Ander Monson

Interviewed by Pamela Pierce

Ander Monson is the author of Neck Deep and Other Predicaments (2007), winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. In Vanishing Point (2010), he questions the status of the “I” in U.S. culture. Vanishing Point explores topics ranging from the chemically engineered flavors of Doritos to the largest ball of paint in Alexandria, Indiana, while continuously questioning the status of “truth” in creative nonfiction. For his novel in development, A Beginner’s Guide to the Labyrinth, Monson received the George A. and Eliza Gardner Howard Foundation Fellowship with a stipend of $25,000. He lives in Tucson, Arizona and edits the online literary journal, DIAGRAM. DIAGRAM celebrates the various forms writing can take. The tenth anniversary issue of the magazine was published as a deck of cards (see it featured in Poets & Writers November/December issue). The deck was playable and readable.


INTERVIEWER

You’ve recently been awarded a grant to work on your novel. Do you have any research trips planned?

ANDER MONSON

I’m not sure is the short answer. There are two things I want to do: I want to go to Crete, which is the site of the original sort of labyrinth, and [writer and mazemaker Michael] Ayrton did a pilgrimage there also. Second, there’s a maze that Ayrton built in Arkville, New York. It’s upstate, in the Catskills. It’s a life-sized maze. Ayrton had two novels that came out in the ’60s. One of them is called The Midas Consequence and one is The Maze Maker. They were both pretty successful in the US, and after one of them a rich guy in upstate New York hired Ayrton to essentially build a life sized stone maze. It’s called the ArkvilleMaze and I’ve never had the chance to see it. That’s pretty high on my list.

INTERVIEWER

How will those trips play into the novel you’re working on?

ANDER MONSON

The way that research works for me tends to be very amorphous. I don’t know what is going to be useful and what is not. It seems to me that if I want to write a novel that in some ways is about the labyrinth, then I am obliged to do what I can to find real life labyrinths and historic labyrinths, most of which have been erased, to gain some kind of historic perspective and sense of it. So that’s the plan right now. I’m going to do a little bit of caving. There are a lot of meditation labyrinths, which are sort of a recent thing since about ’99. The labyrinth as a tool for meditation is a sort of New Age thing that has come back.

INTERVIEWER

Have you explored any of the mineshafts or caves around Tucson?

ANDER MONSON

I haven’t. I’ve only been here a couple of years. The problem is you can’t really do a lot of solo explorations of the mines. You can get tours of the one in Bisbee. There’s a lot of strip mining. I presume the San Xavier mine you can tour—that’s a research mine owned by the University of Arizona. So I don’t know. I prefer to just tool around there by myself.

Bisbee is a lot like my hometown in upper Michigan. They’re both copper mining towns built into the side of a mountain. We don’t really have mountains [in my hometown], kind of big hills. The only difference is that Bisbee is close to Tucson, and where I’m from is not close to anywhere. Ten hours to Chicago. There’s a little more money in Bisbee.

INTERVIEWER

I know that when I read Vanishing Point you mentioned some of the places and things in Tucson that kind of crossed the line between the virtual and the real—if there’s even a line between those two anymore. You mentioned the Southern Arizona Gamers Association Conference. You went to that conference and the Miniature Museum in Tucson.

ANDER MONSON

Which is pretty interesting.

INTERVIEWER

I was wondering what other places you found to explore in Tucson, places that were distinctly Tucson and blurred that line.

ANDER MONSON

Well, that’s a good question. I just got an email from the Southern Arizona Gamers Association—actually, their upcoming conference is in October and I might go again. Tucson seems like a place that has a lot of—I don’t want to say randomness—but there are a lot of strange, kind of out of the way places, and again I’ve only been here for a couple of years. I’ve tried to tool around and find some of them.There’s one place—I don’t even know what it is—if you take I-10 north towards Phoenix, it’s kind of up by Marana, and it seems to be a former BMX race track. There’s all of these towers coming out of the earth.

INTERVIEWER

Is that where there’s also teepees or wigwams or something?

ANDER MONSON

There might be. Maybe it’s some kind of abandoned theme park. The other place that I’m interested in is the spiritualist colony that’s up north of Ft. Lowell. It’s really strange. I cannot think of the name. It was started by a guy who was a spiritualist and believed in ghosts. It’s sort of a theme park for kids.

INTERVIEWER

Is it Valley of the Moon?

ANDER MONSON

That’s it. Small and strange and odd. Yet kind of fascinating that it just exists in the middle of a neighborhood.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve gone on their website, and around Halloween they’re having a special event that I really want to go to.

ANDER MONSON

That’s a place I’m very interested in. I haven’t gotten around to spending a lot of time there, but I’m on their email list and I’ve given them some money. Because I think it’s kind of a fascinating holdover. This, again, is kind of the way I think of Tucson. It tolerates a lot of weirdness in a way that, say, Scottsdale or something like that wouldn’t. There’s so much money [in Scottsdale] that it all gets blown out of there. There’s no way you’d have anything remotely like that in Scottsdale. I presume. Maybe there is, and I just don’t know about it.

INTERVIEWER

There’s not. Does experimenting with form and the construction of writing offer a way out of the labyrinth or a way farther in?

ANDER MONSON

I don’t know what the answer is to that. Last winter I went down to the San Xavier mission on the Tohono O’odham reservation. I found this postcard there of an image called “Man in the Maze.” The idea of the labyrinth has appeared in most every culture and the Tohono O’odham version is called man in the maze, in which an image of a man stands atop a concentric-circle sort of labyrinth—it might be the weaving pattern on a basket or on a rug, and in fact there is a stone labyrinth setup out front of the mission. The idea is that the man starts up here and there’s one path to the center. It’s a metaphor for life, that we are, in fact, in a labyrinth. There is where we came from, and there is where we’re going. The difference between a labyrinth and a maze in the contemporary sense is that in a labyrinth you can’t make a wrong decision; there aren’t any decisions to make. In a maze there’s forking paths, you can double back—you can get lost in a maze where you can’t get lost in a labyrinth. You can get stuck in either, but lost isn’t possible in a labyrinth. When you think of the one on Crete, you could get lost in there in the stories—though probably that has more to do with temptation and danger than actually getting lost—still, Theseus has Ariadne’s thread to keep him located and tethered to the outside world. So in that sense, it’s hard to tell which direction you’re going, if you’re going in or coming out. Personally, I prefer the idea of going in and in and in—a journey to the center of the earth or of the body or of the brain (the labyrinth suggests the cavities and networks of the body, of the mine, of the cave, of the brain). The project does connect to DIAGRAM only in the sense that the novel (or website for it) uses some images, and DIAGRAM of course uses images. But the images in the novel aren’t diagrams for the most part. And both novel and DIAGRAM are composed (partly) in Dreamweaver. I was putting together the new issue of DIAGRAM today in fact. So the idea of writing in Dreamweaver where things are clickable and you can do different things on the page than you could do in Word. I think it does affect the way I’ve been writing, the way my sentences have been constructed; I mean it would be hard for it not to—writing is different on a typewriter than handwritten, the rhythms different if you have to retype every sentence in a revision than if you can just edit drafts and never have to manually overhaul it. And having the ability to make things linked and image-embedded changes the way you think and write.

INTERVIEWER

I was looking at the new summer issue of DIAGRAM. I really enjoyed Amy Marcott’s story “Flying the Coop.” She used a blogging style and told the story about the woman checking her husband into the Alzheimer’s clinic.

ANDER MONSON

To my mind form is only useful in its ability to bring out and constrain things in the story you’re trying to tell. You say, “I’ve never seen something done in that form before,” which is part of the immediate appeal of it. But the thing that works in [Amy Marcott’s] story is the form really offers the subtext of the story a way of coming out. You see that it’s not really about the kind of flame-war she gets into with this guy. It’s about something else, and the form offers a way to kind of pressurize that and bring it out. That’s a successful experiment as opposed to a failed experiment. I was trying to work on a story in the form of ratemyprofessor.com postings. It was this series of postings from different students about this professor and the professor responding. It wasn’t really going anywhere. I mean I couldn’t get it to do anything or terminate in an emotion. That seemed like a failure.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve never used ratemyprofessor before, but I taught freshman composition up in Utah, and the students were fascinated by the idea of the hot peppers [that indicate whether a professor is hot or not]. Did you work the idea of the peppers into the story?

ANDER MONSON

Well, I gave up on it; it just didn’t seem like it was going anywhere good. But the peppers of course are the creepiest part of the whole thing. I have to say that ratemyprofessor might be kind of over for now, because when it came out—this was about eight years ago—professors in particular freaked out. It’s kind of upsetting to have public things posted by anyone who wants to post. And that’s kind of what you understand, you don’t have to be in the class, you don’t have to be registered for it to post anything you want there. You could post libelous things. You could say the professor raped your dad, you could say anything you want. Unless those [student] moderators are on the ball—which, this being the internet, it’s anyone’s guess—you can do whatever. Many times on the first day of class, I had people post the nastiest things they can find about me on ratemyprofessor.com, mainly because it was entertaining to me to have that, and then it’s an object lesson in how unreliable those are. It’s like going on a Wikipedia page and changing some factual thing. But again, you see this form and see potential for doing something with it. When I was trying to write this story, it just kind of petered out. I didn’t get anywhere interesting. Partly because a friend of mine wrote a story kind of like it, I think I had it in my mind when I set out, which kind of gets in the way of doing what you want to do.

INTERVIEWER

You need a clean slate when you write.

ANDER MONSON

You do. You need to at least feel like you have a clean slate, even if you don’t really have one probably. Since how often are you really filled with nothing—conscious or subconscious?

INTERVIEWER

Tottenville Review emphasizes debuts, works receiving less attention, and works in translation. Are there any such books you’d like to point out to our readers?

ANDER MONSON

The guy I’m reading right now—Antoine Volodine—it’s a book translated from French. It came out from University of Nebraska Press. It’s a really interesting novel, I guess. It’s called Minor Angels and it’s a hundred short, short stories (loosely conceived of). His claim is that the meaning of the work doesn’t come out in the reading of the work but the meaning of the work comes out in the dreams you have about it after you finish reading it. It’s a really bizarre, occasionally absurdist piece of fiction. I’m about half way through it, I can’t speak with definitiveness about how great it is, but I’m really enjoying it.

INTERVIEWER

What other books are on your nightstand?

ANDER MONSON

I’ve got about twenty books on my nightstand, which is kind of a problem. It’s teetering over so if you hit it hard, it would fall. Really instead of a nightstand I should only have books. That way I can just pile them up on the floor with the alarm clock and a lamp on top. The other person I want to mention is Lucy Corin, who I’ve talked about before. She’s a great fiction writer at UC-Davis. She writes these amazing stories and a great novel. She’s not on my nightstand anymore because I’ve read her so much. I keep trying to give her books to people and they don’t like her, then I’m really sad about it afterward. I just finished reading the Best American Essays 1999, which I found at a thrift store here in Tucson.

INTERVIEWER

Who edited 1999’s version?

ANDER MONSON

Edward Hoagland, who wrote “The Courage of Turtles” among a bunch of other things; he’s someone who I’m interested in. The Best American Essays has only been around since I think ’84, and I feel like it’s my obligation as an essayist to read all of them. Whereas reading all of Joyce Carol Oates or something like that seems like a pointless endeavor because there’s just too much. That’s only 25 years or so and I could be done. There’s a couple of really great essays in ’99 and a couple that really blow too. There’s one by Ben Metcalf, which I think is super entertaining, it’s kind of a polemic against the Mississippi River, how much he hates the Mississippi River, and how much it’s going to destroy this country. Like the Metcalf family, who’ve always lived around the Mississippi and how much it’s destroyed them. It’s a really funny piece. Because of course trying to write a piece of polemic against the Mississippi River is a ridiculous thing to do but it’s a great piece. So I’m reading that. I also just picked up this book called Unquenchable, written by a University of Arizona law professor Robert Glennon. It’s about the water situation in the West and really in the world to some extent, which I’ve just kind of started in on. There’s Antoine Volodine, there’s John D’Agata, he has the book The Next American Essay.

INTERVIEWER

About a Mountain is his new one.

ANDER MONSON

Yep, but he also published this book, I forget the title, but it’s this anthology of other predecessors, essentially, for the essay, and came out about the time About a Mountain came out. The Lost Origins of the Essay, I think. It’s huge, [it’s 626 pages]. So I’m moving slowly. And the way I read is that I just kind of read random things. If I’m enjoying something then I keep reading until I stop enjoying it and then I put it back in the pile in hopes I will kind of get back up to it. I’m reading one of Aurelie Sheehan’s books—she’s one of my colleagues at the University of Arizona. This is her first book.

INTERVIEWER

Jack Kerouac is Pregnant?

ANDER MONSON

Yes. Which is published weirdly on Dalkey Archive, which is a pretty experimental, insane press out of Illinois State University where one of my former students is now working. I’ve got The Economist Book of Obituaries from the magazine The Economist, which is one of the few print magazines I subscribe to. The obituaries are awesome—opinionated and nontraditional (as in one of a famous African grey parrot). And I’m very slowly working through that. I spend most of the time playing videogames recently, so I’m trying to be better about reading and trying to get back. If you play a lot of videogames, it doesn’t really spark the language part of the brain that makes you want to write like if you’re reading good things. For me, that’s kind of the whole point [of reading]. I mean, I read because I enjoy it, I want to read more, and it also gets me started writing stuff. Where video games don’t usually do that, even though they are “research” for me, because I do write about them somewhat.

INTERVIEWER

In the interview you did with Kathleen Rooney, you mentioned you might do some video reviews on Amazon?

ANDER MONSON

I’ve reviewed several items on Amazon; some of [the reviews] are pretty good. I mean, I think they’re all pretty good. They’re kind of half-assed, depending which ones you look at, and some of them are not. The weird thing about it is that you can’t just type in “Ander Monson” on Amazon and get to them. If you search for “Ander Monsoon” you can get to them. The crystal gavel—that might be my favorite. Type in “crystal gavel” on Amazon. They sell crystal gavels. Literally, gavels made out of crystal. A bunch of people started reviewing this, me and some friends. It’s an opportunity for fiction. What are you going to say about a crystal gavel that’s not going to be entertaining? I assume they’re retirement gifts for judges? My video review is on there, and there’s about sixty reviews on there, most of which are pretty good.We don’t know who most of these reviewers are—the project just snowballed.

Another review is one of Patricia Clark’s books [My Father on a Bicycle]. I have a couple things on youtube that I’ve put together more recently. The crystal gavel piece might also be on youtube. Because that way you can just search for Ander Monson. I am kind of like a hackerey, not a playa, but I like to play things. I like to play around with technology. I’m working on kind of an epic video review which I’ve told myself to try and finish this summer. I don’t know if it’s going to happen or not. I can’t talk too much about it because the quality of surprise is important. I’m sure it will seem entirely pointless but it’s taken a lot of effort is all I can say.

I’m working on an app for the iPad slowly, which is kind of exciting, which is also kind of a secret project so I can’t talk too much about it. There’s a question of how much of this takes away from actual writing time. There are practical considerations for those things too. Who knows how they affect the way people think of my work, if you see this half-assed video review I did dressed in a tiger suit on Amazon. Or do people consume them like they consume poems or a story or an essay? I don’t know. Why as a writer would you not want to play around with these things? Of course, they’re not really written, they’re mostly kind of improvised and then edited, I don’t know why. I suck at writing scripts is why I do that. I can’t do scripts. Maybe it would be better if I could. I got a D at playwriting in college.

INTERVIEWER

That’s painful.

ANDER MONSON

I know. It was. I think the play I wrote was pretty good.

INTERVIEWER

What was the play about?

ANDER MONSON

It’s called 25 Arrows in Various Directions. I still have a copy of it somewhere. It’s an absurdist play about two janitors trying to get a Coke out of a Coke machine and they keep getting random things. The first three pages of it are just the first three pages of Waiting for Godot, just copied and pasted in there. Then there are a lot of really random things. I was in a bunch of productions, in a really half-assed way in college. I don’t know why, I’m an awful actor, I’m just the worst. But I’d always get cast in these time-consuming things. I would be the butler in The Man who Came to Dinner, which meant I had to be in every scene but got almost no lines. But obviously I had no acting chops, because I was cast as the butler. Anyway, I went to see a play by a friend of mine, and I showed up late and walked backstage because I thought that was the way to get to the seats, and I accidently walked across the stage while the play was going on. So after that, I wrote a cameo into my play where she gets to walk across the stage and sort of curse at me for a while. So it’s a lot of random things and we actually staged it. A lot of ridiculous things.

INTERVIEWER

One of the local art galleries here in Tucson on Sixth just had an exhibit of vending machine art. Local artists put pieces in the machine and you never know what you’re going to get.

ANDER MONSON

Is it still going on?

INTERVIEWER

Yeah, I think so.

ANDER MONSON

I’ll have to check that out. There’s a magazine, I don’t know if it’s still going, but it was called Gumball Poetry. They would accept your poem, it would have to be a very short poem, a page or less, and they would put it in a gumball machine. You could buy a gumball machine from them and they would ship you new poems from every issue and then you’d pay a quarter and you’d get a poem out, which I thought was a really cool idea. We tried to get University of Alabama, when I was there, to buy a machine, just to put in the hallway, but they wouldn’t do it. But I sort of hope that’s still going on, because I thought that was a really cool idea.

INTERVIEWER

I know that the [University of Arizona] Poetry Center is experimenting with different ways to get poetry out to people.

ANDER MONSON

They are. And that’s sort of the big thing about poetry. Fiction and nonfiction kind of, kind of, do find their way to an audience in a way that poetry doesn’t. Poetry does but there are a lot of poems, a lot of poets, and a lot of books of poetry. And there just isn’t that kind of popular audience—unless you’re a celebrity—for that kind of work. So it’s trying to find ways of getting that into the world, whether it’s through Burma-Shave signs or poems posted in bathrooms. The world would be better if there were more poems in it. If you randomly encountered them in the world, that would make me happy.

INTERVIEWER

Do you think your average airport experience would be enriched if you encountered poems—maybe as you went through the security line?

ANDER MONSON

Absolutely. I think it was Oakland, maybe San Francisco, but they had this really cool art exhibit on one of the walkways to the terminal. Of course, it’s San Francisco, so there’s a little more of a sense of culture, but I mean why not? It’s cheap space. Tucson should think about it, because it’s an art city here. Why not try and inject some quality of randomness into your experience? I don’t know, have a poem in the back of every seat on the airplane. Different poems, different seats. Have a good time.

INTERVIEWER

That would be fun.

ANDER MONSON

It would be good

INTERVIEWER

I know you probably spent a lot of time in airports this summer, so I wondered if you had a set airport routine. Like if you get a New York Times or go to Cinnabon.

ANDER MONSON

Oh, wow. I don’t know if I have a routine or not. I mean because the airport is always different. If I fly out of Tucson, if it’s around meal time, lunch or dinner, then I will. There’s a place called the Sky Bar, something like that, it’s like sky sushi. And they actually have really good PadThai and they give you a crap load of it. So I usually get Pad Thai and just carry it on with me. Otherwise, I just go to Ike’s and get some coffee. Try to drink as much as I can. I spend a lot of time sort of working in airports because it’s a neutral space. It’s not very comfortable and that’s sometimes useful. Sometimes it’s not; it’s also just an unpleasant place to be.

INTERVIEWER

David Sedaris just wrote a piece in the last issue of The New Yorker about how unpleasant airports are.

ANDER MONSON

And have become really. At one point, they were not. It was sort of like an upper class kind of thing, there would be smoking and people would dress up in suits.

INTERVIEWER

Like Mad Men.

ANDER MONSON

I know. It’s very much the case. And it’s devolved to sort of the lowest common denominator, and everyone just pushes everyone else which is too bad.

INTERVIEWER

I was looking over the panels for the upcoming AWP Conference and I noticed a large number of the panels focused on what you can’t do in writing, panels about where the limits still are in writing. What’s your response to defining writing in terms of what can’t be done?

ANDER MONSON

I get the question a lot regarding creative nonfiction and it’s the question I like the least really. But everyone wants to know because everyone wants there to be rules. And because that’s what we want. We are a creature that likes rules. Growing up, some of us maybe didn’t have a lot of discipline.You need that, you need something to push against. For the most part, generationally, Americanly, we don’t have that. The sort of information design theorist Bruce Mau says that now that we can do anything what the hell are we going to do? There’s so much freedom, so much choice. There are a couple books out about how choice actually just makes us gravitate to Twilight if there’s a billion books published. The blockbusters do really well and then really niche things do well, but a lot gets lots. Probably like it always has, but it’s pretty obvious to all of us that we are a culture of extreme choices, which can culminate in extreme paralysis. I don’t have a sort of pat answer in writing. I mean, there are things that I’m personally not interested in writing. I’m not interested in writing memoir for the most part. Or, I’m certainly not interested in the confessional, unmediated memoir, which is probably obvious. In terms of formal experiments I’m interested in them but I’m not interested in them if they don’t terminate in emotion. If they don’t get us anywhere that has some effect on the body or the heart or the brain then I don’t really care for them a whole lot.

I think that’s really odd that there’s a lot of panels at AWP about that. I know the Graywolf Press panel that I’m on—or maybe The Normal School one—is like, What Are the Rules for Creative Nonfiction? And you can be sure that everyone’s going to be there, and I don’t know, I’m going to do the panel, but I’m going to be kind of an asshole on it because I’m going to lay out the rules and they’re going to be ridiculous, arbitrary rules. But if you know what the rules are, that makes you want to do something with them, to push against them. If there aren’t rules then everyone feels very uncomfortable. It’s kind of like with filmmaking, the whole dogme movement—that might have germinated in Lars von Trier and his cohort—in which they laid out rules: no artificial lighting, no artificial music, no stars, everything has to be as lifelike as possible, which I think is kind of a cool idea. They’re obstructions. Constraints. Constraint creates form and creates energy. Otherwise we’re just buzzing clouds of electrons at one another until things devolve into chaos and pointlessness. It would almost be nice to have a set of arbitrary rules—it doesn’t even matter what the rules are, but have people sign up for them, and it’s like a pact. Creative nonfiction will mean this and it will not mean this. Then everyone can fight about it when it turns out to violate all those rules. So I don’t know. I do better when people sort of tell me what I can’t do. There’s not a lot of that going on, at least from smart people. What’s your take on it?

INTERVIEWER

As a writer, I would like to know where the boundaries are and maybe go a little more in the Lars von Trier direction. I know that with Dogme 95, von Trier wrote a manifesto of rules that would enable filmmakers to free themselves from the superficiality of cinema. But I hope my stories would be more interesting than some of his movies.

ANDER MONSON

That’s the downside. The whole apparatus around his thing is really interesting but a lot of his movies kind of blow. Some of them I think are really good. If you haven’t seen The Kingdom, which is this Danish mini-series—Danish? I think it’s Danish—that Stephen King remade badly, like most things that Stephen King has remade. It’s really killer. It’s fantastic and they released it on DVD because of, I think, Stephen King—his remake sparked some interest in it.

You can do anything you want but you still have to get people to care about what you’re writing. You can discard character, you can discard plot, but what are you going to offer? Partially because we live in a time of total dissolution and fragmentation, what people seem to want—look at the marketplace, though this doesn’t preclude the commercial success of an interesting experimental work—if you look at all the books that have been really popular, they tend to be very, very plot heavy. Twilight is a good example. The Da Vinci Code. I mean these are not written about character, they are written about plot. They’re our kind of fantasias in the sense that all the big memoirs have been about the same basic plot. We want—and we buy, and we create according to—this model of how our lives might turn out, which is mostly about redemption. Which is mostly aspirational, obviously, since our lives offer little, if any, of that.

INTERVIEWER

I’ve been reading a lot more short stories. Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, Alice Munro. Authors that focus on that fragmentation.

ANDER MONSON

Those people are all well-known writers, and have been commercially successful, but they’re a bit of an anomaly in the marketplace, albeit an anomaly that gives me hope. I bet more people talk about Lydia Davis then have actually read Lydia Davis. And Alice Munro, while quietly subversive, is interested in bigger narratives, she’s telling stories, in a way that Lydia Davis is not interested in narrative. Davis is interested in really micro-level stuff, the language, mostly. I think that if you’re a writer and you want people to pay attention to what you do, you would be well advised to try and be able to tell a story. You don’t have to do it in a traditional way but that’s what people hunger for. People desire that more than anything else. Not that as a writer it’s always good to aspire to popularity. You should just do what you want to do, but you have to have some pop instinct, otherwise you really are writing for yourself.

INTERVIEWER

If everything has a larger story, including a collection of essays, what do you see as the overarching story in your recent book Vanishing Point?

ANDER MONSON

Well, I don’t think of it as a collection of essays, but I do think it’s making an argument about self, and about memoir, and about consciousness. It’s not trying to tell a story, I don’t think, although a couple of the reviews I’ve read have tried to identify the sort of narrative structures that were the thing that holds it together. It’s not what I was thinking about when I was writing it, but what we know and what we’re trying to construct as writers doesn’t really matter—so much of what we do is unconscious and mysterious, like it or not. It’s what readers want to make of it, to some extent. But there are a number of through lines in the book, mostly centering around the I, the distinguishing of the I against the background of data and noise and memory, and how we want to represent our I’s, and that to me is where the book is at, and the way that the more you think about I and the more you think about self, it starts to fall apart, and that is scary. We think we live in this individualist culture, and in some ways we do. But our sense of individualism is very much based on the products that we’re interested in, and based on the personas we take on, often in relation to those products. And there’s really very little that differentiates most of us from each other, and most of the memoirs I read to do this collage piece [“Assembloir: Ending Meditation” in Vanishing Point], they all have a very similar structure: pointillism of fact and event and anecdote, all culminating in redemption—bad things happen, they are lost and now they are found, they are saved, we want to be saved in the end. [Vanishing Point] doesn’t really do that. But when you think about it, I don’t really know what makes individual experience different except for the level of detail and the combination of the experiences you’ve had, the books you’ve read, people you’ve dated, etc. There’s probably some genetic brainy thing that makes us slightly different, but I suspect if we are ever able to know everything about the human brain and how it operates chemically we’re going to be pretty surprised by the banality of what and who we are and try to be.

INTERVIEWER

That’s similar to what David Shields discusses in Reality Hunger.

ANDER MONSON

I agree but I think that he’s probably—I mean whatever, he’s writing a polemic, so it’s automatically not going to hold together fully and I think he’s okay with that. But—and the genius of David Shields is that everyone has been talking to David Shields now for the last year: whether we agree with him or not, we all feel like we have to talk about him, and respond to his argument. Still, I think he’s making a mistake trying to jettison narrative. I do not think narrative is over, which is kind of what he’s trying to say, or at least that the novel as we think of the central importance of the classical novel, is over. I think what is certainly true is that a lot of people want really, really badly for narrative to be powerful and central, and the less narrative our lives are—the more scattered, the more fragmented—the more we’re going to reward people in the marketplace who can give us the big story that tells us who we think we are. And ideally we want our narratives to be more and more true, which is what Shields is getting at, because that is a stupid yet powerful human urge. If it’s narrative, it’s not true. Story is a fiction. Story is story. Lives do not equal stories. So any memoir claiming to be someone’s true story we should read very carefully to make sure we concentrate on the word story, because that is what we want more than truth. To my mind the more interesting thing is, if you want to tell a big dumb powerful and emotional story, how do you tell that story while deactivating all the defense mechanisms of the smart readers who just don’t want clichés fed to them? To me, that’s an interesting thing. How do you tell a story without doing it in the stupid way that people seem to want? Because what people want is to be surprised and satisfied. And you can’t satisfy good readers without surprising them, giving them what they didn’t know they wanted until they got it. So I don’t think it’s the end of story, it’s not the end of narrative, it’s not the end of the novel but I agree with David Shields in the sense that we do live in this fragmented culture and we would be smart to think about other ways of telling stories as opposed to just trying “this happens, this happens, and then this happens.” I don’t read much of that. I don’t like romantic comedies but I like romance and I like comedy. So I’m waiting for someone to give me the movie, the novel, that gives me what I want without making me feel too stupid to read it.

INTERVIEWER

They tried to do that with 500 Days of Summer.

ANDER MONSON

I didn’t see that one.

INTERVIEWER

They were messing with the chronology of the relationship. They’re trying to create that.

ANDER MONSON

The problem is that if you make things—films, games—that are expensive to make then you want them to be successful on a mass level. How much do you want to kowtow to what people want and how much do you want to apply your own thing because you think it’s interesting? I remember people seemed to like that movie but I didn’t watch it. It didn’t seem like a movie that I would be interested in, but I appreciate people who are trying to take some kind of risk. Even like Christopher Nolan who does these kind of half-assed experiments. You know, Memento was interesting, trying to do it backward. At least he was trying something.

INTERVIEWER

Have you seen Inception?

ANDER MONSON

I have, yeah. I thought it was half-assed but kind of great. But again, at least it has ambition, unlike most other movies, which have no ambition except the technical ambition of James Cameron or something like that with the 3-D. But I don’t think Inception holds together at all. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Did I think it was a great movie? Probably not. But then again it’s different in that in a studio, collaborative, big-money endeavor, you can’t have total control over it. It takes so much money to make a movie. You have to make compromises. It’s not like a novel where you really can just do your own fucking thing and damn the torpedoes, publish it on Xlibris if your editor hates it. When you go to get it published in traditional big publishing, then there’s marketing, design, and all of those other things that are only tangentially related to the work of writing. But with movies you have to have millions of dollars, executive producers, actors, cinematographers, gaffers, all of whom bring something of their own to the table, so the idea of this individual genius doing their own thing is kind of hard to sell. Of course this is probably why I suck as a playwright.

INTERVIEWER

Nolan had to make The Dark Knight and have it make two billion dollars before they’d even fund Inception. He’d been trying to make Inception for ten years or so.

ANDER MONSON

Totally. I kind of hated The Dark Knight; I thought it was really boring. Everyone loved it, so I must have missed something there.But then again I’m not really interested in Batman movies.

INTERVIEWER

I read that Nolan is interested in directing a James Bond movie.

ANDER MONSON

The cool thing about doing something like that with Batman too is that superhero movies have constraints—you can’t just do anything. Batman can’t read minds. Batman can’t be 800 feet tall. Batman uses a more or less realistic, technology-driven, but human world to fight crime in a rather unrealistic way. Given this basic plot line—within that, which is set in stone by the history of the franchise—you have to have these characters. You can’t do anything radical. You can’t make Batman a girl. Maybe, that would be pretty interesting—or, you know, a tiny baby. So given these constraints you can do something. And the same with James Bond. James Bond is ridiculously constrained. It’s a total formula, but there’s been a couple movies that have been a good diversion with James Bond or superhero movies or whatever.

The problem for the writer is unless you’re writing in a series or given this mythology already, what are you going to do? What things are we given that we can do anything with and what things can’t we do anything with? Maybe it’s narrative structure. I think you have to figure out as a writer what it is that you give a shit about. What is it that you want? I mean what is it that you really, really, really want to do—everything else is negotiable—and a lot of that has to do, clearly, with personal experience. Whether or not it manifests itself directly in your fiction or nonfiction, there’s something that drives you to want to write. As Auden said about Yeats, “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry.” Writers don’t become writers unless they were hurt. I don’t mean they had a traumatic experience, but something had to do it to you because otherwise, why would you do it? The world doesn’t care if you do it. Everything about the world says go screw yourself, we do not care, until you succeed. Maybe it’s a sense of ego, maybe you were told by your eighth grade English teacher that you’re really good, maybe you were told you were really bad and you want to stick it to them. But there has to be something that fires you up. And that’s really the big question. Maybe that’s the question for all these AWP panels. It’s not what you’re not allowed to do.The harder question for us is: what do you want to do, damn the rules, damn the genre, damn the editorial boards in big publishers? Maybe the problem is that we just don’t know what we want to do, so we’re looking for someone to spur us to something. Maybe we should just do what we really, really want to do, and then figure out how are we going to do it? Maybe the point of those panels is to come out of there going fuck you, fuck you, and fuck you, Ander Monson, David Shields, Lauren Slater, Nicole Walker. You’re a bunch of authoritarian assholes. Don’t tell me what to do. I’m just going to do it. That’s a powerful thing, hacker instinct. You don’t want to be told that you can’t do something.

INTERVIEWER

You want to break through all the firewalls.

ANDER MONSON

Absolutely. It’s partially because you want to prove something, maybe you want to prove your individuality, and maybe we all want to prove our individuality, and maybe we all want the same, which doesn’t make it very individual, but we still want it.

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