“To write is to forget the self (or selves), to resurrect the spirit. But how to say what needs to be said when you are a coward?
You do not have to be good.
You skulk through your fiction, slither through poetry.
You do not have to walk on your knees…
Habitualization devours us. It’s the old you who filtered your feelings through others, said what others wanted you to say. Right? That’s how you’ve led your life so far. Let yourself be defined by the definitions of others?
Do you solemnly swear to love, honor, and obey the definitions imposed on you by your parents, your family, your spouse?
Better to hide within the page than to face the self. The only thing more frightening is never to have written at all.” (The Arsenic Lobster 103)
Peter Grandbois was accused of narcissism by a well-known editor before publisher Spuyten Duyvil picked up his hybrid memoir The Arsenic Lobster, due for release in October, 2009. This manuscript reveals an almost manic desperation to be everything, and be nothing that you are; and a courage to fail and to appear foolish, perhaps the greatest type of courage one can have.
While he was a member of the US Fencing Team, Peter aspired to Olympic athlete status. As an academic, he earned two bachelor’s degrees, (one of which was in Environmental, Populational, and Organismic Biology) an MA, an MFA, and a PhD from American universities, and a Curso Superior in Spanish Language from the University of Barcelona. He is an extraordinary language craftsman who hates memoir but has written one, a dichotomy which provides the foundation for an unusual look inside himself.
The Arsenic Lobster: A Hybrid Memoir is, as it says, hybridized; embracing the traditional Bildungsroman, humor, metafiction, post and post post-modern elements. Illustrative of the author’s diverse talents, The Arsenic Lobster is a completely different work than his first novel, The Gravedigger, which is in the realm of magic realism a la Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In The Arsenic Lobster‘s “Intermission,” Grandbois reprints “All or Nothing at the Faberge,” his short fiction piece that received an honorable mention for the 2007 Pushcart Prize; Grandbois suggests that the reader “Watch our hero tripping over fiction!” and footnotes his old story, pointing out the repartee and parry of autobiography and fiction. He teases. Is The Arsenic Lobster a memoir or something else? And, if it’s good enough, does it matter?
His writing has appeared in The Dos Passos Review, Post Road, Flatman Crooked, Necessary Fiction and Writers’ Chronicle, and more short stories are forthcoming from Gargoyle, Eleven Eleven, Word Riot and Zone 3. The Gravedigger (Chronicle Books, 2006), was a Borders “Original Voices” and Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection, and is under consideration to become a motion picture. His novel Nahoonkara has been picked up by Etruscan Press and is scheduled for release in 2010.
Robin Martin: On The Arsenic Lobster‘s back flap, Eleni Sikelianos says “the hero’s quest is to smash the mirrors around him.” Who do you see in the mirror? Did Sikelianos get it right? Is Peter (from Lobster) trying to smash the mirrors?
Peter Grandbois: I certainly don’t think the person looking back at me in the mirror even remotely resembles the complicated spirit inside, the one fighting with other selves to get out. I think Eleni got it right on; Peter is trying to smash the mirrors around him. At least that’s how I’ve seen my life–and how I see it still.
The problem with our contemporary American existence is that we are surrounded by inauthenticity and surface. We cannot help but incorporate that into ourselves. That’s what I’m trying to smash in the mirror–to find that glimmer of what is real, what is not cliché. I don’t know if it’s possible. David Markson has a horribly sad book called “Wittgenstein’s Mistress” in which we follow a woman who may or may not be the last person on earth. She may also be crazy. All we get from her are fragments of culture, often misinterpreted. If she is the last person on earth, she may not even have an authentic self to save. And if she’s not the last person on earth, how can she possibly communicate her essential loneliness with another human being, when she can’t even find her authentic self? I think what it means to be an artist is to be at war with the inauthentic–which means to be at war with just about everything. When I was younger, I often thought of getting a tattoo on my arm that read: “I fight, therefore I am.” And I’m not talking about that machismo “Fight Club” bullshit, where two men slug it out with each other. I’m talking about real fighting.
RM: In an interview with Alex Stein, you said: “Any experience that we have, as we write it down, memory has already corrupted it to a certain level. …So to say I have an obligation to remember to the best of my ability makes a neat declamation, but really, in the end, means nothing. Our memories are going to make of the events what they will…. Non-fiction seems to me a big lie.” So… you write a memoir? What’s up with that?
PG: I don’t believe in memoir. A strange statement for someone who has just written a memoir to say. There is no line between the genres–or at least whatever line exists is an arbitrary one made up so that publishers can market books and academics can teach courses in different genres. It’s not only that for me there is no line between fiction and creative non-fiction but there is no line between poetry and the other categories. What distinguishes poetry from fiction? It can’t be rhythm and meter or imagery or metaphor because for me those all exist at the heart of prose as well–at least good prose.
It seems to me pretty clear that there is no such thing as objective reality–or more particularly that humans can never really approach an objective truth because we so heavily filter the world through our senses. The writer or artist of course is supposed to be a highly sensitive person–and I would argue they correspondingly filter the world even more heavily. It’s not simply that memory can be corrupted and we fill in the gaps, it’s that memory and even our senses are completely and utterly subjective with no hope of really approaching an objective truth if there is even such a thing. In my own case, it’s further complicated by the fact that I have a very active imagination–so active that I no longer trust my memory at all.
When I was young, I believed I could fly. I was quite convinced of it–all I had to do was run fast enough and I would fly. I was so convinced I’d even believed I’d done it. Well, I used that in my forthcoming fictional novel Nahoonkara where a kid runs so fast he takes off flying. But in my mind I could have just as easily used it in my memoir, and it would have been a valid representation of my experience.
The two dreams at the end of the memoir are more accurate as representations of who I am than any of the supposedly factual events I recount. And yet, conventional creative non-fiction rarely if ever deals with our dreams. We sleep 1/3 of our lives–surely what goes on in that time is relevant to our experience–it certainly is to my experience. For as long as I can remember, my own reality has felt like a dream to me. I stand apart from others, from their reality just as if I’m watching myself in a dream. Even present time comes to me as if someone filmed a series of short, one minute home movies over a life time, or as if I lived under a giant strobe light and could only perceive the world when it flashed.
RM: You said, “Rhythm, meter, imagery, metaphor, exist at the heart of good prose.” When you wrote Lobster, which was more important for you, finding the most compelling events to portray or writing the most compelling sentences?
PG: Writing a memoir is completely different to me than writing a novel or short stories. In fiction, it is completely intuitive. I sit down to a blank page with no preconceptions of what I’m going to do or very few. I certainly have no idea of what’s going to happen. I tend to focus on feeling my way through these images and imagery and see where it takes me.
In this book, all I did for six months was write out memory. It wasn’t about language at all, just about getting memories out. I laid them all out on the floor, and looked for common threads and circling and connecting them and putting them together then the next step was shaping it into something that at least maybe meant something to somebody, they could maybe get something out of it based on the themes of my life and things I wanted to portray, and then the last step I suppose was shaping more of the language. But I was not as concerned with shaping the language in this as I was in this second novel that’s going to come out [Nahoonkara, 2010]- which was very much over and over really shaping the language into a tight dense poetry.
I think actually, the memoir associated these memories so that these first lines of each strobe-like flash little paragraph —which may be completely unrelated in terms of time or place— is related in terms of theme or the way the last sentence works with the first sentence. This was the shaping mechanism. So at the level of language, the first and last sentences are really what I spent time shaping.
RM: Was it easier to write the memoir than the novels?
PG: Writing the memoir was a whole lot easier and came a lot faster than writing novels. Get all the images and memories out and start shaping it. The whole thing was about a year. I found the whole thing easy and enjoyable while I was doing it. The discomfort comes later when you’re trying to get it out and start to feel weird about it. But actually doing it was really enjoyable. I learned a lot about myself. Jackson Pollok says art is coming face to face with yourself, and you do that any time you’re writing, but I think I came more face to face with my self more than ever while doing this memoir, and I learned a lot more than I have doing other books.
RM: There was that one editor who said you were narcissistic.
PG: One editor at Random House said she found the piece narcissistic; that said, she said it was one of the most original pieces she’s read, so that was nice. But she did say narcissistic, and there’s some truth in that. There’s that truth in any memoir: You’re writing about yourself, so it’s in there. Particularly when I’m not necessarily writing about overcoming a trauma, but really trying to explore myself and my erasing of identities and reassembling of identities and my war within myself. That seems very much obsessed with me. So I don’t blame her for that. My only hope is that other people can connect to it some way, and see how that relates to their experience as well. You hope for that in any book.
RM: It didn’t shame you.
PG: No. I laughed when I read it, because I think it’s true. I think that the big journey of life is to deal with our own egos. We all have them. It’s all about I want I want this It’s all for me, and most people don’t acknowledge the power of their ego over who they are.
RM: I know this isn’t what you mean by ego, but I remember something in the book about your hands not being pretty enough for a commercial.
PG: They are prettier now. But at the time there was this big bump here, and here and there were big calluses. Now I have writer’s hands, but these two fingers still go together because of a spiral fracture I got from fencing. A palm reader read my hand one time, he said that these two fingers lean together because my artistic side is at war with my sense of monkish discipline and pragmatism. I thought that really defined how I felt inside. I’ve always felt that I’ve been at war inside, these two things. That’s really what The Arsenic Lobster is about, that inner war. But of course, there’s a physical reason for it: I broke my hand fencing. I didn’t tell the palm reader that.
RM: Probably an example of your artistic side fighting this pragmatic side: you know the real reason but you still want to believe that maybe it has something to do with this spiritual battle.
PG: There it is, right there. The spiritual atheist. I’ve got a spiritual side, yet, I’m very skeptical.
RM: You have commented about how little science can actually explain, memory, for example, can’t be explained or represented by science. Do you self identify as a religious or a spiritual man? How does this self identification influence your writing?
PG: I love this question because it gets at so much of how I view my own writing. I don’t think of myself as religious at all–in fact, I think many of the worlds problems stem either directly from religion or indirectly from a religious mindset. That said, I do see myself as spiritual, and most importantly as concerned particularly with the spiritual in writing. One of my favorite writers, a little known writer named William Goyen, said that he wrote about the spiritual because it was all there was–and yet that side of our humanity is almost completely ignored by contemporary American literature. U.S. literature is either concerned with the intellect or the heart—literary fiction focuses on the intellect and popular fiction on the heart. The spiritual aspect of our being goes untouched–probably because Americans in general seem to have a fear of the spiritual–of those things which can’t be explained. Our religion is very black and white. But the spiritual deals with the ineffable. It is those ineffable moments of human existence that are most interesting to me–the moments beyond language.
The great magic realist Salman Rushdie once said: “You must use language in a manner which permits God to exist–the divine to be as real as the divan I’m sitting on.” Well, being sort of an atheist (can one be sort of an atheist??) I would replace “God” with “the spirit”–we must use language that allows spirit to exist. Why? Because everything in modern culture is designed to push away all remnants of spirit.
The sheer immensity of distractions in the postmodern world make it nearly impossible for us to sit still and move inward–the traditional realm of religion and spiritual practice. I believe that one of literature’s (or art for that matter) most important functions is to get us to slow down, to move inward and pay attention to the ineffable. We can understand everything about ourselves as humans in terms of our objective reality–the body and the mind, but if we don’t nurture the spirit, we are disconnected from ourselves.
In the Colorado mountains, sitting alongside a river, I am surrounded by the ineffable. Part of what I mean is opening ourselves to wonder–wonder in both its beautiful and terrifying forms. There is a scene in my forthcoming novel, Nahoonkara, where the main character encounters a mother bear and her cubs. This actually happened to me. And I’ll never forget the terrible wonder of that bear–the grace of its movements and the strength of those movements, and the terrible growl that told me if I wasn’t careful I would be dead. That experience is ineffable–and in that experience I, and my character Killian, felt the movement of spirit, of grace through our bodies.
Lobster is also concerned with spirit as I described it. What else is Lorca’s “duende” if not opening yourself up to wonder. Lorca understood the danger well. And he also understood, as does anyone in search of duende, that it doesn’t come all the time. It is the most difficult thing in the world to find. that’s why I present my memoir as a fight, a battle with the forces that deny duende. The best artists open to it, knowing that when it comes it could just as easily blind them as inspire.
About the author:
Robin Martin is a creative writer, an assistant editor for Narrative Magazine, and the founder of Two Songbirds Press.