(Coffee House Press, 2016)
I last saw Dylan Hicks at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs convention in Los Angeles. One afternoon, after we’d made plans to see each other the following day, Dylan asked to look at the map on my iPhone; he then began sketching a likeness of the screen’s contents into his pocket notebook. (Dylan may be the only adult person I know who has never owned a cell phone.) I remember his eyes darting anxiously back and forth between the route suggested by Apple and the crooked line coming out of the end of his pen. I found this very endearing; it seemed characteristic of the narrator in his first novel, Boarded Windows, who admits to cultivating “a luddite or elderly helplessness that some find charming.”
Hicks’s second novel, Amateurs, is a send-up of the publishing world: heir to a sex-toy empire, wannabe literary luminary Archer Bondarenko employs down-on-her-luck MFA grad Sara Crennel to ghostwrite for him; soon Archer is enjoying a spot on the New Yorker’s “20 Under 40” list that should have been Sara’s. It’s also a romantic comedy: Archer’s cousin Karyn, single mom to eleven-year-old Maxwell, gets cajoled into giving Archer’s friend Lucas Pope a ride to the Bondarenko wedding in Winnipeg; Karyn and Lucas’s hyperarticulate budding romance is set against the backdrop of their impending road trip. These plot lines—including another involving Sara’s ex, John Anderson, who’s taken a job as caretaker to Sara’s grandfather—are meticulously woven together to create for the reader a sensation of precarious narrative convergence: everything seems to be clicking into place by the final pages of the novel, just as its network of character relationships verges on collapse.
Hicks and I exchanged emails over the course of a week or so not long after the release of Amateurs. We began by discussing the novel’s structure.
Evan Lavender-Smith (Rail): Something that immediately struck me about the new book is the way the narrative modulates between two time periods: we spend the bulk of the novel going back and forth between a more slowly paced period (May – August 2011) and a more quickly paced one (2004 – 2011). There are certain technical challenges associated with reading this way, at least there are for me: I had to stay on my toes when tracking characters; I was doing a bit of “juggling” in my head with respect to developing plot lines and contrasting paces, etc. I’m always interested in thinking about the effects of achronology in narrative. One obvious benefit here is the quality of suspension I was regularly feeling; regardless of which time period I was in, part of me was always looking forward to returning to the other one. And I was always eagerly anticipating convergences between them. Were you thinking along these lines when deciding on the novel’s form? Was it a late decision in the writing process, or was it something you decided on from the get-go?
Dylan Hicks: Speaking of time, it’s hard for me to remember precisely when these things developed, but I think it’s fair to say that the achronology was always present but became more systematic under editorial direction. Writing this book was my first comfortable and prolonged attempt at free indirect style, the so-called close third person, and as much as possible I wanted the narration to show the perspective characters having key experiences and making important discoveries in the moment. There’s a fair amount of exposition and retrospection, but I imagined the plot unfolding in scenes. Since this is a multiperspective novel told from several vantages—two of which are given greater weight—I knew I had at least four overlapping storylines. One of those was designed to be compressed into a few months of 2011; it’s more or less about a life being enlivened and disrupted by new associations, a romantic one most prominently. The other threads seemed to demand a popping-in approach stretched out over several years.
My rule from the start was that consecutive chapters couldn’t be narrated from the same vantage, but beyond that the chapters seemed fairly modular. I spent a lot of time revising the outline by pushing index cards around the floor. Later, my principal editor for the book, Liz Van Hoose, proposed an improved structural schema in which the two temporal tracks are independently linear and alternate until they converge for the last act. As you say, the time-hopping requires some acclimation on the reader’s part, but my hope is that it fosters that two-fold curiosity where you’re wondering what will happen next and what has already happened. And working with multiple perspectives and time frames lets one nod at cliffhanger chapter endings even if one isn’t inclined to dangle people from cliffs, or even from the roofs of single-story houses. In general I was looking for ways to build narrative momentum while still letting myself, for instance, stage heavily dialogic scenes that aren’t doggedly concerned with advancing the plot.
Rail: Falling under the spell of that close third-person perspective was one of the great pleasures I took in reading this novel. Sometimes I found myself feeling sort of baffled by the method and facility with which narration moved from a more distant, objective mode to a very close approximation of character thought. I’m looking again at a snippet of a scene involving characters of the 2011 timeframe’s romance, Lucas and Karyn, as well as Karyn’s son, Maxwell, and for the most part narration seems relatively objective—Lucas says or does this, Karyn says or does that—until at a certain point Maxwell suggests that he was a better violin player back before he started practicing. Mirroring Karyn’s thought, the third-person narrator interjects, “That wasn’t true at all.” My laughter here follows from the impeccable comic timing associated with the use of free indirect style; it almost seems as if the variability of narration’s proximity to the POV character’s mind follows, in any given scene, from some magical intuition you have as a writer. I often feel something similar when I read Jane Austen. Is it fair to say that Austen, who gets a couple mentions here and there, was an influence on the form of the novel? What’s the secret formula of this novel’s POV?
Hicks: I’m glad to hear the book’s management of POV was successful for you, particularly because the results of my early confrontations with the third person always seemed artificial and blandly backdated. I understood the advantages of free indirect style—narrative flexibility plus the intimacy of focalization; the freedom to be more articulate than your character, yet still have him or her color the language, and so on—but whenever I tried it, I felt like I was ghostwriting. I grew more at ease with the third person when I started thinking about which books this one might loosely resemble (despite the fact that some of these model books are in first person). I’ve only been writing fiction for a decade, so I can’t call on vast experience, but so far it seems that, to move forward, I need to have a few unmatchable but motivating antecedents in mind. Maybe you sometimes work this way too? I remember, for instance, how you acknowledge a debt to David Markson’s late novels in your propulsive novel-essay-memoir From Old Notebooks, and your second novel, Avatar, a monologue unbroken by punctuation or paragraph breaks, might be seen as an ingenious and distinctly American response to formal procedures associated with writers such as Beckett and Thomas Bernhard. For Amateurs, I first started thinking of comic novels by 20th century British writers such as Muriel Spark, Evelyn Waugh, Penelope Fitzgerald, and especially Barbara Pym, who tends not be as uproariously funny as those other writers can be, but who’s often more affectingly contemplative. Her Quartet in Autumn must have provided a model for writing a short novel with four perspective characters, though I didn’t studiously examine its methods.
Anyway, I knew I couldn’t approach the achievements of the writers I’ve named, but thinking of them seemed to help me arrive at a tone suited to the material, one that let me write more naturally in the third person and try to balance, as you say, a removed authorial voice with a reflected one in which the character is explicitly the center of consciousness. I suppose any interesting narrative is two-fold or manifold, as in first-person books of childhood in which there’s continual interplay between the “narrating I” and the “experiencing I.” I haven’t developed a formula for blending narration and focalization, but one thing I try to consider is the reader’s sense of time. If the reader is experiencing a passage of dialogue roughly as it would happen in real life or onstage, she’ll expect very little time to pass between a change of speaker. In those instances, a filtered narrative observation probably ought to be a thought the perspective character could have in a second or two without losing the conversational thread. Of course, one does sometimes abandon the conversational thread to private thoughts, particularly in group settings, so if the perspective character’s thoughts take over the narrative in such situations, I’ll try to show that the conversation has progressed during her reverie. With longer expository passages, I’ll want the views to be in accord with the perspective character, and the information to be limited to what she knows, but I try to signal that these aren’t thoughts the character is having in the moment. I can’t stand those implausible expanses of free indirect exposition: on a fifteen-minute drive home, a character thinks in an orderly fashion through his essential biography and how it informs his current problems.
I also enjoyed the stylistic challenges of a multiperspective third-person book. For example, in any nontheological manuscript, I’d probably avoid using prelapsarian more than once, since it’s a loud word, but if it appears in a chapter filtered through Character A, then resurfaces seventy pages later in a chapter filtered through Character B, a trivially irritating repetition threatens the characterological spell by pointing the attentive reader to an authorial pet word.
I can’t pretend to be an Austen scholar, but like you I’m in awe of her innovative use of the close third person, especially in the later novels, how a filtered, immersive voice might dominate paragraphs or pages, or intrude just for one perfect adjective. And, of course, her wit, her perceptiveness, her plotting, how her cutting satire supports and enriches her essential kindness. At some point I realized that Amateurs would use devices from Hollywood romcoms and the plays and novels that established and continued the form, probably none so influentially as Austen’s comedies of manners. Sothere’s a young man of vast independent means, a wedding (not a conclusive one), a good amount of dialogue that might be courtship, and a nearly constant intertwining of economic and romantic considerations. I love the form and think it can be employed and retooled without enforcing retrograde ideas about gender, unconvincing ideas about happiness. Self-protectively, I urge readers to see the book’s Austen references as glances at lineage rather than invitations to comparison.
Rail: Regarding “loud words,” there’s a moment in your first novel, Boarded Windows, when a character’s penchant for employing difficult words in conversation is initially misunderstood by the narrator as her way of demonstrating superior smarts, but later recognized as an indication of the genuine pleasure she takes in using interesting words, of her love for language. In Amateurs, you’ve given yourself license to have great fun with diction, as several of the characters are writers, people to whom words matter a great deal. Sara, for example, copies out unfamiliar words while reading; she later types the words and their definitions into a document to aid in retention. (I love the description of her reading and coming upon a word she’d already entered in her word list but failing to recall its definition, copying the word down again, qualifying the entry with “whet understanding of” or “check etymology” as if she hadn’t forgotten its meaning, dissembling despite the absence of an audience—all of this hits home for me in a major way.) While I didn’t find myself noticing “pet words” in Amateurs, I did certainly notice and very much enjoy the use of words I don’t often encounter in everyday speech—or, for that matter, in most writing—and I suppose my recognition or projection of an implied author with serious lexical chops did, to some extent, supersede the occasion or the “apology” of POV characters as writers. Will you talk some about your relationship to the individual word? I know you’ve recently started on as resident puzzlist at the Paris Review blog. How serious, exactly, is your logophilia?
Hicks: I wasn’t especially literary in my teens and twenties, but I grew up in a word-drunk house and was delighted more than alienated by unusual words. When I started reading more widely and devotedly, some of my early favorites were sesquipedalian eccentrics like Nabokov, Bellow, and Wallace, and I noted and was apparently slow to retain some of their favorite fancy words. In the front pages of my copy of Infinite Jest, I wrote down, among other things, definitions of anaclitic, enfilade, and appurtenance; in my copy of A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, I wrote down, among other things, definitions of anaclitic, enfilade, and appurtenance. I haven’t always resisted unfurling grand words where a plain would do, and I’m sure my early journalism erred routinely on that count (and others). Nothing pushes ineptitude toward ridiculousness quite like the tin-eared application of ten-dollar words. I think I’ve gotten better at deleting unjustifiably obtrusive words, but if I feel like the sentence can support the choice—if the rhythm seems sound, the meaning precise (perhaps with some useful etymological undertones), and, finally, if no editor objects—I’ll risk it. More generally, I have strong lexical preferences and aversions: though I think we should treat animals better, I all the time use spur and prod as verbs; saucebox (or, in Richardson, sauce-box) is hilarious; performative should be restricted to linguistic and philosophical contexts; honeydew is gorgeous, honey-do atrocious; wonderful is often ideal in sound and rhythm, but one rarely means it.
I’m not only excited by individual words but also by elegant phrases and constructions, feats of punctuation. “Clamorous kindness,” for instance, is a virtuosic phrase from Sense and Sensibility: a great description of Mrs. Jennings and Mrs. Palmer, and lovely for its contrasts and assonance. As a reader, I try to be broad-minded: I have a weakness for witty, Oxbridge prose, but some of my favorite stylists are folksy or austere or unruly. Style should reflect worldview; my overuse of qualifying, attenuating adverbs might be a product of insecurity, or maybe I value nuance over force. It could be a kind of pacifism!
Rail: Daily pressures associated with the prevalence of the internet—the anxiety induced by social media, or simply the weird behavioral minutiae concomitant to everyday online activity—function as a kind of sine qua non for characters’ experience of life in Amateurs. I’m thinking of stuff like Karyn scrutinizing her Facebook wall with an eye toward a lover’s perception of her attractiveness; or reaching that point in her reading of an online article when she has to pay to continue, wanting to keep reading but realizing her credit card is beyond arm’s reach, giving up. There are all those great typos in Archer’s email correspondence, there’s Lucas selling sneakers on eBay, there’s Sara the “master of vanity searches.” Earlier you mentioned the comedy of manners in relation to Austen; it seems to me that one way in which you’ve “updated” that form is by incorporating new, internet-related pressures placed on characters’ lives. I’d love to hear you talk a bit about your own day in, day out experience of the internet, or maybe about your thinking as it concerns the contemporary writer mining her experience of the internet for use in the writing of fiction.
Hicks: In order to respond to this question in a more efficient and concentrated fashion, I’m using internet-blocking software, so that’s one answer. I’m ambivalent about all this. On the whole, social media and the internet have made me less lonely. I’ve developed a few valuable friendships online or over email—including ours. I often credit Facebook with leading me to readings, concerts, barbecues, and other events where one can speak to people and see them moving about—but I managed to catch wind of most of that stuff under earlier conditions, so I’m not sure how convincing the argument is. A few years ago, someone close to me died, and my most tearful experience during that week came from looking at snapshots posted on Facebook, reading the tributes and condolences in the comments. While crying, I was aware that that my reaction had much to do with processing the screen; I was reminded of the end of a biopic, where a real-life photo of the film’s subject appears as the credits start to roll. The layers of mediation, in other words, felt disturbingly dense, though the emotion was genuine.
Social media can also be a conduit for my anxiety and a stimulus for adolescent insecurities: Is M. pointedly or inadvertently not following me on Twitter and will there be repercussions if I unfollow M. in retaliation? Why did L. like my self-deprecating Facebook comment but not the celebratory but modestly articulated post that inspired it? Did my joke offend B. and does P. think I’m ultimately dumb? My in-the-flesh interactions, alas, aren’t unsullied by this same stuff: hunger for approval, jittery resentments over (probably) imagined slights, countless conversational regrets. At times I think I’d be calmer if I dropped out of social media, but, perhaps conveniently, I feel obligated to stick around. Publishers, newspaper editors, club owners—pretty much everyone I work with hopes I’ll post articles, publicize events, and in various ways foster a—I’ll have to brush my teeth after using the word—platform. My own self-promotion seems to be the most effective means of getting people to attend readings and concerts, and it probably fuels a significant percentage of my modest sales.
Tweets, emails, texts, comments, virtual friendships advanced and spurned—the tonal ambiguities and embedded anxieties in such stuff present potentially fruitful material for contemporary realist fiction, though of course banality threatens and the staging opportunities aren’t rich. Drama can be found, though. I loved how Ben Lerner incorporated texts and their odd syntax and interruptions in Leaving the Atocha Station, and how one of your stories depicts a domestic and financial crisis through an online consumer review of a gym bag.
Rail: I have internet-blocking software going right now, too, but mine isn’t really helping—there are at least two internet-enabled devices within arm’s reach. I certainly share your feelings of ambivalence. As you say, I don’t imagine I’d know you or any number of other writers who mean a great deal to me were it not for my compulsion to stare so intently at LEDs.
The last thing I’d like to ask you about is your work as a musician and songwriter and its relation to your work as a novelist. I’ve often thought of this comment I once heard Jim Jarmusch make, something about how he considers any musical ability he may have to condition or occasion the work he does as a writer and filmmaker. I was never much of musician myself, despite a whole lot of trying, but music did represent my first foray into attempts at creating art, and it remains, I think, the art form that affects me most deeply. Reading your novels again in preparation for this interview, it occurred to me that perhaps the thing I like most of all about your writing is my perception of a “musician’s ear” determining choices that get made with respect to diction, to prosody, to the turned phrase, even to the large-scale structure and pacing and rhythms of narrative. Is it possible for you to trace a line between your composing and songwriting and the work you do as novelist? Of course, music does feature simply as subject matter, to a greater degree in Boarded Windows than Amateurs, but I’d be curious to hear your take on the bearing of music in subtler ways, maybe in relation to form and language, or to process.
Hicks: I mentioned earlier that I wasn’t especially literary in my teens and twenties. That’s accurate, but I did read, in addition to occasional novels and popular history, a lot of music criticism, including books and journalism of high literary value by Greil Marcus, Martin Williams, Robert Christgau, Peter Guralnick, Ellen Willis, Simon Frith, Greg Tate, and many others. My teenage ambition was to be a music critic of some sort. I didn’t take practical measures to pursue that goal till much later, and I was never single-mindedly devoted to it, but music and writing have always been linked for me. It was through music that I first glimpsed the sublime, and through its criticism that I first became interested in aesthetics and the world of ideas (where I dabble more than dive).
When I started performing music in public I had very few technical resources as an instrumentalist and singer. Since then I’ve picked up some music theory and become proficient enough by singer-songwriter standards (and, I hope, gradually more interesting as a songwriter). But I don’t have the ears of an advanced musician, ears that quickly recognize birdsong intervals and prick up over jackhammer inharmonicity. I must have a musical worldview, but it’s probably not much different than that of a serious fan.
But I do see procedural analogues between writing songs and writing prose. I think a fair amount about prosody, and though I’m usually trying to give meaning a pleasing sound, it’s sometimes the opposite: I might feel that a sentence needs to end with a quadrisyllabic adjective and a disyllabic noun, which is rather like writing lyrics to a melody. Randy Newman was one of my prime influences, and through him especially I became interested in writing songs in character, which eventually led me to think I could write fiction. Influenced again by Newman, Carole King, and hundreds of others, I like to use inversions, for instance to start a chord change with some big voicing of a major triad and progress to that same chord with octaves of, say, the third or sixth in the bass. This is a possibly pretentious stretch, but maybe those simple chord inversions relate to depicting the same character from several vantages, such as how, in Amateurs, John is first introduced through Sara’s dismissive perspective, then granted more depth when he later guides chapters. As a songwriter I’m more or less a formalist; though I often dispense with recognizable bridges, which don’t come easily to me, for the most part I work with established structural and harmonic templates, and I’m happiest when something—a lyrical turn, a story, an unexpected chord change—makes those forms seem both traditional and idiosyncratic. This novel has similar aims: it’s built on romantic comedy and the comedy of manners, and I hope it reveals a strong affinity for those forms as a well as an interest in recasting their conventions, using them in ways that feel true to my instincts. In both songs and novels I’m trying for wit that’s not quite distancing and emotiveness that’s not quite sentimental. My ambitions are modest. I don’t have the sense of mission that guides some writers. But when I need a pep talk, I tell myself I’m fighting the antipodal evils of jokiness and humorlessness. It’s something.