A Mixtape of Ghosts: Karen Russell in Conversation with Kevin Brockmeier
Sep 07 ● BY Karen Russell
Kevin Brockmeier’s The Ghost Variations (available on March 9, 2021) is a collection of one hundred spectral tales, arranged into eleven sections that include “Ghosts and Memory,” “Ghosts and Fortune,” “Ghosts and Nature,” and “Ghosts and Love and Friendship.” Each of these tales is a single page and works beautifully as a stand-alone story, a stained-glass porthole onto a ghostly predicament. Reading them in aggregate feels like wandering through a haunted library. The reader’s eyes are part of the magic, reanimating the ghosts, breathing life into their undead desires and problems (one cruel spirit traps a man at a four-way light, which made me laugh because here in Portland, Oregon, we like to stage these vehicular Beckett plays at our four-way intersection—it really does feel like purgatory to get stuck at one). Its rhythms remind me of The Book of the Thousand and One Nights, where Scheherazade filibusters mortality by traveling on rolling ellipses from one tale to the next. More treasure box than crypt, this house of spirits is a masterpiece of formal play and deep inquiry. The Ghost Variations returns its lucky readers to the world more alert to the beauty that envelops us and the paradoxes that bedevil us—which is to say, more alive to life.
Karen Russell: Hey, Kevin. I’m writing to you from July 1, 2020, which feels like an unbelievable distance from the time when we first proposed this interview. So my first question is, how has your life changed these past four months? The Ghost Variations takes as one of its epigraphs a line from Merwin: “Tell me what you see vanishing / And I will tell you who you are.” What do you see vanishing today, in Little Rock?
Kevin Brockmeier: If we had spoken in March, when it felt like a John Wyndham novel here and all the Wednesdays sounded like Sundays, my answer would have been very different. It’s amazing how quickly what you see vanishing changes, not because it stops vanishing but because you stop seeing it. You asked me about today, though, and today, out of pandemic exhaustion or the summer heat or maybe just because I’m concentrating on this interview, I’m looking inside rather than out.
Right now what I actually see vanishing is a certain idea I’ve been carrying around about my life: that it was set in stone and, for better or worse, wasn’t going to change. For a long time I imagined, perhaps superstitiously, that my life possessed a meaningful, maybe even a narrative arc—one that would someday make sense to me and that I could already see, in glimpses, when the light was angled just right. Somewhere along the way, I lost that idea. Now, slowly, I feel as if I’m regaining it. Where that arc might be taking me is an open question. So is whether or not I’ll be happy when I get there. Feeling pinned to a place can be comforting, after all; stasis can feel like a blanket rather than a prison, and narrative arcs aren’t always easy or reassuring.
This is surely a stranger response than you were anticipating. And so far, this is all just tremors to me anyway. I don’t even know if I’m perceiving or inventing them. But I’ve decided I’ll try my best to answer these questions honestly rather than cleverly, and that’s the most honest answer I can give you.
Russell: I’d love to hear about how this mixtape of ghosts came together. How was the process of writing it different than your other story collections? Are there a lot of angry ghosts on the cutting room floor?
Brockmeier: I began with my usual mistake: thinking I had finally wised up and was giving myself an easy assignment. At first, all I knew about the book was that it would be a sequence of one hundred very short stories, each roughly one manuscript page long, and all of them, in one way or another, addressing the idea of ghosts, ghostliness, or the afterlife: a box of candy, I thought, sweet to read and sweet to write. I told myself that I was setting out after pleasure, fun, rather than meaning, and that if I got the pleasure right, the meaning would generate itself. So far, so good. But while I’ve read lots of flash fiction, I had never tried to write it before. I was a total novice, and eventually I realized that the book was making a pretty exacting demand of me—that I teach myself, a hundred times over, not only how to fulfill the particular story I was trying to write but for variety’s sake, and as if from scratch, what a story was.
In any case, I ended up producing the stories very gradually, in no obvious order, over the course of roughly four years. A few of them were wedded to their numbers by portent or insinuation; I felt that #7 needed to be a lucky story, for instance, and #13 unlucky. #33 had to be about Jesus, #66 about the devil, and #99, for symmetry’s sake, about God. But most of the stories could have fallen at any position whatsoever. I tried to place them where they belonged by feel, but knew that I might eventually need to rearrange them. Midway through the process, looking for kismet or inspiration, I chose a pair of number stretches and assigned titles to them in invisible brackets: the titles of the stories from my first two collections. I used those titles, and the themes, tones, and premises of the original stories, to create leaping off points for myself, so “Every House Key, Every Fire Hydrant, Every Electrical Outlet” emerged from “These Hands;” “Bilateral Symmetry” from “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin;” “Roughly Eighty Grams” from “A Fable with Slips of White Paper Spilling from the Pocket;” and “Things That Fall from the Sky” from, er, “Things That Fall from the Sky.” Twenty-four stories in total. Ultimately, when I thought I had finished with the collection, I ended up cutting and replacing three stories because I simply didn’t like them, but 97/100 of the original book remains intact.
Russell: I remember reading an early version of The Ghost Variations and asking you about the metaphysician behind this assemblage of ghosts—the overarching consciousness, itself ghostly and mysterious, with a mordant sense of humor and a poet’s eye and a set of recurring obsessions. Who is the librarian collecting and collaging these tales? I found myself increasingly curious about this as I read on.
Some of these stories are crushingly sad, some terrifying, many darkly hilarious, all beautifully composed. Humming through each of them is a generous, wry intelligence. The narrator feels consistent across the one hundred stories, distinctly you and distinctly not you, somehow. When I asked you about who this meta-consciousness might be, and what motivated them to collect and to constellate these ghosts for us, you gave one of my favorite answers, “I don’t know.” What did you come to understand about this book—its questions, its symmetries, its rhythms—and what remains open to your interpretation?
Brockmeier: First of all, your instinct about the meta-consciousness that lay behind the stories, selecting them toward a specific set of tones, aims, and preoccupations, was intriguing to me, and after I mentioned it to my agent, we spent more than one conversation turning it over, trying to figure out if there was a way I could act on your perception. We talked about making the book’s presiding spirit more visible via a prologue or a set of interludes, à la Invisible Cities, but ultimately I rejected this idea because (1) I didn’t want to violate the collection’s preordained pattern and (2) I simply didn’t know enough about him. (To be honest, Karen, I’m still not entirely sure he isn’t me.) It’s possible you’ll feel his hand, though, on the titles I eventually gave the stories, which came late in the process and very quickly, almost as if by Ouija-work.
What I can tell you is that I wanted the book to be as diverse as I could make it given its constraints, but that those constraints were pretty severe: every story no more than a single manuscript page long and no less than 2/3 of one; every story about ghosts, at least sideways or tangentially; and some additional constraints of atmosphere or diction that were less visible, maybe, but every bit as present. Considering how long it took me to write the book, and how conscientiously I tried to let the stories take the pen from my hand and generate their own shapes, I’d say that whatever obsessions it’s enacting must, in the end, be mine.
I once heard Adam Ehrlich Sachs say about his (brilliant) collection Inherited Disorders, both contra and proxima Faulkner, that its stories were not so much about the human heart in conflict with itself as about the human brain in conflict with itself. I was sure that with some thought and play I would be able to adapt this claim, or at least the structure of it, to The Ghost Variations, but I still haven’t found a good, swift, graceful way of doing so. What the book is most comprehensively about, it seems to me, is human being in conflict with itself—but those words, “human being,” already have a distinct meaning, and it’s separate from what I’m trying to suggest, which is that there’s a part of us that addresses itself to being and a part of us that addresses itself to nonbeing, and in many ways the book is about the tension, the back-and-forth, between those two.
Russell: Do you know that phrase, “an embarrassment of riches”? I kept thinking of it as I read these tales—thinking, too, what a strange expression. Where does the embarrassment come from? Why should embarrassment precede gratitude? (Or in my case, diffuse redly through it?) It can be painful to receive a lavish gift. A gift you don’t deserve; a gift to which you feel unequal. A gift that overwhelms you. A gift like life. A gift like this book. The Ghost Variations is so stuffed with life, and the blood-red stuff of life—heartbreak and horror, sure, but also the blush marks on apples, laughter, kelp streamers, bad sex, great sex, insincere compliments, terrible in-flight movies, tree leaves refilling with chlorophyll, “the jupitered orange of Easter eggs.” I was so moved by the plenitude of this book—the way it is super-saturated with life in all its tonal variety. In one of my favorite stories, “The Mud Odor of the Snow Melting in the Fields,” a ghost expresses the pain of his exile, not just from his newly dead body, but from the registry of other beings’ attention. Invisible to everyone and everything, his existence is an inarticulable secret: “Everything swells with the plenitude of its being. Only he, and he alone, does not.”
If Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty” has a ghost inside it, weeping soundlessly at the world’s abundance, it would be this poor bastard. Perhaps the most abominable fate that befalls the unluckiest of these ghosts is the inability to matter to others—and to change matter, to transform in conjunction with the spinning material world. Luck is a major theme running through this book, and I wondered: which of these ghosts’ fates strikes you as the luckiest? The unluckiest? Did this survey of life’s flux and plenitude change anything about the way you approach your own Wednesdays, KB?
Brockmeier: There’s a concordance in the back of the book that arranges the stories by theme, and in it you’ll find entries for both “Ghosts and the Lucky” and “Ghosts and the Unlucky.” There are roughly four times as many of the latter as the former, which probably says something about my place on the glass-half-full/glass-half-empty divide. (Obviously, the glass is haunted.) The luckiest figure in the whole book might be the dog in “A Second True Story,” who ends his variation as one of the few creatures in the world in possession of his own soul rather than someone else’s and thus granted the gift of an afterlife. The unluckiest might be the girl in “Playtime,” one of a handful of outright horror stories in the set, who spends her last few hours waiting in a forest clearing for a fate that is terrible, gory, mysterious, and inescapable, and that ultimately happens to her just off-sentence.
As for your second question, about the way the book changed me whenever I’m writing with dedication, and writing every day, the crispness with which I perceive the world seems to improve. Or no actually: the crispness with which I phrase what I perceive. In other words, there’s as much mud in my vision as always, but I find myself washing things off after I’ve noticed them, putting them through whatever phrase-making machinery I possess again and again until I’ve brought a satisfying verbal clarity to them. That was true not only of this book, though, but of every book. If this book in particular changed anything about me, it was the way I read; when you spend a few years figuring out how to make a sequence of a hundred page-long stories, most stories—never mind most novels—begin to feel way, way, way too long. Distortions of stories. Attenuations of stories.
Russell: Speaking of embarrassment—I guess it can also be embarrassing to author such a gift. I’m thinking of “The Apostrophes.” This isn’t a question so much as an expression of solidarity. Writing is embarrassing! Who hasn’t felt like that ruinous shy bachelor, nevertheless compelled to keep putting words on paper?
Brockmeier: Thanks, Karen. For now, I’ll just say that that’s another story that was wedded to its number in the sequence, and that it’s also, to me at least, one of the funniest in the book.
Russell: Part of the inherent suspense of each story is a feature of its incredibly short length—I was on the edge of my seat, line to line, wondering “where is Kevin going to end?” Which landing was the trickiest to stick, or changed the most, or pleased you the most? What makes an ending satisfying to you, as a reader? How is that distinct (if at all) from what makes an ending satisfying to you as a writer? And given that these are ghost stories, what unique possibilities and challenges did their first and last lines pose, given that the natural terminus of death was already in the rearview? Life everlasting, that floodplain of Time, seems like it would necessarily change your approach to storytelling.
Brockmeier: I’ve been thinking about ghost stories and why they seem to fit the very short form so neatly. For teaching purposes, I’ve been trying to develop a good practical working theory of flash fiction, something I can actually articulate, rather than an almost preverbal—and thus barely verbalizable—set of biases, hunches, and improvisations.
So far, I have two ideas. I think they might be competing rather than complementary, but here they are: (1) Flash fiction, while not in any way bound to the fantastic, is unusually well suited to fantasy. In flash, because there’s so little time, you have to tell a fast truth rather than a slow one, which is to say a truth that everybody already intuitively understands, but simply needs to be reminded that they understand. What faster truth is there, what truth do we understand more instantaneously, than the truth that fantasy expresses and that the act of making fantasy embodies: that the world is something other than we think it is? (2) Julio Cortázar compares novels to films—an art of prolongation, he says—and short stories to photographs, an art of containment. The photo or the story, he writes, “projects a kind of aura beyond itself, leaving the viewer with a desire for what lies beyond it, to the left or the right.” The very short story, flash—and this is my own extrapolation—is almost all aura. That’s where its art lies, and its readers are left to imagine whatever picture or narrative this aura might encompass. In other words, if a novel is like a film, potent for its ability to add to or prolong its incidents, and a short story is like a photograph, potent in part for the emanations we feel at its borders, then flash fiction is neither film nor photo but just such an emanation. If this is true, then contrary to my first suggestion, flash works not by sharing a truth at all but by suggesting the edge of one.
Anyway, I think you’ll find both of these theories at play with some frequency over the course of the book. To answer your other question, I paged through the collection just now looking only at the last sentences. The two I like the best today are from “Knees”—“He flinches. And looks. And loves and is afraid of her”—and “The Runner-Up”—“One day, he thought bitterly, when the history of composition was written, it would show only an infinite succession of diminishing Salieris, each one drearier than the Salieri that had come before.” Perhaps the two of them, taken together, might demonstrate the book’s tonal range: the first its more austere and sentimental side, the second its more convoluted and cynical side.
Russell: “The Office of Hereafters and Dissolutions,” where an administrative mix-up sends a poor man to a literal limbo, made me think of the role of bureaucracy in Mavis Gallant’s marvelous “From the Fifteenth District.” I also found myself thinking of Kawabata’s “Palm of the Hand” stories, Borges and Calvino, the “Footprints” placard with its quasi-religious beach calligraphy, and Ladytron’s “Ghosts” (“There’s a ghost in me / That wants to say I’m sorry / But I’m not sorry”). What other stories and nonliterary influences are haunting this book?
Brockmeier: I’ve never heard the Ladytron song, but otherwise this is a pretty accurate list. I have a photo alongside my desk of Calvino and Borges meeting over a cup of tea. “From the Fifteenth District” is my favorite Mavis Gallant story (I’m pretty sure I was the one who suggested you read it; was I?). Kawabata’s “The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket” was an influence on “The Light through the Window,” one of the stories in Things That Fall from the Sky, and therefore, in a roundabout way, on “I Like Your Shoes,” the ghost variation that emerged from that story.
You’ll also see a little Star Trek and a little Twilight Zone in the book, a little Amadeus, a little of the Bible and various extrabiblical mythologies, and a little of The Thousand and One Nights. One of the stories is titled after a lyric in the song “Ghosts” by Japan, another after “Take It with Me” by Tom Waits. And of course, there’s all the flash fiction I admire. My five favorite flash collections in translation are probably Blue Has No South by Alex Epstein, Centuria by Giorgio Manganelli, Complete Works and Other Stories by Augusto Monterroso, The Toy Catalogue by Sandra Petrignani, and Microfictions by Ana Maria Shua; my top five in English are probably You on Mars: Failed Sci-Fi Stories by Jennifer A. Howard, Pieces for the Left Hand by J. Robert Lennon, The Afflictions by Vikram Paralkar, And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Phillips, and Inherited Disorders by Adam Ehrlich Sachs. All of them influenced the book.
While I was working, I created a little art folder on my computer that contained, among other images, some of the Wite-Out-like paintings of ghosts Angela Deane has made onto found photographs, a few of Tomi Ungerer’s bedsheet-style erotic ghost illustrations, and some of the photos Liu Bolin took of himself painted head to toe and almost invisibly into various homes, consumer spaces, and landscapes. Also, until the day I finished the book, I kept a kind of totem object on my desk: a hollowed-out, golf-ball-sized, hundred-sided die called a Zocchihedron.
Russell: The Brief History of the Dead, your earlier masterpiece and one of my favorite novels, also takes up the mysteries of an afterlife. In that novel, a city of the dead exists in the accordion-pleats between this Earth and some greater unknown. In The Ghost Variations, the dead often occupy the same spaces as the living—they show up in hotel rooms and grocery store cereal aisles. Sometimes the dead do seem to evolve into ontologically superior beings, but many of the ghosts seem totally bewildered by their fates and just as blinkered as they were in life. They don’t leave the Earth but continue to share a world with us. In another favorite story of mine, “Spectrum,” an art lover who orders a pair of glasses to remedy color blindness gets two pairs by mistake; stacking them on top of each other, he discovers that the gallery is filled with ghosts. They float under the Cezannes and Matisses, scratching their ghost-noses, contemplating reality with the same rapt attention as the museum’s living patrons.
Listen, I have to tell you, I was of course disappointed to learn that these ghosts are just as clueless as the rest of us breathers! Did you know, heading into this project, that once again the dead would struggle with the same philosophical quandaries—as well as eye-level irritations, insecurities, longings, and terrors—as we the living? Were you surprised to find yourself taking dictation from ghosts again? What makes narrating from this undead vantage so attractive? Or put another way, what can you see/explore about this earthly realm as a soul or a ghost that would be inaccessible in skin? Also, rhetorical, but it’s your own question that I’m echoing back to you here: what if we die and it only gets more confusing?
Brockmeier: First of all, “some greater unknown” is basically my entire metaphysics. That’s what I actually believe in, and nearly all that I actually believe in. You asked about Borges. In one of his lectures on English literature, he mentions something Thomas Carlyle wrote about Samuel Johnson, specifically Johnson’s desire to see a ghost: “Carlyle wonders: ‘What is a ghost? A ghost is a spirit that has taken corporal form and appears for a while among men.’ Then Carlyle adds, ‘How could Johnson not have thought of this when faced with the spectacle of the human multitudes he loved so much in the streets of London, for if a ghost were a spirit that has taken a corporal form for a brief interval, why did it not occur to him that the London multitudes were ghosts, that he himself was a ghost? What is each man but a spirit that has taken corporal form briefly and disappears? What are men if not ghosts?”
In other words, writing about ghosts can be—and often is—another way of writing about people, but people in their fantastic aspect rather than their material aspect: the nonbeing half of humans, rather than the being half. “Can be” and “often is,” I say, because I don’t think it must be, or always is. Some of the stories I like best in the book are the least human, if not strictly ahuman. It’s easy to speak as if the more human a work of fiction is, the better—which makes sense, because fiction is probably more adroit than any other art form at exploring consciousness and reproducing what it feels like to inhabit other people’s minds. But the world is so much bigger than us. I very much doubt that people are the most interesting thing about it, and I sometimes wonder if there isn’t a way to write fiction that’s productively less human. Who would read it is the counterpoint, but I do find myself thinking now and then that our focus as fiction writers is way too narrow and that, like one of the ghosts in the book, we “spend our days telling all the wrong stories.”
Russell: There’s so much pleasure in the titles of each story, and also the titles of phantom literature embedded within stories—I’m thinking of the book that winks at us in “The Most Terrifying Ghost Story Ever Written,” a story that we never get to read in full but can only imagine, using each new edition’s title as a clue: “The Devouring Mask of Nanqi Zhang,” “The Woodcutter and the Snow Woman,” and, in its most recent translation, “Why, Darling, Why?” Originally, these tales were numbered, not titled. Did naming each story change the shape of the book? Did any of these stories resist being bridled with a title, and how did you deal with that? What are your three favorite titles here?
Brockmeier: I love this question. Titling the stories was my editor’s suggestion, as was organizing them by theme into what ended up being eleven sections. Reordering the stories was difficult, particularly because so many of them were pinned inalterably and by design to their numbers. My editor did a lot to help me shuffle the stories into place—so much, in fact, that it would probably be more accurate to say that I did a lot to help him. But devising the titles was my work and mine alone—and honestly, Karen, an exhilaration. I wrote them all over the course of a single weekend, which made me feel like I was working with the kind of velocity I almost never possess.
Anyway, in outright and appalling defiance of your instructions, but in keeping with the pattern I established above, I narrowed my list of favorite titles down to five rather than three: “Action!” (such a jaunty title for such a caustic story), “The Abnormalist and the Usualist” (an example of vocabulary as play), “The Most Terrifying Ghost Story Ever Written” (which seems like a boast, and a dare accepted, but turns out to be an almost bone-dry academic classification of the story’s subject matter), “A Time-Travel Story with a Little Romance and a Happy Ending” (this is my mom’s single favorite subgenre of fiction, and for years she’s been using these exact words to ask me when I was going to write such a story, so this one is expressly for her), and “There Are People, They Had Lives” (which was at one point the title of the entire book, spun out of Zadie Smith’s reluctant answer when she was asked what her novel NW was about, “There are people. They have lives,” only with a tense shift in the second half, from the present perfect to the past perfect, because the lives in question were no longer ongoing but ongone).