Habitual Guise: An interview with Joe Milazzo

The wonderful thing about the novel is that it provides a lot of room. Room for almost anything. Naturally, there are a lot of ways to use this space, from putting very little in it (think Beckett, Jon Fosse, Mary Robinson) to jamming almost everything in there (think Joyce, William Gaddis, David Foster Wallace). Joe Milazzo’s debut novel Crepuscule W/ Nellie tends toward the maximalist approach, but it does so in a paradoxically intimate way, allowing personal narratives to surface between mad clashes of disparate materials. As many reviewers have already noted, it’s not an easy work to sum up. Among other things, it is the story of the two women in the life of the late jazz pianist Thelonious Monk told in almost cubist fashion, combining journal entries, thoughts, anecdotes, and all manner of prose flotsam.

Joe was kind enough to sit down and chat with us over Skype from his home in Dallas, Texas to talk about his novel, his influences, and his upcoming collection of poetry – some of which appears in this issue.

What drew you to Monk, or not necessarily to Monk but to this triangle of Nellie, Nica, and Monk?

A lot of it has to do with the fact that there was so little information extant at the time I encountered Monks music. Basically what you had were the recordings themselves, some liner notes to records. There was a Time magazine article that was done about him in 1964 – he was actually on the cover. Which was a big deal – to have an African American entertainer, for lack of a better word, on the cover. So really the fascination comes fromits all about the imaginative work that we all do when we listen to music or encounter something that inspires a fandom. You get sort of obsessed with these things and they become contagious in your imagination; your imagination reorients itself around them and you begin to ask questions that maybe you didnt think to ask before.

Some of it also had to do with how jazz of that period was something I associated with my parents, a past that was still present in my own life but which was not immediately available to my memory. The influence of the late 40s-50s was very much felt in my life: from home decor to obviously more complex and profound cultural influences. So I always felt a weird presence/absence pulsing in that music (“modern jazz”). I should also say jazz, by virtue of its relationship to the African-American experience, tells deeply American stories, and that this held tremendous appeal to me. Again not being able to say that I have direct knowledge of those people and that time and yet I have access to it. And those subjects of access and cultural centering become themes within the novel itself. The novel’s characters themselves are dealing with some of those problems of imagination.

Im really interested in the structure of Nellie – the way it sort of takes the form of an archive and duplicates the experience of archival discovery as you go through the material, but its also circumscribed by the rules and narrative logic of a novel.

Yea, theres a simple explanation and a more complex explanation [laughs]. Really the structure’s origin goes back to the fact that, when I first started work on Crepuscule W/ Nellie, everything was in discrete sections. So there was an entire 80 or so page section of diary entries. And I remember handing this manuscript in to my creative writing mentor at the time and one of his pieces of feedback for me was, Well, its a bit much to take at one time.Which is a very kind way of saying “This is incredibly dense and I kinda got tired of reading it all in one sitting.So I thought about it. And it just so happens that at that time I was also taking a course in collage and assemblage, so I simply collaged the entire manuscript. And what I was doing was looking for associative connections that were not apparent to me in the act of composition.

As I then thought about the books as a collage and the story’s relationship to so-called history and this was much, much later I tried to make more narrative meaning out of that choice. Because I would say it was largely an aesthetic, almost stylistic choice at the time. So, to think about the book in terms of the raw materials of the documentary like you say, like an archive where the primary, original sources are preserved yet not organized in any terribly predetermined way. As if to say, “this is history before history is made.” And, definitely the influence of reissue practices of jazz record labels is something I notice when I look at the book’s organization.

When I first started listening to jazz, it was during a boom period, jazz reissues proliferating in the CD era. You would purchase these recordings and there would be all of these alternate takes and incomplete takes added to the original recording. So I also just became very familiar with the discographical conventions of jazz mania. And I thought about that practice as well and how that injects a certain amount of instability into what the resolved object of attention might be. But as the novel became more and more about history as a larger narrative, I thought about that structure as both very modern and a harkening back to modernist aesthetics, as well as a means of reminding readers of how history is made. For everything thats saved a tremendous amount has to be lost. History is as much about forgetting as it is about remembering. And of course Nellies own history, how much she allows herself to remember and what she feels compelled to forget, becomes a site of crisis within the novel itself.

Theres this tension between Nellies internal thought process and the Monks or Johns impinging on that process in a way that produces a kind of weird temporality. What was behind making Nellie this interior character relative to some of the other parts of the novel?

Its hard to talk about whats deliberate when you think about something like this. Its sort of like, the material arrives to you in one way and Nellie’s character was the character that was most present when I began work on the novel. And it seemed to make most sense for her character to be one whose interior life is very much out of joint with the life that she has to lead as a wife and mother and laborer. Further, just sort of on a macro level, or in terms of larger narratives regarding the history of this nation and race and gender, its important for the narrative to focus on Nellie’s experience. The experience of individuals like Nellie female, African American is the experience thats most often excluded from history.

Yet of course there are all sorts of dangers in somebody who looks like me and comes from a background like myself in choosing to do that, and thats one reason why theres a somewhat longish afterword to the novel. But, you know, thats how my imagination brought this story and these characters to my attention: via Nellie. For all those reasons and more, I learned just how crucial it was that the interior life thats most rich in the novel is hers. Its really Nellie’s story. And thats why the novel bears the title it does.

Would you mind elaborating a bit on your background?

I only mean to say I am, by contemporary criteria, white. As a Sicilian-American, however, my “whiteness” is a relatively recent historical phenomenon, and it is something has been conferred upon me. My grandfather, on the other hand, was not born into whiteness. Also, my own immediate family is mixed. However, I prefer not to go too much into detail on that topic. I disagree with this notion I’ve encountered in talking with others about the novel and my choices in writing it that these family members might justify or provide bona fides for the points-of-view through which Crepuscule W/ Nellie is told.

This obviously has been a long project, and youve had some other publications in the meantime and seem to have a lot of fingers in a lot of literary pies. How did you come to this project, and to writing fiction and poetry in the first place?

Boredom. Not to be flippant about it. But I think I always wanted—I think every person has some sort of creative energy in them and is searching for some sort of creative outlet. It expresses itself in different ways. So I guess I discovered in high school that language was something that I thought I could do stuff with. I probably would have preferred to play music or be a visual artist, ultimately, but I dont really have talents in those areas. And I always loved reading. Reading was very important in my household growing up. I just dedicated myself to writing pretty early on. When I got to college I realized thats what I wanted to do and I was very fortunate to go to an institution where you could major in creative writing as an undergrad. I was young and stupid and ambitious and thought oh novelist, thats the way to go because novels are important. And I trained as a novelist, really wanted to be a novelistIts hard [laughs] – I dont know of any other way to say it. I wouldnt recommend that path to anybody. Its been rewarding creatively, but its not a very efficient use of your time.

Did you have a relationship with poetry early on? The novel definitely has a poetic tone theres not a lot of straight narrative prose.

No, I was always more drawn to the novel. I dont feel like Ive become someone who appreciates or understands poetry except maybe in the last fifteen years. So my intentions were very focused on the novel. I read all the big postmodern writers at the time, and then some. I suppose it was all about the weightiness of the novel. It was about the social engagement that the novel promises because novels are the form of literature, at least historically, where its more accepted and expected that the writing itself is engaged with important issues of the time; novels as a kind of diagnostic tool. Socially, culturally significant, reflecting and driving change in our real as well as our imaginary relations. So again I think the form of the novel appealed to me in my youth and stupidity and ambition, because you really cant think about those big things when youre writing. I learned that much later on. Those kind of intentions tend to capsize the work under their own importance. Theme, for lack of a better term, sort of just has to occur as youre doing the imaginative work.

And the novelists who always appealed to me were the ones doing really fascinating things with language. Burroughs was somebody I read pretty early on, and I was fortunate enough to read Burroughs before Pynchon and Barth and the big postmodernists and it was pretty clear to me that there wouldnt have been a Pynchonian prose without the example set by Burroughs.

Another novelist that was very very influential for me was Joseph McElroy. Hes often talked about in the same category as Pynchon and Barth and Gaddis, etc, but hes not nearly as widely read because I think his fiction is more difficult. But, also, hes not a jokester. His novels can be very funny in their own way, especially his early work, but McElroys work is much more informed by international trends in fiction. He was one of the first American writers to really get what the writers of the nouveau roman were doing, and to apply some of those ideas to a truly American fiction. He was pretty early on one of the writers paying attention to the Latin American boom. Things of that nature. Hes a great writer and a writer that definitely merits being read by more people, in part because his language is so characteristically his own. The language is just so incredible in his work. I dont think I write like him very much at all, really, but he definitely provided a great example because what he was doing was so different than what anybody I had read up to that point had been doing.

Its interesting that you bring up this transition between what drives you to write a novel versus what you have to do to actually write it, but now that youre on the other end how do you feel about the world that youre injecting Nellie into, now that some of those initial concerns have probably resurfaced?

You know, its actually a great time to be writingand also not such a great time to be writing. I think fiction as an art form has gotten very conservative. Thats just largely a function of the big five publishers determining what gets published—or not so much what gets published, but what gets paid attention to. But that is changing and there are lots of independent presses that are doing work that we all know is valuable and is starting to get recognized at a larger level. Its been really interesting to follow the success of, say, Nell Zink. I would imagine there are many people who consider themselves Nell Zink fans but who had no idea Dorothy, her publisher, existed before The Wallcreeper received the mainstream praise that it did. And I would like to think those readers have since looked at other Dorothy publications since they love Zink so much, but I have no idea. But Zink’s case is still pretty encouraging.

So the world is a world in which there is a lot of really great and beautiful and fascinating things being published and the competition for attention is fierce. And there are very few places in terms of outlets for literary coverage that are going to take a chance on something that doesn’t come to them with a certain imprimatur. So, as in most other walks of American life, the rich get richer. Its much easy to write about – and this is not me dissing this writer, its just to take a very recent example – its much easier to write about Mark Z Danielewski than it is about – I dunno – Joshua Cohen or Blake Butler, whose novel 300,000,000 came out last year and got some pre-publication attention but which I havent seen much discussion of since, but maybe thats just me not paying attention. Still, our cultural economy is definitely one of attention more than anything else. Having said all that, thats me observing more as a reader. As a writer I cant really think about it. I almost have to pretend it doesnt matter. But of course it matters. You cant get caught up in it because the game thats being played is such a long game and decisions about what lasts and what gets read and what continues to be part of this ongoing conversation we call literature are made long after were gone. People like Melville are a great example. Melvilles reputation in the 19th century versus today couldnt be more different. And honestly hes still probably as unread today as he was then, but the conversation around him has grown.

Right, people are buying the books anyway, even if theyre not reading them.

They hit the non-fiction-y parts about whaling and theyre like “Wow, I didnt realize I was buying a text book on whaling.But those are some of the most beautiful parts of that book. And that book destroyed his career. And yet now its probably the closest thing we have to the great American novel. So Im appreciative of the fact that I have any readers at all, that the readers that Ive had have been very kind in their reception of Crepuscule W/ Nellie and theyve seemed to understood it, which is incredibly encouraging. And its mattered to them in some way. And thats really all you can hope for.

So yes, when it’s all said and done, I do think now is a truly exciting time to be an author. I think that the excitement that you feel is much more around the idea that there are new ways to engage readers and there are new conversations to be had and that literature is being thought of as something bigger than it has in the more recent past. Fiction’s horizons have definitely expanded… provided you are having the right conversation with the right people!

I want to ask about Imipolex Press, one because this must be a Pynchon thing, and two because Im curious to know a bit about heteronymic literature.

Probably the most famous proponent of heteronymic literature is the Portuguese modernist Fernando Pessoa. And its more than writing under pseudonyms, you actually create a persona -  or personae in the case of Pessoa – and you write in those personae. Sometimes Pessoas personae would get in public disagreements with each other. So the idea behind that project was to create some way to publish work that so that the focus would be trained primarily on the work itself, but without going the route of anonymity. And I think theres also great freedom available to authors when they use heteronyms. In the early 80s, Don DeLillo published a book about a female hockey team under an assumed identity: Amazons, attributed to one Cleo Birdwell. Im not sure how much it was an open secret. But theyre assuming these identities in order to take a certain number of artistic chances. I think in DeLillos case it was mostly about getting paid. But what a strange and fascinating book anyway.

So the press exists to promote that kind of writing?

Sometimes the act of writing is about really stepping outside yourself. So the idea is that in adopting a different persona there may be creative possibilities to investigate that you never suspected were available to you. Imipolex was also a partly response to the idea that, for all the great things about independent publishing and the alternatives it presents to major publishing, theres still a kind of star system in place and name recognition is important. How do you work around that? How do you put the emphasis squarely on the work itself? The use of heteronyms seemed like a nice way to approach that. I think anonymity is something rather different. I think people react very differently to notions of anonymity.

For all the old death of the author talk, we still cling to at least the nominal author.

Right, and one of the other things you see now is the author as celebrity. I mean like real celebrity. Not like Truman Capote, who was more celebrity than author. But people like John Green, who has built his own media mini-empire. My students know about John Green almost as much for his YouTube videos as they do for his books. But, you know, just get on Twitter and track the mentions of certain writers and youll see the same names over and over again. And that’s no dismissal of their works, this is just part things works. And, in my opinion, theres always virtue in exploring ways in which things could be different. Thats not to say that I think heteronymic literature is a solution to anything. Its just an alternative and alternatives are important. Somebody else gets to decide how important that alternative is, Ill just keep trying to draw attention to its existence, however marginal.

Whats the literary scene like in Dallas?

Its actually quite interesting. We now have an independent press here in Dallas, Deep Vellum. They specialize in literary translation. They just recently published the first novel in English by Anne Garrétta, who is one of the few women in the Oulipo. The novel is Sphinx. Thats quite a coup for them. And theyve published some other wonderful stuff, a Russian writer name Mikhail Shishkin, Jón Gnarr from Iceland. And also an independent bookstore opened up here in the last year called The Wild Detectives and its become an incredibly successful venture. Its become the place where everybody reads in Dallas. If youre an author and youre coming through Dallas youre probably going to read at Wild Detectives because theres a built-in audience. Its definitely a place where local writers are hanging out and meeting each other and discovering each other.

We havent talked about The Habiliments yet! Theres a reference to habilimentsin Nellie so I guess theres some kind of continuity here. Habiliments are supposed to be something like fine clothes?

Its just a fancy way of saying your accustomed bearing, almost like a uniform. What youre habituated to, your habitual guise.

The poems from The Habiliments that we’ve published here are all formally linked. Are these formal linkages going on throughout the book?

There are sequences of poems that are versions of each other. And then, also, lets say you were to print them on transparencies – if you were to lay them all on top of each other they would all occupy the same coordinates on the pages. The word that the editors at Apostrophe Books, who are publishing the book, have used is palimpsests. These variations are sequenced in such a way that the reader might have difficulty in saying they move from simple to complex variation. That there is a narrative arc to follow through the poems, say from preliminary draft to final or finished poem. Rather, the poems are just simply variations of each other. Equal, I suppose, in their difference. And that itself is related to a larger notion in the book that in expressed in the individual titles assigned to the poems and those titles’ relationship to recurring dreams. Recurring dreams are always the same but theyre always different, and there really isn’t an ur-dream, at least as I understand it. A dream from which all recurrences spring and which holds the key to interpreting the dream. The only thing you can do with recurring dreams is live through the weirdness they subject you to, and maybe recognize connections and significances after the fact. In that way, recurring dreams resemble grief or some form of trauma, only the dream disassociation is colored by a different set of emotions. Consequently theres a lot of formal and structural play in The Habiliments that reflects an attempt to do render an experience of grief that language alone cannot represent.

You can read excerpts from Crepuscule W/ Nellie over at Berfrois and The Collagist, and Jaded Ibis Press has set up an interactive website which invites readers to explore the novel’s inter- and intra-textuality.

Justin Raden is an editor at Don’t Do It.