After years identifying as a poet, Laurie Sheck has fashioned a space outside genre. Her recent work is conjoined not by characters, but by process: writing though other writers, philosophers, and scientists, as well as an equal fascination with Dostoyevsky’s or Shelley’s novels and their stranger than fictional lives. She’s currently at work on the third book of a trilogy that began with A Monster’s Notes and continues in Island of the Mad, newly in paperback.
What follows are pieces from our chat in the lobby of The Marlton, the hotel where Kerouac supposedly wrote The Subterraneans, where Sheck celebrity-sighted Jessica Lange two years ago, across the street from where the first iteration of The Whitney opened in 1907, a chain of connectable dots, not the same, but not too different.
—Patrick Bella Gone
THE BELIEVER: Are you genre-fluid?
LAURIE SHECK: With Gertrude Stein, we say she is a writer. We don’t label her in terms of genre. I love that. Too often, fluidity makes people nervous. If they can’t label one thing or another, they crack. It’s bad enough with people, but with books, it’s the same thing. To me, it’s about liberty of mind. Labeling is the opposite of thinking. As if prose is not poetry as well? And a lot of poetry is not poetry—it’s just lines. The whole thing’s all messed up.
BLVR: We have a similar trajectory, moving from poetry to this space between genre, or I think of it as letting the content dictate the form. How did you veer without cracking?
LS: When A Monster’s Notes started in the early 2000s, I’d been feeling for a long time that I wanted to express something I wasn’t able to express in poetry. My husband got sick with this genetic illness and he was moving funny. He’s fine now, but at the time, he reminded me of the monster in Frankenstein, and I’d never read the book, so I read it. Then I got this fellowship to Radcliffe. I was going to tell them I couldn’t come, but my husband said, “You don’t need to look at me hanging out in a bathrobe all day listening to Gibbon’s The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire over and over again on tape.” So I went.
BLVR: That’s a great poetic image though.
LS: And it’s real! Real things lead to other real things. I moved to Cambridge for the fellowship and the poems I was working on drifted into the background because by then I had read Frankenstein and the monster was very vivid and present to me. He started taking notes. I’d think of things he’d be interested in and then research them. I got fascinated with obscure details. For instance, did you know the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory had a resident theologian? Or, I found out that human ears were being grown on the backs of hairless mice in a nearby lab. All this stuff was real, but I hadn’t known about it.
BLVR: Did you know this tangential research would tie back to a novel-ish project?
LS: No, I just liked doing it. I developed this practice where I would pick out a little area of fascination, research it for five or six days, and then sit down to write. And I gave myself a rule: I couldn’t get up until the notes were finished.
BLVR: I remember these—the short pieces on time and space from the beginning of A Monster’s Notes.
LS: Yes, and I remember coming down to New York and saying to my husband, “Get ready for me to be in a really bad mood because I wrote all these pages, and I have no idea what I’m doing, and now I’m on section two, but I don’t know what section two is!” And then I happened to read Dream of the Red Chamber, mostly because I liked the title, this stunning 1000 page translation of a Qing Dynasty novel from the mid-1700s that, in certain ways, is strikingly postmodern, and things clicked. It was a gift. But John Cage knows that, and so did Aristotle (“art loves chance and chance loves art”).
BLVR: I was interested in how you decide on these source materials. It seems as though you read them for the first time and then leapt into years-long projects.
LS: Yes. I mean, I reject many, but I don’t know these works beforehand. I look for areas of fascination. And when I found The Idiot, I felt, “I can live with you and I will learn a lot from you,” and Dostoyevsky too. And Island of the Mad began.
BLVR: So what’s gotten rejected? What did you audition that didn’t make the cut?
LS: I tried out Beethoven. I wrote about 100 pages that interacted with his conversation notebooks—where he and others would write things down in order to communicate.
BLVR: When he was deaf?
LS: Yes, but the notebooks themselves weren’t that interesting. It’s so hard to find something. You think it wouldn’t be hard because we live so briefly and the world is full of interesting things, but I still find it hard.
BLVR: I often feel like I’m choosing a lens. I did a project with the American flag that began tamely, with me noticing flags wherever I went and taking photos on my phone. But that developed into a fascination with why and how people fly flags in private spaces and I started researching, and before I could stop, it took over my life. It was the lens through which I saw the world. But now I’ve put that lens away and am using a new one. Do you feel like that’s how you approach projects? Once you’re fascinated, you zero in?
LS: I’d call it an investigation, and it’s completely absorbing. Each area of inquiry creates its own structure. Most poets aren’t writing sonnets anymore, but writing is architectural and for each poem, the writer still finds some type of structure. My years writing poems trained me to write these books.
BLVR: When I think of fiction and fact and poetry together, I think of how you drew that line of equivalency between the robotics lab, your husband’s illness, and Frankenstein as a way to understand each one better. That’s the main skill poetry has taught me, how to think in metaphor, to rhyme cultural objects. If x reminds me of y, I trust that impulse and follow y. Even when not writing poems per se, everything I do is centered in associational thinking, a search for facts that mirror other facts.
LS: I have a feeling that’s reality. Recognizing patterns, structures. My new book, the third in the trilogy, is partially set at the particle physics laboratory at CERN. My brain is hurting with science, but I’m very fond of anti-particles at the moment.
BLVR: Of anti-particles?
LS: Yes. I feel connected to them.
BLVR: Tell me about that. I don’t know what they are.
LS: Anti-particles don’t belong here. At one point, 14 million years ago after the Big Bang, there were almost equal parts matter and anti-matter. But if they exist in equal forms, our galaxy can’t exist because matter and anti-matter annihilate each other upon contact. Since we exist, almost no anti-particles exist, or we can’t find them. So the question is, what happened? Where did half the universe go?
BLVR: Hmm. All the microscopic fictions went into hiding.
LS: I was just reading this scientific paper this morning about how at CERN in 2015, an anti-particle was trapped for a thousand seconds. A thousand seconds! And the language in the article was incredible—I might as well have been reading something about capital punishment or World War II. It read like high drama. And it’s real.
BLVR: So you’re working on a new book, or a new investigation.
LS: I am moving forward through time. Shelley, Dostoyevsky, and now a Fassbinder film.
BLVR: Which one?
LS: In a Year of 13 Moons. The main character, Elvira, grew up as a boy in an orphanage, never adopted by anyone. So the boy grows up and doesn’t necessarily feel trapped in a male’s body, but he wants desperately to be loved, and to please someone he hopes will love him, goes to Casablanca, has a sex change operation and becomes Elvira, and yet Elvira, sort of like an anti-particle, doesn’t really fit in the world.
BLVR: Isn’t it sort of modeled after his lover who’d committed suicide earlier that year?
LS: In part. And there are a number of suicides in the film. Interestingly, the nun at the orphanage is played by Fassbinder’s mother.
BLVR: I feel like I should be keeping a fact vs fiction scoresheet or something.
LS: I know! A lot of the books that feed my work now are philosophy. I think I have it in here [rummages in purse, pulls out book]. Anne Manning, have you ever heard of her? This the kind of thing I think about [reads aloud]: “The body is a misnomer. Nothing so stable, so certain of itself ever survives the complexity of worlding.” Most people don’t want to read a sentence like that. “The body is a misnomer.” But to me, that’s anti-particles, that’s Elvira.
BLVR: Right, because they’re all somehow inaccurate. They all exist and don’t exist. And then in a book, we’d translate this to fiction, yeah? We stage it. Someone shows the character a passage by Anne Manning at the bar.
LS: Exactly, the character knows about it and so you get to learn about it. And one thing I learned during A Monster’s Notes was to call the narrator a note-taker, not a scholar, because then as the writer, I can make mistakes, or enact a swerve. I don’t have to be accurate if I don’t want to. I change quotations around if I don’t like how they sound.
BLVR: In the novella I’m working on, one character has a conversation with another character about how she’s more interested in interviews than creating fictional dialogue.
LS: What a relief! Multi-vocal stuff reminds me of The Problem of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics. I didn’t know Bakhtin’s theory when I started Island of the Mad, but it completely aligned with my interests. Bakhtin says that Dostoyevsky is so valuable because of his “dialogic imagination,” that he doesn’t let one character dominate the text. There’s no single governing sensibility: Dostoyevsky cracks his novels open and hands the narration away.
BLVR: To contradict himself within the text?
LS: Yes, any conclusions one character reaches are unresolved by another. It’s prismatic, it angles in, and I think that’s really true.
BLVR: Removing yourself to give the reader this contextual, zoomed out lens?
LS: Yes, but the key is that you’re removed and connected at the same time. You’re stepping back, but watching with a certain sense of empathy, and that has to do with the lens you were talking about. To get into something but not be the star of it. A watchful observing, but with feeling… that’s the trick. Many metafictions or postmodern works can be a little cold, too self-protective. You have to cut yourself open, but not show it.