To kick things off, here’s a question for you from our last interviewee, Joshua Young: If you had the capability, time, and money, what other practices, processes, genres, and art forms would you utilize in your work, and how would you accomplish it. What would it look like, how would it sound, what would it feel like, etc. etc. etc? If you already do, can you share your approach/process/practice?
JH: I’ve been writing a lot about cognitive computing lately, both because it interests me and because I have bills to pay and people will pay me to write about cognitive computing. Under the umbrella of artificial intelligence, the various facets of cognitive computing try to use algorithms, training methodology, and truly unfathomable quantities of data to help computers understand the world around them. In near-term practically, cognitive computing will be used to make autonomous cars act more like the best of human drivers (and less distracted ones at that) or help doctors make the most informed decisions about their patients.
Researchers have even used cognitive computing to “see the future.” After feeding algorithms millions of hours of video, they could present the engine with a few seconds of video and it could guess what was going to happen next. And it worked—to an extent. The implications are both beautiful and frightening.
So, if I could throw money and capability toward something, it might be experiments in how cognitive computing could affect, create, and improve upon the work I or others do. I’m not the kind of person who would argue that algorithms are going go obsolete human creativity and art, but I do think it could change the way artists work, and how people interact with or perceive art. Maybe for the worse, but probably for the better.
What if we could ask an algorithm whether or not our twist ending is actually a surprise?
What if we could have computers investigate and fix our verisimilitude issues?
What if computers could give us new story, poem, or essay ideas based on our latest curiosities?
What if algorithms could give us a perfectly-timed compliment about our writing when we’re down about the latest rejection, or in the aftermath of a failed novel, or when impostor syndrome is flaring angrily?
What if we could feed our stories into critiquing engines built from the critiques of our favorite, famous writers who would never have the time to read our work otherwise?
If these opportunities were available to me today, I absolutely would take advantage of them. None of them could replace the network of those whose critiques I trust, or dramatically influence my vision for any given piece, but they could operate as other opportunities for exploration. It took me 10 years of hearing about the editing technique of cutting up a story into scenes and rearranging them into something unexpected before I tried it, and then it resulted in what I think is the best story I’ve ever written. Why not try the same with data and algorithms?
Your essay “Evaporation” from Issue Eighteen tackles existential topics with a quirky, anaphoric story about fictional Greek physicists, time travel, and hot chocolate. What inspired you to approach the essay in this way?
JH: “Evaporation” was part of an essay project on each of the mysterious, confounding elementary particles that make up the “particle zoo.” The project began during an MFA course on science fiction and died about a week after the semester finished, but my curiosity for these strange little creatures, which are so small that they are functionally and physically dimensionless despite having mass, remains strong. Right around the same time, I re-read and was once again enamored by Amy Leach’s essay collection “Things That Are” and its bombastic, lyrical, and kindly anthropomorphic approach to our world’s curiosities.
I love that you call “Evaporation” an essay, because I’ve been hesitant to properly label this thing during its entire lifespan. When I began this piece, I fully intended it to be more traditionally essay-like, with a structure that braided between scientific/factual and narrative/applied. I wanted to first explore the idea of when and how humankind might have first intentionally interacted with the electron (lightning strikes making up the earlier, but unintentional and unwanted interactions). Explaining that moment only made sense to me through character, hence Agapetos and his rather quixotic quest to understand how all the world’s objects acted when rubbed against one another.
With each subsequent revision, I excised more and more of the distinctly essayistic parts of the piece, until it became what it is now—a piece of prose, yes; a piece of fiction, perhaps, but one grounded entirely in our real past and present understanding of what the electron is and how it functions within the universe. It is, maybe, the first piece I’ve ever written entirely around fact.
Could you talk a bit about the novel you’re working on, What Stills Never Survives?
JH: I remember very clearly the day my wife went through her blue coat ceremony in veterinary school, which happens between the third and fourth years. It’s a moment to reflect on all the hundreds of hours of studying that will soon transition into actual diagnostics and practice. Of course I had been curious all along about what she had been studying for three years, but not until that ceremony did I hear so distinctly some of the philosophical and unanswerable questions that make the work truly unique among all our various human endeavors. One faculty member spoke at length about the class’ successes and achievements, and then asked all of us in attendance to consider questions my wife and her classmates and undoubtedly struggled with already: How does one care for something that cannot point to its pain? How does one cope with the fact that none of their patients will ever thank them?
The book first came into form just then. Those questions were a perfect amalgam of questions I had been asking myself through my fiction for a long time, such as the nature of animal sentience, how memory functions in different animal species, what it means to be a “beast of burden,” whether anthropomorphism is an act of empathy or blindness, and much more. I have always been more curious about the minds of animals that are not humans, and broaching that subject through the lens of veterinary care felt like a new, exciting, and rare opportunity for me.
Most of the primary characters are veterinarians, either owning and managing clinics of their own, or traveling to meet their patients at nearby farms and ranches, and they are all presented with a moment in which everything they recognize comes apart: in widespread but illogical fashion, animals begin to undergo mysterious and terrible change. They start to die, many quickly go extinct, leaving humankind unexpectedly alone. I wanted to explore how we all might react if the things we love and appreciate are taken away now, and not in some fuzzy future. What if extinction is not a slow atrophy, but rather an overnight binary switch?
So as to not make my book sound completely harrowing and sad, I’ll end this answer with a little observation about an old story. Perhaps my favorite trope from fairy tales and folklore is the idea that in the past, long before recorded history, humankind had the capacity to communicate with other animals. Not in spoken word, or any other kind of gesture, but something we simply have no capacity for any more. As though one of our senses simply dropped away. Different cultures that share in this belief about the past have different explanations for how we lost that capacity, but it is usually rooted in our self-absorption, our savagery against nature, and the brutal things intellect makes of us. Now, we scarcely feel the loss of this language at all.
I think we can make our way back there. And in rediscovering our oldest selves, maybe we can remember that we are one among a community of sentient creatures all brilliant in our complete improbability.
Animals, nature, and surrealist imagery seem to recurring themes in much of your work. You say on your website, “I write fables and fairy tales. I love strangeness.” What attracts you to strangeness?
JH: In fairy-tale scholarship, there’s the idea of the “tiny flaw,” a minor-but-narratively-significant flaw in an otherwise perfect world. In fairy tales, tiny flaws are put into high relief because fairy-tale worlds are often described as perfect—there is the grandest castle, the bravest man, the most beautiful woman. Tiny flaws often become the framework for the entire story, or at least the catalyst that sets the protagonist out into their world.
Our world is most certainly not perfect, but the way we each perceive the world is perfect. It doesn’t matter if we’re nearsighted, or have hearing issues, or have lost sensation in our left arm—our perception and our understanding is perfect relative to our own experience. It’s as good as it is ever going to get. Each of these completely unique perspectives congeal together in a lot of different ways to create an agreed-upon understanding—the sky is such and such color, this bird sounds like that, something dropped should move toward the earth and not away. We call that normal. We call that reality.
A lot of wonderful fiction operates entirely within those bounds, but I’m more interested in exploring the places where our different perceptions fail to agree. Where logic starts to fade. Those are the places where I see our universe’s tiny flaws emerging. Because it’s thrilling to think that even our personally-perfect perspective on the world around us is broken. It’s thrilling to think about the ways in which our world’s tiny flaws could be prodded at and opened up into entirely different realities. That’s why I write about ghosts, or the slowing of the speed of light, or an event that steals away our animals. I want to understand what it is we do when we suddenly see not in red and green and blue, but rather in ultraviolet.
Looking back for a second, we’re curious to hear about what led you to write. Was there a specific person or course that got you hooked, and is there a specific moment in your memory when you ‘became’ a writer?
JH: I can name any number of influential teachers, favorite books, and childhood scribblings that accumulated into my becoming a writer, but none of those go deep enough. There were plenty of moments where I felt that surge of validation—someone liked a story of mine, I got into a specific undergrad workshop a year before most—but it often feels like I’m retroactively applying more meaning than the moment really deserves. Memory is tricky in that way.
Even though my work focuses on moments where constants (whether they be gravity or the speed of light or a reality we’ve decided is “normal”) become anything but, I choose to apply most meaning to my own particular array of constants. There are plenty of threads along the way, but the brightest is my dad, who always encouraged me to write, and more importantly, was the first person to give my work legitimacy. When I was in high school, he signed me up for local summer workshops even though I was going to be the youngest person there by a decade (I took a class alongside of my high school teachers, for example). He kept asking how my writing was going, and at all the critical junctions of young adulthood—graduations, jobs, displacements—he insisted that I refuse to give myself a break. Because breaks become absences that become nearly impossible to traverse again.
When my dad reads most of my work, the novel included, he offers a variation on “I’m not entirely sure what you’re doing.” And that’s fine. That’s perfect. I’m never really sure, either. Or, I don’t care if people know exactly what I’m trying to do. It’s not about his words coming together to create a definitive moment I can apply meaning to. It’s about the constant. It’s about making something true, and then keeping it that way.
Tell us about a story you’ve been wanting or trying to write.
JH: Right now I’m dreaming up not a specific story, but rather a type, or a tiny genre to call my own. I recently discovered my childhood passion for science fiction, and I have always wanted write fiction that relishes a little bit more in the technological. At the same time, the last few years of my work have been very centered on fairy tales, and I very much want to continue exploring my use of fairy-tale style in all its forms and fashions. I’ve been struggling with how I can take my favorite oddities from each, how I can merge the two. How can I explore what’s to come in a most ancient style? What is the value in embracing our storytelling roots when talking about eras that might obsolete the importance of story? What kind of new, unexpected tiny flaws could be peeled back and explored?
Lastly, if you’d like, give us a question to ask during our next Conversation with a Contributor.
JH: This has been really fun—thank you for the opportunity. How about this: If you could hand-pick or delineate the ideal audience for your work, would you? If so, is it a particular individual, a certain collective, or something you can’t quite explain? What do you think this audience, in particular, has to gain from reading your work? If you feel like you have that audience already, can you talk about how you got there, and if not, what barriers are keeping you from reaching them right now?
Joel Hans is managing editor of Fairy Tale Review. His fiction has been published in Caketrain, West Branch, Redivider, Yemassee, Booth, and others. He received his MFA in fiction from the University of Arizona. Find him online at joelhans.com.
Eileen Huang is a junior at High Technology High School in Lincroft, New Jersey. She served as the 2015-2016 Northeast National Student Poet, the nation’s highest honor for youth poets presenting original work, and has been recognized by the Foyle Young Poets of the Year Awards and the National Scholastic Art & Writing Awards. In her free time, Eileen enjoys reading and shamelessly watching B-list romantic comedies. She serves as an Interview Correspondent for The Adroit Journal.