Andrew Tonkovich edits the West Coast literary journal Santa Monica Review. With Lisa Alvarez he co-edited Orange County: A Literary Field Guide. He is the author of two collections: The Dairy of Anne Frank and More Wish Fulfillment in the Noughties and Keeping Tahoe Blue and Other Provocations.
Meredith: In life, we are destined, it seems, to repeat certain experiences until the meaning or lesson of the experience is conscious. Since the writing life is not separate from life-life, can you share how you’ve moved through a certain block that had always influenced (hampered) your writing process? How did you enter, tolerate, remain with the internal conflict you were dealing with, how did it show up in your writing, and how did it, eventually, resolve?
ANDREW: Not separate, indeed. And could I please appropriate the term “life-life”? With your permission, I’ll also add the verb “play” to your list of internal conflict-dealing responses and say that I often hear or read or witness something, which is incongruous or funny or ironic. (Like the assault, lately on our benighted republic.) It simultaneously suggests problem or conflict, but also amuses or engages me. Moving through a “block” means settling on the particular block first. So many from which to choose! I have a notebook of ideas, lines, or phrases. I’m lately building a story around the annoying phrase “The nation as a whole,” which I choose to hear as “The nation as a hole.” For a writer committed to absurdist or what is sometimes called “fabulist” fiction, the possibilities are numerous, or should I say deep?
Meredith: Have you ever had to betray your original idea for a piece of writing in order to create the work it becomes? How about your view of yourself as a writer—Have you ever betrayed an image, dream or hope?
ANDREW: Every “realistic” short story I write is a betrayal. Perversely, the short stories which seem to engage most readers are indeed these more — forgive me — realistic ones. Often they’re autobiographical, with recognizable everyday characters and not the caricatures or moral exaggerations in my fables. My editor at What Books, Kate Haake, chose and then divided up short stories for my new collection, deftly overlapping them. My original categorizing was less subtle: “Realism” and “Unrealism.” It’s possible that the dreamier, allegorical stories are in some sense truer, more easily artful for this author, just because the subconscious insists upon its own self-celebrating logic. I’d like to be compared in that regard to my mentor, Jim Krusoe, and to Stanley Crawford, Barthelme and Joy Williams. Most readers want more perhaps easily apprehensible, if in their own way powerful and less subjective fictions, with “real” people. I like unreal people, and struggle to turn the betrayal of realism into artful persuasion…doubly hard, as I am trying to persuade myself!
Meredith: Let’s talk about shadow, the as-yet unintegrated parts of our psyche, the split-off parts (both individual and collective). Do you find writing reveals them? Stirs them up? What’s the experience like for you personally? How do you hold that tension? Do you seek it?
ANDREW: The novella in my new collection is about this. Commitment and addiction. Witness and secrecy. About an opioid-addicted college prof who very much resembles Yours Truly. It took me many pages of draft writing to identify and construct the secret of his all-too real if obvious problem in context of the larger social one. I tried to hold the tension until I felt I could pull off the redemptive — if wildly Jungian — dramatic resolution. Who does this tension so well? Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah in Friday Black and Giacomo Sartori in the short, perfect novel I Am God. Two masterful works of re-assembling of parts indeed.
Meredith: Do you see your work first as a huge mural or do the pieces emerge one color, one notion, one word at a time in the process of creation?
ANDREW: A small mural, alas. Having failed thus far to publish a full-length novel, I comfort myself with the satisfaction of having written short stories and a half-dozen novellas. In terms of craft, I rely, perhaps to a fault, on voice. I talk to myself a lot. Not only is it, to embrace the old joke, a “conversation with a friend,” but also a test, debate, logic exercise: “Maybe if I can convince myself, I can convince a reader?” As a sometime journalist and political activist, I identify opportunity in conflict, or perhaps seek it out, however perversely. Covering the reopening of the Nixon Museum for the OC Weekly, I found myself standing in its reproduction of the Oval Office next to little old man-war criminal Henry Kissinger himself. I haven’t decided if that was real or unreal, scary dream or hilarious nightmare. Both.
Meredith: In The Courage to Create, Rollo May wrote: “But if you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also you will have betrayed our community in failing to make your contribution to the whole.” These two sentences may appear in conflict with one another due to our collective’s focus on things like “platform” and “followers.” But, to me, the individuality of expression is what is valuable first and foremost. In fact, that is what I learned from you as my writing teacher for many years. I think I discovered a courage to follow my internal process, even in the face of rejection “out there.” Thoughts?
ANDREW: I haven’t thought about May since reading his work in college. He’s onto something, no kidding. Maybe that’s why I write so many versions of myself. More opportunities for rejection! I’ve been lucky to read quite a bit and was encouraged by some great teachers myself — including Jim Krusoe, Michelle Latiolais and the late Gill Dennis — to embrace some modest courage.