Interview: D. Harlan Wilson
"There aren't enough jetpacks in the world. There aren't enough sentient mustaches and mechanical pterodactyls and spontaneous science fictionalized kung fu fights. Fiction writing allows me to have these things ."
Bizarro lynchpin and Dream People editor-in-chief D Harlan Wilson has published hundreds of his irreal stories in newspapers, journals and magazines across the world. As well as contributing to The Bizarro Starter Kit, Wilson is the author of The Kafka Effekt, Stranger on the Loose, Irrealities, Pseudo-City and Dr Identity [forthcoming]. What follows is an interview conducted using questions from the Paris Review archives, with the original interviewee and year of interview credited.
What are the common characteristics of the
Black Mountain Bizarro group?
[Robert Creeley (1968)]
Bizarro is a term that encompasses many styles, themes and methodologies. The best place to get a sense of its principal characteristics is The Bizarro Starter Kit [Eraserhead Press 2006], a recently released anthology featuring ten Bizarro authors, including me. It contains an introduction called "Defining Bizarro" that provides a brief schematic of the genre. In a nutshell, it identifies Bizarro as a weird, surreal, experimental, thought-provoking genre with a cult sensibility. There are a few tag lines, too: "Franz Kafka meets Joe Bob Briggs." "Dr. Seuss of the post-apocalypse." "Japanese animation directed by David Lynch." All of these are apt portrayals. But, as I said, authors who have been associated with Bizarro each have their own niche. The authors in the Kit, for example, all have biographical pages revealing their style of Bizarro. Mine is Irrealism. Carlton Mellick III's is Avant Punk. John Edward Lawson's is The Horrible. Bruce Taylor's is Magic Realism and Surrealism. Andre Duza's is Brutality Chronic. And so on. Basically we Bizarros all practice a kind of blender fiction, which is to say we mix up the marginalized genres of horror, fantasy, science fiction, absurdism and surrealism to varying degrees and extremes.
Have you consciously tried to develop a style?
[Nelson Algren (1955)]
My style is something I kind of fell into over time. I've always tried to use a variety of styles. For instance, my upcoming novel, Dr. Identity, or, Farewell to Plaquedemia, has several narrators and exhibits a clear stylistic multiperspectivalism. But no matter how diverse and wide-ranging I've attempted to be, I've evolved a noticeable core style. I'm not sure if that's a good or a bad thing. If I had to describe my core style, I'd say it consists of a minimalist syntax, rich imagery and description, and threadbare exposition. I'm a big fan of the show-don't-tell rule and try to depict actions, behavior, scenery and dialogue in such a way that social and historical context can be figured out, at least in part.
"Lots of my characters are Dutch, though, and it's amazing how many actual Dutch names sound and look like caricatures already. Guess I picked the right group of folks to focus on."
How much are you conscious of the reader when you write? Is there an ideal audience that you write for?
[Saul Bellow (1966)]
How conscious I am of a readership varies. Sometimes I'm über-conscious and sometimes it's the last thing on my mind. Ideally, when I'm drafting fiction, I don't think about readers at all; I just get things onto the page in a way that works for me. During the revision stage, then, readers are one of my primary concerns. I try to disembody myself and approach my writing from an outsider's perspective to see how a stranger might see and construe it. The problem is I can only disembody myself so much—no one, after all, can escape their subjectivity. Also, one of the purposes of my writing methodology is to estrange readers with language, style and situational content so as to address certain themes. Foremost among these themes are the complexity of communication, the absurdity of (capitalist) daily life, and the schizophrenization of the human condition by media technologies. I don't know if there's an ideal audience for me. I imagine my audience is made up of intelligent, arty, twenty- and thirty-something males. But I'm continually trying to reach out to different demographics and broaden my readership.
How do you name you characters?
[Dorothy Parker (1956)]
For years I've done a Charles Dickens thing where character names reflected their behavior and personality (i.e. Gradgrind, Pip, Magwitch, Pumblechook, Scrooge, McChoakumchild). Some of my characters include Igsnay Bürdd, Donny Clockworkorange, Dr. Thunderlove, Dr. Indeed, Dr. Bobby Lee Beebody, Dirk Walpurgisnacht, Honda Gonnagitcha, Sicamore Vanderlick, Professor Dyspeptical, Rakehell Bartleberry, Hogan Marsupial, Mr. Terminal, Mr. and Mrs. Dimplechin, Dean Dinglewigger, Judge Wiffleflick, and Ed Krapps. I can't remember how I came up with most of these names other than they made me laugh. Ed Krapps, I recall, was the vice principle of my mom's high school. Anyway, despite the overthetopness of these names, I think they work in that I try to achieve a caricatured, cartoonlike aesthetic. I'm moving away from that aesthetic a little in the current novel I'm writing, Van Trout, which is about a Dutch family living in a supersuburb in near-future Grand Rapids, Michigan. Lots of my characters are Dutch, though, and it's amazing how many actual Dutch names sound and look like caricatures already. Guess I picked the right group of folks to focus on.
Do you have any difficulty controlling your characters? E.M. Forster says that he sometimes finds a character running away with him.
[Ralph Ellison (1955)]
Not really. I can't sit still long enough to let a character run away from me! I write in very short bursts. An hour is a long time for me to sit in front of my computer without an extended break. Additionally, I often rely on my characters to tell me what to do. I hardly ever plan out stories. I just think of a scenario or an image or an action, throw a character in the pot, and see what the character will do and how s/he will react. I'm not saying I practice automatic writing or that my unconscious is behind the steering wheel. Far from it. But when I'm drafting stories, I try to let the people in them do their own thing, although trial and error plays a big role. It's like being a director. I have my characters do a bunch of different "impromptu" takes and try to judge which one works best.
"A reviewer once called me a Dr. Seuss for adults. That's what I aspire for, and I love that association."
What do you think were some of the early influences in your life? What reading, as a boy, do you recall as important?
[Norman Mailer (1964)]
The book that had the most influence on me as a kid was Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are. It's almost a cliché to reference Sendak since he's still so popular today, but that's the truth. Off the top of my head, other children's books I enjoyed were Dale Carlson's Awful Marshall, Daniel Pinkwater's Lizard Music, Thomas Rockwell's How to Eat Fried Worms, Judy Blume's Superfudge and Shel Silverstein's poetry collections, all of which are quirky and inherently dark. Dr. Seuss was at the top of my list, too. My writing is a by-product of these narratives. A reviewer once called me a Dr. Seuss for adults. That's what I aspire for, and I love that association.
Do you think of the artist at all as being a con man?
[William Burroughs (1965)]
I like this idea. Readers, on the other hand, don't. Even with fiction people expect certain "facts" to be accurate (i.e. biographical, historical and spatial context). And they certainly expect accuracy with nonfiction. They demand it. Readers don't like being conned. I always think of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces and the Oprah-induced havoc that book wreaked. Everybody was pissed off at Frey because he exaggerated the "facts." Horseshit. He solicited the book as a novel, and when he couldn't sell it, he called it a memoir. And now Oprah's head might explode! The fact is, most writing is a bunch of subjective hoo-hah, nonfiction, fiction or otherwise. Writing's a big con, and I'm always fascinated by people's manic desire to find truth in it. In effect, I make a conscious effort to fictionalize facts in my writing. Van Trout, for instance, is full of fabricated "brief histories" (of Ferris wheels, of werewolves, of suburbs, of flying saucers and so on).
Some psychologists have claimed that the creative urge is a kind of neurosis. Would you agree?
[Aldous Huxley (1960)]
Huxley's response to this question was "Most emphatically not." I agree insofar as neuroses are socially constructed or instigated, and I think creativity, no matter how excessive or limited, is fundamentally innate. At the same time, a lot depends upon how one's creative knack is encouraged, developed and directed; it could turn into a disorder or it could remain a perfectly healthy mental process.
"Writing's a big con, and I'm always fascinated by people's manic desire to find truth in it."
Does your emotional state have any bearing on your work?
[William Styron (1954)]
Some bearing, yes. For the most part I'm mild-mannered and uninteresting. I drink soda and teach my classes and watch TV and cuddle with my wife and say hi to people and eat hot dogs. But I definitely have a dark side. My temper is especially crummy and flares up over entirely insignificant things, and it's this part of me that informs my fiction. It certainly accounts for a lot of the cartoon ultraviolence I write. And I think that's fine. People could care less about Dr. Jeckyll. They want Mr. Hyde.
What about writing under the influence of drugs?
[Jack Kerouac (1968)]
I tried that in college a couple of times, but it didn't work. I've always done my best writing in the early morning, sober, with a cup of strong black coffee.
Were Are you a good teacher?
[Simone de Beauvoir (1965)]
I think so. My students seem to like me—they regularly give me good reviews, ask me to write letters of recommendation for them, and say things like, "I've never had a better teacher," albeit some of that praise comes right before final exams and can be chalked up to brownnosing. But students liking you doesn't necessarily make you a good teacher. There are excellent teachers who are total assholes, sometimes purposely, sometimes because they lack the social skills to act accordingly given their position of power. I expect a lot from my students in terms of their worth ethic and quality of writing and critical thinking, but I'm very laid back in the classroom, and I always encourage students' input and the development of their ideas.
"Falling to sleep is a chore, too; sometimes I lay in bed for hours trying not to think about anything so that I don't have to keep turning on the nightlight and writing shit down."
[b]What are some of your personal quirks?
[Truman Capote, 1957]
I'll ask my wife to answer this one. Be right back … Ok, here are a few: (1) an unnatural affection for sandwiches and hot dogs; (2) an unnatural repugnance for sweating; (3) a problem with sports—I can't play anything (i.e. board games, golf, basketball) without losing my temper; (4) fascist cleaning tendencies; (5) a tendency to ask strangers intimate questions and give strangers too much personal information; (6) a dash of OCD and ADHD … Those are the big ones, I guess.
Are you ever out with your notebook when you think of a sentence or scene that has to go into the novel you are working on?
[J.P. Donleavy (1975)]
Almost always. I carry a Mead composition notebook with me just about everywhere I go for that very reason, and if I don't have it, I scribble stuff down on scraps of paper, business cards, paper towels, whatever's within reach. Sometimes when I'm driving I tape ideas on a handheld microcassette recorder. All this note-taking is annoying. It's tough for me to sit down for any respectable period of time and read a book, for example, without pausing every five minutes to record ideas that pop into my head. Falling to sleep is a chore, too; sometimes I lay in bed for hours trying not to think about anything so that I don't have to keep turning on the nightlight and writing shit down. But notebooks are an essential part of the writing process. In creative writing courses, I insist that my students keep daily journals.
Have you ever submitted to The New Yorker or The Atlantic Monthly?
[Robert Lowell (1961)]
I submitted one story to The Atlantic Monthly when I started writing fiction in the mid-1990s and was naïve as to the publishability of my writing—in The Atlantic Monthly or anywhere. But back then they were paying $2,000 per story (more than anybody at the time except for Playboy at $5,000 if memory serves) so I figured what the hell. I never submitted anything to The New Yorker and I probably never will. My writing is too "offbeat" for that sort of market.
Do you have any favorite jokes?
[Kurt Vonnegut (1977)]
Not really. In fact, I hate jokes. Whenever somebody tells one, I always laugh, but only because I don't want the joke teller to feel badly or unfunny. My post-joke laughter is always simulated. I'm not sure why jokes don't do it for me. Something about their performativity, their delilberateness. Also, in my experience, chronic joke tellers tell jokes as a means of compensating for some kind of insecurity. I love spontaneous, off-the-cuff humor. Quickfire sarcasm. And parody, and physical comedy. But jokes rub me the wrong way. They bug me. They almost make me hostile.
Have you ever been bored?
[Italo Calvino (1992)]
I'm bored all the time! That's one of the main reasons I write. Real life is insufficient. Real life is predictable and tedious. And people are too complacent, too stagnant; they reach a certain point in their lives and give up on themselves—intellectually, imaginatively, emotionally and psychologically. There aren't enough jetpacks in the world. There aren't enough sentient mustaches and mechanical pterodactyls and spontaneous science fictionalized kung fu fights. Fiction writing allows me to have these things and escape boredom, if only temporarily.
D Harlan Wilson
The Dream People