David Leo Rice’s novel ANGEL HOUSE is the story of an ensemble cast brought into existence by Professor Squimbop, who serves as the town’s creator, destroyer, and pedagogue. Squimbop’s role in his creation complicates the lives of the town’s people and compounds his growing existential ennui. The result is an examination of the creative process, and the inescapable ways that art changes the artist. There is an implicit sense of mentorship between Squimbop and the townspeople, as he’s come from the Totally Other Place, in possession of outside knowledge. And Rice considers the importance and the dangers of this relationship.
ANGEL HOUSE contains the essences of Rice’s pedagogical philosophies, which I first encountered in his 2017 fiction class at Gotham Writers Workshop. He taught the mechanics of creative writing, and also detailed how students should find their own niches in the literary world. He’s a different kind of teacher, and a different kind of writer. Born in Northampton, Massachusetts, Rice was raised by his architect mother and psychiatrist father. Not surprisingly, his fiction examines structure systems with deep psychological surrealism.
We met last November over coffee and scones to begin a discussion that extended over email correspondence, shaping a discourse on his work, mentorship, the perils of closed circuits, the truth that lies in surrealism, and how ANGEL HOUSE stands as the culmination of his artistic life thus far.
John Kazanjian: I’ve read most everything you’ve written, but my introduction to you was as a writing instructor. So I found it interesting that in ANGEL HOUSE, the antagonist is also a teacher. I wonder, how would you discuss pedagogy with Professor Squimbop?
David Leo Rice: I’ve come to appreciate teaching more as time has gone on, but first I had to come into my own as a writer, on my own terms. Now, I’ve come to see teaching as something that can add to your own creative work, rather than diminish from it, but it took a while to get there.
With the character of Professor Squimbop, who comes to this small town only to teach the children about death and assure them that all their efforts will come to nothing, it was partly a rage against a certain type of teacher who I felt like, growing up, were the kinds of teachers who want to make you less like yourself and more like them. Or more like the kind of State power that they seemed to be agents of.
That’s the condition of Squimbop that interested me: he’s an ambassador for some kind of corrupt, metaphysical power system. And in a way, he doesn’t even want to be, but that’s not enough to get him out of being it. Whatever kindness he might feel toward the children is thwarted by his duty to crush them.
JK: What’s the healthier alternative?
DLR: The teachers that I really valued were the teachers with a developed individual within themselves, those who really had come into their own. They were the ones whose authority seemed to come from within, rather than without (IE, the State).
Therefore, they wanted you as the student and the writer, or as a budding younger person in general, to come into your own. They weren’t threatened by that possibility, and so were free to teach creative disobedience, rather than blind obedience.
This student-teacher relationship is really powerful in that it’s two individuals bonding over the importance of individuality, whereas the kind of teaching that’s detrimental and frightening comes from someone who’s trying to strip you of the opportunity to become yourself.
JK: Is there any bit of that goodness in Squimbop?
DLR: Well, yeah. I mean, I guess Squimbop is the villain of the novel. But my approach to villains is to try to empathize with them or see where they’re coming from. I like to play with mythic tropes of heroes and villains, but mainly in order to question them, or show that they don’t describe real life, even if we want them to. There’s a part of Squimbop that maybe even surprises himself to learn that he’s capable of a kind of love and attachment that he thought he wasn’t. He wishes he could just conjure and then annihilate these towns, but something in him wants to latch onto the people and places he finds there.
JK: So he’s not purely a malevolent force.
DLR: Right. And you can say that the whole town wouldn’t exist without him. So, he may be a destroyer, but he’s also the Old Testament God. He may be punishing you, but you wouldn’t be there without him. He created the realm in which you emerge in order to be punished.
JK: Were there any specific instances or exchanges with any of your instructors that contributed to Squimbop?
DLR: Yeah, I remember raging against the public high school that I went to in Northampton, MA, and the sense of complete, just willful backwardness and the determination to quash any sincere curiosity. The high school had a deal with Smith College, where if you got out of some basic prerequisites you could take your classes at Smith for free. It was a huge opportunity and I availed myself of it, but then there came a point where I wanted to take more classes than you were supposed to. And the high school was extremely opposed to what seemed like a student’s genuine will to learn—and ability to learn. I did well in those classes, so it’s not like they could have any legitimate concern that I couldn’t do the work. It was more like they didn’t want to let someone out of their grasp. Eventually they did, so I am thankful to them for that. But it really felt sinister, you know, like they were more of a prison than anything else, fearful of escape.
Although, I got my revenge one night because I worked for the cable access channel in Northampton (another image-world that found its way into ANGEL HOUSE’s local film production scenes). The station would send me out to film the School Committee meetings, and one night, when the principal who had caused all this trouble came up to speak, I just turned her mic off. And so, she was speaking silently on TV for like half an hour.
JK: Now that’s revenge.
DLR: Of a minor sort, perhaps. And on that topic, there was one really heroic teacher who I had for ninth grade writing, and tenth grade English. She was the opposite. She was the kind of teacher I would hope to become, in that she could see what would benefit each individual, and really believed in people’s potential.
We were in her room when the news of 9/11 broke, so she was the one to tell us what had happened. And her response was so mature: she didn’t sugar-coat it, and she didn’t turn it into a polemic. She was just like, “Here’s what happened. This is part of life, too.”
And I remember that she took my friend and me aside in this ninth-grade writing class, where we were reading some packet of stories, something that no one had any interest in. And she was like, “You know, I think you guys are reading at a more advanced level and there’s this book called Infinite Jest that I think you would love. So why don’t the two of you read that instead of the rest of this curriculum, and I’ll meet with you after school once a week and we’ll talk about it and you can write your papers on that.” So we did, and we were just so honored to feel as though an adult thought we were capable of reading an adult book and discussing it as adults—a kind of book that we had never encountered before.
JK: She was giving you something outside of your closed-circuit.
DLR: A hundred percent. That may be the best way to put it: a good teacher is someone whose goal is to break circuits. And a bad teacher is someone whose goal is to reinforce circuits.
And also, that same year, she was the one who encouraged me to submit a story to a thing called the Scholastic Art and Writing Awards. I’d never heard of it, and she was like, “Give it to me, I’ll submit it and take care of the paperwork.” And she did and it won. And we got to go to the Kennedy Center and we had this whole awards ceremony. And that is the first thing that I’d ever published. It gave me a tangible sense that it would be wise to keep writing.
I still remember that story. It was about some guys in a toxic wasteland who’d decided not to refill their oxygen tanks, so as to commit collective suicide. I remember her notes on it. She was like, “You know, you are a writer.” And then I think she said something like, “You are a writer, but you have to grow your audience beyond fifteen-year-old boys.” Some words to live by.
JK: Break another closed-circuit, essentially.
DLR: Right. One hundred percent.
JK: In the ideological sense?
DLR: Ideologically and in terms of identification. Can you, as a writer, identify with characters who aren’t just like you, such that readers who aren’t just like you can also identify with what you’re doing?
So that’s the good news. The bad news is that the same principal fired her. It was like a purge. Some report came that the teacher allowed a kid to write about drug use, or something minor like that. There’s no question that she had not done anything wrong, but the principal came after her and fired her. And then this huge petition among many parents, like my parents, my friend’s parents, a bunch of other parents—all had a meeting with the principal and they said, “All of our kids routinely say that not only is she their favorite teacher, but she’s their only good teacher. The only reason that they want to come to school is to have her class. You’re crazy to fire her.” And so, the principal said, “All right, OK, fine, I’ll reinstate her.” So they reinstated her, but hired some outside person to sit in her classroom and record notes on a clipboard.
And when the teacher asked, “What are these notes and can I see them?” the principal said no. So then the teacher quit. She’s like, “I can’t teach if someone’s taking notes on me that I can’t see.” Then, after she quit, the principal came back around and said, “See? She was never dedicated to your kids and I was right all along.” Unbelievable.
JK: Like a true villain.
DLR: A true villain. Especially because she comported herself with total self-righteousness. And that is what I hope makes Squimbop somewhat more relatable, that he has his own doubts. He knows he’s not totally in the right, and even wishes he could not do some of what he does.
Right at the beginning of ANGEL HOUSE I think it says, “He knew that it was not for him to doubt, and yet he did doubt.”
JK: Do you think education can corrupt someone if done in the wrong way?
DLR: Yeah. It’s a kind of paradox, in that you’d say the best education is in some ways teaching people how to become unteachable. There’s a very fine balance of saying, on the one hand, you should listen to what I’m saying, and, on the other hand, you should begin to build your own resistance, because that will become your personality. The same way that a great mentor is the kind that teaches you how to kill the mentor.
JK: Someone who identifies your humanity and promotes it.
DLR: And, in a kind of mythic cycle, understands that eventually your role is to usurp them. Someone who understands their own mortality. Physically or artistically.
JK: The idea that there is an establishment and a movement, and both exist because there is a transference of power, eventually.
DLR: Right. And the anxiety of influence in the idea of killing the father—that the best father is the one who genuinely wants you to become strong enough to kill him. The father who knows that only by raising a child who can kill him will he reach his own fruition as a father.
And the worst father is the one who fears this so much that he tries to keep you weak. Or tries to trick you into thinking he’s stronger than he really is. And that’s where authoritarianism and violent patriarchy come in—guys who know they don’t have genuine power, and so are exercising a kind of sham power. That’s a whole other topic, but these power dynamics are really interesting to me. My new book, A Room in Dodge City Vol. 2: The Blut Branson Stories, which comes out later this year, is all about the narrator’s fraught relationship with Blut Branson, a God-like local filmmaker who rules over a small town’s film industry with an iron fist, crushing any other artists who try to assert themselves.
JK: One of your first workshop lessons was to seek out writers that we admire and ask for help; that even successful authors in New York City would be generous with mentorship.
DLR: Yeah. Meeting the horror author Jack Ketchum was a transformative experience for me. When I first got to New York, in 2013, I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t know where to go. I didn’t want to join an MFA program (there, too, I feared they’d try to break whatever individuality I had, though I did end up going much later on).
Then I thought of writing to Ketchum when I read his book The Girl Next Door, and noticed that he lived in New York. When you are desperate, you can become brave. I had nothing to lose, so I just wrote to him. And I think I didn’t even write to him. I wrote to his webmaster. Some long series of bounced emails eventually reached him, and I sent him a story. And he responded. He was like, “I really like the story. It’s more surreal than I tend to go, but why don’t you come up to this bar where I hang out, and we can discuss it?” So, I went and that turned into a weekly meeting for like six years, up until he died.
DLR: It was such a gift. I would always bring him new work and he would critique it both very open-mindedly, and with a clear understanding that what he and I did wasn’t quite the same thing. But that was actually really helpful because it helped me learn that I’m a kind of writer, and that everyone is a kind of writer, no one is just a writer. Aiming for the universal in terms of theme may be a good idea, but in terms of style and content, it isn’t. You have to own your limitations. It actually gives you more freedom, I think, if you understand your writing as a specific type of writing.
JK: He encouraged you to be yourself, with an individual voice, and didn’t say something like, “Here’s what you’ve got to do.”
DLR: Definitely. And he had enough self-knowledge of his own standard operating procedure and his own biases to be able to differentiate between something that’s good, but not for him, and something that’s bad. So when he said a story of mine was bad, I believed him one hundred percent and tried to fix it.
JK: Do you feel that aspect is crucial for any teacher?
DLR: Super crucial. You can trace this distinction about a whole story, and you can also trace it about certain parts. He’d often say, “This scene, I get why it worked. It’s just not my flavor.” And about another scene, he’d say, “It doesn’t work even for you.” And the difference between that was life-changing. He was someone who’d succeeded on his own terms, and he truly wanted me to succeed on mine. He hated David Lynch, who at that time was a patron saint of mine, but he could still say, “Here’s what Lynch is doing right,” and sometimes he’d say I was doing that thing right too, and other times he’d say, “No, you’re not even successfully playing by the rules of your own game.”
JK: What about Ketchum made him so generous and self-actualized?
DLR: He was someone who I guess had just walked his own path and, seemingly, didn’t have anything to prove. He knew who he was, and he was happy with where he had gotten. And he had a lot to offer. I don’t think he ever had kids. Maybe that was part of it, that he had more to give to a son-like figure. And he was someone who had benefitted a lot from mentorship, too. His mentor had been Robert Bloch, who wrote Psycho. And Robert Bloch’s mentor had been Lovecraft.
JK: That’s quite a genealogy of mentorship.
DLR: Indeed. And Ketchum hated Lovecraft with a passion. That was part of his personality, staking out a place for himself as a staunchly realist horror writer, a horror writer who is almost closer to John Irving or John Updike. He’d been Henry Miller’s agent in the 70s, and had a real reverence for him.
He was someone who was really into psychological acuity, not supernatural phenomena. He didn’t have any patience for mysticism or eerie symbology. He was drawn to concrete human interaction, between characters in his books, between himself and others, and between his books and their readers. He didn’t think it was ever necessary to confuse somebody when you could level with them instead.
JK: Working with someone who has qualities you want to rebel against is a beautiful thing. It can form individuality even more than finding someone just like you.
DLR: It has to. In a certain sense, my style is probably more like Lovecraft’s than like Ketchum’s, so everything goes full circle. I think that Ketchum understood the goal of fostering a mentee isn’t just to replicate yourself.
JK: So, the role of an educator is to manage that relationship, but also to fend off opposing forces, like your teacher did with your principal.
JK: There’s a guardianship implied in that.
DLR: As a mentor, you have to both insulate someone and inoculate them. Especially if you are working with someone who is quite young or very early in what they are doing. You have to say, “Part of my role is to be the person who believes in you, even when no one else does. And the other part of my role is to tell you that it’s not going to be easy, and you have a long way to go.”
JK: Painting the whole picture for them.
DLR: Yeah. And to be like, “You won’t make it if you don’t toughen up in certain ways.” I think it was Joseph Campbell who wrote about the “second father.” In an ideal situation, your first father or mother—your biological parents—should basically just say, “It’s good that you are alive. We meant to have you. You’re safe here. We are going to take care of you.”
But if you want to become someone in the community or in a culture, not just in your family, and maybe not just in your town, you need the second father or mother—which could be a coach, it could be someone in the military, it could be a teacher, it could be a mentor, it could be a boss. But it’s someone who’s older than you and more established in this extended family of the culture that you are trying to enter once you’ve left your nuclear family. And their job is to say, “You’re not good enough yet, but you could be.” This is very different from saying, “We just love you because you were born.” And I think the danger is if you mistake one for the other.
JK: It goes back to the closed circuit—outside information coming inside to liberate someone.
JK: Dissemination of information is a huge part of ANGEL HOUSE. Well Broadbeam has his radio broadcast. The Mayor has his videos. But all those bits of information come from their personal histories and serve them specifically. Only Squimbop brings something from outside the town. What does outside information mean to the closed circuit in ANGEL HOUSE?
DLR: This is probably one of my central themes, the dual appeal and horror of the closed circuit. Because on the one hand, if the closed circuit remains closed, there’s comfort in it, because there isn’t the fear of the new, and there isn’t the fear of losing power, or of realizing that you don’t know enough. Everyone wants to believe that they don’t have to change.
On the other hand, there’s a degenerative horror of the closed circuit itself, which is why there’s such a taboo around incest and masturbation, or anything that limits the sexual logic of incorporating a wider array of genetics through reproduction. There’s a biological reason why we’re afraid of not having enough outside influence.
JK: And regarding closed circuits of towns in general?
DLR: That’s the reason why towns interest me, because they’re like petri dishes. They’re a small sample size that have this gross quality of a bath that can never be changed, like everyone is taking the same bath over and over again.
JK: That’s a good analogy.
DLR: But then there’s always something that breaks it. That’s Tolstoy’s idea of “someone comes to town, or someone leaves.” There’s some door in the edge of the town, through which the narrative gets in, or out. Like the end of The Truman Show, where Jim Carrey finally gets out of the dome. If there wasn’t, then there couldn’t be reproduction or evolution, or the inspiration of coming up with an idea for a new project. Writing itself is like that: it comes from the ‘town’ of your own head, but it yearns to get out and communicate in the wider world.
JK: In terms of your writing process, how did ANGEL HOUSE come to fruition?
DLR: This book was very different from anything that I have worked on since, because it was a kind of meta-project, for two reasons. First, I was trying to teach myself how to do what I would now say I just do, and also it was so much about characters in that same conundrum, trying to actualize their nebulous, post-teenage sense of reality, which tends to involve fighting through bitterness and frustration.
I was building up a lot of charge during college when I couldn’t really work on any sustained creative projects, because I had to prioritize academics. So, during junior and senior year, I was just frantically growing notes. I spent the two last summers of college in the Netherlands working with a filmmaker named Simon Pummell. And during those summers, I spent some time growing notes for what was then just called “the New Novel.”
And then, I was lucky enough to have a fellowship for the year after college, where I could go to Berlin. I had to register for some classes at Humboldt University, but I didn’t have to do that much. So, I was like, “I’m going to write this book.” And then I just kind of went to town.
JK: Do you remember the moment when the idea that became ANGEL HOUSE first took shape?
DLR: Yeah. I was in Leiden, in the Netherlands, working on a film that ended up being called Shock Head Soul. It’s about this German judge named Daniel Paul Schreber, who, in the late 1800s, had visions of being the second Virgin Mary, of God impregnating him with a new race of earthlings. So, I was researching that. I was deep into German philosophy and mysticism.
And I remember sitting in Simon’s home office when I had this idea that I would write a story about a shadowy circus promoter, maybe called William Blake, who drags what appears to be a funhouse into a field outside of a town. Though it seems dubious, all the adults in the town see it as basically a regular funhouse. But for the children, it’s a legitimate angelic landscape. It’s a truly Blakean realm of angels and these children go in and they are never the same again. That scene never ended up in the book, but in a literal sense, it was the first angel house.
JK: That’s a unique concept.
DLR: Thanks. The crux, thematically, was that there would be certain adults who could communicate with kids in a way that was simultaneously beautiful and disturbing.
JK: Just like Squimbop in the book. People using children for their own catharses or connections to their own geneses.
DLR: Right, adults using children as avatars of their own lost childhood selves. I remember going into my advisor at Humboldt’s office in Berlin, and he asked me what my book was about. The best I could muster, in German, was something like, “It’s about an unhealthy relationship between adults and children.”
JK: Did the nine-year-olds in ANGEL HOUSE emerge directly out of that circus scene?
DLR: Definitely. And they combined with my own memories of growing up with my friends, immersed in our Pretend Movie.
JK: Making the Pretend Movie is what drives the nine-year-olds throughout the entire book. Why does the proposition fail for them? Can a Pretend Movie ever be made, or is it just the thing that drives you to create at a young age?
DLR: The latter. That’s the dichotomy that the book sets up, between movies with a capital-M and film with a lowercase-f. And it’s another kind of feedback loop, because as a nine-year-old, you genuinely have the Pretend Movie as a fantasy world where everything seems heightened. Your teachers seem like they could be aliens, or some guy in town could be a robot, or the house next door could really be haunted. If you also have an artistic sensibility, you have this compulsion to reify the sense of heavy potential that you feel all around you. You have to make it tangible by working it into a form that others can recognize. Whether or not you’re thinking about money, you’re thinking, “I need to be someone.” It’s what we were saying before about leaving the family for the culture: you want to be recognized as an artist by those outside your immediate orbit.
Nowadays, my friend and I do these dream-sharing workshops, where we work with groups of people to find ways of publicly sharing dreams. And he always talks about how a dream is impossible to demonstrate in the waking world. Unlike, say, an apple, there’s no way to point at something and say, “Look, this is a dream.” And artistic ambition is the same way: it drives you crazy feeling like there’s nothing you can point at to make it real. So this is what compels you to turn the Pretend Movie into a real film, or a novel.
As a child, you have that ambition, but you don’t have any experience. You don’t have any idea of what it would actually take to transfer your overarching sense about the world into a videotape in a box on a shelf in the video store with thousands of other boxes. You think you know what that means, but you can’t really. And the tragedy, but perhaps also the beauty, of your apprenticeship phase is both gaining something and losing something.
You lose the sense of universal mysticism and infinite potential when you realize that everything you do takes time and energy. Therefore, hopefully you can make a lot of things in your life, but it will still be a limited number of things. It won’t be infinite.
What you gain is the ability to make something, rather than nothing. It’s a religious idea, accepting a certain drudgery, a certain cross to bear, saying, “the reality of the process of making a movie, or writing a novel, will break me, but being broken in this way is holy.”
JK: Their Pretend Movie is entitled The Dream of Escape. When you were young, would that title embody the sentiment of your own Pretend Movie?
DLR: I think I romanticized the idea of yearning for escape more than I genuinely yearned for it. There are a lot of people who grew up truly hating where they were from, who were just like, “I have to get out of here.” Whereas I had more of a romantic yearning stirred by folksongs of boarding the train to seek your fortune in the big city, that kind of thing. The strange aspect of Northampton was the degree to which it drew things to it, rather than sent them away. It was a city within a town, a real center of gravity. I never truly wanted to leave.
JK: When you go back to Northampton now, do you feel like Squimbop, dropping anchor and bringing your town into existence again?
DLR: Yeah. That was something that I thought about a lot. I took a gap year before college. I did it in two halves. I spent August through January in Australia and New Zealand, and that was a whole life unto itself, especially when you’re nineteen. Like one day, I was in my childhood bedroom and the next day, I was alone in Sydney. I worked these odd jobs, and I made and lost friends in that short period of time. I traveled all over and it felt like a completely different life, like many years had passed.
And then I came back to Northampton for a week in January, before going to Morocco, which was the second part of the gap year. That week was just so bizarre, because for the town, it hadn’t been that long. But for me, it was a completely different reality. The mismatch seemed very provocative, so it was something I wanted to get into in fiction.
JK: Squimbop’s Master is completely absent. We never see him or hear from him, and don’t even know empirically if he exists. But it’s under the Master that Squimbop creates the town, after which he is forced, and somewhat damned, to live full-time within it. Is this a cautionary tale about creating art under duress and then losing yourself in your creation?
DLR: Yeah. There’s ambivalence over whether it is admirable or despicable to live within your art. On the one hand, we fear getting lost in fantasy. On the other hand, if you’re going to create a world, you should at least be invested in it. Maybe that is part of the appeal of the Christ-figure—the idea that God, who created this world, is now going to humble himself enough to live and die in it. He is going to send his flesh and blood into it and is willing to suffer along with his creation.
JK: Only later on.
DLR: Later on, right. As a kind of corrective. On the other hand, it’s a recipe for insanity, because he is immersed in this world but can’t take credit for any of it and can’t put any of what he has learned to use. Maybe that goes back to education, too. Because Squimbop is not supposed to have memories. The fact that he does is only a liability. He can’t ever get better at what he’s doing, no matter how much he learns over centuries of doing it.
JK: Is Squimbop a Christ figure to the town?
DLR: Yeah, or at least a cult figure. There are people who recognize he has a transcendental power.
JK: He’s an agent of the Totally Other Place made manifest within the closed circuit.
DLR: It’s the same paradox. He is the thing that both breaks and creates the closed circuit. He creates and destroys all the life in the story.
JK: At one point, Squimbop puts on his big furry coat and becomes the Figure of Death. He walks to the Ghost Town, where there’s a wooden boat. He takes the wheel, watches the houses, and steers the night until every part of his body freezes except for his neck. His loneliness and his helplessness are presented as heart-wrenching peace and immobility. Have there been times in your creative process where you’ve been in that coat and at that wheel?
DLR: I used to feel that a lot on all-night bus rides in winter, where you’re just leaning against the window and you see a blur of scenery going by. And everyone else is sleeping. Like you’re some particle moving unseen through this infinite nightscape.
It’s one thing that would make me regret moving to a place without winter. The discomfort and depressive moments in winter are obvious, but there’s something really important about them too. To never experience that frozen silence would be a big loss.
JK: Artistically, for sure.
DLR: I love the idea of a frozen world with hidden life inside it.
JK: Is the effect in the suffering, or just the cyclical change?
DLR: Just experiencing the world as dead, but not in a ruined way. Dead in a pristine way.
JK: Are surrealism and Weird fiction more honest avenues toward presenting these kinds of ideas?
DLR: To me, certainly.
JK: What attracts you to those genres?
DLR: They’re more honest, or at least more productive. Trying to just reproduce how reality looks feels redundant to me. I don’t deny that you can get a certain amount of pleasure out of a crisp, incisive social novel. I can understand the benefit of it, or of someone like Edward Hopper. But to me, it isn’t nourishing in quite the same way that something of a deeply surreal nature is. Though surrealism can be dangerous, too, if it comes to feel gratuitous. It still has to be about evoking something true.
DLR: Dali is someone who I’ve always had a skeptical attitude toward. I find him impressive, but he doesn’t really move me as much as, say, Francis Bacon does. There’s a way in which Dali’s work seems like it almost has one foot in the world of spray paint street art. It’s cool, but it reminds me of poster art or lava lamps, that kind of stuff. I grew up with all that, but it feels a little cheap in the end.
JK: Surreal just for the sake of it?
DLR: Yeah, a kind of stoner or hippie surrealness, rather than the ‘heavy surrealness’ of Bacon or Hieronymus Bosch. My personality was founded by a weird skepticism of both the traditional bourgeois world and the traditional hippie world, at least as hippie culture manifested in the 90s and 2000s New England. Because the hippie world at that time—the world of Phish and all that went with that, for example—was like, “We reject your rules and your rigors and your sense that everything has to be categorized and orderly and we’re going to just have this chill like whatever-you-think’s-right-man kind of situation instead.” Like a neo-60s, but without any revolutionary spirit of social change.
And I got into that. I wore tie-die and listened to jam bands and smoked a ton of weed. But I always had the underlying sense that there’s something necessary about seriousness, and that shrugging it off is dangerous. I have always been uncomfortable with people who I didn’t think took themselves seriously. That’s why I admire certain directors like John Waters and Werner Herzog, super-serious artists who are able to hang out in weird, perhaps less serious sub-cultures, but still get their work done.
I get very uncomfortable when I’m in a group of creative people where it doesn’t seem clear that anything tangible can come of it. Maybe that’s why I’ve found it more productive to work on novels rather than films, much as I’d still like to.
JK: Is part of that because a lack of seriousness makes you prey to people like the principal of your high school?
DLR: Yeah, probably. I think there’s an irrefutable role of power in the world, a way in which something or someone will always fill a power vacuum.
So, from my point of view, the fallacy of certain hippie mentalities, and maybe also of the early Internet and the early adapters in the tech industry, is the belief that you could just sidestep power. That you could just say that we’re not going to contend with the issue of power anymore, and we’re going to live in a suddenly egalitarian world, where everyone has equal freedom and no one exploits anyone else. The problem is that the vacuum you left behind gets filled by the worst people. The filmmaker Adam Curtis talks about this a lot.
For me, the more heroic thing is to take power yourself—or at least over yourself—and try to use it for good. But in order to do this, you need discipline and a sense of harshness. There have to be some hard edges to things. That’s why, for me, it was important to really write books and not just give in to my desire to endlessly speculate and theorize. Being an artist comes from a desire for freedom, but in order to earn that freedom, you have to shackle yourself to your art. Another key paradox, I think.
JK: What’re you working on now that will serve that heroic effort?
DLR: The thing that feels most effortful at the moment is just continuing to make time and space to write at all. I’ve been teaching a lot more lately, which I’m excited about, but it gets that much harder to stay immersed in my own dreamworlds, and to keep moving forward with them.
But a few things are coming down the pike: a mystical novella about an extreme VR porn scam called The PornME Trinity just came out, the sequel to my first book, A Room in Dodge City: Vol. 2, is coming later this year, and my first story collection is coming out next year. So, a lot to edit and prep there.
In terms of new work, I’ve been trying to finish a novel about a version of European history in which the Berlin Wall became a conscious entity. It’s my first longterm engagement with a non-American setting, so I’m hoping that will be a productive new step.
JK: Are you looking to use these to expand on the genre of surrealism? Structurally? Mechanically?
DLR: Interesting. I’m not that conscious of the genre or style as a whole—my focus is usually just on the specific story or book I’m working on. I do want to use as many tools as I can to make work that feels fresh and disturbing in a productive way, so if that ends up contributing to the genre, then I’d be very happy about it. But it’s not a conscious plan.
JK: Last question: in your short story “The Last Testament of Professor Squimbop,” we see the great pilot of ANGEL HOUSE sitting on a bench looking out over the water, contemplating his life’s work. When you reach that stage, and look back at this era of your career, what do you hope to think?
DLR: Great question, and a sobering one to ponder. If I’m being immodest, I’d like to see this period as the beginning of a Personal Golden Age. A time when the struggles and uncertainties of my twenties have subsided and the crushing, dual insecurities of “will I ever do anything that people like?” and “do I care if people like what I do?” have been lifted, leaving me free to just floor the gas pedal. The flipside, though, is that my work ethic could dry up and I could become kind of complacent, as the all-consuming need to prove myself isn’t as strong as it once was.
Really, I hope I can just take this moment as a license to have fun and keep pursuing my interests on their own terms, trusting that, if I follow through, some people will come along for the ride.
John Kazanjian is a writer and member of The National Book Critics Circle. His work has appeared in Entropy Magazine, PANK, JMWW, and The New School Creative Writing Blog. He is an MFA candidate at The New School in Manhattan. Find him on twitter: @johnkazanjian.