Interview with Calvin Westra
May 14, 2021
MM) Family Annihilator went through a few different phases of conception. You’ve been muttering online and through various channels about this mysterious novella for a while now. Could you share the process of revelation you had that brought us this book in its final incarnation?
CW) From what I recall, sometime in 2018 I was writing a short story about a young couple making a weird YouTube horror show. Honestly it wasn’t even that good – like, I knew there was shit missing that would make it what I wanted but I wasn’t sure what it was. All the polish in the world and it felt incomplete every time. I would play around with the idea, write an iteration of it, clean it up, and think about it for a while. I liked the underlying humor of it, like, this guy makes a TV show that doesn’t make much sense and also isn’t really funny but no matter how many walls he runs into he just refuses to change what he’s doing. It seemed funny to me but also, as a story, it really didn’t work because that wasn’t enough of a premise. At least that’s how I saw it. So I sent versions of that story out to some magazines, collected a few rejections, and thought about what I was doing wrong. I had a friend I showed it to and he had a lot of revision suggestions and while they were very kind and solid, they also showed he was missing the point of what I was doing with the story. That was really funny to me. I remember, I was in a swimming pool with these two Labrador retrievers when I had this eureka moment. Like, I’m writing a story about someone creating a show with a premise no one gets and here I am showing people a story I wrote with a premise no one gets. I’ve ended up in the same predicament as my protagonist. Too fun for me to pass up making that into a deranged meta-novella. I got really stoned that night and kept calling myself a genius.
MM) It’s a work of metafiction that defies the high-concept, ungainly impression of that– the writing is lithe, spry, the emotions are immediate and intimate. You get to know and love the characters without even needing to reckon too heavily with the metafictional conceit. Also, I’d confidently say this is one of one of the most sleevehearted, poignant and romantic books I’ve lately come across, with that salient je ne sais quoi of weirdness that sets it apart from its contemporaries. What function does concept perform in your estimation? Or how do they (the concept and the human story) complement each other?
CW) When I think of meta fiction I honestly think of stuffy, concept works that probably go way over my head and what I wanted was more of a perspective that invited the process to be a part of the story but then I also wanted to try to do that in the least pretentious way I could. At its core, it’s a story about people trying to survive themselves and figuring out how they’re going to tell their own stories with whatever they have. I think, as I see it and as Family Annihilator presents it, whether you’re giving an AA lead or making a shitty YouTube show, your process is as vital and interesting as anything that comes of it. And for me, the process is maybe the most interesting part. Also, I’d been writing a lot of janitorial autofiction and I felt like by shooting at the story from a wider angle I had the excuse I needed to explore life the way I wanted to, with psych med emergencies and superior floor cleaning techniques. I like how it turned out. It’s got a decent amount of info on how to start a cleaning company, some great zit popping scenes, a sex cult, a diabetic seizure in an animal suit. All the things I wanted.
MM) You’ve talked about nonlinearity of fiction. Family Annihilator feels very fluid and spatial in its idea of time. I never felt like I was taken out of Oen and Lee’s story, even when I was plunged into Florian and Rosebud’s parallel. Tell me about your experience learning to write like this. There are some very deliberate and meticulous stylistic choices, like for instance, having the Florian parts consist largely of gerunds and cascading lines of rolling dialogue. Did you find yourself in the role of a literary mad scientist, so to speak, fixing something by annihilating it, pardon the pun?
CW) Yeah, it was a lot of experimenting and a lot of headaches. I’m blessed to have some really well-read people in in my life who can recommend me the books I need depending on what I’m trying to do. James Nulick recommended me Tropisms by Nathalie Saurraute, which helped a lot in forming the Florian/Rosebud segments. Overall, the book felt like the kind of idea I would tell myself was fun when I was stoned but also not the kind of thing I figured I could actually write because I hadn’t seen it done before. It’s hard to take that kind of approach because you don’t feel like you have any guidance but also you’re constantly second guessing yourself and wondering if people will get it or like it because there aren’t any popular books you can just ape. But it was also a lot of fun to make a weird book that I knew at least I would enjoy reading.
MM) One of our editors said this reminded them of early alt-lit. Would you take this opportunity to talk about your literary and artistic influences, what possessed you to write a book, and this book specifically, and what facets of your taste are most represented here?
CW) I definitely like a fair amount of what is called alt-lit, mostly because I like efficient storytelling and I think a lot of alt lit was really creative in how it told stories and maybe also in what it chose to leave out. I like emphasizing dialogue that either is authentic or feels authentic, so I lean into the ways people around me actually talk instead of cleaning it up and making it read smoother. My favorite parts are actually parts I barely wrote, just really special conversations, a couple AA leads I got to listen to and later rip off, etc. I try to let characters speak for themselves. As far as influences go, I would say Sam Pink for efficient storytelling, Jinnwoo for telling stories in super unconventional ways, James Nulick for structure, and a lot of others. Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel and Richard Yates helped me a lot because they’re both books that have a lot of dialogue that feels like actual people talking to each other. Literally show me a healthy person, too. Not a book I liked at all at first but it grew on me, I think it does a good job of letting people form themselves over time through what they say, what they do. Feels effortless but also honest.
MM) You’ve been writing for a long time. As long as I can remember being a “terminally online” writer, I recall finding your short stories and posts in unlikely places. Could you talk about your earlier work, particularly the stuff you released serialized, and how you got to where you are now with Family Annihilator ? How has the literary scene treated you?
CW) I wrote a novella a long time ago called Not in Employment, Education, or Training. It’s published on Terror House as NEET. I really like that story. It was fun to write and I think it has a lot of scary/funny interactions and also sad/thoughtful ones. I like the protagonist Ben and that his drug dealer pokes fun of him and worries about his health. I like how his therapist and mom talk to him. I think it fits with “Stravinsky’s Firebird” (my Expat 4 story) and maybe even with Family Annihilator because it has a lot to do with people being crippled by really absurd problems that are almost impossible to relate to. The lit scene has been great to me. I’ve made a lot of friends and discovered some of my favorite writers. I’m blocked by the editor of Moon Peace Magazine or some shit but otherwise people are usually pretty friendly to me.
MM) One of the subjects you tackle authentically here is the nature of drug dependency and withdrawal, as well as mental illness. You write from a place of seeming personal experience, but then again, I don’t know that you’ve ever been a filmmaker, or a cop like in your expat 4 piece. Yet you write commandingly from these perspectives without any jargon or esoteric knowledge on display. The moviemaking segments feel almost unreal or made-up with respect to how movies are made, yet are completely convincing. You’re not hearing a question because I’m hoping you’ll interrupt me.
CW) I make a lot of shit up and if I ever feel I’m bullshitting too hard I just Google things until I can convince myself I know what I’m talking about. On the subjects of drug and alcohol abuse, recovery, and being off prescription meds, I know way more than I ever wanted to, so I definitely feel comfortable writing authentically about that stuff.
CW) I was going for something really comprehensive, which is funny because what I ended up with is a slim novella. But it’s not a story with a strict beginning and ending, it’s a cross section of life including a lot of creative processes and processes within processes. Lots of moving parts. I don’t feel like I could ever write “autofiction” that didn’t include some magical realism or animal suits or whatever. I’ve wasted my whole life imagining cool secret lives for random people and goofing off with my friends, so that imaginary weird shit has to be part of my writing, I think.
MM) Would you say Family Annihilator has a message? If so, what? Would you prefer this to remain elusive? Tell me about your IRL preoccupations these days.
CW) There’s no core message, just questions. I’ve been going to this diner and ordering something different ever time. I’m trying to become an expert at the menu, like, I want to be the guy in the corner you can just approach and say, “My wife left me recently, my car needs an oil change, and I keep having intrusive thoughts about bidets,” and I would be able tell you, “Get the gyro platter.” Other than that, I’m growing a mean fucking mustache and ghost riding my GLK 350.
MM) Does fiction, in your view, serve a moral purpose? As someone who hasn’t traveled far beyond the midwest, someone with a taste for life’s simplest and most precious pleasures, as refracted in Oen and Lee, what does fiction do for you? What do you hope Family Annihilator will do to fiction?
CW) I think it does, or at least it can. To me, that’s the value in staying authentic and vulnerable even when you stray into speculative fiction or whatever. If you’re being true to what you know about it and not making too many judgments, you’re inviting readers to be in charge of their own evaluations. I prefer that to being told how I am supposed to feel about what happens in a book. Fiction is fun, man. Simple as. I’ve definitely enjoyed some books that I couldn’t relate to and introduced me to stuff but I also really like a few books that are basically about working jobs and chatting up homeless people, which are things I know a lot about. I don’t hope Family Annihilator does anything to fiction. I sincerely hope fiction continues to do whatever the fuck it wants.
MM) What are you working on next, after the Family Annihilator world tour?
CW) I am writing a novel called Donald Goines.