James Chapman, novelist and publisher, has been admired for years by a devoted and slowly-expanding group of readers.
BLATT Magazine: “It seems that Chapman has made a career out of becoming himself–slowly, gorgeously, and as publicly as a small press like his own Fugue State can afford. If he is an undiscovered genius, it’s because genius can only be undiscovered. After that, all is canon, and can be worried apart into schools, influences and intentions…”
Chapman is the author of seven novels so far, most recently Stet and How is This Going to Continue? His work has appeared in Word Riot, Prague Literary Review, Nth Position, Jacob’s Ladder, Journal of Experimental Fiction, Dogmatika, and others, as well as in a forthcoming anthology from Raw Dog Screaming Press. He lives in New York City with his wife, the novelist Randie Lipkin.
He is interviewed here by David F. Hoenigman, author of Burn Your Belongings.
David F. Hoenigman: Must one kowtow to the literary world if one hopes to be a part of it?
James Chapman The literary world, that makes me unhappy. So I don’t think about it now, or go to its readings or anything. Lately what I do that’s literary is read certain books from thousands of years ago. Books that turn your previous ideas into mist and give you giant perspective, galaxy-sized perspective. That helps you remember to write like a human instead of like a “writer.”
DH: Must one consciously experiment to write experimental fiction?
JC It’s very traditional to invent new forms. The tradition of doing that starts right at the beginning of art. So if you’re inventing new forms you’re not avant-garde anyway, if you see what I mean. That’s a healthy thing—since if you’re spending any time looking at your work saying “Is this startlingly new, am I avant-garde enough today?” you’re basically looking in a mirror saying “Am I cool, am I beautiful?” We all do that, but while we’re doing it we know we’re kind of alienating ourselves from our actual faces.
If you only write the sentences that’re most like yourself, you’ll slowly automatically start to clear out the old habits of copying what’s around you, of trying to impress anybody, of trying to fit in or wanting to stroke the reader to make him love you. You become more singular, in the sense of strange. It’s not experimentalism, it’s less practical than that. It’s just being left alone with your own temperament and tendencies, and finding your way. It’s the best fun.
People don’t call Goya an experimental painter…nobody calls Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis an experimental mass…but those works were so odd that it took a hundred years to catch up with them.
That kind of person does experiment, but with their real lives. Melville basically said “What if I follow my inclinations? Even if it doesn’t please anybody? Do I survive?” He tried it. He won, he lost.
There’re always some people for whom it’s very hard to live in the world. They don’t feel things in the normal way. So if they happen to make art, they’ll “give the public” a thing “the public” has never remotely asked for at all. Their stuff is different, only because they themselves are different. They absolutely can’t help it.
DH: Must one consider marketability if one hopes to be read?
JC I was lucky because for many years I hung out with some friends who were working their way up in the New York social/literary world. My friends generously let me watch very closely, as a sort of spy, and see what it all actually means, what happens at those parties, what the mysterious content of fame really is, and what happens to writers while they turn themselves into a power nexus.
So it became easier for me to give up, let the illusion go, and instead choose a life where you don’t get excessive numbers of readers for your books. I don’t interfere with readers, I don’t push myself at them or try to trick them into buying my books. In return, nobody interferes with me either, because there’s no utility to me—no profit, no fame, no connections are to be had through me. So I can do exactly the work I need to do, no matter whether it’s savvy or clever to do that. And I feel better with every book. I get closer and closer each time, on this open path.
If you’re a writer and you really do speak out of yourself, you’ll be understood by the exactly right number of humans. My readers kind of select themselves. There aren’t thousands of them. They’re odd individual persons who don’t belong to an overall tendency. Somehow it’s easy for them to feel the emotions I’m writing about, emotions that’re just opaque to everybody else. That opaqueness protects me and hides me, so I can keep working.
DH: What do you read nowadays?
JC That’s exactly the problem, my tastes aren’t just changing in the last few years, they’re collapsing. Suddenly I don’t read literary writing any more, at all—in fact I’m selling off about half my library. The traditional novel, & the experimental novel, they both seem to have a purpose that isn’t my purpose. They both seem like part of an emotional system I don’t recognize. Like if there were a big cumbersome device that you strap onto yourself and it manipulates your arms and legs for you, and claims to be giving you healthy exercise. You know it’s not really working.
So—I still want to write novels, but I don’t like them any more.
DH: Why not write poetry or something else?
JC Well. Yeah. But there was something I did love about novels, like with symphonies or any epic form—it was the accumulating completeness. The building-up of a contained expanding universe. Having all the time in the world to say everything you can say about one emotion, going all the way into it, till you can shine light through it. It changes you to write a novel, it cures you of a lot of things. I still want somehow to go through that experience.
But it’ll have to take a different form now, because absolutely everything’s changed on me. I don’t know what I write like. It’ll be fun figuring it out.
I did made a start with this next book. It’s called Degenerescence. It’s done, I guess it’ll come out in a few months. It’s a novel that’s incantation and hymn, in preference to story, and’s about the creation and destruction of the world, the involvement of language with that, the way we destroy reality by naming things and making stories. I wrote it while I was floored by the ancient Near East writing. The sound of the Sumerian voices (in good editions where it’s not edited and smoothed-out into reasonable literature)—the fantastic drumming repetition, the way terror inhabits everything in their world. My book, compared to that, is just a pastiche. But it’s also personal, it’s about my private world and what I destroyed and created.
DH: Is there a shortage of decent publishers out there?
JC Not really. Though I’d like there to be more publishers like Professor P.Lal of Writers Workshop in Calcutta. Go to www.writersworkshopindia.com and check it. P.Lal does everything himself. The publishing company is in his living room. He’s 80 years old and is a sweet and reasonable person, doesn’t complain about being obscure, or about having to “sacrifice his time” or anything.
For over 50 years he’s done this. He doesn’t advertise. He discovered and published hundreds of young writers. He published manifestos to push for English as a legitimate Indian literary language, back when that was still necessary. Unbelievably, he also translated the entire Mahabharata from Sanskrit (12,000 pages long), and his translation happens to be the only readable, enjoyable complete one that exists.
The books he puts out are all typeset by hand, printed on a hand letterpress, and bound in brightly colored silk sari cloth. They’re gorgeous and not even expensive. He’s published 3000 titles by himself, without any help!–poetry, novels, Upanishads, everything. I don’t remotely know how he does it. He’s pretty much unknown, considering all he’s done. And he’s a generous person. Like, if you write to him about anything at all, he’ll write back a real letter handwritten with a calligraphic pen.
I dream that all the indie publishers starting up lately will take their cues from P. Lal, and publishing will become predominately beautiful.
DH: Why do we write books?
JC It’s just us wanting to make a mark in the clay, wanting to express our awareness of whatever moves us—small gestures, beauty of the insane human attempt to exist for a short time. A book is like us, it wants to exist, it wants to record existence. It’s an illusion, but it’s kind of holy, a basic instinct, and you do it by writing in personal sentences that are like yourself somehow, brush-strokes, like when you look at a line in the drawing on the inside of a pyramid, and you see the waver in the hand that held the brush 5000 years ago.
Making a book seems like it’s blindly selfish and self-aggrandizing, “ambitious,” but the self is actually so small in planetary history, and there are so many books already, most of which are lost forever, that the instinct to make yet another one is so absurd it’s practically pure, a pure hopeless gesture, a free unwanted gift to the world. It’s so pathetic that it’s beautiful, like a hand coming up for a second above the surface of the ocean. Anyway it’s an instinct that mostly does no harm, unlike some of our instincts.
I like what Ginsberg described once somewhere in an interview. I turned his quote into an ad, it’s the only ad I ever ran for my press:
About the author:
David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings.