To the Slaughterhouse

Greg Gerke discusses the art of short fiction and the aural approach to writing literature

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Greg Gerke is a Brooklyn-based writer who has been publishing short stories and essays for more than a decade now: his work has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, and many other venues. Especially the Bad Things, which Gary Lutz has described as a collection of “swift, swervy, nervous fictions”, is published by Splice and available to order now. An essay collection, See What I See, will be published at the end of October; it has received advance praise from critics including Steven Moore, Curtis White, and Vijay Seshadri, and is available to pre-order.

In this two-part interview focusing on the stories in Especially the Bad Things, Daniel Davis Wood speaks to Greg first about his body of work and his inspirations, and then about his writing process — story by story, sentence by sentence, sound by sound.

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Let’s start with the big picture before we focus on each of these two books. Especially the Bad Things is a collection of short fiction. See What I See is a collection of what I’ll call essays, for the sake of convenience. But despite the difference in form, I’d say these two books absolutely go hand in hand. There are reverberations between them, or glances cast from one to the other. For example, in the essays, you’ll meditate on the meaning of a particular word, and then you’ll deploy it without elaboration in the stories; or perhaps, in the stories, you’ll describe a person or place, and then one of your essays will wave towards the origins of the description.

This isn’t really surprising, I suppose, since many of these pieces of prose were written back-to-back (or concurrently?) even if they ended up in different books, but it certainly gives the two collections a shared atmosphere when read together. Would you agree with this? What do you see when you look at them in each other’s company?

I guess time breaks down when looking at one’s work. Most of the short fiction was written a decade ago and many of the essays were done in the past five years. Some of the essays were written in concert with a rather large work of fiction that I mined to add to Especially the Bad Things. The final story in the collection, ‘Descant’, is one you might have been thinking of because the essay on the film Take This Waltz examines a Yeats poem where the word is employed. Those pieces were probably edited within a few months of each other.

Some of the best essayists, like William Gass, V.S. Naipaul, and Cynthia Ozick, use similar technical swerves in their fiction. Gass has a metaphor holstered for everything. Ozick has a particular fondness for the word “scorn” — I reckon it is in every book of hers, even in multiples. When I look at my two books together, I see two separate projects and two different life experiences, with the fiction probably being a stepping stone of awkward dimensions, leading to the essays. Two autobiographies I see, but they have served me and now they go to the slaughterhouse and I will never find them again.

You’re right that ‘Descant’ is one of the examples I’m thinking of, but there are a few others which I’ll come to soon. First, though, let’s look at your short fiction on its own…

You’ve been publishing short fiction for about a decade now, and a good number of the stories in Especially the Bad Things date back to the beginning of your efforts. If I’ve got the chronology right, you spent “a very grueling winter” in Brooklyn around the time of the global financial crash, and, as you’ve put it before: “I remember sitting on a bench in Prospect Park, looking at its Long Meadow covered in snow and ice, and writing some stories in longhand while gloved.” A lot of these stories come out of that period, but you’ve also published more recent material that isn’t in this book. How do you see your arc as a writer of fiction, looking back from the here-and-now to that bench in Prospect Park?

It was the second winter after the financial crash, but I’d just returned to New York and the job market had significantly changed, which is to say I couldn’t find work. So most of the stories probably do seem to have the specter of the starving artist writing through the turmoil, like Arthur Rimbaud was reputed to do, writing poems in a cold barn at night — at least he did so in that DiCaprio film, which is truth enough for most people. In terms of the arc, there are the hidden books and the disowned books — ghostly figures which stand haunting Especially the Bad Things — but nobody knows that except me, and I’m sure they wouldn’t care. If Marcel Proust found out they are going to publish some “newly” discovered juvenilia (and they are about to), he’d throw all of Paris’ madeleines into the scuzzy Seine — and maybe himself.

So, then, would you say that your practice has become more focused or more refined over the years since you first started writing these stories? When you reflect on this book, where do you see it fitting into the bigger picture of your work?

I would have to think my work has become more focused and refined because I know so much more now, but maybe that doesn’t translate into great art — see Wordsworth. I probably needed to write small in order to write on a larger canvas, though I don’t think everyone is like that. Especially the Bad Things is a strange book; not its contents, but its existence, its spirit. It’s had three titles — and I can thank you for giving it the best one for its present (and hopefully final) iteration. A very accomplished writer told me that the book, after its first published incarnation, would draw notice slowly and surely, the way unusual books do. That’s all I needed. Another friend says he writes fiction in order to talk about what he is reading, so I suppose one could say Especially the Bad Things is a book report on reading Lydia Davis — at least that way no-one will try to look for the autobiographical elements, which are usually a ruse to something much deeper and scarier than the everyday details of someone’s life.

“A book report on reading Lydia Davis” — I like that; and, in the compression of your stories, Especially the Bad Things certainly has that feeling to it. But there’s something else there, too, something darker than in Davis. I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but the word that comes to me when I try to pinpoint this darker undercurrent of your writing is envy. Maybe this is me blending the two books together, but you’ve got an entire section in Especially the Bad Things on the petty foibles and obsessions of luckless writers, all under the section heading ‘Scribblers’, and in See What I See you’ve got an essay called ‘Envy, the Unsuccessful Writer’s Friend’, where the word “scribbler” conspicuously recurs. Here’s what you say at the end of the essay, which I’m quoting at length because there’s something in it that I find so unusual:

Envy lurks. Out of the many writers I’ve met, there’s not one who hasn’t told of some other scribbler who gets too much attention. Envy transposes our base will so it can foster a cleaner living, though keeping many in an invisible debt. When we envy, we empower ourselves. Like love, envy connects and repels, and those who serve it often don’t know how much they cherish its buttered and unbuttered sides. Sand to hold and fire to touch — envy is more than the best bitter slap to our angled impression that any deed not searing our skin fails us and so is unworthy. If one unsuccessful writer counsels another to make friends with envy, imagine this command is just short of shouted.

Envy, in this reading, is something good, something productive: a source of fuel for a creative force. But it’s also something almost tender — you compare it to love, you define it as something to be cherished — rather than a bitter swill for someone to stew in. And you’ve said elsewhere that you wrote the story ‘My Brooklyn Writer Friend’ during that hand-to-mouth winter, post-crash, after attending a literary event that filled you with “envy, despair, and anomie”. So maybe I’m not wrong in saying that, in Especially the Bad Things, your characters are driven—sometimes towards haplessness, sometimes (but rarely) away from it — by a sort of loving envy.

It’s almost as if, whereas Lydia Davis’ characters often give in to disillusionment or anomie, yours don’t, or can’t. To become disillusioned would be to give up on their envy for others, and to give up on envy would be to atrophy their capacity for love, even if it is a hypothetical love for a status they don’t possess. There’s something both exhausting and darkly comical in that situation, which I feel is what brings energy to your stories. I’m not interested so much in the autobiographical side of envy conceived as “the unsuccessful writer’s friend”, but I’m keen to know why this particular feeling preoccupies you artistically. And what sort of twists and turns did your thought processes have to go through, to bring you to a place where envy becomes almost a virtue — and so to sympathise with characters who are moved by it?

I think the best way to answer this is to examine the word itself. The OED gives the most recognized sense of the word as: “The feeling of mortification and ill-will occasioned by the contemplation of superior advantages possessed by another”. In another dictionary, “aroused” is used rather than “occasioned.” Both words conjure the queasy, but for different reasons. In fact, the word used to mean “malignant or hostile feeling” and “active evil, harm, mischief” — seemingly, we’ve come a long way. Certainly, I think the reference to the philosopher E.M. Cioran in ‘Envy, the Unsuccessful Writer’s Friend’ is the backbone: “To venture upon an undertaking of any kind, even the most insignificant, is to sacrifice to envy”. Cioran’s epigrammatic style of focusing on places where the irreal sun of seeing things in only black and white doesn’t shine has been more than attractive, along with Emerson and Gass. Gillian Rose is a newer addition.

It’s natural to envy, so why not make peace with it? I’m talking in a very superficial way here — but I would say this preoccupation is my own offshoot of the hugger-mugger around Gordon Lish’s workshop. I haven’t studied with him, but I’ve been to a number of his “talks”; enough to have taken what I needed. I believe Cioran was a source for him, but to get back to the issue — turning envy into a virtue is really just my creative process, the fuse that drives the flowering of The Muse. In a similar way, when Lish says, “You start with what you are hiding or what scares you”, there’s no question of error, because you are on your own path, however clichéd that sounds. No matter what it is, it’s your world and you have the responsibility of making it beautiful. And here is where the criticisms of college-like “workshop” and New York-centric literary cultures (agents and publishers) fail: because it is your world, criticisms beyond the cosmetic — for example, “I didn’t connect to the main character” or “I don’t feel enough is at stake” — are pointless. If you start trying to please people or become more commercial, it will show, like walking with a broken leg. But if you are mobilized in your area, you are safe — not insular, but rock steady. I see Lish, Gass, Cioran, and Emerson as people on the same team — it’s all about language; the soul (of the writer) is revealed inside the sentence and the sound therein is the story.

So, in this description of your process — or what seems to be a direction of movement, a drive, rather than something so methodical as a process — I’m seeing two stages, two steps. The first is the movement away from conventional, away from conflict-driven narrative and “relatable” characters and so on. Then, the second movement is the movement towards sound, into the acoustics of language. And the second doesn’t necessarily follow from the first, so I’m interested in the connection between the two.

Would you see Samuel Beckett as playing an instrumental role in your movement away from convention? You haven’t written much about him, and stylistically I don’t see him as an influence on your work, but in another interview you’ve mentioned reading Beckett at a young age, on the advice of an uncle, and in See What I See you’ve got an uncle (the same uncle?) making a caustic, Beckettian remark about Louise Glück. Is Beckett the prime mover here, the explosion that propels you away from convention? Or is it perhaps your uncle?

Yes, I think it’s fairly accurate to define it as a drive rather than a process and this goes to the heart of See What I See and the two most important quotations there: Proust on the innermost self who produces the work, versus the superficial self who talks about art in drawing room conversations, and William Gaddis’ “compositional self”, which does the real work, the constant revising and editing. So before tackling your questions, I should say I must be speaking in this drawing room voice because I don’t know if the experience of making the compositional self can be spoken of dispassionately by the author of the work — except as the product, the book itself. That innermost self is a comet and once you try to take a picture of it, it might not appear in shipshape form again. This might be superstitious, but I do believe in the entity called The Muse — it’s not necessarily me, I’m just maneuvering the pen. And certainly the best scenario would be to nullify all of one’s biography and just have the books in its stead. And upon death, that’s the best hope in terms of the writing life.

In talking about the two movements, you are spot-on: they did happen in that order, but a decade apart, with Beckett pre-dating all of that. That same uncle was instrumental — I went to visit him in Boston when I was twenty-one and he handed me a stack of Beckett’s plays and fiction; Sam Shepard and Harold Pinter, too. There are probably writers who teach you how to write and writers who teach you what to write about. I would think that, for an English-language writer, Dostoevsky, Proust, and other foreign writers would belong to the latter camp, due to the fact that the fine-tuned music of their sentences or verse is absent and filled in by the translator. And maybe there are writers who are so central that they get absolutely buried in one’s geology; that’s probably where Beckett is in me, his great granite face can’t be seen. I suppose I wrote in two ways for a number of years: straight-laced realism and something more undefinable. So I think Beckett always remained in my substrata. Then, when I found Donald Barthelme, Gass, Stanley Elkin, Donald Antrim, and Lydia Davis, some non sequitur phone call scene from a David Lynch film occurred and my unconscious got juddered — and going back to Beckett years later, after reading those other writers in the interim, enriched the experience of Molloy and so on. I felt some recognition and some splendor, as the root system in world literature seems to get more understandable, vivid, and propounding, because Beckett not only sat with Joyce, he took dictation from him. And Ezra Pound made some uncouth remark to Beckett the first time they met — Pound spoke to Henry James — James met Flaubert…

And then, apropos the spoken word, in the form of taking dictation, tell me about the movement towards sound “The sound is the story” — that’s Gass, obviously, and Lish, and Gary Lutz. What is it about acoustics that moves you, that keeps the pen scribbling across the page or the fingers tapping at the keys? You could move away from narrative convention in any number of directions quite distinct from sound — imagism, abstract aphorism, Robert Burtonesque elaboration upon elaboration, anatomisation — so why is it this that gives you momentum

The Sound is the Story — many people I say this to push back. I’m not claiming everyone works by this methodology. Certainly, for all her glories, Alice Munro does not apply to this — her rhythms are more staccato; it’s her narrative time-frames that astound. In terms of acoustics, I would again point to The Muse. Hopefully, The Muse will keep providing me more and more refined chunks of text that will need to be revised and revised, but The Muse gets them onto the page with hopes to be more an earful or a mouthful, something that will obey its own inner dynamics when spoken or heard, even by the reader’s head, which moves over the silence of text but which we translate into the sound of speaking in our head as the eye laser temporarily records it for sense. As Gass writes, “By the mouth for the ear.”

And maybe here is another distinction between writers — the auralists versus those who are better kept in the head than the mouth. Gass was all about his works being made for the mouth — he also read them aloud when editing, something I’ve taken on. I would also put Elkin, John Hawkes, Cormac McCarthy, Don DeLillo, Ozick, Elizabeth Hardwick, Lutz, and Christine Schutt in this camp. For me, Gaddis and David Foster Wallace are almost exclusively aimed at the internal reader, and yield the experience of the brain clogging with Foster Wallace’s information or its attempting to make sense of the contrapuntals of three Gaddis novels that are primarily dialogue — punctation, ellipsis, and spacing are very important. Reading Gaddis aloud, one often has to tell the listener what is afoot visually on the page. Reading Foster Wallace aloud exhausts my mouth, he’s not good for balancing the chakras. Neither has those built-in holds for the reader to pause and let the listener reconnoiter. Henry James might be the only English-language writer who can belong to both camps equally. It’s in the mouth and it batters the head; reading him is like playing Rafael Nadal on clay.

I think an appreciation of poetry ties into my way of working. Certain snippets of verse are always wading in and out of the stream — the beauty of the most basic words passing keeps me sane and I often ponder Yeats: “Get all the gold and silver that you can,/ Satisfy ambition, animate/ The trivial days and ram them with the sun.” The language is writing’s medium more than anything, but I guess one would be hard-pressed to say whether the language or the story of the greatest literature is what propels it. One is a measure of the other. The Da Vinci Code might be a good story, but the language is execrable and so, for me, unreadable. After reading Stanley Elkin and Sam Lipsyte, I can hardly tell what the story is about — the language takes away any need to “know” in the traditional sense; it’s like listening to Bach or Miles Davis, just relax and let it move you.

This is part one of a two-part interview with Greg Gerke. In the second part, Greg discusses his writing process and the composition of the fictions in Especially the Bad Things.

About Daniel Davis Wood

Daniel Davis Wood is based in Scotland. His début novel, Blood and Bone, won the Viva La Novella Prize in his native Australia, and his follow-up, At the Edge of the Solid World, was published to acclaim in 2020. He is also the author of a monograph, Frontier Justice in the Novels of James Fenimore Cooper and Cormac McCarthy, and the novella Unspeakable. He blogs at Infinite Patience and tweets @DanielDavisWood.