:: Article

“I wasn’t writing a novel”

S D Chrostowska, author of Permission, interviewed by Edwin Turner.

(Daguerreotype by Jerry Spagnoli)

3:AM: How did Permission begin? Did it begin as a novel? As something else?

S D Chrostowska: It began with the first message, and ended with the last. It was principally a literary effort subordinated to communication. To me this remains a crucial difference, its differentia specifica. The origin of the now-book Permission was in an illegitimate literary dimension outside the frame of book authorship. You have to understand that, though I had chosen my reader, this reader could not know what if anything would become of the writing that came their way. Naturally I wonder whether and how it changes things for readers today, who approach them as a bound book, to know that the letters, just as they are, were once for real.

3:AM: Why write the letters under a pseudonym? How did you arrive at “Fearn Wren”?

SDC: For the sake of ambiguity. Knowing too much, or for that matter anything, about the artist-producer prejudices us about their work. The prejudice is not just personal or social but also simply contextual. It is all but unavoidable in visual and performing artworks requiring direct human contact, where other people are involved from the start rather than just on the receiving end. Sitting for a portrait or mounting a play depends on direct interaction. But we have already chosen the photographer based on their reputation. And we know something about the director before we get involved in their production or, if we happen to be directors, select actors based on their training or past work.

But writing, usually done at some distance from readers, can minimize our reader’s prejudices—at least until the finished work is judged, and the reviews and exposés come out. One way it can do this is by appearing anonymously or pseudonymously. Such publishing has a long history. As, one should add, does letter-writing under a pseudonym. Permission’s first reader would have had no context to go on.

Being read as an unknown author, not part of the literary scene, mimics that condition somewhat. But almost everyone nowadays can be googled, which is to say traced. I imagine that many people who would pick up a book like mine would be curious in this way.

I’m not sure how I settled on this particular pen-name. I do like ferns and wrens, their behaviors and the myths around them.

3:AM: Often, the best way to experience art, film, literature is without any preconception or guide or, as you put it, prejudice. But because of, I don’t know the right word, the marketplace for these arts, we also often need someone to at least steer us to art, narratives (etc.) that can sustain/upset/enrage/bewilder/enchant us.

Part of me is dying to ask about that first reader, the artist whom “F.W” writes to…but at the same time I think that I’d rather leave that itch unscratched. I’ll submit that one of the first things I did reading the book was google for Rabbit Hunt.

To what extent is the first reader of Permission pseudonymous or anonymous? Is he aware of the novelness of the novel? Are these foolish questions?

SDC: Yes, the first reader, the purported director of The Rabbit Hunt whom you pursued through google, is and will likely remain anonymous. Rabbits don’t hide in plain sight do they?

I have long found animal hunting in films fascinating to watch. The list of such scenes is long and goes beyond rabbitting. I would give special place to La Caza by Saura, possibly the most exhausting and elaborate, or Le Bled, which goes after Algerian gazelles. In both films there are casualties among the hunters. The more refined and merciless the hunt the more it seems to lend itself to a conte moral on the folly of human passion and its primitive sources. But it represents to me film’s breathless pursuit of reality.

I see the novel as having crossed its own “doorstep” long ago. Beyond this domestic threshold, it no longer wants to contain reality but increasingly finds pleasure in pursuing it. I don’t just say this because of how close caza (hunt) is to casa, which only occurred to me.

The novel’s relationship to reality is increasingly mysterious. It still imagines chasing it down and devouring it, but it takes time to marvel at the elusiveness, muscularity, and sheer primacy of things. It wants their freedom for itself. But on the other hand, it wants to hold reality captive and make contact with it. It wants to be more recognized by it in the wild, without taming it first. It wants to be seen as real.

Was the first reader—assuming they read it—aware of the text’s “novelness,” as you put it? I wondered about this at the time. The text of Permission remains virtually unchanged—perhaps you can imaginatively identify with its recipient and tell me about it? The book stands as a partial record of its own unfolding, which hinged on the experience of writing and the experience of reading corresponding to it. But this original experience that motivated it is past and done.

3:AM: Now that I have more context—knowing that the emails in the book are “real” and were sent to a “real” recipient—I imagine that your reader had to be puzzled. I would’ve kept reading them, but maybe he dreaded the emails? Or filed them as spam? Or—and here’s where I would have been tempted—maybe wanted to write back, to reciprocate—a gesture that would have challenged the spirit of Permission, I think. Why was it important that your reader—your recipient—not reply?

SDC: You are exactly right that a response would have challenged the explicit request made of my first reader: that our correspondence remain one-sided. The idea was to test my own limits as a writer. Up to that point I had next to no experience with literary publishing. The little I did have wasn’t terrifically rewarding. But I wanted to continue writing and felt that to do this properly—without regard for what goes and does not go in literary journals and presses—I ought to reconcile myself to obscurity. In the end, as you can see, I wasn’t completely reconciled. The existence of Permission is proof of this.

So the principal reason why I devised the writing scheme I devised was to test my resolve. Another major reason was a need for adventure, and for sharing something rather than compounding my then isolation. Another still was a need for an external source of work discipline and aesthetic standards. For these reasons, I preferred not to know if that source cared at all about my undertaking. I didn’t want confirmation that they didn’t give a damn—the likeliest scenario, you’ll agree. Besides, asking someone to engage would have been asking for too much, so I never asked.

I can think of a further reason. I was curious to know if I could sustain a degree of abstraction and stylistic coherence on that scale without the possibility of going back and revising as I wrote. It was to be one pass. And this test might have been difficult in an interactive setup. So the entire “project” was an experiment in endurance and skill.

My interpretation of the silence on the other end was on the whole positive. I continued to draw inspiration from it. I felt I was playing a game that hadn’t been played before, which I designed but played as the weaker player, the one ultimately more exposed, more liable to lose, with more at stake—the pleasure of writing in ignorance of the truth, for one thing. I knew all along I was pushing my luck. I had a sense that my writing was equally testing the limits of the person I was writing to. The other side of permissiveness was transgression against privacy. I worried such letter-writing, particularly over email, would end up eroding the boundaries that normally exist between strangers in public. And I wondered how this would manifest.

My original plan included a collaborative preface. But I gave it up. And while my addressee never replied, someone sent a poem to the address I had created for the correspondence. The poem was pseudonymous, so it was playing along. I didn’t think much of it. But it did cross my mind: now it starts and I must shut up to reciprocate.

3:AM:  From the beginning, how established were the “rules” for the game that became Permission? Were you tempted to revise later? Compelled by an editor to revise?

SDC: In response to your first question, the main rule I spoke of was set in stone before I started writing, and was articulated in the very first communication. Similarly with the rule of writing regularly. For a long time I said nothing about it to anyone.

To your second and third questions the answer would have to be no. Nothing tempted or compelled me to revise. Over the years, through sheer tinkering, I changed something like one percent of the text, and one image.

3:AM: So the photographs were part of the emails as well? How did you choose them? Did the photographs lead to the writing in some cases?

SDC: The images did indeed come with the “package.” Reasons for their inclusion varied considerably, but generally speaking I used images to break up the monotony of the text. Sometimes ideas called for an image, which I had to find or produce. Sometimes it was the opposite, an image supplied an opportunity to develop a theme. Some of the pictures have been on my mind for a long time. Many had been taken by me, some came from a “family archive,” some had to be dug up, and some rescanned from old negatives. Permissions for several of them took some doing and negotiation and one or two wild goose chases.

In my formative years the available, low-tech means of transforming reality were writing, drawing, painting, and photography. I tried them all but dropped them one by one until I was left with the first. It would not be far-fetched to call Permission an homage to the only means at my disposal that I did not use, even though there was a 16-mm camera in the house. The instrument had an aura because I wasn’t permitted to touch it, and when I did I saw it had no film. This was a spur to my imagination. Video, when I got my hands on it, was a social pleasure and confined to an episode. From then on I know film mainly through the experience of cinema.

So it seems obvious to me now why, in the choice of images for Permission, I eventually drew the line at film. Initially I hand in mind including one movie still. But it struck me as alien, although I have seen such images alongside text in books many times. To return to the element of homage: the book was written to a “person of film.” For that reason it would have been unwise and possibly perilous for a person of letters and film dilettante to trifle with a medium so artistically foreign. Plus using film images could have been misconstrued as bait, a lure. Instead, film found its way into the text. Conveying aspects of cinematic experience in the one technology with which I am comfortable seemed preferable.

I regret not front-loading the book with a kind of frontispiece, where the arts it draws on and its main themes would be represented in allegorical or symbolic form. The art of literature would be unrecognizable. W. von Humboldt wrote, “No art is as severely tempted to displace its unique beauty with borrowed feathers as the art of literature.” It’s an odd bird that can do that and still get off the ground!

3:AM: In some ways all literature is “borrowed feathers,” and Permission is perhaps no different—there’s a lot of synthesis and citation and direct reference in your book.

SDC: Philosophers make a distinction between the use of a word and its mention. More generally, we can own an idea and make it part of our system of thinking, absorb it into our bloodstream, or only quote it or be about it, and so keep it at a distance, to remain immune to being identified with it and held to account. In Permission some ideas and images are used, others mentioned, and they have different weights. Some might be stones that weigh it down, others as light as feathers it can get away with…

Literature’s engagement in philosophizing, for instance, may be as questionable as its inclusion of photography or painting. The novel has always had limits that it eventually overcame, turning them into milestones. Take the concern of the novelist-narrator in Stendhal’s The Red and the Black: “Politics is a stone tied around literature’s neck.” But to resist dating the novel, by incorporating contemporary political debates or events, for the sake of some imaginary timelessness would be to fail one’s contemporaries and the mission of literary realism. The politics of 1830 may have indeed fallen flat on some readers and may be irrelevant today but, far from sinking under its weight, the book stands as a monument of the realist tradition.

Novels have been unbelievably capacious and open to mixing the make-believe of “fiction” with the “real” and “serious” of history, philosophy, science… You might think that after the realist novel’s social aspirations, the twentieth-century “novel of ideas”—the kind for which ideas are essential rather than incidental—would have an easy time of it. But, like earlier the novel of formation, the Bildungsroman, it too needed to be legitimized. Utopian fiction—social-utopian visions with true literary ambition if not merit—came under attack in the last century for being too categorical and crude, treating characters as mouthpieces, vulgarizing literature, and the novel in particular, by dressing political manifesto in the feathers of that art. But works like Bellamy’s Looking Backward, one of the culprits, dramatized the social question and illustrated utopian social theory; they didn’t just show the planned and desired outcome of one such theory being put into practice. Yet many critics and writers were convinced that true novels and utopias don’t mesh. It had to be demonstrated that they do mesh, at least when ingenuity gets involved. After Le Guin we no longer have a real issue with the utopian novel.

I imagine that countless so-called postmodern novels draw attention to the limits of the novel and in that sense expand it. My book does not. Permission does borrow the trappings of the epistolary novel, but its aim is not to expand that genre. It’s to expand the art of letter-writing.

I wasn’t writing a novel.

3:AM: Do you have any plans to write a novelly novel? What are you working on now?

SDC: Scholarly work aside, what I’ve written always tended toward short forms, some of which might be called stories—though not in Alice Munro’s sense. These pieces don’t fall neatly into any clear genres and range from micro-fictions or vignettes to sketches and aphorisms.

The form used in Permission, by which I mean the letter, is an empty envelope into which one can put almost anything, even a “novelly” novel. Literary experiments such as my correspondence might end up as “experimental literature,” that is, as published works. But nowhere is it written that they must be made public.

S.D. Chrostowska is the author of two books, Permission and Literature on Trial (2012). She teaches at York University in Toronto.

Edwin Turner blogs at Biblioklept. He lives in Florida. Read his review of Permission here.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, December 16th, 2013.