Author Q&A: Anis Shivani (My Tranquil War and Other Poems)

Anis Shivani’s two new books are My Tranquil War and Other Poems (NYQ Books) and The Fifth Lash and Other Stories (C&R Books), both of which just came out. Anis is also the author of Anatolia and Other Stories (2009), which was longlisted for the Frank O’Connor short story award, and Against the Workshop (2011), his first book of criticism. His debut novel Karachi Raj will be published in 2013. He is currently writing a new novel, Abruzzi, 1936, and a new book explicating “plastic realism” in American novels of the last decade.

In what way do you think literature has the ability to change the way people live their lives?

Literature has the ability to pull us out of our narrow view of life, focused on trivialities, and make us see the larger picture in terms of history, in terms of our place in the universe of things, in terms of how we belong to everything else around us. Literature above all, more than music and painting or any other art form, can do this because it traffics in words, and thus gets closest, in the most rational, precise, direct way to how we frame ourselves to ourselves. Literature challenges us to rethink our cherished perceptions which conventionally tend to remain within very selfish, egotistic boundaries. Literature dissolves these boundaries so that we expand into new realms of imagination and experience. Literature allows us to experience all that humanity is capable of experiencing.

What was the last book you gave as a present?

Orhan Pamuk’s The Innocence of Objects, which just came out from Abrams. It’s one of the most unusual “books” I’ve ever encountered. Pamuk all along had the idea, when he was writing his latest novel The Museum of Innocence, to build a museum commemorating the objects described in the book. But which came first, the book and its characters or the collection of objects and the characters conjured up by that? The Innocence of Objects is at the same time a manifesto of writing (a supplement to Pamuk’s The Naïve and the Sentimental Novelist); a catalog of the actual museum (which now exists in Istanbul after enormous effort expended by Pamuk); a companion piece to Pamuk’s biography of Istanbul and autobiography of his own early years, Istanbul: Memories and the City; Pamuk’s own finely-tuned theory of aesthetics; and an elaboration of the way art and experience bleed into and transform each other. And it’s one of the most visually exciting books I’ve ever known, a book that has many layers of mystery.

What is the best writing advice you've ever received?

I haven’t listened to any writing advice in a long time. But in my early years I did. It may well have been Salman Rushdie’s advice in an essay to go for broke, the lesson he learned from Gunter Grass I believe. If you’re going to do something as risky as investing your emotional life in writing, you might as well go all in, leave nothing in reserve. Other than that, I would say picking up the idea early on, from just about every serious writer I admired, that writing means showing up for work every single day without exception, no matter the mood or inclination. Writing is something you prepare and appear for each morning without fail, just like with any other job. If you do that long enough, good things are bound to follow.

What is the best sentence you've ever read?

Possibly “For a long time I used to go to bed early,” the beginning of A la Recherche du temps perdu. A sentence that is magnificently hypnotic and promises to reveal the secrets to things that can’t possibly be revealed. Or, “A screaming comes across the sky.” Pretty good, no? But really all great books tend to have memorable opening sentences. Pick any classic book at random and you’ll probably be floored by the opening sentence. (I see that I misread your question about sentence as opening sentence. So how about this: “Taposiris is dead among its tumbling columns and seamarks, vanished the Harpoon Men…Mareotis under a sky of hot lilac.” From Lawrence Durrell’s Balthazar. Or this: “On the seat of the bog-cloth drawers to his fork was shuttled the green alchemy of mountain-leeks from Slieve an Iarainn in the middle of Erin; for it was here that he would hunt for a part of the year with his people, piercing the hams of a black hog with his spears, bird-nesting, hole-drawing, vanishing into the fog of a small gully, sitting on green knolls with Fergus and watching the boys at ball-throw.” From Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds.)

Describe your writing routine.

I like to write first thing in the morning, before distractions. A good breakfast to get me started. I tend to get very hungry when I write, so I fuel myself with fruits and nuts. The internet is very distracting and I’d like to get to the point soon where I’m off it almost altogether except for some email. I tend to read maybe fifty or a hundred times more than I write. The reading fuels my writing. The writing takes place in concentrated bursts with little revision, except for minor editing. Anything I write is either good to begin with and needs only minor alteration or is no good at all. I’ve convinced myself that I’m unable to write deep into the night or after having faced multiple distractions, but recently, as I was facing a deadline to rewrite a novel, I surprised myself by writing fresh work almost all day long, for twelve hours a day or more, even late into the night, so maybe my whole writing routine has been misplaced all along.

Do you ever listen to music when you write? If so, what's on your playlist?

I’ve never understood the idea of listening to music as one writes. I would find it incredibly distracting even to have classical music on. I try to eliminate every sound, and luckily I live in a house that makes it possible. I live in a city center, but my street has some of the most majestic ancient oaks in the city, making it all very soundproof, which is a great advantage. I really don’t like sound when thinking or writing. After finishing work, I might reward myself by listening to bouncy, happy, danceable music while doing yoga. Gangnam is a new favorite. And all its parodies.

Best bookstore you've ever been to?

Tattered Covered Book Store in Denver might be the one. I love the layout, it’s amazing, inviting you to get lost. A bookstore should emphasize the essential mystery of books, not be too transparent or obvious. Also Denver just might have the most beautiful people in the country, so that never hurts. Brazos Bookstore in my hometown Houston, for obvious sentimental reasons, because over the years I have gone to so many memorable readings there. There are many great independent bookstores around the country I still haven’t gone to, particularly on the West Coast. I’m planning to visit Books & Books in Coral Gables next month for the first time. A bookstore, like a library, or a university campus, is the only oasis of sanity in a neighborhood or city, and I make it a point to check out whichever of those three exist wherever I travel.

If you were standing in line at a bookstore and noticed the person in front of you was holding your latest book, what would you say to them?

I would overcome my nervousness to tell them I wrote the book and go from there. If circumstances were right, I would share my excitement about the book. And I would be immensely grateful. Nothing pleases a writer like someone reading their book without being forced to do so out of a sense of obligation.

What literary landmark would you most like to visit?

I would love to visit Oxford, Mississippi to get a sense of Faulkner’s surroundings. I’ve come close to visiting several times but not quite made it. Something about the South is very generative of great writing. Where you live does affect the nature of your writing to a great extent. I’ve explored New Orleans’s literary landmarks, and this most charming of cities has a magic all its own. How can one live in such a lush, ornate, opaque city and not want to turn to writing or music?

Do you own an e-reader?

No I don’t, and I never plan to. I don’t even have a smart phone, don’t plan on having one, or any of the fancy gizmos people play around with these days. A basic laptop for word processing is what I started with and that’s the limit. For me, books mean the printed word. I don’t care how readable books on screen get, the screen is still a screen, not print on paper. I think the idea of books is inextricably connected with printing. Printing is more than a technology. It generates a certain attitude toward the self that is irreplaceable with any other technology. It demands a certain type of writing. It is the invention, above all others, to which I owe the most, which constitutes me as a person more than anything else. Print is that important.

Is Facebook good for you?

Facebook has allowed me to make connections with writers it would otherwise have been difficult to get to know, given the fact of wide geographical dispersion. The best thing is when those initial connections soon become real-life interactions. But Facebook extracts a high cost in terms of constant distraction. You face an endless stream of pseudo-confession which really doesn’t put writers in their best light. Beyond a certain number of close friends it becomes impossible to say anything personal or real without offending someone. Facebook has turned into a self-promotional vehicle where only positive, optimistic, ebullient feelings are allowed, where emotions are instantly converted into acceptable mush which passes somehow for honesty and sincerity. I haven’t posted anything personal for years, once the number of friends exceeded a certain count. You can’t do that without inviting misunderstanding. So while I’m grateful to have engaged with many writers which otherwise would have been difficult, I’m looking forward to the day when I can deactivate my account. I think on the whole social media has been negative for writers. Nothing is worth the slow erosion of privacy. We should all disengage and invalidate this latest capitalist enterprise trying to suck up our energy and precious words and thoughts. And write poems instead.

9781935520580Which would you prefer to write: a poem or a personal letter?

I’m not into personal letters. Or confession of any sort, really, without the mediation of art. I would definitely write a poem. I may still end up sending it as a personal letter, that way I would kill two birds with one stone. There’s not much one can say in a personal letter anyway, is there? One only ends up trying to justify oneself, which seems futile behavior.

What non-literary profession would you find most compelling to pursue?

I would have been a fantastic chef, and I think I would have made people very happy with my creations. I love cooking as an expressive art, and it’s becoming increasingly important to me as time goes on. I would also have been good at animal rescue, working with cats and dogs. I much prefer the company of animals and children to most adult human beings with their selfish neuroses and fine-tuned mechanisms of delusion. Both animals and children convey emotions without filter—although children are soon trained not to do so. It’s very life-giving to be around that, and very draining and emotionally wrecking to be around adult human beings, who don’t seem to have the basic intelligence of animals and children. If I did have to work with people, I would teach very poor children the arts of reading and comprehension. I would not want to teach privileged people who already have access to good schools and facilities. I wouldn’t mind being a ranger in a national park either.

What is one of your vices?

I have many vices. Most of which I cannot discuss here. Probably the one I can talk about is perfectionism, expecting a degree of thoroughness and forethought and minuteness that’s pretty much impossible to expect from any human being, which makes it difficult for those around me. I’m probably very judgmental, which also means I’m probably hypocritical, since the two usually go together. Also I like to tear pages out of books. Write all over them and destroy them. I comment nonstop and make predictions about films and television shows I’m watching with other people. I know, how vulgar! I like to make predictions in general about all sorts of things, from the behavior of people to results in politics and sports, which is fine as far as it goes, except I also like to cover myself by writing preemptive contradictory emails in case the decision or result goes the other way. I would count the hedging as a definite vice.

What is one of your prejudices?

It’s terrible to admit, but I think I like beautiful people more than people who are not. It may have to do with fear of death because being around someone beautiful takes one away from that perpetual dread for a while, because it seems impossible to imagine a beautiful person ever being dead whereas everyone else you can, which is such a downer. Yes, I like beautiful people, and if it makes me shallow, so be it. I like being around articulate, very smart people who don’t spout bullshit fakery. And did I mention that they have to be beautiful?

Favorite books you've read in the past year?

The Road, which I read this year at last, stands out. Part of me wishes I hadn’t read it. It’s a fantasy of the apocalypse aestheticized to the point of almost-beauty, a visitation of terror that makes you afraid of McCarthy’s mind. But it dealt with the fear of death in a relentless way, so I can’t fail to admire him for that. Then I watched this low-budget parody. It may be just as valuable an aesthetic statement of the fact of mortality as the book itself. You can either take it too seriously (the book) or not take it seriously at all (the YouTube parody), but the lame bourgeois attitude of being earnest and pontifical about things, that’s the stupidest attitude of all, which art is always trying to demolish.

I read Cat’s Cradle, and although Vonnegut couldn’t sustain it in the second half of the book, his death wish for civilization is sane in more ways than we realize. I also read Vonnegut’s God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, which is an acute commentary on the delusional ways of the Mitt Romney ruling class’s false sense of noblesse oblige, a book very relevant to the current political moment. I finished at last Tropic of Cancer—there are many books I’ve been reading in driblets over my whole life—and can’t speak highly enough of how Miller forces us to look at all sorts of things we choose not to look at out of disgust or shame. Dashiell Hammett’s The Continental Op was eye-opening in terms of the possibilities of that genre. The sheer inventiveness of plot convolutions was exhilarating. Tarquin Hall’s Vish Puri mystery series is the funniest set of books I read this year.

Although Katherine Boo has been getting all the recent attention, Siddhartha Deb, Akash Kapur, and Aman Sethi have written very important new books about the dark side of Indian globalization, and all three were the kind of books I’d like to write.

I’ve been revisiting a lot of the classics of post-structuralist theory, and I recognize the worth of those insights from almost half a century ago, particularly Foucault (a lot of whose conclusions I came to on my own, though in very roundabout ways). I still insist it’s a shame the way the American academy fetishized French theory, rendering it mostly worthless, freezing it in place when it should have been allowed to keep moving forward. Nonetheless, the originals are still worthy of consideration and always provide fresh insights.

Craig Morgan Teicher’s To Keep Love Blurry really moved me: I’m amazed at the deep level of revelation in Teicher’s poetry which doesn’t manipulate my emotions as a reader and makes me engage with a higher ideal of the self than the material of the life—all our lives—would seem to warrant. I became even more of an Eileen Myles convert after reading Snowflake/different streets, which is split into two parts so that one turns the book upside down and starts reading from the other side. This reflects Myles’s split persona, the open spaces where true meaning transpires. She’s one of the most rewarding among second and third generation female New York School poets.

The best book of fiction I read in 2012 was Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which is a wail of anguish against the shortness of life in the face of the infinite promise of technology, a contradiction that seems to intensify with each passing day as incomes converge around the world. Sloan’s book ventures into some of the same metaphysical territory as Rana Dasgupta’s Solo from a couple of years ago, which I consider one of the most original recent novels.

Finally, I think Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton is one of the most important books of our time, and he may well go down in history as our own Voltaire or Rousseau. Joseph Anton might be the most interesting book about the writing life in many, many years. I’m hard pressed to think of something of comparable intensity. Rushdie’s self-presentation as an author militates against everything we in this earnest, safe, pseudo-wholesome, fake literary culture of ours have established as the persona of the ideal author. You must not miss this book!

Favorite word?

Um, the f-word? I’m very profane, I’d give Rahm Emanuel a run for his money. Also perhaps love. And death. They’re all the same anyway. And my cat’s name, Fu. Repeated in a musical chant, over and over, trying to tap into his massive universal cat brain, so superior to my own puny human counterpart.

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