“Toxic Destinations from The Lost Traveler’s Tour Guide” is filled with rich, intricate sensory details, everything from the “the engulfing flesh of the hotel’s large intestine,” to drowned men who “break barnacles from their knuckles,” to “waltzes on the sticky floors.” Much like a traditional travel brochure, these details offer an intriguing view of the unknown even as they seek to warn the traveler away. How did you come to pen this particular exploration of the shadows that fill the world inside and out?
I’d been reading a lot of great formal experimentalists—like Borges and Calvino, and Michael Martone’s book Michael Martone (which takes the form of contributor’s notes) and Seth Fried’s Animalcula stories—and I was very interested in exploring a non-traditional approach to storytelling. I was traveling with my son in Europe at the time, and I began to get the idea of a tour guide to foreign destinations that could also work as a kind of autobiography/guide to the emotional locations we all visit. Soon cities, museums, and hotels were arriving as though my imagination had landed on a new continent—and the voice of the collective Tour Guide writers came nearly automatically. Here were destinations of love, of loneliness, of joy and illusion. And among these destinations, I found that there were plenty of dark ones. For example Nacht—where the city transforms into a dark-world in the late hours. I was traveling through Paris, my son was ten, and I think one becomes particularly sensitive to the shift that happens in cities at night when you’re traveling with a child. Suddenly the drunken college students began to emerge, and the rowdy soccer fans threatened violence, and around a corner came wily saxophone music along with the smell of hashish—and I sensed night as a kind of tentacled creature which can pull you into its grip.
The other cities/hotels in “Toxic Destinations” came from delving into emotions such as loneliness, rejection, depression, hedonism, and the way we sometimes hide from the sadness of the world (Gerholtz/Phôtl) rather than opening our hearts to those who are suffering. These are more unsavory emotions—but I believe that part of the persistence of darkness is our refusal to bring it into the light—and so the stories are a way to use the lens of fiction to explore what these emotions are made of.
When you wrote “Destinations of Joy,” did you intend to write a second installment? Do you see a third or perhaps fourth installment?
Yes! The series is actually a wide reaching work-in-progress. To date there are nearly seventy destinations and the series continues to expand—(particularly when I’m visiting new countries/museums/hotels). I’m also beginning to find stories that deal with lost paper arts, or local customs and dice games, or invasive plants and poisonous animals. It’s a really exciting project for me, especially as it draws from the fairy tale tradition and engages my imagination in the childhood wonder/exploration that first drew me to fiction writing.
The story resonates with elements of The Eagles’ “Hotel California,” The Twilight Zone, Snow Crash, major depression, and all of the deadly sins. Why do you suppose people are intrigued by the darker elements of life? What is it about such miseries that draw our eyes and imaginations? Is it easier to see ourselves miserable than happy?
That’s such a fascinating question! What draws us toward darkness? The answers are likely as varied as our personal individualities. I do think for many people (self included) it’s easier to tack toward darkness than joy, and this may be a culturally learned phenomenon. I think there’s something within Western culture that trains us toward a kind of cynicism from an early age. Perhaps it’s the way we’re advertised to from the cradle with a survival-of-the-fittest ethos (Leggo my Eggo, Who ate all the Cracklin’ Oat Bran, Silly rabbit! Trix are for kids). Or the dog-eat-dog capitalism we witness adults subjected to. Or the Kafkaesque bureaucracy we sense beneath standardized testing. Or the massively depressing “classics” we’re given to read in public school. There’s also the specter of hunger, poverty, and ruthlessness beneath so much of the media we consume. Our biggest blockbusters deal with death and revenge, murder and betrayal, hyper-sexualized objectification and empty consumerism. This is not to mention the toxicity of many of our current politicians, including the impeached president, or the soulless CEOs, bankers, and lobbyists. So I think an industrialized society that is focused on GDP rather than Gross Domestic Happiness ends up cultivating systems which continually dull our individual sparks of creativity/awe as a deliberate way to ensure profit. One might say that misery is a symptom of a society suffering from a deep economic/social/psychological/spiritual sicknesses—and perhaps our attention/intrigue is indicative of our wish to heal that sickness.
Making art about pain/suffering/misery can be in hope of transforming that suffering. Of course, transformation isn’t the only reason people are drawn toward misery and darkness. And I think this is a crucial distinction when it comes to the quality of how one relates to suffering. The hedonism of Nacht, for example, is based on how we’re drawn toward our darkest selves though things like alcoholism, drugs, and infidelity. And perhaps the most compassionate view is that such examples of hedonism are simply failed attempts at healing our inner wounds.
A question I think about a lot in regards to making art about misery/pain is whether the aim is to heal/transform that pain, or whether it’s to dwell/exploit/cultivate more of it. I’m with the Buddhists on this one—I think it’s vital that we work to ease suffering rather than contribute to it. This then becomes part of the larger transformational work for us as artists/humans—creating a world where happiness/peace/healing receives our focus and energy more readily than the exploitation of darkness/misery.
If you were wandering the shadowed roads and happened upon this simple little brochure, which of these destinations would you decide to visit? Why?
That’s such a hard call! Probably Nacht—simply because there still seems to be the possibility of harmless enjoyment there (though isn’t that always the lure of darkness?) I think if I kept to the restaurants with the chef pans clanging and the jazz club with its good music, and then made sure to stay away from the bars and head home at a reasonable time, I could traverse that destination safely!
You have received dozens of accolades for your incredible work. Are there any writing projects you would like to tackle, something new that calls to you in particular?
You know, I’ve always considered myself a short story writer, but there is the secret project of a novel shimmering in the distance, so that’s exciting. And presently I’m working on my third collection with stories in the magical realist/fabulist tradition—it has working-class trolls, and suburban witches, and carnivorous plants—so I’m very excited to be exploring that new terrain as well!
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