Debra Di Blasi’s books include The Jirí Chronicles & Other Fictions, Prayers of an Accidental Nature, Drought & Say What You Like (1997), and What the Body Requires. Awards include a James C. McCormick Fellowship in Fiction from the Christopher Isherwood Foundation, Thorpe Menn Book Award, and Diagram Innovative Fiction Award. The short film based on Drought won a host of national and international awards, and was one of only six U.S. films invited to the Universe Elle section of the 2000 Cannes Film Festival. Debra’s innovative fiction has been anthologized and adapted to film, radio, theatre, and audio CD in the U.S. and abroad, and her essays, art reviews and articles published in a variety of international, national and regional publications. She is president of Jaded Ibis Productions, producing fictive audio interviews and music, videos, print, web and visual art, ironic consumer products, and the real innovative literature and arts channel, BLEED. She taught experimental writing at Kansas City Art Institute and now frequently lectures on innovative literature.
David Hoenigman: What projects are you currently working on?
Debra Di Blasi: As usual, my list of (ad)ventures is long:
– Finishing up a new collection of mixed media writings of bifurcated and trifurcated fictions like “Quell the Mayhem Night” and “Sprung Up In the Years Since” (from the anthology Wreckage of Reason), and multimodal works that include audio and/or video. I need two more fictions to complete the book;
– A new series of obsessive-compulsive drawings titled, “Insidious,” exploring organic cell multiplication. It’s interesting to learn how patterns may form in living things, based on size/shape/spatial relationships of one cell to others. I’m sure there are metaphorical clues to the origins of life revealed during the drawing process. These drawings began when both my husband and sister were diagnosed with cancer. My sister died last month.
– Guest editing fiction for the next issue of In Posse Review.
– A novel, Anything Now Gone, written in a juicy, vitriolic, sexually explicit punk rhythm-rhyme language. Essentially (but far from entirely), the novel explores the tangled relationship between Eros (creative instinct) and Thanatos (destructive instinct). The novel is a history of the U.S. since WWII, and covers everything from the war and weaponry, auto and advertising industries, primatology, feminism, music and more.
-Publishing through my imprint, Jaded Ibis Press, some very cool, avant-garde CDs by writers other than me, like Davis Schneiderman’s and Don Meyer’s Memorials to Future Catastrophes.
-I’m also testing digital publishing through Jaded Ibis Press on Amazon’s Kindlem using one of my novels as a guinea pig. If I find the results reasonably successful, then I’ll also publish other writer’s work in digital formats.
– One of the stories published in my collection, The Jiri Chronicles, is included in the anthology, Forms At War, edited by R. M. Berry and forthcoming in 2009 from FC2/University of Alabama Press.
– And I’m trying to figure out what to do with some other multimodal writing, like the vast text/audio/video/installation book, Gorgeous: The Fabulous Plastic Surgery of Dr. Harold W. George (see also here, here, and here), and the illustrated poetic prose book, Twin, that also exists in audio format. These books have much to do with the book as art object: the concept of rarity and exaltation, as in possessing an illuminated manuscript.
– More projects are in the oven, but don’t you think this is quite enough?
The project that has monopolized my time for the past year is a groovy word device and its user’s guide that I designed and have now manufactured. It’s based on exercises I assigned my experimental writing students. (see attached image)
Here’s the sales pitch: Practicing Diem Creativity Meditation improves your imagination and creativity; sharpens your knowledge and command of language; helps you process information more quickly and completely, and directs you toward overcoming or alleviating phobias. And it’s beautiful and fun.
Diems are being test-marketed now, and are available for purchase at a discount price during the marketing period. Yet to be completed are the video commercials, MP3 audio meditation, and peripheral projects Oy! It’s a lot of work, but my background in advertising and management helps and I enjoy putting it all together. Plus, I’ve got a kick-ass chief of sales in New York.
DH: When and why did you begin writing?
DD: I wrote my first story in elementary school, for a geography class. We had to weave a list of words into a fiction: maize, mestizo, hacienda… I was so nicely praised for my imaginative effort (my story was a Nancy Drew-like mystery, with characters searching for treasure in South America), that the possibility of becoming a writer entered my consciousness.
I began writing seriously — that is, writing to publish in professional magazines — while studying creative writing/poetry at the University of Missouri-Columbia. The fact that I began the craft of writing in poetry is significant to the sort of writer I have become.
A few years ago, the cultural anthropologist, Richard Anderson, interviewed me for his book, American Muse. He, too, asked me why I wrote. I’ll quote myself: “What I’m trying to do is to, hopefully, even for a split second, have somebody take that mask off and look at themselves in the mirror for who they really are…. I think the lies we tell ourselves are dangerous, and I think they’re dangerous to society as a whole.”
I initially wanted to be a journalist, specifically, a war correspondent. I grew up during the Vietnam-American War and Watergate, and was enormously influenced by a generation of young reporters like Dan Rather and Geraldo Rivera, who was cool then, with long hair and blue jeans and always trying to blow the lid off some new corruption. I wanted to do the same. In journalism school I learned that my peers were cut-throat and sometimes unethical as they fought for internships and high grades. I realized I didn’t want to work alongside assholes like that, and returned to creative writing and visual art. Now, I believe there is more truth in great literature than in journalism – though, to be fair, there are some fabulous journalists like Christine Amanpour, Jon Lee Anderson, the late Oriana Fallaci, James Fallows…
DH: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
DD: My view of me-as-writer changed significantly when New Directions accepted my first book, Drought. I had already published short stories in a number of journals, but having a book accepted by the press who first published Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Merton, John Hawkes, Denise Levertov, James Agee, and published important books by Henry Miller, James Joyce, Ezra Pound…?! These were writers I had studied, whose work had influenced my view of literature and certainly of the world at large. I felt validated, perhaps vindicated. My writing, after all, was already moving toward innovation. Drought and its companion novella, Say What You Like, explored the possibilities of form – the relevance of negative space, lacunae, aural rhythm. (To this day, bookstores often shelve Drought in the poetry section.)
I recall that I felt a sudden obligation and dedication to my discipline that I’d not yet experienced through publishing in literary journals. I was interviewed, and my photo appeared in various newspapers. I experienced an unpleasant, but thankfully small, outbreak of book-envy from a few miserable writers I knew. Strangers came up to me in cafes to tell me they had read and enjoyed my book. I received a few weird letters from men who thought they knew (& loved?!?) me through my writing. I gave a copy of Drought to my crack-addicted drunk of a neighbor as a thank-you for mowing my lawn one day. He, too, fell under the delusion of knowing me through my invented characters and repeatedly suggested we run off to the Southwest desert together.
As the little world around me changed, my larger internal world changed. I realized that some people actually read books, and books influence people’s lives in ways I’d not suspected. I also realized that the nature of the book is to lend permanence to writing: you cannot easily take back what you say. I revised my goals in terms of what I wanted to write to the future. Thus, the self-indulgent fictions of Prayers of an Accidental Nature (published second, but containing many stories penned before Drought), no longer seemed viable as culturally significant, neither in form nor content. The conceptual chasm between Prayers of an Accidental Nature and my last collection, The Jiri Chronicles, is wide, wide, wide.
DH: What inspired you to write your first book?
DD: Drought itself was inspired by a landscape, by the desire to depict the two rural places I’d lived in my life as an overwhelming character in the lives of a young couple. Six tiny sections of Drought were written 10 years before I returned to complete the book in three months.
I must also credit my friend, the visual artist Lana Turner, for inspiring some of the scenes in the book. She and I undertook collaboration for a Milkweed Editions competition expressly calling for collaborations between visual artist and writer. Lana and I had studied visual art (painting) together at Kansas City Art Institute and correctly understood collaboration to be an exchange of ideas directed toward the production of a single work. Thus, some of the images in my writing inspired her gorgeous drawings, and some of the images in her drawings inspired my writing. True collaboration. Milkweed cancelled the competition because, they said, none of the entrants understood the nature of collaboration. (Me thinks the opposite was true!) Besides, Milkweed’s guidelines stated no violence to women or children (interestingly, they said nothing about violence to men. Hm.), and Drought contains a rape scene.
DH: Who or what has influenced your writing?
DD: Every writer I’ve ever read has influenced my writing in one fashion or another, including the shitty ones who instructed me on how not to write. But those with the most original vision and language influenced me the most. Examples: Walter Abish, Marguerite Duras, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Margaret Atwood’s Murder in The Dark, Jean Rhys, Curtis White, Sam Shepard, Julio Cortazar, Lillian Hellman, Heinrich Boll, Max Frisch…hundreds more. Plus all poets I’ve read, particularly Larry Levis, who was my professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia.
DH: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
DD: I’m no longer a young writer. I’ve been publishing for 20 years. That said, it’s true that my beginnings on a large, deeply wooded farm – surrounded by animals being born, growing up, breeding and dying – made me much of who I am. Regardless of what I’m writing or drawing, nature is somewhere beneath or in or atop it. The hubris of humanity is based on the concept of The City: a wholly artificial environment that honors the feats of Homo sapiens and puts the individual in the center of all – the biggest lie of all. Anything that conceptually snips the thread between people and the rest of this vast, mysterious universe prevents us from knowing who we really are and thereby allows us to destroy the world and others with little remorse. At the heart of my writing is this disappointment in humanity and the ache of nature’s alienation.
DH: Do you have a specific writing style?
DD: I teach my students the three components of great writing:
1. Meaning: It must be significant, politically, socially, aesthetically. Forget the confessional laments.
2. Music: Language consists of rhythms and tonal relationships. All great writing incorporates aural beauty because our ears (whether listening inward or outward) are trained to hear the music of language.
3. Structure: Writing is architectural – space over time. A reader moves through it. Thus, the writer can design the reader’s experience through structure. By this I mean: attention to negative space, to the margins of the page, to interrelationships between bodies of text, images, font shapes and sizes…
The style of my writing will be categorized as one or all of the following: avant-garde, innovative, experimental, postmodern, postconceptual… But the labels are irrelevant, except for marketing purposes.
DH: What genre are you most comfortable writing?
DD: The fabulous no-genre genre. That is, writing without any rules except those imposed by me as a result of the writing’s needs, or simply as an experiment to see what happens, based on some contemporary question, circumstance or concern. “Quell the Mayhem Night” (mentioned above), uses form to explore the gaps and overlaps between First World and Third World cultures, the gap between writer/artist and reader, and the gap between text and image.
Literature is really the only aesthetic form that’s stuck in the past. Computer technology has changed the way we think, literally rewired us. New discoveries in science afford us amazing possibilities. Visual art and music seek originality. Literature seeks stasis. Look at The New York Times’ Best Books of 2008. Yuck!! The New York Times is no longer relevant as a cultural indicator. They obviously do not read the great, original, significant books that I and others living in the 21st Century read. Their list is distressingly boring and predictable. Rarely will one see a small press book reviewed in the NYT Book Review, or most other newspapers and periodicals, and it’s the independent presses who publish the most exciting writing occurring today. The rest is just business – and unprofitable business at that, since big publishers are going broke. Serves them right. At the base of people reading less today is the homogenized blandness of critics, their uniformed reviews, and their silly, lazy lists. The best place to find great new books is in The Review of Contemporary Fiction.
DH: Is there a message in your work that you want readers to grasp?
DD: Rarely is there one message, as far as story content goes. True, my work has grown more socio-political, due to the fact that I travel more internationally and therefore understand a little more of what the world “means.” But I do want readers to understand that reading itself, when practiced correctly, is a path to intellectual enlightenment. I say that in all seriousness.
Most people don’t know how to read, don’t understand the nuances of language, don’t realize their own role in the interpretation of words. (See my contents regarding critics.) Therefore, pundits and charlatans and dilettantes and demigods and despots of every mold can speak shit and people will perceive it as Truth, often because they want to perceive/believe. How many people are aware, for example, that the phrase “the architect,” used by Bush to describe Carl Rove, and the Christian Coalition’s “family values” description were co-opted from the National Socialist (Nazi) Movement. Scary, huh?
People who don’t read every day – and don’t read successively more challenging books in all fields, and don’t read long, comprehensive articles and books – remain at such a low intellectual level that they cannot even participate in conversations with people who do read regularly. Unfortunately, they’ll never know it. The ignorant are ignorant of how ignorant they are. Long-time readers have some awareness of how much they don’t or can’t know, which affords them a humility and curiosity the ignorant do not have.
DH: What book are you reading now?
DD: I’m reading these:
1. The Third Domain: The Untold Story of Archaea and the Future Of Biotechnology, by Tim Friend. A nonfiction science book about microorganisms that thrive in extreme environments, suggesting that life (forms like archaea) may exist on Mars and other planets. I’ve been following the Mars explorations, the scientific preparations for a manned Mars exploration, and research related to making Mars habitable. Very groovy.
2. The Last Human: A Guide to Twenty-Two Species of Extinct Humans. Another nonfiction science book. I’m a primatology freak. The illustrations are amazing!
3. A Fixed, Formal Arrangement, by Allison Carter. I’m rereading this new, delicious collection of fiction. Yet another extraordinary book published by Les Figues Press (Are you listening, New York Times, et al. idiots?)
4. Four books of Bushman (a.k.a. San) poetry from South Africa. Wondrous!
5. Laynie Brown’s books. She’s fabulous. We read together at UCSD, and exchanged books. Smart, lyrical writer. And I like her.
6. Plus, the usual stack of magazines.
DH: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
DD: Always. And most of them can be found at &NOW Festival of Innovative Writing and Art, which is held every other year. I believe the next one is Fall 2009, at SUNY in Buffalo, NY. (They’re trying to move it away from the AWP Conference winter-spring date to reduce conflicting schedules.) &NOW is a great convergence of writers and publishers and multimodal artists. It grows every year as more and more people discover it. I’ve met some terrific people there, people I now consider friends. The book table alone is worth a visit. If you have any interest in what’s being done now in 21st Century literature, this is the place to be.
By the way, I truly enjoyed your book, Burn Your Belongings. Twas viscous! (Yes, I mean viscous, like molasses. A compliment, as I like fiction that so thoroughly enters my consciousness that the skin feels sweaty with it.)
DH: What is the most misunderstood aspect of your work?
DD: A reporter once asked me about my “obligation to readers who might find my work a challenge.” As I recall, my response was, “I’m not responsible for other people’s ignorance.” He didn’t publish that remark. Too bad. I stand by it.
About the author:
David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings.