Confab with a Contributor: Ethan Chatagnierby Soniah Kamal · October 13, 2014
1) “Every Face Was in the Crowd,” featured in Five Points Vol. 16, No .1 , is the story of an art student who struggles between the value of art and meaning of craft as well as the monetary worth of each when he starts to get work carving Halloween pumpkins for high-end customers. How did this idea come to you? Did you grow up carving pumpkins?
I did grow up carving pumpkins, but only typical childish eye-mouth-nose jack-o-lanterns. I’ve always been terrible at any kind of graphic art. The story originated from place more than anything. While I can’t recall exactly how the idea of an art student carving pumpkins for cash came to me, I do recall exactly where I was. My wife and I lived in Boston while I went to graduate school, and it’s felt like a sort of unreclaimable magic kingdom since we left in 2008. We went back to visit in 2012 with our three-month-old son, and it was when I was walking the streets of Back Bay with their iconic brick apartment buildings that the premise came to me. I suppose I was thinking about the type of money it would take to live in a place like that, versus the type of money artistic folks tend to live on.
The idea of Evan Durant’s paintings of crowds actually predates the rest of the story. It was a thread from an abandoned novel about mapping the underworld, and Durant was supposed to be an accidental visitor there who came back only interested in painting the gray crowd he’d seen. Once I began working out the nature of the story, and the narrator’s reluctance to join with the mass of people who do something less noble than art for a living, Durant’s crowds seemed a perfect counterpoint, and so I threaded them in and much of the theme emerged from there.
2) I find your title “Every Face Was in the Crowd” so intriguing especially given how hard the protagonist works to stand out in his art and in his life. How did this title come about? And what does it say about museums where pieces of art are in a crowd and yet must distinguish themselves?
The title is half of a description Professor Wei gives about Durant’s work: “Every face was in the crowd, but no face was the crowd.” Writing the story, I remembered an interview or quote I once heard of a painter describing the difficulty of getting an expression just right, an expression that would make the face that appeared on the central focus of the painting. I conceived Durant’s project as being about making everyone the focus, about singling out not just one person, but everyone, as worthy of contemplation.
You’re exactly right that this is the sentiment that the narrator, perhaps egotistically, is fighting against. His series of paintings sets out to be a rebuttal to Durant, setting himself up as a face that should stand out of the crowd, that should be highlighted. While that’s a bit egocentric, it is one way of looking at what anyone trying to make art is doing, if not on behalf of himself or herself, then on behalf of the work itself. Because the narrator eventually perceives himself as failing in his rebuttal, I believe that’s the sentiment he’s left with at the end of the story, and one that’s hard on him: he’s just one more face in the crowd.
A museum is a great way to think about the narrator’s struggle. Think about how good you have to be to get a painting in a major metropolitan museum: more like one of the best in a century than like the best in a given year. And yet many of those paintings still only get glanced at briefly en route to the more famous names. Likewise with writers, it’s extremely difficult to get a novel published, but even if you do, how many novels survive past their year of publication, let alone make it out of a decade? I’ve seen even certain favorite authors of The New Yorker claim they constantly consider giving up the pursuit. In any art, there is a huge number of people fighting for a very limited spotlight, and I think that’s hard on a lot people. I’ll cop to being one of them sometimes.
3) The wealthy character who commissions the Boston Skyline pumpkin scenery says “Art’s got to have some utility, right?” In fact, the entire story can be seen as a debate about the utility of art. Where do you stand on this? The pumpkin art reminded me of beach art which eventually goes out with the tide. Should the ephemerality of a piece increase its value in some sense?
I’ll confess, that line of Deckinger’s is one I still laugh at sometimes. It’s a sort of a challenge, and it’s difficult to tell to just what extent Deckinger really means it. When I was writing the story, it did make me a little sad to think the beautiful skyline the narrator created would soon be rotting in a dumpster, but I also think that’s part of what gives the display its power, the fact that, like the beach art you mentioned, it’s transitory. I do think the narrator and his mentor underestimate what he does with the pumpkins by deriding them as pure handicraft, but a lot of that also has to do with the goals of his pumpkin project versus the goals of his painting series. The pumpkins are pretty clearly art-as-wall-decoration, whereas he looks at his paintings as an outgrowth of his perspective on art and his personal philosophy. He certainly doesn’t want art that evaporates. He’s not one to be comforted by the fact that everything passes away.
As for myself, I can’t say I’m exactly sure where I stand. I can certainly see the beauty in a work of art designed to have a very short life. It privileges those who are able to see it. At the same time, despite its entangled history with the aristocracy, there’s something more democratic about art that makes it into museums, for the purpose of exposing it to whoever wants to see it, and to preserve it for future generations. One of the main threads of DeLillo’s Underworld is a baseball from a famous game-ending home run, and the way people try to save it from the scrap heap of time. The sense I came away from that book with was that it’s all going to be lost, eventually, that perhaps you can rescue something from time for a short while, but that’s it. And it’s really only a totem of history, a placeholder, and not history itself. I don’t think that’s necessarily a tragedy, or that the effort is worthless. One noble way of dealing with the transitory nature of life is to embrace and acknowledge it, as do those Buddhist sand mandalas, created to be destroyed. I think it can be equally noble to struggle stupidly against those impossible forces.
4) This is your first publication in Five Points. Can you share why you submitted this particular story to Five Points? Any advice for writers on how to match stories with journals?
Well, I can say it certainly doesn’t feel like I’ve figured out any sort of magic algorithm. Like most “emerging” writers, a lot more bad news than good news arrives in my inbox. The advice you always hear is to read all the magazines to get a feel for what they publish. That’s excellent advice, but it’s less frequently mentioned that there are dozens and dozens of fantastic journals, and it can take a long time (and potentially a lot of money) to read issues of all the ones you think you might be interested it. That’s compounded if you get yearly subscriptions of any, which really gives you a more representative idea of the magazine. I try to subscribe to a couple different ones each year, to really get to know them, but in the meantime I also try and standalone issues of journals I’m submitting to. Often, I lately find, I can find electronic versions of many journals that fit into my budget. In this way, I try to fill in as many unknowns as I can. Also, many journals now make a story or two from each issue available for free online, and I always try to read those for any journal I submit to. Five Points does that, and I was able to familiarize myself with some great stories from the journal that way. Still, there’s a lot of luck to it. There are enough readers a story has to make it through at a typical journal that you never really know who you’re singing to.
5) Do you think it’s fair to call a linked short story collection a novel?
To me, it’s most helpful to think there is continuum between the two extremes of short story collection and novel. Some novels, like Catch-22, have distinct chapters that mainly focus on a character at a time, but the characters all show up in each others’ stories. The Things They Carried could be described similarly, but is a story collection. Those labels both feel mostly right to me, though. I think it has to do with whether the effort seems focused more on the individual parts or more on the whole. I can say that when I read a linked story collection, it usually feels more like a story collection than a novel. But it can be a wonderful gray area, and I don’t think it’s hard to find examples of story collections that are enriched by the interconnections between the stories.
6)A novel, short story or poem you believe should be mandatory reading?
I’m not sure how to answer this one, because certain books are right or wrong for different people at different times in their lives. So, if I may take the liberty of tweaking your question a little, I’d like to recommend a book that I think should be more widely read, acknowledged, and remembered: William T. Vollman’s Europe Central. For those put off by the unwieldy metaphor on page one personifying a phone as a sort of malevolent octopus, don’t worry: it gets better. The book is one of the best investigations we have into what life is like during wartime and under oppressive regimes, for everyone from generals to artists to a reluctant supply agent of the Nazi gas chambers.
7) A book you wished you’d written?
I’ll cheat and pick two. The first is Roberto Bolano’s 2666. I find myself a little stupidly hesitant to say so, because it’s been so widely praised and highly lauded in certain circles (and it’s such a long book) that it seems to have taken on a reputation as a hipster book, or a book people like just to sound impressive. I was worried that was how I’d feel when I picked it up, but it turned out to be one of the best novels I’ve ever read. For one, I’m a sucker for big novels with serious themes, and 2666 focuses on violence throughout history, centering the investigation upon a fictionalized stand-in for modern day Juarez, but also touching at different points upon the Holocaust, male violence against or on behalf of women, and older, more mysterious crimes and massacres. He manages all this without sensationalizing it, and is gruesome only to serve a purpose (though I have some friends who disagree with me about that).
The second is Heart of Darkness. This book has had a lot of criticisms regarding its treatment of race, and I think some of them are correct though there are some I’m not convinced by. Regardless, the book remains, to me, the strongest indictment of imperialism in fiction, and seems aware not just of the evils of colonialism but of the larger pattern of subjugation and abuse that underlies a lot of human history. Part of the reason I wish I’d written it is because I find it still helpful in understanding the world today. It’s been around for 115 years, but I don’t think we’re as removed from the world of Colonel Kurtz as many people would like to think.
8) Is there any classic novel you wish you’d pushed through in your teens?
I don’t think I was a particularly good reader of literary fiction in my teens, so really I’m more glad that there are many classics I didn’t read until college. That said, one becomes a good reader by finding good reading, so perhaps it would have kickstarted me sooner had I read, say, Tolstoy in my teenage years. Proust, Woolf, Faulkner, and Pynchon, some of my favorites at various times through and after college, are all a bit heady and I don’t know that I could have handled the language at that age. But Tolstoy only requires an open heart and, sometimes, a little patience. So I’ll go with Anna Karenina. I have some things I don’t love about the book, but in other places I think it’s the pinnacle of what a certain type of novel can do, and it would have been nice to have been exposed to that sooner.
9) Which short story or short story writer has most influenced on your work?
This is really difficult to say, because my work has ranged around a lot in what it’s trying to do over the past few years. Up until a couple years ago, I was mainly trying to write in the tradition of George Saunders, Sam Lipsyte, and other comic, sometimes cynical, sometimes goofy writers. “Every Face was in the Crowd” was a big departure that really seemed to come out of the blue, and it marked a shift to more serious and more realist work that’s continued for the last few years. Around the same time, I began reading Stuart Dybek and Charles D’Ambrosio for the first time–I never went through an MFA program, so I missed out on being exposed to them earlier. They’ve served as major lanterns-in-the-fog for me, particularly D’Ambrosio. “The Point” and “American Bullfrog” are pretty much perfect stories.
10) What role do you think literary journals play today in writer’s life, as well as in the overall conversation about books and reading?
Any acceptance from a literary journal always give me six weeks of insane confidence before I descend back into the usual bog of crippling self-doubt. That’s a big thing for writers, or at least it has been for me: the idea that people out there who are real pros at reading have read my work and found it worth sharing. All of a sudden you aren’t shouting into an empty cave. A lot more people might give up if there wasn’t a space to publish things other than novels. But the reading of journals is equally important, because you see a broader mix of styles and outlooks by far than in reading a handful of novels. I think it’s fair to call literary journals and the community they incubate the primordial soup of the writing world. Things bubble around and combine and sometimes take on a life of their own. Some of those get plucked up by literary agents and given a bigger audience, which is great.
Beyond that, I think the people who run, engage with, and read literary journals are often those who engage with literature in the purest, closest way. The lit mag world seems to be driven by ideals and strong opinions and experimentation, all the things as the heart of literary conversation.