Alan Stewart Carl lives and writes in San Antonio, Texas. His work has appeared in Mid-American Review, Hayden’s Ferry, PANK and elsewhere. Currently, he’s trying to find new and better ways to balance writing with fatherhood. Sometimes he writes about this at AlanStewartCarl.com.
His story "After We Were Nothing" appears in Issue Thirty-Five of The Collagist.
Here, Alan Stewart Carl talks to interviewer Joseph Scapellato about "pouring," dialogue, and plot.
1. Where did “After We Were Nothing” begin for you, and how did it get to here?
This is one of those stories that was filled by a lot of spigots. For several years I’d been toying around with a different story that took place at the coast and involved various references to mythology. For whatever reason, I could never get that story to work quite right. Then, one day, the first line of “After We Were Nothing” came to me out of whatever pool of words our first lines emerge. I wasn’t sure where it would go but I started pouring things into it. The Lucretius parts inserted themselves because I’d recently read The Swerve for a book club. The boat parts came from that earlier coastal story. The child aspect came from my vast collection of parental fears. Oddly—or at least oddly for me—the first draft yielded the exact structure I ended up using in the published piece. My revisions were more about getting the language and tone right. And that took quite a while.
2. When a draft begins to become a receptacle for “pouring things into,” does the act of writing become in any way cathartic or therapeutic? (And does it ever feel like it’s working the other way around—as if the story’s pouring things into you?)
Sometimes it feels as if all of my writing is just me working through the complications of life. I don’t know if it’s ever therapeutic in any curative way, but it’s definitely enlivening. I often feel fuller for having written. In fact, I’d say the more I pour into a story, the richer and more alive I feel after its completion. That’s not to say there aren’t days when I find my writing to be so god-awful that I want to bury myself under blankets and play Angry Birds instead. And yet, then again, that’s not to say only my “good” writing enlivens me. I can feel absolutely great after having written something I later realize is complete trash. Writing is such a strange experience. At least for me. The process is part of the purpose. I do this as much for the act of doing it as I do for the eventual act of publication.
3. I love the decision to render dialogue without quotation marks and identifying tags (I said, he said, she said, etc.). It leads to charged transitions—such as when we go from this exposition:
We were the parents unburdened. Drunk and slurping on oysters. We were freedom. Life.
—to this wryly apt line:
But I think we were confused.
For me, the result is that the dialogue sections, though visually “separate,” resonate powerfully with the rest of the work. Can you talk a little about your decision to render dialogue this way? (What do you think dialogue can/should do?)
Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad all of that worked so well for you.
To answer the question: whenever it won’t horribly confuse the reader, I like to work without quotation marks. Part of that is simply aesthetic (I prefer the cleaner look). But the other part is that I like the way a lack of quotation marks keeps things a bit destabilized. I tend to deal a lot with characters who exist if not in an outright warped reality then at least in a reality heavily tinted by their emotional/mental state. For me, going without quotation marks lets me more easily push against a reader’s perception of what is and isn’t real. In terms of dialogue, I like to keep it uncertain as to whether the characters are actually saying those words or whether those words are someone’s interpretation of what’s being said. That’s probably why, in this story, I also made the choice not to use identifying tags. I think something as simple as “he said” or “I said” or “she said” would’ve created too much of an anchor. I don’t like over-anchoring stories. I prefer to unmoor the world and give it a kick. Not that I plan to regularly abandon identifying tags. It’s not going to become my m.o. or anything.
4. What writing projects are you working on right now?
My biggest focus right now—to the detriment of so, so many other things—is finishing the first draft of a novel. It’s my second attempt at a novel. The first one I completed two years ago; but after some time I decided I’d written it too quickly and it wasn’t really the kind of novel I wanted to write. This one feels a lot more like me. And I hope to hell to have the first draft done before the leaves fall.
5. I’ve heard other writers talk about their first novels as “learning novels.” In addition to not writing it so quickly and making sure that it “feels a lot more like me,” what else have you learned from writing the first novel that you’ve been applying to the second?
The first answer that comes to mind is: plot. I’ve learned that a novel’s plot is a monstrous thing that will slam you against the coliseum walls the moment you lose focus and dip your spear. In that “learning novel” I let the need for plot dictate my movements to such an extent that, by the conclusion, I found that I’d more or less written a sci-fi adventure when I’d intended to write a skewed-world meditation on love. The narrative act of skewing the world set in motion various elements of classic plot. But, since meditations are light on plot, the whole love thing never materialized in the way I’d envisioned. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy plot both in what I read and what I write. I simply didn’t anticipate how much plot would brutalize the meditative aspects. For this new novel, I don’t have any less of a skewed-world conceit but, from the very first drafts of the very first pages, I’ve been rather militant about restraining plot’s innate desire to rampage through the text. I’m keeping the character’s basic plot concerns simple (i.e. they want to get from point A to point B) while allowing their emotional/spiritual/psychological/etc. needs to create the real momentum. Basically, I’m trying to do a better job of balancing the gunfire with the lingering gazes at the sea. That’s probably novel writing 101 stuff. But it’s one of the biggest lessons I learned. All that remains now is to see is if I’ve applied the lessons well enough to make this new novel something better.
6. What outstanding writing have you been reading recently? Are there any upcoming releases you're excited about?
The essays on the Rumpus have been so good this year. I tend to read those during lunch and I’m often moved not just by the topics but by the writing itself. As for the world of fiction, I picked up Don DeLillo’s White Noise recently (picked it up off my shelf where it had sat in my less-than-orderly queue for several years). A long while back I read “Pafko at the Wall” and found it phenomenal but, for reasons that are lost to me now, I didn’t pick up anything else by DeLillo until White Noise. Not reading more of DeLillo sooner was a mistake. The writing in White Noise is exceptional. The sentences are so rich you can taste them and DeLillo isn’t afraid to be both silly and intellectual (qualities I enjoy in fiction as well as in life). The story itself hardly matters, although the plot is fine enough. It is the writing and the thoughts behind the story that carried me along. From my understanding, most consider other novels of his to be superior to White Noise, so I’m eager to dive deeper into his work.
Of course, there are other things I’m looking forward to reading. I’ll be picking up Junot Diaz’s new collection. And I’m very much anticipating Amber Sparks’s May We Shed These Human Bodies. And although it was published earlier this summer, I’m looking forward to Caitlin Horrocks This is Not Your City.