Literature More Like Jazz
Joshua Rothes discusses editing Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster’s 926 Years
Joshua Rothes is the founding editor of Sublunary Editions, a Seattle-based micropress with a focus on publishing beautifully designed volumes of short fiction. Sublunary’s core offer is a series of monthly mail-outs, but it has also begun publishing slim books featuring literature in translation — Pierre Senges’ Falstaff: Apotheosis, translated by Jacob Siefring — and newly commissioned work. Its first foray into this last area is Kyle Coma-Thompson and Tristan Foster’s collaborative project, 926 Years, published at the end of January.
Coma-Thompson is the author of the story collections The Lucky Body (2013) and Night in the Sun (2016); Foster’s début collection is Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father (2018). They worked together on 926 Years from a distance, on opposite sides of the world, writing and revising the twenty-two flash fictions in the collection with editorial oversight from Rothes. Following the launch of the book, Rothes was generous enough to engage via email with Daniel Davis Wood, to describe the process of bringing 926 Years into print and to discuss its place in the Sublunary Editions catalogue.
How familiar were you with The Lucky Body, Night in the Sun, and Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father before you picked up 926 Years?
Of the two, I was far more familiar with Tristan’s work, mostly thanks to social media (it’s good for something, after all) where we had struck up something of a rapport, buying each other’s books and the like. Letter to the Author was proof, when I read it, that Tristan and I share a lot of the same concerns, though we approach them quite differently. When he decided to take a break from the madness of Twitter, we began a correspondence via email.
What sort of concerns do you mean, exactly?
Now, the philosophical turn. The philosopher of science Wilfrid Sellars once wrote: “The aim of philosophy, abstractly formulated, is to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term.” I think that’s a pretty good summation of literature’s aims as well. What I see in Tristan’s writing is a concern with how life, in that broad sense, hangs together, how people fit together, miraculous as it seems sometimes. Also, how they don’t.
Sellars’ most famous idea was the idea of the manifest image: that is, how the world appears to us and how we understand it in the course of our everyday lives, as opposed to what could be called the scientific image, which is what we know of the world through experiment, theory, measurement, and which often doesn’t square with how we experience the world. Human consciousness, to my mind, is a kind of toolset for dealing with this sort of cognitive dissonance, and Tristan’s writing, to me, is full of situations in which people are trying to reconcile their experiences with something deeper, not necessarily scientific, but something that doesn’t quite square with the world as they find it, that creates a sense of confusion and dread and, really, sadness… people unable to communicate, to name what they know to be true, struggling to find news frames of reference that can anchor them, for a time, in the world. I won’t say you can sum up Tristan’s project in this way, but those are some of the elements that made me feel a kinship with him, as a writer.
Okay, so 926 Years kind of began from your interactions with Tristan, but in your Q&A with Joseph Schreiber at 3AM Magazine, you said: “I wasn’t sure what kind of books I wanted to publish until I saw the manuscript for this one.” So how did it end up reaching you in that more detailed form?
It came up in the course of our correspondence that Tristan and Kyle had been working on a series of collaborative poems. (It was at this point that I bought a copy of Night in the Sun and fell headlong for Kyle’s unique voice in the short story form.) Just beginning to get into planning the monthly mailings for Sublunary, I asked Tristan about maybe publishing a few poems one month, and after reading through a selection I expanded my pitch to include a chapbook. Tristan and Kyle huddled, metaphorically speaking — distances and all — and came back with a pitch of their own: that they would write something entirely new, setting up some fresh rules-of-the-game for their collaboration. 926 Years was the result.
And it appealed to you because you found it speaking to the metaphysical/aesthetic concerns you share with Tristan?
I’d say that these concerns are a part of 926 Years, though I was not given any indication of plot or form when Tristan and Kyle made the pitch. It was very much a case of “What if we wrote something new instead?” and I gave them a rough page count to work with (which was happily exceeded).
How closely does their first pass at the collection resemble the finished product?
The stories were pretty close to their final form by the time I got the manuscript. There were some small changes made, here and there, but the number and order of them was the same as in the final product. Tristan and Kyle were (and are) like two blades, sharpening one another, which made my job rather easy, as they had pared down and tightened the book a good deal by the time I saw it — though the title, as I understand it, was in flux down to the wire, for obvious reasons. I gave them a good deal of my trust, and they rewarded it handsomely. Those are the best kinds of collaborations.
That’s an interesting image, the two writers as two blades “sharpening one another”. Can shed some light on their process? After all, it is remarkably difficult to tell which of the stories were written by Tristan and which by Kyle — and it’d damage the book to identify the particulars, since part of its beauty comes from the indeterminacy of authorship — but do you know broadly how they worked it out?
I’ll try to answer this as best I can, 1) as someone who wasn’t involved until the later stages, and 2) to not reveal too much of the inner workings of the book.
There was an initial idea put forth by Kyle, vaguely (again, the mystery), of fragmented reincarnation, a story about how the splinters of one life can lodge themselves in so many others. They took turns writing chapters, spurring one another on, pushing themselves with each piece, both in pace and content. The book came together very quickly — some pieces, while later revised, came together in a single sitting, from what I’m told. I won’t divulge who wrote each piece, but I can say that the last piece in the book, ‘Alexander’ — the one that Edwin Turner at Biblioklept said made him “happy in a strange, nervous way” — was the result of a specific challenge, from one writer to the other.
When he reviewed the book on his blog, Joseph Schreiber also referred to the book as a “collaborative effort — not just between the authors but with the editor/publisher”. What can you say about your own creative involvement? In what respects did you push Kyle and Tristan to expand on, or pare back, what they sent you?
I agree with Joe’s assessment, but I do want to clarify that the text itself was very much Kyle and Tristan. I had my input, of course, as to how we would standardize certain things, I offered a few small suggestions, but my role in the text comes down to giving them the space in which to undertake it.
My most central role was in designing the book, both the cover and interior. I took some cues from how the manuscript was delivered — for instance, the title of each piece set opposite the age — and worked to bring that into the final product. The three of us have countless email threads going back and forth, discussing cover options, how the table of contents would be typeset, who to contact as early readers, how the marketing copy should position the book, and so on. Easy enough for me as publisher to say, but it never really felt hierarchical. We all had something invested in the project, and when one of us would become busy with non-literary life, the others would step up and help carry the load. It was a rare thing to be a part of, and I think we all felt that.
Finally, how do you see 926 Years as setting the tone for future standalone books from Sublunary Editions? Or in what ways do you hope it does? Obviously there’s already a format — short, compact — but how might this shape future titles in terms of thematics, aesthetics, the process of composition?
I think, first and foremost, it gives me the confidence to continue working with the size and shape of the books I’m doing now, as the response has been very positive. It also set a tone. Not necessarily a theme or style, but definitely a tone, a timbre that I will hold other books up to. Already, two more small tomes from Sublunary are imminent: Vik Shirley’s Corpses in March and A Luminous History of the Palm by Jessica Sequeira. They will, in their own ways, shape the future of the project, as Falstaff did before 926 Years.
But it has made me curious and excited about the potential of collaborative works. What 926 Years avoided so well was its cohesion: in musical terms, it sounded like a band, rather than two musicians put together playing the same tune but trying to elbow their way in front of one another. That’s a testament to the unique bond between Kyle and Tristan, which will, I imagine, be difficult to replicate. But I’m open to the right pairing. It’s something that I don’t think we see enough of in literature, which at all times I wish was more like jazz.