This is the second part of my interview with author D. Foy along with a special bonus, an excerpt from his new novel, Patricide, available October 3rd from Stalking Horse Press.
KGB: Literary influences fascinate me. In addition to providing something of a historical frame of reference, knowing someone’s influences can provide insight into their work. Talk about your literary heroes. Who’s the first author you were really into? Who’s your “literary idol” at this stage in your career?
DF: Obviously there are artists I deeply admire, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say any of them are “heroes” or “idols.” I think of them more as “masters,” in the sense that their achievements are the result of having given themselves utterly to the thing they’re compelled to do.
Maybe you’ve seen the documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, about one the world’s greatest sushi chefs? Jiro has loved making sushi his entire life. Making sushi is all he does and all he’ll ever do. He’s ninety years old now—eighty-five at the time David Gelb made the film about him—but still he goes to work every day with the sole intent to make and learn more about sushi and, in the process, about himself.
This is my ideal and my way. I used to believe that a person could work toward a specific knowledge or facility and that once achieved there’d be nothing left to work toward. Of course in that I was deluded. Jiro is the master he is because he’s never been anything but a student. And this is true of any master of anything. No one told me this. I had to learn it from experience. I’ve been doing this for a goodish while, now, and the longer and further I go, the more I see that what there is to learn will never be exhausted. Life is bottomless. Its offerings are infinite. And it will continue to give to me so long as I continue to want them. This, I’ve found, requires profound humility—without it, wonder’s impossible to maintain.
All of the artists I admire are masters in this sense. They all have this same capacity for endless wonder. Laszlo Krasznahorkai, for example, is one of these. “Without Franz Kafka,” he says about his influences, “I wouldn’t have become a writer; without Homer and Dante, I couldn’t enjoy any literary work; without Samuel Beckett and Thomas Bernhard, I would never have had the feeling that a writer must break with the habit of writing as soon as possible.” Then, asked which writers he’d recommend people read, he said, “Kafka, Homer, Dante, Beckett, and Bernhard, again and again.”
Kafka, Homer, Dante, Beckett, Bernhard—Kafka, Homer, Dante, Beckett, Bernhard—Kafka, Homer, Dante, Beckett, Bernhard . . . Krasznahorkai can say this because he knows these masters, too, are bottomless. Their secrets can never be fully grasped any more than the secrets of life itself. We can study them endlessly, knowing they’ll always have something more to give. And they can do this, as Krasznahorkai clearly sees, precisely because, like him, they each broke “with the habit of writing as soon as possible.”
KGB: I can’t say I’m among them, but I imagine many writers would say that to break with the habit of writing isn’t just counterintuitive but verging on nonsensical.
DF: Well, think of it this way. To cling to the habit of writing is to cling to a limited way of seeing. To cling to a limited way of seeing is to follow a limited set of rules. And to follow a limited set of rules is, essentially, to obscure the possibilities beyond them and so to cut ourselves off from ourselves and from the world. Any artist I admire is one who as soon as possible broke with the habit of their art—music, painting, dance, film, what have you. At some point in their development they understood that if they stayed within the bounds dictated by their craft they’d wither. This is the reason I don’t put much trust in “craft.” Craft doesn’t teach us how to see. It teaches us how to follow.
This reminds me of when I was a boy at school, where if I wasn’t terrified, I was bored. School was a place dominated by a bewildering network of hierarchies and rituals—a place, at least to me, of unilateral affectations, proclamations, and dictations, where from hands and knees The Great Fact was venerated while intuitive thought and the creativity born of it were shunned.
I sat at my desk facing a teacher who talked mostly at me and rarely with me. I spoke when spoken to, and when I did, I said the words I’d been told to say. Not until I made it to the playground did I see the kids around me, and even then I didn’t know their minds. Their minds were no more their own than mine was mine. We were all undergoing the systematic transformation into a lock-step machine to serve our controllers. We weren’t people, but followers, and what we were being taught was The Lesson.
When at last I barely escaped high school, I wanted nothing more to do with institutions. The institution was the enemy, I’d concluded, the institution had nearly crushed me. I joined a rock band and lived like the rock stars of myth, in my case, however, without the star. But at least I was free. I didn’t just play music and listen to music, I wrote music, too, my own, from the melodies I’d been carrying all those years in my head. And in the making of my music, I also made lyrics—poems, as it were, bad as they were, and regardless of anyone’s thoughts, this making made me, not so much happy as plainly human. I was my own man. I thought as I pleased, and thinking, I realized, pleased me. Then the lyrics of the poems became my stories, because everything for me is a story, no matter how seemingly trivial or mundane.
KGB: Hearing you say this makes me think it’s no wonder Patricide is structured as it is, like an endless concentricity of circles.
My existence itself, and my life as an artist, has always been an endless circle, but I haven’t always known it. It’s not until recently that I began even to grasp the wisdom of this worldview, much less to embrace it. But it’s true. I am myself a circle, and my life, as Emerson said, is “an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning; that there is always another dawn risen on mid-noon, and under every deep a lower deep opens.” Narrative is everywhere—in the burrito I eat for lunch and the bandage on my foot, in the squirrel in the park, in the mirror at night as I brush my teeth, in the words in my head as I lapse into sleep, in my sleep itself, my dreams—and everything I do—watching La Dolce Vita, witnessing a murder on a freeway at night, gaping at a worm on the walk after rain, reading a poem by Bashō, losing myself in Jan van Eyck—is a line in the story of my life, all of which I can use in whatever I write.
KGB: Would it be fair to say, then, that you’re as influenced by, say, painting or film as by literature?
DF: More than fair! I didn’t learn to write merely through reading books, but through reading the world as though the world itself were the greatest book of all, whose narrative is a ceaseless in medias res. Again, for me, this is what Krasznahorkai means by breaking with the habit of writing.
Our “destination” as artists and as people is really nothing more than a beautiful mirage. Its existence, so to speak, lies in the here and now of the path, and of our steps along it, each of which is an expression of the effort our work demands and which, like the circle, like our art, is one and the same as our lives themselves.
Emerson said also that the extent to which we prefer truth to our past apprehension of truth depends on the power of self-recovery he called “valor.” At every turn, if we’re willing and alert, we’re given the opportunity to see anew the things we thought ourselves already to have known, and in that freshness to continue to grow.
So my seeing Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Tarkovsky’s Nostalghia is every bit as crucial as is reading Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Gombrowicz’s Pornographia. To witness Jeanine Durning’s performance piece inging or Tere O’Connor’s dance Wrought Iron Fog has been no less vital to my education than has devouring Renata Adler’s Speedboat and Bernhard’s Gathering Evidence. And the paintings of George Condo and Francis Bacon, and the sculptures of light of James Turrell, have been every bit as necessary to me as Beckett’s Malloy, Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, and Bolaño’s 2666. Krasznahorkai, Rabelais, Svoboda, Krilanovich, Brontë—all great writers, all lacking, to this degree or that, however, without Mingus, Rothko, Bergman, Gursky, Hay.
KGB: Fascinating, D., very heavy stuff indeed. I’m sure our readers will enjoy combing over this interview more than once, extracting every bit of your nuanced personal philosophy. Though, I’m equally sure you’d hope they find your words “bottomless” in the same way you describe those of your masters.
Now, let’s shift gears, maybe go a little lighter in closing. Tell me a little about your superstar canine, Mrs. Roosevelt. I know from your Facebook feed, she’s a big part of your life.
DF: For me, a house without a nonhuman creature is like a house without books, which, as it’s been said, is like a body without a soul. I grew up with all manner of creatures, but dogs have always been closest to me, probably because I’m a bit of a dog myself. The few times I’ve been without one, I’ve more or less languished. Mrs. Roosevelt is one my few true joys. I can’t begin to say everything she gives me. That’s the thing about dogs. They never give anything less than their whole being. Mrs. Roosevelt is a universe of love, and every day for her is Christmas morning.
KGB: What does the future hold for D. Foy?
DF: Unless I’ve got some serious support systems, it’s improbable I’ll ever tour again like I did for Made to Break. I knew that tour was going to be grueling, but honestly I had no idea just how, and if I had, I’m not sure I’d have gone through with it. But I will be doing quite a few readings in New York City and along the East Coast, which I’m still in the process of setting up. You can see the calendar when it’s ready over on the Events page at my website.
As I mentioned, I’ve got another novel coming out in October 2017, and then another after that in 2018. I have a collection of poetry I’d like to publish, as well, and a book length essay that expresses my views on the current state of art. Three-fourths of a collection of essays is ready, too, the balance of which I’ll fill in over the next year, and a book of stories that’s been sitting around, though I’m still undecided whether I want to let those go. Then there’s the companion books to Patricide, which is the first volume in a projected series of six. Matricide is next, then Celia Berry, Anna Orange, Noelle Plum, and Horo Horo, what, collected, I’m calling If He Is Healthy. Or in other words, for the foreseeable future, I’m going to be a very busy boy.
Excerpt from Patricide by D. Foy
“The Giant Boy: Postscript”
Years later, after the nuthouse and your start on the road to health, you’ll hear a man tell the story of how he’d buried his mother, who’d died of drink and drugs. He’d forgotten the events of his childhood, he’ll say, but with his mother’s death the memories had returned. The man will begin to weep, then, the tears, which he won’t hide, streaming down his face. On a Sunday morning, the man will say, when he was twelve, his father took him to the barber to force on him another cut that made him look a fool. He hated his father for that, the man will say, and for more than he could count. His father was despicable, he’ll say, he hated his father with his whole being. “I hate you so much,” the man will say he’d told his father as they drove home, “I wish you’d die.” It wasn’t noon when they got back, but his mother was drunk and bore into his father. This went on, the man will say, while his mother drank and drank. From his bedroom the man heard his mother and father cut themselves down till he could take no more and rushed out to beg them to quit. But it was too late for that, the man will say. In that very moment, his mother slammed a knife into his father’s heart, and his father, the man will say, died then and there. The man had wished his father dead just hours before, and now his father was dead. Questioned, the man’s mother had no notion of what she’d done, nor would she ever believe she had. “The bottle,” the man will say as he weeps, “is powerful. It’s stronger than prison,” he’ll say, “stronger than death, and stronger for sure than love.” His mother had shown him that, he’ll say. His own disease, he’ll say, which he’d got after years of drinking in the face of what he’d seen it do, despite what his mother had endured, and those at her hands—how she’d kept at the drink no matter what, not because she wanted to, but because she couldn’t stop—all of this had shown him that. And now his mother, too, was dead, he’ll say, died of her disease. And now he’d had to bury her, and doing so recall again what drink and drugs had done to him and his, and what it might do yet without his eye against it. And it will be then, in that moment, so many years after you’d dangled by your neck in the hands of the giant boy, that you’ll recall not only that, but all of the times you’ve stepped so close to death. In a baffling rush, they’ll pour through you—the illnesses and accidents and ODs and wrecks, the beatings and floods and falls and brawls, the depression, relentless, the endless call of suicide—that tightrope over fire and ice—the trip through mountains, deserts, islands, seas, secret towns and cities of black, through madmen and addicts and hookers and thieves, and gangsters and conmen and who knows how many killers, time and again placing your fate in the true unknown. Since boyhood, you’ll think, your life’s been a row of brushes with death. How is it you’ve managed to live? By what measure have you been let to stay here on this globe? For so long now, you’ll think, your life’s not been your own, but that of a doll dragged through a play writ by some old clown. One time after the next, you’ll think, you’ve sunk to the depths and given your last, then been yanked to the surface, groping for the hand that saved you but finding merely emptiness. And the times you’ve been restored some sense, you’ll think, it’s to squint into faces of confusion and dread. And the more you think, you’ll think, the more you realize it’s not so much the engine that drives these vanished years that scares you, the reasons behind the things they hold, as why they return at all to appear in the distance of your memory, the way on desert plains a thunderhead will be where there’d been just spacious blue. The greater the sense you try to make of those years, you’ll think, the deeper you find yourself in the whirlpool of memory, knowing very well that the harder you try to remember, the more incomprehensible things become, that the more pictures you try to gather, the more certain you are your past isn’t as you thought but a baffling meld of lunacy and grace. And then you’ll return and know it doesn’t matter, the reasons for this or that, because if you understand, things are such as they are, and if you don’t understand, things are such as they are. This, and only this, you’ll think, is all that matters—right now—life and death, death and life, the one the other and the other the same, all of it now, the single thing in this wide world you know is true, though you can never express it truly.
D. Foy is the author of the critically acclaimed novel, Made to Break, and the forthcoming novel, Patricide. His work has appeared in Guernica, Salon, Hazlitt, Post Road, Electric Literature, BOMB, The Literary Review, Midnight Breakfast, The Scofield, and The Georgia Review, among others, and has been included in the books Laundromat and Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial.