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An Interview with D. Foy
I read and loved D. Foy’s novel Made to Break a couple of years ago when Two Dollar Radio published it. His new novel is Patricide, just out from Stalking Horse Press. His work has appeared in Guernica, Literary Hub, Salon, Hazlitt, Post Road, Electric Literature, BOMB, The Literary Review, Midnight Breakfast, The Scofield, and The Georgia Review, among other places, and has been included in the books Laundromat, A Moment’s Notice, and Forty Stories: New Writing from Harper Perennial. I recently talked to D. Foy about Patricide.
BRANDON HOBSON: In the opening chapter of Patricide, “Sleep,” the narrator tells us: “I was ten years old, and I was stoned.” I was drawn to the childhood scenes of Rice’s struggle with family, with peers and life itself. What inspired you to write such a damaged but likable young character?
D. FOY: I think it’s safe to say that not all, but a good portion of today’s fiction emphasizes the question of “what” as opposed to the questions of “how” and “why.” Just about everywhere I look, in course descriptions, workshops, essays, and interviews with authors and editors, writers are encouraged to focus, first, on character, and, second, through character, on conflict, as expressed in their actions, as opposed to their feelings and thoughts. Honestly, I find this as astonishing as I find it baffling. It doesn’t make sense to me that readers wouldn’t be interested in the workings of the human mind. And yet, obviously, since most readers aren’t, this must say more about me than it does about them. Most readers, actually—what’s left of them, anyway—aren’t concerned to enter into the consciousness of a character to see what motivates them, and, more, why and how. Instead they want to escape themselves by living vicariously through another person’s generally unexamined actions.
While I have to confess that the dirtiest of my little secrets is that I space out by watching sci-fi, fantasy, thriller, and action TV and films—I wait, for instance, for a season of Game of Thrones to close, then buy it on iTunes and binge watch the crap out of it for two days tops—in my work, and in life, too, I suppose, I’m interested in how the forces that play on people in their youth ramify through the rest of their lives. Probably this obsession explains my proclivity to trash when I’m not engaged in the obsessions themselves. In any case, I’m interested, in why and how people become who they are, in the moments that affect them so profoundly that they affect just as profoundly everything they do going forward, and, from there, how they process these events.
So a boy who becomes a drug addict when he’s ten years old is fascinating to me. Why does he become an addict, and how? And how does his dependence affect him as he moves through adolescence into adulthood? What sorts of decisions does he make, what sorts of people does he fall in with, and how does the rest of the world see and treat him? Is such a person able to surmount the difficulties in which his circumstances inevitably engulf him, or is he destined to the state of apathy—avoidance and denial—with which a human can’t do more than fail at everything he touches? I imagine what makes Rice likeable for some is that to whatever degree, they can identify with him—more with his psychology, his thoughts and feelings about his circumstances than with the circumstances themselves.
BH: I really like the way you structured this novel, employing various point-of-views with chapter titles that, in a way, make this book feel like a series of connected stories. Can you talk specifically about this structure?
DF: The structure of Patricide is the structure of a tornado. Though I didn’t set out with this image in mind, it didn’t take long to see. I’ve talked elsewhere about a principle I could almost say describes everything I do artistically: the work will show you how to do it. In this book, at first, in any case, my protagonist Rice was confronted with his father and everything that makes his father who and what he is. But once the writing deepened, the further into the work I got, I began to consider the uber-matrix in which our fathers are molded. What is the father? How is it he’s become the figure of power and fear he is? What is patriarchy? How does the patriarchy maintain dominance and control, and how and why does its influence pervade every aspect of our society and culture? Things like this.
The answers made it clear that I wasn’t simply treating a father/son relationship, but also a Father/World relationship. There’s the father in Patricide, but there’s also The Father, which is both every father ever and every thing that makes the world what it is today—our customs, codes, morals, laws, ideologies, rituals, taboos, and on—everything, everything, not one thread of which isn’t of and by and controlled by the patriarchy. So between Rice’s father and The Father that’s the system from which both Rice and his father emerge, I was challenged to wrestle an entity of universally colossal proportions. And the only way I could see to have a chance in this contest was to employ every tool I have in my box from every possible vantage. In other words, I had to circle around this father/Father figure in way that circled back on itself even as it moved inexorably forward. It didn’t matter that I’d set myself to a job I didn’t know how to do. The job itself, and the work of it, showed me the way.
BH: I’ve had more than my share of experiencing tornadoes in my life, so I know how violent they can be, then calm, then erupting again into chaos all while following a very straight path. Is this what you mean?
DF: That description is one aspect of the structure, for sure. Growing up in California, I’ve experienced some hardcore earthquakes, though, unlike you, I’m lucky enough never to have weathered a tornado. I just know how they work. Another characteristic of tornados, the one that interested me most, I think, and which is the structure’s foundation, as it were, is that they work according to the principle of a vortex. They spin from without to within, laying waste to everything in their path, none of which anyone knows when it will be taken. Nothing in a tornado’s path can escape, either. Once the tornado scoops it up, it can’t do anything but what the vortex says. What’s more, it’s constantly cycling back to ground it’s already razed, even as it moves along an arc that’s more or less random. There’s more, too, stuff I’ve addressed elsewhere, so I hope you won’t mind that I plagiarize myself! The book’s structure and approach, I said, are at once a reflection of the devastation of The Father and an act of patricide. They use the patriarchal framework within which the novel has until now largely been created to destroy that framework. The Father’s way is The Father’s death.
BH: While the first person scenes with Rice feel emotionally close to the reader, there are third person scenes as well as character names (the father, the mother, for instance) that seem to convey a distance for Rice. The balance works very well. Can you speak to this balance between closeness and distance?
DF: I don’t think you’d disagree when I say this book is emotionally fraught. That, actually, would be close to grotesque understatement. Again, the work showed me what to do. The scenes narrated in first person are those that, typically, Rice tells from the distance of memory—moments and events he’s exploring retrospectively. They’re intimate in the sense that he treats them directly. And regardless of how personally intense they may be, the buffer that is the space between Rice’s telling of the events and the time of the events themselves enable the reader to absorb the telling. The opposite is true, frequently enough, of those passages that are narrated from the perspective of a tight third person. Many parts of Rice’s story verge toward what Judith Herman calls the “unspeakable.” Had Rice narrated these experiences first hand, it seems to me, the reader herself would’ve been forced too unbearably close. She couldn’t handle these moments any more than Rice could. Such events would literally asphyxiate a reader. This is in part why they’re unspeakable. They steal the breath we need to speak them. The space between the telling and the perspective of the telling provided by the remove from first person to third person gives the reader the space they need to breathe. Without that space, they’d collapse, figuratively, in the least.
As for how names work in the book, you’ll notice that the only characters without proper names are those in Rice’s family. This isn’t about anonymity per se, but, as you noted, about the actual distance such anonymity creates. Rice doesn’t call the people in his family by name because he’s always felt disastrously remote from them. These characters aren’t so much people to him as constructs, products of the systems I was just describing. But it’s also his way of creating the space he needs to see them clearly. Names have a lot of power. Names can imbue their objects with power, just as they can divest them of that power, to the point of powerlessness. In other words, in the same way that sex clouds, so do names. They’re nothing if not nebulous, right? Rice knows this. Or rather he’s learned it over time. In his refusal to name the people in his family, he’s divested them of the murk within which they act. Nameless, the people in his family stand out in the relief that’s vital to Rice’s seeing them as he must if he’s to understand not just them but, more importantly, himself as a product of them.
BH: Was there any specific book that influenced this one?
DF: Not a specific book. I did read a shitload of stuff about time and memory and language and writing, though, by way of constructing a thesis of sorts about how they’re inextricably entwined. That’s the stuff I struck almost entirely from the book. It was a lot!
BH: What are you reading right now? What books are you excited about?
DF: I had a really, really bad year-and-half that didn’t quit till the end of last spring, a time during which I’m almost ashamed to say I read next to nothing. It took a bit to get back in the swing of things, but I’m more or less in it now, which means I’m reading maybe fifteen books at once. I just reread Sōkō Morinaga’s Novice to Master and the Tao Te Ching while swinging with Wendy C. Ortiz’s Excavation and one of yours, Desolation of Avenues Untold. I read Jeff Jackson’s new novella, Novi Sad, Mark de Silva’s Square Wave, Annie DeWitt’s White Nights in Split Town City, Elizabeth Crane’s The History of Everything, and Matt Bialer’s epic poem about Bigfoot, Distant Shores. Also, László Krasznahorkai’s Seibo There Below and Satantango, and Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick. I’m writing an essay about Kraus’s book, in fact. It’s incredible. Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet is in the mix, too, and so is John Domini’s Movieola! I also finished Zoe Dzunko’s chapbook of poetry, Selfless, which is really fantastic. Next to Natalie Eilbert—whose press Atlas, not incidentally, published Dzunko—she’s probably the first poet in a while that’s supercharged me. There’s more, but I can’t recall them now here in this café. All I know is that my to-be-read pile is plural, as in piles, what I call hoodoos and fire hazards by turns. It’s comforting to know there’s so much good stuff out there, but it’s also a reason for anxiety. Choosing a single book to read entails a decision, which I somehow find stressful. Maybe it’s because so many of the books are by people I know? But oh well! I’m reading me some books.