An Interview with Andy Devine
My introduction to the work of Andy Devine was the chapbook entitled "As Day Same That the the Was Year" from Publishing Genius Press as part of their This PDF Chapbook series. One look and I saw a clever (re)arrangement of what may or may not have been a short story. But another look and my eyes slid out of focus, and I began to see things more clearly. I sought more of Devine's work and found some in the archives of a ceased online literary journal called Taint Magazine. His latest work appears in the new issue of Unsaid. At only a glance it is clear that Andy Devine's work is something different, unlike any writing by even the riskiest literary innovators working today. Devine has dismantled the English language to its elemental state and has used recognizable words to build a language beyond language. In April and May, I asked Andy Devine some questions via email.
Josh Maday: To whom am I speaking?
Andy Devine: Andy Devine -- and just to be clear, not the actor, but the writer.
Maday: Thank you for clarifying. You must get that a lot, being mistaken for someone else.
Devine: It's just the name that's the issue. I'm unmistakable in other ways. For instance, I usually don't write in sentences. They can be quite limiting.
Maday: Unmistakable, indeed, your writing has very distinctive qualities. For example, in your recent chapbook entitled "As Day Same That the the Was Year" (Publishing Genius, 2007) as well as some of your earlier work published in Taint Magazine, the words are arranged alphabetically: ". . . a, a, a, a, able, about . . . after, afternoon, again, again, age, age, all, all . . ." Some might call it clever or cute. In a short article appended to the chapbook, "An Incomplete and Uncritical Biography of Andy Devine," Michael Kimball cites one Rosenthal's claim that this "word salad" is the result of schizophrenia and then counters with his theory that, actually, your work is incredibly ordered and focused -- a "word file cabinet" -- and asserts that this indicates obsessive-compulsive disorder (exposing an ironic split in the word disorder?). But I get the sense that something else is going on. That said, could you maybe settle or at least respond to the speculation about your mental (dis)order?
Devine: The Rosenthal has never made sense to me. At least the Kimball makes sense. But you're more right just by disagreeing with them. Yes, there is something else going on and it does not concern mental illness. A great deal of order does not result in a disorder. Mental illness exists on a continuum and I tip the sane end. I have been diagnosed as incredibly sane.
Maday: You seem to be operating out of a need to make language express or at least reflect some thought structure or inner experience for which the "proper" use of language and grammar is impotent. Can you talk a bit about your work, your process, etc?
Devine: I don't like the word "proper" -- but, yes, it is exactly so that the rules and/or conventions of language and grammar have left contemporary writing with a certain powerlessness -- have left many contemporary writers helpless. The alphabetical stories are a way to break away from the restrictive idea of sentences. Even the infinitely expandable English syntax is inadequate. The alphabetical stories allow more possibilities, many more possibilities, while still allowing a certain kind of sense.
Maday: You seem to have an elemental relationship to language and grammar with your intense focus on individual words -- their accumulation, frequency, and rhythm. In "A Baby Bigger Grows Up Than Was," for example, the imbalance of certain words: where "me" occurs 181 times and "mom" occurs 128 times, both clusters in close proximity, there appears the scant and interesting cluster: "dad, dad's, dark, darker, day . . ." This disjunction and imbalance of words that signify the traditional family unit seems to tell an entire story in itself. And maybe I'm over-interpreting.
Devine: There is no over-interpretation there. In fact, these stories can probably only be under-interpreted. The possibilities that are involved once we move fiction away from this standard syntax are staggering. The words in "A Baby Bigger Grows Up Than Was" can be combined in so many ways -- 1.38 x 10 to the 12,450th-power ways. The same for "As Day Same That the the Was Year" -- 8.38 x 10 to the 9849th-power ways. And these alphabetical pieces are filled with story (and sense) -- the father barely present (or mostly absent), the necessity of the mother for survival, the insistence on the self. Particular words gain attention through their accumulation or, sometimes, because they are singular or part of a particular string.
Maday: On the surface, looking at your alphabetical stories, it's easy to think, Oh, that's clever, all of the story's words are in alphabetical order, and leave it at that, maybe skimming your eyes over the words just to see if some sentences come together. But I've found that this skim becomes a sort of trap, where I skim again and again, skipping around, skimming forward and backward, seeing blocks of words that begin to take on some significance by virtue of their power in numbers, and soon the words do begin to make connections and form a textual tissue that then opens up, and by this point my eyes sliding and darting around have spun a web of so many possibilities. Where do your words come from?
Devine: Most pieces of fiction start with the letter "a" (though some begin with numbers, which can refer to so many things) and then the piece becomes a kind of chant. How many instances of "a" and "an" and "and" and "another" and "aunt" there are happens by feel. I feel my way through the language alphabetically. The words scroll through my mind on a kind of ticker. I sound them out until the piece feels full, until I cannot put another word in or take a word out. Of course, this compositional method is different than how the "Word" pieces are created.
Maday: Thank you, I'd been wondering how you wrote/composed/arranged the alphabetical stories -- whether you wrote the story traditionally and then proceeded to alphabetize the words or the way you described above. So it seems that Rosenthal may have at least assumed correctly that you composed the stories as bursts of words, even if she missed the intention in your method. Yes, the "Word" pieces. I take this to mean the pieces -- lists -- of words that should and shouldn't be used in fiction, also alphabetized, though formally closer to a glossary or index. I appreciate these pieces, especially the "shouldn't" list; I've even started a "shouldn't" list of my own, but consisting only of words that annoy me or seem like self-consciously serious literary words, e.g., cacophony, indelible, precocious, nonplussed, denizens, nondescript ... Sorry, I get carried away. Can you talk a bit about your process here and maybe what determines the "ought" or "naught" quality of each word according to your judgment?
Devine: All those words should go on the list of words that shouldn't be used in fiction. The words that comprise the list for "Words You Shouldn't Use in Fiction, a Selection" are simply pulled from my reading. The list, were it comprehensive, would include almost all adverbs and most adjectives, all kinds of qualifiers. Many of the words on the list would be Latinate (versus Anglo-Saxon) -- which is a kind of extension of Gardner's argument. Of course, there would be proper nouns, name brands, that kind of thing. It contains words that are more time-bound than other words.
Maday: I appreciate your clarification that the "shouldn't" words apply to fiction and that "nonfiction is another matter," since that particular piece is composed entirely out of these words that "you shouldn't use in fiction," while the vehicle is the essay, traditionally a form of nonfiction. What, if anything, do you hope to accomplish with these "Word" pieces?
Devine: The "Word" pieces are a critique of fiction.
Maday: A critique of fiction, of course. I'd like to come back to your critique a little later. But first, let's get binary and talk about your "wordless" pieces. These are fun, funny pieces. But, again, I sense much more going on than just clever irony for an easy laugh. The piece entitled "I Needed to Make Cuts" reminds me of Stephen King's rule about how a story can always stand to be cut by ten percent, and takes it to the limit. Though I suppose Zeno would argue that cutting ten percent always leaves the other ninety percent and that you'll never really cut your way out of the story. That one naked infinitely small pixel will always be there in the middle of great white oblivion. Technically, these "wordless" pieces are perfect stories: not one word is wasted or out of place.
Devine: Yes, perfection. Yes, infinite possibility, infinite interpretation. Yes, the necessity of the reader (even if it is only the author). Also, a word like implication might also be useful in this context (a word that should not be used in fiction, but is useful in critiques of fiction). Also, instead of residue, can we say glue, or, even better, mortar? But, yes, these wordless fictions are an implicit critique of fiction, just as my alphabetical fictions are. There are corollaries in abstract art, conceptual art, Beckett. I don't think that I should say anything else about these wordless (and wordfull) pieces. You have done a wonderful job with the explanation.
Maday: Yes, I like glue or mortar rather than residue; it implies active participation on the reader's part rather than the sense of having passively tainted, as residue seems to imply. I certainly understand your not wanting to say too much, not wanting to explain your work. That's what the fictions are for, right? Implicit critique. While I'm not looking for an explanation of your work, I would like to hear anything else you have to say about your "critique of fiction." You said that "Words You Shouldn't Use in Fiction, a Selection" came from your reading. And then there are the alphabetical stories that begin with numbers or letters and proceed to find their own chanting rhythm. Did these modes of critique in general spring from theory or did they proceed organically as a reaction or from your questions about the nature of fiction/writing? Have you always written this way or did you start out writing more traditionally and shift toward critique?
Devine: I had never written before -- not fiction or essays, just notes and letters, things like that -- but I started writing out of a sense of disgust. I was reading a lot of contemporary fiction, trying to read a lot of contemporary fiction, and was disgusted by it. I was marking out words, tearing out pages, throwing books away. But that wasn't doing me any good, so I started making a list of the words that offended me and it was kind of satisfying. When I think about the novels and the short stories that generated that initial list (and which I will not name; I don't want to hurt any feelings), it still makes me smile. The list for "Words You Shouldn't Use in Fiction" accumulated into a kind of theory -- the idea that word choice was one of the initial points of failure for so much fiction and that by avoiding certain words that failure could be avoided or at least delayed. After that, the list for "Words You Should Use in Fiction, a Selection" became necessary. I didn't want the idea to be one of just exclusion. I wanted to offer a solution, a beginning place. The stories came after that.
Maday: Yes, the stories. After looking at the alphabetical and wordless stories, a common property seems to be that of absence, albeit a paradoxical absence that has a powerful presence. Of course, the absence in the wordless stories is obvious. The absence in the alphabetical stories is obvious, too, I suppose, in the absence of the traditional elements of fiction: plot, character, scene, and even the basic units of paragraphs and sentences. You said earlier that, "The alphabetical stories are a way to break away from the restrictive idea of sentences. Even the infinitely expandable English syntax is inadequate." Can you talk more about that, especially what you mean when you say "the infinitely expandable English syntax is inadequate"?
Devine: An English sentence can expand and expand and it can do it with conjunctions (or clauses) -- also qualifiers like adjectives and adverbs -- but a greatly expanded English sentence is not so different from an English sentence that hasn't been greatly expanded. The syntactical expansion can go on infinitely, but it is still insufficient in many terms (e.g., originality). The alphabetical stories are undeniable original, in spite of certain precursors such as dictionaries and encyclopedias. The alphabetical stories displace the traditional concepts of plot, character, and scene -- while also displacing a traditional syntax. These things still exist. The syntax becomes alphabetical and requires a different way of reading, a different way of making sense. Plot and scene become variable, free form, capable of changing in a variety of ways. Let's say "big" is a recurring word, a recurring adjective. The different nouns that "big" attaches to are only limited by the number of instances of the word "big" and, at a certain point, the piece of fiction becomes gigantic.
Maday: Right, that potentially infinite English sentence sewn together with commas and conjunctions and commas; Vanessa Place's novella Dies: A Sentence comes to mind, though I know there have been some novel-length sentences written, which I've found to be an interesting challenge as a reader, when, reading as slowly as I often do, there's no chance of finishing the book in one sitting, and so it gets tricky deciding where to stop, being compelled, dragged along, and then, when I start again, having to back up and retrace in order to get a running start at the place I left off and ease myself back into the flow, a characteristic similar to reading the novel composed of one solid block of text (e.g., most of Thomas Bernhard's novels), which at least has completed sentences as stop points; and this raises the question, for me anyway, of the role and/or responsibility, in your mind, of the reader of your work (earlier, you even mentioned the possibility that the reader may only be the author), and what is required of the reader of experimental/innovative fiction in general, what changes will likely have to occur in the reader's approach when reading/engaging/experiencing the work of Andy Devine?
Devine: The graphic quality is an important element in my work. The lists of words, whether the lists are critiques or stories or the novel I'm working on, have a sculptural quality, a lapidary quality, and that is the first thing that confronts the reader -- even before the reader tries to make sense of the words on the page. And I do have some other expectations of the reader -- to read in alphabetical order while also flipping back and forth between pages, to remember certain words (their emphasis or their distinction), to make connections between nouns and verbs (and not so much between sentence and sentence).
Maday: What are you willing to say about the novel you're working on?
Devine: The writing of the novel grew out of the writing of the stories. I started writing the novel in the same way that I started writing the stories -- alphabetically, word-by-word, an accumulation -- and then I figured out a new way to structure the novel. I have condensed a 90K-word novel into about 25 pages.
Andy Devine's alphabetical fiction and essays have appeared in a variety of literary magazines. In 2007, he published a chapbook, "As Day Same That the the Was Year" (Publishing Genius Press). He is at work on a full-length manuscript entitled WORDS (Publishing Genius Press, forthcoming). Andy Devine Avenue -- in Flagstaff, Arizona -- is named after him.
Josh Maday lives in Michigan. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Action Yes, Apostrophe Cast, Barrelhouse, IsReads, Keyhole Magazine, Lamination Colony, New York Tyrant, Phoebe, Word Riot, and elsewhere. He reviews books and is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. He is working on a novella and can be found online at Josh Maday. Email him at joshmaday [at] gmail.com
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