Introduction by the interviewer
There is something rare to be discovered from our imperfections. Pain, sadness, isolation, when magnified by a prose both technically poised and surprisingly elegant, become flaws capable of building an unexpected beauty. Evelyn Hampton is a surveyor of possibility, revealing to us not the surface of things but their layers—composite, connected depths—worlds intended not to be contained but explored, perpetually reinvented.
Discomfort, Evelyn Hampton’s debut story collection, asks us to look just a little deeper into the distorted and often dreadful ways in which we manage memory and meaning, cope with identity and structure and resist reality and artifice, reminding readers what it is like to be human under the limitations of language and the illusion of living. Those looking for resolution or reassurance may be disappointed: the stories in Discomfort do not admit either. Those looking for traditional form will only find the vaguely familiar, exaggerated to show what we didn’t know could be conceived. Evelyn Hampton does not observe from the periphery but from proximity, demonstrating with a poignant lyricism her ability to describe the complexity of an emotion by making it recognizable, even tangible. Discomfort gives readers access to a wide range of stories that teach us the virtue of obscurity and the merit of silence, helping us to, perhaps, ease the condition of our own suffering.
—Jared Daniel Fagen
Discomfort by Evelyn Hampton, forthcoming from Ellipsis Press February 24, 2015
ISBN 978-1-940400-06-8 | Fiction | 144 pages | $14.00 | Purchase Discomfort
Jared Daniel Fagen: What compels you to write? Is it an urge? Is it a habit? Do you have any major influences you could attribute to your career as a writer?
Evelyn Hampton: I was on a ten-day silent meditation a few years ago, and after about three days in, after I’d had some time to settle down and feel fairly alert and concentrated, I suddenly had an idea for a story. I forget what the idea was, but I remember clearly the sensation of it appearing—it actually appeared ‘suddenly’ inside my mind, and seemed to have as its source the shape of my face as I breathed.
In other words, I’m not really sure what compels me to write—I guess it’s become part of how I take in the world through my senses and try to make sense of it.
It’s hard to answer the last part of your question because I don’t consider myself to have a career as a writer—the kind of writing I like to do does not support me financially, so I can’t devote more than a few hours a day to it. I do remember something that in retrospect seems like an influence: When I was in elementary school, we would get these catalogs for the “Scholastic Book Club” in class. The kids who had a certain kind of order in their homes would take their catalogs home, choose the books they wanted, and their parents would send them to school with a check. This one time, I made my selections, brought an envelope to school with a check from my mom in it, and about a week later, my books arrived. But the one I was looking forward to—I think it was a Nancy Drew novel—wasn’t there. Instead, there was a book titled So You Want To Be A Writer. I didn’t read the book until a year or two later when I was building a fort in my closet and happened to find it. I read it cover to cover while sitting in my closet, draped in a half-built hideout.
So my mom is a big influence.
JDF: What part does language play, or how do you consider language, when building a view of the world through your work?
EH: I don’t mind stories calling attention to the fact that they’re written in language, and helping me to remember that language is a communal, living thing that is often fraught with manipulations by people who have or want power over other people. In the short story writing class I’m teaching right now, we spent an hour arguing (in the polite manner of writers in a workshop) about a story by Angela Carter. The writers in the class weren’t into it at all. They didn’t like how Carter would sometimes disrupt the story, calling attention to the artifice of narrative. They wanted to be able to lose themselves in the story. I’m more interested in staying a little outside the story, watching how the writer is doing what she’s doing with language, so that I can learn something.
At the same time that I stake almost everything on language, I also think that language is always going to be inadequate—language, being entirely conceptual, can’t touch what’s outside of concepts. And what’s outside of concepts is vast, and is a realm where we do a lot of important living. But I think language can point to that other realm, and making it do that—making language point beyond itself—is what I’m usually trying to do.
JDF: Why writing and not some other form of expression? Do you have formal training, or an academic background, in literature or writing?
EH: I’m not an academic. I like to pop into the institutions, see what I can take from them, and then leave—go somewhere alone where I can conduct my own experiments. If I were braver I would live the life of an outlaw. Or a monk. But I’m not very brave, so I’m a writer.
JDF: You once described your work as lyrical fiction. Does the hybrid form of prose and poetry give your work a certain freedom that the tropes of narrative fiction limit? Is there a particular vision or intention you have for your art?
EH: In the short story class I’m teaching now, students began bringing poem-like things and essay-like things to class on the second meeting even though I thought I hadn’t revealed to them my secret: that I am not really a fiction writer. I guess it’s just obvious. I feel more comfortable—and the people in my class do too—around many kinds of writing, many approaches to articulating inner speeches, than I feel around labels like “fiction.” I also think that fiction can be anything. It depends on perspective.
My plans or intentions always seem to change. The closest thing I have to planning ahead, at least for my writing, is doing something I heard a writer—I think it was Christine Schutt—describe in an interview. She was talking about how she dealt with writer’s block, or just beginning new work. She said that before writing, she tries to conjure in her body a clear feeling of her writing—feeling the effects she wants the writing to have before it’s been written. Starting from this feeling, then, she writes. It becomes a process of building on and clarifying associations, images, muddled sensations.
“All this superfluity—I could begin again, go around the other way, and in so going find those ideas about reversibility that fail when applied to time.”
JDF: Please describe the process of your writing. Do you begin with a particular idea? A sentence? A word? An image that haunts you?
EH: I begin, a lot of the time, the way I just described—with a feeling. And a feeling can be complicated—it can be made of an image or images, words, textures, colors, the memory of specific places and people. The more complicated the feeling, the richer the story.
It’s a little different if I’m working on something long. Then it’s more like a process of finding more hidden doors in a seemingly empty room, or looking closer and closer at a thing until it looks like something else. I heard this yesterday: Physicists find that the closer they look at particles, the more mysterious they become. The time it takes an electron to change orbits is billions of a billionth of a second–an attosecond. An attosecond is to a second what the blink of an eye is to ten billion years. As far as we can see, these are some of the most basic particles of our physical, seemingly solid world, but they are all changing so very, very quickly. I like writing that is in harmony with mystery.
A lot of the time it also begins with curiosity. For example, this morning I woke up wondering, for some reason, about how spiders anchor their webs. What are the places like where the web attaches to walls? So that’s what I’m thinking about this morning. What I’m thinking about usually ends up in my writing.
JDF: This is interesting to me because I feel like a lot of your work, at least what I’m familiar with, resembles some form of deterioration. I am thinking specifically of your story “BB & Calla Lily” (and the excerpts from M that I’ve read, but we don’t have to talk about that, unless you want to?).
EH: I’m finished writing M, so I’m ready to talk about it: M is a very deteriorated text. For me, the time that seemingly has to be spanned by a long narrative introduces qualities of deterioration—as the story continues, it’s like it’s dragging all its history with it, all the episodes the reader has already read, and these are becoming heavy and soiled and waterlogged and—changed, in strange ways, by the story’s new developments. It’s like I’m on a hike and I keep finding new, interesting specimens and throwing them into my backpack, and some of the specimens start to devour other specimens and grow into different forms while they’re strapped to my back. It becomes a matter of how long I can keep them all in the same bag.
The story of M can’t cohere to one perspective and is told in fragments by different narrators. The characters seem to change throughout the story, taking on different names, becoming different species.
I also feel that the form of the novel is so old, I want it to be clearly rotting.
And language itself has a long history. I think that history resonates in the language we use today. So maybe you can hear something that sounds biblical, archaic, in “BB & Calla Lily.”
JDF: What I really like about your work is its suggestion; its possibility. There seems to be no moral purpose, only isolated moments unstuck in time that unravel long enough just to be beautiful—whether in the form of erotic/sexual behavior (or thoughts) sometimes found in your characters, or their exile, their (sort of) solipsism. (Your story “Julian” particularly stands out.) In other words… As a reader yourself, is there something that the action of expression reveals to you that a “story” might not?
EH: When I’m reading, I’m having a real experience of the act of reading, of language, and also an imaginative experience of images suggested by the language. For me it’s extra nice when a writer has paid attention to both kinds of experiences. When a story has both going on, it’s like the language of the story becomes another of my senses, and I feel the world of the story by way of my new language-sense in peculiar, pleasurable, vivid ways. It’s like a drug, or a mood.
JDF: How would you say your writing has progressed? Is there an artistic direction you’re trying to pursue, or a literary tradition that you feel resonates in your work?
EH: Christ, I don’t know. I mean, in terms of my life, I feel like I’m going in circles, meeting the same kinds of situations again and again. What I’m pursuing are moments of being able to articulate as clearly as my voice will allow how it is to be inside a human body and unable, most of the time, to communicate what it’s really like to be inside a human body. I long to feel connected to something bigger than the limits of my life. Writing is just one vehicle for finding—or if I can’t find them, create—temporary lines of communication. A lot of the time I feel like a lost black box on the floor of the ocean, transmitting signals among the whales.
JDF: In some ways, I feel like your writing conveys a corruption of the external machinations intended to shape our experience of the world. Would you say your work is a sort of struggle, then? How do you structure an emotion, a sensation?
EH: How to structure an emotion or a sensation—it’s an interesting problem to consider, but maybe not too seriously: there’s only so much language can convey. I do think it helps if there’s a little bit of a mess. If the story can contain a germ of the flaw of its conception—a birth defect. My work, whatever it is, feels like a struggle for me most of the time.
“It was only by persisting in uncertainty and confusion that I came to resemble what is human. Life had in its manifold an impaction, and that impaction caused a series of events, one of which I was, and later, so was he. But he, I sensed, was some aspect of me, a projection of my most disparate elements.”
JDF: Let’s discuss more the stories in Discomfort. Can you talk about the genesis of the book; how it came together, the editing process, finding a publisher, etc.?
EH: How it came together—I wrote the first story in the collection, “The Fox and the Wolf,” without knowing it would be part of any collection, in 2008 I think. The next story I also wrote in 2008—that’s the one titled “Discomfort.” Then I just kept writing stories. Many of them felt different from each other—their narrators were in different places, mentally and physically, and had different voices. I didn’t understand how all the different voices could go together until sometime in 2012. Then I started to think that they were all talking about some kind of pain… Discomfort became the title.
I started to think about what order to put the stories in. This was a lot harder than I had anticipated, and took a lot longer than I’d expected it to. I added stories, I took stories out. I kept thinking I’d found the right order, but then after a few days it would feel off, like something was missing. Finally one day in May of 2013 I stayed home from work, feeling sick. I opened the document named “Discomfort,” rearranged everything, and knew that I’d found the order. That order never changed.
Soon after that, I sent Discomfort to Eugene Lim at Ellipsis Press. I’d known for a while that I would want Ellipsis to publish the book. Eugene, when he was an editor at Harp & Altar, had published the story “Discomfort.” I liked working with him. I felt like he understood. After a little while Eugene emailed me saying he wanted to publish the collection. I was really happy.
JDF: The book opens with “My Chute,” which to me feels like a fitting introduction. In a way, the story captures a tone that (passively) drives Discomfort: the despair in giving meaning to mystery, loss, melancholy, duality, an abrasive synthesis—was this a “clear feeling of your writing?”
EH: I’m not sure. I think I put “My Chute” first because the narrator’s wish to be free of everything, to be reborn out of the world, felt to me like both an end and a beginning—in a way it’s really hopeless, yet by attempting to escape the world, maybe the narrator can remake part of it. Also, to me the story is funny, and I like the idea of putting something funny first.
JDF: Something that drew my attention when reading Discomfort was your usage of the em dash in “My Chute,” “Cassidy” and “Boy,” the ones left hanging, widowed. How important is typography in your work?
EH: I learned from poets and from prose writers influenced by poets that words can be arrayed—they don’t have to stay in blocks called paragraphs. It took me a long time to learn that, and a long time (which is still not over) to learn how something like a dash in the middle of a line, followed by a line break, can, at the right time, be more for the reader than any word. I like using punctuation and breaks to carve different kinds of openings in the language. I hope something will emerge from them, or enter by way of them.
JDF: What role do objects play in relation to your characters, or narratives? How do you interpret them? In “Boy,” objects seem to act as a mechanism for distortion; have no autonomy from memory.
EH: I’m glad you asked me about objects. I’m obsessed with them. I’m interested in work by artists like Robert Irwin and Olafur Eliasson where qualities of experience and perception are the main object of the work rather than some specific thing the artist is trying to show, like a famous person’s face or a landscape. Especially in the stories in Discomfort, I wanted to find ways of avoiding what I understand Eliot meant by “objective correlative,” or maybe to take it to an extreme by making psychological states objects that are just as real, just as hardened, just as much a part of the world as objects like tables and iPads. I’d like a scenario in which a narrator can walk across the room and touch her dread, maybe drape a garish pattern over it, something with bright greens and yellows and pinks. What you said about “Boy” rings true for me, except that I don’t think of the objects in the story as a mechanism. I think of them as something like moments in the story’s present experience.
JDF: This is an especially enduring theme in “Interruptions,” one of my favorite stories in the collection. Your characters also appear to almost have this sort of unnatural relationship, or strange interaction, with objects. Doors, gloves and curtains, for example, all make several appearances throughout the book. Do these objects have any particular significance?
EH: I find doors, gloves, and curtains a little creepy. I’m not sure why. Maybe because of all the horror movies I watched as a kid. Maybe because these objects can be used to conceal things. When something is being concealed, there’s a way in which it’s being hidden. When something is being hidden, it becomes dreadful. I become curious about the thing that’s being hidden and also about the dread.
JDF: What kind of experience is pain? A lot of your characters in the book seem to endure, know no other way, persist as if pain was an essential truth of existence, real or perceived.
EH: I think pain is unavoidable for a creature as long as the creature exists. Buddhists are always saying this. If something is born, it’s going to die, and there’s pain in that, in trying to stay alive and then in no longer being able to stay alive. Has anyone, ever, outside of myth and religious parables, found a way to live entirely free of pain? I can’t think of anybody. In this way the creatures of Discomfort are ordinary—like us, they also haven’t found a way out, though they’re always looking for one.
JDF: Childhood is often referenced in Discomfort. Would you consider adolescence, or nostalgia, inherently painful?
EH: I think of them as being full of dread, as if they were concealed by a door or a glove or a curtain.
JDF: In the stories “Office” and “The Monk and the Nun” you write about solitude and the idea of forming attachments to ideas and images. Can you talk more about this concept of self and space?
EH: I’ve noticed that the images I make in my mind of people I think I know very well become more distorted the longer I go without interacting with those people. Yet I don’t always know the images are becoming distorted—it isn’t until I am with the person again that I can see what I’ve done. Then there’s this concern: what if all I can see are the distorted creations of my own mind?
JDF: You talked briefly before about M—can you discuss what else you’ve been working on since completing Discomfort almost two years ago?
EH: There was M, which took a couple of years and went through several drafts, and actually I’m starting now to think it might not be finished, and there’s also another finished story collection, Famous Children and Famished Adults, which has some stories that I wrote during the time I was writing the stories that ended up in Discomfort but mostly stories I’ve written since finishing the Discomfort stories. I’ve also got this project/website “Panty Connoisseur” where I talk in the voice of an hors d’oeuvre—like a tartlet—about panties as though they are art objects. There’s a short collection of very short things—essays maybe—that I’ve been slowly working on for years. And there’s another novel that’s just starting to take shape.
Evelyn Hampton is the author of Discomfort (Ellipsis Press) and We Were Eternal and Gigantic (Magic Helicopter Press). Her work has appeared in Conjunctions, New York Tyrant, BOMB, Birkensnake, The Brooklyn Rail, Black Warrior Review and elsewhere.
Jared Daniel Fagen is a founding editor of Black Sun Lit. His prose has recently appeared or is forthcoming in Sleepingfish and Minor Literature[s].