Nick Antosca recently published his first novel, Fires, written at age 20, with Impetus Press. It is an often bleak, beautifully descriptive work about abusive relationships and repressed identities, as well as the titular fires, forebodingly burning towards a town. Now 23, Nick is currently working on several new manuscripts at once, each vastly different from one another and from his previous work. I had a chance to talk to him recently about the publication of his first book and the strange effect of what comes after, as well as the different ways he approaches his work, and it him. Nick lives in New York and blogs at brothercyst.blogspot.com.
Blake Butler: You published your first novel out of a relative state of unknown (having put out a number of short works in small journals in print and online). How did you get involved with Impetus? How has your writing life, and perhaps your life in general, changed as a result of your first book?
Nick Antosca: No change whatsoever has been the result; I continue to exist in a state of relative unknown, which is fine, and for the purposes of my writing, probably a good thing. I do more readings and occasionally I do interviews like this one. That’s really it. I haven’t been submitting stories to magazines enough lately. I used to do it all the time and I’ve been lazy this year, which is not rational, because I have a lot of stories lying around.
I got involved with Impetus when I read about them somewhere, I think Gerard Jones’ site, and then sent them an email. We talked for a while after they read Firesand I heard good things about them from Richard Nash. Willy Blackmore sent me a long, comprehensive, and insightful email about the book, and that convinced me to go with them.
In terms of my actual writing–the sitting down, the staring at the laptop, the gathering and ordering of ideas in a certain corner of my mind–little has changed, although I sometimes feel a vague worry about what might be perceived as my “voice.” I don’t know that I have or want a “voice.” I don’t want to sound the same from book to book. Certain general ideas–the unsustainability of happiness, the impermanence of pleasure, the draw of violence–will never, I think, grow stale for me, but I don’t want every book I write to sound the same. The books I’m writing now sound nothing like Fires–or each other.
BB: You’ve blogged briefly about the strain and/or frustration of a writer with a book already under his belt; how that time between the first big publication and the anticipation of the next is a kind of torpor. Can you elucidate this? Is there a new kind of pressure on you now that you’ve reached some level of recognition?
NA: I don’t know–I guess I feel that most of life in general is kind of a torpor. The publication of a novel isn’t like the release of a movie, all in one weekend, so it doesn’t feel like a big event. Fires was officially published months ago but I still feel like it’s just sort of at the end of the process if being released. That’s partly for unique reasons–we were switching to a new distributor, Biblio, right as the book came out, so it took a while to show up in their catalog. But I think all book releases feel kind of incremental.
There’s no pressure, really. Although I’m constantly writing and I have a backlog of material, I’m not under contract with anyone for another book, so any feeling I have about publishing future books isn’t concern about the pressure, it’s anxiety about how the book will be received and will publishers indeed want to publish it. I don’t know–I try not to worry too much about those things, though. Rationally it doesn’t make sense to get depressed or concerned about them. I have enough to think about with the writing itself, which yields far more pleasure anyhow.
BB: You’ve also spoken about numerous projects that you’re working on now, after the publication of Fires, including two novels, a novella and further short stories. What is your writing process like? How do you balance the shift between one project and another?
NA: That’s a difficult question for me to answer because I don’t know what a “process” is, exactly. I have a schedule–I write in the very early morning hours after taking a short nap in the evening. But even that’s not always true. For a tentative project I’m working on right now called Strangelets (referring to theoretical pieces of strange matter, which is quark matter), which may or may not turn into a full-fledged novel/novella, I can only write during the daytime. My last project, a short novel called Midnight Picnic of which I recently finished a first draft, was written entirely at night, usually with the lights off, just by the glow of the laptop. Without going into too much detail of what each book is, this actually makes sense with regard to their respective contents. Midnight Picnic is a book about drifting through the night and the afterlife. Strangelets is a book about grinding through the stifling days, about suppressed violence and too much sunlight.
Shifting between projects is difficult for me, in the sense that I don’t know how to make myself do it. It’s not just a matter of opening another Word document on my computer; it’s a mindset shift. And it’s not a conscious thing–I have to wait for it to happen. Then it just happens.
BB: I was surprised to hear that you’d started reading Delillo’s White Noise and then given up on it partway through. Given on what I know of your style, I’d thought you’d probably enjoy the book. What was it that turned you off about the book? What work most turns you on?
NA: I thought I’d enjoy White Noise, too. I liked it when I heard Salman Rushdie read from it at the PEN event I think I wrote about. Maybe I’d have started liking it more if I’d kept on, but it felt contrived, trite–almost petty. The people spoke as though they inhabited a smug hipster sitcom. The satire felt clumsy, the setpieces flimsy, the characters depthless. No sense of human longing/substance. It was a real trudge for me. I didn’t even make it to the Airborne Toxic Event, or whatever.
While we are discussing a novel from the 1980s: Not long after I set White Noisedown, I re-read Blood Meridian. I have mixed feelings about McCarthy–I thought The Road was, so to speak, also a trudge–but Blood Meridian is a true pleasure. It reads like a myth, and I like writers who are capable of mythmaking; James Salter does it too, injecting something of the eternal into the brutal or pedestrian. It makes the canvas bigger; you feel the hugeness of history around what is being described. And at the same time there is added gravity in the minutiae.
BB: There’s definitely a certain amount of tension in the sex scenes in Fires. Many of them are rough and they’re certainly visceral, and don’t come off seeming forced or heavy-handed or like porn transcribed, the way so many other authors do. Do you find it easy to write about sex? Do you approach the topic the same way you’d write about anything else? Has a book ever turned you on?
NA: Writing sex scenes is a little daunting because there is a sense that the reader may read that particular section with unusual scrutiny. And also with a certain contempt toward you, the author, as if glimpsing your self-exposure. People read sex scenes this way, I think. Myself among them, sometimes. But I think that is immature and the author should not be embarrassed by writing sex scenes. Sex is the hidden goal of many human interactions. I don’t like when films or novels “cut away” from a sex scene as it begins. I like in Scott Spencer’s Endless Love (an otherwise overlong book, I thought) when there’s just a sex scene that goes on for pages and pages and the characters in it remain true and convincing.
I think I do approach sex the way I approach everything else. I feel anxious about making it seem genuine to the reader, fully visualized, not just like “going through the motions”–an idiosyncratic event, unique to the participants. I feel that way about writing any kind of scene in which people interact–in which anyone does anything, really. Sex is just another human activity (although we invest more in it–more emotion, more ambition–than we do in most of the rest).
A lot of books have turned me on, probably, but that doesn’t mean they were good or even that they contained well-written sex. As I told some anonymous lurker critical of a story I wrote for Nerve.com, the male libido is a noncombatant in the war against cliche. In real life, in bed, erotic cliches turn us on. That said, a few books are both genuinely erotic and also beloved by me as literature, among them The Magus by John Fowles, A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter (maybe the purest meeting of the erotic and the literary), and Ada by Nabokov. Most recently, The Brutal Language of Love and Towelhead by Alicia Erian have impressed me very much.
BB: I sense a kind of removed quality to a lot of the anger in your writing. How much of what you put on paper comes out of you, in your voice? Have you ever been in a fight?
NA: What I put on paper is all my voice, I guess. I don’t consciously modify my voice to each project, but somehow it happens. The voice in Fires is frank, a little wistful, a little violent, and generally reliable, I think (except maybe for one big detail). The voice in this recently published short story is oratorical, totally detached, and placid even when describing brutality. The voice of Midnight Picnic is hushed, sad, expansive, and peaceful, and the voice of Strangelets (so far; I’m excited about this but it’s still only a dalliance) is digressive, obsessive, encyclopedic, and in turns radically detached and ferociously invested. There is anger in all of them and resigned sadness in all of them–I think maybe that combination results in the “removed quality” you mentioned. And they are all my voice.
As for being in a fight, I haven’t been in a real, sustained fight in many years, I think–since maybe middle school, before the age when it has consequence. (The fact that I quit drinking when I was eighteen, shortly before my sophomore year of college, probably has something to do with this. I have a temper but it doesn’t really come out much on its own.) Someone hit me in college, angry about a girl, but it wasn’t really a fight. Occasionally, going out in New York, one gets close to fighting, and there’s so much opportunity to do stupid things. Once last fall when I was depressed and angry I berated and provoked this guy on the subway late at night; he really showed admirable restraint in not smashing my face, which given his size he was capable of doing. Apart from random encounters like that that it’s always over cabs or girls. But you just don’t want to get in sudden fights with strangers–god knows who’s a blowhard and who’s a real psycho. You could end up punching the guy who carries a KA-BAR knife in his jacket. That said, I can think of at least one particular sleazy fellow who I encounter from time to time and who I’d love to be in a fight with. I tried to provoke him a few months ago with a taunting shove to the chest but he didn’t do anything. It might still happen, however.
BB: I imagine Fires could make a pretty powerful and disturbing movie, if adapted properly. Do you ever think of a story in terms of how it would operate visually? What films or directors have influenced you? What, outside of fiction, inspires you to write? And if it did get to film status, and you were called on to dream cast the movie, who would be your crew?
NA: I don’t think that way so much now, but I did when I wrote Fires. I was, after all, a sophomore in college majoring in Film Studies. I think Fires has cinematic potential as well, although I doubt anyone will ever make it. I think a few good directors for the material might be David Gordon Green (Undertow), Michael Cuesta (L.I.E.), Larry Clark (Bully, Kids), Atom Egoyan (The Sweet Hereafter), or Gus Van Sant (Elephant). As for the cast, I don’t know. Alex Frost from Elephant might make a good Jon Danfield, as might Joseph Gordon-Levitt, or even, I guess, Haley Joel Osment. My former classmate Nicholas Tucci from Yale would be a good James Dearborn. I think Camilla Belle, Nora Zehetner, or a dark-haired Kelli Garner (who was terrific in Bully) might be Ruth.
Film has been a huge influence on me since I was very young. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead has, for some reason, great influence over my imagination, as do all of Kubrick’s films, particularly The Shining, Barry Lyndon, and 2001. Tarkovsky’s Solaris delights me. So does Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, my favorite film of the last decade. All these films have some kind of terrible beauty.
Outside of fiction, I’m not sure what inspires me to write. Irrational depression, I guess. Anxiety. Fear of premature death? Every now and then I have panic attacks in the middle of the night and my hands shake.
About the author:
Blake Butler lives in Atlanta. His fiction and other writing (found or forthcoming in Sleepingfish, 3:AM, Caketrain, The Rambler, etc.) can be found at his website www.deadwinter.com and at blakebutler.blogspot.com.