RRM: More so than most short-story collections, the continuity of the pieces in The Kafka Effekt really struck me (besides the loose Kafkaesque influence). Food with teeth, hungry body-parts, Naugahyde, issues with public urination, and film celebrities run rampant throughout the entire book. Were these written as separate short stories which were subsequently collected or were these pieces written with the predetermined intention of being in this collection?
DHW: The stories in The Kafka Effekt were written over a period of about two years.
Of the stories I wrote during that time, about two-thirds of them appear in the book. At first I wasn’t thinking about a book-length project. I was just happy to be publishing stories on a regular basis. Then I was contacted by Eraserhead Press, a relatively new small press publisher of surreal and offbeat literature. This was in 1999. At the time, Eraserhead Press specialized in chapbooks, and they asked me if I was interested in putting one together. Of course I was. I published a collection of eleven stories and called it Kafka-Breathing Sock Puppets. In 2000, Eraserhead Press started publishing full-length books, and I basically added a bunch of stories to the chapbook and changed the title to The Kafka Effekt, which contains 44 stories in all. There are recurring characters in those stories (i.e. the otherworldly harlequin Dr. Thunderlove) as well as common themes such as the ones you pointed out. But they weren’t all part of some master plan. I’m just fixated on certain protocols and conventions.
RRM: Besides pursuing your Ph.D., what have you been up to lately?
DHW: Not nearly enough! Lately I’ve been a total hermit. Last weekend I took my final Ph.D. comprehensive exams. I spent a year preparing for it. I had to read 70 or so books related to postmodern science fiction, one of my fields of specialty. Then four questions about those books were put to me by a small collective of English professors, and I had three days and nights to answer two of them in the form of two fully developed critical essays. I wrote around 40 pages in all. It was painful, maintaining that level of endurance. I hate writing when the clock is ticking. But it’s over, and now I can concentrate on writing my dissertation, which I want to finish as quickly as possible. I need to get out of graduate school and start living like a real person, that is, a person who has a steady, operable income. If there’s one thing graduate school has taught me more than anything else, it’s the value of money. (Advice to anybody who’s thinking about getting their Ph.D., especially in the humanities: save your sanity and your bank account and keep on selling and consuming products. You’ll be much happier at the end of the day.)
RRM: Can we expect your subsequent work to be in the same vein as The Kafka Effekt stories? What are you calling it?
DHW: Yes, although most of the stories in my next collection are longer than the ones in The Kafka Effekt. And they’re less experimental – stylistically at least. I’ve been calling the collection Inoperative Communities. I appropriated the name from the cultural critic Jean-Luc Nancy’s book The Inoperative Community. I think his belief in the residual self, in the idea that the individual is a kind of bottom-of-the-barrel spec of grime resulting from the perpetual dissolution of society, speaks to the condition of the characters that populate my book. But I already appropriated somebody else’s name for my first book. So I’m going to name this one after a story that will appear in it, Stranger on the Loose, which is about a man who gets lost in a city that persecutes him for being, ironically, a stranger. In most of my stories, people are persecuted by absurd forces.
RRM: This is extremely vivid work with many somewhat unpleasant images. I always find the ability of black symbols on paper to make one uncomfortable fascinating. What is it about the “somewhat unpleasant” that interests you?
DHW: Hmm. That’s a tough one. I used to have a lot of nightmares as a kid – I think that has something to do with it. But that’s not a good enough reason. Frankly, I don’t really know why I’m interested in the dark side of things. Not specifically. Can I just say I’m a product of our increasingly ultraviolent society and leave it at that?
RRM: Has the graphic nature of your writing caused you any headaches in the form of angry readers? To your knowledge, have any of your stories killed anybody?
DHW: As far as I know, my stories haven’t killed anybody. I hope they haven’t! One of my stories did become sentient, though, and hijack a school bus. Just kidding. Kind of. Anyway, the graphic nature of my writing hasn’t been too much of a problem for me personally. It’s drawn people to my work more than it’s driven them away. Except for my girlfriend. When I first met her and she read The Kafka Effekt, she was pretty spooked; she thought I was a maniac. Part of me didn’t blame her. But she felt better as she continued to get to know me and realized that I’m virtually nothing like the characters I portray in my writing. Only vague traces of my characters inform my own personality and identity.
RRM: Where did the various integrated graphics come from?
DHW: I drew them. I used to like to insert drawings into my stories a lot, although I rarely do it anymore. Most of my artwork is minimalist. I especially like to draw eccentric-looking stick figures standing in strange positions or walking in strange ways; in my eyes, they adequately represent the peculiar, often freakish mental universes of my characters. The cover of The Kafka Effekthas one of my stick figures on it, and I was originally going to decorate Stranger on the Loose with a stick figure, but somebody else is doing my cover art – a much better artist than me. His name is Simon Duric. And not only is he doing my cover art, he’s illustrating a number of the stories in Stranger on the Loose. Simon’s visual interpretations of my writing are exquisite. His images capture the same absurdist ideal I aspire to capture with words. (Check out Simon’s official website at www.redsine.com/duric8/man.html.)
RRM: One thing that makes these stories appealing is one can rarely predict what will happen next – nothing can be taken for granted. Do you usually write with a mental pre-composition or does the piece follow instantaneous creative whims?
DHW: My methodology varies. Sometimes I’ll spend a long time outlining a story; I’ll have a concrete idea as to where it will begin, where it will go, and how it will end. Most of the time, though, I’ll just have an abstract core idea. I’ll start writing with this idea in mind and see where it takes me. This week, for instance, I’m going to start writing a story about these bizarre little women my sister told me about. I can’t remember if they actually exist in some capacity or if my sister made them up from scratch – I’ll have to ask her the next time I talk to her! – but in terms of my story it doesn’t matter one way or the other. Apparently these women hang out on public stairways. When people pass them by, they jump on and cling to them, remove their shoes and socks, and file off the callouses on their feet with a piece of sandpaper. Then they demand some form of payment. Or maybe they don’t want any compensation, maybe they just take issue with the “callous” way people treat their feet. I’ll figure it out once I start writing. I’ll also figure out whether the women will serve me as protagonists, antagonists, or minor characters. Maybe they’ll end up appearing in just one paragraph and the story will end up being about something altogether different. That’s one of the reasons I love to write using only a core idea. It’s fun to challenge my imagination, to see what kind of house it can build given just a few bricks.
RRM: Many writers have an office-supply fetish. Are you also guilty of this and, if so, would you care to discuss the media you prefer to work with?
DHW: Well, when I write stories, I almost always write them on my computer at home. But I do keep a hand-written journal in which I record dreams, observations, notes and story ideas, and I prefer to write in it with cheap Bic rollerball pens, preferably green in color. Yeah, I definitely have a fetish for those damned pens.
RRM: Although stylistically I’d say your work is quite different from W. S. Burroughs (on your book jacket these stories are described as having, “more than a pinch of William S. Burroughs sprinkled on top.”), a correlation could be drawn between the intense, graphic images in your writing. It’s widely documented that Burroughs often wrote under the influence of hard drugs, obviously including heroin. Jack wrote On the Road on a heavy dosage of speed. Alcohol consumption is so widely documented in many writers it’s become a sort of stereotype. Do you feel creative fiction written from a consistently altered state loses imaginative integrity?
DHW: Hey, whatever works. My drug days more or less ended in college, and I’ve never written under the influence of any drug. Nothing publishable anyway. I write best in the morning when I’m clear-headed and sober, and as the day threads into the night and I become less clear-headed (and sometimes less sober! – I like to sip on the odd glass of scotch now and again), I write worse and worse. But that’s just me. Other writers perform poorly in the mornings and effectively in the evenings. As for whether or not drugs encroach on imaginative integrity, it depends on the writer. It can also depend on what kind of narrative a writer is writing. The structure of Burroughs’ cut-up narratives, for example, are dreamy, schizophrenic, acausal; no doubt his drug-taking empowered this structure. Likewise with Kerouac. One the Road is, in essence, a run-on sentence. What better way to keep a run-on sentence going than to swallow a handful of uppers and bear down on your pen?
RRM: Will we ever be seeing Dr. Thunderlove again?
DHW: I hope so! Out of all of my characters, he’s probably my favorite. He appears in two different stories in The Kafka Effekt. He’s not in any of the stories in Stranger on the Loose. But I’ve been thinking about him. I can’t get enough of that name, Thunderlove. Makes me laugh. And I like the idea of doctors who are ultimately clowns and act as if they’re allergic to reality – they recur again and again in my writing. In Stranger on the Loose, they go by such names as Dr. Indeed, Dr. Ickling and Dr. Plott, among others. I guess I just like making fun doctors, it doesn’t matter what kind they are, medical, educational, whatever. Many (although not all) of the doctors I know are so serious, and they take themselves far too seriously, partly because society holds them in such high regard, partly because of their own insecurities and social shortcomings. And so, in various ways, I expose those insecurities and social shortcomings. Generally speaking, that’s really what my writing is all about: exposing the things that people bury inside of themselves.
About the author:
Ryan Robert Mullen is the author of Naughty, Sweet Boy (Word Riot Press) and a columnist at Get Underground. He maintains a website at ryanrobertmullen.net.