The PEN Ten with Shya Scanlon
When did being a writer begin to inform your sense of identity?
I read Jan Morris’s excellent memoir Conundrum recently, in which she neatly dispatches with the term “identity,” saying (I’m paraphrasing) that it’s a muddled, catch-all concept used to circumvent thorny, mostly unanswerable questions. Of course, she proceeds to use it. But her case is instructive, because she’s writing about the relationship between sex and gender, having been born with one (male), while identifying with another (female). She identified with something without any physical, tangible grounds for doing so. In my darker moments I have similar feelings about writing. I know there was a time before I wrote much at all—in fact I began later (in my late teens) than many of my peers. Yet that pre-writer mind is impossible for me to access. So in a way my identity and writing are mutually inextricable.
Yet while I did write throughout high school and college, I didn’t alter course in any way to pursue it, thus undercutting your use, I think, of the word “inform.” I took no writing courses, took barely any literature courses, and in no other way really organized around the practice or end result. (In fact this is something I now regret quite a bit.) So while I may have considered/called myself a writer, I wouldn’t say that it actively informed my identity. After college I began working for a technology company in Seattle, and during this time, perhaps in response to the mind-numbing lack of creativity on the job, began seeking out the company of other writers. I found a small community of folks in the area who also wrote, helped form a writing group, helped start a literary journal, helped curate a reading series, and after roughly two years, quit my job. This resignation, I would say, is perhaps the moment I’d point to in answer to your question. Begin by quitting!
Whose work would you like to steal without attribution or consequences?
Feelings of happiness about my work come almost exclusively from my own pride in accomplishment. Aside from friends and loved ones, the occasional nice note from a stranger, I simply have no other reference point. Which is to say that while I admire a great many writers, and am sometimes (often) envious of their talent, stealing their work wouldn’t make me happy. That said, here are the names of a few of my favorite writers, in no particular order: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Marcel Proust, George Luis Borges, Marilynne Robinson, Tom Drury, Carole Maso, Toni Morrison…
Where is your favorite place to write?
I’ve been without a good writing spot for years. I make do at a tiny, rather uncomfortable and exposed spot along the hallway in my apartment in Manhattan, and though there is no desk, spent some lovely hours writing on the porch of my cabin in Woodstock, NY, this last summer. But my living situation in both places may soon be changing, so I’ll have to see what that brings. I would love a little office or something. Between my first and second years of graduate school, I wrote in a facility near Union Square called Paragraph. It was a productive time, and I liked marching out of the apartment as my girlfriend (now wife) was headed off to work, commuting to and from that space as would someone with an actual vocation. And of course while in graduate school there was a small office I’d write happily in for hours. It is definitely an abiding wish of mine to have a better, private spot to work, but fortunately I find I’m rather able to write anywhere, so long as it’s in the morning.
Have you ever been arrested? Care to discuss?
I’ve been arrested twice, once when I was 13 and once when I was 17. The first time was for joyriding—my friend and I stole a car from his neighbor and drove it around the corner, where we got stuck due to my inability to find reverse with a manual transmission. It was frightening because the police brought dogs, which chased us a bit in the woods. In the end the man dropped his charges in exchange for some lawn care.
The second time I was pulled over for driving under the influence, which I was not. When they stopped me, however, they found that I did not have a license, possessed a large quantity of LSD, and was driving a stolen car. Which belonged to my parents, who did not know I’d taken it. I sat in a juvenile detention center for three days until my mother flew in and we drove home together across five states. Awkward!
The second story is long and involved, but I will say that the police were actually very kind to me. Having found a diary in the car that belonged to my then-girlfriend, a girl prone to dark, imaginative flights of fantasy which often featured the dismemberment of family members, the police sent a counselor in to see whether I was a danger to myself. It took me awhile to convince them that although in a broad sense I did need to reevaluate my priorities, I was not going to slit my wrists. I’d like to say, for the record, that following my second brush with the law, I did in fact manage to forge a new direction for myself. First step? Working to prove myself worthy of forgiveness in the eyes of the people I loved.
Obsessions are influences—what are yours?
I’m somewhat of a chameleon in this regard. My books tend to be the product of a triangulation of subjects I find interesting at the time—usually a combination of personal issues and broad, social trends. For instance, my first novel, Forecast, was begun soon after Bush signed the Patriot Act into law. Then, as today, people were very concerned with government surveillance, and I thought it would be interesting to write about—especially since the relationship between reader, writer, and characters is already so complexly voyeuristic. But I was also going through a period of anxiety about how to overcome, finally, the influence of extremely tolerant parents without lapsing back into crude, self-defeating/deceiving catharsis. Border Run was born of the time I spent in Arivaca with my father. Borders both internal, external, and interpersonal became an interest during this time. The novel I most recently finished, The Guild of St. Cooper, was a product of a kind of nostalgia for adolescence (I was a Twin Peaks fan, hence Dale Cooper’s titular role in the book), mixed with a variety of things I was reading at the time: notably Tim Hilton’s excellent biography on John Ruskin, from which I absorbed a fascination with stunted psychological development, obscurantism, and utopia. Weather usually works its way into all my books, because it’s such a constant background anxiety. All of which is to say: I’m not a collector of obsessions. You won’t find a box of baseball cards or WWII memorabilia in my house. I tend to move slowly from one interest to another, and write when a certain sticky build-up occurs. Case in point: I’m about to embark on a book revolving around polling/informatics, exile, and sex/identity change. Even a year ago I would never have guessed.
What’s the most daring thing you’ve ever put into words?
What an embarrassing question to ask a white, male, middle class United States citizen. Unfortunately, too little progress has been made, globally, since Solzhenitsyn smuggled his Nobel acceptance speech out of the Soviet Union as negatives in a tape deck in 1970. Even today, people all over the world are being forced into exile, jailed, beaten, and murdered for expressing themselves in countries like China, Iran, Afghanistan. People are pursued in the United States, if not for writing, then making public writing. For publishing. And even among my cushioned demographic there are those with far more to lose than I, such as my MFA advisor Brian Evenson, who was excommunicated from his church for his writing. Was forced to choose between the two. What would count as daring for me? Revealing a personal flaw? Admitting a mistake or lapse in judgement? Expressing an opinion unpopular among my peers? It would be disingenuous if not callous of me to compare the risks I take in writing to those mentioned above. So it is in this spirit that, without a writerly dare worth repeating, my best answer is to take your question as a challenge. I will do better. Speak up. Risk more.
What is the responsibility of the writer?
I was raised in a politically charged, if not activist, household. A cooperative living environment in midcoast Maine created by people (all younger than I am now, some by ten years) who identified with at least the principles of the “back-to-the-land” movement in the 70s. Many became advocates for one cause or another—some outside the system, some inside. My mother pursued her values of public service working for the Health Department, first in Maine, then in Seattle, Washington. My father had done two tours in Vietnam before coming out against the war. Which is to say “responsibility” was a word much discussed throughout my childhood. Looking ahead to your next question, I see we’re getting further into the murky intersection of art and politics (in the Platonic meaning of the word), but here it begins. Purpose and responsibility are closely connected, at least in one direction. But sticking to responsibility: I’d say no, not as writers. But yes, as human beings who write. That is, I don’t think there’s some special class of responsibility that comes along with being a writer. Some writers choose to pursue, or at least keep in mind, their responsibilities as citizens. Some gracefully (I think of, say, Coetzee’s Disgrace), most probably not so gracefully. And it is broadly accepted that the work of some writers was artistically crippled by their intense fixation on political or social issues. I think one is expected to have a certain moral and political flexibility as a writer, and perhaps that could be thought of as a kind of meta-responsibility. But ultimately we are just people, with the same shortcomings and opportunities as everyone else.
All this said, because of my upbringing, I have always had a basic desire to contribute, if not elevate, “the conversation” through my work. As you allude to below, this isn’t really a popular position. The purist’s, art-for-art’s-sake stance is still very prominent, I think. The idea being that through the achievement of beauty, all can be forgiven, and perhaps even saved/transcended. As a writer, it’s a zeitgeist to which I’ve fallen prey to a great extent. But as a human who writes, I am nonetheless drawn to topics which I feel are important, and to characters who either grapple with those topics, or notably fail to do so (the later being something that interests me a great deal).
While the notion of the public intellectual has fallen out of fashion, do you believe writers have a collective purpose?
I’ve addressed certain aspects of this above, but to get more into the “collective” part, I think there’s some interesting stuff going on. I’m not sure any of it amounts to shared purpose, but it could very well be the building blocks of something similar, yet to be articulated. As it has people in general, the internet has brought writers together, pulling us from our hermitage of scribbling and pitching us together—and sometimes against one another—in pretty radical ways. It’s resulted in communities of writers that grow larger and stronger and more complex. People are certainly not in agreement about the value/depth of these online interactions, but all agree that it’s having an impact on how people see themselves, express themselves, and congregate. Is it possible that people are being exposed to ideas and literature they would not have otherwise? I’d say very. And where people assemble, virtually or not, they begin to identify as a group. And from that identification develops a sense of ownership. And with ownership comes responsibility—and perhaps purpose? A shorthand way of saying what I mean might be: in the internet age, collective purpose must be crowd-sourced.
What message would you send to an imprisoned writer?
I love you.
What book would you send to the leader of his or her government?
The Giving Tree.