Interview with Theresa Smith
May 30, 2018
We met in Brooklyn, sometime in 2011? You were playing in Home Blitz then, and have since played in several bands, and put out music under a number of monikers and in different styles. And you’ve been writing concurrently in one venue or another. Is there a relationship between the two worlds for you, or a trajectory from one to the other? How much does an internal narrative voice pervade in your life, and how is that reconciled with left-brain activities like playing rhythm, or, ruminating on the underlying philosophical problems in life?
I think the connection is that in each case, I try to create an environment in which I have as few choices as possible. Reducing the number of parameters is really the only way I can get anywhere without getting bogged down in uncertainty. Where music’s concerned, this usually involves getting myself into a situation where somebody else tells me what to play, or if it’s just me, I’m working with some kind of a fixed template – reproducing a particular kind of music according to some self-made rules, maybe, or making a piece out of a certain number of prerecorded sounds. I’ve never really thought about the connection with writing before, but it’s there. When I write, I find myself pulled towards different kinds of limiting structures, or I guess you could call them organizing principles – lists, syllogisms, tables, poems, graphs, etc. These things tell stories in a way that I can’t.
For a person who spends so much time alone, I sure don’t have a robust inner monologue. I envy people who seem to be feeding every facet of their experience through some analytical engine that rips it up and processes it according to some set of effortless internal algorithms. I don’t have those algorithms. To the extent I have an internal anything, it’s more like an occasional argument with someone doing a terrible Garry Shandling impression.
You mentioned once how one of your fondest memories of college was sitting on the floor of your collegiate library buried in books. One gets the sense of an inquiring mind solving problems for humankind in your stories, a sense of parody, and pathos, among other things. Where does your love of hard philosophy and science intersect with narrative? What kind of narratives inform your work?
I don’t think I’m so much solving problems as trying to create new ones, but I like the idea that the impractical solution to an invented problem can point out certain patterns in the way people address real-world conundrums. I almost always struggle with putting science and narrative together, but there’s no good reason it should be that difficult. Creation myths and other early efforts to explain natural phenomena don’t differentiate at all between science and fiction, and you could probably make a good case that they were some of the first stories to ever be told. So I think storytelling really comes directly from science, or at least the need to generate better explanations.
Writers like Stanislaw Lem, Borges and Italo Calvino are good at combining science and narrative in unexpected ways – not using it as a backdrop, or an exotic setting for a more or less conventional story, but actually using it as a building material. I try to do that, too. I want to be able, eventually, to create a fictional world without necessarily making anything up. I like to create by taking the structure of a concept – say, catastrophe theory in math – and grafting it underneath another concept, like the speech mechanism of a non-human creature, or the way someone’s facial expression changes while they’re telling a joke.
Can you delineate your process, from thesis, antithesis and synthesis of an idea for a story, to actually sitting down to write it?
I wish I could say that the process of writing a story begins with some fundamental disturbance or unease – because most of the good ones seem to – but I have a real blind spot for that kind of thing. I’m not very good at knowing what I think at any given time. To the extent I have a writing process, it usually starts with some bizarre contention about some aspect of reality – like spacetime being both convex and concave at once, or Jack Benny being a portal to an alternate universe – and then I come up with some rules to support it, and then, because I think I have to, I populate it with creatures that occasionally do or say something. I don’t think the presence of a point of view is strictly necessary in fiction, but I haven’t figured out how to get rid of it yet. The self-titled piece in “L” is the one that comes closest to eliminating a point of view completely, and for that reason, it might be my favorite of the collection.
I do think it’s essential to have writing that explores the experience of being human in a detailed way, and to the extent I can do that while talking about drilling through layers of spacetime using a directional alphabet, I try to.
You have a singularly special way of giving name to concepts we all have in our heads. What is the significance of dialectical thinking in your work? How about poetics? Talk about your philosophy background and how it has lead you to an interest in maths, sciences and its hybridization with fiction.
I think my strategy of naming things that don’t necessarily need to be named comes from a fascination with the sort of reverse ontological fallacy I catch myself (and other people) committing all the time. Basically, this is the idea that if you give something a name, it stops existing, or at least it stops being a problem. If you keep obsessively looking for a book on your bookshelf that you know probably isn’t there, you can say to yourself, “Oh hell, I’m just perseverating!” and that immediately minimizes the problem, or sometimes takes care of it altogether. This idea definitely comes from being in therapy. As far as dialectic goes, I think I probably use it as a tool of derangement more than anything else. I think if you use it the right way, it’s one of the easiest ways to get from a sensible statement to something that’s completely unzipped. Once I get there, my job is to make this demented thing make sense, and that’s usually where a story really takes off.
When I feel good about my writing, it’s usually at those times where I’ve found a novel way to misunderstand some philosophical argument or mathematical proof. This is not difficult, especially where math is concerned. I almost think I’ve found a way to make my ignorance work in my favor. It’s a resource that needs to be conserved.
There are some strong religious/theological themes in some of your work. Are you a spiritually-inclined person? Or is religious doctrine more a byproduct of your adolescent development/rearing?
Agnosticism is, for me, a loaded word. I think it implies a fundamental lack of curiosity, or maybe even apathy, with regard to the inherently unproofable, and I’m certainly curious. I prefer to sidestep the question entirely when it comes up, because I’m afraid there’s something cynical and opportunistic in the way I investigate religion, even as a formerly religious person. I’m defending myself because I still exist in, for the most part, the moral universe of a Methodist kid, even though most of the creatures and concepts that held those ideals in place are long gone. What’s still holding the rest in place? Inertia, I guess. I still feel guilty for doing things that are dumb and fun. The idea of salvation in particular has a pretty nasty afterburn when all its rules and regulations are wiped out but the expectation still remains, without a clear prescription. You start to look for it in all kinds of weird places. I think this theme works its way into my writing quite a bit – looking for something to capitulate to.
I have a theory that you can learn a lot about a story – and perhaps by extension, the person who wrote it – by figuring out the one word or concept that’s most conspicuously missing from it. Even with a story where everything’s pretty much spelled out for you, I think it still works. Sometimes you find that the story takes on the contours of that word, being constructed layer by layer around a word-shaped vacuum. In some of my stories, that word starts with a capital “G”. I think a good deal of the displeasure in my work comes from a deep, pretty much bottomless, resentment that this word refuses to go anywhere.
Is there a moral/ethical imperative in your work? If so, how much are you willing to pull back the curtain on it?
In a way, although it’s kind of hard to tease out – even for me. Some of the stories deal with what I would call, for lack of a better term, vicious systems: systems of behavior or belief that are internally consistent, but incredibly estranged from reality. I know it’s kind of ridiculous to get indignant about abusing logic, but I’ve been won over by a shitty argument more times than I can count (or that I’m aware of), and I guess if there’s a moral center to “L”, it’s the importance of distinguishing between nice bullshit and statements that resonate on a larger scale. I’m avoiding using the word “truth” here – and you know what that means.