Everything scares me. Horror movies, bumps in the night, bugs in my apartment, and, unequivocally, zombies. So I’ll admit that when I picked up Bennett Sims’s A Questionable Shape, a novel about the undead, I was ready to keep it at a distance. But the way in which Sims’ debut wrapped me up and pulled me in was unlike anything I’d ever read; zombies took over my mind, and it seemed the only way to experience the literary feat.
Underlying the seemingly quirky subject matter of Sims’s novel is a notable linguistic dynamism and impressive command of philosophical challenges. When I sat down to interview the recent Iowa Writer’s Workshop graduate, who spoke to me on the phone from Iowa City, I almost didn’t know where to start: Sims’ work has a life of its own.
Meredith Turits: Much of what’s grabbed attention in A Questionable Shape is its fiercely philosophical basis. What draws you to specific schools of criticism and philosophy, and what keeps you there?
Bennett Sims: There are two ways to answer that question. One, which is specific to the project, is just that when I was taking philosophy classes and reading philosophy on my own in undergrad and afterwards, one of the things I noticed is the degree to which zombies and the undead cropped up in really disparate discourses in different tendencies of consciousness — in mind-body philosophy, they’re used as thought experimental creatures who lack consciousness, who are behaviorally indistinguishable from humans and can comment on how pretty the green grass is, but who really are dark inside and lack and appreciation for the greenness of green.
Then, in psychoanalysis, they’ll crop up as these figures in regards to repetition compulsion, and in political theory, and anthropology. And so when I was encountering them in all of these different books and essays, I ended up doing an undergrad thesis on undeath where I corralled a lot of this material that made its way into the novel, so a lot of the narrator’s philosophy preoccupation with zombies and what thinkers have thought about undeath as a state of consciousness are interests that I shared as a student in philosophy classes.
The more broad, general answer to the question — why read philosophy at all — I treat it in the same way that I treat literary material. These are writers that are trying to make sense of the world, and of certain traditions and of being alive and conscious in the world. I read them for the same reason I read novels — for the language, and for the ideas, and for the questions, and for the close reading they’re doing of each other.
Who are the modern thinkers and theorists about whom you’re most excited right now?
The writer I find myself returning to with some regularity is Derrida. I don’t even know that I could say it’s his ideas that excite me — it’s the degree to which he’s comfortable thinking these interstitial spaces between conceptual dichotomies. Just isolating a couple of key signifiers in the philosophic tradition, and just tracing them through centuries of thought and writing and thinking himself really carefully through the unthought space between those dichotomies. He always treats it really carefully, as if it’s a tightrope act, and I think he’s a really beautiful prose stylist, and the questions he’s asking always seem to be really deep and profound.
Much in the same way, you strike a haunting balance between language that is strikingly beautiful, even arresting at times, and then transition into a critical lens so seamlessly. Can you talk a little about finding this balance between the lyrical and the prosaic?
Well, thanks. It’s not something that I think about a lot. One of my models for writing is Nicholson Baker, and one of the things he’s really interested in is representing the movement of consciousness in prose. Specifically, he’ll set up a really thoughtful, hyper-observant narrator in an environment that’ll allow them to cogitate, and Nicholson Baker will very patiently follow their thoughts, whether they’re focusing really intently on bubbles boiling in a pan, or their shoelaces, or they’re thinking about things from their childhood or the development of iambic pentameter in Western poetry. And because he’s committed to where thinking goes, sentences tend to just make these rail jumps, from lyrically, pastorally describing a fireplace and then in the next passage remembering something he read in the diaries of Gerard Manley Hopkins.
I found that approach to consciousness really liberating, and it’s something that I didn’t think about but I wanted to be open to doing, which was to allow my narrator’s thoughts to go wherever, whether it was something he read or something he was looking at.
Memory is such a charged part of the book — so much so that it guides the zombies in their undead states, and is one of the looming forces that dictate interactions between your characters. From what part of your own life is your strongest sense of memory? Do you associate it with people or places?
I guess I do have a pretty strong sense of place memory. Usually when I move somewhere, I develop a set of habits and then haunts: the café I’ll go to; the lake I’ll walk to; the park I’ll go to; the bookstore I’ll shop at; the grocery store. Once I establish them, they become psycho-geographic nodes where important feelings or memories take place. While I’m living there, I’m usually so locked into my routines and errands I’m running that I usually just sleepwalk through these places on autopilot. Once I leave, these places are charged with a kind of vivid nostalgia.
My experience with memory — as I imagine most peoples’ experience with memory is — is Proustian: there are these kind of dark archives that you don’t know about and you don’t have access to until some random catalyst spurs me to have some sort of involuntary memory and then I’m caught up in something that seems very fresh.
That manifestation of recall and geographic ascription of memory seems to be very much of what’s baked into A Questionable Shape.
The narrator is really concerned with how not to be undead while alive; how not lead a routinized existence where you’re not paying attention to your surroundings and you’re just doing things out of a dull inertia. The narrator’s tragic reading of his friend’s father, who was sort of a reclusive shut-in and barely left his house and is now presumably undead, is that there was a degree to which he was undead before reanimating — his life was already enthralled to routine and sort of was blind and inattentive in the way they think the undead might be.
It’s part of what gives a dramatic, existential context for scenes of the narrator and his partner sitting in a park looking at the water, looking at shadows, trying to notice things about them. It’s this pre-apocalyptic, carpe diem complex, which is informed by my own experience of walking through spaces in that highly routinized way.
The novel takes place in Baton Rouge, your hometown, which is battening down for hurricane season. What’s the biggest cultural change you saw post-Katrina, and did that show up in the novel in any way?
It’s interesting — I have a weird relationship to Katrina. I was in college when it hit, so I wasn’t actually in Louisiana when all that was happening, and I did a little bit of relief work in New Orleans, but in a pretty tightly concentrated area, so I didn’t actually explore the city. One thing I can say — and this is something the narrator sort of talks about — growing up, I was struck by the sort of blasé attitude of Louisianians towards apocalyptic threats, because it was the kind of thing that would occur with calendric regularity. Every fall, there’s going to be a hurricane brewing in the gulf, and a lot of hay is going to get made about it on the news, but it’s usually just going to dissipate or at most knock branches into power lines. So you go to a bar and drink a drink called a hurricane, or people would throw hurricane parties, and school would be cancelled, like a snow day, more or less. The same thing when West Nile virus hit: all of a sudden mosquitoes we’d grown used to were vectors of this fatal disease. The government is actually passing out pamphlets called “Fight the Bite” — which is the name of the anti-zombie pamphlets in the novel — and all of a sudden we’re reading these sensationalist pamphlets that had silhouettes of giant B-movie mosquitoes on the cover that are here to infect you with West Nile. You get a sense that these dangers that you’ve been taking for granted are real.
After Katrina — or this might have just been a byproduct of my own growing up — I became much less blasé about environmental threats, about how hurricanes are worsening and how there are serious issues with the sustainability of Louisiana’s coast and New Orleans as a city. Optimism or pessimism about the kind of threat something poses is a big part of the novel: there are these potentially catastrophic creatures, but they’re all quarantined, and not really posing a threat unless they escape from the quarantines, in which case they present a world-ending threat, and the characters aren’t really sure how to feel about them.
There’s this interesting notion of “home” that’s important, too. When you hear the word “home,” what are your associations?
It probably won’t surprise you to hear that a lot of the spaces in the book are autobiographically derived. The bookstore to which Mr. Mazoch takes Matt is the bookstore where my father took me, and [it’s also] the bookstore where my sister still works and where I still visit every time I go home. The lake where the narrator and Rachel like to watch light on water is where I like to walk and watch light on water whenever I go home and visit family, whenever I’m back in Baton Rouge.
I do share a lot of the same “home” nodes as the narrator. Unlike the narrator, I left Baton Rouge, and I went to college elsewhere, and I lived on the West Coast in cities like Seattle and San Francisco, and I’ve been living in Iowa for the last four years. My own personal map has expanded to encompass a lot of other localities, though they’re not the first that rush to mind when people say “home”.
There’s an interesting idea of “purpose” in the novel for the zombies, as well as Matt and Mike as they drive around. It made me wonder, when did you first feel like you had a sense of purpose?
I’ve always self-identified as a writer. I think I had the same sense of archetypal, ego gratification in grade school that lots of writers have, where they write something and they discover that language is really fun and you can play with it like other toys and you show it to an adult and they tell you that what you’ve done is good. From a really early age, I self-identified as a writer, or as someone who wanted to be a writer. It’s been a lifelong sense of purpose, if you want to call it that, in so much as in the summers in high school I went to camp at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA): it was really great, a magnet arts high school that does visual arts and creative writing workshops and stuff. And when I got to college, there wasn’t a lot of soul-searching in declaring myself an English major. I knew when I graduated I was probably going to do an MFA for grad school. It’s been a pretty straight trajectory for me.
Has being dubbed a capital “W” writer changed anything for you?
[Laughs.] I don’t know that I have been. I still occupy this double consciousness of being sort of proud of the stuff I’ve managed to write and publish, but also filled with dread about the prospect of never being able to write anything again. I wish I had a little pad of laurels that I could sit on while writing and feel like a capital “W” writer in a stable way. It’s very stressful.
When you’re writing stories, how does “purpose” play into guiding your characters on the whole?
I don’t think of my characters as especially purposeful, because not a lot of my work is really plot-driven. Even the novel where you have this MacGuffin, Mr. Mazoch, who these people are trying to find — a lot of the action of the novel is taken up by people sitting still, looking at things, which is fairly true for a lot of the short stories I write, too. Again, Nicholson Baker is the model for that. He’s the master of the stagnant narrator with a strong map of consciousness. So, to the degree that I think about purpose, I’m really thinking about narrative arcs and how to make thoughts interesting and shapely, and how to curate and finesse thought to have a beginning, middle, and an end so when you finish a line of thought, you feel the same sense of completed momentum as you would when you finish a story.
How does using footnoting then play into that idea of most accurately representing that type of consciousness, and the way in which people actually think?
I’m trying to think of a way to answer this question without bringing up Nicholson Baker again, because he’s quickly becoming the piñata dead horse that I keep beating in this interview, but his novel The Mezzanine is self-conscious about the way in which footnotes mimic consciousness. So, while you’re thinking any given thought, you can hold in your head a separate, parallel thought that’s complete. Something you’re thinking can remind you of a scene or a childhood anecdote or that thing you read, and the footnote is a technology of digression that’s typographically distinct from something like an em-dash or parentheses: with those you can interpolate this digression inline in the middle of a sentence, but for the original sentence to retain its sense the interpolation has to be relatively short.
With a footnote, you can pile up this huge paragraph at the bottom of the page that’s simultaneous with the thought above it in the main body, and it’s complete, and while the reader is reading this second thought, they’re holding the line up above it and they know the line isn’t finished yet and their eye will just scan back up and finish the thought at the top. That’s how the narrator in my model uses footnotes, and they open up these meditative spaces or concavities inside thoughts he’s having.
From a process standpoint, how do you actually work with footnotes? Do you read the manuscript through without them at any point, or are they always sequentially integral to the text?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t read the footnotes when I’m giving a reading aloud, and so I’ve pruned chapters where you just have an unbroken block of the main body text. Reading through it, I can see that the main body is independent of the footnotes, most certainly. It’s streamlined, it has its own beginning, middle, and end and it makes sense without the footnotes. But when I’m actually writing, I don’t hide the footnotes from myself to gauge that. They’re always there at the bottom of the screen, and if I’m trying to read through a chapter to see what its momentum is like, I don’t just ignore the footnotes.
Is paranoia an ongoing theme?
It is. A lot of the narrators I write end up being unreliable, to some degree or another, in really obsessive, self-conscious thought patterns, and they project narrative onto insignificant details . . . I’m not sure why I’m drawn to paranoia with narrators, except that it’s a really fun way of experimenting with consciousness dramatically because you can confront a thinking character with all of these signifiers and clues and details and then they can constellate them and make clues and narrative out of them.
And the narratives have real stakes for the character, even if they have no palpable, dramatic states for the reader; so in one of my stories, a narrator in a Hitchcock lecture gets really paranoid about some danger that Rear Window poses to him, and even if it’s not a real danger, it’s incredibly personal and hermetic. It gets his pulse racing and it’s the kind of thing that the reader can participate in.
Is paranoia something you’ll keep exploring?
It’s just a really key feature of the way I think. My thoughts tend to run toward worst-case scenarios and I’m quick to misread social cues or assume the worst, and because it’s the way I process data, I have to assume it’s going to keep showing up in my writing.
Meredith Turits is a senior editor at Bustle.com, and her writing has appeared in publications including Joyland, Corium, Anobium, Bookslut, the Tottenville Review, and Glamour. She can be found in Brooklyn, on her blog, and on Twitter.