Interviews

Jonathan Callahan

Behold: a vision, a prize—“a black unicorn with golden hooves, a tail like splayed fire, horn a glinting spear, eyes like emeralds, seraphic wings.”

Beware: the voracious solar bear, which “subsists primarily on sunlight, drawing supplementary nutrition from the lightsap found in gem-pines—‘cocaine trees,’ in the traditional folk parlance,” and which brews its own sunhoney mead from lightsap ferment.

Sympathize with: Hamnlet, the protagonist of Jonathan Callahan’s story “Hamnlet Pursues the Black Unicorn,” from Callahan’s debut collection The Consummation of Dirk. Hamnlet has sworn to find and possess the black unicorn, and to do so must avoid the solar bears (not to mention the bats). Does Hamnlet—trudging through Underwood Forest, armed with his father’s sword—realize black unicorns and solar bears don’t exist? Yes. Yes he does. Does that preclude or delay or cut short his quest? No. No it doesn’t.

“Hamnlet” emblemizes many of the stories in The Consummation of Dirk: absurd, manic, fantastic, darkly funny, and often narrated and/or propelled by a person in denial if not suicidal. (Callahan says audience members at readings often appear unsure whether or not they’re allowed to laugh. Note: they are.) In “Cymbalta,” an American teacher in Japan ignores his rising alcohol intake, sinking career, and dying relationship, instead pouring all his energy into scary-candid four am emails to someone who may or may not be author Rick Moody, who may or may not be responding to said emails. In “A Few Thoughts in Closing,” an angry teenaged boy tries in his diary to plan an attack on his high school, only to be repeatedly derailed by a maddening adoration for his walleyed English teacher, Ms. Kim.

The titular story—inspired by a novel of the same name which Callahan has written but doesn’t expect he’ll ever publish—is a wild, postmodern spin on how the actions of Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki affect the life and career of author Jonathan Callahan (like Dirk, a character in the story), who has, naturally, written a novel about Dirk (excerpts abound). In the story, Dirk returns from sabbatical a new man, a borderline mythical figure (steroid rumors abound), and has the greatest individual season in NBA history before costing his team the title via a blown layup at the buzzer. Ramifications roll out in waves, reaching the story-within-the-story and possibly a story within that story (footnotes abound). I’m still not sure exactly what transpired, but I enjoyed it, and the priceless image of Dirk and former teammate Steve Nash horseback racing on the beach, “the duo’s long hair flapping like matched manes in the wind,” has proved a non-stop fountain of joy in the courtyard of my brain.

Callahan (the person, not the character) grew up in Hawaii, received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence, and spent three years teaching English in Japan before returning to New York last summer. We met at a bar in Manhattan and talked basketball for a good half-hour before reluctantly agreeing that we should probably discuss his book.

EVAN ALLGOOD: So how does it feel to finally publish this thing? Do you feel different at all?

JONATHAN CALLAHAN: No, not at all. I’m just as neurotic as I always was. If anything more so, because I’m afraid now that I pulled a fast one on people and they’re going to find me out. I don’t feel any more confident. I will say I’m glad to be done with these stories, to have them out in the world. I’m doing a little bit of nonfiction right now, but at some point I would like to start a new fiction project too.

EA: What’s your process like?

JC: I don’t begin a project until an opening line occurs to me, word for word, which implies a lot of what’s to come. Then usually in the same instant or very soon thereafter, I get the final line or so, too, or maybe the final paragraph, almost word for word. So I know where I’m going and I know where I’m beginning, but I have no idea how to do it. That is one of the reasons why I’ll open up my notebook and keep writing maniacally longhand. Maybe because I’m insecure, I don’t normally start without that certainty. It’s the case with almost all of the stories in the book.

With nonfiction I’m really careful, actually, and it’s excruciating. With fiction, though, the problem is that I get excited about the stories I’m drafting longhand, several pages a day; then when I go back to type them up, I discover how awful the language is, and how disjointed they are, and it’s a pretty painstaking process. But the initial composition process is just longhand as fast as I can write.

EA: Do you fix up the writing as you transcribe it to your computer?

JC: I can’t even do that; I have to type it up verbatim or else I’ll go insane. Then go back and fix it. If I start trying to fix it while I’m typing, I’ll get so depressed, I’ll just start drinking. ‘Cause it’s terrible. When I’m writing, if I can’t think of a word, I put a box and keep going, and later when I see the number of blanks, I’m like, Are you a writer? You don’t even know any words. But if you hang yourself up on word choice, you’ll never get where you need to go.

EA: This collection won Starcherone’s Innovative Fiction prize. Do you consider your work innovative or experimental?

JC: I like Starcherone a lot, and I’m really grateful for that award, but I don’t really understand what that means. I feel like if you’re not writing with the intention of being innovative, why are you writing at all? There are people who write much more ridiculously difficult stuff than I do, and there are people who write much more conventional or recognizable fiction than I do. At a certain point I’d had a lot of rejection like everyone else, and I finally decided, Well, if I’m not going to get published anyway, I might as well write the kind of story I would like to read. A good half the stories in The Consummation of Dirk came after I had that change in my approach.

EA: So were you holding back prior to that? Were you second-guessing yourself or thinking, Ah, this won’t get published?

JC: There was a tension between my sense of what I would like to see happen and almost an angel or devil on my shoulder talking to me, telling me, You can do that, but don’t expect to get published in [blank]. I don’t know when exactly the turning point was; maybe it was going to Japan and having the financial burden lifted temporarily. Because the year after grad school I thought, Okay, you just paid a lot of money to go to graduate school in fiction, you’re not publishing any fiction, you’re not getting paid to be a writer. Just feeling like at some point something would have to happen. And then I was in Japan for three years, so I was paying off my loans but money was suddenly not month-to-month, oh-shit-how-am-I-going-to-survive.

EA: You felt like because you’d paid so much for the degree, that you had to use that thing or else…

JC: It would have been a very expensive waste of time. I don’t see it as a waste of time, but I was thinking in terms of a bottom line: I paid this much, I worked this hard, I should have X result. But that’s not how art works, and at some point with the composition of most of these stories, I just started writing the kind of work I wanted to read.

EA: I was a little surprised that there’s only one story set in your home state of Hawaii, and not any in New York.

JC: I don’t know why I haven’t been able to write about New York. I think maybe it’s a combination of the fact that a lot of people write about New York, and also that I don’t feel like I know the place that well. The world is not waiting for another story set in New York, and the two years I was here for grad school, I was not technically in the city. Then I lived in Queens a few years ago and I’m back in Queens now, but I don’t get out and feel the city most days. I just sit at my desk with my computer and my books.

As far as Hawaii goes, the whole second phase of my abandoned original novel [also titled The Consummation of Dirk] is set in Hawaii. Other than that, I’ve never really written about Hawaii. When I came to Sarah Lawrence I was really self-conscious about being the young white guy from Hawaii who’s now going to write about his Hawaiian boyhood. I just didn’t want to do that. I feel like that’s what everyone does—they find some particular background and then use it to pass off more or less mediocre work as something special. Like, okay, there’s a kalua pig in here so now this is better than the other dude who’s writing about a hamburger. Or surfing, which is more exotic than skateboarding. I didn’t want to do any of that shit.

EA: Talk a little about David Foster Wallace and the impact he had on you.

JC: How do I talk about Wallace? My first really serious writing instructor was at some level connected to Gordon Lish. She would go word by word, she would give us back poems with a slash through them and then one word circled. It was actually good for me, because I still revise that way—I go word by word, syllable by syllable, see if I can get the right cadence. But it wasn’t the way I thought I wanted to write, and the first contemporary writer I responded to intensely in terms of feeling like his sentences syntactically and rhythmically corresponded to the way I thought, was Wallace. It was a revelation, because I had a few favorite writers at the time—I liked Dickens, I liked Conrad—but I saw these long sentences that were similar to the way I thought and I had felt that I had to break those down to these Lish-like bursts. For a while Wallace was almost a paralyzing influence, and part of the process for me was broadening my influences and reading other people that I really liked. Whether or not my prose style is still like his—I really don’t think it is—Wallace initially gave me the license to write a certain way.

That same writing professor, actually, at the end of the semester she was the one who gave me her copy of Infinite Jest. So she pissed me off a lot but she had more insight into me than I knew. Once I started with Wallace I read everything of his; then later on—and I have an essay about this somewhere, about syntactical stuff versus phrase-level stuff—later on I started getting more into Lish mode, like Don DeLillo at the phrase level is insane, so I tore up a lot of Don DeLillo. I like Rick Moody’s sentences a lot. I think people unfairly shit on Rick Moody. I think he’s a phenomenal sentence writer, and for whatever reason he annoys people.

I like George Saunders more and more. I was on the fence about him in the past, but there were a couple really good stories from the new collection in The New Yorker, Harper’s, etc. I thought “The Semplica-Girl Diaries” was good. He manages to pull off something that I think most writers can’t, the naked sentimentality without it feeling cheap. I don’t think he gave himself permission to do that for years; he would cloak it in irony.

EA: Do you think sentimentality or sincerity is frowned upon these days? I feel like your book has a lot of heart.

JC: I tend to be more put off by people who err on the side of distance and ironic coolness than people who are a little over-earnest. That said, I think if you dispense altogether with some kind of self-awareness or consciousness of what you’re doing, and awareness also that the intensity of your own emotions is probably happening in several billion other people at the same time, if you turn it into the sole focus of what you’re doing and expect people to say, “Oh yeah, I’ve felt really sad before too.” Then you’re writing a diary, not making art. Somehow or other, the trick is to find a way to sneak that emotional intensity in, in my opinion.

What I hope happens in some of the more emotionally direct or naked or intense pieces in my collection is that the reader feels something that he or she wouldn’t have expected to feel. I hope that came across in “Cymbalta,” and to a lesser extent “A Few Thoughts in Closing.” Because the idea was that the emotional impact was an act of misdirection. What the narrator is saying nudges us towards the feeling; it’s not him saying, “Boy I sure feel depressed.” The narrator of “Cymbalta” will never admit that he has some serious fucking problems.

EA: How are you feeling about “A Few Thoughts in Closing” [a story narrated by a high school student considering carrying out an attack on his school] given what just happened in Boston, and earlier in Newtown? Have you second guessed yourself or thought, Oh shit, people aren’t going to like this?

JC: I probably won’t read it aloud because I do think that in an immediate setting like that, it would not go over well. But if you read through the whole story, it’s kind of a love story. It’s about somebody actually managing to touch someone despite everything. The focus of the story really is, very indirectly, this teacher’s impact which she probably has no idea that she’s even had. I feel as comfortable with it as ever.

EA: What was it like watching Dirk Nowitzki finally win an NBA title two years ago? Didn’t you go through a phase where you felt like your fates were intertwined?

JC: It was a little tongue-in-cheek, but I do this obsessive thing. After Dirk I latched onto LeBron James, once LeBron started hitting that barrier to Finals success. Everyone knew he was the best and he kept failing; once that started happening I was really into him, so I ended up writing a really long essay about him last year for Wag’s Revue. I would come back and watch the game and depending on whether or not LeBron succeeded, I would feel better or worse. But the answer to your question is that Dirk fucked up my book. He’s not supposed to win. It rendered the story irrelevant.

EA: I didn’t realize when you had written the story, so when I read it I thought, Oh, it’s an alternate reality where he blew it instead of being a hero.

JC: Yeah, that’s how we try to pitch it now. It would have been great if he’d just never won a title.

EA: Well, not for him.

JC: Not for him, yeah. I’m happy for him.

EA: Are you interested in writing about sports?

JC: I’m a little bit on the fence; I guess the main reason is that in that world, the turnaround is an hour or two. I can’t work that way. It’s one thing I admire about some of these guys. Like Bill Simmons, whatever you think about him, the man is a machine. He pumps out content like nobody. That magazine, actually, Wag’s Revue, the editors contacted me and asked me to do a periodic sports column for them, and I said sure, I can do a sports column. And then the first project I started working on was a short piece on LeBron James that I ended up spending more than six months on, and they were like, Okay, thanks. Never mind.

EA: They didn’t realize what your process was like.

JC: I thought I could do a little bit more than one piece in six months, but once I got it started, I didn’t want to get it wrong.

Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.