“Overtly Fictional Realities”: Holly Tavel on Short stories & Inevitable Collapse — Kalie McGuirl

Holly Tavel is an American author, translator, and editor whose work has been variously published in McSweeney’s, Torpedo, Elimae, the Brooklyn Rail, VLAK magazine, and Diagram. Her first book, The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park, is a collection of aggressively original, enticingly fresh short stories. Though now based in the U.S., Tavel lived in Prague for some time, and published The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park with the independent Prague- and London-based Equus Press in 2015. The collection subsequently occupies a strange position: localized yet international, fragmented but coherent, edging towards collage and ultimately a collection of “overtly fictional realities.”

Two years later, she is working on a novel. As we (patiently) salivate in anticipation, she speaks about writing, process, and form regarding The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park.

Kalie McGuirl: A lot of contemporary fiction plays around with perspective and time to the point of fragmentation into tenuously connected shorter works — the distinction between short stories, collections, longer works, and experimental fiction has become distinctly murky. The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park contains a lot of stories which are notable for their lack of adherence to a standard short story format, such as “On the Mysterious Appearance of Philo S. in Other People’s Photographs,” a question-and-answer qualitative investigation into a phenomenon which the reader must attempt to understand almost completely between the lines (and photographs), and “Man, 30, Struck by Lightning,” which resembles a poem but reads like a series of simple statements, painfully strung together. Do you feel like you’re actively trying to experiment with what a short story can be, or is the standard short story simply no longer a viable form to work with? Where do you see your work fitting into the contemporary category of the “short story,” as a single unit and also as a type of work often presented as part of a collection?  And do you have any thoughts on the current state of the short story (or the short story collection) and where it might be going?

Holly Tavel: The basic motivation in all my writing is to not bore myself. Haha. Really. I try to write what I’d like to read, more or less. I don’t think when starting to write a piece that I have this set goal of playing with form, or doing something intentionally experimental. I’ll generally start out with one building block, one element—maybe it’s the title that comes first, maybe it’s an image or a sentence. With Philo S., I had come across these amazing photos online from the collection of John Foster, a collector of vernacular photos and outsider art, who’s since become a friend. I was so inspired by them, and the problem became: how can I best utilize these? What kind of language do these photos ask for? In that case, the text became a sort of architecture or scaffolding around the images. In other stories, I’m referencing existing tropes, I think: the travelogue, the fable, the screenplay (as in the case of “Danger Twins”). My basic feeling, I guess, is that short stories can be and probably should be approached as a discrete form. They can do specific things that novels can’t do. A story like “Man, 30, Struck by Lightning,” wouldn’t work as a novel—it couldn’t sustain itself as a long piece. I don’t honestly read a lot of new short fiction—I tend to look backwards, to early modernist outliers like Robert Walser and Daniil Kharms and Leonora Carrington.

Short stories can be and probably should be approached as a discrete form. They can do specific things that novels can’t do.

KM: As you mention, The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park includes some visuals — do you work with any other artistic mediums besides writing, and do you see yourself wanting to combine images and text in future works? Why have short stories always been your chosen form?

HT: Mainly because I wasn’t sure I could sustain interest in a novel over the long haul—I’m very ADHD, so the short form suits me. But actually, I am writing a novel—I’ve been working on it for a little over a year. It will have some visual elements, but only in one section. It’s a very, very different animal from my short fiction, in terms of voice and approach—it’s much, much more linear and character-driven. I play music and I’ve done different things in visual art—I’ve made some audio pieces and some short films—I don’t shoot them; they all use found footage. I’m interested in collage in all forms. Someone (I forget who) said that collage is the true twentieth century art form—if you extrapolate that to pastiche and mash-ups and the like, I think it’s true. It doesn’t have to be in terms of form, either—you can have collages of voices, of points of view, of styles.

KM: The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park seems preoccupied with the future. Many stories, such as the title story and “Fearless Leader,” seem to take place in a more-advanced reality, where, for example, weather technology has advanced beyond conception and buildings can be made out of candy. Do you see these stories as futuristic, or as simply taking place in different or alternate realities? Are science and technology the focus of these stories, or are they part of a backdrop or landscape that highlights characters and their emotions?

HT: I think I’m more interested in the retro-future—that is, previous visions of the future from history, or futures from fiction or movies. I have a deep love for the heady dystopias of the 70s, for instance (A Boy and His Dog (2001), Silent Running, etc.) But, for example in “Child Grenadiers,” there’s this sci-fi element—the mad professor and his strange invention—but linguistically I’m parodying the syntax of the early 1900s. I’d call it steampunk, except I hate that term. With “Fearless Leader,” I don’t think I was trying to create something futuristic per se. I don’t remember my intention, but when I read it now it feels like a children’s story gone off the rails. Haha. I don’t think of them so much as “alternate realities” as much as overtly fictional realities. In other words, the stories are always, on some level, aware of themselves as fictions and calling attention to that. But yes, I do think, at least in a few of the stories, that they are vehicles for, or manifestations of, the characters’ fears and anxieties.

KM: Many of your stories have what could be called apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic overtones. “A Revolution, In Five Parts” — a story of the overthrow of materialism, houses, modern society, everything, which terminates in a return to the status quo — is perhaps the best example, but the dead angels falling from the sky in “Angels” also seem indicative of some larger doom. Even “The Truth About Wayne” and “Last Words” feel apocalyptic in the way that both their narrators spiral towards inevitable collapse, talking themselves into inhabiting the world of television or the reality of the Hyacinth Macaw. It’s a deliciously dizzying downfall, but why do so many of your stories feel like they move towards decay or nothingness? Why does the end of the world play a big role in your work?

HT: Well, I think things moving toward decay and nothingness and entropy is just—it’s reality. Loneliness and inevitable collapse are part of life. But also, I’m deeply, deeply suspicious of the versions of reality foisted on us vis a vis capitalism, mass media— “the spectacle” as the Situationists referred to it. So I think I’m always looking at that and critiquing it, even unconsciously. It also could just be my personality—I’m a fairly anxious person, generally speaking, haha. But it’s also about following things to their logical conclusion.

I’m deeply, deeply suspicious of the versions of reality foisted on us vis a vis capitalism, mass media— “the spectacle” as the Situationists referred to it.

KM: It’s been two years since The Weather in Fritz Bemelmans Park was published. Have your feelings about it changed since it came out? Is there anything you would do differently if you published it now?

HT: I definitely have a distance from it, since I’m deep into another project, but also because the oldest story in that collection’s from like 2001. Several of the stories were written when I was in grad school in the mid-2000s. So, yeah, it took me a while to get around to publishing them as a collection, though most had previously been published elsewhere. The only thing I’d do differently is—I’d hire a publicist! I really have no self-promotion or marketing savvy, so I regret that the book did not get the attention I feel like it otherwise could have.

KM: Finally, you referenced a novel you’re currently writing — could you talk about your current projects and where you see things going?

HT: Yes, as I mentioned, I’m working on a novel. In many ways it’s the complete opposite of my short stories. It’s somewhat epic—it takes place over a span of like fifty years—and there are several narrators. I had actually spent several years on a previous novel which was more of an extension of my short fiction—it was much more formalist, set in a satirical, alt-reality version of the early 20th century. But it went nowhere. I couldn’t get past one hundred pages or so. I actually didn’t write anything for a few years after that. Then I started this new thing, and just let it go where it wanted to, which was more toward psychological realism, but with some fantastical elements. It’s a tough, tough slog, but I’m (most of the time) happy with where it seems to be going.

Kalie McGuirl is a letterpress printer and student of literature currently based in Prague, Czech Republic.