Julianne Pachico and Colin Barrett debate line writing vs free writing, inherited literatures and how to give a reading.
So, first Q from me would be about classification. The Lucky Ones has been called a collection of stories in the UK, I believe, but was presented as a novel in the US. What do you think it is? Is it a vexing question, or are you relaxed about it? And during it’s composition, were you consciously concerned with the final shape and form, or were you happy to just see what came out, as it were?
Hi Colin! I’m so happy you enjoyed the book. I have a copy of Young Skins in front of me right now – I’m in my friend’s house in North Carolina (she’s making chocolate chip pancakes in the kitchen, a truly all-American breakfast). I fly to New York tomorrow for the U.S. launch event for the The Lucky Ones which I’m a bit daunted about but I’m sure it will be fine . . . being in the US is a bit strange right now but maybe it will pay off in future writing.
That’s a good question about classification. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to write a book that worked both as a short story collection and as a novel, mainly because those are the kinds of books that I love to read. Jennifer Egan and David Mitchell are probably the two most famous writers who’ve written books in that vein, but for me personally Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child was a major influence, as was Hypothermia, a book by the Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue. Most recently I really enjoyed Claire Louise-Bennett’s Pond, which I experienced very much as a novel but was marketed as a short story collection.
I guess what defines a novel for me is a certain kind of momentum and energy, and not necessarily a straightforward chronological plot. I don’t find the question of classification a vexing one, though I suppose for publishers it’s important because they want to know how to market things. But I know that for me personally as a reader I’m not fussed about what a book chooses to call itself.
What about you? Are you working on another collection, or have you switched over to Team Novel? If so, have you had to change your approach to writing? Is there something about the act of writing short stories that can’t be reproduced in the process of writing a novel?
How’d the launch go? Was it good? Disembodying? Fun? Give me the scandal, give me the goss.
I’m a big fan of both the Ridgway and Bennett books. For me, what’s so great about those books is that the writers are both what you’d call sentence-merchants. I’m speaking for them, so could be taking thru my hole, but my sense is they work at the level of the line. Their styles are different, but both take endless risks chasing the concentrated shape of their line: they risk overwriting, underwriting, sometimes the deferment or outright obviation of immediate meaning, but always in the service of the articulation of . . . what? A sensibility. A way of perceiving the world, of registering the marks the world leaves not just on the skin, but under it. Maybe even the soul. If the soul does not exist, we would probably have to invent it.
I’m reminded of much of The Lucky Ones, but especially a story/section like ‘Lemon Pie’. The sentences are teeming, antic, and full of disparate elements all held together on the same level, and at times are chaotic to read. You give us a main character who has gone mad, essentially, and is zoning in and out of reality, but there is no shift in register, or really even typography (other than when he is quoting literary texts), to signal his madness, to safely segregate lucid reality from his febrile imaginings. As a reader you are disoriented, and feel less like you’re reading these sentences than experiencing them. And it’s OK to be disoriented. That’s the point.
So I think of Pond and Hawthorn and Child, and books like that almost as terrariums or ecological systems purpose-built for the housing and perpetuation of a unique kind of sentence. The sentence is for me the foundational unit, nothing can progress until it is tuned properly. The sentence as opposed to voice. It is close to voice, but it’s not voice. It’s the terrain you set the voices yammering within.
Which is also a roundabout way of addressing your Q: yes, I’m writing a novel and I’m writing it the only way I can, at the level of the line. Line by line. It’s popping along nicely now, though I say this with the caveat it could be utter, utter shite. But it’s going, which is the main thing. It took quite some time to switch tracks, from stories to the novel. The sentences in the novel, now, to me, look somewhat the same as the sentences in the short stories. But something is different. I feel like I broke a bone, and it’s been reset, and after a period of incapacitating convalescence during which I wrote very little that was useful, I’m now back up on the bone and its taking every weight I can throw at it.
How about you? Is the line where you start. Or is it with character, setting etc? I’m always fascinated by the process of composition, especially as I find it so hard to lucidly or faithfully describe. The Irish writer, Mike McCormack, another sentence-merchant whose brilliant novel Solar Bones is gaining lots of deserved acclaim in the UK and Ireland, said something that I find hilariously true, which is that he spent five years writing the book and can’t remember any of it.
Colin! What a nice email to read. I’m back in England now and have recovered from the near nervous breakdown-inducing experience that was flying back over the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Doris, experiencing the worst turbulence of my life, and then arriving back in Norwich fifteen minutes before my UK launch. My God, it was positively apocalyptic. But also kind of very rock and roll?
The New York launch was good if a bit overwhelming. If I’m honest I don’t quite have my finger on the whole ‘writer as public figure’ pulse yet. It’s like . . . do I make witty banter? Do I solemnly plunge straight into reading with minimal audience engagement? How often am I supposed to look up from the page to make eye contact with the audience?
It doesn’t help that I still get very nervous about public speaking (a leftover trait of being an extreme introvert as a child) and though it’s gotten easier, the fears still haven’t quite gone away. My dad once told me an anecdote about a basketball player for the Boston Celtics (I think it was Bill Russell), and how even though he won ten championships with the team, he still got so nervous before every playoff game he would vomit. Who knows if it’s true, but I certainly find it comforting (though I’ve never vomited before a reading . . . yet!). How was the transition from writing privately to reading publicly for you?
That’s super exciting news about the novel (and I’m sure it’s going to be badass). I especially love your bone metaphor.
And that’s a painfully true comment by Mike McCormack. I think you bring up a very good point about how difficult it is to talk about the actual process of writing. I’m finding it hard to articulate it myself, right now, in this email. I suppose that I tend to rely a lot on free-writing: just sitting down and writing whatever comes into my head. My writing tends to be raw and needs a lot of editing, and it’s this process, the shaping and refining of individual scenes and sentences, that is definitely the biggest challenge for me. It takes me FOREVER, while the drafting process happens very quickly. I don’t think of myself as a line writer, which is why I find it fascinating that you found a story like ‘Lemon Pie’ to be strong in terms of its individual sentences.
I love what you say about Ridgway and Bennett, and you’ve articulated what I like about your writing way better than I ever could. Unique sentences that aren’t overwritten or lyrical or voice-y in an annoyingly horrible forced poetic way. I like how your writing doesn’t look away from the ugliness of the world – how you achieve a balance between a gritty realness, and these sentences that are just plain vivid. In that recent New Yorker story of yours, for example – ‘Anhedonia Here I Come’ – I loved how you had this very deliberate language contrasted with the squalidness of the main character taking a walk to visit his drug dealer, taking a ‘spumous dump’ in a McDonalds. Spumous! What a word! What’s your favorite word that you’ve used in a short story?
I’m getting over-excited with questions for you, but anyway: is thinking about the role of the voice-driven sentence in writing important to you, considering its role in Irish writing? Maybe this is a better way to ask that: Is interacting with and being aware of a literary tradition important to you? (While writing ‘The Lucky Ones’ I was initially anxious about how it might potentially turn into ‘yet another Colombian novel about violence,’ but I got over that eventually . . .)
Glad you made it through Doris in one piece, and that the launch itself was, overall, good fun? They are definitely anxiety inducing, especially when you are the sole big deal of the damn things. At the very least, it’s nice for a parent and friends to come along so it can be publicly verified that you have in fact wrote a book, and it’s been published, and you weren’t just making it all up.
I take readings in my stride, sort of, by this point. Unless you’re inflicting an unreasonably long recitation on your audience – I personally consider any reading over twelve minutes an act of overt aggression on the part of the author – most people are going to react fairly mildly, because literary readings (of texts not explicitly written to be performed) are an intrinsically mild proposition, really. Even though the point of a reading is ostensibly the reading, in actuality the reading itself is a fairly parenthetical element within the event. It is, without doubt, the bit people pay the least attention to, and the first thing they forget – which doesn’t mean your book isn’t fantastic or that they won’t love it when they get it home and read it at their own pace etc. But anyway. Drinking helps, drinking helps everyone. Three drink minimum pre-reading, would be my rule.
It’s interesting what you say about your writing being a raw process, free-writing. That resonates with me. Cos that’s what writing is about, really, isn’t it? At it’s core I don’t think it has much to do with talent, the conscious application of that talent, or even, really, with whatever it is you think your subject might be. It’s much more feral, and foetal, than that. Scrabbling around in the dark, in the murk, and divesting yourself, at least temporarily, of the obligation to think in clear lines and to a specific purpose . . . there is something under all the words that you are trying to get at. It is already there, before the first letter hits the page, it is always already there, something anterior and pagan. You can think and then write, or write and then think, but I can’t write and think at the same time.
The word spumous is indeed a good word. Now to get the word brumous into something.
I did want to ask you how you go about arranging your material. Is it purely associative, or perhaps led by images? The stories in The Lucky Ones are filled with stuff: objects, some banal, some exotic, some intact, some fractured or almost effaced from the world. They seem to have a totemic power, sometimes to the characters, sometimes to the narrative itself (or both). I’m thinking of Honey Bunny – the main character’s various purses, the dry leaf, the chicken bones she finds in the baggies of drugs she deals, that ‘wallet made out of a milk carton’ her bodyguard gave her as an emigrating child, the ‘nest’ at the end. You think the story is going to be about one thing – a young girl dealing drugs in New York – and it just goes somewhere . . . else, as if sucked along by the enigmatic power of this procession of strange objects that keep manifesting.
As for interacting with a literary tradition – I like Irish writing, or much of it, historical and contemporary, just like I like lots of North American writing or whatever. I don’t feel burdened to particularly believe in it – it’s there anyway. I do feel an obligation to get ‘Ireland’ – or really, my small part of Ireland – right, on the page. I believe the muck savage vale I crawled out of, and that I love, can stand whatever I throw at it. Years ago, when I was lush with the delusive arrogance of the absolutely ignorant, I thought literature, and by extension myself, were above the concerns and passions that might animate a provincial rural town. I was blind to any worth in where I had come from. It was a species of cowardice, that blindness, but it was probably necessary. Writing in the wrong direction is absolutely frustrating, but it’s not worthless.
How do you feel about your own relation to an inherited literature? What does that look like to you, or does it matter?
Colin! I love your drinking helps statement. In fact I think I will have a glass of wine right now, even though I am (thankfully!) not reading anytime soon, which is a change from the past few weeks and one that I am much grateful for. I like how this email chain has become a strange diary of me madly flitting around while you endure as this calm, steadying, ever-articulate voice in my inbox.
That’s a good question about the ‘stuff’ in stories. An acquaintance asked me recently if I was the kind of kid who played outside in the garden for hours (I suppose due to the teacher’s obsession with talking objects in ‘Lemon Pie’) and I had to answer with an inevitable ‘yes’. I guess the objects in ‘Honey Bunny’ became a way to ground the story for me. To me, that story is about a character missing her homeland in a deeply grieving way – in a way that will never, ever be okay and can never be properly articulated. So I guess it made sense to me to have her memories of her childhood manifest themselves physically through the only concrete link she actually had to Colombia – the drugs she was buying. Which is of course the main link that a lot of people have to Colombia. When I wrote that story I was really fascinated by the biographies of celebrities like David Bowie and Stevie Nicks, and I found it deeply interesting in a way I can’t quite articulate, the way their 70s excesses are linked to children in Colombia harvesting black garbage bags full of coca leaves in the mountains. What a world!
In terms of an inherited literature, I feel a similar obligation to get the small part of Colombia that I know right on the page. I’ve been getting quite a few questions during the book promotion about Colombian literature and what I would want people to think about Colombia after reading my book, and I still don’t know quite what to say in response. But I like the image of writing as something you throw at your homeland – as though writing is a mudpie you make in a sandbox in the playground. And as if one’s homeland is brave and badass enough to lift up its chin, stick out its chest and take it, inarticulate first drafts and wrong directions and all.
Did you know that Colombia and Ireland have a long history together? My sister would know more about it (she’s an Irish history buff) but from what I remember, Irish volunteers were instrumental in the nineteenth-century Colombian War of Independence against Spain. And then you also have incidents of IRA members training the FARC guerrilla. Again . . . what a world.