Breaking Open the Head: An Interview with David David Katzman

George Salis: Your novel, A Greater Monster, seems to focus more on language and imagery than plot. Was this a conscious choice?

David David Katzman: Everything about A Greater Monster is quite literally an equal blend of conscious and unconscious decisions split nearly equally down the middle. It took me seven years to write the book and for roughly the first half of that time, I wrote by hand in notebooks in what Robert Olen Butler calls a “writer’s trance” generating the raw material of the story. I allowed my imagination free reign to stream. I did not judge or guide the material. I followed mood, tone, and style rather than plot. I visualized tableaux in my mind three dimensionally, rotating them in space and moving them forward and backward in time rather than planning or plotting what might happen in those scenes. If anything, that is probably what has led you to feel that language and imagery was more of the focus than plot.

And yet, by the end of approximately 3½ to 4 years, I saw the entire story assemble itself in my head. I saw it like a spiderweb, all the scenes connecting in complex patterns. All the major plot events had happened organically, and I saw the essential elements of the timeline from beginning to end. At that point, I made a huge, physical map of the scenes that I had written, connecting them with a flowchart of sorts, planning out the sequence. Then I finally moved everything to the computer and began editing. At that point, what is typically called plot, or the sequence of events, became significant. I rearranged and connected, revised and refined. Combined characters and scenes and so on. I went through fourteen drafts from beginning to end, and each time discovered new connections and hidden revelations. In short, I began editing, which was a rational process whereas the story itself came about through my unconscious thinking. Each draft became tighter and tighter until in the final draft I was focused purely on words and individual sentences.

There were times throughout the process that I thought of the plot as more of a melody rather than something concrete. It was essential, because without it all you have is chaos. I did not want chaos, but I wanted to represent that idea of the psychedelic. Something that breaks barriers rather than builds them. So in that regard, I tried to prevent the controlling mind from taking over the story and instead shape it as best I could to do justice to my imagination and the abstract idea of imagination itself.

GS: The protagonist of A Greater Monster eats a gelatinous drug offered to him by a homeless man. From there, all brain breaks loose. Have you ever walked through the doors of perception, as it were, for the sake of art, or is everyday consciousness enough?

DDK: I have in the past walked through the doors of perception for both fun and profit. Not particularly for art. Although I do believe that having psychedelic experiences in my youth opened those doors of creativity wider and allowed me to have a greater imagination. Some of what I experienced during my actual trips was fodder for A Greater Monster, but that was never the point. I didn’t want the book to be about psychedelic experiences, I wanted it to be psychedelic. Reading a dream itself is kind of boring…unless it’s very short. But reading a book that is a dream, now that sounds pretty interesting to me. I wanted A Greater Monster to be closer to a performance, in a sense. An experience. Something more than a book. Something that breaks down walls and barriers, which is the central meaning to me of “psychedelic.”

GS: Who or what is the greatest monster?

DDK: Exactly.

GS: Your art (which can be purchased on Etsy) is described as psychedelic and abstract. In a way, your writing could be described similarly. What do these adjectives mean to you in relation to what you do? What value do you find in them?

DDK: Two questions back, I described what I mean by psychedelic. Of course, there is also the surface meaning of trippy and surreal. That is present too. And I enjoy art and fiction that is psychedelic in that sense. But it’s the other meaning that I think is more important. Daniel Pinchbeck wrote a very strange book about his trips on DMT and ayahuasca called Breaking Open the Head. It’s a pretty fascinating book even if rather nuts at times—Pinchbeck has some absurd beliefs much like Timothy Leary did about mystical underpinnings of the psychedelic experience—but that aside, I love that title. To me the great value of the psychedelic is the opportunity to open one’s mind to imagination and creativity and even more importantly in this day and age, to be open to “otherness.” Our society right now is so driven and controlled by greed and fear and demonization of “the other.” Trump is a pure example of this toxic egoism and terror. The turning inward of the self to see the nihilism and nothingness at the core of being. He and those who support his hatred of “the other” can’t confront their own self-hatred and alienation and the lack of meaning in their lives so they turn “the other” into a monster instead of confronting the monster inside themselves. A personal psychedelic experience, I believe, has the power to open up the mind, to break open the head as Pinchbeck says, and to recognize that there are ways to live that are possible that don’t depend on cruelty and competition and stepping on others nor the brutal machine of capitalism that is driving us to the precipice of the fall of civilization as caused by global warming.

Abstract or concrete, realism or fantasy. I’m not sure those have specific relevance to me. If anything, we’re seeing how moldable what is believed to be truth and reality is right now. Trump personifies Ignorance is Strength. George Orwell was a prophet, that is clear. Trump won because propaganda had more power in a few key places (those states in the electoral college that he needed to win) than common sense. I feel like apocalyptic fantasy is probably the most relevant genre to reality at our moment on Earth, and that shows the paradox of fiction. We’re also witnessing the accuracy and truth of Wittgenstein’s view of philosophy, in his later years. He said there is no absolute meaning or truth. Everything comes back to language. Philosophy is linguistic, a parsing of what words mean. So when we battle for what we believe is truth, it’s not about facts, it is about battling worldviews. Right now we clearly seeing battling worldviews.

I generally believe that most religions have done a good job of leading us to this Orwellian media reality by promoting “faith” as something valuable and meaningful rather than something delusional. If religions say “faith” is worthwhile, and you can believe a book that describes magical events like walking on water actually happened then why not believe that God put those bones in the earth 10,000 years ago instead of believing in the science of carbon dating? Why not believe Trump works for God because he is getting anti-abortion judges in place and global warming is a liberal scam to destroy the economy? Why not? They have faith!

GS: How do dreams or mythologies inform your work?

DDK: The writer’s trance that created my raw material could equally be called a waking dream. Sleeping dreams have never particularly influenced me in any way, but that waking dream was a Zen creative state that allowed my unconscious mind to spill onto the page.

Mythologies have always inspired and interested me. If anything, they were probably material that percolated in my unconscious mind from having read so much of it since childhood.

GS: What or who have been the major sources of influence on your artistic creation?

DDK: Naked Lunch was less an influence than a great inspiration to me. I felt Burroughs’s words burn like fire when I read them and that power really affected me. And at the same time, Naked Lunch was so uncompromisingly original and unapologetic that I admired and was inspired by his implacable truth-telling. He didn’t “write for an audience.” He didn’t write to be popular. He put life on a fork and stuck it in the reader’s face. After Burroughs, Proust was inspirational as well. There is one scene that is a bit of an homage to Proust. I was reading Swann’s Way when I was writing the character in A Greater Monster that is a giant squid. One of the things that I love about Swann’s Way is how by spending so many pages and pages of words and lavishing the most intricate detail upon the smallest facets of existence that you are left with the inescapable fact that it is impossible to describe reality because the closer you get to it, the further it slips away. You could spend an eternity describing a dust mote, and its is-ness would still remain uncaptured. Only experience describes reality and barely that. I also love how Proust’s realism is so detailed that it spills over into the surreal…as if looking at reality too closely reveals the space between the electrons and the nucleus, and that matter is just energy and what is energy again exactly?

Beyond fiction, many artists have actually been an inspiration to me. The entire pop surrealism or low-brow genre of art is a long-time passion of mine. Artists like Mark Ryden, Todd Schorr, Camille Rose Garcia, Camilla d’Errico, MARS-1, Tara McPherson, Alex Grey, Ron English, Joe Coleman, Greg Simkins, Robert Williams, Shepard Fairey, and Shag. And street artists like Banksy, Os Gemeos, Swoon, and more. There are so many. I’ve been collecting Juxtapoz Magazine since issue one and love every issue. There are several scenes in A Greater Monster that arose from staring at paintings by both Ryden and Schorr. I think they were more inspirational than any other writers were.

GS: Can you tell me about the process you use to create your drawings and portraits?

DDK: For my abstract drawings, I start with an initial vision of one or more aspects of a creation. I need to have a starting point in mind. First I decide what size paper I want to work on. The size of the paper itself shapes my idea. From there I feel out any number of elements of it such as: how many initial points or shapes will I mark on the page? Where will I place them? How might they grow as I layer around them? Is there a general color scheme? Sometimes I have one in mind, sometimes I don’t. It really depends on what hooked me for that particular piece. I’m usually also trying to think of something that I haven’t tried before. Each piece is an experiment. Once I have my starting point, I then organically build up layer upon layer. I circle each point with a new marker. I never use the same marker twice in any of my drawings. I use the subtleties of the curves and bumps of each new form to shape the next outward circle. It’s almost like sculpting but always building outward. I use my instincts as I draw to vary the colors, line thicknesses, ink transparency/opaqueness and density to create tension and vibrancy. Sometimes I have only one single shape building on a page. Other works have multiple shapes building simultaneously. As the shapes approach each other or as the single shape approaches the edge of the paper, I begin to warp and mold them so that the shapes will kiss each other without overlapping. It becomes quite tricky sometimes as they get close because it’s not sketched out. The whole drawing process is very meditative for me. I just let it happen.

Portrait of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
18″ x 24″, markers on archival paperstock

My portraits are obviously more planned. I start from a photo and sketch a likeness of the face in pencil on the paper. Then, I block out separate areas of the face with a color focus and tonality. I begin by drawing the edge of each of those areas in marker and then with a process that is the opposite of how I do my abstract work, I draw my forms inward rather than outward while maintaining a consistent tonal palette for each area.

GS: You call yourself an “obsessive creator.” In what ways are you obsessive?

DDK: I become very anxious if I haven’t worked on my creative projects for more than a few days. I start going through panic and withdrawals if I’m not creating. I think that probably qualifies as obsessive.

GS: With regard to your work, what is the relationship between art and science? I assume you do not see them as non-overlapping magisteria, to borrow Stephen Jay Gould’s phrase.

DDK: I’m fascinated by many aspects of science ,especially physics, evolution, and genetics. By far my greatest interests are quantum physics, relativity, and cosmology. The strangeness, abstract qualities, ambiguities, and the many mysterious unknowns that live within our current theories have always been inspirational to me. Thinking about quantum physics was partially responsible for helping me to discover my current style of art. And it was also embedded in the background, thrumming through A Greater Monster when I wrote. Science and how any individual thinks or doesn’t think about it has an effect on how we view reality itself. It’s an element of our worldview and in that regard any writer or artist who tries to express something about the world, who does an authentic job of attempting to be truthful, is going to reflect something about science if only in the background. It’s implied one way or another in how you reflect your view of life. Science is a process of attempting to understand how reality works. And when done authentically, so is art.

Featured image: Waves (All Things Are Alive 15) 36″ x 24″, markers on archival cardstock

David David Katzman (who really really has the same first and middle names) has a Bachelor’s degree in English literature from The Ohio State University and a Master’s in English lit from University of Wisconsin-Madison. His second novel, A Greater Monster, received a Gold Medal for “Outstanding Book of the Year” in 2012 Independent Publisher Book Awards, was a National Indie Excellence Book Award finalist, and was named a “Top 10 Book of 2012” by Common Ills blog. It was also praised by Jeff VanderMeer who described it as “…a really cool read. And beautifully designed, too.” His drawings have been twice selected to appear in the Surreal Salon annual show at the Baton Rouge Gallery – Center for Contemporary Art. He has also been an actor, performing in theater, improv and film throughout the Chicago area.

George Salis is the award-winning author of Sea Above, Sun Below (forthcoming from River Boat Books, 2019). His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineThe Sunlight Press, Unreal Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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