"Curiosity craves otherness”: The author of “The Empathy Exams” talks about the trick of fiction with writer Austin Bunn

Who reads novels and why, growing up with the pressure to be interesting, losing the plum-colored bruises, and more

Published May 4, 2015 10:58PM (EDT)

Austin Bunn, Leslie Jamison     (HarperCollins/Robert Thomas Hazen/AP/Richard Drew)
Austin Bunn, Leslie Jamison (HarperCollins/Robert Thomas Hazen/AP/Richard Drew)

Leslie Jamison is a novelist ("The Gin Closet") and essayist ("The Empathy Exams"). Austin Bunn is a fiction writer and screenwriter ("Kill Your Darlings"). His debut collection of stories, "The Brink," is out this week.

Leslie:  We should verbally describe what we’re seeing on our plates for the recording.

Austin: I feel like you have little doll hand pickles. And I’m eating cat food. And cat throw-up.

Leslie:  Who has more cat food? Which side of the table has the more cat food-y food?

Austin: Yours has a Prestige Dog Food look to it. Mine is, like, Fancy Feast. Mine is Friskies Fourth Meal.

(Note: the first course, part of the lunch prix fixe at Stone Park Café in Park Slope, was actually quite good.)

“What people read for is relationship”

Leslie: How did you order the stories in "The Brink"? Some writers say, “I don’t imagine my audience.” It’s important to them to speak into the world rather than imagining a particular reader. But it seems like for you -- and for me – it’s important to think about crafting the experience for someone.

Austin: I remember when I was putting together the book, my agent said, “Take this one and put it at the front.” He was just trying to push the strongest stories to the front, as most short story collections I think do, and then just not worry about the taper. Sadly, I think a lot of collections are like that. It’s just fire the buckshot and aim for the center of the pigeon.

First, I tried a technique that friends have explored, which is ordering them by the age of the protagonist, almost like you’re following a character. But that didn’t really yield any interesting results.

Leslie: You do start with a younger protagonist, in “How to Win an Unwinnable War.”

Austin: I think of that one as the most invitational story, maybe because the monomania of childhood allows you to utterly focus on something.  In a 13-year-old, I could write about this war gaming class and say this is what the story is about, this is the operating metaphor and fixation. It is also the most autobiographical story in the book. So it made sense as a beginning.

Leslie:  Some collections front-load their best stuff, but yours has some big stories deep into it. Like “Ledge,” the one set on the galleon at the edge of the world.

Austin: In my early imaginings, that story came first. But the more I read it in that context, I thought, this one demands something. I thought I needed to bring readers in and lead them into the material that gets more dense and more language-y. There’s a part of me that can get really into the sentences. But I couldn’t stack those stories all together. On the other hand, some collections –- and Wells Tower was one of my models there -- just feel like: let’s plug the sentences in so they feel like there’s voltage and electricity running through everything.

Leslie:  It strikes me that there is a building up of trust that happens. And trust was something I thought about in my ordering process too. By the time readers reach “Ledge” I think they’ll trust your psychological gaze, and that you’re sensitive to these moments between people and how relationships play out. I feel like sometimes when I hit something that looks like historical fiction, one of the defenses that can go up is feeling like maybe I’m about to read something that’s so overwhelmed by a cool context that it won’t have what, ultimately, always is the thing that compels me, which is a well-wrought relationship, an intricate or surprising emotional context—but with “Ledge,” we get a strange world that yields emotional complexity, rather than precluding it.

Austin: I workshopped a version of that story at Iowa and Marilynne Robinson did not respond to it, unsurprisingly, because it had no psychological point of view; it was just a whole bunch of event. I was aiming for that Poe sublime, like, let’s just take readers into this really different world. I didn’t realize, though, what people read for. Which is relationship. So then I realized, oh, there’s a kind of incantation I need to establish — that someone is actually speaking to someone who’s not there.

Leslie: That’s one of the things that’s so neat about the turn of the story. Spoiler alert! But this idea that when you go to the furthest possible place, the edge of the world itself, what you find there is actually what you left behind. That psychological focus gives you a way to make the adventure story hit somewhere emotionally. The genre of adventure ends up sharpening that impact, rather than blunting it into archetype.

I was also thinking about how your structural choices affect the emotional impact of your stories. I noticed that you end some of them in a suspension, leaving the reader dangling there—you never take us out of the final moment.

Austin: I’ve found that within moments of tension, you can just strategically dilate time and insert sense information and generalized perception to allow readers to fully experience what’s happening. I think the screenwriter in me wants to just record, but I realized readers are reading for pleasure, ultimately. They want to be able to luxuriate, even in difficulty and contradictions.

Leslie: Like in the cult story (“The End of the Age Is Upon Us”), as a reader, you have to live forever in that moment of being killed. Or the monster story (“When You Are the Final Girl”) where it sort of ends with the girl, Jess, in the car with the monster and you don’t rescue her from that. You end by just asking us to imagine what might happen.

(Food gets delivered. Café food talk – “rabbit loin,” “purple mustard,” etc. It was the prix fixe. We didn’t think about it too hard.)

“Curiosity craves otherness”

Austin: I came into grad school program having been a journalist, thinking that my job was to somehow record and produce dispatches of reality, and not understanding that inhabitation and inner life was actually the work of literature. I know this is something you’ve been thinking about and exploring. How do you think about excellence in terms of representing consciousness?

Leslie:  That’s a great question. I was putting together this talk for a conference at Columbia last weekend [called “Stalking the Essay”], and I was thinking about the differences in process and imagination that are called for by journalistic work and by fiction writing--trying to understand essay writing as perched somewhere in between. But I was also trying to figure out: Well, what’s the same all through it? For me, it’s curiosity about consciousness. That’s the operating engine no matter what the genre is.

I feel like curiosity craves otherness, and I guess it’s just the trick of fiction  to somehow prompt yourself to make something that actually starts to feel other, which is what gets you to that dream place where writers talk about hearing a character speaking to them, etc.

Austin: For me, Ian McEwan might be the master. I remember reading "Saturday" and thinking, “Oh my god, this is how you weave consciousness and plot together.” Because they usually seem like opposite poles. There’s something about the externality and the conventions of plot that are elbows in the world of interiority.

Leslie: I think the excellence comes in letting consciousness be messy. Sometimes what can bother me about New Yorker pieces—especially pieces about some kind of extremity--is the urge to extract a moral, or clean up the mess. It’s the penultimate paragraph move: “Here’s how this extreme person actually says something about the human condition.” There is a humanizing impulse in that, but it also seems to turn people into cogs supporting a theory or a thesis. And part of what seems like we’re really getting at with consciousness is that it’s always kind of pushing back against itself or any statement. With my students, I’m always talking about “conflicting vectors,” I’m sure they get sick of the phrase, but I think that’s what I mean by it: having a piece that expresses not necessarily contradictory truths, but a couple of things that don’t rest together so easily.

(Do we want more food? No. Other food? Yes.)

Austin: I was imagining fries on my plate, and then I realized there were no fries, but there were olives, which I loathe, so I was thinking I would compensate for the gross-out with ketchup.

Leslie:  I was thinking about your story that is ultimately about what’s not there, and how at that moment, we were both thinking about fries because it was something that we weren’t seeing. I just saw him take a separate à la carte order of fries that I’m almost positive is attached to an order of lamb burgers that I saw go out like two minutes ago.

Austin: Fuck it. Let’s order some fries because olives are like eyes, and I don’t want to eat them.

(We order fries. Right move.)

Burnt Tongue

Leslie: How do you get into a story?  Does it start with some aspect of consciousness or a relationship or an emotional situation, or do you get into it through a more external premise and then discover “here’s where the heart is”?

Austin: One of the big joys of putting something together and bringing it into the world that makes you think about your work far more than you ever did when you were just trying to produce the stuff and it get it out there. And maybe it’s an autobiographical move that might seem cliché, but both my parents are language teachers. My dad taught French; my mom taught Spanish. At the same time, I’ve always loved film and the populism of film.

So I find myself really drawn to premise from the beginning. That’s what film taught me. But then as I got writing more and more, I found myself drawn to language and how much language can really communicate in terms of consciousness. And so braiding those two together – and also an interest in theater, and monologue theater especially – realizing that there is a mode of fiction that is testimonial.

I did this profile of Chuck Palahniuk and I remember he talked about this principle of “burnt tongue,” that every story begins when someone walks into a room having just survived something and must talk. And what are they talking about? Palahniuk said his mentor Tom Spanbauer would make his students deliver stories in a crowded bar. So your story had to be that compelling, to make people shut up and listen. I think that’s not a bad way to approach it.

Leslie: I feel like your work is very drawn to extremity. Certain stories almost have the feeling of you throwing down a gauntlet for yourself, something like, “How can I render this?” One of the stories that I really want to talk about is “The Worst You Can Imagine Is Where This Starts.”

Austin: That is a true story. I read about it in the paper in Grand Rapids, Michigan, when I was living there. It is a bit of a conservative area, and what actually happened was a father discovered a dead baby in his basement, and then realized it was his own teenaged daughter’s. She’d hidden the pregnancy. So he went to the police and, tragically, she was jailed for infanticide. Pretty awful.

Leslie:  Well, that’s announced in the title: “This is going to be a story that happens past the places that are easy for us to imagine.” That’s the writer making a challenge for himself—that challenge of somehow opening up the inaccessible. I feel like the senses are one of the ways that happens; sensory particulars are a way into spaces that are impossible to imagine. I think about the story (“When You Are the Final Girl”) set in the monster ward with the deformed kids and burn victims and stuff, where it smelled like “Vaseline and burnt toast.” I love that. It was such good sensory writing—even as I felt like, God, it’s such a hard space to imagine.

Austin: When I was in sixth grade, I ordered this necklace from Fangoria Magazine that had a little glass coffin of dirt from Transylvania. I wore it around. I wanted Dracula to be my dad or my best friend, a homo-merging of both roles. My mom, because she knew I was interested in dark stuff, fed me things like this record about various ways to die. It was called "The Sounds of Death," and different people on the record got burned alive or buried— and I would fall asleep listening to this. So my interest in extreme or darker material started early.

When I think about my life more deeply, I wonder if the appeal of this material for me is because my dad has been a lifelong alcoholic, and one of the responses that children of alcoholics have is to be terrified of boring people. That’s why a lot of comedians, I think, are children of alcoholics, because they’re trying to entertain and constantly control mood. So I want the stories to grip readers tightly.

Leslie: I’ve always felt that pressure to be interesting. My brothers are nine and ten years older than me, so I was a 5-year-old living in an adult world. The center of gravity in my home was older. My parents are loving and my brothers were loving, but I was expected to be an adult participant from a very young age, and if I wanted somebody to listen to what I was saying, it’d better be interesting.

It’s a gift with a blade, because there’s a tremendous anxiety around it. There’s a moment in Milan Kundera somewhere, I think, where a woman is imagining walking through space, but she has to build the road or bridge that she’s walking along before she takes the next step, and I remember when I read that, I thought, “Oh, right. That’s what speaking is,” or “That’s what being is.” I have to constantly earn my existence.

Austin: I think the more we recognize these impulses, the less it controls us. Also, I am eating all the fries, and I just want to make sure that we are sharing the fries.

“What is the work of fiction?”

Austin: I want to talk about the first person, because your novel is alternating voices, and then, of course, the essays have the “I”  throughout. Do you find yourself thinking about working on a third person project?

Leslie: The third person is never where I go naturally, although the last two big pieces of nonfiction I wrote—that took up much of last year—had a lot of reporting and are actually pretty “third person”-focused. One was a piece for Harper’s about kids who have past life memories; the other was a big piece about “the loneliest whale in the world.” Both of them were more intense reporting than I’d ever done before, and less of me. I loved that, partially because I am curious, and because I also become curious about the form and process of journalism itself. It felt like an adventure to be going places, recording, trying to remain sensitive to what I was hearing, its surprises and complexities, rather than imposing my narrative on it.

Austin: I find myself thinking about this question of perspective in terms of why people read and what they read for. There’s this social scientist at Stanford named Shirley Heath who studied who reads novels and why. Franzen mentions her in one of his essays, and I’m sure I’m oversimplifying. She came up with three demographic groups that buy new novels: women, minorities that have changed class, and gay men who have come out of the closet. Why? Because these are the three populations that have experienced compulsive change over the course of the 20th century and 21st. Young women have a totally different set of options from their moms, minorities that change class are basically immigrants into a new life, and same with gay men. And if you write backwards into what stories are doing, it’s to show someone who goes through an experience and has some kind of epiphany or choice. So it’s less a matter of the first person versus the third person, and more about the work of fiction, which is to tell stories about resilience, and ways of understanding how to live.

Leslie: It’s interesting to think about reading as a way to get some guidance in feeling your way through change, because I think it can be such a motivating force in writing as well. Not writing as catharsis, but as partially motivated by experience that still needs processing.

I just finished teaching a course at the Columbia MFA program, a four-session seminar on confession and shame, which was very much my little brain baby. It was about how we write powerfully from shame. Like what you were saying about burnt tongue, the story that a survivor needs to tell. But there’s also the shaming of the confessional form – this idea of oversharing and narcissism and self-absorption, and how often confessional writing gets slapped with those labels. But what you say about reading is part of why writing that kind of stuff doesn’t have to be solipsistic—it ends up meaning something to those readers too, the ones reckoning with their own changes.

Austin: What values do you find yourself teaching in workshop?

Leslie: One of the big questions for me is: What are the goals of this particular piece?  Rather than just assuming that its goals are my own, and then faulting it for failing to meet them.

Austin:  Can you ask that question of fiction, or is that more nonfiction?

Leslie: I think both. For fiction, the question manifests in different ways. I have to ask: “Is this story trying to achieve psychological realism?” rather than simply assuming that it is. Maybe it’s manipulating its characters in a slightly different way? Stories can approach the prospect of verisimilitude from so many different angles. A story doesn’t necessarily want its world or its characters to be like real life.

Austin: To be “coherent.”

Leslie: There are interesting things that can happen when you depart from those goals. So sometimes I just have to do a gut check and be open to the variety of things a story can be. And part of what I love about your collection is the way that it ranges across different story projects. One of the prerogatives of the collection rather than a novel is that it can range without apologizing for its diversity, its “incoherence.”

Your collection has many different modes and worlds— we have the cult, and we have a ship sailing to the end of the world, and we have a kid in his war games, and a dead baby at the bottom of the stairs. It’s evidence of a reading diet—your wonderful phrase--that’s taking in a bunch of things. I have gotten interested in thinking about what any given genre or experience can produce. When you’re in film, what can film do? When you’re writing a novel, what can a novel do? When you’re producing criticism, what can criticism do?  With a short story collection, and with an essay collection, you can do multiple things and not need to totally reconcile them.

“Sometimes language can solve things”

Austin: Do you notice patterns in your prose? A friend had her copy editor of her short story collection say to her, “You’re using too many ‘and’s at the end of your stories.” I guess, there were a lot of compound sentences at the endings? In mine, I noticed the word “lair,” for example, appeared in three or four stories. I thought, what the fuck? What is it about “lair”? But it speaks to invisible material in a manuscript that you’re circling. In my case it must have been just fucking Transylvania.

Leslie:  I think that searching for patterns does two things at once, because it lets you get rid of stuff that’s repeating too much, but it also shows you signposts pointing to the things that obsess you. My wonderful and brilliant editor for "The Gin Closet" said, “If there is one more plum-colored bruise in this book, you’re going to get mocked, and so am I.” I needed to hear that! Because I couldn’t let go of those plum-colored bruises, but they needed to go. They showed up for a reason, though, because the book was interested the residue of damage, and also interested in applying beautiful language to that damage. I needed to think harder about that, and those bruises were popping up everywhere, tugging on my sleeve to get my attention.

Austin: Adam Haslett has this great line, “Sometimes language can solve things.” That you don’t need more story, you just need a way of saying what is there.

Leslie: That feels very resonant with how Charlie D’Ambrosio taught. He would be very hard on the language in a story, but it always came from his faith that you diagnose deeper problems with the language, it was always a symptom of something deeper happening in the story.

(We order dessert. There is chocolate. Yum.)

Austin: What are you up to these days?

Leslie: I’m working on a book about addiction that’s bringing my own life into conversation with other stories--a lot of cultural history and literary criticism, some reported material. Right now, I’m writing about the mythos of drinking in the workshop. I write about authors getting drunk, the narrative problems that addiction poses, the possibilities and complexities of recovery. And there’s reportage that clusters around this one ramshackle rehab facility that ran for 20 years near D.C. Part of what’s so powerful about recovery to me is this idea of being in contact with otherness and other lives, and I wanted to create a form that could hold that—so there are all these other lives running alongside my own. And what about you? You have this short film?

Austin: Yes, "In the Hollow." We’re taking it to festivals this summer.

(The film explores a shooting that took place on the Appalachian Trail in 1988. Two girlfriends, Claudia Brenner and Rebecca Wight, were hunted and shot by a “mountain man” named Stephen Roy Carr. Rebecca was killed and Claudia Brenner, shot five times, had to hike four miles out to her rescue.)

Leslie: It’s, what, 14 minutes long? But it does much in that space. It’s very powerful and part of it came from the dual structure of having one narrative of the reenactments—

Austin: What I kept calling “conjurings,” as a way of getting around that basic cable, cheesy mode of representing them --

Leslie: Right, sorry! Love that, “conjurings,” that’s what so much of art does--and the second narrative of Claudia going back into the woods for the first time. There’s one moment when the older Claudia, searching for the exact place the shooting happened, says, “I think we should turn off the path here.” There’s emotion in her voice at that point. That feels like a moment where the film is doing something only film can do; dramatizing that break in the voice. I wanted to ask you exactly that: What can film do that fiction can’t? What can fiction do that film can’t?

Austin: Well, I think film is really bad at showing consciousness and inner life. It’s not what it’s built to do. Certain filmmakers try – like Terrence Malick, who I love. But he’s polarizing. Film has this power, though, to integrate all the other art forms: visual arts, music, performance, story. What I love most about film is the edit, the jump -- the way you can put two unlinked things together and produce a connection. I had to learn to edit to make this short because I had no idea how the two threads would come together. And you can see in that moment of Claudia finding the path to the site, the story in a single beat: This is about a woman who’s become very strong and armored after surviving the unspeakable and she is cracking a little bit. Her vulnerability. Then, in the next shot, the past unfolds and you see the younger version of her arrive at the same location.

Leslie: We witness her strength; we witness that survival. But it doesn’t dissolve the fact that a woman was killed, and another woman was terrified and bereaved. I feel like you could do that in writing. You could absolutely do that in writing. But in film it happens deftly and without a lot of annotation.

Ta Da! Lists

Austin: So we both teach writing these days. Do you give your students exercises?

Leslie: One of my Columbia MFA students thanked me for giving them exercises. “Most people think we’re past them,” she said, but she actually found them fun and helpful.  Maybe I’m a hopeless geek but I think exercises are fun, too. I would never give an exercise I didn’t want to do myself. I was thinking earlier what a cool exercise would be – either fiction or nonfiction – to write a story that’s hinged on a refusal, or saying no. It’s a very specific and powerful gesture, but there’s so many different ways that refusal can manifest. It’s something I’m trying to get better at. I have this little notebook at home, my notebook of nos, where I write down the things I say no to.

Austin: To remind yourself you can say no?

Leslie: Exactly. It’s a little memorial for lost opportunities. But I also write down what I’m trying to make room for, to think about no as saying yes to something else.

Austin: How great. I find, like most people, my journal just ends up being a bunch of long, branching to-do lists. I hate that my interior life has become a giant set of agendas and responsibilities.

Leslie: Somebody at a residency actually urged me to write “Ta Da!” lists sometime as an antidote to the perpetual hamster wheel of the to-do list.

Austin: That’s so great.

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Books Essays Fiction Nonfiction Reading Short Stories The Brink The Empathy Exams Writers And Writing