The Aylett Project: Rachel Kendall Interviews Bill Ectric

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Rachel Kendall of Sein und Werden interviewed me about the new collection of essays on the work of Steve Aylett, edited by me and D. Harlan Wilson. Here’ an excerpt:

Rachel Kendall: A number of writers in the anthology refer to Aylett as a writers’ writer. What does that mean to you, and do you think it is significant?
Bill Ectric: Serious writers do a lot of reading. We pay attention to style, theme, and plot. We’ve seen just about every variation of theme and plot imaginable. We’ve seen detailed flowery prose and terse compact sentences; romanticism, realism, modernism, postmodernism, and all manner of genres and sub-genres. Steve Aylett, apparently bored with what’s gone before, moves past it all, often in a humorous way. Other writers get it. It’s not that he disdains what has come before him, he just doesn’t want to read what seems to him as the same books over and over again. Here’s one example: A few years ago I got interested in astronomer/alchemist John Dee and his working relationship with spirit medium/occultist Edward Kelley. I read books, articles, and essays on these men. Much later, in the Appendix to Aylett’s Shamanspace, I found a single sentence that cracked me up with laughter, because it summarized everything I’d read about Dee and Kelley with, “Elizabethan alchemist John Dee witnessed the scarab star of god blooming with a creak from the wooden table at Clerkenwell – a vision immediately waylaid by the arrival of unwitting holy man Edward Kelley who wasted years of Dee’s time with useless signs and wonders.” It was like, that’s all you need to know! You know?  If I call someone a “guitarist’s guitarist” it means that because I play the guitar, I can see just what they are doing, even though I can’t do it myself. Maybe I can learn to do it, but I would have never thought of it.

Updates: My 7 Favorite Metafictional Science Fiction Novels

Two of my favorite subjects: Science Fiction and Metafiction!

Science Fiction and Other Suspect Ruminations

Here are my seven favorite metafictional science fiction novels. By metafiction I’m referring to devices such as breaking the fourth wall (characters addressing the audience), the author addressing the reader, a story about a writer writing a story, a story containing another work of fiction within it, a work where the narrator reveals himself or herself as the author of the story, narrative footnotes, etc….

I’d love to hear your favorites (they don’t have to be novels)!

Obviously, these types of experimental works only appeal to some readers (especially fans of the sci-fi New Wave movement of the late 60s and early 70s) but I personally love seeing experimentation in an often — dare I say — stylistically stale genre.  Often, the metafictional aspects do not prevent authors from deploying traditional narratives.

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My top seven (and an honorable mention):

1. Beyond Apollo, Brian N…

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Nothing Is Real

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The story, of course, is just a simplistic retelling  of the animated feature film, but the reason I’m including Yellow Submarine in Bill’s Bookshelf is the extras at the end of the book. It had been years since I pulled this book from the shelf, and I had totally forgotten the humorous meta-fictional entries in the back, after the story ends. There is a farcical essay, complete with footnotes, called The Yellow Submarine and the Tradition of Western Literature, supposedly “Reprinted by permission of the International Journal of Comparative Angst.” Among other things, the essay ponders the disagreement among scholars as to the correct translation of the submarines color. “C. H. Whitman refers to the Homeric epithet xanthos, meaning golden, yellow, or perhaps not…W. J. Sloane makes it mauve, with dove-gray trimmings, but this is a fringe viewpoint.” Of course, it’s all nonsensical. There are also instructions for a submerging that include boiling water for tea.

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Intrepid Travelers

Left to right: Eric D. Lehman, Michael Abraham, and Kelly Lynn Thomas

As with any genre, travel writing can be deliberately formulaic or ambitiously literary, depending on the writer’s intent and/or ability. From Petrarch to Percy Shelley to Tom Bissell, authors have used travel as backdrops for larger themes.

Petrarch’s Ascent of Mount Ventoux (1336) makes mountain climbing an allegory for spiritual growth. Historians disagree as to whether Petrarch actually climbed Mount Ventoux or simply created a fictional narrative as a framing device for his humanist philosophy. Either way, Petrarch’s body of work was to be an important influence on later writers, including another famous traveler, Percy Shelley, whose unfinished poem, The Triumph of Life, was styled after Petrarch’s Trionfi.

Benjamin Colbert’s book, Shelley’s Eye: Travel Writing and Aesthetic Vision (Ashgate, 2005), examines Percy Shelley’s 1817 account of touring the European continent. According to Colbert, Shelley eschewed “the superficial populism of mass tourism,” and became part of “a growing body of travel writers eager to prove the experience of Italy on their own pulse and distrustful of the monopolizing pressures exerted by informational guidebooks over representation of the foreign.”

Taken to the extreme, this idea of venturing off the beaten path can be dangerous. Tom Bissell, author of Chasing the Sea (Pantheon, 2003), went to Central Asia for a first-hand look at the devastation of the Aral Sea, caused by irresponsible government policies. While Bissell makes it clear that he met many decent, caring people in Uzbekistan, it also recounts how the local police threatened to arrest him, and in an interview for Literary Kicks, Bissell told me, “I now test positive on every tuberculosis test I’m given, because I now carry the bacilli of the disease in my blood. It’s never become symptomatic (and, thus, contagious) but it’s a little gift from having spent so much time in the Aral Sea basin, home to one of the world’s worst TB epidemics.”

I recently spoke to three contemporary writers, whose works include, but are not limited to, travel literature. Eric Lehman, Kelly Lynn Thomas, and Michael Abraham each have a style of their own and different areas of interest, but they share a passion for travel, exploration, discovery, and writing.

Eric D. Lehman

I first learned of Eric D. Lehman through his Beat writer book reviews at Empty Mirror Books. Eric teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, and is the author of three books, Bridgeport: Tales from the Park City, A History of Connecticut Wine: Vineyard in Your Backyard, and Hamden: Tales from the Sleeping Giant, all published by The History Press. His ongoing project, Afoot in Connecticut, is a series of short videos in which Eric visits interesting and picturesque locations all over the state.

Bill: Are you originally from Connecticut?

Eric Lehman: I moved to Connecticut fifteen years ago, and to Hamden, Connecticut thirteen years ago. Just this year it became the place I’ve lived longest. I think, like many Americans, I felt like a nomad, constantly on the move from town to town, state to state. That gives a wonderful sense of freedom, but it also means we care less about each place we live in, and each place we visit.

I first began travel writing as a memoirist, trying to get a hold of my past, which mostly involved cataloging each place I had traveled to, and what each meant to me. I quickly became a more professional travel writer, though I still focused on the personal experience of travel. When I moved to Connecticut, it became the place I traveled in the most, (obviously). I treated it as such, writing about it, learning its history and customs, and delving into it as a place in a way I had never done with any other place. Now, as a travel and history writer, I am even more concerned with the dialectic between freedom and home. I have come to believe a sense of home is necessary, and when we do move around the like the modern gypsies we are, we should learn everything we can about the new place we encounter. Doing that helped me move away from purely personal experience, and become invested in the human race.

Bill: Thomas Wolfe said, “You Can’t Go Home Again.” Hemingway said, “Paris is a moveable feast.” Do you think one’s home can be moveable?

Eric: Well, I think Wolfe’s definition of “home” is wrapped up entirely in the past. He’s right – you can’t go home again, if home is a fixed and immutable idea that you have in your mind.  Maybe Hemingway means “a moveable feast” is an idea that you carry around with you, but I prefer to think of his quote as meaning that Paris (or whatever other place means something dear to you) changes you, and informs your life in a way not often realized, something we feast on for the rest of our lives, bite by bite. No matter where we are, we can enjoy that feast. In this way, Hemingway’s quote also looks to the past, but does not want to “go” there. Rather, the past becomes the bread that sustains our future.

Kelly Lynn Thomas

Kelly Lynn Thomas has a Bachelor of Philosophy in English Writing from the University of Pittsburgh, certificates in West European Studies (focus on Spain) and East Asian Studies (focus on Japan), and is a candidate in Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing program in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She writes fiction, travel memoirs, and as she says in her website bio, “things that defy genre.” I found her blog while searching for articles on meta-fiction and was intrigued by the sub-heading on her website: writer, wanderer, witch.

Bill: Could you describe your book, The Goddess España , and what makes it metafiction?

Kelly Lynn Thomas: I have finished The Goddess España and am currently seeking an agent and/or publisher. The book’s full working title right now is The Goddess España: Memoir of a Young Witch. The “outer” narrative follows my month as a study-abroad student in the Madrid area, and the “inner” narrative follows my spiritual journey from Christianity to Paganism. As I was writing it, I felt that many of the people I met only briefly actually had the largest impact on my trip, like an elderly man in Valencia who sat down on a bench next to me and sang to me. Since the main narrative is nonfiction, I turned to short fictions as a way to explore why encounters like that one had been so illuminating. The nonfiction arc is written in present tense, so I do talk about wanting to write these stories, but ultimately they just appear at certain points throughout the narrative, and the reader has to assume that I wrote the stories when I got back from Spain, because there they are. The juxtaposition of nonfiction and fiction also creates a certain self-reflexivity in the text, and a certain kind of disruptive narrative, which I modeled off of Don Quixote.

Bill: I’m fascinated by the idea of people living in Europe, long ago, whose belief system revolved around nature, until the Christians arrived and tried to convert them.

Kelly: In general, the Christians did come into Europe and forced their beliefs on top of the beliefs of the pagan (lower case p, basically meaning non-Christian) peoples already living there. That is why, for example, we have Christmas trees and celebrate the birth of Jesus at the winter solstice when historically speaking he was probably born in the spring. The tree comes from the Germanic solstice festival of Yule, which celebrates the return of light to the world as the days start getting longer again. It’s the same with Easter, which always takes place around the vernal equinox, which is the traditional Celtic fertility festival of Beltane. So, that’s where all the fertility symbols of the rabbits and eggs come from.

I should mention that it isn’t just Christianity that has a history of oppression. Any religion that follows a hierarchical power structure will probably abuse that power at some point. Look at any modern Middle Eastern country living under Muslim law, or look at Tokugawa Japan, where Buddhism was the only religion allowed and officials made people step on images of Jesus to prove they weren’t Christian. I think it’s easy for us to pick on Christians because in the United States that’s the dominate religion and that’s what we have to deal with, but the real problem is hierarchical power that says “My way is better than your way” and “I have more authority than you, and therefore I can and should control you.”

I also have to say that modern Paganism (capital P), while it does draw from these traditions, had to mostly reinvent itself in the 20th century, because most of the traditional practices and beliefs have been lost. So, we modern Pagans bear little resemblance to the historic Celtic and Germanic peoples whose traditions we’ve attempted to reconstruct. And of course many Pagans follow Greek or Roman or Norse or Egyptian or other traditions, so it’s not even all Celtic and Germanic.

Bill: Who are some writers that you enjoy reading and/or have influenced you?

Kelly: My favorite authors are also the ones who have influenced my work the most. Structurally, there’s Cervantes. As I mentioned, I modeled The Goddess España off of Don Quixote. Two other big ones are Ursula K. Le Guin and Margaret Atwood. Both are writing science fiction and fantasy with a strong feminist and environmentalist bent, and I always learn something wonderful about the world and writing when I read one of their books. I’m also a huge Star Wars fan, and I absolutely love some of the earlier expanded universe fiction by Timothy Zahn, Kevin J. Anderson, and Michael A. Stackpole. Those were the books I read as a young teenager, so I’m sure they’ve seeped into my writing somehow.

Michael Abraham

Did you ever wonder why there is no East Virginia? We have North and South Carolina, North and South Dakota, but when it comes to the Virginias, there is West Virginia and Virginia. The answer is in Michael Abraham’s book, The Spine of the Virginias.

The border between West Virginia and Virginia runs along the rugged Appalachian Mountains.

“The metaphor of a spine took shape in my mind,” says Abraham, “as I saw satellite photos of the area and envisioned how the region was held together geographically and culturally the way a backbone supports a vertebrate’s body, holding it together physically. Along the way I heard other people use the word ‘spine’ relative to the region, convincing me the metaphor was apt.”

Extensive research went into this book, and not just from reading other books. Abraham went on the road, travelling through every county on both sides of the border. He visits a rural radio station, an underground house, an astronomy observatory, an all-female Harley-Davison repair shop, caverns, coal miners, Bluegrass musicians, doctors, beekeepers, farmers and much more.

Bill Ectric: During your travels, did you talk to anyone who was distrustful of your motives?

Michael Abraham:  Yes, I met a few people who were mistrustful of me, but only a few. Anyone that spurned me, I said to myself they didn’t matter; there were always more. One guy was an amateur historian and he thought my book should have been written from stuff found in the library, so he was uncooperative and dismissal of what I was trying to accomplish. When I said, “I’m not trying to write another history book,” he didn’t really grok what I was trying to do. But I have always taken the approach that these are “my” people and if I treat them right, everyone will be happy. I always did transcripts of recorded conversations and I made sure my interviewees knew that while I might trim or edit, I would never write them saying something they didn’t say. Most people are genuinely flattered to see their name and thoughts in print.

Bill Ectric: Did the people you interviewed, other than the politicians, express any views as to how their lives were affected by politics and elections, or whether a Democrat or Republican was in office?

Michael Abraham: I think most people were just trying to get through the day. They were susceptible to the most recent, compelling political argument they heard. They were often the same political party as their parents. Most had a very narrow sphere of influence. Most felt that politicians deemed them expendable and the influence of government in general was negative, although many were beneficiaries of things like Medicare and Supplemental Social Security.

Bill: Off the top of your head, tell me about one interview that stands out in your mind.

Michael:  Stuart McGehee was the essential interview, and he was terrific. Stuart was the curator of the Eastern Regional Coal Archives in the Bluefield Public Library in West Virginia. I couldn’t have written the book without him.

In conclusion, I would like to thank Eric, Kelly, and Michael, three intrepid travelers, for taking the time to answer my questions. As Joseph Campbell said, “Follow your bliss.”

Kelly Lynn Thomas Parses Metafiction and the 4th Wall, Lays Down the Law

Am I as paranoid as Strindberg’s Inferno persona, or is Kelly Lynn Thomas talking about me when she says people are confusing metafiction with breaking the 4th wall? But it’s okay if she is. In fact, I would be flattered. Kelly is totally accurate when she clarifies the difference between the two terms. Check out this link to her blog. Now, why couldn’t I have explained it like that?

Slipstream: Feeling Very Strange

Coming soon: More of my notes on Thomas Pynchon, Steve Aylett, and Charles Wadsworth Camp, but check this out! From Science Fiction Studies, a fantastic Special Issue on Slipstream, edited by Rob Latham, who begins by saying:

In July 1989, in his “Catscan” column in the fanzine SF Eye, Bruce Sterling published an essay entitled “Slipstream.” This brief piece combined a polemic against the moribund state of the sf genre with an analysis of an emerging literary mode that engaged the contemporary world with the ideational boldness sf had allegedly abandoned. This mode Sterling dubbed “slipstream,” rather nebulously defined as “a kind of writing which simply makes you feel very strange; the way that living in the late twentieth century makes you feel, if you are a person of a certain sensibility” . . .

. . . James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s 2006 collection Feeling Very Strange: The Slipstream Anthology showed the range and diversity of this new mode of writing, which at times seems like sf, at times like magic realism, at times like postmodern metafiction, but mostly a compound form all its own. Meanwhile, claims have been advanced for crossbreedings between the literary mainstream and other popular genres, but also for interminglings among the genres themselves, with terms such as New Wave Fabulism, the New Weird, and Interstitial Fiction generating their own sets of debates and semi-canonical anthologies . . .

 There’s a Slipstream Symposium, an update by Bruce Sterling, and lots of other goodies.

Believe

On her metafictional travel memoir-in-progress, The Goddess España, Kelly Lynn Thomas says:

I’ve spent two years polishing and refining this book from a more academic-oriented experiment in how to combine fiction and nonfiction to a beautiful travel memoir with wonderful short stories scattered throughout. I say that not to brag, but because I’m confident that this book can and will do what all travel writing should do: open a reader’s eyes to a new place, new people and new experiences.  In short, I believe in my book!

I already want to read it! In the meantime, we can read Kelly’s short story,  La Catedral, here on Grey Sparrow.

Conan Doyle as Metafictionist?

Arthur Conan Doyle, Bessie Love in The Lost World 1925 movie, movie poster, Frances Griffiths in one of the Cottingly Fairy photos, Professor Challenger

With his big mustachioed laugh and a twinkle in his eye, maybe Conan Doyle was only pulling our leg about his absolute and seemingly naïve belief that the Cottingley Fairy photographs were real. I’m not saying he didn’t believe in the spirit world at all. For that matter, I don’t know why people make such a big deal that a medical school graduate and creator of the logical-minded Sherlock Holmes might also believe in life after death. Even so, we should remember that Doyle was a very playful character. While his friends and colleagues may have been embarrassed by his apparently gullibility, Doyle seems to have remained nonplussed.

Researcher  Cory Gross, on his magnificent site dedicated to The Lost World,  tells us about a practical joke Conan Doyle played on a group of magicians, including Houdini, in 1922:

Conan Doyle’s good friend Harry Houdini invited him to the annual meeting of the Society of American Magicians. But despite being close, their friendship was frequently tested by Houndini’s deep-seated skepticism of Spiritualist claims. Anticipating more of the same at the Society’s meeting, Conan Doyle prepared a little trick of his own.

Doyle brought a movie projector to the meeting and, without explanation, gave the attendees a screening of what appeared to be living, breathing, walking dinosaurs. This was, of course, footage created by Willis O’Brien, the great stop-motion film pioneer responsible for the special effects in The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933).

The New York Times ran an article about the event, the next day (June 3, 1922), which said in part:

Whether these pictures were intended …as a joke on the magicians or as a genuine picture like his photographs of fairies was not revealed…His monsters …were extraordinarily lifelike. If fakes, they were masterpieces. Hitherto, the famous visitor has not been inclined to play with his subject. Sir Arthur is the author of “The Lost World”, a novel in which a British scientist discovers in South America a plateau which has survived through geologic time and is still stocked with monsters which roamed the earth millions of years before man developed from the lower forms or was created.

A day later, the Times published a letter from Doyle in which he verified that he was simply having fun with footage from the planned movie adaptation on his novel, The Lost World. Whether intended or not, this was top-notch publicity for the film!   

Elsewhere on the same site, John Lavas tells how, in the first editions of The Lost World, “Conan Doyle included faked photographs (some of which he created himself) and maps purporting to represent the plateau (where the dinosaurs were discovered).” Lavas further tells us that the hero of  The Lost World, Professor Challenger, “was, after Holmes, Conan Doyle’s favourite character. Conan Doyle even used to walk about London streets in full Challenger disguise complete with fake beard and eyebrows! Challenger would later appear in four other Conan Doyle stories, but was never again as memorable as he proved to be in his debut.”

Reading the Lavas article, followed by a Cory Gross piece called The Land of Mist, got me thinking about Doyle as a “metafictionist.” (I thought about using the term “metafictionalist” but I like the Steampunk ring of metafictionist. It’s like saying “machinist” instead of “mechanic.”)

The Lost World introduced readers to Professor Challenger in 1912. Challenger returns a year later in The Poison Belt. Here’s what Cory Gross says about the third Professor Challenger novel, The Land of Mist:

After the publication of The Poison Belt in 1913, there was a 13 year gap in which nothing was heard from Professor George Edward Challenger. Then in 1926, perhaps in reaction to the success of the Lost World film in 1925, he surfaced again… one doesn’t get very far into the text before the strong impression is given that The Land of Mist is intended to take place in an alternate continuity. The book begins with the following paragraph:

The great Professor Challenger has been- very improperly and imperfectly- used in fiction. A daring author placed him in impossible and romantic situations in order to see how he would react to them. He reacted to the extent of a libel action, an abortive appeal for suppression, a riot in Sloane Street, two personal assaults, and the loss of his position as lecturer upon Physiology at the London School of Sub-Tropical Hygiene. Otherwise, the matter passed more peaceably than might have been expected.

So, here we have Conan Doyle writing about professor Challenger as if he were a real person about whom two fictional stories have been written, in the introduction to what purports to be a real account (but which we know is also fiction)!

Or do we? Some people, after all, even wondered if the dinosaurs were real!

Lavas also raises the possibility that Doyle himself may have perpetrated the Piltdown Man hoax. An orangutan jaw affixed to a human skull, the so-called Piltdown Man relic was discovered in the vicinity of Doyle’s home in 1908. Some evidence points to Martin Hinton, a curator at the British Museum, as the culprit, while other clues implicate Doyle. It is possible that they acted together, but it is also possible that neither man was involved.

We may conclude one sure thing: In matters of  science vs. mysticism, fiction vs. metaficition, or prank vs. publicity, when it comes to Arthur Conan Doyle, nobody knows for sure.

Notes on My Novel

Tamper strives to balance mainstream storytelling with some of the more modern conventions, sometimes called meta-fiction, without alienating fans of either style. This gives fans of both meta-fiction and mainstream fiction something to talk about. To borrow a phrase from Cory Doctorow, it “brings more people into the tent.”

 In his book, The Modern Weird Tale, S. T. Joshi describes “alternatives to supernaturalism” and cites Thomas Tryon’s 1973 novel Harvest Home, in which rural New England villagers practice pagan fertility rituals. In this grisly tale, as Joshi points out, when a skeletal apparition is revealed to be a disfigured man, it does not diminish the atmosphere of horror.  This is the same dynamic that gave me goose bumps as a child when I read Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow for the second or third time, even though I knew the morning light would find a shattered pumpkin on the riverbank near Ichabod Crane’s hat.  On a more ambiguous note, Henry James’ classic The Turn of the Screw has generated endless speculation because it leaves the reader to decide if the ghosts were real or imagined, and for that matter, if the ghosts were delusional products of the power of suggestion, does that make them any less supernatural?        

One reason why I am drawn to the works of Vladimir Nabokov, Jeff VanderMeer, Steve Aylett, and James Morrow is that they write for people who not only like to read, but who also enjoy the mechanics and study of literature, especially as it relates to the humanities. To again quote from S. T. Joshi’s The Modern Weird Tale, this time referring to Thomas Ligotti,  “One of Ligotti’s many distinctive attributes is the frequency with which he can metafictionally enunciate his own literary agenda in his tales. Many of his stories are just as much about the writing of horror tales as they are horror tales.”

Finally, one of the later chapters melts into stream-of-consciousness prose, albeit, more accessible than the dense work of James Joyce and William Burroughs. For people who are curious, but not used to, stream-of-consciousness, this chapter is a comfortable place to explore and still find your way out. It should also please the more serious fans of weird literature.