Friday, July 1, 2011

A conversation with Gabriel Blackwell

Gabriel Blackwell, author of our latest e-monster Neverland, did me the kindness of a brief conversation. You can read it, and then you can read Neverland.

Neverland draws from some very disparate sources. There's the La Brea Tar Pits of course, and maybe the idea and rhetoric of Creation Museums, and Br'er Rabbit stories, and then Peter Pan, and the truly awful sci-fi movie Future War, which I have actually seen (in MST3k form), and more. What lead you to this wild combination? Was it something you discovered through the process of writing, or did you have it figured out to some extent before you started?

"Future War" was obviously a major inspiration, in terms of "wild combination[s]." There is a rather clumsy attempt throughout the movie (which may or may not be clear in the edit shown on MST3k) to make Runaway (Daniel Bernhardt) into a Jesus figure. Certainly the storyline of Sister Ann is pretty blatantly reminiscent of Mary Magdalene. In my very first draft of Neverland, I annotated a review of "Future War" that I found, I think, on I even remember sending allmovie (which has apparently been renamed "AllRovi" -- someone there must have been trying to get fired) an email asking if I could have permission to use the review. They never responded, so I decided to move more fully into the narrative, which is when these things which had previously been just references (in an MST3k-kind-of-way, or perhaps, more to the point, a Nicholson Baker-kind-of-way) became vital elements of the narrative. 

I think just Creationism itself was a major source of inspiration. It is inherently irreconcilable and anachronistic, but ecstatically so; it's an attempt to synthesize two very different things -- science and religion -- which is an artistic impulse, even if Creationists don't see it that way. Though I am fully conscious that there are plenty of pious scientists (we're all contradictions -- logic isn't natural, not even natural logic), scientific inquiry and religious faith are two very different ways of looking at the same problem, products of two very different times and two very different peoples.

Once I saw what it was that I was looking at, I wanted to grab hold of as many different narratives as I could possibly cram into this thing. I can't remember how the tar pits came into the picture, but the Tar Baby follows from the tar pits, and the whole Jesus thing brought me to Peter Pan, which then echoed against Runaway and his gang in "Future War." There are others, traces of which may remain, that I had to cut to keep the thing at a readable length.

Are you more interested in the difficulty of reconciling these sources -- in the friction that results from their combination -- or in the creation of a relatively logical, coherent product? In other words, do you find it more interesting to jam your sources awkwardly together or to draw our attention to their underlying sameness?

To me, there isn't much difficulty in reconciling things. There is pleasure, the pleasure of solving a puzzle or of creating one, but no difficulty. I don't know how much I've reconciled things, anyway. I tend to be elliptical in my thinking, and so probably confusing to others, but to me, the arrows all point in the same direction and one thing follows from another. But to answer your question, despite the appearance of logic in my fiction, I think I'm probably more interested in the friction you mention. Though I don't necessarily see the two as competitive. 

I will say that I love what Lawrence Weschler calls "convergences," and I view the third-person narrator as a type of aggregating intelligence -- that is what a story is, after all. "Just a bunch of stuff that happened," to quote Michael Martone quoting "The Simpsons," that that narrative entity says is related. If my materials seem a little more heterogeneous, I think that it's probably because I am also interested in my materials' materials, how they were put together. 

In answering your thoroughly straightforward question, I seem to be reconciling the two options you've set before me in a pseudo-logical, (in)coherent manner. My apologies.

What was your strategy for editing together the hilarious YouTube clips? I laughed at them so much when I was first watching them, so I feel like whatever you were doing, it worked.

I'm really glad that you liked them, because I procrastinated very diligently while I was supposed to be working on them. You've never seen such diligent procrastination. 

In my first drafts, these clips were imaginary "dioramas" (more on that below) augmented with photos. But, since I couldn't do a diorama on the internet (or in life -- I'm not much of a sculptor, and I don't have the budget for the really fancy, super-articulated action figures (or their proper wardrobe) of "Marwencol" which I sadly didn't see until after we had finished putting this thing together), I figured I ought to at least do a video. I did the first one proceeding entirely by accident; I used iMovie, which has this bizarre setting for still photos that tracks from one end of the image to the other, or else zooms in, Ken Burns-style, which I had either unknowingly set iMovie to, or came as the default setting. And I was using still photos because I couldn't figure out how to rip a clip of the film from the DVD (or how to then clear the rights for that clip) using the software that I had. As with my short career as a film student, then, my "success" was a direct result of my ineptitude. But "amateur" was definitely what I was going for. If you look at most of the Creationist and Intelligent Design sites out there, they're labors of love, a kind of Outsider art not terribly different from that of Howard Finster or James Hampton. 

If anything, Neverland isn't amateur enough; as the various illustrations were coming together, I thought more and more of The Church of the Subgenius, too, and how I should fight the urge to trick it out even further. Ultimately, it is a fiction, no one should mistake it for anything else, and, as a fiction, it has to be readable, which meant toning it down a bit. I love Stang's style visually, just like I love Finster and Hampton, but I think it also tends to repel actual reading. There's just way too much there to take in, and so I, at least, tend to have trouble assimilating it all.

But back to the clips. I liked the result of all of my iMovie fumbling, but I didn't want to do the same thing each time and risk boring the reader/viewer. Also, of course, I did learn slightly more about iMovie and how to use it as I went on, which I think is probably evident if you read Neverland straight through. By the last one, I've figured out how to use iMovie's idiosyncrasies against its homogenizing tendencies, and even managed to remember some of my editing training from those student film days. Rhythm!

Apart from the works and artifacts you appropriated, can you trace an inspiration for Neverland, something you were imitating as you wrote it?

I initially composed Neverland as a tour of an actual museum, or, I should say, an actual imaginary museum, which strikes me as an entirely appropriate way to speak of Creationism and ID. I've even delivered parts of it, as a fake tour guide, on a couple of occasions.Because I am always both drawn to and repulsed by the pathetic, I am a real connoisseur of guided tours. Neverland was composed with that very naively-confident voice in mind. But the plainspokenness of that voice muted some of what I wanted to present. Before I sent Neverland to you, I completely overhauled that aspect of it, which overhauling, in my mind, is what made it viable as an internet thing, as opposed to a performed thing. Some of the enthusiasm of the physical presentation of it has been shoehorned into the language. But there was one more transformation that I didn't see as necessary until you sent me the proofs, which was to move it even further from that "tour" to something that read a little more internet-native.


  1. could use some context re: author photo.

  2. I'm not sure! That's what he had on his website's about page, I thought it was funny.


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  4. It is a picture of me. I cannot now remember the circumstances of its capture, though my computer helpfully informs me that it was "created" on 4/19/09. Which may be the date of its capture or that of its transferral to the computer I then owned, a computer which has since crashed and been replaced, and thus offers no help in identification.

    ...It would seem that my attempt at providing context is less helpful than one could want. Perhaps the lack of a story behind it hints that my life is such that photographs like this one are as common as salt in the ocean. In fact, the only photos of me on my hard drive are fairly obscure (apparently, even to me). I doubt that I could provide context for more than a couple of them, and those are typically inscrutable to others. I do not care to have my face photographed, though my fiancee occasionally insists on it. I thus feel confident in claiming that it was she who held the camera on 4/19/09. All else is uncertain.

  5. Yeah, it's like how if you judge by photos of me I am apparently always super-drunk or hanging out with my grandma, because those are the two circumstances where I can't seem to avoid being photographed.