Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their research for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Colin Winnette invites some friends to help him think about the research behind his novel Revelation, available now from Mutable Sound. It’s on the long side, so pour your coffee first, but as I tell my students, it’s when we give research time and space to grow that the most exciting things come out of it.
I was approached by Steve Himmer to write a piece about the research or process behind Revelation. It is hard to make something as simple as I read this or I read that, or I did this and that, interesting, I think. Or it would be hard for me to make it interesting, because the actions I took don’t necessarily interest me. Writing the book, for me, was a way of responding to and temporarily organizing a mess of ideas I carry around with me wherever I go. The “research” was only a means by which I added to the clutter. So I went a different route with this assignment then may have been intended. Rather than simply reporting on the methods I used to support and put the book together, I wanted to generate a response that somehow reflected the book’s content: why it came together as it did, what that means, and what it ultimately became. So, I decided that, if, on a very basic level, the book is in some way a response, or a series of responses, to dominant forces in my intellectual, psychological, and emotional life, I would format this piece as a series of responses as well. In many ways this book is purely a response/reaction to narrative modes and approaches to meaning-making that were ever-present in my education and upbringing. For this piece, I reached out for seven voices from those who worked most closely with me on the project, as editors, advisors, guides, friends, and I asked them to work with me once more.
Please excuse the mass email! There are only seven of you, though, so that’s not too bad!
I’m emailing you all because you are the seven people who helped me, in numerous ways, while I was writing Revelation, and I wanted first of all, to say, Thank You. I can’t say it enough.
Secondly, I was approached the other day by Steve Himmer, with the online literary journal Necessary Fiction, and he asked me to write a piece detailing my “process” and the role of research, when writing Revelation.
I decided, if I was going to write this thing, I wanted to do something engaging, something that got more at the book’s content, rather than it’s production.
It occurred to me to try this:
I thought I would approach each of you — voices who weighed in on the project at various points in its development, voices who had very much to do with what the book became — and I would ask you each (of which there are seven — same as the number of chapters in the book, as well as Trumpets in the Book of Revelation) to ask me a single question, which I will answer briefly, and in the spirit of the question itself.
This way the formal structure of what we make will echo that of the book, and your seven voices/questions will determine the content of the write-up. It will be more fun for me, for sure! Because you are all great! And it might make for an interesting read!
So, in brief, I would be honored if you would take a moment to ask me a question about the book (or not about the book, if you like). The questions and answers will go up on the Necessary Fiction website on or around the date when the book is released.
Thank you all for considering, and for all of your help along the way!
The novel’s about Revelation, but it’s also about the middle-class lives of three men: Marcus, Colin, and Tom(my), and how they grow up, marry, have kids, divorce, die. Can you talk about how that material came to be in the novel, and how you see their lives (and by extension, presumably, most lives) syncing up with the apocalypse?
To put it simply, their lives synch up with the apocalypse because their lives synch up with the apocalypse. That’s annoying, I know. But that level of clarity was instrumental for me when writing the book. On a very basic level, I wanted to write a story where the end of the world was a given. It is happening and will happen, so now what? I pulled each of the seven passages describing the sounding of the “trumpets” from a random translation of the Book of Revelation, and printed them out individually. I stuck them to the walls in my studio, in a semi-circle, and while I was working on each chapter, I would stand in front of the corresponding trumpet passage and read the description, over and over. This is all I gave myself to go on.
For this particular project, the questions that are typical of traditional adventure/end-of-the-world stories — the why, the how, the what can we do to stop it? — these questions didn’t interest me, really. Or, rather, the questions interested me, but not their answers. I wanted any “answers” in the book to be the inventions of the characters themselves, and therefore to be for themselves and, ultimately, to be somewhat unsatisfying to a careful reader. These are characters who appear to have no control over their fate. Or, whatever control they do seem to have is vastly out of proportion to the uncontrollable elements of the world around them. And so they develop different methods of coping or carrying the trauma with them. It’s my belief that, to some degree, living after trauma is a matter of recalibrating our view of the world, making room in our view for what has happened and, rather than entertaining the fantasy that we could ever be truly rid of it, looking for a way of viewing things that allows for us to live alongside it. So, how might we do this?
Marcus, Colin and Tom(my) belong to a different genre of story-telling altogether, but one I consider as familiar, pervasive, and in many ways as fantastic and occasionally ludicrous as that of the biblical apocalypse narrative: that of domestic middle-class male-centered realism. On the one hand, my interest in these two genres, my interest in propping them up against one another, comes largely out of my upbringing, growing up in a small Texas town, but also my academic/literary upbringing, being a young middle-class American white male who’s been enrolled in American creative writing programs for nearly six years (BFA, MFA). Throughout my life these two narrative modes were presented to me, time and again, as the height of literary or moral perspective. This is what writing can do, so this is what writing should do, this is what you should do. One voice was often presented as the right way to live, and the other as the right way to write. This was always deeply unsatisfying for me. So I took these two deeply unsatisfying things, both of which were forever wedged into my thoughts regarding myself and my work, and I set them against one another. My hope was to make something else entirely.
I also thought a lot about “the end of the world”. I thought about the line, “Not with a bang but a whimper.” Then I thought about action movies, end of the world movies. Those movies always present a hero, just like the Carver and the Hemmingway that was and still is crammed down out throats, those guys are still invested in this “hero” idea, though their heroes are on the opposite spectrum of someone like Harry Stamper. They’re emotional heroes, bearing the weight of the world, the weight of our collective middle-class inner lives. Rather than saving the day, rather than being in any state of real control over their lives at all, they suffer and we watch them suffer and there is something eerily and yet predictably Christ-like in their carrying that burden for us.
For this project, one element that seemed to synch up quite nicely, at least in my opinion, when these two narrative modes were leaned against each other, was the fact that, in many of these domestic middle-class stories, we are often presented with a man, or a couple, at odds with the world. Or, with their situation or their position in it. They are in a seemingly hopeless position, broke, struggling with alcoholism, struggling with whatever, and it seemed very exciting to me to say, okay, well, how would these characters react in a situation where they are truly, truly undeniably hopeless. Where things are so hopeless, that their everyday burdens are, by contrast, a relief. Or can they be a relief? What do we make of our capacity to hope once we’re confronted with what is likely a truly hopeless situation? Another novel of mine, Gainesville, was recently referred to as “an interrogation of hope.” I feel like this is to some degree true of Revelation, as well. I’m not interested in salvation. I’m interested in desire, groundless hope (by which I don’t necessarily mean faith), love, friendship — the things that seem to me, to make life worth living. I’m interested in the excruciating pain of these things, and in what they come to mean when confronted with the absence of salvation.
Patty Yumi Cottrell:
my question is pretty simple:
could you come up with a music playlist that relates in some way to your writing of Revelation?
—basically, what music you were listening to/inspired by while writing Revelation.
hope this works!
Honestly, I didn’t listen to much music while writing it. I had a pretty regular working schedule for this book. Mornings, eggs on tortillas with Schriracha. My smoke alarm is very sensitive, or I am a terrible cook, or both, so the alarm went off nearly every morning. But only briefly. I kept a fan on top of the refrigerator, pointed at the alarm. Believe it or not, that’s the sound I most associate with those early mornings working on the book, a series of brief screams from the alarm. Early on, I listened to Arvo Part’s De Profundis, from time to time, and tried to work to Rachmaninov’s Vespers, sung by the Robert Shaw Festival Singers, but for whatever reason this made it difficult to focus. This also proved true for Joanna Newsom (Milk-Eyed Mender), John Cage (Harmonies for Apartment House 1776, Music for Prepared Piano) and Fleetwood Mac (Tusk).
If your book was in prison for misdeeds, and it had some valuable information on a previous (uncaught) associate, would it flip in order to avoid doing hard time, or would it just eat the sentence and wait? Would it join a gang or stay a singleton, alone at some opposite end of the yard?
The novel would shrug, stare ahead.
Thania Marie Rios:
Here is my question. Let me know if it’s inadequate to your purposes.
“If I were asked to summarize Revelation in one sentence, that sentence would be: ‘Raymond Carver characters weather the Apocalypse.’ However, this is probably not the seed from whence the novel sprouted — or maybe it was! So, what was your initial impetus for Revelation? How did you arrive at such a unique pairing of characters and setting?”
Thania! I feel like a lot of what I said in response to Adam’s question would serve to answer yours. But I’ll expand a little to say that my initial impetus really came out of a desire to write a tightly structured, somewhat rigidly constrained work of novel-length prose. I had been writing short prose for years, and was afraid to return to novel-length work after a big massive failure that took up several years of my life. I started writing a book in 2006, and after three years and something like 500 pages, I was nowhere closer to finishing the thing. It was only getting larger and less-intelligible as I added more and more to it. I was at a strange point, studying a lot of 19th century Russian novels and also a handful of the high-modernists, Joyce, Proust, etc., and I felt a novel had to include everything. And I interpreted that everything as anything that occurred to me or that I came to think while writing it. I remember sitting down to add a final scene in which a character was presenting a very long, unfinished book to an agent who he’d had the good fortune to be introduced to, only hours after the very thing had happened to me. The interview had gone pretty horribly because I basically lied to the guy and told him I had a finished book when I didn’t. I knew it wasn’t finished because the whole time I was thinking, this needs to go in there. And that was when I realized I was never going to finish that book. Or not any time soon. I didn’t know what I was doing. So, I put it down and wrote short fiction for a few years. Short fiction seemed, manageable. Then I decided to write this book. Which is to say, I came up with a fairly rigid structure that would keep the work from getting out of control. Or that would allow it to get out of control without falling apart. That’s not to say there aren’t some beautiful messes out there, I just wanted something to grip onto as I worked. The “failure” of the first book was really instrumental in developing a better sense of how I might work in the future. In some — maybe facile — way, it was the research of testing a variety of approaches to writing that’s essential to developing a sustainable practice. So, for Revelation, I worked within this new rigid structure, and stuck to it, and I ultimately found it to be immensely liberating. After that, I became very interested in the long tradition of constraint-based techniques in writing. In particular, I spent a lot of time with Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec. What I love about them in particular is that while a chosen constraint may greatly restrict the form of a given work, rarely does their writing feel constrained or restricted. It’s highly inventive and really a lot of fun to read. It’s been said so many times I hardly need to say that, for them, and other Oulipians, constraint is a source of freedom. Indeed, that’s pretty much the point. There is a formula at the heart of Revelation that was instrumental in its development and completion. An initial component of that formula was a schematic for seven chapters, each ten years apart, and each summoned by the sounding of one of the trumpets of the Book of Revelation. That was the starting point. This was seed that led to my discovery of the book’s content.
Have you given any thought to the Revelation question I mentioned last week? The thing for Necessary Fiction? I’m supposed to have the write-up to Steve by Friday, so the sooner I have all the questions, the sooner I can get started!
Oh! Sorry, to slack, yes, here you go:
How did the role of religion factor into the making of this book?
I was very worried at first that people would assume the book was making a critical statement against religion. I was also worried people would mistake it for a religious book. But I kept working on it, trying to put those concerns out of my head, because I knew I was doing neither exactly. The Bible is most commonly cited and treated as an authentic religious text, but I wasn’t concerned with the authenticity of its content as much as the persistent relevance of its narrative, or its interpretations, (if we can measure the relevance of a text by its capacity to impact and influence human life over an extended period of time). I consciously avoided looking into current conversations surrounding the Bible or any of the organized religions associated with it. I purposefully extracted the sections I was interested in working with, so I might work with that content and that content alone. In some sense, it was essential to the book’s themes that the appropriated content be fragmented (even more so than it has naturally been over the years). Revelation is not an interpretation, or even a re-telling, of the religious text, necessarily. It is much more a book about the act of interpretation, meaning-making, the stories we tell ourselves, how we come to understand the world and try to put a language to it. In that regard, the Bible itself is a fascinating document, made even more fascinating by its sustained relevance.
Most of the time we think of the apocalypse, spiritual or otherwise, as a way for a writer to talk about survival or what it means to be alive in a time where life has no meaning (somebody’s been reading his Beckett lately). Your book is different in that it keeps the end of the world strictly in the realm of the interpersonal, so much so that at times it feels nearly inconsequential to the action of the story. What do you think you gain by using the end of the world this way?
I wanted to write a book that operated outside that very basic question of how we might live from one moment to the next. This is something that has been written about and will be written about for as long as people are writing around or about people. As an American living in 2011, it is abundantly clear that our survival is a blood-soaked survival. I’d like to avoid the problematic question of “fault” here, for lack of space or the capability to properly address the topic, but I will say that, as human beings, we are surrounded by death, always. To live means to witness death and destruction from a variety of positions. And this is something we all cope with, in one way or another. Or it’s something we choose to ignore. And if Beckett’s goal was to extract meaning, like a tumor from the leg of letters, my question would be, okay, once we’ve leaned or sat down or fetched a stick, how do we proceed? Some readers of Beckett might say, we do not. We rot. But I insist that Beckett was more optimistic than he is usually credited for. In a piece like Ohio: Impromptu, one finds an example of Beckett’s capacity to love, or, at least to write love and to communicate it, even if shrouded in darkness, difficulty and distance. Beckett’s humor, too, can’t be forgotten. His work was and is famously funny, and Beckett knew it. I only mean to say that there is pleasure in Beckett’s work. And there’s a force at the center of much of his work, which he may crucially want to divorce from the idea of “meaning”, but it is ultimately some impulse that drives us from moment to moment. It’s an ill-defined or essentially ineffable impulse, in much of Beckett, articulated in one of his most famous quotes, from The Unnamable, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” In a book like Malone Dies, it’s something akin to a creative impulse. And that feels very honest on Beckett’s part. Why write if there is no meaning? Because he must, he might say. I would say, because he enjoys it. Or enjoys some part of it. But whatever it is, if it is anything, that causes us to engage from one moment to the next, day to day or page to page, Beckett has no interest in determining it for us. He is set to leave it at that, at the struggle between the desire to make meaning and his concern with the apparent hollowness of that pursuit. Beckett has had a considerable influence on me and my work. And to some degree, deciding to use the end of the world as the setting/backdrop for Revelation is directly related to this influence. I actually wrote the book while enrolled in a Beckett seminar. And I wanted to acknowledge his influence, or, moreover, I wanted to resolve it. I can’t say I did, but I did realize how differently we approach the concept of “meaning” or the possibility of its absence. So, in answer to your question, what does the novel gain by using the end of the world in this way? I’m not entirely sure. For me, at the very least I came to better understand my relationship to meaning and the significance of meaning-making through writing this book. I wanted Revelation to forefront the ways in which the stories we tell ourselves just as easily help us to perceive the horrors of the world around us, as they distance us from them. Story, to me, can be an extremely powerful weapon. It’s a means by which one might accumulate all the other powerful weapons. Fiction is so fucking durable, though. It’s an art form that can be questioned, broken down, exposed, quite easily, but without it ever truly losing its power to move and affect us. And I wanted to demonstrate all of this. To me, this work is quite nude.
Gabriel Chad Boyer:
Here it is.
Why did you decide to write a book that revolves around the text of Revelation, without ever directly confronting the biblical significance of Revelation (until perhaps the last page)? [Probably too obvious, but it’s the first that came to mind, and feel free to take out the parenthetical note. It could be seen as a spoiler and is questionable anyway, considering it’s just an image on the news and not directly experienced.]
I’m going to Korea on Sunday just for the day. Fly there in the morning and back that night. And teaching six days a week. I envy you the cold Chicago winter. I want to be there, in my home country, in the freezing winter air. It’s still relatively warm here with strange particulates in the air.
Gabe, while no one asked me this question explicitly yet, I feel I’ve been answering it, bit by bit, for the last few pages. I will say this, it was very important to me that the appropriated narrative elements (the biblical passages and the language, character types and even occasional plot points, of works of domestic realism) be removed enough from their original context that they wouldn’t easily resolve into any familiar usage or reading. But I wanted to estrange them without discrediting them. I wanted there to be room to make certain connections regarding their function, significance or meaning, but I wanted to maintain a level of dissonance, so that whatever we tell ourselves about how the elements of this world add up, it is never fully satisfying. That’s not to say the work is inaccessible, hopefully, or that the elements that make it up were arbitrarily determined. It’s more an articulation of the perhaps obvious thought that no particular theory/story/voice could ever possibly account for everything.
AD Jameson is the author of two books: the prose collection Amazing Adult Fantasy (Mutable Sound, 2011), and the novel Giant Slugs (Lawrence and Gibson, 2011), an absurdist retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh. He has taught classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Lake Forest College, DePaul University, Facets Multimedia, and StoryStudio Chicago. He is also the nonfiction/reviews editor of the online journal Requited. This fall, he became a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In his spare time he contributes to the group literary blogs Big Other and HTMLGIANT.
Patty Yumi Cottrell’s work has appeared in Everyday Genius, elimae, and The Drawers, a Green Gallery Press collaboration with artist Amy Yao.
Jesse Ball is a poet and novelist. His novels include The Way Through Doors (2009) and Samedi the Deafness (2007), which was a finalist for the Believer Book Award. He has published books of poetry and prose, The Village on Horseback (2010), Vera & Linus (2006), March Book (2004). A book of his drawings, Og svo kom nottin, appeared in Iceland in 2006. He won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize in 2008 for “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr.” His poetry has appeared in the Best American Poetry series. He is an assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and teaches classes on lying, lucid dreaming and general practice.
Thania Rios was born and raised in Chicago and, as she saw no point in ever familiarizing herself with another city, is currently a MFAW candidate at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She has work forthcoming in Cantaraville, and her biggest dream at the moment is to move away from the West Side.
Jen Gann is a writer who has lived in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana, and California. She currently lives in New York.
Zach Vandezande doesn’t want to tell you anything. He thinks telling you where he’s from or his likes and dislikes is an invitation to theft, like suddenly he doesn’t own those things anymore, like somehow he’s hollowing himself out slowly. Zach is sometimes full of shit about this stuff. He’s working on his PhD in fiction at UNT, he wrote a novel called Apathy and Paying Rent, published by Loose Teeth Press, and he writes a blog called Things That Can’t Be Taken Back. He likes Thai food and typewriters. He dislikes the music at the grocery store.
Gabriel Chad Boyer is editor-in-chief and co-founder of Mutable Sound, a publishing company and record label. He has curated performance events in Boston and New York, most notoriously Bedroom Theater, which he took to bedrooms across America in the summer of ’03. He has also recorded a number of albums, including a children’s album that’s not for children called A Journey to Happiness Island, a free jazz comedy album entitled Live at the Pie House, and a 52-episode radio play entitled Twilight at the Lady Jane Grey College for Little Ladies; and has published a collection of seven of his books bound as one, entitled A Survey of My Failures This Far, which contains a wide range of fantasy, a little reality, and one gaming manual. He currently lives in Zibo, China.