The Rumpus Interview with Norman Lock

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I first encountered Norman Lock’s writing in the spring of 2011. A collaborative event from Vol.1 Brooklyn and Big Other brought together a number of writers; one of the writers representing Big Other there was Norman Lock. I ended up ordering a copy of his Grim Tales, my interest piqued by the fact that Matt Bell had written the introduction. It didn’t hurt that Blake Butler had reviewed the book glowingly for The Believer.

Reading it, I encountered a series of short works that fit somewhere between fables and aphorisms, surrounded by phantasmic evocations of a larger narrative. After hearing Lock read, I sought out more of his work, including the collection Pieces for Small Orchestra & Other Fictions and the novel Shadowplay. Lock’s work mines the stuff of dreams, both for substance and for setting. He is equally at home in filtering realistic narratives through an unconventional perspective (as in The King of Sweden and The Long Rowing Unto Morning) as he is in dwelling in the realm of dreams and the unconscious.

Last year saw the release of the collection Love Among the Particles, on Bellevue Literary Press. (Full disclosure: I helped to introduce author and publisher.) Spanning several decades of Lock’s work, it encompasses everything from riffs on classical characters to the beguilingly structured “The Love of Stanley Marvel and Claire Moon,” winner of The Paris Review’s Aga Khan Prize for Fiction in 1979. 2013 also saw the release of Escher’s Journal. And May 2014 brought with it The Boy in His Winter, in which Huck Finn and Jim set forth down the Mississippi River and journey through a century and a half of American history, to alternatingly thrilling and horrific effect.

This interview was conducted via e-mail over the course of several months in 2013 and 2014.

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The Rumpus: Some of your novels have the same force of an extended monologue—I’m thinking in particular of The King of Sweden and The Long Rowing Unto Morning. I know that you have a background in writing for the stage; to what extent do your work in prose and in drama inform one another?

Norman Lock: There is something in what you say, Tobias: my fondness for extended monologue might have been encouraged by two decades of writing stage and radio dramas. Many of my short fictions use theatre as a metaphor for situations in which characters find themselves estranged from the larger, uncontrollable world that may or may not lie beyond the proscenium arch. Pieces for Small Orchestra & Other Fictions, Shadowplay, and, to a lesser degree, A History of the Imagination exploit the idea of a theatrical space as a beleaguered hermitage or scriptorium. (I hoped that my nervous renunciation of the world was mitigated by guilt for having done so; that my delight in form and artifice is humanized by the constant interrogation of myself as a social being with obligations.) Emotional, physical, and spiritual estrangement and ontological and religious doubt inform my personality, my thoughts, and my characters, which are, more often than not, masks for my own being and my being in the world—a world that frightens me insofar as I don’t understand it.

ShadowplayTheatre aside, my penchant for the extended monologue began with my reading of Browning’s dramatic monologues, in high school. My inclination to adopt the form for prose was confirmed by Richard Howard’s book of dramatic monologues, Untitled Subjects. I had hoped to be a poet, and for a long time I tried to write poetry. My first published pieces were poems.

As a practical matter, I like the dramatic monologue for its compelling intimacy. To be inside one’s character, to register his or her every vagrant thought, emotion, and response—the first-person viewpoint grants this privilege and immediacy. I used to teach writing in a federal prison, and for my students’ benefit, I would liken the narrative use of this highly personal point of view to a boxer’s getting in close to his opponent. With it, the writer and the reader are “in the clinches.” For the stories I want to tell, this is exactly where I want to be. One additional benefit accrues: a first-person voice helps to ensure the uniformity and cohesiveness of the narrative; it gathers unto itself incidents and characters in its unstoppable progress toward the story’s end. At least it seems so to me.

Rumpus: Several of your stories have featured yourself, or a character with many similarities to yourself, as a character. How do you go about working yourself in to your work?

Lock: I happened by chance on the device while writing A History of the Imagination. In this novel-in-stories, the narrative voice is mine, though I am not at the center of events—not the protagonist—but on the edges of the stories, observing (sometimes mistakenly) and commenting (sometimes fatuously or resentfully) on their characters and events. In these instances, Norman Lock, author, becomes Norman Lock, character. Whether this Norman Lock is identical to the individual who exists in society and writes stories that may or may not reflect upon it or is merely a mask of that “real” person is difficult to say. (I am impelled by fastidiousness to surround the words real and reality with quotation marks.) The persona in my stories may be truer to my “real” self than any alleged objective, factual “I” that I could replicate for the purposes of storytelling. Many of the stories in Love Among the Particles teeter on the fulcrum of this paradox.

Metaphysics notwithstanding, I also insert myself in my fictions for no loftier purpose than to give me pleasure: to see myself performing onstage. I’ve defended my trespass by appealing to Postmodernist notions concerning the permeable divide between observable reality and fiction, dream, or fantasy. I do believe we are actors in our own dramas, which, moment by moment, we ourselves write; that we are characters in our own fictions or those devised for us by someone or something else. Before The Boy in His Winter, which is the great divide for me, my chief preoccupation was to fabricate parables of identity for a self that appears to me inconstant and incalculable. Because of an instability at my own core, it comforts me to live, fixed, within a story. If reading is our consolation for having been allotted only one life, I find that writing oneself into a fictional world is even more comforting.

I should mention, too, that I very much like the idea of the unreliable narrator. Shaping my fictions as monologues—by introducing the “I”—allows me to be as unreliable as I like. I ought to say, as well, that I don’t appear by name in the novels, The Boy in His Winter or American Meteor. Both are extended monologues narrated by their protagonists. Of course, those protagonists are, in actuality, Norman Lock, their concerns are his. In this, I am no different from most other novelists. Earlier I admitted that I did not understand life. What I meant was that I am bewildered by human hearts and motivations, including my own.

Rumpus: Reading “The Love of Stanley Marvel & Claire Moon” in Love Among the Particles, I was struck with how it was structured, which seems like a bold decision even for something written today. When you were assembling the collection, did looking back at it have any effect on how you might be structuring something in progress?

Love Among The Particles

Lock: I wrote “The Love of Stanley Marvel & Claire Moon” in 1978, at a time of self-consciousness—an intense and nervous self-examination of my writing: its preoccupations, themes, tone, voice, structure. I’d made a young person’s mistake, valuing originality above all else. Even so, that story was not original but, like everything else in art, only a clever conflation of sources: Gass’s “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country” and Kenneth Bernard’s “King Kong: A Meditation,” for structure; Barthelme, Ashbery, Koch, and other of the New York poets, for language, color palette, and tone. Doctorow’s Ragtime and Mamet’s play The Water Engine licensed my use of the American past for purposes other than historical fiction. Mrozek’s play Vatzlav and Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago and A Life in the Theatre showed me how an action, or narrative arc, can be built in brief scenes that seem, in their compression, emblematic.

Because “Stanley Marvel” was successful (winning The Paris Review Aga Khan Prize for 1979), I clung to its “discoveries,” trying again and again to repeat its happy experience. Eventually, I came to believe, stupidly, that I had exhausted that story’s “original” form with its single use. I went on to other stories, other forms and genres. I did not use a pointillist organization again until writing the novel-in-stories A History of the Imagination and, most flagrantly, in Love Among the Particles. Most of the stories collected in the latter book have that emblematic structure in common, although not always with subheads to introduce their episodes—I think of them as scenes because they function as scenes do in plays and films. I suppose that certain stage and radio plays I’d written in the ‘90s revived my interest in the episodic structure of the early story. The Stanley Marvel story was not, at first, included in the book when I submitted it to Bellevue Literary Press; I didn’t think its “brightness” and deliberately naïve tone were consistent with the darkness of the rest.

After writing the collection’s eponymous story, “Love Among the Particles,” I realized that I could use the form to build extended narratives. My recent novels, The Boy in His Winter and American Meteor, are structured like “The Love of Stanley Marvel & Claire Moon,” written thirty-five years earlier. By the way, I acknowledge what has become my preferred narrative method, in Boy: “You say, this is no way to tell a story. That I’ve been merely threading one incident after another on a string of recollection and conjecture. Maybe so. But I don’t know any other way.”

Rumpus: Whether it’s the Mummy or M.C. Escher or Huck Finn, what is it like for you to write in the voice of someone already established, either in popular culture or in real life?

Lock: They all speak or think in the same voice, which is mine; I never try to make utterance unique to a particular character—well, in The Boy in His Winter and in American Meteor, I did somewhat, allowing an inflection and idioms characteristic of Twain’s fiction to color the narrative voices of my two novels—to decorate them, so to speak; but the words beneath, as well as the elaborate syntax, are always mine and scarcely distinguishable from those pronounced by other of my fictional characters, whether presented in the third- or the first-person. I’ve thought about this a great deal, I mean, whether there ought to be a difference from one story to another. But having labored on my own voice for so long, I don’t seem to be able to let it go. I would not care to write in the vernacular and chose not to reread The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn before writing The Boy in His Winter, so that I would not fall into Twain’s rhythms and coloration. I tell myself that, regardless of what source I draw on, I’m writing a new work for reasons peculiar to me and not an adaptation, and so feel, in the end, justified in singing it my way.

Maybe what you are really asking, Tobias, is why I choose so often to appropriate someone from the literature of the past or from real life. I think I do so for reasons of modesty (unwilling to be “confessional” except in disguise), a contradictory immodesty (excited to parade an aspect of myself), metaphysics, and congeniality. I was caught by the literature I encountered at an impressionable age (whether the historical fiction of Kenneth Roberts, which I devoured in my teens, or the examples of Ragtime and the postmodern stories I read in my twenties and thirties by Barthelme, Borges, Landolfi, Ionesco). I remember how excited I was to find Howard Johnson in a story by Max Apple, Houdini in Ragtime, and King Kong in Kenneth Bernard’s story. For whatever reason, I became infatuated by the appearance of cultural and scientific icons—real or previously invented—impressed into contemporary usage.

Rumpus: What first inspired you to write a book from the perspective of Huck Finn?

Lock: During the end of the five-year period in which I wrote A History of the Imagination (there were nearly twice as many stories written than those published in the book), I wrote a long story called “The Brothers Ascend,” in which—obedient to the method of A History—the most improbable characters converge, in 1910, mostly in Mombasa (in a fecund, metaphorical, and theatricalized Africa of the imagination). The final selection and arrangement of stories for A History included only those set in that Africa, so “The Brothers Ascend,” set in the Dayton of the Wright Brothers bicycle shop, was eliminated from the collection. (It was eventually published in Love Among the Particles.) In that story, Huck and Jim come ashore in Dayton and join H. G. Wells, the Time Traveler, Freud, Mata Hari, Horatio Alger, Wilbur, and Orville. I was pleased by my Huck and Jim and the life I’d given them in my fiction (one quite apart from Twain’s) and tried for more than a decade to resurrect them in a stage or radio play.

Rumpus: The Boy in His Winter incorporates Hurricane Katrina in its modern-day sequences. All of this made me think of the effects of Sandy a few years later on the New Jersey coastline; I was curious if that was an intentional decision: to incorporate one cataclysmic storm and allude to one that was still to come.

boy-in-his-winter-013Lock: In 2012, when Hurricane Sandy plunged my wife and me into an unsettling “powerlessness” lasting nine days, I lay in bed under blankets and coats and thought, inevitably, of Katrina. It came to me that Huck and Jim could have rafted down the Mississippi until they were blown back into time by a hurricane near New Orleans. Traveling in mythic time, they would not have aged after leaving Hannibal. (Twain fictionalized the town as St. Petersburg.) In 2005, Huck would be the same age he was when he left Hannibal in 1835: thirteen. The novel would be, I thought, the story of Huck and Jim’s slow passage down the Mississippi, through emblematic events in the history of America, especially—since Jim was aboard and the source of my book was The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—our national history of racial intolerance. During the writing, The Boy in His Winter became something more, however, than a recollection of a 170-year journey to the Gulf, made by a pair of outcasts and runaways, through a landscape of the American mythology and our literary history. (It’s also a parable of anyone’s coming into consciousness.) Their trip downriver occupies only Part One of the book’s three parts—the last, set in Hannibal, in 2077, when my Huck is eighty-five years old and free to look back on 242 years of American history.

Rumpus: When discussing the way in which he’s telling the story told in The Boy in His Winter, Huck vows to do a better job of representing Jim’s speech than Twain did. How do you find the right balance of homage to an earlier work with a critique of it?

Lock: I haven’t the stature to critique one of our literature’s great novels, Tobias; and I’m not one of those who believe The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn needs critiquing for literary or social reasons. Nor is my book a homage to Twain’s. If anything, mine is a flagrant piece of thievery that Huck—and perhaps Twain himself—might approve and enjoy. Each piece of writing I undertake, whether a story, novel, play, or poem, begins with an image. For The Boy in His Winter, it was the image of Huck and Jim blown off their raft by Hurricane Katrina. Everything that followed during the telling of my tale—what happens before the cataclysm and after it—stemmed from that first vision. The critique of social inequality, which is very much a part of my story, came about naturally from my recollection of Huck and Tom and the controversy surrounding Twain’s use of them and from my own passionate interest in civil rights, animal rights, and the right of Earth to survive humankind’s reprehensible neglect of its stewardship. American Meteor takes the latter themes to their logical conclusion and is a bleaker book than Boy.

Rumpus: I recently read Land of the Snow Men, which was presented as a found manuscript by one George Belden. Have you thought about writing something else using a voice that was not your own?

Lock: Belden’s voice is mine, spoken through that tormented character shut up in an asylum, after the scarcely endurable hardships of a failed journey to the South Pole with Scott’s 1910 expedition, which occurred, for Belden, only in his imagination. His torments, doubts, confusions, and terror are also mine. In nearly everything I write, I am like a ventriloquist, throwing my voice into my characters, animating them by the slightest twitch as I register my anxieties and alarms. This is true even in my comedies. In Land of the Snow Men I did what I’d done previously in Notes to ‘The Book of Supplementary Diagrams’ for Marco Knauff’s Universe and, for what would be the last time, in Cirque du Calder): pretend to have discovered a book written by someone else. I doubt that I’ll repeat the experiment. I’m too ambitious to give another man credit, even if that other man is only myself in disguise.

Rumpus: Your book-length poem In the Time of Rat was recently released by Ravenna Press. What was the appeal for you of writing this particular story using that particular form?

Rat front cover2.psdLock: Ever since reading Ted Hughes’s Crow in the early ‘70s, I aspired—that’s the word for how I felt in the face of his astonishing, violent, and enthralling poems—fables, really—I aspired and yearned to produce a book like that. My interest in creating a fable using one of the world’s most feared, despised, and misunderstood creatures quickened in the ‘80s with my discovery of the Andrzej Zaniewski novel Rat.

I wrote poetry almost exclusively from 1971 until I turned to playwriting in ’82. I did not write poetry again until 2008, when, having all but finished the stories compiled in Love Among the Particles, I spent three years writing prose poems (or imagistic, compressed, and lyrical brief fictions) for the as yet unpublished The Book of Imaginary Colophons: Alphabets of Desire & Sorrow. When I was awarded a fellowship in poetry by the National Endowment for the Arts (for “Alphabets”), I felt myself suddenly (vaingloriously) equal to my Crow, which would be—I knew at once—Rat. Mine, not Zaniewski’s, which bears no resemblance to the hateful and malignant presence at the center of In the Time of Rat, a long poem told, on his deathbed, by the Dutchman Nicolaas Jansen, deserter from the Thirty Years War: a narrative poem about “murdering/ the heart past hope/ and the maddened/ ones who followed/ Rat and made of it/ their God almighty.” I do seem to favor a deathbed confession as the occasion for my dramatic monologues.

Rumpus: Questions of storytelling and perception run throughout your work: the way Shadowplay is structured, for instance, or the fact that the setting of A History of the Imagination is a particularly Western imagining of the world. How do you establish the ground rules for the world in which a particular novel or story is set?

Lock: I find it only natural for a storyteller to be interested in storytelling and, for anyone who spends the better part of his or her life writing fiction, it is hardly surprising that the pleasures, worries, and mechanics of fiction-making should enter the work. It may be old hat, but I see no reason to close off what is for me a fruitful subject of inquiry, especially so for one, like me, who is very much interested in creating stories and novels of ideas.

I don’t know about ground rules, Tobias; but I create the world that arrives with the characters or situation or voice in my head that instigates the piece, whatever form it may take. Before The Boy in His Winter and American Meteor, my fictional worlds were those of a fabulist, of an intellectual fantasist. I was the lawgiver, and the countries and inhabitants of my imagination were answerable to me. If I wished for a man to levitate; to enter another’s story by rowboat or by intoning a sentence or by performing a shadow-puppet play; if I wanted him to become a swarm of intelligent elementary particles and enter the Internet and travel into the past and far into the future, it was so. For me, fiction’s great gift—to writer and reader, alike— is freedom. In The Boy in His Winter and American Meteor, I granted myself the gift but also admitted to my obligation as a human being in a real world—one where the word real is not enclosed by quotation marks.


Tobias Carroll lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York. His writing has recently been published by Tin House, The Collagist, Underwater New York, The Paris Review Daily, Necessary Fiction, Bookforum, The Collagist, The Collapsar, and Joyland. He is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and can be found on Twitter at @TobiasCarroll. More from this author →