An Interview with Laird Hunt
Laird Hunt is the author of a book of short stories, mock parables and histories, The Paris Stories (2000), from Smokeproof Press, and three novels, The Impossibly (2001), Indiana, Indiana (2003) and The Exquisite (2006) all from Coffee House Press. His new novel, Ray of the Star, was just released from Coffee House in September. He is published in France by Actes Sud, and has novels either published or forthcoming in Japan and Italy. His writings, reviews and translations have appeared in the United States and abroad in, among other places, McSweeney's, Ploughshares, Bomb, Bookforum, Grand Street, The Believer, Fence, Conjunctions, Brick, Mentor, Inculte, and Zoum Zoum. Currently on faculty in the University of Denver's Creative Writing Program, he has had residencies at the MacDowell Colony and the Camargo Foundation in Cassis, France. He and his wife, the poet Eleni Sikelianos, live in Boulder, Colorado, with their daughter, Eva Grace.
Fallon: Would you like some sparkling water? Some pickled herring or sautéed minnows?
Hunt: All three sound smashing. Add a pastry or two (with a nice fish-paste filling) and we're in business.
Fallon: The chapter-long sentences of Ray of the Star really are remarkable. Is it true that you took special breathing classes so that you could read these chapters out loud?
Hunt: I did a reading at the Mountain bar in L.A. recently (part of the excellent Jim Ruland's Vermin on the Mount series) and discovered, to my slight dismay and greater amusement, that very long sentences, quite readable in other situations, are difficult to say the least when there is little light, which meant, among other things, that I could only look up from the page when I had completed a sentence/section (no inclusive/endearing/annoying eye contact with the audience possible), and that I had to sort of squint as I read.
Fallon: The narrator of Ray of the Star comes across like a gentle parody of a nineteenth century omniscient Author, and there is also a lightness and ludic quality to The Exquisite and The Impossibly. But all these novels have deadly and darkly serious concerns. Do you find humor and playfulness necessary in the approach to darkness and destruction?
Hunt: I think we would all drown without humor. My early great models for dealing with primary concern in fiction were Beckett and Kafka, both of whom are very, very funny and very, very dark. It took me a while to feel like I was getting the balance right though. I'm a big fan of Roberto Benigni, but that ha ha holocaust movie he made was very difficult to watch because of the balance question. I also liked Pulp Fiction a good deal, but found the famous sequence where the kid gets accidentally popped then vanished, profoundly, un-usefully unfunny. In my case, in some of my early fictions, I think I came off as something of a smart ass -- cracking wise as the corpse fell to the floor, so to speak. I am not interested, in fiction, at least as far as my narrators are concerned, in humor as a coping mechanism -- nervous jokey stuff -- but I am deeply interested in attending to humor as an integral layer in the strata of human experience, insofar as fiction is able to apprehend it.
Fallon I've noticed a large crack in the concrete of my basement, and I fear that agents from a sinister and co-existent world are coming and going at will. Do you have any advice on what to do?
Hunt: Widen the crack, then serve them well and faithfully. Such comings and goings are much more difficult than we imagine and these agents will be grateful for your dedicated assistance. Reward may follow. That reward will be good. Unless it's very bad.
Fallon: In your two most recent novels (The Exquisite and Ray of the Star) there is the idea that every metropolis has a concomitant necropolis hidden within it, a dark otherworld that your characters struggle in various ways to keep from slipping into. Are there boundaries between these worlds? Do they overlap and share the same space?
Hunt: I was much affected by Samuel Delany's Dhalgren -- one of the great beacons of post-war exploratory fiction -- and so it probably makes sense that I have internalized (and now keep externalizing) this idea of worlds within the world or cities that overlap with other cities. Also, there is Calvino's Invisible Cities, which contains more than one city that covers all the available territory, meaning cities are forced to/privileged to coexist. Borges built cities he describes (I'm thinking in particular of "Death and the Compass") by blending: Paris and Buenos Aires, for example. And there are many other examples. Indeed, some might say that what we're talking about in such instances, and in my own, is simply the space of the imagination, which sprays it's lovely, troubling distortions around everyone, everywhere. Maybe I mean the space of fiction. Thank god for it.
Fallon: In Ray of the Star, the traffic between worlds is governed by a trio of old men who resemble a particularly mean-spirited and foul-mouthed parcae. I hope you don't mind if I nicknamed these guys the fatefuckers.
Hunt: That's beautiful. Or, as they might say, shoving me aside, "fucking beautiful." "Just right." "Suits us nice." "Love it, fuck-face." "You got copyright on that?" "Put it in a poem." "Send it to your boyfriend." "Or girlfriend." "Maybe he's got both." "Yeah, maybe it's both." "Fate-fuckers!" "Ha! Ha! Ha!" "Ha! Ha! Fucking ha!"
Fallon: Your novels also consider the tenuous boundaries of self, with characters struggling to maintain a stable identity even as they find themselves slipping toward oblivion. In Ray of the Star we see Harry sharing consciousness with and overlapping other characters including Solange and a stranger on the street. Why do your characters have so much trouble maintaining the boundaries of their selves?
Hunt: Yes, it's always sort of Wallace and Gromit slipping toward the meat-grinding machine, their little clay faces quivering, but without the child friendly ending. Well, maybe not always. I am intrigued and troubled by the thought of all the different minds that inhabit and activate the characters I create: every reader hits them like a fresh new ton of bricks and brings all kinds of new consciousness to their wordy shells. So it's not so much that Salinger (borrowed) mysticism thing that we are all identical instances of the same impulse (when I drink milk I am drinking myself, etc.) it's more an acknowledgement that these vectors of energy, these characters, ultimately live in hundreds of minds that are not mine. Their sense of self is bound to be slippy.
Fallon: Do you see the word extispicic making a comeback?
Hunt: Ah, yes, lovely old "extispicic." I still don't know how to spell it without help. . .
Fallon: Speaking of tenuous boundaries, you have an unpublished novel that draws out a narrative thread of Indiana, Indiana, and another unpublished novel that plays upon The Impossibly. What is this process where narratives escape their boundaries and explore new imaginative spaces?
Hunt: Both of these books got started because I was unable to let go of the books they evolved from. I was still interested in exploring that fictional Hoosier country I had cooked up and so took a minor character from the novel and "told" her story. This allowed me to use a mechanism I had been interested in trying out for a long time: Flaubert's novella, A Simple Heart, begins near the end of his main character's life, then leaps all the way back to her beginnings and marches relentlessly forward until he has passed his starting point and brought her to the moment of her death. Finding this mechanism is part of what helped give this new book (Old Woman) its own life and certainly sets it apart from the kaleidoscopic Indiana, Indiana, even though the events it recounts happen right next door, so to speak. Dear Laird hunt, Author of The Impossibly, posits a fan of The Impossibly who writes letters to Laird Hunt, chronicling his (the fan's) ever-stranger interaction with the novel. This unnamed letter writer is very good at imitating Laird Hunt's style, is maybe even better at it than Laird Hunt. The gesture is ultimately Borgesian, the fictional world (as described in a fiction) blots out the real world and everyone is going around wearing caps and reflective sun glasses.
Fallon: For each of your novels you've acknowledged specific texts that were influential to its writing. For Ray of the Star, you mention Marie Redonnet, Georges Perec, Jose Saramago. Other novels mention Michael Ondaatje and W. G. Sebald. How do texts speak to other texts, how do they share imaginative boundaries? What is the process of narratives arriving out of the imaginary spaces of other narratives?
Hunt: Desire and fascination -- desire to build a bridge to these texts I love, to get closer to them, to pay homage to them, to in some way continue them; fascination (I'm thinking of Blanchot here) for these things that are constantly eluding me, that constantly keep their distance, that ultimately baffle understanding. I see this engagement with other texts as highly active -- it's not about feeding off corpses (The Literature of Exhaustion) but of constant renewal (The Literature of Replenishment).
Fallon: Given that you acknowledge influential books and authors in your own books, how actively do you engage with these books/authors during the writing process?
Hunt: I have to be pretty careful about what books I pick up when I'm writing. It's one thing to have the residue of a text in your head (the results of whatever annihilation you've enacted on said text), it's another to have it in front of you, to see it without having time to productively forget. I begin to ape when I'm in the middle of a project and I reread the writers who have most greatly influenced me. I can lose weeks if I grow weak and pick up, say, some Bernhard when I'm trying to write a novel.
Fallon: How do you decide what to read next? What leads you from book to book?
Hunt I teach and review and so am constantly being exposed to new work, for which I'm grateful. At the same time, I've lately begun to grow concerned that rather than executing a powerful crawl through the waters of the contemporary, I'm starting to slip under the surface and might begin to graze the bottom of the pool. I took on the challenge a decade ago of becoming as familiar as possible with contemporary experimental fiction; it may be time to let go of that a little. In an interview, Sebald comes out strongly against practicing writers reading their contemporaries. I'm not interested in completely turning my back on what others around me are doing, but I'm starting to have more sympathy for his position.
Fallon: What's the most annoying inanimate object that you've conversed with?
Hunt: I used to have this pair of running shoes. . .
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