Kathy Acker once wrote, “YOUR MIND IS A NIGHTMARE THAT HAS BEEN EATING YOU: NOW EAT YOUR MIND.” Lately, I have taken this adage to heart, reading authors for the magazine whose work has embattled my sense of self. Janalyn Guo, author of Our Colony Beyond the City of Ruins, is one such voice who provokes me to listen more. Her surreal landscapes and peculiar characters inhabit arcs unlike anything I’ve read in a while, the narrative effect ranging from Kobo Abe, Spike Jonze, to Wong Kar-wai—and nowhere near these artists at the same time. I read her stories bemusedly, but utterly changed, my everyday cast into doubt and shadow. This idiosyncratic story collection has radically shifted my ideas about archetype and structure for the better. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did, which was conducted via Google Docs across an unfair smattering of months (for which I’m to blame).
Guo lives and writes in Salt Lake City. You can find her stories online at Quarterly West, The Collagist, Interfictions, and Black Sun Lit, and in print at Denver Quarterly, Heavy Feather Review, Bat City Review, Tusculum Review. Our Colony Beyond the City of Ruins, which won the 2017 Subito Prose Book Prize selected by Lily Hoang, is her first book.
Jason Teal: You’ve written scripts for a sentient AI guppy? Tell us what that was that like.
Janalyn Guo: It was for Tendar, a game now out from Tender Claws, and it was very fun. I think that everything they do is hilarious and thoughtful and pushing the limits of new media. Writing content for them is like stepping into a bizarre alternate reality, in the best of ways. There was always a question of what was possible in the world before writing in certain stage directions and props. You find yourself in virtual meetings with the programmers asking things like “If Guppy asks to see a chicken, can a chicken show up in its tank?” or “Will Guppy twirl first and then say its line?” It was fascinating to see the world of the game being built out, knowing that I had some small say in it. Writing is usually so solitary, so it’s refreshing to have an opportunity every so often to collaborate with other artists.
JT: How else have you collaborated with other artists?
JG: When Samantha (one of the co-founders of Tender Claws) and I were both in the MFA program at Brown, we collaborated on a computer generated play that we called Telescope, Window, Tree where we fed a bunch of Samuel Beckett plays into a computer program that generated text for us (having fun with this programming language called RiTa). We debuted it at the &Now Conference in Buffalo with props and everything, performing whatever the program spat out (dialogue and stage directions) in front of a live audience. Every once in a while, we talk about reviving it.
JT: I love this image of Beckettian theater becoming even more absurd in front of a live audience. Technology becomes a character, a device that engages the possible and impossible simultaneously. There is this seemingly-limitless quality to your fiction. In “Cazenave,” your narrator says as much: “I existed in possibility, just outside of experience.” With Our Colony Beyond the City of Ruins, there is, often, this sense of the liminal, a sense of occupation or threshold your characters inhabit, yet these are wonderful, immersive expanses for us to explore. What do you prioritize about building fictional worlds, especially without the added luxury of a novel?
JG: I love the short story form. To me, it’s like the perfect amount of space to fill, a nice balance of world building and compression. I find writing a novel very daunting. I am working on a longer project right now, and I have to psych myself up each day just to reopen the file instead of starting a new short story. I’ve thrown out quite a few half-finished novels (or turned them into short stories) over the last few years, but I’d like to think that I’ve learned something from every attempt. I’m hoping that when I am done with this project, the writing will feel compressed like my short stories do but over more pages.
I’m not sure what I prioritize when I write because it often depends, but I do have some habits. I often write first drafts with the mentality of a collagist, juxtaposing different images and getting a general feel of the space I’m creating. Then, if I don’t have something in mind already, I think about what might happen in the space. I write around whatever is evocative in the story at the moment, whatever interests me, until I get this feeling of discovery or coherence.
I enjoy fashioning surreal spaces particularly because anything can happen in them. I used to spend summers with my grandparents in their rural town in China. I was always transfixed by how differently things are done there—buying eggs, prepping meals, piano lessons, etc. I remember going with my aunt to the post office. The woman at the counter would hand us a rice sack, a needle, and a spool of thread. We had to stuff our package into the sack and then sew it up ourselves. I think that these experiences are at the root of why I enjoy having my characters stumbling into and reporting on strange places. My characters often adapt to and embrace their changed environment and become part of its fabric.
JT: I’m excited that you say characters adapt—one such character being the dog-walker of “Something Close,” a character who very much enters a situation because a dog client chews on a luxury bike seat. He promises to buy a replacement seat for the trusting, bike-riding boy, then encounters a dispensary for women on ice. All the while he has ordered a “remodeling on a grand scale” for his home because he wants “to lay down roots” in an oceanic castle. It’s a wonderful menagerie of elements that provides a kaleidoscopic moment among several in the book. Can you walk us through the conception of this piece?
JG: I was interested in displacement, how someone might come to form attachments to the people or objects around them as a substitute for something that’s missing. Robotic devices (like the Claw) are evocative to me because they are uncannily an object and a living thing at the same time. How are we supposed to feel around them? What do we want from them? I was also thinking about how someone might keep loneliness at bay if he’s deliberately chosen to remove himself from society out of self-preservation. You put your energy into a remodeling project, of course! (At the time I was writing this, I was dogsitting for a family that was getting their kitchen redone).
JT: There are a few dog-walkers in the book, counting “Night Floats.”
JG: Haha, there are. I did a lot of pet-sitting in graduate school. When I watched dogs, I felt like they were often signaling to me when we went on walks—where to go, what to do. They had their street preferences and patterns. So, they were guiding me, in some ways, through the world. There was a sort of comfort in that. I think both the narrator in “Something Close” and the woman he encounters struggle with the open-endedness of the world, not knowing how to make the most of it but knowing that they have limited time. I remember reading Jean-Philippe Toussaint’s The Bathroom back when I was writing this story and can see its influence. Have you read it? It’s about a guy who decides to move into his bathtub. It’s a wonderful, deadpan book that had me bursting into guffaws of laughter in public.
JT: I haven’t read The Bathroom, but I’ll put it on the list! The plot reminds me of Mark Leyner’s writing, in which absurdity becomes driven to the point of banality for postmodern conflicts. Also—there’s the game writing coming up again: Open-ended gameplay and open-ended storytelling seem like compatible things but literature feels slow to adapt. You’ve created unique narratives in this vein before, referring to the choose-your-own adventure Tinaus penned for the Central Library in Austin, Texas. What can you tell non-Texans about this project?
JG: Tinaus is a choose-your-own adventure story where the story nodes are physical objects (unique landmarks and public art structures) around downtown Austin. You can’t move onto the next part of the story unless you’re in the vicinity of the object. Tinaus is like an upside down Austin, where the roots of Tinaus are the trees of Austin and vice versa. People used to be able to move between the worlds through soil holes, but something has disrupted the order. The reader has to help the main characters figure out why nobody can travel between the worlds anymore. That’s the gist of it. The most challenging part of writing it was coming up with ten endings for the branching storylines. I have the hardest time with endings.
I was in Austin recently and actually walked through my choose-your-own-adventure maze for the first time. Austin is changing so much that some of the structures that were ‘nodes’ in the story do not exist anymore or will not exist soon (the finale structure, a graffiti art park, is slated to be demolished … there will probably be condos). It’s kind of surreal. This reminds me of a book I read, In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, where one of the narrators is intent on documenting ‘fixed points,’ places and sites of memories, but they all disappear over time.
So far, dabbling in different kinds of writing has helped me get a sense of what is possible. I like to think that I bring that back to my fiction. I want to keep exploring new ways of writing.
JT: I’d say beginnings give me the most trouble as a writer. The second sentence, after all the energy is put upon the first utterance. Can we talk more about compression? The stories in the collection hang around like the taste of a good meal. Proportioned evenly, and flavored with careful attention, as from a passionate chef.
JG: Thanks! I like the chef analogy. For a short time, I taught at a culinary school (writing, not cooking) and I wish I was equipped with good culinary analogies to share with my students back then. Ah, well.
I learned a lot about compression through studying poems and trying to write them for years. I was really into Emily Dickinson for a long time, still am, though I haven’t read her work in a while. I love how sparse and cryptic and expansive her writing is. I guess I strive to do that with fiction. The first real draft I write of a story is almost always the longest. Then the revision process is all about shrinking it down, letting images stand on their own and leaving things unsaid.
JT: Since the stories are so biodiverse I imagine organizing the manuscript was an immense undertaking. Did you always envision “The Cave Solution” as being last at bat? For the larger project you’re undertaking, what can you tell us? How does it differ from the themes or structures of Our Colony Beyond the City of Ruins?
JG: I think so. At the end of the story, the human disappears. What is left is a thing she’s carried inside her body now standing on its own.
I can tell you that the larger project will have an ecological focus. I’ve been trying to create a world where humans have to adapt to a new way of living that involves an unlikely sort of predator. In a lot of ways, it continues some of the themes in Our Colony. I’ve been reading books on plants and travelogues as side research. We’ll see what comes of it.
Jason Teal, Publisher & Editor of Heavy Feather Review, is a specter now living in the Little Apple of Kansas. His first book, We Were Called Specimens: An Oral Archive of Deity Marjorie, is forthcoming with KERNPUNKT Press in 2020. He currently hosts Driptorch Community Performance Series with Arrow Coffee Co.