The fiction editors, Rappahannock Review: What are you reading these days?
Alex Pruteanu: At this point, fiction-wise I am re-visiting what are called “the classics.” I am not too interested in contemporary fiction that comes out of the United States in particular. The times I do enjoy contemporary fiction, I gravitate toward these writers: Roberto Bolaño, Herta Müller, Andrei Makine, and Patrick Modiano. Currently, I am on a non-fiction kick. I am concurrently reading Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond, The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles, the CIA, and the Rise of America’s Secret Government by David Talbot, and Once in a Great City: a Detroit Story by David Maraniss.
RR: Why did you choose to write in this particularly disconnected voice that did not require character dialogue for the first half of the story?
AP: In everything that I write, I attempt to try and not play by the rules established. I work within a genre called (accurately or not) “literary fiction” and there seem to be, as in every other genre, certain rules established by…someone or history or some expert or another. My aim is to always offend. Not offend the readers, although plenty have felt violated by my work, but to offend the genre. Or, more accurately, the rules and rule-makers.
I disagree that the first half of the story is told in a disconnected style; I do admit that it’s laid out in more a factual or documentary style. But in constructing the piece, my aim was to stretch out the border lines of “literary fiction” into territory that may be uncomfortable for some. So in the first half of the piece, we get a compressed history of this character told in a very succinct, factual voice. Generally, I think every author ought to aim to offend his or her genre. If an author is not offensive, the author is not really relevant. Not historically.
RR: The beginning of your story, “The Good Sentinel,” starts with the narrator’s end; what motivated this structure? Also, you strategically did not tie the ending back to the scene of the hanging and Damian’s thoughts at the beginning. Why is that?
AP: The beginning of “The Good Sentinel” was directly influenced by the opening sentence in Marquéz’s One Hundred Years of Solitude: “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” I very much love this opening and wanted to pay homage to it. I also think that it’s a much more interesting construction to start with an apparent end and try to find out what brought it on. It’s something akin to “newspaper style.” There is a headline that tells everything. But then little by little there are the details. The beauty and/or devil is in the details, isn’t it.
To answer the second part: I didn’t feel like the ending of “The Good Sentinel” needed to connect back to its beginning (really the ending) because we already covered that territory at the start of the story. There may be some big, horrific gaps that need to be filled in from the end of the story when he is being led away to the end of Meier’s life itself, but I also chose not to cover those because an audience will bring (hopefully) to this story its own imagination, its own nightmares. I don’t need to describe torture methods used for extracting (fabricated) confessions to actually hear the screams or imagine the horror. With my work, I always trust my readers to bring their own ideas and think independently. I trust them and I enjoy challenging them to come up with their own endings, their own answers. And I know they do.
RR: Damien Meier’s inaction in the fruit picking scene early on contrasts with the one action he takes (spying on his neighbors). This can be seen as both a commentary on government and personal choice. Damian’s observations of others suggests that he has more freedom than he thinks he does or will allow himself to have. Why do you never have him realize this?
AP: I think he absolutely realizes this, and he makes a concrete choice at that window—the choice to overlook a punishable infraction. One of the things that people not having lived within totalitarian governments or systems don’t realize is the number of and levels of choices those in charge do have. Communism, for example, is a huge bureaucracy with dozens and dozens of administrative levels. Within or at those levels, those bureaucrats in charge are allowed certain amounts of freedom. And they know that. There are people in charge who literally can make decisions on a whim that affect whether or not a human life is terminated. Citizens have disappeared never to be heard from again due to minute, often personal moods of their caseworkers or a secret police higher up who might have felt cranky that day for whatever ridiculous reason.
Conversely, people have been spared torture and their lives because their handler had just had a great night of drinking with friends. Meier, to me, knows fully well the power he wields. He also knows it’s more thank likely temporary. The fruit-picking action is observed by Meier but not documented because perhaps Meier needs to feel like he does something moral or virtuous. He may rationalize and excuse the other atrocities he has perpetrated in his position by this simple act of looking away. People are tweaked to begin with; one cannot imagine how befouled the mind of a person under constant surveillance can be. Or, rather, become.
RR: What are some of the ways you get past writer’s block, assuming you’ve experienced it?
AP: I’ve never had writer’s block and I don’t believe in it. I also don’t believe in “The Muse” and run far away from those who claim that as their source of inspiration. Those people tend to cling to these concepts as excuses. “Well, the Muse hasn’t visited so…” Besides sounding like five-year-olds obsessed with unicorns, it’s just plain creepy to listen to mature people basically talk about The Easter Bunny or Santa Claus and how those influence their writing or non-writing decisions. The best thing that has ever happened to The Muse is Perseus. He chopped off Medusa’s head. Good riddance to the Muses.
Inspiration for me comes from everything and everywhere. Movies, television, literature, science, art, music, architecture, children…everything. I’ve had tons of periods during which I didn’t write a word—sometimes months. But always I had things brewing and coagulating. Writer’s block means a writer isn’t living or observing properly—thinking. I always consider that I’m working, even subconsciously, because I am curious about most everything. And there is so much I don’t know about so many things. Those things I seek out constantly. And so I’m working, always.
Science in general is wonderful for a writer of fiction; it offers so much. I find myself gravitating toward scientists and their work much more than toward other writers. Other writers are mostly insufferable. They have humongous egos, terrible issues with self-esteem, and a debilitating desire to be accepted by others. And most writers out there are just simply awful. Social media has exacerbated this inherent narcissism. Have you ever followed a group of writers on social media? It’s a despicable circus. It’s like a yard full of proud hens clucking incessantly about the egg they’ve just laid.
That being said, I warn you: I have an “online presence” on both Facebook and Twitter. Follow at your own risk or level of sanity.