An Interview with Norman Lock, by Celia Johnson
May 19, 2013
Mr. Hyde sits in an asylum conversing with an ambitious superintendent. An Egyptian Mummy listens to Noël Coward hammer out a tune on the piano. Norman Lock rows along a dark lake below the Paris Opera, eager to disappear, like Gaston Leroux’s Phantom. These are just a few of the scenes you’ll witness in Love Among the Particles, by Norman Lock (yes, he is both the author and, sometimes, a character in the book). Lock creates stories that, at first glance, seem impossible, and yet by the end of each one, feel utterly familiar. I had the honor of discussing this new book with Lock. During our interview, he observed, “Try as I have, I cannot seem to write other than I do: fables of identity, parables of self-consciousness, and tales of the marvelous.” That magnetic pull transcends the pages of his book, making for a fully addictive collection. Read on to find out more about Lock’s creative process, his characters’ fates, and his view of time.
Whether it’s an Egyptian Mummy dealing with life in the 1930s or a man breaking into a cloud of particles, in each of the stories in your new collection, Love Among the Particles, a completely marvelous situation feels perfectly normal. I can’t help but wonder about what inspires these mesmerizing tales. Are there any unusual catalysts for your stories?
I believe in the unconscious, that much work is accomplished there without our knowledge – without mine, in any case, which might otherwise be inclined toward forgetfulness; so I find it difficult to say what motivated a particular story, except that there must be a rich residue laid down by the little I have experienced, directly, in my own life and by the immensity experienced as a reader of others: the lives they inscribe in stories, novels, and plays (or rather the sentences they’ve assembled on the page, for words have been my chief pleasure). What I believe to have been forgotten during half-a-century of reading is only buried in a compost which engenders – to my constant surprise – my own literary activity, whose genial sun is an overheated imagination and whose irrigation, an infatuation with language.
Accident aside, if what happens within the unconscious can be said to be accidental – I like to write fictions (of whatever length) in series, with a common atmosphere, idiom, intention, and metaphysical concern. As they accumulate around a motive, they develop a gravity all their own, attracting – by their “strong force” – particles of consciousness (words, images, ideas) until a saturation point is reached and a book has been made. My most recent book, Love Among the Particles, from Bellevue Literary Press, manifests this “atmospheric” uniformity less, because its stories were written during a fifteen-year period. (“The Love of Stanley Marvel & Claire Moon” was published in 1979.) While its collected fictions are indeed unified by a common language and a persistent harrying of themes, they do not become a novel- or novella-in-stories (or prose poems), like many of my past book-length projects.
None of my themes are original with me, but they are common to a literature concerned with questions of impermanence, the instability of time, the fragility of the self and violence done to it by ambition or desire. If anything can be said to be mine, it is the deliberate exposure of anxiety and fear in light of those threats to the self, of my desire to conceal myself within my sentences, and my guilt for ignoring the literature of protest and social amelioration in favor of intellectual fantasy and the pursuit of high-Modernist style. Let me finish your question (or take it up at last) by saying I had hoped to write a book of paraphrases of iconic works of the popular imagination: thus, my mummy, my Phantom of the Opera, my Jekyll and Hyde, my “death takes a holiday.” But perhaps my unconscious soon tired of the project or else became distracted. Whatever the reason, in time the writing moved elsewhere: into fictions set in other frontiers between waking and sleep, reason and unreason. Try as I have, I cannot seem to write other than I do: fables of identity, parables of self-consciousness, and tales of the marvelous.
Your narrators and protagonists are vividly portrayed through their struggles to deal with the unexpected. Did you find it particularly difficult to capture any of these internal battles?
Inasmuch as my characters’ struggles are mine, then no, I do not find it difficult to capture them. (A glib answer, but there is – even in flippancy – a morsel of truth.) I identify, strongly, with my characters to the point where I will lend my name to one or the other of them. While my tales would seem to bear but slight relationship to any ordinary life, each one does, in fact, touch on the lives many of us do lead. This universality comes down to the themes I mentioned earlier. They are human concerns, regardless of how diverse we (and my characters) are in time or space. The mummy in “The Mummy’s Bitter and Melancholy Exile” is me, and so, too, is the character in “The Broken Man’s Complaint,” who has been dispossessed not only of wife and home and job, but also of his self, becoming a sentient swarm of elementary particles. At the center of every story in Love Among the Particles (and much else besides that I have written) is a person, perplexed and lonely – that is to say, me (and perhaps you, as well). For me to have portrayed the struggle, on the page, is only to have thought clearly about my feelings and what – if I were to give way to them – I would become or how I would react. I confess that what happens on the page, for me, does so seemingly on its own: once I have an idea (whose avatar is often an initial image or scene, or even a first sentence), the story appears with an authority I seldom question. This is not to say I don’t edit or rewrite; I do, obsessively, looking at each word and sentence. But the story usually remains as it came to me: a gift.
Often it seems your characters are destined for a doomed existence. Do you tend to know what their fates are when you begin a story, or are there surprising twists as you progress?
Doom does lie heavily over my characters and their stories. Melancholy is predominant in my temperament, which would make me an undesirable character in the world if I did not work to appear cheerful. In my fiction-making, however, I am under no such obligation, although for a dour person many of my stories are surprisingly comic. (My beginnings as a playwright of black comedies may be responsible for the impure tone of my fiction.) As to the form and progress of my tales, many times I surprise myself by the turns they take. It is their discovery, which seems to me nothing short of marvelous, that is among my chief pleasures in writing. (The shaping of sentences is another.) To answer your question, I do not, as a rule, know what comes next in a plot, nor do I foresee an ending. Nearly always, a tale begins with an image or a provocative opening sentence that leads, by association, to the next one. At some point during the writing, a succession of images or “episodes” (my preferred structure is episodic) is revealed – I can only assume by my unconsciousness – and, sometimes, an outcome. To read this interview may lead you to believe that I am a mystic, which I’m not. I do credit my unconscious mind with a good deal of what I write. But I can’t believe that an oracular faculty dictates the story to passive hands waiting on the keyboard. I think the text must be “knit” below consciousness, where it is shaped and worked on until – little by little – it is given up to consciousness, set down on the page, and subjected to deliberation and method. If this were not the case, if what I wrote were the product of a haphazard surfacing of fragments, then the texts would be botched and would require major rewriting, which they seldom do. I am, by the way, the kind of writer who works over his developing text sentence by sentence, so that when I leave a paragraph for the next, it is as fine as I can make it.
Time: It’s an element that reigns supreme in so many of your stories. But it isn’t the time that one might expect, that reliable march from beginning to end. Ends become beginnings and beginnings are ends, to the discontent of many of your characters. Would you speak about what has drawn you to explore time so unconventionally?
I admire writers whose themes are large – grand – comprehensive of a universe of thought. I’ve little interest in writing or reading about people’s lives, ordinary or in extremis, as portrayed in realistic or naturalistic fiction. Or let me put it this way: my literary interest lies in emblems or metaphors that refer obliquely to people’s lives but are, in themselves, fantastic. Why? For no good reason other than the very subjective pleasure I take in viewing the world in the colors and dramatic shapes of the Fauve painters and of Chagall, Henri Rousseau, Georg Baselitz, Chirico, or Francesco Clemente.
I’m not a science-fiction author, but a writer of literary fiction who uses science fiction in order to project his ideas concerning the lives most of us lead, in a vividly figurative way. Thus, in “A Theory of Time,” the narrator, who happens to be me, is a writer, of sorts, engaged in recording imaginative spectacles, which may or may not have happened, on a train whose purpose and itinerary are uncertain, traveling across vast steppes of time. Is it science fiction? Well, yes, undeniably. But my ambition – here and elsewhere, in Love Among the Particles and in earlier story collections A History of the Imagination (FC2, 2004), Land of the Snow Men (Calamari Press, 2005), and Pieces for Small Orchestra & Other Fictions (Spuyten Duyvil Press, 2011) – is to comment on our absurdity, our terror, our subjection to a will not our own, and our impossible desire to understand our fate. That will and that fate seem, to me, very much bound up in time or with our notion of it.
I am, for all my squirming, in life and sensible of time, as anyone is who is conscious. I’m amazed by time and also frightened by it and consider it my principle element and theater of interest. I’m fascinated by any tale that twists time to its own uses, regardless of its merits as literature or cinema. Why this should be, I don’t know. From the popularity of time-travel novels and movies, my interest is probably universal. (I’d like nothing better than to write a time-travel novel and, in fact, am writing one now.) Maybe the habit of manipulating time in my stories is nothing more than a protest against its iron sway, its irresistible pull toward death. Or to speak less portentously, maybe I play with time because it’s amusing to do so. (Memory, another cherished theme, is, in its operations, similar to the manipulation of time in my stories.)
Before finishing my roundabout with this question, I commend to readers the recent science-fiction of one of our contemporary literature’s finest authors (and a person I count as a friend) Brian Evenson for his courage in annexing to literary fiction what has been despised, or at least disapproved of, as genre fiction. Its importation is invigorating. Kate Bernheimer has done us a similar service by her insistence on the fairy tale as a useful and legitimate narrative form.
Your stories weave in many characters from great works of literature. Which authors inspire you most?
I suppose postmodernism is, by now, old-fashioned. But I came of age at the time of first-generation practitioners like Barthelme, Barth, Coover, and studied with reverence the work of modernism’s heroic figures, primarily Kafka, Beckett, Borges – especially them. At that same impressionable age, I was also amazed to discover exotic voices of Magic Realism, like Garcia Márquez, Cortázar, Rubião, Fuentes. In my life, I’ve read much and forgotten much; I’m sure to omit many writers important to my development. But Kafka, Beckett, Gogol, Barthelme, Garcia Márquez, Agnon, Appelfeld, Hildesheimer, Hemingway (for his early stories), Calvino (yes!), Ballard, Vonnegut, Kenneth Koch, Lish, Edson, Auster, Millhauser, Nooteboom, Landolfi, Lagerkvist, Vesaas, and non-naturalistic playwrights such as Ionesco, Dürrenmatt, Kopit, Mrozek, Frisch, Brecht, Durang, and, naturally, Shakespeare – many of these have doubtless contributed their notes to my voice and artistic personality, as have – to be sure – artists like Klee, Miro, Chagall, and Cornell. (For a secret, though guiltless, pleasure, I have Georges Simenon’s Maigret novels.) For the most part, my influences are well in the past. I feel guilty for not reading contemporaries and younger writers. I ought to be aware of them, as I would wish them to be of me. But there is less and less time, and the older I am, the more comfortable it is for me to be with old friends. And writing does take an enormous amount of time, leaving one that much less for reading others.
Would you describe your writing space?
I sit in a corner of our apartment’s bedroom. No window, no music. No distractions. I’m not one of those who can write anywhere, in restaurants, bars, parks, airports. I’m not good with noise or other competing claims on my attention. If it’s noisy outside or in the living room, I turn on a fan.
My writing depends, obviously and enormously, on research. Wikipedia and digital maps have replaced the encyclopedia, journals, and other references that filled the basement when we lived in a house. I’m happy not to interrupt my work with trips downstairs or to the library. Google Search is always open behind my text-in-progress. My stories are often critical of technology, but it would be hypocritical to claim I can work well anymore without it.
Is there anything in particular that has surprised you about the publishing process, as a novelist or short story writer?
If I’ve been surprised by anything in my encounters with publishing, it is the extraordinary good will shown to me and my work. I have found editors and publishers of reviews and books, large and small, to be helpful, gracious, and committed. For one like me who spent a working life in businesses and agencies where quite different attitudes can be expected – yes, the “business” world of literary fiction is a happy surprise. My thanks to all of you. (You know who you are.) My thanks to you, Celia, and to Maria and to Slice for the kind and generous attention.
Author photo by Andrew Comi
Workspace photo by Norman Lock
About Norman Lock
Norman Lock received the 1979 Aga Kahn Prize, given by The Paris Review, and the 2010 Literary Fiction Prize, given by The Dactyl Foundation of the Arts & Humanities, as well as fellowships from the New Jersey Council on the Arts (1997, 2013), the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (2009), and the National Endowment for the Arts (2011). His books include the short-fiction collections Love Among the Particles, A History of the Imagination, Grim Tales, Pieces for Small Orchestra & Other Fictions, Trio, and Émigrés / Joseph Cornell’s Operas; the short novels Shadowplay, The King of Sweden, and The Long Rowing Unto Morning; the novellas Land of the Snow Men and Escher’s Journal; and the book-length poems Cirque du Calder, In the Time of Rat (forthcoming), and Alphabets of Desire & Sorrow (forthcoming). His acclaimed black comedy The House of Correction has been produced in the U.S. and in Germany, at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival and currently in Istanbul. His radio plays, broadcast by WDR, Germany, include Women in Hiding, The Shining Man, The Primate House, Let’s Make Money, and Mounting Panic. His screen play The Body Shop was produced by The American Film Institute. Selected radio plays are published as Two Plays for Radio; stage plays, as Three Plays by Norman Lock. More at www.normanlock.com.
About Celia Johnson
Celia Johnson began her publishing career as a book editor at Random House and Grand Central Publishing. She left editing to focus on writing and to serve as Creative Director for Slice. She is the author of Dancing with Mrs. Dalloway: Stories of the Inspiration Behind Great Works of Literature and Odd Type Writers: From Joyce and Dickens to Wharton and Welty, the Obsessive Habits and Quirky Techniques of Great Authors.