into silence by the sheer scale of dehumanization I encountered surrounding the one-child policy, including gendercide, infanticide, forced abortions, forced sterilizations, and orphanages overflowing with abandoned girls. This poem is my attempt to bear witness.

What is your process for selecting a topic and writing a poem?

Sometimes I write poems triggered by specific events, as with this poem, but it’s probably more accurate to say that I write out of an image, whether that image is a snapshot of an event, a place, a myth, a person, or an object.  Once I’ve encountered an image I can’t shake, I write my way through it.

Why did you select the epigraph to begin the poem from Gu Cheng?

I’ve been a fan of Gu Cheng’s poetry for many years. This couplet, titled “A Generation,” echoes through my mind often.  I used it as the epigraph for “Burning the Bodies” because of the way it ties in with the opening and closing lines of the poem.

Contributor Showcase: Seth Marlin

sethmarlin

By Sierra Myers

Seth Marlin is the former author, under pseudonym, of Iraq war blog Calm Before the Sand. He has since gone on to earn an MFA in Fiction from the Inland Northwest Center for Writers, and his stories and poems have  appeared, or are forthcoming, in M-Brane SF, Underground Voices, Knockout Lit, Greatest Lakes Review, A cappella Zoo, and Spark. His work has further been anthologized in Short Story America, Railtown Almanac, and The Way North: Selected U.P. Writers, and he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. A native of Michigan, he currently resides in Spokane, WA, with his wife Liz and dog Jack.

Sierra: In “Metronome,” there is a hurriedness towards marriage, with the main character hosting interviews for a betrothal that his company/parents demand. Is this your interpretation of part of success in today’s society? That if someone isn’t married, or aspiring towards marriage, they might not be considered for a higher/nobler position?

Seth: I think that marriage often does reflect a revised set of priorities, and yes, I certainly do think that culturally, we expect people’s lives to follow a certain track – school, marriage, children. But at the same, it’s not necessarily a principle I agree with, and I definitely don’t think it’s applied equally across gender or class lines.

A key consideration in “Metronome” is the way that social expectations differ for men and women. The man in this instance, a junior partner at a prestigious law firm, is expected to take on a spouse before his career can further advance, but by contrast the woman likely faces career stagnation as a result of doing the same. Even the protagonist questions her work, and implies that it cannot coincide with having a husband and children. In the world of “Metronome,” marriage bestows agency upon men, and denies it to women. As is often the case in the real world.

A big focus in my work has always been power – one of my old teachers, Greg Spatz, talks some about power in character interactions, and “Metronome” reflects my take on some of those ideas. The protagonist here might well be a spoiled trust-fund type, but due to his position he still holds all the cards. The woman, meanwhile, is clearly smarter, better-educated, and significantly better-adjusted than her counterpart, but also still playing the role of supplicant. I imagine that would rankle for someone of her qualifications, but she’s also not foolish enough to let it show. The protagonist spends the entire interview either tuned out, or trying to disqualify her, and yet she won’t allow it. She’s better at this game than he is, so when she drops the act and calls him out directly, the result is shocking. The power dynamic is abruptly reversed.

One of my favorite moments early on was the woman’s vignette about her parent’s polyamory. Her passing reference to “The Morals Commission” was off-the-cuff, but I liked how it turned the story into something much more frightening. What might have been humorous before, now carried hints of theocracy, of fascism. It’s a good bet that anytime I open up with levity, I’m setting up for something much bleaker. I also think that the scene reveals something else – that however power might function between these two characters, it still applies pressure upon each of them. These two represent the wealthy elite of their era, and yet both are moved by forces far larger than themselves. This piece owes as much to The Handmaid’s Tale as it does to The Great Gatsby or Pride and Prejudice, and as in those narratives, power enslaves everyone – even those who enjoy its largesse.

Sierra: The woman in “Metronome” is a very strong character. She knows what she wants and how to get it within the limitations of this fictional world. What or who inspired such a forward character?

Seth: I should say that, even for the reasonably enlightened young man, writing strong women does not always come naturally. I was lucky to work in grad school with some prodigious female talents – Laura Citino, Jennifer Moody, Casey Patrick, Aileen Keown-Vaux – all of whom were there to call me out in workshop when my characterizations of women fell short. As hard as that may have been to hear at the time, it’s proven invaluable to me ever since. I find it odd, the outrage from certain corners of the Internet right now over folks like Anita Sarkeesian or Zoe Quinn. Whether it’s games or books or television, Sarkeesian and her peers are giving important feedback as to how we write female characters in popular culture. Or, very often, how we don’t.

There’s a Tori Amos lyric: “My dark twin, the annihilating Feminine / does not need civilizing.” I enjoy the sense of menace that line connotes, but at the same time the menace is in reference to a subjective fear – that held by the song’s male addressee. We’re very afraid of smart women in our culture, especially smart, outspoken women. I was intrigued by the opening scene – this Eva Green femme-fatale type, negotiating marriage like some billion-dollar corporate merger – but it also made me wonder: how can we better subvert this? This character was obviously more than she appeared, and I liked the tension she brought into her dialogue. This is an educated, successful, woman, performing a dance that she very obviously despises. I loved that about her, and wanted to know more. She might be coerced by society into seeking a husband, but she does not truly need any man. She is, in a sense, the Byronic heroine.

The great challenge of writing a piece like this is that any story about marriage is inevitably going to become a story about sex, about gender. That kind of story risks falling flat without a powerful foil, so early on I realized we had to let the woman seize control of the dialogue. In doing so, it allowed her to undermine the protagonist’s biases, and thus those of the reader. She’s able to knock the man off his guard, which leads him to finally ask the questions that frighten him – the questions which, in turn, frighten her. What begins as a ritualized performance ends with two people unintentionally baring their hearts. That felt raw to me, and that’s how I usually know I’m onto something.

Finally speaking as a writer, I cannot stress enough how important I think it is that we’re see more strong, diverse voices in fiction, both in terms of character and in cultivating new talent. Even speaking as a white, male writer, I think it’s important that we see lots of strong female voices in fiction, strong LGBT voices, strong voices of color. It’s good for both readers and writers, and it benefits the medium as a whole. Fiction might be constructed, sure, but it’s ultimately about empathy and revealing human truths. The real world itself isn’t homogenous, and so the more empathetic, less homogenous our own fiction is, the more truthful it will become.

Sierra: There are still countries that allow and prefer arranged marriages, (India, Pakistan, Japan, China, Israel). What is your take on this cultural tradition, and did it have any application to your piece?

Seth: I think that in the wake of the War on Terror, and the anti-Muslim sentiment that’s been ginned up as a result, it can be easy to cast aspersion on the practice as some vestige of a demonized Other. However, as you point out, it’s not an exclusively Muslim practice, nor even a non-Western practice. I think we as Westerners are very quick to forget that.
When fleshing out the world of “Metronome,” I actually took as my inspiration the European Middle Ages, when, as in many other parts of the world, the family was not merely a social unit, but a political one. As our own society lurches toward plutocracy, toward a kind of capitalist neo-feudalism, it made sense that wealthy families might bend these draconian laws to suit the furtherance of their dynasties. It was also a way to recontextualize the classic comedy of manners, in that the settings we often see from Jane Austen or Oscar Wilde, are also given rise by oppressive conditions. In this case, the oppression comes not from elderly matrons chattering over their cups of tea, but rather from people informing on their neighbors to a network of McCarthyist, latter-day Comstocks in suits.

To be clear, under no circumstances should the society in “Metronome” be seen as a critique of arranged marriage in non-Western cultures. Granted, I do think the practice poses its problems, but it’s also worth noting that the countries you mention all represent a diverse array of traditions. As both a secular feminist and a Westerner, it may not necessarily mesh well with my own values, but it also doesn’t have to. When writing this story my goal was not to interrogate any specific culture, save perhaps my own.

Sierra: All writers have a technique that comes with writing their material. Isabel Allende, who wrote the famous magical-realist novel The House of the Spirits, writes on January 8th every year. It gives her a routine to follow through writers-block, or though tragic events. Do you have any habits or routines you go through before, or while writing, that help you through your creative process?

Seth: I can’t say I have any exact routines, though I do find that certain practices are helpful. I prefer to write in the mornings, though that doesn’t always pan out with my office job. I also try to listen to music that puts me in the headspace of whatever my current story might be – lately, that’s meant a lot of Massive Attack, Purity Ring, Bonobo, MS MR – but of course that will vary by both project and by writer. I’ve also learned that I can’t always write cooped up in my study; the Internet happens, gaming happens, so occasionally I have to meet up with friends elsewhere and sit down for a quiet session. I used to think that writing in coffeehouses was the most pretentious hipster thing imaginable, until I had to start working on my own thesis.

The most important thing I do is just to think about my writing – all the time, all hours of the day. I find that the more risks one takes in fiction, the more narrative problems need to be solved. That, I find, takes reflection, takes constant brainstorming. All day as I go about things, I worry over a line, or a nagging question. I polish the thing like it’s a stone, until I know its every contour, until it feels almost smooth to the touch. When it gets to that point, I find it’s time to get it onto the page.

For much of my life, whether in the Army or as a civilian, the only constant with regard to my process has been about making the time. It’s a tough game out there for young writers – a lot of publishing gigs are volunteer-only, and the academic world is facing an adjunct crisis. So for me and a lot of the writers I’ve come up with, it’s always been about trying to make art while scraping by in jobs outside the field. Granted, that can be brutal at times, and it can definitely be hard to stay focused on why one does it. But I’ve also found that the ones who succeed are the ones who’ve kept at it, kept finding or making opportunities. Write in the mornings if you have to. Write in the evenings. Write on your lunch breaks. But above all, write. Be thinking constantly about your next poem, or your next story, and tell the kinds of stories that nourish you. Read other people’s work. I’m not saying be a slave to influence, but by all means, keep yourself steeped in the medium. Take your craft seriously, and be willing to invest the time it deserves. Your work will benefit, and so will you.

Sierra: Stephen King gave advice to Barnes & Noble on writing by stating, “Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi post office. Other writers have learned the basics while serving in the Navy, working in steel mills or doing time in America’s finer crossbar hotels. I learned the most valuable (and commercial) part of my life’s work while washing motel sheets and restaurant tablecloths at the New Franklin Laundry in Bangor.” What seems to be your most valuable experiences that have contributed to your writing style?

Seth: The experiences that have shaped my passion for writing aren’t always ones that have shaped my craft. My passion came from my time in Iraq, certainly – late nights or even on recovery days, I used to park in a camping chair with my laptop, while my buddies were all racked-out sleeping in their bunks. You make certain bargains with yourself in that environment, and for me, that bargain was school and a return to my writing. So the fact that I’ve been lucky enough to come back, get my MFA, and focus on telling the kinds of stories that excite me, has been all the reinforcement that I need.

As far as how those experiences have shaped my style, that’s more complicated. I don’t write much about war anymore, outside of my poetry – things got pretty political back when I was still blogging, and that just gets exhausting after a while. I also don’t like how people misuse or misconstrue the works of writers who do focus on war. Witness Tim O’Brien, obviously a brilliant guy, but also one whom I think people invoke without fully understanding. I don’t want my work to just be limited by my experiences. I’d rather be Kurt Vonnegut than Tim O’Brien, and thus be afforded the distance of other settings, other aesthetics. I’d hate if my work had to be nothing but Humvees and shifts on tower-guard for the rest of my life. I’d quit altogether.

What I think I did carry over from that period was a concern with certain themes – power, isolation, loneliness, a sense of the dystopian present. When I write, I’m very often writing about the uncanny, and between Iraq and the process of coming home, there’s a lot about our society that still feels uncanny to me, still feels unsettling. It doesn’t have to be written in giant, Orwellian scripts, and it doesn’t have to be plastered in the American flag. I just like what Kazuo Ishiguro or the Australian author James Bradley do, crafting times and places that feel largely familiar, with most of the really disturbing details just lingering in the background. That’s generally how it works, I find – we never really think about how much time has passed. We just glance up one day, and notice that the skyline has changed.

Of course, much of this is also a function of my own getting older, of my coming now into my thirties. I worry about the oceans rising, and about the slow merciless grind of consumerism. I worry about war as entertainment and fascism packaged as “traditional values.” I worry about having children, or not having children. I worry about getting old, worry about the collapse of my spirituality. I worry about dying. So often, when I write about the future, I’m writing about dying.

If I have to consider the experiences that most directly shaped my style and aesthetics, I’d probably cite the influences I encountered in school. I’ve been lucky to study under some gifted names in fiction – Brady Udall, Alan Heathcock, Sam Ligon, John Keeble – and they all provided immeasurable support, whether it was by encouraging me in my goals, or by telling me the things I most needed to hear about my work. I’m not going to say that the MFA is by any means the only way to develop one’s craft, but it was certainly helpful for me.

I will admit, during my undergrad years, it felt like the literary landscape was really dominated by a lot of Raymond Carver, Tobias Wolff, Andre Dubus. Great writers all, don’t get me wrong, but I did struggle with that kind of post-Hemingway minimalism. It felt very confining to me. Lots of stories about unhappy couples living in brownstones, it seemed. While I’ll acknowledge that there’s definitely a hint of that here, my stories from that earlier period felt very derivative, felt lacking in a unique voice. Only later, during grad school, did I get into all these other weirder, more eclectic voices like Margaret Atwood, Haruki Murakami, Kelly Link, or Lorrie Moore. Those are the writers who have really fired my imagination, and whose prose makes me want to keep growing and challenging myself as a writer.

Ultimately, I can’t really say any one set of experiences have shaped who I am as a writer. To discount any one set would downplay the whole of my artistic journey. But I will say I definitely got my fire while still serving in the military, though it was my school and my reading that most helped shape my identity. We start in one place, and if we do it right, we hopefully end up in another. The point of art, I think is to grow, the way we as human beings all grow.

Follow Seth Marlin on Facebook or Twitter, or visit his website at sethmarlin.com