Interview: Alan DeNiro

Interview: Alan DeNiro

Alan DeNiro was born in Erie, Pennsylvania in 1973, spent 12 years in Catholic school, earned a B.A. in English from the College of Wooster and MFA in poetry writing from the University of Virginia. He attended Clarion in 1998 and with Kristin Livdahl (now his wife), Barth Anderson and Chris Barzak, became the Rat Bastards. His stories have been published in a wide variety of venues, from Strange Horizons to Fence. He is the author of two poetry chapbooks: The Black Hare and Atari Ecologues. His first prose book, Skinny Dipping in the Lake of the Dead, a collection of short stories, is available from Small Beer Press and has been long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. His blog can be found at and the Rat Bastard’s wonderful chapbook series Rabid Transit (number five should be out soon) can be found at Alan and Kristen have 3 cats (Tora, Kochan, and Piper) and 1 dog (Gambit).

Note: Originally, this was not an interview, just an informal conversation. But the answers were so interesting we turned it into an interview, so if the interviewer seems less invisible than he should be, blame it on the switchover.

Sean: Which story or stories do you feel are most successful in terms of what you hoped they’d become?

Alan: Hmm…if I had to pick, probably “Home of the”, “Child Assassin,” “The Exchanges”…the first because most of the stuff I write is shorter in length and scope, the middle because it was a DIFFICULT story to write (see below), and the last because I wrote it relatively quickly, in just a couple of sittings. I mean, that’s not the only criteria to go on, of course-but also because it is almost all narrative plot, while a lot of stories of mine…don’t have a lot of that. So it was kind of an inverse from my usual process. Basically anytime I’m really stretching myself, I feel like the story is doing something “successful”…

S: Did any story (or stories) surprise you by the reaction or lack thereof of your reading audience? In other words, did you expect a certain reaction that you didn’t get, or get one that you didn’t expect?

A: Not too much-it’s hard to know because half of the stories have been published in literary magazines and half in genre mags…so it’s hard to know how one constituency will feel about a story as opposed to another. Sometimes I’m surprised that some of my stories have a reading audience at all, and for that I’m grateful. I’m not really sure whether it can be pigeonholed, though. E.g., my first published story (the title story) was written at Clarion, is straight SF (in the worldbuilding, leaving aside the execution), yet was published in a literary magazine more known for experimental and quirky poetry, yet was shortlisted for the O. Henry award (which meant…a listing in the back of the O. Henry book, but still, it was a good sign that there wasn’t literary vs. genre hand-wringing, at least in that instance)…So right off the bat I was likely to err on the side of generosity in terms of however different people read my stuff.

S: Your stories seem to be informed as much by poetic structure as narrative structure, which might mean that readers more familiar with narrative structure could have trouble with some of your stories since poetry and narrative prose have different codes. Narrative prose (more familiar to most of our readers) usually requires the reader to follow a character (in the case of some novels, many characters) through a problem or set of problems, and a solution or resolution. In some cases, it’s easy to find the pattern. In others, it can be more difficult, but narrative follows narrative arc. But with poetry, structure is different. It seems to me (and I’m not a scholar of poetry by any stretch) that poetry is often a collection of images, metaphors, similes or analogies, puns or other forms of wordplay, organized in some way, either highly so (haiku, sestina, sonnet, et cetera) or free form. But there is generally no narrative arc; instead the reader (or maybe listener) is expected to extract meaning from the form, organization, wordplay. For example, it seems to me that “Our Byzantium” expects the reader to realize that Empress Theodora is what might be called the classical fantastic (as in Tolkien and his myriad shadows) heroine: a woman of the absolute lowest birth who rises to the absolute pinnacle of power, and that the whore/virgin, the simultaneous physical inaccessability and daily intimacy (everyone knows who the Empress is) and duality of the Empress is a play on the narrator’s pining for a woman he can never have (who the narrator has raised on an impossible pedestal of perfection but who is also quite sexually ambitious) coupled (ha ha) with his inability to be physically or emotionally intimate with woman who are interested in him. As far as I can tell, “Our Byzantium” has no traditional narrative arc. Similarly, “The Excavation” is a juxtaposition of a literal excavation beneath a house and the emotional/sexual structures that a marriage is built on, “The Caliber” is a play on the literal caliber of a gun and the caliber of person, while “The Fourth,” “Salting the Map”, Cuttlefish”, and “Skinny Dipping…” seem to follow a more traditional narrative arc, though with an exuberance for the absurd and impossible.

Would you agree and/or elaborate?

A: I think this is pretty accurate. Not that I’m thinking of these things consciously during the writing process (except at times when coming up for air after immersed in a story)…most of my “training” for fiction came from when I got my MFA in poetry-or at least the way I approached fiction. Clarion was good in that it helped me with some storytelling skills, nuts and bolts stuff, that frankly I didn’t really have earlier. What’s interesting is looking at the early history of the “story” and how it blended into poetry and verse, how there was still this gray area between the two until rather recently. Long, narrative poetry still was able to perform a function in the culture until the beginning of the 20th century. A lot of the impulse of the medieval romance got shuttled into the gothic tale, the supernatural tale, etc., which then got shuttled into speculative fiction (this all is a really nebulous in my own head). I think a lot of it for me comes back to Poe as a model…except for the dying drunk in a ditch part. He was trying to figure it out as he went along.

There is one trap that I’m constantly trying not to fall into-that of “poetic” language for its own sake. When some people describe a story as “poetic” it’s usually shorthand for floridness or a baroque sheen to the story. I have stories like that, by all means, but for me the infusion of poetry as a kind of compass for my fiction has more to do with structure and absences. So much of a poem is about what’s not being said. Inference and nuance and ellipses. So in that respect, poetry has given me a really great toolbox that goes beyond piling up lots of metaphors (not that there’s anything wrong with that-I love the Baroque and Rococco as well).

S: Would you say that the above – the poetic is about what’s not being said – is a difference between poetic and narrative values, or is this a false dichotomy? Also, for readers (myself included) who are not widely read in poetry, are there techniques for reading those absences?

A: My first impulse is to say that it’s a false dichotomy, but my second impulse is to say almost the exact opposite thing! But I think they are such open boxes, so that each can have elements of the other. This might be breaking it down to pure essentials, but the line break is that “value” that distinguishes the two. And even with “prose poetry,” there’s always the consciousness of a line break in the background of the reader’s mind (that is, if presented with a “poem” that has no line breaks, the very lack of line breaks helps inform the reading of the poem as a poem). But, anyway, the line break is the formal conceit that sharpens poetic attention. This is the world we live in now at least; in earlier centuries the line break was used to organize verse narrative, but I would say that this shaping is the key dichotomy. Maybe it’s the difference between poetic and prosaic values? Then narrative, lyric, and so on-all these other categories-can find homes in poetry or prose. I’m just thinking out loud here.

As to your second question, in poetry in a way it’s much easier to read these absences-because they’re usually highlighted by the stanza organizations or the way the line breaks work…or else there’s deliberate erasure that’s very apparent. But how do you let the reader in on the absences when there’s, also, a story to tell with sentences? That’s the 64,000 dollar question! You provide clues. Playing with POV is so important in this regard. Depending on what the story needs, I might veer from a more localized POV to something more omniscient, and then back again (e.g., “Cuttlefish”). Or “Home of the”, which has the six interlocking boxes.

And so-I don’t know, why do these absences matter in the first place? Why bother with them? There’s a vastness of everything untold-that dovetails nicely for me with the speculative sensibility. Gene Wolfe is the master of this; in so many of his novels and short stories, you feel as if there’s about twenty other stories happening just off the page.

S: What are you conscious of when you write?

A: Usually it’s on a sentence by sentence level. Occasionally paragraph-by-paragraph. But a lot of time with a story it’s like I’m in a maze, and I can hear a voice ahead of me, which I can barely make out, and I stumble after it. I don’t always know where I’m going until I get there.

S: I’ve always been taught/told/believed that verse was used as a mnemonic device for oral bards, and in the days of Shakespeare and Marlowe, helpful to the actors who had to learn a tremendous number of lines in a very short time. I was not aware that verse and narrative were blended as late as you say. Would you elaborate?

A: I’m not a literary historian by any means-but before radio and television, the oral culture surrounding literature was much more important. It was a blend between silent reading and performative reading at that time. Literacy was much more widespread in the 19th century America and Britain, at least in relative terms, but it wasn’t universal. Reading aloud still happened a great deal of the time. So there was still this tradition of epic and mock epic in the 19th century, at least in English and American literature. This has always been a push and pull between reading aloud and reading silently, ever since the ancient Greeks.

S: (I’m writing this while my wife and her mother are reading to my kids downstairs.) Writers and readers (particularly of speculative fiction, it seems) grumble that kids just don’t read anymore. (Somewhere, I think in LOCUS, Gardner Dozois essentially says this is hogwash; it has always been a tiny percentage of kids that are readers.) Aside from the obvious differences between silent reading and reading aloud – intonation, pauses, assumed voices – is there an intrinsic superiority to silent reading? (Assuming that a reader/listener is not illiterate.) Are innovations like books on tape/CD and podcasts important, perhaps even necessary, forms of literature? Are such innovations the equivalent of earlier oral forms, or is there a literary (as opposed to a social function) difference between hearing a live speaker and hearing a recorded voice?

A: It’s a trade-off. It’s always a trade-off. It goes back to Plato in Phaedrus, who was very suspicious of writing in general.

I think a lot of interesting things can happen in this regard with technology and oral storytelling. I’m not sure if I’m really equipped for pushing the boundary in that regard. I love reading aloud in front of an audience. But for whatever reason, I’ve never been much of a books-on-tape/CD person. And when I write, I almost never say the words I’m writing out loud. I’m hearing how they “sound” in my head, and I try to be cognizant of rhythm at least on some level. But the “ear” is internalized.

S: “Child Assassin” is a very disturbing story. Was it difficult to write?

A: This was a really difficult story to write, and to talk about. Trying to find something redeemable in the unredeemable. Don’t know if it’s a spoiler or not, but the story is about a troll of sorts (i.e., the bridge imagery). (Not 100%, though.) I don’t think the story would have worked nearly as well (from my angle at least; I know that some people really don’t like it, which is ok) if it would have kept “literal” with the assassinations; that is, if it didn’t branch out into the mountaintop scene with the novelist, it would have just been a slasher story, which I didn’t want. But it took going to a really, really uncomfortable place to get to that point.

S: “Salting the Map” struck me as an anomaly in this collection since it is closer to traditional narrative structure than any others. (Similar in content to Kelly Link’s “The Faery Handbag” and Ian Watson’s “Stalin’s Teardrops”.) Other than the single impossibility (improbability?) that is the core of the story, dialogue, description, and character as well as beginning, middle and end are easily identifiable, easily accessible, and the language more ‘transparent’ than any other story. Would you say this is true and if so, why? If not, why not?

A:I think this is one of my sneakier stories. It’s all of those things you say, of course, but starting with the scene in the subway, and especially when he comes out of the subway, I was trying to push past the premises I had set up, to a state where the world-building was a little bit molten through the language itself. That is, the line between “telling a story” and “describing the contours of a world” became blurred. So there was a tonal shift that was very different than the initial set-up. And (I hadn’t thought of this before until thinking about your question), in a way, that molten-ness is “Our Byzantium” in its entirety-in “Salting the Map” there were little peeks of it, but the later story was an attempt to keep blurring that line from start to finish.

S: I’ve read “Our Byzantium” several times now and I’d say you succeeded admirably in blurring the line. The transitions are smooth as butter, to coin a phrase. Was it difficult to write and was there a method you used to achieve that effect? (I don’t know if it would even be possible to describe, but I’m thinking of how, in the visual arts, there are different brushes, materials and techniques which can be used for different effects: realism, Impressionism, pointillism, cubism and so forth.) Did your poetic toolbox help?

A: There were about 4 distinct drafts of this story, each very different from the other. I think one of them had a husband and wife. The poetic toolbox definitely helped. I don’t know if there was a specific method right used right from the outset as much as a lot of testing to find an overall structure that could that voice.

S: “The Fourth” is a (laugh-out-loud) satire of government surveillance. “Our Byzantium” comments on both (largely unexplored) conventions in the fantastic arts and gender/sexual relations. “The Caliber” undercuts the purity of cult leaders’ motivations and delineates parallels between cults and high school cliques. “Home of the” imagines a world in which all good and services are supplied by Wal-Mart. Do you start with the intention of exploring social/sexual/gender/literary issues, or do you (like many others) begin with a character or an image and write to find out what happens?

A: I often begin with the latter and try to fuse it with a mood or tone: an elegiac feeling or a satirical romp. “Home of the”, for example, started sharpening into focus for me-or at least what I wanted to do-with the first line. What does it mean to be completely happy and devoid of hope at the same time? How does that fit where we are today as a society and where we might be going? So I guess I’m interested in how language itself can embody those very sociopolitical issues you talked about.

S: Your stories don’t have many of the usual markers/tags that identify them as science fiction or even fantasy. In fact, many of your themes and structures skew more towards the literary, the experimental. Many of the writers and poets you’ve named in other places as influences are not speculative fiction writers. What advantages do you gain writing and publishing in explicitly speculative fiction venues?

A: A lot; and I do write more expressly genre-oriented science fiction too. I love space opera and actually have quite a few stories (and a novella, and a novel) set in a single universe, that of “Shepherd’s Calendar” (which appeared in Strange Horizons). And, ok, it’s a little wacky. It’s actually fun trying to fuse together the more experimental tropes with space opera. The difference is…literary magazines aren’t going to take space opera. That’s the last frontier! They (or the more innovative ones) will take pretty much anything else, content-wise, that’s sf’nal or fabulist. One of the best high fantasy stories I’ve ever read-one of the best fantasy stories, period, I’ve ever read-appeared in Fence a few years back: a story called “Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned” by Wells Tower. It’s just absolutely brilliant and visceral and heartbreaking. Anyway, to get back to your question-there are a lot of writers that work mostly in the genre that I love, and look up to, and I really admire writers like Karen Joy Fowler and Jeffrey Ford who are able to coexist in both worlds, and are equally conversant in both fields. I think things were a lot different even 10 years ago in this regard. There are a lot of great writers who did the initial heavy lifting, and American writing in general is better for it.

S: What other sorts of initial impulses bring you to write stories?

A: Sometimes it’s the first line, and sometimes it’s the title. Or just an image. Or an epigraph. For “The Friendly Giants” it was the epigraph. I’m usually just trying to cobble together whatever I can. The thing is, I have a lot of unfinished stories. My hard drive is like the Island of Misfit Toys. Sometimes one of my stories will have a great opening paragraph but it just…doesn’t…quite work. I let them sit, sometimes for years and years, and every once in awhile one of those stories will jump out at me, and there will be a sudden perspective that makes me want to finish the whole thing. It’s something I’m still learning-but at the same time I don’t know whether it’s a “bad” thing or not that I have all of these half-finished stories. And I also have tons of stories which I’m “meh” about, and am reluctant to see the light of day.

S: How do you decide whether the story is worth the hard work or whether that story isn’t worth finishing (for the moment at least)?

A: The story tells me. As in “Put. Me. Down.” It’s in my best interest to listen to it.

S: Some of your stories feature characters in high school or college, who are (by the end) bright and optimistic about the future while others have middle-aged characters who are almost universally failures (at marriage, parenting, employment). Is there a time period of life you’re more comfortable writing about? Is there a reason that you (and a great many other writers) consciously or unconsciously correlate youth with happiness and adulthood with failure?

A: This is a great question. For which I really don’t have a good answer. But I don’t really think I’m equating youth with happiness at all…most of the teenagers and young adults that I write about are struggling to survive and get through in one way or another. They’re trying to carve out a little piece of optimism. For that matter the protagonist of “Quiver,” who is older, is trying to do the same thing. But maybe they express their optimism in different ways?

As to what I’m comfortable writing about-I hope I don’t get too comfortable writing about any one single age set of any sort. A lot of why I think I write with younger protagonists in mind (including the novel I just finished) is because, well, I was extremely introverted and not at all happy during adolescence myself. And writing is a way of being okay with one’s own introversion. It was a time period-as it was for a lot of people-of extreme emotional ups and downs, and it has been valuable and even cathartic to explore that. A lot of writing fiction for me involves thought landscapes, fettering out the thoughts and observations that you have, that would otherwise go unnoticed.

S: David Hartwell is widely quoted as saying the golden age of science fiction is twelve. (An unfortunate occurrence, since so many otherwise intelligent readers seem to believe that the value of science fiction _stops_ at the age of twelve.) But is there a social component as well? Does the fact (or at least appearance) of speculative fiction’s appeal to the disaffected, the introverted, the unpopular, homogenize the landscape of speculative fiction and marginalize its potential literary or social impact?

A: I hope not. Disaffection drives narrative. There’s another way to look at it. I grew up playing D&D and Commodore 64 games involving dungeon crawls. And reading Dragonlance novels. I think there’s the fact that I grew up-and I think a lot of other people my age did-surrounded my sf’nal material. Table top roleplaying games, movies, computer games…it was everywhere. And it provided a port in a storm, so to speak, in a really introverted, ordinarily painful childhood and adolescence. So, looking back now, that in itself is something I’m interested in writing about. How fantasy isn’t this fixed, “other” world but how it integrates into our everyday lives.

So if there’s a danger of homogenizing in a non-homogenous way…I guess that’s a risk I’m willing to take.

S: Is there a natural or logical division between readers who read for pleasure and those who don’t, based on personality (introversion vs. extroversion) and/or social codes (cool vs. geek)? In other words, is it worth forcing ‘literature’ on extroverts and cool kids?

A: No. It’s an entirely non-logical division. But, to your second question: yes. How contradictory is that?

S: Elmore Leonard, Patrick O’Leary and you have all worked as, or currently work in, the field of advertising. What would you say are similarities in content and style between the three of you, and how would an uninformed reader be able to tell (other than byline) the differences?

A: Sean, I haven’t read any Leonard, and only one novel of O’Leary (which I loved, btw)-maybe this would be better as a general question about advertising? It’s a good question. There’s also Gaddis to consider…have you read any of him?

S: No, I haven’t read Gaddis. Leonard is neat ’cause he plays with the conventions of language through dialogue. Vonnegut also worked for a while doing PR for what I think was GE. O’Leary is also a published poet, and his collection of stories includes several poems. Don’t know if that has any appeal for you, but it is a curious coincidence.

A: It is-I think this might be too tangled to really sum up succinctly.

S: You mentioned a novel. What can we look forward to reading in the near future?

The novel is actually similar to “Our Byzantium” in a way-if not in the voice per se (the “I” and the “you”), then with the world building. It’s narrated by a 16-year-old girl named Macy, who watches Minnesota get invaded by Scythians and Thracians, etc. She and her family eventually become refugees on the Mississippi river. So there’s a lot of family politics, dysfunctional family dynamics, with the landscape around them getting more and more surreal. Modern technology stops working for the most part, and society has pretty much broken down, replaced with a kind of half-assed order by “the Empire”, which comes in and fills in the power vacuum. Anyway, it’s all from Macy’s perspective, witnessing a lot of crazy stuff, violence but also strange beauty, as she tries to figure out how to survive, both literally and figuratively. It’s called Total Oblivion, More or Less and I’m pretty happy with where it’s at so far-it’s still an early draft and there’s a lot of work to be done on it, but it’s been the sharpest first draft of a long work I’ve been able to write. Practice practice practice.

I also have some stories coming out in the anthology Twenty Epics, Endicott Studio’s The Journal of Mythic Arts, and the literary magazine Crowd. Pretty much all over the map.

S: Thank you.

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