MATTHEW BURNSIDE: For the readers out there, Nathan Blake is a one of those singular writers for whom very few comparisons can be made. His voice is uniquely his, sentence-level game superior, and sense of humor a welcome breath of fresh air in a literary landscape that can, from time to time, take itself too seriously. I’ve always admired his experimental bent, ambition, and good nature as a human being.
Nathan, thanks for letting me interview you. We’ll get to the writing stuff soon but let’s start off with a humdinger: when it comes to fast food, what combos sustain you? Myself, I like to get my Wendy’s on with a combo #6: spicy chicken sandwich.
As it turns out, that's the exact combo I would order when I ate fast food more regularly. Swap the soda for a chocolate Frosty and now you're talking my tongue.
I know you’ve been working on plays lately. How is that process different from writing a story?
What I'm learning about myself when writing plays, or think I’m learning, is that playwriting forces me to focus on structure in a way that I tend to shy away from when writing fiction. I just don’t have the same tools available to me when writing a play, or rather I use them differently. The depiction of interiority is different, summary is different, the atmosphere of space and time is different. The short story lives on a page or screen, but the play’s ultimate goal is to live on a stage. The short story occurs in the readers mind and heart, as does the play, but the play is performed in a specific time and location; plays are events. Because audience members aren’t able to pause the play and go back to a previous moment for reflection in the same way that we can flip through the pages of a book, the play has to take that immediacy into account, which presents all kinds of problems related to how the narrative arc is delivered.
With the short story, I like to start at sentence one and let the other concerns—voice, plot, timing, length, depth—bear themselves out of that one sentence. And most of the time that works for me because I can give myself over to language and rhythm, which in themselves are a form of story. With the play, though, I find it easier if I have the play’s structure mapped out (or mostly mapped out) in advance. My struggle so far is realizing each character fully enough so that their conversation(s) can push the plot where I think I want it to go without coming off as overly contrived.
Can you give us a hint as to what the play’s about?
I’ve got three plays in various stages right now, but the one I’m focused on is essentially an episode of Law and Order, in which a police officer, a suspected drug dealer, and a third party come together in an event that questions some fundamental (read: unjust) precepts of U.S. law enforcement. Whether or not I’ll see it to completion is another question entirely.
Are you superstitious about describing your in-progress work to people when they ask about it? I recently realized I am. I find that it saps the enthusiasm out of it somehow.
I’d say I’m less superstitious about those conversations than I am clueless. I find it difficult to summarize anything without going into extraneous details, subtext, diction, what have you. For a time I just told people what happens, from A-Z. But who wants to hear it? I certainly don’t. I’ve found it a lot less frustrating to give vague answers and broad ideas that people can hear then instantly forget. For instance, that summary I gave you in the question previous is a wad of bullshit, probably.
Do you think writers have more in common with actors or with directors?
I can only answer for myself here, but I think it’s a little of both. I do whatever I can to fully step into the mouth of a character, which I guess is more akin to acting. But there’s always part of me shaping the direction, the scope of a piece, revising what’s already been written so that it can turn toward something else, which is clearly a director’s practice. I’d say I enjoy the acting side much more than the directing side because when I’m acting, I’m trying on different hats, working on delivery, immediate concerns. The director has fifty different plates in the air. And I hate plates.
You recently had some work appear in the Best American Experimental Writing series. What might a good, solid definition for ‘experimental writing’ be and why is it (if it is at all) important for a writer to experiment?
This is one of those questions that I don’t even know how to approach. The one thing I know about experimental writing is this: by the time you define it, you’ve limited it, you’ve boxed it in, and it’s already spiraling in another direction. For instance, if you say experimental writing is all about “saying things in a new way” (a truism I sometimes overhear), then how do we account for flarf and conceptual writing, which often have no concern with “the new”? Our definition has to have a more encompassing vision, one too large for me to handle in this space.
When I think about my own experiments, they cause me to question the role of language in our daily lives. I become concerned with whether or not we shape language or language shapes us. What can be more important than that?
What advice would you give a writer just starting out?
I used to evade this question by saying, “Don’t listen to anyone. Especially me.” But now that I’m teaching my first creative writing class, seeing students actively seek out advice has changed my perspective a bit. I guess I would advise young writers to work in such a way that each sound makes for a personally gratifying act.
Who (or what) are your most profound non-writer influences? (Filmmakers, musicians, comedians, etc.)
I’ll limit my responses to the influences I’ve been thinking about more recently. Those influences are Kool Keith, The Pixies, Terrence Malick’s films, The Wire, a body of water, a body of flesh.
You’ve published a chapbook (Going Home Nowhere and Fast, Winged City Press). What would you say the theme of that project is/if not theme, what is it that binds the work together? Do you think it’s necessary for a book/chapbook to always have a theme?
I think I’ve got enough distance from the chapbook to admit that I’m not happy with the way it turned out. Every step of the process was rushed and uneven. The original theme of the chapbook was...I needed five stories that clocked in at a certain page count. That’s all. I saw the capbook as an EP, a mixtape rather than an album with a sustained theme.The theme, then, was Here Are Some Things I Have Been Working On Recently. Of course those stories shared certain traits: attention to the immediacy of language; the various “deaths” of people, whether mental, emotional, or physical; and characters who must learn to live in indifferent spaces. So even if I didn’t work consciously at the thematic level, those ideas surfaced naturally. Do I think it’s necessary for a book to have a theme? I think books will traffic in themes regardless. The one thing I think is necessary for writing is that is can be experienced and enjoyed.
What was your favorite toy as a kid?
I don’t know if this counts, but I had a metal detector I beat the hell out of for years. With it, I only ever found a rusted kitchen knife, an old toy cap gun, and a bunch of soda cans, but there was potential for the big score. Sometimes I would take it apart, put it in my baseball equipment bag, and carry it to school just in case I found myself in a situation where a metal detector was warranted.
I never found myself in such a situation.
How do you unwind?
Hands down, hanging out with my girlfriend, Amy Marengo. Common activities include Bitey Time with her cats, looking for shark’s teeth, making sex toys from modeling clay, and frequenting the London Underground Pub to throw a leg or two of darts. I don’t live a very stressful lifestyle, so I spend most of my time already unwound. Finger’s crossed, knock on wood, etc.
What’s most important for the writer to have and why: a) vision b) empathy c) discipline d) perseverance
e) fun. I know most writers hate writing (but love having written), and the people closest to me know that I’m the worst when it comes to complaining, but at the core of myself I know I’ll stop writing the second it isn’t enjoyable for me anymore. I’ll walk away. It doesn’t matter how innovative my vision, how deep my empathy, how well-formed my discipline, or how strong my preference is if I’m not on some level having fun with what I do. Without the joy, I might as well be working a job that I hate. Why else frequent the hassle?
I always let Wikipedia’s random article feature choose a subject. The word monarch is what came up. So, if you reigned as supreme autocrat over the land what would you spend your first day in power doing?
Looking for a new job, preferably one in the stables.
Would you mind completing some sentences for me?
To trap a poem one must set it free
Wax museums are commonly referred to as “them melty buildings”
The most ridiculous thing about being alive is living inside a body
If I become a bear in my next life, I’ll spend all my time admiring my prodigious haunch
An idiom I really like is “Scott Stapp looms ever near”
Technology is making us all pixilated
I’ll never ask what your tattoo means
I’ll always check theater trashcans for leftover popcorn
God is a place you will wait for the rest of your life