Simon Van Booy: Brief Interviews with Non-American Men
I was in my second year of the Brooklyn College MFA program, and I had recently reached the numbing moment. Nothing spoke. Everything I read had flaws and, even more so, it lacked aesthetic courage, the courage needed to make the reader dream, to make the reader forget those flaws. A classmate brought a published story into our short literature seminar. I vaguely remembered the writer. In the third paragraph of the story I read this; “There is a small tear in the couch I never noticed until now; a piece of leather hangs off like a tongue. It is a small rip but has ruined the entire couch and thrown the apartment into disarray.” All the sudden I felt that something extraordinary was taking place.
I felt like a kid with de Saint-Exupery in my hands, or a teenager in concert with Dostoevsky or García Márquez for the first time. For a moment my evolved cynic was put to dream. The story was “Snow Falls and Then Disappears” by Simon Van Booy, from his first collection, The Secret Lives of People in Love. That evening our class discussed the story. Some hated it while others fell in love, but there was little ambivalence — ambivalence is the enemy of experience, the worst reaction one can have to the creation of something. No, we reacted, we were awake again. We tried to discuss the elements but kept returning to more visceral responses — even the most educated of us — we were readers again.
I devoured that first collection and soon the second, Love Begins in Winter. Then I remembered first hearing of Van Booy, in Ireland, when I had visited for the Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival in 2010. On the stage of a large hall, a giant papier-mâché dog stood upright and was silently reading O’Connor, alongside life-size pictures of prior winners: Jhumpa Lahiri, Haruki Murakami. Then there was a picture I didn’t recognize of a serious looking man in a vest and black, wide rim glasses, reclining on an old chair and pinned to it by an ancient typewriter. That was Van Booy.
Each story in Van Booy’s first collection feels like a confessional from the inner most depths of its central characters. The reader becomes a witness to the most private space of the human heart. Love Begins in Winter is a collection of stories in which Van Booy introduces us to whole lives, to the creation of myth within family and sub-cultures. In his recently released novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, Van Booy’s poetic touches expand from sentence to scene and on into plot. It is both poetry and existentialism. And, like his other works, it is a confession of the human condition and its relationship to language; “What couldn’t be felt in real life could be felt through language — through the experience of another by the setting of marks upon a page.” The novel does what a novel should do, what words aim to do: it connects us to something beyond ourselves, to something greater, even if ultimately elusive.
Well, what follows this long introduction is a brief interview with Simon Van Booy, which I hope further reveals the reasons why his work occupies such a unique and necessary position on the landscape of contemporary fiction.
Due to travel issues on both his part and mine we were unable to meet in person, but originally we had planned to conduct this in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn. On the pier next to Fairway. Possibly in the belly of the antique subway car that is stationed fifteen feet from the water. So, try to imagine that. Daylight, maybe noon. We are drinking Brooklyn Lager; we’re three bottles deep. An IKEA taxi drifts by.
Nikita Nelin: Let’s start with the most basic of questions: What were your influences as a writer? What brought you to it?
Simon Van Booy: The sound of language, the tone of it — how it holds feeling…being able to write brought me great emotional relief.
NN: I know you started out as a poet. How do you work towards a balance between the poetic inclination and the urge to tell a story?
SVB: I suppose fiction is certainly like writing poetry, except that it works differently with time.
NN: One if the things that fascinates me about the whole of your writing is the progression of your books. The first, The Secret Lives of People in Love, is a collection of quite short stories — poetic glimpses into the private lives of its characters. The pieces in the second collection Love Began in Winter, are closer to novella length, where you explore community and journeys. And the upcoming novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, is, well, a novel, spanning the life of a relationship, a number of locations, and even a variety of narrative styles. Was this a conscious, or maybe a natural trajectory in your works?
SVB: I think it was natural… For me, I can only write what comes. If I wrote what I thought people would enjoy, I would be another sort of writer. But there is a journey, but as Kirkegaard once said, “Life can only be lived forwards, but only understood backwards.”
NN: Amongst all the elements of this novel — the romantic setting, the unique and compelling character traits — I found the changes in narrative most interested. Without giving away too much, could you say something about this?
SVB: Well Nikita, I have always been curious about second person — it’s so seldom used. It’s personal and declarative-like a letter from a stranger that is full of truth about your life…..
NN: Philosophy seems a vital subject for you. In fact, you have edited three books on philosophy. Very clearly Henry’s voyage, who is the main character of the novel, echoes Odysseus’s journey in The Odyssey. How did you structure the novel to follow some of the psychological steps of Odysseus, and also to divert accordingly?
SVB: Oh joy, oh rapture! Sweet of you to notice that. I think by osmosis (as in the Walt Whitman poem “A Child Went Forth…”) we become what we see.
–Simon Van Booy’s novel Everything Beautiful Began After was released this month by Harper Perennial. He is the author of two short story collections and the editor of three books on philosophy. Currently he and his daughter live in Brooklyn, NY.
–Nikita Nelin is a Brooklyn College MFA alumni. He was the winner of the 2010 Sean O’Faolain competition for fiction, and the 2011 Summer Literary Seminars non-fiction competition. He currently lives in New Orleans, LA and is a free-lance contributor to the Outlet Blog.