Eric Sasson interview with Meg Tuite
Thank you so much, Eric, for sending this inimitable story with a title that had me excited to jump into this story and a tale that certainly didn’t disappoint. I mean who could resist, “Author’s Journals for the Dictionary of Hannibal Schaumberg, the language of non-existent words,” for a title? LOVE!
The whole premise of this piece is exceptional from the first paragraph:
“Words that don’t exist are mine. I am collecting them in my dictionary, the dictionary of Hannibal Demetrius Schaumberg, in which I will assign meanings to my words, correct pronunciations, invent fresh yet meticulously detailed etymologies.”
I would love to hear what was going through your mind when you came up with this beauty of a notion. What was your inspiration for this one?
I’m not always conscious of what’s inspiring me when I begin a new piece. In hindsight, though, it seems that this story (as well as a couple of others I wrote at the time) was yet another way for me to channel my frustrations with the publishing process. At the time I was struggling to find an agent for my novel (still am, in fact), and not getting all that many bites for my stories. I guess I felt drawn to characters who could express this struggle in an exaggerated, absurdly compelling way.
I’ve also long been fascinated by the paradox of communication in the age of social media and text messaging. It seems as if the more ways we find to communicate with one another, the more complicated it becomes to express ourselves. Hannibal is struggling with feelings of inadequacy and being misunderstood, and decides to blame language. And in many ways he’s right: language does fail us. No one knows this better than writers do. We are constantly approximating our visions by distilling them down to words, but we are rarely satisfied that we’ve found the precise ones to express our true thoughts and feelings.
There are so many philosophical passages that add so beautifully to this amazing story. Here’s one example that I love:
“Contrary to the prevailing notions of our time, genius is not a magic well to which a few select people are given access to drink from at birth. Genius is the accumulation of all relevant knowledge distilled, through the most uncompromising purification process, into one perfect, shimmering drop. Genius is the struggle.”
There’s definitely a sarcastic overtone throughout this story, but I believe you trust in your narrator and inwardly appreciate his excessive gusto for his life’s work. Do you see yourself at all in facets of this character?
Right before this, Hannibal says: “It is not, as some people suspect, when we aim too high that we fail; rather, it is when we don’t aim high enough, and mistake our everyday sparkles of wisdom for genius.” On one hand he’s right, people should aim high. I certainly admire his resolve and his perseverance, and I do think that people tend to overlook just how much hard work “geniuses” put in to their craft. Think of The Beatles—many people forget they practiced for eight hours a day every day in the early years of the band. But there’s a difference in aiming high and being completely unrealistic, even more so if you do so purposefully so as to avoid blaming yourself for your failings. I hope I’m more aware of my limitations than Hannibal is, more concerned with the experience of living rather than reaching a specific goal.
Still, dramatic irony only works in a story if we care for the character. Sure, Hannibal’s self-delusional and he’s made a grave mistake. But what he wants is noble. We all wish we could communicate better, we all feel underappreciated and misunderstood, even by those closest to us. His desires are very human.
And then we have poor Aphelia, the narrator’s wife. His vision is all-encompassing and she, with a baby on the way, and whatever friends he once had are all left in the dust of his reams of research papers and rejections.
“...only a week ago, a new round of rejections came through, and the same treacherous pulses are creeping back onto our lips—phrases like “obligation to your family” and “personal responsibility” stab like daggers into my soul. Of course I have more responsibilities now, with the child on the way. But I can’t very well give up my life’s work!”
This brings to mind some of the Russian writers and their exceptional inner dialogue that goes on, completely oblivious to how they are seen by anyone else around them. Have you any favorite Russian writers that have influenced you?
It’s funny that you bring up the Russians, since I began this piece a few months after being in St. Petersburg for the Summer Literary Seminar. Before I left I was poorly versed in the Russian canon, and frankly still am. I’d read Nabokov and some Chekhov stories, but I took the seminar as an opportunity to catch up, if only a bit. I read “Anna Karenina” and “Crime and Punishment” and a lot more Chekhov and Gogol. Gogol’s tales particularly amused me. They are absurd and sad at the same time, and I never seem to know where his stories are taking me.
The Russian writers are experts at creating characters whose philosophical dogmatism prevents them from leading fulfilling lives. There’s a grandiosity to their intellectual bravado which is fascinating but also solipsistic. I may have been subconsciously channeling them with this piece.
Are you reading any interesting work right now that you’d like to share with us?
I recently attended a seminar in Key West on Literature of the Future, so I’ve been reading a lot of “literary science fiction” lately. I just finished “Atmospheric Disturbances” by Rivka Galchen, which just blew me away. It’s smart, tender, funny, and strange in the best possible way, and on the sentence level the writing is so good it’s painful. Other than that I have to admit to being a Bolano groupie. I can’t get enough of him. Lucky for me, he seems to be even more prolific in death than when he was alive.
Congratulations on all the awards you’ve received in your writing career, so far. Tell us about your short story collection, “Margins of Tolerance,” that just came out and how we can get a copy of it.
The stories in “Margins of Tolerance” focus on men in flux: traveling or in transit or at some crossroads in their lives. They deal with issues of trust and betrayal, not just within the gay community but also between the gay community and the hetero world at large. I’ve traveled a lot in my day, and these trips got me thinking about how much the world has changed since the dawn of the internet, not just in terms of the way we communicate but also in how we’re dealing with issues of identity and acceptance. Though progress has been made, we continue to push up against these margins, especially in countries that are not nearly as open as the United States.
You can purchase the collection at my website or at any online bookseller, even in Poland, Finland, and Japan, apparently. (This is what you find out when you Google yourself!) Many independent bookstores will also carry it.
What projects are you working on at this time?
Aside from a few stories, I also have two novels that I’m working on right now. One is a dystopic science fiction tale which centers on a world where corporations have discovered a way to read people’s thoughts, and the other postulates that a cabal of vampires has essentially enabled the Jewish people to survive throughout the centuries. They’re both in such early stages of development that I don’t think I should say any more than that.
Give us a quote that you love and why to end this interview, Eric.
Barbara Kingsolver is an eternal spring of great quotes, so it’s really hard to just pick one. But if I must, I’ll choose this:
"Close the door. Write with no one looking over your shoulder. Don't try to figure out what other people want to hear from you; figure out what you have to say. It's the one and only thing you have to offer."
I love this quote because I think the hardest lesson a writer must learn is to trust his/her own voice. You have to know the story you want to tell, and then you have to not be afraid to tell it. The most courageous act a writer commits is an act of faith. Believe that your story is worthwhile, and then commit it to the page as authentically as you can.
Exceptional quote–so very true. Thank you so much, Eric, for sending Connotation Press some of your pure brilliance and for taking this time to answer these questions. Looking forward to reading your latest collection!