“We”: An Interview with c.vance by Ben Spivey


Ignore the limitations of history. All is accounted for as c. vance reimagines the lives of his family from five different perspectives (father, mother, they, we and she). What we have here is a fabulist’s bildungsroman—a possible history told with solid language and emotional sentences.

c. vance composes his pseudo family history as if channeled through Jesse Ball’s surreal mysticism and China Mieville’s use of playful wonderlands.

At the beginning of the book the reader is given a reading code. The code correlates with a number on the side of the page (1.1, 2.2, 1.3, etc). The code “… deepens the narrative between sections.” The code is used to switch perspectives (the first number) and switch themes (the second number). The first number represents point of view and the second number represents theme.

Example of a first number: 1 equals father. Example of a second number: 4 equals escape. What could be seen on the side of the page would then be 1.4.

I found this code cumbersome. As I got farther into the book I kept wishing that the point of view and the theme were just listed at the tops of the pages like a title so I could stop flipping to the front of the book, reading the code. Some people will no doubt enjoy the code and I believe that in the eBook edition the code is used more efficiently (I read the paperback).

The book has such interesting, dead on sentences that flipping back to the code kept taking me out of the powerful, dreamy emotions. But that is no reason to ignore this book as it’s a joy to read (as I found out) even without referencing the code.

“…we were already here and should be made to share in the suffering we brought.” What c. vance is able to do here, taking many liberties with history, is write from the heart. Framing the book as a “reimagined history,” gives the reader an extra layer of emotional depth. I felt vance’s pain and happiness as he uncovered and buried emotional weight.

This is a surreal book unlike any other. A new genre maybe?

In the ways things become cult objects, this is one.

I was lucky enough to interview c. vance after I finished reading We: a reimagined history.

c. vance is the author of the alley flowers bloom for every drunk who pisses on them save for me (Throwback Books, 2008) and We: a reimagined family history (Jaded Ibis Press, 2011). He co-hosts Drunken Literates, a podcast of smart, irreverant discussions about literature, with interviews of mildly or seriously inebriated writers, publishers and other creative people. He works as a day laborer in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

What follows is our correspondence via e-mail.

How much of this book is re-imagined?

All of it, I guess. My mother’s father was a general contractor, not a builder of bridges—my father’s father worked in a lumber mill, not one that mined the dreams of the town’s inhabitants. Father a realtor, not a farmer that grew and sold swaths of land. My birth did not bring about an apocalypse, but it did seem like the end of the world for my 20-year-old parents. The portions about my parents meeting are how I imagined it, never once bothered to ask them how it happened—that’s the way I like histories to be. As with most people, my family is a bit boring… as with most first-time novelists, my imagination fails to transcend what is known. So I used the skeleton of a family history to have fun— play with words and formulate a series of short stories that tied together around that idea.

Who or what has influenced your writing?

Strangely, my BFA in painting had the biggest influence. The art department at Oregon State was filled with profs that came of age right after abstract expressionism—only a handful could render worth a damn and none of them chose to. They instilled concept and execution—painting class was not to learn how to do portraiture but to express a concept of the person. If someone was better represented by a dinged-up rusty pipe backlit and suspended by wire than by your hackneyed brushstrokes that could not possibly be as complete as a photo, then you presented the pipe for critique. It allowed for innovation and forced defense of thought—critical in any artform.

How has your upbringing shaped your writing?

Never thought of that, really. The written word had no value in my house growing up. None. We were exclusively a TV family—with the exception of the stray romance novel my mother would read on vacations, if that counts? It provided content, surely, but didn’t provide a platform or appreciation for writing.

The format of this book is unlike any book I’ve read before (the only possible comparison I can think of is Wittgenstein’s Tractatus). How did you come up with the key?

Jesse Ball and Thórdís Björnsdóttir wrote a book called Vera & Linus in ’06. A gorgeous lil’ thing. At the bottom of each page is either a “1” or “2” in front of the page number… without obvious explanation. There was a slight difference of voice but nothing that stood out as intentional—such as one being about Vera and the other Linus. After four readings, I happened upon the inside flap and saw—in incredibly small print—the numbers differentiated the authors’ chapters. It was elegant and unobtrusive… and I wanted to write a novel with a delineated differentiation of “POV.” So I stole it. The second numbers of “subject matter” seemed a logical step for what is, essentially, a series of one-page stories on similar themes. Though I love the tangible page, I must—sadly—admit this format was well incorporated in the iBooks version of the novel since it can be selected to be read either by POV or subject matter without thumbing through pages.

When did you begin to write and when did you complete the novel?

Uhm—started it when I got fired from my pizza delivery job in… ’07? Finished it shortly after making an inebriated and ill-advised move to the Midwest in ’09. A good portion of the “finishing” was making sure the key worked and whittling each story down to something that would fit on a single page. That and submitting it to over 30 different publishers…

What are you reading now?

Right now I’m finishing up Book of Knut, by Halvor Aakhus—also through Jaded Ibis Press. It’s incredibly ballsy with its form and resists having a cohesive narrative which is something I look for in literature.

Why do we suffer?

Because our daily environment is filled with people who prefer reading 50 Shades of Grey to anything you or I could, in good conscience, create.

What is your drink of choice?

You’d think I’d have this one down as we ask it in every interview—shameless plug—on our podcast, Drunken Literates. Still, it varies. Right now, I am $141.63 shy of rent due in three days with a paycheck coming in five that may or likely-not cover it…so, anything on sale or whatever my girlfriend brings home. Which, in the course of this discussion, has been Inversion IPA from Deschutes Brewery and Jameson for added inspiration

What are you working on now?

Unfortunately, I’m finding that a lot of writing is shipping out your own nonsense—so I’m trying to find a home for a novella that attempts to involve the reader in each choice of a sentence. A failed litigable interpretation of Markson that devolves into musings on women’s legs. On larger works, I’m trying to play with the substance of the page. I have a hackneyed theory that it’s no longer suitable to play simply with words, but we must play with the surface in order to differentiate between the tangible and the digital.

Since you have a background in visual art, have you ever thought about writing a graphic novel?

Much to my professors’ dismay, yes… that’s all I did in college. Crappy lil’ coffeehouse vignettes in rhyming prose. I was 18-20 and they were trying to get me to think about abstract theory? Yeah…I was the male equivalent of drawing ponies in the margins of my homeward all day. If you’ve any desire to see said nonsense, the internet preserves the idiocy of youth—a web page that has not been updated in over a decade and cannot be taken down as the password and e-mail are lost: http://stargazercomics.50megs.com. However, that medium seems too—illustrative? Too literal, if that isn’t contradictory. Words are abstract in a way that their pictured narratives usually fail to be…

I find it difficult to explain experimental fiction or “non-traditional prose” to someone who doesn’t have preexistent exposure to writing that “is different.”How, if asked, do you answer the question of: “What is your book about?”

Oh, that’s a tough one. I would LOVE to be able to say that it is a book about words and leave it at that—unfortunately, I wasn’t brazen enough to make it only about words, so it feels like a lie. A goal for future works, I suppose. What I have been saying is that it is an abstraction of truth in order to make lies as attractive as possible. Any more than that and my eyes glaze over as much as the person questioning me. Someday our education system will do as good of a job telling people that classical narrative is as dead as representational painting—until then, we’ll have to keep failing in our explanations of work.

Ben Spivey is the author of Black God (Black Square Press, 2012).

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