Chin Wag At The Slaughterhouse: Interview With Michael D. Brown

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You may know Michael Brown from 6S where he consistently writes great shorts.
You may know him for his blog Mudjob.
If you do you’ll know his respect for a variety of literary forms which he understands deeply.
If you don’t then check him out.
He is a talented writer who writes with a rare degree of economy.
He also knows a lot about literature and all its genres.
He met me at the Slaughterhouse where we talked about the Nouveau roman and Jean Genet.

Do you feel feel that American foreign policy has made your job teaching English in Mexico harder or easier? 

I came down to Mexico in 2001 for a seminar and to look into the possibilities for teaching English because I was at a bad point in my life at the time. I had lost someone dear to me to heart failure and I was bored with my job, and I guess going through a mid-life crisis; although, I probably wouldn’t have called it that at the time, but I was in my mid-forties, and yeah, that’s what it was.

I met some people with whom I became friendly at the seminar, and they suggested there were loads of opportunity for teaching in southern Mexico, and I took up the suggestion. I figured then that I’d give it a shot and see how it worked out for six months or a year, and maybe go back to New York refreshed and ready to return to the type of work I was doing for a living. I’d always been employed in some way in office work: payables, receivables, assistant to the assistant in insurance, publishing, cargo transport, and other areas; making enough to take a couple of vacations each year, and writing on the side. I had never had anything published at that point, and I had this dream that as a teacher I’d have these long summers off and be able to finish a novel.

Well, the teaching idea worked out well enough. I obtained a better job at a good school shortly after moving to Chiapas. Better than the one I had lined up, but I had the agenda all wrong. I work all year with just a couple of weeks off in the summer and in December, and the salary is terrible by U.S. standards. I make enough to get by here, but at what might be considered the poverty level back there. It’s the work though that keeps me here.

I have been lucky enough to bring writing and reading into what I do in a more satisfying way than at any other job I’ve held, and now, combined with my online activities, and my association with many wonderful writers and creative students, I feel I am once again in a growing and learning process.

I don’t pay too much attention to foreign policy problems. I know there are a lot of political changes in the U.S. and I have been keeping one eye on the current administration although I had no interest at all in the previous one, but teaching is a noble and well-appreciated social activity throughout the world. Teaching a language and grammar, I don’t think the foreign policy of another country, even one so close up north does much to expedite or hinder that process, as it might if I were covering the intricacies of say, Foreign Relations or History.

I love using words to tell stories, and promoting other people who do so. Sometimes politics comes into play, but for me that’s only as a backdrop to an interesting fiction.

I will say though that it is only recently the immigration process has been streamlined to the point where I only need several hours off from work and about four visits to the office, whereas renewing my status used to seem like an endless activity every January. Bureaucracy exists everywhere.

How did the idea of Mudjob come to you?

MuDJoB comes in various flavors. There’s MuDJoB at blogspot, and wordpress, and ning, and tumblr, and there may be a few others still out there. When I started thinking of it as a brand name, I signed up for many free blogs and hosting sites, but the four I mentioned are those I regularly maintain. The way it started was as a social network for my students’ writing on ning when it was free, and I was thinking of Rob McEvily’s Six Sentences, where I’m still active, as a model. The name comes from my intitials with a couple of schwas in there to hold them together.

Then, after I applied the name to a blog at blogspot, and liked what my friend CJT was doing with Guest Writes on her wordvamp blog, I invited others to submit pieces initially for my students to have quality reading all gathered in one place instead of sending them all over the Internet. That’s still the idea although I have been sent some racier stuff to post, but I like to think that everything that has been posted is high quality and worthy of them reading to see how it’s done.

I appreciate all the good work that has come my way, and how the various writers involved have elevated the status of the site.

There is also a blog now at wordpress where journal entries posted by students on the social network have been polished a little (not too much) and gathered together and for which up to this point they are the basic audience.

Lately, I’ve been posting blurbs and announcements on tumblr on my own and others’ work.

I love the creativity shown by the young people who post, sometimes as specific assignments, on the social network, but I guess I’m most thrilled by the stories and observations posted at blogspot. I never thought so many terrific, talented writers would willingly contribute such good work. I truly thought they were going to submit their cast-offs because I can only offer exposure without financial remuneration, but the site is coming up on its first anniversary with Guest Writes and I can honestly say there is not a second-rate piece in the bunch.

By the way, since the name is getting known, I’ve recently been inundated by poetry submissions, and I’m having a hard time choosing among them. I think I’ll do a daily thing starting on 1 February leading up to Valentine’s Day, but I’d sure like to see some of the darker, noirish stories coming my way because when I try my hand at writing poetry I produce doggerel at best and am hardly qualified to critique others on it. Besides, stories of intrigue, action, adventure, and romance are what the students appear to enjoy most, and they have turned a number of them into little plays as projects, which I’m hoping they will take to the next step for our annual fall video competition. We’ve already seen enough television commercial parodies.

So in answer to the question, MuDJoB started as a resource for my ESL students, but it has grown beyond that.

Who are your literary influences?

I like to delve into the psychology behind why people tear at their relationships or mess up when trying to repair them, so for that part of what I write I’d probably have to say I’ve been inspired by Henry James with a lot less analysis of the situations, and Raymond Carver, with a bit more. I’ve been attracted to minimalism since it became a thing, and love Carver’s work, but I think sometimes he supplies barely enough for you to draw conclusions. Although I tried and succeeded at NaNoWriMo this year, I’ve never had a great hankering to write a big novel myself, but I do draw inspiration from novelists as well as story and flash writers.

Let me give a list of some of the works, parts or all of which keep coming back to me when I write my own stuff and we can assume those writers have influenced me.

The Double, All the Names, and A Year in the Death of Ricardo Reis by José Saramago
Our Lady of the Flowers by Jean Genet, just about the most inward-looking novel I’ve come across outside of Thomas Bernhard’s work Zazie dans le metro by Raymond Queneau–high-minded and lowdown funny at the same time Hotel du Lac by Anita Brookner, a quiet beauty of a novel.

Any of the titles by Barbara Pym, Elizabeth Taylor (not the actress), David Lodge, or Roberto Bolaño. I’m trying to get through El tercer reich in Spanish at the moment.
Night and the City by Gerald Kersh, one of the best nourish fictions around.
Replay by Ken Grimwood, and a host of other sci-fi and speculative fiction writers. I’ll read almost anything having to do with time travel.
Electricity, a story by Bob Thurber, and Before the Gravity Stopped by Jason Young–two flash gems among myriad fine examples of the form.

Ay, there are so many, but those come immediately to mind. And I can’t deny that I have been influenced by many of the terrific writers I’ve come into contact with at Six Sentences and Thinking Ten. I never knew I could work so well to prompts or perform in such a confined space.

Why do you think people tear at their relationships or mess up when trying to repair them, is it due to some inbuilt sabotage mechanism that is connected to trauma?

In real life I think most sane people try to be as happy as they can in and out of relationships, overlooking the fact that if we were happy one hundred percent of the time, life would become pretty boring. Still, pain and heartache hurt, and we would rather read about them happening to other people. Fiction is a vicarious experience. Well-done fiction in its vividness and verisimilitude helps us accommodate the little bumps and jams that occur in our lives before they become major upsets, and I think many people need to see the thorns in the rosebush, but from a safe distance.

Everyone likes a little drama, though, and so we emulate our favorite tragic figures, our celebrities, and iconoclasts. Sometimes we get to feeling a little bigger than ourselves, and so we do and say things either by accident or design, and the tearing and messing up follow.

Would humankind have such a long history of warring and sparring and grabbing for more if it weren’t in our nature? Even when we tell stories of the first humans we put that attitude on them, as if it couldn’t possibly have developed on its own later in our history. So if it wasn’t inbuilt to begin with we have built it in to stay.

Relationship spats are just little wars between people who believe they understand each other.

When we read case studies or go through analysis we would like to think once the tears start flowing all the mental torment will cease. As if it were that simple. We put hurt on other people, including those close to us by way of avoiding it falling on ourselves.

As a writer, I’d much rather concoct a tale in which someone can see something of him or herself, and say, “Jeezus, that’s happened to me,” and identify with what I’m trying to say, although in looking over my work I find I do rather tell more than I show in order to produce that epiphany, which is one of the reasons I enjoy working in short forms, where explosive moments can be described and experienced succinctly. I don’t think I could sustain relationship tearing for a novel’s length, and I wouldn’t want to foist that discomfort on a reader.

The bottom line in writing or reading break-up stories is being able to realize pain can happen to other people and we can watch it, and maybe learn something, from the safety of an observer’s seat. And whether or not we came from the factory that way, I can’t say, but it’s how we live now. Maybe it’s entropy at work.

Raymond Queneau’s ‘Exercises in Style’ is a collection of 99 retellings of the same story, each in a different style and is representative of the Nouveau roman in which writers tried to use a different style with each novel. Do you think the Nouveau roman holds any value and is Alain Robbe-Grillet readable or merely a historical footnote?

Going back to my comparison of Henry James and Raymond Carver, who by the way, was quoted somewhere as saying although he made himself familiar with the metafictionists who immediately preceded his time of writing, the nouveau roman crowd, found metafiction somewhat boring as it seemed to be all construct lacking in flesh and blood, I think both displayed aspects of metafiction in their writing. For they, like all authors, wrote for an audience, and once you do that, you have created an “intradiegetic narratee,” that is, the reader becomes a character in your tale.

First person narration points this out most clearly, as the “I” in the story is speaking to someone, and that someone is “you,” whether an ostensibly named fictional character within the construct or you, the reader. In that way, we have to grant that all fiction is meta to a degree.

Those French writers in the 1950s just made the drawing in of outside sources all very apparent. They put a name to the thing or at least made it a thing and claimed creation of something new that had always been there.

Are Joyce’s Ulysses, or Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, or for that matter, Cervante’s Don Quixote, any less wacky and uninvolving for having come too early to be included in the nouveau roman genre? I don’t think so. They’ve all been around for ages, and though they come into and fall out of favor from time to time, they each have their proponents, and I think always will.

When people speak of television screenplays, they sometimes mention the dropping of the fourth wall, but hasn’t it always been invisible anyway by virtue of us viewers being able to observe the characters going about their drama or comedy, and usually feeling drawn to do so by virtue of our association with what they do?

So, if we look at the nouveau roman as a trend rather than something wholly new and unique, Robbe-Grillet might be thought of as merely a historical footnote, but he did have style and he did produce work during a period I for one am drawn to again and again—that post-war world that led up to the Age of Aquarius, that cold war period that is lovingly recalled as an age of innocence, or an attempt to recapture the pre-war innocence, that was for many writers working today their childhood.

For some reason, when I noted his name in your question I immediately recalled a time when I was about twelve or thirteen and watching Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player on television. There was a scene in the film when someone, maybe it was Charles Aznavour’s character, says something like, “If I’m lying, may my poor mother be struck dead,” and for a brief moment the scene switches to an old woman suffering a heart attack, and then returns to the action at hand. I remember that moment so vividly, the scene in the film, and my watching of it, and think perhaps it was the first time I became aware that not all the fiction exists within the story on the screen or page. I think I may have read At Swim-Two-Birds shortly after that, or maybe it was Robert Sheckley’s Mind Swap. I was a great reader of science fiction when I was a teenager, but soon went on a campaign to read the Great Books before going to college. Among the Classics and the speculative fiction on my to-be-read list there were quite a few titles that are today considered prime examples of metafiction.

‘Tristram Shandy’ is arguably the first great experimental novel and contains three dimensional characterisation, whereas a novel like ‘La Jalousie’ by Alain Robbe-Grillet lacks that through its use of detail to explore a man’s jealousy as he spies on his wife through the Venetian-blind like slats of the jalousie windows of their home. Raymond Roussel, an obsessive millionaire who never wore a suit more than once, details objects in his novels often without characterisation. When fiction crosses over into that kind of self-consciousness has it lost its ability to tell a story?

Robbe-Grillet said in an article regarding Michel Foucault’s study of Roussel’s work:

… this chain of extraordinary, complex, ingenious and far-fetched elucidations seems so ludicrous and so disappointing that it is as if the mystery were still intact. But from now on it is a cleansed, eviscerated mystery that has become unnameable. The opacity no longer hides anything. It’s like finding a locked drawer, and then a key, and the key opens the drawer impeccably…and the drawer is empty.

And Foucault himself said of Roussel.

I would remain very cautious about Rousel’s historical place. His was an extremely interesting experiment; it wasn’t only a linguistic experiment, but an experiment with the nature of language, and it’s more than the experimentation of someone obsessed. He truly created or, in any case, broke through, embodied and created a form of beauty, a lovely curiosity, which is in fact a literary work. But I wouldn’t say that Roussel is comparable to Proust.

Kenneth Koch of the New York School, under the influence of Roussel, and experimenting with a form of Roussel’s “process” wrote:

Sweet are the uses of adversity / Became Sweetheart cabooses of diversity / And Sweet art cow papooses at the university / And Sea bar Calpurnia flower havens’ re-noosed knees

What to make of that? Is it supposed to signify anything beyond the thought that some words sound mellifluous together?

Art, Robbe-Grillet reminds us, is not just a way of presenting a message: it is the message. Like the world at large, a novel is self-sufficient and “expresses nothing but itself.” Its “necessity” has nothing to do with its “utility.” Whenever an author envisages a future book, “it is always a way of writing which first of all occupies his mind,” which leads Robbe-Grillet to state that “the genuine writer has nothing to say. He has only a way of speaking.”

The word novel means new, so it must be an evolving thing. It doesn’t really have an obligation to tell a story. Since fiction is so all encompassing in its application to theater, cinema, music, and the document, it, too, may be said not to be under any constraints to tell a story.

All that being said, if an author is looking for an audience, s/he must provide work that pleases an audience, and most people simply want to be entertained by story. I don’t think profound self-consciousness of a production necessarily precludes the telling of a captivating story, but, yes, sometimes the work is story-less. Still, an audience exists which is enraptured by mere wordplay, and that is good news for visionaries and experimenters alike.

Michel Foucault said in ‘Language, Counter-Memory, Practice’ ‘sexuality is a fissure – not one which surrounds us as the basis of our isolation or individuality, but one which marks the limit within us and designates us as a limit.’ Jean Genet dramatised this in his fictions, do you think Foucault as a post-structuralist was expressing anything more than a working prostitute knows from her or his experience of physical need?

I’m not so sure the prostitute would want to sit down and analyze what s/he has come to know through experience thereby extracting the frisson out of the situation, but I believe in the back of their minds, those not addled by drugs, they know what they’re about.

Foucault used a lot of big words to talk about transgression, when he could have said, “In a godless world, all we have left is to see transgression where ‘polite’ society has propagated it exists, sidle up to it, and put a toe over the line, being careful not to erase it, and enjoy the shock on other faces.” Not to erase it, of course, because if we completely shatter taboos, we’ll have nothing left to think of as sacred, and I think we still feel the desire in a secular world to value something in that way. What’s the point of droning through life from beginning to end without the thought of something, anything, bigger than us? That wouldn’t be a life at all.

Genet understood the value of maintaining a belief in something. In his prison cell, he had a lot of time to think, and rethink his position as a sentient being without recourse to a god on high, and he knew his transgressions had placed him in that situation. Still, he got off on it, I believe, to a degree and he was never one to advocate erasure of the boundary lines. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have kept placing himself at the mercy of the authorities. He wanted to fart in the face of polite society and be punished for it.

I will never forget one scene in Our Lady of the Flowers, where for lack of human contact, he and another prisoner in isolation blow cigarette smoke through a straw inserted in a chink in the wall between them, and from this he derives some sort of sexual satisfaction with which he makes do. Nor another where he cups his own farts to his nose to be reminded of what it means to be alive. Small potatoes to those of us who read him in our “freedom” to move around. He wasn’t whining, however, just describing his adaptations and the need to feel.

He dreamed vividly and “lived” in those dreams, and even in them he transgressed.

Foucault was stating something many of us in the modern world are indeed aware of, yet few have his vocabulary to declare it so eloquently, and now that God has been driven from our house, some would like him to come home, and a goodly number believe he never went too far away, perhaps just to the outhouse to take a dump and contemplate where we made him go wrong.

In ‘Miracle Of The Rose’ Jean Genet asserts his freedom through the use of fantasy, chains become garlands of flowers, a condemned prisoner is discovered to have in his heart a red rose of monstrous size and beauty. Do you think that fantasy is a force of subversion and at what point do you think it tips over from art into mental illness?

Well, since the time that Sartre declared Genet a saint, modern scholars have discovered more about his so-called “abused childhood,” which didn’t happen in quite the way Sartre put forth. There is little doubt now that Genet did indeed suffer from mental illness, and did so from an early age. Still, when you’re of a certain age, or in that frame of mind, his work makes interesting reading. I never wanted to emulate him. I always detected the sickness behind his overblown images. It was the small private moments that drew me to his work and kept me lingering for a little while.

Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth is filled with fantastical images which serve to subvert, but I haven’t read anywhere about him suffering from mental illness. I love that film, and the images are just as stark and vivid as Genet’s, but of course put forward to a different end.

The problem with Genet was he was all gay, all the time, and an unscrupulous character, and that’s wearing on an observer. It’s hard to say if the monstrous red rose came out of mental illness or he truly meant those images to say something. Certainly, after he somewhat cleaned up his act, he spoke out, along with those esteemed writers who idolized him (a mutual admiration society?) against tyranny and abuse, but that was after years of glorifying pain and degradation. There’s a dichotomy there, don’t you think? Don’t get me wrong, as a writer he had his moments where he transcended, some of which I cannot forget, but I don’t think I have ever considered him a saint.

For similar reasons I’ve trolled through the work of William Burroughs, but unfortunately cut up rarely provides images that linger, in my head at least. And how many people do you know who have completely and enjoyably read Finnegans Wake? All artists have their method, and sometimes they or their admirers claim they were out to change the world in some way. The more clearly you can reason your way through their fantastical prose or tortured canvasses, the more you pick up on what they had to say. Sometimes a rose is a rose is merely a rose.

Jacques Derrida in ‘Writing And Difference’ writes ‘To be affected is to be finite: to write could still be to deceive finitude, and to reach Being – a kind of Being which could neither be, nor affect me by itself – from without existence. To write would be to attempt to forget difference: to forget writing in the presence of so-called living and pure speech’. What do you think of his observation?

Derrida worked at deconstructing what others observed before him, and I haven’t got the head for all those isms. I’m not exactly clear on why he took on such a job. If you google him, you find sites that report that specifying his “method” is difficult as he approached every piece of work from a different angle, appropriate to the work at hand. Sounds kind of nebulous to me. Maybe he had fun doing it, and there is an appreciative audience willing to follow his breadcrumbs and see where it leads them, but then what is his true legacy, a string of dilapidated gingerbread houses? I think Merleau-Ponty put it more succinctly when he said, “My own words take me by surprise and teach me what I think.”

Do you think that the inherent snobbery of many critics is justified given the great writing that is coming out of genre fiction?

Snobbery is never justified, and if it comes with a bad attitude, it’s unbearable. While it’s true there is a lot of great writing coming out of genre fiction, what have critics got to be snobbish about? If someone reviews and builds a reputation towards a goal of being able to sit on a throne and acting as an arbiter of taste, that sounds like perversion to me. We all read good things and want to tell our friends about them and get them to read so we can discuss, but those who make a practice of finding fault and then attempt to get others to avoid material have a problem, and should best be avoided themselves. I learned this first hand a while back when I picked at a terrific writer on one of the sites I frequent because I thought that person was writing too much of the same type of material and it bugged me. How twisted is that? What the hell was I thinking? I issued an apology, stepped back and reread some of that writer’s stuff. My way of thinking was wrong, and my speaking out in that tone was wrong. My m.o. now when commenting is if I love it, I compliment, and if it doesn’t appeal to me, I say nothing. The unfortunate thing is being so busy, I miss a lot of stuff, and writers who know me may think I’m not responding because it means I didn’t like their latest piece, when the truth is I probably haven’t had a chance to read it. As to critics who get paid to review and are almost always negative and dole out their compliments as if they were gold, they’re an entertainment in themselves. As with Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, it’s fun to watch someone being bitchy. If you’re writing to keep bread on the table, well you have to know you may someday run up against someone with attitude, and take it on the chin. Arguing back and forth is unproductive at best and can damage a writer’s reputation before it does anything to the critic’s.

I like to follow a critic unknown to me for a little bit, and see how many things, movies, books, I’ve read and liked and how often I agree with what they say. If they denigrate more than a few pieces of the stuff I loved, I stop following. I do believe, now however, that snobbery is not justified no matter how much learning went into building it.

Thank you Michael for giving an insightful and eclectic interview.



Another MuDjoB link:

Caitlin and Mathias, a little book CJT (Nicole Hirschi) and Michael D Brown put together.

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