After reading two of his novels (Never Again and Negativeland), I contacted Doug Nufer, and he agreed to answer a few questions. Thankfully, he had no trouble going on in depth and even managed to answer a few of my questions previous to me asking them. My questions and comments are in bold. (This is a long one.)
1. I found this quote on a webpage linking to excerpts from two of your novels: “Ten years ago after writing ten novels that made some effort to conform to what publishers wanted, I began to base my fiction on inventive methods such as formal constraints.” It seems as good a place as any to start. Can you elaborate a bit on your early writing experiences with trying to “conform”?
Like many writers, I learned that the writers who mattered most were the ones who did what none (or, very few) had done before. They were innovators, inventors, experimental and avant-garde writers. Joyce and Pynchon I admired; Updike and Roth I read once or twice and then left alone. So, right out of the University of Virginia (BA English 1073), I was writing and, so help me, submitting short novels that were heavily influenced by John Hawkes. Atmospheric, dense prose; slack plots, senseless characters. Mostly, I cared about style and shifts of style.
In those days you could submit directly to editors at commercial houses, even if nobody knew you. A query letter and you were off to the races. In short order then I learned in no uncertain terms that much of what I had learned about good literature was worthless, when it came to placing my work at commercial houses. The editors wanted good plots with “realistic” characters, a minimum of stylistic tics; narratives that conformed to traditional modes of expression. Fair enough. For the next 10 years I tried to do that. Two novels I wrote in that period, The Mudflat Man and The River Boys, fit the bill, but they were so weird, nobody took them (although Mudflat Man got many an encouraging rejection). What I should add here is that at the time, commercial houses were still publishing avant-garde work like they cared about it, but this was also when Ron Sukenick started the Fiction Collective because of the upcoming conservative shift he saw in the book industry. Also, I was totally ignorant of small presses then.
After making the rounds of publishers anyone would recognize, my mss. went into a drawer. I should also add that while I came to resent the standards set by commercial publishing, I think it’s important to pay at least some attention to traditional story forms and practices, especially when you’re writing wacky experimental novels. Some of those early rejections were helpful in that I got to revise sloppy earlier novels over a period of years and make them better. Mudflat Man and River Boys will come out as a double-sided book, a la the old Ace Doubles, in a few months. Then again, there were rejections that were irresponsibly destructive. Typical of these was from a bigshot at Doubleday, whose letter was “signed” as “dictated but not read.” It was full of enthusiastic praise for a novel he assured me he would “gladly take a look at if some revision is done,” after he had blythely suggested that I put the scenes in “order.” For reasons I now forget, the scenes were in a deliberate non-chronological order that might have seemed random. He wanted me to straighten the book out, as if your typical reader of lit. fic. were less sophisticated than an adolescent movie-goer when it came to accepting such radical tropes as, say, flashbacks. Anyway, I did what he said, ruining the novel, and sent it to him. I never heard from him again.
2. So, having left your attempts at conforming, how did you end up getting into “innovative methods such as formal constraint”?
I was always fond of procedural writing, particularly books that play with the circumstances of their own existence, such as where the narrator dies in the course of the story. Nabokov’s Pale Fire and Jerome Charyn’s The Tar Baby (a novel in the form of a community college literary magazine) were a couple of favorites. When I first heard of the more arcane procedures, such as Abish’s Alphabetical Africa, I was curious but not at all receptive.
Then, in 1987 or so, when Life: A Users Manual came out in English, I had a chance to see what I really thought about this. Harry Mathews and Jacques Roubaud came to Seattle to read their stuff and to talk about the Oulipo, in conjunction with a program put on by Invisible Seattle, a group of writers co-directed by Philip Wohlstetter, who’s sort of a brother-in-law of mine. Philip got me interested in Harry’s books and so I read Cigarettes and Tlooth, along with Warren Motte’s Oulipo book and Life A Users Manual within a few weeks. I met Harry and Jacques and drove them around town one day. Harry was staying with our extended family and he read the ms. of a horse racing novel I was finishing, Past Performances. He was fairly encouraging, i.e., he enjoyed reading it but wasn’t overly enthusiastic because the book was just o.k. Past Performances wasn’t at all Oulipian, except the extensive use of racing and betting slang worked a bit like a restrictive language. It was based on a couple of years I spent trying to become a professional horseplayer, a period when I didn’t write anything and spent all my time going to the track and keeping records. When I set out to do this, I didn’t care if I ever wrote again. When I learned I wasn’t cut out for that line of work, writing about it was more interesting than doing it.
A year or so after studying the Oulipo, I thought of trying to base a novel on a constraint. I didn’t want to mess with mathematical structures or with any ludicrously difficult challenges like lipograms for my first try, but to come up with something that might pass for “normal.” Cigarettes and Queneau’s novels–Perec’s Life, for that matter–can be read as if no arcane and/or complicated systems are lurking under the narratives. One of the most appealing draws to this kind of writing was how it opposed ordinary “literary” modes of expression. It was subversive and critical. It was a kind of rejection of, it occurred to me, the book industry that had been rejecting my books. So, to embrace this negativity, the basic plan for Negativeland developed. A negative in every sentence, action that goes basically backwards, and scenes that reflect or oppose struck me as a way to go about building such a story. From there, the life story arc of a former Olympic champion seemed well suited to such a book. Also, memoirs were really taking off at that time (1990), and it seemed like a good idea to write an anti-memoir of a fake hero.
3. You answered one of my later questions in there. I was curious about all the horseracing (and accompanying lingo) that I found in your novels. The use of it in Never Again showed more than a passing knowledge or what, I imagine, one would research for what amounts to a few chapters of a novel.
The Spring 2005 Fence has a story I wrote, By Kelman Out of Pessoa, where I conceived of taking a betting system from a James Kelman short story and then splitting myself up into heteronyms, a la Fernando Pessoa, and then going to the races for the season to deploy my heteronyms as a private gambling mob. After I wrote that story, I thought it was crazy but that it might work, so I followed my own instructions, and went to Emerald Downs every weekend for a season and played the ponies under three heteronym identities. One rule was (from the story), each heteronym was the author of the other two, rather like the x mistakes y for z constraint in Oulipo Compendium. Now I’m writing a novel based on that season at the track.
Oh, and it was a success. 2 of the 3 heteronym horseplayers won more money than the one of them lost.
I’ve got two books on Invisible Seattle that I’ve yet to read (their group/public novel and one on the project/group). Also, thanks for the recommendation of The Tar Baby, it sounds like something I’ll enjoy.
I’m friends with some of those people, but never was part of that group. When they were active I wanted no part of collaborating. Since then, I’ve done several collaborations, but none where I share writing duties.
One thing I really enjoyed about Negativeland was the formal arrangment of the chronology–basically going forward but looking back–and its relation to the protagonist’s backstroke. I think the layering of this formal arrangement/thematic arrangement on top of the semantic constraint of all negative sentences makes the novel very rich and keeps it from seeming too much like some kind of “trick” or “gimmick” as people are wont to think of these things.
Thanks, I was tempted to make it more rigorous, like Time’s Arrow by M. Amis or “Time of Passage” a story by JG Ballard, where you go front to back, but the challenge of Negativeland was to downplay the constraint system. The first drafts would pack several negatives in each sentence, which I found funny but realized I’d never sneak the thing into print that way.
Since we’ve been going chronologically, and you started talking about Negativeland, I’m curious about the confluence of you having three novels published by three publishers in the same year. As one of the bibiographical blurbs notes, you didn’t intend for that to happen. You just noted that Negativeland dates back to 1990. How did you end up with those three in a year novels? Was Negativeland really sitting around that long (14 years) waiting for publication?
Negativeland drew the attention of an agent immediately, but I didn’t tell her about the constraint. I was going the Queneau route, of keeping it under wraps. She sent it around to editors she knew from college or prep school or whatever. Some of them I had heard of and respected, but nobody bought it. And nobody got it. Then I told her what was up with the constraints and it was like confessing to somebody you had sex with that you had this disease . . .
She said we shouldn’t push the constraints, I wrote another novel she also liked (The Office, now a CD, coming out from Erik Belgum’s softpalate label), but she couldn’t sell that and we broke up.
With nothing to lose, I promoted the ms. by putting the constraints up front and using a recommendation from Harry Mathews. This served the dual purpose of deflecting editors who hadn’t heard of him and Oulipo while attracting editors who were likely to take the book on its own terms. Even then, at places like FC2 and Coffee House (to cite two publishers that might have done a book like this), you can get screened by interns who have no idea of and no respect for constraint-driven writing.
I was writing other stuff over the years and not sending the ms. out for months. One thing I’ve learned about this game is you have to figure out a way to approach each publisher with something that publisher might want to print. It can take years to develop some kind of connection with people you want to work with on a book. My trail to Autonomedia began in the mid 1990s, when I reviewed their Crimes of the Beats anthology, a project done by the Unbearables group. Later I met the editors of that book, Ron Kolm and Jim Feast, contributed to some of their magazines, and had part of Negativeland come out in their Help Yourself! anthology. Meanwhile, I had been stalking John Yau’s Black Square and asked Harry Mathews about recommending me to him, and he did and that was that.
Andy Mingo, who co-edited an anthology I contributed to, Northwest Edge, at Chiasmus in Portland asked for any novel-sized ms. I might have up for grabs, and I told him On the Roast, the fake corporate history novel was available but that I had two other books in the pipeline. All of these needed revisions, some extensive, before publication, but it seemed essential to get the things done, once I was offered the opportunity.
I had been writing for decades and had been in anthologies and magazines, but what I wrote and continue to write were and are books: i.e., things that are intended to be published entirely. I was and am very grateful to all these publishers for putting out my books, and also, there was a kind of “synergy” where the Village Voice reviewer Rachel Aviv saw my Brooklyn Rail excerpt of Never Again and referred to it in her short review of Negativeland. Then again, the unintended strategy of having three books come out at once hasn’t drawn that much attention.
Before final revisions, I might say each of these books was in submittable ms. form on the following dates: Negativeland 1991, Never Again 1997, On the Roast 2001.
4. If you at first hid your constraints and then confessed them only when you were having trouble selling the book, I’m wondering what your stance is on the exposure of constraints. Do you feel it is integral to the reading of the book to expose your constraint? Or should it remain for the reader to discover? In the case with Negativeland and Never Again, is it more important that the constraint be discovered as one reads and thematically connects it to the work? Would it matter if Never Again didn’t flat out say what the constraint is on the back of the book?
I guess it depends on the nature of the book. With Never Again, the prose is so weird, most people wouldn’t go past the first page if they didn’t know what was up. When they do know the constraint, either by rumor or by some promotional statement, many make a point of paying attention to it. Over 20,000 downloaded it on pdf files from ubu.com in two years, for what that’s worth.
With Negativeland, I recently did a gig at the prison in Monroe, Wa., where a group of lifers read the book and I came to talk about it. Even though there is some mention of the constraint in one of the blurbs, they read the book as if it were not subject to that kind of restriction. Later, nearly all of them a) didn’t like the book, b) were pissed that I hadn’t explicitly told about the constraint up front, and c) were interested in going back to check it out, now that they knew of the constraint.
Georges Perec and Harry Mathews used to debate this question. If I remember right, HM was more in favor of keeping the constraints hidden and GP more inclined to let it all hang out. Even so, La Disparition was reviewed by someone who didn’t notice the novel didn’t use the letter e.
The larger question here–and one I wonder about with all books–is one of mediation. It’s virtually impossible to come upon a book or author without having the work introduced to you by some kind of mediator, be it a blurb, a review, a personal recommendation. This is especially true when you are trying to get an editor to accept the ms. in the first place. There’s always some kind of query letter or presentational song and dance you have to do to get the thing noticed and then read.
In two upcoming novels of mine, I’ve decided to handle it differently.
In By Kelman Out of Pessoa the constraint is presented in the course of the narrative, as the heteronym characters try to make sense of the nutty scheme that’s driving them onward. [A story of the same title can be published in "Fence Magazine" can be found here. -Derik]
In Circus Solus, where different circus acts each are presented according to a constraint I think evokes the nature of these acts, nothing is explained in advance or in the course of the book. There is, however, an essay I wrote that could be put in as an afterword or just included with any promotional material. This explains each constraint and my reason for doing what I did. [A section from this novel can be found in this pdf from Chain. -Derik]
Finally, consider Ulysses. Nobody would know what exactly lay behind each chapter if Joyce hadn’t given away the game to Stuart Gilbert. Maybe that’s the way to do it.
5. I’m wondering if the revelation of constraints ties in to people’s interest in knowing the “how” of articistic creation. There is a tendency for people to want to know how a book is created, how a writer gets a ideas, a tendency towards exposing the magic, so to speak. I think the process of constraint works towards this case. Of course this revelation is only superficial, as these things can never really be explained away.
Yes, I see that connection, but I think most people who ask about artistic creation are mostly interested in tapping into their own supposed reserves of creativity via inspiration. When I explain my procedural approach to writing, many of those people either don’t get it or seem to be offended. They should be offended: the constraint-driven writer opposes the inspiration-driven model of creativity.
I forgot to mention that with Negativeland I also had a scene pop into my head that closely followed an experience I had in driving home from a minor league baseball in Tacoma–a scene which, it turns out, the constraints of that novel managed to faithfully render. Which came first–the scene that occurred to me or the idea of writing it out in that peculiar way? Chicken or egg?
You are correct in recalling the Mathews/Perec sides of the debate, but it is interesting to note that Mathews has still managed to expose a great number of his constraints. Even in regards to Cigarettes, the one novel he says is most written under constraint, Mathews has admitted that it is written under some kind of permutations of situations. His participation in the Oulipo Compendium also shows a tendency to exposing constraint.
I rely on Oulipo Compendium for all sorts of keys to books I’ve wondered about. He completely fooled me with The Journalist, which I thought was following some wacky scheme that had something to do with the notes in the margins. And he made me look again at some of Gilbert Sorrentino’s novels, like Rose Theater, which were based on constraints I hadn’t spotted.
I get the feeling that the exposure of constraint is important for the author as a way of showcasing the “passionate virtuosity” of the writer. If you go to all that trouble, you want people to notice. One can guess this is why Joyce gave away his game to Gilbert. While it might be amusing for awhile to have people not realize that one’s book is written without any Es, one also doesn’t want all that work to go unnoticed in the long run.
Yes, on being noticed (or ignored), I recall that Harry wrote somewhere that when he first encountered La Disparition, even he, predisposed as he was to appreciate such a book, didn’t fully grasp the greatness of the accomplishment. This I took for fair warning that no matter how well you might conceive of and execute a project, when the project is really unusual or even unique, you can’t expect people to take notice, no matter how the book is promoted or presented.
Also, I began Never Again at a time when I had temporarily exhausted ways to get Negativeland published. I set out to do something so difficult, that the act of completing it would be far more satisfying than any secondary ratification of its worth. But then, when I did complete it, I thought I ought to get some credit for it, and publication seemed to be the best way.
And playing into that desire to know the “hows”, I’m extremely curious about the composition of Never Again. It must have been a very hard process to not repeat words, note even just in regards to the not repeating of the words, but also keeping track of the words so as to not repeat them.
The idea came to me after a few years of trying to write a book to follow the first sentence: “When the racetrack closed forever, I had to get a job.” I wanted a monumentally difficult constraint that hadn’t been done and would be easy to police. With the search command on the Word program, you can simply check for words that have appeared in the text.
I began to write the book on a computer, but 50 pages into it, the hard drive crashed. The floppy drive had been malfunctioning, I discovered when I tried to retrieve the ms. from my back-up disk. Just as well. The hard copy was crap. While I shopped for a new machine, I practiced on a manual typewriter. This practice was essential to getting used to writing in a mode where you concentrate on the basic unit of the sentence: subject/ verb, and also getting used to writing without articles, prepostions, and other little words.
When I got another computer, I had a clear idea of how the sentences could go. When I got to page 30, I knew I could do it. That is, I knew I could finish a 200-page novel without repeating a word. Whether I or anyone could read it was another matter.
It was important, though, to have a narrative and not to rely too much on tricks like making lists (a postmodern convention, I believe, was Sorrentino’s put-down of that trend in fiction). The invention of contractions to cobble a to be form on the end of a noun, e.g., birds’re, was a necessary evil. And I didn’t want to use words I wouldn’t ordinarily come across (except for the ocean-going scenes, where I took the liberty of cribbing from a Patrick O’Brien glossary).
On difficulty, I have since worked with harder constraints, such as homophonic translation. On a good day, I could come up with a half page of text for Never Again. My PC was a rebuilt 386. I used Word 6 for DOS, a real lean and mean program. Without shovelware or even a mouse, I zipped around on the F keys to check my words. It was fun. It even gave me carpal tunnel twinges, so I had to consciously alter the movements I made.
6. You mentioned the 25,000 downloads of Never Again from Ubu.com. I’m wondering how you came to the decision to publish the whole book online. I’m assuming you see this as a beneificial means of promoting your work. Was the online publication a way to get the book out there previous to having someone publish it in paper form?
I think of on-line and print publishing as two enterprises that don’t compete with each other, because they are substantially different. It’s a lot more inconvenient to download and print a book from a website than to just buy the thing, unless you work for an institution or company that doesn’t watch what you do on work time. Either way, money is no object and no objective. The point is to put the book out.
7. Can you recommend any other authors who work with/under constraints? Excepting the Oulipians and the already mentioned Sorrentino.
There aren’t many, and most of those come from poetry, like Christian Bok and Steve McCaffery. Bok chose Joshua Carey as winner of the Spineless Books constraint writing contest, but I haven’t read Carey’s stuff. Coach House in Toronto has put out a lot of interesting constraint-riddled material. Clint Burnham and Robert Fitterman (besides Bok and McCaffery) have books out by them.
There must be more fiction based on constraints out there than what I have seen. In mainstream books there’s a tendency to play around with the appearance of having some kind of integral formal structure, such as the way the chapters are introduced in The Shipping News, and then to revert to a traditional narrative mode. Or, you have a book like Ella Minnow Pea, which dangles a few lipograms but doesn’t come close to delivering the goods.
Oddly, you might find the most difficult constraint-driven ficton in the mega-mainstream of bestsellers. The seafaring novels of Patrick O’Brien and the adventures by Terry Pratchett are committed to existing in worlds comprised of restricted language.
8. So what is the constraint in On the Roast? To this reader, it was well concealed whatever it was.
For On the Roast I had the idea of writing a novel based on a formal constraint that derived from a novel that exemplifies the antithesis of writing based on formal constraint. I also was amused and irritated by the way the authorized corporate history, formerly dismissed as pr propaganda, had crossed over into the commercial book sector. In the early 1990s you had these heroic CEOs narrating their corporate autobiographies through the mouths of ghostwriters, and the damn things sold like crazy.
So, taking the Starbucks book as one model, I turned to On the Road and came up with On the Roast. CEO “writer”/ heroes had also been glomming onto the Beats in the late 80s-1990s (Tom Frank has been all over this in The Baffler). My CEO narrater, then would be crazy about Kerouac–so crazy that he would first deliberately and then unconsciously mimic the way Kerouac expressed himself, as my character went about explaining the story of his business (via not one but two ghostwriters, one of whom had reason to detest the CEO).
What I would do was take whole sections of On the Road and translate them into New Age business jargon, using a variety of Oulipian methods: vocalic sequence, rhyme, cadence, mostly. There wasn’t an absolute fidelity to this method: not every page of On the Road is rendered this way. And I took scenes “out of order” from the source text (On the Road isn’t really in “order” except as a chronological travel memoir). Finally, I revised many of the sections I had first produced using the constraints, because it was more important to make the character come across as “himself” than as a puppet of my mad language schemes. The constraints, then, may be present more in the way a previous or under painting is present in an oil painting.
On the Roast may seem like a kind of parody, but there is no one-to-one relationship between characters from book to book. Except for the Howl introduction, none of the sections I riff off of in On the Roast should be readily recognizable to any but the most dedicated On the Road scholar. This violation of the first rule of parody, i.e., that the reader must be able to pin the parody to the source, also appealed to me.
It was really fun writing a la Kerouac and I came to appreciate the way he worked. I loved that book when I was a kid, but as I got older and the Beats became great in the eyes of a culture that had once thought them worthless, they couldn’t help but be overrated. By the time I started that project, I didn’t think much of On the Road.
I remember telling Harry Mathews about what I had set out to do and he was wonderfully gracious in his assessment of the enterprise: how nice that you have so much free time (or something like that).
Thanks so much for answering all my questions, Doug. It was most interesting.