Evan Lavender-Smith is an American writer who has published two books, Avatar and From Old Notebooks.
I really really really like his anti-novel (or whatever you want to call it) From Old Notebooks, which has recently been reissued by the good people at Dzanc Books.
(Here is my review of FON). I still haven’t read Avatar.
Evan talked with me about his writing, his reading, and other stuff over a series of emails. He was generous in his answers and I very much enjoyed talking with him.
Evan lives in New Mexico with his wife, son, and daughter. He has a website. Read his books.
Biblioklept: Do you know that first editions of From Old Notebooks are going for like three hundred dollars on Amazon right now?
ELS: Here at the house I have a whole drawer full of them. That’s how I’m planning to pay for the kids’ college.
Biblioklept: I read that Cormac McCarthy won’t sign his books anymore because he has this reserve of signed editions that are for his son to sell and corner the market on. Or I think I read that.
Speaking of your kids: the parts in From Old Notebooks about them are some of my favorites, perhaps because the moments you describe seem so real to me, or that I relate so strongly to the feelings that you express. (My own kids, a daughter and son, are about the same age as your kids are in the book). Is it weird if I ask how your kids are?
ELS: Glad to hear some of that stuff resonates with you. No, I don’t think it’s weird. I believe the book even sort of self-consciously anticipates a certain reader’s empathetic engagement with it. There’s that passage somewhere, for example, in which we get something like an interview answer, something like “The real Evan Lavender-Smith has never made it past the first section of Ulysses, the real Evan Lavender-Smith has no children,” which I think maybe winks at the possibility of that type of readerly engagement. So no, it’s encouraging to hear that parts of the book seemed to work for you. My kids are great, by the way. Sofia’s at her violin lesson, Jackson’s doing an art project with his mom.
Biblioklept: The faux-interview answers crack me up. I think we’ve all done that in some way—that we go through these little experiments of interviewing ourselves, performing ourselves, imagining how others perceive us. You write your own obituary; at one point we get: ” ‘With my first book I hope to get all the cult of personality stuff out of the way’.” You remark that you don’t put dates on anything as “an act of defiance” against your “literary executors.” Moments like these seem simultaneously ironic and sincere.
I’m curious as to how closely you attended to these disjunctions—From Old Notebooks seems incredibly, I don’t know, organic.
ELS: At a certain point I became very aware that I was performing some version or versions of myself in the book, and I think the book tries to find ways of grappling with problems I perceived as bound up with that performance. One way was to insist on a narrative tone or mode somewhere in between irony and sincerity, or to regularly oscillate between or conflate these competing modes. Something like “I am the greatest writer in the history of the world!” might later be countered by “Gosh, my writing really blows, doesn’t it?”; or “My kids are so beautiful, I love them so much,” might be followed by “I wish those little fuckers were never born.” While the function of this variability is, in From Old Notebooks, probably mostly an apology or a mask for a kind of subjectivity I worry might come off as cliche and naive, that particular representation of the thinking subject — cleaved, inconsistent, heterogeneous — does strike me as truer of human experience and perception than the more streamlined consistency of expression and behavior we tend to associate with the conventional narratological device called “character.” When I try to look deep down inside myself, to really get a handle on my thinking, for example, or on my understanding of truth, I end up facing a real mess of disjunctive, contradictory forces competing for my attention. For me — and likely for the book, as well — the most immediate figure for this condition might be the confluence of sincerity and irony, the compossibility of taking a genuine life-affirming pleasure in, and exhibiting a kind of cynical hostility toward, the fact of my own existence.
Biblioklept: That contest between sincerity and irony seems present in many works of post-postmodern fiction. It’s clearly a conflict that marks a lot of David Foster Wallace’s stuff. You invoke Wallace a number of times in From Old Notebooks, but the style of the book seems in no way beholden to his books. Can you talk about his influence on you as a reader? A writer?
ELS: Wallace hugely influenced the way I think about any number of things. I think his most immediate influence on my writing is this blending of hieratic and demotic modes of language when I’m dealing with pretty much anything that requires the serious application of my writing mind; the hip nerdiness of his language was and still is very empowering to me. He made it seem super cool to geek out on books — “The library, and step on it,” says Hal in Infinite Jest – and back in high school and college that example was so vital for me, as someone entirely too obsessed with being both cool and well read. He served to guide my reading of other writers in a way that only John Barth and Brian Evenson have come close to matching; I poured over his essays for names, then went to the library and checked out and read all the books he mentioned, then reread his essays. His fiction’s most common subject matter — addiction, depression, the yearning for transcendence, the incommensurability of language and lived experience, problems of logic vis-a-vis emotion, metafiction’s values and inadequacies — all of this stuff hit very close to home. To my mind there’s little doubt that Infinite Jest is the best English-language novel published in the last 25 years. His advocacy for David Markson has got to be up there among the greatest literary rescue missions of the 20th century. In “Good Old Neon” he wrote what may be the most haunting long short story since “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” He galvanized young writers everywhere right when the internet was taking off and unwittingly served as a touchstone for emerging online literary communities that thrive today. I think for a lot of young writers, myself included, he was, maybe next to the emergence of the internet, the most important force in the language’s recent history. The list goes on and on. And also he helped me out personally, providing encouragement and advice that was so generous and inspiring. I was extremely troubled by his suicide and wasn’t able to write much or think about much else for quite a while.
With all that said, there are some things he says that bother me a bit. The synthesis of art and entertainment he espouses as it pertains to the role of the writer in the age of television — which I think in many ways corresponds to his striving for a new aesthetic in which the cerebral effects associated with 60s and 70s postmodernist fiction are complemented by or synthesized with the more visceral effects associated with 70s and 80s realist fiction — strikes me now as existing very much in opposition to what I believe in most passionately about writing: that it can and in the most important cases should exist in a state of absolute opposition to our entertainments. I’ve come to better appreciate, years after reading Wallace, the writing of people like Woolf and Beckett and Gaddis, those writers who are uncompromising in their vision of narrative art’s most radical and affecting possibilities and who necessarily, I believe, pay very little attention to any sort of entertainment imperative. The books I love most make me feel things strongly, and think things strongly, but rarely do they entertain me. If I want to be entertained, I know exactly where to go: a room without books. I’ve come to think of certain books as my life’s only source of intellectual solace; when I’m not despairing over the futility of everything under the sun, that unflagging commitment to a truly rigorous and uncompromising art that I perceive in a writer like Beckett seems to me a matter of life and death, just as serious as life can ever get. When Wallace talks that shit about art and entertainment, or about the need to add more heart or greater complexity of character to Pynchon or whatever, it makes me feel like I want to throw up. I heard him say once in an interview that he felt he couldn’t write the unfiltered stuff in his head, that it would be too radical or something, and the admission really upset me; it felt like in some serious way he had allowed his projection of an imaginary target audience’s desire to determine the form of his writing. I often feel something similar in the essays; I find many of them to be merely entertaining. I suppose I often judge the essays in relation to the fictions, which I find far superior in their attempt to overcome the strictures and conventions of language and form. Wallace was always at his best, to my reading, when he was really bearing down — when he was at his most difficult.
But no doubt he’s been monumentally important to me, more so than any other recent fiction writer, and in more ways than I can name. There’s something in From Old Notebooks where the methodical awkwardness and wordiness of so many of his sentences is likened to the affectation of bumping up against the limits of language. That’s probably what I take away from him more than anything: when I sit down at the laptop to face the language, I often feel myself struggling with the words as well as struggling to demonstrate that I’m struggling with the words. That’s pure Wallace: word-by-word, letter-by-letter self-consciousness. (There’s another thing in From Old Notebooks about how I’m always talking shit because I care for him so deeply … which is why the paragraph before this one).
Biblioklept: One of the things I love about From Old Notebooks is how the book performs a self-critique of its own anxieties of influence (summed up so neatly/obliquely in the one-word entry “Joycespeare”).
David Markson is a clear influence on FON, and you write at one point: “If David Markson hadn’t written his literary-anecdote novels, would I have ever thought to consider F.O.N. a novel? Would I have ever thought to write such a book?”
There’s also other influences that you discuss in the book/through the book—Nietzche’s use of aphorism comes through, for example. Is the content of FON divisible from its form? Should the content be divisible from form?
ELS: I’m not sure. Occasionally I’ve posted a certain sort of Facebook status update and someone will comment, “Hey, that’s like something straight out of F.O.N.!” I’m a bit put off by it because I want to imagine that the book’s content should in fact not be divisible or separable from its form, that the book was a one-time thing possessing its own immanent, sovereign structures and allegiances and that the person who alleges to have written it is not really me, is not really who I am as I sit here in my pajamas typing answers to these questions, for example. For some reason it seems important for me not to claim the things I’ve written as mine but instead think and talk about them almost as if they’d been written by a different person or as if they’re entirely their own thing separate from me with their own will which has very little to do with my will. If someone were to come up and quote something from the book at me looking for a fight or whatever, I don’t imagine I’d feel compelled to defend myself. I gave a reading a while back and in the Q & A an audience member asked, “So how’s that fear of death thing treating you these days?” I was pretty mortified and replied something like, “What fear of death? I’m not afraid of death. You must have me confused with somebody.” Of course it’s a little more complicated than a simple intentional fallacy because my name is all over the inside of the book. It may be that it’s simply convenient to disavow the book’s content but not its form; that way I can avoid any liability for its more inane claims and judgments or its more puerile observations. But also, like David Markson’s final four books, I believe that From Old Notebooks employs to some extent a kind of conceptualist procedure, or the illusion of such a procedure, whereby the book’s content has been appropriated from another source in service of its form. Markson’s brand of conceptualism is one in which literary and historical trivia and anecdota are appropriated and reconfigured, are de- and reterritorialized; in From Old Notebooks it’s probably more an autobiographical conceptualism by which trivia and miscellany pertaining to my own life are collated and arranged to produce certain formal effects. In Nietzsche, I don’t quite see the attention to those formal possibilities of accrual, of repetition and contradiction and reference across the book, that I admire in my very favorite works of apothegmatic or fragmentary writing (like some of Beckett and Markson’s later writing, or maybe Wittgenstein’s Tractatus and P.I., or Evan S. Connell’s Notes from a Bottle Found on the Beach at Carmel, or C.D. Wright’s Deepstep Come Shining, or, more recently, Ben Lerner’s Mean Free Path), but I do very much admire a lot of Nietzsche’s writing all the same, especially the more inflammatory and supremely egocentric stuff. All in all, though, I think people should feel free to read the book and imagine the relationship between its form and content however they please; if they want to just flip around in it like it’s a dirty joke book or a good bathroom book, that’s okay … I feel starved for readers and will happily receive some defecators and horny teenagers among the fifty or so bookworms and grad students who currently populate my fan base.
Biblioklept: I think there’s clearly a shape and even progression to FON though, with your family and friends (and even to a small extent your students) emerging as characters. The book is also very much about something: The problems of writing, philosophy, death. This is my perspective as a reader though—I feel like I’m the one piecing together plot and themes and all that stuff from what you offer. How intentional is this on your part? How important is trusting the reader? Do you overtly try to teach the reader to read your books as you write?
ELS: Yes, I also think the book has a definite shape and progression about it. I suppose one of the more obvious structuring devices is the initial presence of, then later the absence of, then finally the return of entries concerning ideas for stories, books, plays, poems, movies, etc. And yes, I was fairly cognizant of the repetition of certain names that would end up functioning in the manner of character, and I worried quite a bit over providing or not providing context for them. For instance, the name Carmen appears early on without reference to the fact that she is my wife — that she is the wife of the narrator — although the entry in which the name appears, which I believe is “Title of Carmen’s hypothetical self-help book for new mothers: How to Take a Shit While Holding Your Baby,” perhaps provides some context that would prompt that association for the reader, or, at the very least, the entry may serve to plant the name Carmen in the reader’s mind so that when the same name crops up later an accrual of context has served to further suggest her role in relation to the narrator and the book, etc. Basic narratological stuff like that might seem really obvious and not much worth mentioning, but in fact it’s often exactly that kind of thing that most excites me as a reader, to watch and try to suss out the sneaky and magical-seeming ways a book goes about developing its terms of representation and meaning. It seems that much of what I write possesses a kind of in media res quality with respect to form that would require the reader to do some catching up, to take some time to decode the book’s peculiar and maybe alienating use of form or language. You mention the possibility of the book teaching the reader to read it, and yes, that’s probably on my mind, especially when I’m revising, this need to litter the book with cues and clues meant to aid in a reader’s understanding of the book’s form, but doing it covertly, I would hope, in a way that might minimize or hide familiar contrivances associated with narrative world-building.
However, I do tend to feel like I’m writing primarily for myself. I’ve often heard writers say that they write to contribute to the ongoing conversation which is literature, or to share something or communicate something with readers or with the world, or maybe for money. I wouldn’t doubt the honesty of those reasons — especially the last one, which you don’t often hear writers admit to — but I couldn’t honestly admit to any of them myself. Surely I’m desirous of attention of some sort; I’ve tried to think about writing and making art in relation to fitness indication and sexual selection, in relation to the possibility of a human being attempting to indicate his or her fitness vis-a-vis sexual selection, and I think there’s at least a little something to that idea. But I probably write in the first instance simply to stave off the ugly feelings and the grumpiness which for me quickly follow from a perception of myself as being lazy or unproductive. There are a few other things I’ve found I can do for a while in place of writing, like playing the piano or teaching or playing with the kids or renovating the bathrooms, but, generally speaking, writing — regardless of a readership’s presence or absence — seems to be the most effective exercise at keeping my heart and mind in good shape.
All to say that writing is a very private and personal occupation for me and the thought of what a reader other than myself might or might not be thinking about when reading what I’ve written often seems pretty alien to my conception of the purpose of my writing. I do certainly imagine and project a rhetorical situation onto the writing, and of course the writing is everywhere informed by my intuition of its rhetorical nature, but within this rhetorical framework I probably imagine myself as both writer and reader (if not as text, as well, at least in the case of From Old Notebooks, which occasionally posits an equivalence between the writer’s ego and the book). It’s hard for me to conceive of a more narcissistic approach to writing than that — “Reader, I don’t care about you, only about myself” — but I’m hopeful there are people out there with interests and desires similar enough to my own so as to perceive in my writing a generosity and compassion toward the reader.
Biblioklept: I must be one of those readers—I thought FON was incredibly generous in its reality. Have you read David Shields’s Reality Hunger?
ELS: I tried to but couldn’t get into it. Did you read it?
Biblioklept: I read it, yeah. I could see what he was getting at but I guess I didn’t like how he got there. I sort of hated it, actually, and I felt embarrassed for him when he talked about hip-hop and DJ culture. But again, I get what he’s looking for, what he wants from contemporary writing. I think that FON performs or enacts or processes the reality that Shields is hungry for, which is why I brought it up. FON isn’t a manifesto, is it? Do you have a manifesto?
ELS: No, I don’t think of it as a manifesto. I’ve never tried to write anything like a manifesto, maybe because my ideas about writing seem pretty fluid. Even now, looking over the answer I wrote to your earlier question about trusting the reader, I’m thinking to myself, “I don’t buy any of that. Trusting in and being generous toward the reader is very important to me,” and yet the other day, when I wrote it, I seemed to genuinely believe what I was writing. I think that malleability of opinion and conviction is something that From Old Notebooks at least occasionally concerns itself with, how ideas and statements purportedly honest or true get torqued by the language containing them and can’t really be separated from that momentary linguistic impulse — and I suppose that was in part what I was thinking of in an earlier answer when writing about the possibility of a truer representation of subjectivity comprising contradiction and opposition and all the rest. I really don’t know what I would say if I sat down and tried to develop a cogent argument about art’s role in life or art’s imperatives. Often I feel like I don’t even know what I’m really referring to when I use the word art, that it’s just sort of a placeholder word in some language game invented to kill time. The only thing I seem to consistently believe in — and this may seem embarrassingly quaint or modernist, even conservative — is the need for greater rigor and innovation in writing. It’s a reactionary, snobbish stance, I think, this appeal for a more challenging art contra the market-researched entertainments offered to us by Hollywood and TV networks and publishing houses.
Biblioklept: Do you ever reject what you’ve written because it fails the rubric of innovation and rigor that you’ve described?
ELS: Yes, all the time. I’ve ended up throwing out or never doing anything with a vast majority of what I’ve written, which is something that used to bother me quite a bit — I felt like these hundreds, probably thousands of hours I’d spent working on things had simply amounted to nothing — but now I’m much more comfortable with all that as I’ve come to think of it as a necessary practice toward my writing’s improvement. At a certain point the tendency to just trash everything evolved into a willingness to make the sort of huge, bold cuts within writing projects that I imagine to be one of the hallmarks of great revising. I wasn’t able to do that when I first started out; if I’d spent thirty hours working on a ten-page section of a long story, for example, you’d better believe that that ten-page section was going to end up in the story’s final draft. Now, it doesn’t really matter to me. I wrote for six hours this morning, and if I have to trash the writing I did today in service of a greater vision I later develop for this project, that’s okay because there’s another six-hour writing day coming up tomorrow and then another one after that and another one after that and another one after that. I’ve worked hard to eliminate pretty much everything from my life that could screw with the conditions allowing for the comfort I take in the daily renewal of my enthusiasm for writing.
Biblioklept: I teach writing — basic comp classes — and I find that my young (and usually inexperienced) writers become emotionally attached to paragraphs and pages that have no place in their papers. If they put the time and work into the paragraph, they’re unwilling to part with it.
ELS: One of the last short stories I wrote was inspired by a story a graduate student put up for a workshop I taught; for some reason her story led me to the idea of writing about a job I once had working on a conveyer belt at a recycling center. I think that sort of thing has happened a number of times: I’ve often performed a creative misreading of student writing, discovering in student writing a line of flight for my own writing. Generally, though, I think teaching has been bad for my writing, at least the sort of teaching I’ve done so far, teaching too many classes for too little money at a university that couldn’t give two shits about how well I teach or write. I’ve certainly enjoyed things about teaching — it keeps me on my toes; the generosity and patience I observe in myself when dealing with students makes me feel good about myself; I’ve taught some students I came to care for deeply; I receive a bimonthly paycheck — but I tend to think of it as something separate from my writing, as something I have to do to put food on the table, etc. I haven’t been teaching this year after eleven or twelve straight years of doing so; notwithstanding how broke we’ve been, this has probably been the happiest and most productive year of my life. I’ve fantasized about securing a tenure-track teaching position at a good university for as long as I can remember; recently I’ve had to face the fact that the chance of it actually happening is remote, and I’ve begun working to adjust my fantasies accordingly.
Biblioklept: I haven’t read your novel Avatar—can you tell us a little bit about it?
ELS: It’s a monologue spoken or thought by someone floating in the depths of space who can see only two points of light, two stars in the distance, one in front and one behind. The speaker/thinker has apparently been stuck in this condition for a very long time, having spent much of that time — hundreds, thousands, maybe millions of years — trying to puzzle out how he/she arrived in such an awful situation, what it means to be there, what to think about next, etc. It’s very different than From Old Notebooks in most respects — a number of people who liked From Old Notebooks told me they didn’t care for Avatar, and some people who liked Avatar told me they weren’t crazy about From Old Notebooks – but I believe they share at least one main concern, which is an attempt to come up with a formal analog that would describe a figure for thought, to formally systemize and to abstract or maybe almost to allegorize thought within the context of a book. Ulysses is probably my all-time favorite novel, and one of the things I love best about it is how its method of interior monologue functions, to my reading, both as this bizarre formal contrivance — people don’t really think like that at all, don’t rely so heavily on words to think, at least I don’t — and as a beautiful linguistic or formal analog to real human thought. In both From Old Notebooks and Avatar, I believe I was trying to do something along those lines, to come up with a way for a book to develop its own peculiar grammar or system of thought quite distinct from real human thought and at the same time have that grammar somehow formally or abstractly correspond to the ebbs and tides and the fits and starts and the beauty and boring repetition of how a mind really thinks; to develop over the course of a book a formal figure for thought that both does and doesn’t resemble thought as we encounter it in our day-to-day lives.
Biblioklept: From Old Notebooks frequently invokes Ulysses and Infinite Jest, and I imagine you return to these texts all the time. What other books are you always reading and rereading?
ELS: I already mentioned Gaddis and Woolf and Beckett; I especially like Woolf’s The Waves and Beckett’s How It Is, books I pick up and look at pretty frequently. I seem to read Moby-Dick once every couple of years. I’m often reading Proust, although I have a hard time with fiction in translation … feels like there’s an intruder in the house. I like Shakespeare. I’ll crack open the KJV sometimes when my wife’s not looking. I enjoy reading philosophy, especially really big books I can spend months getting lost in, like Kant and Heidegger’s big ones or, more recently, Alain Badiou’s Being and Event. I read popular science books from time to time, mostly newer stuff I learn about in Scientific American and Nature. In the past few years I’ve probably read poetry as much as anything else — my wife’s a poet so there are always all these great books lying around — and lately I’ve been rereading C.D. Wright’s One With Others, Rae Armantrout’s Veil, Ben Lerner’s Angle of Yaw and, especially, Russell Edson’s The Tunnel. Some books I’ve liked by more recent fiction writers include Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai, Brian Evenson’s The Wavering Knife and Lydia Davis’s Varieties of Disturbance. I like Pynchon; I’ve read the first half of Inherent Vice four times now and enjoyed it each time. Like everybody I’m eager to see what McCarthy and DeLillo do next; my favorite McCarthy and DeLillos are probably The Crossing and Cosmopolis, respectively. And of course there’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress by David Markson; next to Ulysses I imagine I’ve spent more time staring at that book than any other.
Biblioklept: How long have you lived in New Mexico? Does it influence your writing in ways you’re aware of?
ELS: With the exception of living in California during college, I’ve been here since the age of nine. Someone once told me that he associated the bleakness of setting in Avatar with the fact that I grew up in the desert; that may be true. I’ve often felt very isolated here, and I tend to write about isolation. But New Mexico’s biggest influence on my writing is probably my having met the writer Kevin McIlvoy shortly after we moved here, a very generous thinker and a masterful teacher who over the course of many years indelibly shaped my understanding of writing and art. I doubt I would take writing even half so seriously if it weren’t for his example of a writer living in the stance of wonder, of a wholehearted commitment to the redemptive and mysterious power of art and language. His example was and remains very inspiring to me and I hope to spend the rest of my life trying to emulate it.
Biblioklept: Are you working on another book now?
ELS: I am, yes. I’m working on a long novel. I’ve become superstitious about describing things I’m working on, though — seems like I always lose my enthusiasm for a writing project once I try to describe it — so, just that: long novel.
Biblioklept: Well, I won’t try to jinx you by prodding you about but just say instead that I look forward to reading it one day.
Have you ever stolen a book?
ELS: I often do this thing where I buy a book off Amazon, finally try reading it months later, end up hating it, spend some time dusting it off and primping it up to make it look brand new again, then without a receipt I take it into Barnes & Noble and try to pass it off as an original B&N purchase with the aim of returning it for store credit. I suppose some would call that stealing…. At our house we call it intelligent consumerism.