Saturday, January 17, 2015

Swimming Through Memory, an Interview with David Connerly Nahm, author of Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky

Every now and then I do an interview with an author that is almost as fascinating and powerful as the book we are discussing. I loved reading David Connerly Nahm's lyrical masterpiece Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, but I was startled to find that I loved this interview with David equally, if not more. Nahm's book is an experimental dance, a quietly building cacophony of questions surrounding the main character, Leah, and her exploration of memory, ghosts, silence and childhood loss. It is a work of poetry as much as it is of prose, with whole passages swallowing you and dissolving before your eyes, often at the same time. It is not a book to be read lightly, but rather to be immersed in and to take what you will from its pages. This interview is much the same, as Nahm lets us into his world of craft, music, honesty and poetry. If you haven't picked up Anicent Oceans of Central Kentucky yet, I'm sure you will by the time you get to the bottom of this post. Enjoy.

Steph Post: I'd like to start with the design of Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky, because your book is so visually striking. The front cover evokes an implicit sense of nostalgia, which is so relevant to the theme of the book, and the prints throughout, of shells and corals, play on this theme, invoking 19th century naturalist works. How important is the design of the book to its contents and how much of a hand did you have in the design?

David Connerly Nahm: Thank you for the kind words about the book and for the interview in general. It is always a little intimidating to talk about your work with people who have clearly read closely and thought hard about it.

As for the book's physical form: Eric Obenauf at Two Dollar Radio designed the book cover. He came up with a few ideas and I told him which parts I liked best. It went through a few drafts and a few designs and he was kind enough to put up with me.

The shells on the inside were a late addition to the text. Originally, the separate sections of the book were just separated by headings (Part One, Part Two, etc.), but it felt unnatural for the book, which is, as you note below, so free flowing to have such novel-ish signposts stuck in the middle, so I suggested that perhaps we could just put some images. The shells were one of the ideas we came up with and the one that ended up being the best. They are from an old science textbook. Eliza Obenauf took the idea and made it real and made it look good.

The degree to which a book's design matters to the contents depends on the book. The fact that Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky has a great cover and nice paper and is a cool size doesn't really matter to the contents of the book (in fact, those are elements that someone reading on an e-reader won't ever know about), but as a reader, it would be a lie if I didn't say the physical presence of a book plays an important role in my enjoyment and/or impression of a book. Sometimes, you want to read a book that is heavy and vast. Sometimes you want to read one that is light and slim.  

SP: I've been slightly wary of calling Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky a novel because of its extremely experimental form. The style is certainly poetic, with pages of what could be considered stream of consciousness, and oftentimes the setting, both with time and space, is blurred. If a story is a journey, I felt that I was swimming or floating through this one. In many ways, I was reminded of Michael Ondaatje's The Collected Works of Billy the Kid, which has also been often questioned in terms of genre. How would you categorize Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky? Does genre even have a place in your work or the realm of literature as a whole?

DCN: When I was working on the book, and I mean late in the work, once it had begun to take its final form, there was a part of me that was so sick of the idea of trying to write a "good novel" that I gave up. I wrote what I wanted, how I wanted, and tried not to worry what it was or if it was even good. I spent too many years mired in outlining and planning and plotting and drafting and editing and outlining that the only way for me to finish was to give it all up, put together the book that I most wanted to read myself. If it was a novel--great. If it wasn't--fine.

I think of the book as a novel. It is a work of narrative prose fiction with characters and locations and a plot--pretty standard novel stuff. To the extent that there is something un-novel-like about the book, it is the extent to which the book relies on how things are said as much as what is said. Probably the biggest influence on the book, in this respect, comes not from poetry, but from music. I like how music can convey feeling and movement and meaning and urgency without having to worry about plots and characters. Most people don't question chord changes, they just enjoy the feeling of them. Or consider song lyrics. Lyrics have a little more room to be evocative, while still at the same time being extremely moving and meaningful to people. I was jealous of that freedom. I wanted to write a book that made me feel like I do when I hear one of my favorite songs in the car at night.   

Of course: Everyone gets to write and read however they want. There's no one way. For me, though, worrying about what something is, or how it should be, never works. The less I think about what I am doing, the better I like the outcome. Maybe the really meticulously plotted and planned works that I wrote in the past were really good, but I didn't enjoy them, as a writer or reader, so I don't feel bad about having deleted them.

SP: Much of your book deals with memory, as the main character Leah steps back and forth between the present and the past, many times even within the same 'scene.' At one point, in describing Leah experiencing a memory, you write, "something which barely counted as a memory, something which was little more than a faintly colored feeling... an electrical impulse that rushed through her mind that she might call a memory, but which was some elemental and ancient relative...". How trustworthy do you think memory really is? Do you think it is something real or something we construct to make sense of the past? As a fiction writer, do these questions matter to your characters and your story?

DCN: Memory is all there is. Biologically, aren't we always living in the past, our senses registering the moment only after the moment has passed? Memory is the well from which we draw ourselves. At the same time, memory doesn't really work very well. We don't pay attention. Remembering something is like taking a small stone and rubbing it with our thumbs--we stay aware of it, but over time, we wear it down and change its shape. But we don't just live in the past. We live in a constant state of anticipation, constantly thinking about what will happen--in the next year, the next day, the next moment.

Again, though, I don't really think about any of this what I am writing. I write and write and then I edit and edit and once I have something that I like, I move on and I try and think about what I am doing as little as possible. I just want to surprise myself.

SP: Another theme that really struck me in Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is the concept of cruelty in children. Many of Leah's memories deal with being a school child and especially how she is treated by the other children after the disappearance of her brother. She is bullied, ridiculed, taunted and, in many ways, treated mercilessly by the other children. She admits herself, though, earlier in the story, that she too was cruel to other children. This theme was most summed up for me with the line, "They weren't bad children, were they? They just wanted to carve their names into something while they were still sharp." Was writing about the insensitivity of children something you consciously set out to do? Do you think the cruelty of the adults in the book is in juxtaposition to or an extension of the brutal actions and reactions of the children?

DCN: That's just how people are. To have written anything else would have been dishonest. To a greater or lesser degree, everyone does these things. We all get taunted and we all taunt someone else. We all have our feelings hurt and we all hurt others. I know that my childhood is clouded with shame over how mean I was to some of my classmates. I used to think of myself as a kid who'd been the victim of bullying, and while I got my fair share of it, in retrospect, I gave more than I received. My only hope is that I have become a better person as I've grown older.

I don't know why people have fond feelings about their childhoods.

SP: I'm interested in how you constructed this work. Since there is no strict linear plot, how did you go about ordering the events of the present and the memories of the past? Did this structure flow naturally from the beginning or was this a conscious part of the revision process?

DCN: The novel's shape and structure is entirely the product of editing. I did not open the word processor on day one and write this from beginning to end. I wrote and wrote and wrote for years and then, during the above-referenced period of un-novel-ing, I cut and cut and cut. I had, at one point, 400,000 words, most of which were garbage. I just kept what I really liked. Then I shuffled things around until I was happy. Since I knew I was writing a novel that was atmospheric and non-linear, I paid very close attention to the pacing. The seven sections of the novel are very carefully put together and arranged. At one point, I printed the whole book out at work and laid it all out on the floor in a conference room so I could see the whole thing at once.

So, the non-linear nature of the novel's narrative was designed to create the forward momentum of the novel. Whether it works or not is up to each individual reader to decide, but a great deal of thought was put into the where each small sliver of the story would go. The structure of the novel only came into existence during the revision process. The revision was the writing of the novel.

SP: Circling back around to the question of form, regardless of specific genre there can be no argument that Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky is not full to the brim with poetry, both in language and style. As an educator in the English field, I have heard many times that there is no place for poetry in the modern world. I am often asked if people even read poetry anymore. What place do you think poetry, however you would define it, has in our current times? Do we need poetry?

DCN: There will always be a place for poetry. There will always be a place for novels and short stories. There will be a place for those forms we haven't come up with yet. I think when people say that one form of literature or another is dying or doesn't have a place, they just mean that it doesn't look like it did when they were in high school. There are probably more people writing and reading poetry right now than ever before (Note: I have no data to back this up).

SP: Finally, pick three works you've read this year that had an impact on you as either a reader or a writer. What was so special about these works? In what ways do you believe they have influenced you?

DCN: It is only the second week of the year, and I've only read three books so far, but luckily I loved all three, so here they are:

Citizen by Claudia Rankine: This is one of those amazing books that transcends form and, like all great art, is a bottomless well of beauty and truth. All writing should aspire to this.

The Events at Poroth Farm by T.E.D. Klein: A great meditation on strange stories that is its own great strange story.

The Sword in the Stone by T.H. White: The parts with King Pellinore and the Questing Beast manage that impossible combination of humor and sorrow--my favorite things.

Thank you so much to David Connerly Nahm for stopping by and giving, truly, one of my favorite interviews. Please check out his novel Ancient Oceans of Central Kentucky from Two Dollar Radio and, as always, if you like what you read, share the love, spread the news and write a review.

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