Deron Bauman is a writer and editor who founded the online literary journal elimae, which ran from 1996 to 2012. I was fortunate to be a part of elimae, both as a writer and editor, and some of my first fiction was edited by Deron. elimae continued to publish many of the writers who were first published in The Quarterly and eventually included Diane Williams, Gary Lutz, Dawn Raffel, Cooper Esteban, Brian Evenson, Eugene Marten, Norman Lock, Daryl Scroggins, Jane Unrue, and M Sarki to name a few. In the last years of elimae, Kim Chinquee, Cooper Renner, and I took over until elimae closed in 2012. Bauman has written two books of fiction, Mockingbird and Fort Bragg, both of which are available at his website.
Brandon Hobson: elimae started in 1996 and became one of the most prominent and respected online literary journals. What was your original intent, and do you feel it served its purpose?
Deron Bauman: elimae started as the outcome of opportunity. In ‘95 I got my first internet job, and realized pretty quickly that an online literary journal (elimae is a portmanteau of electronic literary magazine) was a logical extension of what I’d learned, technically, and my aesthetic interests. It was a pretty wide open space at the time and the only hurdles for entry were a rudimentary understanding of how to put together a website. So, once I figured that out, I began to reach out to writers I knew, most of whom had been represented in The Quarterly, and began to sketch out how I would proceed. Through the intervention of Cooper Renner, I believe, I got a call, unannounced, one afternoon from Gordon Lish, and he agreed to do an interview. That provided all the external impetus we needed. I had the technical skill and interests and Gordon gave us the stamp of approval, so we were off. It’s pretty amazing to think back now about that phone call, “Hello, Deron, this is Gordon Lish.” I had nothing but admiration for the work he brought into the world, and so I wanted to carry that forward.
BH: You also interviewed and published other well-known writers such as Diane Williams, Dawn Raffel, Brian Evenson, and Norman Lock, among others. Were you first an editor or writer?
DB: I started as a writer and the editing became an extension of that. The instinct for who and what I was interested in was evident in both. The instinct has always been there, but the craft has been a lifelong evolution. I knew Williams and Evenson and Raffel from The Quarterly and when people like Norman Lock and Eugene Marten reached out once elimae was online, their work felt like a continuation of that sensibility. In terms of influence, the first was Raymond Carver, and I wasn’t aware of the Lish connection at the time. I remember reading “Feathers” from Cathedral, which, of course, was the first book not directly under Gordon’s editorial control, but thinking this is the way you do it. I was eighteen or nineteen at the time, and that made a big impression.
I think that relationship, the one between Carver and Lish, is one of the most fascinating relationships I can think of in all of literature. Maybe Pound’s influence on Eliot’s “The Waste Land” surpasses it. It speaks so much about the twin concerns of what a writer says and how he says it and it is a story that unfolded for me almost like a detective story; recognizing something essential in the construction of those early Carver stories and then only later realizing how much they had been shaped by Gordon. I think there is an unexplored metaphor there, and it is one I have ruminated on a long time; I always thought there was a further story to be told, and for a long time I wondered if I should be the one to tell it; I know others have explored and ruminated on the dynamics and implications of that relationship as well. I don’t know, for me, it feels big: a viscous interaction constantly in flux that resulted in the final product. Those early stories wouldn’t be what they are without the influence of both men.
BH: Was that relationship an influence on you?
DB: The first and primary influence was Carver/Lish and that was amplified and transformed later when I stumbled on Thomas Bernhard.
BH: Those early Carver stories did it for me as well. Something about the compression, what’s purposefully left out. You seem to have this style in your own writing, too.
DB: Well, I’ve always been attracted to implications, what can be said after something is said, what becomes louder when something is left out. I want to continue to learn how to say what is being said well, too, though, so that what should be said is clear. It’s the process of striving for enough. I liked the idea of starting from a sketch and seeing what could be erased. How much could be left that would stand. The idea of moving from the sketch toward layers of paint, as scaffolding, was less common for me, but I have begun to learn to do that as well.
BH: You’ve always had a strong ability to recognize word choice, both as editor and writer. In some of my early work that you published in elimae, I remember you paid close attention to specific words and sounds. In both of your works, Mockingbird and Fort Bragg, this is evident as well.
DB: It seems to me word choices and sounds are the essence of what writing is. The effect can be flat or musical, lyrical or didactic, introverted or extroverted, muscular or flaccid. I imagine every telegraphist had a particular style or fluctuated the urgency of the key. A conductor does this, varies his or her movements to pronounce one emotion or phrase over another. Once the first draft is finished, that has always figured as the next step for me, listening to the flux and pace, trimming or enhancing the words needed to make what is essential clear. It varies from one work to another, obviously, so you’re always trying to listen for what that particular piece is trying to say, and how it wants to say it. You accumulate a set of tools, gradually, over time, and then wait for the moment to apply them.
BH: Do you favor writing over editing, and can you talk about their differences?
DB: I perceive every writer as an editor; that is the second phase of creating. You get something on paper and then you refine it. The first phase is writing, the second is editing, and there is a back and forth between these two modes whichever phase you are in. So for me, there isn’t necessarily a distinction. A person may be more gifted at one of these functions than the other, or enjoy one of them more than the other, but I have always thought a writer is essentially both, and it often seems the best writers inherently know how to edit their work or are as interested in learning how to edit as to write. Maybe it’s like wanting to be both the best offensive and defensive player on the court at any particular time … what does the situation call for? So the whole thing is a balance between imposition and negation. How about you? Do you see it that way?
BH: I try to do both, but often I find the editing really comes later because I revise so heavily. I try to rewrite and rewrite. The most enjoyable part is opening the door and entering the time and space where you’re looking around and figuring out distance, syntax, rhythm. It’s a slobbery thing early on, for me at least. I mean early it feels like I just slobber until I can go back and clean it up or slobber more. Nothing is ever clean early. One thing about your work, particularly in Fort Bragg, is that the narrative voice, even in its concision, manages to maintain a close distance to the reader. At the same time, the book’s structure on the surface feels difficult. Can you speak to this?
DB: Well, the structure of Fort Bragg evolved to include references to the Lewis and Clark expedition, which, if you look at it, wasn’t linear at all. I think they wanted it to be, a straightforward passageway to the Pacific to provide for trade, but what they encountered was the sort of contradictory confusion and chaos of navigating a series of rivers, in this case, in reverse, following up and along various tributaries and sometimes on foot. The rivers disappear. So the exploration, the navigation, the effort was bifurcated and dissected, fragmented, I guess, into these brief little expeditions and adventures. There’s really no coherent narrative to come out of it except for the amalgamation of the experiences contained within it and its documentation.
That said, I do think narratives coalesce, that meaning is created, as storylines and images are laid next to each other; a sort of amplification occurs, cross-references with the reader’s experiences, and the sort of blind relationships that exist between texts. A narrative accrues, and shapes itself, even if it is up a river in reverse.
BH: I’m interested in the nonlinear narrative of Fort Bragg and how you weave the autobiographical/metafictional with the fictional. What other works or writers do this type of narrative play, and were they an inspiration?
DB: Well, there is Paul Metcalf, who I read after Mockingbird, and who I have a huge affinity for. He was the great grandson of Herman Melville and used, often, historical documents to weave lyrical and profound historical fictions. His Apalache, for instance, uses primary sources to create an almost first-hand, layer by layer, chronological archeology of Europeans as they encountered the native people of this continent. It is both an amazing construction and a wholly successful narrative. Almost everything I’ve read of his is, and I can’t recommend him enough. There is W.G. Sebald, of course, who creates what appear to be rather straightforward autobiographical accounts of his life that are almost completely populated by fictional characters and encounters. And who knows how much of Thomas Bernhard is fashioned out of smoke? I mean, in some way, that’s what fiction is, isn’t it? — making the fanciful common, or weaving from the known to create a common unknown. Fiction is the most functional virtual reality we have yet to produce, and it’s hard to imagine a more seamless one. Who knows, perhaps someday we will surpass it, but it is the most immersive alternative to or enhancement of our current reality we have yet to create. Movies and television do wonderful things, but they are almost comically limited when it comes to the complexities a writer can embody with language. Which, of course, begins to open up the question of what fiction is for: the kinds of fictions we create for ourselves, our cultures, the personal and national narratives we weave and embody, religion and the fetishization of nationalism, politics, marketing, journalism … all of these things are fictions we internalize to varying degrees, and perhaps the less we recognize them as such, the more to our detriment.
BH: I think we see that in both Mockingbird and Fort Bragg. There’s also a heavy element of exposition and voice that feels important in both books. In some ways it reminds me of Michael Martone’s work.
DB: I’ll probably contradict myself all over the place with my thoughts about story, because, on the one hand, I couldn’t care less about what a piece of fiction is about. I almost always only care about how it is constructed. And on the other hand, if something is constructed well and carries the possibilities of literature forward, then the fact that it contains a well told story is icing on the cake. I want something I’m reading to accumulate to something larger than a story arc. And I also almost don’t care what it is that it accrues to. Show me what it accrues to; give me the inkling, the spark, and that is what I return to over and over from literature. The essence of the indescribable that eludes us at every moment but which each of us inherently knows. It is the shock of the inarticulably obvious. A writer better and always better be making an effort toward whatever that is, or in short, he or she is wasting our time.
BH: That feels very much in line with your work. In Fort Bragg, which is full of diary entries, journals, and numerous narratives, you write, “Modernism wants to be inclusive.” Later, a character confesses, “I don’t remember things in great detail or order…” which feels very honest. I mean, there’s no denying this is a difficult book in all its nonlinear narrative—yet it feels very controlled, too. I’ve known you for over ten years and knew only of Mockingbird. How long did you work on Fort Bragg?
DB: I guess it depends on how we define it. I began working on the structure of the book I would say sometime mid-summer. (I checked the metadata of one of the documents, and it said August 29th, but I know I had already begun folding things together before that point.) Some of the texts that are in the book, though, where written in my early twenties, so that would make parts of the book twenty-two or twenty-three years old. Which, of course, also includes rewritten, edited, and revised chunks of text from the early founding and exploration of this country. So, from a personal and historical stand-point, it’s got narratives floating around from many eras. Which, now that I say it, makes perfect sense to me.
BH: There are moments in both of your books that I see hints of Lish, Norman Lock, Dawn Raffel. Are they the most influential to your work?
DB: I would say no, except perhaps by osmosis. Lish certainly is and was an influence both by his own work, his introduction of the seemingly casual voice into the literary, and the vast breadth of the work he championed and published, but I have been more drawn to Guy Davenport, Paul Metcalf, and Thomas Bernhard in my own reading and lately have been going back to Huysmans and working through the vast catalog of Vollmann’s work than spending as much time with the minimalists as I did in my early twenties. (Which is in no way a knock on Raffel or Lock. I love both of them.) Of course, Diane Williams continues to be someone I am very much drawn to. And I have begun Lish’s Goings and it is masterful, and I have also loved the work of Jane Unrue, who works and plays with language in ways I am very much attracted to, and which, I think, Joyce would have been fond of as well. I love Eudora Welty. I love Penelope Fitzgerald. I loved Flannery O’Connor’s novels and Barry Hannah. Donald Barthelme was very important to me. Ernest Hemingway. William Faulkner. Flaubert. And Don DeLillo. There are so many to name. Gary Lutz. Brian Evenson. Mike Sarki. Daryl Scroggins. Eugene Marten. Cooper Esteban. The overlapping circles of all of these relationships and influences continue to reverberate whenever I reach for something new. Everything is imprinted in us. These aesthetic experiences and influences. I love the visual and cinematic as well. Agnes Marten. Stanley Kubrick. William Eggleston. Garry Winogrand. Errol Morris. Werner Herzog. How are we to catalog all the work that flows through us? I have no idea. But it is all present and accounted for in accumulation. Plus the vast and tumultuous life experiences that enhance and negate us.
BH: I became very interested in the visual and cinematic as well, particularly in my last book, which is somewhat influenced by Vollmann. I’m always interested in blurring fiction with nonfiction. I like that you say “Everything is imprinted in us.”
DB: Yes, everything gets caught up, the personal, the political, the aesthetic … fiction, non-fiction, it’s all a web we traverse. I mean, you made a book out of the non-existent sex tape of a foundational cinematic pioneer, something that has now become common, a calling card of sorts, a way to say here I am. A late-twentieth century debutante ball. I don’t even know what I’m trying to say with that except that we live in interesting times and any fiction we attempt will immediately abut those realities, so we either compete against them or say fuck it. I guess I try to do both.
BH: Do you plan to do any more editing in the future, or stay with writing only?
DB: I think the only way I’d do more editing at this point is if I decided to start elimae again, or if a friend wanted help with a manuscript. At the moment I feel focused on the process of writing, which as I mentioned, is as much about editing for me as the creative act itself. There’s a lot I want to explore.
Brandon Hobson is the author, most recently, of Desolation of Avenues Untold. He has won a Pushcart Prize, and his work has appeared in such places as Conjunctions, NOON, The Paris Review Daily, The Believer, Post Road, and elsewhere. You can read more here: http://brandonhobson.com