Only Jackasses Use Whom: Andy Devine
Andy Devine’s first book, WORDS, (Publishing Genius, 2010) has been called “amazing,” “genius,” and “a joy to experience.” One critic noted that, “Devine has dismantled the English language.” Devine’s alphabetical fictions and essays have appeared in a variety of literary magazines, including New York Tyrant, Unsaid, elimae, Everyday Genius, and Taint. In 2002, Devine was awarded the Riddley Walker Prize (for a work that ignores conventional rules of grammar and punctuation). In 2007, he published his first chapbook, “As Day Same That the the Was Year” (Publishing Genius). In 2009, Devine was awarded The Ivory-Billed Woodpecker Award (for fiction in the face of adversity). Andy Devine is currently on a national book tour, Being Andy Devine. On November 14th, there will be Devine readings in Campaign and in NYC.
Michael Kimball: The stories and the novel in WORDS are alphabetical. How am I supposed to read that?
Andy Devine: The alphabetical fiction is a way to break away from the restrictive idea of sentences (I usually don’t write in sentences like this), yet there is still an order to the alphabetized words that is instantly recognizable to the reader. We’ve been using it every since we were little kids. Those books for kids that are organized around the alphabet were amazing. Remember that? Don’t you want to feel that again? Once sentences and fiction moves beyond a standard English syntax, the possibilities for story, to name just one element of reading, are staggering.
Kimball: Tell me about how you write the alphabetical stories.
Devine: With the fiction, I feel my way through the language alphabetically. The words scroll through my mind on a kind of ticker. I sound them out until the piece feels full, until I cannot put another word in or take a word out. It becomes a kind of chant. Particular words gain attention through their accumulation or, sometimes, a particular word gains attention because it is singular or because of the way that it fits within a particular string of words.
Kimball: One of the things that happens when I read WORDS, especially the alphabetical stories, is that I become completely lost in the text. I actually do feel staggered by or maybe mesmerized is a better word. But trying to find words to describe that feeling makes me think of the list of words that shouldn’t be used in fiction, the essay that opens WORDS. As I remember it, that was first piece you ever published and I took it for one of early issues of the now-defunct Taint Magazine.
Devine: You were the only editor back then who would publish my work without trying to change it. It was difficult to get people to understand that I wasn’t just goofing around.
Kimball: It was a startling piece then and it still is now. But I have to ask, as your publisher Adam Robinson would say: Where do you get the nerve?
Devine: To be clear, nerve is a word that shouldn’t be used in fiction. Also, I’m not going to answer that question directly. However, I will say that the list started out of disgust for a novel I was reading and grew from there. It became clear that word choice was one of the initial points of failure for so much contemporary fiction.
Kimball: A lot of the words in “Words That Should Not Be Used in Fiction, a Selection” are obvious. They call into question a lot of faux-literary, pseudo-realist fiction that I know sickens you, but I’m curious about words like “aliens … bloodthirsty … castle … dick … dragons … falcon … fangs … grizzled … jackbooted … kidnap … lover … mafia … mystery,” etc. Is the idea that genre fiction can’t be taken seriously?
Devine: Why are you asking me questions that you already know the answer to?
Kimball: So how about the names that are listed in “Words That Should Not Be Used in Fiction, a Selection”—“Barbara … Ivan … Nancy … Julie … Kenny … Lulu,” etc.?
Devine: Why are you doing this?
Kimball: OK, tell me about how WORDS became a book.
Devine: The book started with that initial list of words that shouldn’t be used in fiction, which led to a list of words that should be used in fiction (a kind of solution to the “shouldn’t” list). These lists were both implicit critiques of contemporary fiction, which led to the essays on prepositions and metaphors, which turned into the section called “A Grammar for Fiction Writers.” The jump to the alphabetical stories was obvious after that—the 90K-word novel condensed to 20 pages less so.
Devine: Some people do find it exasperating, but that’s more about the reader than the writer. Also, apparently, the list of words that shouldn’t be used in fiction made a woman who lives in Maine cry. I don’t know if that has happened in other states as well, but I didn’t mean to make anybody cry. Life is difficult enough.
Kimball: I heard that a clothing company is designing a t-shirt around some of your aphorisms like “Only jackasses use whom.” How did that happen?
Devine: Who wouldn’t want to wear that t-shirt?
Michael Kimball’s third novel, DEAR EVERYBODY (which The Believer calls “a curatorial masterpiece”), is now out in paperback and his books have been translated (or are being translated) into many languages. His work has been on NPR’s All Things Considered and in Vice, as well as The Guardian, Unsaid, and New York Tyrant. Tyrant Books will release HOW MUCH OF US THERE WAS in Spring 2011. He is also responsible for Michael Kimball Writes Your Life Story (on a postcard), I WILL SMASH YOU, 60 WRITERS/60 PLACES, and the 510 Readings.
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