I recently reviewed A Spy in the Ruins, by Christopher Bernard. I talk with him about the novel’s genesis, the writing process, and the need to maintain autonomy in public art.
Tell us about the genesis of A Spy in the Ruins?
Of course. Its genesis was curious and highly circuitous. I began it in the late spring or so of 1996. I was just getting over a deep personal crisis, and hadn’t worked on a major project since completing the libretto and music of an opera two years before. I was hungry to do something of some magnitude, since I’ve discovered, much as I enjoy writing shorter pieces, I’m most content when I also have a large, ambitious piece underway, to warm and lighten the background of everything else I do – something that is big enough and unusual enough to challenge me, even frighten me a little. At the time, I had a part-time editorial job, with my mornings free. I felt, obscurely, that there was a book in me trying to get out – I had already written several book-length fictional and nonfictional works, number of plays, short stories and essays, an embarrassingly vast journal, many poems, etc., so I had a feeling for what a book feels like inside my mind; there is a distinct difference between the larval stages of a poem, a story, a play, a novel, etc., that I have learned to note, and heed.
One morning, after waking and sitting in my robe on the bed in my apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, while drinking tea, I decided to try something I’ve used a number of times over the years when I felt an urge to write but lacked a subject: “randomizing,” or free-associating on the page. The very first words that rang out in my mind’s ear were “Flung. Out. Far.” Those words set off a chain of associations leading to a description of a walk through a ruined city that ran on for a several pages and seemed to form a complete, if rough, prose poem, ending with the rather oracular words “Your turn,” whose meaning, at the time, baffled me. (The “ruined city” I recognized immediately as a metaphor for the crisis I had gone through and the feeling of overwhelming personal failure it had left me with.)
The next morning, again wrapped in a robe and sipping tea, I came back to this short piece, and free-associated off the strange concluding words, but soon ground to a halt; it hit me that those words formed a conclusion, and if I broke the previous day’s “prose poem” in two, I had the opening and ending of a much longer piece. And thus it transpired. The opening three touchstone words, after much massaging, now appear a few pages into the book, but the final pages of Spy are very close to that initial, dreamily free-associated passage.
The book took nine years to complete, from that initial morning until the final touchups on the proofs, which my publisher generously indulged up to the final weeks before publication in 2005. I intended the book, at first, to be about 200 pages; the aim was to create a completely free-associational text, to create a (hopefully) hypnotic, addictive, liminal mood in the reader, but after a few weeks, I found the free associations generating characters and scenes, even stories, that were linking up to my deepest and earliest memories.
I was not sure where all of this was going. I wrote slowly, only one or two pages a day, and over the long course of composition, I found, every six months or so, the direction of the book changing. Except for roughly half-a-year around the turn of the century, when the Gale Group asked me for a lengthy autobiographical essay, I worked on the book continuously, almost always in the mornings before going to work, a time when I feel closest to the “dream time” out of which my better inspirations, as I’ve learned the hard way, usually come.
I generally dislike the modern realistic “novel” as a form, so I conceived A Spy in the Ruins from the first as an “antinovel,” though, as has been pointed out, Spy in fact does what many a conventional novel traditionally does – in particular, the Bildungsroman, a novel describing a person’s development and “sentimental education.”
One point that might be of interest is the title: for most of the time of writing, it was “Ruins: A Kingdom,” which, in a way, sums up the book’s secret theme: the creation of a thing of beauty and meaning out of a waste of wreckage that preceded it. (One of the images hovering in the back of my mind while I wrote the book, though it never ended up in Spy, was the well-known broken-plate paintings that Julian Schnabel made in the 1980s.) I only settled on “A Spy in the Ruins” (one of several other titles contending since the beginning) in the last year of the book’s creation.
What was the writing process like?
It was similar to what I’ve often used in the past, and still use now. In general, I find I need several things before I can produce a long piece: a compelling beginning (though this may, and almost always does, change; for example, the current opening of Spy were some of the last pages I drafted), an equally compelling ending (which also often changes), and an overall structure that is new to me, and challenging – indeed, something I’m not sure I can pull off. Finally, I need a voice or tone or style, singular or multiple, that is unique to the piece – not “my voice” but the “work’s voice.” You see, for me writing is less an act of self-expression, which I feel is inevitable whatever I do, than an act of exploration, discovery, and creation – for me, writing is primarily making an object out of words. The words write the text; I put them down, edit them, delete them, substitute them, rearrange them, until they form as satisfactory a sequence as I can make. The words often surprise me – and the greater the surprise, the better. I sometimes say that I work on a piece until I can no longer recognize its author.
I never knew how long Spy was because I didn’t number the pages until the very last draft. I wrote the book in longhand on legal pads and only later typed the MS into a computer and did most of the revisions on my big, ugly battleship-gray Presario laptop.
How did you establish the tone and the style(s) for Spy?
Entirely intuitively, though of course I was influenced by the modern writers who have taught me how to write, from Alain Robbe-Grillet to Nathalie Sarraute, Claude Simon, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard and (in his film scenarios) Ingmar Bergman. Each section needed a different approach and tone, from the dramatic frame story (more a dream than a story) to the dreamlike farrago of imagery of the opening chapters, to the film scenario section, to the chapter of crossed destinies and the interview with the dying at the end.
What is Caveat Lector?
Caveat Lector is a literary and arts webzine (www.caveat- lector.org) that began in the late 80s and early 90s as a Xeroxed guerrilla zine, dropped surreptitiously in cafes and bookstores in the Bay Area, New York, and Seattle, devoted at first exclusively to the work of the principals – poet, playwright and novelist James Bybee; composer, fiction writer and philosophical essayist Andrew Towne; writer, theater director and collagist Gordon Phipps; and myself – then gradually opened out to work by our friends, and later, after Poet’s Market discovered us, to poets, writers and artists around the country and eventually abroad. We went online several years ago, and now also include music, the visual arts, audio streams of poems, and short films on our website (the other principals have moved on; I now co-edit and co-publish with writer and musician Ho Lin). Recently Ho and I retired the print version, and intend to publish every couple of years an anthology of work from the webzine. With Berkeley’s Regent Press, we have also published a small line of books; Spy is a Caveat Lector book, as are the novels September Snow and Runes of Iona by Robert Balmanno.
In this era of austerity and defunding public arts venues, how can artists who push the envelope remain relevant?
That is, and has ever been, the challenge of challenges. But, if you are genuinely challenging the powers that be, it is naïve to expect them to fund you; if they do, it’s only because they don’t find you very threatening.
I can only speak to literature and to print and online publishing. I think of myself as what the northern Europeans call a “social individualist,” with the emphasis on “individualist.” For me, autonomy in art is the “one thing needful.” Caveat Lector has not yet applied for a grant, partly because I don’t quite trust the conditions that enchain many grants. Foundations can be both controlling and capricious, to say nothing of obsessed with trends and fashions, “political correctness,” and other things that are irrelevant when not antithetical to art. And I have seen too many small organizations inadvertently destroyed by the grant-game and the false hopes it tempts them into indulging.
My advice, for what it’s worth, might seem rather hard: don’t depend on public funding of any kind, and even less so on the corporate handout. Try to depend entirely on your own resources. This is the only guarantee you have that you will control your work and its reception. Control is freedom, and art is about freedom – of mind, of imagination, of expression – or it is nothing at all.
Any writing projects in the works? Any follow-ups to Spy?
After Spy I needed to pursue an entirely different direction. I was also a bit stumped: how move ahead in Spy’s direction? I couldn’t see past it; for a time, it threw a shadow over everything I could imagine, let alone write. Spy was far and away the best thing I had ever written – it’s certainly the closest to me, the most personal of my writings. And trying to “better” it would be worse than foolish. Spy is an audacious, provocative, inwardly turning book. I needed a rest from its brand of experimentation, and I needed to “return to the surface.”
My next two books were more outwardly focused: two collections of short fictions, In the American Night (which includes most of the short fiction I‘d written since the late ‘70s) and Dangerous Stories for Boys (all of which were written over the last several years). I also drafted, and continue to tinker with, a book that straddles the inward and outward, a philosophical parable called Voyage to a Phantom City, which pays off a number of literary debts to, among others, Paul Bowles, Graham Greene and Robbe-Grillet.
Very recently, I have wanted to return to the “inward” explorations that made Spy such a compelling venture for me, and I seem to have found a way to move back into that enticing pocket of my imagination. I can’t discuss it now – it’s too young, fresh, and vulnerable to survive the icy air of a premature publicity. Suffice it to say it’s a kind of formalist-expressionist prose poem, a chain of impacted and mutually embedded image repertoires, in which I pursue an idea that has come to dominate my approach to literature over the last two decades: I’m trying to apply some of the lessons of abstract-figurative painting and conceptualism in the visual arts and art music of the last century to long fiction (Spy was partly an exploration along similar lines).
Who are some of your favorite writers and/or artists?
I’ve mentioned a number of the writers already; I must include Henry James and Marcel Proust, and, at the other end of the spectrum, Herman Melville, among prose writers; among the poets, Rimbaud, Donne, Shelley, Dickinson, Eliot and Bishop, Montale, Pessoa (a discovery of the past few years), and “the prince of clouds,” Baudelaire. Henry Miller is the only 20th century American writer who, despite his enormous flaws, ever spoke to me with complete conviction; above all, he wasn’t just “writing” and he didn’t have much time for “literature.” He saw writing and literature in the right perspective – as worth little in themselves, and certainly not worthy of reverence, except as aids to life and to happiness.
Sartre, Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are the philosophers I most often turn to, and argue with; also Ortega y Gasset, Berdyaev (a recent discovery) and Unamuno, for their strenuous consolations. Spy was nourished by Heidegger; I read Being and Time at least twice through while writing it. (I do not consider myself an existentialist, or if I am one, I am of a very peculiar kind, but I have always been fascinated by them; I often disagree with their answers, but they insist on asking the right, even if unanswerable, questions.) My favorite literary critics are shamelessly contradictory: George Steiner, Roland Barthes, and Terry Eagleton, and they duke out my own ambiguities between them.
I must include the painters Edvard Munch and the Expressionists (Emil Nolde, Conrad Felizmueller, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka and Max Beckmann among them), and the Americans Albert Pinkham Ryder and, for very different reasons, Joseph Cornell. Pablo Picasso is an eternal inspiration. The photographers Eugene Atget, Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand, among others, and the entire array of modern visual artists inspire me more than do most of the writers; contemporary writers, at least in the United States, seem to have abandoned art for publishing, though there are still a few interesting writers, such as Imre Kertesz and Laszlo Krasznahorkai, in Europe. The composers Bruckner, Mahler, Shostakovich and Britten have special niches in the “shrine.”
There are many others of course, but these have long been the governing deities in my small, private pantheon.