One Time I Met a Swaggering Expat in a Japanese Convenience Store Who Gave Me a Lecture on His Theory of Novels: An Interview with Tote Hughes


In reading Tote Hughes’ novella Fountain (Miami University Press), I was taken by the quirky, beautiful timelessness of the prose and characters. As Amber Sparks, author of May We Shed These Human Bodies, has said, “Tote Hughes’ Fountain is one of the strangest books I’ve come across in years, and I mean that as an extraordinary compliment. Hughes has the bureaucratic weirdness of Kafka, the twisted mystery of Hitchcock, the obsessive introspection of Bernhard, and wholly original, funny-as-hell voice that makes me sure we’ll be seeing lots more of this writer for a long time to come.”

In addition to these allusions, Hughes’ voice reminds me of Enrique Vila-Matas’ playful but razor-sharp voice in Bartleby & Co. and the sprawling associativeness of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Hughes’ voice seems timeless and yet twenty-first-century-necessary.

First, a bit of plot: the press release for the novella from Miami University Press says this: “When Pinson Charfo wakes one morning to find a strange note at his bedside from a Mr. Ralfo to a Mr. Cormill, neither of whom he knows, it proves to be the first in a series of odd clues designed specifically for him to follow, embroiling him in a complex mystery featuring plagiarized manifestos, narcotized cultists, the search for pornographic prints, and a busted fountain whose runoff forms an underground lake beneath the never-named city’s unsuspecting feet.”

I recently reached out to Tote Hughes to learn more about the ideas behind this book and to learn more about the author himself.

Your writing style reminds me of Andrey Kurkov’s Death and the Penguin and Jose Saramago’s The Double. You told me before that some people have told you this book feels like it has been translated. Can you speak to that?

I can pinpoint five authors who significantly influenced my writing in Fountain: Roberto Bolano, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Italo Calvino, Charles Portis, and Flann O’Brien. The first three don’t write in English, and I can only read in English. So, it seems reasonable that aspects of my style might feel translated. And then, the content of the book magnifies the effect, I think. I never specify the time and place of the story, but there are a number of hints to give the reader good reason to believe it doesn’t take place in the United States. Additionally—maybe this counts as one of these hints—the names I’ve chosen for the characters are mostly quite odd.

It makes sense that I should read a lot of translated works, since most writers don’t write in English, but I’ve begun to think I’m particularly fond of the translated sound. Maybe my appetite derives from the fact that translated works come from cultures different from my own. So, in endeavoring to stay honest to the work, the translator reproduces the cultural details with the same nonchalance in which they were written. This ends up giving the translated work an interesting familiar-yet-distant aesthetic, whether or not it was intended. I try to hit this aesthetic in Fountain, so maybe that’s another good reason why people might say it feels translated.

You are so playful with language, and your images are so vivid. On your website, you have a list of books that you have read. Can you point to a few that influenced this unique attention to language and detail?

Sure! I think Kim by Rudyard Kipling and the d’Artagnan Romances by Alexander Dumas (The Three Musketeers is the first in the series) are huge influences behind my respect for detail. Both remind me of role-playing games: you’re acutely aware of the characters’ inventories, surroundings, and current quests. Another author with a great sense of detail is Neal Stephenson (I recommend Snow Crash). His books always have a lot of research behind them, so they usually lead to fun treks through Wikipedia.

I think Kipling’s use of language is also top-notch, but I think bigger stylistic influences for me are Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee, Gringos by Charles Portis, and Mortal Engines by Stansilaw Lem (which is translated, so who knows what I’m talking about).

One of the turning points of Fountain is a discovery of a literal pathway of water underneath a city. What are your thoughts on the structure of a novel and structure in general?

Since I haven’t had very much formal training in creative writing, most of my thoughts on the subject are derived from books I’ve read or are told to me by people who like to tell me things once they discover I’m a student. One time I met a swaggering expat in a Japanese convenience store who gave me a lecture on his theory of novels. According to this man, whose favorite author was Iain Banks—whom I’ve never read—there are four primary elements in a novel: plot, characters, setting, and style. To write a good novel, an author only needs to execute two of these elements well. I think this could be a useful concept of structure.

Very abstractly, I think the structure of a thing (a plant, an ideology, a conversation, whatever) is somehow related to the purpose of a thing. For example, a stadium’s structure is what you end up with when you set out to build a building that allows a bunch of people to safely watch a sporting event. But also, stadiums are quite famously used as centers for emergency relief, so the purpose need not come first. For me, this is comforting because purpose is one of those objects, like chocolate milkshakes, that pursuing leads to places far from where I comfortably write.

For Fountain, I set out to write a novella drawing on the structures of The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon and The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton. I definitely began with a structure in mind, but it was a structure by example, not one imposed by a garrulous gaijin.

Some of the themes in this book remind me of Philip K. Dick’s ideas of a conflict between what is genuine, what is a copy, and what is a genuine copy. Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City also comes to mind. Can you speak to these ideas of what is genuine and what is plagiarized, a fraud, or a copy?

Well, I haven’t read Chronic City, but it sounds like I should; I think this subject is important to my well-being.

For one thing, pursuing the subject of authenticity most naturally leads to a feeling of confusion, which is one of the best emotions you can ever hope to savor in life. Speaking of which, you will probably die.

As for another thing, an author engages with an audience, which is constituted by anything between a delusional self and a well-defined multitude. This act of engaging shouldn’t be straightforward. If it is straightforward, the author won’t be necessary; the audience will be able to predict the story out for themselves, meaning the best future for such an author is that of a laborer. The authority over what is and what isn’t genuine is a unique power for an author. By fiddling with the knobs of truth, the author can fix the settings to whatever riddle they think best suits their audience.

And for the final thing, I guess I’ll try to answer the question. As the aliens tell us, the Universe—including ourselves!—are One (where the Universe contains all universes). But, unlike the aliens, we only view this Universe through a dusty window of senses, from a dark and uncomfortable room called Consciousness. (Whether or not Consciousness contains all consciousnesses is a subject broached in someone else’s interview.)

Well, I already confused everything by saying “we” view this Universe. We don’t know “we” view the Universe; we only know “I” view the universe, so these “we”s are all somehow nosistic. But be careful coronating them, since we don’t know I really exist. Rather, I think, they’re the Universally despised patronizing “we”—aren’t we having fun? So then, standing in our dark room (Rooms? See that uncited interview.), it’s up to us to determine what all that nonsense outside is. We call that blob of the One by some name and that other blob by some other name (or even by the same name because we only have what meager linguistic tools we have), and so on. And after a while, when some blob out there asks us in our meager language whether or not some other blob out there is really the blob it is or some other blob that just appears to be the rumored blob that’s really the blob it is, we have two recourses: to look over our shoulder into the shadows for help or to shout, “What?!” Go with the latter; an empty corner of a room often appears filled when the lights are off. But let’s be clear: the “what?!” we cry isn’t an ecstatic interjection spilled forth in the pleasurable throes of befuddlement. O, that sweet emotion! Our “what?!” is a challenge to that inquisitive blob. It has just asked us something meaningless; that blob, not us, is the confused part of the One that should be calling passionate interjections into the Universal aether. That blob is only the blob it is because we called it by a name, because we defined it. There is no genuine blob independent of our definitions, definitions which reside right here with us on our side of the window, a window which is probably actually a television.

Fountain is so funny! Can you speak to your use of humor?

I use humor when I don’t want to be serious. Another thing that I do when I don’t want to be serious is to recommend various topics. Today, two topics I recommend are Paul Kammerer and Tarrare.

In your own life, you seem to be interested in shadowy subgroups and organizations with “questionable motives?” As a member of the Cloud Appreciation Society and the Oyster Squadron, what do you see as the purpose of these groups?

The Oyster Squadron is fundamentally important to world governance, so I think its purpose will remain indefinite until the yoke of capitalism is exchanged for the bubble bath of artificial intelligence. As for the Cloud Appreciation Society, I refer you to our official manifesto. If you didn’t click that link, go back and give it one more shot; it’s worth it.

In general, groups such as these provide intrigue, which is what I call safe danger.

I am fascinated by dinosaurs. On your web site, you have an extensive compilation of notes about dinosaurs which you apparently take with you to museums. Can we nerd out about dinosaurs for a moment? What’s your favorite dinosaur?

Of course! My favorite dinosaur at the moment is Cryolophosaurus ellioti, which is a large carnivorous theropod with a strange crest on its head that looks like a comb. It’s one of only three dinosaur species to have been discovered in Antarctica. I guess this appeals to me because I’ve long believed going to Antarctica to find some dinosaur fossils would be a really good date. Also, my legal first name is Elliot, so the species is basically named after me.

Well, I could stop here, but I’ll keep going: I really like Spinosaurus. And the plesiosaurs are completely awesome, but they’re not technically dinosaurs. I guess eating fish makes you cool. And, of course, there’s Yi qi! Oh boy, Yi qi is so awesome.

My dinosaur notes are definitely a work in progress, but I think that’s part of the concept. There’s something spiritual about rifling through a backpack, pulling out a sheaf of notes, and scribbling additions to them while standing under the shadow of a two-hundred-million-year-old monster.

Are you really a graduate student of high energy experimental physics? How does that inform your writing?

Yes, that’s true. I’m a PhD student at Rutgers University, but I’ve been living in Geneva, Switzerland, for the past year because my experiment lives at CERN. My experiment is called the Compact Muon Solenoid, and it’s enormous.

I think that anger and annoyance are two fundamentally different emotions. When something instills anger in you, you are emotionally driven to confront it, while something that’s annoying makes you want to escape it. Sometimes physics can be extremely annoying. When it annoys me, I temporarily escape it by staying up late and writing. Occasionally, physics makes me angry. When this happens, I hold on to my anger until I get annoyed and escape to my writing, where I confront physics through ridicule.

Fountain takes place in a nameless city. I love how detailed and realized this city is, and yet I cannot quite place the place or time of when this novel takes place. Can you speak to the decisions you made in creating this city? What is your favorite city, and why?

A few years ago, when I had a different name and hitchhiked more often than not, I knew a guy named Enrico who liked to bring me to his meditation groups and breathing practices. These gatherings would conclude with tea, something I didn’t drink very often, mainly because I wasn’t very good at cooking. Enrico’s favorite thing to do while drinking this tea was to ask the people around him open-ended questions. His favorite was, “What do you see?”

I like to ask myself this question when I’m in a new city, just to help me figure out what’s really so new about it. Usually I’m surprised by the answer. In Barcelona, I sat under a stone cross on hill in a park and saw an apartment building that looked as if it were floating above everything else. I looked at it for five minutes and could never quite figure out where it was actually standing.

When creating the city in Fountain, I drew on similar answers to this question. For example, the idea that the city should have no skyscrapers came from looking out over Tokyo and seeing how short the city was. A more practical decision was to make the city in Fountain busy enough to prevent the characters from driving everywhere. I guess this led me to steal elements of New York City, though I left out public transportation in my book.

I think I want to live in Hong Kong when I grow up.

David Rawson is the author of A Jellyfish for Every Name (ELJ Publications).

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