MFA prose candidate
Naming characters – a hassle or moment of sudden clarity?
Lately I feel like names always need to take some time to grow onto the character before you know if they’ll stick. Every time I name someone I tell myself it’s a placeholder name and I’ll find the right one later; about half the time I end up actually changing it. So it’s a hassle because I’d rather know if a name is right instantly! I used to go about designing characters very deliberately—dressing them up and writing little profiles before I set them loose into the story—so everyone arrived with their names nice and fitted. My process has become a lot more fluid, and so has building characters—now they spawn within the text.
What novels/authors have strongly influenced/informed your writing… and why?
Clarice Lispector’s novels and stories totally blew open what narrative can do for me, in ways I feel like I’m still paying for. My favorite fiction is about people reaching for things so abstract and intangible that the piece itself becomes an exercise in describing that abstract thing. I never want things to be clear anymore, but to asymptotically grasp at something everyone can feel but not articulate. Maybe all fiction does that in a sense, but these internal, phenomenological conflicts Lispector turned me onto have become so compelling to me. People sometimes think her writing is elusive, but to me it’s so much more direct than traditional narrative: looking for language for every contour of a feeling.
More recently, I’ve been interested in how Lucia Berlin develops colorful, playful language without billowing lyricism, which is something I’ve been trying to do more. Lydia Davis in her introduction to A Manual for Cleaning Women identifies Berlin’s monosyllables, her jolty pacing, her unpredictability. It’s minimal in a sense—she doesn’t waste words—but without the kind of drab monochrome feeling a lot of minimal writing can inspire.
What research methods have been most fruitful to you?
Sometimes I think researching is just learning enough about a topic that you feel confident in writing about it. If you’re researching too close to the text, it can be hard not to plop things into the novel that feel inorganic to how the story is developing because you want to prove you know what you’re talking about. But the opposite approach—just writing along and doing research when you come up against a specific detail you need—can preclude you from developments you might have considered had you known more about your topic. So I think optimally a research phase is very absorptive, and you try to get to the point where you are generally knowledgeable about whatever it is instead of working with that information directly for the story. I’m having to make a lot of details of orchard life/farming less obvious for my novel right now. The best “in the moment” research results in great description, I think—so for me—just going to an orchard and writing down interesting ways of describing apples.
An underappreciated novel you love?
Severo Sarduy’s novel Beach Birds is a beautiful, abstract allegory about AIDS—the illness Sarduy died from a month before its publication—that I wish more people knew about. It’s totally surreal, moving, playful, and ambitious, thinking about geologic scales of time in the same breath it makes crass jokes about sex.
Any non-writing hobbies?
I play music—that’s the big one. I cook a lot and take pride in stews and curries. I admire and kind of collect ceramic objects, vases my friends make or earthenware cooking stuff—a sake set, a tagine, a donabe. I also like dancing to house and techno, film, games of all kinds.