Richard Froude Creative Nonfiction Q&A at Naropa University

by Jen Tynes

Thanks to Erik, Richard, and Erik’s MFA class at Naropa for allowing us to share the transcript of this Q&A session with you! In addition to FABRIC, Richard has a new full-length book, The Passenger, out from Skylight Press.  Erik Anderson is the author of The Poetics of Trespass

Q&A: Richard Froude with Erik Anderson’s MFA Creative Nonfiction Class

Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics

Naropa University, 11/18-11/22, 2011

Linda Quennec: It was a pleasure to read FABRIC. I thought that it was a complex and beautiful work. I was wondering about your process in creating this book. Did you have a form in mind or did form follow content in this case? How long was this book in the making? What did it look like in earlier incarnations?

Richard Froude: Thanks, Linda.

I didn’t really have a form in mind when I started. In fact, I didn’t know what the book would look like or how the different writing would fit together. The first part I wrote was Apologies for the Tin Man – I think the most explicitly essay-like part of the book. I had the thought of a book of essays, originally including work I had done on Jabes, Blanchot, the idea of impossible literature etc. But this never really materialized. The next part I wrote was the Dashes which was itself originally its own book – a play in fact, about war and prayer. This, of course, never materialized either and the section that appears as the Dashes is a heavily edited version of that first work. It was only when I started writing Type and Contexture (titles added after the fact) that I understood how the book would take shape. The Dashes then became a kind of hinge between the two major sections of the book (Type and Contexture on one side & Oceanography on the other – with Tin Man as a kind of post script). A hinge? Maybe a mirror. As the work passes through the mirror (The Dashes) it is transformed. Oceanography was written with this in mind, kind of as the the dream of Type and Contexture, the way events and people from waking life appear in dreams, transformed by new context. I wrote Tin Man in fall 07, Dashes in early 08, Type/Contexture summer and fall that year, the Oceanography over a couple of months spring/summer 09. The book was finished August 11 2009, exactly seven years after I left England.

Katelyn Rubenzer: I really enjoyed reading your piece. I am curious about your influences. Are there any works/authors that helped inspire you to create this piece? If so, who are they? What did you take from them?  What had they given you that you didn’t already have in mind?

RF: Thanks, Katelyn. I think it’s easier for me to notice influences now, after the book has been written. When writing, it isn’t often clear to me how my own writing has been shaped by others, but then coming back to it, it can be so easy to see. When writing, I am much more attuned to permission, that is, which books made me realize that I could do things with writing that I didn’t know I could do – permissive texts. For example, when I first starting writing at age 16/17, Kerouac and Ginsberg did this for me, I mean they were the first. As far as FABRIC goes, I think the brevity of the paragraphs, sentences and book as a whole came above all from Richard Brautigan. Edmond Jabes is maybe the most present in the book’s method. The blend of the factual with narrative was something I first encountered in David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Oceanography is heavily influenced by Kenneth Patchen’s Journal of Albion Moonlight (a stunning work. A section of my new book The Passenger called the Surgeon’s Daughter is also a kind of tribute to Patchen’s achievement in Albion Moonlight).

Also, I can’t believe I nearly forgot Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let Me Be Lonely. And in general, reading Renee Gladman, Bhanu Kapil and Selah Saterstrom has allowed me into places I don’t think I would have otherwise gone. I realize I could go into more depth for all of these people but I’d end up writing pages and pages.

Kevin Gunnerson: I was very intrigued by the structure and form of the book. Can you speak a bit as to how that came about. Did you set-out writing with this form in mind, or is it something that you developed during the editing process?

RF: Thanks, Kevin. I think I spoke to some of this in the answer to Linda’s question but there is definitely more. I was saying that the book started to take shape as a book after writing the Type and Contexture sections. I didn’t start these with a specific form in mind but Type did began with questions. I mean, the question as form, and as propellant. I began with a question, answered it, allowing it to lead to another question, answered that and on and on. So the original opening was: “What are windows? They are gaps in the bodies of houses. What are doors? They are the means by which we enter. What is … etc. etc.” This was at the peak of my own discovery of Jabes and the question as motor. As I edited the work, many of the questions that were there in the writing were cut to leave only the answers. Some remain, e.g. “What is night? What is 1982?” They were like a scaffold on which the work was created. Once it could hold its own weight, most were no longer needed. The working title of FABRIC  was Windows Cut Into. So I suppose, to answer the your question, the form and structure evolved during writing and editing. This is how it has always happened for me.

Melanie Klug: In Jess Stoner’s review she writes: ” FABRIC  is a mapping, a textual rendering, of how neural impulses bound across synapses, empty space, to communicate and create.” I found this description amazing and accurate. Once I read that you are entering pre-med school, it took on a new (and not coincidental) comprehensive meaning to your work. I also agreed with this bit in Stoner’s review: “If we read FABRIC again, we realize that it is only in not understanding that we create a space for understanding.” (Although, I think this is evident in the first reading.) So I am wondering if this is how you see your work: creating a space for the reader to understand that there is really only space, only new beginnings. Space created by questioning. Does this concept fuel your interest in medicine? And if so, how will it influence your approach to medicine and how you write about it? (although, I feel that you are already writing about it!) (And with all this curiosity about the Tin Man, are you interested in becoming a heart surgeon?)

RF: Hi Melanie. Thank you. Jess Stoner is short for Jessica Stoner. Her amazing novel is out in February. I highly recommend it.

Yes, the question carries absence. It is incomplete so as such must include absence, or space, or the unknown. To complete the question (to answer it) is to destroy it. And in that act of destruction is birthed a new question. So, yes, a new beginning. Is dying the completion of the question of your own life? I don’t know. But I do know that to die is to be born into death, and to be born is to die into life. These, our points of transition with the unknown, entering and leaving the world. The place where these things happen more often than anywhere else is the hospital.

Concurrently, medicine takes the tangible, the known – a field of immense knowledge – and it connects it with something we cannot understand. It places the zenith of human understanding in contact with mystery. And really, as much as it may be to ask, this is all I have ever wanted poetry, writing, language to do. So for me, these are the same project. The difference is poetry is the world reaching towards you, medicine (or science in general) is you reaching to toward the world (I think).

I don’t think I’ll end up as a heart surgeon, but really who knows? I thought I was coming to the US to go to Naropa for 2 years and then I’d go back to UK. That was nearly 10 years ago.

Jeannie Carlson: After reading FABRIC and Rob McLennan’s 3-8-11 interview, the aspect of your writing that engages me most involves your questions regarding God, death and existence. That you are embarking on a new quest to become a physician suggests another avenue of pursuing these same questions. Do you anticipate that the study of medicine will add another dimension to these questions? The more you understand the mechanics, do you feel that this knowledge/experience will aid in connecting to the engineer? Do you expect these studies to color your writing, and, if so, in what way(s)?

RF: Jeannie, yes, absolutely, the questions in the end are still the same: what is the situation of my existence? How has this situation come about? Art is the capacity to express this situation. Science is the capacity to describe it. Are these the same thing? No. But they are very similar. What is the difference between expression and description? I think of it in these terms: what would I do to express sadness? What would I do to describe sadness? Or instead of sadness, the color red. Or instead of red, your childhood. This sounds like a writing exercise. Every day that I learn something new, the world expands, and I am writing in a larger world where there are fewer closed doors. Still, this world is dominated by mystery. I don’t know how I will be changed by these experiences. Whatever knowledge is accrued, the mystery remains overwhelming and perfect. I don’t know how my writing will change but I am very interested to see. Thank you.

Rachel Newlon: I know that you have very little interest in genre or labeling of your writing.  How then would you respond to someone classifying FABRIC as New Prose?  How would you respond to the comment that this piece was “lean & less ambitious than prose meditations”?

I wondered why you added “Prelude to the Last American Book” to the title?

I think the conversation around nonfiction is changing for the better and is now more interesting to me than poetry – What types of conversations are being had around non-fiction and what are they saying that interests you?

How often do you write?  Do you have a specific routine that you follow (words per day, writing space, etc.)?

RF: Thanks, Rachel. I’m not sure what the New Prose is, but I think the person who said this grouped my work with Jenny Boully’s, and if that is the case then I’m going to take it as a compliment. The book is certainly lean. I’m not sure which prose meditations are being referred to, but my ambition with writing has always been pretty simple: to express the situation of my own existence. “Preludes to the Last American Book” was to be the full title. It draws on two other book titles: Amiri Baraka’s “Preface to 26 Volume Suicide Note,” and Wallace Stevens’ “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction.” I wanted the sense that this book was preparation for something else, that there was an unattainable book that would end books, complete the question, if you will. FABRIC is clearly not that book, but just to suggest that this book (or even the idea of this book) might exist – that is exciting to me. I think “nonfiction” at the moment is an interesting place largely because nobody really knows what it is. We know that it is not-fiction. That’s really the only qualifier. So we can make it whatever we want it to be. And those questions/conversations, like the one we are having now, basically concerning what we can be achieved in this unknown territory – they are very interesting to me.

I don’t write very often. I mean actually coming up with a bit of a book doesn’t happen very often. I haven’t “written” anything for a couple of months. But I think about it all the time. And I make little notes. When it feels right I start writing them down into something coherent. People tell you to write every day and have special rooms and desks and stuff. That’s great if it works for you. I tried. I made a desk with pictures I like and all that. And I’d sit at the desk every day looking at the pictures and writing nothing.

Kristine Crandall: In the interview with Rob McClellan you mention that you love to take notes. I’m curious about the role and process of research and note taking for FABRIC — what kinds of notes did you take (e.g. thoughts/observations from daily life or memories, notes from classes or presentations, notes from books you were reading and/or other sources you were exploring) and was there a specific question or other trigger that prompted the note taking (or is it something you are always doing)? Did this process solely precede the writing, or also join in/collaborate with it?

RF: Thank you, Kristine. Yes, all of those things. Really anything that occurs to me as interesting. The way a few words go together. Something I remember that seems important. Something I learn that fits in with what I have been thinking about, or something that really doesn’t. Here’s an example of an email I sent to myself about the book I’m currently thinking about (the third in the FABRIC series). I often write notes by sending myself emails, text messages so I don’t lose the notes:

“1. when disneyland opened, entry to the park was refused to guests with beards. all of the men wear beards now. some of the women too. and many of those who are not men or women but themselves. the idea of removing hair from our bodies seems as ridiculous as burning the wood we have.

2. all of these things that could have destroyed us but didn’t: CFCs, Alamo project and nuclear war, etc. we were destroyed by something simple and painless.

3. churchill in the year of silent ice”

This pretty much is my practice of writing. All of these notes are aiming towards what the finished book will be. Lots of the notes come nowhere near the finished thing. They are all ways to try and solve problems, ways to realize the book. They try things out. See if they work. See if they go anywhere.

Michealle Gibson: I was very interested to read in some reviews that you were yourself strongly influenced by Renee Gladman.  I wondered whether you would be willing to speak about the ways you feel Gladman’s writing has inspired your own?

RF: Michealle, thanks. When I first read Juice by Renee Gladman, I had never read a book like that. I’d had ideas about poetic prose – or more specifically, a kind of writing that did not break lines but in which the language itself was central. This was, of course, not an original idea of mine. Juice was the first book that I read that was doing this in a way that felt new, and felt current. It opened everything up for me. I wanted to write like Renee Gladman in the way that I wanted to write like Jack Kerouac when I was 17. And now, I don’t think I do write like Renee Gladman (or Jack Kerouac) but what is important is that the book showed me that what I was thinking of could be done. I spoke about permissive texts earlier. Juice was a hugely permissive text for me. I still get chills when I read the beginning section of that book. I was 24 when I first read it, a Naropa MFA student in 2003. I met Renee Gladman in 2009 and told her all of this, albeit much less articulately. I picked her up at Denver airport. On the way I got a speeding ticket. At baggage claim, before she got off the plane, I met voice of the Dodgers Vin Scully. Then we drove back to town.

Dale Howard: I’ve two questions for you. One is on writing and one is more personal. Question the 1st: after you had published FABRIC did you feel a sense of liberation (in any sense of the word) and if so, would the feeling be different if you had finished the book bit never published? Question the 2nd: I’m an esl teacher and I often hear my students talk about homesickness. The ones that have traveled extensively usually say that Denver is the place where they feel the most homesickness. I also felt while reading FABRIC and other interviews that you feel the same way about Denver. The question is what is it about Denver and Colorado in general that crates such powerful feelings of loneliness or homesickness?

RF: It felt good to have FABRIC come out. No doubt. Something I had made was going to meet the world. That is great. Finishing writing a book feels good. It feels good when it is published and it feels good when people read it and you get to have conversations like this about something that began in your head as a variety of obsessions. But publishing is not a guarantee, nor is it a meaningful validation of your talent, expertise, achievement etc. Lots of bad books get published. Lots of great books (and writers) remain unpublished. I think it has as much to do with luck and trends as it does anything else. My point is: the most important thing is the writing (by which I mean the thinking etc.). For me, that is the most satisfying part of it. And that is why I continue to do it.

That’s funny about Denver. I was talking to a friend who said she felt that Denver was a transition place. Like a huge departure lounge where everybody is on their way somewhere else. But the thing is I’ve lived in Colorado for a combined total of nearly 7 years. I’ve lived in my current apartment longer than I have lived anywhere except the house I grew up in. It kind of is my home now, so it becomes the place that I feel everything from. The most homesick I’ve ever been was when I lived in Hollywood. I think Los Angeles is the loneliest city in the world. But I also love a lot about it.

Rachel Melville: I was wondering if you had a lot of readers while working on FABRIC  and if so, did you give the book in the form that it is currently in? I tried to do a piece similar to what you and Maggie Nelson’s Bluet and found the process very… involved.  I also wonder if you generally have a group of individuals that you share work in progress with– particularly with work that is fragmented as this is? It would seem to me that the work could be misconstrued from the vision since it isn’t complete.

On an unrelated note, what sort of books do you read for enjoyment? (ie fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc) and who are your favorite authors? Do you feel that your works are inspired by reading their work?

RF: Thanks, Rachel. A lot of people read different sections of FABRIC at different times – a lot of it was written while I was on the DU PhD program, so others in workshops saw it. This was kind of a weird case because I’ll never write a book again with that kind of workshop exposure. The next book I wrote, CAST, was my PhD dissertation which was read by my whole committee, especially during the writing by Laird Hunt, Bin Ramke, and Selah Saterstrom. I worked very closely with Selah during that writing. That book would never have happened were it not for her. She was really the only person that saw many of the drafts of sections. Generally though, I don’t have many readers for work in progress. Not that I think it’s a bad thing, it’s just worked out that way for me.

I read lots of different books. I haven’t read a book a for enjoyment for a few months, but I have spent a lot of time with a Chemistry textbook. Not so fun. Over Christmas break I’m planning to read I Go To Some Hollow by Amina Cain, Schizophrene by Bhanu Kapil, Light in August by William Faulkner, and Organic Chemistry as a Second Langauge by David Klein. I think the author I get the most enjoyment out of reading is Richard Brautigan. I love TV shows. So much of how I figured out the character of the Sovereign in CAST came from watching Twin Peaks.

Erik Anderson: We were talking a little bit last week about the urgency in FABRIC (or at least I was), and I wondered if you wouldn’t mind speaking to that a little bit…What I mean is: this work feels necessary, right down to the sentence level. Like it was imperative you write it. Can you talk about the particulars of that condition? Or rather, the particulars of writing out of that condition?

RF: Yes. I want to think briefly of two Williams poems: The Young Sycamore and that old chestnut The Red Wheelbarrow. Eleni directed me to this more than a few years ago, but the urgency with which these poems open is really what makes them poems, or maybe what makes them interesting poems. In the Young Sycamore: “I must tell you / this young tree …” and the famous opening “So much depends upon …” I MUST tell you. SO MUCH depends upon. The imperative. The necessity of the work’s existence. I suppose that is what I am interested in – writing that must exist. By that I mean something that the originator feels must be articulated, must be expressed, must arise from them. If I read something and it does not feel important that the work was brought into existence then I lose interest pretty quickly. Maybe that sounds very obvious. I think writing that arises from obsession cannot avoid this urgency. And I realize something I wrote in an interview sums up what I mean better than I can otherwise say: “What matters? Well, do you feel something deeply and powerfully? Does it frighten or overwhelm you? Does it fill you with joy, dread, love, compassion etc.? Does it feel like premonition? Does it not leave you alone? If the answer to any of these questions is yes then it probably matters.” If it matters, urgency follows. I think all of this can be applied to Akutagawa too, but that would maybe be a whole essay.

Angela Stubbs: When you sat down to write this work, how did you envision (if at all) the pieces/moments in this text coming together? I wondered if your aim as you wrote was to have a thread in the fabric that connected the reader, albeit distantly to recurring ideas, things, themes, etc or if those occurences/recurrences were just happenstance–just a part of your process of things coming up again in the writing as you went along?

I also wanted to ask you about the various sections of the book. When you first set out to write this, did you think/know in advance that you’d want to have the text divided up into various sections to tell the story or was it after, in the editing process that it became apparent/necessary to provide this structure to the book to properly represent your thoughts and put them on the page for the reader?

RF: Angela, thanks. Recurrences always begin for me by accident, and from these accidents the secondary obsessions of the text emerge. That is, the obsessions that are perhaps unknown in the act of writing (the known being possibly the primary obsessions). Anyway, once these are revealed then I think that connections can become more intentional on my part; however, I am sure there are connections within FABRIC that I did not consciously intend to make and that I am totally unaware of, yet they exist and are a part of the work. So really, any thread or connection I might begin with will change during writing. What is there in the finished text is something I have only partial control over. Aim becomes action becomes submission.

The structure of FABRIC is very important to me and I think to the book itself. Without that organization (and given the nature of the writing) the whole thing would be a mess. Regarding how it came about, I don’t think there’s much more I can say other than my responses to Linda’s and Kevin’s questions. It definitely arose during writing/editing and not before. If I can add to that then it is to say this: be as open as possible to the form/structure that the book needs to take.

Carla Campbell: After reading your book FABRIC there were so many things that came to mind.. The first thing that came to mind was poet. I thought of this as poetry. Now, that I have read your interview with Rob McLennan I see that you do not consider yourself a poet but as a writer without limits. I am curious to know what is it about the conversations around poetry that excites you the most and what is it about the conversation of nonfiction is changing for the better.

In your book you have addressed numerous thoughts that humans have regarding life, and death God, faith and doubt. You have cleverly addressed this in your book. Do you think that writers today are discerning regarding things that matter in today’s culture?

RF: Hello, Carla. I don’t think it is at all wrong to think of FABRIC as poetry. I am generally (with notable exceptions) not so much interested in poetry that looks like (or more importantly, behaves like) we would expect poetry to. These expectations can be burdensome, and I feel that the great attraction to nonfiction for me is that there are fewer and slighter expectations of what a work of nonfiction looks like or how it operates. There is the daytime TV idea that a nonfiction work must be 100% true, as if the idea that something could be 100% true were not completely meaningless, but aside from that there is very little consensus on what constitutes the form, or whether it even is a form at all, which really I hope it isn’t. The way I am talking about this sounds like nonfiction as a temporary refuge from generic classification. And maybe that is all it can be, temporary. But even temporary, that is a gift.

It’s hard for me to talk about what writers today are doing because there are so many writers with different approaches and concerns and venues. I think that maybe more than ever there are people addressing difficult and meaningful things in writing, and that writing is more and more available publicly.

Linda Quennec: Do you think that the work within FABRIC will one day connect to or expand into something else, perhaps something closer to what you had planned, or are you on to other rather different projects now?

RF: Yes, definitely. FABRIC is the first of three connected books. I finished the second one (called Cast, for now) and am working on the third now. It seems unlikely that these three will fit together in the way I originally saw. Maybe though. I think of everything I write as continuous, as chapters in one larger work. When I started writing things that didn’t fit, I started to use a fake author name for those writings to keep them separate. My new book The Passenger that is out in December/January is writing that was done before FABRIC, so it fits in before even though it will be published after.

Katleyn Rubenzer: What caused you write this book? Is there one situation you can recall that really made you want to write this book? Or was it a series of events, people, and/or ideas?

RF: I don’t think there’s one situation. If there is then it is finding myself alive. Consciousness is a situation, but there isn’t one isolated person/event/idea that triggered the writing. There are for different elements of the book, for example the Dashes section came from wanting to write about my great grandfather who was killed in the first World War, but not knowing how to. Strangely enough, it was when I thought about Dock Ellis pitching his 1970 no hitter while on LSD that I realized how I could attempt it. Part of what Ellis said is in the book as a lead in to the Dashes section. What was so important to me was that he was able to maintain focus on the task in hand without trying to fend off the effects of the hallucinogen, that is, he persisted with what he was doing while still letting everything in. He didn’t try to push things out. If he had resisted, things would have fallen apart. So, I kept a focus on the war, but allowed anything else to enter what I was writing.

Kristine Crandall: You mentioned recurrences and that they aren’t typically planned, rather turning into secondary obsessions. When you “try out” the notes, do you look for recurrences or other kinds of connections, though?

RF: I guess I don’t really look for them but I am excited when they arise. I’m talking about connections, recurrences (I think) being a kind of connection. With enough time, organization, or will, you can find connections between any number of things, no matter how discrete they initially appear. This is how we perceive the world: building a full picture from fragments of sensory input. It is also what we call narrative: bridging gaps, or even just the acknowledgement that the gap exists. A gap is a connection. It just exists as a lack of connection, but once that lack is established the connection is formed – a connection by dissimilitude. I just had to look up dissimilitude to make sure I was using it correctly and yes, I am, that is what I mean. The “trying out” is to see if the notes or the relationships that arise remain interesting to me.