Author Interview: Douglas Trevor
The Author of The Book of Wonders on silliness as loneliness, reading during the summer months, and giving a story time to present itself
Doug is a local favorite of Literati, whenever he stops into the bookstore it can be quite difficult for him to leave without chatting with all of our booksellers. Our conversation focused primarily on summer reading and the release of Doug’s new book, a short story collection titled The Book of Wonders. Colm Tóibín shared the following when speaking about the collection: “The stories in this masterly collection are peopled with characters who are made to confront their frustrated ambitions, their existential misgivings, and their physical and moral shortcomings in deftly controlled narratives which are, by turns, darkly humorous, teasingly satirical and wickedly erudite. Extraordinary in their range of subject matter, from riffs on Greek mythology to bang up to the minute dystopias, these stories leave the reader with much to ponder and admire.”
Douglas Trevor is the author of the novel Girls I Know (SixOneSeven Books, 2013), which won the 2013 Balcones Fiction Prize, and the short story collection The Thin Tear in the Fabric of Space (University of Iowa Press, 2005), which won the 2005 Iowa Short Fiction Award and was a finalist for the 2006 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction. Doug’s short fiction has appeared most recently as a Ploughshares Solo, and in The Iowa Review, New Letters, and the Michigan Quarterly Review. He has also had stories in The Paris Review, Glimmer Train, Epoch, Black Warrior Review, The New England Review, and about a dozen other literary magazines. Doug lives in Ann Arbor, where he is the current Director of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program, and a Professor of Renaissance Literature in the English Department at the University of Michigan. The Book of Wonders will be published this upcoming October by SixOneSeven Books.
Doug will be participating in multiple events with Literati this fall. On October 17th Doug will be reading from The Book of Wonders, and on October 23rd he will be in-conversation with literary critic Bill Goldstein. Both events will take place at Literati Bookstore and begin at 7 PM.
Though you are a fiction writer, it’s quite common for all of us to enjoy reading multiple genres. I’m wondering: are there any other genres, besides fiction, which you find yourself drawn to during the summer months?
Actually, my reading obsession this summer was Svetlana Alexievich. I believe she’s best known for Voices From Chernobyl, which is haunting and mesmerizing, but I was even more wowed by Secondhand Time, an oral history of the Soviet era, which was particularly interesting to read during this summer of intrigue regarding Trump and possible Russian collusion. I’m obsessed with Russian history and literature. I set off to reread War and Peace in June but (like the French) I got bogged down in the 1812 campaign, at which point I just skipped around and read all the scenes in which Pierre figures. He’s my favorite fictional character. (I guess, just as my nonfiction reading usually ends up meandering back to fiction, so too do my answers to questions about genres other than fiction.)
I should add, I’m always rereading Shakespeare, as I teach his plays more than any other texts, and John Donne is a writer who matters to me in something of a singular way, so I usually have a book of his poems nearby.
From what you’ve mentioned to me, your schedule is often quite hectic, and the summer months do not necessarily guarantee an overwhelming amount of free time. You’re a writer of both novels and short stories, a scholar of the early modern period, a professor who works alongside both undergraduate and graduate students, the director of the Helen Zell Writer’s Program, and you’re a father of two. I should also note that there are more responsibilities which I am most likely missing — sorry! How do you find time to read, let alone write, with so much on your plate?
I think everyone is busy in her or his own way, so don’t give me too much credit. Actually, a lot of what I do is really fun. Directing the Helen Zell Writers’ Program means being able to work with — and get to know — extremely talented young writers, and I love that. My kids are now 11 and 14 respectively so mostly we just mess around, especially in the summer. The only way I get writing done is by getting up early in the morning, before the kids, and sitting in front of my laptop for a few hours, which is actually manageable, provided I can avoid email or other forms of self-distraction (like over-watering my plants). So the morning is when I try to produce new pages. Then there is the chaos that comes with being a parent and having a dog and a job, but often in the afternoon or early evening I can do revisions or return for a little bit to whatever I’m working on. In a way, reading is the hardest thing for which to make time because it’s easy to push that to the end of the day and then it’s tempting to just fall asleep. I feel that my own diminishing attention span doesn’t manifest itself as much in my writing (at least when it’s going reasonably well) as it does in my reading. I tend to skip around from book to book, unless I’m utterly drawn in by a text. But I tell myself that maybe this isn’t an altogether bad thing, as I feel less consciously influenced by single authors as a result.
I guess I should add, in my own experience, that one mistake I think we make as writers is to think that we have to “wipe away all trivial fond records,” as Hamlet says, and just concentrate on a single project. This can make the prospect of writing an individual story or poem or novel feel even more overwhelming than it already does. Being busy can help diminish the self-awareness that sometimes makes it hard to write. But being too busy is the worst — that feeling of just bouncing from one task to the next. I like to be in between those two extremes.
I want to hear more about your forthcoming short story collection, The Book of Wonders. I’ve read an initial review of the collection and am excited to see how the various stories in the book might possibly offer an overall shape, or aesthetic to the collection. Were these stories written in close proximity to one another? Were there certain stories which you wanted to be placed in a book together?
The first story I wrote for the collection is entitled “The Librarian” — about a librarian whose fixation on material books gets him into trouble at work. I wrote the first draft of this story almost ten years ago, and it was very much a stand-alone piece. Then, when I finished Girls I Know, I didn’t feel ready to start another novel, so I decided to develop a story idea I had been sitting on for a bit — about a burned-out academic who defrauds the university where he works to pay his brother, a recovering addict, to build a deck on the back of his house. That story is called “The Program in Profound Thought” and when I finished it I realized that its protagonist, like the protagonist in “The Librarian,” had been kind of wrecked — but also saved — by his love of reading and books. There was tremendous chatter at this time, four years ago or so, about the demise of the material book, the rise of the Kindle, etc. So I went through the pile of ideas I had for stories and began to pluck out and develop those in which books figured prominently, which also — maybe not surprisingly — meant a lot of stories about people failing to connect with other people, or misreading the world in really massive, dreamy ways. I should say, there are also several stories in the collection in which unlikely folks do connect with other people, in part because of a shared fondness for a book. So most of the stories were written with these themes in mind, and most were composed over about a three-year period. Finally, the last story in the collection is a dystopic one set in the near future in which the need to literally write stories is eliminated by a machine that transposes narrative directly from the brain of a writer to that of a reader, with disastrous results. That story is called “Easy Writer” and it was conceived of from the start as the story that would bring the collection to a close. I wouldn’t have written it otherwise.
It’s always fascinated me how particular books, or songs, or films, or just works of art in general, can become the symbol for a certain period of time, or a particular moment in a person’s life. Can you think of any novels, or short story collections, or works of art in general which are definitive of a previous summer?
Oh, sure. I think I discovered Ray Carver’s work one summer in high school and that was transformative for me. Three summers ago I read a lot of Alice Munro stories — just one after the other. It was great. George Saunders’s collection Pastoralia strikes me as a perfect summer read; it’s so fun and inventive. And, of course, one great thing about “discovering” a new short story writer, or committing to a short story writer whose work you admire, is that in the summer months you can read a lot of short stories.
You have two characters whose wittiness, tactfulness, and overall subtle silliness I can’t get enough of. To be clear, I’m thinking about Walt and Colin — the protagonist of your novel, Girls I Know, and the protagonist of your novella, ‘The Detroit Frankfurt Discussion Group.” What unique abilities might a witty and satirical protagonist offer a writer of longer stories?
Great question. Yes, Colin is one of those characters I was thinking of when I mentioned people in The Book of Wonders who forge unlikely connections with others. In Colin’s case, he’s kidnapped by a group of political theorists and taken to Detroit, in part because the leader of this group is someone who — like Colin — has been moved by the writings of Max Horkheimer. And Walt in Girls I Know — now that I think about it — ends up sharing similarly bookish common ground with Mercedes Bittles, in their case the poetry of Robert Frost. In both instances, I’m trying to make the claim (as cheesy and obvious as it sounds) that people who read the same books will have an opportunity to relate to one another that might otherwise be even more complicated for them for all sorts of reasons (differences of religion, race, economic background, education, and so on). I don’t think a democratic country can thrive without a set of shared texts and I fear we’re losing these texts every day, which is why — in my mind — our nation is in decline. Think, for example, of the bifurcated state of our new sources. Not just “fake news” but what some outlets choose to report on and what other outlets choose to ignore. Some measure of commonality is crucial for any democracy, however otherwise flawed.
What I was trying to build in several stories in The Book of Wonders is something akin to a funnel. The reader begins with a character who seems almost to be a parody of a real person. But then the situations and circumstances in which that character exists are revealed to have created some of the outlandish practices or habits of thought associated with the character. So by the end of the story, what started out as seeming silly will hopefully feel less so. I guess my premise is that if our own interior monologues were put down on paper void of context, most of us would sound a little crazy. (When was the last time I ate broccoli? Is that a new pothole? Why don’t all birds eat the same kind of seeds?) The power of satire lies in its capacity to externalize what otherwise remains left under the surface.
Additionally, I think that what can make a character seem “silly” in a story or novel is connected to an overdeveloped interior monologue, which is usually a sign of loneliness. Which is another way of saying that there can be something very sad about silliness, which is why reading novels about silly characters can sometimes make us feel melancholic. The best example I can think of in this regard is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole. A silly, hilarious book, but at its core, it’s a meditation on feeling set apart from others. The same is true, of course, for Don Quixote; it’s funny throughout, but taken as a whole, the book is very sad.
A fellow bookseller and I recently found ourselves talking about the association between summer months and the reading of novels. Obviously we can make multiple arguments regarding the increased availability of leisure time throughout summer months — whether it’s summer vacation from school, or vacation time one takes from their place of work, or one of the multiple national holidays. We might also point to the warmer weather and constant traveling as a possible catalyst. Still, there’s something about fiction and the summer which just seems so natural and at times necessary. Why do you think this is the case?
My own work schedule is such that I guess — at least technically — I consider the springtime more of a catalyst for creative work than the summer. This is partly because I tend not to teach during the Michigan “spring” term (May and June), while my kids are still in school. So I usually have a lot more time to myself than normal, which I really treasure. Your question is a fun one to historicize. In the Renaissance, May Day activities were largely intended to bring people together to socialize in ways that weren’t possible in the cold months. A lot of literature associated with the warm months is, perhaps not surprisingly, lighthearted and communal. Most of Shakespeare’s comedies, for example, are set in the spring or summer. Twelfth Night (my favorite of the bunch) was first performed in the winter, but the title alludes to the Feast of the Epiphany, which was the “May Day” of the winter liturgical calendar. No one complains about cold weather in Twelfth Night, as they do in Hamlet. Likewise, a lot of elegies (like Edmund Spenser’s “November” in his Shepheardes Calender [sic]) are situated in those months in which (at least pre-global warming) it begins to cool off. I think what your question connects with regards to fiction and the summer is the joy some of us feel in being able to absorb creative work in the warmer months, when we might feel more relaxed than at other times, even if we are working the same amount. The answer seems to me, simply put, to be about weather, for those of us who live in places with different seasons. But, again, I fear that’s changing as our planet warms.
“Endymion,” a short story which appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of The Iowa Review and is included in The Book of Wonders, is one of those stories you can reread and reread and somehow still find something new to enjoy about it. Where did this story come from and how much of it was altered throughout the process of revision?
Like a lot of my stories, this one gestated for a long time before I tried to put it down on paper. There is a play written by John Lyly in the late 1500s called Endymion. It was very popular when it was first performed and I taught it not that many years ago. Across the board, my students found it to be really inaccessible, even by the standards of early modern texts. In an attempt to try to figure out a way into the play for them, I ended up researching the myth of Endymion a little. Largely the myth is about a dysfunctional relationship between a male shepherd and the moon (gendered as female), and I thought flipping the gender roles (so the male figure, rather than the female, is largely inaccessible to the ardent lover), and then placing the story squarely within a contemporary context might be really cool. For a lot of writers, of course myths, fables, and old texts are creatively generative. (For example, consider Colm Tóibín’s most recent novel, House of Names, which is based on the Oresteia). The initial draft of the story actually stuck somewhat close to the Lyly play. When I showed it to Harry Stecopoulos at The Iowa Review, he suggested to me that I explain the myth more within the story — that I make the story less opaque, in other words. So that took a round of revisions, after which the story began to cohere.
The Endymion figure in my version of the myth is inscrutable and slightly menacing and while he’s not the central character, he looms at the center of the story, casting a shadow over the true protagonist, Cynthia, who is both in love with — and slightly afraid of — him. I found it really easy to generate scenes in which these two characters were misunderstanding each other. Too easy. I had to cut out a number of scenes that were, in essence, doing the same thing over and over. Once I cut the story in half from its earliest version, it was basically done. The very last scene, and the very beginning scene, remained the same throughout the process. Everything else changed, which isn’t unusual for me.