Monday, July 5, 2010

Interview by Alex Snukal (Hart House Review, 2010)

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AS: As I was preparing for this interview, I noticed you've interviewed a really broad range of people in a variety of disciplines. I think this extends to all the work you do as well. Where do you get the cross-disciplinary confidence?

SH: I think that's just because I'm interested in the people that I interview. So interest just makes all things possible [laughs]. I interviewed Mary Gaitskill and that was the hardest. I think it's hard to interview novelists and I didn't realize that. And ever since then I don't want to interview novelists anymore. [laughs]

AS: I know, right.

SH: I don't know why, it's just that I have no questions for novelists. The novel's self-evident. You read a novel and it is what it is. I don't think there are any questions to ask the writer. Everything they wanted to say they put into the novel and it's words. And so to get words to interpret words… It's like talking to a painter and saying "What the hell were you thinking?" [laughs] 

AS: But there's got to be some level of interpretation. On the other hand it seems kind of funny to ask a novelist what they meant about something.

SH: It's stupid. It's the stupidest question. 

AS: But why is it stupid? I feel like we do ask other artists that same question and get away with it.

SH: Because it's like asking somebody "what do you like?" It's just not a question that a person can answer. If you're a really good novelist, you're books are your whole life. So Ticknor was five years of my life. So if you ask what it meant it's like asking: “What did you mean by those five years of your life?” And asking somebody "what did you mean with those five years of your life" is a meaningless question. I just lived. Or I just wrote. Books mean different things for different people, so asking the author what they meant by it is sort of insulting. It's almost like saying, "I didn't get anything out of it." Because you've had to ask the author what it meant. So you're saying the book isn't communicating anything. 

AS: I read an interview where you said that you were glad that the interviewer couldn't find your voice in The Middle Stories. Is that something you cultivate? And is it connected to your dislike of someone asking you "what did you mean by that?"

SH: I think it's more interesting to write from a part of yourself that you don't know. If you just write from a part of yourself that you do know, then it's not really an exploration. When I say I didn't want to put myself in it, it's more that I didn't want to put the self that I really know very well. 

AS: Do you think that comes from your theatre background? That in a sense you're writing in character, for a character?

SH: Yeah I think so. For me, I almost feel like I'm acting when I'm writing. You put on a character and then you write from that. 

AS: I think that's why Ticknor felt so complete. 

SH: I used to want to be an actress; I think that was my first dream. But I just wasn't so good at it. So I think it's interesting when you have to do the art that you really want to do through the art that you can do. Say you really want to be a dancer but your real talent is painting and so the dance comes through the painting. Whereas, if you're just a storyteller whose a writer, that's not as mysterious as being an actress who's a writer or a director who's an architect. 

AS: I know you've been working on this project with Misha Glouberman, who you started Trampoline Hall with, called The Chairs Are Where the People Go. Can you talk a little about how it happened?

SH: I quit Trampoline Hall in 2005. So I still curate shows but I quit basically. Part of it was that I wanted to work with Misha again. Because that was so fun and we struggled so much to get to a good place. And also because originally I wanted to write a book about Misha, and I wrote one in 2006, called The Moral Development of Misha

AS: And it hasn't been published right?

SH: No, there's only 80 pages of it, it wasn't done. I showed it to him and he read it and said, "This is the best book that's ever been written". [laughs]

AS: Well yeah of course he would. 

SH: So, I wrote that, and it wasn't any good and I'd been taping Margaux Williamson - this other book that I'm finishing is me and Margaux in conversation, called How Should a Person Be? - and it just wasn't fair to not to tape Misha. [laughs] They're two of my closest friends and they live in the same house so it would be too unbalanced if I wrote a book about Margaux and didn't write one about Misha. 

AS: Right right, it would ruin their relationship. 

SH: Yeah exactly, they'd break up and I'd be responsible. But I don't know how it came about, I just think Misha needs a book. Misha is one of the smartest people I know and he should have a book of the things that he knows. So then he came over and we came up with a list of all the things that he knew, and we asked his friends: "What does Misha talk about?"

AS: But I always wondered, how did you know when you got to the bottom of the list? How did you know to stop thinking about what Misha know about?

SH: We got to the bottom of the list! We couldn’t think of any more subjects. And it's not what he knows, like who are all the characters in a Superman comic. What does he think about? We really came to the bottom of the list. We were like "What else? What else? What else?" and there was nothing. A friend said to me that the book is really about the boundaries of a human and that we do have boundaries. That there is an end to the list.

AS: I've read the sample chapter online, and it's interesting that it doesn't sound exactly like Misha speaking. It sounds like a mix between his way of talking and your writing. These crisp short sentences, which seem more like your writing than the way Misha talks. Did you guys talk about the style or presentation of in the book? How did you get to the piece on the website?

SH: No literarily, he talked and I typed. So where I put the punctuation, was me and maybe my mishearing of something was me. But we didn't edit it. So what you read is pretty much as he spoke it. Because he can speak so perfectly that there's a thesis in each paragraph. You'd think it was edited but we probably only did ten minutes of editing on it. 

AS: That's the thing about the book, if you know him, if you've been to Trampoline Hall, you know he can talk so well, so of course you'd want of book of him talking. 

SH: Yeah it's his gift. And I think that he hates writing. And I hate thinking [laughs]. No but he hates writing and so there's no way he was ever going to write a book, unless it would happen this way. 

AS: So what's the book with Margaux? Is it similar to this?

SH: It's more of a novel. 

AS: But it's based on conversations you had with her?

SH: Yeah, like there's a lot of transcribed dialoge and it's based on our friendship in some way. It's sort of like reality TV. Reality TV is the sense that that's how real it is. So it is real but it's also a fiction.

AS: That seems to happen a lot with you. Like the Agnes Varda interview where you made up the questions because, in fact, she was talking to a room full of reporters. It seems like an interest of yours, to play with those conventions.

SH: Yeah because it's hard to just totally tell the truth and it's hard to just completely make things up and there's value in the things that you imagine and there's value in the things that really happen. So it's nice to be able to use them both. 

AS: I read an interview where you said that you were increasingly less interested in writing about fictional people. That you prefer interacting with actual people in the world. Do you still feel the same way after these two books?

SH: Yeah more. 

AS: But do you think you really need to decide? It seems to me like you've always done both. 

SH: Misha always encouraged me to take the other stuff as seriously as the fiction. Because he doesn't have an inborn respect or higher valuing of literature. That made me feel like I don't need to value the books above everything else and right now I don't feel like I need to value fiction above non-fiction. I've always assumed all my life that the most serious or important writing you could do would be novels. But as I get older I less and less care about novels but I still love writing. So, what do you write if not novels? And I'm not a journalist because I use my imagination. I would feel stifled and bored if I had to stick to the exact facts. So that's why these two books make sense. And whatever book comes next will hopefully be even more integrated with what I'm really interested in. I like the direct address of non-fiction. I don't like that it has to be non-fiction but I like the direct address. I like the writer talking directly to the reader, I feel like that's more intimate than a novel, in some ways. 

AS: Because of the voice of the author? 

SH: Because it's so much more plaintive and desperate and needy. [laughs] 

AS: But you don't feel like you could put that in the voice of a character? Didn't Ticknor do that?

SH: Ideally, one goes more and more into the world, as an artist and as a human. And deeper and deeper into yourself and other people and all those things at once. So if the art is formatted in such a way to allow all those three things to happen at the same time then that's ideal. It’s this continual search for the form in which I'll be able to make all those three things true. Because the thing about just being a fiction writer in your room, is that you go less and less and less into the world, into other people. With this book I'm writing with Margaux, before you came over, we talked for two hours because she's a character in the book. I was trying to remember these parts in our relationship and asking the character, who is my friend, what she was feeling. That's so great that I don’t just have to sit in my own head and say "well what's the character feeling?" I can actually ask the character.

AS: Does it get weird? 

SH: It's totally weird. 

AS: Are you rehashing bad parts of the relationship?

SH: Yeah, because it's more dramatic.

AS: So it's like simultaneous mutual therapy.

SH: Totally. One of the hardest and most rewarding relationships I've had in my life is with Margaux. It's really threatening for her to have a book written about her and for me to write about her. That really takes a tremendous amount of trust and courage. It's such a weird thing to do. Whatever I write about her, in fiction, she's going to read and she's going to see things that I didn't even mean to put there. I showed her a draft two years ago and it almost ruined our friendship. She was said "I can't believe that you think that if we have a problem, all you have to do is say sorry and then it's solved!" And that's not what I think; it's just really hard to write conflict resolution! But maybe on a subconscious level I did think that. Who knows? It's nice to be called on one's own morality as a human being in the process of trying to write a good book. Usually you don't have to account for yourself. [laughs]

AS: Well especially on that level. You kind of assume that you could do one thing and the person would forgive you. Like what the hell else do you have to do? 

SH: Yeah, and then she was like "You're going to show the world that I'm such a fucking pushover?" She doesn't want to seem like a pushover and if I accidentally portray her that way then she's humiliated publicly. Which is not what I want to do to my friend. 

AS: So you're faced with not only having to talk through your relationship but then find some way of representing these two levels, the friendship and the talking, in a way that's fair to everyone involved?

SH: I've had to become a more ethical or better person. Because I don't want to betray my friends but I also want to write a good book. So how do you do both at the same time? [laughs] 

AS: And without totally demonizing yourself in the process...

SH: Well, I want to tell the truth so... 

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