It started with a cover: a familiar detective-novel image slowly bleeding into the abstract. This was my first encounter with the work of Portland’s Gabriel Blackwell: picking up a copy of his Shadow Man after hearing good things about some then-recent readings he’d given in NYC. Subtitled “A Biography of Lewis Miles Archer,” Blackwell’s book creates a narrative out of the spaces in which noir‘s chroniclers and its characters overlap: a dense, thrilling work with hints of abused power and still-buried secrets. His collection Critique of Pure Reason contained work that bent the lines between fiction, history, and (at times) criticism; it’s nearly impossible to describe, but never less than compelling. I checked in with Blackwell to discuss his methods, his inspiration, and what works and histories might inspire his future projects. (Hint: one Howard Phillips Lovecraft makes an appearance, as does a certain storied British filmmaker.)
In an interview with The Lit Pub about Shadow Man and Critique of Pure Reason, you spoke about creating “parasitic works.” Where did this idea come from, and how did you end up arriving at it as your preferred method of writing?
It came from years of conversations, works of art, books, genes, etc., but that’s a vague and unsatisfying answer, so we’ll pretend it came from two specific sources. The first is Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, which was, I think, my first extended exposure to recorded sound used as an instrument. At the time that I first heard it (age ten? eleven?), I don’t think that it registered that the samples I was hearing had any sort of story to them, any other context—the clip of Malcolm X, the air raid sirens and whistles, all of the noises the Bomb Squad used, it all seemed completely of a piece with the drums, bass, horns, and guitars of the JBs and Kool and the Gang. I mean, I knew that they weren’t just part of a song, but I didn’t know the original contexts of any of those sounds. And as I got older and discovered their original contexts, the album got more interesting, deeper, richer. Why wouldn’t you want to at least try to emulate that?
And then, some night many years later, watching Mystery Science Theater 3000, it occurred to me that what I was laughing at wasn’t what was on the screen (some low-budget movie) nor what I was hearing (three people commenting on that movie) but the confluence of both. That idea doesn’t exactly sound momentous, but it happened to occur to me at a time when I was dissatisfied with what I was writing, and when I tried to replicate on the page the effect of a commentary on something already existing, I liked the result.
Your next book will incorporate H.P. Lovecraft. What attracted you to him as a figure?
My next book is called The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men: The Last Letter of H.P. Lovecraft. It is the (heavily annotated) last letter that Lovecraft wrote before he died from stomach cancer. Like the biographies of the men in Shadow Man, Lovecraft’s fit the story I was writing, or the story I was writing changed in interesting ways to fit his biography. He was before his time not only in his fiction: he interacted with the world in a very virtual way, spending much of his time in his room writing letters to people he would never meet. That seemed applicable. And, of course, I am a fan of his stories. He’s much more Borgesian than he’s usually recognized as being.
Your story “Untitled” tells a deeply unsettling story through the act of describing the contents and composition of a single photograph. (I was reminded of Steven Millhauser’s “Catalogue of the Exhibition: The Art of Edmund Moorash (1810-1846)” in places.) When telling a story like that, did you know from the outset that that would be the structure, or did you wind up arriving on that blend of form and content more through trial and error?
“Untitled” began as a story called “Sid and Nancy Go to Hell,” which was a very different story with a very different form. It wasn’t very good. Sid and Nancy are really compelling subjects, though, so it stuck around. Maybe a year and a half later, I watched John Berger’s great series Ways of Seeing, and I saw that telling “Sid and Nancy” as a description of a static work of art would give it an interesting focus, a focus it had lacked to that point.
My concerns about form come from worry about why stories exist. People don’t tell stories to each other the way most writers write stories. People generally tell (written) stories in very oblique ways: in lab reports and legal briefs, contracts and small print, op-eds, emails, and memos. This makes stories that most people recognize as stories seem precious; they read like they ought to be under glass, in a museum (they sort of are, for most people—we read them on airplanes and beaches and otherwise steer clear of them). I like found forms because they still seem alive to me, and because I find them helpful in understanding a story’s reason for being. I don’t like to think of my fictions as ornament. I don’t think they’re frivolous, and so I don’t want to treat them that way.
Both Lovecraft’s work and Lovecraft himself have shown up in popular culture in various forms. When writing about him, did you make a conscious effort to avoid territory that might have already been covered?
No, not really. It isn’t part of my thinking, I guess. I’m more interested in just telling a story than I am in telling a story about Lovecraft or a story involving Lovecraft’s creations. Lovecraft’s work and Lovecraft’s biography are important to the book in the same way that any of the sentences that I’ve written for it are—they fit the story (or have come to fit the story, or the story has been interestingly altered by them). If someone out there has already used certain tropes in a similar way, that’s fine. Words, phrases, even whole sentences get used in the same way by different speakers all of the time—it’s what makes communication possible. Besides, claiming originality has always struck me as a little grand for what it is we do: our chemistry makes possible a certain set of responses to the world; our technology makes possible a certain set of methods of recording those responses. At this point in our history, only the latter is ever really new, and it’s not new for very long, and the novelty of such work is often its only virtue. I’m for refinement, which requires something already in existence.
Are there any other writers who you’ve considered for a similar narrative treatment to The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men or Shadow Man?
The book I’m working on now has to do with a work—Hitchcock’s Vertigo—rather than a person (although of course Hitchcock plays a part in it). It’s supposed to be a suspense novel, but it seems to have taken the form of a commonplace book—a collection of quotes from my reading, some interpolated stories, a few stray thoughts. I don’t know. We’ll see if it comes together, or if it even needs to come together.
Earlier, you’d talked a little about being inspired by sampling. What do you make of the work being done by writers like David Shields and Jonathan Lethem in terms of repurposing existing quotes and prose into new works? Do you feel as though the work that you do is in a similar vein, or takes that notion of sampling into a different area?
Shields’s books (the last three or four, anyway, the ones I’ve read) are basically commonplace books, so, naturally, I like them. Lethem I’ve read much less of. I loved his essay “The Ecstasy of Influence,” but that may be the only thing of his I’ve ever read. As for my own work, I think I may be too nervous to just let a quote lie there. I mean, I have been, in the past. I’m trying to calm down, especially in the new book, to let my quotations and their new context speak for themselves occasionally, but it’s difficult to give up that kind of control. I always feel the need to mangle the things I appropriate, to mess them up or distort them or create (new) cause-and-effect out of them in some way in order to make them more story-like. I like story, even though I mostly feel incapable of telling it.
With respect to Vertigo, at what point did you realize that there was some quality present in the film that you wanted to turn into its own work?
In some ways, I haven’t yet reached (and may never reach) the point that you’re asking about; I hope that the book—even when finished, if it ever is finished—will be the beginning of a process rather than the end of one. The commonplace book is meant to be a searching toward a possible idea; the record of a thought process, not the result of one. I don’t know. We’ll see.
I can tell you that, before I started working on it, I was thinking generically: I’d written a noir (Shadow Man) and a horror novel (The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men), and I thought that I might as well follow them up with a suspense novel. Except that I ended up choosing a film instead; Vertigo stuck with me in a way that none of the books I’d read did. Part of the reason I seem to be writing this book is to find out why that is. I don’t really need much more to go on, I guess.