Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Icelander - Dustin Long Interview

Icelander is Dustin Long's first novel. Published by the good folks at McSweeney's in May of 2006, Icelander is a meta-fictional mystery from multiple perspectives, a behind-the-scenes adventure involving the daughter of famous mystery sleuths, a movie star, and a subterranean fox-worshipping Icelandic culture. Very witty, with some great moments of comedy, absurdity, and plot twists.

The Milwaukee McSweeney's Book Klatch, whose secret lair is deep underneath the Downer Avenue shop, communally authored nine (or ten) questions for Dustin, who obligingly answered via email. (Dustin also recommends some great reads at the end.)

Icelander is out in paperback on June 1, 2007 - but I recommend the reasonably-priced and more attractive McSweeney's rectangular hardcover edition, featuring silver sparkles and the best endpapers I've ever seen.


Nine Questions for Dustin Long from the Milwaukee Klatch

1. Why did you decide to set Icelander in an "alternate universe" and how did that effect working with ficticious footnote references, such as the the Memoirs of Emily Bean or Valison? Though we considered it an alternate universe, what were the calculations behind cognates like "New Uruk" and "Upstate New Uruk" and to the parallels between Valison and Nabokov/Pale Fire/Lolita? Why the Orson Welles bust? William Gaddis?

Dustin Long: Complex question, but I’ll do my best to answer it in full. I guess the larger answer would be that the alternate universe resolved a whole cluster of concerns in a fairly simple way.
I knew there was a huge back story, for instance, but I didn’t want to burden the reader with hundreds of pages of exposition about it, so I just made it part of the background of the world (The Memoirs), and used footnotes to fill in wherever I thought it was necessary (which is not to say that’s all the footnotes are there for). Of course, to a degree, any work of fiction is set in an alternate universe, but the presence of Vanaheim does make this one a bit more altered than most. Looking at it from the opposite end, then: the fact that this story was at least partially about Vanaheim necessitated me setting it in an alternate universe. Is that too tautological? New Uruk was a way of further signaling the alterity of the universe, I suppose, but it was also inspired by some of Nabokov’s playful state names (Utana, for instance), and by the fact that the original Uruk was sort of the birthplace of literature. For the Valison/Nabokov thing, that doesn’t have much to do with the alternate universe, but more with the fact that I’d been reading a lot of Nabokov and decided the best way to avoid being unduly influenced by him would be to externalize my Nabokovian impulses in a character, perhaps a villain. I think it works in Icelander, but with my new novel, I’m trying to avoid being derivative even in a self-conscious way. Orson Welles? It was basically either going to be Orson Welles or Ethan Hawke, and Orson just seemed more likely. The bust was just a little detail I put in for my own amusement, though thematically I also thought it fit. F for Fake, as well as a bit from early on in The Crying of Lot 49, where it’s mentioned that Pierce Inverarity has a bust of Jay Gould above his bed, and then within a page or so he’s doing a Lamont Cranston impersonation. So the Shadow, as well. And The Third Man had that sewer scene. And Valison’s death and the subsequent dealings with his estate kind of struck a Citizen Kane chord with me. There’s probably a touch of evil in there, too, and maybe some Magnificent Ambersons. I didn’t expect anyone to get as much out of it as I do, but it just seemed like a nice symbol of a lot of things that were going on in the novel. And then it broke. Gaddis? The Recognitions fits better than JR does, thematically, but I thought the radio adaptation joke was worth a little thematic fudgery.

2. Icelander has several points of view: the multiple first person perspectives that often provide nuanced conflicting accounts and details of the same events; the third person narrator, who is presented as omniscient; the editorial of Treeburg. What was the reasoning for the varying of voice and perspective? Does it have anything to do with the idea of fact/clue-finding and sorting of information with respect to the mystery genre and to the act of reading in general. Does the presence of an editor to the text reflect a questioning of the narrator/author's relationship with both the reader and the text? An acknowledgment of artifice?

DL: Yes?

3. Some of the character names appear referential (MacGuffin, Van Cleef), while some seem to be more Pynchonian distractions (Constance Lingus, Ymirson). Can you discuss the importance (or insignificance) of the names you've given your characters?

DL: Just kidding. To answer question 2 in more detail, part of the concern with voice had to do with the theme of the emergence of Our Heroine’s own voice, which bubbles up through free indirect discourse in Prelude, comes out but doesn’t dominate in Ludo, and then completely takes over in Cluedo. On a practical level, third person was the best suited perspective for Prelude because I wanted to set up the world with the condensed flashbacks, but it was also epistemologically interesting. How does an omniscient narrator know everything? Does he (I’m using “he” as a neuter pronoun, here) really know everything, or is he just trying to sound convincing? The presence of the editor draws attention to the fact that the book you’re reading is a text within the world that you’re reading about, written by a character in the world that you’re reading about, so you have to wonder w
ho this character is and what his slant is. Likewise in Ludo, if one person is writing this, how does he have insight into all of the different points of view? The “nuanced conflicting accounts” sort of highlight the limitations of individual perception, and this problem is obviously one that interests the narrator. Yes, the editor definitely serves to call the narrator’s position into question (though the editor is not exactly reliable himself) with regard to both the reader and the text. Yes, artifice and authenticity were definitely two poles that I tried to tangle the plot thread around. Also, yes again, the fact/clue-finding aspect is something that the mystery genre brings to the forefront, but which I think relates to the act of reading in general, and the varied, conflicting points of view model that process nicely for the attentive reader, I think. Now on to question 3:

"3. Some of the character names appear referential (MacGuffin, Van Cleef), while some seem to be more Pynchonian distractions (Constance Lingus, Ymirson). Can you discuss the importance (or insignificance) of the names you've given your characters?"

Names and the process of naming in general are very interesting to me. The troll that built The Hall of the Refurserkir, the fact that Our Heroine’s name is withheld... But even apart from the character names, the idea of naming provided a basic theme on which the book was built. Iceland’s concern with linguistic purity was one of the things that got the book rolling in the direction it eventually went. Blah blah blah, Wittgenstein, blah blah blah. But I’m not really answering your question, am I? Some names are more important than others. Names like Constance Lingus, Hubert Jorgen, and Philip Leshio are mostly just illustrations of Valison’s sense of humor, as he was the one who came up with their pseudonyms. Ymirson is Jon Ymirson’s real name, however, and I wanted it to have certain resonances (Ymir, being the first living being in Norse mythology and also being frost giant, as opposed to Surt who hails from fiery Muspellheim; Iceland having the patronymic naming system; Radcliffe Emerson from Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody series). MacGuffin and Van Cleef were nods to my sources as well as interpretive clues for the reader, though in the world of the book they can also be seen as further manifestations of Valison’s humor.

4. The ending to Icelander could be interpreted into varying degrees of resolution. How do you feel about the resolution? Is it definite? Is any resolution truly definitive? Does the uncertainty of authorship and reliability of the narrators reflect these thoughts?

DL: It’s tricky. I don’t like the way that The Turn of the Screw, for instance, presents the reader with two distinct interpretive possibilities and withholds any real basis for choosing between them. Conversely, I don’t have much interest in a completely closed system with no room for interpretation, either, because I don’t
think that’s very reflective of the real world. So I wouldn’t say Icelander is entirely open-ended, but it’s not definitively resolved, either. The more you dig, the more things will come together, I hope, in a way that suggests a conscious design (rather than just a bunch of babble that anyone can interpret any way he sees fit), but I suspect there will always be ambiguities. To me, this reflects the limitations of knowledge and the complexity of truth in the real world. I have my own sense of how these ambiguities work in the text and how they might be resolved, but I don’t want to close off possibilities that might resonate better with other readers. Have you read Cerebus? I find the later issues very interesting in that my interpretation of the significance of the happenings is very different than the writer’s interpretation, and I’m pretty convinced that I’m right. It’s sort of an ideal case, in my mind, because it’s not that anything is willfully denied to the reader (I don’t think I deny the reader any knowledge, either, but some things are only obliquely hinted at, so Dave Sim does me one better), but rather the book just represents the unknowability of some things in this universe really well. And the unknowable things are some of the most interesting things to ponder. To reference another comic book, I think there’s something in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman about how mysteries are more satisfying than secrets, because you can ponder a mystery forever, but a secret is just a single answer. But back to Cerebus, it’s the ambiguities that make the difference of opinion between me and Sim possible. Along with the uncertainty of authorship and reliability of narrators, this all represents part of my larger concern with epistemology in Icelander.

5. Our Heroine often fit the part of the reluctant Heroine. We found it interesting (and endearing) that she often rejected or failed to meet the expectations placed on her by the other characters due to her mother's reputation. How does this relate to the expectations of the reader and the trappings of genre writing? How was your writing in Icelander affected by reworking and bending genre?

DL: The expectations of mystery genre readers align fairly closely with the expectations of the characters surrounding Our Heroine, I imagine. She is, perhaps, a literary character trapped in a generic world. Although that implies a hierarchy that I don’t really believe in. I think Raymond Chandler is higher art than Alice Sebold, for insta
nce. In general, I think genre fiction has an easier access to the fantastic, and that’s something that has always interested me. “Minimalist” realist fiction bores me a little, unless it has a sense of humor, and I think humor always edges towards the fantastic. I can’t take something seriously if it takes itself too seriously. I was a kid in the 80’s, so I’ve just always thought Jedi and ninjas were cool, and I don’t see why serious art can’t be cool in the same way. But the mystery genre in particular is amicable to a lot of the themes I wanted to explore. On the other hand, I think I needed a character like Our Heroine to explore them in the way that I wanted to. I read a lot of mysteries as research for this book (Elizabeth Peters, Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Agatha Christie, M. C. Beaton are names that come immediately to mind as I hazily recollect), but I didn’t want the book itself to be a mystery, exactly. That’s Emily Bean’s world. Our Heroine’s story is more about a person figuring out who she is and overcoming the expectations of who people want her to be. Or maybe it would be better to say that it’s about her figuring out what she wants to do with her life, despite the situation that she was born into, as I think it’s more a question of action than essence. But regardless of how I phrase it, I think it’s something that anyone can relate to, whereas it might be hard to relate to someone whose only concern is solving mysteries. Does this answer your question?

6. Is any genre open for reworking?

DL: I don’t see why not, as long as it’s done with a purpose beyond “reworking the genre.” With Icelander, the choice came about as a result of where the novel was going in my notes. So, as long as the decision evolves naturally out of where the novel’s going, I don’t see why any problems should arise. But maybe I’m wrong
about this. Maybe another writer could productively take a genre as a starting point, but I think that, if I tried it, it would result in a very artificial book.

7. What's the inspiration for the Refurserkir?

DL: It was my understanding that that the “berserkir” (or, in English, berserkers) took their name from wearing bear shirts (though a friend informed me that recent research suggests “bare shirt,” instead). According to Saxo Grammaticus, they drank bear blood, and some sagas suggest they thought they could take on the powers of the bear. The lesser known ulfhednar were like berserkir, but with wolves. The arctic fox is pretty much the only native mammal in Iceland, so I thought the warriors of Vanaheim might use it as their totem animal, relying more on cunning and stealth than the rage of the berserker or the ferocity of the ulfhednar. Refurserkur means “fox-shirter” in Vanaheimic. Plus, as I said before, I think ninjas are rad, and so when I came up with the idea, basically, of Icelandic ninjas, how could I resist?

8. Would you ever consider revisiting these characters? Would it be in a genre setting?

DL: No plans for anything at the moment, but I wouldn’t say “never.” The setting would depend on the characters revisited. Wible & Pacheco would have to be in a genre setting. I think Our Heroine is beyond the mystery genre, now.

9. How do you write--do you start with a "road map" or do you allow the work to take you wherever it ma
y? How many drafts did Icelander go through before the final published product? Where there any substantial edits made by your editor at McSweeney's? Are there any parts that didn't make the final that you could share with us? Anything you wish you could've added after publication?

DL: Long, digressive answer: I only recently figured out a method that works for me. I don’t write short stories well or often, but I’d written four “novels” previously, and they were all horrible. I use quotes around the word “novels” because length is really the only criterion by which these things I wrote might deserve that appellation, and I think the badness of the latter two, at least, resulted mostly from approaching the novel-writing process in a wrong-headed way. The first two were written in high school, so I won’t bore you with details of my process at that time. The latter two were written in college, and they suffered from too much pretentious structural blueprinting at the inception. I was planning things like how many chapters each section would have, what time of day each chapter would be set at, etc. before I’d really thought about the characters, the plot or anything basic like that at all. And both books were completely lifeless as a result. My ambitions were grand with those two—I wanted to write the next Gravity’s Rainbow—but I ended up with the worst sort of pretentious crap, redeemed only slightly by a sense of humor about how crappy it was. With Icelander, I decided to scale back and just try to write a little book well. Also, I wanted to write a book that my then-girlfriend would like, and she didn’t like Pynchon. So I had to completely change my modus operandi.

My girlfriend was in Egypt and I was in Berkeley doing construction when I decided I was ready to start a new book, and I came up with a few ideas, almost none of which made it into the final version of the novel. The sound of snow plaughtting against the window is just about the only thing. But anyway, when her time in Egypt was up, in December, I flew to Munich, so did she, and we proceeded to travel together. Luckily my construction job had involved building a school, which meant prevailing wage f
rom the government (highest paying job of my life), and so I was able to afford a few months of travel without going into too much debt. While we were in Germany I wrote the word “Icelander” in my journal, referring to a story I’d heard in a Scandinavian Studies class the previous year about a guy who thought his whole life was ruined because he moved a stone from one side of the road to the other without asking the local fairies for permission first. For some reason, that story kept popping into my head; I was strangely fascinated by it. The story that I had settled on for my new, as yet untitled novel was going to be about a day in the life of this ordinary guy, in a little town, whose girlfriend has gone away somewhere and who just has the letters and journals she’s left behind to help him reconstruct their past, but that turned out to be (a) too close to reality (b) too close to Haruki Murakami and (c) not very funny. I had written an earlier scrap about children with their faces pressed up against a snowy window that I thought might be the beginning of this novel about the guy and his girlfriend. I had also written the word plot in the middle of a page, and it sounded like snow hitting a window after I thought about it for a while in a snowy town in Germany. Then we left Germany for Italy, where I wrote the words “rogue library scientist” in my notebook and attached it to the girlfriend. Then I reversed the sexes of the characters, though I still didn’t know the plot. Then we went to Turkey and saw an underground city. Then we went to Jordan and saw Petra, which is where the grail castle is in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. Petra made a big impression, but then we went to Egypt and I was going back through my notebook, and the word Icelander was sitting there by itself, and I eventually attached all sorts of little side notes to it (linguistic purity, genetic purity, patronymic tradition) that contrasted interestingly with a lot of the forgery and artifice that I was beginning to think about for some other reason, probably connected to Egyptian antiquities, so I moved Petra and the underground Turkish city to Iceland. I still wasn’t sure how that was all connected to this woman and her missing library scientist boyfriend, though. Somewhere along the way, possibly in Turkey, my girlfriend had given me an Elizabeth Peters book to read to prepare me for Egypt. She really liked mysteries, but I had only ever read the hard-boiled variety, and Elizabeth Peters was surprisingly great. But so once I got back to the States, lots and lots of mystery novels provided the connections between the underground city, Petra, and the woman and the library scientist.

So that’s the background I had before I did anything other than take notes. I started actually writing when I got back to Berkeley, but I also started taking more detailed notes, figuring out who the characters were, what the back story was, and also trying to figure out what direction the plot was headed in. I was going through lots of banal personal drama at the time that I knew wouldn’t make for a good story, but distorted through the lens of the world that was gradually emerging on the page and in my notebook, I realized how I could channel some of my angsty energy into my plot and give the book a sense of cohesion and direction that it hadn’t had before. Okay. I now knew who the characters were, what the world was like, and where I thought the plot was going, so I wrote an outline, and the three part structure with a prefatory note (initially much longer) and footnotes emerged as I thought about all that needed to happen. But other than that structure, not a lot of the outline remained intact through the end of the book. I constantly revised the outline as the book progressed and realized that characters wouldn’t do what I had planned for them and as I came up with new, better ideas along the way.

Three years after the beginning of my trip abroad, almost to the day, I finished the first draft. Now, I use the term “first draft” fairly loosely, because especially in Prelude I tended to revise as I went along. In fact, more often than not I would revise everything that I had already written before I would write a new page. Prelude took almost as long as the rest of the book. But so after I reached the end for the first time, I set the book aside for about a month and a half. Then I gave it a quick polish and sent it off to McSweeney’s and sent query letters to a few agents. The agents rejected me. Eventually, about six months later, McSweeney’s contacted me to say they were vaguely interested. About seven or eight months after that, they decided they wanted to publish the book, though they wanted to know how open I was to revision. I was open to anything that would make the book better, I told them. I hadn’t touched the book in over a year, and in fact I had started a new novel that didn’t pan out, and I needed a break from that, so revising Icelander sounded great to me. Most of the revisions were in the vein of my editor telling me stuff he didn’t understand, and me saying, “Really? I thought that was perfectly clear. I’ll see what I can do to make it clearer.” Or he would tell me that a certain section didn’t “sparkle” as much as the sections around it, and could I make it more sparkling, and I would say “I’ll do my best.” There were some slightly more directed changes, like he would think a certain section slowed things down and want to either cut it or speed it up, or he would suggest that some scene needed to be added and we would bounce ideas off of each other until we came up with something we both liked, but there was never a time that he forced me to do something that I didn’t see the wisdom in, and the book really wasn’t altered on that grand of a scale. There were some typos that made it into the final version, and I’d like to change those. I’d also probably change the name of The Memoirs of Emily Bean to The Adventures of Emily Bean, because the title seemed to confuse a lot of people. The biggest changes were in Prelude, which originally had a few more scenes with Nathan and Our Heroine hanging out and drinking tea in Our Heroine’s house for no good reason, and he also helped me streamline some of the explanatory scenes in Cluedo. Oh, he also suggested getting rid of as many colons as possible, and Prelude initially had titles to every little section, but that seemed a bit too precious.

All of which boils down to what? I guess that my writing style has become a lot more organic. I take little ideas and connect them until they start growing and producing new ideas out of themselves. For instance, my new novel is about a Jesuit priest in late 17th Century China. That sort of grew out of wanting to do a book that took place in a large area over a long span of time, which in turn had grown out of wanting to do something completely different than Icelander and reading the bit in Moby Dick about how to write a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme. So I had this in mind, then I happened to read something about China in a geography book from 1910 that really made me consider the strange way in which the West has historically regarded the East. I realized at this point that I knew nothing about China, so I figured my main character had to be a foreigner (to provide a scapegoat for my own ignorance). And the Jesuits in the 17th Century seemed like pretty interesting foreigners once I’d done a little research, especially since they shared my interest in math, astronomy, and cartography. And then as I did more research about the period when they were around, I realized that Chinese history was at a very interesting point around that time, as well (the Manchurian Qing Dynasty had just taken over from the Chinese Ming Dynasty, and I’d say about 50 percent of 70’s kung fu movies seem to be set in this time period as a result). And so having found a likely subject, I started doing lots and lots of research into Jesuits, Chinese culture and history, European history of the time, learning to speak Chinese, etc. and the more I learned, the more a clear plot seemed to emerge. I didn’t really know what the book would be about at all when I chose the subject matter, but I feel as if I’ve stumbled upon the most compelling story of all time. I do outline, but it’s more of an attempt at predicting where the story will go than it is a roadmap. When I actually sit down to write, inspiration often takes me on a new unexpected path. Of course, I delete about half of what I write. I also take notes all the time. I do a lot of writing in my head, too. Pretty much any time I’m out shopping or running or doing any mindless activity, I use the time to think about my book. And it seems to be working even better for this new novel than it did for Icelander. It’s already as long as Icelander and I’m hardly a quarter of the way through. Which I’m sort of nervous about, actually. Do people like long books? I do, but they always seem to get criticized as being self-indulgent. Oh well. As long as I’m happy with it, right?

In your e-mail, you also asked what I’m reading now. The answer:

Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding, and Outlaws of the Marsh, by Shi Nai’an, both of which I highly recommend. I also just read the beginning of The Children’s Hospital, which is wonderful so far. I’m skimming The Name of the Rose, which I’ve read before. A couple less obvious books that influenced Icelander: The Third Policeman, by Flann O’Brien, and The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin. Oh, and back to what I’m reading, I just lucked out and found a history Master’s Thesis from 1930 in the UC Berkeley library, and it’s all about these Jesuit priests who are major characters in my new novel. Score!

Thanks for the provocative questions. It’s been fun. I hope it’s not too much work to wade through my rambly answers.

Yr obdt svt,


Icelander comes out in paperback from Grove on June 1, 2007 - and is currently available in a cheap sexy hardcover as part of McSweeney's Rectangulars.


Harry W. Schwartz Bookshops said...

If you enjoyed this, check out Tim Hennessy's exceptional interview on his blog, Noted of a Defeatist.

Hennessy said...

Thanks for the link to my site.

From what I've heard Dustin's progress with his next book has been coming along. He's hoping to have a first draft of the new novel done by this August. It way weigh in at three times the length of Icelander. He's hoping to get it out by Fall 2008, although all of that is subject to change.

Dustin said...

Hey, thanks for posting this, my wife just sent me the link. Looking over my answers again, I realized two things: first, I should probably apologize for being so long-winded, but second, when I referred my "then-girlfriend" I neglected to mention that she is my "now wife," the Chantal to whom Icelander is dedicated. Anyway, glad to see this posted.

nancy said...

Hey there,

I just finished reading Icelander today.... Thanks for a great read! --I laughed a lot! :) I especially enjoyed the perspective of 'Our Heroine' and omniscient narrator. Looking forward to reading more by Dustin.


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