UNC Student Spotlight

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Contradictions of our time: An interview with Aaron Sanders

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Aaron Sanders is Associate Professor of English at Columbus State University where he teaches literature and creative writing. He holds a PhD in American Literature from The University of Connecticut and an MFA in Fiction from The University of Utah. His stories have appeared in Gulf Coast, Quarterly West, and Beloit Fiction Journal, among others. He just finished a novel, Whispers of Heavenly Death, and he is working on a TV pilot called Good Missionary. His story, “I Dream of Alan Arkin,” appeared in 62.1 of Carolina Quarterly. “Upon the Ground” was recently published in 64.1 (Summer 2014).

Q: Barthes, in his essay The Writer on Holiday, states that knowing the quotidian realities of a writer, far from dispelling the myth of his superhumanity, in fact makes his existence seem even more unreal. “For I cannot but ascribe to some superhumanity the existence of beings vast enough to wear blue pajamas at the very moment when they manifest themselves as universal conscience, or else make a profession of liking reblochon with that same voice with which they announce their forthcoming Phenomenology of the Ego.” So, to interview a writer, rather than make him seem more like us or make us seem more like him, makes the whole world feel more magical. Barthes was against this. How do you feel about the apparent paradox?

A: I don’t disagree with Barthes. What I might add, and he probably says this elsewhere, is that another problem with the writer interview is that the writer can’t be trusted. That’s the other side of the paradox. The more we talk about the process of writing the further we get from what writing is… The truth about writing is that it is lonely and pretty unremarkable. I get up every morning at six and sit in front of a screen. That’s writing.

Still, I love writer interviews because they function almost as a support group. I hear the frustration and despair in our voices. And the questions are often questions without answers. On a recent episode of Fresh Air, when Terry Gross asks Lena Dunham (yes, I love Girls) how she decides whether or not she is sharing too much of her personal life in her work, Gross is asking a question without a real answer. Dunham is polite in her response, but what can she say? Her entire artistic project is built on a persona that at least feels like she’s revealing too much of her personal life. In fact, Dunham’s response can only build on that persona, i.e. her answer is performative (just as my answer to this question is performative).

David Foster Wallace has this great essay in Consider the Lobster, “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” about his fascination with athlete autobiographies. He’s obsessed with these narratives because he believes they might teach him something about athletic genius. What he finds is that great athletes are not very articulate about what they do. Indeed when they do speak of it they speak in cliché. Wallace’s argument is that this is part of their genius: that they have no idea how to talk about it. That seems to make sense to me. Writing is like that.

Q: Barthes—I’m on a kick with him today—said over fifty years ago: “What I claim is to live to the full contradiction of my time, which may well make sarcasm the condition of truth.” What’s the contradiction of our time? In other words, what is the condition necessary for the creation of truth?

A: Broadly speaking, the contradiction of our time is that art (made-up shit) gets at truth. This has always been the case, I suppose, the idea of holding a mirror up to nature and whatnot. But it feels like more of a contradiction now. Discourse is more fractured than ever, and it seems as if we gravitate to discourses that reify what we already believe. We don’t like people or ideas that run counter to our worldview.

It strikes me as odd that people my age go to places like The Daily Show for news. I think we understand the artifice, and we appreciate that Jon Stewart acknowledges the artifice. No one is pretending that The Daily Show is CBS Nightly News. Something about calling attention to the artifice allows The Daily Show to get closer to a version of what’s really going on than something you might see on CNN.

The modernists understood this. Call attention to the artifice and the representation becomes more accurate. Picasso’s Cubist phase reminds me of this. The Sound and the Fury, too. All narrative is constructed, and all narrative is unreliable, and yet at its best, a constructed narrative can get at truth. That’s an exciting contradiction.

Q: “Upon the Ground” deals with some of the most pressing issues we face as a society: fundamentalism, self-doubt and violence justified through love. What’s the goal for you in writing this challenging story?

A: I wanted to write a story with the same narrative momentum as Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” and I wanted to do it by imagining how an obscure 19th century Mormon ritual called blood atonement would play in the present.

Certainly, what interests me about blood atonement is its connection to fundamentalism. I wanted to imagine what it would be like to be a reasonable, rational person who happens to believe in a doctrine with death as its consequence. I didn’t want the ritual itself to be up for debate in the story; I wanted the conflict to be about everything leading up to the ritual.

To me that’s what is interesting about belief. I think we all have blind spots. We are mostly rational beings that allow ourselves a sliver of irrationality. You might be having a conversation with a longtime friend and stumble onto that irrational thread. In those moments I find myself staring at that person wondering how it is he or she can think this or believe that or whatever. But that’s just it: I have my irrational blind spots too (of course I can’t tell you what they are because I don’t think they’re irrational at all).

Another issue at play in the story is, of course, sexuality. I’ve always felt that one contradiction (now I’ve got contradiction on the mind) in Mormonism is its celebration of sexual freedom as found in its polygamy doctrine on the one hand, and its attack on homosexuality on the other. It seems to me that a religion with a history of being persecuted for, among other things, its sexual beliefs, would be more understanding of sexual identities outside of hetero-normal sexuality. The Mormon Church is decidedly not more understanding.

This is why Jonah Solomon has to be gay and a believer. Those two parts of one’s identity are often imagined as mutually exclusive, and I don’t think that’s a given. In the world of the story he’s done the best with the hand he’s been dealt, and when circumstances dictate it, he will even give his life for those he loves. I like Jonah, and every time he says goodbye to his son, my stomach turns.

Q: There is a lot of non-verbal communication going on in your writing. As a writer, why do you think non-verbal communication can be so much more powerful than verbal?

A: First of all, thank you. I think this is a technique I’ve developed more as time has gone on. Why is nonverbal more powerful? One reason why might be that nonverbal communication leaves more unsaid, which allows for a more textured interpretation. As soon as a character says anything, language can only go so far to convey meaning.

This is another set of contradictions: less is almost always more, and dialogue is not a representation of how people speak. Dialogue is only one of many ways to move the story forward. Maybe that’s it. Stories that use more nonverbal techniques feel more textured and more complete.

Introducing the UNC Student Spotlight!

Each week we will be featuring the work of a talented undergraduate in the creative writing program. Find selected works and a short bio through the new left margin sidebar. Check back every Monday to find out who’s up next!

week 1: Coco Wilder

Photo Coco Wilder

Coco Wilder lives in Carrboro, NC. She gets along well with people who care about place, memory, women, and coffee. Read her work here!

Summer Reading for the Fall Semester

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“My heart is a bear trap with a fox’s paw caught
in its teeth.”
                - Joseph Mulholland

The new issue is out! For the rest of this poem and much more, pick one up on campus at Davis Library or the UL.
If you’re among our subscribers, expect yours in the mail soon!

End Is Nigh Winners Announced!

This winter, as part of our End Is Nigh contest, we asked you to send us your dispatches about anxious endings, anticipated apocalypses, doomsday prepping, or getting right with God and family before it all comes crashing down. Contest Judge Jim Shepard was so pleased with the quality of submissions, that he couldn’t select just one grand prize winner. Instead, we have two winners and two runners up:

Grand Prize Winners ($575 each):
“When Trains Fall From Space” by Ian Bassingthwaighte
“Cold Snap” by Robin McLean

Runners Up ($150 each):
“Blood by Blood” by Dominic Russ-Combs
“A Brief Chronicle of Jeff and His Role in What is Colloquially Known as ‘The End of Civilization’” by Caitlin Campbell

“When Trains Fall From Space” and “Blood by Blood” will appear in the next issue of the Quarterly, with “Cold Snap” and “A Brief Chronicle” following in the fall.

Explaining his selections, Shepard writes:

Given that the apocalyptic and the post-apocalyptic seem to be everywhere in our mass culture, it probably shouldn’t have surprised me that the entries in the Carolina Quarterly’s “End Is Nigh” contest would have been of such a uniformly high quality, but they were, and choosing the most accomplished from among them was hard. For Runners Up, for example, I chose two stories that could easily have won any ordinary contest: first, “Blood by Blood,” with its evocation of a brother love that survives despite everything, and an imminent endtimes balefully anticipated by a hardscrabble place and a hardscrabble sensibility. And second, “A Brief Chronicle of Jeff and his Role in What is Colloquially Known as ‘The End of Civilization,’” a story that deploys its intricate intelligence with such ingenuity that it transcends its archness and lurches into the realm of the disquieting.

And the stories I chose as Co-Winners are of such dazzling achievement that I think they’d win any contest. On the one hand, there’s the heartbreaking and oddly winsome “When Trains Fall From Space,” which pulls off some of the most unlikely premises with the blithe panache of a Miranda July, and then there’s “Cold Snap,” which is a harrowing and wry and compassionate rendering of a sensibility so damaged by the more quotidian forms of isolation that the oncoming end of the world seems like a seamless extension of the loneliness the protagonist has been riding out for years. Four excellent stories: an enviable array, for any magazine. I congratulate all four writers on their artistry, and heart.

Leaving Behind and Returning Home: An Interview with Michael Parker

On Tuesday, April 22nd at 7pm, Michael Parker will read from his recent novel All I Have in This World, at Scuppernong Books in Greensboro. He’ll also be appearing at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh on Thursday, May 1st at 7:30pm.


UNC Chapel Hill graduate Michael Parker is currently a Professor in the MFA Writing Program at UNC-Greensboro and holds a faculty position with the Warren Wilson Program for Writers. Author of six novels and two collections of stories, Parker’s work has been awarded the Pushcart Prize and O. Henry Prize and has been featured in various journals such as the Georgia Review, the Washington Post, and the New York Times Magazine. His short story “Love Wild” appeared in issue 44.1 of Carolina Quarterly in the fall of 1991, and in the Winter of 1996 an excerpt from his scrapped project Lake Amnesia appeared in CQ 48.2.

Lee Abbott said of his work, “Only Michael Parker can tell a story you don’t want to quit about folks you don’t want to leave…He has us all in mind—all of us who are needy and scared and running fast from the past, all of us who believe in magic and miracle, all of us beleaguered and bewitched by love.”Parker is the recipient of the Hobson Award for Arts and Letters, the North Carolina Award for Literature, and has received fellowships in fiction from the NC Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Parker self-admittedly has, “…a habit of writing ‘road trip’ novels,” which explore the universal hope that either a temporary change of scenery, or a permanent geographical transition will be the thing that wipes the blackboard of our lives free from unfortunate mistakes and sour memories. For most people, though, and for Parker’s characters, these road trips “…rarely heal their wounds. It might provide some temporary peace of mind or soul, but it’s ephemeral.”

All I Have in This World susses out the relationship between tragedy and redemption and explores two strangers’ unexpectedly shared journey for reconciliation.

-Ryan-Ashley Anderson

RAA: In the Author’s Note of All That I Have in This World, you say you woke up in the middle of the night with the idea that catalyzed the writing for this book. Is that typically how characters and stories come to you, all rushing and intrusive, begging you to leave your life for a while so you can get it all down?

MP: My stories (and novels) usually start with an image or a phrase. Rarely do I begin with an idea. I suppose the spark of All That I Have in This World can be classified as an idea—a man and a woman, complete strangers, who meet in a used car lot in West Texas and decide, after knowing each other less than an hour, to purchase a car together. But it’s also an image. I saw these two people in that car lot and I realized what they were doing there in a matter of minutes, but I think I had to see them first.

Often it’s a phrase—sometimes overheard—that sparks a story. Sometimes I begin with a title, which is unfortunate, since it is rare that the publisher allows you—or at least me—to keep the original title. But on the other hand, it doesn’t really matter if that remains the title of the book, since whatever gets you into the story is golden.

Continue reading Leaving Behind and Returning Home: An Interview with Michael Parker