“The thing gleams from inside the book”: A conversation/dictionary with Rachel Glaser

One of this summer’s great pleasures was reading Rachel Glaser’s commanding and audacious debut, Pee On Water (from Publishing Genius). Glaser’s stories are bold and wild and singular–in the words of TriQuarterly:

It is clear from the outset that Glaser intends to tinker with tradition: the opening story… start[s] as if it were a child’s tale, then shift[s] into a Little Women vignette, then into an imagined and highly colorful account of Louisa May Alcott’s lifestyle, before finally revealing, eight pages later, that the narrator of the story “The Magic Umbrella” is an old and battered copy of Little Women that lives in a rare books collection.

With a mischievous wisdom Glaser folds nonfiction into her fictional structures. In “The Jon Lennin Experience,” the protagonist is caught up in a “reality video game” of John Lennon’s life. The title story, “Pee on Water,” sweeps through the history of the earth and the entire human race, this huge endeavor accomplished as though simply by Glaser’s vivid, startling prose (“Each story is threaded with a series of small, lovely shocks,” writes The Collagist). The story begins:

Though alien to the world’s ancient past, young blood runs similar circles. All those bones are born from four grandparents. Baby teeth and baby teeth all down the line. Jackets didn’t used to zip up. There wasn’t a single door.

One of my favorite stories, “Iconographic Conventions of Pre- and Early Renaissance: Italian Representations of the Flagellation of Christ,” moves from its title subject through a meditation on cover songs to the trial of Kobe Bryant, in rhythms like this:

No description exists. Christ was slender, his hair casually framing his long face. Like a horse’s, and unhappy. Like a bluesman playing his blues. A mostly empty ketchup, a basset hound looking low with eyelids lower. His chest had some or none hairs. A beard over his cheeks because that was the style back then; only warriors shaved their beards, and that was to show how sharp their swords were. That was for fun. Also, it was custom for a cuckold to have a warrior shave his beard, publicly showing his marriage as flawed, an invitation to flaw it further.

Curiosity plus passion is almost equal to being smart. E = a Mazda car driving twice as fast. E = Michael Jordan dunking two balls while coughing. God is the closest thing to an all-knowing entity. She indexes over 9.5 billion web pages, which is more than any search engine on the web. She sorts through this vast amount of knowledge using her patented PageRank technology. God is virtually everywhere on earth at the same time. With the proliferation of Wi-Fi networks, one will eventually be able to access God.”

I wanted to invite Glaser here to talk about her writing, but instead of the usual interview format, I asked her to write some personal definitions of writerly terms. (This approach was inspired by a project I’ve been participating at Big Lucks: a “cover” of Milan Kundera’s dictionary in The Art of the Novel). I supplied the terms, and she wrote the definitions. This is what happened:

A writer’s dictionary by Rachel Glaser

People are very suspicious of this. There is a talking fork in your story, but the fork is trying to address a political issue thinly veiled as a kitchen drawer drama. A character from a story reaches out and hangs onto a character from beyond the story. The reader sees it and gets uncomfortable. The reader misses it and everyone in their class is incredulous.???

Animals (talking) (anthropomorphism) (bestiality)
I enjoy writing talking animals because they are speaking from such great bodies. It seems anything they say is true. Even if the animal is lying, it is a smart, purer than human lie.

To be faked carefully. If you cut and paste from Wikipedia, lose the blue underline. This is the stunning result when the thing you are reading seems more real than your life. The writer has given birth to a city, just by stringing some words like beads.???

Beauty (and its opposites)
Stories often include the human ideal for looks, and the most stylish landscapes. It wants to cram in a few moments of beauty, because a beautiful thing absorbs words. There are many ways to write it. The thing gleams from inside the book. Ugliness in a book, often looks the same as beauty. Many places where one lingers in an array of words, has made the ugly thing beautiful by taking the time to describe it. Unless it leaks out of the book like a smell.

The point of the story where the bullets collide. The mailman breaks into tears. The president slips on a banana peel at the ceremony. The writer has hit a home run, and now walks calmly out of the stadium. The story rattles with the cares of all the characters. You hear your name being called to dinner, but you’ve reached the magic pinnacle of the plot. ???

An author tries something new, and a thoughtful interviewer types “This is a real departure from your earlier work” and the author agrees and says he recently had a kid, or the silvery instinct to try a new process. Alternate definition: This is when the lead character leaves the novel out of boredom. He checks into a hotel of blank pages.