When Grant Maierhofer and I finished this conversation/interview in October 2022, I suspected it might be difficult to find a publication willing to take it on because of its length. Despite my doubts, I felt it needed to be long to capture fully Grant’s intellect and his enthusiasm. Fortunately, Michael Shapira at Full Stop was willing to accept it in its entirety, split over two issues. His comments after reading the interview are worth sharing:
. . . the philosophical register, the brutal honesty about finding purpose in one’s work, the grad school angst, even finishing with a Low reference (I had my fake ID taken away trying to get into a Low concert in college)—it all really resonated with me and I hope it will hit similarly for readers as well.
In the second half of the interview, which follows this introduction, Grant expands on ideas discussed in part one, but he also delves into his forthcoming novel, Ebb, in more detail and talks about how writing as an act of creation has changed for him: “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.”
Looking forward, he admits he’s not sure what’s next: “I don’t much get up above my internal certainty that I’m not a person who should be writing and publishing books.”
Readers of his work—and, I hope, this interview—will disagree with that self-assessment.
Patrick Parks: I’m intrigued by the way you describe your writing and thought processes and wonder about how revision works for you. Do you find yourself re-reading and tinkering as you make your way through a draft, or do you wait until you’ve got a decent chunk completed before looking at how it all works? Do you find revising to hinder the energy you pour into the writing?
Grant Maierhofer: With revision, recently, it’s been something that I try and approach during the drafting process, making mental notes of things that might need fixing even as I’m writing, just to get the words down. I’ve revised in a lot of different ways, but this one seems to make the process the most hopeful, or rather the least hopeless. When I was starting, I focused a lot on getting drafts done, book-length drafts, and I found that trying to edit that was like trying to conduct some sort of long, monotonous surgery on myself, all while the most cringe footage from my life played out on a screen. Some of that was the content, but the size and the disparity between writing and editing seems to favor this new approach of doing it as I go. I do like to print out the book at some point, and delete the files from my computer, and then retype it back into the computer. Editing that way feels natural, like speech, and that’s what I’ve done lately.
I want to talk a bit more specifically about Ebb, too, because I’m superimposing your descriptions of process and intent over the book and enjoy seeing that your philosophical approach is evident in the narrative and the various voices you incorporate. There’s a lot going on in the novel, even though the world of the book is relatively small, and I’m curious about the way good and evil underpin the action. In other words, you have characters who may make questionable choices but are still good, decent people, while, at the same time, you have a group—and it seems to be more a group than an individual—who represent the bad side of things. Do you see Ben struggling to reconcile his place in this dichotomy? Does the evil he encounters threaten his resolve or is he more an observer of all that? I’m thinking in particular of the events that occur in the evil house and how he participates in them.
I was really interested in two strains that I’ve noticed exist within the arts, neither of which I view as the end-all-be-all, and both of which I think I’ve been a part of at some point in my life. The Ben side, and the community side that he’s a part of, is probably the more desirable. A community with people who are trying their work, and sharing it with each other and eating and drinking with each other and having relationships and experimenting. A Black Mountain sort of thing, or Paris in the early twentieth century, or communities of colleagues working in writing programs, or certain writing programs themselves. I’ve been a part of this, and it’s wonderful, and informative, and challenging, and I’ve always wanted to try and honor that in a book. That was the first, then.
The second was this sort of position that art of a certain, I don’t know, caliber? That art as viewed by some is necessarily engaged with evil and violence and that kind of thing. Atrax Morgue, and Whitehouse, and Bataille, and Lautreamont, and Sade. That the world is something to fight with. The Samuel Delany quote that the most important elements in any society are the artistic and the criminal, for they alone can force society to change—and the temptation to simply combine the two in turn, as with John Duncan, or Chris Burden, or GG Allin. When I was in grad school, I gravitated heavily toward this because I got so bored with people talking about George Saunders and characters and whatever. I met a lot of really wonderful people in grad school, and it was a beautiful thing to experience, but I wanted to push back against it somehow and pursuing art that somehow engaged with evil or badness or meanness was attractive to me because of that.
The evil house, then, and the events that happen there, was a way of positioning these two sorts of ideals next to one another and seeing what might come from that sort of confrontation. I think Ben and Ben’s friends are probably more clearly concerned with art and what they can do as artists, whereas the people in the evil house are concerned with a certain level of posturing, and getting fucked up, and openly hating the world. There’s art happening there too, though, via shows and performative events and the like. Both of these elements remain very important to me. I do still think that there’s serious and worthwhile work to be done engaging with violence and anger and evil, which is why although Ben falls on a certain side, and there is some indication that one of these mindsets is probably more feasible and sustaining than the other, I still wanted both to at least partly be given their due, to be portrayed in a way that wasn’t entirely dismissive all the time. Pitting two entities against one another wasn’t something I’d tried before, though all the elements of Ebb were things I’ve long wanted to try out. Somehow, in the process of omitting a letter, these doorways opened up and I felt free to pit these entities against one another. Whether it was pulled off to any degree of success remains to be seen, but it felt good to try for a sort of concept, or set of concepts, while also addressing the technical matter of omitting the letter A.
I’d like to follow up a bit with your discussion of the two strains in art that you explain here. What I found interesting in Ebb and again in your talking about the book is that Ben is, at least to some degree, a pretty traditional young man. His values do not seem that different from his parents, he is empathetic, and he largely resists succumbing to the anarchy of the evil house. At the same time, he is drawn to it. Is this the ebb of your book’s title, this vacillation between following a “normal” life and one that defies society’s expectations? Near the end of the novel, Ben seems to be engaged in an internal battle between these forces and you write that “even in Ben’s endless kindness there existed this new ebb of horror in the notion of living within the world.” In your mind, does he settle on one side of the issue or the other, or is he destined to ebb throughout his life?
I think with Ben I tried to write someone that might not need or want to be an incredible standout as a protagonist in terms of being an aspiring artist, as I’ve written stuff at this point from that position and I liked the idea of writing about a young person who tries to be a part of a community. Writing about Ben’s friends, his parents, his relationships to locals, felt like exercising a different muscle than writing someone determined to be outside of their community. The ebbing felt like something the book needed to render as a pushing back, while also being something to resist. I think I mentioned Schopenhauer previously, the idea of this disparity between the will, and desiring, and representations of same which can provide a freedom from the relentlessness of the will. That was on my mind, of trying to do something in the tradition of the philosophical novel, where Ben’s ebb could be seen as that will, and his resistance to that is a resistance against wanting things we’re told writers, and artists, and self-directed younger people ought to want. It’s sort of garbled, but I liked the idea of conveying a character who’s pushing back against a lot of stuff we’ve had handed down to us about writers, and artists, and pursuit. I’ve written a lot of things where I tried to just say stuff like this but putting this into a character somehow proved workable when the constraints of this book were applied. I knew I guess that there was something about the project that was already pushing against certain conventions, removing a letter, which let me engage stuff in the writing that’s ironically kind of conventional—developing characters, exploring them as figures containing and engaging ideas, etc.—and then beyond this Ben’s embrace of certain aspects of conventionality could be reflected in his relationship to this idea of the ebb.
I’d like to ask about the digging that takes place under the evil house. Why do the residents of the house do that? Thematically or structurally, how do you want the reader to interpret those actions? Are there other related events in the book that create a pattern of behavior?
With the digging, it started with this idea that the characters of this book might pursue sort of ritualistic things—like the art-making and performative stuff—often related to the world right around them, so rather than pursuing some exterior stimuli like watching a weird film or moving to a big city, these art-adjacent or pursuing people try and focus on their surroundings, and the digging towards the end grows into this perversion of that. I’ve also been preoccupied by digging via William H. Gass’s The Tunnel, where there’s this digging out of suburbia as the story progresses and a madness is taking over. That idea that “the road to hell is the same from any place,” but in Ebb, the digging happens differently, and ends up catastrophically, and there’s this hope of a kind of anti-revelation that gives way to how the book winds up. I wrote a story once about Frederick Exley in the midst of writing A Fan’s Notes, and one day he just decides to go outside, and suddenly feels compelled to dig a hole into the ground to crawl into. It’s a gesture I find interesting because it seems to run counter to a lot of thinking these days. We sort of hope to remain upright, and move upward, and explore the world up here.
I’ve had a preoccupation with basements for a long time, and I think this might be an extension of that. I’m not going to look up but down and will dig into life as it exists at these sort of uncorrupted layers beneath. I like the Lil Ugly Mane line, “I’m still married to America/most you rappers dumped her,” on “On Doing an Evil Deed Blues,” that I think also reflects this for me, rather than a resignation, an active embrace of the dirt, the mud, the worms, the fungus, the bodies. The best way out is through and amor fati and this kind of thing. I’ve realized that that is not the knee jerk position even I most typically operate in, but it’s one I feel better in, and the motif of digging seemed to reflect this for me, especially the sort of crazed digging that happens in the book. I remember once at this fest my friends put on at their family’s land in the woods in Wisconsin, this band was playing, and one of my friends was picking up clods of earth and putting them in his mouth as a kind of expression of how he was feeling right then. I think about that a lot. There are so many stupid things people do to express their joy at a band hitting a particular frenetic node, but this was so pure and childlike, but expressive and furious too. These varied things were all on my mind as the things with the digging transpired in the book. I hope they help give it shape.
Even though you’ve created constraints for yourself in the writing of Ebb, you’ve also said that the book pushes back against the kind of constraints that writers are often put under in terms of plot, character, etc. I’m wondering how you talk with students about the process of writing and how they should find their voices. Do you start them off with the traditional and move into the more innovative? And if you have a student who is experimenting, how do you assess their work, offer criticism that will help them continue?
When it comes to teaching, I really try to think about the kinds of things I most appreciated in my favorite classes and try to figure out ways of implementing them in an updated context. I’m also not the greatest teacher, but it’s something I care about and I try to think about finding the best ways to communicate this stuff to students. I like to look at portions of the same texts together in the classroom, as I think an awareness of the ways in which language is working or being worked on by a writer can be one of the tougher things to really completely take in. We’ll read the same things, of course, but then looking at excerpts and treating them like raw material that we can embrace or push back against or question seems to be useful. It’s also difficult because you have to consider where a student in the present moment is coming from who might want to study writing. They’re overwhelmed in a way nobody else has been overwhelmed, and I know that because I’m overwhelmed, so I like to try and find well-executed examples of writers engaging the present or that sense of being overwhelmed in an interesting way. Like Jennifer Egan’s tweet story, or really distilled forces of language like Garielle Lutz’s fiction, or fragmented and difficult but no less readable stuff like Robert Kloss’s recent work. I am concerned with history and the trajectory of writing and all these kinds of things as well, but I’ve found that you can pretty easily incorporate things like that without trying to force a story that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote that curious academics might have some purpose for, while even devoted readers of even the whole history of literature might never once come across. I try to be honest because, as I said, I’m overwhelmed too, and I read less too, and I’m on my phone too much too, so trying to act like a classroom is this exception from the world just doesn’t strike me as all that useful for students who really want to figure out how to get their writing done within it.
When it comes to calibrating things for particular students, I do try to follow their interests. If students are riffing on something, even if I’m not following, I like to let moments like that develop. I’m a little skeptical of the ways in which criticism can prove all that helpful when it comes to writing literature, if I’m honest. Any time a professor seemed to be enjoying a moment of criticizing my work, as if they were guiding me, I sat there furious and went away wanting my work thereafter to push back against anything they said to me. I might be unique in that sensation, but I don’t think I am, and even for students who seem to want a kind of critique I’m skeptical of my ability to work in that way. It’s not a natural mode for me exactly, but I also don’t want to simply cheerlead and sort of quietly nod along, so I tend to focus on connections they might have with other writers whose work they might consult and see if it’s possible to get them talking about their process and intention in a way that can then lead to a mutual conversation about what we’re all trying to figure out. I tell my students that they are writers and try to treat them as such, because although there’s still some contingent of writers and artists apparently interested in upholding the published writer or the musician with an album as an elusive thing, who we might partially follow until we get to join the club and act like them, humanizing and demystifying some of these things seems necessary, and arguably in turn makes the efforts of these people who manage to write books or make films or paintings that much more engaging and compelling.
That’s a sort of rambling response having thought over these things a bit lately, but I think I do stand by it, and I’m hopeful that someday I’m able to fully realize these dimensions in my courses. But, as I say, teaching well is very difficult, and I have a lot of work to do to get there, and more often than not I’m teaching tech writing anyway, so who knows.
One last question about Ebb: Do you see Ben as a character or as an idea? There’s a great deal of specificity about him and his life, but, at the same time, the “I” narrator in the novel seems so self-consciously writing Ben, that I wonder if he’s “real.”
I do think of Ben as a character in Ebb, but I was very interested in trying to write about what a fictional entity does, as I think I’ve spent a bit too much time writing characters who could either serve as a means to just write language in a way I wanted to write language—and this would extend to scenes and images I’ve found compelling, etc.—or have them say things I felt compelled to say in some sort of mediated way. Writing Ben, and this book, I wanted to render a character doing things, in their world. Some of that is drawn from Nausea, or the minimal amount I’ve read of Robbe-Grillet, which I think would overlap with your sense of Ben being an idea, or kind of a void the “I” I think was me becoming a little restless with everything I’ve just described here, and needing some kind of interventional component to figure out how to write the rest of the book as it is, where Ben could be more of a described physical entity. Obviously the whole conceit of the book means that I had to be very aware of language at every step, which meant in turn that simple description frequently gave way to just seeing how I could write around the absence of the A when talking about Ben and this world, but there was also a nice conventionality to talking about this kid figuring things out in this small town sort of uncorrupted by, or apparently so, and not entirely, the world as it is. That kind of implodes on him, so to speak, but that kind of thinking guided me.
Finally, what’s next for you? Are you at work on another novel or something else? Did Ebb provide you with new knowledge about writing you can build on in the future?
I’m at a bit of a wall when it comes to my writing if I’m honest. I just went through a brief spurt of trying to get back online and trying a Patreon and all these things and then I’d see things that made me feel really disgusted with myself and I decided to abandon that effort. It’s weird because with this recent run of books I’ve found a formula that does seem to work and it is fulfilling, but that also puts me off a little bit. 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. I see how things seem to be going and I don’t much get up above my internal certainty that I’m not a person who should be writing and publishing books, and I’m not trying to be dramatic or something, and don’t need reassurance or anything like that, because I’ve felt this way on and off for years, no matter what anybody says, or how many cups of coffee I have, or which press agrees to work with me on which book.
I was reading recently for a class I’m gonna be teaching soon and it said that writing now far exceeds reading in terms of literate/literacy practices in the world, and I think that’s true, and it’s not good or bad, and it’s only going to continue, so I’m very incapable of holding onto any romance that might’ve once existed around the notion of writing and publishing as a worthwhile thing for me to be doing. I don’t like the idea of the ego and I don’t like the idea of viewing human beings in any kind of an elevated way. I’m not a great person and I don’t feel any better reading some writer posturing as though they’re an exception to the rest of us. That’s what I see so much when I look at so much art. There are exceptions, obviously, and I do feel drawn to those, but they’re tougher to hold on to than they were when I was twenty-two.
I think about these things a lot and this is what I seem to be trying to figure out when it comes to my work, and because of this I’m able to see Ebb as a special gift that was given to me because I was open to it when I was. It showed me that I could kind of quiet myself and work in a way that really felt cleansing. I used to write listening to really loud music on a really loud electric typewriter and I’d be slugging coffee and it felt like that. I succeeded in tricking myself through constraints until I had this book, and I’m happy it exists because it doesn’t even feel like mine. I don’t often feel like that and I’m really grateful. I don’t know if I’ll figure out a way to write something else right now. I really don’t. I’m not trying to, though, which feels right, because I do have these drafts and ideas that I know I could keep chipping away at and keep submitting and maybe someday find a publisher for them, but that’s not why I’m doing this anymore. If I’m going to write it’s going to need to be shaped in some other way, and I like not knowing what that way will be. I’ll get curious about writers and artists and stuff, and like right now I’m listening to the band Low, whose drummer just died, who I’d heard about but never really listened to, and it’s really working for me. Their song “Plastic Cup” feels of a piece with the way I’m thinking about things right now, and I don’t exactly know what that means, but there’s something telling me to stop the way I’ve been writing of late, and open myself to something else, so that’s what I’ll try.
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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