An Interview with Edward Mullany (2009)

++ This interview originally appeared on the Keyhole Magazine website, which sadly crashed and was rebuilt without all the old content. So I am posting it here in honor of the news that Edward’s first book of prose is forthcoming from Publishing Genius. Check out his first book here and  his art here. ++


I. Introduction

I lived in the same apartment building with Edward Mullany for about a year, and with his then-fiance/now-wife Anjali for double that. He and I once played pool against these two guys—a manic unfunny court jester type and a surly expatriate who, upon meeting, grew to hate each other throughout the course of the game. I’m pretty sure we won.

I got to know and love his work as I encountered it, first in readings, then in many of my favorite journals. His writing has appeared in Keyhole, Alaska Quarterly Review, New Ohio Review, Tampa Review, Beeswax, Johnny America, Invisible Ear, and other journals.

Edward now lives in New York, where he teaches at College of Staten Island.  He is an associate editor at matchbook, an online literary journal.


II. An Edward Mullany Reader

A Dozen Fictions:

–       A Lost Ashtray

–       Curtains

–       A Minnesota Divorce

–       Three Stories

–       Three Shorts

–       Three Flash Fictions

And a Poem:

–       The Harrowing of Hell


III. A Conversation with Edward Mullany

Gabe Durham: I was talking to my friend David the other day about how he hasn’t really begun sending out poems yet, even though he’s already written quite a few good ones, because he’d like to take his time, save up, and then send them out once he has a sizable body of work–we took to calling this the “hoard and blitz” method. There’s a quality control aspect to this method that really appeals to me, and it’s kind of the opposite strategy of those of us who began by sending out work that either wasn’t yet ready or never would be. You waited awhile to send out your stories and poems, too, didn’t you?

Edward Mullany: I’m not sure one way is preferable to the other. Maybe it’s more a matter of habit, and varies from writer to writer. I didn’t so much “wait” to send stuff out; it was more that I never got into a routine of sending stuff out until several years after I’d begun writing. Which was fortunate, because, in retrospect, it took me a long time to write anything that I can say I’m proud of. Not that everything I write now is good, but I’m a better critic of my own work now; I can see when the writing isn’t going the way it ought to be going. Of course, it’s another thing altogether to fix it.

GD: Your poems are often narrative and your stories are sometimes as short as a few sentences, so there is often some stylistic overlap between the two, but you mentioned to me once that your poems and stories come from different places. I’m interested in that idea, that classification maybe could come less from the rules a story/poem follows but from what ignites them. Could you elaborate on that and/or correct me if I’m misrepresenting you?

EM: That’s a really interesting question. Classification is more useful (as a tool) to critics than it is to artists, but every artist needs to be a good critic, whereas the opposite is not necessarily true. This is because art is the only human endeavor in which success cannot be entirely explained (or duplicated) by technical mastery. Think of the paintings of Jackson Pollock. People are often claiming that ‘a child’ could do what he did, but it isn’t true. A Pollock is a Pollock, and nothing imitative ever comes close.

What I’m saying is an artist must know what he’s doing; if he doesn’t know why he’s making the technical and imaginative choices he is making (and if he isn’t pulling them off), chances are the piece will have no order, and thus will not be art. That isn’t to say the process of artistic creation is an entirely conscious act (it isn’t), but rather that there must be a constant interaction between the artist’s conscious and unconscious mind.

It’s in this context that I think a discussion of genre – the difference between prose and poetry, for instance – should take place. As you alluded to, many fiction writers are experimenting with the length of the short story. The term “flash fiction” has become popular. One result of this trend is that long narrative poetry and short narrative fiction are beginning to resemble each other in a way that we may or may not have seen before. (This ignores, to a degree, the fact that form alone – verses, linebreaks, rhyme, etc. – can differentiate poetry from fiction, but the larger point remains).  The suggestion, then, that we conceive of the difference between poetry and prose in terms of impulse (or, as you mentioned, “what ignites them”) is a good one.

In my own work, poetry allows me to access a voice I cannot access in fiction. The conceit is different; for some reason, in poetry, I feel both able and compelled to give expression to feelings and ideas that are of the utmost personal significance. This is not to say that fiction is not equally an expression of a writer’s personality, but that, in fiction, the writer’s orientation to the audience is qualified by an act of dramatization that is absent (or less visible) in poetry. The result is that fiction often feels staged or artificial (I do not mean this pejoratively) in a way that poetry does not. In other words, the poet is the closest to the raw materials (psychic, spiritual, emotional, etc.) that it is the job of all literary artists to mine.

GD: I’m looking at one of your recent Keyhole poems, “A New Russia,” in which a man returns on horseback from a trip to the shopping mall, and the line, “His flirtatious, lazy wife came out on the veranda.” In fiction, that exposition would either be called bad writing or would nod to a fallible narrator (aka bad/good writing), but in the poem it doesn’t need to justify itself. Similarly, the poem ends with the man crying out, “I pray for the motherland! I pray that we not be deceitful!” The fiction workshop voice pops up and goes, “That outburst felt a little unearned,” when again, here, it works. Could that be an example of the freedom that the lack of staged-ness in poetry affords you?

EM: Yes, the lines you refer to in that poem, and the poem itself, are good examples of what I would mean if I said that narrative poetry is not subject to the same rules of mimesis as narrative fiction. It is, of course, subject to other rules, but these rules tend to involve the continuity of rhythms and tones rather than the continuity of plot or ‘reality.’ This isn’t to say that narrative poetry can disregard plot, but rather that its conception of plot is quite fluid; it has to be because its relationship to language is so different than that of narrative fiction.

You might say that this difference in relationship to language is precisely why you can get away with things in poetry that you can’t get away with in fiction (and vice versa). Consider the different terms we use to identify the voice in each genre – speaker and narrator. The term, “speaker,” implies a directness that the term, “narrator,” does not. Perhaps this is why I feel that the channel between poet and audience is more direct than the channel between fiction writer and audience. It doesn’t make the task of artistry any easier or harder, but it does allow for the writer to access or inhabit a voice that is concerned with rawer ideas.

In any case, this difference in terminology – speaker vs. narrator – is related to the difference in relationship to language. A speaker, as Whitman might say, sings of himself, or appears to sing of himself even when he isn’t. Lyricism, rhythms and tone can carry a poem’s narrative to places it wouldn’t otherwise go. A narrator, on the other hand, may tell a story lyrically, but generally his ‘duty’ is to the narrative itself, and his lyricism, though influential, is less influential than that of a speaker’s.

There are always exceptions, however. What is Finnegans Wake if not a work of ultimate lyricism? And who are the narrators of the stories by Carver and Hemingway (among others) if not ‘direct channels’ to the writers themselves? As a rule of thumb you can say that poetry is unique in its ability to allow a writer access to a voice that readers sense is more immediately the writer’s own, but at the same time you can say that what readers are sensing is only the absence of the artifice that is inherent to fiction, and thus that voice is not the sole trait by which we measure a writer’s ability to convince and move.

GD: Yeah, and it seems to me that part of why now is such a great time to be writing fiction is that so many writers and editors are happy to bend their expectations of what a narrator’s duty is to–sometimes the narrative, sometimes lyricism, sometimes self-defense or building a case for an argument, but really, whatever the narrator decides his/her duty is to. Or to put it another way, the narrator gets to formulate her own agenda, which may or may not resemble the author’s agenda.

Which is maybe a good opportunity to bring up your story in the New Ohio Review, “A Lost Ashtray,” which takes on (or seems to take on) a more classical narrator: the 3rd person kind who feels the freedom to comment on the action as it unfolds, and whose comments the reader is invited to take at face value. And for me, the narrator’s comments are the most exciting thing about the story because they’re so astute and carefully sculpted. I’m talking about lines like, “But Macalister’s wife forgot as easily as anyone did that the people you loved without wanting to rarely surprised you in a good way,” in which the narrator feels the freedom to both say something that this woman knows and has forgotten, and something that is simply true.

Have you always felt the freedom/authority as a writer to make bold statements like that within a story? I’m interested especially because I sometimes feel a pressure to cut direct truths for fear of coming off as moralizing or something.

EM: You raise an important issue when you refer to the wariness or hesitance writers today apparently feel when using third-person narrators to endorse or imply bold statements, or what we might call ‘absolute truths.’ The reason for this is complicated, and involves, I think, a conflict that is inherent to the third-person narrative stance. The conflict is something like this: a storyteller cannot divest himself of his humanness because he is communicating with us in an ordinary human way (with language); at the same time, a storyteller who can move back and forth in time, and who can move among characters, and get inside characters’ heads – who is, in a word, omniscient (a kind of third-person narrator) – cannot divest himself of an aspect of divinity. Thus, there is a conflict between how much the third-person narrator is God-like (and thus in a position to legitimately moralize) and how much he is human (and thus not in a position to legitimately moralize). It is the writer’s job to negotiate this conflict in a way that respects the existence of both aspects of the narrator’s identity.

Yet it is important to mention that even among stories told in the third-person there is a spectrum of what we might call ‘narrative intrusion.’ In Chekhov’s famous story, “The Lady with the Lapdog,” during a quiet scene when Gurov and Anna are contemplating the sea, the unnamed third-person narrator allows himself the following God-like declaration:

“Not a leaf stirred on the trees, the cicadas chirped, and the monotonous, hollow roar of the sea, coming up from below, spoke of rest, of eternal sleep awaiting us all. The sea had roared like that down below when there was no Yalta or Oreanda, it was roaring now, and it would go on roaring as indifferently and hollowly when we were here no more. And in this constancy, in this complete indifference to the life and death of each one of us, there is perhaps hidden the guarantee of our eternal salvation, the never-ceasing movement of life on earth, the never-ceasing movement towards perfection.”

Is there a more obvious way to intrude on a narrative than to not only claim eternal salvation is possible, but to describe how it is achieved? The genius of Chekhov is evident in the fact that the story continues for several more pages, and that our interest in the characters doesn’t wane.

Yet, in another of his third-person stories, “Gusev,” which essentially illustrates the notion that is described in the passage above, Chekhov does not allow his narrator to make his views known; instead, he simply dramatizes them. So even though a third-person narrator implies the existence of a worldview that is defined by some kind of order (moral or otherwise), that worldview can be manifested with differing degrees of directness. I don’t think a writer can (or should) consciously consider how explicitly moralizing he should allow his narrators to be; a story creates its own rules, and the measure of any writer’s talent is his ability to allow his story to flow according to its own impulses without surrendering it to laziness or whim. This is difficult, of course, but necessary. It isn’t for no reason that history has given us the idea of the ‘mad artist,’ the ‘vessel’ through which the muses speak. For me, Flannery O’Connor articulates this idea best: she says, “Your beliefs will be the light by which you see, but they will not be what you see and they will not be a substitute for seeing.”

At the risk of sounding dated, I will say that one of the few indispensable traits a writer must possess (regardless of talent) is clarity of heart.

GD: It’s interesting to be talking to you about this stuff, as my mind is currently wrapped up in an essay about Ayn Rand’s fiction advice in which she addresses this too. She’s at the end of the spectrum where she says that everything about your fiction must be intentional. It must serve your larger purpose, and you’d better have a larger purpose. And for that reason, she’ll say things like, “The only rule is that you have to know your climax… before you start to outline the steps by which you arrive there.” (To put it in O’Connor’s terms, your beliefs damn well better be what you see or you’ve taken your eyes off the prize.) Which, to me, sounds awful, and explains a lot about her own fiction.

But on the other end, I guess, are those who say, “I don’t want to know why I write what I do. In fact, I actively avoid it.” And that sounds awful, too, like a lot of missed opportunities, pursuing style and language at the exclusion of truth. It seems to me that the writers I most like to read (as varied as they are, stylistically and philosophically, etc.) are working in O’Connor’s middle ground. On this made-up spectrum I came up with just now.

EM: I think the spectrum you refer to exists in a very real way, and that Ayn Rand represents, as you said, one end of that spectrum. But whereas Ayn Rand used art as a means by which to validate or propound the philosophy she was credited with developing (Objectivism), Flannery O’Connor never used art for anything, because she understood that a piece of art was most powerful when the meaning of that piece could not be divorced from (or articulated outside of) the piece itself without diminishing the effect.

Which is interesting because Flannery O’Connor was a Catholic, and could just as easily as Rand have allowed her work to become didactic, or to at least become a platform for the expression of her beliefs. The reason she didn’t allow it (and the reason, I would say, that O’Connor was the better artist, though not necessarily the better thinker or philosopher) is that she understood the role of artist to be a vocation, and was committed to remaining true to it to the exclusion of everything else. That her beliefs are not undermined by her work as an artist, but are, in fact, illustrated by it, is evidence of the unique place art occupies among human activities, and of O’Connor’s great talent. When done right, art has a way of revealing an artist’s convictions even when the artist is involved in the dramatization of scenes that outwardly have nothing to do with something so abstract as convictions. When not done right, it reveals no convictions, or – equally as bad – the convictions are so obvious to the reader that the dramatization seems artificial, contrived. (The latter is what many object to in Rand’s work.)

About this problem – the difficulty the artist faces in reconciling belief and craft – O’Connor speaks of in Mystery & Manners, a collection of essays and lectures. She refers to the “Catholic novelist,” but I believe what she says is applicable to any artist who defines himself by beliefs that transcend art.

O’Connor said: “Whenever I think of the Catholic novelist and his problems, I always remember the legend of St. Francis and the wolf of Gubbio. This legend has it that St. Francis converted a wolf. I don’t know whether he actually converted this wolf or whether the wolf’s character didn’t just greatly improve after he met St. Francis. Anyway, he calmed down a good deal. But the moral of this story, for me at least, is that the wolf, in spite of his improved character, always remained a wolf. So it is – or ought to be – with the Catholic, or let us just say with the thoroughly Christianized novelist. No matter how much his character may be improved by the Church, if he is a novelist, he has to remain true to his nature as one.”

GD: I do love how this shy and in many ways conservative woman (“If it looks funny on the page, I don’t read it.”) has become the spokeswoman, all these decades later, for not letting your beliefs get in the way of your art. Her funny, surprising, often violent, and non-didactic stories are something to point to as shorthand proof of the legitimacy of all these things in literature to those who doubt it.

I’m trying to think, now, of good writers who remain wolves before and after religious/philosophical conversions or major ideological changes. Anne Lamott comes to mind, though, come to think of it, I’ve only read stuff she wrote after she became a Christian. But those who’ve read it say Hard Laughter is really good.

EM: I’m not familiar with Anne Lamott’s fiction, though I have read sections of Bird by Bird, which seems to explain technique through the light of spirituality.

The greatest of O’Connor’s ‘wolves,’ in my mind, is Jack Kerouac, who despite his apparent exclusion from academic and ‘workshop’ discussions is one of the most important 20th Century writers. Stylistically, he is the most poetic of American novelists, and he broke the mold for what fiction can do, or be, as much as Hemingway did a generation and a half before him.

And despite the popular conception most people have of him, he was a religious writer – the freedom he endorsed was not so much of the hedonistic variety as it was of the saintly, holy seeker variety. The origin of the word ‘beat,’ for instance, he understood to be ‘beatific,’ and he used the word to describe men and women of his generation who were so overcome by enthusiasm for life itself that they were literally worn down. Neal Cassady, of course, was the fullest manifestation of this idea, and that is why he (as Dean Moriarty) was the hero of On the Road. But despite all the ‘kicks’ the characters in that novel go after, what they never escape is the spiritual yearning that is manifest in the very exuberance and digressions of the language in which the novel itself is told, and that can not be satisfied through the enjoyment of ‘kicks’ alone. It isn’t for no reason that the novel ends with the narrator imagining “Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found.” A father (as in God the Father) is the most important invisible character in that book.

Kerouac, by the way, was a Catholic who was influenced by Buddhist thought. He often spoke of himself as a Bodhisattva, a being who, moved by compassion for humanity, delays his own entry into Nirvana in order to provide spiritual instruction to others.

GD: Yeah, I’m pro-On the Road, too. I feel like a lot of the backlash against is based on a pretty surfacey reading of it–hedonistic is a good word for it. I mean, how many broken people does Moriarty leave in his wake? That book makes me want to settle down and love my family. Thousands of college freshmen may have thrown the book down after the first hundred pages to take a long weekend drive along the coast, but it doesn’t diminish the book’s greatness. Particularly the poetic sentences, as you say, and the loose episodic structure.

EM: It’s interesting that you said the book wants to make you settle down and love your family. I think that reaction is natural, and contains a sort of wisdom that is, oddly, antithetical to the spirit of the beats. Because old age and beatness are compatible only in the sense that one might maintain, as one ages, an enthusiastic restlessness of the mind. In other words, true beatness (at least how I conceive of it) is so inextricable from actual and persistent physical movement that it precludes the possibility of growing old. Because the body demands rest after a certain age. In this way, the title On the Road can be understood in its metaphorical and literal essence: constant movement, frenetic forward movement, the kind that forces you out of your seat and back and forth across the country until you die. It is an impossible way of life to sustain, of course, unless you are mad or holy or high, and unless you are willing to hurt people you are close to, or to not be close to anyone to begin with. Like most things that are labeled, I guess, beatness is an ideal. And it doesn’t seem to coincide with having a family.

GD: In June, you and Brian Mihok launched matchbook, a new online literary magazine for short short fiction. To me, the most distinct thing about Matchbook is that you ask contributors to offer a mini-essay of critical thoughts regarding their piece, which then appears right beside the story. The closest analogy I can come up with is the placard you’d find beside a painting in a museum. How did you and Brian develop the format and how does it appeal to you?

EM: I think there is a tendency among writers to want to resist discussing their own work unless it is in terms of their process. There are many reasons for this, not least of which is a sort of well-intentioned professional modesty, but I think the main reason is that there’s some truth to the idea that the meaning of a story or a poem (or any piece of art) is so inextricable from its original articulation that any prosaic attempts to interpret it risk pedantry.

That said, criticism is necessary to the degree that it enlarges upon what in art is a specific cultural instant. What Brian and I are interested in doing at matchbook is creating a context in which both the specific instant and the process of ‘enlarging upon’ can occur simultaneously, and in a modest enough frame that our readers’ collective patience will not (we hope) be tried. The fact that the writers we feature are asked to enlarge upon their own work – to be both artist and critic – is unusual, I think, but not unnatural. We’re inviting them to a forum rather than placing them on a platform.

GD: It seems, also, that people stand a greater chance of saying something interesting or edifying about their writing when asked to address a specific work than their writing in general.

EM: I agree. It’s much easier to answer the question, “Why did you write such-and-such a story?” than the all-too-common, “What do you write about?”

GD: You guys also opted for a feed-style journal in the tradition of Johnny America, Juked, and Pequin, which mete out stories one at a time. What appeals to you about that as opposed to more traditional issue-based journals?

EM: I can’t remember how much or how often Brian and I discussed this question – the feed-style journal as opposed to the traditional full issue – but I think the decision arose from the fact that we were trying to create something simple and small – hence the name, matchbook – something that would give every author the reader’s undivided attention.

GD: What have you been reading lately?

EM: Lots of stuff, mainly poetry. For the first time I’ve read Sylvia Plath’s poems as a whole rather than a poem here or there. I read The Colossus (her first collection) last week, and it struck me as I think it strikes many readers, as somber, beautiful, and structurally dignified, if a little relentless. Reading her poems one after the other is like being in the thrall of a mad, beneficent witch. The oppressiveness of other people, to the speakers in her poems, is only outdone by the indifferent oppressiveness of nature. Especially in her first collection, where a natural setting – a cliff, a pond, the sea, a field – is where the speaker in almost every poem discovers the futility of her own existence. Yet her poems aren’t exactly dirges. Their lyricism, or language, imprints them on the brain the way a photograph imprints itself on film. The act of being a poet, to those poets who are perennially sad, is the only way suffering is given meaning.

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