Shortwave Magazine

Interviews / NonFiction

Your Favorite Author's Favorite Author: Brian Evenson on Franz Kafka

an interview
by Patrick Barb

June 5, 2024
3,192 Words
Genre(s):

This month, I had the pleasure of speaking with an author who’s received acclaim in literary and genre circles, demonstrating that crossover is possible between the worlds without the integrity of one being sacrificed for the other. Brian Evenson is the author of a dozen books of fiction, including most recently the story collection The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell (2021) and the Weird West microcollection Black Bark (2023). His collection Song for the Unraveling of the World (2019) won the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times’ Ray Bradbury Prize for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction. Previous books have won the American Library Association’s  RUSA PrizeAward and the International Horror Guild Award, and have been finalists for the Edgar Award. He is the recipient of three O. Henry Prizes, an NEA fellowship, and a Guggenheim Award. His work has been translated into more than a dozen languages. He lives in Los Angeles and teaches at CalArts.

And with that list of bona fides behind him, I was honored to chat with Brian about a celebrated literary great who also never let that stop him from including elements of the Weird in his fiction…

Who is your favorite author and why? 

Franz Kafka. I think I like him so much because I first read him very young and he was doing things that I didn’t realize were possible for a writer to do. The precision of his language, his weird humor, the way he embraces absurdity—all of that really adds up to something extraordinary and unique that changed me as a writer.

Before that initial exposure, who were some of your writerly influences? Was there one or more of those elements you found in Kafka’s writing that was in direct opposition to qualities of the works of earlier authors you were exposed to?

Before Kafka, I was largely reading science fiction and fantasy. Much of it was people like Tolkein and André Norton and Piers Anthony, but I was also stumbling onto people like Michael Moorcock and Gene Wolfe and Ursula K. LeGuin—basically I was going every week to the local library and just looking through the SF&F section until I found things that looked interesting. I loved Moorcock’s Elric series, and still am very fond of it. I was fascinated by Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun series, though I think only fully understood it when I reread it years later (I’ve read it four or five times at this point). All those writers gave me something, but Kafka’s absurdity and humor really worked for me, even though Wolfe and LeGuin are great stylists, they don’t have that deliberate clarity of style that Kafka has, the attempt to be as precise and accurate as possible.

When were you first made aware of this author and when were you first drawn to their work?

I first read Kafka because my father, who is a professor of physics, was made the dean of general education at Brigham Young University, the university he taught at before he retired. When he was made dean, he brought home the books that were used in general education classes and read through them.

When he read Kafka, he decided it was something that I was likely to like, so he sat down with me with The Basic Kafka and chose one story that he liked, “A Description of a Struggle.” He talked about it with me, and then left the book for me. I was, I think, around 14 at the time and mainly reading science fiction. That story is far from the best Kafka story, but there was enough to intrigue me about it that I kept reading the book and was very quickly blown away by it.

I find it interesting that even at the early juncture, there’s this interplay of academic and “literary” with speculative fiction, call it science fiction, in your writing upbringing. In Kafka, there is a strong presence of the weird (and Weird sometimes) but there seems to be more of an acceptance of that in the literary canon than perhaps the works of some science fiction authors. What’s your assessment of this balancing act? Do you consider those audiences (call them highbrow/lowbrow, literary/genre, what-have-you) when writing your stories or assembling a collection of stories?

I’ve long been someone with a foot in literature and a foot in genre. To be honest, there was a period of time during college and grad school, and maybe a year or two after, where I read exclusively literary fiction, but of course a lot of that was fantastical fiction that got called literary: Borges, Kafka, Buzzati, Calvino, Garcia Marquez, Isabella Allende, etc. Then I ended up reading Lovecraft and Philip K. Dick, who I’d somehow missed when I was young–just read everything they’d written and enjoyed it. And then, in 2005, I had a book, The Wavering Knife, that was nominated for, and then won the International Horror Guild Award. That got me reading the other writers who had been nominated and made me realize that my sense of what was going on in genre literature was out of date. By that time, I was actively writing for readers who had both an interest in literature and an interest in genre, and trying to figure out how to write fiction that would appeal to both groups of readers in perhaps different ways.

Is there one particular piece of work from this author that you are especially fond of or that’s had a significant creative impact on you? What is that piece and what makes it so appealing or affecting for you?

“A Country Doctor.” This is my favorite Kafka piece, and definitely one of my top five pieces ever. It’s strange and surreal and moves at a very rapid pace. There’s much about it that’s absurd and beyond explanation, and in addition it offers a number of doublings. It’s a piece that has its own unique logic and acceleration and it makes me irrationally happy every time I read it. A close second would be “In the Penal Colony” which is one of the most chilling condemnations of the state as a structure that restricts and punishes its citizens that I’ve ever read. That’s a piece that’s done more to shape me as a political person than anything else.

On the subject of politics in writing, as Kafka does with “In the Penal Colony,” your own writing seems to embrace an approach to potentially political or societally-impactful issues while remaining true to the internal needs of the narrative. I’m thinking in particular of some of the stories in The Glassy, Burning Floor of Hell. There’s that undercurrent of ecological horror and environmental activism discourse that never extends to the arena of the jeremiad. Could you talk a little more about how that balance is struck and whether you recognize any of Kafka’s influence on your approach?

Yes, I think the needs internal to the narrative come first. If they don’t, you have something that feels more like an essay than a piece of fiction. For me something like Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future doesn’t really work as a novel because of that. It’s a great book, even a very important book, and I’ve recommended it to a number of people, but it doesn’t really function all that well as a novel because, except for one or two sections, it puts its politics before the needs of its narrative. You have to be committed to believing that your political beliefs, if they’re genuine, will be there whether you’re actively trying to push them or not: they will come out in any case.

I’m also very resistant to the idea that fiction is about conveying information or meaning. For me, it’s about creating a world, playing out a scenario. I don’t want to convince people. I want them to have an experience. I learned that pretty directly from Kafka.

How often do you revisit “A Country Doctor,” “In the Penal Colony,”  or Kafka’s work in general? What lessons have you learned at various times from the work?

I’m 57, and I don’t think a year has gone by since I was 14 that I haven’t reread at least one Kafka story a year. Most years I read a number of them, and often teach him. There are a few writers I return to again and again:  just to name a few, Kafka, Beckett, Muriel Spark, Robert Aickman…

Has Kafka’s work changed for me as I’ve gotten older? Well, yes, I think I appreciate different things each time I read him, which is why I keep returning to him. But I also think I keep rereading him because the work still feels fresh to me each time. There are certain writers—Raymond Carver is a good example—who are great on the first read but then as you reread them it’s too easy to see how they are putting the story together. With Kafka—and especially with “A Country Doctor”—I find myself amazed by what the story does, and how it does it, each time I reread it.

Are there any pieces in the author’s oeuvre that have not worked as well for you? If yes, which ones and why do you think that connection was not as strong?

I am not as fond of “The Metamorphosis”—which I know is the favorite story of most readers of Kafka. Part of this is probably because I’m contrary: I resist the idea of my favorite Kafka story being the same as everybody else’s favorite Kafka story. But I think more than that it’s less the story itself, which has terrific moments—I’ve learned a tremendous amount, for instance, from the scene early on when Gregor as an insect is trying to figure out how to open the door, and I think all the time about the apple lodged in his back—but more about the countless interpretations out there, foisted on high school and college students, telling them what Gregor’s transformation really means. The great thing about that story is the level of detail that Kafka uses, the care with which he has thought about what it would be like to be a giant insect. All the interpretations of the story that say that it’s a metaphor for disability or old age or depression or whatever seem to me to really miss the point. Only rarely do I encounter someone who is interested in what Kafka is doing in this story and how he's doing it rather than being interested in leaping over those amazing details to a banal interpretation, learned in high school, of what it means…

So, let’s explore this “The Metamorphosis” discourse from the academic side of things. If you were teaching the story (or if you have taught it before), where might you direct students’ attention? Would it be Kafka’s use of detail alone? Or are there other elements that you may see as underserved in those more mainstream interpolations of the piece?

I’m not that interested in teaching “The Metamorphosis,” mainly because when I do I invariably have a student (or many students) who has (have) had it in another course and who will say something like “Gregor Samsa’s condition is a metaphor for… fill in the blank” and then I’ll ask them where the evidence is for that in the story and they can’t point to anything specific… I’d rather teach Kafka stories they don’t already have an opinion on, where I don’t have to wade through their preconceived notions of what the story means.  Before you decide what the story means, it’s important to experience what’s on the page and, frankly, too often with the way literature is taught that experience of what’s on the page is either minimized or skipped.  What “The Metamorphosis” is “really” about is what it’s like to wake up and find you’ve been transformed into a giant insect, and how you deal with that. Can that be read as a metaphor for something? Sure, but that to me is way less interesting—it’s something external to the story.  And you’re not doing the story justice if you don’t think carefully about what’s actually on the page.

But I do often in creative writing workshops go very slowly through the scene where Gregor is trying to get out of bed and open the door. We talk about all those choices, why the choices are made, what they add up to. We do that because I want my own student writers thinking about their own choices on a very concrete level.

What writing lessons have you taken, purposefully or accidentally, from your favorite author?

That if you’re going to describe something fantastical you should be incredibly precise with your language, and you should really think about what you’re doing. If you’re going to be ambiguous, make sure the ambiguity is productive and generative.

Are there any specific stories in your catalog that you feel best live up to these lessons? I can certainly think of many examples where you’ve put the idea of precision (an economy of words, let’s say) into play in your fiction, same for generative ambiguity; but I’m interested to learn where you’ve been most successful on that front.

I think these are questions that I should let my readers answer instead of answering myself. There are certain stories I like very much, because I feel that I learned how to do something when I wrote them, but I don’t know that they’d necessarily be my reader’s favorite stories. I like them because I feel like they were a breakthrough for me in terms of economy, ambiguity, precision, etc. But I don’t want to be more specific than that.

On a similar note to the query above, are there any works in your bibliography that you feel are closest to the work of your favorite—whether in terms of style, subject matter, length, etc.? Talk a little about those similarities.

I think I see aspects of Kafka’s style as permeating all of my work, but in terms of a particular story, no.  It’s more gestures here and there, combined with a massive overall stylistic influence.

Where does your writing diverge from your favorite author’s? Are there any elements from your favorite author’s work that you would like to incorporate in your own? If yes, what are these?

I feel like because I came to Kafka so early I cannibalized and digested him very quickly. I do think I still have things to learn about the speed and style of “A Country Doctor,” which may be why it remains my favorite story.

When you say “speed” in a story, what exactly do you mean? Are we talking strictly pacing here or something else/something more?

It’s pacing, sure, but it’s also a kind of velocity, the ability to move through things quickly in a way that allows ambiguity to prosper.  In something like “A Country Doctor” so much happens so quickly, that you can only process what you’ve been through as a reader (which is a kind of reflection of what the character has been through as a human) once you’ve reached the end. It’s a story with a lot of strangeness and mystery and the speed at which it moves means that that strangeness and mystery is maintained.

If a reader wanted to start reading your favorite author, what piece would you recommend they start with?

I think you could start anywhere, to be honest, but I would strongly suggest starting with the stories rather than the novels. The novels are good—The Trial especially—but for me Kafka is at his strongest in his stories. I think one of the reasons I may be much more of a short story writer than a novelist is because of how influential Kafka and his stories were on me.  In terms of a particular story to start with, I wouldn’t actually suggest starting with “A Country Doctor”, even though I love that story.  I would build up to that story. I would start with “In the Penal Colony” or “Before the Law.” You could start with “The Metamorphosis” as well, if you can keep yourself from speculating on what it “really” means. It’s a very fine story if you focus on the words and what Kafka is doing…

If you could ask your favorite author one question about their work, what would it be?

I’d want to ask him about his desire to have all of his manuscripts, including his stories, letters, and diaries, burned—Kafka wrote a letter to his friend Max Brod requesting this. Brod chose to ignore it, and I’m very glad he did. I’d want to ask him both about his motivation for writing the letter and ask also, seeing where his work and reputation has gone, if he would make the same request again… I do think Brod was absolutely right not to burn the work; I would not be the writer I am today if he had.

Apropos of nothing, I absolutely think “Max Brod” sounds like the name of a character from a Brian Evenson story.

It’s a great name, certainly, and definitely the sort of name I would use…

What do you have coming out next on the writing and publishing front? What are you working on now?

I have a new collection of stories, called Good Night, Sleep Tight, which will be published in September of 2024.  And I’ve finished a short novel, Phantom Limb, which is a sequel to my novel Last Days. It will be out in late 2025 or early 2026. In terms of stuff I’m working on now, i’m trying to figure out what the next novel will be. I’ve written about two dozen pages, but don’t quite feel like I’ve found my footing yet. So far it looks like it will involve demonology and someone or something that refuses to stay dead. One of the books that most impressed me last year, and also genuinely scared me, was Mariana Enriquez’s Our Share of Night.  She’s a terrific writer. I think I’m trying to write something that expresses what I feel like I loved about that book.

Thanks for taking the time to chat with me about your favorite author.

You’re very welcome.

To connect with Brian Evenson, you can find him on Facebook or visit his website brianevenson.com.

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About the Author

Patrick Barb is an author of weird, dark, and spooky tales, currently living (and trying not to freeze to death) in Saint Paul, Minnesota. His published works include the dark fiction collection Pre-Approved for Haunting (Keylight Books), the novellas Gargantuana’s Ghost (Grey Matter Press) and Turn (Alien Buddha Press), as well as the novelette Helicopter Parenting in the Age of Drone Warfare (Spooky House Press). His forthcoming works include the themed short-story collection The Children’s Horror (Northern Republic Press) and the sci-fi/horror novel Abducted (Dark Matter Ink).

patrickbarb.com

Copyright ©2024 by Patrick Barb.

Published by Shortwave Magazine. First print rights reserved.

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