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.