In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Ryan Habermeyer
Your nonfiction piece, Only Matter, juxtaposes the death of a girl you knew with Lenin’s preservation. What was the impetus to blend these ideas together on the page?
It was a weird writing experience. For a very long time I tried and failed to write about my friend’s death. It’s such a core memory but I couldn’t ever figure out how to write about it, much less do it justice. There were so many different approaches, so many memories to consider, so many ideas to juggle. I meandered for years with drafts and fragments, sometimes envisioning it as a big essay and other times as a flash piece, but nothing felt right. Lots of false starts, lots of abandoned middles. As I’ve gotten older as a writer, I’ve discovered not to force a piece into what I think it ought to be but let it mature organically. I’ve learned to experiment more, to splice the bits and pieces of thought with something else. That’s the pleasure of the lyric essay. I love collage; I love white space and taking big leaps. I love wild juxtapositions of images, narrative, meditation. The trick is making the juxtaposition do interesting work that doesn’t feel contrived or arbitrary.
So, Lenin grew into this essay gradually and unexpectedly. I went down a rabbit hole on the internet and learned about Lenin’s preservation, then I read Ilya Zbarsky’s Lenin’s Embalmers, and while I was researching all that I had a random conversation about my friend’s death and there was something of an “ah ha!” moment and the two things blurred together in my mind. It was surprising and uncomfortable when I started Frankensteining this thing together. Who am I to write about Lenin? I’m not Russian. I’m no revolutionary. I’m nobody. I didn’t think it would work, honestly. In a way it’s absurd to think of my life and experiences as somehow parallel to, or perhaps a shadow of, someone as historically significant as Lenin. But I think it was Donald Barthelme who said something like those who never attempt the absurd never achieve the impossible. I think about that often when I’m writing. Especially in a piece like this where I had to learn to let it exist more conceptually than narratively, like a weird thought experiment.
I love the line, “…all lives are fables or one kind or another.” Can you expand upon that?
I love fairy tales and fables. Thanks to my mother, I had a steady diet of them in my childhood. Not the cheap Disney ones either. The dirty, gritty Grimm ones. The weird Russian ones with Baba Yaga and Koschei the Deathless. I can’t imagine living life without fairy tales as an intermediary—they’re fundamental to my consciousness, to the way I see and interact with the world. In my academic life I teach classes on them regularly, and usually when I’m stuck with writing projects my default is to turn to fairy tales for help, whether that means using a specific tale intertextually somehow, or more conceptually as an intellectual aid. I suppose you could say creating fairy tale allusions in my work is somewhat lazy because I do it so frequently, but I’m always astonished by the plasticity of folklore to shape narrative and reveal insight. Fairy tales are good to think with. They’re so dynamic. Sometimes I’ll write an outrageous line like this one and not believe it but keep it anyway because it sounds right to my ear, but I do think memory—which is something my essay interrogates—is a kind of fairy tale. There’s a lot of neuroscientific research that says memory is a ruse; that we regularly confabulate remembered reality into something that it wasn’t. Our minds spin the tales of our lives, but as storytellers we’re fudging the truth even as we’re trying to get closer to it. In English, we use the phrase “Once upon a time” to open a fairy tale, but in other traditions and cultures they begin with “Once there was and was not,” and that rings true to me of how memory works and how life is.
There’s a theme of impermanence throughout the piece. I also feel like it extends to some of your other work, both fiction and nonfiction, like LA PETIT MORT and these short stories. What draws you to that theme of blending extinction and the natural world, along with speculative elements?
It’s a concept that has certainly preoccupied me for the last few years. I think like a lot of people, I find it difficult not to be thinking about impermanence and extinction these days. Not to get all doom and gloom, but it’s omnipresent in the culture, right? The static in the background getting louder and louder. Look around. Hard to ignore the sick world we’ve created. I grew up in California and spent a lot of my childhood visiting Arizona, Nevada, Utah. I have so many memories of long drives through the Mojave, the Great Basin, the Canyonlands. Eerie and beautiful landscapes. The emptiness, the seeming nothingness, the surrealness of it all. Nobody wants to be confronted with their own impermanence, but when you live in and around the desert you get a regular dose of that reality. My wife says I’m a catastrophist (and as usual she’s right), and I suppose that curiosity towards extinction and the speculative comes to some extent from living in that environment. I’m interested in the fringe. Those places that feel like they’re on the edge of the map and about to disappear. That’s where things happen. Weird things. Real things. Where our understanding of the natural gets turned on its head. With writing, I feel like you’ve got to bend reality to understand it better. So when you’re living in a time of warped reality you’ve got to warp it even more. That’s what I’m exploring in my new collection of short stories, Salt Folk, which comes out in a few months. Speculative fictions of Utah past, present, and future. Not fatalistic meditations on extinction, necessarily, but exploring what happens to faith when the world you know falls apart.
As a teacher, what do you feel is one of the most important writing lessons you give your students?
Slow down. Both with the story itself and the writing process. Not long ago I had a student show me his marketing and merchandising plan for the eleven-part fantasy series he was writing, with descriptions of all the movie adaptations and video games and figurines that would be part of this vast multi-media empire he was creating. Problem was he hadn’t written the actual story. It only existed in his mind like a summarized Wikipedia entry. I think students would benefit from a slower writing process and not being in such a hurry to publish. Learn craft. Experiment. Figure out your voice. Figure out the kinds of stories you want to tell. There’s nothing wrong with delaying becoming a so-called official “writer.” Maybe this is just narcissism talking because I’m a slow writer. There are things I wrote six months, a year, five years ago that I’m just now figuring out. I mean, my friend died almost thirty years ago and I just now figured out how to write about it after a long and grueling process. Maybe I’m just not a very good writer who takes too long to figure out what the story wants, but there’s something to be said about waiting for the story or essay to come together on its own terms. I don’t put much stock in inspiration. I think the creative process is slow and grueling, a game of attrition. So much of what we do as writers is about being patient and just observing, waiting, tinkering, experimenting here and there, letting the memories and images and words simmer, biding our time until we can find the shape of whatever thing we’re creating. The world is already moving too fast. Don’t duplicate that on the page or with the process. Slow down. Give yourself time.
What authors shaped the writing you do today? What are some of your favorite texts?
The only writing I’m interested in these days is experimental narrative. I have little patience for conventional stories focused on plot and narrative arcs, and I cringe a little when I read a review that says something like, “I couldn’t put it down!” I’m not sure I want story anymore and all the formulaic trappings that go into that; I want an aesthetic experience. I want writing that has a vested interest in shape and style beyond the content. Because for the most part, the stories are all the same. Or at least I’ve seen some version of the story in question a thousand times before (the curse for all of us bibliophiles who read voraciously). So how a writer tells a story is much more interesting to me than what is being told. Style is substance. I want voice. I want a book that gives me pause, that makes me step away from it for a day or two. I want a book that’s difficult to digest. Isn’t that what art is supposed to do?
Some of the books I’ve read and re-read recently: Olga Tokarczuk, Flights; Benjamin Labatut, When We Cease to Understand the World; Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities; Lily Hoang, Bestiary; Thomas Bernhard, The Voice Imitator; Paul la Farge, The Facts of Winter; Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquiet; Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House; László Krasznahorkai, The Melancholy of Resistance; Mircea Cărtărescu, Solenoid; Michael Ondaatje, The Collected Works of Billy the Kid; Milorad Pavić, Dictionary of the Khazars; W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn; Maria Stepanova, In Memory of Memory; and Maud Casey, City of Incurable Women.
What projects are you working on now?
I just finished the final edits on my second collection of short stories, Salt Folk, which comes out in a few months. I also recently completed my first novel (talk about slow: it took me more than a decade to write), which is a revisionist Pinocchio story with echoes of Don Quixote about a boy with a cosmonaut helmet surgically grafted onto his head who watches too many campy 1950s sci-fi movies and, believing he is an alien, builds a catapult in the Utah desert hoping to launch himself into outer space. Stylistically, it’s written as a series of obituaries and integrated into the text are dozens of vintage photographs from the early 20th century I collected from antique shops and flea markets—so I’m excited to get that book out into the world. I’m also slowly cobbling together a collection of essays about the American West, Things the Desert Told Me, exploring faith, fatherhood, and folklore.
Ryan Habermeyer is the author of the short-story collections Salt Folk (Cornerstone, 2024) and The Science of Lost Futures (BOA, 2018). His stories and essays have appeared in Conjunctions, Alaska Quarterly Review, Massachusetts Review, Flyway, Cincinnati Review, Blackbird, Cimarron Review, Seneca Review, and others. He is associate professor of creative writing at Salisbury University. Find him at ryanhabermeyer.com.