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Books In Conversation

with Peter Markus

If You Eat His Tongue:
Talking to Brian Evenson About Talking About Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love

Brian Evenson
Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
(Ig publishing , 2018)

I remember the first time I bought Brian Evenson’s first book, Altmann’s Tongue. I say first time because it’s one of those books that I’ve bought multiple times since, to give out as gifts, to press into the hands of other writers. I’d stopped off at a bookstore somewhere in the middle of Michigan that specialized in remaindered titles, books marked down to no more than two or three dollars. I think it was something to do with the spine of Altmann’s Tongue that initially stood out and captured the gaze of my attentions—the waterlogged appearance of the mud-brown cover, the title and author’s name written in a script that was made to look much older (from another time entirely) than the book and its author actually were. The book itself had and still has now a heft about it, and a feel of something older than it is, its pages serrated, the paper stock itself thicker than the pages of most other books. It had the visual and textual feel of a kind of Talismanic text, something bearing a sacred or even a biblical weight, and when I opened up the book to see what was inside, I encountered something entirely otherwise—and other—between the covers.

Here’s the first sentence that I turned to when I first opened Altmann’s Tongue: “After I had killed Altmann, I stood near Altmann’s corpse watching the steam of the mud rising around it, obscuring what had once been Altmann.” What, I remember asking myself, is this? I read on, further obscured and compelled by the desire to know more, when I found myself reading the next sentence: “Horst was whispering to me, ‘You must eat his tongue. If you eat his tongue, it will make you wise,’ Horst was whispering.” What kind of wisdom was I seeing here, what kind of telling was I hearing? “‘If you eat his tongue, it will make you speak the language of birds!’” 

I took this book, after closing the book, up to the cashier to pay for the book and then left the store already feeling the experience of being undone. I remember sitting in my car, unable to drive home, after I read further on down the page, encountering the following sentence in the wake of the narrator having now killed Horst too: “The world is populated by Altmanns and Horsts, the former of which one should riddle with bullets on the first possible occasion, the latter of which one should perhaps kill, perhaps not: Who can say? I felt remarkably calm.” 

I felt anything but calm. When I then reached the end of this story, when the speaker himself is seemingly transformed by this experience with language into nothing short of becoming a bird, I knew that I was being transported and being held hostage in a world where nothing would or could ever be the same. I had been transformed, even disfigured, by the experience of this story and eventually the entire book. This was reading as nothing short of a deformative experience where our sense of the world is rearranged. I can say this: that I have been mostly disappointed by most books by most authors ever since this initial encounter with Altmann’s Tongue, not just the title story itself—the memory of which I cannot shake—but the bulk of the stories that soon followed. 

And in the years since then, through the growing body of works that have come after Altmann’s Tongue bearing the Evenson name, Evenson has continued to transform the world of his fiction with a language and a world vision that is uncannily the world and language of the singularity that is Brian Evenson. In too many books bearing his name to name, but in namely his collections of short fiction, among them The Wavering Knife and Windeye and Fugue State, as well as through the books that he has translated into English from the French, to read the work of Evenson is to be placed in a world made to seem both older than it is and yet is a world that is waiting to come true. His short but heavy novel, Dark Property, could be read as a kind of precursor to Cormac McCarthy’s own post-apocalyptic novel The Road. I often challenge my students to read both of these books before even beginning to think about embarking on their own attempts at writing dystopian fiction. 

What’s most surprising to hear Brian Evenson talk about, through his most recent book on his experience of first encountering Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, is the role that Raymond Carver’s fiction played in shaping the early years of Evenson’s own apprenticeship as a young writer. Through a series of emails over the course of several months, Brian Evenson and I spoke about the influence of Carver’s stories and some of the shared commonalities between these two seemingly disparate writers.

Peter Markus (Rail): I don’t know that I would’ve become the writer I’ve become had I not come to Carver and the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love when I did. I know we both came to him young—maybe even too young?—late teens, early twenties, a few years after the book itself came out. I don’t know that my own students these days, who are also in their late teens, early twenties, when I bring Carver to them, experience him in quite the same altering way. Why might that be, if you find this to be true in your own teaching of Carver’s stories, especially to writers just starting out?

Brian Evenson: Yes, like you I came to him pretty early. In some ways it was too young—a lot of what Carver focused on in terms of collapsed and collapsing relationships was something that I hadn’t remotely experienced at the time, for instance. But in other ways it was just right, since he had a big effect on shaping me as a writer and might not have had that if I’d come to him even five years later. I think it’s hard for aspiring writers in their late teens and early twenties now to understand how different those stories, and that collection in particular, felt at the time. It really did feel unlike almost anything else being published, was at once realistic and taut, highly conscious in its use of language and form, very “writerly” (in Roland Barthes’s sense of the word), very spare but still emotionally resonant. In that sense, it opened a door and made me realize there were ways of writing that I hadn’t anticipated. I think it a credit to the book’s influence on the writers that followed Carver to say that a first reading of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for a twenty-year-old today doesn’t seem as revelatory: that book changed the literary field enough that the door it opened for me is already ajar in advance for young writers now. At the same time, young writers do respond to a lot in Carver and can learn from him, and there are stylistic gestures and devices that are quite clear in his work—he’s worth teaching. But not nearly as many people have the experience that you and I had of reading him and feeling that he made something possible for writing that wasn’t visible before.

Rail: It’s such a highly stylized collection of fiction, the stories nearly interrelated, if not by a single recurring narrator or protagonist, then by a single voice, a signature way of saying and not saying, which is what drew me in and what continues to draw me back to it. It’s Hemingway’s The Nick Adams Stories without the recurrence of a single Nick, though the characters carry with them, not unlike the adult Nick Adams, the kind of psychic wounds of having lived through their own kinds of wars, mostly domestic, or battles with the bottle, which often leads to states of abandon or recovery, dealing not just with the corrosion of a love relationship but the absence that is left in the wake of breaking up. I’m thinking of stories like “Why Don’t You Dance” and “Viewfinder,” both of which I continue to bring into the classroom, even though my students often aren’t as moved as I remember being, and am still by these adult men left alone and haunted by the ghosts of who they used to be and now are forced to move away from that other life toward something new that wants beginning. 

Evenson: Yes, the stories all resonate with one another, but at the same time I’m never tempted to call it a “novel-in-stories.” I’m not tempted to do that with The Nick Adams Stories either, but they’re farther along a path toward that—but Hemingway’s strength in that collection comes from the way they don’t cohere into a novel, that there’s something more ephemeral and loose about the way the stories add up. For me, with Carver’s book, it’s a question of mood or affect holding all the stories together, and about the characters living, or having lived, similar struggles and traumas. The fact that we’re seeing that refracted through many different characters at many different stages ends up creating both an expansiveness and a layering effect that neither a novel nor a series of stories with the same protagonist achieve. You begin to get the impression that there’s a whole world of people with these stories out there, and that you could pick out any one at random and find similar pain and loss. Even the one story in the collection that feels like the protagonist might be relatively content and stable, “Everything Stuck to Him,” through it all, you can’t help but think about all the other characters who are still stuck and struggling. The overall effect is, I think, quite powerful, with the stories glancing off one another in sometimes painful ways, and with very little quarter given.

Rail: I like that notion that “there’s a whole world of people with these stories out there,” or at least similar stories—heartbreak, hard drinking, being left behind, etc.—that speaks to something universal even though, of course, the stories are rooted in a very particular place, the world, that is, according to Carver. What I love about your book on Carver is how you make use of this opportunity to write about a book that in its own way shaped you as a writer, but also how it offered you the platform to talk about your own story (of love, at least two times, going south on you, both your early marriage and later on the relationship that ended in July with you in the hospital and your then-girlfriend looking for another apartment to move herself into). Had this book on Carver been more of an academic look at What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the story of your own marriage and relationship after marriage and the way they both ended would not have been offered as kind of parallel narratives of a kind of love that Carver was also talking about. 

Evenson: Yes, I do think those stories understand that the way to something universal is through the particular, through close attention to place and detail and individualized characters. But also that the universal has something to do with affect, with how things are experienced by someone living within a human body and in particular circumstances. For me, writing this book, the thing I felt I most wanted to go into on a personal level was why, considering I was raised Mormon, had good, loving parents, never smoked, and wasn’t an alcoholic—in short, had a life that was so different from Carver’s—did I as a young writer feel such a strong sense of identification with his stories? And why is it that certain books, such as Carver’s, resonated for me for years after I read them? Since that was what interested me, the Bookmarked series was kind of a perfect fit: they encouraged that mixed form and also encouraged the openness and vulnerability it requires to get somewhere interesting. The first book I read in the series, Aaron Burch’s Stephen King’s The Body, spoke very openly about difficulties in his personal relationship alongside his examination of King’s novella. And the other books in the series all have a certain personal element as well: David Ryan talking about the darker days of touring as a musician, Michael Seidlinger talking in very personal terms about writer’s block, Steve Yarbrough on his affair as a young man with a much older woman, and so on. So I went into the project convinced that if I were to talk about my life and my relationship to Carver’s fiction in as honest and sincere a way as possible it would allow people to inhabit that space and not only understand but feel why I saw what I did in his work.

Rail: The whole Western writer angle was another commonality between the two of you that I hadn’t considered or made the connection before you made it, and though some readers have gone so far as to argue that Carver’s stories could have taken place almost anywhere in America, for me they are rooted by a very strong sense of place, even when or if the place remains unnamed. The table with the gin bottle on it isn’t ever far from a river or mountain nearly visible in the distance. 

Evenson: Yes, I think the stories are very rooted in place, and exceptionally good at depicting a particular region of the country and its attitudes. Where I grew up, Utah, it was a little different, largely because of the Mormon influence, but there are still a lot of commonalities, including a similar obsession with fishing. And a story like “Tell the Women You’re Going” for me kind of depends on the mountain roads and isolation you find in certain parts of the West, which is a very different texture of isolation than what you find in most other parts of the country. I read that story and very quickly the landscape is real and palpable to me, since I know places like that. In a sense, the stories could take place anywhere in America (and basically do in life), but there’s no denying that they’re set in the West and the Northwest, and that the landscape and the attitudes of the region are palpably there in both the Gordon Lish-edited and non-Lish-edited versions of the stories.

Rail: Talk to me, too, if you will, about the door that Carver opened for you at the time that you first came to his work. The story “Nobody Said Anything” from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? opened a similar kind of door in terms of giving me permission to write about something as simple as a boy skipping school and going fishing. The simplicity of that dramatic situation, and then of course the complicated feelings that are conjured up when the boy comes back home with half a fish. He’s feeling triumphant, the fish a kind of trophy, meanwhile his parents are dismissive or even sickened by what the boy has brought home to show them. 

Evenson: I’ve spent more time thinking about that story than any other Carver story, and it’s still a story I like very much. When I first read it, I’d never read anything like it, and I found it shocking. At the time I thought it was the masturbation that shocked me (which is only very briefly touched on in the story), but I think it was more the intimacy of the story, how close you’re brought to the boy who narrates it and how you can see the gap between his sense of how life is and what’s actually happening in the world around him. It’s kind of like a story that takes place in the margins of the “real” story: his parents seem to be in the process of breaking up, and I could see a number of writers writing that story instead, maybe even from the parent’s perspective. But instead you have a simpler and more ephemeral story. And also the intimacy of it puts you in the position of sharing his trauma, of understanding that this moment that he doesn’t really understand at the time is going to ripple endlessly through his life. Which makes me think about half-understood moments that have rippled through my life and how they have changed me.

So what door does that open? Like you, it gave me permission to write about simple things that aren’t always touched on in literature. It gave me permission to not be archly literary. And it gave me permission to write the stories that were in the margins of the usual stories.

Rail: That’s what I think I learned most from reading Carver, that the more interesting story is the one taking place, as you say, in the margins, or after the fact, or in the shadow of the real story—not the actual break-up of a relationship but what takes place after the fact. Young writers seem to believe that they have to give us the direct meat of the drama, when the lesser-seen and more difficult terrain of the aftermath can deliver us to a more potent and emotionally complicated place to place a narrative. The way Carver aimed his viewfinder at the smaller things—“I Could See the Smallest Things” as a kind of fiction writing motto—is how, I’d say, he best served the writers he influenced. I think that sensibility was present even before Gordon Lish’s hand starting shaping Carver’s fiction. Here I’m thinking of a story such as “Fat” from Carver’s first book. Why don’t we talk a bit now about Gordon Lish and how his editorial hand left its mark on these stories? I think we both believe that the mark left is a positive thing for the sake of the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (and in an even bigger sense positive too for fiction itself in that Lish also had a hand in the making and shaping and the eventual publication of a wide array of fiction writers that I know you and I both appreciate many of the books that Lish published while he was an editor at Knopf, not the least among them you and your first collection of stories, Altmann’s Tongue). I don’t know that what Lish did to Carver is all that much different from what many teachers of writing do when a young writer turns a work of fiction over, say, in a workshop (the offering up of line edits, the marked up suggestions that might strengthen a sentence, a title change here or there—though it’s true that the penciling in of entire sentences, in addition to these other cuts, pushes beyond the norm, even when what Lish pushed onto Carver’s stories are, as you suggest, some of what became the thing that made those stories stand out: the suggestiveness of Lish’s cuts, the leaning toward the fractured moment, the leaving out of what happened in the past to focus in on what is happening in the present). 

Evenson: Yes, there’s something about Carver’s work that shifted the emphasis or focus that people were used to expecting in fiction at the time—that for me is a good part of what made it the “New Fiction,” even more so than the stylistic flourishes. A story like “The Bath”/”A Small, Good Thing” pays very little attention to who hit the child or to wondering if he’ll ever be caught, and “Tell the Women We’re Going” truncates its ending, leaving it all to the imagination. And in the title story, almost nothing happens: people sit and talk and drink. I do think that sensibility is in Carver from very early on—definitely in the versions of the stories that comprise Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? But I should mention that those stories were edited by Lish as well. As far as I can tell, not quite as much as What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, but still quite a lot, so it’s hard to tell how much of that effect is due to Lish and how much is due to Carver. Though perhaps that information is available now: when I was at the Lilly Library looking at Lish’s Carver manuscripts in the 1990s, a lot of the material wasn’t processed yet, so I couldn’t figure out for certain how extensive the editing of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was. But that material is available now. There’s a good dissertation (and perhaps a book) waiting to be written on the composition of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and the role Lish played in it.

I agree that Lish’s edits were a positive thing for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The unedited version, Beginners, is a much weaker book, and I don’t think it would have had much of an impact if it had been published in lieu of What We Talk About... That book and work by a number of writers that Lish published at Knopf or Esquire (such as Barry Hannah, Amy Hempel, Diane Williams, Mary Robison, and David Ohle to name a few) were really key for my development as a writer. When I had my first book come out with Knopf I felt like I was in really good company with the writers Lish was publishing around the same time, people like Ben Marcus, Christine Schutt, Noy Holland, Sheila Kohler, Greg Mulcahy, Dawn Raffel, Gary Lutz. We all had different voices but shared a common desire for making the language do the most it possibly could. I do think that Lish, starting with Carver but going on quite a bit beyond that, had a major impact on the way that people thought about fiction, and on how people wrote. Whatever your aesthetic, it’s hard to argue that American fiction is not the better for it.

The impulse of Lish’s edits perhaps aren’t that different from what you get from many teachers of writing; where the impulse differs is in focus and scope. He seemingly has a clear idea of what he wants the story to do, and he’s very attentive to the cues the story is offering beneath the surface. In that sense, I feel that he has more loyalty to the story than to its writer, so following what the story “subconsciously” suggests can potentially put him at odds with the author and his aesthetic/ethic (as was the case with some of the stories he edited of Carver). Indeed, Carver later published versions of some of the stories in What We Talk About… that walk back many of Lish’s edits and move the stories back closer to what they originally were—or rather in between what they originally were and how Lish edited them. It’s one thing to look at the pre-Lish and Lish-edited version of those stories and think, “Yes, this changed a lot.” It’s another to see the typescript pages and understand how much Lish cut, rearranged, and added. If you look at the pages for a story like “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit,” the final version of the story is about a sixth of its original length, and Lish has taken a sentence on one page, crossed out almost everything else on that page and the next, and then written a sentence of his own to make it work with the little that he lets stand of the following page. I don’t necessarily see this as Lish writing or co-writing, since the editing he does is always reactive to Carver’s original, but he’s very good at finding a story hidden within the original story, at stripping and clarifying. Often that story is stronger and more compelling.

Rail: I’d like to see those Lilly Library papers, especially in light of a story such as “Fat” (a favorite of mine), which feels very Lishy in its rendering of the bone beneath the flesh or fat. The story behind the fingers, for instance. The story within the story, too, feels very Lish, especially from the stories that make up What I Know So far, his first collection. I know you mention sending some of the stories that ended up in your first collection, Altmann’s Tongue, to The Quarterly and Lish’s response to try to get you to move to New York. Is there a story from your first book where Lish saw something, in your way of saying, maybe, or of how the story was shaped, that made its way into that first book? The story behind how you learned that a contract for Altmann’s Tongue was soon to be forthcoming is the kind of story that most young writers only dream of. 

Evenson: The papers are really interesting, and worth thinking about—not only in relation to Carver. For instance, Lish’s Barry Hannah revisions, which were the only other ones I looked at extensively, are illuminating. As far as “Fat” goes—it’s a favorite of mine as well—Carol Sklenicka says in Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life: “In ‘Fat,’ Lish had removed some personalizing details, changed all the verbs to present tense, and focused on the fat man’s fingers. Carver’s line ‘I began to feel sorry for him right away’ became ‘My God, Rita, those were fingers.’ The story wasn’t much shorter, but it had a cooler, more frightening tone.” So, yes, I think your impulse to see the rendering of the fingers as connected to Lish is absolutely right.

As far as my own interactions with Lish, in Altmann’s Tongue some of those stories he edited fairly substantially (as he did with any number of writers)—particularly the stories that were first published in The Quarterly. A few others he edited almost not at all, with the remainder being in the realm of “normal editorial suggestion” (whatever that means—I guess the level of edits you might expect from any decent editor). Honestly, since my own papers are now housed at a library I can’t look at the edits, so it’s hard for me to refer to specifics or give an accurate sense of our back-and-forth. With the few stories I remember, I guess the difference between my experience and Carver’s was that the editing agreed with my ethic/aesthetic. There were a few stories that Lish suggested editing for The Quarterly in a way that I disagreed with, and those stories I either didn’t publish or published in a form different from Lish’s edits in another venue. And there’s one story that appeared in The Quarterly that I’ve chosen never to collect because I didn’t feel that I could stand by it. But I do stand by the stories in Altmann’s Tongue and am happy with that book. I do think Lish and his editorial advice were invaluable to that first book and helped me find my voice and my way of writing. To his credit, when I did things that were quite different from what he was suggesting, he praised them when he felt they worked. Since Altmann’s Tongue, I’ve gone on to publish a dozen books, but I don’t think those books would have been nearly as strong if I hadn’t been put in a position by Lish of thinking closely about language and really figuring out what I thought fiction was and should do.

Rail: Do you think there’s been a single book of fiction published since What We Talk About When We Talk About Love that has had the kind of impact on writers of literary fiction since? You mention both Ben Marcus and Gary Lutz who are doing far different things with language than each other and than what Carver did or in what Lish did with Carver. I’m struggling to think of a single collection of stories that most young writers would be able to point to in the way that writers of our generation pointed to Carver. Maybe George Saunders? Or Lydia Davis? I know in my small circle there is that hushed kind of communal intimacy when we talk about Lutz’s Stories in the Worst Way

Evenson: I don’t think so. Carver came at just the right moment and also initiated a shift in attention, toward fiction that was stylistically sharp and refined and yet focused on the working class in a way that allowed for an embodied and realistic look at them. I don’t think that had really been done before, or at least not in a way that was broadly noticed. I think Ben Marcus and Gary Lutz are both doing remarkable things with their fiction, and they are both admired, rightfully so, but admired by a narrower spectrum of writers than Carver was. Gary’s Stories in the Worst Way is fantastic, but I think it requires having a certain stance on either writing or life for a writer/reader to recognize that, and I know of few writers who run in a new direction with what Gary is doing. One of the things that made Carver effective is that you can quickly identify aspects of his style and, if you’re smart, see how they can be pushed in a new direction. It’s harder, I think, to do that with Ben’s or Gary’s work, partly because they’re working in a sophisticated multi-voiced way. It’s virtuoso work, but partly because of that, it doesn’t have the same broad call that Carver did. I’d say the same about Lydia Davis, whose work I really admire.

I think probably the closest thing is George Saunders’s work, probably Pastoralia. He does get imitated. And it’s probably not a coincidence that a good many of his characters, like Carver’s, are working class and hapless. But what Saunders does to set himself apart are two significant things. First, he takes the devices and techniques of a dirty realism and injects the fantastic into it. His stories are often (not always) stories that are fantastic but that function as realism. Second, he writes with incredible empathy, which is something that separates him from Carver, particularly from the Lish-edited Carver. The worldview is quite different, warmer, but not remotely simplistic. So, yes, he’s probably the closest, and he’s part of a kind of shift toward the fantastic that literary fiction has been undergoing—one of the voices that has been quite important in ratifying and furthering it. The only other person I could think of with that potential wide-ranging impact would be, maybe, Cormac McCarthy, but I’d have to think about that.

Rail: You mention that Carver’s attention, not just to the language of his stories, but to the part of the story that Carver paid attention to (not always the incident or character that other writers might be drawn to: not the driver of the car of “The Bath/A Small Good Thing” nor the violent act that is left off the page at the end of “Tell the Women We’re Going”) is what carried over into the New Fiction that came of age in the mid-1980s. In those days, Carver and fellow short story writer Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford formed a kind of dirty realism holy trinity. In the context of this literary friendship, even though Ford’s novels have gone on to gain an audience far beyond the scope of the literary and Wolfe’s memoir of his boyhood, This Boy’s Life, earned him an equally large readership, how do you read Carver’s body of work (cut short at the age of fifty) in terms of the shadow that the work casts? I know I might sometimes teach a story from Ford’s “Rock Springs” (a collection I still like very much, maybe out of a kind of nostalgia for when I first came to it), and even rarer do I find myself teaching, for instance, Wolff’s “Hunters in the Snow” or “Bullet in the Brain.” And yet I find myself bringing in Carver’s work—not just his fiction, but his poems too—to help young writers write the stories that are theirs to write. Is there something else going on in or with Carver’s work that seems to make it more teachable, or more accessible even? 

Evenson: Well, one of the things I do in the book is try to think about Carver apart from dirty realism, partly because that’s the way that he’s most often thought about, partly because when I was first reading him I had no idea about Ford’s or Wolff’s or Bobbie Ann Mason’s work. I was thinking about him in terms of stuff I did know and admire—for instance, work by Kafka and Beckett. I do, actually, think there’s a very productive way to read Carver’s first two books outside of the American/dirty realism context. But... yes, with Ford, I think Rock Springs has some strong stories, and The Sportswriter is good too. The Ultimate Good Luck was probably my favorite book of Ford’s when I first read it, but that was before I’d read James Crumley. Now I’d rather just read Crumley. As for the stuff Ford wrote after that, I feel very mixed about it, and about Ford himself. It’s been a long time since I’ve taught him. I have taught “Hunters in the Snow” recently, and I do like Wolff’s work still quite a bit. He’s a friend of my wife’s, and I’ve gotten to know him and like him a lot as a human being. He strikes me as genuine, and I can see that in his fiction as well. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that there are a few specific things that “Hunters in the Snow” or “Bullet in the Brain” let me teach very cleanly, technique-wise. But yes, of those three, Carver’s work definitely has the most teachable quality to it, and certain students are drawn to it. I don’t know what it is exactly. I wish I did.

Rail: One closing question: You mention being “put in a position by Lish of thinking closely about language and really figuring out what I thought fiction was and should do.” I’d like to hear some closing thoughts on what you think fiction ought to do and be. I can’t help but think of Kafka’s claim here that “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” Where do you stand in regard to Kafka’s axe?

Evenson: I don’t know that I think fiction ought to do and be anything in general—I love books that surprise and shift my ideas about fiction’s possibilities: as indeed Carver’s book did for me when I first read it. But I do think that the early interaction I had with Lish really did make me think carefully about what I wanted my fiction to do. I have found that I want to be very committed to the sentence, to interactions of sound with meaning, and to rhythm, but not at the expense of story. I saw a lot of my contemporaries gravitating either toward sentence-based writing or toward plot-based writing. I felt that it was possible, even essential, to do both. I also became, and still am, very interested in the way that writing can embody a certain kind of intensity, the way you can have a visceral, almost bodily response to words on a page. As a reader, I like writing that I continue thinking about long after I’ve put the book down, writing that takes some portion of me apart and refuses to put it back together in the same way. I suppose that’s like Kafka’s axe, particularly if you think of the frozen sea as being a kind of representation of selfhood. When I’m writing my fiction I feel like I’m undergoing something, being shattered and put back together, and coming out of the experience changed. I try to be as open and honest as I can about the nature of that experience in the way that I inflect the prose, in the hope that the reader will share it.


Peter Markus

Peter Markus is the author of several works of fiction, among them the novel Bob, or Man on Boat and the short story collections We Make Mud and The Fish and the Not Fish. He lives in Michigan.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2018

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