Adrian Van Young is the author of The Man Who Noticed Everything (Black Lawrence Press), a collection of stories, and Shadows in Summerland, a novel, forthcoming in 2016 from ChiZine Publications. His fiction and non-fiction have been published or are forthcoming in Lumina, Black Warrior Review, The Collagist, Electric Literature's Recommended Reading, The New Orleans Review, VICE, Slate, and The Believer, among others. He lives in New Orleans with his wife Darcy and son Sebastian.
“Tunneling Through the Strata,” An Interview with Adrian Van Young
This interview was conducted via email by Interview Editor Cass Murphy. Of the process she said, “Interviewing Adrian Van Young allowed me a glimpse into the richness of his storytelling. It was a pleasure to read his informative and considered answers, and I’m grateful to him for speaking so candidly. His answers are a gift to all readers and writers.” In this interview, he discusses the precision of language, the heaviness and weight behind his characters, and his own approach to writing.
Superstition Review: I love how many of the descriptions in “Hard Water” use metaphors that fit the time period of the story, like the character V shucking his shoe and trouser leg. How did you get the idea to do this?
Adrian Van Young: As a writer, I’m very conscious of what I like to call the “milieu” of a story—the descriptive parameters of the narrative in relation to where and when it’s set, as well as the mood it’s trying to convey. And so, if you’re writing out of the past or out of a specific genre or blend of genres as I am liable to do—in “Hard Water,” for instance, or “The Elder Brother Washing His Hands,” or in my forthcoming novel, Shadows in Summerland, which is set in 19th-century Boston—then the descriptive mode of the story has to align with the trappings of the time period and/or genre. In the story you’re referring to, it made sense to concentrate on that faintly archaic, Southern rural and more often than not sinister imagery and diction, because those were in tune with the story’s milieu. That being, a tale of suspense and psychological terror set in rural Georgia at the height of the Great Depression.
SR: I was so interested in the details of setting in “Hard Water.” What was your process for choosing the time period for the story?
AVY: Which leads us nicely into the next question! I chose the time period for several reasons. First, I really wanted to emphasize the narrator in relation to the world in which—or against which—he operates. I mean, he’s a dandy, or supposed to be: a sharecropping dandy, sure, but a dandy nonetheless. He drinks good wine, he eats water crackers, he reads Byron, he has running water (a true luxury for anyone at that time in the Georgia sticks, let alone during the Great Depression), he seduces scores of young boys, you eventually learn, under the auspices of what might be called “aesthetics.” I wanted to highlight his decadence as a person against a time of general privation. What better time than the Great Depression! Furthermore, I wanted to choose a time period in which the character’s homosexuality would be a complicated thing to reckon with, but also one which might help abet, or at least harbor that mostly hidden part of his life. During the Great Depression, of course, there was a great deal of itinerancy when it came to working populations. People would sort of just cruise through the hinterlands of America, looking for day-labor, which could only help the narrator, I figured, when it came to the kind of anonymous encounters he’s grown used to as a gay man in the 30’s in the American South—especially given that, as we learn at the end, he’s a lot more sinister than he makes himself out to be. Finally, I have always been drawn to historical narratives as a writer—especially a younger writer. Sarah Waters, Peter Carey, Cormac McCarthy, Hilary Mantel, J.G. Farrell, Angela Carter, E.L. Doctorow, among many, many others, were all of them huge for me, and many of the stories in this collection, as well as my forthcoming novel, represent my attempts to reckon with those influences.
SR: At the beginning of “The Man Who Noticed Everything,” Clemens thinks to himself that “he needed only at the moment to be functional.” This seems to contrast with the theme of noticing things, which I read in many of the stories as characters being observant and aware of the world surrounding them. What does the concept of noticing mean to you, and how is it expressed in the collection?
AVY: That’s a great question and surprisingly one I’ve never been asked before. Let me start with Clemens from the title story, as that will be the most expedient way to get at what you mean in context. How I conceived of Clemens was: here is someone who has had his entire memory erased—an amnesiac—save for the fact that the reason for that erasure was some very nasty, probably criminal stuff that he took part in directly (the burns, the bruises, the shady characters that drop him off at the clinic). In other words, he may be a bad person, even a terrible person, but he may not even know it. This plagues him. So I figured, well, what would a person like that gravitate toward in a world where his purpose and his role in the moral hierarchy are hidden from him? His immediate surroundings, of course—alien to him though they may seem. Hence, noticing everything there is to notice becomes Clemens’ anchor in a world that befuddles him. To some extent, though, that noticing isn’t necessarily a good thing, because it keeps Clemens from some greater knowledge of himself and connecting to the people around him (Bertrand, Carol and the rest). It becomes for him a kind of crutch and/or obsession that allows him to eschew real responsibility for his life—until the end, perhaps, where he makes what could be construed as a moral decision. In the scheme of the greater collection, I suppose I mean the act of noticing, as you call it, to stand in for the labyrinth of the self and the rat’s maze that is every person’s unique way of seeing the world. Many of the characters in the collection are committed observers of the world (what you might call: flaneurs)—Clemens, Brennan, Dodd, the narrator of “The Sub-Leaser”—and yet they tend to get lost among their observations, constantly circling back on themselves, a process which the narrator of “Hard Water” experiences in this very literal way. That’s what many if not at all of these stories are about in some sense—groping fruitlessly, endlessly through the darkened cavern of yourself, attempting to find some way out or means of understanding yourself, and coming on nothing.
SR: Throughout The Man Who Noticed Everything are words that recur in different stories or different contexts. The murder of crows in “Hard Water” and dimples that were murder on the ladies in “Them Bones” are two examples of this. I really felt these elements helped create flow throughout the collection. Could you talk a bit about your relationship with language? How does your approach differ when you are writing a short piece versus a longer piece?
AVY: I’m a big fan of repetition—both when it comes to language on the page and when it comes to images that carry through, what you call motifs. My writing students are always asking me for synonyms and/or fresh ways to describe the same thing a number of different times, or they’re making suggestions like this to each other in workshop, and my attitude is always: why not just use the same word or the image you used the first time, and be done with it. I don’t think this is a matter of laziness or even economy, but rather a stylistic decision the writer makes to create that “flow,” as you call it. An aesthetic continuum, say. There is a story by William Faulkner called “Barn Burning” which I love not only for its humor and the rich emotional lives of its characters but for the fact that, like a lot of Faulkner, it makes copious use of repetition. Faulkner always describes the father-character, Abner Snopes, in the same way, with slight variations on the same turns of phrase. For example: “He could see his father against the stars but without face or depth-a shape black, flat, and bloodless as though cut from tin in the iron folds of the frockcoat which had not been made for him, the voice harsh like tin and without heat like tin…” That image of the father looking as though he were “cut from tin,” the harshness of his voice, and the “iron folds” of his coat gets repeated time and again. I love the cumulative emotional effect of that description in “Barn Burning,” how it builds through the story as the narrator’s view of his father (Abner) changes, and I do consciously think I was trying to do something similar throughout The Man Who Noticed Everything, especially in what are the more Faulknerian of the stories. I don’t think this instinct toward continuity and repetition varies whether I’m writing something shorter or longer. In the book in question, one concern I had was that the stories were so various plot-wise that without a certain amount of aesthetic crossover among them there’d be no through-line, no shared DNA. So in some sense the repeated imagery and tonal underlay you see throughout is my attempt (I hope successfully!) to bring the book together in a way that the reader isn’t too jarred from one story to the next. When you’re writing a novel—which I’m not even sure I know how to do yet!—you need that through-line even more, and indeed it’s probably one of the first things you’re consciously doing as you write the first draft: crafting the language, giving it texture and intentionality. All the plot stuff, the emotional trajectories of the characters, the themes—what I’d call the grand engineering scheme—for me, at least, comes later, when I already have a handle on the genetic material of the language.
SR: Could you explain your process for arranging the stories in The Man Who Noticed Everything and how you eventually decided on the final order?
AVY: Speaking of flow, you’ve really got yours down with these questions. Good on you! But, yes, the arrangement of the stories, which I actually ended up changing several times—cutting several, even, that didn’t seem to fit. It goes without saying that you always want to put your best foot forward, in writing as in life, so I began with what I thought were the strongest stories in the collection (“Hard Water,” “The Man Who Noticed Everything”), then allowed myself to get a little baggy/loosey-goosey toward the middle (“Albino Deer” and “King Dodd,” though I have had many positive reactions to the latter), and then ended strong again with “The Sub-Leaser.” On another level, though, I did want the stories to make a kind of progression—in this case, traveling out from the mind and into the mud of the immediate world only to spiral down, down, down into the mind again. So essentially, from highly cerebral to highly corporeal back into cerebral again. If you read carefully, I do think it’s possible to identify quite a bit of commonality between “Hard Water” and “The Sub-Leaser.” Both involve unreliable first-person narrators and both are about someone tunneling through the strata of himself, searching for answers that elude him. Also, genre-wise, the stories run the gamut among tales of Gothic terror (“Hard Water,” “The Sub-Leaser,” “The Man Who…”), rural adventures stories (“Them Bones,” “Albino Deer”), and then these messed-up fairy tales (“The Elder Brother..,” “King Dodd”). I wanted to more or less pair them according to genre, with the tales of Gothic terror bookending, so the reader could feel the full sweep of the collection’s progression from one to the next, and I hope I accomplished that.
SR: Your stories seem to capture spaces in time very thoroughly, but some also end just as things reach a climax for the characters: in “The Man Who Noticed Everything,” Clemens is being buried alive when the story ends, and in “Them Bones,” the story ends just as Bren faces probable violence at the hands of his friends. Why do you do this to your poor readers?
AVY: Ha! I am a sadist, I realize. But in all seriousness, the payoff in a story, for me, is never the climax or the twist but rather how the character(s) arrive at that inevitable moment when something is going to go down, ideally with someone’s life (physical, emotion, spiritual) hanging in the balance. It’s a great subversion of how the modern short story works—i.e. rising action, climax, resolution. In my own stories, not only do I like to cut out the resolution, which seems more the domain of bad movies and television these days than short fiction, but sometimes, also, the climax. The implication being: what does it matter? In both “Them Bones” and “The Man Who…” Brennan and Clemens, respectively, put themselves in a position where they’re going to endure great harm on someone else’s behalf; they make sacrifices. Brennan puts himself in harm’s way for the plight of his stepdad, Leander, and Clemens for the abused son of the construction site foreman, Bertrand. In my mind, it doesn’t matter what happens to either of them, only that they’ve made these choices. You see a similar principle at work in this wonderful short story by Edward P. Jones called “Old Boys, Old Girls,” about a man recently released from prison for murder who has to—or feels that he has to—get his life back on track. He spends the whole story doing this in various ways, some of them positive, some of them not. Then, right when you’re waiting to see whether he’s going to be become a functional member of society again, the story ends. You’re denied a solution; you never find out. And yet what matters most in the story is his journey to that moment in time—when he can either realize the promise of his struggle or surrender himself to his baser instincts. He’s gotten himself there and it’s almost up to you, the reader, to make the decision for him—not in a choose-your-own-adventure sense but rather to know what he’s going to decide and to let that stand in for the ending. So much of this has to do with trusting your reader, which I can’t over-recommend. Returning to Brennan and Clemens in the stories you mentioned, though, we also know that whatever does happen to them, it won’t be good, and there’s something more satisfying to me about imagining extreme violence than actually witnessing it—the “off-stage” act of violence vs. the “on-stage” act. There’s no more terrifying moment in literature than the end of “A Good Man is Hard to Find” by Flannery O’Connor when you hear those gunshots resounding from the woods and you know it’s all over.
SR: Though the parent to Bren in “Them Bones,” Leander seems to have some characteristics typically associated with children, while Bren and his friends aren't too deferential to authority either. This is an interesting role reversal. Could you talk a bit about this? How does the importance of child-parent relationships relate to your own life?
AVY: I’d never thought of the story in that light, though I suppose you’re right. I was definitely going for a child-the-father-of-the-man dynamic between Leander and Brennan in that story. And yet, at the same time, I wanted to make it very clear that Brennan is desperate for Leander—anyone’s—affection, even if he goes about obtaining it in an indirect and sometimes self-sabotaging way. This was meant to be an undercurrent of emotional tension in the story: the father’s blithe childishness vs. the son’s world-weary neediness and I’m glad that came across. To answer your original question: parent-child relationships have always been important in my own life, of course. I have two wonderful parents! Still married and incredibly supportive of me in my writing career, which isn’t always the case. That aspect of my life, however, has undergone a new and more immediate permutation with the recent birth of my son Sebastian. He’s about 7-months-old at present. He wasn’t around at the time I wrote “Them Bones,” but I bet if he had been it might’ve allowed me to approach some of the emotions I explore in that story more urgently & authentically. Which is to say: becoming a father myself and being a husband has made me into a more empathetic person, I think. Someone who feels things on a deeper level than I had previously—especially when they relate to matters of family, love & loss. That’s not to say you need to have a child or get married in order to feel things deeply—that would be an absurd generalization—but that, in my experience, fatherhood and marriage have served as gateways onto a new dimension of feeling to which I didn’t previously have access. And for that I’m grateful.
SR: One of my favorite lines in the collection was in “Them Bones,” when the boy named Handsome calls a cabinet “a cabinet of wonders,” and declares that [e]very thing behind these doors has got a soul, and a story, and a reason for being.” This line strikes me as very meta, as if it goes beyond the story that it's in. It makes me wonder what ideas you want to convey in your stories and what you want the reader to take with them after reading?
AVY: Huh, once again, I’d never thought of that. It’s so interesting what people come up with when they closely and critically consider your work. In some ways, that act of analysis when it comes to fiction seems almost as “creative” as the act of fiction-writing itself, which is something I always impressed on my students when I taught high school English, way back when. But I digress. I don’t think of myself as a particularly “meta” writer, though some of my stories, I suppose—especially the ones I’m writing now—could be considered “post-modern” or “experimental,” whatever those terms have come to mean. What I want the reader to take away from my stories is a heightened sense of the mystery of the world. Our various experiences of the world, after all, are all of them essentially mysterious, even to us, and so I attempt as a writer to expand our collective sense of that mystery. To me, it’s a terrible, beautiful thing, that mystery, in spite of its indeterminacy. And yet another thing I want the reader to take away with her is feeling. In some ways, I’m a writer of ideas, that’s true, just as Poe, say, was a writer of ideas. You can always sense his high critical intelligence lurking in the background(s) of his stories like some kind of spectral haze. But I would argue that he also always accomplished his goal of getting the reader to feel something in an amplified way—whether sadness, terror, alienation, etc. I’m going for something similar in my stories. One emotion I was particularly interested in exploring in The Man Who Noticed Everything and am still to some extent is despair. That has always seemed to me a very powerful, consuming and uprooting emotion. In my mind, it travels beyond sadness and dissatisfaction into something less palpable—something cosmic and existentially dwarfing. It may not be the most productive emotion to have on a daily basis, but it’s absolutely fascinating to me and I do think it crops up time and again in these stories as the signal place to which many of the characters are headed.
SR: How is your writing influenced by what you read? What was the last book that you read, and what were some of your favorite books from the past year?
AVY: My writing, like every writer’s, is hugely influenced by whatever I happen to be reading, and I try to read broadly so that different strains of expression will seep into my own. That said, I have reached a point in my writing career where, I’m happy to say, I have cut free many of the influences that in retrospect were imprisoning me. In other words: writers whose styles are so seductive and distinct that I was taking them on as my own in an act of imitation or mimicry. Brian Evenson, himself a writer who has influenced me enormously, once said of Cormac McCarthy: “No writer is influential until I have had a chance to forget him. Of course, McCarthy has had a dramatic effect on me-I think of Outer Dark and Blood Meridian as being among, a handful of books I genuinely admire-but I haven't digested him yet: any influence he has had on my work is manifest on the surface rather than in the deeper structures. By the time I am at the point where I feel I am most profoundly influenced by McCarthy, all visible trace of him in my writing will have vanished.” I think that’s a profoundly intelligent statement. It’s also very apropos in my own work where writers like McCarthy, Faulkner, William Gay, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers and others of that ilk are concerned—the lyrical Southern Gothic school—because when I first began seriously as a writer, and to some extent in The Man Who Noticed Everything, I was consciously reflecting those influences in a way that didn’t make them entirely mine, as Evenson states. Only now that I’m shut of them can they truly be classified as influences—I’ve digested them, broken them down and they’ve become subsumed in the greater architecture of my prose-style. Or so I would like to think. Which doesn’t exclude, of course, a new breed of influences, making their presence known in my work. And, even though I haven’t had as much time to read as I’d like lately due to early parenthood (my son is napping in the next room as I write this, so: ssshhhhh!), some of the work I have been taken with is: Zachary Lazar’s I Pity the Poor Immigrant; Marisha Pessl’s Night Film; Alissa Nutting’s Tampa; Matt Bell’s In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods; Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies; Claire Vaye-Watkins’ Battleborn; Laura Van Den Berg’s The Isle of Youth; really, all the work of Sarah Waters and Brian Evenson (though as different as can be, they’re both terrific); and more recently Julia Fierro’s Cutting Teeth, not the kind of book I’m normally drawn to but no less wonderful for that fact—a whip-smart satirical novel about parenthood and friendship that had me laughing out loud and feeling the feels at once.
SR: What are some of the writing projects that you are working on right now?
AVY: Sheesh, where do I begin? Probably way too many! I’ve just sold my Spiritualism & spirit photography novel, Shadows in Summerland, about the 19th-century confidence man William Mumler, to ChiZine Publications out of Toronto, who are going to do great by me, I’m certain. That will be out a little less than a year from now. I’m rounding out a new story collection provisionally titled The Woman Who Bends (yes, it’s a conscious reference back to the first collection), which I’m hoping to sell by this time next year, if all goes according to plan. Right now, I’m working on what I envision as the last story in the collection, about the social justice advocate Clara Barton’s disastrous overland journey to the site of Andersonville Prison after the Civil War, with a supernatural twist. Indeed, all the stories in the new collection are much more consciously genre—specifically, allied with what you might call the realm of sublime terror and/or psychological horror, a la “Hard Water” and “The Sub-Leaser” in my first book. In between working on the collection, I’ve been chipping away at various solicited works for anthologies, a bunch of critical essays and reviews on arts & culture, plus some bigger feature pieces for magazines, and soon a novella-length serial mystery released in installments on the fantastic website: The Line-Up. Though that’s probably all I should say about that at present, lest I spoil the mystery, you know. Coming up, there are two more novels I’d like to write: one about the American Black Metal scene, set in New Orleans, where I live now, and another, more epic in scope, about the short story writer Bruno Schulz, who was killed under bizarre circumstances in Nazi-occupied Poland during WWII. But all of that is aspirational, of course. Mostly, I just take it day to day, hoping to get in a few hours of writing time when and if I can.
SR: There seem to be numerous instances of characters struggling to remember information and basic facts about their lives throughout the stories in this collection. Can you describe your process for weaving together common themes in The Man Who Noticed Everything?
AVY: The best way I can answer that is by hearkening back to an earlier answer which is really going to take all the magic out of it. In the end, it was so much a matter of sitting down with all the stories I’d written in front of me, asking myself which ones had the most crossover potential and ordering those in such a way that they comprised a readable set. Theme, I feel, is something you never consciously set out to do as the writer but more something that (no offense!) readers impose on your work from the outside. Where writers have obsessions and preoccupations, readers see themes, is maybe a good way to put it. One of my obsessions and/or preoccupations just so happens to be that eroding sense of self that you see in many of the stories—Clemens’ uncertainty of where he’s been and what kind of people he’s been mixed up with; Colby Marshall from “Hard Water” ‘s willful forgetting—or withholding—when it comes to the many “boys” he’s welcomed into his home; the tenant in “The Sub-Leaser” ‘s labyrinth of uncertainties regarding Hank, the man to whom he sublets his apartment; the boy from “The Elder Brother Washing His Hands” ‘s inability to see his instigating role in the disaster he precipitates by following his older brother & boyhood love object to war. If I may act as my own “reader” for a moment, then, one common thread I see among the stories is characters using ignorance (however temporary) as a way to eschew responsibility for their own lives. Purposeful acts of omission, let’s say, that lead people into catastrophe.
SR: What does your writing space look like?
AVY: It’s very eclectic. Which is to say I don’t really have a “writing space,” per se. I’m what you might call an itinerant writer. If at home, I kind of spread out all over my living room—much to my wife’s chagrin. I sit on one of two couches with my laptop on a pillow, or the Eames chair in the corner, or standing at the counter while I’m cooking or whatever. Sometimes at the table and sometimes in bed. Sometimes in coffee shops, sometimes in bars. For a while, when I was commuting to downtown New Orleans on the streetcar, I would write on there for the hour and change that was my commute. All this is partly due to my present circumstances—full-time fatherhood—which force me to eek out writing time wherever and whenever I can with very little ritual preparation. Yet now that I think of it, it’s not a whole lot different from how I used to write before Sebastian. In any case, I’m fortunate to be one of those writers who work well on the fly, because it means that I produce a lot in spite of many competing obligations. I’m working abreast of the pace of the world.