A good interview is much like a game of chess, requiring strategic movements, including multiple gambits, sacrifices, and a great deal of patience. The goal of this strategy is to gain control over one’s opponent. Effective strategy compels one’s opponent to act in ways which assist in the deterioration of her or his own position. A question is put forward, as a piece is sent out to gain control of board centre, where one’s opponent has the option to answer that move, and participate with the strategy begun, or begin their own maneuvers. These first questions, or these opening moves, must serve dual purposes; but sides must necessarily reveal and conceal, so as to conduct the orchestration of the game’s development. Certainly, one’s opponent will try to protect certain pieces (of information) while intentionally exposing others in an attempt to ruse. One can choose to play aggressively or defensively, depending on her or his disposition. Ultimately though, one attempts to make their opponent vulnerable by having them place valuable pieces, unprotected, in certain situations, where those pieces can then be seized. At the same time, however, one must be conscience of the fact that their other will have an agenda of their own, complete with their own strategies and goals. It is a game of give and take, of push and pull, and sometimes, no one actually wins. Often, in fact, the only mate achieved is stale.
Afraid that chess would, in the foreseeable future, die a death of draws, Jose Raul Capablanca (1888-1942), while he was the third world champion of chess (1921-1927) invented a new game that would disallow masters from, when it was their wont, playing to a draw and thereby never losing. For example, in the 1984 championship match of Karpov and Kasparov, the latter, just about defeated, changed his strategy and produced such a string of nonsensical maneuvers that the match was annulled. In a sense, feeling himself vulnerable, he refused to answer Karpov’s questions. Capablanca’s new game, called Capablanca’s Chess, or sometimes Grotesque Chess, is played on a larger board with additional pieces and new movements. The idea is that the added pieces and additional board space will increase the complexity of the game, allowing the strongest player more opportunity to undo his opponent. In its most contemporary manifestation, this Grotesque Chess has been renamed Gothic Chess, in order to make it a more entertaining and more marketable commodity. Yet the rules remain essentially the same… The new configuration of pieces leaves no piece unprotected, and so seizing upon an opponent’s position always leaves one open to counterattack.
The present game of chess is to be played against one Savannah Schroll. Her first book, a collection twenty-two tales entitled The Famous & the Anonymous: The Deep & Darkly Secret is currently available under the imprint Better Non Sequitur. These twenty-two tales told are divisible into tales of anonymous folk, and tales of famous folk. Each tale, in its own way, is involved with a sort of portrait painting. The anonymous tales hold personal value for Schroll, whose MA in Art History and Gothic sensibility color her pieces as she engages her present self through the exploration of past experiences, the moves and maneuvers that created her present. The famous tales are ‘about’ famous people, stars, icons, personae, so to speak. She takes a star, Michael Jackson for instance, and in repainting his mask in words on paper, she intentionally overdevelops the public’s perception of his image, so that he appears distorted and ever more grotesque than he did before. The criticism though, falls not on Jackson himself, who suffers a culturally imposed mask, but instead upon the culture that first created this grotesque portrait. Yet, Schroll is also concerned with the marketability, the entertainment value, of her work… Or, at least so say the strategy of my EndGame. Well, Let the game begin!
JFC: Why do you write?
SS: So, why do I write? I didn’t begin writing fiction until just over two years ago, when I left Washington, DC and a completely baffling relationship. From this grew my first cogent story, “A Singular Obsession”, which helped me to process and eventually exorcise all the overwhelming, sensory feelings I still alternately wallowed and luxuriated in months after I left. Parts of the text were actually built from scraps of my emails. Through the correspondence, I realized that I could turn my perceptions and metaphors–originally destined only for one email box–into something bigger, a little literary Taj Mahal. So, in a sense, this story, along with one other, is a chronicle of a particular period in my life, to which I can return and say: ‘I remember exactly what that felt like. It was agonizing and beautiful all at the same time.’ After ‘A Singular Obsession’ was complete, I realized I was a little addicted to the process of stringing words together–like a jeweler, picking through a mass of loose beads and looking for just the right one, one with a sparkle that enhances all the others. It was the sort of escapism that allowed me to experience other realities while also exploring my silent, infrequently acknowledged philosophies. On another level, I’ve been inculcated from birth with the idea that experience is meant to realize a palpable intellectual sum. So whenever I went to live in a new city, either domestic or foreign, I would think each time, ‘now I get more material more life, more experience.’ At the time, though, I didn’t know yet for what.
JFC: Why did you find yourself in D.C.?
SS: Shortly before I got my M.A. in art history, I sent out a deluge of resumes. One of them landed in the lap of a Smithsonian administrative services director, who (after asking me to resend it on paper a color other than chartreuse and in ink other than teal) forwarded it on to the public information department of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. I graduated at the end of May (strategically avoiding gown, stoll and walk), found a reasonably priced 1-bedroom on MacArthur Blvd, close to G-town, and was at work by early June. I realized I hated the job the first week and glumly began to understand why they required typing skills. So I started looking for other positions, and within five months (it takes a very long time to make a move in the government), I climbed to a much higher post at the Smithsonian Libraries, which has its HQ in the Natural History Building. When I talk about the mezzanine in my stories, that’s indeed where I worked–in a spacious cube overlooking Constitution Avenue. My supervisor retired five months after I began, and I subsequently became the public information officer–we’re the people who get those lighted advertisement in the subway and work with the press to publicize events. What I miss about D.C.: playing pool at Bedrock Billiards, the Director B. Stanley, Olssons Books, and passing the Capitol while walking from Via Cucina (coffee in hand) to work.
JFC: Why Leave DC?
SS: I left D.C. because I found it was beautiful but empty. The life I thought I would slip into was an illusion. Washington is a very transient city, and so establishing a core group of friends was very difficult because you would grow close to people and then they would get jobs elsewhere and move away. I mentioned before that I felt as if I was waiting to live, rather than actually living. As time went on, I realized I also no longer wanted to put up with the privations of the city. You’re probably thinking…privations? In the city? Girl, put away your hookah. Seriously, I am, at my very foundations, a girl from farmland. I have a problem with constricted space, with people standing too close to me, with abbreviated landscapes, with inorganic dirt, with too much people-dirt. It has a great deal to do with the sky to land ratio, with population concentration. After awhile, it brings you down. This realization came to me during my vacation one June–I was home (where I grew up) painting wash-line poles for my Mom. I looked around the place with different eyes. The cornfields were suddenly beautiful, and the very town I could not wait to get away from when I was in senior high was looking awfully good. Granted, there’s no Filene’s or shoe-shopping here, but I live on 33 acres, and it somehow psychologically allows my mind to expand outward in the ways that it needs to.
JFC: So then, are you, in some way, the young DC professional woman who found peace in the sacrifice of conflagration? Is what brought you out of DC, similar to what brought her to the pyre?
SS: Wow. I have to consciously think about that one. There are definitely similarities between that character and me (job, preferred dress style, occasionally combustible personality, age), and my subconscious could have been leaking other material that permeated things without my truly registering it. But our psyches are fundamentally different. I’ve never felt that intolerably nameless, and I’ve never desperately sought attention from men the way she does. She also puts up with way more male-related crap than I would. Her core is less rigid than mine. She’s just seeking and failing to find something she’s never had, and it pisses her off. This is where her character converges with mine. What’s she looking for? Attention–of any kind. What was I looking for? Happiness. And it just wasn’t to be found in the city.
JFC: This piece is entitled, “Secret Urban Stories: Young D.C. Professional (Female).” What is the secret? Is it perhaps what brought about her public suicide, this consummation of herself, this self she obviously despises, loathes to the point of self destruction? What is it that drove her to this? Surely not a simple need for attention. There is something more here, something much more… destructive, perhaps? Much more brutalized… Is it a culture that has brutalized her, made her think she was something she was not, made her strive for an identity that was not to be hers?
SS: The ‘Secret’ in the title is this: the people we pass on the street and who stand next to us at the bus stop are psychological microcosms, something we don’t often think about. Everyone has a story. They’re full of aspirations, false impressions, ugly discontent. Some people wear their psychology on the outside, but others suppress their internal realities and hide their private lives. Looking at them, you have no idea what’s going on behind the facade they present. Yes, on one level Y.D.C.P. feels she cannot live up to societal expectations (which is a solvable problem). On another level, she cannot accept it (a nearly insoluble problem) and is not wise enough to know that no one can. Happiness is not to be had in being painfully thin, effulgently beautiful, or even famous. These things may provide some satisfaction, but it’s never what brings contentment. Lucky turns can also be crosses to bear. Ultimately, she cannot accept herself, so she decides to end the eternal run on the treadmill because she feels there is no other option. And why not go out in a blazing display?
JFC: Ah, now there’s a secret, a god whose name few know and whose power, thereby, is rarely culled… Do you perhaps hold the hidden hand of Happiness? Where is this fount found, Seńorita Juan Ponce de Leon?
SS: I imagine it’s different for each person, but for me, it lies in the ability to appreciate little things fully. It’s in writing and in language, in leaving a lover’s apartment and returning to my own world, in driving 70 miles an hour barefoot over back roads after midnight, in lying outside in the summer and watching the stars flicker, in exercise-induced endorphins, in books, in music, in the quiet sublimity of museums, in seeing the sun dissolve into a radiant molten pink behind the barn on the neighboring property, in thermoses of coffee with rum, in atomic fireballs, in foreign films at Pittsburgh’s Regent Square Theatre. The list could potentially go on forever. But most of all, it’s in freedom. Freedom really boils down to three very basic things: to be under no one’s thumb, to be healthy (and thereby able to enjoy the little things), and to have enough money to protect the people you love as well as yourself.
JFC: Turning back. If I can perhaps use a portion of your opening statement, is the writing then a filling, a past-time, a substitution? Masturbatory, maybe?
SS: Writing for me was initially closer to a substitution. I both missed and didn’t miss Washington; I both loved and began to hate urban living–to be so pressed against humanity, to smell their odors on the bus in the summer, to hear their boasting or intimate phone conversations got to be too much sometimes. It had been my dream to live there, and then I realized I was entirely disillusioned by it. It was only half the life I had imagined–perhaps less. Even though I had what might be considered a glamour job, I realized I was still waiting to live, as I had done in graduate school. A bit like sleeping with one’s fantasy, I guess. Once realized, the captivating aura disappears, and it becomes pedestrian, or in the extreme, stomach-turning. I tried to communicate this feeling in “Drowning,” which is about the same relationship as “A Singular Obsession”. For me, that man is inextricably tied to my experience of the city and with my identity at the time. He always will be. So in writing about the city and about him, I was communing with the illusions that lured me, and working through the realities that leveled me. And now, why do I write? Not so much because I ache, but because it’s become something to place between me and oblivion–some record of my psychological anatomy and something so I don’t die without ever having said anything at all.
JFC: So then would you say that the writing of these two stories was a therapy, of sorts, a sort of exercising of certain restless demons? Or perhaps a construction of your own personal legend, ala the H.D. and Freud sessions, which allowed you an identity?
SS: While I don’t consciously remember searching for an identity through those stories at the time, I’m certain that on some subconscious level, it had something to do with it because my life was in flux at the time. I had just pulled up stakes and took my circus north, back over the Mason-Dixon Line. And the identity I had prepared my entire life for was suddenly obsolete. In the book acknowledgements, there’s a thanks to a particular man for stimulating “little burning springs of creativity”. I suppose, when it comes down to it, he was the one who helped to conceive and deliver who I am now because it was my continued correspondence with him and sublimation of that desire, mystification, and eventual disenchantment that made me want to continue to write, to turn my attention to other realities, winnow other psychological pearls from the chaff of what’s usually in my mind. Once I realized that something was wrong, very wrong with the relationship (which is explained in the last lines of “Drowning”) washed my psyche of it, and was able to turn my attention elsewhere.
JFC: In writing those first two stories, in the third person, assuming a safe distance from which you could recreate, reenact, relive those moments of excitement, those moments of Allurement and Disappointment, in writing those stories from the position of the voyeur, what did you learn about desire?
SS: I learned that sometimes the imagination is far better than reality, and that desire is almost entirely conjured by half-truths and unfamiliarity-not ignorance, but simply not knowing enough to make a truly informed identity construction. The image of someone, which you carry in your head frequently doesn’t match up with who they really are. To learn the truth disappoints but also grounds. After that strange attraction lost its grip, after I had written it out of myself, I became much more pragmatic about many things. Desire, in its purest sense, requires one to narrow the eyes and blur the vision-figuratively speaking. When you turn off your intellectual consciousness and turn on your sensory radar, this is when some of those important illusion-dispelling details go unnoticed.
JFC: You talk a lot about illusions, about losing your illusions, yet, wouldn’t it be more correct to say that you, we, all of us, do not lose our illusions, per se, but instead replace one construct with another, no more ‘real’ than what came before?
SS: I suppose this is true. No one can ever know everything. Our mind simply fills in the blanks based on existing knowledge and natural extrapolation. But I’ve found that once I gained knowledge about something, I recognize the pattern again and again, like the proving of a geometric theorem. In the end, one could ask is there even such a thing as reality? Is there a baseline rule set that silently exerts its gravitation force on humankind? Reality is what you make it: reality is seated in perception, yet has nothing to do with logic. Personally, I believe there are no absolutes, but sometimes there are constants.
JFC: So, after “A Singular Obsession,” what was next?
SS: Afterward, I think I wrote “In the Big House,” which is based in Pittsburgh, where I lived before D.C. That was also based on a man I know, who had only recently lost his wife. The two of them had played a very large roll in my life when I was in graduate school. And they did live in a huge house in Schenley Farms, which is very much like a gated community without the gate. The third character in the story, their enormous robber-baron style mansion (the bricks and mortar still black from steel mill soot), had been, in real life, mortgaged and re-mortgaged far past the roof rafters. Consequently, it became a prison escapable only by death. In the story, part of me is textually buried in the character of the teenage Alexa. Something vaguely similar had happened to me after his wife’s death. During her wake, in the presence of her ash urn (!), he cornered me in the kitchen as I brought some glasses in from outside where everyone was sitting. He did things like that. It wasn’t grief. He just doesn’t use his head when it comes to women. It was from this experience that “In the Big House” was born.
JFC: Why write about the auld one in the house? What possessed you about him? What is his secret, his arcane center that attracts you to him, that gives him power over you? You didn’t write about him just ‘cause you knew him. There was intrigue. You were looking for something. And tell me more about this girl. This Sphinx too has a secret, one that she is trying to discover for herself, within herself. What is her riddle, whose answer she seeks in Jackson?
SS: It wasn’t the character who inspired Jackson that made me want to write. It was his relationship with his wife (referred to here as S_), and his wife’s relationship to the house that I found so fascinating. S_ figured a great deal into my social life when I lived in Pittsburgh. When my parents would visit me, which was often, we would have dinner parties in my living room–expanding by three leaves a claw-foot table I inherited from my great grandmother (incidentally also named Savannah). We would smoke cigars on the deck, drink homemade grappa, and my Mom would cook. It was a common event and my neighbors would look for my parents’ car in the back lawn to know there would be victuals and libations at Savannah’s on Saturday, usually beginning around 7:00. When we would go to S’s house for similar indulgences, my father would say we were going “to the Big House,” which is where the story title came from. But also, the title was intended to carry the double meaning–‘Big House’ of course being slang for prison. As I mentioned a bit earlier, they had it mortgaged beyond all normal compass.
Once S_ died, a pleasant chapter in our lives ended: we don’t have dinner parties anymore because it’s just not the same without her. S_ was really the center of the story. She had had a very complex relationship with her husband–the fulcrum of power was always shifting. I’d never seen anything like it. The story, written about a month after she died, was about how it would be now that she was gone. The character Alexa happened totally by accident. I mentioned before that he made an unrequited pass at S_’s wake–right in front of her ash urn–and I think that’s why I took the plot the direction I did. He’s since had to leave the house, which stands empty now, but I’m certain S_ still lingers there. She loved that house, and I’m fairly certain he sprinkled her ashes around the property, possibly even in the house.
JFC: The Big House is about the dead wife whose spirit inhabits, is one with, the house, the spirit of the place, the time, the Zeitgeist, so to speak, but yet, this spirit is only a projection of Jackson’s mind, of all that haunts him, all he did not have, could not have… Hers was the ‘No’ that dominated his days, gave structure and order to his life. And still like the tormented child he finds her forever looking over his shoulder, watching him misbehave, or show self-control, like some Freudian Rat-Man standing naked in the mirror awaiting his deceased father to stroll through the open door and disapprove. His life is truly anonymous, unknown, and filled with secret desires, passions, he will never see fulfilled, and still she haunts him, disapproves of him. She is the prison barring his way to freedom and pleasure. And he is your character, his actions are your illustrations, his thoughts your compositions, so then you are watching him, are his voyeur. What do you find in him?
SS: I think there is something fundamentally wrong with Jackson that keeps him from enjoying life. Part of it is that he recognizes and understands boundaries, but has a hard time operating within them. In the story, he is 62, but mentally, he is no older than 14, with a mind that operates like a petulant child’s. He makes tentative steps across acceptable limits and then has grown to expect a punitive yank on his leash. Without someone to pull this rope, when he realizes that his life has passed him by and he has become a non-entity, he mildly self-destructs. He is the kind of person who eternally rebels against authority, but, in the end, cannot live without it.
JFC: But… We vain, pedantic literati would argue that literature is about growth and development. Yet, in the story there is none. There is Alexa, poor, pure, accidental Alexa, who, it would seem, learns nothing. At the same time, Jackson does not develop. He remains unchanged, lost in his chains. In this sense, the work seems still-born, abortive even, as if the work began as a search to find something deeper inside him, but which was ultimately given up, in despair, disappointment. Would you agree?
SS: Absolutely. He doesn’t change. In fact, he regresses, curls in on himself like a salted slug. But it’s a portrait of his (and more accurately her) life trajectory. They had incredible aspirations and lived opulently as a result. The wife had gone to Vassar, got the big house she always wanted, but her life led to nothing she hoped it would. There was only dissatisfaction and despair, a bleak feature obituary in the newspaper. But none of the grand achievements she hoped for. Oh and Alexa is the false catalyst. She precipitates his collapse. She will be wild, and live. Perhaps she will share a similar fate, a life of aspiration and bitter realization.
JFC: Or perhaps not. For in the story, this projection of her, though narrated by a third party, is tied to his perception. It is he who believes this of her. So then does she not become his second wife, who, like his first, though ambitious, suckles no one, but only stifles?
SS: I don’t perceive Alexa to be self-destructive in the same way the wife was. If anything, now that I consciously think about it, Alexa will die not slowly and painfully as the wife did, but head-long and recklessly. Alexa is a wild-ass. She will struggle to free herself before she will ever be stifled. She will be killed in a violent, self destructive way. She might even do it on purpose and change her mind too late.
JFC: Ok, onward and upward… In “The Big House” and several other times in these stories we find this same situation, albeit on different levels, of the ob-scene with the older man molesting the young girl. What has driven you to explore so thoroughly this most taboo of scenes?
SS: Yikes. I guess that’s true. I didn’t even realize I’d done that theme repeatedly. Ahem. What does that say about me, Dr. Freud? And could you pass the coca leaves please? “Allure & Disappointment” is actually slightly autobiographical, too–but less obviously so. You’d never be able to look into my life and find that event. But the man in the story is based on someone I’d been close to. He’d probably recognize himself, I’m sorry to say. With other examples such as “Pigeon Lover,” that’s pure gothic unreality–made from one part Wide Sargasso Sea, two parts “Yellow Wallpaper”, one part Toni Morrison’s Paradise, and a half shot of the movie Seven, shaken with a dash of vermouth.
JFC: Along the same line… Strangely, in the book, there is an idea that sex is always disappointing or perverted in some way… Why?
SS: I believe in lust, but not sexual love–and that statement is made with the understanding that lust combusts and burns out quickly while sexual love burns slowly on. I believe illusion is vital to inspiring desire. The excitement of sex lasts probably about two months, perhaps a little longer, and if the relationship has nothing else to offer, then it disintegrates or becomes something else. So far, I’ve never found that it turned into anything foundational. Unless someone shows me otherwise, I’ll continue to be a card-carrying member of the Pessimists’ & Realists’ Club. The sexual failure and perversion in the book is a metaphor for the characters’ inability to connect on some deeper level, on the level of honest love.
JFC: Then, your writing is a literature of disappointment, of loss and emptiness? Despair, perhaps? Is it intended as a literature of knowledge, of the illusion or paradise lost, gone after that first bite turns bitter, and we know ourselves, all at once, to be naked, human, utterly lost?
SS: Yes, I suppose it is. I realize that in a story I’m working on right now, I wrote that “knowledge brings unhappiness.” This tenet evidently works in me on a subliminal level and colors everything I write. Someone said that life is a process of losing your illusions, and I believe it. Yet, I have an innate sense for being right about people, about personalities, about situations. It’s an ability to foresee based on pattern recognition, based on types. This helps to protect me in business, but sadly, it strips away some of the delight in living. At the same time, though, I suppose it keeps me out of trouble. When someone is able to conjure a potent illusion or operates by a logic my translation systems can’t decode, I’m fascinated, as I was with the character in “Drowning.”
JFC: And, in the end, everything dies, alone?
SS: I don’t know. Must they? My life line is short. Maybe everyone will outlive me. I think the answer to this is yes. The living forsake the dying with good reason. Why steer your boat so close to the reef when one day you yourself will be trapped there, too. Every body must face and accept disintegration. No one can help you accept that process but you. “Every soldier’s soul’s his own.”
JFC: But you do steer very close to this barred barrier reef? Is this more of that Gothic sensibility? Your sense of place? Surely, there must be some fascination greater than you’ve already expressed elsewhere. What is it about the macabre that attracts you? What gives it power over you?
SS: I picture everything good as clean, bright, and distilled, like a David Smith sculpture. Macabre things have a baroque intricacy and inherent drama that has a greater aesthetic appeal to me. The darker sides of humanity are more interesting, and I can identify with circumstances that push people beyond reasonable behavior. My very favorite movie of all time is Fight Club. Actually, I loved the book first (although Palahniuk was a hard sell because I read Invisible Monsters first). I love FC for a number of reasons, in part because it explores totalitarianism and the hopeless, endless cycle of consumerism, but on another it resonates at my core. There’s a fissure in my personality. The good side is larger, but still the dark side is there.
JFC: So then this writing is the exploration of yourself, of what exists in the unknown depths of that fissure? Are there really such things as a good side and a dark side, as if one’s consciousness were a sizzling McLean, whose separate styrofoam compartments kept the hot side hot and the cold side cold? Some few of us have moved beyond good and evil…
SS: Everyone is comprised of good and bad tendencies, dishonorable inclinations and redemptive behavior. Those two behavioral proclivities are always there, intermingling. We are a complicated chemistry set, and our perceptions of reality, as well as shifts in our basic psychological tectonics, determine which tendencies surface. I do like to explore realities other than my own. While some of the stories definitely do push tender spots to determine how deep they go and how well they’re healing, others are simply a fun little romp into another life, using the fundamental instincts I have about people.
JFC: Moving right along… How and or why did you find yourself publishing those first few stories? Where and when? And what brought about the book’s publication? And throw a who in if you can.
SS: It was an evening in May or June of 2003 that I put down Granta’s Young British Novelists issue and thought, I should at least try to get some of my stuff into the wider world. I’d published essays before, but they were stodgy cultural studies material and neither completely imaginative nor biographical. My very first publication of fiction was “A Singular Obsession” at Eyeshot. Lee Klein suggested a structural alteration to the story that made it more immediate–bringing the reader into the action much sooner, and for his valuable feedback, I’m very grateful. That first acceptance also started me on the path forward. I produced more stories, always with the intention to do a collection. After launching the electronic anthology “Achingly Human” (www.achinglyhuman.com), I stumbled onto the Better Non Sequitur (www.betternonsequitur.com) site, again through my association with Lee (who was also a contributor to AH). Steven Coy, who heads BNS and edited The Famous & The Anonymous, is truly superhuman. I came to him with a general thematic concept but just a handful of famous stories, “P.” (originally published at Hobart) and “S&M;” (originally published at Perfectland) being two examples. Steven encouraged me to produce more and suggested some potentially juicy topics. His energy, efforts and abilities continually amaze me, and I can’t express my appreciation enough. It was a very smooth process from start to finish.
JFC: You call them Tales. 22 Tales told. Why is this?
SS: I think it was an idea that Steven had first, and we both agreed. We liked the alliteration of ‘twenty-two tales told’. Also, the word ‘tale’ has a multivalent meaning and historical patina that ‘story’ does not. ‘Tales’ are told around camp fires or in front of the hearth to entertain, indoctrinate or educate; ‘tales’ are often tall and rich with exaggerations; ‘tales’ are frequently replete with idle, sometimes nasty gossip. ‘Stories,’ by comparison, conjure images of newspapers, of journalists and anchormen, of Dan Rather strapped to a telephone pole expatiating wildly on the disaster wrought throughout Texas by ‘Hurri-cun Carla’.
JFC: So then, are they tales, or are they stories? For example, one could easily picture this same Dan Rather reporting, helicoptered, from the scene of a young DC professional woman’s self inflicted conflagration? Could one not? What in these works lifts them above the level of shabby sensational reportage, whose gossip makes them the next feature on Hard Copy, or some other such carping crap?
SS: Definitely tales. They are, in part, psychological observations. Tales always tell a great deal about both the raconteur and the reader. The same is true of ‘news’ stories, but to a lesser degree. Hard Copy reflects, though imperfectly and like a circus mirror, the desires and obsessions of the public, but purports to be factual. I was thinking more along the lines of the wide-eyed Ichabod Crane sitting down to listen to Tarrytown’s headless horseman legend, which was embroidered heavily by locals…Gossip and intrigue offered up over a pint of hard cider. Plus, I always tried to include a fun little gut punch (almost like a moral) at the end.
JFC: And so tell me: The Famous and the Anonymous. This was the idea you pitched. Why? What was the fascination? The Anonymous: personal. But the Famous? Why the Famous?
SS: Initially, I had intended to do a series of stories simply called “Famous”, “Famous II,” etc… (like the later “Secret Urban Stories” I started) The Famous story prototype can now be read in Better Non Sequitur’s new Anthology BOOM! For Real, released February ‘05. The premise behind the Famous tales was that I would describe behavioral patterns, environment, and make references to people in the celebrity’s life without ever making direct reference to a celebrity’s name, leaving the reader to guess who it is. “Famous” is about Michael Jackson. “Famous II”, which hit the creative skids and never came to fruition was Britney Spears, and “Famous III” was rechristened, when I submitted it to Hobart, as “P.” because I thought “Famous II” without a “Famous I” might be confusing to readers. My fascination with celebrities was finding out what they do when they’re not in front of the camera, finding out what makes them human, discovering their secret obsessions and thought patterns. Everyone has gothic parts to their personality, and I was searching for all the points and spires. I think one of the reasons the Britney Spears story crashed is because I couldn’t find a toehold of complexity. I needed to grasp in each character enough intricacy and ambivalence to create the effect I thought made it worthy of going on. And I suppose it goes without saying that every one of the Famous stories carries a little bit of my own experience in it somewhere.
JFC: But why the famous? Do you claim to have some sort of literary priority on insight into their minds? It seems as if these tales in particular are saying of these personalities, “Look how eF’d up they are, they deserve not their pedestals, worship no longer these graven images!” Would you agree? And if so, aren’t you then committing your own sin, by attending to these images?
SS: The principal reason I chose to use celebrities as literary fodder was that their lives offered fewer unknown variables than the anonymous characters trundling around in my head. Everyone knows some of the details of a celebrity’s life. The challenge for me was to fit those facts into the fiction and get it to purr. I don’t claim to truly know anything about their particular circumstances or thought patterns. I just had a good time cracking them wide like a can opener. Michael Jackson was my favorite to psychologically unpack, which is why he spawned two stories–one of which is in BOOM. “Showmanship” explains what made him late for his first court appearance, while “Famous” explores his obsession with his face. I really feel that some of these celebrities don’t have depths that can ever be plumbed, as they’re always harrowing new cerebral pathways of speciousness and irrationality. You’re right. Celebrities are no different from the rest of us really. They’re just forced to sit in the town square’s pillory for their foibles.
JFC: Yet, if you don’t “truly know anything about their particular circumstances or thought patterns,” then you really don’t crack them open, but instead expose yourself, expose much more than ‘a little bit’ of your own experience. For instance, this Jackson scene in “Showmanship,” didn’t actually happen, it’s fiction, your invention, and neither shows nor proves anything about Jackson whatsoever. It only shows what you think about Jackson. The same holds true for the Paul Reubens scene… So, why these particular inventions? What exactly were you trying to show?
SS: I’m cracking their persona open, perhaps not so much the person. While I may reveal little bits of myself in these stories, I think that by focusing on certain elements, the reader also learns something about themselves, about their culture. We all know far too much about Jackson’s supposed exploits. Paul Reubens collects vintage porn, most of it allegedly gay, and Pee Wee’s Playhouse has become a gay icon. Certainly none of this can offer proof of Reubens’ sexual orientation and nor is that fact really essential to the story itself. I thought the sudden mental turn to thoughts of Cowboy Curtis (while seated in a Nurse Nancy flick) would make for an interesting, unexpected turn.
JFC: Or perhaps rather expected, especially in light of well-known ‘alleged’ details, and well-known iconography? And the same seems to hold true for Jackson, and Pamela Anderson… Is there really anything unexpected in these? Or are these stories just popular ideas, inflated and made grotesque?
SS: They mirror our culture to a certain degree and by necessity, since I am a product of my time and of the pop culture I’ve been fed since even before I was truly cognizant of media culture. Perhaps some people will find the stories inflated and grotesque. But that’s entertainment.
JFC: What’s entertainment? I don’t understand. Such a blanket statement doesn’t at all answer my question… Is there really anything unexpected in these? Or are these stories just popular ideas, inflated and made grotesque?
SS: Entertainment is another form of escapism. Entertainers (or, more precisely, their persona), who are part of a long tradition of spectacle and escapism and who comprise many of these stories, are themselves grotesque manifestations of our cultural obsessions and of the imperfect, contemporary process of identity construction. Celebrity personas are a socially constructed identity that is both assumed by the celebrity and projected onto them (by society). Both projection and assumption are a distinctly psychological process, and it creates tension when the genuine, anxiety-bound person confronts, in the mirror or in life, the projected-and-assumed fabrication. This is the nature of celebrity, which is an exaggeration of the real and, because of this, a grotesque. It is the collision of a celebrity’s base humanity with their fabricated super-humanity that has the most interest for me, that may have the power to point up people’s own illusions and obsessions.