CW: self-harm and suicide
I recently had the chance to sit down with B.R. Yeager and discuss his upcoming book Negative Space, which will be coming out from Apocalypse Party in March 2020. Negative Space is an unsettling novel exploring the occult experiences of teenagers as they navigate their lives in a rural town.
B.R. Yeager reps Western Massachusetts. His books are Negative Space and Amygdalatropolis (Schism Press).
Mike Corrao: Negative Space, for the most part, is set in a small town. Its population dwindling due to a suicide epidemic. Sections of this book were reminiscent of 2666 and 300 Million—where dead bodies have become commonplace objects. Is the body post-mortem still a person? Is it simply part of the environment? Do you view the cadaver as occupied or unoccupied?
B.R. Yeager: I tend to skew toward materialism, though I’ve been trying to be more open. So I tend to see the cadaver as being unoccupied, if we’re speaking strictly about the consciousness/self. But a cadaver is filled with plenty of material activity as well. When we (at least in the West) think about concepts like reincarnation, we typically imagine a person dying and becoming reborn as another person, or as another animal. But when a body dies, its energy and matter transfers to other matter and energy, which other things grow from—just nothing with a nervous system. This also feels like a sort of reincarnation, at least to me.
MC: Do you listen to music while you write? I know that the musical artist, Burial Grid has made a companion-piece to this novel. How did that collaboration come about?
BRY: Yes—music is integral to the process for me. That stimulation helps me ground the tone, and lets me sink into it a bit more.
Burial Grid/Adam is one of my best friends, and one of my favorite musicians. We also have a pretty enormous aesthetic overlap. He was one of the first people to read the rough manuscript of Negative Space, and he pitched the idea to record a soundtrack to the novel (I had also been hoping he would have this idea on his own). So after we talked about it, he went and composed the album on his own.
MC: Did Adam show you any of the album as he was making it? Did it inform the project as you went through the editing process with Apocalypse Party?
BRY: He didn’t show me the record until it was completed (which took a relatively short period of time), but listening to it with him for the first time was unbelievable. It just felt perfect. I did end up listening to it while doing edits, much like how I listened to other music to get into the mood, and I’m sure it had a similar impact.
MC: Does the album’s release coincide with the release of the novel? Where can people find it?
BRY: Right now the record has a definitive release date (March 1st), and Ben DeVos and I are working to lock down a release date for the book (soon, though). People can find the record available for preorder on Bandcamp.
MC: Both Negative Space and your last novel, Amygdalatropolis, explore unsettling anonymous zones of the internet. In Amygdalatropolis, it was the 4chan-esque snuff imagery/torture porn/doxing. In Negative Space it is less explicit: a forum of users all discussing the constant stream of suicides. What fascinates me about your depiction of these spaces is the kind of transcendent atmosphere that you engender them with. What draws you towards these depictions? Do you see a potential for these anonymous spaces to take on spiritual or divine contexts?
BRY: I think my experiences with the internet in my teens (this is a pre-Facebook, pre-MySpace, pre-Friendster, AIM and LiveJournal dominated era) felt incredibly transcendental. I was excruciatingly shy as a teen, lots of anxiety, had a lot of trouble with reading social cues, but I could communicate decently through text, so communicating via anonymous messageboards and instant messenger felt more natural to me. And there was a fantastical element to it, where you could cultivate an aesthetic and identity that felt more in line with how you saw yourself than how you were in defined by flesh and blood. That still exists today, even as the internet becomes less anonymous and more homogenized.
But these were intensely important and formative experiences to me, and I try to capture the magical aspect of them as best I can, though it never quite feels sufficient. And I feel like these spaces need to be at least acknowledged, if not explored, if you’re writing about the present day.
MC: You’ve spoken in the past (and a bit here) about wanting to take on aspects of the digital experience in your writing. Above, you’ve talked about this in terms of content, but in other places you’ve also discussed form and structure. And from reading your work, I think that you are successful in emulating these virtual zones. Do you have techniques that you’ve devised for doing so?
BRY: I think the form comes naturally to me, and part of that is that it is easier for me to write in short bursts, and alternate narrators, or break up blocks of primary text with incidental text. When I’m sitting down to do anything, my attention is all over the place, so I just naturally have to transfer that scattershot state into the text. Which is why my stuff can sometimes look like a social media feed. Part of that is also intentional—everyone says that nobody reads anymore, but we’re reading the internet and social media constantly. It makes sense to hijack elements from that medium for use in our fiction.
MC: Were you reading anything while working on Negative Space that greatly influenced the text? Are there other works that you see Negative Space as being in conversation with?
BRY: There were several books I had read before Negative Space that I knew would be touchstones for what I was trying to do, and many of which I revisited. In a lot of ways I wanted to write something that resonated with Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. The entire genre of children on the cusp of adulthood forced to face dark entities that defy what they know of the world. Or something like IT—the “kids on bikes” genre that has been exhumed in recent years to exploit a desire for comfy nostalgia. The thing about those original books and movies, though, is that they’re ultimately about how utterly horrifying that stage of life is, when you’re first exposed to the darkness and violence of the world. So much of the nostalgia-mining going on today ignores the original point that childhood is actually often terrifying, and, ironically, that nostalgia is largely based on a lie.
One of my goals was to tackle the genre and borrow tropes, but with all the nostalgia stripped away. Don’t set it in the ‘80s, set it in the present day. Take away the myths of adolescence being a time of innocence, and write about teenage experiences as they really are—the awkward sex and drug gobbling and weird interpersonal violence and anxiety. Being that age is really like existing on a separate plane from adults, and there’s so much that’s beautiful and terrifying about that.
Kathe Koja’s The Cipher was an enormous aesthetic influence, as was Grace Krilanovich’s The Orange Eats Creeps, which is just a perfect book in my opinion.
MC: Negative Space is occupied by self-harming teenagers. One of them, Tyler, has cuts covering his arms. Is the body an archaeological site? Does each scar and scab denote a potential narrative?
BRY: Absolutely. There is a notion of irreversibility about wounds, and they can also signify dedication to a cause or belief.
MC: The medium of the book is something I find inherently abstract. When I see a name I don’t immediately attach it to a body—I don’t know if this is just a personal problem, haha. But there is an instant kind of physicality to your writing. You create these moments of visceral human anatomy—like Tyler’s incident at Thanksgiving. Do you have strategies for returning to corporeality when you find that you’ve drifted too far into the abstract?
BRY: I wouldn’t say I have strategies, but the return to corporeality is definitely important to me, so it tends to happen. Again, talking about irreversible damage, like the horror of being careless on some icy steps and snapping a bone, or letting your teeth go to ruin—those are things that are constantly on my mind, so my writing tends to be filled with them. I know it’s a cliché, but we take it for granted how delicate our bodies are, unless we think about potential harm constantly, which can be maddening.
MC: Throughout the book, characters perform various rituals, often for protection or to strengthen their connection with their patron saint. The procedures of these rituals often become intertwined with the erotic. Sometimes ending with masturbation. Do you view this occult patronage as a sexual relationship? Perhaps the patron saint as master and their subject as submissive.
BRY: I’m not in any position to comment on actual occult practices and theory with any expertise. However, many people who do have that background have made links made between sexual acts and the occult, and I think I was more or less pulling from those. But thinking about practices that induce an out-of-body experience, or a divine experience, orgasm can be read as that, as can intense prayer, or dancing, or intense self-harm, or drug use. In the text, it was important for me to depict rituals as being extremely personal, with many routes toward divine experience, because that’s what we see throughout the world—diverse practices toward a similar destination.
MC: The latter half of this book presents an idea of inherited divinity or ritual. It is revealed that one of the characters is continuing the practices of one of their parents, documenting each death, trying to communicate with the otherworldly. Do you view the occult as something inherently familial? As something that can be passed down from one generation to another/expanded across a lineage.
BRY: I definitely don’t consider it familial. “Birthright” and “chosen one” stories are incredibly boring and gross to me, and are disconnected entirely from reality. But traditions are passed down, and that’s how I saw it in the text (though it is kept vague)—this was a method of the character connecting with his departed parent, rather than an inherited power.
MC: What inspired the structure of Negative Space? Do you conceive of narrative or form first? Do they manifest simultaneously?
BRY: It largely comes out of keeping me from being bored. As I mentioned earlier, I have scattershot attention, so the process is easier when a narrative keeps shifting around, when it’s off balance. With Negative Space, the narrative came first, and it wasn’t for a while until I realized it needed revolving narrators, and then that structure began influencing the narrative, and vice versa.
MC: There are some really great lines in this book. Some hit this satisfying kind of punk-campiness: “Aw hell yea I’m back from the dead.” And some hit a more unsettling note: “The picture put tiny holes in my insides. I breathed through each one.” Do you prioritize certain elements of the text during its assembly? Pace, tone, atmosphere, narrative. How do you determine what to prioritize?
BRY: Thank you! For me atmosphere always takes precedence over everything else. My favorite books are the ones that induce a sort of psychedelic state, and that’s what I aimed for with both this and Amygdalatropolis. But after the last book, I also wanted to write about a wider number of people in a larger environment, and that ended up necessitating a larger focus on narrative.
MC: Have your books thus far come out in the order that you wrote them? I know that the submission process can often create a kind of dissonance between when something is written and when it is released.
BRY: Yes, though it’s not entirely linear. Negative Space actually started as a short story written in 2013. Then other portions emerged as short stories as well, around 2015. Then I wrote Amygdalatropolis more or less to learn how to write a longform piece of fiction, or at least prove to myself that I could do it. After I finished Amygdalatropolis, I returned to these short stories and realized that they could all belong to the same narrative.
MC: One of the characters, Lu/Lou, has a strong connection with the otherworldly. Do you view her as a Homeric poet? Evoking the muses/summoning the text?
BRY: Yes—she is largely an observer, and she already views the world much differently from the other characters, so she sees things that others—who are too enmeshed—cannot. In the initial parts of the story, she is more a side character, but as it progresses she becomes the one who sees the most of what’s actually going on, and has perhaps the most objective perspective (though her language is largely rooted in the subjective), at least that was my intent.
MC: Do you have any other projects in the works? I know you have Pearl Death coming out later this year from Inside the Castle (which is formally really interesting to me).
BRY: Yes, this is shaping up to be a very busy year. Pearl Death is a deck of cards that outlines a history of a dead civilization through its artifacts. An attempt at non-linear storytelling, as the cards can (and should) be read in any order. Very excited to have this put out through Inside the Castle, as John Trefry is a dear and puts out (and writes) wonderful books.
I’m also acting in a short film directed by my friend Nick Verdi (@Verdi___Nick), which is something I’ve never done before, but it’s been a terrific experience. He’s very much about working with folks who’ve never acted before to create strange and tense films. Very excited about that.
Also working on music with some friends that will probably be released later this year.
MC: Pearl Death reminds me of the load-screens from many fantasy games—more specifically, from Dark Souls. Was this your intention? Thinking back to your desire to emulate virtual spaces, I think people often limit themselves to thinking of the virtual as being the internet, but you seem to be taking on a more interactive/gamified kind of experience here.
BRY: Pearl Death is 100% the product of my infatuation with the Dark Souls series, and the way those stories unfold, like collections of linked microfiction (also non-linearly), as well as the overall tone. The narrative format is going to be very familiar to anyone who has played those games, and I am absolutely fine with that.
MC: Do you think this will inspire you to work on more interactive works in the future? I know some authors have been using programs like Bitsy and Twine to create distinctly navigable kinds of stories, such as Mike Kleine’s XYZZY.
BRY: I would love to do that. I have a few attempts at game design in my backlog (which will never see the light of day), but I’m not sure I have the time and patience to work on the coding/mechanical side as well as the creative side. If I were to jump into game design, it would have to be that someone was focused on developing the mechanical aspect of the game, and I would focus on the writing and narrative design. So if any coders or game designers want someone to write for their game, get at me.
MC: Having worked with some really exciting and innovative publishers (Inside the Castle, Schism, Apocalypse Party), you’ve become a standout member of the small press community. Are there any new writers and/or press who you’ve been following that you’d like to bring attention to?
BRY: Thank you. I’m going to list off some of the writers that may or may not be new, but certainly deserve attention:
Elizabeth Victoria Aldrich
In addition to those presses, I’m really loving what ExPat Press is doing, including publishing the debuts of a number of the authors on the above list. 11:11 Press and King Shot Press are also doing phenomenal work that I really admire.
Read more about Negative Space at Apocalypse Party.
Mike Corrao is the author of three books, Man, Oh Man (Orson’s Publishing), Two Novels (Orson’s Publishing), and Gut Text (11:11 Press); one chapbook, Avian Funeral March (Self-Fuck); and many short films. Along with earning multiple Best of the Net nominations, Mike’s work has been featured in publications such as 3:AM, The Collagist, Always Crashing, and The Portland Review. He lives in Minneapolis.