It is harder than you might think to write good Bizarro fiction. Practically anyone can conjure up a weird scene about people with goat heads or a beard crawling off someone’s face, but few can write about it with the crisply entertaining panache of D. Harlan Wilson. Wilson’s novel, Peckinpah (2009, Shroud Publishing), is described by the legendary Alan Moore as “a bludgeoning celluloid rush of language and ideas served from an action-painter’s bucket of fluorescent spatter.”
Read reviews of Wilson’s books and you’ll see phrases like Cyberpunk, surrealism, irrealism, wicked humor, believe the hype, rollicking splatter flange, funhouse mirror, unnerving celebrity, clothes-lining tombstones, crazed precision, Steve Aylett, brain stem, Franz Kafka, suspiciously pointless, guaranteed to never win the Pulitzer, baby’s bottom grafted onto a face, Philip K. Dick, flashing LED sign hat-band, William S. Burroughs, and sci-kung-fi (hyphens mine).
Wilson’s blood-bucket descriptions and wild imagination together would be enough to make Peckinpah a delightful Bizarro novel, and a pretty good parody of Peckinpah’s style (at least, as I understand it). But Wilson does not stop there; rather, he mixes camera angles, stage directions, and, most astonishingly, digressions into film criticism to make his novella not only a gleeful send-up/homage to Peckinpah’s work, but a thoughtful study of it. In fact, film school graduates (and first year English literature students) will probably note that Wilson has ingeniously woven a lampoon of the infamous “five paragraph essay” into his book, through five chapterlets about the “Theory of Ultraviolence.” At the beginning, these appear to be little more than aimless scene descriptions or puzzling non sequiturs. But in the fourth theory, he pulls the theories and the entire book together.
Wilson has a Masters Degree in English from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, a Masters in Science Fiction Studies from the University of Liverpool, and a Ph.D. in English from Michigan State University. He is Associate professor of English at Wright State University-Lake Campus.
Cue the interview.
Bill Ectric: I really got a kick out of the video, The Cocktail Party. Tell me a little about the making of it, the collaboration between you and Brandon Duncan?
D. Harlan Wilson: The film is based on a story of the same name from my first published collection of short fiction, The Kafka Effekt. I can’t remember how Brandon and I got together. I think my publisher, Raw Dog Screaming Press, hooked us up. Yes. He illustrated the cover for my fiction collection Pseudo-City, a futuristic rendering of Rene Magritte’s ‘Golconde’, back in 2004, and thereafter we decided to collaborate on a short film, which he made for his MFA thesis in graphic design. ‘The Cocktail Party’ had a lot of weird, visually dynamic potential. I wrote the screenplay for it and then Brandon and I did some editorial back and forth. Finally he went to work. It took him a year or two, and the end product is a surreal, black-and-white, rotoscoped picture that, in my opinion, far outshines my story. It won a bunch of awards at various film festivals in 2007, among them an official selection at Comic-Con. There’s more details at http://www.dharlanwilson.com/films.html. The film is also available on YouTube.
Originally Brandon and I planned to collaborate on another film based on a story in Pseudo City, and I wrote a full screenplay, but it never happened. We both got too busy and the project slipped away. Brandon, however, has done a lot of other stuff for me, including illustrated author photos and book cover designs. And right now he’s doing some artwork for the third and final installment in my scikungfi trilogy, The Kyoto Man. A very talented guy. Check him out at http://www.corporatedemon.com.
Ectric: As an English professor, do you tell students that before they write bizarro or irrealism, they first need to develop a solid foundation in writing basics? Or does it not work that way?
Wilson: I actually don’t teach that many creative writing courses. There’s only one right now, in fact, where I currently work – Introduction to Short Fiction – andit’s purely online. Mainly I teach composition and American literature. In the short fiction course, I expose students to some transgressivestories, but I don’t require them to write in that vein. That’s the last thing beginners need to do. I try to give them a taste of everything and then encourage them to focus on the basics, as you say. They have considerable freedom and can more or less do what they want, but I’m concerned with instilling a command of things like description, character and plot, in that order. If nothing else, I want them to recognize the value of SHOWING over TELLING, i.e., using imagery and descriptive passages to propel their narratives, rather than exposition. Baisez-vous, Exposition!
Ectric: Some of your stories –‘The Arrest’ and ‘Chimpanzee’, for example – seem to point out the transient, arbitrary nature of authority. Is that what you had in mind? Would you consider this a Kafkaesque notion?
Wilson: Absolutely. I’ve always been interested in the vicissitudes and whimsical tyranny of the Law à la Kafka. Virtually everything I write is about the misuses and abuses of power. It’s rampant. It’s always been rampant. Even in the most prosaic contexts, the absurdity of power exerts itself. For instance, the other day I was driving down the road past Walgreens, an American drug store. In the parking lot, tethered between two lampposts, was a giant banner that read: SHINGLES VACCINE AVAILABLE HERE. I don’t even know what the hell shingles are. A roof or something forms on your skin like a carapace? I could wiki it but I’m not that interested. Or am I? . . . The point is, even idle signage can be oppressive. The fact that there’s a banner like that waving in everybody’s face indicates that there’s some sort of shingles outbreak or epidemic, right? So maybe I have shingles. So maybe I have to get a vaccine. So maybe I should go into that Walgreens and pay to get well . . . The Law. It’s ubiquitous and rears its head in all kinds of ways. It’s not just about g-men showing up at your door and informing you that you’re on some shit list. I guess it’s human nature, and that’s why I’m preoccupied with it. We want to maintain a sense of control and yet we want to be controlled – by words, by images, by bosses, by bureaucratic assholes, by whatever. For me, the human condition is endless abyss of dumb absurdities waiting to me mined.
Ectric: Do you now, or have you ever, used the Gysin/Burroughs cut-up method in your writing?
Wilson: Not formally. That is, I’ve never vomited words onto a page, folded the page over and attempted to connect the dots, etc. I was inspired by Burroughs when I began writing. Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine, etc. I had never read anything like that. The style of his writing appealed to me more than the content. Still, he functioned as a kind of gateway drug for me, introducing me to new possibilities and modalities of narrative invention. Like the cut-ups, my stories and novels employ significant fragmentation and alinearity and often function like cinema, in some cases even adapting the jargon of cinematic movement and spectacle. But as I get older I much prefer Burroughs’ later works (e.g.,Cities of the Red Night), which exhibit such a crisp, fluid and rich use of language. When I go back to those formative cut-ups, all I see are artful renderings of sex acts.
Ectric: Have you ever wondered what your own skeleton looks like?
Wilson: Not so much my own skeleton as my internal organs and viscera. Then again, one of the characters in my novel Blankety Blank: A Memoir of Vulgaria is haunted by the ‘ghost’ of her skeleton, or at least she thinks she is. Perhaps this is a manifestation of my suspicions regarding my own skeleton coming to fruition? But probably not. Anyway, despite what I think of my insides, I hope that I never see them.
Ectric: Have you ever read an old obscure text and been amazed at how it relates to a subject are interested in? Especially if you’ve only recently turned your attention to the subject?
Wilson: Maybe, a long time ago. I used to be so enamored with literature, and I remember being in awe of virtually every book I read, new or old. That doesn’t happen much anymore. With a few exceptions, I’m hardly ever piqued by something I read. It’s all the same shit, the same formulas and/or artifices. I’m talking about fiction. Philosophy and literary theory still holds my attention. But I’m more interested in cinema and far likelier to be rapt by a film than a book. There’s more innovation and dynamism in cinema. Most books are just hundreds of plodding, empty pages punctuated by a few interesting passages. Bile.
Ectric: Something of yours was published in Japan recently. How did that happen? Have you been published in any other languages?
Wilson: One of my stories, “Digging for Adults,” which originally appeared in my fiction collection Stranger on the Loose, published by Eraserhead Press. It came out in the August 2010 issue of Hayakawa’s Mystery Magazine. The folks at Eraserhead Press set it up; if I’m not mistaken, some of their other authors had been translated into Japanese and they pointed the editors of HMM in my direction. I’ve had stories translated into a few other languages – mostly Dutch, Spanish and Polish – but it was neat to see a Japanese translation of my work.
I haven’t had a full book translated into another language yet. In 2012, a Mexican publisher, Verdehalago, will publish a Spanish translation of The Kafka Effekt.
Wilson: Humor has less to do with the material than the author’s personal taste and desires. Humor can be tricky, too, because it’s so subjective, and there are so many different kinds, and it can be ‘found’ anywhere, even in the most dramatic contexts. I think The Lovely Bones is hilarious, for instance. The film, I mean (I didn’t read the book). The premise is so fucking dumb yet it’s treated so gravely from beginning to end. That’s high comedy, in my eyes. Anything with Marky Mark in it is funny, too. Of course, lots of other people disagree.
As for combining humor with, say, dystopias, as in my novel Dr. Identity or Steve’s Novahead (among others), it’s a matter of pushing the limits of narrative and doing new, interesting, entertaining things. Steve and I both have a penchant for slapstick (viz., splatterschtick) comedy as well as a love of language, wordplay and world-building. We have different styles and means of execution, but I think the same key interests lie at the core of our author-flows.
Ectric: What is your favorite Sam Peckinpah film?
Wilson: (answers immediately) Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia.