Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Archives become him: In conversation with Angela Szczepaniak

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Archives become him: In conversation with Angela Szczepaniak

Angela Szczepaniak is the author of Unisex Love Poems (DC Books, 2008) . Her forthcoming book is The QWERTY Institute of Cosmetic Typographical Enhancements.

See her read with Bill Kennedy, and Eric Foley on Tuesday, April 19 at 6:30pm; Avant Garden, at the Ossington at 61 Ossington Avenue.

AH: Could you describe the format of your upcoming book?

AS: It’s actually an oversized (9” x 12”) book called The QWERTY Institute (annual report) with a smaller (5” x 6”) book tucked in (hopefully) a back pocket of the larger book—the smaller one is called The QWERTY Institute of Cosmetic Typographical Enhancement.

Altogether, it’s a collection of “visual fictions.” Basically it’s a short story collection, but all of these stories have an active engagement with the visual aspects of the page and language, and how that affects the narratives and reading the book. The larger text has a bunch of typeface cartoon stories—ranging from 2-15 pages—plus two other long stories: “Fully Formed” (which used to be Bookworm, with Hillary) and “Bitter Heaven: a typeface romance.” The smaller book is a unified typeface cartoon book, which is written like an overzealous pamphlet for alphabetic plastic surgery (serif extensions, permanent bolding, prosthetic accents… that kind of thing).

AH: Your upcoming book, The QWERTY Institute (annual report), is, in part, about an archivist, Hillary Brown, who develops a technique to physically turn himself into an archive. There is at once a criticism of the limitations of archives as well as a fascination and celebration of them. Do you think this assessment is useful and if so, did you feel yourself balancing these two throughout the writing/ editing?

AS: It’s a very apt assessment, and an issue I was interested in teasing out throughout the writing. With “Fully Formed,” it was fascinating to see how much a character could be built and developed by bureaucratic forms and not much else. It says so much about a person if they have a pet owner’s application or a snail husbandry license on file, say. But the story wonders, too, just how “human” that kind of character investigation can be; how it may or not play into obsessions with documentation; that kind of thing.

AH: Unisex Love Poems was often concerned with etiquette, specifically dating etiquette. Do you feel your second book is related in that it also addresses questions of "how-to-be" in the world? Do you think that is a useful point of similarity when looking at the two texts?

AS: Both books are, in part, concerned with “how-to-be”—when considered at a slight distance, those “rules” (especially when they’re written down by “experts,” like etiquette manual writers) seem absurd and arbitrary. But what connects the two books more is that they’re both centrally concerned with language. As much as the “rules” interest me, it’s almost stranger how these things are phrased, how the jargon of dating etiquette, for instance, shapes the experience. What struck me most about the etiquette language was how euphemistic it is—how many really creative ways of not saying something there are. So in that case, language conceals as much as it reveals, which was an interesting kind of line to explore. ULP also fuses different jargons in inappropriate contexts, which creates a very unsettling atmosphere—like using medical terminology in recipes makes the idea of eating meat intensely repulsive, or funny, or just odd.

The QWERTY books get into more language issues—large sections of the book are written with letters as characters (in the narrative sense), but behave like people, and one of the other stories focuses on a language researcher who tracks a giant font that is a living sea-creature (well, “c-creature” in the book).

AH: Poetry collections are often read "out of order" or not from beginning to end. This seems particularly pertinent to the QWERTY books, which are partly made up of documents representing Hillary Brown/ his life. The process of reading as active and having an impact on the physicality (ways-of-being again) of the text is emphasized.

AS: Ordering is central to the QWERTY books. One of the other longer stories in the collection, “Bitter Heaven: a typeface romance,” is based on the discovery of a language researcher’s papers, which had been reorganized by voles living in the library that housed his files. This story is organized entirely by an ad hoc filing system that wears its gaps on its sleeve. Everything you learn about the protagonist is through the fragments of information that survived the voles. There’s also an introduction that frames the story, written by an academic who makes all kinds of conclusions and assumptions about the protagonist and his work based on little shreds (literally) of information. He kind of builds this whole biographical story by ordering fragments of papers, newspaper clippings, remnants of field notes from the protagonist’s expeditions and journals, etc. In this story I was interested in how stories are constructed, literally by assembling whatever information is at hand, and how even just the organization process influences the narrative. Although this story imposes a reading order (by not being structured with loose sheets that the reader can physically shuffle into another order—short of tearing out the pages, of course), it’s possible to read it out of that order (like how you describe reading a poetry book), and by doing that the reader can create a different narrative—in this particular story, that won’t change the basics of story into something completely different, but the sense of the “true” version of events would shift according to the order in which different documents are presented.

AH: Where did the idea for Hillary Brown come from? It seems rather dream-like, and recalls, for one, The Metamorphosis, if Gregor Samsa had actively set about transforming himself. What do you see as precursors or precedents to Hilary Brown’s story?

AS: Well, it started with a kind of pun or wordplay—“life” and “file” have the same basic alphabetic formation, with a different letter order. From there I started to think about how similar their meanings are/aren’t, and what happens when they’re conflated. I definitely see Kafka as a loose inspiration for the “Fully Formed” story—not just for the metamorphosis stuff, but, even more, the obsession with documents and bureaucracy. I think anyone who’s ever dealt with a bank or government office has felt reduced to their file at one time or another, so for Hillary, I just made that literal.

AH: The plot of Hilary Brown section of The Qwerty Institute seems to ask the question, which is more important: living more important than the traces we leave behind? What is more interesting, the subject or the objects that constellated around/ belonged to the subject? Do these questions speak to your experience of writing the text? What other questions were you concerned with?

AS: My central questions came from trying to build a character from just the bureaucratic paper trail we leave, and the assumptions that can be made about a person based on public records alone—how much of a person’s residue (ew) is wrapped up in these documents, like if you consider things like how the institutions we deal with on a regular basis so often reduce people to account numbers and transaction records. Then I got really into the history of archiving, different types of organization, the kinds of documents/records/objects that are deemed worthy of preservation, and what that may say about us.

AH: What would your writing utopia look like?

AS: I’d love a world in which all different kinds of writers got paid enough to live for just their writing.

AH: In some ways, I think that adapting a book to a film is like adapting a sculpture into a song, the media are so different and the expectations are as well. That said, to my mind, No Country for Old Men is a good adaptation, it stays true to the book in terms of plot, dialogue, pacing and atmosphere. Do you have a favourite book to movie adaptation? Do you have a least favourite?

AS: I kind of prefer to think of a film adaptation of a book as its own thing, apart from the book. I really love Naked Lunch—the way it doesn’t try to deal with plot so much as the tone and atmosphere of the book, and manages to hit Burroughs’ conception of language and his way of working through that, while also hitting Cronenberg’s body horror. I’m most disappointed with comics-into-film adaptations—I liked aspects of Art School Confidential (the film), but I think I wanted different things from it because I love Clowes’ work so much. It’s not really fair to the film, but I guess that’s one obstacle adaptations have to hurdle with audiences.

AH: You are a PhD candidate at SUNY Buffalo. Could you talk about the texts that you worked on and how your appreciation for them changed during your work? Do you feel like there is a distancing and objectification that takes place when working on text academically that takes the pleasure out of the text and if so how did you try to mediate that?

AS: I researched reading theories as they relate to comic books, primarily. I ended up focusing most on works by Chris Ware, bpNichol, and Art Spiegelman, all favourites of mine. I understand what you mean about the distancing that can happen with academic writing—having to footnote all your responses to a text can quickly suck the pleasure out of it. The demands of academic writing definitely shaped my relationship to the texts I was studying, but mostly in positive ways. I feel like I understand why I like the kinds of books I like, and what they mean to me in ways I wouldn’t have pushed myself to consider otherwise. It also changed how I relate to my creative writing in ways I didn’t anticipate. I usually think of creative and academic work as completely different endeavours (for me—others negotiate those boundaries differently). And they still are different kinds of thinking for me, but a side-effect of all the theoretical and critical work I was reading was that I have a much more nuanced understanding of how books can come together, so I have a lot more fun stretching those formal limits. A friend of mine who read the “Bitter Heaven” and “Fully Formed” stories in QWERTY said I must have really hated the academic process, because both stories feature pretty extreme academic windbags. I think it’s the opposite though—I really delight in the kind of windbaggery they get up to; academic language is often considered dry and lifeless, but it can be exhilarating to immerse yourself in the arcane language of a completely invented discipline, like those stories do.

Listen to her read here:

Check out Szczepaniak’s work set to music at the Mad Hatter’s Review:

Read previous OBT interview here:

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

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Go to Angela Hibbs’s Author Page