Jess Arndt

Poets and Writers - - First Fiction 2017 -

whose de­but story col­lec­tion, Large An­i­mals, was pub­lished in May by Cat­a­pult.

MANY peo­ple, my­self in­cluded, have been ea­gerly await­ing a first book from Jess Arndt for some time, and now here is Large An­i­mals, a wicked sliver of a col­lec­tion that both ex­ceeds ex­pec­ta­tions and pro­vides in­nu­mer­able deep plea­sures. It’s whip-smart, in­no­va­tive, rol­lick­ing, hard-core, and sweet all at once. The world’s so lucky for it. I had the chance to talk briefly with Arndt about its pub­li­ca­tion, in L.A., where we both live.

I’m so in­ter­ested in how you went about think­ing about and mak­ing your “first book.” Do you think

of it as a com­pen­dium of the best of ev­ery­thing you’ve writ­ten to date? Or was it a more spe­cific pro­ject that left a lot of writ­ing on the cut­ting-room floor?

I think a first book is an in­san­ity. Get­ting here was white-knuck­ling it for ten years, on hope fumes. It’s kind of like: There was go­ing to be a first book, and who knew what shape it would be? It could have been any­thing. An en­tirely other novel, for in­stance; I also had that. That said, there was a dis­tinct mo­ment when my work turned, where I stopped us­ing fic­tion as some­thing to duck un­der and in­stead em­ployed it more hack-sci­en­tif­i­cally, like a lineup of funky, mostly outof-fo­cus mi­cro­scopes turned in­ward. I al­ways have a hard time talk­ing, a hard time know­ing my­self, a hard time in lan­guage. Once the writ­ing could be about that, things got a tiny bit eas­ier and these odd­shaped “sto­ries,” if that’s what they are, started to emerge then, through sheer will.

Do you think of the whole col­lec­tion as kind of one song, à la Je­sus’ Son, or do you think of the pieces more dis­cretely?

I love Je­sus’ Son, so of course I’m blush­ing even hav­ing it men­tioned. One time, when I was teach­ing fic­tion at Rut­gers, I met De­nis John­son, and I was in a kind of spirit-shock, or epi­der­mis-shock, for days. It was a shock of porous­ness. He was so gen­tle and so raw. He said, while eat­ing his veg­e­tar­ian soup—as we were all be­ing grotesque car­i­ca­tures of des­per­ate fac­ulty mem­bers, gulp­ing al­co­holic drinks and or­der­ing as much from the menu as we could—“Some­times be­fore read­ing, the sound of my breath on the mi­cro­phone makes me cry.” Any­way, I was aware of the idea of linked sto­ries, I hoped for some­thing like that. But the sto­ries kept com­ing out in such stub­born and odd­ball ways. Odd­ball not like “cute,” but frus­trat­ing. Also, they of­ten felt too alike. I re­mem­ber say­ing to my ed­i­tor, Julie Buntin, when we were deep in the process al­ready, “Is it pos­si­ble I’ve just writ­ten the same story twelve times?” I did hope for a kind of arc, through a voice that is many ver­sions of “not me” and “ex­cru­ci­at­ingly close to me.” There are some sub­tle plot de­tails—like the worry around chest surgery, the even­tual surgery, then the worry about that—that I hope, to the pa­tient reader, might be­gin to stick out or make a lit­tle funny spine for the rest to teeter on.

I keep won­der­ing while read­ing this book, what is your re­la­tion­ship to the “short story” per se? Part of why I love these sto­ries so much is that I feel like they’re both to­tally in­dif­fer­ent and dis­obe­di­ent to the norms of the form while also hang­ing to­gether bril­liantly. Do you feel like you’ve had mod­els for this kind of co­he­sion, or does it feel like you’ve been fig­ur­ing it out in the dark, or some combo pack?

In­dif­fer­ent and dis­obe­di­ent—I re­ally like that. I cer­tainly did not try to “learn the short story.” Prob­a­bly be­cause I think writ­ing is so hard any­way, I just couldn’t. Each story is its own ex­er­cise in “the only thing that could come out.” In The Writ­ing Life, Annie Dil­lard makes a very help­ful sug­ges­tion that when a writer is “stuck,” you’ve gone wrong some­where and you have to go back, some­times pretty far back. Go­ing for­ward is so tough that go­ing back of­ten feels im­pos­si­ble. But I have used that of­ten.

I have al­ways felt in the dark, and this doesn’t mean I haven’t had bril­liant and mov­ing ex­am­ples to draw from. My fa­vorite writ­ers are in­dif­fer­ent and dis­obe­di­ent. But they also care too much, are thin-skinned. Are blobs of feel­ing. I have a deep in­ter­est in dis­gust, in shame. My sense of be­ing in my body, which I can’t re­ally sep­a­rate from writ­ing, is hav­ing been forced to fig­ure it out in the dark, all along. Some days I’m very an­gry about that. But I think it helps me feel through things with other peo­ple, which is ul­ti­mately one of the most im­por­tant rea­sons for be­ing in the world.

If you do have any par­tic­u­lar love of the short story, who are some of the writ­ers you look to for ideas on voice or struc­ture or rhythm? Who are some of the writ­ers you look to most gen­er­ally?

Most of my fa­vorite au­thors write long, not short, or not short very of­ten. Roberto Bo­laño, for ex­am­ple. There’s a mo­ment deep in the dark­est part of 2666 where Bo­laño makes an ar­gu­ment that the novel, this crazy mas­sive novel, is a poem. That, to me, felt like him say­ing, form doesn’t mat­ter. The feel­ing is what mat­ters. The feel­ing in the mo­ment and the resid­ual ef­fect. I be­lieve that.

I can’t write those sprawl­ing texts be­cause in my process, I edit and edit and edit down un­til it’s al­most gone. There’s a book by Daniil Kharms called To­day I Wrote Noth­ing, in which the long­est piece is a com­pletely in­sane twen­tytwo-page novella. That book gave me some hope. Plus your most re­cent book,

“I have al­ways felt in the dark, and this doesn’t mean I haven’t had bril­liant and mov­ing ex­am­ples to draw from. My fa­vorite

writ­ers are in­dif­fer­ent and dis­obe­di­ent. But they also care too much, are thin-skinned.

Are blobs of feel­ing.”

The Arg­onauts, upped the bar on how to speak the thing that is not be­ing said, that is ex­actly the thing that needs to be said. How to be alive in the mind and on the page at the same time. Clarice Lis­pec­tor is like that. I love the in­vi­ta­tion/chal­lenge to follow her mind. I also love Jane Bowles and Lynne Till­man for their re­fusal to apol­o­gize.

Given all your own ex­pe­ri­ence in pub­lish­ing and world-mak­ing in dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties, how has it been to hand over your work to an en­ter­prise with more hands on deck, in terms of agents, publi­cists, ed­i­tors, all that jazz?

I was so thrilled. I’d been alone with the work so much. Alone—like in the mind. Alone on the screen. Alone in the desert, where I went to fin­ish it. I couldn’t be­lieve some­one was go­ing to read my sto­ries and talk to me about them—some­one very in­tel­li­gent. Couldn’t be­lieve it! Plus Andy Hunter and Cat­a­pult have been so steady­ing and in­spir­ing. The small-press world is tough. So is the le­git­i­ma­tion game. It feels kind of sad to have needed a se­ries of peo­ple to say, “Yes, what you’re do­ing mat­ters,” but when you’re try­ing to make work that rises out of non- or lit­tle-rep­re­sented forms, a small plat­form to bal­ance on re­ally helps.

IN­TRO­DUCED BY Mag­gie Nel­son au­thor of nine books, in­clud­ing The Arg­onauts, pub­lished by Gray­wolf Press in 2015.

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