The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters: Kenneth Calhoun and Lysley Tenorio in Conversation

Anyone who knows me knows I’ve been crazy for short stories since just about forever, and that my first response to anyone who tells me they don’t have time to read is to scribble a list of short-story collections on whatever paper’s closest.

 

There’s not a single misplaced or wasted word in Lysley Tenorio’s eight-story collection, Monstress (Discover, Spring 2012), which is one of the reasons it’s invariably on my you-need-to-read-these-collections-list.  These first-person stories run from the Philippines to the US and points in between; Tenorio’s stories of outsiders are intimate, poignant, coursing with his characters’ denial, expectation, and longing, and punctuated with wry details and pop culture references.

 

To steal a simile from Lysley: a story is to a novel as a human male is to a giant squid; so why then, pair a story writer with a novelist, as we’ve done here, with Kenneth Calhoun, author of the funky, mesmerizing dystopian novel Black Moon (Discover, Spring 2013)?

 

It starts with the caliber of the writing.  Heard over and over again in the Discover reading room as both books were under consideration: This isn’t usually my thing, but…I couldn’t stop reading, I can’t believe it’s over, I’m still hearing this voice…

 

We see plenty of dystopian novels – and as with coming-of-age stories and story collections – the best of those are easily, immediately spotted.  As anyone denied sleep (for whatever reason) will tell you, Black Moon’s premise is all the more terrifying for its plausibility; it’s Calhoun’s talent, his crystalline prose and narrative pacing, his characters with soul, that makes Black Moon so resonant for readers.  This isn’t usually my thing, but…I couldn’t stop reading, I can’t believe it’s over, I’m still hearing this voice…

 

Over lunch one day, a pal mentioned that Lysley was a fan of Ken’s work, and that’s when the emails started flying.  So here are Lysley Tenorio and Kenneth Calhoun on the resonance of B-movies and stellar story collections, how language fits into story, and when a writer knows the story’s finished, among so much more, in this terrific conversation for The Barnes & Noble Review. ~ Miwa Messer

 

Lysley Tenorio:   It’s a kick that we get to have this conversation, given how our correspondence began.  By pure chance, I read your short story, “Nightblooming,” in the 2011 O’Henry Prize Stories anthology, and was so taken by it that I sent you an out-of-the-blue e-mail to congratulate you on such a fantastic story.  Now Black Moon is out in the world, and it’s a terrific feat, one that, admittedly, caught me off guard—it’s nothing like “Nightblooming” at all, in terms subject matter, voice, style, scope.  Reading it, I felt like I was in the hands of a totally different (but equally talented!) writer. 

           

Like almost every short story writer in America, I’m currently working on a novel, so I’m wondering: how did Black Moon begin?  Were you writing stories at the same time, or transitioning from the short story to the longer form (and I could kick myself for using that word—“transitioning”—to me, the short story and the novel are two completely different beasts.  It would be like transitioning from human male to giant squid—totally unrelated, right?

 

Kenneth Calhoun: Yes, it was such a boost to get that email from you. I immediately went out and purchased your collection Monstress and dove right in. It's such a fantastic book. It's really the book I've felt was missing from the world, in terms of showing the contemporary Filipino (and Filipino-American) experience in all it's whimsy and heartbreak. I'm sure you had no clue that my mother is from the Philippines. There's certainly no hint of that in "Nightblooming" or Black Moon. But it was an added bonus for me to learn the characters, at least in Monstress, are of the Filipino persuasion.

 

I want to tell you that this was important for me because I feel very removed from that aspect of my heritage. Yet the recognition I felt when reading your stories was hugely comforting. I could say, Hey, I know these people. I know that food. I've seen that faith and sorrow. I was able to say that I do have some claim to an experience that goes beyond me.

 

Regarding Black Moon, the answer is: Yes, it did begin as stories and then develop into a book. Here's something I've discovered about novel vs. short story. With a novel, you can take full advantage of shifting POVs. This means you can have multiple characters and, to borrow a term from filmmakers, cross-cut between the characters. The cutting back and forth kind of creates its own momentum and tension. You start to get multiple arcs going with each character, all hopefully serving a larger arc, and the thing just takes shape. Of course, if you only have one character, this doesn't work as well.

 

This is a very technical, craft-based response to your question, which could call for a more philosophical contemplation of the difference between the two forms. I can tell you that if I was to transition a human male to a squid, I would most definitely start with the eye.

 

So, we've talked about writing, but what about reading? Do you like to write short stories because you like to read short stories? What are some of your favorite collections?

 

LT: I'm glad you used that filmmaker's term of the "cross-cut," because that's one of the things--among many others--that pulled me into Black Moon.  Just as we settle into one character's immersion in this sleep-deprived world, we're pulled into another character's experience of it, and I found myself compelled by each of them.  I suppose it's little surprise then, to learn that they began as stories.  I'm certainly drawn to short stories, and perhaps that was the novel's initial allure for me.  But from the beginning, I felt I was in a singular narrative, completely absorbed by the dramatic (and thematic) backdrop of sleep, of sleeplessness, how all these characters are struggling through a world that essentially sleepwalks around them.  The mood and tone of Black Moon are handled exquisitely.

 

Some of my favorite collections?  There are lots, but here are a few: White People by Allan Gurgauns. Love and Obstacles by Aleksandar Hemon.  Lost in the City by Edward P. Jones.  And The Middleman by Bharati Mukherjee was a big influence on me, the way she rendered immigrants in America with such sharpness and unease, without the least bit of sentimentality.  

I'll toss back a similar question: were there specific novels that influenced you (or were particularly helpful) as you wrote Black Moon?  The book is being compared to other dystopic novels from recent years—The Age of Miracles, The Dog Stars, etc.  Were those or any other dystopic works useful?  Or did you steer away from that genre?

 

KC: I really like the collections you listed. I read Gurganus' White People many years ago, but I haven't explored the other titles very deeply. Now I will. Some of my favorite collections are Cortazar's We Love Glenda So Much, Hemingway's In Our Time, Murakami's After the Quake and Saunders's Pastoralia.

 

Regarding dystopian novels, I haven't read The Age of Miracles but I intend to read it soon. I understand that it is set in San Diego. Like you, I've spent a good portion of my life in the area. It's good setting for the end of the world as we know it. Some locations there already feel a bit post-apocalyptic--some of the malls, anyway. I read The Dog Stars as I was wrapping up Black Moon. It was recommended by my editor. I really loved the combination of outdoor/nature writing and post-apocalypse survivalism. The language was interesting on a sentence level and the story had a powerful motor.

 

But I think books that were more influential on Black Moon were things I've read over the past decades. The Road certainly weighs in, as does Blindness and World War Z. Some classics like Fahrenheit 451 (and stories from The Martian Chronicles), Cat’s Cradle, The Handmaid’s Tale and A Clockwork Orange are most definitely in the mix. Movies too: Children of Men, 28 Days, Omega Man, Planet of the Apes, The Birds. Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights and Goya's The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters are artworks that I looked at quite a bit during the writing.

 

I believe a really bad movie has a place of influence in my outlook. It's called Night of the Lepus and I had the misfortune of seeing it when I was five-years old. It's about giant rabbits invading at town and eating the residents. If I recall correctly, one man is working on his car, lying under it with his legs sticking out. One of the giant rabbits comes along and gnaws off his legs like celery sticks. That kind of ruined cute things for me. More importantly, it suggested that something commonplace and harmless could, by means of mutation or mere literary extrapolation, become our downfall.

 

That's a fear of mine that I dredge for stories. Do think that's something you do in your work--grapple or, at least, dance with your fears?

 

LT: Night of the Lepus is now officially my favorite movie of all time, and I haven't even seen it.  I did find some great YouTube clips, and this gem of a quote: "Attention! Attention! Ladies and gentlemen, attention! There is a herd of killer rabbits headed this way and we desperately need your help!"  I'm gonna make that a bumper sticker...

 

But I like how you've managed to find deeper meaning in something so seemingly ridiculous, that even the cuddliest thing has the potential to wreak havoc and instill real fear.  I see that at work in Black Moon, in your treatment of insomnia: to be denied sleep, to be denied the ability to dream deeply--in your novel, those things can wreck the world, and you generate incredible drama from it, as well as some mighty-fine, kick-ass prose: "Maybe it was the networking craze, the resurrection of dead friendships and memories meant to be lost, now resurfacing like rusted shipwrecks to reclaim our attention and scramble our sense of time."  You're taking full advantage of your subject, on so many levels, and it makes for such a terrific read. 

 

To answer your question: do I dance with my own fears in my fiction?  I'm not sure it's my fears so much as it is my insecurities.  Growing up, I had trouble discerning high art from low art, good drama from total camp.  If a black-veiled surprise witness showed up in a courtroom drama, the world shook for me (and yes, I admit it, I'm referencing an episode of Dynasty).  But while I certainly feel a bit of embarrassment about that, I can muster up some pride too--I think it's okay, and sometimes healthy, to divorce one's self from the ironic gaze when looking at all forms of art, however high or low.  In Monstress, I'm consciously dealing with that tension between the culturally illegitimate and, to the individual, emotionally valid and palpable.  Crappy B-movies, like Night of the Lepus, for example, resonate with me-- if you stop for a moment and think about it, there's the potential for something beyond camp in that kind of document. 

 

As mentioned above, the writing in your novel is excellent.  How do you approach your language and prose in your work, and specifically in the novel?  Did the concept of sleep, of sleeplessness, guide the language as you worked through your drafts? 

 

KC: I don't think too much about language, honestly. It kind of comes out that way. I don't feel that I strain to craft my sentences. Maybe it happens in my head, when I sleep. I just hear the lines a certain way and let them come. There's some tweaking and pruning, sure. I don't want the prose to get in the way of the story, or for my hand to be too visible. A wise professor once told us not to have too many fireworks going off on every page. Hold back, then it has more impact when it does come. I try to keep that in mind. I'm pleased, however, that you and others like the language of Black Moon.

 

You mentioned earlier, very positively, that the story "Nightblooming" feels like the work of a different author. I wonder if it retains some kind of style consistency. It's in first person while Black Moon is in close third. The narrator's descriptive abilities and storytelling skills are slightly different from the invisible narrator of the novel. Yet, I do feel there's a certain rhythm and--hmm, I don't know--palette of colors, maybe, that I tend to use. I'm not sure.

 

In Monstress, the stories are in first person but each story is told by a different person--different genders, ages, backgrounds. It seems to me that you managed to do what I'm talking about: offer a variety of voices but retain a consistent style. There's an elegance and lyricism that carries all the way through. Was this something you worked at? How was it achieved?

 

LT:  That’s remarkable to me, the way your sentences arrive so fluidly and naturally.  There are so many stellar moments of writing in the novel, but they’re not fireworks at all, nothing so flashy.  Maybe they’re more like supernovas in outer space—they can’t be heard, maybe glimpsed momentarily at best.  What I’m trying to say is that the writing never gets in the way of the story, a quality in your work that I appreciate.  As both a reader, I never want to feel the writer working on the page, or be distracted by a trademark voice or style.  I want total story-immersion, and Black Moon does just that, and the writing only lends itself to the story.

 

As for the different first person narrators in Monstress: that was a conscious decision, to have a variety in terms of age, gender, experience. I hope the voices reflect these differences, though I admit to working on the writing, those sentences (those damn sentences!), over and over and over: if I change a single word on the page, I’m concerned with how it impacts the rest of that sentence, and consequently, the entire paragraph, then the entire scene.  It’s ridiculous, inefficient, and impractical, but it’s the only way I can nail a voice. 

 

While I think the stories fit together, my hope was that a reader would finish one story then move on to the next with a sense of being caught off guard—she finishes a story about a lonely girl in a leper colony, and then finds herself in the somewhat twisted head of a comic-book obsessed fifteen year-old boy.  That kind of dramatic and tonal roller coaster ride through the collection demanded, to my mind at least, eight wildly different protagonists with points of view born from their own singular experiences and complicated histories. 

 

Since I started the conversation, I’ll ask you one more question and let you finish it up, so here it goes: I’m an obsessive reviser (see above), and I sometimes lose sight of a story, to the point of not always knowing when it’s finished.  When and how did you know Black Moon was done?  At one point were you, as the creator of this story, of these lives, satisfied with what was on the page?

 

KC: I thought I was done, then realized I wasn’t, many times. Sometimes I would just know there was more to say, but wouldn’t admit it to myself for quite some time. I tried to pretend that I was done, to get on with my life and other projects. But the feeling of unfinished business was there, gnawing at me, and I would finally resign myself to the notion that I wasn’t actually done. This feeling made me very difficult to be around and explains most of my maniacal outbursts while driving the dangerous streets of Boston.

 

I do subscribe to the commonly stated belief that a creative work is never done, it’s just surrendered. So, for me, just feeling that I could surrender the book—let it go out in the world as a fixed document—was as close as I came to feeling it was done. However, I must say that I did arrive at the sense that I had said what needed to be said about the characters in the story. That is, I was never really concerned with wrapping up plot issues—like, for example, revealing the source of the epidemic and the cure/solution. To me, that’s a different kind of book. What I was after in this story was the arcs of the relationships. I wanted to see those completed. There are basically three sets of relationships in the story—with some secondary sets—and I feel they all end with a sense of closure. There’s either an acceptance that certain connections are forever lost but life goes on, or there’s the ultimate finality of death. The characters all arrive at one or the other of these endpoints. This signaled the end of this particular story, even though the epidemic continues and the workarounds are flawed and possibly not sustainable. So in some sense, helping the characters find closure was how I found closure with the book.

 

Speaking of closure, I see now how you brilliantly brought us to a place of closure in this discussion. Very suavely done, Lysley. I’ve really enjoyed this exchange and hope it can continue, off the page, and somewhere where there is great food and fancy drinks.  And maybe karaoke.

 

I really look forward to your novel and hope the writing goes well!

 

July 22: On this day in 1941, on his twelfth wedding anniversary, Eugene O'Neill presented the just-finished manuscript of Long Day's Journey into Night to his wife, Carlotta.

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