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.