The Necessity of Influence: A Conversation with Damion Searls (Part I, Fiction)
The thing I like most about these five stories is the way Searls has subtly filled them with literary anecdotes and allusions, which are exciting for bookies to discover but never distract from the characters' humanity or the fun of the stories. It's simply an organic part of who he is as a writer, and who we are as readers of fiction.
In our recent email conversation, Searls had some interesting things to say about the writing life, and the necessity of writing through reading.
Amazon.com: You're an accomplished translator, and you have several, pretty high profile translations coming up. How does your fiction writing fit into this, chronologically?
Damion Searls: Chronologically, there’s a sort of slow alternating rhythm, but with lots of overlap and crossover because I like the stimulation of different things going on. Facing a deadline on one project is usually when I get my best work done on another one. There were four or five years when I wrote my book of stories and a first novel, Lives of the Painters, which hasn’t found a publisher yet; I’m now in a phase of focusing on translations and on getting things published. Of course that means I’m longing to get back to my second novel!
Amazon.com: Were you initially trained as a writer or a translator? How did you get into translation?
DS: I’ve never been trained as either, except by reading. I got into translation because there was good stuff in German--short nonfiction vignettes by Peter Handke--that I wanted to try in English. The same as most writers with stories to tell, I think, except that my stories were not particularly mine. (Handke would say that they weren’t his either: he sees himself as a reteller, not a storyteller.)
Amazon.com: Do you see yourself more as a fiction writer who translates, or a translator who writes fiction? How does translating inform your fiction?
DS: Dubravka Ugresic, a Croatian writer I’ve worked with and a good friend, once told me she thinks every writer should serve the cause of Literature before expecting anyone to read their own writing: serve as a teacher, a translator, an editor or publisher. That seems right to me.
I sometimes say that translation has all the benefits of being a writer--you get to exercise all your creativity--but it also has two extra advantages: you never face a blank page, and you never face a written page and wonder if it’s crap. It has already proven its ability to move the reader, because it’s already moved you. Translation is also excellent training because you get to write much higher quality prose or poetry than you would otherwise.
But ultimately, I think of the two activities as very similar. I have a translator’s imagination. I get inspired by what I read; I like hanging out behind the scenes; I’d rather share something I love with a reader than make the reader love me personally. (The great writer and artist Joe Brainard once said: “Art to me is walking down the street with a friend and saying ‘Don’t you like that building too?’”)
Both writing and translating really belong with a third activity, reading. Borges once said he thought of himself as a so-so writer but a great reader, and I identify with that; and Borges was also a translator too, like Proust, Rilke, Murakami, Handke, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and probably most great writers outside the English-speaking world.
Amazon.com: I like this response. It gels with my notion of you as a writer who is genuinely engaged with literature on a global, philosophical level, which comes across in your fiction. Have you always been a reader and a writer?
DS: I’ve always been a reader, but I read science fiction as a kid and went to college to be a physics major. (I ended up a philosophy major.) I didn’t imagine myself as a writer. Then again, I was a fan of the “Three Investigators” mystery series and I did try to write an installment when I was ten. Borrowing other people’s narrative forms already! It was about 10 or 12 pages long, and I got bored with the plot so the missing ruby fell out of someone’s bag in the subway and they caught him, the end.
Amazon.com: The stories in What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going are translations of a sort. Do you see them that way?
DS: I do see them that way. What I want from a book—what I want to find as a reader, and make as a writer—is another world I can lose myself in. And there are several ways a book can make you lose yourself. You can get caught up in a suspenseful story, which transports you; a book can create a vivid atmosphere, so that you feel like you’re somewhere else; and it can connect with other books, because if you make a sort of underground tunnel from your book to someone else’s, then your reader has access to all the space in the other book too. What’s more fun than a secret passageway! My desire to do that third thing, as I do in my book of stories, comes from the same place as my translator’s desire to bring a great book from another language to American readers.
Amazon.com: I'm curious about the stories listed in the Acknowledgments. Why did you pick them? How did they influence your writing?
DS: For people who haven’t read my book, you’re giving away something the reader finds out at the end: that each of my five stories is inspired, sometimes based pretty closely, on a story from the past, by writers such as Nabokov and Hawthorne. That’s not the important thing about my stories, and you don’t need to know anything about the older stories to enjoy mine, but they’re there and they're acknowledged, they’re what prompted my stories in one way or another.
I think probably the fact that I’m eager to own up to this influence is more telling than the particular stories I used. I agree with Emerson: “We need not fear excessive influence. A more generous trust is permitted. Serve the great.”
As for the particular stories, I didn’t pick them for any programmatic or thought-out reasons, they just inspired me. It’s like asking any writer why they decided to write about the characters or situations they wrote about--I’m not sure I know why any better than you do.
Amazon.com: And yet, it’s common for a writer to know what inspired a particular story, whether it’s a pair of shoes on the sidewalk or a conversation overheard on the bus. In your case, you’re inspired by other stories, other styles. Does that seem right?
DS: Inspired by other stories, yes, and I like being able to have different styles to try to write in. (As a translator too.) It keeps you from getting bored or boring. It’s like my novel that I mentioned earlier. Lives of the Painters is in four sections about four different painters: a 13th Century Chinese court painter, Vermeer, Giorgio Morandi, and a present-day (female) young painting student. The chapters are in different styles and with different atmospheres--I like taking the reader to all the different times and places.
Actually it’s not so much that the story inspires me--not consciously at least--but that it gives me a way to say what I want to say. For example, my story “The Cubicles” is about a seemingly cushy but actually pretty dreary day job, and Hawthorne’s “The Custom-House” is about his own seemingly cushy but actually pretty dreary day job. Deciding to write a sort of pastiche of Hawthorne gave me an excuse to say what I had to say about my life in the cubicles, and gave me a style to say it in that made the story more interesting. (The friction between the leisurely, ironic, nineteenth-century sentences and imagery and the glittery Silicon Valley internet world create a lot of the humor in the story.)
Amazon.com: How does letting yourself fall under the influence of a particular writer change the way you write? What are the dangers/pitfalls?
DS: If you believe that everyone has a unique personal inner voice, then you might see mine as getting “drowned out” by the others, but I don’t really see it that way. Even if I tried my hardest to copy someone else, it would come out sounding like me, so what’s to be afraid of? Every word in the language is borrowed from someone else, after all. If you’re completely “original” you’re speaking nonsense. (Thoreau calls this borrowing an axe from a neighbor, and saying you ought to return it a little sharper.)
As a practical pitfall, it’s true that I’m easily distracted. Whenever I read something I like I’m tempted to try to write like that. Proust says this is the great pitfall of reading; he wrote a book of pastiches of other writers’ styles, just translated as The Lemoine Affair, but said that he did it to get everyone else’s voice out of his system so that he could start looking for his own.
Amazon.com: It's funny that you mentioned voice, because that was my next question. Your stories share a casual literary sensibility that makes them such a pleasure to read, and yet they are so different from each other--style-wise. It’s as if by exploring different structures, you have managed to subvert the notion of voice in fiction writing, if even a little bit. Was that a goal?
DS: It wasn’t a goal I started out with but I’m glad you feel that way. It’s complicated though. On the one hand, as the character says at the beginning of “The Cubicles,” I don’t believe expressing your private inner self through your “voice” is necessarily all that interesting--I believe in engaging with other voices, with a tradition; I believe in creativity through translating and copying; the heroes of my last story, "Dialogue Between the Two Chief World Systems," argue against an eminent creative writing professor who encourages everyone’s special unique specialness. On the other hand, the professor says at the end that you have to trick your deepest inner voice into showing itself; your voice comes out strongest when you’re trying your hardest to deny it. And he may well be right, with my own book as a prime example. I use these model stories but the results sound like me, not like them. (There’s a scene in a Murakami novel where a character says how she figures out about people: she gets them to talk about themselves for 10 minutes and then believes exactly the opposite of what they’re saying at the end.)
I’m happy that my story really did end up as a dialogue, not a position paper where I’m sure I know which side I believe.
You do find your voice a lot more easily if you try to write like someone else than if you try to write like yourself: if your story is entirely introspective and self-regarding then it’s probably going to sound a lot like all the other stories like that we’ve already read, but the farther you get outside yourself the more it’ll sound like you. The title of my first book Everything You Say Is True, a travelogue describing a series of places, comes from a line at the end: when you encounter a strange place you realize that everything you say about it is true, but true of yourself.
**End of semi-spoiler!**
Amazon.com: Can you talk about the role that place plays in your stories? Are the settings more about familiarity and otherness than about the actual places? (e.g., “56 Water Street” reflects sort of a permanent “home” and the Pacific NW of “Goldenchain” is clearly “away from home.”)
DS: It’s interesting you say that about “56 Water Street”: that’s a story I wrote far away from home, about a place I’d never actually lived. It’s also the only story, I think, that doesn’t say where it takes place. Maybe that’s why it’s about a house, and what it means to stay at home.
The other stories are pretty thoroughly grounded in actual places, and most of my other work is too (the travelogue, the painter novel about Hangzhou and Amsterdam and Bologna and Berkeley, all places I’ve visited or lived in). I like describing places for the same reason I like translation: I like to be faithful, to give things outside myself the attention they deserve.
Amazon.com: The book starts with writing and ends with writing. So, in a sense it feels like a meditation on writing, even though the stories are very funny and heartbreaking and engaging on a human level as well. How much of it, in your mind, is about the act of writing?
DS: Do I get one mysterious writer answer? “All of it and none of it....”
Seriously though, as a first book of stories its meaning for me has a lot to do with finding my writerly way into the tradition. But its meaning for readers is more about getting to know the sensibility of mine that you mentioned, and about what it’s like to be in a bad job or a bad relationship, to have a crazy scheme or two, to try to find your way in America if you feel connected to a world that isn’t the same as everybody else’s.
Tomorrow in Part II, we talk about the translations and the Thoreau. You can read more about Damion's work on his website, or, if you're in NYC, you can see him read tomorrow night with Benjamin Kunkel at BookCourt in Brooklyn.--Heidi