Several of his pieces--"Five Miniatures"--appear in Issue Thirty-Four of The Collagist.
Here, Miles Klee speaks with interviewer Joseph Scapellato about apparent incompletion, infinitudes, and short forms. Enjoy!
1. Where did these pieces begin for you, and how did they get to here?
I found that my stories—including those that make up Ivyland, my first novel—kept falling into one of two molds. There were manic efforts that ran about 5,000 words, trying to keep three or four absurd plots in the air; then there were stories, closer to 2,000 words, that strove for atmospheric intensity. I wanted to shake off those patterns and scale my ambition down to the atomic level—stories closer to 150 words in length, compressed, that made meaning out of their apparent incompletion. I think many writers come up with fun plots or riffs they have neither the time nor motivation to flesh out; my thought was that the sketches themselves might be worthwhile. Seurat painted lots of studies for “A Sunday on La Grande Jotte” before reconciling the lot into the recognized masterpiece, and there’s something lonely, even haunting, about those loose fragments, parts of a grander process that swept them aside once they had served their purpose. I sat down and over a week poured out a dozen-plus daydreams that could have incited longer stories but resisted further complication. Matt Bell was generous enough to find some merit in these five.
2. I love the decision to call these pieces “miniatures”—for me, strangely enough, this designation makes them larger; they stand independently, as scale models of universes. Can you talk a little about your decision to call these pieces “miniatures”?
Two wonderful Steven Millhauser stories come to mind: one, “In the Reign of Harad IV,” is about a diabolically talented miniaturist, who manufactures worlds too small to be sensed; the other, “The New Automaton Theatre” is about a visionary who elevates wind-up toys into the realm of subversive, god-like art. I wanted that degree of precision combined with that mechanical elegance: paragraphs that did only one thing, had only one turn, but executed it perfectly, with no room for error … and yet somehow, as you said, contained infinitudes.
3. These pieces bring to mind many forms: parables, aphorisms, axioms, newspaper articles, journal entries. What short forms do you enjoy reading—and why?
Four writers of very short bursts of prose loom large over what I tried to do here: Thomas Bernhard (specifically in The Voice Imitator), Lydia Davis, Donald Barthelme and W.S. Merwin. All are able to pack wickedly funny narratives down to the size and shape of a newspaper obituary or classified ad (incidentally, the best parts of a newspaper). That journalistic or moralizing voice is a wonderful tool for fiction because it allows you to render the fanciful in what we normally think of as objective language, inviting all manner of interstylistic mayhem. A lot of the formality has drained out of the news media—they read people’s tweets on CNN now. What if literary fiction took up the abandoned set of ethics? For its own nefarious purposes, I mean. I also like digging up my middle-school diary now and then, if only to wince.
4. What writing projects are you working on right now?
There are scattered notes for another novel, something that in my cynicism I believe could be successfully controversial, though the less said there, the more likely I am to make a good-faith effort toward it some day. There’s a novella awaiting painful revisions, too; I’d like it to cap the short story collection I’m currently polishing off. That’ll be the follow-up to Ivyland, is the hope.
5. What spectacular writing have you been reading recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?
I just finished Robert Coover’s The Public Burning over July 4th, appropriately enough—as well as Coover’s journals covering its troubled production and publication. Both are horrifying and side-splitting in equal measure—a quality I value highly. Barry Hannah has been an inspiration of late, as he tends to be every six months or so. I’m looking forward to Padget Powell’s new book; I do love a good novel about nothing.