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Processing: How Bennett Sims Wrote Other Minds and Other Stories
The author on literary traditions, writing habits, and “dilating individual moments to thick durations.”
On a semi-regular basis, I interview authors about their writing processes—you can find previous entries here—and this week I’m thrilled to be talking with Bennett Sims whose fantastic new collection, Other Minds and Other Stories, is out today. The stories in Other Minds are alternatively cerebral and visceral, dreamlike and contemplative, horrifying and humorous, but are always thought-provoking. If you are a fan of David Lynch, Thomas Bernhard, or Brian Evenson—or simply love eerie and philosophical short stories—I’d encourage you to pick up a copy. (Sims is also the author of the collection White Dialogues and the novel A Questionable Shape.)
I talked with Sims over email about literary traditions, writing habits, and “dilating individual moments to thick durations.”
The title of your collection is Other Minds and Other Stories, and one theme that ties the stories together is the mental mazes your characters trap themselves in. Even when there is a lot of external action, the mind seems to be the primary setting of the horror and the humor. Is there anything you do when writing to get into the mindset of these unravelling characters?
Part of the drafting process for me involves figuring out what a character’s inner monologue or mind voice sounds like: basically, what their style of thought is. Do they think in long, involuted sentences (‘Minds of Winter’) or in spare, short sentences (‘Unknown’)? Do they think in unbroken block paragraphs (‘Introduction to the Reading of Hegel’) or in terse, telegraphic, single-line paragraphs (‘The Postcard’)? Once I’ve identified a character’s voice, I often default to description: I try to fully register their perceptions, whatever they’re noticing around them, as well as whatever thoughts, memories, or associations are coming to mind. This has the formal consequence of privileging scene over summary, and dilating individual moments to thick durations. In extreme cases, like ‘Introduction to the Reading of Hegel,’ it might take thirty pages for a couple of hours to pass. Time dilation is also, as you suggest, a narrative strategy for navigating a character’s mental maze. Nicholson Baker has that great line in Room Temperature that I always keep in mind: ‘with a little concentration one’s whole life could be reconstructed from any single twenty-minute period randomly or almost randomly selected.’
Your work often plays with form. Sometimes your stories are long paragraphs of monologue. Other times you include imagery. Your novel uses lots of footnotes. Etc. When you are writing, do you know the form going into the story? Or does the form arise out of the drafting process?
Form does tend to emerge from voice, or from a character’s consciousness: I try to employ structural devices that best give shape to their thoughts. In a story like ‘Introduction to the Reading of Hegel’—where the protagonist is sitting in place in a library, obsessing over whether or not to read Hegel, caught in an ever-tightening thought spiral—his internal monologue is formatted as a block paragraph. The claustrophobia of the form (no white space, no page breaks, no transition out of or away from the thought spiral) reproduces the claustrophobia of his self-consciousness. In a real sense, he thinks ‘in’ block paragraphs. Whereas in a story like ‘Portonaccio Sarcophagus’—where the narrator is sitting at a museum, studying an ancient frieze and recalling a family snapshot in which the blurry ghost of the Grim Reaper appears—his internal monologue is mediated by photographs, illustrations of whatever is on his mind. The combination of image with text recreates the close noticing of ekphrastic description.
I should say that I usually think about form in terms of tradition. I don’t consider myself a formally innovative or experimental writer. I am happy to inherit narrative forms, the way that I imagine poets are happy to inherit poetic forms, which inevitably means inheriting the technical problems and solutions that a form has accumulated throughout the history of its usage. When I write in block paragraphs, for instance, I’m always thinking about Thomas Bernhard, who structured his novels as monolithic unbroken paragraphs. He likewise used this form to structure the neurotic inner monologues of stationary narrators, who pass entire novels sitting or standing in place, while their minds range widely in time and digression: for Bernhard, that movement of thought—the sudden psychological, emotional, and syntactical reversals within his characters’ volatile monologues—is what introduces narrative movement in an otherwise static form.
When combining image with text, I’m thinking about writers like W.G. Sebald or Javier Marías, who each deploy image in different ways. For Sebald, the ostensibly documentary photographs in his novels—which seem, at first, to authenticate the narrator’s ostensibly autobiographical travelogues—end up calling the factuality of the nonfiction into question. We come to regard each photograph as a possible forgery, and to wonder which of the ‘autobiographical’ details or uncanny coincidences in the novel might have been forged as well. (As the writer Ryan Ruby puts it: ‘Too much has been made of Sebald’s use of photographs; in the final analysis, they are a sleight-of-hand whose precise purpose is to create the illusion that the “coincidences” are to be found in the world, rather than in the text.’) Marías, on the other hand, tends to combine image with text more straightforwardly: the photographs really are documentary, a visual aid for the reader, who can study for themselves whatever details the narrator happens to be describing. In ‘Portonaccio Sarcophagus,’ I try to draw on both traditions. There are images whose function I think of as fundamentally Sebaldian (the reader is meant to wonder, ‘Is that really a family photograph featuring the Grim Reaper? If it’s “real,” then what other details in the story are true? If it’s forged, then what else has been invented?’). But the story also employs Marías-style images, as straightforward aids to ekphrasis.
You have several stories that might be called “ekphrastic fiction,” that is to say stories about visual art. Your last collection had a story called “Ekphrasis” and this collection opens and closes with short pieces about art in Italian museums. Can you talk about your interest in writing stories about other artforms? And perhaps more generally how visual art informs your fiction?
At the simplest level, I approach ekphrasis as just another feature of a character’s mental landscape: ekphrasis, too, is a form that expresses a particular state of consciousness (the state of ‘thinking about art’). If I keep following a character’s thoughts, eventually they’ll think about a film or a sculpture or a photograph they’ve seen, and occasionally I reproduce those works in the text itself.
But this collection, as you point out, opens and closes with two short ekphrastic pieces, and these function somewhat differently. Both are occasional works: when I was in residence at the American Academy in Rome, the photographer Sze Tsung Nicolás Leong and the writer Judy Chung invited the fellows there to collaborate on an exhibition. Nicolás would take photographs around Rome, and the scholars, writers, and artists at the Academy would write short paragraphs to accompany his images as wall text. I wrote those two stories for that exhibition, and Nicolás graciously allowed his photos to be reproduced in the book. So the fictions are ekphrastic in that original sense: they are descriptions, in part, of Nicolás’s images.
But Nicolás’s photos are themselves ekphrastic, in a second sense: they are photographs of other artworks (statues, for ‘La “mummia di Grotarossa”’; and a mosaic, for ‘Medusa’). And since the stories are ‘about’ ekphrasis—about articulating the essence of different art forms, namely their relationship to time and death—they are ekphrastic in a final sense as well. In ‘La “mummia di Grotarossa,”’ the narrator describes a mummified girl on exhibit in the basement of an antiquities museum, buried beneath the museum’s collection of statues: there is a tension between this dead body below and those lifeless bodies above (‘Old white stone, marble that was never mortal…the inorganic Aphrodites, Antinouses, Medusas’). Meanwhile, in ‘Medusa,’ the narrator describes a gorgoneion in a library’s hallway: the Medusa mosaic seems to threaten—or promise—to turn the library’s visitors to stone, transforming their living bodies into statues, which is, the narrator reflects, one of the ancient ambitions of literature (‘The classical project of literature is to defeat death by fashioning a superior statue. Books are just sculptures that don’t erode’). So the stories are both in dialogue about the basic project of ekphrasis: the possibility of artworks to speak—or be made to ‘speak out’ (ek phrásis)—to one another across competing media, including the media of life and death (which is the place where statues, mummies, and poems all converge). Since other stories in the collection do engage in ekphrasis, I wanted to frame the collection with this larger dialogue or diptych ‘about’ ekphrasis.
Horror writers often find modern technology tricky, thus countless movies and stories where cellphone service goes down or the internet shuts off. In Other Minds, you have a really excellent creepy story (“Unknown”) that embraces smart phones as the locus of the horror. Do you have any thoughts about the role of modern technology in horror or fiction in general?
Speaking of media and death… The relationship between horror and technology seems intuitive to me, rather than tricky. There is that truism about technology: that as soon as a new form of media is invented (photographs, telephones, movies, the Internet), one of the first things people try to do with it is contact the dead. Friedrich Kittler is good on this in Gramophone, Film, Typewriter: ‘The realm of the dead is as extensive as the storage and transmission capabilities of a given culture.’ New technologies often just mean new houses to haunt, from mezzotints in M.R. James to VHS tapes in The Ring.
For ‘Unknown’ in particular, I was influenced by movies like David Lynch’s Lost Highway and Robert Altman’s Images. In ‘Unknown,’ the protagonist receives a series of uncanny Unknown calls that gradually fill him with suspicion toward his partner. Lost Highway and Images likewise feature uncanny phone calls and mysterious messages, which summon similar ‘ghosts’ from their protagonists’ unconscious: like ‘Unknown’’s protagonist, they are haunted by the prospect of infidelity and by the paranoia of possessive jealousy. Smart phones feel like natural planchettes for summoning these phantoms of paranoia, since they are designed as much for surveillance as for communication (the omniscient archive of calls, messages, and texts; the microphones that ‘listen in on’ conversations; the GPS data that constantly tracks and discloses your location). In other stories, I tried to explore different hauntings via different technologies: e-books (‘Other Minds’); Google Street View (‘Portonaccio Sarcophagus’); GPS navigators (‘The Postcard’).
I’ve used the term horror a few times, and the story “The Postcard” seems to have detective fiction influences. But I’m curious about your own relation to genre. Is genre on your mind when you write a story?
I think about genre, like everything else, in terms of tradition and influence. When I’m writing a story, there is typically a constellation of other artworks that it’s in conversation with. For ‘The Postcard,’ that did include some detective fiction (particularly the horror noir of Brian Evenson). But it also included the horror game Silent Hill 2: I borrowed its plot (a widower receives a mysterious message from the ghost of his dead wife, inviting him to return to the site of their honeymoon), as well as its setting (a foggy abandoned town that obeys the logic of an anxiety dream). The list could be extended indefinitely: I was additionally drawing on Twin Peaks, Jacques Derrida’s The Post Card, Kazuo Ishiguro’s story ‘A Village After Dark.’ These are all, in their own slant ways, ‘detective stories’ (reading The Post Card, I was delighted to learn that Derrida’s favorite show to fall asleep to was Charlie’s Angels). So ‘The Postcard’ participates in that genre by constellating these different influences. A similar list could be compiled for the other stories and genres in the collection (and indeed, each of my answers in this interview has risked becoming that list).
Do you have any particular writing routines or habits?
I try to write in the morning. I set an Internet blocker (Freedom) on my laptop, so that I’m not distracted by email. I also stash my phone in a Kitchen Safe, a white plastic box with a time-locking blue lid. The lid has a dial to set the timer, a big smooth disc like the wheel on a vault hatch. Once you’ve rotated it to the desired time and pressed the dial, the digital display gives you a thrillingly official 5-4-3-2-1 mission-control countdown, to warn you that the lid is about to lock shut. Then tiny blue tabs whir outward through narrow slits, deadbolting the lid into place, and only retracting when the lockdown’s done. The Kitchen Safe was originally designed for compulsive eaters and addictive personalities, as I understand it (in the product photos, the Kitchen Safes are always filled with chocolate chip cookies). But everything about its red-alert, fallout-shelter containment aesthetic suits my own relationship to the Internet, distraction, and procrastination. Locking my phone away is the one ritualistically significant component of my morning routine.
I’m always interested to hear how writers structure a story collection. Did you have stories that didn’t make the cut for this collection? How did you go about ordering the stories? Did you write any stories particularly to fit in with existing stories for this collection?
I did cut a couple of stories, for various reasons. I didn’t write any stories specifically ‘for’ the collection, but at a certain point—once I had begun to gather the stories together and could recognize how they were already echoing one another—I started to revise toward the collection.
One example of this is the title story, ‘Other Minds,’ and the story ‘Introduction to the Reading of Hegel.’ Both feature an unnamed protagonist simply called ‘the reader.’ In both stories, the reader is anxiously trying to project himself inside other people’s minds (in ‘Other Minds,’ it’s all the previous readers who have left highlights in his e-book; in ‘Introduction to the Reading of Hegel,’ it’s the judge for a prestigious philosophy fellowship that he’s applying for). I wrote these stories at separate times, and I did not—and still, I suppose, do not—think of these two readers as the ‘same’ character, at least not in a narratively literal sense. As in, I don’t imagine that one story is the sequel of the other (such that, after finishing his e-book, ‘the reader’ of ‘Other Minds’ goes on to a philosophy PhD and becomes ‘the reader’ of ‘Introduction to the Reading of Hegel’). But while revising them for the collection, I could recognize that these readers were obviously the same character in a deeper sense: thematically, stylistically, even formally (both protagonists’ internal monologues are structured as Bernhardian block paragraphs, for instance). So I tried to let the stories speak to one another, in revision, and eventually to echo one another. I took one line from ‘Other Minds’ and added it to ‘Hegel’ verbatim: ‘All his life, if someone had asked him why he read, the reader would have answered that he was curious about other minds.’
This is also how I approached structuring the collection. I came to recognize other stories as pairs—as doubles of one another—and I tried to arrange them symmetrically, with one appearing in the front half and the other mirroring its position in the back half. ‘Other Minds’ and ‘Hegel’ do this. ‘Unknown’ and ‘The Postcard’ form another such pair: both are horror stories about technology (cell phones and GPS navigators); both concern troubled relationships and a dreamlike loss of identity; both play on the phrase ‘Do Not Disturb’; etc. I placed ‘Unknown’ second and ‘The Postcard’ second to last, so that that bookended symmetry would create a mirroring effect, with ‘The Postcard’ reflecting ‘Unknown’ across the collection. Likewise with the collection’s literal bookends, ‘La “mummia di Grottarossa”’ and ‘Medusa,’ which in many ways can be read as mirror images of one another.
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