Fire On the Mountain: An Interview with Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon




Aaron Shulman interviews Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon

Fire On the Mountain: An Interview with Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon

January 15th, 2014 reset - +

ANNE MARIE WIRTH CAUCHON was one of the first people I met in Missoula, Montana. We were both beginning our MFAs in the fall and when I visited in July to find an apartment she was already living in the cozy, mountain-ringed university town. We hung out one afternoon in her partially furnished studio and talked about where we were from (her from Minnesota, me from Michigan), writers we both loved (Borges and Nabokov), and what we were working on (hard to remember). She made tea while cruising around in second-hand roller skates she had just bought. The roller-skating thing wasn’t an affectedly quirky touch; her place had marble floors, and she was intent on taking advantage. I left her place excited about my next two years in Montana and sure that I had at least one person I could talk to. We emailed a few times before I moved out in August, and I was astonished recently when I revisited the first email I got from her. The brief missive directly anticipates things she would later explore in her debut novel, Nothing, published by Two Dollar Radio in November 2013, six years after we met:

glad to hear things are well in the big mitten. it's been very smoky here because of forest fires in washington, oregon, and montana. smoky weather is like cloudy weather only more apocalyptic.

in other news, i floated down the blackfoot river in a tube! it was amusing at first, but kind of boring after a while. i can see why people drink beer while they float.

a man at the next table just said, “i feel like i'm living in a man-made synthetic reality.”

What amazes me now is that Anne Marie seems to have been gestating her novel nearly on arrival in Montana, or at the very least her antennae were already tingling, since Nothing takes place during fire season as smoke and flames close in on Missoula and the valley where it’s three twenty-something characters enact a harrowing drama of drugs, desire, and violence. Insecure Ruth wades through addled despair as she questions her relationship with beautiful, bitchy frenemy Bridget, while James, a sharp-edged wanderer new in town, searches for answers about his father’s death. Tubing is observed from an outsider’s distance (“Couple kids floating downstream on inner-tubes with beers in their hands…to small to make their faces out.”), Ruth’s fragilely constructed reality threatens to dissolve, and two characters have this conversation, which almost felt like a commentary on her long-ago email and spurred me to go digging in my inbox:

Anyway, he said. I’ve heard people say Fire Season. But this. You can’t see across the fucking street. Forget about the mountain. It’s like. The apocalypse.

This is the apocalypse, I said. Basically.

It was stupid to talk like that. Go Green or Prepare. Melodramatic, as if I really believed. Nothing was coming to an end. Nothing would change.

Nothing is also full of gorgeous evocations of the Montana landscape, like this one: “Dark canyons between each mountains vacuumed the rolling pastures in toward them so it all disappeared behind the wall of the range.” The descriptions made me nostalgic for my time in Missoula, but not as much as getting back in touch with Anne Marie and having a month-long email back and forth with her for this interview.

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Congratulations on your novel being published! What has the experience been since it's become an object out in the world?

Thank you! Since my novel was released I’ve found that I feel about the same as before, only more embarrassed. There are several people whose potential reactions to reading Nothing terrified me. One of those is my grandmother, the original mean girl Shirley Wirth. She did say, “I’m old fashioned, so I didn’t like the subject matter.” But then in a letter she wrote, “I just finished Nothing in one non-stop page turning-breathless-anxious-heart-beating…” So she was, you know, really generous. Besides that things haven’t changed in a practical way since I just keep on working as hard as I can for as many hours as I can every single day. And I still change shitty diapers and clean the toilet and pay rent and don’t have the money for, like, new winter gloves or fancy underwear. But it’s good, and I am beyond grateful, though also terrified. 

Two Dollar Radio is a small press doing a lot of exciting things. How did you end up with them? What was your road to publication like?

I am really an amateur when it comes to the publishing world, so I’m especially amazed by the experience I had with Two Dollar Radio and Nothing. Two Dollar Radio was the first press I contacted. I waited for several months and hadn’t heard anything, so I decided to follow-up. That’s when I discovered that one of my friends and mentors from high school in Iowa, Emily Pullen, was one of their editors. I got in touch with her, and she was the first to read Nothing. I am so grateful to her for bringing it to the attention of Eric Obenauf and Eliza Wood-Obenauf. Two Dollar Radio is artistically, ethically, and politically bad-ass and I am unbelievably inspired by the quality of work they do.

Missoula, where most of the novel takes place, is in many ways a very wholesome place. Family-friendly, with lots of outdoorsiness, locavore culture, and college cheer. It has an underbelly which occasionally rears it head, but Nothing has quite a sinister mood, or one of formless menace, especially in Ruth's chapters. What about Missoula, or your experience in Missoula, generated this atmosphere?

In Nothing's nascent stages there was an almost-stalker... picture me and him on the Higgins Bridge over the Clark Fork River past midnight. And it's true that one of my many flaws is I'm drawn to the dark underbelly of everything, so that stood out in Missoula too. But it's not only a quirk. I think that in this globalizing world wholesomeness tends to depend on unacknowledged suffering. The obvious example is cheap goods sold in the United States but made by people working for slave wages in other parts of the world. I don't like to think of this as cosmic balance; I think it’s unethical, even as I participate. The characters in Nothing are experiencing this dependence on evil within themselves, and it destroys them, makes them detestable. 

One of the kernels for this project is a play I wrote when I was 19 about a couple of white girls whose party night devolves into cannibalism. I was studying with labor historian Peter Rachleff and reading about the trope of cannibalism in “third-world” cinema, and its ability to depict implosion in the “first-world” based on the internal contradictions on which it depends. More than the story of a place, I wanted Nothing to depict how most of the fantasies we all foster to deal with existence are inadequate. Maybe what we need is to throw everything away and start from nothing to rebuild our story about what it means to be human, if we want to survive. It sounds bombastic, and maybe I'm wrong, but it’s my thought experiment, basically.  

Authenticity seems to be a preoccupation in the story of James, a twenty-something wanderer who's trying out the hobo lifestyle less out of necessity than as a kind of finding-himself/ideological experience. He's constantly worrying about being a "rich kid" choosing to slum it. What was the importance of this to you?

Thank you for asking this question! I don’t think I adequately depicted the idea I had, but here goes…

In The Geopolitical Aesthetic Fredric Jameson talks about conspiracy films. He describes them as attempts to make sense of a world system that is so complicated and far-reaching, that really conceptualizing it is pretty much impossible. I was thinking of James’s “anarcho-chic” posturing in a similar way. That is, by going “punk” (as he puts it) and experimenting with being transient he’s performing a response to a real problem — a global capitalist system that has spiraled out of control — but he’s doing so in a completely inadequate way that isn’t really an act of rebellion. He’s just faking it, wearing poverty and revolution like they’re commodities, just like everything else. I think most of us do this in our own special way, every day, without realizing we’re just being used to increase the profit margin.

Montana and its literary tradition are very masculine. I remember in grad school many of the women called the state Mantana because of all its hunters, ranchers, and burly beards. How did it feel taking on this terrain, both geographical and literary, as a woman writer, and with a story that explores female friendship?

I didn’t explicitly think of Nothing’s placement in the West in relation to gender, although I did think about it in reaction to the tropes of freedom, escape, and adventure that I imagine in traditional Western fiction and imaginary. But looking back, I guess I was partly interested in the suppression and manipulation of femininity in Mantana. When it comes to women's friendships, I think that when they are destructive, they are so because they are confined and defined by an implicit masculine authority or gaze or desire. I have observed and experienced this throughout my life, especially when it comes to lust. For women and men it’s destructive, it’s counter-productive. The sorry fucks in Nothing play it out for our amusement. Yeah, I think whiteness and patriarchy’s deep-rooted injustices bubble up interpersonally and in structures we take for granted like academia or like criminal justice.

Nothing is shot through with fantastic sentences. Here's one of my favorite paragraphs: "We wound up at one of the bistros that pretended it was in Portland or Seattle but didn't quite get it right. Our waiter wore an oversized tie in bright nineties colors. He pretended he had the specials memorized but he didn't. He gave me a snarly smile and winked." While writing, where was the line between real-life observation and imagination in creating the characters and their environments?

Damn, Aaron! This is a scary question for a fiction-writer writing about a small town she might like to return to some day! Seriously, though, it's funny how some things that I pulled out of thin air would later kind of materialize. One example is the fire in the Frank Church, River of No Return Wilderness. I made it up, and then this past summer it really happened. There are other coincidences like that, but I think I'd better keep them secret, to protect the innocent. At the same time, I definitely based a lot on what I saw in Montana. The gorgeous, wild land and rivers and people and the Big Sky, but also the less picturesque parts of the fabric and feeling of the West. After Joy Williams read Nothing she told me she'd always gotten a creepy feeling about Missoula that she couldn't quite put her finger on. Like I said before, it was this creepy feeling that really caught my attention. And I can't say how much of that is fiction and how much fact. But like with most fiction writers, I allow fleeting nothings I see or feel or remember, in Montana and elsewhere, to transmute into fantasy. Other things, like the babies, I saw in my dreams.

I remember you telling us about that dream. It was very Lynchian. So…when a writer sets out to write a novel, she often has certain heroes she wants to channel in her work, though sometimes that influence wanes as the narrative and style reveal themselves. Who were those writers that inspired you when you began this novel? And were they still present or detectable in the finished product?

Nothing is infused with music, especially the work of Lou Reed (may he rest in peace). Into Nothing I tried to transfer some of the wild gorgeous despair of his writing, and his music’s atmosphere of dissociation and rebellion. There are many fiction writers whose work I love and was reading at the time but who don’t really fit within the scope of this project. However, Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading played a central role in Nothing as did Virginia Woolf and Franz Kafka’s work, especially The Trial. I see the influence of Joan Didion, both in subject matter and style. In the initial stages I intentionally tried to channel Bret Easton Ellis because of the implicit critique of commodification and youth culture in his work.

I thought of Ellis’s Less Than Zero several times while reading the numb, trance-like unhappiness of Ruth in Nothing. The intriguing difference, it seems, is that Ellis's characters' emptiness stems from their excess, yet your characters, Ruth in particular, are pretty broke, or only temporarily have money (James). This almost seems a darker vision than Ellis's, in that even those of us who have little are just as complicit in and soul-crushed by the consumerist nature of being young.

Exactly! You really articulated what I had in mind. If there's a problem with consumerism — and, I'd say, with capitalism in general — it isn't individuals' moral problem, it's a problem with the commodity form and with the attempt to measure all things against capital; it's a problem with capital itself. It certainly matters how many resources you use, and whether you directly exploit other people, especially for the sake of profit, but when it comes down to it the main benefactors aren't the rich, the main benefactor is the process of exchange, and capital itself. The funny thing is: capital is an abstraction. Capital really has nothing to do with human happiness or humanity's ability to keep living on earth. We're far from having a sufficient alternative, but if we don't think about it, we never will. Anyway, in Less Than Zero — and I hope in Nothing — the young characters are imploding, partly because of their relationship to exchange (lustful, monetary, or whatever). I know I didn't depict this as well as I'd like in Nothing, or even here, maybe. I don't know enough yet, and maybe I never will.

Back to what works you had in mind while writing Nothing. Any others?

I was thinking a lot about The West, and Cormac McCarthy’s dark impressions of that imagined landscape influenced my style and thinking. I also study critical, Marxian, and psychoanalytic theory and philosophy, which has influenced Nothing. For better or worse I can see the direct influence of Ferdinand de Saussure’s Course on General Linguistics, Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment and Minima Moralia. I have to say that I was also so inspired by our class at the University of Montana, and especially by our group of friends who started our novels together. I talk all the time about how we avoided debilitating competiveness and supported each other despite our aesthetic differences. Working with you and our other friends has changed my life.

Yeah, that was an important time for me too, and you’re the first of that group of five to publish their novel. How did you balance life (work, friends and family, marriage, your first child) with the time it took to complete Nothing?

I don't really know if I'm doing that great of a job balancing teaching, my PhD coursework, nearly full-time childcare (we have only 10-15 hours of childcare a week), my relationship with my husband Ben, working with the University of Minnesota literary magazine dislocate, and writing, editing, and publishing Nothing. I used to say: "I can only do one thing at a time." But I seem to be trying to do five or six things right now. I have this Charlotte Brontë quote above my desk. It's from Jane Eyre, and it's just written on a yellow post-it, nothing fancy. It says: "It would be your duty to bear it, if you could not avoid it: it is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what is your fate to be required to bear." So every day I guess I try to forfeit my notions of perfection and independence, be ready to work at any time and anywhere (or, on the other hand, read my daughter a picture book), and do the next thing on the list, forever. Sometimes it's not pretty. For example, I've written my responses to most of these questions with a toddler crawling all over me, reaching for the keys, screeching, etc. If I were a single girl I probably would've edited the living daylights out of my responses, but as important as this interview is to me, I simply don't have that luxury. Or, while editing Nothing I would hand each page I'd finished to my daughter (she was an infant then) to tear and crumple. Anyway, day-to-day I have to rely far more on other people than is easy for me. That includes my friends, my husband Ben, my daughter, and my family. But I think this is a good lesson for me about community and love. I used to want to be a self-made man, which is an illusion anyway. The funny thing is, I really don't believe in this system that keeps us all working from waking to sleep, but it's probably good for me since I'm a secret-slacker. I like to believe I'm working hard because I'm passionate; my life depends on it. And I do believe in passion, and especially compassion, which is what literature is all about, partly. Anyway, I want to bring my daughter along with me, wherever I'm going, if it's somewhere beautiful, and if I can carry us both.

To finish up, what’s next?

I envisioned Nothing as the first book in a trilogy... I like threes aesthetically and philosophically. I began working on the prequel to Nothing a couple of years ago, but for various reasons, I had to put it on hold. It is set in the 1970s in Western Montana and deals with the murder and betrayal alluded to in Nothing. Recently I read the first 100 pages I'd written, and boy, were they brutally bad! I mean they literally made me gag. So, I realized I need to do a lot more research. I hope to kill two birds with one stone and focus my dissertation on the 1970s in the West: experimental literature, philosophy, grassroots politics, and the back-to-the-land movement. The only question is whether I'll be able to integrate the writing of the novel into the framework of my theoretical PhD, or if I'll have to do it on my own time.

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Aaron Shulman is a freelance journalist who has written for The New Republic, New Statesman, and The Awl among other publications.

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