Jamie Iredell: “Susan White and the Summer of the Game Show” is one of my favorite stories from Look Look Feathers! for a number of reasons, but one of the foremost is that you employ what I usually call the first person plural point of view, or a collective POV, and it reminds me of William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily.” Have you read that story? What made you decide to tell this story from the town’s perspective?
Mike Young: Yep, I remember reading the Faulkner story. Read it first, I think, for an American Literature survey class at College of the Siskiyous. One time we had a substitute professor who was a wide receivers coach, and I didn’t respect him because he asked our opinion too much. My—duh—mistake. The collective point of view is such an opinionated conceit, that possibility of neighborly melting, the “communion of subjects versus the collection of objects” idea—but at the same time totally not at all, totally a singular set of shoulder pads for a monovoice wanting to challenge itself to a game of schizophrenia and (alleged) empathy.
Here’s a parade of giving-away-the-card-trick influences on “Susan White”: the party chapter of Tortilla Flat, Cheever’s “The Enormous Radio” and “O City of Broken Dreams.” Actually the temporal shift right after Susan begins to sing—the break from the we-voice’s blow-by-blow narration to talking about how they’ve seen the reaction videos—is cribbed pretty shamelessly from Alice’s big song moment in “O City.”
But the idea of the town as a pulsing/spitting entity is something I think is more gnarly-rooted in my psyche/history than pickpocketing narrative tricks. The first few lines of “Susan White” are lifted from this project I was doing, MC Oroville’s Answering Machine, where my hometown leaves all its voices on the answering machine of its departed MC, who I sort of based on a real rapper (a pretty good one), but who ultimately became more interesting to me as a mythological figure. Master of ceremonies. Maestro catcaller. I am either “haunted by” or “obsessed with” or “permanently wound up in stupid fucking anxiety about” (whatever your tolerance for lexical ranch dressing) the catalog of identity states towns afford: togetherhood, strangerhood, neighborhood, or like my friend Gene Kwak put it: “so hood but the kind with old lawnmowers in the yard.”
JI: Tortilla Flat: one of my favorite novels and so underappreciated. I’m feeling the influence of the party scene in the scene where Susan et. al are discussing what’s up with this guy and his game show and they’re all drinking and stuff. Is that right? The others, “The Enormous Radio” especially, now that you’ve brought them up, seem obvious, but they didn’t upon reading the story, so bravo.
MY: Ha, thanks! Yeah, I love examples of scenes with a lot of characters at once. That’s one of my favorite “problems” to “solve” in writing. Actually I do increasingly feel like becoming a better writer is about trying to find new ways to solve the same problems over and over again, and I’ll maybe be a good writer after I have solved the same problem ten million times. Which I know is some Malcolm Gladwell bullshit, but it does feel pretty right to me. Problems meaning a lot: anything from blankness to scenic constructs (“how do we get the guy across the room with his drink?” was a favorite koan-ish question of this old teacher of mine, Craig Wright) to syllabic architecture. I mean, forget scenes. When you write you are very literally going to have the same sonic situations over and over, gotta resolve an old S in a mess of Os or whatever. And while for any of these problems (whatever category) it does help to know some pleasing go-to moves, I think the idea of writing as a “craft” comes into play interestingly when you think about how satisfying it is with any craft to pull off a tinker that’s just slightly different enough from something you’ve done a million times as to feel no-friggin-way at first. Like an old kind of hinge at a crazy new angle. I think one of the most holy sentences in any pursuit of craft is “But I made it work.” Does it get any better than that? “But I made it work.” Such a beautiful feeling.
JI: Among the feats of this POV is that the town, as narrator, knows that Susan White knows about “Keepers” early on, but they also don’t know, or didn’t know at the time, but are at the same time privy to specific info, like Susan answering the initial phone call while sitting on her toilet. How do you explain, logistically, how this POV works?
MY: Well, I think the time thing is a big part of it. I really loved writing that first paragraph, particularly the last sentence, which is so reekingly formulaic: “little did we know that summer would change us forever blah blah blah.” It seemed really fun to jump so unabashedly into a wooden rollercoaster, like spilling a whole bottle of vanilla perfume in the office bathroom just to force yourself to come up with a justification story. (Oops, I went from smell to rollercoasters to smell again, sorry metaphor police, you can put me on Freecycle and give me away if you want). So it’s the town by memory, and it’s the town telling a story they’ve rehearsed and told a lot, shined and jerryrigged, but also hopefully with that feeling of the best worn out stories: they totally fall apart into mystery and sunspots right before they feel solved, which is what compels us to put them back together over and over again.
JI: “It’s like goth but not as medieval,” is one of the best lines of dialogue I’ve ever read. Explain.
MY: I think that’s just what emo felt like to me when I first encountered it. Upon reflection, I might now say: “it’s like goth but with more skateboarding.” But I feel like that’s a joke I would “make” (and by make I mean, uh, come up with in the middle of the night and then wreck future conversations by thuggishly steering them toward opportunities to use it) and not Susan, so she gets the medieval line.
JI: I love this moment: “Susan watched Reynard’s [her son’s] emoticon turn right-side up and burst into yellow, a full cartoon wink. She wanted to ask him how he’d done that, but she didn’t. They chatted [on gmail chat], then he had to leave for a gig. He signed off. For a few minutes, Susan sat there highlighting the text of the chat. Clicking it off and highlighting again.” For whatever reason, this hits right on, I think, the way we deal with the ephemerality of our century’s communication: it’s there, then it’s not; connections are forged and just as quickly forgotten. But, especially for those people, like your character Susan, who did not grow up with things like computers (I mean, she has to ask what Gawker is!), wanting that text to be more permanent than it ever could be (which seems to me “highlighted”–sigh–by her highlighting the text) is a way of hanging onto emotion which seems fleeting in ways it wasn’t, perhaps, before modern modes of communication, such as Gmail Chat. Okay, what do you think about that?
MY: Yeah, I think that’s totally right on. When it comes to how someone like me feels about Gmail chat—having come of age with computers, putting baseball cards into floppy drives, etc.—versus how someone older or ostracized or bewildered feels about it, I feel 74% to 93% more interested in the bewilderment. Or, I guess, more accurately, the interface between the two. In other words, I am 74% to 93% more interested in anyone’s story about explaining spam to their grandmother than in anyone’s Thought Catalog essay about breaking up with all their relationship partners simultaneously through an ingeniously whimsical/wistful homemade spam bot. Actually I would like to rescind that statement and advocate for a Thought Catalog essay about breaking up with your grandmother via an ingeniously whimsical/wistful homemade spam bot, an essay you say is nonfiction but is actually a painfully crafted fictional artifact designed to get one of the commenters to be your relationship partner.
What’s maybe even more interesting to me than ephemerality is the myth of ephemerality, which is why I like thinking of Facebook as a temperature controlled warehouse in rural Oregon and I felt pathetically clever ordering the British paperback edition of Andrew Blum’s Tubes. Rachel B. Glaser’s story “Jean Adler” is an awesome example of this (and of the bewilderment/ostracization from technology thing): how there is nothing about computers and internet bullshit that isn’t actually totally physical, in the most vivid and cottonmouthed and it’s-important-not-to-forget-this and painful freaking ways.
JI: This story really seems to hit on that line between privacy and anonymity and publicly flaunting oneself for the sake of flaunting it (like, reality TV or something), which seems to be a big issue these days. Maybe not. I mean, I’m like a psycho about releasing photos of my daughter on the Internet. Is this something that you’re inherently interested in, or was it something that you wanted to explore in this story? In other words, what is/was this story’s trigger?
MY: Actually I remember first thinking about the most premise-y parts of the premise while I was teaching creative writing at a summer camp in Maryland with my friend Jack Christian. I think what happened was the kids were coming up with so many awesome stories that were pure premise, and I felt really stuck writing “relationship” stories, stories that would’ve been totally boring to tell with LEGOs and action figures because they relied so much on the interchange of facial electricity, so I tried to actively generate premises, like in a purge, and one of them was the phrase “haunted gameshow,” which was the filename of this story until it got its real name.
I think the YouTube parts of it and the thematic whatevers sort of snowballed while down in the momentum of the storytelling—the triggers were more that premise and that idea of using a town voice. I think all the ideas you raise are really relevant and important ones, and I think I don’t know what I think about any of it, which is why I read a lot about that kind of stuff. David Aurebach wrote this awesome series called “Anonymity as Culture” for triplecanopy. Also I gotta give a shout out to danah boyd, who’s been smarter than most everybody about internet sociology for, like, more than a decade. Plus Jasper Bernes’s essay “On the Poverty of Internet Life.” Any big waxing I might do in this space would be microwave pizza compared to them doodz.
JI: So You in User: former YouTube employee in email conversation with a kicked off user? Am I getting that right? Tell us what the hell’s going on in this novel, you know, without spoiling too much of it.
MY: Yes, gawddamn, thank you for managing to do what I have a really hard time doing, which is explain the pretty simple premise in a single sentence. Here now is my unnecessary elongation of your explanation: YouTube comes up with this service where they hire people to write personalized account cancellation notices, almost counselor-ish, help the deviants, etc., except they almost immediately realize that’s a terrible idea and they can’t really pay anyone to do that, so the narrator of You In User, Neil, is fired, except he has one last user left in his queue, and he has other wobbles, duh of duhs, so he starts venting in this huge never-sent email to this last user of his, tacking on more and more, draft after draft (or, like, one big draft? I honestly am foggy—like real life foggy, not just in this thing—about what a draft is) as things start getting more and more fucked. Like for example Neil’s mother is getting these weird packages of candied bones in the mail. And his father is living by himself in a condo in Springfield, MA designing golf carts. And then there’s this runaway teenage daughter of a woman whose exotic pet is a YouTube celebrity, and there is even a girl who plays bass on rollerskates and a French guy who really likes high fives. I am a shit-for-brains when it comes to summary because I feel like I just made it sound like a terrible Tom Robbins adventure book, but maybe it is a terrible Tom Robbins adventure book, in which case I will try to swallow this and run with it and resign myself to my inner hack and go to Burning Man or something.
JI: Don’t go to Burning Man. I once worked for Burning Man. Actually, I take that back: you should go to Burning Man because you’re the kind of writer who would go and make something awesome in writing out of the experience. I tried but never could do that. You know they have these Burning Man books with this really awful/awesome (I mean, it’s so awful it’s rad) “playa poetry” and stuff? Things like “I feel the Man burning / fire is inside me / like the desert / the playa / the man.”
MY: Haha, I should probably walk back my Burning Man snark because haven’t we all known some goodnatured sweethearts who’ve trekked to Burning Man with so much sincerity they even deserve the word “trekked.” For example, a bouncer the other night (who is also a busker; I think he reserves himself exclusively for professions that in their name have B and U close together) told me this story of how he and his girlfriend got in a fight in a canoe and then almost got eaten by a shark. And I feel like he has gone or would go to Burning Man. And he is very kind. It’s like those really obscene varieties of yogurt—I have to remind myself that people do buy them and seek experiences with them that I will never grok.
JI: Is the A / B Testing thing real with YouTube, or did you make that shit up? You know a lot about this sort of stuff, or you at least come off like you do (I don’t which of those is more impressive). How’d you come to know so much internet stuff and/or fake it?
MY: It’s real, yeah. Brian Christian has written about it a lot for Wired, and he also wrote a book called The Most Human Human that’s a pretty good primer on the whole “whoa it’s weird how you’re there and I’m here and computers sometimes have Thereness or Theirness but sometimes not and right now we’re all 0101010101010101010 or ARE WE????” thing. I feel like by linking all these essays I’m making it seem like my interests are 100% essayistic, but that’s only sort of true because “interests” isn’t quite the right word. Really there’s a total bluster of real and fake internet bullshit in YIU—I’m not really trying to predict the future or anything so much as exhaust my addiction. One of the “voice’s” biggest obsessions in YIU is trying to take all it possibly can about what it means to intellectually understand internet bullshit and what it means to submersively feel internet bullshit and smoosh those two together into hummus. And this is obviously something personal I’m grinding into the thing, which is why I guess I said “voice’s obsessions” instead of “Neil’s obsessions.” Even though I don’t really feel wonky enough to get away with saying something obvious like “omg guys characters don’t exist they’re linguistic constructs lol,” so maybe I should just split the difference and say “Neil’s voice’s obsessions,” which is closer but maybe still off because Neil and his gab don’t exactly do a great job of sharing goals.
JI: How far along are you with YIU, and when do you anticipate having the novel finished? What else are you working on? More poetry?
MY: I think it’s about halfway. It belongs in a halfway house. Right now there’s like a whole—I think the best analogy is like a NASCAR secondary sponsor, like not the sponsor that gets to decide the major paint scheme but the one who gets the trim. There’s a whole secondary NASCAR sponsor that’s missing. Plus I need to drive people through a forest, it seems like. There will be a lot of dross to drop. Rachel B. Glaser and I are competing to finish our respective n—l projects by the end of the year, except I think she’s probably thinking of it in some healthy way like as a “goal” or something while I am thinking of cutthroat Mayan/Martian apocalypse pirates and superstitiously avoiding the word n—l.
Speaking of 2013, Carolyn Zaikowski has a killer new long thing she’s written that might or might not be called The Neutral Point of Love, which is the end-all be-all of textual exorcisms. Someone out there would be wise to put it between two covers if-ya-know-what-I-mean. Ditto with Ben Hersey’s batshit amazing Confederacy-of-Dunces-meets-Nausea-in-the-food-court-of-a-mall-in-Revere, MA-dood-kid long thing that is called The Autograph of Steve Industry.
Me, I’ve got a whole other “manuscript” of poems done called Wait Oh Wow, but I think they are probably too listless and smarmy and like that type of laugh that’s not even a laugh it’s just a minified version of blowing your nose. I don’t know. Some people have told me the poems have tangential and juxtapository charm but they don’t have any heart. I go back and forth. When I am feeling good, I think they have plenty of heart, except the heart doesn’t know why it woke up in a half-eaten peanut butter cup. After YIU I am going to take a canoe out to the middle of the ocean and scuba dive toward an important transoceanic fiber optic cable and stay there underwater where I’ll write a book about sarsaparilla and championship lady wrestling and evil hypochondriac train conductors, which I will type up with a special kind of buzzsaw keyboard that once I’ve got enough words in the right order will slice through the fiber optic cable and destroy the internet forever.
Photo by Derek Keats on Flickr