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Materialising time in Lawrence, Kansas: a conversation with John Trefry

John Trefry interviewed by Joseph Schreiber.

It is 5:00 AM in Lawrence, Kansas, the alarm clock is ringing, and it is noon in Marseille. Time to eat lunch in Notre-Dame de la Garde.

 3:AM Magazine: You once said to me: From my perspective I don’t see any separation between writing, publishing, design, architecture, teaching or whatever. By way of introduction, I want you to tell me who John Trefry is. How would you introduce him at a party?

John Trefry: Oh lord! I don’t say anything about myself in person unless prompted, and then only very little. So if it were me I would simply say, “Hey, I’m John.” If goaded, I still would define myself as an architect, even though it’s not my full-time job anymore. It’s innocuous and people’s conceptions of what it means are usually pretty accurate. Also it gives them something to talk about, usually how bad they are at math, and I can identify with them on that. I would never ever tell someone I was a writer. Most people around me aren’t aware of how I spend my time. “What do you do all day?”… “Work on stuff”, because that is the aspect I really enjoy, work in any form. I’m great at parties.

3:AM: Where does this love of “work” come from? Have you always been this way?

JT: I have been consciously industrious since I started graduate school. And as to why, the true answer is probably from internalizing my father’s role-modelling of hard work. The scientific answer would be from the loathing of idleness encoded in the Swedish part of my ancestry. But the relevant answer would be that the works that I care about are not discrete, they gather many facets of culture and experience together. And in my mind, the practice of making requires constantly replenishing the critical mass of cross-disciplinary production and attentiveness that can be translated from its native raw state to the other new immaculate state.

3:AM: To what extent does one form of work owe its genesis, or its energy, in opposition to or as an escape from another form of work?

JT: I haven’t been doing much personal visual work lately, not out of disinterest, but because of how I’ve chosen to dedicate my time to Inside the Castle and my own writing practice over the last 18 months. I don’t miss it though, because I see no distinction between the practices in terms of what they are making out of my time. I guess this goes back to what you said I said above about the interconnectedness of the different things I’m interested in. I find things in my practice of architecture that feed into my writing practice. I find things in my consumption of movies that feed my object making. It isn’t a perspective distinct to me at all. But I think that an acute awareness of the things one does in daily life is necessary to make the kind of work that interests me. Whether it is writing a note to my wife or spending ten years getting a building built, everything is a trace in some way on the physical fabric of other people’s lives.

At the same time, I don’t have any particular interest in the significance of my personal experiences as they are, and I am not interested in artmaking out of untranslated personal experience. It isn’t that I don’t have anything to learn from it. I think it is more that I don’t have a comfort level with myself and look for ways to encode and dematerialise myself. It is as much about a philosophical stance as it is about shame.

To characterise what I’m envisioning, my mind goes to a couple of seriously played-out touchstones that both continue to serve as roadmaps for me: The Cremaster Cycle and Ulysses. Both involve the encryption of hermetic personal experiences into broader mythological abstractions that become digestible as newly raw material, not simply vaguely recognizable chewed-up stuff. You could describe Ulysses as simply the metaphysical flesh surrounding Joyce’s reflections on his first date with Nora Barnacle. Similarly, I see The Cremaster Cycle as being Matthew Barney’s autobiology and intellectual family tree. In both of them though, the maker is only existent as a texture. Perhaps my interest in this is inherited from architecture, which is mute and immaculate to the user. I don’t see artmaking as documentary. I see it as translational. Something acquires mystery when it exists in a new form without the tissue of connection to its origins. If its origins are apparent, then the user’s investment in it can only exist to the extent that they identify with that origin (which may often be quite a bit though!). With the tissue absent however, the user starts poking around to find footing, and voila, there they are inside this thing! That is metaphor, and it is magic. And perhaps because I lack magic I seek it in constant labour and constant digestion. Taking a walk is work. Watching a movie is work. Up against an intense cognizance of mortality, that sense of work as magic is the urge to transform time into something physical.

It is 1:54 PM in Lawrence, Kansas, the majority of Venice, Italy is in shadow, and it is 11:54 AM in Venice, California.

3:AM: Does this dematerialized approach to artmaking necessitate the creation of a super structure to contain or frame your work? Plats, for example, has a very distinct, and to some extent, rigidly defined form that, even if the reader is unaware of the exact inspirations and constraints, provides a sense of coherence to the reading experience while allowing engagement that can be deep or superficial and equally valid either way.

JT: Yes… The thing I try to teach architecture students is about congruent decision-making, conceptual selfsameness, monomania. That there is no wrong way to work, but there are wrong ways to respond or proceed within a work already in progress. So in this regard, conceptual structuring mechanisms are very important. It just so happens that I am rather uptight and those often manifest in things that are legibly structured. Working with Grant Maierhofer on his books has been incredibly educational for me. His congruence is intuitive, messy, frenetic, but intact and indelible. I could never work like him, but being close to his practice has helped me understand first-hand that congruence isn’t necessarily about order. It is about internal biology, or self-sustaining chemistry. My father is a geochemist. We used to go around the dinner table naming elements. When we were driving around on family vacations, he would remark, “Look at those strata!!!” So when I am looking at a manuscript, or working on something myself, I like to think about what kind of rock it is—and by extension, how a masonry of those rocks would behave. All different kinds of rocks have their own internal coherence, whether they are heterogenous or homogenous, field-like or directional, there is something inevitable about their identity. And that identity is legible, indelible, although it doesn’t tell you how it was made (unless you are a geologist). I don’t have an interest in the mechanisms that enable congruence to be accessible, but I desire work in which the presence of that mechanism is legible. As the user, it suggests to you that you have work to do, but doesn’t tell you what that work is.

3:AM: You live in Kansas. How long have you lived there? What is the single most endearing feature of Lawrence?

JT: I moved here in the summer of 2012. My relationship with the region is interesting, having crossed through here a few times over the years and thinking nothing of it, other than having a sickly sensation of being sucked into the earth, and it probably is similar for most people, a place that seems non-existent, or mythical. Not the myth of Oz, but the myth of emptiness and uselessness. But what do you know, finding myself uprooted and landing here, there are people doing exactly the same bullshit people are doing in Brooklyn or London, not culturally, but in everyday life. The romance for me comes with the true part of the myth, which is the cultural emptiness—there is no built-in social framework to prey on or become energized by. It’s a place that requires you to bring something to the table, and a place where it’s just you sitting at that table. The difficulty of being recognized or acknowledged for your work in Brooklyn or London, is manifested in a similar, but different, way in Kansas where there isn’t even anyone to recognize or acknowledge you. Lawrence is probably the least like that because it’s a college town. I love it for its scale and its ideological tendencies. It is also the hilliest place I’ve ever lived… to crush another Kansas myth.

3:AM: If your first novel, Plats, had its genesis in Los Angeles, more explicitly in response to / in reaction to / as an escape from the drudgery of an office cubicle-defined existence, what has Kansas afforded your literary work (writing, editing, publishing)?

JT: This is true, although not a single word of Plats was written in L.A. It was all written in Atlanta where I was working seventy-hour weeks at an architecture firm. So in a sense it was an Atlanta book. Both places are tremendously beige. And my urge just about anywhere is to escape. I don’t know too much about what Kansas is offering me yet. I have been here for five years. The most noteworthy contribution has been one of cosmic serendipity. After drawing a logarithmic spiral over the United States to understand the collapsing of space through the course of Apparitions of the Living, I ended up moving very close to the singularity of that spiral in El Dorado Springs, Missouri. I’ve noted elsewhere that the motel at the centre of that spiral turned out to be decorated with a variety of spiral motifs. And although half the composition time of Apparitions was in Atlanta, it really came to fruition here in Lawrence, so I think it is probably quite rightfully rooted here, although I don’t think of writing as being place-centred—even though for me it is almost entirely concerned with the physicality of places—as much as its place is inside the book, or an analogue of the mind. I think what Kansas gives me in all manners of practice, sort of like what I mentioned above, is a naive insulation to obvious failure. This would be a key catalyst for Inside the Castle.

It is 5:05 PM in Lawrence, Kansas, darkness, and it is 5:31 PM in El Dorado Springs, Missouri, an hour to the east, still in daylight.


3:AM: Okay, let’s talk about Inside the Castle. I’d like you to go back to the beginning. If I’m not mistaken, this venture had its origin, like many other small presses, with the simple fact that you had a book you could not find a publisher for so you decided to publish it yourself.

JT: Yes, that is true. But I also was very naive about the small publishing world at the time I was first sending Plats around (I am still very naive about it). I had not a single publication to my name, and not a drop of what I would call “service work”, i.e. writing reviews or essays or what have you. Not that that makes or breaks whether Plats is any good, but the audience is so frail and the presses are so overburdened in this kind of work that if you don’t have some record of going out and working on yourself it is going to be hard—not impossible or unreasonable—to get other people to do it. This isn’t a business (it’s not a business, full stop) where there is an entire PR armature that can pluck someone from obscurity and hype them into the next so and so. So in that regard Plats served as kind of a tangible way to introduce myself to people.

 3:AM: Where did the name come from? And what were your key considerations at the outset?

JT: Inside the Castle is the title of a book I’ll never write that takes place inside the titular castle from Kafka’s book. The book was going to address my perception that the castle was just a place like any other, continuous with the fabric we traverse, and that it had no mythical distinction from the rest of the village where K is loitering around. So in this way it analogised my perspective on books, that they were contemporaneous continuations of the physical environment, and that their contents were meant to be seen as active word objects, not depictions. This again is an architecture thing. My mentor, Perry Kulper, talks about the space of a building not being discrete, that the building does not end at its envelope or property line, it is part of a cultural and mnemonic topology. I see that being very similar to the literary project of the press. That there is no inside or outside the book. The book when open becomes part of the surface of the room. So this was a vision for how the press would be curated, giving a space to all these outlying works people are doing that other presses don’t know what to do with because they can’t sell them. I think it is evolving, not in terms of its project, but in terms of how other people—the writers that are sending their work—are, or have already been, approaching that project.

3:AM: What precipitated the decision to expand the project and publish other authors? How many people are involved—is this a one-man show or do you have co-conspirators?

JT: I was thinking about this the other day, and the first time I published something by someone else was actually 1996 when I started putting other people’s work in my zines. So I have always had an interest in working with people in this sort of pursuit. It was part of a naive long-term goal when giving the ItC identity to Plats, but again, I knew nobody and there was no real expectation that being a part of any kind of community would be feasible. But, very early on I had very affirming interactions with a couple of people—M Kitchell and Joe Milazzo—based on absolutely nothing but their generosity, that helped a great deal and continue to be really meaningful friendships. So it was in conversation with Kitchell about the surplus of work that he had and the limited outlets for the kind of work we were doing that the next phase of Inside the Castle began with publication of Hour of the Wolf. At the moment the press is just me doing what I can alone. I did get some help from Germán Sierra looking at CASTLE FREAK proposals, but I certainly can’t afford to pay anyone, and my consistent m.o. is to keep my overhead as low as humanly possible so that the authors can get as much money as possible. At the moment I think the isolation helps the curatorial sense I mentioned, but I am very interested in assuring that this not just representing my perspective on things.

3:AM: What factors come into play in the decision to accept a manuscript? What really excites you about a potential project?

JT: I come from a professional field. I practiced architecture for 15 years. So the first thing that strikes me is professionalism, someone who puts the same care into writing a letter to the press as I am hoping they will into preparing their manuscript. An email that says “hey d00d, check it…” is not a good foot to start on. I am also interested in the way people talk about their work. I am looking for things that exist in a complex paratextual constellation, so intertextuality, cross-disciplinary aspirations, congruent compositional mechanisms… whatever, a voice of curiosity, just something beyond “the tale.” And then with the work itself. I am drawn to style, distinctive prose, immersive language, jargon, strange and unexpected inflections, absence of cliché. I get excited when I feel like the person who is working on it is excited and really proud, and that they wrote it not giving a shit about how people say you should write.

3:AM: Do you get submissions that don’t fit?

 JT: Yes, absolutely. But there aren’t many that are just completely inappropriate—it is pretty obvious when someone is just carpet-bombing every press in existence. However, I really am adamant about keeping open (and free) submissions. It is laborious and I think it is frustrating for people who submit things to me because it takes so long to wade through everything and make decisions, but based on the fact that my own work has never been published by anyone but me, I understand the importance of not gatekeeping people who are toiling in obscurity just because they don’t have an agent or an MFA, or in some cases the money to afford to submit their work. I look at publishers who don’t have open submissions—even just for a brief window each year—and wonder how they are not paranoid that they are missing out on wonderful things. How can they be confident they are publishing the best work they can get their hands on? That is not the scene I came from…

It is 11:19 AM atop Mount Oread in Lawrence, Kansas, and it is lunchtime on the 10th floor sky lobby of the Marriott Marquis in Atlanta, Georgia.

 3:AM: One thing that must be said about Inside the Castle publications is that apart from offering challenging, exciting experimental content, each book is a beautiful artefact, lovely to hold and look at. How do you manage to make this work? That is, apart from your inexhaustible capacity for work, what have you learned in the process of growing this fledgling publishing project?

JT: I am really appreciative that you feel this way. I do really like presses that have a certain look, like Fitzcarraldo Editions, and as much as I think it might conceptually make sense to allow the text to exist as an unadulterated program unwinding, I also think it is counter to the bigger paratextual project of the press that is devoted to levels of detail that can bring the book more into sync with the messiness and unpredictability of our environment. So, thus far we have five books in print and I have physical copies of Noirmania, so the design is done for that. Each book is extremely different, and I have felt such thrilling energy working with each person to imagine what was possible for their books. As far as a desire for labour, it took about 6 months to typeset Douglas Luman’s book The F Text. I basically hand-set every letter (digitally). He didn’t ask me to, but it seemed appropriate. In that way Kitchell’s work for his own press, Solar Luxuriance, is really inspirational. Each book is complemented by its own very rich, and Baroque objectness. What has been a process is learning how to do it very affordably. The printer I use has a variety of really bizarre constraints, but I think that work-arounds often result in strange and unexpected possibilities in all areas of practice, so perhaps it is a positive thing.

3:AM: Like a proud parent, I suspect it is difficult to choose your favourite offspring, but I’d like to know what you are especially excited about as you look ahead to the line-up for 2018.

JT: Shit… Well I am excited about everything and I will tell you why. Two of the upcoming books are debuts, which is really special to me, Noor Al-Samarrai’s El Cerrito and Candice Wuehle’s Bound. They probably both represent most clearly my vision for an Inside the Castle book as being uncategorisable adventures in text. In the Desert of Mute Squares and Clog are both second books on ItC from M Kitchell and Grant Maierhofer, which feels really nice. I would like to think if people who have worked with me know there is a place for them they might feel even more liberated to go beyond the boundaries of what they think the reading community expects of them. Also, Clog is going to be an enormous book, and will be one of three large novels coming this year including Lonely Men Club by Mike Kleine and Belfie Hell by Shane Jesse Christmass. A large book is interesting to me as an object, but even more as a place where the attention can wander. All three books will be pretty effective manifestations of Hopscotch’ing openness, free to be read in the same way one would jaunt around a new city. And the scale I think lends itself to perhaps never visiting certain parts of the city. Nobody goes to New York and laments that they wish it were smaller. That’s just what it is, a big place where the gravity of all of those unseen things directly affects your experience independent from them.

When I was talking before about people taking the project I envisioned for Inside the Castle into their own voices with their own distinct identities and curiosities in ways that not only would have never occurred to me, but which I cannot even relate to directly, only empathetically, Nympholepsy by Lisa Marie Basile and Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein & Noirmania by JoAnna Novak come to mind. Both are books that significantly expand the territory of the castle interior. I also really love that they are both mental disorders that start with “N”. Lastly, I am so excited about The Artifact by Germán Sierra. He is such a strong patron and voice of this peripheral cultural energy. The Artifact is not only his first book in English, it is the first book he has written in English. I read it as the heir to Beckett and Nabokov’s language-hijacking—or even Burgess writing in Nadsat—if they were writing William Gibson featuring haunted synthetic meat.

3:AM: Mike Kleine’s Lonely Men Club is (will be, since it is in process as we speak) the outcome of the first CASTLE FREAK remote residency for generative literature. What is the genesis of this initiative and what do you hope it will signify?

JT: I was really fascinated when I was younger by Stephen King’s claim that he didn’t remember writing some of his books. I guess I didn’t realize at the time that he meant he was blackout drunk. I just thought it was like some strange feeling of abandoning the past or the moment. And that aspect continues to fascinate me as I start to have an accumulation of work. I frequently have a sense of disorientation upon seeing something of mine out of context. It is incredibly satisfying, at once a swallowing intimacy and an involuting vacuum of understanding. And even though I would describe a good bit of my practice as “automatic”, I still have self-consciousness in the moment. So, I am fascinated by the possibility of, in real time, setting something in motion that is both a product of your intentions and a remarkable surprise, like watching yourself on a digital fugue. It echoes what I was saying earlier about the book as a city. So CASTLE FREAK was born out of this, and out of my commitment to exploring it, but necessitated by my own lack of computational skills. At the moment Mike is on his third day. The last thing I heard from him was that his computer crashed. My intention is not to cultivate the perfection of an AI strategy for composing the same literature that humans already write—much of the research is currently invested in that—but to understand what human intentions inside the castle look like when they are wrested from the fabric of our cultural consciousness. To quote Frank Cotton from Hellraiser, “I thought I’d gone to the limits. I hadn’t. The Cenobites gave me an experience beyond limits.” That is the goal, but you know, with the Castle Freak instead of Cenobites.

Stuart Gordon’s Castle Freak, 1995

Stuart Gordon’s Castle Freak, 1995

3:AM: To return once more to your own writing projects, I’d like to know more about Apparitions of Living and what its status is at the moment.

JT: Right now it is on my computer desktop in a folder called “IF I DIE THIS IS THE MOST RECENT DRAFT OF MY BOOK.” I have described the book in various ways (mostly to myself): it is Lolita if she were a boy who was dead before the book started; it is an exorcism of Robbe-Grillet’s didacticism from my practice; it is a theory of inanimism; it is a parable of aging as a form of spatial strangulation; it is a string of beads; it is a reframing of the Osiris mythology; it is a book in which astral projection, bilocation, and the vardøger are so commonplace that they need not be mentioned. It was originally conceived as something my mother could read, because she couldn’t find her way into Plats, she was too intent on each word and it is more of a tidal book. Now I am not sure I want her to read Apparitions. She is a psychologist and she would probably get concerned. I would like it to be a 2019 title if there is room for it.

It is 6:42 AM in Lawrence, Kansas, auroral, and it is 1:42 PM in Bergen, in an hour and a half the sun is setting down the hill over the tile roofs of Bryggen.

3:AM: What are you working on now? Anything you want to talk about?

 JT: Last December I started a new project, so I am one year in. The previous two books each took about eight years. I am trying to avoid that protraction by simultaneously opening up the way I use my energies, i.e. not restraining them, and by beginning with a much clearer structuring mechanism, whereas in the past those structures have been more emergent out of automatic processes. As far as my energies are concerned, I am just allowing myself to work by following my nose wherever it might go. I am working simultaneously in several dozen raw .txt files, some containing narrative clouds, some containing vignettes of sorts, some containing nonfiction resituations, and some just containing lists (all the words in English containing the /ʒ/ sound, all the cities in the U.S. named after flowers, descriptions of all of Ledoux’s Parisian tollgates). The plurality of the content is allowing me to work consistently and without blockage. And as far as the structure goes, it is mostly mined from The Golovlyov Family and the lives of Osip and Nadia Mandelstam & Anna Akhmatova and all the bifurcations those entail. Sadly, this is probably the love story my mother would want to read, but it will be impossible for her.

3:AM: I would like to know a little about your key literary influences? Who is most vital for you?

JT: It is always changing, I think. In the past ten years, science texts on string theory and progressive thinking about spatial dimensions, or on the nature of time, have been very formative to my thinking about literature. I tend to like books that, even if there are human characters, seem like they are not contingent on people. Science books do this. But I am also interested in how the inhuman concepts they are presenting can emerge in literature—literature that acknowledges human insignificance, not in a romantic way by highlighting the pitiful nature of the human creature, but by formally diminishing the human presence in literature. In this line of thinking, my previous adoration of Huysmans’ À rebours and the primacy of environmental description as a way to render the human psyche has shifted to his The Cathedral, which is basically a nonfiction book about Chartres. I have gotten a great deal from Butor, Sarraute, Sebald, Roubaud, Morrison, or Joyce on structuring what I write, but I don’t feel so much like I look to anyone for a voice, maybe Claude Simon is the closest I can think of as a role model. I want to write like this chalkware is painted.

3:AM: What have you read recently that really excited you?

JT: A couple of books that I read as manuscripts are both out now, and both were so wonderful, Isabel Waidner’s Gaudy Bauble and Daniela Cascella’s Singed. I was very interested in publishing them both but they were both picked up by other folks, so as sad as that was, it was also reassuring that other presses are interested in similar adventures in text. Over a slightly longer timeframe, Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla books, at least the first two in English, have had a notable impact on me, both in writing and thinking about architectural space. I don’t connect with the prose very much, it is too spare and journalistic to move me. But the project of the books, something like a printed-out Wikipedia dérive, is heading toward what I would describe as a spatial text in which the material is so latent, almost mute—because a significant amount of it is appropriated, or uncanny—that the reader is so unburdened of any explicit agency that they must become even more authoritative. It takes Eco’s discussion of information theory in The Open Work from gently nudging noise toward signal, and throws it all the way back to noise.

Inns of Virginia, 2004

3:AM: Finally, like many who know your writing or follow your wanderings on social media, I tend to think of you as a bit of an off-hand documentarian of the seemingly soul-starved edifices that line the byways of America. If you were to suggest a roadside motel for the weary traveller, what would it be?

JT: My wife and I have a category we call “suicide by motel”, as in, to stay there is to commit to imminent death. There is a horrifying motel around the corner from my house. It is called the College Motel. In my mind many of the windows are covered with newspaper. I was once visiting my friend Chip in Richmond for his wedding and asked him for a sketchy motel to stay in. He recommended the Inns of Virginia. At the wedding, everyone who asked where I was staying had some story about it, including, “Oh! My friend got shot in the head there!” When we got back after the wedding there was a huge party in the reggae club that was part of the motel. There were hundreds of people lining the balconies. I just went inside and got our bags and drove off. I remember it being very burgundy. But the closest to my heart is the Book Cliff Lodge in Green River, Utah. I stayed there with my family on a trip out west in 1990 and then returned there on my own driving from Los Angeles (again to visit Chip in Richmond) in 2000. I know there is nothing especially interesting about it beyond its abjectness. It is just rare to go to a place like that twice. I also used to frequent a place called the Interstate Motel in Asheville, North Carolina. It no longer exists, but the night manager there used to sleep on a cot behind glass in the office and I would wake him up every time I arrived. He probably no longer exists. I could go on and on, apparently.

It is 9:14 PM in Lawrence, Kansas, and it is 9:14 PM in the Lawrence, Kansas that is overtaken by tallgrass, and 9:14 PM in the Lawrence, Kansas where giant lustrous chickens keep pitiful humans in cages


John Trefry is an architect and the author of the novel Plats, the caprice Thy Decay Thou Seest By Thy Desire, and the forthcoming novel Apparitions of the Living. More diminutive writings have appeared in various other outlets. He is the editor of Inside the Castle, a small press. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas, and on Twitter @trefryesque.

Joseph Schreiber is a writer from Calgary, Canada. He is criticism/nonfiction editor at 3:AM Magazine.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, November 30th, 2017.