I don’t remember how I came to own a copy of Kelcey Parker Ervick’s hybrid concoction, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, but I distinctly remember, after the first handful of pages, wondering why I hadn’t read it the moment it came into my possession. It’s a startling combination of art, biography, memoir, and even, in some quantity, obsession. The figure at its center is a Czech author whose relevance to the reader bears no relationship to that reader’s enjoyment of the text. It’s Ervick’s craft that will bewitch you. The work is a collage on multiple levels, an unforgettable mixture of elements that few, if any, have tried before. Once I was through, I wanted to read it again immediately.
Along with her work as a writer, Ervick is also a professor at Indiana University South Bend. Interviewing her demonstrated to me that she sees books through multiple lenses at once: as writer, teacher, and reader. Perhaps that’s why this interview leans more toward books she likes than book she hates. Read on for minimal gossip, but lots of recommendations.
Tell me about your hatred of books. Do you hate certain kinds of books, certain authors, or just particular books when they come along?
I tend to love books that other people hate. Slow books. Meandering books. Heady, theoretical books. I recommended Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to my well-read cousin and his wife, and they wrote to me later like WHY did you recommend that awful book to us?
I was probably 11 or 12 the first time I hated a book. Back then my family vacationed at the Jersey Shore, and my favorite part of each day was going to the bookstore and choosing a new book to read all day long at the beach. I remember reading a book about a teenaged girl who met a boy at the beginning of the summer, and he was handsome and interesting but turned out to be not quite right. Then she met a new boy who was handsome and interesting in different ways but also not quite right. About halfway through the bit about this second guy, I realized I was in the midst of a Goldilocks tale and that she was on her way to meeting the guy who was “just right,” and I became indignant the way only a preteen can. I felt like the author was insulting my intelligence with this obvious formula.
While I enjoy a good plot, this was not a good plot. I learned early that it’s language and character and ideas that I love.
I also hate books that are ugly or poorly designed. I actually removed a book from my syllabus last year on account of its ugliness. And I get frustrated by books that are beautifully designed and enviously blurbed but don’t live up to all the hype or the work put into making them. In this instance, it would feel ungracious to name examples. I’m probably just jealous.
However, I am thinking entirely of works of fiction, and it speaks both to my growing disinterest in fiction and my growing excitement for literary nonfiction. In Reality Hunger, David Shields says: “I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless. I can never remember characters’ names, plot developments, lines of dialogue, details of setting.”
I have started to feel like a lot of fiction is contrived, which I guess gets us back to that book I was so mad about when I was a tween.
Definitely. I don’t think I’m at Shields’s level of cynicism yet, but I essentially can’t go to the movies anymore for this reason.
I’m glad you said that! I have become such a cranky movie-watcher, and I feel like it’s a personal failing. For all my crankiness about books here, I still choose them over a movie on a Saturday night.
What other qualities about books turn you off?
I have less and less tolerance for the racism and misogyny of so many “classic” texts. I recently taught Updike’s “A&P,” a story I’ve assigned many times, and this time everything about the story bothered me, from the white privilege to the male gaze, and I was just I was like, “Uhm, class, let’s not write about women’s boobs as ‘scoops of vanilla,’ okay?”
I could not agree with you more. Updike really gets my goat, even though I can put up with some of the same racism and sexism from Barry Hannah in Airships.
Maybe also because there’s some humor and a sense of self-awareness with Hannah? “A&P” takes itself so damned seriously.
Part of what bothers me about “A&P” is the routineness of it. As American twentieth-century short fiction goes, it could not be more by-the-numbers.
I actually think that’s why I kept assigning it. Aside from its ubiquity in anthologies, it’s useful for teaching classic structure, which I want my students to learn so that they can move on to doing other things.
Do you think your hatred has affected your reading habits?
Maybe. I remember when my book club decided to read the first Harry Potter (years ago), I was so resistant and snobby about it, but I loved the book!
So, sometimes I’m wrong. Last semester I taught a graduate class on multi-ethnic U.S. literature. Based on my feelings stated above, I was going to assign all nonfiction texts. But I decided to mix it up, and I assigned novels like Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Erasure by Percival Everett, and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward. I found that the novels were far more imaginative and compelling than the nonfiction texts, which were mostly straightforward memoirs. Those amazing novels renewed my appreciation of fiction.
For me, the marker of imagination is more about press, these days, than it is about genre. It’s a rare book published by Random House that’s going to push the boundaries, whether it’s a novel or a memoir, while the stuff coming out of Les Figues is likely to be weird, whether it’s poetry or nonfiction or fiction.
Hell yes. Give me Graywolf, Coffee House, Sarabande, Dalkey Archive, the Dorothy Project, Rose Metal, and Les Figues over Random House any day. And this gets us back to the beautifully designed, enviously blurbed books I mentioned earlier. Many of them are published and promoted by big presses and are just dull.
How did you settle on Rose Metal for your own boundary-pushing books?
I have been a fan of Rose Metal Press since its beginnings over ten years ago. I was drawn to the emphasis on hybrid literature and by the striking books and chapbooks they were producing. I had never heard of a novella-in-flash, but when I wrote a novella in a series of flash segments, it felt like a hybrid to me. I submitted it during to Rose Metal’s open submissions period and pitched it as a novella-in-flash, and soon we were under contract for Liliane’s Balcony: A Novella of Fallingwater, which came out in 2013.
But the reason I went back to them with my next manuscript was their utter professionalism, editorial guidance, and attention to detail at every step of the writing, editing, publishing, and promotional process. The work they do behind the scenes is astounding. That next book, The Bitter Life of Božena Němcová, was even less traditional in form and content than Liliane’s Balcony, and I needed a publisher who believed in me as much as I believed in them. Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney at Rose Metal do what teams of people at major publishers could never achieve for both individual authors and hybrid forms, and they truly have helped transform the contemporary literary landscape.
Do you think your taste has altered anything about your writing? Have you made promises about what your writing would never do, for example?
My hatred of formulaic plots has led to an obsession with structure. Every book has a shape and structure, and it has to be engineered to hold up and not collapse in on itself. This clearly corresponded to my interest in architecture, particularly Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, which became both the setting of and structural guide for my book, Liliane’s Balcony.
And it turns out in my writing—which is often composed of a pastiche of voices, characters, fragments, time periods, and discourses—I really need the foundation of conventional dramatic structure to give shape and coherence to my story. Go figure.
My mentor, one of the all-time great promoters of innovative prose, often notes that the more the work tends toward experimentation, the stronger and more traditional the structure underneath it must be.
What was the last book you read that you recommend?
My Favorite Thing is Monsters is a gorgeous and fucking brilliant graphic novel by Emil Ferris. I read it in one sitting—it kept me up till 2 a.m. on a school night—and I posted about it on Facebook the next morning, which I’ve never done about a book.
I was amazed by the layers and layers of detail in both the art work (a drawing of an eyeball reveals a scene of a tree-filled island in the pupil) and the story itself (the mysterious death of the neighbor brings us back to the character’s youth as the daughter of a prostitute in Weimar Germany). Sometimes graphic novels can feel a bit one-dimensional, but this one has all those things I mentioned in my first answer: language, characters, ideas, and even a dramatic plot!
Ooh. Have you read Here, by Richard McGuire?
I don’t so much read it as hold it close, open it like a present, and gaze at it lovingly, marveling at each page.
In fact, more and more of my reading lately is of graphic narratives and poetry comics: Bianca Stone’s Poetry Comics from the Book of Hours, Dominique Goblet’s Pretending Is Lying, Mita Mahato’s In Between, Tom Hart’s Rosalie Lightning, Kristen Radtke’s Imagine Wanting Only This, Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do. I love the way the images interact with the text both to create atmosphere and propel the story.
In fact, I am under contract with Rose Metal Press yet again to co-edit the fourth book in their popular field guide series. This one is The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Graphic Literature: Artists and Writers on Creating Graphic Narratives, Poetry Comics, and Literary Collage. My co-editor is the amazing artist and teacher Tom Hart.
Do you keep books or give them away?
Last summer, during a period of downsizing and tidying-up (Marie Kondo-style), I donated hundreds of books to my campus library and Goodwill. This included a lot of strange books that I’d accumulated over the years—like a dozen Time-Life Nature books I bought at Goodwill years ago only to donate them back again—but also some nice hardcovers of recent books like Lincoln in the Bardo, which, after I read once, I didn’t think I’d need to read again. This was not true of Pastoralia or his awesome essay collection Braindead Megaphone, both of which I like to read over and over.
The first time I read Pastoralia I was reading it at stoplights, it kept me so spellbound. I preordered Lincoln but I STILL haven’t gotten around to it yet, years on.
When Lincoln came out, I liked to joke that my own book about a major nineteenth-century historical figure written in a collage of voices and quotations was published two months earlier: maybe Saunders was copying me!
I actually loved the formal ambition of Lincoln, and I was particularly moved by the chapters that told the story of Lincoln’s son’s death through a series of quotes from historical accounts. But again, that’s what I was trying to do with my collage biography of the Czech fairy tale writer, Božena Němcová: tell a story by recontextualizing documentary source material. So it’s no surprise that’s what I was drawn to.
Have you ever physically thrown a book across a room?
I don’t think so, but it sounds fun.
What are you reading right now, and do you like it or hate it?
I am reading The Surreal Life of Leonora Carrington by Joanna Moorhead and rereading The Complete Stories of Leonora Carrington published by the Dorothy Project. I love the stories, which are so weird and wonderful, and I’m grateful for the biography, which gives me insights into the stories.
Do you find it problematic to read these at the same time? I’ve put off reading a biography of Virginia Woolf until I’ve finally read all her novels, so as to understand the literary context of those bits of the biography.
I think this is a great question, because it’s exactly the sort of thing serious readers and writers wrestle with. In theory I agree with your emphasis on the work over the biography. But maybe it’s because my interest in Božena Němcová started with her striking biography—a nineteenth-century female fairy tale writer? the first Czech novelist?—that I have come to embrace a more fluid exploration of the artist and art.
Leonora Carrington’s life is utterly fascinating, but her paintings and stories seem like they take place in an alternate universe. I’m finding an exciting synergy in reading the biography along with her stories (and viewing her paintings) to see where her experiences and imagination meet.
Katharine Coldiron‘s work has appeared in the Rumpus, Hobart, the Normal School, and elsewhere. She lives in California and blogs at the Fictator.