Over the course of four months, July–October, 2022, Grant Maierhofer and I had an email conversation about writing—particularly the kind of experimental writing Grant practices—about a good many books, about his experiences as a student of writing as well as a teacher, and dozens of other subjects. When we decided to call it quits and see what we had, our exchanges topped twelve thousand words. Knowing we hoped to find someone to publish/post the interview, I took on the job of editing it down to about seven thousand and reforming it into a more traditional Q&A. This first half of that interview follows this introduction; the second will appear later this week.
What I hope the interview reveals, along with Grant’s thoughts, is the way in which his mind works, the cascading language, the ricochet of ideas, his exuberance. Though he is the author of novels and novellas and stories and ambient nonfiction and essays, he’s not always sure that’s what he wants to be. As he says in his final answer in this interview:
I want to be an honest person and an honest writer and so often lately that seems to point to acknowledging that there are so many times when I feel like writing books could not matter any less than it does, or that writing the kinds of books that I seem to be drawn sometimes to write could not be less important, or worthwhile, or something.
And yet, to the delight of his faithful readership, he has not given up putting words down on the page in ways that baffle and engage, stymie and enlighten anyone who spends time with his work.
His most recent novel, Ebb (to be published April 4 by Kerpunkt Press), is a prime example of Grant’s thoughtful approach to the novel and to narrative in general. Ostensibly the story of a young man, Ben, whose life in a small Illinois town is laid out in a series of encounters with friends and family, Grant ups the ante for himself as the teller of this tale by eliminating the letter A and, for good measure, eschewing the use of commas. The result, for a reader, is an experience in patience and appreciation for a book that works as both compelling story and an experiment in constraint.
This is the first installment of a two-part interview. The second half will be published later this week.
Patrick Parks: Like Ebb, your other books are experimental in nature, though not in the same way. I wonder if you could talk about why you went this route rather than along a more traditional path. Obviously, you’re hoping to engage a reader on a different level—or a series of levels—and I wonder if you could elaborate a bit on that as well.
Grant Maierhofer: I think I sort of arrived at the forms my books have taken on a case-by-case basis, and they started off a bit more conventionally and the work itself was really uninteresting to me those first few years. I wrote a lot of autobiographical stuff and it was pretty simple, but the feeling of writing it was still a bit exhilarating. I think that feeling is what has led me to where my work is now. Writing for me was a very energized process, and I was seeking aspects of writing that felt exciting, and weird, and like maybe I was exploring new ground, if only on a very individual level. The reading then got stranger and stranger too, which is sort of funny because I remained pretty basic in terms of the execution of my work. I read weirder and weirder stuff and really responded to it and wrote while drinking lots of coffee and listening to lots of loud music to try and engage that feeling I had reading certain things. That all computed simply enough, but when I’d sit down and read over my work, to revise it, I found the experience unbearable. It was bad and remained bad for a long time. This is par for the course, but I really regret submitting and publishing stuff from this stretch. I thought the feeling—again derived from coffee and loud music and not at all from the actual work being put down—was enough, and that the feeling meant I was tapping into something, even if it made me cringe to read over it.
As I said, this kept on for a number of years, but I was still reading, and I was still writing, and I think things started to improve when I started working on a book called Postures after I’d read Frederick Exley and felt tapped into something really frenetic and pure. He was doing the autobiographical stuff, but it was different, not like Bukowski where the energy comes from short bursts, but long extended engagement with America and culture high and low and addiction and hospitalization. I started to pay attention to his language, and his sentences were different. I’d read stuff that was similar, but I guess the fact that I was writing, and realizing I hadn’t learned to pay much attention to language, made it click then. I wrote a pretty middling story called “Bach-Mani-Brahms”, but I told myself to focus only on language. That was when things started to change. I learned about the sentence as a point of focus for writers, while also reading weirder stuff in terms of experimentation with books and writing formally.
While, on the one hand, this was kind of a discovery of a partially dark forest, taking steps and figuring things out, it also served to sharpen my relationship to whatever I’m working on. Any book I’ve done in the past few years, I guess eight or so, was done in this spirit of staying close to the words and the project at hand and slowly building it until the end was in front of me. It’s led to strange formal things, or really language-heavy stuff, but it’s been in this vein of I’ve started, and I’m working, and I’ll either stop because the thing wasn’t there, or I’ll be done with it. That dynamic has led to the shape my work has taken. It’s less traditional work I guess because I’ve never read a great deal of more traditional writing. I’ve read some, and I’ve watched plenty of traditional TV and film and listen to lots of popular music and the like, but I think the fact that I started writing when I was in treatment, and it was very personal, and expressive, and a way of dealing with some really confusing stuff at a young age made it so that I approach my work as a writer first and as a reader or viewer or listener second. I’ve gone to school for writing and whatnot, and I work in academia, but when I’ve been in those contexts I tend to get real quiet and bitter and hold on to this sense of the work that I’ve got in my stomach, so that it’s not affected by what I’m being told, or what I’m reading, or anything like that. I think this dynamic is where the books have come from. I’m probably kind of a bad reader because of it, and I do find myself reading less and less each year. My reaction to the world and my life is the work I wind up making, and, as a result, I feel like I make work that registers as odd or something, but where some writers are very intentional about experiments they’re doing that can kind of be solved, my stuff winds up being an experiment because I’d probably lose any ability I had if I were very conscious of what a novel ought to be or a story ought to be because that just doesn’t matter very much to me.
In your first response, you said that any of your recent books were “done in this spirit of staying close to the words and the project at hand, and slowly building it until the end was in front of me.” In Ebb, there is clearly a sense of closeness to the language and to the narrative that is consistent from beginning to end. But you also gave yourself a handicap of sorts, by eliminating any word that contained the letter A, and eschewing the use of commas as well. How did these restrictions fit with your building the book? I’m especially curious about how the restrictions fit the particular story you’re telling. Also, the lack of commas and the abridged vocabulary require a reader to be slower and more attentive. Was that part of the original plan or did it become more important the farther along you got?
I’ve wanted to write something based on constraint for a very long time. I knew about Gadsby for a long time and became familiar with the OuLiPo writers after a time, and it made sense to me that writers or artists should utilize constraint in our present world of seemingly limitless possibility. Everyone talks about how all the stories have been told, and although I’m not as fixated on that or even necessarily in agreement, the notion of deciding at the outset to do a project that, in its execution, immediately renders it different from every project that came before it, I just found that really exciting. So the letter E had been done, twice. Perec had done a project with the main vowels, so first I had to think about what focus made the most sense—one that also wouldn’t prove much of anything, like using the letter Z, and starting at the beginning of the English alphabet seemed right.
Part of the process of composition was doubtless fueled by the feelings arising from the pandemic—I wrote a couple of shorter books during the past few years, pretty quickly, all of which were clearly informed by the sense of chaos and fear and our relationship to time changing completely. That, and the constraint, basically made this book. I found that by imposing limitations on myself, the writing I was doing slowed down some, but would happen in bursts wherein I wasn’t feeling the need to edit extensively as the process went on. What was written felt right, perhaps because I was looking at it through the lens of avoiding this letter—as opposed to thinking about an interesting sentence, or a scene, or a moment, or anything like that. I knew I couldn’t write with this letter, but I needed to write, and so I did. When it was happening it happened quickly in a sense—the actual drafting felt slower, getting a couple hundred words from a session of sitting on the couch on my phone for thirty minutes or so, but I’d write these bursts several times a day. Knowing I was limited, and knowing it needed to be at least fifty thousand words to feel right, the process got to feeling like transcription in a way, taking dictation. I know now that this was a special phenomenon, a special thing, as I’ve tried with B and a bit of C and haven’t hit on anything close to what Ebb became. I thought I’d like to do the whole alphabet, and maybe someday I will, but imposing limits on myself helped to shake loose my typical thinking about composition in a really exciting way.
I wrote in a more automatic way too, where I had to keep going no matter what if I got started. I knew the book was going to be about a community of artists and sort of about the Midwest I remember growing up in, with moments of love between two male friends who were trying to evolve as artists and push one another. I knew the constraints, and that a couple of things were definitely going to happen toward the end of the book. So in a way I had the pieces there in front of me, and part of my vision was intentionally closed off to how I might typically approach writing a book of fiction, and these components got to feeling very manageable in a way my recent books haven’t. Mostly I compose fragments, and either they cohere into a book or shorter form, or I abandon them. This was a rarer situation where I knew vaguely the end item but knowing this didn’t shut down my efforts. Often that’s what will happen. I’ll write three thousand words or so and like an idea, and I’ll talk about the idea and it’ll die on the vine. Or I’ll have a sense of a full book and seeing its parts will sever any interest I have in putting it together. Here I had that sense, and after writing ten thousand words or so I even began to talk about it a bit with my wife—mostly I try to avoid this or, again, a project will wither up a bit—but here it worked out. I think, to your question, the parts were always there with this. Limiting commas—I forget if any persist in its present state—no use of the letter A at all, these things resulted in a book after a month or so of work.
I think in terms of connecting with a reader, there was a feeling that I was trying something unconventional enough with the limitations imposed on the process, so I did want to try and find things that might make the book accessible or enjoyable in terms of the sort of kunstlerroman genre or taking a kind of microscopic look at these varied lives perhaps in the vein of Nicholson Baker. I’m twice as aware these days of the potential superfluity of books in a person’s daily life, so I try to write things now that are far more in line with what I’d like to read than I might’ve worried about previously. I don’t mean in the sense of pandering, but rather that books do have a place, and weird, niche books have a place, and it’s incumbent on people who write books at any time in history to think somewhat about which type of books they’d like to make in terms of their world. At times I’ve thought I don’t care about the state of the world, so I’m just going to barf. Lately, though, I think of short books, as I’m very interested in reading short books. I think too of diaristic books, as they’re open to any span of time a reader might have. At fifty thousand or so words Ebb isn’t too short, but it’s short enough. I’m interested too in the philosophical novel, the best example that I think exists being Nausea by Sartre. Sartre wrote probably millions of words after publishing Nausea and still thought of it as one of the few things he’d like to be remembered for. I think that’s because he knew that the form of the novel, especially the novel in his context, could do something other forms of writing might not be able to do. This book takes some philosophical stuff at face value and attempts to enact other philosophical stuff within the text or narrative itself. Finding varied ways in which Ebb might work was definitely part of making it.
You say “it’s incumbent on people who write books at any time in history to think somewhat about which type of books they’d like to make in terms of their world,” which, to my way of thinking, is as sensible a reason as any to write, and I wonder if you see your books to date as fitting together somehow thematically/artistically, or if each is singular. Could a grad student, an industrious PhD-to-be, find threads running through your books and come up with a dissertation topic?
I think there is a kind of movement across my projects in terms of growing awareness, over time, of what work resonates the most with me, and what I’m trying to do in response. I guess the sort of eras in which my stuff was written would be informative, but any connective tissue would probably just be biographical, where I was at in my life and what I’d understood at the time in terms of what the book might be or do.
I’m very interested in the various points of view you use in Ebb to tell your story. We get the full gamut—third, second and first person—and I’m wondering about your decision to utilize all three. Your first-person narrator I find to be particularly intriguing, so I may ask about that voice more, but if you could talk about how you came up with that trio of POVs, I’d be grateful.
In terms of POV and Ebb, I thought a lot about writers like Hubert Selby Jr., and some of Cormac McCarthy, where a book is often approached more as a singular body of colliding elements, rather than something parceled out into neater sections. Some of that was of necessity because I would hit a moment and realize that the next bit of wording that I was thinking of might require a POV shift—in terms of not using the letter A especially—where I was open to the next bit of language rather than thinking about what made sense book-, or scene-, or story-wise. I thought of Ebb as I was writing it as a sort of open project, something that would allow for whatever happened, rather than a more rigidly controlled novel seeking novelistic ends. This was another pleasant benefit of using this constraint because I knew that I would wind up under-delivering on certain elements, like character development, etc., in pursuit of adequately delivering on other elements, namely managing to write this book constrained in this way. In editing, it definitely could’ve been reined in quite a bit, and in some ways it was, but I liked the idea of this project also containing the process of figuring out this project, which definitely informed the first person, and other POVs as well probably.
I’ve been very interested in César Aira’s work the past couple of years, too. He employs a sort of relentless forward motion when he’s writing, such that he’s written a ton of short books, and they might completely abandon concepts or storylines in favor of this forward movement. I think that writers are sort of burdened of late with doing things that extend beyond mere projects, whether it’s in the form of constraint, or whether the story of writing is a part of the book, or with someone like Knausgaard, the notion of the aims of the project is itself a reason readers might pick up a volume of My Struggle. I see that as a liberating thing, where readers might be more open to a strange project that veers in many directions, as long as it’s approached seriously, and given a shot. Fifty or a hundred years ago there were expectations about what a novel should look like, and although those still remain to some extent, and there were writers pushing the form into unprecedented places, with the internet, and TV, and media fracturing things so considerably, readers not only seem more forgiving but seem more interested in books that experiment, or remain open, or do things that are thought of as odd in a work of writing. For me, that’s where the POV stuff led, attempting to reach a larger state of openness and trying to let the book surprise me by making shifts that at a glance seemed off.
I was interested in finding your references to Melville in Ebb and in discovering that you’ve written scholarly articles about him, so I’m curious about the connection between your fiction and your academic writing. We read about Melville from the first-person narrator, which makes me wonder how close he might be to you, the author. You mention Knausgaard—and, earlier, Frederic Exley—which makes me wonder about the autobiographical elements of the novel, particularly the relationship of the first-person narrator to his telling the story. He seems both compelled to write about Ben but, at the same time, to wonder why he’s doing it. I found myself wanting to know more about the narrator and his place in Ben’s world. Could you talk about that a little?
When I was first writing Ebb there was a sense that I’d be telling the story of Ben, and that would work quite well as I’d done some early drafting and realized it was relatively easier to write “Ben went home,” or “Ben stepped outside” and avoid any As where writing in the first person seemed to lead there quite a bit. Then as things progressed I realized pretty quickly that it made structural sense to talk about this book as it was being written, much in the way the absence of the letter A is sort of referenced a bit throughout. My relationships then affected the book as there was a lot in its world I think I’d often hoped for in my own life, a sense of community with likeminded artists, male friendships that approached a literal and figurative intimacy I hadn’t really ever experienced. So I became a close observer of things and let that become a part of the text itself because it didn’t feel like a misstep exactly.
Patrick Parks is author of a novel, Tucumcari, and has had fiction, poetry, reviews and interviews appear in a number of places, including The Millions, Southeast Review, Six Sentences, Another Chicago Magazine, The Chattahoochee Review, OxMag, and elsewhere (the adverb, not the publication). He is a graduate of the University of Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop, a recipient of two Illinois Arts Council artist grants, and lives with his wife and requisite cats near Chicago. More at patrick-parks.com.
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