The Rumpus Interview with D. Foy

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Reading D. Foy is like stepping on a hornet nest—in the best way! His prose is topnotch, sonic and squalid and beautiful. He also knows how to spin a hell of a yarn.

His new novel Patricide is a kaleidoscopic look at issues ricocheting around our world right now—masculinity, legacy, genetic betrayals, truth—and Rumpus family friend Joshua Mohr lobbed some questions to D to celebrate the release of this stunning and important new work.

[D. Foy and Joshua Mohr spoke back in 2014 about his novel Made to Break and “gutter opera,” a form of novel that Foy invented and that distills multiple voices into one narrative. –Ed.]

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The Rumpus: You are the mastermind behind the whole “gutter opera” on the page, that wonderful combination of squalor in a story’s essence and emotion, while imparting beauty on the sentence level, a cocktail that worked so well in your first book. Did you try using the same techniques here? Or did Patricide require its own sovereign codes of construction?

Foy: Nothing I’ve ever done has followed the same protocols. This isn’t to say that’s not the case with many other writers—Kurt Vonnegut comes to mind, and George Saunders, Flannery O’Connor, T.C. Boyle, Jonathan Franzen, Stephen King, John Cheever, Georges Simenon, and even Elena Ferrante and Joan Didion, among others, writers who, for all their wonder and power, often come off—to me at least, and certainly I’m far from the final word on this—as one-trick ponies. This isn’t to say, either, that I don’t like a lot of what some of these writers do, nor do I intend for this to disparage them. I’ve read all of Vonnegut’s books. He was huge for me when I was young. John Cheever, too. I learned a great deal from both of them. And I learned more from O’Connor than from the two of them combined. And Didion and Ferrante? Are you kidding? Their work is as gorgeous as gorgeous gets. What I mean is that these and other writers have relatively articulated modes of working that they follow like a chant. It’s their power and their weakness. Certainly their relative approaches have made them all a lot of money. That way just isn’t my way. I’ve always felt that once I’ve done something, I’ve done it. Going forward, I don’t avoid what I’ve done for the sake of it, but because I’m more interested to learn other ways to see and do.

1-foy_patricide_frontcover_finalOn the other hand, I can say for sure that gutter opera is my definitive mode of working. Made to Break, which I wrote in 1998, was the first book to manifest as a successful, working example of this mode, even though I hadn’t laid out its principles. I simply called the work gutter opera, more as an intuitive way to describe it. It wasn’t until I published that book in 2014 and got asked to teach a course on gutter opera that I articulated its principles in writing as best I could. There’s quite a bit to it, actually, but in brief, and very generally, I “define” gutter opera as “a mode of creating art that is best characterized by how it expresses a way of thinking, a way of accessing and synthesizing, by whatever means, so long as it’s natural, the memes at our disposal. Gutter opera is ontological. It is not, in other words, about this or that but about this and that, which is life itself, being.”

Essentially, it’s a way of approaching my work through a variety of interrelated codes that I more or less stumbled on over the years, codes according to which I’ve learned to access new ways of seeing and doing and which I’ve trained myself to bring to bear on my process. So while Made to Break is radically different than Patricide, the value systems by which I made and appraised them are the same, if that makes any sense. Patricide is as much a gutter opera as anything I’ve done, expressed according to its own specific demands and needs.

Rumpus: Let’s stay on this concept of “value systems.” As artists, we want to challenge ourselves on a project-by-project basis, so how were you upping your literary ante with Patricide?

Foy: Oh, man, you might better ask how I wasn’t upping my literary ante with this book—there’d be so much less to talk about. Really, it seems there’s nothing in Patricide that didn’t some way or other push me to the extremities of the limited power I’ve been given.

But to answer your question, I need to talk a bit about my methodologies first. The creative mode I engage starts from within. I don’t mean “within” in the sense of “imagination”—though of course there’s that, too—but rather in the sense of mindfulness, in the sense of concentrated awareness. The Jesuit scholar and sage Anthony de Mello tells us that effort isn’t the way to growth—or rather effort of itself, unmoored from awareness, isn’t the way to growth—but only to repression and collapse. The examples he offers pertain almost to anything. I can put food in my mouth, he tells us, but my effort can’t produce appetite. I can compliment someone, but my effort won’t produce real admiration. I can get in bed, but that getting will never bring me sleep. Hard as we try to change who or what we are, he says, our efforts won’t do more than change us superficially. Or in other words, our efforts won’t do more than change our behavior, which is what we do, and never why and how. Awareness, and the understanding that comes through awareness, according to de Mello, is the only way to change.

In the context of making art, the “change” that interests me lies in the movement from distrust to trust. As a young writer, I tried every way I could to forge a unique style, as though style were something to be made from without, like building an engine or a house or a dam. But my efforts did nothing. I found or made no “style.” What I found was frustration and bitterness, because nothing I did really came from me—as in from within—but from others, from the artists I was copying, from the idea of what I thought I should be making, from, that is, without. For all my many long efforts to cultivate a “unique” voice and style, in the end what I made was merely flimsy artifice. And artifice, I’ve found, reflects distance, and all that distance kills.

Almost always I failed to finish any little thing. After years of this, and I don’t know how, it occurred to me that the reason I couldn’t finish was that on the whole I didn’t trust the medium through which I was struggling to tell my story. And what is the medium through which I ought to tell my story? My language, sure, but before that, the true medium through which I ought to tell my story is my mind, and the thoughts my mind thinks. My language wasn’t right, my progressions and structures and everything else weren’t right, I had no style or voice, because my thoughts weren’t right. This only stands to reason. I had so much trouble because I never trusted my own thoughts.

So when I say that art is an inside job, I mean that it starts with us, and with our minds. Since what we perceive and how we perceive it dictates what we write and how, perception is the requisite state for writing. To better understand myself through better understanding my thoughts, and hence to trusting myself through trusting my thoughts, I needed to train myself in the things of perception—principally attention, intuition, and digression, all of which, when acting together, amount to an artist’s style. Real style—or what at any rate we call “style”—is nothing more or less than the form the artist’s mind assumes in the moment of her art’s creation. The form of the artist’s art, which is inseparable from her art, expresses the artist’s mind in all her splendid particularity at the instant she creates. It’s the only expression her art can assume.

To your question, then, in Patricide, in Rice’s father and in The Father that is all the fathers that ever were and, more or less, all the ways we do things now—our morals, our laws, our customs, our codes, the bunch of it patriarchal—I found myself against a seemingly insurmountable leviathan that forced me to rely on these aspects of myself in ways I never had. And when I did, when really and truly I trusted that I was always where I needed to be, no matter what, I developed solutions I wouldn’t otherwise have developed.

I used all three points of view, for instance, in a kind of whirling unison, together with a horde of constantly shifting linguistic approaches. The structure of the book is a tornado, so just about everything in it has its basis in a circle. Omnipotent as this father/Father was, I, or rather Rice, had constantly to move around it, as opposed to come at it head on. There was never a moment in the work when I wasn’t challenged, and certainly I was almost always frightened that what I was doing would ultimately collapse.

Doubt, though, is a tricky thing. Obviously, it can seriously fuck you up. And yet it can also drive you through the blackest conundrum, if you allow it, kind of the way you let a trainer or a workout partner push you past your perceived limits at the gym or wherever. For me, the doubt and the trust are two parts of the same thing. If truly you trust, doubt can do what it likes. You can be as afraid as you’ve ever been, but these things don’t matter. In the end, your trust will see you through.

Rumpus: Wow, I love that answer. And it really speaks to the work novelists do that’s not on the page, figuring out, from a behind-the-scenes perspective, both the books they don’t want to write—and the ones they do. In my own process, I don’t trust my hypotheses about a project. They ultimately inhibit my willingness to let the book be in charge of its Free Will, rather than me superimposing my own systems. I’m curious how you conceived structure here. Did the tornado-architecture reveal itself while you generated the nascent material? Or were you using that organized chaos as a vessel from the jump?

made-to-breakFoy: Well, because I never outline in the formal sense, and because intuition and digression are the principal means through which I explore my obsessions, the book’s structure wasn’t immediately clear.

And yet it wasn’t long till it appeared, the way, really, a tornado seems to manifest from nothing. Once I realized I was writing a book of its own, as opposed to supplementing a passage from another work, as I thought I was when I began, the structure appeared of itself in a form-reflecting-content sort of way.

Memory is itself circular. The imagination is itself circular. Each has its power, of course, but united they can very quickly generate a storm whose strength is greater than the sum of its parts. My task was dual—to let these powers have as much space as possible, to be as close to them, even inside of them, as possible, while ensuring from a detached remove that they didn’t break into all-out mayhem.

It’s a strange alchemy, when I consider it in retrospect. It happens, because of and through me, even, though it’s difficult to say precisely how.

Rumpus: The strange alchemy! Perfect. And it’s true, that cocktail of intuition and revision. So I’d be curious to hear how you handle the rigors of remixing while still honoring the intention of intuition. All authors revise in their own nuanced ways. Can you tell us one of your remix tricks? And if that word “tricks” sounds too smug—how’s this: in your process, how do you balance honoring your imaginative intentions while holding the art to a high standard on the line level?

Foy: Here’s my process from the view of a ten-thousand-foot-flyover: first draft, then store; read-through, slash, swap, add, then store; read-through, slash and swap, then store; read-through, slash, swap, and line-edit, then store; read-through, line-edit; read-through, line-edit, read-through, line-edit… So once I’ve cut the big fat, filled in the holes, arranged the parts to suit, and have begun to line-edit, the process tends to repeat itself for a good while—as a long as the work requires.

And like you say, honoring the essence of the work is the big challenge during this phase. The remix trick gets very tricksy here. You’ve got the voice of the work to contend with, for instance. That’s the first thing. It’s always the first thing for me, the narrative voice, the narrative consciousness, in fact, I’d go so far as to say. Typically this consciousness awakens close to instantaneously. That is, I sit down to work, and depending on my subject or concern, a narrative consciousness asserts itself within seconds or minutes. This is where trusting yourself and your intuition is vital. Once that voice and consciousness manifest, I trust them explicitly and allow my words to follow.

After a time, and I’ll bet you’ve experienced this—I don’t see how you can’t have—an aura develops, as well, in which the whole work is enveloped and from which it’s inseparable. That aura is the sum of the narrative consciousness, voice, and, very importantly, tone. In revision, maintaining fidelity to this aura is my chief commitment. And I use the word “fidelity” very specifically, because if I try in any way to alter the work’s seminal aura, a feeling arises that’s close to guilt, as if I’m betraying a vow or pact. That feeling is like a warning signal, which I ignore at my own peril. It tells me, essentially, to back the fuck off. What’s interesting, also, is how eventually, even inexorably, while the consciousness and voice will remain largely as they were from the outset, the general tone in revision tends to shift and sway ever so subtly, contingent, I’d say, most of the time, anyway, on the minutia of the line. Once my sole concern becomes the line, I’ll work it pretty relentlessly, according to a mixed set of criteria—word choice, rhythm, cadence, flow, dynamic, duration, meaning, connotation, etymology, culture, and the like.

So, say, for instance, a sentence includes a specific product, person, history, or event. Regardless of what, it’s a meme, those I mentioned earlier—some cultural entity that through the process of repeated transmission and replication assumes a power uniquely and universally its own. Richard Dawkins coined this word back in 1976 to express his concept of how knowledge moves through a culture, the way traits pass through multiple generations via genes. He defined it specifically as “a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” In any case, depending on the age of the reader, a given meme conveys a specific meaning, and often even a variety of meanings, each working at different levels. The choice of a given meme alone, then, can dictate the nature and direction of a sentence, the information it’s conveying, epistemologically, historically, personally, and so on. This is just one of the things I try to address when working the line. You can see from this how quickly the critical permutations might expand.

Rumpus: The rad thing about your long answers is that I’m finding myself nodding along and smiling, especially when you were talking about narrative consciousness. I don’t think about it that way, necessarily, but I use similar language: Free Will. When I’m exploring a new book of mine, I’m trying to find its Free Will, rather than my clunky authorial superimpositions. It leads nicely into something I’ve long admired in your prose: the line. You talked above about the cocktail of criteria you use as you finesse the line, but I wonder how you handle these things if they’re not wholly aligning—how you use that dissonance to your advantage. If, say, the current culture of the line needs one solution, but, say, something in its etymology might require a different solution. I know this is an arcane question, but line editing is often incorrectly reduced to just syllables and sonic potential. There’s as much going on in these “behind the scenes” issues as in anything else. Can you unpack this a bit?

Foy: I’m really glad to see you’re into these things as much as I am. And I really like the phrase “Free Will” to express what I think’s essentially in the same neck of the woods as the stuff I’m getting at, the honed awareness that enables us to explore these nexuses of intuition. This Free Will of ours works on all sorts of levels, too, right?

In your stuff, and I’m thinking especially about your latest, Sirens, Free Will is most evident in the work’s structure, which reveals itself across a trajectory of wonderfully interconnected relays. This sort of intrigue isn’t the product of artifice, to my mind. The realization of structures like yours in Sirens doesn’t seem to me possible to achieve through artifice, but through intuition, or Free Will, alone. You can’t outline a structure like that. You can only feel your way into it until, like a face hidden in the image of another face, it emerges unmistakably to let you know, “Yes, this is this, this is real, and now I have the means to see it through.”

And clunky authorial superimpositions, too, mine especially, have become so much easier to catch than they once were. Hemingway, despite my various issues with him, was right when he said every great writer has “a built-in bullshit detector.” This facility is no doubt inherent to us all, but once we begin to use it, we’re able further to sharpen and train it. Not only do I find that nowadays I can fairly easily call myself out on most of my shit, but also the same shit stands out to me so much more flagrantly in the work of others.

But to your interest in the minutiae of the line. It’s so true that this aspect of writing is criminally neglected. I think this is the case more now than ever, given our culture’s generally insatiable appetite for quantity over quality, with the message itself over its medium. I can’t tell you how often I hear this or that writer hailed for the beauty of their prose only to find, in my opinion, that prose to be serviceable at best.

The line is far from merely a function of syllables and sonics. For one thing, the syllables and sonics are themselves a valise of sorts within which we can pack all sorts of meaning. There’s a guy, for instance, Chuck Wendig, whose advice I see frequently touted—and this is nothing against him personally, I don’t know him or really even his work itself, but only his advice over at his blog—who believes, and tries forcefully to impose his belief on his readers—that our words don’t really matter, that no one really cares about our words, and that those of us who think otherwise are simply deluded and self-involved. “You,” I read in one of his posts, “are in the way of your story. Hard truth: writing is actually not that important… You write and write and write and use too many words… Quit that shit. Get. To. The. Point. And the point is the story. Not the words used to tell that story.” Many others agree with this perspective, too, I presume, but I could not disagree enough. I find it blatantly problematic, in fact, and at the heart of so much of what I believe is a cultural malady. What Wendig is describing is a single kind of storytelling for a single kind of story. But there are as many other ways to tell many other kinds of stories. The line is itself a story, in fact, and the various components that make it amount to both its meaning and its way. Or rather, there are many stories within a single story, all which work collaboratively to tell the principal story. This is true right down to the line. And this is what I’m talking about, one of the things I’m talking about, that is, and what you’re getting at in our concern with, say, the issue of the dissonance in a line caused by its culture and its etymology working at odds.

The solutions to these sorts of impasses are many and diverse, but the principle that guides me when working toward harmony in a given line is whether each of its components work toward a mutually inclusive end. Sometimes the dissonance is the end. Sometimes I may want to show through the components in the line the irony inherent to this dissonance, for example. The dissonance, then—as in, say, the music of Satie—is the very thing that pleases. Other times the concern may be just the opposite. We see dissonance in a sentence whose ultimate aim is to express a relentless logic, the rhetoric of which, for the logic to be unassailable, must flow like water in a river, one bend to the next, and we have to eliminate that dissonance.

There’s not fast rule for any of this stuff. Again, for me, it comes back to intuition. We don’t always know what we’re doing before we do it. We know simply that the only way to a place of surety lies in the doing itself, as we push forward. When we believe in ourselves and trust in ourselves and through that trust have the faith in ourselves without which we can’t make our art, we’ll always get exactly to where we need to be. But, again, we have to do it. We have to find comfort in discomfort, we have to find a freedom in the dark. Without such commitment, and the conviction that supports it, we’ll never have the wherewithal to leap into the countless abysses at whose bottoms our secrets are waiting to be found.


Joshua Mohr is the author of five novels, most recently “All This Life.” More from this author →