Spirit Training: A conversation between Daniela Cascella and Tristan Foster

Layer 1 of this conversation was written from memory (we were in hell last time), on 8th and 9th November 2017 after finishing my first reading of the Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father, working from recollections, no notes, no going back to the document, not wearing my glasses either—to try and hold a sense of fleeting presence, those responses often dismissed in reviews and interviews in favour of more precise arguments supported by quotes and close reading. Here, instead: distant reading from the depths and the surfaces of close memory. An attempt to turn these phantasmic impressions into words, to reclaim their meaning into a conversation, or at least: we have to begin sometime, and why not now, before the designated right time of re-reading; and why not ghosts.
Tristan, when I wrote to you last week—an impulsive response to my first encounter with the manuscript—I mentioned perceiving in your pages a pervading sense of loss before time, the same one I remember perceiving very strongly as a child: loss as loss, of nothing, but there, carving its way into being. I also said to you it’s philosophy through being: a sustained enquiry into being, understood, I seem to recall your formulation, as the net that people cast as they live. I could also call these stories portraits, would you? Maybe sketches or moments or simply fragments. The whole work a bricolage that comes together to form a broken window view of a suburban neighbourhood and the people who occupy it just after sundown. A window that has had a stone pitched through it by some confused and bitter kid. Picked the stone up from the freight rail line while he and a classmate were out hunting for mischief. Walser, in ‘Helbling’s Story’, comes to mind. “I am one of the multitude, and that is what I find so strange. I find the multitude strange and always wonder: ‘What on earth are they all doing, what are they up to?'” A while ago you asked me what is literature, and what is a book. I want to ask you now: how is a story, and how is a collection? How does time recollect these stories together? I want to pick up something we spoke about in our last talk—something that by its nature remains unresolved: the subject of the commerciality of literature. Specifically, of our literature—that which necessarily can’t be categorised or pigeon-holed. We’re both quick to acknowledge that we are lucky to have our respective books even looked at by a publisher, let alone turned into an object and sent out into the world and, if we’re even luckier, read by curious and sensitive readers. More than luck, it’s miraculous. I didn’t write a collection, a collection occurred. But throughout the editing process, especially as it got closer to the book actually being published, I was wracked with anxiety about its bookness. What is this thing? What are the things that make it whole? What will people think about it? What will they think about me? I am smitten with the act of writing, the thrill that my life has when I’m mid-project and have this secret thing to carry with me through the day. I actively avoid talking about it in order to keep it my secret. The stories here are things I wrote to entertain myself—to challenge myself and keep my mind busy. To help me deal with life on Planet Earth. At no point did I seriously think they would be stitched together and asked to walk and talk and dance in front of an audience. That they have been is, of course, wonderful, but also completely terrifying. I asked you that question because I don’t know what literature is and I thought you might! My biggest fear is that someone is going to come along and say this isn’t literature and demonstrate comprehensively why it isn’t. That they’ll see I’m just feeling my way through this. Not knowing what literature is while you’re writing it is liberating; I’m of the naive opinion that there’s a purity to it. I wonder if not knowing while you’re trying to sell a book is career suicide. I couldn’t agree more with you. I always thought that not giving attention to what is right, successful, topical, is the only way for me to write what is necessary, in the form that is necessary. Speaking of which, let me introduce a key figure here: I like to take it as an indisputable truth, and these pages in your book are further evidence of it, that every day you’re never too far from either reading Kafka, or thinking about reading Kafka, or thinking of Kafka. The letter, then: Freud said a man can only be his own person when his father dies. Whether he knew it or not, Kafka’s letter to his father is a 20,000-word example of this. I just want to wrap my arm around Franz and tell him to relax, that everything will be fine. But these are the iron grips our parents have on us. That Franz gave the letter to his mother instead of straight to his father, and she gave it back without Hermann having read it, only added insult to injury. Look, Freud aside, I found Kafka’s letter compelling because my own father had just died and I was, in a way, liberated from the broad, complicated shadow he had till that time cast over my own life. I’d gone from having a terrible, damaging relationship with him to having one that—because he was dying—I enjoyed and valued. It was very confusing and it had a profound impact on me psychologically but also physically. In many ways, it is this that I’m working through with this collection, with Kafka as my sick, nutty guide. These stories appear as written in an otherworldly voice which holds together all the identities and materials in them: so many angles and singularities of we, you, I, they, he, she, male, female, other, animal, vegetable, mineral, burned, waiting, waiting, musing, meandering, running, moving, talking, grieving, fishing, thinking, looking, there’s a lot of looking. I’m thinking now that the gaze is otherworldly, even before the utterance: actually a gaze in transition, Hermes watching, Hermes the messenger, the carrier of souls. These pages are populated with figures of transition—Gracchus, John Berger, the dead man—and even when they’re apparently not there, the reading experience happens in a state of transit. You asked me about Clarice being my guide: what other guides are these for you, and where do they take you? In one of the stories I ask What do you do when your heroes are dead? This is something I wonder about a lot and the only reasonable answer I have is to make the dead your heroes—those not here but who are made present through remembering (some speaking after-speaking). And we all need heroes. So among mine are John Berger and of course Kafka. The dead man lurks in the suburbs and in the stairways of my childhood and takes me the only way he knows to go—inwards. Anyway, what do you do when your heroes are dead? I talk to them in silence. These figures appear in transition, but they are very much concerned with the facts and the thoughts of this world, they summon me as a reader, they look in and look inwardly to interrogate the other and the world. Through them I also receive a resolute call for compassion, the need for scrutiny into what it is to be human today, into remembering and into being forgotten. My sense is that being human today is fundamentally the same thing it ever was, and that we’re just as moronic as ever in dealing with what that is exactly. That we’re slowly but surely tripping into obsolescence and ultimately extinction. That aside, it gives me great, great joy that you found a call for compassion and interrogation in there; I think I’d tear the book up if I was perpetuating the general buffoonery that is choking us all. And I know I can do better. I want to do better. I think we should all want that. “For us, there is only the trying,” Eliot writes in ‘Four Quartets’. “The rest is not our business.” But yes, they are occupied with the tangible world—I can point to where some of these stories take place on a map. This—grounding it in the real world, or in a possible real world—is very important to me; I tried to unearth the poetic in my experiences and what I observe and hear in my neighbourhood. At one point I thought that an alternative title for this collection could be ‘In Memoriam ’           : with a vast blank to follow. I need to tell you something. The collection originally had a different title, one that I was quite set on because I believed it gave the disparate pieces a, well, spine: Chest Open, named after one of the stories. I wrote the story after my father had been operated on, his chest opened to remove a lung cancer that had tied itself around a major artery. The surgery had been delayed and delayed and when they finally opened him up the surgeons believed the cancer was now too close to his heart. As I understand it, they then turned him over and tried to operate from the other side. Back open. The surgery was a failure; in the days after the operation, I visited him and we walked slowly down the hospital hallway. He was bald from chemotherapy, hunched and weak from the operation, but still joking. We spoke about shoes. I didn’t stay long. The book is dedicated to him—so you are right, the book is titled In Memoriam anyway, though this isn’t written on the cover. This is its secret name. I did not wear my reading glasses while reading your manuscript, so one day last week I read what you’d spelled as ‘sprint training’, as ‘spirit training’. This entire first reading became unwittingly for me spirit training, and here another layer of understanding is handed over to us by chance, in spite of ourselves. Singed. Singe. Sing. Sung. I’m honoured to have received a Cascella misreading. And of course, as any runner will tell you, sprint training and spirit training are the same thing. Finally, for now: the loss of language experienced by the narrator of ‘Alive and Well’—I thought of it as a version of the Lord Chandos letter in the specific setting of this collection and of your mind—I must hear more about it, or perhaps it’s enough for next time and for now, to hold on to the hand of the trickster (Hermes, again) who steals our words and sometimes returns them and returns to haunt. Using the frame of a letter to tell a story was not something I did very consciously. It wasn’t an attempt to appropriate either von Hofmannsthal or Kafka or anyone else for that matter, they simply manifested in that way. Toying with form is important to me—maybe it’s why having conversations in this way comes so naturally! I’m innately torn between the subconscious desire to conform and the egoic drive to rebel. Having rules imposed is the worst things in the world for creativity. Anyone who tells you that writing should be one or another thing, or only works one or another way, should be told fuck off; it’s an intellectual and creative cul-de-sac. And what do we have left but old rules to break? Anyway, I’ve just put the finishing touches on the late, final addition to the collection, ‘P.S.’, which, as its names suggests, is a postscript and so too takes the form of a letter of sorts, this time addressed to Kabid Farooque—one of the handful of dead men that haunt the collection. Kabid made the gang he borrowed money off nervous and he disappeared; I wanted to see him again, felt I had more to say to him, so wrote him a letter. This absent you, you, you—I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to write a story to anybody else. Still, the Chandos link is useful: a number of these stories are about being deserted by words. And if not words, then things. And if not things, then people. The rawness and sensitivity and loneliness that comes from loss. They are about creeping towards an epiphany in the Joycean sense but then finding that the epiphany is a fire that burns the fingers. In other words, spirit training.

Layer 2 of this conversation was written between December 2017 and January 2018. Even though I started with the aim of focusing on various aspects of your book, the more I read the more it became clear that I was reading a whole which is hard to dissect. So I focused on pacing and patterns, rather than discrete elements: on how this book is as it is. “That’s the word for it: converge,” you write. That’s the word for it: converge, I echo in my reading. Converge. There’s a strong sense of ‘attending to’ and of recurrence in this collection, a quality in the gaze that holds these texts together. ‘In Economies Of Scale’ you write a list of correspondences—a demonstration of the fact that there is no clear equivalence in anything, that correspondences exist by means of variance and difference—and one of them is: “1 short story or short piece or, anyway, something brief: an agitation, days, of it, or an unsettling.” I’d like to hear more about the convergence of an agitation or an unsettling into a story, and of days of it, into the space of ‘something brief’. Ah, I like this. In our first chat, I made the comment that there are times when I wish I could drop everything and read forever. There are also times where I wish I could create forever. The protagonist of ‘Music for Church Organs’ mentions being at peace as a soccer ball he has kicked shoots through the air; I am at peace, or the closest to it, when I am creating. And I really don’t think it matters what I’m creating: writing—something brief, something long, criticism—editing, drawing, painting, or making something more tangible, like a timber table. And that’s an attractive prospect—I want to explore it. I want to be on the other side of making book-objects. I want to make art but also maybe documentaries, maybe build a boat or fix a car. Learn to cook, brew beer, open a restaurant. Things I currently have no idea how to do, things I’ll probably never have the time or confidence to do. Creating what I want to: that sounds like paradise to me. But then I don’t create nonstop for the same reason I don’t read myself to death: I rely on the tension that builds by the not-creating to fuel creation. And this is the agitation you speak of. Of sometimes being physically unable to write due to one thing or another keeping me from doing anything more than scribbling in my notebook or thinking on something in the shower. And sometimes there’s nothing sweeter. We talked about it last time, didn’t we? About the tension between writing-typing and writing-thinking—how it somehow still is writing even when apparently no characters are being typed. Words elaborated elsewhere off the page, and this pressure informs what we write. Now I’d like to talk more about rhythms and arrangements. There were stories that made me breathless and made my reading fast, such as ‘The Taipan’, others that I experienced as natural pauses, moments to breathe in, like ‘Ten Days in Delhi’. I always stopped at the end of ‘Black Chalk’, to let the words sink in. I also perceived circularity throughout. How did you organise the montage of the book? I want to talk about the circularity you found in the stories—the resonances. I find Claude Levi-Strauss’s discussion of myth-making and storytelling as bricolage useful here—collecting the stories in this way and then reading them again and again during the editing process was an illuminating and sometimes frightening experience. A lot of the echoes are completely natural, and seeing them recur from text to text was nice—because they are my touch points, the things that obsess me, clearly—but also troublesome because I wonder where they come from, why they are there. There are sea creatures, pig heads, religious iconography. In some respects, I hope the collection goes some way in if not exploring why they are there but exorcising them, helping me to move on from them, and to find some new motifs to work with. Yes, I think that would be a nice outcome here. I’d like to hear something about assonance, and the shape of sentences. “To think of her heart hurts” from ‘Black Chalk’, or “The birds he heard at dawn hover overhead” from ‘Ten Days in Delhi’, or “Hurt she says she thought I was different to this” from ‘Chest Open’. It’s happened to me in the past, that a number of pages have unravelled from a sentence and its shape/rhythm/sound before I knew what I wanted to write. Is this the case for you too? How do you place your writing self in relation to the form and rhythm of sentences? Close. Very close. They usually begin with an image or a set of images which evoke a mood or a time or a feeling or a place. Things which I have remembered from my past or noticed while walking down the street or come across in my reading. These will hold the idea for the piece—in ‘Neighbour’s kid’, the image of the PlayStation controller being thrown at the wall and breaking like a black star; in ‘Brother in Law’, the idea of a story being told but the teller asking that it not be repeated. The five elements in ‘Stone Fur Fish Skin Blood’ came to me at four on a freezing morning while I was unable to sleep at a friend’s place. Once I have what I need, I write quickly then spend the most time reshaping and shuffling and editing. Like you, it regularly feels like I know what I want to write before I write it—I mentioned before that the form a story takes is usually something organic, which strikes me as a dumb thing to say but it’s true. “Attempting to fictionalise things that happened to me or that I observed even from afar, can be like trying to slip through a gap in a wire fence: shirt sleeves are snagged, and threaten to unspool…” Can you tell me more about this “fictionalising and unspooling”? So much of Letter is about Sydney. It’s all I know. So much is about running away from it—or being away from it. I have a love hate-relationship with my city. I interviewed South African writer Ivan Vladislavic and asked him about his connection to Johannesburg, his home town: “Our love for cities is always unrequited. Johannesburg is not an easy place to live: I’m deeply attached to it, and endlessly intrigued by its vagaries, but I don’t always enjoy it.” Though Joburg is probably harder to live in than most places, I think it’s a fairly common experience to both love our home town while not always enjoying it—of that love not being returned—even for those that don’t think about it all that deeply. A number of the pieces come from the things I saw and heard while working in pubs when I was at university. “Don’t repeat this.” Of course I’m going to repeat it. Because I had uni during the day I often worked nightshifts and saw things that come to me in quiet moments even today. They were formative—they taught me a lot about human nature. I lived close to the pub where I worked and often knew the other sides of the lives of the people who would come in—the parts of their stories. I’d have preferred to not know. Even so, I’m already thinking my next project will be a paean to my city. In a way, I think it needs to be. I want the city to be captured in the text. That thing I mentioned before about finding poetry in the every day—shaping a whole project, a novel, around it, so that it grips it like an octopus, could be a nice challenge. I want to talk about the ‘observing from afar’ which seems to be key here. It is articulated from within the mind of a very present narrator (entity?) holding these texts together, even if the writing position changes across all possible options—I, you, he/she, we, you, they (sometimes I read separation in ‘we’, sometimes complicity; ‘you’ is often elusive, there are so many ‘you’s’). I’d like to hear more about this complex range of positions in the gaze ‘from afar’, from the wonderment of memory and loss (‘Ten Days in Delhi’) to the perception of otherness removed several times (‘The Deadest Man’), from the direct address to a missing one (‘Letter’) to the compassionate out of reach (‘John’), from the surveillance mode (‘The Mandarin Crop’) to recording/witnessing/obsessing (‘Chest Open’). In ‘Two Memories’ I write: “Instead of sleeping I read, I play, imagine, dream, listen.” I’m glad I included listen in the list. As much as watching, listening has been crucial to the composition of these texts. ‘Music for Church Organs’ fictionalises elements of my childhood. The church burning down, the absent father, the economic precarity. The boy watched but equally important is his listening. I grew up in a block of flats surrounded by other blocks and you got a view of people’s lives less through what you saw than what you heard. I hope this goes some way of building a picture of life which is located opposite the book’s other major preoccupation—death. In Layer 1 you mention Walser, now I’m thinking of Kleist in Thun: that paragraph where he listens to the landscape around, writes about wanting to becoming an eye, then wonders: “Why don’t the dead come and spend half an hour with that solitary man?” The collection begins in a loss of language. I told you early on that I’d read the book as a philosophical enquiry into being. “It was always going to lead inward,” says the son in ‘Vanitas’. Even the every-day, and there is much of it in these pages, is infused with a more profound reading of life as “the net people cast by living”. The question, “What do you do when your heroes are dead?” is not rhetorical, it has to do with how we live. And how we leave. And are left. There is a lot of leaving and being left in these pages. Being elsewhere. Remembering in other places. Recalling other places. Disappearing. “Are these people missing home or have they escaped it? Are they alive and in hiding and watching videos on a lover’s arm?” And memories spun into now. What type of alone-ness is this? Not isolation, not closure. An inward form of being as the narrator never ceases to watch and be alert? By trying to find the poetic in the everyday—more specifically, my everyday—I understand the tension within my everyday—the working class sensibilities, the desire to be more than that which lives comfortably beside a defence of what is, the desire to create versus the need to work—is crucial for what I’m doing here. The tension is what helps me produce. It’s a difficult but satisfying vein to mine. ‘The Neighbourhood Myths’, for instance. Some of those are real or based on things I’ve heard, those stories that get shared over drinks or told over a fence. If we’re talking narrative for a moment, these are the kinds of things that have stayed with me, the things that resurface in my thoughts as I try to sleep. There is something raw and essential in them, something that resonates and is evocative. I said before I can point to a map to show you where these stories took place; likewise, I can point to the people who have had similar experiences. To return to our first conversation, we are back discussing fires and ashes, permanence and absence. You write that fire mimics life, no fire lasts forever. Afterwards, emptiness and ashes. But these are part of being, as much as fire. If we take this as a metaphor for the sparks that make us write, and that make us—the encounters, what is left, absent, thought through absence and written in the ashes; if we take writing in front of absence—then we enter a territory which is also one of speculation, and commentary. How do these stories exist in relation to philosophy, and to criticism? Apart, hopefully. There’s something stubbornly philosophical, and maybe critical, that pops up in them, but that’s not my intention. Indeed, I’d prefer if it didn’t. My intention here is to play with words and form. To create things from nothing—this is where the satisfaction is, and the thrill. In this case it’s short stories, in other cases it’ll be other things. Please tell me something about fishing for eels. And something about Kabid Farooque and his lost iPod. My dear Kabid. I haven’t thrown it out; I hope one day Kabid googles himself or, even more miraculously, is given the book and he finds himself in it, and his lost iPod. And his fate. I hope that as a child he fished for rice paddy eels with his father, a cold man who bristled at the mere idea of affection. I hoped to find something obscene in the iPod’s photo folder, or at least something deeply personal, but there are only two or three photos of Bollywood icons. Kabid’s innocence was charming, and inspirational. Rightly or wrongly, I now feel that without him, and without the loss of his iPod, a loss which I have necessarily imagined as being a big one for him, one that he would have struggled to get over, there wouldn’t have been a collection—not as it is. And, in a sense, I’m reluctant to leave Kabid behind here, in these pages. He’s a friend now. I want to take him with me, out into the world, into the next project. In the collection, I ask Kafka what to do when one’s heroes are dead. Kabid provides an answer, of sorts, for me—invent them. So while Kafka starts the collection, Kabid ends it. Thank you, KF.

Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney, Australia. He is co-editor-in-chief of 3:AM Magazine. His short story collection Letter to the Author of the Letter to the Father is published by Transmission Press. https://www.transmissionpress.com/letter-to-the-author @tristan_foster

Daniela Cascella is the author of Singed (Equus Press, 2017), FMRL (Zero Books, 2015), En Abime (Zero Books, 2012). She edits Untranslated at Minor Literature[s]. @enabime