George Salis: Your first story collection, The Hungry Girls and Other Stories (Cadmus Editions, 1989), is scheduled to be republished by Tough Poets Press later this year. The Kickstarter has already surpassed its funding goal. What can you tell me about this collection and how does it feel to bring it out into the world again?
Patricia Eakins: In the long ago when I wrote these stories, I was disturbed by the belief many seemed to hold that animals have no conscious life and no feelings. I had only to look at my cat to know that was not true. I was a firm believer in a continuum of consciousness, and the stories reflect that. Now that the book is about to be republished, anyone can see that it will be reborn into a very different era. It has become commonplace to believe that animals think and feel. The relativity of religions reflected in the stories is, on the other hand, less commonplace than it was thirty years ago, with a worldwide rise in literal-minded fundamentalism. In the current marketplace of ideas, I may be accused of appropriating other cultures—though all the cultures I write about are imaginary ones. Thirty years ago, I thought that the imaginary aspect would free me to write as I pleased—to go where I pleased. Certainly the book represented a multiplicity of journeys the straitened circumstances of my life as a freelancer and an adjunct did not permit me to take. It seems old-fashioned now, like the journeys of nineteenth-century adventurer-travelers. What remains fresh—even for me—is a Darwinesque curiosity about other lives of all kinds.
I am grateful that Tough Poets Press has snatched my stories from the oubliette of history just as they were about to be sucked down the drain. Even though the animal and human cultures are imaginary, an elegiac aura hovers over them. In the great extinction in which we find ourselves, all animals are becoming imaginary. And, as the monoculture extends its corporate tentacles into obscure human outposts, the variety of human cultures upon which my stories draw is also becoming imaginary. So: delighted as I am with the gift of recuperation that I have been given thanks to Tough Poets Press and Rick Schober, I am deeply saddened to think that my stories now mourn a vanishing.
GS: What was the impetus behind your first novel, The Marvelous Adventures of Pierre Baptiste?
PE: I had been writing tales told at some distance from the stories themselves. The characters were mostly similar to those of oral tradition. They moved in a world of action, event, happening. Their interior lives were not much on display. I was aware of the history of storytelling—how it progressed from action/event-driven oral-tradition protagonists like Jack in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” through epic to, say, the written characters of Henry James’ novels and beyond. I wanted to take a crack at self-consciousness and interiority. I was drawn to the character of Pierre Baptiste because—of all the characters in my collection The Hungry Girls—he was the most self-conscious, the author of his own narrative. So I chose that story to expand into a novel.
GS: To put it somewhat crudely, your protagonist is a black man, a slave working in the Caribbean islands during the 18th century, and you are a white woman, free and living at the time in 20th-century America. Why were you compelled to write from the perspective of this character and was it an easy or difficult stretch of the imagination? Additionally, in what ways do you relate to Pierre Baptiste?
PE: I was drawn into Pierre Baptiste’s voice for many reasons that have little to do with his Blackness and my Whiteness. I had become quite interested in Buffon, the 18th century French naturalist (and mathematician, cosmologist, and encyclopédiste), of whom it has been said that he was the last great scientist to choose the vivid locution over the precise when setting down his observations. This struck me as a watershed moment in human intellectual history, and I situated my character in it—or near it.
I was obsessed with my sense of untold story—that what we know of literature and history is the legacy of the victors, the strong, the rich, the literate, the clever. Other stories are buried or lost. The Marvelous Adventures of Pierre Baptiste is not a historical novel, though it draws on history. I wanted to create parallel culture—similar to the slave-based cultures of the Francophone Caribbean—or the origin cultures of Africa, or the Enlightenment culture of France, for that matter—but different—the imaginary aspect affording me greater latitude in the telling of stories presumed lost—as Pierre Baptiste’s stories almost were in the novel.
The Africa/Europe spectrum seemed an interesting fit with the vivid/precise one—a rich and generative juncture at which to situate a character.
I did a lot of research, and much negotiation between “real” history and imagined history—including imagined natural history—the lives of imaginary plants and animals. It is central to my novel that Pierre is a self-taught philosophe, a natural historian like Buffon. What would our sense of the world be like if it had long included more scientists and philosophers from the margin and the underclass—like, say, a slave on a Caribbean sugar plantation, a brutal, hellish place? The lives of Caribbean slaves were short and miserable, since there was no winter to speak of and they worked at a killing pace all year round. What if from these cruel and desperate circumstances emerged a genius?
As to Pierre’s Blackness, versus my Whiteness, I will first say that it may have been even more of a leap to create a character in a time far removed from our own than to leap from White to Black. I had been married to an African-American, so my sense of myself was as much Other as White. I benefit from white privilege but have also known what it is like to be rebuked, scorned, and disowned by my white family. I have known the loneliness of the castaway. In inhabiting the consciousness of Pierre, I could say, though only in retrospect, that I was completing the job my family had begun—exploring and growing into my otherness. The redemptions Pierre looks for are those I look to for myself. I too would like to return from my journey into the hitherto unknown to a world changed for the better, transformed by inclusion and, yes, love. I too have had to kill the white man—Pamphile, in Pierre’s case—to be more fully who I am.
Flaubert once said of Emma Bovary, “She is me.” I could also say “Pierre is me.” There are legitimate questions of identity and appropriation, yes, and certainly I would be a cultural vandal if wrote a memoir in the persona of a Black man. Or even a historical novel of, say, Haiti. But this is a novel of the fantastic, an exploration, a journey. For me, there is hope in imagining, not only the otherness of others, but their relatedness to us and with us to all that is.
GS: In what ways did you prepare so you felt comfortable enough writing in the antiquated yet beautiful style of prose for your novel?
PE: Pierre’s language is in many ways a conscious construction, though it took on its own life. He is an autodidact, so he is fond of big words and elaborate locutions, as it has seemed to me many autodidacts are. I gave him the double-consciousness—I and I—that some African Americans have noticed in themselves and their culture. And he switches from first to third person—another form of double consciousness. He likes subordinate clauses and subtly balanced reflection—a tribute to the calm rationality of the Enlightenment that he admires. His manner of speaking is formal, in keeping with his dignified conception of himself. There is a certain florid Baroque quality to the language—perhaps the most “antique” things about it—that fits well with the autodidactic aspects. Yet although I was conscious of all these elements, Pierre Baptiste is a “heard” character. I was comfortable writing him because I heard him talking in my head.
GS: Why have you not published any fiction since your debut novel? Are you still writing?
PE: In 2003 and 2004, hoping and needing to make some money, I wrote a textbook called Writing for Interior Design for Fairchild Books, later sold to Bloomsbury. Overwhelmed by anxiety as I slogged through the Augean task of developing a 500-page college-level writing textbook tied to a field—interior design—about which I knew less than I needed to (I had taught writing to architecture students for many years), I began drinking more wine than was good for me. As the daughter of an alcoholic, I recognized that I was in trouble. I spent some years in a twelve-step program kicking the wine habit, writing the structured confessional recovery narrative that such programs encourage, and burning it for humility. In “the rooms” I picked up the idea that direct service to others, not individual achievement, was the salvation of addicts like me. I joined and still attend an Episcopal church. For six years I curated a reading series called Sunday Best in Northern Manhattan, showcasing other writers. I also curated the Wildcat Fellowship program in the Catskills, a guerilla philanthropy awarding rural residencies to emerging artists from urban environments. I have stayed sober, but I am no longer committed to a life of direct service. I have returned to my writing practice. I am at work on a new collection, though I now work at a much slower pace than before my fall from grace.
GS: A blurb compared you to Borges. How has Borges influenced you, if at all?
PE: I love Borges’s mashup of philosophy, surrealism and fantasy. According to Wikipedia, his biographer Edwin Williamson notes “the danger of inferring an autographically-inspired basis for the content or tone of…[Borges’] works: books, philosophy and imagination were as much a source of real inspiration to him as his own lived experience, if not more so.” Writing as I do from books and imagination rather than my own lived experience, I find in Borges a truly kindred spirit. His fictions give me permission to venture as far afield as I might choose—to wildly imagine while sitting erect, in a proper suit with a straight face. I would say he was not so much an influence as a liberator.
GS: What are some of your favorite books and why?
PE: To name just a few off the top of my head, I love the fictions of Calvino, Coover, Garcia Marquez, Cortazar, Kafka, Coetzee, Dickens, Poe, Melville, Rabelais, Ovid, Cervantes, Le Guin. I love the work of Sherwood Anderson, Lawrence Sterne, John Giorno, John Berger, John Richards, Robert Kelly, Jaimy Gordon, Angela Carter, Stanley Elkin. The prose poems of W.S. Merwin, the poetry of Faye Kicknosway. I like and am inspired by a rich, chewy, extravagant, risk-taking writer—not a terse, careful, sober one.
GS: What is one novel you wish more people would read?
PE: Well, of course my publisher, Tough Poets Press, specializes in rediscovering under-celebrated writers that I, for one, wish more people would read. I would direct readers to www.ToughPoets.com to find out about a number of interesting books republished by Tough Poets—including titles by Gregory Corso, Russell Edson, Donald Newlove, and Alan Kapelner, who shared an editor, Maxwell Perkins, with Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Apart from the authors of Tough Poets Press, my personal candidate for Great Under-Celebrated Novel is Kenneth Patchen’s Sleepers Awake. He wrote it not long after atomic bombs were developed, tested, and used. He thought the world would end, and his blown-apart, fragmented narrative reflects that. The book reads like a post-apocalyptic bomb target—nothing left but rubble, dust, and odd bits of burnt glass. Patchen’s use of visual elements, including typography, seems to prefigure the age we now live in—one in which images are exploding text. We have not yet suffered a world-shattering nuclear holocaust, but the extinction event we are hoping against hope to survive may end civilization as we know it. To read Sleepers Awake is to read prophecy as engaged and fully alarmed as any in the Hebrew Bible. Surely it is time for a rediscovery of this long-forgotten and all-too-relevant novel.
Patricia Eakins is the author of The Hungry Girls and Other Stories and The Marvelous Adventures of Pierre Baptiste (a novel) which won both the NYU Press Prize for Fiction and the Capricorn Fiction Award of the Writer’s Voice. Her work has appeared in The Iowa Review, Parnassus, Conjunctions, and The Paris Review, which awarded her the Aga Khan Prize for Fiction.
George Salis is the award-winning author of Sea Above, Sun Below (forthcoming from River Boat Books, 2019). His fiction is featured in The Dark, Black Dandy, Zizzle Literary Magazine, The Sunlight Press, Unreal Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in Isacoustic, Atticus 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 Facebook, Goodreads, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.