Flotsam

“Writers manipulate.” The dish with M.B.F. Wedge and Stefan O. Rak

Stefan O. Rak, author of Adventures of Bastard and M.E. (2018) is a New York City bar owner and writer. He is the author of New Roses, a novel, and, in the summer of 2017 escaped into the woods of rural Vermont to finish Adventures. The cabin residency got the better of Stefan almost immediately, but maybe it can be said the broken leg he suffered during the remove fueled the creation of Adventures in its final form, what Whisk(e)y Tit likes to call the Greatest Absurdist Narcotic Cyber Punk Noir ever written.

M.B.F. Wedge, author of Knickpoint (2018) is a card-carrying member of the church of lawfully wedded confusion, and has worked delivering farm food in rural communities upstate, counseling the chronically mentally ill, and selling house paint. The memoir Knickpoint is a sparse collage of her affairs after learning a man she has tied herself to in Love (think activist, tree) is reduced to and owns the basest of titles: pedophile.

Stefan and M. have read together and appreciate the frisson their work creates when paired. Here, they talk to each other.

SR: What’s the first line/entry/section/part/phrase of Knickpoint that you wrote that’s in the book here? When did you think this could/should/would be a book?

MW: I used to tell myself the story to help me fall asleep. The first thing I remember writing is the bit about Maggie Johnson (from Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets) and I identified with her intensely in that scene. She wants this guy to love her so bad. She thinks if he says the words (so naïve) that he’ll own her, in a way, that he won’t be able to leave. Not true, obviously, but we still try. Semantics. But she ends up essentially sacrificed to her naiveté. I’m evaluating the question of whether I end up that way, too. Maybe you could say my book revolves around the question Arundhati Roy poses in The God of Small Things: “Who should be loved, and how. And how much.” Call it a meditation on that.

“I write because I’m a shitty conversationalist. It’s not some big profound desire to heal the world. Last night I spent almost an hour obsessing over a word I wanted to use and couldn’t remember. I still haven’t gotten it, but after that, the conversation was definitely dead.” —M.B.F. Wedge
(N.B.: she is lying about the shitty conversationalist bit. — Ed.)

SR: Tell me about the timeline of your production of the project. Can you relate the genesis of Knickpoint

MW: I’d been writing bits and pieces for about three years, not thinking I’d do something with them, but a friend suggested the MFA program at Goddard College as a place where I might sort of, launch myself as a writer. And of course the final project for that program is a manuscript. Initially the thing I wrote was called Self-Preservation Test, and I got a lot of superb faculty advisement: Michael Klein, Douglas A. Martin, and Richard Panek, specifically. Each writer gave me a unique perspective on my book, and Michael, in particular, noted the theme he called “decay,” so I ran with that, the idea of erosion, which pretty quickly became Knickpoint.

SR: Can you tell me about some of your personal formative influences? Your wordplay is distinct, and I’m truly curious. I dig how you play with polarization. Precision and abstraction; density, absence. But the story is present. Omissions can be inferences, and what you don’t say can (seem to) be very telling. The narrative is loaded with details – while structurally, your story is sparse. How do you reconcile this? Why do you write like this?

MW: My mother did a lot of work thinking about trauma as it relates to mental health (they call it “trauma informed care”) and one of the things I started to believe is that implicationcan be a way for trauma survivors to tell their stories safely, without such a risk of retraumatization in the remembering: the act of writing itself moves events imbued with feeling from the amygdala to simple memory, the hippocampus. 

I read Karen Green’s book, Bough Down about the suicide of her husband, David Foster Wallace, and I was astounded at her ability to create a fully-fledged, complex narrative in fragments –that’s another thing trauma does, fragments memory– without giving away the most personal details: what his last words to her were, for instance. That book. Killer.

SR: And further, why do you write? Where did you learn this, and why do you think it is worth doing? You’re doing something with words, and it is deliberate. Earlier, over distilled spirits, we talked about distilling words. How much editing did you do – and how much, if anything, did you write that isn’t in the book?  

MW: I struggle a lot in essays, for instance, with wordiness. I suppose this distilled form is a middle-conscious way to snap myself out of unbearable verbosity. I’m still editing my damn book, and it’s done. There are some pieces I wrote and was called out on the carpet about, gently, by my advisors at Goddard. Michael once wrote to me, so profoundly, and he was right: “There’s no room for gossip.” 

I write because I’m a shitty conversationalist. It’s not some big profound desire to heal the world. Last night I spent almost an hour obsessing over a word I wanted to use and couldn’t remember. I still haven’t gotten it, but after that, the conversation was definitely dead.

SR: You’ve introduced Knickpoint as a memoir. How important is honesty in your writing? Is it something that you have to work on; is it something that inspires/drives you to write? Do you write for honesty, or do you write honestly? Also, is this a quality that you value/seek out in the works of others?

MW: Honesty is hugely important to me. But as a writer, I think the honesty I most value is the honesty of a feeling conveyed, not necessarily the honesty of facts. Writers manipulate. But the feeling I try to evoke, that’s the pristine truth. And 97.5 percent of the writing is factual, too, as it happens. I met the character Paul twelve days before I turned sixteen, but eleven sounds better. Things like that. 

An acquaintance just wrote: “Always tell the hardest truth first.” I value that sentiment so much.

Also, I’m pretty critical. In writing I’ve been trained to evaluate truth, the reliability of a narrator, for instance, so dishonesty and gray areas don’t bother me. I can usually get to the heart of the matter, or at least evaluate the block, pretty clearly. In life, though, I’m not such a good judge; call me Maggie, maybe, so I constantly seek reassurance that I’m getting the truth. What even is that?

SR: What question(s) do people ask you most – about Knickpoint, about your writing? What question(s) do you have the most trouble answering?

MW: I get asked a lot how I could share such personal details. Shall I answer for you? Partly, I think, it’s in my nature. All the planets in my birth chart, astrologically speaking, sit above the horizon. That’s called an “inverted bowl.” So I’m always pouring out. Abraham Lincoln’s chart had an inverted bowl, too. (Not comparing. Except maybe a little. I also share a birthday with Guy Fieri). But the other part, I guess, is that I like to hide behind the specificity of the words I choose. I’m demanding the reader bridge the gaps, and there’s room for error in that, which protects me.

But in your case, the writing of a novel creates a different relationship with the concept of truth. Can you share something about that?

SR: Adventures of Bastard and M.E. is a work of fiction. It’s a novel. But, as with New Roses, everything in it is true. Last time I read through Adventures, I realized that it was a personal history about the war on drugs. It’s all real shit.  

MW: I read in an interview with Ann Patchet that her mother once famously said, “None of it happened and all of it’s true.” Is that what you’re saying here? 

Sure, that makes sense. 

MW: This is your second novel. Tell us a little about your first book, New Roses, and how the process of writing each book compared to the other. Give us a brief synopsis? What should we be looking for when we pick each up? What will we find?

SR: New Roses is based on a long short story I wrote in high school called the Truth (1997/8-99). I found a file of it on a floppy disk in 2004 or so; I was in grad school, and I was purging some shitty writing. But I liked this piece – it attracted me. I went to work on it again, and it developed into something else. The book was written by a drug-addled paranoid schizophrenic, so it’s his story, and his world. I was dealing with a lot of notes. Ultimately, my goal was to represent this one reality.

Adventures of Bastard and M.E. is comparatively extroverted. In this book, expect characters and dialogue and more realities.

In terms of process, the only thing these books have in common is that the composition of each spanned a ten-year period. (On the ninth year, I received an offer, left the city, and finalized. For both.)

MW: What in your life compels you to write?

SR: I really have difficulty with language. I think about this a lot. I write because communication and comprehension challenge me. When I write, I can think things through. I don’t understand anything – maybe it’s a coping mechanism. I also like the look of letters and words, and so I like to play with them.  

MW: You told me earlier that English was not your first language. What was? Did this impact your ability to communicate in and understand English? In what ways? 

SR: That’s true, but it’s also kind of a joke. I grew up learning and speaking Ukrainian at home, which must have had some influence on my use of the English language and how I write with it.

MW: Whisk(e)y Tit calls Adventures absurdist, cyberpunk, noir. These are all established genres that Adventures falls into, at least partly. Absurdist, meaning contemplative of the state of nihilism, maybe, or an existential questioning that takes place––  Cyberpunk, which David Ketterer called a combination of low-life and high-tech, maybe including artificial intelligence, definitely the concept you’ve introduced here of “rent your brain.” Reminds me a bit of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind in a backwards kind of way. And Noir, in which the protagonist finds himself (and his gang?) hunted by the heads of a system actually no less fucked than he. Where do you feel Adventures follows these genre conventions, and where are you on your own? What’s your revolution here?

“I really have difficulty with language. I think about this a lot. I write because communication and comprehension challenge me. When I write, I can think things through. I don’t understand anything – maybe it’s a coping mechanism. I also like the look of letters and words, and so I like to play with them.” — Stefan O. Rak

SR: Words are useful, and those descriptors work. My favorite supergenre is Outsider Misfits in Outfits Saying Clever Things in Odd Places and Sometimes Confined Spaces.

MW: Let’s consider your cinema background for a minute. Tell us how this education influenced Adventures. Also, if Method Acting can be boiled down to an actor getting into the mind of a character, living as the character lives, losing or gaining a bunch of weight in training for a role and so forth, how much of Adventures is reverse-engineered? The word play, puns, alliteration, constantly presenting itself across characters, is this how Stefan Rak thinks? If not, are these integral aspects of the world you’ve built for Bastard, a world in which it’s possible to come back from the dead? How so?

SR: I’m influenced by movies and music and art and literature, more or less equally. I happen to write because that’s what I do. I always wanted to be a musician, but I’m a much better writer. So I studied cinema. 

In terms of education, I was able to spend years practicing critical thinking and writing. I did my Bachelor’s in English and my Master’s in Cinema Studies – both require a great deal of (time) consuming and commenting. Also, through this, I learned about history and art. All this time informs my writing.  

My favorite Method Actors are Bill Murray, Marcel Duchamp, MF DOOM, Hunter S. Thompson, and Sun Ra. Also, one of the characters in Adventures is named after a dear friend of mine who is an engineer. I think your answers are better.

Also regarding your cultural influences, you pointed me in the direction of “the Pythons,” specifically, Life of Brianabout which you wrote, “These people taught me leprosy, latinates, incontinence, rhotacism, and love in song and death. Pataphysical snakes!” Some might say the Python influence spans a generation. Where do you feel your writing falls within that generation?

I recently re-watched Life of Brianand drunkenly texted you that. I hadn’t seen it in several years, and it was fun for me to recognize how influential they’ve been to my own writing. I got into Monty Python’s Flying Circus when I was twelve maybe – so they’ve been in my head for a long time, and from a very young age. Something about their complete inanity and deep knowledge of form appealed to me, and apparently informs my own aesthetics to this day. In terms of generations, if anything, I’d be a bastard son who would love their attention!

MW: Tell us about this book’s narrator. I got this sense of the first person account, subtly slipping in and out of notice, always enough to remind the reader that there is a presence there––absorbing all of M.E.’s memories at the end…is this narrator an AI assistant to the pair, both Bastard and M.E.? Am I off base? Tell us what’s up. 

SR: I honestly don’t know the narrator. It’s a curious presence. Third person omniscient first person (simultaneously present and absent) narrator? Makes no sense. We’ll see.

MW: What’s your hope for this book? Will you be touring it? What audiences are you dying to reach?

SR: I want people to read it. Especially those who like to read and think, have a sense of humor, and appreciate the conventional and the ridiculous.

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