Author Aaron Schneider talks to Debbie Bateman
1. In your collection of short fiction, What We Think We Know, you often use an objective viewpoint. You record the raw data of what can be taken in through the senses, focusing more on objects and keeping a scientific distance from the subject. The finding of emotions and subjective experiences is achieved in a subtle fashion. Can you reflect on the unique challenges and rewards of an objective viewpoint?
What often draws me to an objective viewpoint is a contradiction that is built into it: it places the reader at a remove from the character at the same time that it gives you intimate access to them. You are watching them, but that watching allows you to see details that you otherwise wouldn’t; it allows you a unique access to their lives. My interest also has to do with the fact that one of the effects of social media is to situate us as objective observers of those people who are closest to us. A friend’s Facebook feed is really just a flow of data, and our relationships are increasingly mediated in this way. So, the challenge is finding ways to make this work in a story, and the reward when it does is an intimacy that is unique to this particular moment and how we presently experience relationships.
2. Common wisdom suggests we know others, not by what they say, but by what they do. In “Tuesday All Day”, this truth is proven on the page. In one scene of the story, spoken words are replaced entirely by dots that work as placeholders and only actions are given words. We do not get to read the exact words spoken, yet we know perfectly well how the conversation went. This is just one example of your innovative use of punctuation marks and other typographical conventions to bring deeper meaning to a text. How did you discover these wonderful techniques? How does using typography and punctuation in innovative ways influence the discovery of a story as you are writing it?
A lot of this comes from simply playing around with the text on the page. That section in “Tuesday All Day” went through at least half-a-dozen iterations before I got to the final version. I read a lot of poetry, and there is both more freedom to experiment with typography and the placement of words on the page in poetry, and a sense that these should reflect the content of the poem. I tend to carry that sensibility over to prose, so that the process of experimenting is one of searching for something that fits the content of a passage or a section of a story. I also owe a debt to my editor, Jeremy Luke Hill, for his enthusiasm for experimental writing. There are a number of things I don’t think I would have tried if I hadn’t known that he would be open to them.
3. Several of the stories are presented in clusters that offer the reader a sort of treasure hunt. The fragments and strands are presented from various angles, even summarized like scientific data in tables, graphs, and diagrams. How do you construct these adventures? Do you come up with an overall plan, draft the fragments that lead you to discover the whole, or is it more a combination of these methods? How does assembling the different parts affect the layers of meaning as they unfold?
There are times when an idea for how to tell a story is its starting point, and it is what unlocks the story. There are other times when what comes first is the content, the images, characters and events, and what follows that is a process of experimentation with form until I arrive at what fits that content. I tend to think of stories as spaces rather than as linear journeys. A long time ago, I read Alice Munro’s explanation that a story is not “a road you follow” but “a house” you wander through, and that has always stuck with me. I tend to think of writing a story as creating a space for the reader to explore, and, sometimes, writing is also a kind of exploration. As I am writing, I will discover rooms in the story I didn’t know existed until I’ve stepped into them.
4. How did you arrive at the title? What did you want the title to do?
I hope the title captures how many of the stories are about the tenuous nature of the act of knowing. The title is taken from the title of one of the stories, and that story is told by a collective narrator whose connection with the protagonist is inconsistent, so that the story mixes together solid facts with inferences and guesses. Another story narrates a character’s life in the form of a series of questions as a way of getting at how a handful of concrete details can open us up to the essential mystery of another person’s experience, and of dramatizing how what we know always teeters on the edge of what we don’t. It takes different forms, but there is an uncertainty that runs through most of the stories in the collection, and I hope that is captured by the qualifier “think” in “What We Think We Know.”
5. Are any aspects of the book autobiographical? How did you consciously deal with your intimate material (such as emotional and physical experiences) in a way that avoids the dangers of straight autobiography?
The collection contains a piece of autofiction that includes a description of some quite traumatic bullying that I experienced as a child. It is easy for material like this to slip into a purely confessional mode that limits its relevance to people who have had similar experiences, and, in more extreme cases, to the writer themselves. I tried to avoid this by linking my one experience to larger issues—in the case of this piece, to how the experience of powerlessness can cause someone to assume a defensive posture that is self-protective, but also deeply isolating, and, in its own way, violent. If I have done my job, a reader will find in these autobiographical scenes an entry point into a something more significant and broadly relevant than my personal experience.
6. What was the most satisfying aspect about writing this book (other than perhaps the satisfaction of finishing it)?
There is a unique pleasure in discovering new ways to tell stories, and that was central to writing this collection. It doesn’t come at first. At first, I feel excitement, but also uncertainty. Some of the experiments are labour intensive, and I worry about the risk of wasting time and effort, and sometimes it is a waste. For every successful experiment, there are several failed ones. But, when one of them works, and the story falls into the shape that it needs to take, there is both a thrill, and a specific kind of satisfaction that comes with this.
7. Considering that all works of art are in some ways forever a work-in-progress, now that this book has come into the world, if given the chance, are there any aspects of the book you would like to change or tinker with?
This is a great question. Every time I look at it, I want to change the punctuation of the first sentence of the first story. This story was the first story that I wrote, and the first one that I had published. So, at the same time that I want to change that sentence, I want to keep it there as a record of that early version both of the story and myself. A lot of the stories contain elements like this—sentences that I want simultaneously to change and to preserve. I content myself by marking up my reading copy, making the corrections while leaving the original visible.
8. How would you graph the protagonists’ inner journey with relation to the plot, and the outer journey in terms of what the protagonist and key characters do and how the story world changes?
This is an interesting question to me because the third story in this book uses graphs to chart the progression of the protagonist’s most important relationships, and then her sense of happiness over the same time period. What interested me in doing this was placing the conventional material of narrative (romantic relationships and the emotional state of the protagonist) next to factors that figure less often in short stories, such as the growth of her student debt. The trajectory of the protagonist’s life is a fairly conventional one—she passes through a series of disappointments to find a subdued happiness—but graphs and the inclusion of these other variables allow the reader to see this conventional trajectory from a series of unique perspectives.
9. With what other book would this work make a good comparison? Are any ideas in this short story collection related to ideas in a comparable work?
I’m not sure that it makes a strong comparison, but Agustín Fernández Mallo’s Nocilla Trilogy does offer an interesting one. He calls his work complex realism and aims to reflect the structure of the contemporary world in the structure of his writing. The trilogy is not superficially similar to my book. It flips back and forth between a handful of disconnected narratives like someone changing channels on a television, and there is no story in my collection that does anything like this. But both his trilogy and my collection share an interest in carrying the new ways we see and interact with the world into fiction.
10. In terms of sheer length, what did the book look like after the first draft? Did the length change?
The book was shorter in its initial version and got longer at each stage of the editing process. I don’t think that I’m a maximalist, but editing, for me, is always a process of expanding and adding. I don’t think there is a single story in the collection whose final version is not also the longest one. I owe a debt to my editor and book designer for fitting what is quite a large amount of material, particularly for a collection of stories, into a single volume.
Aaron Schneider is a Founding Editor at The /tƐmz/ Review. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in The Danforth Review, Filling Station, The Puritan, Hamilton Arts and Letters, Pro-Lit, The Chattahoochee Review, BULL, Long Con, The Malahat Review and The Windsor Review. His stories have been nominated for The Journey Prize and The Pushcart Prize. His novella, Grass-Fed, was published by Quattro Books in Fall 2018. His collection of experimental short fiction, What We Think We Know (Gordon Hill Press) was published in Fall 2021, and his novel, The Supply Chain (Crowsnest Books), is forthcoming in Fall 2022.