We recently signed the debut novel by a writer named D. Foy, called Made to Break, which we’ll be out with February 2014. Like Rice Krispies, this book snap, crackle, pops.
Following is a conversation with D., where the author dishes on Loony Toons, Faulkner, and krumping (in that order).
Made to Break follows a pack of friends partying through the Christmas/New Year’s holidays, who become trapped during a severe storm at a remote cabin in Tahoe. One of the friends, Dinky, is sick and getting sicker, and their every path to escape is constantly threatened. This trap forces each of the friends to confront their troubled pasts, their addictions, and their tumultuous relationships with one another. This could be exceptionally dark material, and at times it certainly is, but Made to Break reminded me in more than one way of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son, in that in these shallows there can also be found great comedy. Is this gallows humor?
It’s funny you mention the humor in Made to Break through the lens of gallows humor, because until you did, I hadn’t thought of it as gallows humor per se but as simply humor, which, I guess—and this sheepishly—says more about me and what I think is funny than anything else.
I recently had a conversation about my earliest influences. Nearly the whole of them were from TV and film, and of those it seems 99 percent have strong foundations in humor. The Warner Brothers’ Loony Toons, believe it or not, were the biggest influence of all, and I’m talking the whole gang, from Bugs Bunny to Foghorn Leghorn and Elmer Fudd and the Tasmanian Devil (whom, actually, I’ve always considered something of an alter ego). Even the lesser characters stand tall in my cultural landscape, knuckleheads like Pete the Puma, Gruesome Gorilla, Marvin the Martian, the Crusher, and the like. All the Hanna-Barbera stuff, too, looms large for me: The Flintstones, Yogi Bear, Scooby Doo, and The Jetsons, plus, in no particular order, other miscellaneous cartoons like Popeye (who until only recently I never realized is a total racist, jingoist bastard), The Wacky Races (Dick Dastardly and Muttley, mostly), and Underdog and Deputy Dog, and from there into the live action shows like H.R. Pufnstuf and The Banana Splits.
And then there’s the panoply of great comedic stars. Every Sunday afternoon when I was a kid, channels 2 and 44 (as I recall) played afternoon specials that featured the real classics, many of them powerhouse duos like Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and the Smothers Brothers. But there were also The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, and the Bowery Boys, plus guys like Charlie Chaplin and W.C. Fields, all of whom just blew my mind. I loved this stuff so much that whatever I was doing, no matter what, wherever I was, got dropped well before these shows started, even if that meant running home from some fireworks fight in the fort in some friend’s backyard or tearing off on my bike from the schoolyards and fields I loved to goof around in. There are others I’ve overlooked, for sure, but this is the bulk of it.
And once I had reeled off this list, it occurred to me that most, if not all, of this comedy came out of, or was in the least inspired by, vaudeville, itself a bawdy, rollicking, vulgar comedy, made by and for the masses that were the rising middle class. No wonder, I realized, as well, that my own brand of humor is so bawdy and black and vulgar, and no wonder, either, that later, when I got into books, I was drawn to guys like Rabelais and Aretino and Swift, not to mention the long line—to use Clive James’ expression (when sneering at Henry Miller in an essay, I think, on Fitzgerald)—of “crapulent bohemians,” from Baudelaire, Whitman, Rimbaud, and Wilde, on through to Miller, Kerouac, Bukowski, Carroll, and, on down to your man, Denis Johnson. And while you’re right that Johnson’s work is on my list of greats, your sense that my stuff smacks of gallows humor, when it gets down to it, is spot on. Gallows humor derives on the whole from Eastern Europe, and more specifically, from the Jews of Eastern Europe, whom, as we all know, have suffered major pogroms galore. One of the ways they dealt with the cruelty and suffering they had to endure was to laugh at it. And of course when you look at vaudeville and then at all the guys I mentioned that came out of vaudeville, with a few exceptions, just about all of them were Jews.
But on top of all this, I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t add that I come from a family of lower-middle-class Irish/Germans rolled to California after generations from Kansas and Texas, for whom ribaldry and violence were something of a two-headed, mongoloid beast. Think about it. When you and your two younger brothers sit around watching guys like Moe conk Larry and Curly over the head with hammers and picks, and Laurel and Hardy scrurry through mazes of Goldbergian traps that endlessly smash and bash them to pieces, it makes sense that your kid brother, like mine once did, would think it funny to impale your face by throwing a pair of scissors at it, or that he and I would pants our kid brother, hogtie him with rope, and then drag him round the house on his little red butt, hollering and crying and screaming for his life, while we his tormentors laughed till we were sick.
People describe writers’ writing as “electric” all the time, and it’s mostly a lot of gas. I think this means that the language is striking and almost unbearably potent. I would refer to your writing as electric. Anthony Swofford commented that, “Reading D. Foy’s prose is like watching Robert Stone and Wallace Stevens drag race across a frozen lake at midnight.” There are so many lucid passages in Made to Break that I wanted to underline. Could you talk about where the words come from?
The glib (and a little disingenuous) answer would be that I have no idea the source of my words. There is of course some truth to that. Often when looking back on what I’ve written, usually much later, months or years, but sometimes even the next day, I’m shocked to think what’s on the page came from the living creature that is “me.” I became a writer almost entirely because I felt that the words of my daily speech were insufficient to the experience they’re struggling to generate meaning from. I intend no irony here. For the most part I really do feel like a buffoon when speaking. I’m always wanting to snatch my words back the moment they leave me. I hear them dribbling out, and think, even as I continue to dribble still more words that pale to whatever I think or feel, “Idiot! Why did you say that? And why do you keep saying more of the same?” Or, “You should have said this or that instead.” And so forth.
The other answer, at least in part, is that my words come from those who’ve already said them. I suppose that’s a cryptic way of repeating what so many other writers have confirmed, that they learned to write from the writers they read, which is the case for me. I nearly flunked out of high school. I wanted to be a rock star when I was a kid, but my mother wouldn’t allow me to listen to music in the house, much less to play a guitar. As fate would have it, though, pretty soon after leaving home, I met a friend on the street one day who needed a bass player to replace the guy who’d just left, and asked me if I’d do it. I learned how to play ten or twelve songs through the day and performed that night at a keg party, and was utterly hooked. That was the beginning of my true ruination, I think. Work having quickly become anathema to me, it wasn’t long before I’d learned to spend the least time possible earning the minimum I needed to live, and the most time possible listening to, playing, and then, shortly, writing music, lyrics included. Music was and still is a huge part of my life. It was always running through my head, regardless of where I was, so that the process of writing words and then of fitting them to melodies seemed very natural. I had always read a lot, but scarcely any poetry, and yet somehow after writing lyrics for a while I got the idea that I could write poetry, as well. And then after doing that for a time, I got it in my head again, somehow, that I could write stories. I was in my late twenties by then. I knew very little, and knew I knew very little, but nonetheless had foolishly decided I would be a writer. I quit playing music and devoted myself entirely to the phenomenally baffling task that is writing, whose paramount requirement, so far as I could tell, was to gird myself with an education. No one told me I needed to read more books, and yet I somehow knew it, and though I knew also what I liked, I didn’t yet know what waited to be read. If I were to find out, someone would have to show me. That’s what college was, an index. No one really teaches you in college. They didn’t teach me, anyway, not how to write. They merely pointed the way. You ask questions, and the people you ask them of point to places you can find the answers. Or in other words, college teaches you not how to write but how to think. It used to teach you how to think, I mean. Nowadays, sadly, the university is more a vocational machine turning out other little machines that are very, very good at making specific products, which more and more in this world of capital and greed, are all that matter—not the process, in other words, but the product, the object or service that can be quantifiably valued and sold. But that’s another story and another rant. The writing itself, in my experience, no matter your talent, comes out of long hard practice, reading other great writers and then imitating them, at first, until you get a sense of what can and can’t be done with language, and gain the legs to venture off on your own. Really young, I read E.B. White and Maurice Sendak and Dr Seuss and such. Then I got into Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and their epigones, and then, around the same time, Steinbeck and Hemingway and the like, and then again, a lot of sci-fi/fantasty/mystical stuff, Frank Herbert and Carlos Castaneda being my faves there. And then I discovered Faulkner, and my world really blew up. In my opinion, he’s the single-most radical artist of the 20th century, bar none. After him (and I mean that, too, from the 19th century forward, Faulkner always leads the way) come the rest of the monsters, starting with Baudelaire and Poe, and then Whitman, and then Melville and Conrad, and then all of the modernists, Virginia Woolf, especially, none of which, really, to the last, have yet been matched save by a few such as Barthelme and Gaddis and Gass and Pynchon and DeLillo and, most recently, Bolaño. In that mix too I’d include the so-called magic realists, Borges and Garcia Marquez and Cortazar, together with the less known Lispector and Miguel Asturias. There are many others in the pantheon, but these are my founding core. And then there’s Henry Miller, too. I’ve never quite got around how he didn’t take the Nobel. I mean, I do know why he didn’t get it, but I’m somehow flabbergasted all the same whenever I think of it. He was just too fuck-you. He was just too radical—too profane, too scandalous, too sexual, too everything, across the board. Go read that guy, and just about everything he says is lyrical and tortuous and ridiculous and astounding and prophetic. Look, for instance, at The Air Conditioned Nightmare. Hardly a word in its introduction couldn’t be applied to what’s happening today. Miller was a sage in the truest sense of the word. He taught us all everything important, but scarcely a one of us knows he did.
In any case, the words. Mine are mostly cheap simulations of echoes of all the artists I’ve had the luck to encounter, a sort of dirty translation of the canonic welter, if I can put it that way. And if I can’t, who cares. In the film Anonymous, Rhys Ifan, playing the Earl of Oxford, the man who ostensibly wrote Shakespeare’s work under the pseudonym of “Shakespeare,” says something to the effect that he can’t stop the voices in his head, that only when he puts them onto paper does he find any quiet. I feel that way, too, often enough, that my head’s a sea of incessantly prattling voices over which I’ve no control until I sit down alone and hand myself over to them.
One of your gifts is describing characters with remarkable efficiency. “She was always making people repeat themselves. It gave her notions of power.” Are these people you know?
Yes and no.
In the first case, I can say that many of my characters are modeled on people I know, but never in a definitive way. For instance, Lucille, the character from Made to Break about whom I wrote the lines you quoted, is based in a number of ways on a woman I once knew. But so far as I can recall now, that woman didn’t necessarily have the regrettable habit of making people repeat themselves. That’s just a character defect I extrapolated from the galaxy of traits the character is. It seemed, that is, a logical conclusion that if she has this and this combination of traits, she would naturally have that one too. And it seemed, moreover, that if she had that trait, it was for a reason, to fill a need, that is, a spiritual vacuum, really, since that’s all the lust for power ever is.
In the second case, my characters are each a sort of slumgullion of humans concocted from the flotsam I collect. I’m an inveterate and shameless eavesdropper who tries as much as possible to scribble down everything that strikes my fancy, on the subway, in restaurants, at gatherings, and so forth. I can’t tell you how many great lines have come from the mouths of innocents, people, in other words, who have no idea I’m about to run home to catalog their speech by way of cobbling it into something I write.
This brings to mind a line I once heard one woman say to another as I passed them on the street, which to this day I haven’t found a way to fit into something I consider finished or good. I’ll never forget when and where I heard this woman say it, either, in the late ’90s, outside the Kaiser Permanente building, next to Lake Merritt, in downtown Oakland, where I was working as a temp. The woman said, I’m all like uh-uh. And the moment she said it, I knew I’d use it someday in my work and meantime never forget it. For one thing, the line struck me not only as genius, but also as radically representative of our time. For another, it was a line that, being a writer, I immediately recognized to be untranslatable. So much is packed into it I hardly know where to begin. It was an expression, of course, of complete unwillingness or disagreement. Either she didn’t want to do whatever unknown thing her words referred to, or she disagreed with something someone had said or done. But at the same time, within the conviction of that position—her “all”—she created a loophole, her “like.” The combination of the words “all like,” it struck me, is the unholy alliance of metaphor and simile, “all” equating to “this is that” and “like” equating to “this resembles that.” And this taking of a position that’s no position at all, this feigning of conviction, in other words, seems to me in so many ways a principal characteristic, and function, of our time. Mostly we do everything we can to escape commitment, though if our hand is forced, we’ll expend more effort still to ensure that within that so-called commitment we’ve built ourselves a back door to slip through once the place has got steamed up. As for the “uh-uh,” it is no doubt the closer, a word that isn’t a word, or rather that isn’t a word yet—even though like “bling” or “mouse” or “OH” or “ridic” or “asap” (all of which you can now find in the English Oxford Dictionary) could easily be a word—but an onomonopoeic grunt that in all likelihood anyone anywhere would be hard pressed to misunderstand. “Uh-uh” isn’t “no.” It’s a conveyance for the meaning of “no” that, because it isn’t “no,” leaves leeway enough to fudge. In this way, “uh-uh” is the perfect successor to “all like.” If “all like” leaves any doubt, like the head of a nail peeking crudely from a board, “uh-uh” pounds it down. Taken as a whole, forgetting its sheer poetry, the sentence is a Trojan horse. In the guise of one thing, it expresses as well a very different thing. Which isn’t to say it isn’t expressing the thing it appears to express. It expresses both things and no things. And it does it all in four puny words. Perfect. Genius. Totally absurd.
It’s just this type of moment or experience that gives birth to my characters. I don’t need ever to see that woman again. She’s in my head now, forever. From that one line, I can extrapolate all sorts of stuff about her character. And whether those conclusions would be true to the woman herself is immaterial. They would be true to the character I make of them.
We’re publishing an essay in the third volume of Frequencies (due out October 2013) about krumping. You write:
“At its most elemental, the mystic experience consists of letting go. It’s only when we let go, only when we stop asking why — give ourselves over to the unknown that rests beneath everything we think we know and the infinity of all the things we don’t and never will — that we experience the peace of cessation. When the question loses power, so does the answer. Everything is beautiful then, and, fathomless, everything absurd.”
We spoke about this on the phone, too, and I was impressed by many of the things you said. Could you talk about your initial reaction to krumping, which you elaborate on in your essay, but the spark that first attracted you?
Krump—and in saying “krump” I don’t mean the dance form the word is used to describe today, but the form it described when it first appeared in South Central Los Angeles, just after the turn of the century—is probably the rawest form of art I’ve ever seen. I’ve never been a dancer, or a very good one, at any rate, and, excepting the few hours I spent a long time ago attempting to master the moon walk, certainly I’ve never engaged it is a serious practice. And it wasn’t until I met my wife, Jeanine, six years back that I knew anything significant about any sort of dance at all. Jeanine, though, being a choreographer and performance artist and dancer as a way of life, introduced me to a world of art I didn’t know existed, a huge, monstrously fantastic world, in fact, with an array of methods, approaches, and forms that, when you look at it with any concentration, is boggling. So it was Jeanine also who rented the film Rize, by David LaChappelle, and said, “If you haven’t seen this, you’re missing something special.” And as usual in these matters, she was right.
Almost instantaneously I was mesmerized by what these kids were doing. Really I can’t say that anything has blown my mind quite the way krump did during the ninety or so minutes that introduced me to it. It took me a while to articulate its effect on me, which is this: in a single form, in a single body, no less, krump and the krumper krumping—which are not two things but one, and that one not a “thing” but a process—radically embody the social, the political, and the spiritual in a way I’ve not seen them embodied anywhere else, ever.
Krump in its purest form makes no excuses for itself, either, nor does it try to be—nor can it ever be—other than it is. It’s a practice and form, moreover, that could only have emerged from the conditions that made it, those conditions, as I say in my essay, being:
oppression, sorrow, anguish, hurt. Despair, anger, rage … We were so stunned by krump when Rize set it before us in 2005 for a lot more reasons than one. It was as though we’d all witnessed something coming from nothing. Certainly I wasn’t alone in my shock. Nor was it merely that none of us knew. We had no idea. And not only had this something come from nothing, right before our eyes, this something was a thing no one had ever seen (or anyway acknowledged having seen) and hence what no one could define, much less describe.
It was as if LaChapelle had slapped on the table before us a singing, two-headed baby covered with tattoos. The baby’s existence itself spoke to and appalled us. But inasmuch as we’d like to’ve believed the creature some immaculate horrilibus, we had to admit that it was one of us. And that some mother had to’ve born it, some teacher taught it, and tattooer tattooed it said something about us to boot, even if that something was beyond our ability to grasp. Somehow, some way, we understood, this bizarre thing told a story about who and what kind of people we were. And now that it sat there before us, we couldn’t turn away.”
That was my experience. I just couldn’t turn away. I couldn’t turn away because the pain and suffering and anguish and rage that these krumpers were manifesting and simultaneously transforming to ecstasy was the same pain and suffering and anguish and rage I myself have experienced through much of my life. My circumstances were very different, of course, but the feelings were shared. I felt I understood not just what these kids were doing, but why they were doing it, and in that understanding I felt a deep solidarity. The transubstantiation of affliction to freedom and of sorrow to joy is, I think, the artist’s deepest urge. This is why the artist creates, initially, in any case—to transcend the conditions that drove her to create at all. It is also why art will never vanish, so long as man exists. The artist’s transcendence is the transcendence of all who experience the artist’s art, if only for a moment, if only vicariously. We all long to be who we really are beneath this world’s awful trappings. This is the meaning of the jewel in the hair shirt. What we are on the outside, what the world has made of us, is not who we really are, but an illusion. We are never the hair shirt, not even the most overtly evil among us, but without exception always and only the jewel. The greatest artists reveal this constantly. And that’s the krumper in her krumpness, a being in the process of now, a being, that is, being.
—>If you’re a bookseller or interested in reviewing Made to Break and would like to check out an advance copy of the book, write to eric[at]twodollarradio.com.