Patrick Cottrell is the author of Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, winner of a Whiting Award in Fiction. He lives in Colorado and teaches at University of Denver. Read his short story ‘Fixation’ here.
Amina Cain is the author of two collections of short fiction, Creature and I Go to Some Hollow, and the novel Indelicacy. She lives in Los Angeles. Read an excerpt from Indelicacy here.
The two authors discuss atmosphere, obsession and going ‘too far’.
One of the many things I’ve noticed throughout your work is your commitment to conjuring a certain quality of atmosphere. I’ve had conversations with friends about how the development of character, story, setting – all the traditional components – have sort of faded away when thinking about what constitutes contemporary fiction. What’s replaced some of those traditional components is atmosphere. Can you speak about your ideas on atmosphere, whether in fiction or nonfiction?
That’s interesting. The books I like most are almost always atmospheric, but I don’t think I’ve noticed that shift. For me as a writer, atmosphere is everything. If I can get it right, especially in a work of fiction, then I can enter that work and it will be enough to carry me through my writing. Without it, I can’t really get in. I guess I come to atmosphere less through ideas and more through desire and necessity, enjoyment, what I need to write and in what kind of space I want to spend my time. I like to be ‘taken over’ when I’m writing (and reading). A benign kind of possession, maybe. If I don’t like the atmosphere of a book I’m reading, or if it’s devoid of atmosphere, I probably won’t want to continue it.
When I think about what’s made me obsessed with a novel like Marguerite Duras’ The Ravishing of Lol Stein, it’s very much about its atmosphere, and the way that it’s so strongly stayed with me (and my writing) since I first read it more than twenty years ago. I should say, though, for me, atmosphere and setting are part of the same cloth, almost always connected and I would never want to do away with setting. Story, yes. Character, maybe, at least the way in which it’s usually conceived. Your first novel, Sorry to Disrupt the Peace, has an appealing atmosphere that to me seems connected to voice.
For me, atmosphere and obsession are tethered; I can do without a story or setting. All I need is obsession. If I’m not obsessed with something – an image, a problem, a sound – I have no reason to write.
I appreciated how at the beginning of A Horse at Night you describe the trick of conjuring something that’s both there and not: ‘I pulled my hair into a loose bun, but not like a dancer would do it.’ I love that sentence. ‘But not like’ functions as a hinge and creates a weird psychic space where the reader is suspended between an action and the ghost-image of the dancer. I guess what I’m trying to say is I admire how much care and thought you put into your sentences. When writing a work of fiction, do you feel the need to get each sentence ‘right’ before you can move forward? Do you ever dash off a sentence to get to the next one? What happens for you during the pause or in-between-ness of writing sentence to sentence?
Without obsession, I don’t think I’d get anywhere. I suppose you could say I’m obsessed with sentence-writing, with how a sentence can sound, what you can put inside it, how it can bring into existence a certain feeling or sensation, how it can transport you as a writer into a new space, hopefully transporting the reader too. The sentence itself is one way that atmosphere can be created. Really, it’s amazing to me what the sentence is capable of. I can’t believe it’s often seen purely as an instrument for plot! I mean, sure, sentences can carry a story, but why stop there?
For a long time, yes, I had to get every sentence right before I could move onto the next. Writers have always been advised not to do that, haven’t they? It’s part of what makes me write so slowly. Yet without the right sound of the sentences, without the feelings and sensations they bring about, it’s hard for me to move forward, because they really are creating a new space for me, the space of the story, or essay, or novel. It’s not just what I’ve said, but how I’ve said it that does this.
It’s hard for me to see what’s in between the sentences; one connects to the next so closely, or abruptly departs from it.
I think I’m somewhat similar – I have a hard time moving forward if the sentences don’t seem right. Something I was thinking about while reading A Horse at Night was the balance between the solitude of writing, and the importance of reading (as a writer) in a way that cultivates a constellation of writers, dead or alive, that one might feel in conversation with.
Both are necessary, like breathing: the in breath and the out breath. One’s interior life, and the life that reaches outward to make contact with another. Of course they overlap or meet, like where the top of the inhale meets the exhale (forgive me for the metaphor). I need to be alone to do my work; I don’t always think well in front of another person, but I believe all of us need to go beyond ourselves also, to the self we are when in relationship to others and their work. Without solitude and community, I would be a different, I think poorer, writer than I am, or perhaps I wouldn’t be able to write at all. What excites and energizes me is almost always outside myself, yet I then have to be alone to turn it in my mind, to write it.
I like what you’ve said here about needing to think about community in relationship with the self. I teach a class in the graduate program at University of Denver on dreaming and at the beginning of the quarter we talk about how although dreaming is private and solitary, it can also offer possibilities for social, public and collective futures. Jackie Wang’s The Sunflower Cast a Spell to Save Us from the Void helped me rethink some of my assumptions about dreams and writing from them, like the idea that writing from your dreams is dumb or selfish. Do you pay attention to your dreams?
I’m also curious about a short paragraph in A Horse at Night that’s almost like a little island. It’s different from the rest of the book. It begins, ‘Write into the winter, and the summer, and autumn, and spring. Write into the snow and flowers and the wreaths and the wallpaper. Write into the painting and the flame of the long candle . . .’ and it goes on. I love how this could function as a mantra or even as a guided meditation while bringing forth very specific images like the long candle or later on ‘the dark lines of the room’. What does it mean to write into?
I do pay attention to my dreams, but it’s rare for me to write from them or write them down at all. Now I want to take your class and try it. The new thing in my life is that I get up early now, when it’s still dark. When I first wake up, I try to stay quiet, meditating for a little bit (though for some reason I often feel melancholy meditating at that hour) or silently doing chores or taking a walk or reading. The thing I haven’t done yet is write immediately upon waking. I think I will do it tomorrow to at least be close to a dream state when I sit down with my novel-in-progress. I’ve never set my alarm to write in the middle of the night either, like Bernadette Mayer and others did in The 3:15 Experiment, but that might be good to try too. It seems worth it to write in different states of mind and consciousness, to see where they take the writing, to see if they open anything up.
I like that you call that part of A Horse at Night a little island. It’s a nice way for me to think about it and to think about the parts of a book more generally, that islands can exist. I also like thinking of it as detached, or as something that could be chanted. It’s funny, when I wrote it I didn’t think of it as a guided meditation, but now I see that it kind of is, with its rhythms and its images. I hope it’s meditative to read, and that the reader hears it as well as sees it.
For me, writing into presupposes that words, images, objects, moments, seasons, etc. are mysterious, and that each has the potential to be a space one can enter even if what is inside is partly obscured. It still holds a charge and as a writer I can interact with that charge. I guess I feel I don’t just write about things, but towards them. I am always wanting to go into to see what is there. I’m drawn to writing the ‘feelings’ of things, if that makes sense. It might partly be how I work with atmosphere. I should definitely try to go into my dreams.
I think writing down your dreams can be useful because there are so many images that have a charge, as you say, but are also obscured in terms of meaning. So there’s a capaciousness – there’s a lot of space. Last night in my dream I was holding a basket of green pears. Why? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll use the basket of green pears in my writing somewhere, someday.
I wanted to ask you if you could say more about Marie NDiaye. I’m a big fan of hers. You write, ‘I graze at my writing. I want to withdraw into it, but of course I also want to live. Mostly I want to go too far, but with a light touch. NDiaye does that.’ I like how you gesture at the tension between withdrawing into one’s writing but also needing/wanting to live. Where is too far for you? Are there other writers who go too far?
I like that you were holding a basket of green pears in your dream. That’s a nice image. I just dreamed that I let this guy cuddle with me, but when he tried to cuddle with a friend of mine she knocked him against a car.
I love Marie NDiaye’s writing so much. I’ve only been reading it for a few years, but she’s quickly become one of my favorite writers. There’s often a real absurdity unfolding in her books, sometimes gruesomeness or horror, but with a lightness attached, a sense of humor, and sentences to die for. I don’t always like books that have a repulsive side because they can feel murky and heavy. Aesthetically, I mean; like living in a basement. But with NDiaye, it’s different. Take her novel My Heart Hemmed In, about a husband and wife – Nadia and Ange – after a grisly wound inexplicably appears on Ange’s stomach and becomes steadily, appallingly worse. I’d think I wouldn’t like a novel like this, but I do, very much. It’s because the novel is written and translated so cleanly, so precisely. What is happening is nightmarish and repulsive, but it’s written in a humorous way, in a voice that’s steady. It is a very surreal novel, hallucinatory, with a dream logic. I wonder if NDiaye ever writes from her dreams, or her nightmares.
I guess when I say ‘too far’ I mean writing that doesn’t hold anything back, or that travels all the way down a path of its own unreal reasoning. I’m obviously thinking about ‘going too far’ here as a positive value. A number of Marguerite Duras novels do this, like Destroy, She Said, Blue Eyes, Black Hair, and The Vice-Consul. Also, Caren Beilin’s Revenge of the Scapegoat, which moves so crazily, satisfyingly, through itself. Elena Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment. Hilda Hilst’s work, especially The Obscene Madame D. It runs through Fleur Jaeggy’s books, Nathalie Sarraute’s, and Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi’s. And I think your book goes ‘too far’, in fact.
To be honest, I’ve never really gone so far into a writing space in that I’ve written all night or madly for weeks, but I do believe I’ve been able to go fully, madly, into the space of what I write regardless. It’s a space that usually stays open for me and that starts to blur with my days and life.
Are there writers you think go ‘too far’ in whatever way you might define that?
A writer who comes to mind right away is Vi Khi Nao. For one thing, her writing is both stylish and excessive. I think her work – her tremendous publishing output – is its own project of going ‘too far.’ Her list of publications, collaborations, performances/readings and conversations with other writers is a wall of text, almost like a sculpture.
In A Horse at Night, you write:
‘My loss of authenticity is related to change, to how, as I’ve gotten older, I seem to have become a different person. In a way I have become strange to myself, and so how I am and feel around others has also been destabilized. I have more fears than I had when I was younger; I am more rigid: and there has been a loss too of the freedom I once felt, when the world seemed entirely open, and utterly beautiful.’
You also go on to say that through writing you can access parts of yourself that once seemed lost. I was wondering if you think writing can repair or change our relationship with the past and future.
You know, in a way I do, at least with the past. So much of what I write is because I want to spend more time with an encounter I’ve had – with a place or a person, or an experience of reading, of watching a performance or of looking at a painting. I want to do this because I can’t stop thinking about the encounter, or because it brought me great enjoyment, or it disturbed me, or it was mysterious or strange. I like that as a writer or an artist you can combine your experiences with something else. Put simply, that might just be the imagination, but it feels like more than that, like you can make contact with your experiences aesthetically, or artistically, which is maybe how they always felt in the first place, and you’re just bringing them together formally for others to read in this way. That to me does feel transformative or reparative, that you’re making something ‘complete’ in itself, you’re giving it its full life in what you’ve written, or you’re at least attempting to.
I don’t know about the future. I will say that I feel like a more authentic person than I did when I wrote those words and when I wrote A Horse at Night. Maybe back then, writing about the distance I perceived inside myself and the ways I’d become a less honest person since I was younger, allowed me to get closer to who I ‘am’ in what is now the present, but at that time was the future.
I say how I feel now. I’m more direct, and maybe sometimes, out of necessity, less polite. I’m still different to who I was when I was younger, and that probably won’t change, but writing can take me in a very immediate way into a space where I can meet, maybe be, that past self, but without being cut off from who I am now. I feel most myself when I’m writing. I feel the fullness of life.