Gregory Howard is an Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Maine. His work can be found in Harp & Altar, Birkensnake, and Tarpaulin Sky among other journals and magazines.
His essay "The Object is Always Magic: Narrative as Collection" appears in Issue Thirty-Five of The Collagist.
Here, Gregory Howard speaks to interviewer Elizabeth Deanna Morris about obsession, collection, and negotiation.
1. How did you go about writing your essay? Did you collect pieces of it over time (much like the collections that you write about)?
The essay came out of several different attentions and over a long period of time. I’ll do my best to compress it as much as possible. During the last year or years of my time at the University of Denver, I was working on a book that was going to be my dissertation (which eventually became two different things: a short novel and long story) and I was working with the ideas of hospitals and trauma and thinking about memory and narrative. And I’d already been thinking a lot about the uncanny, which was an idea I previously obsessed over and still do. For the dissertation I had to write a critical afterward and it was in that context, of having to write and think about the writing I had done, about the fiction I had worked on, which was much more intuitive and bound up in all these images and thoughts and impressions, that I remembered my trip to the British museum and the Henry Wellcome collection and that was the kind of catalyst for the whole thing—a way in. But that version was a bit more academic, a bit more airless, than what the essay eventually became. The final version owes its existence to the privilege of teaching the MFA students at Naropa’s Summer Writing Program, for which I had to present a forty-five minute talk/lecture, something that totally terrified me. So I looked back to the critical afterward for some grounding and found that parts of it still resonated while others just fell away. I had just taught a class on fairy tales and had also been reading and responding to fiction that used gaps in the way I talk about in the essay—stuff like Amina Cain’s —and I felt like all of this was tied together in some way, so I began again with a new focus: obsession, collection, and narrative. And as I rewrote the essay the personal material began to crop up. I began to talk about my own obsessions and relationships to obsession and think about my relationship to writing and the essay became more of a thinking-through than the argument/declamation it had been. So, the essay ended up being a kind of summing up and processing of all the things I had been interested in and internalizing over the last four or five years as well as a way to begin to understand my own relationship to writing and the idea of being a writer. It was a long and convoluted process for sure and maybe this is a long way of saying “yes” to the question. But this, I’ve found and much to my sometime chagrin, is how my writing process seems to work . It’s often like I’m in a big dark room with only a flashlight, or maybe even something smaller, a penlight, to illuminate my surroundings, and each movement of the light reveals something odd and disparate, a room full of baubles and gewgaws, a long revealing. After I’ve spent a lot of time seeing these things, seeing each thing, wandering the whole room, I finally find the light switch on the wall and turn it on and it’s like, “oh: I see everything now and how it all relates.”
2. Mid-essay, you write, “In other words, writing is a way of dealing with obsessions that might otherwise isolate and ruin us.” This line really nicely sums up what you’ve been building upon in the first half of the essay. However, it makes me wonder: what happens if we (as writers) aren’t obsessed? What if we are dedicated but not voracious? I like the idea that writing gives us a way to build cages around these things that we could not otherwise grapple with; however, this mindset also indicates that we will need these harmful obsessions us in order to write at all, which seems to me to not be totally true.
I think you’re right—that it’s not totally true. It’s kind of a blanket statement and one that could lend itself to . . . dramatic readings. I don’t want to suggest that writers need to be obsessed in the haunted/tormented genius/chewed fingernails kind of way and that if they’re not, then they aren’t “real writers.” However, I do think that there are different kinds of obsession/fascination and that writers are all driven by it in some basic way. Writing takes intense focus and concentration and hours and hours of time and if your writing isn’t driven by obsession with subject matter or image or thought or emotion, it’s likely driven by obsession with language and form, with innovation, with the nuts and bolts of fiction, with literature itself. I think here of Italo Calvino. Is there a seemingly sunnier/lighter presence in world literature than Calvino? When you think of Calvino you don't necessarily think of obsession. At least I don’t. Yet, in his essay on Quickness in Six Memos, Calvino offers, as a way of describing what he means by the value of quickness in literature, offers the anecdote of the artist, asked by a king to draw the perfect crab. The artist asks for five years, a country estate and a bunch of servants. At the end of the five years the artist comes back only to ask for five more years. Then at the end of all this returns to the king once more and, in one stroke, draws the crab, the perfect crab. That’s obsession with craft. Or thinking about it another way and to paraphrase (and probably distort) Gilbert Sorrentino: writers don’t really know what they want to say until they say it, until they do the work. The knowing comes through the writing itself. The thing that drives us to the writing, to spend a lot of time thinking and reading and pacing and drinking coffee—whatever it is—is something that can only come out via fiction. So we write to understand what it is we want to know or be or make. And knowing in this sense is a long haul, often. Knowing as unfolding and shaping and fine-tuning. There’s something obsessive in that, right? But in a nourishing way, I think. In the way that Jean Rhys talks about when she describes writing as “feeding the lake of literature.” In a way that plugs into a network of other knowing, doing, making. So writing, in this sense, keeps us engaged in the conversations that can nourish us.
3. As a reader, I wonder about how to deal with encountering stories that utilize collections. While, as you mentioned early in your essay, I am constantly being bombarded by information (Facebook posts, news stories, e-mails, every blog ever), I also feel as if I’m being bombarded by literature, with the literary magazines that I receive in the mail piling up on my bedside table, the list of online literary magazines that I should probably read getting many issues behind my reading of them. This is not even including the piles of chapbooks, books, and anthologies. How do you think the reader can go about collecting stories, crafting a body of work that causes them to “[unlock] the door to a wondrous and terrible parallel world that is somehow strangely like our own”?
It seems like the crux of this question is how, as active readers, to negotiate all the work out there and that’s a tough one. With access to so much, it can be easy to take it all in like you’re sunbathing or just close your eyes and pretend none of is happening at all. It’s also easy to find the things that generally give you a charge and just live there—hang out in the same old joints, as it were. I must say: I’m not sure I have an answer. I always feel like I’m behind on the things everyone is reading and that I don’t have the time to read the things I should. As a reader, “unlocking the door” for me mostly means being as open to surprise as possible, to actively work against my tendencies/tastes and try to read widely. There are so many literary pleasures to be had/experienced, so many things to discover and rediscover. Also, I try not to be anxious and to be nice to myself about not getting to more things.
4. What’s worth reading these days?
Holy shit! What a question! So much, so much.
I’ve been reading around, as I begin a new project, so the stuff I’m most familiar with right now is some older things I’m investigating/reengaging with as I try to solve some problems and work with some models. So maybe I’ll mention a few of those, each of which are incredible and about which I could write pages and pages.
Elio Vittorini’s Conversation in Sicily
Alisdair Gray’s 1982, Janine
Evelyn Waugh’s Handful of Dust
Raymond Roussel’s Locus Solus
Lia Yiwu The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories China from the Bottom Up
Other than that I’ve recently loved Christopher Narozny’s Jonah Man, which is a taught kaleidoscope of thwarted ambition and desire. Renee Gladman’s two Ravickia books are pretty mesmerizing/distorting/magical. Suzanne Scanlon has a book coming out in the fall called Promising Young Women, which I’ve read chunks of, and said chunks forecast a pretty incredible whole. I recently read Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room, which I had missed out on when it first came out and which I find absolutely stunning in its simplicity, honesty, and depth. I’m sure I’m missing a bunch of others.
5. What else have you been writing recently?
I’ve just started working on a longer project/novel. It involves radio, retirement homes for rich old people, a missing modernist home, and Germany. So far.