December 10, 2013KR BlogUncategorized

Fiction that Occurs Word by Word: An Interview with Hilary Plum

In a recent interview about her work, fiction writer Amy Hempel says that she has never liked the term “minimalism,” often used to describe her work. “I prefer Raymond Carver’s term,” Hempel says. “He called Mary Robison and myself ‘precisionists.’”
Hilary Plum’s debut novel, They Dragged Them Through the Streets, is precise in its language, and evocative. It is in the best way of the “precisionist” tradition of Hempel and Carver—but also expansive in a manner reminiscent of Joan Didion, Aimee Bender, even of Isaac Babel. The book, published this past March by FC2, is the story of four friends who have to deal with the complicated reverberations of the long American wars of the past decade. In alternating between those voices, it gives us a deft sense of the variety and depth of our response to these wars—and to the tragedy of war more broadly. I asked Plum some questions over email a couple months back, and precisionist that she is, each answer is as finely wrought as her novel.

DT: The form of this novel is so smart, and deceptively complex— we get the story of two different war-related deaths, Jay’s and Z’s, from four different voices: Sara, Vivienne, Ford and A. It sent me in my mind to other books whose forms are similar but different: As I Lay Dying, Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever– and especially one of my favorite books, Joan Didion’s Play it As it Lays, which I think of as being similarly tough-nosed. Even just giving each section a title of a single letter made me think of BZ in that Didion book, whose Christian name we never learn. What were your influences? How did this form develop?

HP: To think about this I might turn to that old binary, form and content. The latter first: this novel was born of a practice of attention. When the war in Iraq began, I was twenty-two, and I expected that this war would be to our generation what Vietnam was to our parents’. That in response to the cynicism and deceit with which the war was launched, to the ongoing violence of the occupation and the extraordinary damage to the nation of Iraq, our own nation would begin to buckle, to rend itself, to rise up, speak out, who knows what verb I was imagining. As we know, this is not what happened; our culture and politics went on almost as if (or quite as if) we weren’t waging two wars. We cut our taxes; we stop-lossed our soldiers; we hired PMCs; we gobbled up oil. We wiggled out of constitutional constraints; we tortured; we spied; we sent drones to do our work worldwide.
When a few years into the war I began this novel, the foremost impulse was to observe. I decided that I would endeavor for those few hours each day to observe the fact of the war: to mourn its losses, to consider what it was and would be, to mark its “progress.” I would create a miniature generation, a fragment of culture, to whom the war mattered as much as I wished it would in the world I knew. As I had naively believed it would. A dream version of our generation, these six young people—not that they are ideal, only imaginary.
It seemed obvious, then, to structure the novel around these two deaths, the veteran’s and the activist’s, Jay’s and Zechariah’s (Z’s). Jay commits suicide after returning from service in Iraq; Zechariah dies during an attempt at violent protest. If my time at my desk each day was an act of mourning, then it seemed natural that this mourning take form within the book itself. Two deaths, caused in different ways by the war in Iraq, both occurring here, on the “home front.”
Each of the novel’s short chapters is born of one day’s writing. All has been much revised, reshaped, broken up and reassembled, but at the heart of each is a day’s work. So, formally, too, the novel answers to the daily practice through which it was created.

DT: Well let’s return to the content question in a bit more detail. I got to about the halfway point of your novel the week of the Boston Marathon Bombings. I couldn’t help but think of how much more apt—and quietly terrifying—it made the scenes of having your characters discuss bombing a public place. What’s your sense of the way these characters you’ve invented match up with our current historical moment? Or, to put it another way: you are prescient, right?

HP: A few friends have written me about this and I’ve failed to answer them seriously (or, I’ve seriously failed to answer them). Let me try again. I’m not prescient, of course; these specters are present in all our imaginations. There are real differences between the characters in this novel and the Tsarnaev brothers—first that the former are fictive, the latter too real. These characters commit nothing on the scale and of the atrocity of the marathon bombings; they conceive of their actions or potential actions as acts of protest—more akin to the Weather Underground—and thus the morality of an action and its possible damage is central to the conversation. For the Tsarnaevs, the human damage was itself the aim. The Tsarnaevs were, it seems, inspired by (Inspire the name of that al-Qaeda–affiliated magazine Tamerlan Tsarnaev is said to have read) and aligned themselves with a coalition of global militant movements—how loose or how organized a coalition: a pressing question—which draws on violent, extremist Muslim, anti-Western ideology and which we recognize best in its incarnations as al-Qaeda. At the moment it doesn’t seem the Tsarnaevs were under anyone’s wing: they acted alone. I mean that they seem (from what we know) to have wanted to align themselves with these groups and their rhetoric. They were also Muslim immigrants in a country that has been in conflict with Muslim nations for most of the past two decades, and in which Islamophobia takes many forms; their father was a refugee from Chechnya, a majority Muslim land with a conflicted recent past. So the brothers’ relationship to their identity as Americans was complex, troubled—only Dzokhar was a citizen—and, so far as we can tell, it seems that in their attack they meant to strike a blow against America, on behalf of its declared enemies, diffuse as those may be.
In contrast, the novel’s characters consider themselves Americans and experience the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as Americans, members of the American home front, which is not I think how the Tsarnaevs, or at least Tamerlan, situated themselves. But: where in our imaginations do we encounter the Tsarnaevs? In the manifold forms that unanswered anger, a frustrated desire for justice, may take?
When it comes to the war in Iraq, what justice has there been, what justice could be found now? The men who lied us into a war have faced no consequences; they’ve thrived. Just as the men who drove our economy into disaster have thrived. I used the word mourning above: I believe we feel a collective need to mourn these wars, their human cost, their injustices. But mourning isn’t enough; there’s also anger. None of us may know truly what the Tsarnaevs felt or believed, and their motivations may have been quite vague. I do know that a lot of people, Iraqi and American, have paid a horrific price for the war we waged in Iraq.
I’ve been sitting on this question for days, and now I must give up, again. To try to answer this well, I think I’d have to write another book, which would still not be enough…

DT: I know from past conversations that you studied at UMass-Amherst with the wonderful short story writer Noy Holland. And that you’ve recently been reading Amy Hempel. Is there a tradition of writers out of which you think your work comes? I know it’s not conscious when you’re working, but in looking back on this novel (and your work more broadly) do you feel like you could name/describe the aesthetic that appeals to you— or your own?

HP: This too is a hard one: there are aesthetic ideas I aspire to, but don’t know that I can name myself in their ranks, or even name their ranks. I was enormously lucky to get to learn from Noy Holland, to have her mind and ear range over years of my work, guiding me always toward more resonant sentences and a truer relationship to language. Noy (and Hempel, too—I am so late to read her; I have no idea why) knows how to get to the heart of it, the it we can’t define. From her you learn to look at that terrifying drop to the water and just jump, stop gazing at your own feet or waiting for enough people to cheer you on. Or, you try to learn.
So what can I say? There is: Woolf, formidably ever-present. There is: fiction that occurs word by word, sentence by sentence, not just through the machinations of plot or whatever it is anyone means by character development. There are ways to move more freely, neither dutifully to build the whole Lego village plastic block by block (realism, in its dullest forms) nor to go around smashing each window in every imagined house (its more ideological opposites). A middle way, is this what I mean? To attend at once to the life of words and the life of story? For fiction the emphasis has come erroneously to fall on the latter, as though story or character were not made of the same stuff as any poem. My novel is published by the necessary and fantastic house FC2, which has been publishing extraordinary work, “innovative fiction,” since 1974. Is my novel innovative, would anyone who really wanted to talk about form use that word for this book? No. But in the current publishing landscape I wanted to, felt I needed to, make my home out there toward the woods, or maybe the wildest yard (what kind of Lego village is this?). I want to do the things fiction does, but I still want my freedom. To pilot by gut and ear and not just by map: map has a better reputation than it deserves.
It occurs to me that one way to answer this is to name some writers whose work I’ve loved lately. I don’t see that I belong among them by any defensible measure, nor do they all write fiction, but they all deserve a bow, and to be far more widely read: Susan Steinberg, Danielle Dutton, Nathaniel Mackey, Sebald, Margarita Karapanou (whom I’ve published: full disclosure), Magdalena Tulli, Michelle Taransky, Diane Williams, Myung Mi Kim, Mark Nowak, Kate Bernheimer, Inger Christensen.

DT: And now to the inevitable: you’ve recently taken over as a Book Review Editor at The Kenyon Review, after a number of years reading submissions and generally doing the things that make a journal like KR so great. What do you hope to bring to your new role? What excites you most about the job?

HP: It’s been an honor and continual excitement to work with the Kenyon Review these past few years—blogging, reading fiction and translations, now joining you and Kascha Semonovitch as book review editor. Working at KR means getting to collaborate with great folks and witnessing how a magazine is born of the efforts and passions of diverse minds, together encountering contemporary literature and debating and celebrating in continual lively response. I’ve worked in book publishing for some nine years; there one hopes to publish books that speak to one another and to create a list that over time may comprise a conversation, or an argument, about literature. But books head off into the world each on their own, whereas a magazine is heterogeneous and protean, with rich varieties of work coming into contact in its pages. This becomes even more true as the Kenyon Review explores new forms, with its online issues, issues for the Kindle, and who knows what to come.
While I’m of course biased, I do think it’s hard to overestimate the need for thoughtful book reviews in today’s literary culture, today’s culture. As readers, writers, citizens, we all must somehow come to terms with the wonderful and overwhelming wealth of publishing today, which is producing more books than ever, even as traditional venues for criticism—newspaper book sections!—shrink or close or must adapt swiftly to new times. No one is well-served when great books go neglected, or when the literary world becomes an echo chamber, saying the same few things about the same few books for months. KRO’s reviews help contribute to the world we’d all rather live in, where independently published books get reviewed alongside “big” books, and a wide range of aesthetics are taken seriously and smartly grappled with. As an editor I hope to keep bringing vigorous and invigorating attention to the full spectrum of our literature, and, or especially, to those writers whose excellent work is not yet well known.