The Irresolvable Situation, a conversation with Thomas Pierce, author of Hall of Small Mammals
The following conversation took place between Thomas Pierce, author of Hall of Small Mammals and Halimah Marcus, Editor-in-Chief of Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, at Community Bookstore, in Brooklyn, on March 27, 2015, and has been edited for length and clarity.
Halimah Marcus: Yesterday there was a review in The L Magazine that said you were “a classicist in fabulist’s clothing.” I felt that was quite apt.
Thomas Pierce: That sounds good to me [laughs]. I don’t really pay much attention to those things. When I’m writing I don’t think, “Oh, this clearly fits into the fabulist tradition.” Maybe after the fact I’ll think about it, minimally, but generally it’s not something I consider — whether a story fits into a particular genre.
HM: What about in terms of your influences?
TP: I don’t know. That’s such a bad answer, I realize, but I read a lot, and for any different story it might be slightly different. There are so many writers I admire who have had an influence on me, but I never have anyone in mind when I’m writing a story.
HM: Sure, many writers want to read work that’s very different from what they write so as not to be too influenced. I like that description because this collection, to me, with all the different characters and their hobbies and interests, has a bit of a “cabinet of curiosities” feel. The title, Hall of Small Mammals, is taken from the Natural History Museum, which is known for its dioramas. The collection features a miniature wooly mammoth and an old carnival-style monster, so I’m wondering, what about the diorama peaks your interest?
TP: I will say that some of the stories are diorama-like, but I’m always in the diorama. I exist in the diorama all the time. We all do probably, to some extent. We’re in the diorama right now, maybe. So I never feel like I’m looking from the other side of glass, to answer your question. I feel very strongly that I might be one of the people I’m writing about. I do not think of myself as separate from or better than my characters.
HM: What’s really interesting about a diorama is that you want to be inside of it. I was also thinking while reading certain stories, specifically “Shirley Temple Three” and “Grasshopper Kings,” about the interplay between science and religion, which you touch on pretty subtly. Do you think about these big themes?
TP: I would say that the role they serve in the stories is rooted in my own attempts to figure out what it means to be alive. That is to say, I’m tapping into my own general sense of confusion — you know, confusion about the world and why we’re here. Religion and science, broadly speaking, those are two avenues available to us in making sense of the universe — of investigating the universe — and I’m interested in the overlap between the two. Sometimes science and religion can coexist and inform one another and other times they cannot, and they knock against each other. When they intersect in unexpected ways, I’m fascinated by that — by the strange allowances we sometimes make in order to hold onto a pre-existing belief or worldview. We have to make choices about how we explain the world to ourselves.
HM: In “Shirley Temple Three,” there’s a son who works for a television show where they bring back extinct animals. He rescues a miniature wooly mammoth from the show, brings it to his mother’s house, and abandons it there, where, of course, it becomes very unhealthy, because it’s a wooly mammoth living in…?
TP: Near Atlanta. Yeah, pretty hot in Atlanta.
HM: My interpretation is that this mother is starting to really see her son’s moral failings. She’s a religious person and he represents a morally ambiguous, scientific field, and the way she comes around to see how he has disappointed her was really profound.
TP: He’s a bit of a know-nothing in some ways. He doesn’t know the science, he doesn’t understand the science, but he shows up with this mammoth, and the way the mother contextualizes the mammoth is definitely inspired by her religious background. The mammoth presents a huge challenge to her beliefs — to the way she’s thought of the world and existence until now — and here it is in her very own backyard, in a dog pen. When it becomes sick and needs help — physically and maybe even spiritually — the mother does her best to help it. She prays for it. She calls over her pastor.
HM: It also makes me think about how quickly deep empathy for an animal can be evoked. Maybe it’s ugly or possibly never existed, but suddenly you just care about it so much.
TP: It’s a bit of cheat [laughs].
HM: In “Saint Possy,” a couple moves into a new house and they find a skull with candles under the stairs. I thought, this is going in a haunted house, tear-the-family-apart direction but that situation ends up revealing the couple’s really sweet love for each other.
TP: That one started like that, as an almost-ghost story, but it didn’t click for me until the couple began trying to explain the skull and their behavior to themselves, until it became an anecdote they tell at parties, this scary thing that happened to them once. That’s when I realized there was something else going on in the story — that there was another level to it. It was more fun for me to write at that point. I actually wanted to finish it. I doubt I would have ever shared it with the world if not for that development.
HM: It pleased me that they handled the situation in the same way.
TP: Right, it drives them both to craziness.
HM: Well, since we’re talking about individual stories, I’d love to hear about “Videos of People Falling Down,” because it’s structured very differently, with these vignettes that work together. For me it evoked a kind of surveillance state present in your New Yorker story, “This is an Alert.” These people have been caught on video, then it’s on the Internet; it’s there forever and everyone sees it.
TP: What those stories might have in common is they deal with a vague paranoia — that paranoia probably being my own — that is related to a feeling of powerlessness in the world. The stories both involve bodiless, system-less systems, very vast and nebulous entities that exert control over our lives. In the case of “This Is an Alert,” there is a war happening, up in the clouds, but we don’t know the particulars of it and we don’t see it. We have to trust that it’s actually happening. The characters read about it in the news but have no actual proof of it. They are disconnected from it, but at the same time it’s something that’s impacting their lives. The videos story is similar except the war is the Internet. The Internet consumes our lives, eats it up, digests it, and spits it back out. It’s all of us — but larger than us. It’s something beyond us that feels uncontrollable — not to mention diffuse and hard to locate — and that can feel kind of scary.
HM: Getting back into the philosophical territory, “The Real Alan Gass” is about a woman who confesses to her husband that she’s had a “dream husband” whom she’s been dreaming about for years. She knows a lot about him, and they have a very real and active marriage in her dreams. I’m going to read a line:
Alan Gass is a ghost, and Walker knows you cannot fight ghosts. They are insidious. You can’t punch a ghost or write it a drunken email. You can only pretend the ghost is not there, hope it loses interest, evaporates, moves on, does whatever it is that ghosts do when they disappear completely.
I noticed a reoccurrence of this notion of a second bottom to things: things that disappear, and then disappear further. Do you want to comment on this idea?
TP: That’s a tough question. You’re right in that there’s often something that happens in the stories that either escalates the plot to a new level of absurdity or pulls the rug out from under the characters, again and again. With “Alan Gass,” the main character goes looking for his girlfriend’s dream husband, but of course it’s kind of an irresolvable situation. There’s no obvious recourse. If you were to wake up tomorrow and your significant other said they were married to someone else in their dreams, how do you respond to that? You either make peace with it and say “I accept that about you,” or you don’t, and there’s not really a clean way of investigating that mystery. You can’t write a drunken email, you can’t knock on a door. So, yes, there is a bottomlessness to that.
HM: Yes, and the solution has to be in your own thought control, which can be very frustrating if that’s the only solution, because you can be so powerless in your own ways of thinking.
TP: I mean it’s a decision he has to make. To be okay with it or not. There’s no external action that can fix this.
HM: Do you feel that the wife was being intentionally aggressive by sharing this dream marriage?
TP: There are two versions of this story. Maybe I shouldn’t really confess this here [laughs]. One was first published in Subtropics, in which her aggression is even more emphasized. Walker, the main character, fears this is some kind of provocation, that it’s the girlfriend’s way of pushing him away or testing their relationship. I like that version of the story, too, but I also like this version that’s a little happier. It ends more with him making peace with this thing — whether it’s a provocation or not. I don’t know why I prefer this new ending more, but I suppose it just makes sense to me. One option is for him to throw out his own test to her and say, “Well, in fact, here’s x, y, and z that could potentially break apart our relationship,” or he can say, “I accept it.” The idea of him accepting this about her appeals to me. So maybe it’s me being a little starry eyed about relationships.
HM: I do think you’re excellent with endings.
TP: Well, not everyone says that, so I’m glad to hear you say that.
HM: Really? I just think you have rhythm about your last lines. Even if the story is meant to be unresolved, the last line has a feeling of resolve. If you don’t mind me reading another example, this is from “We of the Present Age:”
Smoke danced through the rafters of the barn, and there, up ahead, illuminated by a ring of red and blue glass lanterns, was the creature, lurching toward us with rows of sharp teeth and two long curving tusks, its chest puffed with breath, a single knowing blue eye at the center of its giant apish head. We were very, very quiet.
The reason I love this is because I think a lesser writer wouldn’t have added that line, “We were very, very quiet.” When I read it I thought, “that was great.” What do you look for in an ending?
TP: This is something I struggle with for sure. Finding the right ending is tricky and it’s the thing I probably spend the most time on. I’m generally a fast writer. I can often get the first three-quarters of a story out in about a week — and sometimes even a day, depending — but then I get to the ending and sometimes need to spend another few weeks trying to figure it out. Sometimes that means starting over. Sometimes it just entails finding the right chord. What do I look for in an ending? It doesn’t have to answer every question. This is a book of stories about people for whom it’s really about the questions. I think the stories are really clear plot-wise, and I think more often than not it’s clear what comes next, after the last sentence. But I like to end on a — sort of — opening up? There are stories that do this in the end [makes gesture] and then there are stories that do this [makes another gesture], and I prefer the first one. This is not helpful for your recorder. I’m making wild arm gestures. [To the recorder] I like an upward opening V, arms up in the air, like talking to God maybe. I prefer up-V endings.
HM: Do you think about the rhythm of sentences, particularly at the end?
TP: Yes, I think about rhythm. I wouldn’t say I’m a writer who is obsessed with sentences. I mean, there is such a thing as a beautiful sentence, and I’m very pleased when a sentence does its job or is surprising or when it could exist independently and still be interesting, but beautiful sentences are not what I’m chasing when I read or write. I’m more interested in a beautiful story. I do understand that the sentences add up to the story, of course they do, and a lot of magic can happen on the sentence-level, but that’s just not where my mind is when I’m writing. I think more about rhythm in terms of the overall structure and plot. I consider myself more of a what-happens-next type of writer. I think, “Is this a time for advancing the action, or is this a time for digression, for a thought, for a description?” I think about the larger rhythm. When you get to the ending, it does have to achieve a certain kind of momentum or energy, and that is tied up with the micro-rhythms of course, but it’s momentum that I want more than anything else. Because I want readers to feel like they’re still hurtling forward even after they’ve finished the last sentence.