Monday, March 29, 2010


Marc Lowe is a dexterous writer who reduces the space between character and setting with nimble (but artfully complex) sentences. His new ebook from ismspress, Sui Generis and Other Stories, is a collection of kinetic, surreal, and obsessively detailed stories.

For a quick taste of Marc Lowe's prose, check out a short animated feature that Marc's brother Jeff produced for "Immaterial," a short story from Sui Generis.

Marc Lowe is a featured reader at the Cousins' event on April 18:

Several of the stories in Sui Generis feature characters responding to accusations that lack justification or explanation. How do you bring accusation from element of conflict to thematic center?

I take it you are referring to pieces such as “Restless” and “Guilty,” where the narrator is in some way implicated in a crime he may or may not have committed. I should probably say that I took my cue from Franz Kafka’s The Trial, which is my favorite of Kafka’s novels (The Castle is a close second), though, the more I think about it, the less sure I am of whether such a claim would actually be true. What is true is that the spirit of Kafka pervades a lot of the work I tend to enjoy. As Nathalie Sarraute suggested in her essay on Dostoevsky and Kafka, written in the 1950s, those who have come after Kafka can do little but to retrace his steps (albeit in a variety of original and constantly updated ways, I’d assert).

As this doesn’t really answer your initial question, I guess I should also add that “uncertainty” is frequently a theme in my work. Perhaps this is so because, well, who ever knows what tomorrow may bring? None of us can ultimately “know” anything in any definitive sense. Life is multifaceted, unpredictable, the human condition a mystery. If this weren’t true, we would no longer have any need for religion, philosophy, psychology, or neuroscience. I am generally a paranoid person by nature, so that probably tends to creep into my fiction sometimes. It’s not so hard for me to imagine that someone could in fact wake up one day to find himself (or herself) transformed into an insect!

A few of the characters in Sui Generis are floundering in "fish-out-of-water" scenarios, and in "Fish: A Melodrama in Five Parts", you make the fish literal. In other stories, birds appear and carry significance. With stories so short, so precise, readers latch onto every detail, especially those that appear to recur. Should readers attach any significance to the fish and birds that populate the collection?

Well, I’d say that there is a semi-literal fish in “Fish: A Melodrama in Five Parts.” That is actually one of the earliest pieces in the collection, and was penned earlier than I’d realized when I first decided to include it. (In other words, it was conceived some months before I boarded the plane to Japan, where I was to live for the next two years of my life, though this can just be our little secret.) I guess, in a sense, one could argue that the collection goes from a semi-literal fish to those scenarios you’ve described as “fish-out-of-water” narratives. I’m not sure how exactly they might relate to each other, though. I’ll leave such things to the reader to decide. The only literal bird that comes to mind at present is the one in “Eggshells,” which is quite dead and quite frozen…

I like your use of form in several of the stories in the collection. You use timeline and other associative techniques to mold your narratives. What’s your take on story structure? How do you use (or define the importance of) structure as an element of process?

I derive a great deal of pleasure from work that does interesting things with form, as well as from work that plays with or subverts narrative conventions. While I think a story that is structured traditionally with arc, climax, resolution, etc. can definitely be satisfying, so long as it’s well done and holds my interest for reasons other than its decidedly staid shape, in my own writing—and perhaps especially in the work I was writing between 2004-2006, which is now a very long time ago—I do quite enjoy working with the bare bones of narrative. For me, the building blocks of fiction often lie in its structure, rather than in its characters, as someone like Virginia Woolf would have asserted. Of course Woolf was also very much concerned with language, imagery, etc., things I greatly care about as well.

Over the years I’ve been strongly influenced by the nouveau roman aesthetic, particularly by the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet, whose novels were a sort of obsession to me when I first discovered them. They literally changed the way I thought about the potentialities of fiction, especially Jealousy, which was the first one I read. Before that I was reading and thinking seriously about Kobo Abe’s body of work (an important Japanese non-realist writer who died in 1993). Before leaving for Japan I had been writing a thesis paper that dealt specifically with Abe’s “mature” novels The Box Man, Secret Rendezvous, and also Kangaroo Notebook, his very underrated, darkly humorous final statement (some of the culture-specific bits in it literally get lost in translation, unfortunately). He does some very interesting things with structure and metafiction in those works, especially in the former two. I’d say that his influence can be felt most strongly in the first fragmentary novel I completed in 2005, a very strange metaphysical detective story set in and around various dark, labyrinthine alleyways in Japan, though it hasn’t yet been published.

You mentioned that teaching “occupies a good deal of [your] brain space”. Can you talk about how teaching workshops informs your writing.

This is an interesting question, which I’m going to have to answer in two parts. At the time I was writing these pieces I was not leading a fiction writing workshop, but was rather teaching fifteen to twenty-five English language lessons per week to Japanese businesspeople, the majority of them private. This, and the fact that most of my communication outside of these classes was done in Japanese, got me thinking a lot about how language communicates, or fails to communicate. This is not to say that I’m an expert in linguistics/semiotics or anything (far from it), but simply that this concern surfaced in some of the fictions I penned at the time, such as “00” and “Patterns.” (Unfortunately, neither of these particular fictions could be included in the e-book.) “A Good Example” was in some ways a satirical response to what it sometimes felt like to teach English to children in the public school system in Japan, a job I was often asked to do when the companies for which I taught were on holiday, but that’s probably not the sort of influence you were referring to…

In terms of how teaching fiction workshops informs my current writing practices…hmm. I haven’t yet written anything either about teaching or workshopping fiction, which is maybe a good thing! I think that running a workshop has made me think more carefully about the ways in which I critique others’ work, which may ultimately change the way I think about my own work. It’s interesting to see how others perceive the writing process, what they think works or doesn’t work in a piece (i.e. what they are reading for, what their expectations are) as opposed to what I’m seeing or not seeing in a given piece of writing. The booklists I assign probably say a lot about my own quirky tastes, in any case. I really want to open my students’ eyes to things they might not otherwise be exposed to in their other classes, such as, for instance, a prose/poetry hybrid work by Renee Gladman (The Activist), or a modern fairy tale by Barbara Comyns (The Vet’s Daughter), or a high-octane, literally electrifying nightmare by the French postmodernist writer Claro (Electric Flesh, translated by the chair of our department, Brian Evenson), or a collection of “transgressive” fictions by Kono Taeko (Toddler Hunting & Other Stories)…

Can you name some of your literary cousins?

Well, Kobo Abe and Alain Robbe-Grillet, as I’ve already said. And of course Kafka is always there in the background, paring his nails. Other writers I might claim as “cousins”—if, by cousins, you mean influences, and this is by no means an exhaustive list—are Paul Auster (especially City of Glass/The New York Trilogy), Samuel Beckett (The Unnamable!), Thomas Bernhard, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter, Adolpho Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Brian Evenson (I’ve been hooked ever since discovering The Wavering Knife in ’04, and am really excited to have him as my thesis advisor), Witold Gombrowicz, Mieko Kanai, J.K. Huysmans, [Comte de] Lautréamont, Haruki Murakami, Vladimir Nabokov, Ann Quin (Berg should be required reading for anyone who likes experimental fiction), José Saramago, Bruno Schulz, Yôko Tawada, Alexander Trocchi, etc., etc.

In terms of my reading these days, I’m pretty much all over the place. I recently reviewed Rachel Kendall’s The Bride Stripped Bare (Doghorn Publishing), which I liked a lot, and Suzanne Burns’s Misfits and Other Heroes (Dzanc Books) is next on my list. Read Marie Darrieussecq’s allegorical novel of “lust and transformation,” Pig Tales, over the weekend, and have books by Rikki Ducornet, Chris Abani, and Hiromi Ito in the to-read queue. Lastly, I’ll just say that I’m excited to get my hands on Rob Stephenson’s Passes Through and Brian Conn’s The Fixed Stars, both published by FC2 this spring.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Adam Gallari’s We Are Never as Beautiful as We Are Now (Ampersand Books) is a debut collection of young-men-questing stories that examines recurring themes of loss, pride, and what it means to be a man. He’ll be reading for us at Cousins on April 18th. He took some time out of his busy academic schedule to submit to a Q&A:

Baseball figures prominently in the lives of your characters. What is your relationship to the game? And, can you do a quick compare and contrast: baseball and writing?

Until very recently, baseball had always been very central to my life. I played through college and spent a season in Germany playing what you might term “semi-pro” baseball. I have a love/hate relationship with the game now. I almost feel like it was a bad marriage at times. I’m happy it’s over. I have nothing left to give it. But I definitely miss it, because it’s impossible to not remember the good times, too.

I think that baseball and writing are very similar pursuits. I think my background as an athlete has helped me very much in regards to my writing because I approach the two the same way. There’s a saying I heard once, I think it’s a Russian proverb that goes “When you’re not training, someone else is. And when they meet you, they will beat you.” I think that you can substitute writing for training and it’s pretty much the same. It’s a competition. If two manuscripts come across an agent or publishers desk odds are only one of them is going to win.

But I think that the greatest analogy between baseball and writing, or even life for that matter, is that the game is designed for its players to fail. Hall of Famers fail more often than they succeeded, and the average player even more so. It’s the only game that celebrates not necessarily the victory but the resilience it takes to come back day after day and know that you could go 4- 4 at the plate, but make the error that costs your team the game. What you did well is forgotten. The error remains. Just take Bill Buckner. One error erased an entire career and is ostensibly keeping him out of the Hall of Fame. This is coming from a Mets fan, too.

In "Chasing Adonis" you use the second person point of view to present a young man obsessed with achieving and maintaining physical perfection through a controlled diet and extreme exercise regime. The POV seemed to help objectify the character, but at the same time you managed to drain the vanity from his pursuit by showing his loss as an athlete. How did you manage to make me care about this guy who dressed as a sexy Jesus Christ on Halloween?

I tried to make him human. If I just gave you the bullet points for that story I don’t think the “You” is necessarily someone a reader would tend to empathize with. I’d wanted to write “Chasing Adonis” for a while, but it kept failing because a third-person was too distant, and the first person “I” didn’t allow for any remove. It just made the narrator an unbearable narcissist.

Ironically, I was watching a cooking show one day, and listening to the host list off the instructions “You do X,” “You do Y,” and it clicked. The listing of ingredients was no different than the listing of a workout regime. Plus the “You” trapped the reader in the experience, and I think that was imperative. With the “You” there is much less ground for moral judgment of a character. I started writing it like that, and it all just seemed to work.

So, by the time a reader gets to “On Halloween you dress up as Jesus…” they, hopefully, see how far the character as fallen both mentally and emotionally.

The story entitled "Go Piss on Jane" carries a number of autobiographical details. What prompted you to write that story?

I’m going to paraphrase Martin Amis here and say that as a young writer, all you really have to go on is autobiography, and I feel that in many regards that is true. The trick is being able to bastardize your own experiences enough to make them interesting to people that don’t know you and who have biographies of their own. For “Go Piss on Jane” all of the pieces for a good story were already in place from certain instances of my own life, I just needed to find a way to express them in a way that would be more a story and not the therapy writing that should be kept in a journal.

Honestly, it’s difficult for me to discuss “Go Piss on Jane” because it was probably the hardest story for me to write, not because it had so many autobiographical references, which it does, but because it could have so closely erred on the side of melodrama or sentiment. I didn’t know how far to push certain aspects of it, and I didn’t want to feel as though I was using the suffering of others for my own personal gain. I know that as writers we do that all the time, but there are certain areas that I think should be left to those who can actually articulate them best. I felt I was treading very closely to that line. And what I find interesting is that there are so many varied readings of it. Some people have thought it laudatory; others a strong anti-war piece. I never intended it to be a statement piece. I don’t believe writing to make a statement. I believe in writing to question and examine. To probe. I guess I just wanted to examine what I thought was a flaw in my own character—a cowardice perhaps—and the vehicle and characters of “Go Piss on Jane” allowed me to hopefully make an individual feeling accessible to those outside of myself.

After completing your MFA at University of California Riverside, you are now pursuing your PhD at University of Exeter. Can you tell us about your studies and how your research informs your fiction writing?

I’ve always been an avid reader, especially when I am working, and I’ve always been surprised by people who say they cannot read while they are doing their own work. I find that I need that mental break, and that if I’m struggling with a scene or a moment I can return to writers better than myself and attempt to examine how they managed.

My dissertation, at present, is still developing, but the goal is to examine the writings of Per Petterson in the context of his images and presentations of “the masculine.” I was immediately struck when I came upon Petterson because, I feel at least, there are very few writers like him working in America today—writers who are concerned with mature notions of masculinity, who aren’t afraid to leave their comic books behind or who aren’t simply getting by using hyper-realities with hyper-violent, almost caricature images. Petterson isn’t afraid of subtlety, and I think that there’s been a movement away from subtlety in most American literature presently. I’m not arguing that we return to the bare-bones minimalism of Carver, but that writers shouldn’t be afraid of making a reader work a bit, of displaying people in moments of duress that can be as simple as opening a jar of jam if handled correctly. And that male writers shouldn’t be afraid of being vulnerable in their work. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that writers like Cheever and Yates are suddenly experiencing a re-birth in America. I think the current curiosity with Petterson feeds into that. But what I found most interesting when discussing him with people in the UK was that he hasn’t had nearly the same impact on the literary landscape here. That cultural difference, of why a writer can resonate with one group, nationality, however you want to term it, really intrigues me, and that is something I hope to explore more fully.

Can you name a few of your literary cousins?

I’m indebted to a lot of writers, most of them dead, who, each time I read them, make me wonder why I’m even doing this because I feel there’s no way I can approach their level of skill and insight as craftsman and just as catalogers of humanity. Graham Greene for one. Ernest Hemingway and the bits of Henry James I’ve managed to get through. I’m not sure I’m smart enough for Henry James at this stage in my life. W.G. Sebald, Bolano. The prose and poetry of both Czeslaw Milosz, Adam Zagajewski. Milan Kundera, whose best work I think is his writing on writing. There’s a weight to these writers, people tasked with not only keeping alive the identity of a people through their literature but also, because of the events of the 20th Century, inventing the idea of what it meant to be Polish or Czech and keeping that relevant for a generation that came of age under the Soviets or in the wake of other totalitarian regimes like Hilter or Pinochet. It’s something that writers here in America, thankfully, never had to address, but it shows in our work—especially in the work of writers of my generation, millennials or whatever we are called— which often seems puerile and trivial when stacked against the Europeans for whom writing, quite literally, meant life and death.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cousins Reading 2: April 18th

Adam Gallari grew up on the outskirts of Manhattan and received an MFA from the University of California, Riverside. He currently lives by a train station in Exeter, England where he is pursuing a PhD, listening to train whistles blowing in the night and working on a novel. His collection We Are Never As Beautiful As We Are Now: Stories (2010) is forthcoming from The Ampersand.

Marc Lowe’s work has appeared in 580 Split, Big Bridge, BlazeVOX, Caketrain, elimae, >kill author, Farrago’s Wainscot, Pindeldyboz, The Salt River Review, Sein und Werden, Storyglossia, and is forthcoming in the anthology Quantum Genre on the Planet of Arts (Crossing Chaos Press). His novelette, “Girl with Smear,” was featured in Prick of the Spindle. Having received an MA in Japanese Literature in 2004, he is completing an MFA in fiction writing at Brown University. His eBook Sui Generis was recently published by ISMs Press (UK).

Rob Stephenson is the author of the novel Passes Through (Fiction Collective 2) and the novella U (Rebel Satori Press). His writing has appeared recently in Invert(e), Golden Handcuffs Review, Sidebrow, Madder Love, Entangled Lives, and The Lost Library. He performed part one of In Between / Inzwischen, a bilingual multi-media piece with video projections and sound, at the &NOW Festival in Buffalo.

Amish Trivedi is the author Museum of Vandals from Cannibal Books. His poems have appeared in La Petite Zine, The Backwards City Review, Cannibal, RealPoetik, and the e-chaps The Breakers (Absent Magazine), The Ink Sessions (Scantily Clad) and Selections from Episode III (Beard of Bees). He is pursuing an MFA in poetry in Brown University’s Literary Arts Program.