In preparation for this, I reread your previous tour guide stories, and being in the middle of this pandemic unexpectedly colored my feelings. There might as well be an eighth continent out there, since I can’t travel anywhere anyway. I could fully buy into the idea of travel guide as entertainment reading—not that it wasn’t fun before. I’m sure every writer is being strongly influenced by current events, but is there anything you’d like to share about how you are responding or reacting in your own work?
The tour guide stories have been my fictional travel during these difficult times. The pandemic is devastating for so many, full of despair, solitude, fear, and loss—and I think many writers are facing the blank page with this question of how to proceed. Initially, there was this feeling of the world coming to a standstill (at least before we began “reopening” everything). During that standstill, there was also a deep silence—for a moment, we were collectively united. We found ourselves far from the old world of capitalism, with its rapacious appetite and demands. There was a sudden and profound realization about our interconnectedness and the fragility of life. The waters were getting cleaner, the air too, wildlife was returning to our cities, dolphins to the waterways, and we could see the Himalayas again. I don’t think we’ve ever had a moment when the world was so totally connected. So, in this way, as a writer and a human being, I found myself experiencing this dualism of despair/hopelessness alongside reverence/awe. When I was able to return to the page again, I was drawn to two main projects. One is a longer “secret” novel, which is set in a time after the great collapse of the world. This became the landscape where I could channel the pandemic emotions—of solitude and fear, but also of nature and silence.
The other big project are these tour guide stories. These stories have allowed me to literally use imaginative travel to arrive at fantastical worlds. Much like traveling/vacationing, these fictions let me dwell in awe, fantasy, hope, humor, and the imagination. And I think it’s necessary for us as human beings—particularly now—to have a space we can go to for rejuvenation and restoring our nervous system. So, like you say, while we’ve been stuck at home, these particular stories have been my plane tickets, my museums, and my hotel rooms.
In some of your previous spotlights, you’ve mentioned interest in shifting our literary focus toward valuing joy and wonder as much as we seem to value pain and struggle. I appreciate that a great deal, personally. While reading your various destinations, a lot of times I find myself wincing, but then somehow at the end of the story, I always have a fond, happy, warm feeling. You’re great at taking the reader through an ugly, adverse situation and pulling it around into hope. Do you have specific techniques for this, or is there anything else you’d like to say about that kind of effect?
Thanks so much for saying that. Hope, along with this feeling of warmth, is central to my work, and I find that I’m drawn toward fiction that has awe/transcendence at its core. For a long time now, I’ve been very interested in this question about our societal predilection for negative/cynical/ironic tones rather than narratives which inspire compassion/love/awe. And when I speak of negative-toned art, I’m not referring of the vital work of stories/art/film which expose the actual human rights injustices in the world—but rather another type of art/film/narrative which consciously dwells in exploiting suffering. We live in a culture that accepts gratuitous violence more readily than art which promotes peace and love. And I do think this deeply desensitizes us—and aids in closing our hearts to the actual, real pain and suffering in the world. So, yes, I’m interested in the joy-filled story. And the question is how to acknowledge and address the ugliness/adversity of our society without losing hope. Because if the dark forces out there steal our hope, our compassion, and our love, then they’ve stolen humanity’s most powerful and prized possessions.
In order to maintain hope, one rule is that I cannot sell out my characters’ humanity. This requires me to treat fictional characters with the same compassion and dignity that I would treat actual humans. Ultimately, this comes down to a deep philosophical question about humans. Do we, as authors, believe people are inherently evil and prone to selfishness, or do we believe humans are inherently good but learn evil? At the heart of many authorial decisions about a text are the author’s inner cosmologies. And it’s hard to fake it. If you truly believe people are inherently evil, it’s going to be difficult to write work that sincerely has hope within in. My leaning is toward human goodness and the eternal possibility for redemption, love, and transformation.
As well, the Buddhist in me is always wanting my stories to hint at the larger connectivity we all have, the transcendent part of our consciousness. We are more than our personalities, our strongly held identities, and the stories about who we think we are. It is the moments when we transcend the illusion of separateness that we encounter this deeper feeling of love and interconnectedness which buoys the spirit. In the same way, the conflict within a story can point not toward the drama itself but toward a transcendent other that exists beyond the plot struggle. In the tour guide stories, the cities are the characters, and so within the hearts of these cities are often the hidden jewels of transcendence, the possibility of enlightenment, or simply the smiling mystery/humor which lingers beneath life.
The Republic of Kvevch made me laugh out loud, and The Museum of Boredom was hilarious too. What are your thoughts on humor in fiction? It seems to be like happiness and peace, something that readers always enjoy, yet the market rarely seeks out humorous fiction or rewards it.
Yes, humor is wonderful! And, like you say, it’s often relegated to a lesser position within literature. But like hope/joy, humor is ultimately revolutionary. I’m thinking of Russian absurdity, for example, which was quite literally revolutionary. Writers like Kharms, Bulgakov, and Gogol used humor as a cover to deliver deep and dangerous critiques against tyranny. I’m also thinking here of Randle McMurphy in Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and how he uses laughter as his armor against institutionalization. It’s a brilliant example of how humor dismantles the oppressors, the tyrants, and the despots.
I’m particularly interested in two types of humor. Humor that leads to revealing and addressing oppression/tyranny (Mark Twain, Ishmael Reed, Virginia Woolf, Kafka, George Saunders, Vonnegut, Richard Pryor) and the rarer, cosmic humor, which hints toward expansive consciousness (Italo Calvino, Tatyana Tolstaya, Victor Pelevin, Tom Robbins, Reggie Watts, Ram Dass, Duncan Trussell). Much like happiness and peace are doorways, I see humor as a gateway to expanded consciousness. Humor and laughter expand our spirits outward, while fear and violence force our spirits to cower. In this way humor is transformative, revolutionary, and healing. My hope—as far as the larger market trends go—is that we’re entering a new age of art, one wherein we’ll be increasingly attracted to work that inspires expanded consciousness, light, justice, humor, and peace.
I’m sure you have plans for your life and your writing career and all, but I need to strongly suggest that all these stories one day be collected into a single print book, with maps and illustrations and bullet points. Please get on that, thanks! Oh right, this was supposed to be a question. So what do you think?
Absolutely! Presently, the tourguide is expanding in wonderful ways to include flora & fauna, reports from a group of anthropologists/linguists/musicologists working in the fields of the new continent, a section on rare games, lost paper arts, and the venomous species of the eighth continent. The full collection of these will be finished by the end of the year, and soon I’ll be searching for the right publisher/team of fellow explorers to bring it to the world. I envision it like you’ve described: chock full of maps and illustrations, a kind of old-world encyclopedia for the fantastic. So, in short, I’m looking forward to fulfilling your request in the very near future.
You mentioned your third collection of short stories in progress, and also a “secret” novel project. How are those going? I know publishing is like waiting in Kvevch, but anything new we can start anticipating soon?
The new projects in the works are the secret novel (don’t tell anyone), a third collection of adult fairytales/modern-day fables, and the tourguide—so it’ll be interesting to see which of these releases first. I’m also thrilled to be part of this year’s 2020 Advent Calendar, forthcoming this winter from H&O Publishing—where you’ll find one of my fairytales about working class trolls. As well, I’m starting to see a fourth collection emerging with a new batch of short stories I’m working on—all of which are related to a genre I might call cosmic/spiritual speculative fiction. This realm is new to me, but I can identify that what unifies the speculative aspects of the stories are ideas about reincarnation, transcendent visions, psychedelic-consciousness, shamanism, and Buddhist understandings of multiple realities. So, that’s all very exciting, and there’s plenty of writing to work on! As for what’s coming up next, the film After Yang (based on my short story, “Saying Goodbye to Yang”) is forthcoming from A24 studios—so I’m really thrilled to see my fiction become film!
Spread the word!