"Nothing Will Be Recorded, Nothing Lasts, Everything Is Pointless, Etc., Etc.": An Interview with Alice Bolin
Alice Bolin holds her MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in places like Ninth Letter, DIAGRAM, Linebreak, Quarterly West, and Octopus. You can find her on Twitter: @alicebolin.
Her story "To Whom It May Concern" appears in Issue Thirty-Five of The Collagist.
Here, Alice Bolin talks with interviewer Melissa Goodrich about campy horror moves, the juxtaposed, and brochures on death.
1. So many lines of this piece read to me as solemn fortunes : “Inside the box, what becomes of a body,” “You are pure inclination now,” “What resistance?” Where did you find yourself begin such a story? At what point did it transform into a kind of letter or announcement (“To Whom It May Concern”)?
The piece sprung from reading Joy Williams’ novel The Quick and the Dead, which is where the epigraph is taken from. The novel is organized into three books, each of which begins with sort of a strange brochure-sounding section, written in the second person, advertising or introducing a version of death. These sections emphasize the mysteries or paradoxes inherent in the afterlife (“What is the difference between being not yet born and having lived, being now dead?”) in a tone that is at the same time authoritative, spooky, witty, and sad. I got this voice in my head and wanted to go somewhere with it, to write my own version. The piece started out very short—just a paragraph—but I kept adding to it, eventually finding a way to bring in a narrative and shape it into a story.
2. Is this what you image death is like, the ‘after-you,’ where “what depletes you sustains you, you are not nothing, you are not gone, you are ringing through the cosmos”? It seems the ‘you’ starts to slip away, vanish, wanting to become more like the mirror and less like the reflection, long before death.
I sure don’t know what death is like. My main goal when characterizing the experience of being dead in this story was to make it essentially inconceivable—a state of being that is so painful because it is necessarily the opposite of being bodied, conscious, breathing, alive.
I think you’re right that a lot of the story is about investigating the “you” in life, not in death. In some ways I think my characterization of the afterlife, as being outside of everything, is a metaphor for the loneliness of childhood. Kids are described as being “in their own world,” but that can be the flip side of being lost in a real world that is very separate from them—it’s a world made for and by adults, where kids have almost no control over their environment. It’s boring being a kid. Adults don’t understand kid’s inner lives, and kids often don’t know themselves very well, so there’s not much they can do but observe, to watch and wait.
3. I love how you shove “your punk rock babysitter” right up against “the air so sharp that you thought you never knew anything so raw as your body,” burying out of boredom against a kind of deliverance. What draws you towards juxtaposition, and do you have a favorite moment of juxtaposition elsewhere in literature (the greatest smashing-together of opposites ever)?
That sort of juxtaposition, the use of multiple dictions and kinds of vocabulary, is the thing I am the most drawn to in any kind of writing and absolutely one of the things I always aim for in my own work. I have found that a writer can get a way with a lot more ambiguity or rhapsody or philosophy if it is counterbalanced with an interjection of the colloquial, or the steadfastly contemporary, commercial, or mundane. I also think it makes the language shine more sharply and vividly. This is a hallmark of my favorite prose and poetry, as in John Ashbery, Muriel Spark, Nathanael West, and, especially, Joy Williams. One specific example I can think of is from Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” where the speaker is discussing her father who has Alzheimer’s: “As we pass them it gives a sudden sense of every object/existing in space on its own shadow./I wish I could carry this clarity with me//into the hospital where distinctions tend to flatten and coalesce./I wish I had been nicer to him before he got crazy./These are my two wishes.”
4. To “save” and be “sacred” are deliberately defined as “to save it, which isn’t to say deliver it” and “sacred—that is, appropriate.” Are we deliberately side-stepping something Higher, Forever, Ultimate? “Forget prayer,” the speaker tells us near the end, “you are as a shriek in the night…You are so unspeakably heavy… You are dead, you are dead, what sacrifice could save or deliver you, now you belong to us.” Who is the ominous us?
I am trying to reject an explanation of the afterlife that would include a sacred, merciful, or at least all-powerful answer—I think it’s scarier that way. The afterlife being a sort of spiritual anarchy where you are not gone but also not in existence in any way you could have previously understood, where you are neither yourself nor anything else, is terrifying to me.
The “us” I think might be a little over-the-top. Stories in the second person where it’s unclear who the narrator is or why they’re addressing the “you,” where it’s purely a rhetorical trick, can be frustrating to me. I wanted to sort of spin the camera around and show that it wasn’t just a melodramatic narrator addressing the “you,” but actually the force or forces that are holding the “you” captive—something of a campy horror movie move.
5. Does writing outlive the body, or is one’s work also “an insistent backward motion, a gravity aching you toward solidity, toward the slow and bleary world of the living”?
To answer purely from the ethic of the story: no, I don’t think so. Or I should say our writing might outlive us, but, due to ontological limitations, it would be very difficult to benefit from that. Nothing will be recorded, nothing lasts, everything is pointless, etc., etc.
6. What are you writing tomorrow, now, yesterday?
Been writing some new poems, trying to come up with new essay projects, and working on some original songs… I’ve got a story I’ve been trying to muster the enthusiasm to finish since June. Mostly I try to cast as wide a creative net as possible to allay sadness/boredom.
7. And what’s the best thing you’ve read this summer? Can you offer us a nugget?
I can’t speak for certain about the best, but I just finished Marguerite Duras’s novel The Lover and Karen’s Rigby’s collection Chinoiserie, which has a poem in it in homage to Duras that I think I like better than the novel—“The girl returned/root-bound/to the bachelor’s room,/her body betraying its grammar,/bone rose, notched zero.”