Jason: I love your narrators. They’re really different from each other—really distinct voices, each a surprise. Some are kids or young adults in the first person, as protagonists or characters involved in the action. Some, as in “Houses,” are easy to know. Others feel more mysterious, telling a story in the first-person plural, where readers don’t quite know who “we” might be, is as in "Phnom Penh.” In a couple of stories, you use the second-person with more ease than just about any writer I can think of. “Your Village Has Been Bombed” is narrated through a series of disembodied leaflet writers—almost copy writers—breaking the rules by getting poetic and offering commentary. In the process of writing, how did your narrators come to you? Do you start writing with a specific narration technique in mind, or does it evolve as you draft?
Emily: It’s funny, I don’t think about narration a lot in terms of the narrators themselves—at least not in the beginning—but I do think a lot about voice. That’s where everything starts for me. I hear a sentence, a line—sometimes a first sentence, occasionally a last—and I don’t necessarily know what it means, but it feels urgent. It feels like a voice I have to follow. The story really evolves line by line. It feels terribly slow and inefficient most of the time, but it’s the only way I know.
Jason: I’m curious also to know how you think about narration, because it feels like you’ve thought about it a lot. Are there writers whose narrators you particularly admire?
Emily: So many! Thinking about voice, I think particularly of Grace Paley, Amy Hempel, Lucia Berlin. I think of Justin Torres, whose first-person plural voice is incantatory, perfect. I think voice and form for me are often bound close together. Anne Carson is someone I go back to again and again, both in terms of form and voice. In a way, she’s someone who explodes voice for me, who makes syntax feel new.
Jason: I’m curious about how you draw on experience and research in your fiction Your tell stories about suburban American kids, young people working at a Cambodian newspaper, dissecting dead bodies, and living in a warzone. The mood of each setting feels very sure, and you render the worlds with what feels like careful precision, even when some of your narrators are mysterious about concrete details. Are you writing from experience? Imagination? Research?
Emily: I think all stories start somewhere “real” for me, even the more fantastic ones. Which does often mean a lot of research. The first spark of “Your Village Has Been Bombed” came while reading Jonathan Schell’s war reporting, where he describes leaflets dropped by US Marines, including one titled “Your Village Has Been Bombed.” Something about the contradictions inherent in that statement suggested a very clear voice to me. And then my research took me to more modern forms of disembodied warfare. Then some research is just life. I did work at a Cambodian newspaper, for instance. But I’ve never dissected a human body. I would probably faint. I did read a lot about dissection and watched YouTube tutorials but had to cover most of the screen during this viewing. I could only watch about a square inch at a time.
One of the things I found so interesting about your book is that while it’s on the one hand a work of nonfiction, you also imagine your way into scenes you didn’t actually witness or don’t fully remember. I’m curious what that process was like, and how you think about those scenes: do they feel like acts of imagination? Something between fiction and nonfiction, or something else entirely?
Jason: First of all, I’d faint too. I’m squeamish about cadavers. To answer: I wanted this book to be about my family’s stories—what I call lore in the book. I mean, I write about what actually happened, and most of the stories are true enough, but I wanted to get at how we keep telling ourselves these stories about ourselves as a way of asserting or figuring out who we are. I wrote the scenes I didn’t witness based on the stories. Everybody in my family tells them a little differently. I decided to experiment by taking the kernel of the story and then imagining, or maybe even hypothesizing, about the concrete details. I knew my great grandfather tried to direct traffic in the nude on the Golden Gate Bridge. But I didn’t know what was in his head when he did it, how the bridge looked or felt to him, what the people in cars were doing or thinking. I sort of pretended I was psychic and wrote what came to me. It’s a lot like writing fiction, but I think of it as something else. I guess it’s my attempt to record the fantasies we all entertain as nonfiction. The content is fiction, but the experience of fantasizing about it is real.
Emily: You write about memories you know are your own and memories you’ve heard repeated so many times they become yours. So much of that distinction felt to me really akin to writing: inhabiting a scene you’ve never actually experienced until you begin to feel that you have. There are also moments where you express a kind of ambivalence toward recreating particular memories, in that you’re perhaps giving life to these memories by writing about them. I wonder how you manage that tension as a writer, especially when it comes to a book like this one.
Jason: That’s a cool connection to make. I hadn’t ever thought about it, but writing fiction is a lot like those inherited memories. I love this quote from one of Siri Hustvedt’s essays: “Writing fiction is like remembering what never happened.” In my case, I’m remembering what did happen, or at least what people in my family said happened. The writing definitely changes my relationship to the memories. I have a kind of obsessive memory. I remember a lot, and I don’t have much control over it. So even when it made me uncomfortable, I decided to just write it down. The memories were with me all the time anyway. I am aware of a difference between the written version—tailored for an audience—and the memories as I experience them. They’re close, and they bleed into each other, but they’re not quite the same.
Emily: It feels like maybe there’s something happening in a broader cultural sense in the way we think about memory right now. Epigenetics and transgenerational trauma, for instance, are part of the lexicon in a way they weren’t even a decade ago. Did you have a sense of that writing this book? Do you feel like there’s something sort of “in the air” about memory at this moment in time?
Jason: Yeah, I think the culture is catching up to memory research, and basically the weird and mysterious questions raised by memory are getting a lot of attention. Your examples are great. Epigenetics and transgenerational trauma both suggest that memory isn’t simply personal. It’s collective, in both cultural and biological terms. But also, memory isn’t a single thing. Physiologically, it’s looking like it’s a rough reactivation of past experiences in the nervous system as it responded to the experience being remembered. There’s physical memory, memory of how to do things like swim or ride a bike, memory of how things in the universe work (rocks are heavy, predators are scary, etc.). I was thinking about all this as I wrote. I wanted to find formal ways to represent all the different kinds of memory that shape a life. This isn’t new. Joe Brainard does it brilliantly in I Remember, first published in 1980, long before any of this memory research was happening. Maxine Hong Kingston does it in a different way in The Woman Warrior, getting at how dreams and fantasy life inform memory and identity.
Emily: This feels to me like a new way of thinking about memoir, of entering into memory by way of the body and neuroscience. You so richly fuse these very personal memories with a deep well of research on cognitive and neuropsychology. I’m wondering about what your writing process is like: are you driven by your research toward certain memories, or is it the other way around: do your questions about your family drive the research itself? And did you always know this would be the shape the book would take?
Jason: I didn’t always know what shape the book would take. I started by writing fragments. Things started to fall into place when I wrote the chapter about the beached sea slugs, after discovering these creatures I’d loved as a kid were huge stars in the history of neuroscience, because their nervous systems are easy to study. I think the traffic goes both ways with the memories and the neuroscience. I didn’t even realize there was a connection to my family when I first got interested in brain research. I’d always been fascinated by the fact of consciousness—that it exists and we experience it and artists experiment with it. So I wanted to find something out about the science. Then I wrote this ridiculously long (800 pages) draft of the book, basically a flood of memories. As I pruned, I looked for connections between story and science that I could play with, as in the sea slug chapter. So the form ended up being about the fusion.
Emily: I’m so curious about the process for cutting down an 800-page draft. Was it difficult, doing all that cutting, and how long did it take? Was the book something you worked on incrementally over a long period of time, or was it all kind of a rush?
Jason: It was incremental. I think the next draft was about five hundred pages, and then I finally found the story’s shape and basically began a process of scraping stuff out. I cut scenes that just weren’t building toward anything and I cut lots of detail in just about every scene. I’d overwritten the details, partly because I was thinking more about getting the minutiae of the memories than I was about reaching out to readers. I learned a lot about writing in general and my own writing tendencies doing this. That said, there are scenes it killed me to cut and that I still kind of wish were there. But now I can share some of those as standalone pieces.
Sometimes your writing has a quality of feeling like semi-surreal journalism. Are the two kinds of writing related for you?
Emily: Journalism feels so distinct from fiction and even literary nonfiction for me in that, in journalism, language is primarily functional. It’s what you’re writing about that drives the language, whereas for me when I’m writing, it really feels the other way around: everything starts with language, with the structure of the sentence. Journalism is also very invested in putting things into a clear narrative, whereas I think I’m more interested in the things that can’t be narrated, the things happening in the silences of a story.
That said, I do think there are certain parallels for me. I’m interested in a kind of writing that is situated in the borderlands between the public and private, the historical and the personal. I’m interested in thinking about the ways we are porous, how the boundaries of what we think of as the “self” begin to blur.
Jason: I love the kids in your stories—your children characters. Sometimes they remind me of the kids in The Turn of the Screw, not because they’re demon seeds, but because they know the world in ways adults cannot. I think we all know that’s true of kids, but you made me feel that knowingness really strongly, even when the kids themselves are fixated on what they don’t know or understand. How do you think about writing kid characters? Are there differences from how you write adult characters?
Emily: I do and don’t think I write about kids differently than adults. I think kids are basically the same as adults, but they’re seeing things for the first time, which means they’re not yet fluent in the kinds of codes adults use to talk about the world or what they’d rather not see. Kids feel things more viscerally because they’re not used to it yet. Although I also think part of it for me is that I never really feel like I’ve grown up. I’m someone who always feels a little stunned and shell-shocked by the world and like everyone else has long ago figured it all out. It can be useful, I think, as a writer. I remember very clearly what it was like to be a kid. I think of the Russian Formalists who were always trying to figure out how to defamiliarize the world in their writing, how to estrange it. I feel like if they’d just remembered what it was like to be eight years old, they would’ve figured it all out.
Jason: I don’t feel like I’ve grown up either. When I hear the word “man” used to describe me, I’m like who can they mean? I feel like a boy, but I guess I’m not.