Interview with Norman Lock
1. You are a self-described fabulist. In your opinion, what can a fable do that other literary forms cannot?
The fable can be said to be a metaphor or figure so ambitious that it has annexed unto itself the entire fictional space. Like all symbolic language, it possesses extraordinary power to render a particular notion of reality – an idea – with absolute simplicity and efficiency. By simplicity and efficiency, I mean the reduction of complex thought into a unifying field of imagery in order to understand and convey unseen connections between objects or phenomena. The abstraction needn’t be stark. On the contrary, it can be as highly colored and intricately wrought as a Persian miniature or a poem by Wallace Stevens. But however rich in complications and implications, the metaphoric reality (can I call it a “truth”?) is vastly less vexed than what surrounds and oppresses us – by day and by night: our conscious and unconscious, public and private lives.
By fabling, I can explore ideas – treat them playfully – while satisfying my need to make things and to produce beautiful surfaces created entirely of sentences and their syntactical relationship. And I will confess this much: that for a writer like me, no other literature is possible than that whose source is his own imagination and his art. As Stevens wrote, “Poetry is the subject of the poem.”
2. How does place, or setting, factor in to your authorial decisions?
Place and story – its investigations of phenomena or being – are inseparable in my fiction, prose poems, and plays. Africa is the stage on which A History of the Imagination plays out its themes; Antarctica, Land of the Snow Men; Java, Shadowplay; Egypt and North Africa, A Swan Boat on the Nile; a hotel, Pieces for Small Orchestra; houses, The House of Correction andThe Sinking Houses, Holland, Escher’s Journal, the devastated Europe of the Thirty Years’ War, In the Time of Rat – all are the product of my imagination, though “real.”. This imaginative and imagined reality is perhaps nowhere more evident than in Alphabets of Desire & Sorrow: A Book of Imaginary Colophons. In each brief text, a landscape – admittedly and purposively exotic – provides a setting, a fictional space in which to propose – speculatively and extravagantly – the origin of symbolic languages.
Often, a landscape or a place will insist on itself as a mise en scène for a fiction, play, or poem. A place will seize my imagination and set it brooding. Characters will find their way there and inhabit it, and by their relationship to each other and to their milieu, metaphysical questions will be posed. I answer them not as a philosopher or scholar, neither of which I am, but as a poet and fantasist.
3. You have noted elsewhere that sociology was an initial interest of yours. What compelled you to shift your focus to Literature? How, if at all, did that early ambition inform your thinking as a writer?
My interest in sociology coincided with a young man’s season of passionate involvement in the political and socioeconomic landscape of the late 1960’s. Political science and sociology accorded with a sensibility that was, then, rational, populist, and extroverted. My knowledge of literature and of the arts was narrow – informed by reading in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century fiction and poetry and by the pleasing art of the Impressionists. Advanced art, for me at that time, meant Chagall. I discovered my great pleasure in literature and other arts as I went along. My taste matured slowly, and by the end of my sophomore year (1970), I was ready to declare a major in English and American literature.
4. How has your approach to writing shifted from the time of your first play, The House of Correction, to that of your more recent books, Shadowplay and Pieces for Small Orchestra & Other Fictions?
I’d rather talk about how my dramatic writing has persisted in non-theatrical forms – my novels, novellas, and short-prose sequences. My early stage plays were indebted to the Theatre of the Absurd. The farther removed the work became from the representational world of the dominant American and British drama – the more experimental their proposed staging and anti-naturalistic their language – the closer they came to closet drama. For me, stylized language and stage imagery had become preeminent concerns. I was no longer writing plays – I was writing literature, or at least an avant-garde literature. One of the most stylized of those plays – a free adaptation of Heart of Darkness – evolved years afterward into my first novel, A History of the Imagination. In the play, I had transformed Conrad’s wilderness, which to me is a conceptual one – a literary one – into an Absurdist landscape. My jungle like Conrad’s was a construct of words. In the play, which was never performed, I imagined the African jungle as a kind of nightclub inhabited by cigarette girls, hat checks, a jazz band, safari hunters, and King Kong as a debonair young gorilla in top hat and tails, who danced to “It’s a Fine Romance.”
The theatre – especially the theatrical elements that make for what purists might consider decadent – continues to function in my prose as settings or as metaphors for existence – an existence whose laws and conditions I am pleased to simplify, complicate, or distort into stage engines. By stage engine, I mean a construct that runs according to its own peculiar principles to generate meanings.
5. You have agreed with William Carlos Williams about the hazards of figurative language - its capacity to distract the reader from ‘the thing itself.’ How would you characterize your own relationship to metaphor?
In having agreed with Williams’s adjuration “No ideas but in things,” I did not mean to suggest that I embraced, as a result of that dictum, literary Realism. Even as a student writing not very original poems…I was always interested – passionately – in metaphor, precisely for its power to carry a reader from one thing to another. (This relocation, expressed as connection and coincidence, is theme and technique of my newest novella, Escher’s Journal.) What Williams’s emphasis on “the thing itself” produced in me was an awareness that things could be rendered in words with all the force of reality – that a reality could, in fact, be invoked whose elementary particles are words and whose laws are grammatical.
As a writer freed from the obligation of reproducing a visible reality, I invent; I delight in concocting alternative realities whose signs are words and figures sentences. This is my supreme pleasure and one, I would insist, that is not as it would appear: an exercise in self-indulgent fiction. For as I have said elsewhere, in as much as sentences are the product of a human mind, it is impossible that they will not render an account of the human condition, even if that account is disguised by metaphor or transformed by the fabulist instinct or the need to play. And so while my fiction, prose poems, dramas may not appear to concern themselves with life as it is broadly lived – that is to say with essential matters – they do have in them an experience of humanity. What, after all, is more fundamental to men and women than language, whether it is verbal or pictorial, musical or physical?
6. How do you foresee your work changing, or not changing, in the years to come?
I cannot bear to repeat myself. Only in novelty and in stylistic innovation do I take satisfaction as a writer, and only by them can I justify the inordinate time I have spent on words and sentences – on “utterance” as Gordon Lish would say. From story to story, text to text, novel to novel, play to play, my work changes in subject matter, the quality of utterance, or both. I hope that change will continue to be a constant of my writing life; otherwise, it will be pointless to go on.
During the last twelve months, I have written what might be considered genre fiction – that much despised mode – especially a kind of science fiction or horror. Any who know my fiction or prose poems know my delight in producing irrational sciences and unnatural natural histories, together with plausible descriptions of the impossible. So I am writing serious, literary fiction disguised as genre fiction. I’d like to write, next, a science-fiction novel that satirizes our dependence on devices. Another recent and happy departure for me is the writing of scenarios for video-art installation projects, some of which I have had published this year in Millennium Film Journal and in Visual ArtBeat Magazine – a European and Mid-East publication for collectors.
I’ll end with a passage from A History of the Imagination in which the narrator, N., interviews Raymond Roussel:
“Why don’t you open the shutters?” I repeated because he [Roussel] had not bothered to answer me.
“So as not to be distracted,” he replied irritably. “My work has nothing to do with that![i.e., the outside world]”
“But your African impressions…” I began.
“Have nothing to do with Africa!” he snapped.
“With what then?”
“With words! Words to be dismembered, broken into pieces, and built up into something that ‘has never been, which alone interests us.’”
Norman Lock and Lindsay Stern.