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Interview with Joyelle McSweeney

salamandrine-fcsMadera: Many of the fictions in Salamandrine: 8 Gothics engage mothers, motherhood, and the Mother as figurations, sets of attitudes, as loci of language, as interlocutors discussing other mothers. Would you talk about what I read as interrogations of conventional ideas about mothers, iconoclastic takes on the Mother?

McSweeney: This book of mine is a war against capitalism through the body of the culturally vaunted (but actually exploited) figure of the mother. Here the mothers are totally undone, desperate, weaponized, vacant, bloodthirsty, deranged, or ingenious as hell. None of them is what you’d call wholesome—and neither is the writing.

Motherhood made it clear to me that there is just no way to survive the capitalist endgame that is the Anthropocene. Capitalism hearts mothers and it hearts poison and its hearts fear. As a new mother I was always being sold products to make my baby daughter “safer,” such as a crib, a cushion, or a bottle-sterilizing device, which would be recalled weeks later because it posed a strangulation hazard, caused cancer, or was covered in lead. To become a mother is to become a delivery system for such corporate and environmental poisons. This is literally the case since the chemical poisons in our environment—like pesticides, flame retardants, even jet fuel—pass so handily into breast milk.

So Salamandrine is largely a toxic and fatal book, but also a little intoxicated, full of novelties and chemical mirages and costumes and pretty language and dream actions. I’d say the meta-thesis is: things are so bad on earth that you have to freak out and be a vampire—or a revolutionary, or a poet—just to endure it. Therefore each piece employs a “B-movie” or subliterary genre – vampire tale, bodice-ripper, Green Zone thriller, etc.— that is not destined to be literarily “able-bodied” or to propagate literary convention or to “survive.”

Madera: Connected to this are any number of defamiliarizing depictions of children, about sons and daughters. These aren’t cute, cuddly creatures, but largely phantasmatic projections that invariably increase anxiety.

McSweeney: There’s that Coleridge line in “Frost at Midnight,” where he refers to his sleeping family as “the inmates of my cottage/all at rest.” When I was writing this book I did tend to think of my kids as fellow inmates, fellow creatures, fellow organisms trying to improvise a survival, or else be the place where the clock stops, like an IED. I think that’s reflected in the opaque, magic, unstable, uncanny, resourceful, and dangerous role of kids in the book. They aren’t protagonists or antagonists but they might be antigens.

Madera: To what would attribute the fact that fathers are often absent, or otherwise alienated from the other characters, in these fictions?

This book is such an intense meditation on the desperate and impossible role of motherhood in a doomed world that the father figures almost seem to be on another planet. IRL, I don’t think those assigned “male” cultural roles are any freer of the nooses of our contemporary moment than those assigned “female” roles but that’s just not the focus of this book.

Madera: Your gothics limn the interstices between poetry and prose, blurring the distinctions between them through fracture, erasure, evocative enjambments, or sentential decomposition as composition. How did you come to this form, this way of forming?

McSweeney: The lyric push is the most intense motivation here, whether in the “prose” sections or the verse-lineations. This is a Goth book, so there’s something Romantic and doomed about the trance-y way this writing moves the language around, attaches phrase to phrase, inverts sound, and pushes the speaker into sentences of almost asphyxiated length. The sentences are supposed to be predicaments. Since they are narrative, they push the speaker into impossible positions she can barely survive, and then she has to twist back through the syntactic loop to undo the hex and survive the sentence.

Madera: Who are some influences on this facet of your writing?

McSweeney: Well, Poe, of course, both his insane rhythms and obviousness of his poetry and the sleepwalking unkillable women of his prose. They seem linked to me—the music of Poe’s poetry is almost the “entrance music” for these undead women—Art herself—to waltz right into the chamber of the story, dressed to the nines. Her entrance is always an event, THE event that brings the house down. And I guess I always feel the music of the writing is like a spectacular weapon for forcing this kind of entrance, the entrance of the spectacular event.

Also Joyce; once you’ve read Joyce it’s hard to think that anything but sound should steer the sentence. And the sentence steers the plot! King Sound! Bound for Arcadia!

Madera: I connect your tendency toward parataxis with the paragraphic modes you’ve chosen here, whether as numbered sections or as “mosaic-tiles,” where the spaces between them invite many readings. How did you decide upon this way of structuring?

McSweeney: I think this is a rhythmic choice; I want the reader’s brain to get tranced out on these rhythms so that the impossible events happen with a kind of inevitability. At the same time, the white space is part of the composition. What cannot be related is the “real” event—the impossible event, the event that’s outside language, outside rationality, outside the part of our brain that’s always watching the in-flight film called “consciousness,” AKA “the plot.” Something else is going on, and that something else is the “real.”

Madera: Would you talk about the poetics of hybridity, whether of genre or identity?

McSweeney: I would say that I think of all texts as compositions, with more and less lyricism, more and less events, different rhythms, different levels of linguistic floridity, different levels of rhetoricity. I don’t really experience texts as “poetry” or “prose” much anymore, and I don’t really write them with those two qualities in mind. Instead, when I’m writing I try to tolerate this unbearable sonic shape, as it pushes itself into existence. And once I’ve got it I deploy it on the reader by making choices about line breaks, title, etc.

Madera: You mentioned to me that these gothics were “written in b-genres (however dismally/ecstatically) so it’s meant to be entertaining!” Would you talk about this some more?

McSweeney: Sure! As I mentioned above, these stories are Gothic because they are filled with my sense of panic and doom and fatality, but that’s not all. The Gothic is also exciting, sexy, kitschy, irrational, full of clothing, weather, architecture, hair, music, skin. The Gothic is fun to read. The Gothic is no respecter of persons or literary technique. The Gothic goes all the way. Similarly, b-genres are so fun to read, they almost read themselves. They almost evacuate the reader from herself in a vertiginous or maybe virtual way. What a scary and wonderful erasure Art can perform. Where are you when you are reading it, what other place have you fallen in to? Where are you going and where have you been?!

P.S. I also chose b-genres so that these stories would not be “literary fiction.” They are not about divorces, attending class reunions, maintaining wealth or weight, having midlife crises, or coming of age. They do not participate in the status of the genre “literary fiction.”

Madera: I think of your characters as unstable territories or functions, as vehicles or collections of uncertainties, as effects producing affects. What are your thoughts about characterological construction?

McSweeney: Wow, I love your description! This makes perfect sense to me! For me, the characters are almost the grounds or conditions that allow the events to happen—the events of language as well as the narrative events. They are as much the weather as anything else. But the weather is really important! The weather is going to kill us. All the storms this year were killer storms and they all had the best names and looked so terrifying on the satellite view…

Madera: Would you talk about what you’re hoping readers will experience as they encounter these characters?

McSweeney: O I hope it differs from story to story, and surely from reader to reader! Some of the characters are chagrining, some are deranged and bloodthirsty, some are sad, some are plucky and like sex, some are going to make it, some aren’t, some shouldn’t. I should add that some—as in “The Warm Mouth”—aren’t human, or even carbon-based lifeforms. These are the easiest for me to empathize with.

Madera: It’s often left unclear just where these characters are, where they exist in time and space, whether they exist in time and space, at least in conventionally understood ideas about such a continuum. Would you talk about the localities within which you situate your characters?

McSweeney: My muse-en-abyme is the Rust Belt, specifically northwest Indiana, where I live. When I moved here in 2006, the economic pain of the place was just palpable: everything was out in the open, from the foreclosed buildings to the SRO motels to the contagious violence that seemed to move around the city to the expressions on people’s faces, people’s postures. In a few years the rest of the world would reveal that it, too, was suffering. In the East Coast suburbs where I grew up, everyone hides their debt behind a façade of affluence. In fact, affluence is debt—you can afford a bigger house, bigger car, second home, new bathroom because you are managing a debt. Here there’s no façade. Capitalism has cracked here, left buildings up and left the ground and water poisoned and the community drained of resources due to rapacious attacks on the tax code. It’s reverse Wizard-of-Oz here—I fell asleep and woke up someplace made of pain, a place that couldn’t hide its pain. In this way it turned out to resemble the majority of human habitations on earth and most non-human habitats, too.

Madera: References or nods are made to other texts, like the Bible, the Duino Elegies, the Waste Land. And there’s at least one direct quotation: to John Donne’s idea of being “a little world made cunningly.” Why is reference and quotation important to your work?

McSweeney: Again, I have to go back to sound. For me, while I’m writing, sound is the hyperlink, sound links one text to another, one word to another, one language to another, one syntactic gesture to another, across time. That’s what allows me to sing these texts when I perform them, to sing out these strange propositions so that they have a weird cohesion, a sound body, a momentum. Maybe readers should sing these to themselves. Maybe that would also be entertaining.

Madera: I can’t help but see texts as always in dialogue with other texts. Besides the ones mentioned above, which texts helped shape your own gothics?

McSweeney: Joy Division. Yoko Tawada. Almodóvar. Kara Walker. Bolaño. Claire Denis. Joy Williams. Yi Sang. Kate Bernheimer. James M. Cain. Lovecraft. Kafka. Aase Berg. Jean Genet. Aimé Césaire. Samuel Delany. Jack Smith. The Velvet Underground. Nirvana. Maria Negroni. “Where are You Going, Where Have You Been?”. Andy Warhol. The Weimar Republic. Fascist Italy. David Lynch. Jane Eyre. Emily Dickinson. Marguerite Duras. Clarice Lispector. Kim Hyesoon. Fi Jae Lee. Marosa Di Giorgio. “The Turn of the Screw.” MIA. China Miéville. Wong Kar-Wai. “Puce Moment.” Wikileaks. Translation. Johannes Göransson. Plath. Sailors.

  • John Madera is the author of Nervosities (Anti-Oedipus Press, 2024). His other fiction is published in Conjunctions, Salt Hill, The &Now Awards 2: The Best Innovative Writing, and many other journals. His nonfiction is published in American Book Review, Bookforum, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Rain Taxi: Review of Books, The Believer, The Brooklyn Rail, and many other venues. Recipient of an M.F.A. in Literary Arts from Brown University, New York State Council on the Arts awardee John Madera lives in New York City, Rhizomatic and manages and edits Big Other.

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