“Emotional Resonances”: Jesi Buell Chats with Tariq Shah about His Debut Novel Whiteout Conditions (Two Dollar Radio)

Tariq Shah’s Whiteout Conditions is a slim book that, by centering on death, allows its protagonist to explore life. Ant, the main character, is back in town for a funeral in the middle of winter. As he wanders through his hometown and its memories, Shah leads us through a taut exploration of grief, masculinity, and revenge with a deft hand.

Born and raised in Illinois, Shah is the author of Whiteout Conditions, now available from Two Dollar Radio. He writes fiction and poetry, and has work appearing or forthcoming in jubilatHeavy Feather ReviewNo, Dear MagazineANMLY (fka Drunken Boat)GravelBlazeVox, and other publications. From 2007-2009, he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Mozambique, and he holds an MFA in Creative Writing from St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn, where he now teaches. His chapbook, heart assist device, was a finalist for the 2019 no, dear/small anchor press chapbook series. Follow him on Twitter: @tariqshwa. Instagram: @tariqshwa

The following interview takes place between Shah and myself to explore the origins and inspiration for his debut novel.

Jesi Buell: Do you believe that art is reflective of the artist? If so, what elements of this novel are reflective of your lived experience?

Tariq Shah: I think that, even though the spectrum of art is incredibly wide in this respect, at the most fundamental level, art reflects its artist—even the most seemingly abstract, theoretical, or divorced-from-human-perspective art (here I am thinking, perhaps, of the more cerebral works of John Cage, Yves Klein, conceptual poetry, etc) is unable to escape from this dictate. If not their personal lives, they reflect the artist’s curiosities, intellectual interests, the social and political forces by which their minds are shaped, etc. It still all points back to the creator, in some fashion.

Though fiction, this book draws deeply from my personal life. The deaths of my father, grandparents, friends at various points in my life inform Ant’s somewhat demented outlook. The bond between Ant and Vince is borne of those between myself and my brothers, friends, enemies, etc.

Similarly, its setting provides an outlet to revisit the areas of Illinois where I was raised. This book isn’t history, but it is a form of reflection, amplification, and distortion, which is to say, it is a kind of memorial.

JB: I’m always interested in name choices. Were there specific reasons you chose the names for the characters and places in Whiteout Conditions?

TS: I tend to rifle through names rather frequently at the outset of a given creative project, until I find something that seems to both fit the character and any/all needs of the story. By that, I mean, for example, calling Vincent Vincent offered me flexibility to call him Vin/Vinny/Vincent, which can on occasion lend a bit more grace to a given sentence. There had to exist, for me, a kind of intrinsic “music” to the name, when placed in sentences and read aloud. In this sense, there existed a pragmatic dimension to these choices.

JB: I think deep-down we are all fascinated with our childhood. Can you speak to Ant’s childhood and the decision to include certain parts of it in this story?

TS: This story begins with a weird sort of boast by Ant, the protagonist, which demanded it be unpacked for the story to gain its own life. The structure of the story organically formed from there, provided a latticework that permitted the current journey the characters take to gain consequence, depth, context.

Or, the story begins with a confession. I think of them as two sides of one coin, a submerged coping mechanism of sorts. Readers will have their own interpretations of him, and I think that’s all to the good. Ant is interesting in this way—his own past grief has equipped him with a formidable agility and capacity to deflect, compartmentalize, disassociate, weather—anything. Well, almost anything.

People go to funerals all the time. What is important about this one, why is this person’s undertaking something to lend one’s ear to? I think that question necessitates an exploration of Ant’s childhood for it to make any kind of realistic sense to the reader.

JB: In some cases, I see a lot of maturity in young Ant that can be lacking in the older Ant. When you were braiding together pieces of his life for this story, was the juxtaposition of maturity in one character intentional? Is there a comment in that juxtaposition about young adulthood? 

TS: Adult Ant is a much more jaded, armored-up person than he was when he was younger. I think of him as believing he gets some sort of pass now, after enduring all of these various tragedies—he’s seen it all, and is perhaps now somehow “outside” of it all—which becomes a dangerous crossroads for him, in a way. I think self-pity goes a certain way to informing his behavior as an adult. I think he is grieving without really knowing it. He was less damaged as a child/young person and I think that maturity in his actions and responses that you pick up on is a function of that, an observation that I find a bit fascinating, since I wasn’t intentionally attempting that, per se, though I was attempting to draw all of these contrasts between the Then and Now of the story. I rarely get too explicit or literal in my writing, in this regard, though; I considered them contrasts in a tonal way of sorts, or as emotional resonances meant to create chords in the reader with what comes before and after in the text itself, regardless of where the characters are in time/space.

JB: What role does place play in this novel? Could it have been set anywhere else?

TS: It was towards the beginning of writing this book that I began to think of myself as an “American” writer. Figuring out what that meant to me led me to consider the many strains of American literature existing today–southern Gothic, New York/east coast, Texan, Californian, etc. There is certainly a deep lineage stemming from Chicago, and though my and my families lives have fundamental link to the city, I didn’t grow up there. It didn’t quite feel like a heritage I could, or should, claim. That felt like something of a front. It’s the outer “Chicagoland” area that I would more consider my original home. So that felt like a logical starting point, for better or worse, to begin my being a writer who calls himself American.

This wasn’t merely a logical choice, however. My primary link to the region had recently been severed before coming up with the idea—my mother sold the family home and moved out of state. So, I also felt a personal urgency to preserve that place, somehow. I think people who have lived in similar places—suburbs, small towns, sprawling metropolitan outskirts—will find aspects of this location familiar, or relatable, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say the book could be set anywhere.

JB: Are there any authors who influence you? Can you speak to their influence in this work in particular?

TS: This is always a tricky question to answer. I usually end up rattling off my all-time favorite books, in lieu of a more specific answer, since while writing this book, and for a short time before that, I made the conscious decision to stop reading fiction. I found that almost every book I read was, in one way or another, perfectly harnessing what I was trying to say, which was hugely disheartening. They were creating a kind of static in my mind thwarting my own voice and creative ability.

That said, there are a few touchstone authors whose works have definitely influenced my own, if only in a broader, aesthetic sense. I have long admired Joan Didion’s unflinching detachment to her subject material, however base or heart wrenching it may be. Additionally, Annie Dillard’s work, her sentences, I consider holy writ. Amy Hempel’s work, I think, maintains a unique quality to introduce urgent, potentially cataclysmic events, problems, and conflicts as though she were describing what she did last Sunday afternoon, which I greatly admire—stories which I, as a reader, can’t help but be drawn to.

JB: I’m always interested in the story behind the book—what was your journey like to make Whiteout Conditions?

TS: One day I was riding the bus to work, thinking about the old adage that says all art is about either sex or death, and where my own work fit along that spectrum—surely death, these days, I thought, and using my phone’s notes app, began composing lines about a death worshipper, what they would look like manifested in the real world. Not a goth, or a Satan worshipper or anything like that, per se, since those are different aesthetics—fashion or music decisions, or the worship of pain, or hatred of Christ or something—a real, dyed-in-the-wool death worshipper—someone who took it seriously—would probably look like a normal person, finding costumes and all that a bit schmaltzy or amateurish. As I rode the bus I began to casually excavate the logical underpinnings such a position would maintain. Even the universe will die, etc, thus it’s more powerful, arguably, than other dieties of the past: the sun, war, Allah, Vishnu. Further, gods of death have been worshipped throughout human history. Is this the same thing as worshipping death itself? etc., etc.

Anyway, after scribbling down some of those lines in my notebook, I mostly forgot about the whole thing, until the winter break between my first and second years of graduate school, when I was despairing over the thesis project I had begun earlier that year and which had begun to become a real burden to me. I was at my brother’s house in Seattle. It was the first Christmas break we weren’t spending in Illinois, when I came upon those scribbled lines again after leafing through my notebooks. My brother had rescued a sweet, old, giant slow black Labrador a month or so earlier, and I watched my niece play with him, somewhat roughly, which made me a bit nervous, seeing as how the dog (Lucca, a sweetheart through and through), dwarfed her, and could have seriously hurt her, if it wanted. Suddenly, nearly the entire arc of the story came into view, and it felt like something I could really throw myself into. I wrote the first draft in a couple months, revised it over the course of a couple more, and that was that.

JB: Let’s say this story gets made into a movie—whom would you cast?

TS: Oof, this is tough, haha … okay here we go.

Ant: I mean, I don’t think he’s physically described in the book at all, so he could be anybody. I kind of like that about him. I wanted to allow readers to fill in their own version of him. They usually do that, anyway. I do, at least

Vince: Ben Crompton, maybe? Kevin Gage?

Ray: Tough one. Someone who is a hybridization of Milhouse Van Houten and Bradford Cox, Or the kid from Gummo.

Gavin: Don Knotts 30lbs overweight. Ugh, I just creeped myself out.

Dan: When I think of Dan, California Representative Devin Nunes comes to mind?

Marcy: Allison Janney in old person makeup. Or Illeana Douglas in same.

Dwight: Desus or Mero.

Qasra: It’s a shame there are so few south Asian actors getting work in America today. I could be wrong, but few come to mind right now. So I’m going to go with Marissa Paternoster.

Wendy: Hmmm. Mad Max-era Joanne Samuel #sadmax

Batneck: Uh … Joaquin Phoenix.

Daymon: Whoever played Stan in the Eminem music video.

Jesi Buell is an artist from Upstate New York, where she lives with her husband and beautiful daughter. She is also a librarian and the head of KERNPUNKT Press, a home to experimental writing.

Check out HFR’s book catalog, publicity list, submission manager, and buy merch from our Spring store. Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.