“Into the Pool of Magma”: An Interview with Directory Author Christopher Linforth by Tyler Dempsey

Has a book made you mad? It’s so good, you realize drugs exist—without your knowing—that send authors to parallel planes? Me neither. Well … one time. I read Christopher Linforth’s new collection, Directory. I threw it across the room. Like brain-bugs cats give us, the book had me doing things—sniffing, salivating, yelping. I read it again. I writhed on the floor. It’s a book so singularly weird, you can’t ignore it. So amorphously unexplainable, you’ve got to try. I virtually interrogated Linforth. He didn’t show me the drugs. But …

Linforth is the author of three story collections, The Distortions (Orison Books, 2021), winner of the 2020 Orison Books Fiction Prize; Directory (Otis Books, 2020); and When You Find Us We Will Be Gone (Lamar University Press, 2014).

Directory collects the lives of interconnected twins and triplets whose identities switch and blur and fracture as their plural selves crisscross the country. The inhabitants of the collection explore  the causes of their trauma, reliving memories of past existences, looking for an end to their pain.

Tyler Dempsey: The sparseness of Directory, I love it. Was it a conscious effort on your part, a device to mirror a theme, or a byproduct editing? What are your favorite story collections to reread?

Christopher Linforth: There is sparseness between the stories or entries of Directory, a stripping back of connective tissue, resulting in a gulf of ambiguity, but I see the book as a series of dense miniatures. There are very few scenes in the book and little direct dialogue. I wanted to create a very insular, claustrophobic tone for the book, which leads to the breakdown at the book’s climax.

Now I’ve read a lot of stories multiple times, but I haven’t reread that many story collections as a whole. A few that spring to mind, though, include Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, Tobias Wolff’s In the Garden of the North American Martyrs, Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, and Nam Le’s The Boat. Depending on my mood, I usually pick stories I have a thirst to reread, whether that’s some John Cheever or Antonya Nelson or Charles Baxter or Sherman Alexie and so on.

TD: Directory seems a manifesto on awareness—a graduation of our identity as a species, but one where we haven’t thrown the square caps, yet. I wonder, what does “identity” mean to you, and what were you hoping to uncover writing this book?

CL: I was interested in the performative aspect of identity and what happens when the audience for a narrator/s performance is no longer around. For me, I see the plural “we” in this book as a pseudo-chorus, a narration of events by an ambiguously identified person/s. I leave open the questions about whether an “I” has created a “we” persona to escape themselves and the trauma they have been through. Equally, I wanted to offer a reading that perhaps there is a “we” or multiple “we’s” who is/are on the brink of identity collapse. In writing such a book, I wanted to discover whether I could pull off such a theoretical set of ideas.

TD: The various “we’s” of Directory are hellbent on escaping hierarchy. Often to a place out West, or cities, like Chicago or New York.

CL: Several of the “we’s” do escape places of confinement, whether it’s rural or suburban, and use the vastness of the country as a transitioning space—in theory, at least—for their lives. Order and power coalesce in Directory as family or patriarchy or matriarchy or community. The narrator/s often have an issue with the abuse of power and thus seek to escape, often by running away and reinventing themselves. Sometimes, though, the narrator/s fight back, usually years later, when they are ready and able.

TD: A recurring motif is death, often linked to desire or competitiveness. What risks do you associate with the two?

CL: Freud’s ideas about the death drive figure heavily in this book. The narrator/s often enact the trauma from their childhood/s and the results emerge in later life as forms of self-destruction. My playing around with the pseudo-chorus complicates matters and reinforces the connection between self-destruction and the desire to be someone else or to forget where one has come from. Competitiveness can be seen as a pleasurable aspect of desire: when one wins, beats the opponent, one feels pleasure in that moment of superiority. Of course, as we see in Directory, sometimes to be the victor (often transfigured as an escapee of trauma), the narrator/s risk death.

TD: “Race” is my favorite entry of Directory. Is this book a novella, or collection? Could you share a little about “Race”?

CL: I see the book as an interlinked collection of stories or entries in a directory, like a phonebook. Of course, I wanted a semblance of overall structure, a sense of profluence that the reader was getting somewhere. And so there are reoccurring images and places and characters, and also connections and juxtapositions and strange tangents that bleed through the stories. The story “Apocrypha” is the midpoint of the book, where things move away from the real and go off in absurdist directions. “Race” is about three-quarters of the way into Directory, and comes after “Slideshow,” which concerns the flexible realities of a Victorian-era magic lantern. “Race” follows on from the fantastical nature of “Slideshow” and follows two competing volcano divers and their eventual deaths and rebirths. When writing the first draft of this story, I was interested in the sad absurdity of people who commit suicide by jumping into active volcanoes. Of course, most of these people die without getting very far into the volcano; usually they perish on the crater’s edge. For me, though, I wanted to see people making it inside and to follow their trajectory into the pool of magma.

TD: There’s mention of the Dark Web, how do you see the internet affecting our disillusionment and lack of identity? Does repeated mention of Russia have anything to do with that?

CL: The destabilization of knowledge over the last few years, particularly during the Trump Administration, has had a devastating effect on the public’s trust of experts and expertise. Conspiracies on both the Web and Dark Web reinforce the undermining of knowledge, of “what is known.” And, as we’ve seen, Russia has been encouraging and promulgating conspiracy theories in the US and other Western countries. For sure, in Directory, there is an uncanny sense that something is askew with the world, that it has been infiltrated by conspiracy mongers and religious cults and practitioners of unreality and alternative forms of knowledge.

TD: What is possible in first-person plural that isn’t with other POVs?

CL: I wouldn’t make any blanket declarations that anything is possible or not in one POV that isn’t in enough. Certain POVs lend themselves to certain aesthetic and rhetorical strategies and effects. For me, first-person plural was a useful way of exploring intimacy and weirdness and ambiguity all at the same time.

TD: What needs to happen for humanity to think in terms of “we” instead of “I?”

CL: The US, at the present moment, is too invested in the importance of the “I” for real change any time soon. “We” is usually used in political instances, as a clarion call for one belief or another. But this rarely means anything concrete or long-lasting.

TD: What question do you wish someone would ask about Directory? What would be your answer?

CL: Perhaps something along the lines of “What is this book?” And I might say something like “A directory of the absurd and the fantastic and the personal. An indictment of America.” And I would leave it at that.

Tyler Dempsey is the author of Newspaper Drumsticks. He is a contributing editor at X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine.

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