Babel and Babylon: An Interview with REYoung

L.S. Popovich: You have been described as a Russian linguist. In what ways has your knowledge of that language influenced your writing?

REYoung: The linguist part is long in the past, but the structure of the Russian language does lend itself to poetry, and modern Russian literature does have a thing about the surreal, and I happen to have a thing for poetry in prose, and a plate of surreal and sliced cucumbers does go well with ice-cold vodka.

LSP: Publisher’s Weekly described Unbabbling as less of a novel and more of a series of linked novellas. How did you originally envision the novel, and how did it reach its final form?

R: I didn’t. I had no fucking idea. I was stuck in a very deep hole in the ground and had to dig my way out. A very lengthy, often bleak ordeal but finally—did someone say, “A light at the end of the tunnel?” Oh, Christ, a fucking train’s coming.

LSP: Does the title Unbabbling suggest a future reversal of the consequences of the biblical Tower of Babel scenario?

R: Actually, I think it’s a reversal of the future from the perspective of the past. The tower is always being built and the tower is always being torn down. In this case, obviously, a conflation of Babel and Babylon.

LSP: Your online biographical statements aver that you live in a limestone cave deep under the city of Austin, TX. This detail is reminiscent of the third narrator’s journey from Unbabbling. Did your living situation inspire your depiction of Erde, or was it the other way around?

R: Neither. I encountered Erde when I was bumbling around down there in the abyss without a headlamp, torch, or candle to my name and we both did our damnedest to go the opposite direction of each other as quickly as possible. I will say it’s a heckuva lot cooler down there in Subterranea during the heat of the long Texas summer and, added bonus, I don’t run into nearly as many humanoids as up above.

LSP: One of the recurring themes in your work is the American dream. How do you feel the concept of the American dream has changed or imploded over the years?

R: In my estimation, the American dream has remained constant throughout the years, only more so (tip of the hat to Yogi Berra), i.e., it works best for them for whom it works and fuck everybody else.

LSP: Your other novels, InflationIronsmith, and Margarito and the Snowman depict complications of consumerism, and the collision between old and new. Do you believe dystopias are inevitably built upon these precepts?

R: Wait a second—did you say dystopia? And all this time I thought I was living in a fucking YOU-topia. Quick, somebody show me the exit. There must be some kind of way out of here. On the almost serious side, conditions are always right for dystopias. Probably that way in heaven, too, where, from what I hear, there is no beer.

George Salis: David Foster Wallace and Nabokov and even Amis in Money have been given amazing literary treatments of tennis. Coover and DeLillo have done the same for baseball. Yet your latest novel, The Ironsmith, focuses on the sport of weightlifting, something that has received precious little attention from writers. Are there other sports you’d like to incorporate into your writing or other writers who you’d like to see tackle specific sports as metaphors? Also, how much can you bench?

R: I’m pretty sure Thomas Bernhard would have given us an interesting take on badminton. I’m leery of anybody writing about any sport in a fictional narrative unless they first demonstrate enough strength to pop the cork out of their own ass (cf. Foucault’s Pendulum—doesn’t have anything to do with sports. Just corks. And asses. Oh, yeah, I did like DFW’s treatment of tennis. Still amazes me how he scoped Venus Williams so early in her career, although apparently he didn’t see Serena coming.) My serious lifting days are also behind me but I’ll bet I can still bench a thousand on a full moon. You wanta arm wrestle?

GS: What motivates you to continue writing and do you have hope that the literary community might one day wake up, as it were?

R: What motivates me to keep writing? It’s life or death, bruh. I don’t have any idea what or where the literary community is. Kansas? What percentage of the population has ever read literature? Writers probably had a much better chance of an audience when most of the population was illiterate. And of getting gibbeted for their word choice. Maybe it’s better to stay asleep and live in dreams, kind of the way most Americans prefer their cake, it seems. Otherwise, why are we where we are now? “Mister Sandman, bring me a dream …”

GS: Can you explain the inspiration and intent behind your pseudonym, assuming it is a pseudonym? Or is it a portmanteau of your first name and surname? Also, how would one accurately pronounce it?

R: Last question first. Tao. (Which has nothing to do with Sid Vicious’s version of “My Way.”) Oops, sorry, that’s all the time we have for that question. (Mama just put another turtle on the fire.)

GS: What are some novels you think deserve more readers?

R: Two of the most fascinating novels I’ve ever read are both by Gil Orlovitz: Milkbottle H and Ice Never F. Have fun. And good luck finding them.

LSP: What are you working on next?

R: I hope to solve the problem of global warming. Oh, wait, Greta’s on that. Also rethinking the function of war as effective population control. Yeah, yeah, I know it’s been tried before but I think it’s still got legs under it. Oh, I did want to mention that book two of the Margarito and the Snowman trilogy is scheduled to come out at the end of this summer. “The eponymous Snowman wakes up on a desert movie set in B movie director Boone Weller’s sprawling new epic, Zol. Told in a mix of melodrama, slapstick, documentary, and cinema verité, and packed with drug cartels, coyotes, revolutionaries, fire-breathing dragons, human sacrifice and magic, this forthcoming blockbuster unfolds in a Dalían landscape along a chimerical pan-American highway deep in the heart of Mexico as the Snowman continues his quest for a mythical place called Zol and an enigmatic friend named Margarito.”

GS: Margarito and the Snowman touches on concerns related to the Trump regime. It has been said that one can’t make a satire out of a satire. Was this in your mind while writing Margarito and the Snowman and are there other novels you’ve read that you think have successfully satyred our dear tyrant? Are there other writers you’d nominate to step into the proverbial ring? And would you revisit this regime in your fiction or are you hoping to move on from it completely?

R: Margarito and the Snowman was published a scant few days before Dear Leader was, um—what’s that verb that rhymes with infected? Means chosen? From the Latin to pick out?—to the most exalt—cough! hack!—most esteem—bleahh!—highest—blorp!outhouse office in the land. That being said, I can’t claim prescience regarding the unlikely rise of the Trump Admin, but, you know, there’s this thing about tyranny that has been so naughtily, deliciously tempting in American and, dare I say, world politics of late. Which, obliquely, or diagonally, or diabolically, invites your question, Can you make a satire out of a satire? Or, to put it another way, can Trump trump Trump? Sure, why not? I like to think things can always get more ridiculously tautologically absurd than they already are. Which means plenty of work ahead for all of us shit shovelers (Just cover your ass, babykins). By the way, for the title of a future novel, I’m considering America, Not Just Another Banana Republic. (Day-O!)   

Nota bene: I’d like to riff on that “satyred” but probably best not. (Pretty sure Trump satyrs himself all the time when he’s alone in the bathroom.)

REYoung was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and currently resides in a limestone cave deep beneath the city of Austin, Texas. He is the author of four novels: Unbabbling (Dalkey Archive Press, 1996), Margarito and the Snowman (Dalkey Archive Press, 2016), Inflation (TageTage Press, 2019), and the elusive Ironsmith. Find him here.

L.S. Popovich is the author of Undertones and Echoes From Dust. They have always been a cat person (a person who like cats, not a cat human hybrid). Every house needs at least one room completely crammed with books, so they believe. (Other rooms should contain scattered piles.) Their short stories and poems have appeared in Chrome Baby, Havok, Aphelion, Bull & Cross, Red Fez, Bewildering Stories, The Ansible, 365Tomorrows, Commuter Lit, Farther Stars than These and other secluded places on the Internet. Find them here.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below (River Boat Books). His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows 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, Instagram (@george.salis), and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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