The other day a buddy lifted D. Foy’s novel off my desk, skimmed a couple pages, and said, “I can’t tell if this is awful or great.”
Two Dollar Radio’s Eric Obenauf had a similar reaction: Two months after passing on Made to Break, Obenauf had a revelation about Foy’s style, reread the manuscript in one sitting, and called that night to buy the rights.
Foy has dubbed his work gutter opera for its juxtaposition of the rarefied and profane, its nasty musicality. “There’s a rhythm and a cadence and a melody and all those things that I’m really concerned with,” Foy says. “But there’s also a certain blue collar trashiness that is part of my makeup. I ran away a lot as a kid, and I spent a lot of time on the street, so I have a foul mouth.” Foy punctuates this statement and countless others with hard laughter.
Gutter opera has left fans and critics alike scrambling for comparisons, and some of the blurbs lining Made to Break’s jacket read like elaborate spoofs. It’s natural to want to situate a piece of art along a spectrum, but D. Foy is one slippery bastard. His prose isn’t just purple; it’s bruising.
We met on a perfect bird-chirpy day in Brooklyn’s Carroll Park. Foy, arms raised: “This is pretty fuckin’ good, right?”
It was great.
Evan Allgood: Is it true that when you go back and read your work, you can’t believe you wrote it?
D. Foy: Yeah, it’s always like that. I just wrote this book-length essay that’s sitting in my drawer right now, and it’s called “In Favor of Nearness.” I think that the reason I have difficulty believing that it comes from me is because my process — and this is something that I have honed and cultivated over the years — is what I consider radical nearness. People have talked about it in different ways; I wouldn’t say that it’s automatic writing. I would say that what I’m doing is accessing a part of my consciousness that I’m not able to access in quotidian life, and I’ve trained myself to trust the voice that I have within me.
Typically when I begin a project, I’ll start writing and a voice just comes out. When I was a novice, I would oftentimes not trust that voice, and I would spend a lot of time trying to work on individual sentences. I could never finish anything for that reason, because I wouldn’t let the whole thing come out. There was a critic constantly on my shoulder. I had a realization that that would be a fatal obstacle. If, as an artist, that were always going to be the case, I would not be an artist because I’d be working from a place of fear rather than a place of love or a place of freedom.
Can you elaborate on that radical nearness?
I think that as much as training yourself in the technicalities of writing and the craft of writing, it’s really important that a writer learn to trust his or her intuition, and what we all naturally have. I think that for us to do that, we have to go into a place without judgment. So that’s what I consider that radical nearness. But at the same time we have to have the distance to be able to not treat anything as precious, right? Because the moment that I treat something as precious, I prioritize it, and as soon as I’ve prioritized it and made it exclusive, I’ve cut out all the options that are possibly around it. So, I have to be very open the whole time, but at the same time never cling to anything that I do.
The first draft process, typically, is really being expansive, which means allowing myself to digress — like radical digressions, and digressions within digressions. I just finished a book where I had, for lack of a better expression, [David Foster] Wallace-ian footnotes. He’s not the first guy to have done that, but he did it in a way that was different than a lot of people had done it. He did it in a personalized way. I’m interested in those things too. I’ll make a footnote and then I’ll have a footnote within a footnote, and I had a nest of them six-deep at one point. I’ve gotten rid of them mostly, in this other book that I’m talking about, but I had to allow myself to do that to get where I was going. And the same thing with Made to Break. It was a lot longer, and I had to go through a lot of bullshit that I ultimately cut out — but if I hadn’t done that, I wouldn’t have gotten to the stuff behind it.
When I go back and look at it, it’s almost as if I’ve come out of a dream. Or, I look at it and say, “Is that real?” It’s the uncanny in the way that Freud defined uncanny, that sense of strange familiarity, familiar strangeness, that whole thing. It seems uncanny.
Do you ever go off on a digression and find that it should actually be the backbone or meat of the story?
Yeah, yeah, exactly. That’s the reason why I allow myself to do that, because that’s a critical discovery: Oh, actually, via my intuition — which assumes the form of the digression — I have discovered that I was on the wrong path. If you don’t allow yourself that leeway, you’re not able to have those kinds of revelations — and I think most great art is a function of revelation. I don’t mean in a Joyce-ian sense; I mean in a sense of seeing the world in a new way. I see the world differently now than I did when I started this book. In however large or small a way.
Do you read your sentences out loud to get the rhythm down?
Always. Well, not in the beginning, but toward the end. What I do is . . . It’s very difficult for me to see what I’ve done when I maintain a strict form. That is to say my original drafts are in double-spaced Times New Roman, inch margins, inch and a half on the top, so the form is consistent. When I get done with that, and I go through a couple drafts, at a certain point I’m not able to see anymore the defects in the work. So I’ll change the font and I’ll change the spacing and I’ll change the margins, and suddenly I can see all these different things. Then I’ll change the font again, or nowadays I’ll read it on my phone. I read as many different forms and shapes as I possibly can to see as much as I can, and every time I put it in a different shape, I catch something. I see something different. It’s become a part of my process.
Don DeLillo said a couple years ago that when he gets toward the end of a work, he extracts each paragraph and puts it on a separate sheet of paper and looks at that paragraph as an entity unto itself. I’ve started doing that, too. Then I can really see the sentences, because I think that there’s a beginning and an end to a paragraph. There’s a reason why we have paragraphs; they’re not arbitrary.
Then when I get down to where I think that I’ve eliminated as much as I possibly can, I’ve got it as good as I can, that’s when I start reading it out loud. I catch more stuff too when I read it out loud.
That sounds exhausting, but the work you put into your sentences really shows. They have such a strong cadence. You’re a musician, right?
Well, no longer; I’m a musician manqué. (laughs.) I quit cold turkey one day.
There were a lot of reasons. I played in a number of bands. I started playing music, then I started writing songs, then I started writing lyrics to songs, then I was composing whole songs. It was through doing that that I began to write poetry, and like every poet who has never read poetry before, I made a whole bunch of really bad poems. But then I decided that I wanted to write a story, and I wrote a story, and as bad as the story was, the process of doing it was really fulfilling for me. I realized that I didn’t have to collaborate with a buncha knuckleheads. It wasn’t just collaborating with knuckleheads, but it was the idea that my future was contingent on the cooperation and commitment of other guys around me. It’s like, I’m a poor guy, I’m on the dole, like really working as little as possible, being a total scumbag essentially, trying to live a rock star life without the star. And paying money for a rehearsal studio and paying money for recordings and for pictures and all the costs of being a band that suddenly people would flake out on, and they’re constant disappointments. One day I just had this realization: Fuck this. I realized this was not what I wanted to do. I’m a writer. I’m not a writer of music; I’m a writer of stories. I’m a teller of stories.
Being a storyteller doesn’t really pay the bills these days. How do you earn a living?
Right now I do grant writing, but I’ve done a lot of technical writing, I’ve done a lot of business technical writing. I’ve done various modes of copywriting. I’ve done just about every kind of writing that you can think of. Right now I’m subcontracting for this fundraising consultancy. It pays pretty decently and I don’t have to work my ass off all the time.
I would actually like to start teaching again, but I have very conscientiously refused to work as an adjunct because I find it an extremely exploitative system. I don’t know what they pay nowadays, but even if you make four thousand bucks for a class, you’ve still gotta teach four classes. You’re making sixteen thousand bucks a semester, but you’re only gonna teach two semesters. You’re gonna make $32,000 a year. That’s gonna be your gross, then you’re gonna have your taxes taken out. You’re not gonna have any insurance. You’re gonna have to drive around to four different schools. You’re gonna have to do all of your office hours, you’re gonna have to do all your class preparation, all of your grading. You’re working sixty, eighty hours a week, and you’re making less than the guy who works at McDonald’s. And there are so many people who love literature and who love English and this is what they’ve invested their whole lives in, so they’re actually willing to take that. If there weren’t people lining up to do it, the schools wouldn’t get away with it. But I said to myself, I am not gonna do this.
I would really like to get a job as an actual assistant professor with a tenure-track gig or a contract. I really like working with people, and I’m gonna teach an online class on LitReactor. Then I’m gonna try and get a gig this year, which I couldn’t compete for till I had a book out. ‘Cause MFAs are a dime a dozen, you know.
Does the grant writing and technical writing sap your—
Yes. (laughs) Yes. Yes.
I know some authors say your day job shouldn’t involve writing so that you want to write before or after work.
Yeah, it kills me, actually. Like four hours of grant or technical writing is the same thing as twelve hours of other work for me in terms of the kind of energy I expend. Frequently on these gigs, because you’re a freelancer, they hand you work that is on a subject you don’t typically deal with. So it’s very unfamiliar, and what I have going for me is a modicum of intelligence that allows me to grasp material fairly quickly and distill it into a form that is coherent to and consumable by the end user. Which is why I get paid. But it takes a lot of mental energy for me to get that material and think that way. Sometimes I’ll go lie down when I finish, like literally I have to get on the bed and sleep for an hour before I can do anything else. It’s not like I get done with that and just start working on a book. My brain would explode. But it’s like . . . I have to do something, right? I’m not gonna dig ditches. (laughs) I did that before, too. I mean artists do this. Artists aren’t fit for 9-to-5 society.
Why do you think that is?
For me, it doesn’t matter what I’m doing; it’s always a distraction from my art. I mean if I’m doing this grant writing, I wanna get it done as quickly as possible so I can go do the thing that I really live for. I’m just thinking about putting a roof over my head and food in my belly; that’s all I’m thinking about. I’ve lost countless jobs, good jobs, so that I don’t have the responsibility that would get in the way of me being a writer. I’ve been the clichéd suffering artist. I have lived in clichéd obscurity and lack for a lot of years, for that reason. It’s definitely a choice. No one has made me do it; I have chosen very consciously to do that.
During the sixteen years that Made to Break was sitting in a drawer, was it something you would pick up every few years and revise, or had you given up on it?
The former. I knocked the first draft out in the summer of 1998, which was the end of my first year of grad school. I had loans and some scholarships and I didn’t have to work that summer, so I blasted it out. I was living out in the country, in this little micro-valley to the west of Davis. So of course I used that in the book. I finished it, and then . . . I won’t go into the details, but I ran into some obstacles with the faculty at Davis with that book, and I put it down. Fortunately I had other projects that I was working on, so I moved onto those.
I got into another book, and another book, and then I wrote a book called Absolutely Golden, and when I finish a project that I was completely invested in, I’m pretty emptied out. It’s kind of like post-coital melancholy; I devolve into a depression and a sadness and an emptiness. I feel like I’m worthless and I’m never gonna write again. I have some days where I’m done. Like, “I’m done, I’m no good, and this is no good, and there’s nothing else in me.” (laughs)
You don’t feel any sense of accomplishment?
The sense of accomplishment occurs when I close the document on the computer and say, “I’m finished.” I get all happy for about half an hour, and I go get a hot dog, and then . . . (laughs) And then the next day I wake up and I go, “What have I done, ever?” (laughs) It’s not exactly to the minute like that, but it does happen, and it’s inevitable.
It might be the hot dog that’s making you feel like shit.
So you’d finished Absolutely Golden and you felt worthless. What then?
Well then it occurred to me that I had this book Made to Break sitting there in the drawer, so I got it out and worked on it. It became a thing that I would get out and peck at every two or three years. It was 375 pages in its first draft, and now it’s 200 pages. I’d take out the obviously rotten parts of it, like cutting off gangrenous limbs. Then I’d put it in the drawer again when I finally got the inspiration to work on a new project.
As the years went by, I kinda grew distant from it. Then when I knew that it was gonna go out into the world, that it had been acquired, I realized that I couldn’t just keep telling everybody, “Oh, this is an old book; it’s not really anything that I’m doing right now.” I had to own it. The way that happened was through the editing process. Structurally it was pretty much there, but I cut it down even more. I really got into a line-by-line, working and reworking the sentences, and it was very intimate at that point.
By the time it was published, I felt I had a completely renewed relationship with it, and I’m really happy. I mean, it’s my book. For all the copyediting and all the notes, every sentence in it is mine. Two Dollar Radio didn’t touch my prose in a way that was invasive. So whatever is good in there is mine, and whatever is bad in there is also mine.
What does it mean to be part of the Two Dollar Radio family?
Working with Eric Obenauf and his wife Eliza has been amazing. The whole time, from the layout and the cover and every aspect of the book, I’m participating in it and they’re asking me what I like, and what I don’t like, and do I want this and that. There’s never anything about it that they haven’t included me on, and that’s true even with the promotional activities. I worked very closely with Eric to set up the tour. He and I did it together, and that was really a huge process in its own right.
The reception that I’ve gotten . . . The books that they were putting out before had gotten huge receptions, so I feel like I’m riding on the coattails of this wave that they’ve been on. So, I have not a single complaint. I’ve just been extremely happy.
Are you sure you wouldn’t be happier with a 9-to-5?
(laughs) Yeah, I couldn’t do it. I would kill myself. I would. Seriously, I’m not exaggerating. (laughs)
Evan Allgood is deputy editor of Trop. His work has appeared in McSweeney’s, The Millions, Paste, and Los Angeles Review of Books. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter: @evoooooooooooo.