Interview with Brian Evenson: “If I’m starting to feel stuck, I move.”

Brian Evenson is a critically acclaimed author of a dozen books of fiction, including the story collection A Collapse of Horses and the novella The Warren. He has also recently published Windeye and Immobility, both of which were finalists for a Shirley Jackson Award. 

His novel Last Days won the American Library Association’s award for Best Horror Novel of 2009, and his novel The Open Curtain was a finalist for an Edgar Award and an International Horror Guild Award. Other notable works include The Wavering Knife, which won the IHG Award for best story collection, Dark Property, and Altmann’s Tongue

He also has experience in translation, having translated work by several authors. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes as well as an NEA fellowship. His work has been translated into multiple languages including Czech, French, Italian, Greek, Hungarian, Japanese, Persian, Russia, Spanish, Slovenian, and Turkish. He currently resides in Los Angeles and teaches in the Critical Studies Program at CalArts.

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Hi Brian, great to have you on Famous Writing Routines. We’re really excited to talk to you about your writing routine and process. For those who may not know, can you please tell us a little bit about yourself? 

I’m a fiction writer with a little over a dozen books to my name, many of them of Coffee House Press. I’ve won the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award and have been a finalist for the Edgar Award and the Ray Bradbury Award. I live in Valencia, California, just on the edge of Los Angeles with my wife Kristen Tracy (who is a poet and writer of books for children) and our nine year old son, Max.

Can you take us through the creative process behind your 2019 book, Song for the Unraveling of the World?

The way I tend to write a collection of stories like Song for the Unraveling of the World is by initially just focussing on writing individual stories. At that stage, I don’t think “I’m writing a book of stories.” Instead it’s more like I think: “I’m writing a story that I can submit to a magazine.

But there comes a point when I begin, almost subconsciously, to start to feel the accumulation of the stories I’ve written that haven’t been in a book yet. That’s usually around when I have 2/3rds to 3/4ths of the stories finished that will ultimately be in a book.

At that point, I start thinking about what stories I have, what sorts of issues they’re addressing, and how they are talking to one another. I’m really looking for gaps in the conversation of the book, and I begin to write stories to fill those gaps.

It’s less me feeling like “there needs to be a story that does x” and more that as I’m thinking about other stories that might make up the collection I begin to feel that there’s something else that wants to be written. Usually I am fairly nebulous of what that should be: I figure it out as I write it. In a way, I find that not going into it with a very specific idea of what the story should be is better and makes the resulting story more interesting and more fluid.

Eventually I have enough stories for what could be a book. At that point I print the stories out, reread them, and begin arranging them in a line on the floor, trying to figure out what stories belong next to one another and whether there are stories that don’t belong. Usually there are several that I save for a later collection. Sometimes I write additional stories at this stage to fill in the gaps, but at least as often I decide the collection is better if it’s a story or two shorter.

In 2017 you received the Guggenheim Fellowship. Can you describe what it felt to receive that fellowship and how it subsequently impacted your writing life? 

I had applied probably a half dozen times for the Guggenheim Fellowship before and had never gotten it, and I’d kind of assumed the same would be the case this time, so it caught me a little bit off guard. It was very welcome; we’d just moved to Los Angeles a year before and houses here are quite a bit more expensive than in Providence, where we came from, so we’d gone from having a fair amount of disposable income to having very little. The Guggenheim bought me a little breathing space and time and took away some of the sense of pressure, which is incredibly important and very useful for a writer.

What does a typical writing day look like for you?

I used to write very late at night because it was a time I could count on not being interrupted. Now I’m more likely to write during the later morning and/or early afternoon, but really I end up writing at various times and in various places – I don’t always write in the same room or even the same place.

I don’t have a typical day – there’s something productive for me in mixing things up. But I do almost always write by hand, using a pen, on scratch paper, on a clipboard. If I get stuck, I type in what I’ve written, print it out, and then revise it by hand and try to continue.

My most recent example was two days ago. I started at my school office, with a few scattered notes about what I wanted to do: a note about seeing a different reflection of oneself in the mirror than you actually looked like, a note about a moment when I was visiting Japan and was served a dish that was a very strange purple in color and wasn’t sure what I was eating.

In the office I played with those ideas and began to write, but only got about half a page done. I went home, swam with my son, had dinner, and then continued working on it. I finished a handwritten draft, then put my son to bed, then typed the story into the computer. I printed it out, revised it by hand, then entered the changes and printed it out again. I revised it once more by hand.

The story was very short, only 1200 words, but it still took a long time. By that time it was after midnight. So I went to bed, and the next day entered the revisions once more, and then sent it to the person in Japan who had requested it. That’s a fairly typical sequence for me, though with a longer story it might take several weeks rather than a couple of days.

How did the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns affect your routine? 

I’m flexible enough in terms of where I write that it didn’t affect it much at all. I don’t tend to write in coffee shops or places where there are people around, so that didn’t change. The only thing that changed was that sometimes I would write at a carrel at the library at CalArts, and because of Covid if I wanted to do that I had to wear a mask.

I did that a few times, but it wasn’t ideal. Which meant I did most of my writing during the pandemic in one of four rooms in my house, on the back patio at my house, or at my office at school. Most of my initial writing was probably on the back patio, which is roofed and almost feels like a room with two open walls. Most of my revision was done in a leather armchair in our main room. But I did, periodically move to other rooms in the house as well.

What does your writing workspace look like?

As mentioned before, I don’t really have a writing workspace: I write all over the house, and if I’m starting to feel stuck, I move. I write sometimes on our back patio, sometimes at my office, sometimes in a leather chair I have in our front room, sometimes in the rocking chair in my son’s room. It really just depends on what else is going on in the house and what’s working best.

I don’t believe in having a carefully set up workspace: I’m a strong believer in being able to write anywhere, and think that’s something anybody can do unless they convince themselves they need a certain situation or location to write. If having a specific space is important to someone then more power to them; it’s just never been important to me. I think that’s partly because I was the one of five children, so growing up I couldn’t count on any one space being entirely my own – I had to be flexible and move if I wanted, say, a quiet space to read.

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