Ander Monson is the author of several books, including the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize winner Neck Deep and Other Predicaments: Essays. He’s written a novel, Other Electricities with accompanying website, and a volume of poetry, Vacationland. Not only a writer, he is also editor of the online literary magazine DIAGRAM, a bizarre site displaying the possibilities of the digital page. His next work, Vanishing Point: Not a Memoir (Graywolf, April 2010), is a collection of . . . well, “unique” understates these essays; many already published in fine places such as The Believer, The Best Creative Nonfiction 2, and The Best American Essays 2008.
Ander, though not the only pioneer in using new media, is visionary as he incorporates Internet and art. He records this age of literary excitement in Vanishing Point, fusing the odd of Americana from Doritos to Dungeons & Dragons to a paint ball in the center of the country. He questions the accuracy of testimony in Voir Dire, and the absurdity of Gerald Ford’s funeral procession in Ceremony. He emerges as one of the most inventive writers of the 21st century, a forerunner in the transition from paper to pixel. What’s more, he’s a funny man . . .
Caleb Powell: Though you touch on tragedy, Vanishing Point at times is quite funny. Do you see yourself as a writer of comedy?
Ander Monson: Well, I think nonfiction offers more opportunities to evoke the comic. At least for me. My fiction is occasionally funny but in a dark way. And most of the comedy I like also ends up being dark. Woody Allen has a great quote: “comedy equals tragedy plus time”. I’ve always liked this. But if my fiction’s funny it’s because it builds comedy on top of tragedy. In nonfiction I’ve definitely felt funnier partially because I’m invoking my personality in a clearer way, where in fiction I’m trying to work within a character and individual voice. Personally, I like to make jokes…to be an entertaining person. Part of the writer’s job is to entertain, not necessarily crack jokes…with nonfiction I’m interested in the esoterica of the world. A lot of those things are funny; in America the way we spread out and litter the world with our detritus . . . it’s hard not to laugh.
CP: In Vanishing Point you mention “murdered girl.” You are in the middle of building up absurdity, stop, and she makes an appearance. You leave it at that, not wanting to go further. Why?
AM: That’s not, in some ways, my story to tell. Other Electricities played with her story a lot, it fictionalized this woman I knew fairly well in my small town in Michigan, she died, and her story combined with my mother’s death does cast a shadow . . . in nonfiction ‘murdered girl’ shows up, she’s named, Jody. But it’s underneath. There’s one piece on my website that precedes from one of these essays . . . I’m not done with it . . . but I didn’t go there, not in Vanishing Point, it’s something I’ll come back to, the novel I’m working on now has murdered girls . . .
CP: Tell about this novel.
AM: It’s not traditional. It’s fiction. Right now it’s called A Beginner’s Guide to the Labyrinth. I’m constructing a labyrinth online, and the novel will be a guide, obviously . . . to a larger space . . . one of the subplots has to do with these murdered girls, as it does in Other Electricities, but it is explicitly fictional.
CP: You’ve mentioned Frey. Where do you draw the line? Is there an ethic in aesthetic? Did Frey cross the line?
AM: Maybe. I don’t know. For me there’s not a line you can cross. The issue with Frey is just that, well, art and journalism have a different ethic . . . it’s a question of genre and an implied contract with the reader. I enjoyed the Frey book, read it once; he had already been publicly flogged. America has really made a sport out of outing nonfiction writers . . . I mean, in a larger sense, we seem to enjoy going after these people. Yet we created it. We’re the ones that believe ridiculous claims and bizarre stories and these grandiose plots, the possibility someone underwent four root canals without anesthetic . . . our lives have no sense of the edge, we’re comfortable, there’s less crime, we want more extremity, we’re insulated, we ask for it. My sense of ethics in nonfiction has to do with intention . . . to represent in as accurate way as possible without being boring. For nonfiction, if it sells on the basis of our feeling that it’s true, if that’s crucial, then it’s important. For me, when I read Frey I wanted to be entertained, and I was, and when he got smacked down on Oprah it was doubly entertaining. I don’t assume everything has been fact checked. It’s art. Art has no rules, as long as it’s beautiful and/or moving. If it wants to be a product, genre fiction, pure entertainment, then you have to think about how it’s being sold . . . what kind of contract; how it’s packaged.
CP: How political are you?
AM: Wow . . . That’s a difficult question. I don’t think of myself as overtly political . . . I’m not particularly interested in writing polemic or causes, yet art is politics, you can’t get away from this, but the political is not a driving force in my work. I’m interested in the absurd, the intricacies of the human experience, aesthetics . . . I’m not sure if it’s possible to not be political, but I’m not active as a writer . . .
CP: Forgive me one political question. Any thoughts on the recent health care bill?
AM: I’m glad something passed. I honestly don’t know what’s in it, and that’s a big part of the conversation. Everything is obscure, obfuscated . . . we’re just arguing from positions that are not informed . . . the one thing I can say is that I’m happy something happened, otherwise it just seems to be worse every year.
CP: Right. Okay, you are a frontrunner/visionary of the electronic age/new media. Internet dating fifteen years ago used to be an act of desperation and now everyone does it.
AM: I think so. I don’t know how anyone dates without it. It’s so mainstream.
CP: In a way it’s a precursor to Internet publishing. What portion of your writing is online compared to print . . . what are the numbers?
AM: I don’t know about the print run at Graywolf. Honestly. Maybe between 3,500 and 5,000. Not a big print run. I don’t have particularly good analytics on my website, I look periodically, but I want to say maybe 50 or 60 individual people a day . . . what I hope is the website will lead people to the books. I edit DIAGRAM and we get a shit ton of views, over 3 million a year, I don’t publish my own work there, so that’s a different story, but if you look at Vanishing Point there’s writing for the book on the site that is in the book, and it’s all unique. You have to have the book to access the site, to know what words to type in.
For me the design means quite a bit, especially in a couple of the essays in Vanishing Point . . . and the whole e-book phenomenon, what writers have to grapple with in terms of the death of the book is overblown. Books still need to be held. Graywolf prints beautiful books. If you’re going to print crappy books you may as well have them on a screen. Maybe books will be like a resurgence of vinyl.
CP: Hopefully the new generation will want a library.
AM: I hope so. The book, as technology, has been around a long time, and I think it will still, but it’s not going to be as dominant . . . if writers are smart they will be thinking about ways to create new forms . . . writers are taking more of a part in these processes, they’re getting involved in editing, design, marketing, so why not programming? If writers have the skills and are interested in doing that . . . I plan on being one of these people.
CP: It’s nice to have two mediums. But there are advantages to books, or so I’d like to think.
AM: There is a social purpose to books. Whenever I go to someone’s house I look at what books they read and what CD’s they have. You can lend and borrow books, absolutely . . . longer and more thoughtful texts do better on the printed page, no browser stuff or Email alert or Tweets, the book is just more personal. I’m a fan of both, web design and print; hopefully they’re not competing . . . especially in Vanishing Point. It’s the most ambitious way of trying to get the book and Internet to interact, things move from the book to the website.
CP: In Vanishing Point you make references to music. What rocks Ander Monson?
AM: Being from the UP (Upper Peninsula) you don’t have a lot of options, the shows I went to . . . a lot of embarrassing stuff, Depeche Mode, Poison . . . Warrant. I’ve got a fondness for Ratt. Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, where I lived it was about a ten hour drive to Detroit and the big concerts . . . Black Crowes, ZZ Top…music does influence me, New Order . . .
CP: What writers have influenced you? Modern and classical.
AM: Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy . . . one of the earliest novels . . . certainly . . . he was doing radical things . . . if someone dies there’s a page, just a black page . . . people think that post-modern started with David Foster Wallace, but writer’s have always tried to push forms. If I’m trying to write a great novel . . . which is a bad idea, just write a novel . . . but I still think a novelist needs to seek and read great novels. Melville really speaks to me, also Woolf. Georges Perec, not classic, but influential, this is obvious in my work. One contemporary writer I like is Charles Baxter . . . .not that he’s like my work, but he’s been imprinted on me . . . he’s both experimental and structured/traditional.
CP: Ander in thirty years?
AM: I’d like to be happy to alive in thirty years. That’d be great. Hook up to the network with some USB port . . .
CP: Write your obituary.
AM: Oh, Jesus . . . ha ha ha, okay . . . . “He tried real hard.” I don’t know, you know, I’d like to be thought of as a person who was a hacker in a most interesting way. My art, all art is experiment . . . I do like to hack at things . . . I’d like people to think of me as someone who pushes boundaries, expands the borders for nonfiction and fiction. I was talking about my novel, Beginner’s Guide, with a poet in California, and this poet told me it’s a nineteenth century idea and that Balzac had beat me to this idea a hundred and eighty years ago, which shouldn’t be surprising. Writing’s a constantly humbling process . . . a nice corrective to the ego . . . trying to do something that you think has never been done . . . it’s impossible. I’m not sure about the future, but it’s such a great time to be a writer.
Caleb Powell has work forthcoming or in various literary magazines, including The Baltimore Review, descant, The Texas Review, and Zyzzyva. He lived overseas for eight years and his nonfiction guide, The World Is a Class, was published in Canada by Good Cheer.
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