by Athena Lathos
Photo Credit: http://www.dandeweese.net
Dan DeWeese is the author of the novel You Don’t Love This Man, editor of Propeller, and one of the writers named “an emerging star in fiction” by Huffington Post Books. What’s more—he will be visiting the University of Portland this Monday (7:30 pm in Buckley Center 163).
DeWeese’s work is raw, thoughtful, and unique. For a closer look at this compelling writer, I conducted an interview with him in advance of his visit, taking care to ask him a little bit about the thoughts and interests that inform his writing. Take a look:
Which works of literature have been particularly moving or formative for you as a writer?
I have a boring but true but hopelessly incomplete answer that is a list of names and titles, and a more honest answer that is, unfortunately, almost impossible to convey.
The Counterlife by Philip Roth. Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable by Beckett. Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante. Light Years and All That Is by James Salter. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf and Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald and The Loser and Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard. The Question of Bruno by Aleksandar Hemon. And of course countless others—too many to name.
The works that were probably just as, if not more, formative, though, probably stretch back (this is the “more honest” answer) to whatever books held a sense of mystery and possibility to me as a child. A particular edition of Tolkien books on the shelf in my father’s den is an example. I only read The Hobbit, but the illustrations on the covers, the fact that the books were a matched set, the reading experience the illustrations and the particular font of the titles suggested—the power of what we call “literature” is somehow wrapped up in that. As a teenager, I tore through Asimov’s Foundation novels, a number of them during a particular spring break trip with my family. The way in which that personal/family memory is now bound up with those books has something to do with the power of literature, and I would imagine was formative in some way. I could go on about this, but I’m sure you understand. When writers are asked to name formative works of literature, they kind of have to offer a list of famous and/or respected titles, because the assumption is that they’re offering a de facto syllabus to some imagined literature course. But it’s also true that I have always remembered reading the books of Paula Danziger, or a book titled Wally by Judie Wolkoff, about a boy who has to take care of his friend’s chuckwalla. If I’ve always remembered these books, they too must be formative.
In a similar sense, have there been any musicians, artists, filmmakers, etc. that have affected you creatively?
Too many to name. David Bowie. Steve Reich. Mark Rothko. Michelangelo Antonioni and Andrei Tarkovsky and Bob Rafelson. Miles Davis and Nina Simone and John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald. Yasujiro Ozu and Abbas Kiarostami. It’s tough to name individuals, because it’s really a way of being that one is constantly looking for in others. A shortcut to naming individuals might be to say that I’ve found in many people my age a sentimental attachment to a time period that stretches from roughly the mid-1950s to the late 1970s. Everyone who has this sentimental attachment can name individuals—some will name Debbie Harry, others Jean-Luc Godard, some Jack Nicholson, others Agnes Varda or Agnes Martin, and so forth—but what is consistent is the attachment. There are plenty of cultural histories or biographies of individuals that try to point out that this attachment is based on an imagined belief in some mythical cultural context that in reality was not nearly as great as people pretend. There are others who have pointed out that this attachment sometimes involves a fair amount of cultural appropriation that can be problematic. And yet the attachment persists. I don’t know what that says about us.
What is your writing process like? Are there any editing practices that you find particularly useful?
My writing process is to struggle to make time to write, struggle not to squander that time, and then struggle not to become despondent or enraged over the frustrations and difficulties of the actual writing. The best way to generate writing is to be snowed in, alone, for many days—unfortunately, the weather and circumstance rarely provide this, so you have to try to approximate it whenever possible. The only editing practice I find useful is to try to find a place and time where no one can interrupt, bother, or, in the best situation, even find me, then enter a state of hyperfocus I maintain until I become physically exhausted or until someone rudely interrupts me, at which point I have to return to “social reality,” which, after having been in the state of hyperfocus, seems slow, awkward, and, frankly, less important than the project I was just working on.
How do you feel that your work has evolved since you began writing? Is there a piece in particular that you feel reflects a change in your thinking about writing?
This one’s tough. I don’t think I know the answer to this. I think readers are better at identifying these things than writers are, and since I try not to read my own work once it’s published, I wouldn’t know. I know I’ve published some things, but they don’t sound that important to me. I’m going to keep reading other people instead.
Do you think that your work in publishing has altered how you view written work? How do you think that your experience working in an editorial capacity has influenced or intersected with your experience as a writer?
It has made me respect design more. The primary power in the vast majority of books published in the world is that they are formatted in a particular font, printed left and/or right justified, with healthy margins, and perfect bound. There is a strange power to this that enhances the content of the writing and makes certain pieces of writing suddenly “work” when, if they had just been Xeroxed pages from the author’s notebook, would appear to be no more than casual or somewhat awkward rambling.
Working as an editor, because it steals time from me as a writer—and because what writers primarily need is time—has probably done far more damage to my writing than anything else. That being said, I will add that it has offered me the opportunity to work with and in many cases meet other writers who are like-minded souls. This helps me feel less alone in my goals and aims. It has also made me value, more and more every year, people working to realize a personal aesthetic vision over any goal of capturing a particular market. People working to realize a personal aesthetic vision are often frustrated with themselves (because realizing the vision eludes them) and so can be good to work with, because they appreciate any help you can offer them on this puzzle that is frustrating them. People who are trying to capture a market are often frustrated with other people, however, because other people represent the market the person can’t capture. They can be difficult to collaborate with, because since you are an “other” person, at some level they may feel you are just another part of the problem. I am not talking here about something as simple as “nice” or “difficult” writers or editors. There are editors in the world who are very market oriented, which can make them difficult to work with as a writer. (And, I would say, makes them poor editors, but that’s an opinion I’m sure they would disagree with.) Likewise, there can be editors who want to help a writer realize an aesthetic goal, only to discover that the writer’s goal is primarily fame or money. (Which, I would say, are goals that will eventually warp the content of the writer’s work, though that is also just an opinion.)
In which ways do you think that the study of literature and writing is valuable to undergraduate college students?
All of them.