A Disaster from The Start – An Interview with Russell Persson

Cabeza de Vaca

Russell Persson’s “The Way of Florida” appears in Unsaid 7. Persson is the 2014 recipient of Unsaid’s Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Award for Fiction in the Face of Adversity.

UNSAID: What role does research play in your treatment of what appear to be historical events? In what ways is research either a help or a hindrance?

RP: Research has provided the factual armature that my narrative is built on. Throwing clay on that armature and pushing it around and forming the contours that I find engaging or musical or surprising or terrifying is the real joy. I do end up at times going back to the facts to give a rough form to where the story is going, but I try not to get too deep into the research because if I feel like I am guiding or anticipating the story too strictly then I’ll lose that sense of play and abandon which is required for me to get at least that first draft down.

UNSAID: Your treatment of mapping and chronology, combined with your description of jungle landscape, create a strong sense of anxiety, the feeling that a creeping reality will invade and engulf all, unless the world is constantly rationalized. Is this feeling merely an effect within your story, or is it expressive of your own understanding of human experience?

RP: In the Narrative of Cabeza de Vaca, it’s a disaster from the start. The ships are blown by a storm, the navigator doesn’t know where they are, the competency of the commander Narvaez is questioned. After they reach land and decide to explore inland, they are walking through a place unknown, unmapped, populated by an unknown, possibly hostile people. When I was reading the Narrative, it made me anxious to imagine what it must have been like in those circumstances. I wanted to try to convey some of that anxiety, and to bring some of that anxiety to the idiom.

The sense of anxiety and that creeping reality you mention might also have to do with the process of writing. When I am writing well, I feel like I’m an actor playing the role of some overwhelmed scribe trying to keep up with the story. It’s a fugue state that is wonderful to be in and it produces its own kind of anxiety, but like any ideal state it’s not always easy to access. That creeping reality is daily life, just outside the gates, constantly reminding me that I need to go back to my job, pay the bills, mow the lawn. So that anxiety might have more to do with not so much my understanding of the human experience but instead my understanding of the experience of writing.

UNSAID: It was hard for me to read The Way of Florida without thinking of Orlando, the title of two literary landmarks, and also the home of one of the world’s great theme parks. For me, your story connotes a wide variety of texts, historical and contemporary, aesthetic and vulgar, heroic and absurd – all of which add to the richness of the experience of reading. To what extent did writing proceed and work with an awareness of your production arising within an intertextual field?

RP: I wonder sometimes if it’s possible to start over with a word. In the original Narrative, “the way of Florida” simply refers to a direction of travel. But a contemporary reader can find so many different meanings for the word Florida. We all seem to have an emotion or an opinion about Florida. When I decided on the title “The Way of Florida,” I loved how ambiguous and loaded it was, how it could be filled up and decorated before you read a line of the text. And at the same time, I loved how it might be possible to rebuild the word itself.

Maybe it’s not possible to start over with a word, but I like the idea of trying. Jack Gilbert resurrected the word heart for me, which I believed had been lost for good. So I think there is still the possibility to take words to which we have assigned almost inseparable meaning and to present them for reevaluation.

UNSAID: The sudden appearance of complex run-on sentences in your story catches the reader off guard, demanding great feats of cognition or respiration if the movement of the story is not to be interrupted. To what extent do you find writing and reading to be not pleasures so much as mental and physical ordeals?

RP: I feel those longer sentences are a natural product of the story, told at pace and rhythm and length at which certain passages should be told to reflect the subject. Writing those sentences is a pleasure and I hope that pleasure is felt by the reader as well. But I do understand that those wandering sentences require a form of attention that we’re not used to working with. So in that way I can understand that it might take some persuasion or some kind of instruction to get the reader to that place where that form of attention lives. These lines might serve to, indirectly, instruct the reader on what might be an appropriate form of attention to bring to the pages.

UNSAID: I’m fascinated by what I might call infixes or intrusions in the course of your narrative. I see these principally in the form of sudden expletives, conjectures, and proclamations. Each of these seems to figure as a moment of shock, a repetition of an unsaid trauma driving the underpinning of the narrative. Can you say anything about the origin or function of exclamation in your work?

RP: The first expletive came about as a way to speak to the muted nature of the original Narrative, in which almost all emotion is removed to make room for place names, directions, distances traveled, measurements of time, descriptions of the native people. In my retelling of the narrative, I wanted to inhabit more of the reactionary and the felt. But once I started using these expletives I realized they were assigning themselves a different role, like a crash that breaks into an expected rhythm of sounds. I often listen to music that has elements of dissonance, and I realized these expletives were like those notes you don’t expect to hear, notes whose function is to intentionally bend away from the expected note to give you something odd and unexpected. This can be unsettling, or shocking, but you’ll see that bend in the path and by following the path you might get to see or hear something differently than if the path was straight.

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One Response to A Disaster from The Start – An Interview with Russell Persson

  1. R. Herman Persson says:

    Very insightful, adding immeasurably to the appreciation of the novel. I can’t wait.

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