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.

Silk Road Assistant Editor: Sally Wies

Sally WiesMajor: Creative Writing

Graduation Year: 2016

How have the professors and English department at Pacific University influenced you?

Immersion in the Creative Writing program at Pacific was my specific aim in coming to Pacific as a Junior Transfer Student in the fall of 2014, but it was not reputation alone that convinced me to apply. During a transfer student event I had the opportunity to spend a half hour with Professor Brent Johnson, and his enthusiasm and accessibility bowled me over; I knew Pacific was the place for me. Every Professor I have come in contact with here at Pacific has shown this remarkable degree of connection to their students, and I relish the connection, the attention to my education, and the evident enjoyment of our Professors doing a job they so obviously love.

How do you think your time spent at Silk Road will transfer into the “real world?” What have you learned/hope to learn?

Through Silk Road I have discovered a passion for interviewing authors, and I plan to explore the “real world” possibilities of continuing this most enjoyable and satisfying endeavor.

Due to the popularity of digital media and e-books, what do you think might happen to book and magazine publishing in the future? Is there anything you would like (or are afraid) to see happen?

I happily admit I’m old-school: I want a book in my hands. For me, I love the physicality of a book. The heft, the smell, the anticipation associated with turning the pages, I want all of that when I’m reading. So I am afraid of a future filled only with e-books. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not at all against e-books. The accessibility of e-books to a larger public is fantastic. I just don’t want to see them push the physical book out the door. I visualize a world with both, but it most likely will only happen if those of us who cherish books fight for their continuance.

What does Silk Road embody to you? What words would you use to describe Silk Road to someone who knows nothing about it?

Literary confidence. What do I mean by that? Silk Road represents the confidence associated with knowing the importance of the written word.

“Alive and Alert”: Lisa Genova on Writing, Research, and Alzheimer’s

by: Bruno Gegenhuber, Claire Pillsbury, and Sally Wies      

 

It’s hard to imagine author Lisa Genova sitting behind a sticky, laminate table in a grocery store Starbucks, scribbling down the next smash-hit New York Times bestseller. Yet for a year and a half, Genova did just that. She spent four hours every morning writing Still Alice – winner of the 2008 Bronte Prize and the 2011 Bexley Book of the Year. A novel that currently has 2.1 million copies in print, has been translated into 31 languages, and is now a major motion picture starring Julianne Moore. Believing this atmosphere devoid of distractions, Genova put pen to paper and created her absorbing tale of Harvard cognitive psychology professor, Alice Howland, navigating through life after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.

The question arises: How does one find inspiration for a novel written in a grocery store?

“The universe supplies what you need,” says Genova, a firm believer in extracting meaning from all corners of life. For Still Alice, she drew inspiration from her involvement in improvisational acting. “People don’t know how to be emotionally honest anymore,” she explains. When we act, we are forced to think on the spot, forced to remove the barriers and allow honest emotion to emerge – the kind of honesty needed for tackling such sensitive topics as Alzheimer’s. Acting develops reactivity, spontaneity, and flow of thought, skills which Genova states are indispensable for any aspiring writer.

The spontaneity fosters a determination to not get “precious” about our writing. It shifts the focus onto the completion of a draft and away from the constant fear and paranoia of mediocrity that all writers experience. Genova advises writers to just put the pen down and not lift it up until the draft is finished. Often, she herself does not even approach writing with any set plan. In fact, most of the time she does not know where the story is coming from or in which direction it will go, allowing the words to take on a life of their own.

But the trick to Genova’s success in writing encompasses far more than just her ventures into acting.

“Any art form is cross-training,” she says. It’s about “keeping your senses alive and alert” to many different streams of inspiration. In preparing for writing Still Alice, Genova found motivation in everything, from the physician’s guide to ALS to spiritual texts, from ballet to statements from Alzheimer’s patients in an online support group. This openness to the surrounding world increases your creative capacity as a writer, she states. It heightens your awareness of different perspectives and allows for more honest reflections on the state of the world.

Since the publication of Still Alice in 2007, Genova has written three more novels. Her most recent work released this spring from Simon & Schuster, Inside the O’Briens, tells the story of a 44 year-old police officer suffering from Huntington’s disease. While Genova has surely become a strong contributor to modern literature, it was not always this way. The author started out in the field of biology, receiving a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard University in 1998. She was set on a career in research until reflecting on her life and relationship with her grandmother, who also suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

Two years after receiving the terminal degree in her field, Genova asked herself the question: “If I could do anything I wanted, and didn’t care what people thought, what would I do?” In that moment, she realized she wanted to write the novel that had been brewing within her since her grandmother’s diagnosis with the neurodegenerative disease. She wanted to bring a voice to someone who was slowly losing their ability to convey thoughts and feelings. Genova wanted to show the world something it had never seen before: the incredible strength and persistence of those struggling to survive a slipping grasp on reality. The millions of warriors, fighting for a solid foothold in society without a voice.

Several years would pass before Genova was able begin writing the story inside her. She wanted to show these people on the page as accurately as possible. Due to the connections formed in her previous career, her Harvard background and experience in the neuroscience field, she started the writing process with a major advantage in terms of research, yet she needed more. She needed personal insight into the disease. To achieve this, Genova communicated with numerous people from the medical community, patients and doctors alike. Some of her more unique experiences included having phone calls and private conferences with neurologists at notable hospitals, learning the details of the neuropsychological tests involved in diagnosis, and even role playing as an Alzheimer’s patient during a typical medical examination with experienced doctors. From this, she was able to gather information of incredible depth and intimacy, both on the textbook, medical level and the personal, experiential level.

She was especially interested in the latter: what does living with Alzheimer’s feel like? Genova made contact with an online support group for people who had dementia or related neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s. She explained her desire to give them faces and voices the public could see and hear, and the group agreed to help her gain insight into the nature of living with the disease. By the time Genova had concluded her research and begun writing the novel, she was in correspondence with over 27 people in the early to middle stages of Alzheimer’s.

She was also more inspired than ever. The stories Genova received from the people she spoke to were awe-inspiring. They were fighters. The fact that they were so willing to share their experiences, despite their unfortunate circumstances, was something that amazed her. “They are choosing to live heroically with their Alzheimer’s,” she states. She felt an intimate connection grow between them – a connection she wished she would have had with her grandmother.

While Genova was distraught about her grandmother’s condition, she felt distanced from her and recognized this as a very real representation of our society’s treatment of people suffering from mental conditions. We tend to feel uncomfortable around these people as they are a direct reminder of our own vulnerability and mortality. Patients suffering from Alzheimer’s or other similar conditions can seem beyond our comprehension, and it is only human to avoid what we do not understand.

The distance she felt from her grandmother motivated Genova to tell this novel from Alice’s point of view.  In doing so, readers across the world have come to more fully understand and accept Alzheimer’s patients and to realize that while those who suffer from the disease may lose memory and knowledge, they do not lose themselves. They remain “alive and alert.”

Until we understand Alzheimer’s, we can never accept and sympathize with those who suffer from it. Best-selling author Lisa Genova has taken a great leap forward in increasing awareness by giving a voice to those considered voiceless and showing us the true nature of a heartbreaking disease.