Brian Evenson is owed some karmic rewards. The publication of his first novel, Altmann’s Tongue, generated enough controversy to oust him from his teaching position at Brigham Young University, rattle his faith, and sever close personal relationships. Asked to stop publishing or risk censure from the Mormon community, Evenson opted to keep writing, leaving his position and his family behind.
Since that decision, however, Evenson has garnered a wealth of awards and critical success, including an O. Henry Award for his short story “Two Brothers” and International Horror Guild Awards for The Wavering Knife and The Open Curtain. Known as a writer who defies easy classification, he has received equal recognition from both literary and genre presses. And the payback just keeps coming: Evenson’s latest novel, Last Days, won the 2010 ALA/RUSA Prize for Best Horror Novel; his work has been adapted into a variety of other media–most recently a stage version of Father of Lies; to date, his writing has appeared in four of twelve issues of Black Clock; and he currently serves as both a professor and director of the Literary Arts Program at Brown University.
Evenson’s work, though consistently divisive and occasionally iconoclastic, demands to be read. An aura of mystery, in the oldest sense, permeates his writing, fueled by symbolism that seems to function outside rationality and violence that is incomprehensibly rational. Characters with innocuously simple names enact atavistically simple motivations as they drift through uncertain, but curiously familiar, settings. “The Munich Window” features one of the most despicable yet irresistible narrators seen since Nabokov, and Last Days takes readers on a harrowing trek through an underground world of obsession and self-mutilation. In a recent review of short story collection Fugue States, Steve D. Owen called Evenson “the contemporary inheritor of the newest irrealist tradition” for the epistemological incertitude that permeates his writing. Recently, Black Clock was able to chat with Evenson and explore the methods and motivations behind his work.
BLACK CLOCK: Your novel, Father of Lies, recently received a stage adaptation by director Jose Zayas. How was that experience for you?
BRIAN EVENSON: It’s always amazing for me when someone adapts my work in one form or another, just because it creates possibilities for it that I maybe didn’t see. There’re things a play can do that aren’t really possible in a work of fiction. I’m afraid I haven’t seen Jose’s adaptation yet because the only days it was up were when I was out of the country, but I’ve heard only good things about the performance from friends who saw it. I’m very excited to watch it on DVD: I’ve heard he’s done some very interesting things with darkness and staging and with the intimacy of the performance. But I’m always for adaptations. When Zak Sally adapted a story of mine into a comic, for instance, it was really great. The other kinds of adaptations I’ve had, ranging from electronic music to radio plays to an experimental opera, I’ve been really happy about.
When you’re writing, do you ever picture what it would be like if it were adapted into a different medium? The visual aspects of it?
I think a lot of my work is very visual, so I do have a pretty clear visual sense of what’s going on with a story. But I don’t think I ever sit down and think, “Oh, this would make a great movie, this would make a great this or that.” There have been four or five short films made based on my stories, and it’s sometimes really interesting to see how different the visual ideas the director has are from the ideas that I had in writing the story. But I’ve also been very happy with those adaptations as well. I think that it just expands the work. Obviously there’s a lot of openness in my work. There’s an attempt on my part to make a space that people can enter into and make their own.
That’s an interesting concept. Do you want to talk about that for a little bit?
I think there are different ways to think about writing. One thing that I try to do is think about writing as something that serves as a catalyst, that connects to the reader, and the reader ends up completing the story in some ways, filling it in. As a result I think there’s a lot of ambiguity and openness in my work. Even though there are strong visual components, it’s work that demands active participation on the part of the reader.
Does that ambiguity arise from your particular approach to writing? Do you sit down and say “I’m going to write such-and-such a story” or do you try to leave it more open for yourself as well?
Any time I have a clear idea where a story’s going before I’m close to the end, I usually don’t finish it, just because I get bored with it. So yes, I think part of the process for me is trying to do something that feels at least a little bit new to me as I’m writing it. I want a story that’s holding my interest, or a moment along the way that surprises me, or that I don’t know where it came from, that seems to have tapped into something that I don’t really understand completely. As a reader, I’m really interested in work that upsets the easy definitions I have for how a story should work. I like fiction that does things that I can’t predict, but that does them so artfully that they seem natural and necessary at the same time as they seem surprising. So I think that as a writer what I’m trying to do is get to a place where the story is something the reader is really involved in, but sometimes caught off guard by, or turned over by, or disrupted by in some way or another.
Earlier, you put this concept together of creating a space that the reader can enter into. I’ve noticed that in a lot of your recent work especially there is a lot of imagery involving geometric, enclosed spaces. Is that part of why that imagery recurs in your writing?
I think it might be partly that. I’ve always been interested in the notion of enclosed spaces and characters that are put in a position of trauma, or put in a position where they don’t quite understand what’s going on around them. I like the notion of being trapped, and the notion of being in a space that one either does or doesn’t understand very well but that one has to deal with. I think those are things that always come up in my work. I think part of it is the influence of Beckett. I really love what he does in his work in terms of the almost geometrical quality of the descriptions, and how you have in something like The Lost Ones a very careful description of a space and of a cylinder. But you also have that in a lot of his work. In something like Company, you have these moments where the descriptions seem almost geometrical. For me, I’m not really sure where that’s coming from or what that’s about exactly. It may be partly that my mother is an architect. I think it’s really an interest in spaces and the way in which we function in relation to spaces. It’s partly an interest in dwelling, and houses, and things like that, but it’s also an interest in how many spaces just feel constricted and restrained.
If you had it completely figured out, I’m sure it wouldn’t be as interesting for either you or the reader.
I’m sure that’s right. Gaston Bachelard has a book called The Poetics of Space in which he talks about the relationship of spaces, and my interest may be partly coming from that and from phenomenology as well.
Other than philosophy and Beckett, do you have any other influences outside of prose fiction? Beckett wrote some prose but he was also a playwright.
Well, a lot of the Beckett work I’m really interested in is the prose: I think he does some amazing things in his novels. But I came to his plays first. And someone like Thomas Bernard is similar—someone who is as well known for his plays as for his fiction, but does really interesting things in both. He’s really interesting to me both as a playwright and as a fiction writer. Same with Friedrich Dürrenmatt. And I read a lot of contemporary poetry, the poetry of my colleagues at Brown of course but also a great many others, ranging from well-known poets like Ashbery and Creeley to lesser known people. I don’t know if the influences are as direct there, but I’m very interested in language and the way in which language can be manipulated, and poetry’s taught me a lot about that. And film has been a huge influence as well.
Any specific films?
When I was quite a bit younger, I saw Blue Velvet, the David Lynch film, and that was really unlike anything else I’d ever seen. It really blew wide open the notion for me of what was possible with film. Since then, I’ve come across a lot of other films that I’m interested in in different ways. But that one was a film that I came to very young, and it was pretty important.
And that also has that famous scene where Kyle Machlachlan’s character’s hiding in the closet; there’s that entrapment there as well.
Yeah, that definitely has that. That particular scene I think is pretty amazing. Fritz Lang’s M and The Testament of Dr. Mabuse were two other films I watched early on and have watched repeatedly. They’re very important to me as well. Michael Haneke’s films too.
I wanted to ask you about the controversy that surrounded your first published book, Altmann’s Tongue. It was a pretty major controversy that altered your life in a lot of ways. Do you think it’s helped shape the writer you’ve become since then?
Yes. Just to give people a sense of the controversy, my first book was published while I was a professor at Brigham Young University, which is a Mormon school. At this point I’m an ex-Mormon, but at the time I was Mormon. There was a student there who was not one of my students who sent an anonymous note to a Mormon Church leader saying that my book Altmann’s Tongue was evil, and that it should be banned and that anyone who had written it shouldn’t be allowed to teach at BYU. The university called me on the carpet and asked me to explain the book, and I did my best to do so. Then as time went on it became clear that they just wanted me to stop writing. And then the anonymous letter was released to the press and it became a pretty major controversy. At the time it was really irritating and traumatic, because it was my first job out of graduate school, I’d been at the school not very long when this happened, probably about a year if that. I really had to start the process of deciding if I was going to stay, and, if I was going to stay, if I was going to stop writing. Because they said to me directly that they didn’t want me to continue with writing the work I was doing. But then I found a job at Oklahoma State, and left, and have gone on from there to have a very productive university career. At the time it was hard, because I was supporting a young family, trying to figure out what to do, but in retrospect what it did for me, which I think was very important, was that it made me realize that people really would respond strongly to what I did, either positively or negatively. So I got the sense very early on that what I did as a writer mattered. I think most writers go through their career without necessarily feeling that, at least to the extent I did. It made me think very carefully about every word, it made me really conscious about what I was doing, and ultimately I think it was a kind of gift. To begin as a writer really feeling like what I was doing mattered and would have consequences.
That’s a great take on it.
(laughs) Yeah, it’s something that over time I’ve come to feel more and more. It’s partly because as time goes on, the trauma associated with that whole experience has faded a lot.
At the time, when you were writing Altmann’s Tongue, did you have any notion that it would be considered at all dangerous or evil?
I was a little surprised by that, partly because when I interviewed for the job I’d mentioned Altmann’s Tongue and explained what I was doing. The interview committee had said to me, “Well, is there sex in the book?” And I’d said, “No, there’s not actually much sex at all in the book.” And they said, “Well, as long as it’s just violence it’ll be okay.” So I went into the experience thinking that I’d checked and made sure that I was doing something that could at least be considered acceptable. So it did catch me a little bit off-guard. And in terms of violence, there are all sorts of books that are quite a bit more violent than Altmann’s Tongue. But the violence in Altmann’s Tongue is very deliberately done in such a way as to be unsettling. It’s not movie violence. One thing I was interested in doing was trying to restore a sense of violence as something that disrupts the social order and destroys the individuals that practice it, violence as something truly disturbing. And in that sense, I think that the response I got to the book from the Mormon community showed me that in fact I’d succeeded in doing that, that I’d made violence threatening again, rather than something that you could just say “Oh, if it’s just violent, it’s no big deal.”
Is that something that you’re still working on in your writing?
I don’t think it’s something I’m working on as much at this point, at least not primarily. There have been moments since Altmann’s Tongue where I’ve been interested in exploring issues of violence, and I think there’s a thread of violence that runs through my work, but the stuff I’m more interested in at this point is trauma, and the psychology of trauma, and how people respond to difficult situations. It’s closely related, but there’s a little difference in emphasis and, consequently, a little more psychological depth.
To shift gears a little bit, you’ve recently written a few books in established franchises under the name B.K. Evenson. Because you’re publishing under a different name, even though it is another form of your actual name, it seems as though you want to keep it separate from your other work. What’s the distinction you’re trying to create between that and your other fiction?
It’s not that I want to keep it utterly separate; I just want a slight distinction. I didn’t use a pseudonym, I just used my initials and last name, and I think it’s because when I started doing these things—I’ve done three things now: one is an Aliens book based on the movie Aliens, I did a short story for the video game Halo, and I just published last week Dead Space: Martyr, which is based on the video game Dead Space—it was partly that at first I thought, “Well, there are going to be people who are interested in these books who aren’t interested as much in my other fiction and vice versa, so I’ll put them all under the name B.K. Evenson so that if they liked the Dead Space book they can find the other things like it.” But the thing that I found when I was writing them was that even they’re probably not quite as complicated as much of my literary fiction (partly because I’m working with a pre-existing property, there are certain rules that they want me to follow), the themes and the ideas that are dealt with in those three pieces are really very much part of my universe. So there are scenes in Dead Space: Martyr that are pretty directly connected to what I’m doing. It just happens that there are also twisted and reanimated dead. It’s a different take. It’s very similar; I’m not ashamed of those books, but I also think that they’re not necessarily the things I’m going to be remembered for, if I’m remembered at all. At the same time, I spent a lot of time trying to make the Dead Space novel the best video game novel out there.
When you were writing those books, you said that it’s simpler in some ways. Is it sort of a relief to be able to work within an already established universe, or are you itching to get back to your more personal projects?
One of the reasons I’ve started doing these is because while the school year’s going on—I’m the Chair of the Creative Writing Program at Brown right now—it’s sometimes pretty hard for me to find the time to do sustained writing. If I’ve started something, it works really well; otherwise, it’s pretty difficult. But with these books, the people I work with want me to do an outline first, so I do an outline that ends up being fifteen or twenty pages. So I have a kind of structure that I can work with. And they’re also really fun to write, and I can give myself permission to think of it as something that I’m doing for fun, that doesn’t seem like work. So they’re books that I can write when school’s going on and when I have all these other administrative things that are taking up my time.
I’ve read before that you had an, uh, memorable experience of the first Alien movie when you were younger. Are you also a fan of the Halo and Dead Space universes, or is that more something that you saw as a good fit for your style of writing and your ideas?
The Aliens book really did fit incredibly well. The first movie in particular something I grew up with. I remember the first time I watched it, and there are moments in that movie I think are still really amazing. I’d played Halo, and was interested in it, and had an idea for something I could do which would be somewhat different than what other people had done with Halo stuff in the past. So that became interesting to me, to think about how can you take this pre-existing thing and move it in a new direction. I do this with genre in my more literary work as well. Some of my work responds to genre, whether it’s horror or something else, in a very direct way. And then with the Dead Space game, I think it’s an amazingly horrifying game, and really fun to play, and I’d played it in advance of being asked to write the novel. It seemed like a really natural fit: I could immediately see ways in which I could find a space for myself within the format of the Dead Space world. And the other thing I loved about Dead Space is that there’s this weird religious component to it, and that seemed like a good fit for some of the things I do. Religious strangeness is never too far away from my work. Like how Last Days is grounded in this notion of a crazy religious cult.
This may sound like a bit of a left-field question, but in Japan in the 1920’s, and then later in postwar Japan, there was an art movement known as Erotic Grotesque Nonsense. That specific movement is pretty contained in that area of the world, but I think I can detect a similar interplay between the erotic, the grotesque, and the absurd/nonsensical in some of your work. For instance, in “Eye” from Altmann’s Tongue and in “Invisible Box,” which was featured in Black Clock 7 and is included in Fugue State as well. Do you see those three elements working together in your writing in any way?
The grotesque is always there, I think. In almost everything I do, the grotesque is present. The erotic is there in some pieces, and not in others. Obviously “Invisible Box” is playing around with that pretty directly, and “Eye” is doing it as well, in two very different ways. The thing about “Invisible Box” is that you start in a space that seems like it’s funny, and then it gets stranger and stranger. I don’t know the Erotic Grotesque Nonsense movement from Japan, so it’s hard for me to know how to respond directly to that, but at the same time I am really fascinated by someone like Hans Bellmer, who does stuff with doll parts and erotic drawings that are also very, very strange. So yeah, I think there is some presence there.
A lot of your work can be described with “sub-” words: subconscious, although I know you don’t really agree with the concept; subversive; subjective; subterranean; finally, subdermal is a great descriptor for many of your stories. There isn’t exactly a question here, but can you talk about some aspects of your writing that occur below the surface?
I mentioned before that when I’m actually working on a story if I know where it’s going and have a sense of how it’s going to play out, I’m not that interested in it. When a story’s working really well, I become very connected to the process of thinking about the language of the story, in the sense that I allow my conscious mind to be distracted by the language of the story and the way in which the language is working. And that opens something else up, and allows certain things to organize themselves or certain things to happen that wouldn’t necessarily happen otherwise. As you’ve mentioned, I’m a little bit uncomfortable with the word “subconscious.” It’s not that I don’t believe that there’s something that exists below the conscious mind, it’s just that I question the formal way in which we think about it. It’s partly that that word, “subconscious,” culturally has so much baggage that goes along with it. But at the same time, I really do feel that good writing for me is something that accesses something that exists that is very hard to get at in other ways. Outside of artistic media, it’s very hard to get at. For me, when a story’s really working well, something is going on with the language, and the rhythm, and the sound of the piece, as well as the way in which different regimes of meaning are crosscutting, that ends up connecting to the reader on a subdermal or subterranean—whatever you want to call it—level, that kind of plugs into you in a different way than information does. And that’s what I’m interested in: thinking about writing as something that’s intensive or affective, as something that is short-circuiting some of the things that are seen as the norm for us in terms of our day-to-day confrontation with language.
Is that part of the reason that you draw influences from the horror genre?
Probably, yeah. I think it’s partly just that horror is so interested in mood, and creating a certain kind of mood. It’s a very curious genre. Horror for me is really defined by creating a certain kind of mood. And that mood, also, when it’s done at its best, ties into basic fears that we have and explores things that we generally leave covered up. My work has always had one foot in literature and one foot in horror, and it’s really interested not in being in one camp or the other, but in straddling and trying to use as many different sorts of things as I can to create an effect for the reader that’s intensive in the same way that experience is intensive. I think that fiction can be experiential. You feel, when you read a story that’s intense and very good, that you’ve actually experienced something. Good fiction should be able to have that effect, should be able to increase your heart rate, should be able to make you feel like you’ve lived through something.
You’ve been a frequent contributor to Black Clock. What is it about the magazine that draws you back?
There are several things. One is the design of the magazine: I think it’s incredibly nice-looking, very beautifully done. I also think that Steve Erickson, the editor, has made great choices and has good taste. So I always feel like I’m in exceptionally good company when I’m in Black Clock. One of the appeals for me is knowing, even if I don’t know for sure who’s going to be in the issue, that I’m going to like the work that’s there, and that I’m going to respect the aesthetic that’s been used to assemble the work. It’s that, as much as anything.
by Byron Alexander Campbell
an MFA candidate at CalArts