An Interview with HOLLY TAVEL by Christina Sjøgaard
First of all, what kind of author would you characterize yourself as, considering genre and style? Which authors, or personalities, poetic programmes or ideas inspire you?
Gosh, I don’t know. To be honest, I don’t really think those sorts of genre labels—magical realism, realism, experimental, etc.—are useful, in general. I love Nabokov and Walser and the Oulipo writers: Calvino, Perec. I love the Dadaists. I love the writing of many people who weren’t necessarily known primarily as writers – Erik Satie, for instance. He also wrote plays, and these odd little “advertisements”. Donald Barthelme. I like humor and whimsy in fiction. Millhauser is a favorite. His first novel, Edwin Mullhouse, just floored me. It gave me all sorts of ideas about what it was possible to do in a novel.
The collection is called after one of the stories it contains, “THE WEATHER IN FRITZ BEMELMANS PARK.” What made you pick this one?
Honestly, it was just random. I like long titles. It just seemed to work as a fitting title for the collection.
You have spent some time living in Prague, and some of your short stories explore some specifically European themes and motifs, e.g. the Vikings in “A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE VIKING CONQUEST OF AMERICA” or “ALL ABOUT THE SWISS”. Is there anything specifically European that appeals to you or your writing?
Well, I think it has to do with the idea of “otherness”, which is something I have an ongoing interest in. There’s this sort of very kitsch and antiquated but pervasive American idea about Europeanness that I find rather amusing. In “Swiss” I think it’s just about taking that idea to its logical (if absurd) conclusion. I don’t think “Vikings” is really exploring European themes, though – maybe tangentially. I think it has to do with a very American form of conquest. But identifiably kitsch motifs are something I have a huge interest in, because I think we have such a complicated relationship with them.
Your short stories bear the genre-markers of Magical realism, here for example in “ANGELS” and “FEARLESS LEADER.” Why do you find this genre attractive and useful for your stories?
Well, I certainly don’t set out to write work that could be called Magical Realist, but it’s fine if readers think of it that way… my main goal when I’m writing anything is that it sustains my interest. Also, I’m asking myself: can I do this? I don’t think I’ve ever had much success trying to write something that’s completely grounded, or that uses a naturalistic, “writerly” approach. I mean, I admire that kind of writing, but I have a hard time pulling it off, myself. For one thing, I find it hard to take myself completely seriously.
The narrator throughout the short stories seems quite straightforward and impassive. For example when the narrator in “FEARLESS LEADER” in an aside calmly reports that they died, only to explain why there wasn’t any sound anymore: “but suddenly they were one huge crawling stinging mass all over the security guards and the security guards were screaming in strangled voices […]. And this went on for a while, until after a while they didn’t scream anymore, because they were dead.” This adds an eerily absurd ingredient to the already cynical and childish story. Are these the effects you are after in your writing?
Oh, sure. Yeah. In a sense, I think my work—this collection of it, anyway—is sort of a highfalutin riff on the “fractured fairy tale” conceit. This undercutting of fairy-tale narrative structures, or childlike/whimsical/silly ideas with something quite dark and ominous. I think “cynical” is a good word.
Another contemporary child-theme appears in your short story “THE SUPERHERO DREAMS (IN YELLOW)”, where a young superhero has to fight Dr Chaos, a surface-plot appealing to a child’s fantasy, but also playing variations on well-known themes from the superhero pop-cult. What draws you to exploring these pop-cultural models?
My own childhood was in the 70s, in a (mostly) comfortable, suburban milieu, and we (my brother and I) watched a lot of television, and you know, there were a lot of these kind of very clunky, low-production-value, garish and over-the-top superhero shows, which I mean, in retrospect were just utterly laughable. But as a kid, you got thoroughly sucked into them. I think that’s true of any era, but things today are so steeped in irony. We had no irony back then. It didn’t exist. But again, it’s a framework. It’s just like with “Star Wars” – it’s a very specific thing, and if you watch the original 1977 film, it’s absolutely a product of its time, but at the same time, the character and story archetypes are much, much older.
In many places, your stories contain slapstick comedy and liberating ironic humour, for example “FEARLESS LEADER”: “Everyone in the store got quiet when I walked in with my bees and just stared. ‘Oh, they’re fine,’ I’d say, cheerfully, indicating the bees. ‘Just try not to make any sudden movements.’ The bees and I always had a good laugh about that afterwards.” These scenes, however, always sit side by side with some highly serious elements like the war in “I AM HOLDING A BAZOOKA”. Are these in balance, or would you say either seriousness or humour prevail in your writing? How do you go about combining them?
You know, there is this common belief, and it’s probably a truism, that the best comedians are all depressive introverts. And I don’t think humor is necessarily a psychological defense—although it certainly can be—but I think humor can reveal truths in that other narrative approaches can’t get at. But I think all the writers—and artists too—that I love always used a lot of humor in their work, not always to amuse, but as a weapon, as it were. For example, the Dadaists – what were they doing? On one level, their response to the unthinkable atrocities of WWI was humor – very very dark humor, to be sure. I think if humor is done well, if it’s in a dialogue with tragedy, or cynicism, or anger or sadness or whatever – it can be amazingly liberating.
Your short stories experiment with narrative techniques (I’m thinking especially of “THREE PIECES FOR SOLO CONTRABASSOON,” predicated on the “what if”-situation with characters called a and b), and then there are stories like “THE ADVENTURES OF THE DANGER TWINS” which are marked by a modernist sense of fragmentation and piecing-together. How do you conceive of your experimental style and what functions does it serve?
A lot of times I start out with some sort of idea – maybe it’s a good one, maybe not. Maybe it’s kind of precious. In many cases it might just be a sentence. I often wake up with some strange grouping of words—I hesitate to call them “sentences”—in my head. I had come up with the beginning: “If a tosses a ball and if the ball is red and if b catches it in a meadow, etc.” Maybe I’d been reading John Barth at the time. In any case the natural place that idea seemed to want to go was to one of absurd accrual – to keep piling on conditionals, to the point that, when the resolution finally comes, it’s almost an afterthought. This seemed to me a deliberate undermining of story trajectory – in a sense, that piece is nothing but trajectory. Hundreds of books, probably, have been written about the rules of fiction, or storytelling. Many of those rules are certainly useful. But I think you have to try and undermine them when you can. I see it as almost a moral—or at least, an artistic–– imperative.
The reason I bring up the issue of experiment is your short story, “A REVOLUTION, IN FIVE PARTS”, where the narrator seems quite skeptical of the revolutionary project described (with people practically disappearing physically and mentally once they’ve reached their goals) and ends on a rather low-note irresolution: “I know that you will want to know if we were happy./To tell you the truth, I can’t say.” What opinion, then, do you have of revolutions, artistic and political?
Well, I love revolutionary projects. I’m hugely inspired by the Situationist International, for example. But I mean, you have to consider that none of these movements ever really achieved their stated goals. In most cases, the members lost interest, moved on to other things, the times changed, ideas changed. And then of course it’s very very hard to remain “pure of heart”. Dogma creeps in. So I think my attitude is one of love but also the recognition that impermanence is built in to every radical or revolutionary movement – whatever is revolutionary is also, by design or nature, ephemeral. Or something like that.
Why are there so many animal characters in your short stories?
Well, I think there is something extraordinarily primal about the “talking animal story”. I was just reading, I think in The New Yorker, a review of a modern translation of the Reynard the Fox “beast epics”. These date from the Middle Ages. And Reynard is an archetypal “trickster” character. And guess what? This trickster animal figure continues into the modern day. (Bugs Bunny is the perfect example.) Unlike human characters, animals don’t need backstory. They don’t have psychological baggage, as it were. They are one-dimensional. They exist entirely in the present. I think the trickster idea is certainly present with the bees, and also with the Hyacinth Macaw. In the case of the Macaw, his “history” might be entirely fabricated, might be a projection of the human protagonist, but it doesn’t really matter. He mentions at one point that whether his story happened to him or to another Macaw is immaterial, since he speaks from a kind of collective unconscious. Could a human character speak from that collective unconscious? Sure. But then it would have a completely different meaning.
Moreover, for example “LAST WORD” features talking animals who interact with each other and talk of their own welfare, this also happens in “FEARLESS LEADER” where the bees interact with the human narrator, formulating their political stand how they are represented. Furthering your Prague connection, this reminds one of Kafka and his Singer Josephine et al. – but where his stories seem more like fables on the human condition, you seem to be more into exploring animal rights, correct? Or is there something else/more happening?
Oh, no – I don’t think I’m exploring animal rights. I mean talking, anthropomorphized animals are never actually animals, right? They’re pretty much always metaphors, or symbols for human failings, foibles, or qualities to be aspired to. But I hope I write stories that work whether taken at face value, or interpreted as some invention in the minds of (very) unreliable narrators.