Something about Rachel Glaser’s debut.
Glaser’s fearlessness makes impossible stories possible. – Publishing Genius
Two events separated by about a year led to the following interview. The first was reading stories from Rachel Glaser’s new collection when they originally appeared in the NY Tyrant. These stories, “The Magic Umbrella” and “Pee on Water,” knocked me on my ass. I hadn’t seen this sort of thing before, and the name Rachel Glaser got burned into that mental list of artists from whom I needed to learn.
The second event came a few months ago, when in the middle of the night at a bar on 47th street, another story writer from that list—Matt Bell, whose own collection comes out in a week or so and is well worth a click-through—brought up Glaser’s story “The Jon Lennin Xperience” in order to make a point about video games. I hadn’t read the story, but the author’s name lit up.
So I found her book, read her book, loved her book. Pee on Water demonstrates a consideration for language and artistic challenge that is too noticeably absent from most big-press debuts. Glaser’s stories surprise and affect in all the ways the best art does. As I wrote to her when I requested this interview, “I read a lot of story collections this summer …and yours quite frankly blew the rest out of the water.”
We batted the Gmail ball back and forth for a while. Take a swing after the jump.
What I admired most about what you did in Pee On Water was your ability to create worlds/relationships that danced along a very thin line of believability. The settings/scenes often approach to unbelievable–the space capsule in “The Monkey Handler,” the gaming experience in “Jon Lennin…,” the barroom in the opening story–however I think your achievement lies in that the relationships or emotions presented are painfully real: we believe in jealousy, fear, in the way one can suture into a video game or movie. And this tension between the real and unreal catalyzes the effect of the piece. That is, at least for me, what art is all about.
Do you actively seek to create alternative realities as venues for your characters, or does that otherworldliness emerge out of the characters or relationships you’re creating? Which comes first?
Good Question. Both. When I wrote about the virtual reality game in ‘The Jon Lennin Xperience’ and the morphing realities in ‘McGrady’s Sweetheart,’ I was curious about characters living in loose, combining worlds. In most of the other stories, I am not actively trying to create an alternative reality. Sometimes, I am attempting to write about something I am unfamiliar with (like space travel), and since I don’t fully research it, or thoroughly describe the setting, a weird reality is created (by omission, laziness, pace, and tone). Often, I will build up a believable setting, just so I can challenge it by introducing a talking pile of sticks, and then it’s a challenge to build the reality back up again. I think you are correct in thinking that emotions can support these strange moments. In ‘The Totems Are Grand,’ there are these Goth girl Hospice workers, but the story is about death and dying, and since stories about death and dying are so familiar to the reader, maybe they are more ready to accept the Goth girl Hospice workers.
You mention introducing “the talking pile of sticks” from the opening story, “The Magic Umbrella,” to challenge the reality of the setting, but I think that story also challenges the idea of narration and the line between truth and fiction. “Iconographic Conventions…” does this too, in its almost book-reporty tone. Do you see these more as stories or as pieces of writing? There is so much happening, and yet these two in particular do not contain much in the way of an obvious traditional “narrative arc.” In some stories, that arc is still fairly easy to see (“The Kid” comes to mind first, “The Monkey Handler,” too, in fact). What’s the difference?
I see “The Magic Umbrella” and “Iconographic Conventions…” as stories. They have a non-traditional structure, but “The Magic Umbrella” is filled with characters and plots and storytelling. “Iconographic Conventions…” is like an essay gone wild, but it goes wild. In the absence of plot, many shifts in tone and content supply the movement in “Iconographic Conventions..”. It wouldn’t be wrong to categorize it as an experimental essay, but since I’m into non-traditional fiction, I find it more assertive to call them all stories.
I enjoy having more traditional stories mixed in with the less traditional, because I feel like that creates a less predictable reading experience.
And a follow-up. How do you see the stories function as a collection? The first questions that came to mind I’m realizing have to do a lot with the contrasts and tensions of Pee on Water. Yet it does work as a “collection.” Maybe I’m biased because I liked it so much? I remember a story from some time ago you had in the Columbia Journal about Michael Jordan, which didn’t make it in. Was there a specific reason for that?
I think the stories share similar sensibilities and language tendencies. There are reoccurring themes like young love, stress/anxiety, group dynamics, loss, history, and personification. Additionally, many are “uneven” stories. They don’t have the same ratio of plot/character/setting. When a story is lacking setting, it can become very character heavy. Some of the stories rely on mood or tone. Having stories “heavy” on different elements make the stories stand out from one another, while also giving them a sass or authority that links them together.
“Michael Jordan, in general” was the story I wrote immediately preceding the story “Pee On Water.” “Michael Jordan, in general” is loosely sort-of about the history of basketball, mainly exploring what happened in the time between Michael Jordan being born, and Michael Jordan becoming a superstar. For example, “The animals ran to the woods. The woods got cut into pieces.” It focuses on tiny and big events that happened in America. “Pee On Water” is similar in its variety and cadence, but has a much larger scale because “Pee On Water” explores the time from the beginning of planet Earth into the near future. I felt like the two stories were too similar to have in the same collection, so chose “Pee On Water” because it takes the concept farther. One of the reasons I put the story “Pee On Water” last in the collection and named the collection “Pee On Water,” is because I can envision all the stories taking place within the world and span that exists in the story “Pee On Water.”
I love this interview. Thanks again for taking the time to do it. Your book is fantastic. One final question, because you’ve lead me where I was going with what you said about the span and scope of the title story. The story “Pee on Water” is enormous, it captures more than most story writers even attempt, and I love it for that. It seems in my experience that most story-writers do not attempt great lengths of time and distance; that’s the job of the novel, and young writers especially are so locked in their own heads or bent on getting into Amy Hempel or Denis Johnson’s heads that they don’t look beyond that for source material. What I admired about “Pee on Water” is it showed very clearly and readably that a story could be about more about a character’s changingness or unchangingness. That’s the traditional rule, right? That between the beginning and end, the character(s) must change (else, where is the conflict? Why write it?). So if you were to look at “Pee on Water” in that respect—as a story about a character who/that changes over the time of the narrative—who is that character? Is it the reader? The narrator? Both/Neither? I am not saying a story MUST have these elements, and I know how I would answer this as the reader. But it’s a fascinating story, and I’m curious.
I think the character in “Pee On Water” is the culture and tradition of living. The story tracks the different behaviors and different materials used by humans. Though it is narrated in a certain way, and one could say that the decisions of what was used and what was skipped over might point to a voice of the piece, possibly that of the “seventeen-year-old girl” in the story, an Americanized (Disney-ized?) point of view- the thing that changes is how people are living, (and where they are peeing) so that is why I say the character is the ‘culture and tradition of living.’
So that was sort of a long question, but here’s a short one: what’s your favorite piece in the book? What story would you hold up as the best piece of writing you’ve done and why? What are you working on now?
My favorite story is “The Magic Umbrella.” It was the most surprising and fun to write, and I like how it shifts sentence to sentence. I also really like “Jon Lennin” or “The Monkey Handler,” but only when I haven’t read them in awhile. Right now I am trying to work on something called “The Moody Pencil,” or to just work on anything at all.
Thanks again. I can’t wait to see what’s next.