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Anything could be a story: An interview with Rachel B. Glaser

by Michael Kimball

Anything could be a story: An interview with Rachel B. Glaser

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Picture by Publishing Genius Press

July 11, 2011

Rachel B. Glaser grew up in northern New Jersey. She studied at the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst. Her collection of short stories, Pee on Water, was published by Publishing Genius Press and her poetry chapbook, Heroes Are So Long, is out from Minutes Books. She has stories recently out or about to be out in McSweeney's, Cousin Corrine's Reminder, and 30 Under 30. You can read her stories here or here. To see Ms. Glaser’s poems, news, animations, paintings, check out her blog.

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Michael Kimball: “Pee on Water” was the first story of yours that I ever read and I was so amazed by what you do in it that I wrote you a fan letter. It’s a story of incredible scope - in nine pages, you tell a kind of history of the world - and I’m wondering how you came up with that idea and then how you figured out a way to turn that idea into actual narrative.

Rachel B. Glaser: The idea for the story "Pee on Water" came directly from the story I wrote just before it, "Michael Jordan, in general." In an early draft of "Michael Jordan, in general," I had one paragraph that was about what happened in America between the time of the first game of basketball played and Michael Jordan entering the NBA. I summed up this time period loosely, with no specifics or dates. For example: "The animals ran to the woods. The woods got cut into pieces." This paragraph was a fun break from the story, and my friend Mojo urged me to lengthen it. I added specific events, but also things that happen everyday—sort of smushing up culture in a guitar solo of sentences. I stretched this out to a couple pages and it became the main part of the story.

I had so much fun writing that 'guitar solo' and knew I wanted to try a story that was a guitar solo from the beginning of earth and into the future. I felt like I could write a story that was a guided ‘vision quest’ of history for the reader - more spontaneous and visceral and unofficial than a history book.

I began researching the history of the world, focusing on the materials on our planet and when they were introduced, imagining them combining with other materials. I skimmed a lot of history books at Barnes and Noble and Wikipedia articles, grabbing the parts that seemed interesting to me, and sometimes writing a scene based on them.

The phrase 'pee on water' had already been stuck in my mind. The phrase sounded strange to me, yet it was this plain explanation of an overlooked action of many people's day. I thought the story might track this aspect of human and animal life as it changed through history. "Pee on Water" became a scattered record of human behaviors and trends. Instead of trying to make it sound authoritative and scientific, I imagined a history written by a seventeen-year-old girl, and the difference in perspective compared to the typical historian.

Michael Kimball: I was talking with the great publishing genius Adam Robinson about your stories and I made the observation that a lot of your stories seem as if they must have started with an idea, rather than, say, a character, or an image, or a particular sentence or a feeling, etc. I don’t know if that is actually true, but I’m thinking of stories like “The Magic Umbrella” and “The Jon Lennin Xperience” and “Iconographic Conventions.”

Adam suggested that it might be because you’re a visual artist as well as a fiction writer - which is also a way of being a visual artist, I think. So I guess this is a two-parter: do most of your stories start as an idea? And, if so, does that have anything to do with you being a visual artist?

Rachel B. Glaser: Interesting, Michael - you are right on. At least half of the stories in POW started from ideas, while the others started from characters or situation. All of the stories you listed started as ideas. It is easier and more fun for me to write from an idea. It becomes an experiment I'm trying to pull off. I like the story before I've started it. With "The Magic Umbrella" and "Iconographic Conventions," it felt especially like a challenge. Both times I felt I was working on a ridiculous puzzle. I kept thinking, How can I end this? When I finished "The Magic Umbrella," I thought it was maybe the stupidest thing I had ever written, but then decided it was the most fun story I had ever written.

I sometimes write characters and setting just to get to the idea. I build a story around the idea. This is why some of my characters appear flat and why I usually don't mind.

I hadn't connected that way of thinking to my work as a visual artist, but now that you've mentioned it, I can see ways in which they are related. For instance, I was working on my final art project at RISD, which had begun from this idea I had of white chocolate Michaelangelo's Davids melting on a hot plate. This idea changed form, and the project became like an animal. Like I had to learn how to make a crystal elephant spin and that dragged me to Radio Shack, and I had to learn how to create a fountain of ink, and try making a David cast in shampoo, and one in aluminum, and one in ice. It felt like my project was guiding me and making demands of me, and it was exhilarating to follow through and give it what it wanted. That feeling is similar to the one I felt writing "The Magic Umbrella," "Iconographic Conventions" and "The Jon Lennin Xperience." I have to write what? I felt at different points, when I found myself writing ridiculous things. These were things I never would have written without the original idea dragging me through new weird territory. This is my favorite feeling when writing.

Michael Kimball: I have a similar response to those stories, but mostly as a statement rather than a question: I can’t believe she just did that—and it worked. So I’d like to take one of those stories and ask you to take us through it in steps. I’m particularly fascinated with “Iconographic Conventions of Pre- and Early Renaissance: Italian Representations of the Flagellation of Christ.” What was the original idea for that story? How did you decide to move from the formal, academic language of the opening pages to the casual description of Christ that compares his long face to a horse’s face? And then how did you get from that to Japanese girl’s essay on Kurt Cobain’s voice and the text from the Kobe Bryant rape trial and finally the Jimi Hendrix postcard? 

Rachel B. Glaser: I had been curious about the different voices and tones possible in an essay. A friend sent me a very involved, wordy essay about Renaissance painting he had written years ago for a class. I sort of scoffed at it, but also was amazed by it. It was surprising that someone I knew could write as elaborately and scholarly as an art history textbook. As I read it, I started to fool around, cutting out words and paring down the language.

I thought it was funny that a paper on iconographic repetitions was so repetitive. The language of the paper was very authoritative and different than my own. I thought it would be interesting if the formal academic voice of the paper slowly morphed into my voice, or if the paper started discussing off topic, unexpected things.

With my friend's permission, I took the art history essay and went crazy with it. By allowing myself to move associatively from one topic to the next, I ended up talking about things that I often think about. Some of these things I hadn't realized were related. Similar to my process for the story "Pee on Water," I stuck researched facts next to my own nonsense and enjoyed how the two combined.

Jesus, Hendrix, Cobain, and Kobe are all male icons with a tragic/dark past, but I travel between them in an indirect way. Since I was working with a shifting narrative voice and creating quotes and references, I found it possible to swim between topics - though sometimes I swam awkwardly. I wanted the essay/story to make the reader feel like this boring, high-toned, complicated art history paper was slowly opening itself into a secret territory of strange truths.

The early, casual descriptions of Christ were a sign of the unraveling to come. I wanted to catch the reader's attention with that inconsistent slip in tone. I wanted to dance all over The Bible/Internet. My goal was for readers to come away from the story in a dreamy, analytical mood that allowed them to make odd connections between things.

Michael Kimball: Sticking with our visual artist theme, I’m wondering if some of those narrative moves come out of your experience as a visual artist - that is, the re-using, recycling, and borrowing material from other sources. I’m thinking of all the materials the contemporary artists use to make things and I see you doing it with fiction - using all kinds of words, and language from so many different genres or forms. Is there a connection there?

Rachel B. Glaser: I do think some of those narrative moves are inspired by visual arts. I was studying painting and animation at RISD at the same time I was becoming serious about writing. In my fiction classes at Brown, many of my classmates were trying to write a "classic traditional" story at the same time I was realizing that anything could be a story.

At RISD I was taking a class called Experiments in Drawing in which the teacher asked us to open our interpretation of drawing. In our most open definition of drawing, the dotted line on a highway is a drawing, a plate of food is a drawing, a layer of dust, etc. Our teacher, Shelia Pepe, pushed us to find things that were just outside of this open definition of drawing - a dance, or a piece of sweaty cheese stuck to the wall.

That way of thinking did cross over to my fiction. I began to understand the amount of freedom I had when writing. The art world spends more time challenging the expectations of viewers, fighting against what has already been done. This sort of innovation has definitely had a lasting influence on my writing.

Michael Kimball: We’ve already talked about this some, but I’d like it if you talked about other ways that your stories challenge the expectations of readers.

Rachel B. Glaser: I am always interested in ways to challenge the expectations of readers, and there seem to be an infinite number of ways to do so. I recently read a short short story by Robert Coover that used time in an insane way. He was able to write sentences that were like M.C. Escher staircases. A character would consider ordering a beer, and would have already finished it a few words later in the same sentence, without any mention of him ordering it or drinking it.

One of the ways my stories challenge expectations is subject matter. In my collection I write about a John Lennon reality-video game, the communications of a sign-language speaking chimpanzee, a walking and talking stick creature, and characters communicating telepathically though they have never met. There is so much predictable and familiar fiction in the world that I find I have a lot to work with/against. I have fun presenting a potentially sentimental situation and finding a new way through it.

Though sometimes I enjoy grabbing the reader's attention in the opening lines of a story, I often try to start a story as traditional-sounding as possible, to lull the reader into an assumption that the rest of the story will follow suit. It is my aim to disrupt this lull later in the story, as one of my favorite elements in art is the unexpected moments in the middle of a piece. For instance, the story within the story of The World According To Garp, the diary sequence in the film V for Vendetta, all of the film Synecdoche, New York, all of the book The Little Girl Who Was Too Fond of Matches, the drunken singing in Cassavetes films, the games within games in "Zelda," "Super Mario Brothers 3," and "Mystic Ninja." To read a story is already transportive, but to be surprised or amazed within the piece is to fall even deeper in its spell, often shaking the reader/viewer briefly out of the dream before they can sink back into it.

Michael Kimball: Here’s the wrap question. I was going to ask you something about basketball, like who your favorite player is or if you might write a basketball novel, but I have to ask something else I’ve been thinking about for a while: The things that you’re doing with stories, can they work on the level of the novel?

Rachel B. Glaser: My favorite current basketball player is Joakim Noah. I love really expressive players with a lot of heart. I also love Derrick Rose, Tony Allen, Ron Artest, Steve Nash, and many more. I grew interested in the NBA through Dennis Rodman and the late 90's Bulls. I have had a couple ideas for basketball stories, even a basketball screenplay, but none have gotten too far along, yet.

Your real question though - which feels sort of grave, like the last question in a job interview - is a good question. It’s one I've been asking myself for the last few months. I have a notebook that is almost entirely my thoughts on how I would write a novel, and what I like in other people's novels. I've been wanting to start one soon. I think the way I write stories can be adapted into a novel in one of two ways. One, I could write a scenario-based story, like "The Monkey Handler" or one of my other, more plot-based stories, and more fully develop it. Most of my stories don't fully describe the setting or take the time to fully explain a character - their appearance, their past, their personality, their habits. I sort of breeze by these details in the sweep of the story. I think I could write a story with a slower pace and spend more time with the characters, while still writing in my style.

The other way I see myself writing a novel is to write a more experimental novel, like Barthelme's Paradise or Jonathan Safran Foer's Everything is Illuminated, or Lorrie Moore's Anagrams - there are so many - a novel that creates its own form, or contains stories within stories. A novel that mutates along, and the mutation is its own arc. A third way to imagine writing a novel is in the spirit of Jane Bowles's Two Serious Ladies, which to me is the spirit of 'just do it!', a seemingly plan-less, aimless, beautiful mess. All of these ways sound appealing to me.

All said, I do really love short stories. Their form has become very natural and reassuring to me. I think they are slyly ambitious, and humble and pure. They aren't asking for all of your time. They are trusting you to fill in the empty spaces.

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Michael Kimball is the author of four books, including Dear Everybody and, most recently, Us

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Arts & Culture Editor: Jeff Jackson

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