“There Was Always Something More I Had to Know”: Marcus Pactor Interviews Gabriel Blackwell

Gabriel Blackwell never repeats himself. Each of his seven books offers a distinct approach to fiction, bending forms and genres to find new angles from which to capture the dark absurdities of modern American life. His new novel, Doom Town, is the confession of a man who has no faith in the power of confessions or even language. The narrator’s sweeping digressions-that-are-not-really-digressions capture both his and the world’s slow-motion collapse.

Blackwell’s other books include CORRECTION and Babel. His short fiction and essays have appeared in a number of journals, including Conjunctions, Tin House, and DIAGRAM. He is the editor-in-chief of The Rupture. He currently lives in Spokane, Washington.

I am grateful to him for his time and generosity.

Marcus Pactor: Doom Town is the confession of a person who does not believe (or professes not to believe) in confessions or even language. How soon in the writing did you discover this essential contradiction, and what steps did you take to weave it into the fabric of the novel? Or is that contradiction the fabric with which the novel is composed?

Gabriel Blackwell: I don’t think I began writing the book with that understanding of the character—or any understanding of anything I was going to write, for that matter; it would be unusual for me to know so much about what I’m writing before I’ve written it—but I think it must have become clear to me very early on.

By the time that Doom Town‘s narrator tells his story—Doom Town is his story, I mean that is all it is—he has already decided that explanation, confession, even what we think of as memory are all hopelessly corrupt and there is no way he can see to redeem them. He has tried various possible adaptations and alternatives to the way he communicates, but all of those have failed. Because the failure always comes in how those adaptations and alternatives are received, how his language is understood or misunderstood, he decides he will only tell stories. Telling stories, especially stories that are immediately recognizable as stories, at least acknowledges that all of what he can say, all of what anyone can say, is, at its core, artificial and manipulative, whether intentionally or unknowingly. For him, telling stories is a matter of setting appropriate expectations for what he will go on to say.

MP: Rather than directly communicate with his wife, colleagues, and students, the narrator tells stories. Some of these stories, like Pinocchio or Frankenstein, are well-known, but I was particularly taken with the less famous (to me, at least) stories of Moremi and of the Alvarezes. Were you familiar with these stories before you wrote the novel, did you do some kind of planned research beforehand, or did you just happen to come across them while writing? How much of your writing is part of a definite plan and how much is discovered along the way?

GB: Planning the writing of a book in the way I think most people understand those terms—planning, writing—isn’t something I typically do.

I wrote and revised Doom Town shortly after putting aside a nonfiction book that involved a great deal of planned research, so I can say with perfect confidence that the two processes really looked nothing alike. The nonfiction book resisted the writing in a way none of my other books ever have. And then, too, Doom Town is finished and the other book is unfinished and seems likely to stay that way. There are, I’m sure, many reasons for that, but ultimately, I made the decision to spend my time revising Doom Town rather than finishing the other book, and I think that’s a fair indication of where my interests lie as a writer. If I know too much about where what I’m writing is going, I have a lot of trouble convincing myself that spending the time to get it there will be worth it. The nonfiction book came to seem like an excuse to read and research—there was always something more I had to know in order to be able to write further—rather than to write, and my life is already filled with such excuses.

More specifically, with regard to the stories the narrator of Doom Town tells, I knew I wanted to include stories that readers might recognize. Most of those stories came into the narrative as I was writing—the story of the Alvarezes, for instance, was a story I was already familiar with and it seemed to fit what the narrator wanted to express at that moment in the novel—but there were also stories that I encountered by chance while writing Doom Town—e.g., the story of Moremi—or that I had to go hunting for when thinking about what emotion or idea the narrator is trying to express.

MP: The novel’s bitter humor is richest in the passages describing his experiences in academia. These passages remind me of The Castle, but whereas K. is dumbfounded because he can never penetrate the castle, your narrator is dumbfounded inside the castle of the university. I’d never thought about your work in relation to Kafka’s till I began forming this question. Do you see this relation? Also, do you have fun while you write or do you feel, like Kafka, a constant suffering?

GB: As it happens, I’ve just finished rereading The Castle, the translation by Mark Harman. I’d only ever read the Muirs’ translation before. Harman’s translation is, for me, much more interesting, really a completely different book.

I think K.’s frustration in The Castle is the experience of dealing with seemingly capricious or irrational people who nevertheless possess the perfect and total conviction that can only come from authentic—which is to say inscrutable—belief. But then that’s the nature of irrationality and of belief. There is something horrifying about those experiences, those mutual incomprehensions that, by their nature, don’t allow for middle ground. The other loses some of their humanity when you can’t understand why they’re acting in the way they’re acting. Yes, I think that’s important to Doom Town.

As for my experience of writing, I don’t think of it as a constant suffering. Maybe more like a temporary forgetting of the self and its concerns, relief, rest. I should add, though, that for whatever reason, and for far too long, I didn’t feel I ought to take pleasure in my own writing. I mean what had been produced, the story, or essay, or novel. This was a weird kind of extreme humility bordering on self-loathing; I couldn’t be happy with what I’d written. Now, though, I hope for pleasure when revising, and, because I’m hoping for it, looking for it, I find it much more often. So, in that regard, yes, maybe more like fun than like suffering.

MP: Your books often blur the border between essay and fiction. Doom Town, though it is no straightforward novel, seems a departure from that genre-blurring approach. Do you agree with this idea of a departure and, if so, what led you to it?

GB: I think that’s right. Doom Town pursues a different storytelling strategy than my other books have. I’d like to think I’m attentive to form, that the form each book takes is suited to the story or stories it tells. I’m not really capable of thinking clearly or helpfully about storytelling except through form, at its intersection with the storyteller and their material. 

I also don’t ever want to feel as though I’m relying on the same trick or tricks. I mean, I didn’t set out to write Doom Town the way I ultimately did, but I also didn’t want to feel like I was repeating myself by writing it.

MP: Doom Town also seems different because, while your other work is often visibly defined by forms and constraints, it seems propelled entirely by the narrator’s turns of mind. Is there any hidden constraint or form here and, if so, what is it? If not, what led you to this different approach?

GB: No hidden constraints. Maybe just a practice: I wrote the first drafts of this book the summer after teaching a workshop heavily focused on sentences, and so I think when I started writing the book, I was still trying to stretch myself in each sentence. But then the sentences in the book, their length and relative complexity, also fit with the narrator’s frustrations with language, that language as it is used is inexact and even deceptive in its abstractions and omissions, so my emphasis at the sentence level in this book is something of a chicken-egg thing; in any case, I was very conscious of including as much context as was practical in each and every sentence, and that necessarily meant writing long, often digressive or seemingly digressive sentences. My idea was that, for this narrator, if he was going to repair his shaky faith in language, in the sentence as a complete thought, he would need complete thoughts. A matter of despair: He couldn’t be made whole through half-measures or inexact representations of his thoughts. Better to remain silent.

MP: I mentioned turns of mind in the previous question. These are captured in your sentences, which strike me as labyrinths built with clauses of various lengths, leading readers this way and that, but at each period leaving them at a live rather than dead end, ready and eager for the next maze. How do you go about constructing such sentences? How do you know when you’ve pushed such a sentence to its limit?

GB: Typically, especially recently, discussions of the sentence among writers often turn upon the lyrical qualities of those sentences. A worthy focus, for sure! My focus on the sentence in this book, though, had less to do with lyricism and more to do with the narrator’s ideas of exactitude or accuracy. That gets expressed syntactically, generally speaking, but, for him, it’s also a matter of form, of storytelling. I mean that he’s telling his story, thinking aloud, sometimes reversing course or correcting something he feels may be inexact or which might be misunderstood, and he does this in the course of speaking or writing the sentence.

In my experience, lyricism is more commonly the result of contemplation—thinking through each choice, considering its aural qualities as well as its more denotative qualities—and less considered speech tends to be more prolix, awkward in its sounds. The sentences in Doom Town aspire to seem more spontaneous than would a more lyrical prose style, in order to give the narrator some extra bit of coloring or shading, as a character.

MP: I was surprised by the novel’s poignancy, not only at its end but in the narrator’s continual failures to communicate anything, much less his grief for the loss of his son, to other humans. Were you aiming for this poignancy, or are you surprised that I am asking, in this final question, about poignancy?

GB: No, that’s a wonderful compliment, Marcus. Thank you.

In 2011, Marcus Pactor won the Subito Press Prize for his short story collection, Vs. Death Noises. His second collection, Begat Who Begat Who Begat, is now available from Astrophil Press. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist(b)OINKX-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review.

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