An Interview with Writer Dolan Morgan
KARINA VAHITOVA: When was the first time you remember thinking, “I want to be a writer?” What did you do immediately after this realization?
DOLAN MORGAN: In fact, I’m having that thought for the first time right now. So this is it. As a next step, I think I’ll take a shower.
KARINA VAHITOVA: Can you tell me about The Atlas Review and its mission? How did it come to be?
DOLAN MORGAN: Yes! The Atlas Review is a twice-yearly print journal featuring fiction, poetry, essays, visual art and interviews. Natalie Eilbert founded it with a friend in 2012. Submissions are vetted anonymously, in addition to a small number of solicited works each issue. This system has helped us place first-time authors next to heavy hitters like George Saunders, Sheila Heti, and Amelia Gray.
KARINA VAHITOVA: MAI collaborated with The Atlas Review on a marathon reading of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris at the Wythe Hotel last summer. What was that experience like for you? Did it change the way you perceive Solaris?
KARINA VAHITOVA: Do you think that literary communities benefit from these kinds of durational, collaborative endeavors? If so, how?
So much of our contemporary experience with stories is defined by isolation. We live in a more socially interconnected world than ever before, but we so often experience story and myth and dreams all on our own. It would be a shame for us to abandon the communal element of story. Marathon readings represent a way to enter that type of dreamscape.
DOLAN MORGAN: There’s a real range when it comes to what’s ‘added’ through these collaborations. In some cases, it’s barely anything, a kind of mood maybe, which is great, but minor. A fog or soup. The words and the images dance around each other without kissing. But in other cases, it’s shocking, like a ghost entered the room and took you by the wrist. An image walks up to language and slips right through it. And in some instances, whole new works are created. Artists and writers conjure pieces together that simply could not be absorbed in any other way beyond performance. In this manner, perhaps there isn’t anything added to the art or the text individually — but only because they can’t exist without each other. It would be incorrect to say that they add to each other — because they are each other. It doesn’t always happen, but it’s great when it does. You get the feeling that these ideas might not have been generated any other way, so it’s a real blessing.
DOLAN MORGAN: I love that documentary! I don’t often drown myself for inspiration, but I’ve taken on a few peculiar habits to stay productive. Here’s an example: when I was younger, I would lock myself in small closets. The first such closet was entirely empty and had its own light. There was enough room for me to sit in a chair with a computer or notebook. I’d go in there, close the door, and work. When I felt anxious, I would draw on the walls. As an adult, not a child. I did this because I was constantly afraid of my own agency. My general inability to focus not only made it hard to finish a piece of work, but also invoked a feeling that my mind and body existed beyond my control. Which is a demoralizing sensation. Nobody wants that. In order to undermine the feeling, I tried to establish scenarios ahead of time where my choices would be limited to the things I wanted to accomplish. If the only options I have for a period of time are choices I want to make, then it doesn’t matter if I somehow lose all influence over myself. At that point, even choices made entirely at random would still be good choices. So I would go in the closet. People do this kind of thing all the time, though maybe they don’t couch it in the same language. Even an alarm clock is a kind of crude, everyday example of how we try to mitigate our elusive agency. There are apps to disconnect your computer from the internet. Boxes in which to lock away your phone for a set period of time. I’ve engineered a lot of similar habits or rituals to corral my decisions, but locking myself in a closet to limit options represents the most clear-cut, physical example. I don’t do it anymore, at least not literally, but I think there are closets that you can carve out in your mind or in the passage of time. That is, I’ve learned that you can lock yourself safely in a room without there being a room.
KARINA VAHITOVA: I’m interested in where, physically, writers get inspiration for their stories. Where were you when you wrote "Infestation"?
DOLAN MORGAN: Oh boy. No idea. My apartment, most likely. Looking out the window at a tree in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Sadly, that tree was recently cut down. Bye, bye tree.
DOLAN MORGAN: I typically write at home or in coffee shops, sometimes in bars. From the right vantage point, these are of course unusual places. They defy probability in even existing, but I don’t think that’s what you mean. And, so no — most of these stories were written in humdrum locales. One small exception, though: I wrote most of “Nuée Ardente,” the last story in the book, while riding on the wrong train. I accidentally boarded Metro-North headed in the opposite direction of where I needed to be, and I was already running late. The train travelled express, too, making very few stops, so I had no choice but to ride it for quite a while. It’s a peculiar feeling to be trapped in a fast-moving mistake, a mistake that compounds itself with every passing second, and I think that feeling saturated the story.
KARINA VAHITOVA: How long have you been working on That's When the Knives Come Down? Do you experience writing as a long durational process?
DOLAN MORGAN: I think there’s a story in the book that I first drafted in 2007. So, it’s been a long process. I don’t think of writing as necessarily long durational, though. It takes a long time, yes, but it’s discontinuous. You start, you stop. There’s a trancelike element that reminds me a bit of long durational work, but it comes in bursts or waves.
KARINA VAHITOVA: Did the ideas for the stories in That's When the Knives Come Down come to you at a convenient time? Were there some story concepts that slipped away?
DOLAN MORGAN: I wouldn’t say there was anything too convenient or inconvenient about when these story ideas arrived. They showed up when they showed up, and it’s hard to say if that’s good or bad or appropriate or inappropriate. I mean, it could have been worse, and lord knows it could have been easier, too, but now we’re here either way, which is fine. So convenience doesn’t necessarily enter into it. I want to steer the ship, but I can’t force ideas to exist. Not that I don’t try, foolishly. I constantly plan pieces that never come to fruition. I have all sorts of grand notions. What a joke. And then I complete other stories as if by accident. I think my favorite or most accomplished pieces exemplify a kind of middle ground, somewhere between intention and serendipity, but I don’t pretend to understand this pattern. The key for me has been to lock myself in the closet with possibility, to fail repeatedly until something worthwhile happens.
Look inside your heart. It’s mostly nothing. I mean at the physical level. A hydrogen atom is something like 99.9999999999996% empty. It’s basically not even there. Give or take a few percentage points, that’s true of most everything. That is, everything is mostly nothing. Nothing is all around us and inside us. It’s a miracle that we see anything else at all, and a real shame that we ignore nothing so often. It’s like having a jar that has ninety-nine Skittles in it and one broken crumb of a piece of an M&M and saying “Look at my bowl of M&M’s” … and then building human history around that candy dust.
DOLAN MORGAN: As you can imagine, there are a few different areas of research that fed into that story. It’s a guide for having sex on other planets, so to do justice to that topic, one must incorporate a few disparate disciplines. As an initial spark, I stumbled upon a used book. The title drew me in: Sex and the Outer Planets. Intriguing! I was disappointed to learn that the book was not about intercourse in space, but instead a dated astrology tome about the planets’ alleged influence on human sexual psychology. Blah. Super Freudian, 70s-style, new-age hocus pocus. But the absolute devotion to the absurd premise is wonderful. The language is unbelievable. You can say the most ridiculous things if you just commit with integrity to something impossible or ridiculous. So I decided to create the work I wished this book had been when I found it. A guide for having sex in space. I tried to embody that same devotion to the absurd. Without parody, but adoration. And, so, other research included: many years of social depravity and sexual misadventure. I don’t think the story could have been written without that. More importantly, though, would be a lifetime’s worth of self-doubt, miscommunication, and failure. Plus a few science books for good measure. And an encyclopedia on mythology. So yeah, an old book, depravity, self-doubt, science and myth. Garnish with lime, add a dash of bitters, throw yourself off a bridge. Great, now you’re fucking in space.
KARINA VAHITOVA: One of my favorite stories from That's When the Knives Come Down is "Euclid’s Postulates." It reads in sections, each one devoted to a different postulate. Can you explain the process of bringing together these two disciplines, mathematics and writing, in the context of fiction?
DOLAN MORGAN: The general schism between literature and mathematics is a fact I simply do not understand. Both pursuits are so analogous and intertwined that I cannot grasp the rarity of their intersections. Both endeavor to describe the world through a system of language, often using elaborate abstractions. Both, at their far reaches, require a leap into the void, carrying nothing but imagination and a little hope. I’ve heard many mathematicians say that they feel more allied with artists than with scientists, that their work feels more about aesthetics than facts. At any rate, perhaps as a kind of quiet protest, I’ve made it a habit to work from math as a prompt, or to incorporate mathematical ideas as structures for stories. It comes naturally. The logic that supports a lot of mathematics can bleed into the narrative, helping to push stories in directions I might not have otherwise taken, which is always a good thing.
KARINA VAHITOVA: After reading "Euclid’s Postulates," my guess is that your favorite area of mathematics is geometry. Is that true? If so, why?
DOLAN MORGAN: That story leans heavily on geometry, for sure, but I don’t feel more passionately about that particular, er, angle than others. “Kiss My Annulus,” another story in the collection, for example, is influenced far more by calculus. And “Number One at the Box Office: some synopses of movies about the lives of numbers and other things” (from the sort of b-sides story collection For Promotional Use Only) hits on a wide array of math topics. I try not to discriminate between maths.
KARINA VAHITOVA: What is your favorite shape? How does this shape appear in That's When the Knives Come Down?
DOLAN MORGAN: I’m not sure if I have a favorite shape, but one that figures prominently is an annulus. Wikipedia defines an annulus as “a ring-shaped object, especially a region bounded by two concentric circles.” An equation to describe it – A = ∫ rR 2πρ dρ = π(R2 – r2) – forms the epigraph for “Kiss My Annulus” (which is attributed correctly to W.B. Yeats), and it appears in the story in many, many ways. Most distinct, though, would be when it appears as a giant anus that talks, lives in a mill, and influences global financial markets.
DOLAN MORGAN: leg.
KARINA VAHITOVA: If nothing and something were hanging off a cliff, which would you save and why?
DOLAN MORGAN: Something, since it’s mostly nothing. No birds / no stone.
KARINA VAHITOVA: If you had to imagine that everything in That's When the Knives Come Down evolved from two words, which two words might have copulated to create these stories?
DOLAN MORGAN: Empty landscape.
KARINA VAHITOVA: 1 - 0 = 0 + 1. Please relate to That's When the Knives Come Down.
DOLAN MORGAN: Sundog Lit, the online journal that’s hosting the project, has been doing this type of thing for new books for a while now. It’s really gracious of them. I was first introduced to it through their texts inspired by Robert Kloss’ The Alligators of Abraham. I knew I wanted to do some kind of project like this after seeing Manuel Gonzales do a collaborative blog leading up to his book release, and it’s great to have been given such a nice platform for it with Sundog Lit.
KARINA VAHITOVA: What has it been like to see the ways in which other writers interpret your work? Have any of these interpretations changed your own understanding of That's When the Knives Come Down?
DOLAN MORGAN: It’s fun. The responses have been very different. We received poems, stories, illustrations, songs, photographs, annotations, bibliographies, and even a GIF translation of a story. I’m not sure if they altered my perception of the book so much as they validated a lot of things I was concerned about. People pulled from the stories some concepts that I worried could be buried or obscured, so in a sense this project has helped me feel like I’m not completely adrift in my own sea. I’m also really humbled when anyone spends any amount of time doing anything for me, or even for anyone at all. It’s amazing. Great job, world.
The general schism between literature and mathematics is a fact I simply do not understand. Both pursuits are so analogous and intertwined that I cannot grasp the rarity of their intersections. Both endeavor to describe the world through a system of language, often using elaborate abstractions. Both, at their far reaches, require a leap into the void, carrying nothing but imagination and a little hope.
DOLAN MORGAN: I was really surprised by the overlap of responses. I’ll give you an example. I interviewed a tow truck driver and a cruise line employee. They detail the requirements of their jobs, and what they do on a day-to-day basis couldn’t be more different. But then, in the course of the interview, they both go on to express an intimate sense of not being able to truly communicate with other people. They both talk about how hard it is to make what’s inside of their heads emerge into the world intact. Even the language they use is very similar. It’s really hypnotic to listen to these two people express the same sense of wholly personal yet obviously shared isolation. Of course, we all feel something like this, that there’s a barrier between our interior and the world, but the simultaneity of that shared experience is more depressing than it is uplifting. It’s like a bunch of people looking at each other through warped glass.
KARINA VAHITOVA: How does it feel to have written a series of short stories dedicated to — and arguably about — nothing?
DOLAN MORGAN: I’m feeling pretty good about it. A little nervous.
KARINA VAHITOVA: How did you come to be involved with MAI?
DOLAN MORGAN: Siena Oristaglio invited me to take part in some “think tanks” early on. These were dinners at her home where people came together and talked about what was possible for the Institute. I continued to pitch in as things moved forward and I helped to craft some language and ideas for the Kickstarter last year. It was a lot of fun, since it felt like a bunch of young people making a crazy idea form out of nothing. It seemed absolutely ridiculous and impossible, in the best way.
DOLAN MORGAN: The tone of the Kickstarter, and the Institute itself, was always saturated with inversion. MAI wanted to flip the idea of being funded by only a small group of wealthy backers, and instead aimed to get the bulk of their support from many small donations contributed by people who believe in the project. And so it was only natural to think that the largest donation should receive nothing. This of course is a nice embodiment of MAI’s immaterial focus. Likewise, a lot of the Kickstarter rewards had an immaterial bent to them, and so it follows that the person who donates at the highest level should get the most immaterial thing of all: nothing. As for the rewarding aspect, the main angle for me is that it’s funny. In this way, it’s as much of a reward for people who don’t receive it as for people who do. Which is great. Nothing is very easy to share. It’s a reminder that pure experience is something to hold onto, even if you can’t.
NOTHING IS VERY EASY TO SHARE. IT'S A REMINDER THAT PURE EXPERIENCE IS SOMETHING TO HOLD ONTO, EVEN IF YOU CAN'T.
DOLAN MORGAN: It’s been great. There’s a real sense of adventure and a feeling that the journal is doing something relatively new. The umbrella focus of long durational works and immaterial art keeps everything anchored, but it also allows almost anything to be incorporated. You never know what’s going to make a cameo. The focus/openness ratio reminds me a lot of Geoff Manaugh’s BLDGBLG, which excels in shoving even the most unlikely things through the lens of architecture. As a result, the journal has been a great way to connect with and learn about projects and ideas and people that just bring me a lot of joy.
KARINA VAHITOVA: A couple of weeks ago, you asked IMMATERIAL to donate “nothing” to the promotional campaign for That's When the Knives Come Down. Why did you want “nothing” from us?
DOLAN MORGAN: That’s When the Knives Come Down has a dedication: “For nothing.” I mean this in the most sentimental way possible. It’s an important part of my work and also my life. Likewise, it’s been a pivotal part of my relationship with MAI and IMMATERIAL. So it seemed like the right thing to do. Whoever wins this nothing is a very lucky person.
KARINA VAHITOVA: What do you hope that the winner of the “nothing” does with it?
DOLAN MORGAN: That’s easy. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Rip up some bread, then set it aside in a bowl of milk. Get a saute pan going over medium heat. Toss in a tablespoon of butter. Get some chopped onion in there. Now take your nothing out of the box, along with some egg yolks, kosher salt, pepper, nutmeg and onion powder, and dump it all into the milk/bread bowl. Easy. Mix it all up. You should have a thick mixture of nothing. With your hands, roll this mixture into maybe twenty little balls. Put them into that saute pan you’ve been heating. Let them cook until golden brown. This should take no more than ten minutes. Afterward, put them into the pre-heated oven. While that’s cooking, add some flour and nothing-stock to the saute pan (you should have a little nothing left over). Let that get nice and brown and then add the cream. Keep going until the sauce gets just the way you like it. Now, get your pan out of the oven, put your little beauties on a plate and dump on the sauce. Yes! Your Swedish nothing balls are ready to eat!
To purchase Dolan Morgan's That's When the Knives Come Down and have the chance to win "nothing," click here.