Fiction In Conversation
New Routes in Fiction: CHRIS POWER with Alec Niedenthal
Chris Power’s Mothers is an excellent, consistently surprising collection of stories. Power’s debut collection—he has worked as a book critic for twenty years—Mothers treats the loss of self and identity in flux. Always powerful but never too neat, the stories in the book often have a neutral tone that belies the complex turns they take. Mothers marks the arrival of a great talent, and you should read it.
I spoke with Chris Power over the phone.
Alec Niedenthal (Rail): So the book published last year in the UK, March of last year. Now it’s launching in the US. How does it feel to launch your first book a second time? Especially because you’ve been living with these stories for years.
Chris Power: It’s really interesting because the stories become different things at different stages. I get close to the stories, work on them sentence-by-sentence, and then hand them to other readers to get feedback. Then I see the multiplicity of impressions they generate, because I think in these stories, as in a lot of literature, there’s space in there for the reader to interpret. Readers pay particular attention to some parts, others to other parts. So every time the book publishes in another country, the stories become different things, and you can have different conversations about them. I like that—I like ambiguity in fiction, in art, having to make your own mind up about something, the story not telling you what to think.
Rail: These are spacious stories, in the sense that there’s not a heavy authorial stance in any of them really. The only real authorial stroke I noticed is the fact that it’s structured around the story of Eva, which felt very intentional. Otherwise, one of the most interesting facets about the book was that I didn’t feel the author pushing things around; even “The Crossing,” which has a sleight-of-hand ending. I appreciated that light touch.
Power: I’m quite reticent as a narrator, within the story. You can have great fiction with a very prominent authorial voice, where the author is a presence in the text. When I’ve tried that, it’s always rung false to me in terms of my own work. I always think of it more like a camera. More like a security camera than a film camera, viewing certain events within its range but which is not an active participant within that. When I try to step beyond that, I often become uncomfortable or unsatisfied with the result.
Rail: I’ve been thinking a lot of Roma. Have you seen that?
Power: Not yet. I’m desperate to.
Rail: I won’t spoil it, but I’ve been thinking of how it’s filmed—I saw it in the theater and found it interesting how the rooms were as long as the screen. The movie takes place in this home, much of it, and the rooms fully inhabit the screen. The camera moves a lot and sweeps around but it stays within the boundaries of the room. As you watch it, you feel you’re physically in the room, because the size of the screen seems to be the size of the room. I felt that sensation while reading this book. It’s a different kind of distance you’re taking.
The obvious very recent compatriot to your book is David Szalay’s All That Man Is, these troubled people traveling around Europe type of construction—but that’s such a different book, because Szalay zooms in and out. Your camera stays stationary.
Power: I’d never read him until after I finished the book, but I can see why you would think that. When I finally read him, I had the feeling where you can see yourself in some of the writing. Then I met his agent and she said, “You really write like David!” There’s something deeper there, not just the traveling around Europe aspect of it, which I recognize. But he’s making more moves as an author, particularly in the two sections of that book which are more satirical—if you’re satirical you’re making active moves by default, since you’re showing people in a certain light.
Rail: I don’t think there’s much of that in your book.
Power: There’s a story, “Portals,” which I wrote in the first-person first, but it seemed like too much of a satire, for me. I didn’t like the way it turned out, since the guy is making some bad decisions. The third-person seemed like a better way of witnessing someone. It seemed a bit too cool in the first-person. In the first-person maybe you were thinking, why am I spending my time with this guy in Paris?
Rail: It’s an interesting story, because very often in a situation like that, your first-person narrator will go out of his way to justify his behavior, and can’t quite see the moral limits or edges of what he’s doing. Whereas your character is positioned from a state of regret. He’s in between his past and present selves. You could’ve taken an easier route, where he’s less self-aware, the unreliable jerk stuck in his own head, but you give him conscience enough to recognize his actions for what they were. But a lot of the stories are in the third-person and take the same distance, which is not a cold or impassive distance but is not close either. How did you, when you were first working on the stories, figure out the distance you wanted to tell the stories from?
Power: I think it was a process of elimination or an evolving process where I was extending and rebuking that range, to find a comfortable state. Along the way, as the events of the story shape themselves, as they boil down to the essentials—all of these stories were much longer at points, and much worse at points. Once that was in place, I gained some confidence in essentially not spelling things out.
I think for me the results of that, saying less, I was able to step slightly back and let the scenes happen. In my earlier drafts, I overexplicate terribly. Once you pare that away, that’s the most joyous phase in editing, I think. That distance grew in that phase. Less in that story, “Above the Wedding, “where the guy is in love with the wrong person, and he’s being very selfish, trying to steal the groom away from the bride. You could go into reasons why and self-justifications, but it felt truer to the character not to do that. He doesn’t want to admit to himself what he’s doing. He knows it’s unlikely/ridiculous. Later he comes to have a small understanding of the moral dimension of that, too. He’s not in a position to confront himself much in that story. So it’s almost like these characters are at a distance from themselves, and are reaching self-awareness if you’d like.
Eva was a special case. The three stories are spread throughout the book rather than put consecutively together. You grow more distant from her, because of her mental illness. The first story is first person, the second is a chilly third, and the third is from the perspective of her estranged husband. It’s the reverse of a traditional arc, getting to know a character and so on. This character becomes more mysterious the more time you spend with her, because she’s unknowable to herself.
Rail: I’m interested in sussing out why you made that decision. I think that structure’s really interesting and effective. When you were composing the stories, why did you want her to become more mysterious and unknowable over time? Especially because the question of linear time in those stories is something that’s very complicated. It has this circular effect at the end. I just wonder—why were you interested in stepping further and further away from her in the course of the book?
Power: The first story is first person, and it’s about her relationship with her mother. Eva is still young when her mother dies, and she doesn’t ever get to know the whole person. I became interested in this idea of—there’s an age you hit when you realize your parents are more than mom and dad; you’ve put them in a small box, so to speak. My mum lost her dad when she was six or seven. My wife lost her dad when she was a teenager. There’s a sense that they never got to know this larger person.
But with Eva, she has this realization about her mum. At the same time, she suffers from mental illness later in her life. The thing about that—the thing about serious depression is the way you push everyone away. With a somatic disease, everyone understands the situation; you’re trying to get better. With depression you can’t muster the wherewithal to try to get better. You don’t want better; you push people away. You get people saying, “Pull yourself together, pull yourself out.”
It’s hard to have the offer rebuffed, because this person has grown distant from life and from themselves. That’s kind of true for Eva as well. She has a daughter, and in the final story she’s not really well enough to be around a lot of the time. To her daughter she’s this semi-unknown, semi-mythical figure, who is a mystery, and who becomes a mystery to her husband. And it seems, in terms of the fallout of that, it seemed more appropriate to see that from a more distanced position.
Writing from inside Eva’s mind as she deteriorates would’ve changed the focus a lot. That’s presuming I could’ve done it either. It’s very hard to capture that. It’s like negative energy. I don’t mean in a ‘bad vibes’ way—it’s so sapping. It’s a black hole, empty space. Because it is about the family, and it does mirror that sense of her and her mother at the start of the story, with her having become a mother at the end. And because we’re not party to everything that Eva goes through. There is a significant gap between the first and second story—a smaller gap between the second and third. That’s also why I wanted to separate the stories in the collection. If the reader reads the book from beginning to end, they have some time away from Eva. In the same way that the stories leave aspects of her life unknown or unexplored—that seemed more appropriate, rather than sticking them together as a 90-page story and kicking the book off with that.
Rail: That’s a really effective choice. A risky one, an interesting one. It also strikes me that this is the kind of story which is peculiar in that the more that happens—the more the drama stacks up—the less is known. The weightier it is, this non-knowledge or ignorance becomes more pronounced. The center of this story is fundamentally unknowable gains dramatic weight as more happens around her. I found that interesting. It makes me think of the work of Colm Toibin, who also lost his father very young, and the machinery of his family novels is also—this sense of things not being said. In your case it’s maybe things not being known or understood.
Power: I do think that even in daily life, psychodramas aside, there is an incredible amount that is unknown, that we edit out—you can’t tell everyone what you’ve experienced in a day. It’s like chats, depending on when you encounter someone—a partner, a friend—and they say, “What’s up?” Depending on the proximity to certain events, you might talk about certain things. I am interested in how much is unknown in one another in daily life than we acknowledge. I think there’s a degree of fantasy to our connectedness, which isn’t backed up by what we share each other. So once you get into a situation with someone who is so closed in on themselves, that’s an extreme example of what is so common in daily life.
Rail: This is in evidence in this story of yours, “Johnny Kingdom,” which makes me think of Bellow’s saying: “Art is stillness in the midst of chaos.” In that story, I the reader have no idea why he is aping this comic; it’s making him money and he can live a decent life. There’s a deeper motivation which is unknown, and he’s an enigma in a way. But I do know all of these strange things happening—the bachelor party, his interesting family situation where his son is morose and totally silent—that all of it is happening to him. It’s interesting that so many of these stories have protagonists who are enigmatic, or who are not fully aware of why they do the things they do.
That story is interesting because it showed up what isn’t present in the rest of the book, in a sort of structural way. Johnny has an epiphany at the end. He realizes that he wants to craft a show around this show or this character. This performance art project. And it’s a positive move. So even in the midst of this terrible scene, I felt happy for him. He found a way forward for himself.
Power: You’re right. You can’t write a short story collection without one epiphany. That’s my homage to the form, ha.
If that Eva structure hadn’t necessitated a third story at the end of the book, I would’ve ended it with “Johnny Kingdom.” Because that is the happiest ending, and the sentimentalist story would’ve liked to have given the reader that to go out on.
Rail: At the same time this guy is, like, getting beaten up by a bunch of coked-out frat boys at a bachelor party. It’s pretty amazing. I appreciate that aesthetic choice, to give this character an epiphanic moment as he’s getting beaten up. The reader can almost forget that something morally disgusting is happening. We’re such sentimental creatures we’re able to forget about that when someone is having a “good moment” of self-knowing.
Power: It’s probably something he’ll be able to look back on and turn into material, in an ideal world. We never really know whether Andy, the character who dons the Johnny Kingdom outfit—whether he’s good or not. That’s sort of unknown. He’s had some early success, but will his one-man show be good? I don’t know.
Rail: That’s interesting because I guess I as a reader assume that he was mediocre as a comic using his own material and couldn’t stand out, and when he took on the guise of someone else, he became someone who stands out. An interesting irony obviously.
Power: I love that variety of opinions. Because he could be someone who had some good material but couldn’t generate another good half-hour at that time in his life; but the experiences he’s had since can help him generate that material. People go in and out of form, certainly. When I was writing that, I was interested in how people in creative industries can find themselves doing very different things from what they want to be doing, to pay the bills. And then the things that pay the bills can become what you do, without your realizing it. So what do you do? I work in an ad agency, but I’m XYZ. You can become very distant from what you consider yourself to be, because you might not feel justified in saying: I’m a writer, an artist. You don’t think you are until you’ve got a book deal or are represented by a gallery.
Rail: Backing up a little, so you’ve been a critic for about twenty years. For The Guardian, you’ve been a book critic for about ten. I’m interested—had you always written fiction? Is it something you had to come to?
Power: I’ve wanted to since I was eight and read Lord of the Rings. But for many years, I did what plenty of people did. I wrote some bad poetry about unrequited love in my teen years; some fiction in my twenties; but I wasn’t ever committing to it. I was writing fitfully, and somehow everyone knew I wanted to be a writer—but I wasn’t producing. I had scraps and drips and drabs.
It was only when I made a commitment to write every day before work that I actually started generating work that was something like the Platonic ideal in my head of what I wanted my writing to be like. That wasn’t until 2010. But when I started doing prep for the book in the UK, one question I got a lot was: was I nervous, as a critic, to present fiction to the public? As soon as I was asked the question, I thought: of course I’d be asked that. But until that point, I hadn’t considered that question coming up at all. In my head, I’d been thinking about this since I was eight. My desire to write fiction far predated my desire to write criticism or review books.
Looking back on it, these have been on two separate tracks in my mind. When I’m writing fiction I’m not thinking, is this contradicting something I wrote in a review? Which I’m glad of.
Rail: At what point after you started writing regularly did these stories congeal?
Power: Pretty soon. Throughout the 2000s—up until 2009—I was freelance. I was reviewing books and doing a bit of copywriting. Running up a lot of debt. I was not getting anywhere with fiction. I got a long copywriting gig at an ad agency. During that period, I had this idea for a story that became “Johnny Kingdom.” That was the first I got anywhere with. I was in this rhythm of writing before work, so after that job came to an end, I got a full-time job at an ad agency. I didn’t want to break my routine. I felt if I returned to being freelance, that structure would slip away.
So I persevered with that, and that was the period of time that I wrote—over the following three, four, five years—with some significant gaps, including the birth of two children.
Rail: It’s your first book, and I’m wondering—it’s such a quiet, subtle book at times. What did you want your first book to do? What did you envision this collection doing as an introduction to your work?
Power: As I wrote each story, I was thinking solely of that story. Once I’d got a few—three or four—I was really happy with, I did start thinking of: what would be the word count of your average short story collection? How many stories would I write before I would look at getting an agent and approaching publishers? I was never thinking of it as an introduction, because I wasn’t thinking ahead in that way. I was concentrating on the individual stories. It was only when I had eleven or twelve stories that I started putting them together in a document, putting them together and reading them as a collection, rather than coming to each story on its own and considering it on its own. That was when Mothers presented itself as a title. In seven of these stories, mothers were explicit or implicit in the test.
I hadn’t thought of it as an introduction, because I was concentrating on what each story wanted—or what I came to believe it needed to be. But once you get to a certain stage with a story, you have some ideas of what the story is about. In the editing process, you can hone it or direct it more toward that theme. As you edit the collection as a complete book, you can tease out associations. Or tamp down repetitions.
I’m always quite up close to it, rather than stepping back and saying, I’ve written a collection of sad, miserable stories. That in itself was interesting. You learn something about yourself. Even though I don’t think I’m investigating myself—where they’re the subject of their fiction. I’m currently writing an article about Gerald Murnane, and all his books are about himself and his experiences, how they are interpreted by his particular mind. My inclination is more to draw on my own experience but to explore what those experiences might mean in a more universal way. To put it in a context of other people’s lives. To help me understand others’ lives, through a mixture of imagination and experience.
Rail: I remember reading a quote by the late Amos Oz, who said something about Philip Roth’s Zuckerman novels being indoors literature—about him. I thought that was a nice way of framing it. There’s a lot of powerful work to be done in that mode.
Power: Thomas Bernhard is one of my favorite writers. And he’s completely on that end of the spectrum. And you can find universality in that as well. Beckett wrote increasingly about a small store of images or experiences from his life. But it becomes about every life, really. That doesn’t need to be a limitation at all.
Rail: You’re inhaling so much fiction as a critic. You can erect a thick border between your work as a critic and your work as a writer of fiction. You don’t let the work you’re reviewing taint or affect the work you’re doing as a writer. Do you ever have difficulties in terms of the cross-pollination there?
Power: When I was younger and I wasn’t getting anything going, I’d be infused—if I read something great or saw a film or an art show that triggered something—I’d write, but I’d write something very influenced by that spur. It was sort of derivative, obviously. I think I read The Voice Imitator and tried to write very brief and morbid short stories. But I did always have an idea in my head—I consistently knew when I wasn’t getting at it—of a voice I wanted to arrive at. Once that happened, I kind of felt inoculated from influence. Not to say there aren’t lots of influences; there are, of course. Even now, I do see bits of what I’m reading creep into drafts. Sometimes I recognize it and take it out. Sometimes I leave the occasional thing in. A line, an inflection.
I remember reading about Constable, the English landscape painter. The critic was writing about a particular painting of his, and how he took a tree from a Rembrandt painting—he was painting somewhere in Yorkshire. And this tree that appears in a Rembrandt painting, bits of Dutch lowlands, appeared in his work. I love that idea of an artist sampling someone else’s work. “I need a tree in this composition, so I’ll take one from an old master.” I like those embedded nods to those who’ve influenced you. That’s an enjoyable part of the process.
After the book had been bought, I did not read any fiction for two months, maybe. You hear about writers who say when they’re working hard, they don’t read any fiction. I can’t do that. I haven’t done it. For most of last year, I was working on a novel. I was reading all sorts of stuff during that process. Some I was reviewing; other stuff for research. I think I’m glad I can do that without worrying too much or feeling that it’s bleeding into the work. That I can keep those things separate. Or I’m delusional, and I’m going to completely plagiarize someone without realizing it
As a reader, I love drawing connections between books—the way they’ll trigger associations between them. Whether that’s authors who’ve never read each other, or writers like Bolano, who obviously adores Borges—it can be a very enjoyable part of reading.
Charles Olson had a great line about Melville, saying that he read to write.
Rail: I wanted to ask about the question of travel in the book as a kind of narrative motor in the book. Travel to Sweden, to France, other locales. That must’ve come about organically. But what do you think that means to these characters? Why are you drawn to travel?
Power: What it means to them—they are searching for something in a very literal way. Eva in the second of her stories in this book, she’s traveling to all these historic structures on her trips away. She’s partly searching for something, but also she’s fleeing. When you’re depressed or deeply dissatisfied, sometimes the response can be travel. That is an escape from your reality. It also creates an interesting space for these characters. It strips away the familiar from them. They experience life in a new way as we’re alongside them kind of seeing them for the first time. We don’t know much about her home life, or her job—that sort of feeds into that sense of dislocation from her. So that the reader can at least experience the same sorts of feelings she’s having. Albeit for different reasons. Whereas with someone like Leo, who’s in Mexico, travel can be a fantastical state. You get a different impression of things when you’re away—the scales drop from your eyes and you say, “I’m going to live my life this way from now on.” Which obviously changes when you come back home to your routine.
It’s a sort of fantasy space the characters are entering. An aspirational space. Those dreams and aspirations are disappointed are shown to be false, at root. In a story like “Run,” it’s a sense of discomfort—of not knowing what the rules are in this place. This isn’t particular to that story, but you don’t know the noises at night, the routines or weather of the place. You can’t be certain of how to interpret certain events and conversations. He has this strange conversation with his girlfriend’s stepfather, where he isn’t certain what he’s being told. That’s something you can’t achieve writing about someone in their domestic space. You can certainly have strange things happen, but then you’re getting into the kind of unheimlich, Kafkaesque area of the everyday made strange. Whereas the everyday can become strange without introducing the surreal into the text, by transplanting a character into a new space. That instantly introduces some strangeness. I find that a very fertile space to explore. I have written some stories that are more explicitly surreal or not-completely-realist—there were a couple in the initial manuscript, but they got cut. They were outliers really. They interfered with the mood of the other stories. They weren’t helpful in terms of the collection. There was a uniformity without them that felt more powerful.
Rail: I would also say the opposite is true. With Liam, for instance, I can imagine Liam at home trapped in a fantasy—being obsessed with this guy, thinking I’ll one day be with him. Or a writer trapped in an ad agency and is like someday, I’ll become a great writer if I keep going. And then you travel and you’re confronted with the real of who you are. Actually, it’s never going to work out. Actually, something is off balance with me.
Power: You can entertain that fantasy at home. But when Liam goes to Mexico, he’s entering the fantasy. Rather than having it in his head. And that’s when it dissolves or falls apart. When he enters that space and realizes it’s a chimera.