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Online Fiction Interview: David Naimon

David Naimon author photo in black and whiteDavid Naimon [1]‘s “The Battle [2]” is an oddball buddy tale of sorts set in a Black Sea bunker in some not-too-far-off future. The stakes are high—international tensions run deep as global warming has opened the arctic to shipping lanes—and Sergei, Naimon’s protagonist, is charged with monitoring the progress of Russian submarines as they stake claims on the seafloor. This story has the distinction of being the ASF online exclusive in which the least actually happens, and yet, as Naimon told us in the following interview, “The Battle” is a mere snippet from a longer work being co-written by Naimon and author Ben Parzybok [3]. Naimon recently talked to us about the story, the challenges of co-authorship, and about his role as the host of the excellent podcast Between the Covers [1]


Nate Brown: In the “The Battle,” we’ve got this very close setting, a monotonous job, and a world that’s accessed only via a screen and your protagonist, Sergei’s, imagination. It actually reminded me of something out of Beckett—or maybe Brecht, since there’s actually a lot of sentiment here, too. Were you looking to any other writers or forms of storytelling when you wrote this? 

David Naimon: I am interested in technology and imagination in relation to language, how that screen is both a portal and a barrier to communication (and by extension how our imaginations both animate and  distort the information that passes from one to another through a screen). But I wonder, when you press further on this issue of communication, whether language itself isn’t also a technology, a screen. When we have a feeling, we upload it into a code—a word, a series of them—and another takes that code and translates it back into a feeling. Can we ever know how those two feelings are the same or different as they get mediated through language? I do love writers who play with this mystery. One of the more ingenious conceits, if not one of his more successful books, is Calvino’s The Castle of Crossed Destinies. Travelers cross paths at a lodge, but a peculiar lodge—when you enter it you lose the ability to speak. Armed only with a Tarot deck they try to express the stories of their journeys to each other, putting them down in a certain order to create a narrative, but constrained by what cards are already down on the table which they must relate theirs to.

Others that come to mind are: the short story by Harry Mathews, “Country Cooking from Central France: Roast Boned Rolled Stuffed Shoulder of Lamb (Farce Double),” a story that is somehow also a wondrously improbable yet painstakingly detailed recipe and a hilarious, profound meditation on translation, much of George Saunders, and yes, of course Beckett who is perhaps the godfather of the literature of language and its failures (and who exhorts us to “fail better”). But if I’m honest none of these writers, none of these themes, were on my mind when I wrote “The Battle.” On the one hand, I’m surprised to see them pointed out to me, but when I think a little longer about it, not so much, since these issues are rarely far from my mind.

NB: Oddly, I also felt there was a script-like quality to the piece, too, though the action is fairly limited. Really, the only thing that happens in the narrative present is that Sergei, while daydreaming and pining, listens to some orders and complies by looking at his monitor. How do you keep a story that’s so limited in its action moving along? How do you keep a reader interested? 

DN: Good question. Not sure I’m the best person to answer this. If I had to guess, I’d say by establishing desire and then thwarting it.

NB: Fair enough, but let me put it to you this way: when you’re writing a story in which the moments set in the narrative present are as quiet as they are in this excerpt, what compels you to write forward? Is it curiosity about Sergei’s interior life? Is it the opportunity to break away from the present moment via flashback, as you do here when you describe Sergei and Ivan’s drunken Anastasia Day celebration?

DN: I suppose what keeps my interest is how best to weave the three ‘battles’—the geopolitical battle, the battle between Sergei and Vladmir for Anna, and The Battle of the Accordions—in such a way so that when Ivan wakes up from his stupor, having missed most of the ‘story,’ and says “who won?” there is enough ambiguity that it resonates against all three. That, and writing the adolescent boy-humor.

NB: On my first reading, I had the sense that I was encountering something that was historical—perhaps because of that oxidized copper grill in the first line. It becomes clear, though, through a number of details that we’re are more likely somewhere in the future. Can you talk a bit about that temporal ambiguity and what it’s like to write a piece that in some ways feels both historical and speculative.

DN: Even though “The Battle” is a stand-alone vignette, it is also part of a larger co-written book (with Small Beer Press [4] novelist Ben Parzybok) that takes place in the Arctic of the future, when the ice cap has melted enough to open transpolar trade routes. Nations are staking their claims, but unexplainable things are also happening, or at least stories are being told about unexplainable things happening ‘way up there.’ Given that, in my mind, the heart of the novel is about the limitations of human ingenuity, the mysteries just beyond our mind’s grasp, about how to find meaning when you wake up late in your life’s trajectory to discover you’ve been sleepwalking through it, we didn’t want the novel to be full of technology and its latest advances. We wanted to foreground character, and due to shared aesthetic preferences in this regard, we liked the idea of making a world that seemed both pre-twentieth century and futuristic.

It’s harder for us to imagine now, with the globe at least seeming fully ‘discovered’ and mapped, but in the nineteenth century the poles endlessly captivated writers’ imaginations. From Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth, to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Poe’s only novel The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, the poles were the imaginative screen upon which our weird fever dreams of the future were projected. Perhaps our retro-future is a nod to them.

NB: Could you also tell us a bit about collaborating with another writer? What are the logistics of co-authorship in this case? What’s your routine?

DN: It’s interesting to me that co-writing is rare in literary fiction. It is much more common in both genre  and experimental fiction. In the former, everyone from Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Stephen King, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Neal Stephenson and George R.R. Martin have written collaborative novels. In the latter, collaborative writing occurs in constraint-based writing (e.g. OuLiPo) where the collaboration itself is one of the work’s constraints. Ken Kesey, Harry Mathews and Julianna Spahr all come to mind as people who have written collaborative experimental fictions.

In our case we each have characters and chapters that are mainly under a given author’s purview. To some degree, on the sentence-level, we write toward a third style that we developed happenstance on the page that is neither of our individual styles. We mainly need to meet to discuss/debate/hash-out plot, and we have a system where we edit each other’s chapters, but each author is, at least initially, advancing the arcs of certain characters and not so much others. Co-writing has been amazing from the perspective of world-building and really hard when we’ve come up against differences in taste and sensibility. We’ve taken long breaks to focus on other projects (and for the benefit of our friendship!) but just recently, after the longest hiatus, we traveled together to Alaska in February to discuss how to best get back to the table for the next round.

NB: I love the idea of a “third-style” that’s something wholly other than what either of you would write individually. Can you describe the stylistic differences between what you consider your particular style and this third style?

DN: I think the third-style arises from the ways we push back against certain tendencies of our co-writer. In my case, Ben often balks when the thoughts of ‘my’ character become too un-rooted from scene, too fully interior and mental, not enough on-the-body. I wouldn’t say the style that I write with Ben is ‘wholly other’ than my own style, but in this other style, mind and body, thought and action, character and plot are more balanced, less lopsided than in my own writing.

NB: What are you working on other than the novel?

DN: I’m working my way slowly toward a collection of stories, true and otherwise. And I’ve begun a fragmentary, collage-like memoir that is nagging at me to commit to more deeply.

NB: You’re the host of “Between the Covers” out of KBOO 90.7 FM in Portland. You have talked to so many wonderful authors, Karen Russell, Claudia Rankine, Junot Diaz, George Saunders, and Chang-rae Lee among them. Can you talk a bit about how your life as a writer and your life as a reader and interviewer overlap? Or maybe they don’t?

DN: They definitely cross-fertilize and alter the trajectory of each other. When you read a book where you know you will not only meet the author right after finishing it, but will be discussing their work in a public forum, it can’t help but alter the way you read. It makes me read more carefully of course, but it also makes me interrogate my own preferences and responses to the text, and to think about the text in relationship to the writer’s larger body of work.

I can’t separate my interests as a writer from my interests in the type of writing I want to talk about in an interview. More and more I’m interested in writers who are defying genre-boundaries. The more memorable books I’ve read for the radio show/podcast are often the ones that do this. Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? and Kyle Minor’s Praying Drunk were respectively two of my favorite reads of their years, partly because of the way they complicate the fiction/nonfiction divide. Sarah Manguso and Claudia Rankine plumb the boundaries of poetry and nonfiction, Leni Zumas, Luca DiPierro and Claudia Rankine, the relation of text and image,  Jonathan Lethem, Karen Russell and Kelly Link straddle the ‘literary’ v. ‘genre fiction’ divide, etc.

Lastly, I’m interested in authors who bring issues of race or gender or social justice to the forefront, writers who implicate the reader and make us have to reexamine our position in relationship to these issues. That pretty much sums up the weird mix of interests in my brain right now, as a writer and as an interviewer. I love imagining a listener coming to the podcast because of Lorrie Moore or Jo Walton, and leaving with a newfound interest in China Mieville or George Saunders.


David Naimon‘s work appears or is forthcoming in Tin HouseFourth GenreStory QuarterlyZYZZYVA, and Fiction International and elsewhere. He lives in Portland, Oregon where he hosts the literary radio program and podcast Between The Covers [5] on KBOO 90.7FM.