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.