Joe Milazzo in Conversation with Brandon Hobson
BH: CREPISCULE WITH NELLIE has a really Gaddis-like structure to it in terms of sections full of dialogue. Nellie's voice, for example, is done really well. Can you discuss why you structured the book this way, and how you were able to maintain her voice through the book?
JM: The short answer to this question is: architectonics. That is to say, the book is, in a very primary sense, an ekphrasis on Thelonious Monk's music. Composing Crepuscule W/ Nellie was also an exercise in making those ekphrastic choices work within the constraints of the novel. How to move the story forward via character and conflict while respecting the more overtly poetic textures that readers associated with the ekphrastic (perhaps itself an inherently synaesthetic genre)? Very early on, it became apparent to me that the various voices in the novel were behaving not unlike timbres and cadences and registers and pitches within an ensemble. Because it asks the reader to direct such close attention to language-as-spoken -- both in all that it says and in all that it cannot communicate -- Gaddis was a writer whose work provided a model for how I might orchestrate my own novel. I would also acknowledge that Gaddis' The Recognitions is, in my opinion, the definitive novel of the 1950s. As Crepuscule W/ Nellie is very much a novel of the 50s itself, and as I have no direct experience of that decade, The Recognitions (as well as many other texts) provided a point of entry for the milieus I wanted my novel to explore. Nellie's voice in particular, though... that's a more difficult question to answer. I suppose my answer must circle back around to ekphrasis again. Nellie is a character who came to me through my own listening. Not so much to music, but to members of my own family, the various communities of which I've been a part, and, I suppose, certain aspects of myself. I am not African-American, nor am I a woman. But, like Nellie, I know what it means to be a caregiver. Ultimately, although some readers way be undecided as to how much agency Nellie has (mush less how well she uses that agency), my experience of her was one of surrender. The minute she would appear in my imagination -- whatever that means -- I wanted to do nothing more than listen to her talk... even if she was only talking to herself. Writing Crepuscule W/ Nellie was, in many ways, a process of making sure I heard Nellie clearly and stayed as true as I possibly could to what she had to tell. If I may, I'd like to ask you a question about your own Desolation of Avenues Untold. There are these wonderful chapters in the book that I will call, for lack of a better terms, "eavesdroppings." We are presented with unmediated dialogic exchanges, sometimes involving characters to whom we've been introduced, but just as often between individuals who never achieve the status of character elsewhere in the novel. My question is -- and it is also a question for myself -- is who is listening in these chapters? Simply the reader? Or some other entity / entities?
BH: I guess the simple answer is the reader. I was interested in doing something structurally to explore the themes of paranoia, rumor, absurdity, particularly in random situations, which is why many of those dialogic exchanges are so weird. The idea that a famous private sex film is floating around a mythical place like Desolate City is absurd enough, but I wanted to show life in DC on a distant scope, if that makes any sense. Structurally, these little meditations are supposed to offer interludes, as in: while everyone is so interested in finding this private film, these two guys are more concerned about smoking dope and discussing which Crowded House album is the best, etc. Manuel Puig's dialogue sort of inspired these scenes. I'm not sure I pulled it off, though. I'm not sure I pulled any of it off. One thing I wanted to say about NELLIE is that you really nailed the voice throughout the book. How hard was it to maintain--or did it come easily? I'm intrigued with the language and dialect. Was this one of the forces that impelled the book?
JM: Manuel Puig! No, those are some of my favorite parts of the book; they bring so much texture to the world of Desolate City, which I often envisioned as some hybrid of Herriman's Coconino County (Krazy Kat) and Twin Peaks -- the latter not so much for its overtly surreal elements, but for feeling like a place unusually unmoored in time. "Authentic" is a word that often feels problematic to me in discussions of fiction, but those conversations also feel very authentic to me in their early-AM (post Adult-Swin) philosophizing. I also like the idea of the reader as a ghost or angel rather than spy, drifting through these spaces and occurrences without any agenda. As to Nellie's voice and the language the book employs: I would say it took quite a bit of time and effort for me to learn how to hear Nellie's voice. I had the voices of family members and friends and acquaintances in mind, and, while those actual voices were like microphones I could train upon the Nellie I was trying to imagine, those voices / microphones also introduced their own notes of distortion. To be more concrete: Nellie was much more overtly "Southern" in earlier drafts, largely because my own experience has been grounded in East Texas' weird Confederate obsessions (I grew up next to an elementary school named after General Lee, for goodness' sake). So writing Nellie, or accessing her voice, became a matter of forgetting certain aspects of my own life. Disassociating myself "into" her. I do think Nellie retains a vestigial Southern-ness, but I'd also like to think that, in getting that tonality "right," Nellie is also in full possession (i.e., is mindful of) the complicated relationship she has to her Southern-ness. At some point in this process, I realized, of course, that Nellie -- and all of these characters -- have multiple voices. That every single one of them was a master (more accurately, believed or hoped themselves to be a master) of their own modulations, inflections and private rhetorics. The more I wrote Nellie in particular, the more I became attuned to her code-switching: Nellie performing herself, or her various selves, through her language. And from that insight emerged much of what counts as plot in the book, at least from my perspective. As one of CRESPUSCULE W/ NELLIE's readers, I cannot separate the book's many conflicts from the way in which its various discourses -- Nellie's, Monk's, The Baronness', Bean's -- collide. Does the book over-indulge in those discourses? Probably; I've always loved the particular ways in which jazz vernacular alludes and elides, thwarts interpretation and offers entry to an "inner circle." CRESPUSCULE W/ NELLIE is also a kind of ekphrasis. If it succeeds as such, I'd like to think that the prose in the novel improvises its own kind of jazz rather than simply describing or expositing upon a music whose reverberant spaces are largely exterior to the book. Another question re: DESOLATION? Did you "research this book in so far that you read other novels about film and cinematic culture? Or: what were your primary influences in imagining the cinematic content of this novel?
BH: I relied mostly on my imagination. I think the hard thing about it was the structure. I had the chapters numbered with short annotations and arranged them on my desk, then rearranged them. I kept doing that until I found a pattern I liked. I’m not sure if it works. I mean I hope it works. I sort of rely on inspiration and spiritual stuff, which is maybe another topic. What books would you say inspire your work? Is there one particular book that inspired NELLIE?
JM: Inspirations... probably too many to name. I think the biggest inspiration -- and, in some ways, the one that exerted the most diffuse or atmospheric influence over Crepuscule W/ Nellie -- is Gaddis' The Recognitions. I relied on my memories of that novel to help me imagine the mise en scène of 1950s Manhattan, and, certainly, Gaddis' approach to dialogue is all over whatever music is to be heard in how I let the various voices in my books play against one another. Structurally, Crepuscule W/ Nellie owes a great deal to John Hawkes The Beetle Leg, which is one of the first books I ever remember reading which really deployed cinematic montage techniques in the service of literary suspense. From the canon of so-called "jazz novels," I drew the most inspiration from John Clellon Holmes The Horn (still a brave work of the sympathetic imagination) and from all the volumes of Nathaniel Mackey's From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate. The latter is a work of art that, to quote Duke Ellington, is truly "beyond category," and encouraged me to push the prose in Crepuscule W/ Nellie past its own notions of narrative.
BH: I like the idea of a book pushing beyond category very much.
Joe Milazzo is a writer, editor, educator, and designer. He is the author of the novel Crepuscule W/ Nellie (Jaded Ibis Press) and The Habiliments (Apostrophe Books), a volume of poetry. His writings have appeared in Black Clock, Black Warrior Review, BOMB, The Collagist, Drunken Boat, Tammy, and elsewhere. He co-edits the online interdisciplinary arts journal [out of nothing], is a Contributing Editor at Entropy, curates the Other People’s Poetry reading series, and is also the proprietor of Imipolex Press. Joe lives and works in Dallas, TX, where he was born and raised.
Brandon Hobson is the author, most recently, of Desolation of Avenues Untold. He has won a Pushcart Prize, and his work has appeared in such places as Conjunctions, NOON, The Paris Review Daily, The Believer, Post Road, and elsewhere. You can read more here: http://brandonhobson.com