Mary Akers: Hey, Mc. Thanks for agreeing to talk with me today–I’ve really been looking forward to this conversation. Thanks also for sharing your marvelous story One Day a Year with us. We’re so honored to have it as part of this issue. Even before I read your piece, I had the thought that it might fit our Faith & Doubt issue, just because of what I know about your marvelous body of work, which Andrea Barret has described as “…brilliantly lit by hard-won faith.” I love that description. In preparation for our discussion, I’ve spent the last several hours immersed in your work and your singing sentences.
And I want to start by referencing an interview in which you likened the process of writing to liquid. There was a fascinating discussion of spilling-pouring and pouring-spilling. If it’s all right with you, could we get right down to it with a metaphysical question? Namely, how would you describe the place from which all these rolling, pouring, spilling, singing, poem-songs of yours originate? What, in other words, is the wellspring, as you understand it?
Kevin McIlvoy: Thanks for this question, Mary.
The starting place for me as a writer was the luck of growing up hearing truly marvelous oral storytellers in my father’s large family, particularly the oldest women in his family. Their rambling, chaotic stories were spellbinding to me. They were a form of singing that shifted in register and expressiveness according to what the storyteller was feeling in her body.
The story had not been planned (as a self-conscious design), it was not thought out and, so, poured out; it was unplanned (as an unselfconscious wreckage) and, so, spilled out. The story was not driven by a compelling plot or theme regarding our ways of becoming; it was driven by the sensations and the enigmatic vulnerabilities of the body and its ways of being.
Themes and plots arose in the story only as happy accidents. At no point was the story constructing an experience of comprehension for the listener’s mind; it was, instead, creating a way to listen with the body. This kind of story left me with the impression that storytelling existed above all else in order to give us new ways to be fully present — in all our senses, in our skin and flesh, in our noses, on our tongues, and always in our sensitive ears — to the world before us.
I became a reader who wished to read stories first with my body, then my mind. I became a writer who wished for language to bring new terms of engagement and estrangement to my body, and a writer more than a little restless with language primarily dedicated to cerebral clarity and concision.
In other words, I have never moved very far from being the childlike reader. As far as I can tell, when I am writing at my best I am the childlike writer. I am sixty years old. It would be accurate to describe me as “immature.” I acknowledge that the adult reader for my work must have the child body fully alive in her/him or my work will simply cause disappointment. I can live with that.
MA: Beautiful. I love that.
I definitely feel your stories more than read them. And cover /images can be felt and absorbed the same way, don’t you think? I’ve been working recently with my publisher on choosing a cover image for my forthcoming book. When an image we thought we were going to use abruptly became unavailable, it turned out that we loved the newer design even more. And as a result of that new image, we rethought the whole book in a very exciting way. We added an 11th-hour story to the collection, based entirely on the change in cover /images. In fact, the right book cover can be so critical that it seems odd how late in the process the designing happens–the very last step. Everything is written, everything already imagined and assembled. I’ve even heard it said that, “The inside of the book is for the author. The outside of the book is for the reader.” Do you agree or disagree with that statement?
Mc:The cover of a book matters to the author and it matters to the publisher — and it matters to the bookstore owner and the book buyer. The stakes regarding this are very high for an author who does not have name recognition and who, therefore, will not get treated preferentially in the precious cover-facing-out space in the big and in the independent bookstores. An amateurish cover hurts the book, and I have no doubt about that because I’ve directly asked the acquisitions people in bookstores about this matter.
On the other hand, authors can sure be unforgiving of a cover that is marvelously striking but does not exactly suit their individual vision of what they felt would have been “just right.” I’ve learned that it’s important to remember the many goals good publishers have for the cover; among those goals are two crucial ones: they must offer a design — on the outside and on the inside — that represents the tone (not the themes, not the specific central dramas) of that particular book; they must preserve a sense of design continuity that is relevant to the publisher’s general literary values. If you’re lucky enough to publish with great publishers like Four Way Books or Engine Books you notice that your book borrows prestige from the company it keeps, and the design standards of that company embody that unique prestige.
I do have my own obnoxious biases about book covers. I do not like a cover that obscures the book’s title. The title, after all, was both a composing decision and a kind of design decision made by the author, and I believe the cover design should respect that authorial decision. I do not like a cover that gives no attention to the clarity of type on the spine, since the result is that the book — particularly a thin volume (as in poetry) — will be invisible on the shelf at the bookstore and in the reader’s home.
MA: You have a wonderful lecture on the topic of “somatic writing.” It inspired me when I first heard you give it, and it still inspires me today. It seems so basic–FEEL the writing!–and yet so much of what is out there pushes towards the dry, the intellectual, the cerebral–comprehension vs. prehension, as you put it. But I love writing that makes me feel–something, anything–in my bones, in my heart, in the marrow where my blood begins. The best stories do that. They creep inside you and make a home. They make a little pearled brain scar of proxy-experience that will be there forever. What are some of your favorite “somatic” stories? Are there any that you return to regularly, to read again, to re-feel?
Mc:I believe we’re lucky that contemporary American literature welcomes so many different sensibilities. I appreciate that a cerebral writer like William Gass has been as available to us as a viscerally powerful writer like Angela Carter, that writers as detached and controlled as John Updike and Alice Munro have been as available to us as writers quite the opposite like Jane Smiley and Junot Diaz and Toni Morrison and Herta Muller and Karen Brennan. I do sometimes wish that the bold work existing in that middle distance between somatic fullness and cerebral completeness would be given more attention by American literary publishing, but I’m happy that the best in that middle distance (Charles Baxter, Melanie Rae Thon, Patrick Somerville, Stacey D’Erasmo, Tom Perotta, to name a few) have found a loyal following.
As for me, I return always to Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, Tillie Olsen, Clarice Lispector, Andre Dubus, James Baldwin, and Jane Smiley when I want to remind myself of writing that invites the reader to the experiences of the wisdom tradition. In the literature of the wisdom tradition, the reader is invited to feel what she/he knows inside the work. Wisdom offers the feeling-knowing response, which is quite different than the knowing-knowing reaction. I also firmly believe that the best experimental literary work (Beckett and Woolf and Nin; Lydia Davis and Steven Millhauser and Jim Crace, for example) consistently originates from the writers who are most radically committed to wisdom.
MA: Margaret Atwood has called writing a “brain transfer,” which I love. The author begins something that the reader finishes. And it all happens through the use of simple hashmarks on a page. Symbols that stand for sounds that make up words that convey emotions, experience, time, space, tragedy, love. Sometimes when I think of the mixed-up magnitude of this fact it just blows me away. We do all of this–we reach the world–with these codified symbols that we’ve all agreed to assign meaning to. Do you ever think about it this way? Does it inspire you? Or feel like a burden?
Mc: I’m happy there are so many different kinds of work thriving in the contemporary world literary tradition. By my reckoning, the fiction receiving the most attention from American publishers concentrates upon offering completeness: a story with a well-constructed shape or arc; a defined beginning, middle, and end; a crystalline sense of irony (the recognition of human duality); a balanced treatment of dramatic elements; an imaginative regulation of language serving content.
Sadly, in the U.S. we have so many writers with amazing book manuscripts in hand who cannot find publishers only because their books offer fullness instead of completeness: a story with centrifugal force that resists finding a center; a story that is marvelous in its disproportionality; a story that gives irony its due without giving it primacy; a story that allows dynamic balance (unstable terms of engagement) to override balance; a story in which the transformative (sensation-generating, playful, pleasure-making) language is allowed, at certain moments, to overwhelm the transactive (meaning-making, plot-preserving) language.
The literature of completeness confirms for the reader the mind’s recognition of an always-emerging order in human experience. Over and over again, I return with a genuine sense of excitement to that literature, which includes Tolstoy (with the exception of War & Peace), Fitzgerald, O’Connor, Ishiguro, Carver, Salter, etc. The literature of fullness confirms for the reader the always-emerging chaos of human experience. With a great love for the palaces of the literature of completeness, I prefer the ruined palaces of the literature of fullness, which includes Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Cather, Carter, Muller, Winton, Crace, Lispector, etc. I find my body responds more fully to the body of the ruined palace: where entry and exit are no longer perfectly clear; where the original purpose for the structure is a compelling riddle, where the large and small structures are only barely evident and, as a result, the body responds to many rooms at once and the mind must relent its will to compartmentalize.
MA: And finally, what does “recovery” mean to you?
Mc:I ask for your forgiveness if the thoughts I offer about this topic sound preposterous.
I really do believe this: the luck of the writing life is that one is always in remission; the habits of presence that make it possible to create also tend to kill the many constructions of self that get between the artist and the art.
If it was a good writing day for me today, it is one from which I shall not recover.
MA: Fascinating. I don’t think I’ve ever heard quite that recovery perspective expressed. I’m so grateful for it, and for you, and for your marvelous writing. Thank you again, for sharing your time and your heart and your insights with us. May all who have read this be changed by the reading and never “recover” from what you’ve shared with us today.
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