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Q&A: Reif Larsen, author of
THE SELECTED WORKS OF T.S. SPIVET

SS: Do you write much short fiction?

RL: Like everyone else, I started with short fiction, but – oh man – it’s so hard to do. When coming to the part of the story when I had to end it, without saying too little or saying too much – I could never do it. It always pointed to me that there was something missing in the story. I wrote a couple short stories for my thesis at Brown, and they’re OK, but I’ve burned all copies of them.

At some point I would love to go back to short stories. I like them – they’re beautiful and haunting, but there’s always something magic trick-y about them, and then the magician’s walking offstage and the rabbit’s gone. I’m more interested in novels. There’s more room.

SS: What novels are you interested in right now?

RL:  I’m reading old stuff – V. S. Naipul’s A Bend in the River. My next book takes place in the Congo, so I reread Heart of Darkness. It’s interesting what Conrad gets away with. He’s like V.S. Naipul – there’s so much exposition with his characters, and then he steps in and tells you what’s going on. It’s breaking all these rules of writing, but the authority of his voice – you can basically get away with anything in writing if you present that you know what you’re doing.

It’s like Thelonious Monk. He knows how to play standard jazz tunes, but he chooses to break them. I think where you get into trouble is where you go from zero to Thelonious Monk. I think that happens a lot with experimental fiction. I’m a traditionalist at heart. I think you have to learn how to tell stories before you can know how to break the rules.

When I was at Brown, hypertext fiction was all the rage – Robert Coover, one of my heroes, he was all into it. They were doing stuff in this, like, virtual reality cave. It felt like a lot of bells and whistles to me. It was the 90s, and we were in love with the hyperlink, but something was lost. With the high-level mechanics, something at the heart was lost.

SS: So how do you rationalize all the marginalia in The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet with being a traditionalist?

RL: In some ways, you can see this book as an exploded hypertext book. I’m kind of enacting what Coover was interested in.

He was interested in the non-linear nature of the web. The whole deal was that you couldn’t see the marginalia. I think there’s something more interesting about the explosion of the text as such, almost something emotional that was lost in the hypertext because the explosion becomes an expression of the character, seeing all possibilities laid out.

This points at the nature of maps. This book, which seems digressive, has borders. All of our mapping and all of our searching and all of our annotation can never capture the whole picture. Seeing its expansiveness but also its limitedness is important. I think the novel is very traditional in that way.

I was doing an interview with Michael Silverblatt on Bookworm. He was asking if this book was my answer to the Coovers and the Ben Marcuses. It’s not my answer, but both those guys are my heroes. In some ways, I couldn’t write this novel without Notable American Women or “The Babysitter.” That experimentation, all the meta-textual work that those guys have done has made it so that a mainstream novel with crazy marginalia can be a mainstream novel. David Foster Wallace, Nicholson Baker – all these guys have done the work beforehand so that we’re prepped and ready.

SS: In The New York Times Book Review, Ginia Bellafante accuses your writing of having an MFA-shaped insularity. I thought that was bullshit.

RL: Total bullshit. That review was sad to me, because it was not very smart and weirdly snarky. I hadn’t been reading reviews, but I read that one, and it was probably a poor choice. She got it so wrong.

I just hoped better from the Times. I guess they’ve kind of devolved. I read a review of my friend David Ebershoff’s book (The 19th Wife) and it was like a sixth-grade book report.

I had super low expectations going into this project. It’s a strange book. I had laid it out as such. I just wanted it to be published in the form I wanted it to be and I wanted to write another book.

I think people get annoyed because they feel like they didn’t discover the person; the New York publishing world already discovered him. I steer clear of most of that stuff. Maybe it’s my Buddhism, but one of the tenets is “be present, work on what you can work on, and don’t worry about the rest.” The tricky thing has been transitioning from being a private person to being an auspiciously public person and trying to maintain the openness and vulnerability you have in your private life. I can see how people have gone off the deep end. What I’m going through is so minimal compared to what actors or whatever go through – they’re much more laid bare – but I can see how people change or get weird or become arrogant or have all these jujitsu defense techniques. It’s interesting to watch.

We have a couple cultural archetypes. One is the debut novelist. One’s a cowboy. One’s a child prodigy. I’ve been mostly a spectator.

 

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