FROM DEEPEST DEATH TO FULLEST LIFE: an interview with Patrick West
You are noted as saying it’s essential a short story ‘spend time in the foreign territories of the writer before it is midwifed onto the page’. How would you define such territories? What are the roles of time and memory when evaluating accessible life experience versus those moments you’ve yet to fully process?
As a writer I’m happy to receive inspiration and useful insights into creative method from just about anywhere. One book I would recommend to any artist is Creative Evolution by Henri Bergson (1911). Bergson makes a seemingly naïve observation… everything isn’t given all at once. In other words, there is time. But is there really time? Bergson’s point is that our conception of time is such that everything might as well be given all at once. Pre-determining time as a series of static moments, as we tend to do, we always fail to encounter time itself. What is time itself? The existence of time, the fact that everything isn’t given all at once, suggests for Bergson that “Time is invention or it is nothing at all.” The future is always a matter of invention and the past is dead as in “already invented”. On Bergson’s logic artists need to insert themselves into time itself as creation in this sense. To do otherwise is to treat creation as merely the re-creation of the already created, as if, to borrow one of Bergson’s own metaphors, all a painter is doing is returning a jigsaw puzzle to its original state. Great artists tap into the very becoming of time and use it as a resource for true creation. Time, for them, is moment-less not as in without time but as in pure becoming. The test then of originality in all art might be that it produces, out of this flow of becoming, an effect of time never before experienced.
I do not claim to have done anything like this myself! And besides I am only beginning my own adventure with Bergson’s thought as it relates to creative writing. However, I think that I can notice in my writing some indications of what, for Bergson, such an engagement with time itself might consist in—namely, an un-thinking of the usual (time-based) categorisations of our existence. Or an attempt to prise open reality across the grain along which it usually splits. With these ideas in mind I just came across this passage from my short story ‘Nhill’: ‘When we made up our minds to go it was in sadness. A single duck’s cry carried to our ears with almost no volume at all, the smallest increment imaginable before deafness begins’. I like the notion of being ‘in sadness’ (rather than simply say ‘feeling sad’) because it opens a chink in sadness out of which may trickle an unfamiliar sense of time. It makes sadness itself into a form of becoming. Similarly, the last part about ‘the smallest increment imaginable before deafness begins’ suggests an attempt, at least, to occupy the flow of becoming rather than bear down on it too heavily with timeless modes of writing.
To come back to your question, the ‘foreign territories of the writer’ would by this measure be those places where time is able to go to work on memories by drawing on the resources of that most valuable of things for a writer: his or her own body. Our bodies are an ever-present source of creativity for us as writers. In the simple fact that we are living as we write, we may be put in touch with the becoming of time itself. And, I might add, it is probably in the only half-processed (or apparently so) moments of our experience that we encounter creativity of this order.
How does the body both individuate and collaborate in regards to creative practice? Is writing meditative fiction, in a sense, a solitary writer seeking connection with the reader through the memory of sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste, and how does the mind shape these senses into a finished story? Equally, how do preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative either help or hinder the transmission of our own ‘body’ memories across to the reader?
There is an oft-quoted line in Spinoza’s Ethics (1677): ‘The body can do many things by the laws of its nature alone at which the mind is amazed’. What are the limits on the power of the body? Does the body lead the mind or is it led by it?
In your question you mentioned ‘sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste’. These, of course, are all capacities of the body, but in the special sense that they operate as aspects of the interface between the body, any body whatsoever, and the world. In fact, the world is absolutely necessary to the exercise of these capacities. If there were nothing to see we would all be blind…. If there were nothing to taste we could not taste.
In my view, the only creatively useful way to think of the body is in the multiplicity of its possible relations with the world. Even sexual difference is sculpted out of the relations of bodies to the world as a whole. The world, of course, is made up not just of things but also of other bodies: human, insect, animal… and after all don’t we call just about the largest things we can contemplate (suns, stars, moons, planets) heavenly bodies?
How does all this relate to creative writing? It seems to me it’s a question of how and to what extent the senses may be evoked in a piece of writing. Scriptwriting theory tells us that a rounded character is the bridging of the gap between apparent wants and unconscious needs. Perhaps this works in performance, but in writing, for mine, a rounded character is one with a zone of indiscernibility about them. When a reader starts to feel uncertain about where a character ends and where other characters and the world begin, that’s when that character comes to life. Characters then are bodies through and through, as even the mind is woven into the body at every level of existence.
One might even argue that the mind is subservient to the body. Spinoza asks us to consider the case of sleepwalkers and “those things [they] do at which they are surprised when they are awake.” As an aside, I like this idea that creative writing may be like sleepwalking… allowing the body to create art at which the waking mind will be amazed.
Janet Frame warns of the dangers of trying to rid oneself, as a writer, of the demands of the body. In a recent review of Frame’s short-story collection The Daylight and the Dust (2010) I wrote this of her short story ‘Solutions’:
In Solutions, a writer tells of another writer who, ‘bedevilled by the demands of his body . . . decided to rid himself of it completely’. Eventually, all that remains of him is his brain, which, mistaken for a prune, is tossed out by his landlady and eaten by three mice for breakfast, ‘spitting out the hard bits’. In his final state, as pure brain, the writer is left “blind, speechless, deaf”. ‘No one could have divined his thoughts; he himself could no longer communicate them.’ Writers who ignore the contribution the body makes to their writing, Frame seems to be telling us in this collection, might as well be dead.
The absence of body is the absence of the senses (“blind, speechless, deaf”) and the absence of all writing. It is also, as it happens, death.
One reason I like the short-story form so much is because you can do things in it that would perhaps not be tolerated by publishers or readers in a novel. Thus, while I’m not sure how ‘preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative’ could help in ‘the transmission of our own ‘body’ memories across to the reader’ I don’t regard these preconceptions as particularly a hindrance to such transmission either. (Having said this though, I imagine that there are some bodies out there that do conform, somehow, to ‘preconceived notions of what constitutes narrative’, although for my part I wouldn’t want to be one of those bodies.)
But what of the mind? What is its role? I wonder if mind is what ‘individuates and collaborates’ by seeking connections both within bodies (as in complex characters and complex writers) and across bodies (as in communities of friends, lovers, fellow writers)? For me, creative writing is all about making connections through the senses (in that double sense of using our senses to engage with the world and also allowing the world into ourselves through the portals of the senses… thus becoming in a way what it is that we see, or hear, or taste, or touch, or smell).
Although, like most writers I imagine, I write alone, and although, unlike many writers perhaps, my characters often appear to be ‘solitary selves’, I am not usually inclined to think of myself or of my characters as isolated or cut-off from the world. There is, if you like, an art to being solitary or alone yet not isolated or cut-off.
In ‘Nhill’ the male protagonist, you could say, is solitary yet not isolated: the sensitivities that connect him to the world and the world to him suggest both other types of non-human connection and, just perhaps, future forms of (better?) human connection. Many of my stories, I suspect, are variations on this pattern.
Sometimes though it goes the other way. In ‘As of Shadows’ the main character is so enmeshed in things—at a certain level—so weighed down by her abject historical situation, that her very lack of a solitary identity makes her isolated in quite a terrible way. She is unable to make connections with others or with the world that would enable her to feel richly alone.
In short, ‘Nhill’ is about being a crowd though being alone, while ‘As of Shadows’ is about being alone in a crowd… only “a counter of countries” in a world impossibly teeming with countries.
Which, in a way, leads on to my next question. What are the limitations of fiction in recreating experience, and do said limitations occur primarily at the point of transcription, or do they surface at every stage of literary engagement, from transcription through to reader reception, and perhaps even literary criticism?
Jorge Luis Borges’ short story ‘On Exactitude in Science’ springs to mind. Borges describes an Empire of such overweening ambition that it creates a map with a one-to-one correspondence to the territory that it maps. The point of the story is that such a map is useless because it is a map no more. For it has become the unmapped territory itself.
The limitations of fiction in recreating experience are, like the limitations of any map less large than what it maps, quite possibly enabling limitations. Just as the map Borges describes could never be of practical use so any fiction that somehow managed to describe the totality of experience would be useless as a means for reconciling ourselves to experience.
As it happens, my desk is covered with a writing pad that is also a map of the world. The scale of the map is ’1: 64 100 000 AT THE EQUATOR’, whatever that means.
But what is the scale of fiction’s relationship to the world? And do some genres operate on a larger scale than others? Is Naturalism, for example, a closer approximation to the world than say Magic Realism? Or do none of these questions make any sense?
Georges Perec wrote a curious little story, first published in 1979, entitled ‘The Winter Voyage’, about a writer whose work, also called The Winter Voyage, seems to contain quotations from a multitude of famous authors who wrote after him. Perec terms The Winter Voyage a ‘premonitory anthology’.
I am telling you about this story because the name of the author of this fantastical book is Hugo Vernier and a ‘vernier’ or in full ‘vernier scale’ is, according to The New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, ‘a short movable scale used on various measuring and positioning instruments, by which fractional readings may be obtained from the divisions of an adjacent graduated scale’. The writings that come after The Winter Voyage might thus be interpreted as fractional readings of the ‘premonitory anthology’.
Something similar might apply when we talk about fiction and this thing we call experience. What if there is no experience beyond writing, no world beyond words? What if all writing is like a vernier and/or in relationship to a vernier? What if it’s all just a matter of scaling within language?
My short story ‘The Japanese stripper from the Inland Sea’ concludes with an immodest attempt to somehow scale an understanding of experience (within writing, the setting is a bookshop) against the scale of the universe. It could be seen on one level as an attempt to travel to the very edge of fiction in order to ascertain if there is ‘something more’.
On the morning of his departure from Japan, with some time to kill, Mr Simone browsed in the multilingual Narita Airport bookshop. Simultaneously with the first boarding call for his flight coming over the PA, he picked up The Oxford dictionary of philosophy and started flicking through its alphabetical entries. An ancient Greek name caught his eye. He began to read the one-paragraph entry about an inch from the bottom: ‘… is also famous for his proof of the universe’s infinitude’. (A gramophone needle stuck in the last groove of any record, thought Mr Simone, answers this question easily.) ‘The curious man should travel to the edge of the known universe and toss a dart into the darkness. Only two things can happen. It may disappear without trace. It may bounce back. Either way, the boundlessness of the universe is proved. There is always something more.’
Of course there is ‘always something more’, but it is a ‘something more’ that hangs suspended in the sublime abyss between something and nothing. It is a something that could be nothing or anything!
Sometimes I think the fiction we write is like the dart described in this passage, indifferently bouncing back from or disappearing into the maw of experience, telling us very little about what it encounters. Sometimes I think that writing is a very crude instrument for describing or explaining the world or even, as Perec suggests, that it only ever recreates other writings in scaled-down or scaled-up versions, which are geometries that make little sense in the face of the ‘boundlessness of the universe’.
Better writing, though, than a boundless map…
Indeed. And yet despite such constraints or limitations, the written word, at its best, continues to confound, engage, and evoke strong political, emotional, and intellectual responses from the reader. The Oulipo Movement of the 1960’s (which included Georges Perec, as well as Italo Calvino and Raymond Queneau, among other writers and mathematicians) seemed to see writing as both freedom and limitation, and indeed described potential literature as ‘the seeking of new structures and patterns to be used by writers in any way they enjoy’. Here, I’m selling their work criminally short: among other things, they played with palindromes, lipograms, and even chess formulas to create new and exciting narratives.
Your work, at least to this particular writer, seems to take the Oulipo spirit as one of its departure points, and if there’s one thing I noted about The World Swimmers, it’s a willingness to showcase rather than summarise, by which I mean you’re willing to see each story as its own point of departure. In West’s world, there is no necessary need for an overarching connectivity between narratives; your stories hint at both solitude, connectivity, and even the malleable nature of time, but all do this in such different ways that there’s a necessary divide between them.
If one, then, was to accurately sum up Patrick West, the writer, what would be the necessary themes, preoccupations, and motivations to be cited? More importantly, how do you see that particular trajectory informing your work that’s still to come?
At the Melbourne launch of The World Swimmers Paul Carter suggested that, though there is considerable geographic range across the stories of my collection, I am not really writing about places themselves so much as about the senses by which we encounter place. Or by which we encounter anything at all for that matter.
This was something I hadn’t really thought of myself until Paul pointed it out, but once he’d said it, it seemed suddenly obvious. I would add that it is not only senses as in the senses of sight, hearing, touch and so on that are in play here. I realize now, on the evidence of my own stories, that I am a writer interested potentially in all of the infinite number of ways by which humans have sensations of the world and of themselves.
To ‘re-sense’ the world and/or yourself, as it were, one has to do what you suggest in your question: ‘showcase rather than summarise’. For when you ‘summarise’ you take much more for granted than perhaps you should as a writer. Realism as a form tends to summarize in its very foundations. Effectively it says, here is a world that we share, now let’s create a story within that world. The story told may be truly fascinating but it will probably not suggest new ways of sensing the world. It won’t re-create it, make it over. The conventions of language Realism employs won’t allow that.
I like what you say about the Oulipo Movement and writerly experimentation. My writing is sometimes referred to as experimental too (I have a fondness for chiasmus that I couldn’t even begin to explain!). But I hope that what my experimental writing explores is not experimentation for its own sake (something that would be remote from the preoccupations of the everyday world) but experimentation as a way of discovering and perhaps even interrogating other possible ways of sensing.
Experiments of language (which in one very powerful sense at least is all that writers have to work with) may create opportunities for different ways of sensing ourselves and the world of which we are a part. And in these opportunities, to return to an earlier theme of our discussion, there will almost inevitably be new modes of time as an expression of new modes of becoming or being in the world. All of these themes—language experimentation, the sensing of the world, the sensing of oneself, time itself, notions of living—are contained in this paragraph from ‘The Japanese stripper from the Inland Sea’:
Mr Simone crossed the room and placed his palms down flat on the window sill. Distractedly, with just the tips of his fingers, he nudged what he thought of as only some value-less trinkets. Finally raising both hands, he took the smallest of these objects into his grasp, felt its lightness. Replacing it in its original position after several minutes, Mr Simone then turned away. He was never to know of this thing’s aliveness. There is a species of insect that hibernates trustingly in the open the length of the Japanese winter. Now, spring was just around the corner. The thing uncurled itself a fraction on the window sill. Pray mercy, the birds …
The ‘point of departure’ for this story is Mr Simone’s lack of awareness of ‘this thing’s aliveness’. I hope and imagine that ideas of what it means to be alive—the spectrum from deepest death to fullest life—will continue to preoccupy me in my future writings. And that, perhaps, if I’m lucky, some odd notions of how to sense ourselves and the world differently will slide off the page and take up their place in the world and in our bodies. To make that happen, though, in my view, one needs to engage in concentrated experimentation. One needs to sweep away the ‘taken for granted’ and, almost, to un-learn the lessons that we don’t even know we have learned. For these lessons obscure the new.