Literary Geometry: an interview with Brian Conn

by Jedediah Berry

Brian Conn’s first novel, The Fixed Stars: Thirty-Seven Emblems for the Perilous Season, was published by FC2 in the spring of 2010. An intricate, innovative, and beautifully realized book about a far-future society contending with mysterious plagues and its own violent customs, The Fixed Stars is speculative fiction at once challenging and deeply rewarding, alive with a kind of mythic strangeness.

Conn teaches writing at the University of Rhode Island and, with Joanna Ruocco, co-edits Birkensnake, an “imperfectly bound” journal of fiction. He agreed to discuss the process of writing his book, touching upon such topics as toothpick models, the language of mathematics, and why he doesn’t like The Grapes of Wrath.


Jedediah Berry: What were the practical circumstances of writing The Fixed Stars? Were you enrolled in an MFA program the entire time you were working on it? What was your process like, on a day-to-day level?

Brian Conn: The answer to this question is actually complicated and strange, but here are the concrete parameters. In spring of 2007 I was in my first year of the Brown MFA program and happened to write what would later become Sections 1.1 and 1.3 of The Fixed Stars. I brought them to our workshop as a single piece, and everyone said, “Yes, but where is the long story that is obviously supposed to follow these incidents?” So I wrote a little more, but still no one was satisfied.

As I was wondering what to do, my dad, who lives in Hawaii, invited me to come stay there. He owned this small condo in Hilo that he was converting to a “vacation rental” (many residences in Hawaii are “vacation rentals”—it’s a common term to describe what a structure is, like “warehouse” or “retail space”), and as it was unoccupied for the summer, I went to Hawaii to write in the summer of 2007. Hilo has a comfortable, post-apocalyptic feel, close to the early 20th-century colonial feel that you find in Somerset Maugham—it’s hot and dusty and buildings are being swallowed before your eyes by vines. I knew nobody in town (my dad and his wife live farther up the coast) and had no Internet access and only a prepaid cell phone, so I had very little contact with people and would go for days without speaking. I had an old laptop on which to write; I had access to the Hilo Public Library; and I had brought alongGrimm’s Fairy Tales and The Viking Portable Shakespeare. I walked around a lot, but I forgot that if you’re going to walk in flip-flops you first have to develop calluses, and before I did I accidentally walked about three miles to the nearest beach, then three miles back with pieces of my feet held together with duct tape. (I don’t know where I got the duct tape, but for some reason I had it.) I ate white pineapples and had dreams about giant insects. There was a dictionary in the condo that included not only entries for words but also entries for certain historical persons and concepts, and it was from this dictionary that I learned about “blue mass,” which was an actual medical remedy of the 19th century, a wad of mercury that you’d swallow to sort of shovel out your gut.

Some of the sections got mixed up later on, but I ended up writing most of Chapters 3 and 4 in Hawaii, about half of Chapter 1, and a good bit of Chapter 5—in all, about half the book. After I finished a section I would wander around for several days trying to think of some event or voice or revelation that would, in some poorly comprehended yet very particular way, contradict everything that I’d already written. I’d discard idea after idea, and then at some point I’d think of an idea and laugh out loud, suddenly and involuntarily, and this idea would be the basis of the next section.

I now think of that summer as a time of intoxicating creativity, and simultaneously of terrifying confusion and despair. I’m sure these two impressions are closely related. I can see the causality flowing in either direction: maybe creativity is actually deeply terrifying, maybe confusion and despair forced me to abandon my usual thinking and reach for something new. Maybe both.

I more or less finished the book in Providence, during the second year of my MFA program. At this time it became important to me to be in a different physical setting while writing each section: I had to keep writing in different places in the city, or at different times of day. Section 6.1 was written late at night in a darkened and deserted office in Brown’s Literary Arts Department; 3.6 was written over winter break, also late and in the dark, on nights when I’d been reading Dickens all day.

One result of all this, at least for me, is that every section in the book has its own special flavor. None of them quite seem to belong with any of the others in the same book. This is something I like, and it makes me glad I did it that way.

JB: Can you describe the stages by which you came to know the setting of the novel? While reading it, I found myself wondering how much you knew about this world and its people when you began work on the book, and whether your ideas changed significantly during the writing process. Were there important discoveries you made along the way?

BC: The setting actually emerged naturally from the voices. When I wrote the first section, the old man’s speech, I didn’t know what I was doing, I just let him talk, but the way he talks already implies most of the key features of the world: the people are scared of certain things, like heat and hierarchies, and they have particular ways of talking or not talking about those things, and a certain relationship to the past, and so on. The next two sections, the one in which Molly and her mother first visit the bathhouse and the one in which two children discover Molly’s abandoned wagon, are also, for me, driven by voice—they’re ways of responding to and maybe denying the old man’s voice—and they come with their own implications about the world. Those three sections stake out the broad limits. After them it became a matter of introducing new voices that would expand or complicate the world without breaking it.

A lot of details I made up ad hoc. If I wanted to talk about a certain kind of object, or a certain kind of action, I blithely invented technologies and customs to facilitate that. I remember being worried that those details would end up stepping on each other’s toes, and thinking I’d have to go back and do some painful reconciliation, but as it turned out everything got along pretty well. I think because the voices are, at least in some way, in harmony with each other, the setting that they generated is naturally fairly consistent.

There are a few things that took me a long time to work out, and that I had to think about more analytically. The crèche system, and the way the children arrive and mature and take to the road—that took a long time, and most of what I settled on didn’t end up in the book, or is there only in passing. I remember lying awake late at night staring at the ceiling and thinking abnormal things about reproduction. I didn’t figure out what to do about sex and gender until very near the end, and had to go back and make some careful changes.

I should add that I did grow up in a sort of odd mountain community, and I had a girlfriend a few years ago who worked in a Waldorf school, where children are conceptualized in unusual ways. I’m sure those memories got activated as I was writing. But for me the voices controlled when and how they got activated.

Here’s another way of thinking about it: I recently read Georges Perec’s A Void, which is written without the letter e. It’s a bit of a stunt, but it brings you to face to face with a fact that is obvious but also easy to forget, namely that stories are made out of language; things you do to the language affect the story, and vice versa. Because there are no e’s in A Void, there are many objects that can never appear in the story, and many acts the characters cannot perform. In The Fixed Stars I didn’t spend much time thinking about setting as such, but I spent a lot of time thinking about language, and I still think of many decisions as language decisions even though they could also be understood as setting decisions. The setting consists of the things the characters like to talk about. One of the last changes I made, a line edit on the page proofs, was in Section 2.2, where Hector is talking to the builder; Hector described the builder’s silence as “the silence of the tomb,” but I changed it to “the silence of death.” You can see this as a setting decision—these people don’t build tombs, the idea of a structure for dead people would be offensive to them—but it presented itself to me as a language decision: the word “tomb” is not in Hector’s vocabulary. Maybe that clarifies a bit.

JB: It does, and it brings to mind the fact that the adult characters in the book are never referred to by name, but rather by the work they do, or by some object with which they’re associated. So we have “the woman who grew nutritive moss,” “the builder,” “the woman who nurtured spiders.” In that sense, people are linked to words and language, and also to things. Could you talk a bit about this? What are the implications of this structure?

BC: Yes, that’s right, children have names but adults are usually described by what they do. I don’t know when it occurred to me that this should be the case, but it was early on, and as soon as I thought of it I never doubted. There are a few exceptions or complications: during the John’s Day festival adults seem to have different, largely food-based kinds of names; some adults are described only as “the young woman” or “the old man”; and one, the man like a bear, is described according to how he looks instead of what he does (although at times it seems like that’s also what he does—acts like a bear). And maybe the small doctor should also be mentioned here.

To me, having a name is a bit secretive—people have to refer to you without actually saying anything about you—and children seem to have more secrets than adults. There’s a lot in the book about the secrets language keeps, and a tension between what’s being said and what actually seems to be going on in the world of the story. In the first section the old man refuses to say words like “fire” and “city” but is obsessed with these concepts, so that his whole speech is one long circumlocution and the very words that don’t appear in it are the things it’s most about. Sometimes the characters’ biological sexes seem not to correspond with the genders of the pronouns that are being used to refer to them. And then you have scenes where multiple characters do the same work, so that, in Section 5.2, “the man who scrubbed stones” refers to two different individuals; likewise, a single individual might do different things at different times, and so be named differently. And in 6.4 and 6.5 three children decide to become one, and are addressed thereafter as a single individual named Miriam. The point is that if you’re focusing on that gap between language and reality, names form a subset of language that seems even more arbitrary and bizarre than normal language, and so it makes sense to think about names.

I find the crèche and the children’s society frightening. Some people I’ve talked to find the whole book frightening, but I don’t—only the children. They seem to exist in parallel to the society proper, and do not follow its rules. For example, it’s possible to discern a very definite hierarchy among the children; the adults would never permit this. And naming becomes important here too, because names allow the children to have stable identities in a way that adults don’t, and that allows a hierarchy to be established. The central tension in the book, for me, is between coming together and drawing apart: the adults are pushing to live entirely in community, to efface all the differences between themselves and become one thing, and so they’ve given up everything that might be theirs individually, including their names. But the children do things differently.

JB: I wonder if you could say a bit more about the language of the book. For me, the long, rolling sentences—always precise and often lofty in tone—recall scripture. Is there anything to that? Can you identify any major influences on your prose style?

BC: Other people have also said scripture, and I see where that comes from. I’ve actually read very little scripture, and when I think of scripture-like language I think of The Grapes of Wrath; I had to read it in high school, and I recall my teacher repeatedly saying, “the rhythms of the King James Bible.” I have a very low opinion of The Grapes of Wrath. On the other hand, I read P. G. Wodehouse a lot—probably more often than I read any other writer. And there’s a certain way that scripture and Shakespeare and other Western-canon texts come into Wodehouse sometimes, where they’ll be reasonably apt but also somehow alienated. “I retired to an arm-chair and put my feet up, sipping the mixture with carefree enjoyment, rather like Caesar having one in his tent the day he overcame the Nervii” (from Right Ho, Jeeves).

But I think of the language of The Fixed Stars primarily as a language of circumlocution, a way to be simultaneously precise and obscure. In that sense it owes a lot to the language of mathematics. If you’ve taken a calculus class you probably learned about “limits.” The concept of a limit is pretty simple, and can be explained clearly in a few minutes with a piece of paper and a pencil; but the formal definition of a limit is much more difficult, so that once you see it you have to think about it for a long time to figure out what it means, and then for an even longer time to convince yourself that it actually corresponds to the simple intuitive notion that was so easy to understand with the help of the paper and the pencil. And there are many other mathematical concepts that suffer this same schism between concept and definition. It’s not unusual, in a math textbook, to come across some statement like “We’re going to introduce a new concept now, but its definition is so esoteric that we’re first going to spend several chapters describing the concept and even developing theorems based on it, and only then give the formal definition”—a definition, the book does not state but everyone knows, that you may not really understand until you have used the concept every day for twenty years. But the definition is of course formulated to be perfectly precise, so one arrives at the conclusion that precision is sometimes at odds with clarity.

Here’s an example from Euclid:

If a straight line be bisected and a straight line be added to it in a straight line, the rectangle contained by the whole with the added straight line and the added straight line together with the square on the half is equal to the square on the straight line made up of the half and the added straight line.

Right? Well, maybe it’s clearer in Greek. But the real issue is that he’s trying to express in natural language an idea that is not native to natural language; the theorem above gets much easier to understand if you draw a picture, and easier still if you reduce it to algebra. To me, part of the job of fiction is to express things that are real but that somehow fall in the shadows or interstices of everyday language, so that we don’t quite know how to think about them; in The Fixed Stars I attempt to draw explicit attention to those shadows or interstices, to use a language that is precise and expressive but that nevertheless leaves us in the dark about the things that are most important.

As for other specific language influences, I should mention Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics, one of my favorite books and one that was often in my mind as I was writing. Beckett, of course. Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and other oral literature that has been translated awkwardly into written literature. Plus many writers whose influence is mainly restricted to one section; for example, I owe Section 3.6 to Marie Redonnet, 3.2 to Elaine Kraf.

JB: I’m glad you brought up mathematics, because I wanted to ask about your background in that field, and whether it influenced the structure of the book, which seems to have a carefully considered architecture to it. There is also some imagery, much of it having to do with physical structures (the bathhouse, a crescent-shaped building), that suggests a kind of mathematical logic. Did you sketch out any of these structures? There’s such care put into the descriptions, I was sometimes left with the impression of maps and blueprints.

BC: I actually made a 3-D model of the bathhouse out of toothpicks and a kind of flour-water-salt paste. Not with actual rooms or anything like that, but just to get an idea of how the space worked. My formal background in math is actually pretty minimal. I was into it in high school (I am the co-founder of the Los Gatos High School Math Club), and then did a lot at first in college, but ended up moving away from it. Then I took a math class as part of my MFA program at Brown, which is exactly the kind of unexpected and useful thing you can do in the MFA program at Brown. Last fall I enrolled in a graduate program in math at the University of Rhode Island, where I teach writing; it was going pretty well, but it turned out they couldn’t support me financially, and I was seeing some bleak years ahead, so I left during the first semester. So my academic record just shows a few courses, but it’s something I’m always thinking about and sometimes reading about.

It was while I was in that program at URI that FC2 asked me for a bio, which is why The Fixed Starssays, “Brian Conn studies mathematics in southern Rhode Island.” It stopped being true a few weeks after I sent it to them, but I rather like that this relatively permanent description of me is stuck in what turned out to be a brief period in my life.

I agree that a mathematical way of thinking often finds its way into my writing. It just makes sense to me, in The Fixed Stars, that there should be complex internal rules about which words can and can’t occur in which sections, and how many objects of certain kinds there should be in each section, and so on. I couldn’t even articulate those rules now, but of course I knew them well at the time. Come to think of it, maybe that isn’t math but occultism. I guess the two fields are related.

JB: Questions of genre are often reductive, but there are parts of the novel that seem like conscious explorations of genre fiction elements. Did you have this in mind while you were writing? Are there particular works of speculative fiction that served as inspiration for The Fixed Stars?

BC: The genre question seems like it should be a fertile one, but I guess it’s something I’ve thought about for so long that I no longer have much to say about it. I do read speculative fiction, not predominantly, but significantly. While I was writing The Fixed Stars I definitely read works by Gene Wolfe, Kelly Link, John Crowley, Octavia Butler, Philip K. Dick, probably others; elements of those might have found their way in. Of course the book is set in the far future and full of fairy tales, and those two features alone are enough to give it a strong speculative feel.

The Fixed Stars also has a vampire fixation, which comes not from fairy tales or from genre fiction but from Rhode Island history: the last person to be publicly exhumed as a vampire in North America was Mercy Brown of Exeter, Rhode Island, in 1892. It seems they used to confuse tuberculosis with vampirism: Mercy got TB and died, then her brother Edwin got sick, and they blamed Mercy—so they dug up her corpse and burned her heart and Edwin had to eat the ashes. He too died shortly thereafter. Today people occasionally leave weird things on her grave in Exeter, and the headstone is in this sort of concrete and steel brace to keep people from stealing it or whatever. I read about this and visited the grave around the time I was starting the book—which accounts not only for the vampire focus, but also for the disease focus and for the way the two sometimes get conflated.

There is also a kind of space opera going on in Section 4.2 (the play), which is a result of certain confusions that the people in the time of The Fixed Stars suffer when trying to reconstruct our own time. Science fiction was a big part of the 20th century, and a lot of real-world choices made in the ’60s and ’70s seem to have come out of a kind of science-fictional mindset; think for example of the Space Needle in Seattle. And we do in fact have spaceships these days, and it seems entirely possible that we’ll have more of them in the future, in one form or another. So it’s understandable that people looking back on limited evidence of our time might not be able to tell which discourses were real and which were imaginary.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010