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A Kind of Planned Awkwardness: Michael Kimball Interviews Joseph Young

A Kind of Planned Awkwardness: Michael Kimball Interviews Joseph YoungJoseph Young’s book of microfictions, Easter Rabbit, was just released by Publishing Genius. Pasha Malla says, “One is tempted to compare Joseph Young’s marvelous collection of microfictions to many things — miniature portraits, maybe, or model ships inside bottles, or flashes of lives glimpsed through windows in the night.” A while back, Joseph Young interviewed me, as a reader, about one of his stories, “Eleven,” at Flash Fiction. So I thought that I would interview him about the same story, which is collected in Easter Rabbit, and I thought that I would do it by asking questions that will discuss each of the 30 words in “Eleven.”

Eleven

As she read essays, she plaited one side of her hair. You’d last forever, he said, up from his puzzle. The green light of some vehicle tracked across the ceiling.

Michael Kimball: Let’s start with the first word, As, which inaugurates the story with an adverbial participle and has some nice acoustical relations with last and puzzle and tracked. Could you talk about the choices behind starting the story with As and how you think about acoustics in your microfictions?

Joseph Young: I think I have a desire in some of my stories to start them with a kind of planned awkwardness, a moment of dislocation for the reader. I want them to come in a bit confused. Wait, what’s going on here? Who are these people, what are they doing? Starting with the As is almost like assuming the reader should know what’s going on, throwing them to the mercy of the situation. Something is happening, As, and something else is happening to that something concurrently. I think it’s awkward to make that assumption of precedent when there isn’t one. It’s also a bit awkward grammatically. The “stronger” sentence would probably start with the main clause, the plaiting of the hair, especially in this position in the story. As is even a bit bland, neither subject nor action, though it implies both. That awkwardness, the inversion of both sentence structure and storytelling, I suppose it’s like meeting someone shy at a party. You ask them a question and they mumble out a sort of strange, dislocated answer, awkward. In that situation, you might either turn away, find someone else to talk to, or you might lean in a little closer. What’s that? Who are you? What did you say?

Sound is really how I make sense of what I write. It’s often that I don’t understand the content of my stories. I’m not certain why the people in them are doing and saying what they are. I don’t understand why the imagery I’m using should be used. I work by feel a lot, trusting that if a line of dialogue and a certain image give off an energy when put next to each other, then they are worth pursuing as parts of a story. If these things radiate any kind of meaningfulness then I’m okay with not knowing what they mean. But it’s their sound, the rhythm of the words, the balance and dissonance between hard sounds and soft, that lets me know I’m on the right track. If the story fills the ear in the right way, it’s got to fill the head correctly too. The beat of As and last and puzzle, yeah, it sounds right, has the right music. You don’t need to understand music to move along in it.

Kimball: Since you said that you don’t understand why the imagery you use should be used, that’s what I want to talk about. Without talking about what they mean, could you talk about the meaningfulness that is radiated by some key words that create the imagery? I’m thinking of the first use of she, the verb plaited, the pronoun he, the noun phrase green light, and the way the use of ceiling works at the last word.

Young: Green light is the easiest of these probably, so I’ll start there. Green is go, and it’s something growing. It is a light that is growing? The story to me is kind, sweet. This couple, who I so often write about, whoever they are, they aren’t always getting along so well. But in this story, the he, he’s seems quite content, quite enamored of her, of she. That green light, which I guess is a bit otherwordly (what kind of vehicle makes such a light?), likely is rather lovely, up there on the ceiling, slowly tracking slowly. The story ends there, in the air, above them, and this is nice. They have a future, it appears, up in that green light, though maybe that is mostly in he, in he’s mind, while she, she’s still down below, reading essays. The story perhaps quite naturally starts with she, there down below, while he, up from his puzzle, he rises, with his light, to the ceiling.

Kimball: The future, the use of forever is another notable word choice, but I feel as if he is saying it while she isn’t necessarily agreeing with it. The contraction, You’d, gives us You would last forever instead of You will last forever. So I feel as if that bit of dialogue gives the piece a nice kind of tension there. Could you talk about that, your use of said (instead of some other verb), and why you have he look up from his puzzle (and whether the puzzle is a puzzle he’s working on or an expression on his face)?

A Kind of Planned Awkwardness: Michael Kimball Interviews Joseph YoungYoung: Well, I don’t know what kind of puzzle it is. I could guess, but I think this would be unwise, better to let it stay a puzzle. It’s preferable to me not to know, in any case. But he looks up from it because, how else will he see her? If he’s lost in a puzzle, perhaps she is something he is sure of, even if she isn’t? You’d last forever, he said, even if he, and they, didn’t? And he said it because he might otherwise says it. He said it, yesterday, or, I don’t know, last year. Whenever it was, back then, right now, in the telling, it is the future. What’s that future? Did they, or he, last forever? She would, of that I’m sure.

Kimball: Why is it preferable to not know? Also, you didn’t really talk about You’d. Why did you use the contraction instead of two words?

Young: The mystery of the things you write, how they got there, out of your head, on to the paper, and then, whatever does the heavy lifting in the writing process, the thing that makes up the puzzles, back there in the dark of the head, it’s better than me, smarter. I’m wary to disturb it.

You’d, I think you were onto that pretty close yourself. You will, or you would? You would is less determinant, less set. It doesn’t even quite make sense. You would, from whose vantage? And yet, to him, I think it does mean, even if he couldn’t say what it means. It’s more generous, isn’t it? If she will last forever, she would do so regardless, from whichever vantage, his or another’s. I guess, though, I’m still not answering your question, why the contraction. Oh, I know, because it sounds better. You would is one too many beats, the wrong cadence. Plus, you’d have to drag your lips across the w, and slow the sentence down. He wants to say it while it’s there, before it gets away, before that green light comes and goes.

Kimball: The speed of the sentence, yes, the contraction gives it a certain lightness. Speed, though, there are a bunch of places where the words force the reader to slow down (which I don’t mean in a negative way, it’s more considerate and thoughtful)—the repetition of she in the first sentence and those five single-syllable words at the end of the first sentence, one side of her hair. That speed sets the thoughtful, considered tone of the piece and the phrasing is echoed in the prepositional phrases at the ends of the other two sentences—[up from his puzzle] and across the ceiling. I wasn’t sure if I was going to ask a question here, but here it is: Is there anything that you’d like to say about the syntactical repetition?

Young: That last phrase of the first sentence, one side of her hair, you might say has a similarity to the other sentence endings as well, even though there we have an object of the verb rather than of the preposition. There is a similar running down in volume in each of those phrases, a descending in voice. I like the additive power of those kinds of repetitions. But the she read, she plaited, perhaps we get that these are similar actions, with similar intents. Maybe we see there is some basis for their concurrency. By the way, I didn’t consider this until now, but the plaiting of her hair, is that a puzzling of it too?

Kimball: We only have six words left and two of them are read essays. Why the choice that she read essays rather than, say, a novel or a newspaper or a magazine? I imagine a certain thoughtfulness, a kind of attentiveness, that goes with the plaited hair, but maybe you were after something else?

Young: I will reiterate that in terms of sense, logic, I wasn’t after anything in particular, with those words or any. Most of what I’ve said here in this (exceptionally enjoyable) interview has been guesses after the fact, information revealed to me as I answered your questions. But that out of the way, the essays, presumably factual, seem to be a different track for she than for he, who tends to be in the air about things. Maybe I’ll brush aside my earlier reservation and speculate that his puzzle is her, the stuff inside her head, the twistings of whatever logic she’s engaged in. She read essays, as he attempted to read her. Except for him, it’s about light, color, and maybe this is the trouble at the heart of the story, the misconnect of color and fact. In fact, I’d guess a lot of my stories are about this, people trying to piece together meaning out of humid clouds of words (a phrase from Young’s microfiction, “Epistemology”). In other words, they make, or don’t make, meaning from things without meaning. They are often lost in this attempt, although they still do have each other, for now.

Kimball: The four words we haven’t discussed yet are in the phrase, The green light of some vehicle. I don’t really have a question about this specific The, but maybe you can give us your thoughts on articles? And I feel as if you’ve already answered a question about of some vehicle, even though I haven’t asked one, but maybe there’s something you’d like to say about the phrase that would surprise me?

Young: Articles propel the sentence, push it off and keep it moving. The two vehicles of Buddhism are the lesser and the greater. The lesser is that the liberation of the self from suffering is first, while the greater wants first to free any being from suffering. The bodhisattva is propelled by compassion. Thanks a lot, Michael.

Michael Kimball’s third novel, Dear Everybody, is now out in the US, UK, and Canada. The Believer calls it “a curatorial masterpiece.” Time Out New York calls the writing “stunning.” And the Los Angeles Times says the book is “funny and warm and sad and heartbreaking.” His first two novels are The Way the Family Got Away (2000) and How Much of Us There Was (2005), both of which have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. He is also responsible for the ongoing art project—Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard)—and the documentary films, I Will Smash You (2009) and 60 Writers/60 Places (2010

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