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“Like James Joyce Wrote Euphoria”: An Interview With Grendel on His New Novel, Esmerelda With an E

Scott Litts: So our mutual friend Roman D’Ambrosio told me about your manuscript in early 2022, and said he’d lost contact with you because you’d burn through anonymous/pseudonymous social media accounts and you two had never established a more permanent line of contact. I read the manuscript and was like, we definitely need to find this guy— our only clue basically being “he’s a guy who was and maybe still is in Montreal.” And then I ended up in Montreal in May of that year for work and I met up with some friends I knew there like, “Okay there’s this guy with this pseudonym, he’s roughly your age, he seems to party and do drugs, and he’s a writer— you’ve probably hung out with him,” but no, nothing. Then Roman finally got a hold of you (shoutout to Roman), and after a phone call and some talking you and I began the editing process, which I enjoyed quite a bit. So this has technically been an international manhunt, which is now finally culminating in the publication of this book. To start then, what is your relationship to publishing your work, and being perceived as a writer in general?

Grendel: It’s funny you were there in spring of ‘22 because that’s when I left. I was probably somewhere in the prairies or mountains at the time. But before that I’d been in Montreal for almost six years, and very active on Twitter, where I first spoke to Roman. He was the one who first asked to read something of mine and I sent him a Google doc that I hadn’t opened since 2018, and that was Esmerelda With an E. Even if I’d met any of the people you were talking to they wouldn’t know about my writing because I’ve never shared it with anyone I know personally. I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. I used to read physical books; that was most of my childhood. Now I only read digitally, usually on my phone. I don’t have a functioning computer so the easiest way to access anything to read is on my phone. I actually wrote a decent portion of Esmerelda on my phone. I fantasized as a child about writing novels but was quickly disillusioned with the modern publishing industry. I don’t like almost any novel I can buy in a major bookstore written in the last forty years, but more like eighty or a hundred. There’s a plethora of great stuff on the internet but novels have become weird identity statements about the author more than something generally meaningful or even entertaining. A lot of genre fiction is exciting but there’s so much shit it’s hard to navigate. I never tell people I’m a writer. Most people who self-identify as writers are intolerable. That’s not a slight on the discipline, just on the culture.

S: I’ve always said (at least privately) that a lot of my favorite contemporary writers sort of don’t consider themselves writers, and definitely don’t publicly identify as writers. I prefer to just think of them as “geniuses.” I feel like people who explicitly identify as “writers” are actually more often than not pretty disconnected from the world in a way that somewhat precludes their ability to write anything interesting. They exist in a bubble of writing, or reading, or “discourse,” and they live really docile lives— maybe because they’re busy “trying to write” all day.

G: I think more than anything when you begin to consider something as part of your identity or the entirety of your identity it becomes aestheticized and the act itself is lost. People are concerned with being perceived as “a writer” and the cultural bullshit that comes with that. Anyone could lay claim to the title if it’s used literally enough. We all write things in our day to day lives. Writer as a profession is different but so few of those who self-identify as writers make any money off it, let alone a living. It just seems pretentious. I’d rather just say I write and leave it at that. No need to assign myself to some guild. 

S: I don’t remember if I’ve told you this, but my elevator pitch for this book has been “Like if James Joyce wrote Euphoria.” I initially came up with that off the cuff, but everyone immediately understands what it means, and they (rightly) like the sound of it, so I stuck with it. And I do think it’s a broadly accurate description. Anyway, this is to say: on one hand this is a “literary,” at times somewhat experimental and ecstatic book, but on the other hand it’s very readable, and pulls you in and along with scandal and sexiness and tragedy. And it manages to do both of these things unselfconsciously, tastefully and convincingly— it all makes sense together in the context of the writing and style. I find this pretty captivating, because I actually think the “sex appeal” of capital-L Literature is almost always pretty overblown and sort of wishful thinking. But I legitimately feel that you’ve managed to do both here. Was this a deliberate intention of yours, to write something sexy and literary?

G: I think the James Joyce Euphoria thing is fucking hilarious. I’m not nearly as allusive as Joyce but I guess we have certain aims in common, breaking down literary language into something modern and self-conscious being the main one. I wouldn’t say sex was a huge part of what I was thinking about when I was writing it. Not more than drugs anyway. Promiscuity is a symptom of the kind of people the book is about, but I never meant it to take too much focus. Desire when you’re young can feel like religious fervour and I wanted to capture that, but also its elusiveness and ultimate futility. A whole lot of waxing lyrical and pure devotion that culminates in something underwhelming, or maybe slightly embarrassing.  

S: So how would you describe this book in three short-ish sentences?

G: It’s a coming-of-age novella. But it’s also an inversion of the form. It’s about coming into a non-identity in a world in which you have no place, in which there is no identity; the misspelling of the title character’s name is not an accident.  

S: To me this will always be a “Montreal novel,” but I’m a bit biased because I love Montreal. It’s the perfect combination of French and American to me. How significant is the role of Montreal in this book?

G: I think most major North American cities could replace Montreal in the story. There is a certain aloofness to Canadian cities but it could just as easily have been L.A. or something. Only contextual bits would have to change. The earliest parts of it were written nearly ten years ago before I’d moved to Montreal. 

S: There are quite a few significant location changes, each of which seem to represent their own arcs. Do you care to speak on the roles of different locales in the story?

G: I have an obsession with geography and location in general but it’s more just a quirk than anything central to the book. The passages in Cape Breton are directly inspired by my childhood there but it’s all framing. There maybe could have been a more complete and longer book in which these ideas of location and geography affect the core themes but Esmerelda was doomed to a partial miscarriage. It’s too young and tragic to be complete. Parts of it were written when I was eighteen. I couldn’t finish it now even if I tried. 

S: I think you’re right to make that call and set that limit. The fact that certain work belongs to, and can feel representative of a specific phase of your life is often one of the most fulfilling things about it in my opinion. Even the incomplete stuff always seems to become complete with time. So, you’re choosing to publish this book under a pseudonym. It seems with fiction this is often a choice people make in order to preserve a distance between their work and their social lives. What is your relationship to autobiographical/auto-fictional writing?

G: I would like to explicitly say that this book is not autobiographical. Certain characters are composites of people I used to know and minor details like losing a wallet in a water feature are autobiographical but even the surrounding details are entirely fictional. None of these things happened to me and I am not the protagonist. Even those details that I experienced are often handed to random characters. I don’t think I could ever write something strictly autobiographical because it would hurt people I know. I chose a pseudonym because I want to be able to control who can find the book. It wouldn’t be hard for anyone to find my real name. That’s not a concern. 

S: This book engages, at times very directly, with questions of rationality— specifically the “failures” of rationality, which I think is a very pertinent topic. What are your thoughts on science and scientism?

G: I grew up with scientists and I think that has made me more sceptical of scientific institutions in general, but they were the ones who taught me that and most critically thinking scientists will agree. There are ideas in science that are inarguably powerful and useful. The first half of the twentieth century saw our entire understanding of reality completely restructured, and then the pure theory applied in ways that would change the physical world at every level of human experience unalterably. Everything from our basic societal structure to the phones we use everyday are a direct result of this unbelievable flowering of understanding. There’s almost nothing comparable in human history. Nuclear bombs are one of the most impressive things we’ve ever done, from a sentimental perspective. They’re also a perfect example of how science is abused and propagandized as something essential and useful. But the cultural institution of science as understood by the average person is no better than any other institution of belief because most people have zero scientific literacy and no way of critically parsing what they’re being told. It’s been another tool of marketing and propaganda and cultural division. But science isn’t unique in that. And there are fundamental limits to scientific thinking, and there are fundamental limits to math, even within their own construction. Scientists are as prone to bias and outright obfuscation as anyone else. Universities are bureaucracies and people are tied up by institutional concerns or personal concerns. There’s a saying generally in science that you have to wait for a generation to die before the theory changes, and this is just as true in hard sciences. Einstein was famously opposed to some of quantum physics’ more unbelievable theoretical conclusions, and it was one of the most practicable and powerful scientific theories ever conceived. He was also famously not an idiot, just an old man. 

S: Drugs and alcohol factor into this book as a way for the main character, Toe, to mitigate what he perceives as constraining excesses of rationality. Do you care to speak on that? 

G: Alcohol has for thousands of years been a very accessible homemade psychiatric medication that’s more effective and more easily procured than basically anything else. It’s volatile though. Toe is fallible and most of what he says is self-justification but I think it will be obvious if you read the book that I have some reservations about psychiatry.

S: The epilogue of this book deals with technology, the internet and communication— and this is actually a somewhat sharp turn given the largely offline nature of the book’s main narrative. Given your history of burner social media accounts, and I guess pseudonymity/anonymity in general, how do you feel about media and the internet?

G: The epilogue is intended as a mirror of the opening. The opening is about young people playing with identity, and using the internet and internet culture to do so, and the epilogue rather literally portrays a destruction of identity when confronted with reality. Anonymity is the basic state on the internet or in a major city. We decide who we are after that, it’s all play. The intervening chapters are nebulous with reality in many ways and are hyper-focused on self-perception and perception of others. I’ve been on the internet since I was a child, and I’ve seen it evolve from forums and wikis into the all-consuming and inescapable protein of life it is now. I would not be at all who I am now without its influence. I think this is true of anyone who grew up in the last 30 years and continues to be more true every year. I would be worse at writing without the internet. I was exposed to such a wide variety of PDFs and communities. Social media wasn’t what it is now when I was a young teen and I’m thankful for that. I don’t use social media much anymore. The algorithms are too good at wasting your time. I was completely addicted to Twitter for years, and I don’t regret it because I met some great people, but 90% of that time was just refreshing a feed and waiting for something— I don’t know what. 

S: Do you think communication has become more difficult in contemporary society?

G: I think young people are more precocious than ever but it’s confined to hyper-specific fractionalized communities filled with people who have never met each other, or met each other in the traditional sense. I’ve considered some online friends closer in times of my life than anyone I knew in real life. It’s interesting and provides something that never existed before but certainly comes with a price. 

S: Do you feel writing is superior to other creative mediums? Why do you do it?

G: I love poetry. I don’t think of it as writing necessarily because it has musical connotations and is also primarily an oral tradition. I think novels are fun but they’re not high art and won’t be remembered in the same way as great poetry. I think America’s most interesting and promising form is cinema, and if I had millions of dollars I would make epic films instead of writing novels, but that probably won’t happen. I actually don’t really read novels anymore. I read all the canonised Western and Russian novels I thought I was supposed to in my adolescence and early 20’s, but lost interest after that. The novels I like the most are the least bound by the form. My favourite novel is probably Moby-Dick.

S: When I’m inevitably a billionaire I’ll bring you on for my production of Apocalypto 2. But on the note of poetry, do you think modern songwriting is a legitimate analog to poetry?

G: Modern popular song is in its nascent stage but I think could birth something incredible. I’m particularly interested in the rhythmic innovations of trap music and the extreme focus on texture and mantra. I want a Homeric epic in the style of Playboi Carti as fucking ridiculous as that sounds. I don’t like when people put like verbose heroic couplets to pop melodies and call it high art— it feels contrived and backward-thinking. I’m also seeing a ton of excellent poetry published anonymously online that is so far beyond anything in the Chapters Indigo money laundering shit.

S: Okay before we veer too far from Esmerelda: You’ve mentioned in the past that you’d originally intended this book to be part of a larger system of stories which more heavily feature secondary characters— specifically Toe’s family, some of whom appear in a brief but incendiary scene halfway through Esmerelda. What are your current plans for this?

G: Esmerelda is an offshoot of this ridiculous five volume family epic I’ve been writing on and off since 2015. I originally started writing Esmerelda as a break from that, as something more closely related to my life at the time. The big one got away from me. It’s all unfinished and has like thirty main characters and covers a couple hundred years in multiple genres. It’s close to half a million words. It was a huge undertaking for a then-eighteen-year-old and I was humbled by that. Esmerelda is the shortest and most complete part of it, so that’s the one I chose to share with Roman when he asked. Depending on how interested people are in it I might clean up another volume and publish it in the future, maybe under my real name, maybe still as Grendel. 

S: My inbox is open. Okay let’s go more rapid fire. What do you think about work?

G: I have to define the word here. Work is valuable and necessary, essential to the individual and their society. Work as defined by producing capital so that you can buy things to survive is a cruel hamster wheel that benefits no one.

S: Should Quebec secede?

G: I respect the secessionists and Quebec is not my home so it’s not my place to say. But it will never happen. The Canadian government, by proxy of the American, would never allow it. 

S: How long would you survive in a Hobbesian state of nature?

G: I would violently strive for survival but probably succumb to my own melancholy and crippling self-awareness. Maybe a couple weeks.

S: What do you think of asceticism?

G: I can’t imagine it. 

S: Top three musicians/bands? 

G: I’m obsessive and restless so this is something very prone to change but I have to include J.S. Bach. After that maybe Young Thug and the Tampa Bay Lightning? If you asked me tomorrow I’d probably say something else. I’m a dilettante prone to saying provocative things.

S: Okay, on a final note, we’ve discussed a mutual appreciation for fantasy, and you recently sent me a fantasy novel you’d written around the time you wrote Esmerelda. Esmerelda has semi-fantastical elements, but they feel natural in the context of the book and plot. I think there’s a lot of potential for literary fantasy today and in the near future— especially stuff that’s written by a relatively normal guy who’s not the stereotypical fantasy author pumping out 900,000 word escapist trilogies every five years. An increasingly digital life is sort of analogous to an increasingly fantastical life. What do you like about fantasy, and do you see yourself pursuing more fantasy-based writing in the future? 

G: I love the early fantasy guys like Mervyn Peake. I like the magical realists too but I’d like to take their florid style and apply it to high fantasy. I want to write something that’s not exactly like any modern fantasy but also would never be accepted by anyone who likes reading like The Corrections or something. I find Spenser’s ridiculous allegories much more compelling than George R.R. Martin. Most modern fantasy seems divided into almost pornographic realist shit like him and then the league of Tolkien imitators who haven’t even read the medieval stuff that influenced him and turn it into base idol worship and feel good fables. It’s ironic that the modern form most obsessed with the aesthetics of antiquity is the most detached from the strangeness of authentic antiquity. Humans don’t behave the way they’re made to in Martin’s work— it’s a kind of overt cynicism that’s actually naive. No one is twiddling their moustaches and making diabolical speeches. For the record I would appreciate that kind of theatricality but his is always muted and reads more like Dungeons and Dragons flavour text than Marlowe. Most other modern fantasy is overly concerned with self-consistent worldbuilding which I abhor by nature because it removes the mystical and discomforting aspects that I appreciate in older texts dealing with the supernatural. I appreciate the craft of it but it’s not something that interests me at all. We need more Goethe.

S: Yes, I think surrealism speaks to the weirdness of modern culture, and so when it’s done properly it can actually have a very sincere effect, despite that being sort of counterintuitive. And Mervyn Peake is amazing— making a Gormenghast surrealist-fantasy indie-epic tetralogy is one of my dreams. You’re on the right track as far as I’m concerned. Is there anything you’d like to add in conclusion?

G: Don’t take anything I say or write too seriously.

 

Esmerelda With an E will be released in spring.