[Issue 11 / November 2014]
GETTING INSIDE THE SKIN OF A GENIUS LIKE LEWIS CARROLL, MINING HIS CREATIVITY AND LAYING IT OUT ANEW, AND DISTILLING BIOGRAPHIES TO THEIR LITERARY ESSENCES: AN INTERVIEW WITH WILLIAM TODD SEABROOK
By RK Biswas
Hybrid works of literature are difficult on the palate. It certainly is a tough genre to crack, especially one which involves magic realism. But William Todd Seabrook enters this realm with ease and assurance. Seabrook grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, received his MFA from the University of Colorado at Boulder, and is currently a PhD candidate at Florida State University. His work has appeared in Tin House, Mid-American Review, PANK, CutBank, Quiddity, New Ohio Review, and 30 Under 30: An Anthology of Innovative Fiction by Younger Writers. Mud Luscious Press published his chapbook This Semi-Perfect Universe in 2011. His second chapbook, The Genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer, won the 2012 Firewheel Editions Chapbook Contest, and his third chapbook, The Passion of Joan of Arc, won the 2014 421 Atlanta Chapbook Contest. More details about him at his website: www.williamtoddseabrook.net/ . Seabrook’s chapbook “The Imagination of Lewis Carroll” is published by Rose Metal Press. It’s available online at http://rosemetalpress.com/Catalog/Seabrook.html.
RK Biswas: What inspired you to write “The Imagination of Lewis Carroll?” Give us the story behind the story.
William Todd Seabrook: It seems like an incredible task to create an imaginary world, and to create one that is so stunningly bizarre that it has endured for 150 years as a collective unconscious for all things imaginative, illogical, violent, and linguistic seems to me to be a truly remarkable feat. I wanted to figure out how Lewis Carroll created Wonderland, and how his imagination bled out of his mind and into everyone else’s. I started researching Lewis Carroll back in high school when I wrote a (terrible) paper delineating the structural differences between Wonderland and Looking-Glass Land. When I discovered that the White Knight falls off his horse because he is mimicking the move of a chess knight I nearly lost my mind. Not because I thought that detail was so clever (although at the time I did—actually, still do), but because that was one of the first times I realized I didn’t know anything about writing at all. I kept multiple copies of Alice in Wonderland all throughout college (and afterward—I have eight copies of it lying around my apartment at the moment), using it as a primer of bizarre logic and linguistics. It wasn’t until I was in my Masters program at the University of Colorado that I decided to write a series of magical realist biographies about people who fascinate me, and Lewis Carroll was at the top of the list. Out of all the heaps of biographies, annotations, essays, illustrations, films, plays, songs, everything really about Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland, none of them fully conveyed how I felt about the man and his creations. In order to do that properly, I decided to eschew pure realism and pure fantasy, combining the two so that Lewis Carroll and his creations were one and the same, the way it feels to me.
RKB: Tell us a bit about your other chapbooks?
WTS: Two of them are also magical-realist biographies, one on J. Robert Oppenheimer, and one on Joan of Arc. (There is unpublished fourth chapbook which is on Steve Prefontaine as well.) They follow the same format—a series of flash fiction pieces chronicling the arc of each of their lives, and while it seems like these four people make the motliest of crews, I picked them because they all had the raw essence of myth to them, an element of exceptionalism that raised them above all others.
RKB: Why chapbooks? And also, do you see yourself writing longer, as in novel-length works in future? What literary form do you enjoy most?
WTS: I appreciate the brevity of a chapbook. Such brevity forces me to write as tightly as possible while giving me the wonderful illusion of having written something substantial when in fact I have only produced a few thousand words. To my knowledge there have not been many biographies of historical figures written in chapbook form, ostensibly because people do a lot of things in a lifetime, even one as short as Joan of Arc’s (only 19 when she burned at the stake). In my research I read stacks of biographies and found that in such all-encompassing knowledge of their lives, there were no cracks for my own fandom to seep in and resonate. After all, my chapbooks are not meant to tell the life story of Carroll, Joan of Arc, or Oppenheimer, but really they are stories about why I like these particular people, my perceptions of them and their relative accomplishments. The chapbook form allows me to be a curator of their lives, not just a biographer.
RKB: Who were your early influences in literature? Any current influence/s?
WTS: When I was young I hid away in my room and burned through all of Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Dolittle books and Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain series. When all my friends were reading Jack London and Gary Paulsen, I was reading William Sleator, Tolkien, and Jules Verne. It wasn’t until college that I discovered some of my technical influences: Selby, Algren, Ellis, Pynchon, and then Marquez and Calvino. Remarkably enough, I did not read Alice in Wonderland until I was a teenager, but it has probably held more sway in my writing than any other singular book.
RKB: Who are your favourite writers and poets from the e-magazines that you read/have read/ were published in? And which ones are your favourite e-magazine/e-journals.
WTS: I really enjoy Springgun Press, which publishes experimental work and digital writing. They make digital chapbooks as well as some print books. www.springgunpress.com/
RKB: Tell us a bit about your writing routine? Do you have a favourite spot? Any writing quirk or fetish?
WTS: I have very little routine for a writer. I have a tendency to work at night, but often I fit it into whatever hours are free, or whenever inspiration hits me, the sum of those categories almost always being zero. I have heard my entire writing career that writing every day is paramount to success, and while I agree that writing daily produces work, I have found that I sacrifice quality for quantity, and delete it all anyway. I embrace fallow periods, where I let my characters sleep for a few days and then they explode on the page. The overall effect of this is a manic state of writing, where I may not do anything for half a week and then write all night until the sun comes up, unable to contain the burst of creative impulse. It may not last very long, a single night sometimes, sometimes a few days, but the work that I produce during those erratic times is better than the work that comes from slogging through it every day.
RKB: Would you like to talk about any new project that you’re working on now?
WTS: I’m currently working on a novel, stretching my legs into the long form. Like most of my work, it deals with space and time and running.
RK Biswas is the author of Culling Mynahs and Crows (Lifi Publications, India). Her short story collection is forthcoming from Authorspress, India. Her poetry and short fiction are published all over the world, in print and online journals and anthologies. Notably in Per Contra (USA), Sybil’s Garage (USA), Markings (Scotland), Mascara Literary Review (Australia), Cha: An Asian Literary Journal (Hong Kong), Asia Writes (Asia), Every Writer’s Resource (USA), Off The Coast (USA), Kritya (India), Bare Root Review (USA), South (UK), Words-Myth (UK), Pratilipi (India), Eclectica (USA), Nth Position (UK), The King’s English (USA), Poems Niederngasse (Switzerland), Dirtcakes (USA), Crannog (Ireland) The Little Magazine (India), Going Down Swinging (Australia) and Etchings (Australia), among others. Her poem “Cleavage” was long listed in the Bridport Poetry Prize in 2006 and also was a finalist in the Aesthetica Contest in 2010. In 2007, her story Ahalya’s Valhalla was among Story South’s notable stories of the net. Her poem “Bones” was a Pushcart Nominee from Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in 2010. In 2012 she won first prize in the Anam Cara Writer’s Retreat Short Story Contest. She blogs at www.rumjhumkbiswas.wordpress.com