[This is the third in a series of interviews with past and current Timber contributors. In this installment, Social Media Coordinator Ryan Chang chats with Winter 2016 contributor Bonnie Chau about her forthcoming story, “Monstrosity,” about writing growing up Chinese-American in Orange County, CA, the confluence of images and sentences, and the writing about race.]
One of the reasons why I like this story so much is that it’s haunted by Orange County. I think haunting is an appropriate word, though it may not be for readers who know nothing about the place. Could you talk a little bit about how Orange County informs this story, and if being from there informs you as a writer?
Oh man, it’s going to be hard to talk only a little bit about how much I’m influenced by Orange County. I was just telling someone recently that I wouldn’t be into being labeled a “New York (or Brooklyn) Writer” (not that anyone is out there labeling me as any sort of writer at all); I feel like my identity—as a writer and otherwise—is very inextricably tied to Southern California. So many of the issues that I think about or struggle with, or that are important or interesting to me, have their roots in being from Orange County. The stereotypes—of suburbia, of the new planned city, the strip malls, the shopping malls, the strange confluence of the wealthy beach elite versus the trashy beach bros versus cities full of Chinese, Vietnamese, Latino communities, versus the very sterile, boring blankness of Irvine where I grew up… The conservatism. The conformity. The Christians. The juxtaposition of beach and desert. Others’ perceptions and opinions of Orange County and Southern California and the West Coast… And at the same time, feelings of loyalty and defensiveness. In many ways, the things you’re always thinking about end up becoming part of your identity. These issues and obsessions make their way into my stories as themes and recurring motifs, because I’m trying to pull them apart a bit, look inside, see if I can make more sense of any of it that way.
Also probably just because I live in New York and have such a chip on my shoulder about the superiority complex of the New York literary scene/East Coast academia/the Eurocentric canon, old versus new money, high versus low culture, etc., I feel like I just need to give Southern California its due. I love the vocabulary that I associate with the Southern California environment, the Spanish street names; I love writing about the landscape of the west, not just the beaches and deserts, but the other in-between places, the chaparral. That’s one of my keywords—chaparral. It was permanently implanted into my brain from all those elementary school field trips and science classes learning about native flora and fauna, and I remember being so shocked to realize that people on the East Coast (and in many other places, I’m sure) had no idea what it was. It’s basically the major plant ecosystem where I grew up—a lot of low-lying shrubs. Educational materials and activity books for kids are so deciduous-centric! The West needs to up its game on that. It can be kind of surreal to have it hammered into you as a kid in Orange County looking at these worksheets teaching you about seasons, like this is ur-winter, snow and bare branches, but you look around, and you think, “Um, that’s weird, that’s not what winter is like here.”
I’m always so desperate for spring to arrive in NYC. I start hallucinating, seeing leaves budding on tree branches a full month before it happens, but then when all the light green baby leaves start popping out, I feel kind of creeped out. It looks too yellow, too delicate, too alien-green to me. I’m used to the more neutral browns and greens of Southern California chaparral. Like cacti and Mediterranean-climate shit. It’s really important to me that the sensibility of that geography is present in my writing.
Roxane Gay “Breaking Uniform” asks what happens when your morning routine is a contest between ego and bravery? Over at Good.
Take it away, Eileen! Listen to Myles podcast on Kenyon Review
Ocean Vuong and other young poets making the genre cool again (though it never went out of style) according to TeenVogue
“Emotional Truths and Historical Lies In the Shadow of the Great War” by Andrea Molesini at Literary Hub.
Buzzfeed has got a sneak peek at the new “Dr. Who” Coloring book and we included it here because hell yeah!
C.D. Wright’s “The Obscure Lives of Poets” on Poetry Foundation
Khadijah Queen is killing us with words in “With Cloister” from Exercises In Painting over at Phantom Books.
Girl Power! Vida has got the list of Women Run Presses.
Electric Literature has got your Writer Horoscopes for the month of February.
Check out Kathleen Alcott’s “The Fiction Just Beyond Us” on Catapult.
[This is the second in a series of interviews with past and current Timber contributors. In this installment, Interviews Coordinator James Ashby chats with Fall 2015 contributor Nat Baldwin (“The Spaces Between Teeth”) about writing with restrictions, destroying structure, and the musicality of language. –Ed.]
“The Spaces Between Teeth” consists of short, one paragraph sections, and your sentences are also short and declarative. What drew you to set this kind of pacing for the story?
I’ve always been attracted to stories that maintain a specific voice. I love the idea of creating maximal sound and variation within minimal space. This story actually came out of an assignment in a workshop I took with Peter Markus last summer. The assignment was this: twelve sections, twelve sentences in each section, twelve words in each sentence. These restrictions created a very particular kind of space that in turn dictated the pace. I found that the restrictions turned inside out and became generative. At first, I was so concerned with fitting the words into the structure that I wasn’t aware of the story. When the story emerged, or became clear to me, it seemed to have always been there, as if I were simply pulling it out of the established architecture (like pulling bodies out of mud?). The blank page became less terrifying and akin to fitting words to melody, something I’m a bit more accustomed to. In fact, I realized, it wasn’t a blank page at all! When I finished the assignment, I knew a story was there, but I also knew that I’d need to hack off about two thirds of the sentences to unearth it and then, once again, obscure it. I suppose that’s not dissimilar to my normal editing process anyway. I had three perspectives at work: the bodies, the finders of the bodies, and those watching the bodies being found. As I started to hack away, those distinctions became blurred, which I think created a more intriguing mess, to me, especially in contrast to the static nature of the sentence structure and tone. Of course, I abandoned the rule of twelve in the editing process, but I didn’t stray far from it. It’s also important to add that Peter directed my attention to where it needed to be, and this story wouldn’t exist without his generous eyes and ears and, not to mention, his influence.
Does playing, singing, or listening to music play a role in your fiction writing process?
My experiences playing music have definitely informed my process as a fiction writer. I wouldn’t have the same discipline or patience, I suppose, but that can be traced even further back to my basketball playing days, so in that sense, basketball has as much influence on my process as music. But music, obviously, in regards to sound, texture, pulse, rhythm, arch, stasis, melody, narrative, anti-narrative, dissonance, assonance, pitch, tone, microtone, repetition, etc., certainly plays a huge role in how and what I’m trying to create with words. I love the musicality of language and see the layers and possibilities to be quite similar to those in songs, compositions, improvisations, noise, etc. The act of singing, however, does not really play a direct role in any different way than already stated. I don’t actually enjoy singing that much, but just use my voice as a vehicle to create songs. I never decided to write songs, they decided to be written, and that’s why the period of songwriting, in the beginning, was insanely productive. Essentially, that’s how I was infected with the fiction writing bug—it seemed as though I had no choice. There was no thinking, only action. As far as listening to music while writing, I went through a brief period, which may have been around the time of the Timber story, that I listened a lot to old favorite Morton Feldman, and new favorites Terry Riley and LaMonte Young. I couldn’t imagine listening to anything while writing other than static, drone-like, trance-inducing sounds. I suppose that has something to do with the kind of stories I’m writing, but listening to music with lyrics or significant dynamic shifts and sonic density just seems distracting. As far as music that has inspired me over years playing a role in process, I think it certainly does, but only in the same abstract yet still very connected, conceptual way that the act of playing music parallels as well.
As a kind of counterpoint to the previous question, how do literature and your experiences with writing fiction inform your work as a musician?
A lot of the songs I made for my last album, In the Hollows, were inspired by the fiction I was reading at the time. The lyrics became more linear, or narrative-driven, less impressionistic, while still paying attention to the sound and shape of the words and how they interacted with the melody, tone, etc. I was still fitting these narratives within a normalized structure of a song, in relation to verse, chorus, etc. I wrote what I think are some of my best songs within such a structure and so then naturally began to think about destroying the structure. When I studied with Anthony Braxton, I rejected any inkling of conventional structure or linear melody or traditional song, and, back then, wondered what the literary version of such unconventional, radical sounds could be. It was maybe 2002, but I was barely aware that other books existed beyond Notes From the Underground or Nausea or Portrait of the Artist. Not that those aren’t revolutionary books in their own right, but I thought, in relation to style, that surely there could not be a literary equivalent to John Cage or Sun Ra or Stockhausen. Of course, I wasn’t looking hard enough. As my literary interests grew, shortly after the time I was writing In the Hollows, I discovered this kind of literature, or something like it, as close as it gets, and it was through this literature that my interest in the abstract and the beyond was reignited. So my stories are an attempt to regenerate and rebuild through destruction and chaos—a new kind of song, so to speak, at least for me. My music and literary endeavors are therefore sutured together, one in the same, and I aim to continue to explore sound and texture, structure and chaos, narrative and form, in whichever ways they leak out into the semblance of a shape.
Nat Baldwin is a writer and musician living in Maine. His fiction has appeared in PANK, Sleepingfish, Timber, Deluge, and Alice Blue. He has released several solo albums, and plays bass in Dirty Projectors.