Describe how you went about writing All the Living (ATL ).
The book came very suddenly, and the first draft was written in fourteen days. I was between semesters in graduate school. I did nothing but write for those two weeks, walking outside only once to put a bill in the mail. I wasn't eating or sleeping much, only transcribing the story as I received it. I felt completely open during that time in a way that's hard to describe—as if there were a continuous transfer of energy between myself and everything that I normally conceive of as being "outside" of me. It lasted the entire fourteen days. The day after I finished it, the new semester started, so the editing process occurred intermittently over the course of two semesters and a summer.
Does writing often happen for you in that way, or was this an unusual experience?
Every project is different; every day is different. Sometimes work comes out in a rush; sometimes it comes very slowly and requires calm and patience. There's pleasure in the process either way.
What do you mean by, "there's pleasure in the process?" I sometimes find that writing can also be arduous. Do you consistently enjoy writing?
You're right that it's often arduous, but I do consistently enjoy writing. It's often like running—hard to get out the door, but deeply satisfying once you're doing it. And, of course, every once in a while, your body doesn't have the energy to run at all and demands that you stop. And then you stop. I don't treat myself like a machine.
While reading ATL I was repeatedly struck, as I suppose most people would be, by the intensity of your descriptions of sights, sounds, physical feelings, etc. While on the surface the care that you take to render a physical scene would seem to make your work more "naturalistic," I almost had the opposite impression, that the sensible world had become much more tenuous and subjective, as if you'd slowed down the work of human perception to give the reader a sense of its—occasionally unsettling—subterranean, pre-conscious movements. I've always wanted to know how those writers who seem to have both an affinity and a knack for description think about putting it to work in a novel. I am especially interested in the point at which you are not just describing a scene but are doing something else, and I would like to know what, if anything, that something is.
I think description (insofar as it deviates from popular prose styles) can function as an aesthetic, even spiritual, interruption that encourages a different kind of literary engagement from the reader. Pop prose has a different function than literary fiction, culturally speaking, and it seeks to never interrupt what we consider the naturalistic flow of information and aesthetic, which is highly homogenized (I'm using the term "naturalism" loosely here, because I don't actually think those styles are naturalistic). Plot is revered in pop fiction styles, so most of the literary techniques employed therein seek to preserve the forward motion of the narrative. However, in literary fiction, when description slows or even stops the reader, the reader is forced to engage time, and the concept of time, in a different manner. To me, that's a triumph; to be able to skim over literary fiction would be a sign of its failure as an aesthetic object. The act of noticing becomes important. One of the great frustrations of life is that any moment cannot be conceptualized at the moment of its occurrence, only later, and that later conceptualization necessarily represents the sacrifice of another distinct moment, and so on and so on. A catch-22. Fiction allows us to arrest time and revisit—in some form—what's lost. Of course, it remakes time too, since fiction is never a revisitation of the actual. The actual is lost continuously moment to moment. Ultimately, I think the reworking of time via description can be interpreted in two drastically different ways...