Collapsing The Horses: An Interview with Brian Evenson
Growth has been on my mind lately. How do you choose to evolve in art, especially in writing? I say it constantly myself: “I liked the early stuff.”
It’s partially bullshit posturing, but it’s also true: An artist’s early work seems to take more risks, seems to care less, spends less time crafting in response to a market, an agent, a commerce.
Then, here comes the exception: Brian Evenson.
His latest collection of short stories, A Collapse of Horses, was released alongside three of his earlier novels, which stand up even today. The release, from Coffee House Press, feels like the Evenson Reader we’ve all been waiting for.
Through those earlier novels, Evenson had already proven himself a master of tension and terror. So I’ll admit I was nervous about the new collection, waiting to be taken, maybe, to a place I had already been before.
Instead, I got a textured, nuanced horror, an ultra-evolved Evenson, a writer who began to write around the danger in his stories, letting it fester at the periphery. His characters enter mysteries and do not escape from them unscathed – but the resulting brutality is almost a hint, a nasty whisper, a shadow behind you.
Even better, at the line level, Evenson has reached a new height. Throughout the stories, each line is crisp, evil, textured – and his final sentences will echo in your brain for days.
I went to New York City to interview Evenson in a bar before he spoke at Columbia University. In person, he was warm and generous – and I was nervous. We discussed A Collapse of Horses, writing, psychology, and dreams.
A Collapse of Horses feels a bit different from your other work — the danger is more at the periphery, the language is sparse. That somehow feels more horrifying during a reading of the book. How did writing this book feel different than your other work? Were you inspired by anything new or different?
That’s a good question. Often when I’m putting a book of stories together, I have four or five stories that I feel fit together. Then I start to write towards completing it.
The key story for that was the title story, “A Collapse of Horses.” I had this experience where my wife and I, before we were married, were walking through Golden Gate Park. We came across this horse paddock in the center of the park. These horses were just lying on the ground — and I’d never seen horses just lying on the ground before, despite growing up in rural Utah.
So this idea of knowing and not knowing, this idea of reality slipping out from under you was key for that story. And it became key for many of the other stories. The latest story in that collection, the one I wrote very last, was probably “The Blood Drip,” which ends up responding to the story “Black Bark,” which was in Caketrain. And that idea of having a story that was using aspects from another story and taking them apart was key as well. It helped shape the collection. But I added that story literally when the book was going to press.
Do you find yourself often writing pieces that respond to each other? Two stories that are halves to the same whole?
I often have this thing where I’ve sold a collection and then feel like there’s something else I want. And usually it is like Chris Fischbach at Coffee House — I must drive him crazy. I literally edit and add stories until the last possible moment. I’ve done it with every book I’ve done with them.
Maybe he’s used to it by now?
He might be. I think he knows by now it’s going to happen. But I think it’s really just time — having a little bit of time away from a project and having something happening in the back of your head lets you figure out what needs to be there. I don’t consciously sit down and figure that out — but there’s something as I start to write a story, I can feel it begin to talk to another story.
That process sounds more familiar to me than others. There are all these philosophies about writing — you have to write a page a day, you have to map out every story, every minute. I wonder what things guide you, if any?
I don’t map out my work, although I can.
Under the name B.K. Evenson, I do these contract novels where I’m taking someone else’s world or idea and developing something. For those, I map them out because that’s how you sell those. You have to have a plan. They write very quickly because of that, because I know where they’re going to go.
But it’s also less interesting to me. If you know where something is going to go, in a way you don’t have to write it. So especially with short stories, I don’t have a clear plan. It’s often about halfway through the story that I start to get a sense of where it’s going to go and what’s going to happen.
The psychology of your characters, particularly in A Collapse of Horses, stood out to me. Your characters each have their own mindset, and we’re often put in a position of watching them puzzle out the scenarios they are in. I know you’ve spoken before about not knowing how a story is going to play out ahead of time. That always makes me think of Donald Barthelme’s Not Knowing, although I know you’re coming from a more sparse, tense place. When you approach your characters, do you have them fully formed or are you more often just letting them play things out?
I feel like I do have them figured out. One thing that happens for me is that I have some ideas of how they interact with one or two people. Then, like with life, very quickly you get an idea of someone and how they are, then that begins to change as you begin to know them a bit more.
I would say that’s the case with characters too. I start out feeling like they are an acquaintance, and then by the time I’m done, I feel like I know them inside and out. But I do think that since so much comes out of myself and my subconscious, I probably do know them better than I actually think I do when I begin. But there is something that is satisfying about that discovery for me in terms of writing.
So you’re not doing a character sketch per se?
No, I don’t sketch out characters beforehand. The times I’ve tried to do that, I don’t end up using those characters because it’s like — there they are. I don’t need to worry about them anymore.
It stops being a process of discovery.
Yes, quite a bit.
At a bigger level, there’s a lot of symbolism happening with A Collapse of Horses. There are objects and animals you chose throughout this collection that feel important. I felt myself calling them out as I read it — the gun, the horse. Sound also became really huge — whispers, heart beats. I was curious about those choices.
I think it’s mostly impulsive on my part. There are parts of a story I will try to augment, but I won’t go back through and add anything like that to make the stories more cohesive. But I think it is part of that creative process — suddenly, I’ll hear something or I’ll write something and realize there’s an echo with something else.
When I wrote “The Blood Drip,” when I started referencing “Black Bark,” I thought: Can I do this? Can I get away with this? But subconsciously, I was just being driven to write that.
A Collapse of Horses was released in a four-book compilation alongside three of your novels — Father of Lies, The Open Curtain, and Last Days. Why did you decide to release these together? What was it like to revisit the older work?
Revisiting those books, they’re all pretty different, I think. I’ve never had that experience before, doing the final proofs of a new collection while having to re-read simultaneously three books and look at them.
Father of Lies feels to me like a book that was written by someone else. I like it, but I feel as if a very different Brian wrote that. The Open Curtain, not so much. There is stuff going on there with the shifting reality, schizophrenia of the character, and this sort of puncturing of reality that’s all through my more recent work.
Last Days, I think, is just a crazy book. I really love it, but it’s so much more over the top than the stories. It’s a curious thing to read next to A Collapse of Horses, which as you say is more restrained in some ways. It’s much moodier, and there’s very little that’s aggressively gory about it.
It’s strange — this idea of starting off your earlier books with this more aggressive horror, then kind of mellowing into this other type of horror that’s more suggestive.
Probably I’m just getting old.
Ah, I’m sure it’s not that. So did you revise those books again?
I didn’t find myself doing too much of that. I feel like it’s very hard to revise a book as many years after those were published. I think Father of Lies was published in 1998. The others are a little more recent, but they still felt like they were enough in the past that I didn’t want to deform them by trying to make them more relevant. I did do some tweaking here or there.
Was this the first time you’d read those specific novels in a while?
I hadn’t read them until that process. It was interesting. My sense of Father of Lies was that it was a very different book than it ended up being. One interesting thing about going back to it was that I began to realize that my interest in psychiatry and psychology was really cemented almost 25 years ago now.
I’ve always had some interest in psychology. And I’ve been very skeptical of Freudian psychiatry and psychology. I’ve also been skeptical of the notion of the unconscious. Not to say we don’t have some kind of interior life, but I think the way that gets defined and discussed is not always convincing to me.
That was something that partly went back to my reading of Freud, but also to my reading of [Gilles] Deleuze and [Félix] Guattari. It’s been something that’s been under my work in a lot of ways.
You mentioned there are definitions of the subconscious that you’re not on board with. What are they and why do they leave a bad taste in your mouth?
The whole structure of ego and ID, and the way it is parsed out — I’m just not sure about it. I tend to think the unconscious is much more embodied than we think of it as being. Rather than being something that resides deep within the head, it’s more like something that resides on the skin, like sweat. It’s something that’s much more physically present in some ways.
Wrapped up with perception, almost?
Yes, I think it is deeply wrapped up with perception. I’m teaching a class called “Narrating Madness” right now which is about the way in which mental illness is depicted in novels and graphic novels. For that, I ended up reading Freud and Breuer’s early case studies on hysteria.
One thing that’s really interesting about those early studies is that they are before the notion of psychoanalysis has really been developed. So their sense of how the mind works and how it comes together is really different.
Breuer is incredibly interested in hypnosis as a way in which you manipulate someone. So you open them up with hypnosis, you find this memory that is blocking them, you have them live through it again, and then…
They are “freed” from it.
Yes. And Freud tries to do this too, but at a particular point, one of the people he’s working with says: You know, I feel like there are these gaps and I’m just not remembering certain things. And Freud’s response was, “That’s how I knew it was working.”
Whereas, I think the other way to think about that is: You’re really just taking someone’s mind and taking chunks of it out. So how do you balance those things out?
Another interesting part of the early studies is that it becomes clear that the reason Freud doesn’t use hypnosis, and uses the Talking Cure instead, is because he was not a good hypnotist.
There’s an early period in the transition where he’ll put his hand on a patient’s forehead and say “You will remember!” in this very authoritative voice, trying to make it seem like hypnosis. And it kind of works — so that’s the start of the “talking cure.”
I think a lot of the notions of how the mind works is developing partly from that. I find Artie Lange, who is insane in some ways, more convincing. His notion of the way the unconscious works is more based in schizophrenia and his intensive case studies of schizophrenic patients. And those are really incredible case studies.
He talks about the way in which schizophrenics begin to replicate people around them and internalize them. So you have these kind of partial objects that build up a sense of self. With schizophrenics, that self just doesn’t appear.
It’s also the degree to which the subconscious or conscious mind is either formed or not formed by the individual or formed by a larger family dynamic.
How do you view these in the context of diagnosis?
As we’re given these models for how the mind works, we can kind of adapt ourselves to work with them. The DSM-IV (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition) has these descriptions of illnesses. Once DSM-V came out, they suddenly had this big category that was for borderline personality disorder.
And suddenly everyone had borderline personality disorder.
Yes. And that may be partly that they’re not looking at it properly to begin with — but it also may be that once you’re told what your symptoms mean, you play to that.
So what books are you reading for this course on Narrating Madness? I’m curious what you picked for that.
I go back and forth between looking at those case studies, fiction, and graphic novels. There’s a graphic novel by Nate Powell called Swallow Me Whole, which I think is actually really terrific. That’s about schizophrenia. Then we also read another graphic novel, Ellen Forney’s Marbles, which is a kind of memoir of manic depression. We did Shirley Jackson’s The Bird’s Nest, which I liked but I don’t think they were crazy about. I might not teach that one again. We did a few stories, one by Martin Amis called “Insight at Flame Lake.” We looked at some of the DSM-IV stuff, the Freud and Breuer, and Lange’s schizophrenic studies.
That sounds like a great class, especially layering in the case studies. Outside of class, is there anything you’re reading right now that’s inspiring you?
I just read a novel by B Catling which is called The Vorrh. I thought that was just great and very, very strange. It’s like a fantasy novel in which you have nothing recognizable from the galaxy of fantasy. It begins with a man whose wife has died making part of her body into a bow and taking the bow into the forest. It’s very strange.
It’s a very literary fantasy novel. I think anyone who likes fantasy novels is not going to like it. It’s a weird combination of French Symbolist stuff and this fantastical forest. It’s more weird and surreal.
About your own work, we talked big picture. But I also wanted to discuss sentence structure. Your sentences are so crisp and clean. And your final sentences often feel like a nail in the chest. What’s guiding that? How do you achieve that last moment?
I do a lot of revising on the line level. So especially with the final sentence, it might be revised a half dozen times before I find it to be just what I want it to be. A lot of the revision I do, the first time I write the draft of a story, I’m pretty interested in getting the structure in place. I want the shape to be there, and to a greater or lesser degree, I can do that. All the drafts after that are really about perfecting the language and making the flow right, making the rhythm work well, making the language augment what’s going on with the story.
Do you always find your last sentence at your desk? Or do you find it walking around? I’ve always had this image of you in a supermarket suddenly struck by the perfect last line for some reason.
Often, when I end a story, I think: That’s kind of an OK last sentence, but it’s not quite right. And then it will come to me in strange ways.
The story will sit in the drawer for a week, then I’ll look at it and the line will come out. But it can take me a long time to get the last sentence where I want it. Even in page proofs, I find myself revising as much as they will let me.
It’s a question of hitting that balance where you want to hit the balance that it’s working as well as it possibly can without feeling forced or worked. So trying to get a sense of effortlessness even though you’re expending an incredibly amount of effort to get there.
I think it’s a similar type of release, dreaming and writing. I feel like I’ve trained myself to always be subconsciously processing things. In fact, when I’m writing really well, I don’t dream very much. When I’m not writing very well, I dream a ton. So there’s something about the process that’s very similar for me.
What do you usually dream about?
I have lots of dreams that are architectural dreams for some reason. My mom is an architect, and that’s probably why. But I have a lot of dreams where I’m moving through different kinds of spaces. That’s the most common, recurring dream I have.
Tonight you’ll be speaking at Columbia University. You mentioned that you’ll talk a bit about how fiction can bend. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
I’m talking about something I like to call Dissective Nostalgia. Fiction does this thing where it takes these objects from our past — whether those are from individual pasts or cultural pasts — reforms them into language in a way that in some senses rearranges them, destroys them, and makes them something else. So I’ll talk a bit about that.
I think about that a lot in regard to my own work. The moments that refer back to my past are moments that probably no one would notice in the work. But those moments end up accelerating the work in some ways.
It’s part of just thinking about to what degree there’s a relationship between fiction and life. There are all of these ideas about fiction being an imitation of life, or fiction being a reflection of life. There’s this notion that we see life through the words that are the window. And I don’t think any of those are really adequate exactly. We do draw on life all the time, but in a way that transforms it.
The idea of fiction as a direct replica of life is so boring to me. It feels so staid — like a diary entry about what you bought at the store that day.
I like living life — but why do I want to live a secondary version of that? Fiction should be able to offer something that life doesn’t offer. I also think fiction is an intense experience. We have an intense relationship to it, or we can have. So a lot of the writing I’m doing is trying to bring that out.