Ahead of his arrival in Fresno for CSU Summer Arts this July, where he will take part in The Normal School’s Nonfiction Workshop and Publishing Institute, we got to chat with the incomparable Ander Monson.
In a far-reaching half-hour, our assistant managing editor, Matthew Kenerly, reflected with Monson upon March Shredness, talked up his forthcoming projects on emotion and Predator, and what it means for intrepid writers, emerging and experienced alike, to strike out into unfamiliar territories with their work.
Matthew Kenerly: First of all, I have to give both you and Megan Campbell props for another successful iteration of March—What are we calling it in general, March X-Ness?
Ander Monson: X-Ness, though I have to come up with a better name.
MK: So, first and foremost, I’m curious about your overall reaction to how this year’s Shredness tournament unfolded because, kind of like last year’s March Fadness, there were a lot of higher seeds that got cut down early. But at the same time, this year’s eventual champion, Loudness, never really mowed through the field like Natalie Imbruglia did. How did the response to this particular era, its values or its sound, conform to your expectations? Or how did it surprise you?
AM: Well, you know, I’m not surprised that a lot of the big hits got eliminated for the same reasons that they did in Fadness, just because of overplaying and overexposure. The thing that we were maybe most surprised by was what we take to be the effect of the bands playing themselves in the first round. I think that really accounted for the elimination of a lot of the one- and two-seeds because people were pretty pissed when the song that they voted for – of the two GnR songs, for instance – did get [a win], so they either disconnected or kind of spite-voted against the one that they would’ve otherwise probably voted for.
I think that did not have the effect that we’d hoped. We thought it would be energizing but I think it was enervating for those bands. Or maybe that those bands were not likely to go as far, but I don’t think so. It’s really bizarre to me that so many of them lost that early, so next year we’re not going to be doing that in the first round.
The upside of it, though, is that it made the bracket much harder to predict, so that just blew up everyone’s brackets, which I thought might have been a nice feature, but it may have also just pissed some people off.
MK: It’s funny, though, because the eventual outcome reminded me of something you’d written in the prologue of How We Speak to One Another. One of the things you’d said was that our ability to network online enables us to find “fellow travelers” who appreciate the interrogations we put forth in our essays. And that really stood out to me in W. Todd Kaneko’s essay on Loudness, that it can change how we’ve long thought – or at least how I’ve long thought, anyway – about the idea of hair metal.
AM: Yeah, big time.
MK: So do you think being unified by a genre, rather than a feeling or an era, makes that more possible, or more accessible?
AM: I think so. There’s definitely an aspect of revisionism that people were engaging in, which I think is natural and sort of necessary. We were involved in a genre but, at the same time, there’s hair metal stuff that’s come out in the last ten years that we didn’t include, so it’s a time era as much as it is a genre.
The essays that did it best were the ones that really created a connection, that really spoke to other people. Think of Berry Grass’s essay – that was the other one, on that shitty TNT song – that defeated a couple of big names pretty early for the same reasons. And that was really cool to see. I love that aspect of it. But both of those songs are also songs that almost no one had any experience with before. Both of those were late additions to the tournament, partially an attempt to try and make it a more diverse field within a very un-diverse field. And I really got to like that [Loudness song] more, it got to essay more, got the ability to speak to others and make those connections. It gathered a lot of steam as the tournament went on.
MK: Definitely. It ended up being a Cinderella, ironically.
AM: And without any interaction through social media or anything. We know that’s what happened with Natalie Imbruglia; she wasn’t responding to us on Twitter, but we know there was something going on in a social media string that we were not privy to which really helped buoy her early. And that really helped some of the bands in the first and second round. I mean, Nelson doesn’t get to the Sweet 16 without involving the Nelson Nation, who were surprisingly gung-ho about doing it. With Loudness, though, there wasn’t any of that.
MK: This might be shifting gears a bit, though maybe it’s not since you have a hand in many different things. I’d noticed recently that DIAGRAM released its latest issue online and, perhaps coincidentally, there’s a really awesome piece from former Normal School contributor Sarah Minor that, to me, really challenged traditional ideas of narrative form. As the editor for that magazine, what kind of insights can you offer to emerging writers who might be initially reluctant to take those kinds of risks?
AM: Sarah is a great example of that because she’s sort of created, in her career, her own idiom and her own genre. She was an MFA student in our program [at the University of Arizona] and this was, I think, the first piece of hers we’ve run, but there’s a real value in—it’s kind of why we started DIAGRAM, when I was trying to do work that was outside the stream of what was getting published in literary magazines. And this was eighteen years ago. I started the magazine, in part, to try and make a space for those kinds of things that were weird enough or involved enough or formal enough, in the sense of being in a form, that they didn’t speak to a lot of people.
It’s a hard road to hoe, in a certain sense, because she doesn’t work within a genre where you can name ten people that are the canon of the visual essay. There aren’t that many, she’s one of them now, but the benefit of it is that when you see her work, it’s unlike anything else you’ve ever seen. You get the sense that she’s changing the conversation with a lot of her pieces. And I love that, she’s trying to create her own space for it.
It’s something that I think we all, as writers, want to do. To innovate, you want to make it new, you don’t want to do what everyone else has already done, but it’s hard to do that, particularly as a young writer. The more you read, the more you come to understand that, actually, a lot of people have already done cool shit; you know, Tristram Shandy is one of the first novels in English and it’s got a whole page where it’s just black when a character dies. You’re like, “Oh, wow, so people were doing that well before what I thought of as the beginning of literature.” In a way, it’s helpful not to recognize what you’re up against.
But why not do something that’s more of an object? She did two MFA theses here [in Tucson] and one part of them was this fairy tale installation that you would walk through and you had the experience of being in it and you realize, well, no one else is even trying this shit. And that’s a really powerful notion, that this is new territory that we’re investigating. That’s a big part of what she’s interested in, and it’s certainly what I’m interested in through my teaching and in my writing, opening up new spaces, even when it hadn’t occurred to me there could be a space.
Take Neck Deep, my first book of essays. I tried to inhabit in that book, as much as I could, all of the various parts of the book including the dedication and the index and all of those other things. Because why not try to do that? All of these things that authors don’t normally have access to. One of the benefits of the era that we live in—well, one downside is that power is devolving from big publishers to the writers, the responsibility. We’re supposed to self-promote, we’re supposed to edit. Editors don’t really edit half the time, but the benefit is that now there are these spaces available to writers that otherwise were unavailable. Ten or fifteen years ago, you couldn’t do that. You probably wouldn’t have thought of it.
I still get in fights with editors when they ask for something and I demand that I have to be able to have a hand in the InDesign file when they lay it out, because that’s not what writers do. That’s what their design people do. And I find that is a kind of challenge. Why can’t that be something that writers do? What could we do with that space if we were allowed to do that? I’ve always being taken told no as a kind of challenge, which has not always served me well in my life but has taken me to some interesting places, for sure.
MK: That’s an interesting thought, though, the availability of space to do things encourages doing things without being so self-conscious about it.
AM: Yeah. Necessity is the mother of invention, that kind of thing, but if you have to do it or you’re aware that it’s there then why not? See what happens. I even think about Microsoft Word, you bring it up on your screen and it’s weird how much of that actually apes the physical page with its little drop shadow around this 8-by-11 thing and you don’t really think about that. We’re actually processing words, we’re apeing this typewriter, basically. And yet there’s this other stuff around it, including in the margins, that we don’t get to type in unless you open it up.
MK: I’d like to talk a little bit about your upcoming projects. I noticed you have not one, but two different projects coming out with Graywolf Press in the future, so how would you describe those projects to people who are unfamiliar with them? What can you say about how they’re coming along so far?
AM: They’re both done enough to have been accepted and I’m in the process of reworking and tuning in both of them. One of them, the nonfiction one, is called I Will Take the Answer, and it’s from a story that I think was posted in The Normal School.
MK: The mixtape essay?
AM: Yeah, and it also includes the March Sadness essay (author note: featured in TNS Volume 10, Issue 1). It’s a book that’s trying to think through, to some extent, the experience of living in Tucson which is – you know, I’m from Michigan, so Tucson is kind of an alien landscape – but also the experience in trying to work through some of my anger and grief, as well as the city’s, in the aftermath of the Jared Laughner shooting when my congresswoman was almost assassinated and a bunch of other people were killed by this psychopath who shot up a Safeway. That’s one of the big questions of that book, they’re essays but it’s a fairly tight collection trying to figure out how we process something like that, how we process emotion, which connects to how we think about sadness and March Sadness.
There’s some more experimental, visually or formally experimental, stuff in there because it’s an Ander Monson joint, but it’s trying to think through some of those social issues and ideas. So people who liked Shredness or Sadness will find something to like in that book.
The books are going to come out the same day, and the other is a story collection called The Gnome Stories. And those are, to some extent, Southwest-inflected, also written in the aftermath of that shooting. Guns are something that have been on my mind for a while because they’re also part of this Predator project I’ve been working on for a while and I’m hoping to finish this year. This is the downside of working on two projects at once: Your ideas for one, even if they came from somewhere else, end up interlocking and overlapping, which is fine since they’re coming out in different directions. But they have a lot of relationships.
I don’t know how well to describe what I’m doing there. They’re a little bit magical, a little bit deranged, a little bit fucked up.
MK: So that’s an Ander Monson joint, too.
AM: Yeah, that’s true.
MK: You actually beat me to one of my next questions because you do have that Predator project which, by the way, congratulations on becoming a Guggenheim Fellow last year.
AM: Thank you.
MK: But I had a couple of questions about that because, with Predator in particular, it stands as a unique monument to a schema of what I call American masculinity. So I was curious about what the interrogation of those ideas feels like on a day-to-day basis, especially as someone who grew up with Predator?
AM: It’s a tricky project because it is a very specific kind of masculinity and one that I inhabited fully as a 13-year-old, when that movie came out. Schwarzenegger, in that movie, was my dad’s age at the time, so there’s a way in which I learned a lot, more than I think I was aware of, not just that but from Running Man, Commando, all of those cartoonish, hyper-violent, hyper-masculine, homo-social, shoot-‘em-up movies. And we live in a time where mass shootings are almost every day, they’re not in danger of going away.
This book came specifically out of the Giffords experience, after watching a bunch of coverage about that when I still thought she was dead. I was in a sort of shock, trying to figure out a way to process anger and frustration and grief, but I was playing this first-person shooter game, Fallout 3—
MK: I love Fallout.
AM: It’s a wonderful series and a great game, but it’s also a game where you’re stalking around Washington D.C., a place I’ve visited and knew sort of well, and I was struck by the collision of ideas: A congresswoman being shot and me, just head-shotting people with my sniper rifle and taking great satisfaction and solice in that. That’s kind of a disturbing pairing of things. I’m trying to think about, you know, not that I feel watching Predator growing up in the 80s made me enjoy blowing up stuff on screens or enjoy shooting guns and so forth, but there is a way in which all of us are products of, and digest aspects of, the cultures that we grow up within. It’s part of our job to reckon with that and to try and disentangle what that meant. It’s very much like March Shredness, the same era and the same ideas of masculinity popping up, so partly the book is about unpacking some ideas about guns and violence and aggression and masculinity.
But it’s also about watching Predator and re-watching Predator. I’m not interested in making a one-to-one argument – watching a violent movie makes me a violent person – and I think Predator is a brilliant film, really beautiful and amazing, by far the best of them. It’s the one that’s lasted because it has the most interesting mythology, because it speaks to the most people. I’m interested in it as a kick-ass film. I re-watched it frame by frame, looking for surprises. It’s also the first movie I can think of where you actually get the perspective of the alien, which is really radical in a monster movie. The cool heat-sensing effect. That sense of being the other changes the game and it creates the game, for instance, with Alien vs. Predator on Atari Jaguar, which also imprinted itself on me pretty strongly at the time.
I don’t know how much watching a 1987 action film can reveal about being a guy of my age in the Trump era, but I think there’s something in there that needs interrogation. And try not to be boring about it.
And, you know, Predator is awesome.
MK: I will definitely agree with that. My last question is about your presence at the forthcoming Normal School Workshop and Publishing Institute.
AM: I’m excited about that.
MK: As an established writer, as a prolific writer, what do you get out of engaging with emerging writers in such an intensive setting? What do you hope learners will take away from your being there as a part of that course?
AM: In part, I get to revisit to where I came from which is, “Alright, let’s play around with some stuff.” The downside to being an established writer, I guess, is that I have a sense of what my brand is supposed to be, or what people expect from me, and it’s hard not to operate within those expectations. And it’s really poisonous to feel like you’re living up to whatever that version of yourself you’ve projected, or people have read. But what’s really cool is getting to work with young writers and re-engaging with them, who maybe aren’t burdened with those expectations and come into it with that spirit of directed play that I think is crucial to any kind of invention or any kind of progress you make as a writer.
If you’re doing it right, teaching ought to also feed the writing part of you. It eats part of the writing me, for sure, less so these kind of intensive short-term workshops, but you also get a bounce-back and energy by seeing what people are doing. By seeing what people are watching and what they’re playing and what they’re reading, and then what they’re making.
Coming back to Sarah Minor, she was one of my students and it was always really awesome to have her in class because we’d have good conversations and she’d make stuff that made me want to make stuff. A good teacher also does that to you. Being in a class makes you want to make things, too, and then having good students makes the teacher want to keep making things. That’s my hope, that we can talk a little bit about what that is. I hope it’s going to be really generative, I’d like to generate some material myself and see where we can take it.
Ander Monson is the author of eight books, including the forthcoming I Will Take the Answer and The Gnome Stories from Graywolf. He edits the magazine DIAGRAM (thediagram.com) among other projects, and he directs the MFA program at the University of Arizona.
Matthew Kenerly is a recent graduate of the Fresno State MFA program, where he served as The Normal School’s assistant managing print editor and social media coordinator. He writes and edits for Mountain West Wire, part of USA Today’s Sports Media Group.