For the January 2014 issue of Decades Review we thought we would kick the new year off with a bang by featuring our very first novel excerpt from an insanely talented author, Scott Burr. The 10th issue of DR is packed with jaw-dropping poetry and art as well, but as the author of our first acceptance of an excerpted piece we couldn’t not name Scott as our featured contributor of the winter issue. If you haven’t spent some quality time with the latest issue of DR and read Scott’s excerpt from his novel, My Girlfriend Wants a Dog, you can check it out here.
Scott was kind enough to agree to an interview with Decades Review and give us and our readers an opportunity to gain a little insight into who he is, why he writes, and what he hopes to achieve through the written word.
Decades Review: Why do you write?
Scott Burr: I wrote a novel a couple of years ago called I AWOKE IN A HOUSE AFIRE. I sometimes describe it to people as GULLIVER’S TRAVELS, if GULLIVER’S TRAVELS had been written by Franz Kafka (and yes I have read AMERIKA, which you could argue is Kafka’s GULLIVER’S TRAVELS). The protagonist, Rousseau, endures a series of misadventures and becomes involved with a series of groups and individuals, each espousing a different religious or political or existential ideology which Rousseau, in a near-constant state of shock, adopts in an ongoing effort to discover a coherent and comforting meaning behind the bizarre horrors he has experienced and witnessed. Eventually, however, these ideologies’ failure overwhelms him, and he is forced to conclude that there is no explanation: that life is an unintelligible and terminal circumstance which can be endured but never understood.
I think the answer to this question (Why do I write?) is in there, someplace. To me the world is a very bizarre place. We don’t really know what we’re doing here; we don’t know where “here” even is; we don’t know what anything means, in the final eternal reckoning, and yet we live our lives as though everything makes perfect sense, as though the various constructed parameters we encounter have some inherent weight and Truth.
I wrote another novel before I wrote I AWOKE IN A HOUSE AFIRE called NU. (Which, in a variety of languages I- was referring to the French, but it’s the same in others – means “naked” or “nude”). The thesis of that book is: “the naked world, divested of illusions and lights, occurring in tragic singularity, [comprises] a cabinet d’horreur in which all order [have] been abolished and all exits [have] been sealed.” That one hit the nail on the head pretty well, too, though it was probably about fifty percent essay and fifty percent narrative (I was reading a lot of Kundera at the time). The idea was to really dig into the apparatus of subjective signification: the way our meaning-making brains define things, and sometimes define them incorrectly, as shown when events unfold in such a way as to reveal our mistake.
It’s an interesting subject to write about, because it’s tied to the narrative impulse itself: we encounter an event, we don’t understand it, we feel anxious over it until we are able to construct a narrative around it (cause and effect) and place it into a meaningful progress. At one point in NU I talk about the live news footage from 9/11: how the initial interviews with people on the street were all imbued with a palpable horror that this thing did not make any sense. Later we learned the story, learned the culprit, etc., and we all felt better because now it made sense. It was still horrific, but we could all get a handle on it.
The desperate compulsion to create narrative out of the absurd and the horrible is a much bigger topic, and one I guess I should probably leave for another venue, but it is central to my answer. I wrote another story in which a character suddenly perceives his life, with its intricate interwoven strands of signification, as a spider’s web blown out of its frame and floating on nothing. That’s life, to me. We all do our lives, and everything hangs together, but none of it is resting on anything inherent. Things are what they are only because we say they are those things, and that fills me with a mind-numbing and awesome existential horror.
Or maybe let me put it like this. I think about primitive man, clustered together in the dark in some cave somewhere. I think how some of them, tiptoeing on the first thin strands of self-consciousness, must have understand the awesome horror of their condition (their own smallness, the fact of their own mortality, etc.) and felt compelled to shout at heaven and ask for a sign, ask for someone who knows to tell them what things mean. The rest were probably willing to sit around and look at each other and argue over who gets the shiniest rock.
I’m descended of the former. These books are me yelling.
DR: Is writing just a hobby for you, or is it something you wish to pursue professionally?
SB: Yes, I am pursuing this professionally. I wrote my first novel when I was twenty-one. I’m thirty-one now. Every morning between then and now has been a pot of coffee and whatever I’m working on. This is ten years-worth of trying. It’s one long trust exercise.
DR: How would you describe your subject matter or the content of your work?
SB: I like to explore the confrontation between subjective reality and broader (shared) reality, or between subjective truth and objective truth (or lack thereof; what might be called objective reticence). I like those moments where people are confronted by not only their own smallness but also the smallness of their own thoughts: those Flannery O’Connor moments where a self-assured and self-centered and self-righteous character gets smacked upside the head by the realization that they don’t really know what’s going on, that things aren’t the way they’ve been telling themselves things are, that life is not subject to their personal assessment. That their version of the truth doesn’t resonate with anything beyond their own delusional assertion that this is the way things are.
DR: Tell us a little about the novel that this excerpt is from.
SB: This novel is a bit of a departure for me, actually. It’s pretty straightforward, compared to some of the other stuff I’ve written. It still touches on the gap between subjective and objective truth (David thinks of himself in a certain way, and spends pretty much the entire novel being slowly and painfully brought around to reality), but I decided after writing a number of novels that I couldn’t manage to sell and couldn’t figure out how to pitch that it was time to write something topical and culturally relevant and (hopefully) salable.
There’s a great Frank Turner song that has the line, “All my friends are getting married, mortgages and pension plans.” That’s where I am now, and where David is. When David talks about going on Facebook and seeing nothing but baby pictures and engagement announcements, that’s me. All of my friends are adults now and here I am, still living pretty much the same life I was living at twenty-three. I don’t want to buy a house and I don’t want to get a nine-to-five job, but I feel like sooner or later I’m just going to become that. I’m going to become what I’m surrounded by. So some of the time I feel like writing is never going to happen, and I’m still holding onto a youthful delusion (that one day I’m going to be a big famous writer), a delusion I should have given up on five years ago, and I think I ought to just let myself become what life is sort of pushing me to become, another small-town Ohio thirty-something with a kid and a mortgage. So instead of actually making a decision about which path to take going forward, I write about David and I let him work through it for me.
David is dumber about it than I am (at least I hope he is), and he’s less aware of his own emotions, and this leads him to make self-sabotaging decisions, which I think makes him more interesting than me, but the basic apparatus of his life is pretty much the same as mine.
DR: What are you presently inspired by—things you are reading, listening to, or looking at to fuel your work?
SB: I just read two books by Mircea Eliade, YOUTH WITHOUT YOUTH (which was made into seriously underrated film by Francis Ford Coppola) and THE MYTH OF THE ETERNAL RETURN. Those were both really interesting. I also recently read THE CROSSING, the second book in Cormac McCarthy’s border trilogy. Cormac McCarthy is the king of subjective reality intersecting with another shared reality: characters stumble into worlds they don’t understand, worlds that they didn’t even know existed, and that now immediately have absolute dominion over them, to the point of death and torture and heartbreak and all kinds of unpleasantness. Similarly I recently really enjoyed Cormac McCarthy’s movie THE COUNSELOR which people didn’t seem to like but which I think people just found difficult, and mistook “difficult” for “bad.” That movie has one of the most incredible final moments – the most incredible revelations of that confrontation between one reality and another. I had to sit there and collect myself after that movie was over. Most movies don’t hit me like that. Before THE CROSSING I read Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOOD SQUAD, which really did a beautiful job of talking about something I’m trying to talk about in the novel this piece is excerpted from: namely the confrontation between one’s youthful certainty of fantastic artistic success and one’s eventual middle-aged disappointment (and not just that, but the realization that the dream life you though you would be living doesn’t actually exist, that even the people who appear to be living that life are slogging their way through it, that adult life is a grind…). I’ve also been watching the Zatoichi movies (a series of Japanese films about a blind swordsman) and I just read one of Don Pendleton’s EXECUTIONER novels… I think one of the biggest misconceptions I had about writing when I was younger was that art/poetics was more important than story. I never learned how to put something on the stove to boil and then leave the room. In all the writing classes I took no one ever told me: “This is how you get the reader to turn from page one to page two. Set the carpet on fire and leave. They’re going to keep reading, because that’s a 1) unresolved and 2) rapidly deteriorating situation.” These pulp novels and movies are great for teaching this. They’re ham-fisted about it, but they know how to throw things up in the air. They know you will turn the page to see where those things come down. The Coen brothers’ new movie INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS has a great example of this. In pretty much the first scene Llewyn Davis accidentally lets his friends’ cat out and locks himself out of their apartment. He’s got to carry the cat around for the rest of the day. Of course you’re going to keep watching, because the world is out of balance. Things have to be put back in order. One of the things I really tried to do in this novel is strike a balance between the mundane and the dramatic: part of the point is that David’s life is not interesting, or exciting, or anything like he thought it would be. That’s one of the core issues of the book. David thought he was going to be a big deal, and he isn’t. But how do you write a book about someone whose life is mundane, and have it not be a totally mundane book? The cat getting out of the apartment accomplishes that brilliantly.
DR: How do you think you’ve evolved creatively since you first began writing?
SB: When I started writing I thought I was an artist. I thought I had a special voice that deserved to be heard. I had that notion pretty much bludgeoned out of me by a decade of failure. It was good. It really needed to happen. I realized at some point that I, and I think a lot of people of my generation, were told way too often that we were snowflakes, and special, and that our specialness was really important, and that it had some kind of value. So what we ended up with is a lot of kids who wanted to be rock stars as soon as they picked up an instrument, who only “got inspired” by writing their own songs. They thought they can skip the years and years it takes to become a competent craftsperson or performer, or whatever. I finally realized that Picasso and Monet and Hemingway became what they became out of a state of competence. It was only through thorough experience with what WAS that they were able to manifest something radical, what we call ART.
That’s probably the biggest thing that’s changed for me. I used to talk about art, and think I was making art, but I didn’t know what art was. I wouldn’t have been able to define it. Now I know what art is. Art is a challenge against previous parameters. But you have to be knowledgeable about what is and possess the skills to enact the challenge before you can even think about creating art. The way I think about it is: artists grow out of artisans. A craftsperson that adroitly practices their craft is a craftsperson. A craftsperson who attempts something radical, who sees a way to do something that hasn’t been done before, is an artist.
I feel like I grew up in a generation who felt that people simply were or weren’t artistic. The sad thing is that now “artistic” is almost synonymous with flakey and undisciplined, while the truth is that real art only comes through years and years of tremendous discipline.
But then, I use the word “art” pretty sparingly. A lot of people call a lot of bullshit “art” and nobody seems to complain.
DR: What is the hardest part about writing a novel?
SB: Art is progressive. If it isn’t progressive, then it’s just repetition of what has been done before. Progress happens at the boundaries. Your job is to push out the limits of where you’re comfortable. That’s not an easy thing. Somebody recently said to me, “The thing nobody ever mentions, when they tell you to get outside your comfort zone, is that it’s going to be uncomfortable.” That’s the thing: art should be uncomfortable. Art is a decision to live in discomfort.
DR: What is the easiest part of writing a novel?
SB: In the grand scheme of things writing is easy. Spending your life pouring your time and energy into bullshit is hard. Working a job you hate is hard. Paying off credit card debt you accrued buying some stuff you were told you were supposed to want is hard. Walking around looking for people to tell you how to live your life, and then doing what they say, is hard. Writing is easy. Writing is bliss.
DR: How are you planning to publish this book when it’s finished?
SB: I’ve got a list of agents who have shown interest in other stuff I’ve written. I’m going to see if any of them want to represent this novel. If they do, then hopefully they can place it somewhere. If they don’t I may not publish it, or I may make it available through Amazon’s print-on-demand subsidiary and as an eBook through Nook and Kindle. We’ll see how it goes.
DR: What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
SB: If you want to be a writer, then write. You have to write a lot. If you’re an undergraduate who thinks they want to be a writer, let me tell you what someone should have told me: you’re not good. Really. You’re just not. You may be undergraduate good, but you’re not good good. This is not a terminal or a permanent condition. You’re going to have to write a lot before you’re any good. Right now you don’t even know what you don’t know about writing.
This is not a popular opinion, but I also think writer’s workshops are pretty much a waste of time. When your car doesn’t run, do you take it to a bunch of your peers, none of whom know anything about cars (besides maybe how to drive one, and when to get an oil change), and ask them how to fix it? Absolutely not. Writer’s workshops are an invention of writing teachers who don’t know how to teach writing because they don’t know how to write (if they were any good at writing, they wouldn’t have to teach).
Also, read a lot. Read a variety of writers. Watch movies. Watch TV shows. Watch anything that has to do with narrative. It will all help you. Good movies will help. Bad movies will help. Your job is to explore this vast country called “storytelling.” Go out there and see as much of it as you possibly can, the nice parts and the crappy parts.
DR: Where can people see more of your work?
SB: A few years ago I decided to make all of my books available through Amazon’s print-on-demand subsidiary. At the time I figured they weren’t earning me any money sitting in on my hard drive, and that if for some reason one of them became a big hit I would get a much better percentage of the cover price than if it had been published by a traditional publisher.
I published them under as series of different pen names. At the time I thought it would make the whole endeavor seem more legitimate, since people tend to (often rightfully) dismiss anything self-published sight unseen. If I set up an imprint with a bunch of authors it would look legit, right?
Looking back on it now it seems a little silly, but it’s already set up that way and I’m not going to go through the effort of undoing it. So the bulk of what I’ve written (the better stuff, at least: nine novels and one collection of short stories) is available (in print and eBook format) at www.theartlessdodgespress.com. And, like I said, I wrote all of it. Don’t be thrown by the different names. I wrote it all, including the dust jacket blurbs.
DR: Final thoughts, last words?
SB: I want to thank everyone at the Decades Review for giving me this opportunity. I truly, truly appreciate it.
Paige Edenfield, Editor