Reality out-entertains fiction: Interview with D. Harlan Wilson

18 min read

By Alex Khlopenko

D. Harlan Wilson is everything you want to be – he is a novelist, short story writer, literary critic, editor, playwright, publisher, and English professor. He serves as reviews editor for Extrapolation, a journal of SF criticism, and managing editor of Guide Dog Books, the nonfiction syndicate of Raw Dog Screaming Press and the editor-in-chief of Anti-Oedipus Press.
I stumbled upon Dr. Schreber by chance – a recommendation from Gabino Iglesias back in June, and I never looked back. D. Harlan Wilson writes and thinks like no one else, and in his case – its true. After reading a page or two you shouldn’t put it down, confused, nauseous from the complexity, – and you can’t. We talked about post-postmodernism, #fieryslut, and of course Dr. Schreber.

Alex Khlopenko: Right off the bat – what’s beyond postmodernism? What’s “now”?

D. Harlan Wilson: Postmodernism was doomed to failure from the inception of its moniker. It’s absurd. The “post” presumes that it’s terminal, that nothing is beyond it. Of course, we’ve already moved beyond postmodernism. In terms of aesthetics, things have become much more conservative, flat, and redundant. It’s not even a reversion. Authors and artists were doing far more interesting, inventive things in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries than they’re doing today.

I don’t know what’s “now,” but I have ideas about what “now” is not. It’s not innovative. It’s not original. It’s not daring or dynamic. It doesn’t facilitate creativity or productive, substantive cognition. Everybody’s worried about deviating from protocol, stepping on toes, taking chances, exploring untapped reservoirs, digging their own reservoirs – whatever might inhibit their balls from rolling down the same worn path. I rarely read fiction anymore because it’s all the same, regardless of genre.

AK: Why, of all people, Schreber?

DHW: Schreber is the most written-about figure in psychiatric literature. He’s arguably the most famous madman in modern history. I’ve been fascinated by him for the last two decades, since I saw Alex Proyas’ Dark City (1999). The film is a science fictional extrapolation of Schreber’s Memoirs of My Nervous Illness (1903), an account of the horrors he experienced as a paranoid schizophrenic. The first critical essay I published, “The Pathological Machine”, was an analysis of how Dark City translated Memoirs. That came out in Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts in 2005, although I spent several years researching, writing, and revising it, and it was rejected quite a few times by other journals before JFA picked it up. Afterwards, Schreber stuck with me. He kept emerging in my fiction, sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously. Around 2010 or so, I started writing The Psychotic Dr. Schreber under the working title The Bureau of Me, which became something altogether different and appeared as a novelette in Diegeses (2013). I must have scrapped and restarted The Psychotic Dr. Schreber ten times before finding my groove. Over the years, I worked on the book when I was between other writing projects. I finished it in 2017. It’s not at all what I expected, but I’m pleased with the final product, and it feels like I’ve sufficiently exorcised Schreber from my system. For now.

AK: I began seeing little Schreber influences in everything – movies, books – both speculative and literary fiction, as well as in music and pop culture. Do you think it’s just a case of Baader-Meinhof, or was Schreber right when he said that everything is in reference to him, that his nerve language and images from the Memoirs penetrated western culture irreversibly?

DHW: Schreber’s ego-referentiality was a solipsistic, megalomaniacal symptom of his psychosis. The symptom wasn’t unique, nor is it today. A staple of paranoid schizophrenia is an overblown belief in one’s own self-importance and nascent supremacy, hence the Baader-Meinhof effect: inconsequential minutia become profound loci of meaning, revelation, and apocalypse. What distinguishes Schreber from other schizos is the enormity of his worldview and his ability to logically articulate its hierarchy, vicissitudes, coordinates, and nuances.

D. Harlan Wilson

In terms of western culture, Schreber’s stance was essentially Nietzschean insofar as he offered an alternative to dominant forms of religion and ideology. His alternative is deranged. Then again, so is the notion of a skygod, hell, etc.; in fact, the Christian bible is simple, silly, and childish whereas Schreberfiktion, as I call it, is comparatively evolved, complex, and sophisticated. Whatever the case, Schreber follows Nietzsche’s basic line of flight. Curiously, Nietzsche’s madness mirrored Schreber’s in numerous ways. This is one of the reasons I cite and riff on him throughout my book. One of the longer chapters is a review of Lance Olsen’s beautiful novel Nietzsche’s Kisses, a portrayal of Nietzsche’s descent into insanity. I included it mainly to underscore the connection between the two madmen, both of whom emerged from the same epoch and culture. Schreber was born just two years before Nietzsche in 1942.

AK: If you could sit down with Schreber, what would you ask him?

DHW: I wouldn’t want to meet him. I’m only interested in the ideas he conveys and the characters he depicts in Memoirs. This is how I feel about meeting anybody whose work influences and affects me. I build them up in my head to the point that they can’t possibly live up to my expectations. I only care about the work. Creative people in particular often have a touch of Asperger’s and can’t get over themselves. Outside of interviews, I don’t like to talk about myself, and I abhor narcissists.

AK: In the Room 00X parts of the book – is it Schreber the protagonist? Is it you? The reader?

DHW: It’s purposely ambiguous on multiple fronts, but the three main characters I invoke are precisely the ones you mention: Schreber, readers, and me. Or rather, my (science) fictional autobiography. Above all, I used episodes and imagery from Memoirs and my own experiences as springboards for various micro-narratives and the macro-narrative formed by the sum total of the room sequences. If you look at them closely, there’s a geometric format and progression of events (e.g., each room number denotes the number of paragraphs in that chapter).

AK: Would you let David Lynch adapt your books (and which ones)? Who else do you think could do them justice in the visual medium?

DHW: Sure, I’d let anybody adapt my stories or novels, as long as they paid me, and David Lynch would probably be my first choice. Years ago, somebody from his camp contacted me about optioning one of my books. I can’t remember which one. Dr. Identity or Blankety Blank, maybe? It never panned out. Options rarely do.

Novelists are increasingly encouraged to write books that can be easily adapted into films, with three acts, multi-dimensional characters, dynamic plotlines, visceral settings, etc. I tend to do the opposite, or at least something different. I’m not trying to subvert the rules; it’s just what I like to do, and convention bores me no matter how you dress it up. That’s the problem with creative writing programs, MFAs, fiction masterclasses, or any organized writing tutorial – if they teach you anything, it’s how to write like billions of other people have done, are doing, and will do again. I get it: people don’t just want to write, they want to make money from their writing, and you do that by generating the largest readership possible, and readers like canned literature; they don’t want to be fucked with. I’m not interested in any of that. I’m interested in the art of writing, despite readership. I’m constantly searching for new avenues of expression and representation. Readers are so imaginatively and intellectually palsied anyway. It’s not their fault. It’s the nature of capitalist culture, which despises real creativity and molds a constituency that is accordingly docile, banal, simple-minded, indifferent, and hollow.

My fiction is a form of anti-writing, and it’s almost never linear. I write rhizomes, which, to me, seems natural – we don’t think in straight lines, after all. But I understand how it can be frustrating for filmmakers. In 2007, one of my stories was made into a short, rotoscoped film called The Cocktail Party. The director, Brandon Duncan, did a remarkable job working with the material. The film is much better than the story. For the most part, though, I scare filmmakers away. Several of my stories and one of my novels have been under option for years. The people who own them keep renewing the options, but I’m not holding my breath for an adaptation.

AK: What inspires you to write within the realm of the Freudian Das Unheimliche, the uncanny?

DHW: I’ve always loved Freud. His writing is more fiction than nonfiction, but he gets a bad rap. Many of his ideas remain clinically applicable, and in spite of what you think of those ideas, his imagination and work ethic are almost unparalleled. He invented the cosmos of psychoanalysis from virtual scratch. He’s similar to Schreber and Nietzsche. They’re all (god)fathers of their own self-made universes. To some extent, this is probably why Freud was drawn to Schreber.

Das Unheimliche might be my favorite Freudian concept. Since I was a child, I’ve experienced a sense of the uncanny in my personal life on a daily basis. Just this morning, I was looking at my hand for some reason, really concentrating on it, scrutinizing the pores, hairs, nails, knuckles, imperfections, slopes, lines… For a fleeting moment, the hand seemed like a foreign object, as if it belonged to somebody or something else. And I was amazed by the complexity of the hand, all of the bones and veins and ligaments beneath the skin that made it work – this thing couldn’t possibly exist or belong to me. The euphoria I felt in that moment was deflated by a splinter of dread. Then the moment was gone.

My fiction generally exudes an uncanny sense of the alien in the familiar. It’s been that way since I started writing. More often than not, it’s an unconscious act. The uncanny is part of my experience. It’s part of how I view myself and the world.

The absence of categories produces anxiety – like death and the unknown, nobody wants to confront what they can’t wrap their heads around.

AK: A follow-up question: how do you write uncanny, irreal, and bizarro fiction, without resorting to outright fantasy and horror à la Miéville or Ligotti?

DHW: I like Miéville and Ligotti. They’re masters of their craft, and I respect their intellects, imaginations, and the way they put stories together, but it’s not the kind of thing that I do.

For better and for worse, I’ve always written exactly what I want to write, notwithstanding the constraints, directives, and morality of many editors and publishers, who have very limited views about what constitutes “good” fiction. That’s understandable enough. Even editors and publishers who think they want innovative fiction want it canned. They either don’t know what innovation is, or they think innovation is something that it’s not.

I never set out to write bizarro, irreal, or any other kind of fiction. Those are just titles that have been associated with my writing. The absence of categories produces anxiety – like death and the unknown, nobody wants to confront what they can’t wrap their heads around. That said, my fiction does consistently exhibit elements of irrealism. The prototype for that genre is Kafka. I was heavily influenced by the absurdist, dreamlike quality of Kafka’s stories and parables early in my career. I’m also considered one of the forerunners of bizarro literature and won the first Wonderland Book Award for my novel Dr. Identity in 2007. That genre has continued to evolve since its inception to the point where there are now a lot more identifiable features and tropes. The degree to which bizarro has grown is startling. I never expected it to become so big. But I’m not sure if what I write these days falls into that area. A few critics have said that I’m my own genre. I don’t know about that, but it’s flattering, and I like the idea that my fiction is hard to quantify.

AK: How do you even go about writing books like Natural Complexions or The Psychotic Dr. Schreber?

DHW: Both books are buckshot montages that extrapolate material from a variety of sources. Natural Complexions was informed by actual media, primarily news stories, email spam, and advertisements that I revised and re-spun in order to suit the needs of my narrative. The Psychotic Dr. Schreber includes an even greater textual array, ranging from haiku, letters, flash-plays, and “mad maxims” to SF, chronologies, film criticism, philosophical quotes, and literary theory. This schizophrenic mode of storytelling makes more sense to me than linear narrative. Like I said earlier, it seems more “natural.” Hence the title Natural Complexions. For as weird as these books might seem, if we step back and take a look inwards at ourselves, then outwards at the culture that inscribes us (particularly media culture), they’re actually perfectly normal and, ironically, “sane.”

AK: Did social media erase the last distinction between reality and celebritydom and are we all bound to the fate of #fieryslut from Natural Complexions?

DHW: It’s blurred the boundaries between the two. I don’t think full-throttle implosion is imminent, but the fate of #fieryslut is hardly inconceivable. I’m amazed by the news; every day, I’m reminded that reality out-entertains fiction. People are fundamentally ridiculous, and social media exacerbates it.

Natural Complexions

I do think social media has more of a negative than a positive impact on people’s psychological and emotional wellbeing. For my part, I use it to promote my books and publishers (95%) and to post pictures of my daughters for extended family members (5%). There’s no other reason I’m on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. I see other authors, artists, filmmakers, actors, and entertainers out there doing likewise, but we’re in the minority. What is the majority doing? Who is their audience? It’s fine if you’re a teenager, having fun, connecting with your friends, dating, etc. Anybody running a business – that’s reasonable, too. Most people seem to use social media simply for the sake of it, because it’s there. It might be as simple as wanting their voices to be heard, even if they have nothing to say, which is almost invariably the case: most of what people post or tweet is, consciously or unconsciously, regurgitated from other media. I have a colleague who tweets every goddamn thought that pops into his head. It’s maddening. Who is he talking to? Nobody’s listening. Hardly anyone, say, likes or comments on his tweets, and nobody retweets him. Why would they? He’s tweeting about eating a pear and drinking tea and shit. And this is an intelligent, perceptive guy. I like to think there’s more at work or at stake, but mass loneliness and alienation may be the principal catalyst, coupled with the fact that social media is addictive and functions like a drug. Many users who try to quit will go through withdrawal. Symptoms include feelings of inadequacy, isolation, anxiety, depression, and idle terror.

AK: Your academic career obviously influences your writing but does it work in reverse? What do your students think of your books?

DHW: Most of my critical essays and scholarly monographs have been published by university presses and journals. They’re much more formal and structured than my fiction, and when I’m writing something like film or literary criticism, I follow a strict rubric and present material in a direct, clear, easily digestible way. After my monograph on the life and work of J.G. Ballard came out in 2017, a few readers told me that they couldn’t believe I wrote it. Still, my fiction and nonfiction address common themes, and I’ve always found that going back and forth between the two makes me a stronger writer.

I teach at a satellite campus of Wright State University in rural Ohio. Broadly speaking, the students are somewhat remedial and have lived sheltered lives. Few of them read for pleasure, fiction or otherwise, and I don’t assign my own books in literature or film studies classes. Over the years, I’ve encountered students who have read my work, and I’ve given lectures at other universities as well as visited classes where friends and colleagues of mine have taught my novels or stories. With occasional exceptions, students are flummoxed, or uninterested, or both. That’s cool; I’m used to it. My only requirement these days is that students simulate interest, no matter what the subject matter is. I tell this to my own students at the beginning of every class, every semester. I don’t care what’s happening in their heads, what they think about what I say, or whether they pay attention to what I say. Just pretend you’re interested – look at me, nod at me, make facial expressions that indicate comprehension, scribble something on a piece of paper, as if you’re taking notes… This is good practice for any class, with any professor. In an ideal world, students would actually know how to be students and want to learn. I mean, I want them to excel and succeed, but they need to take the initiative themselves. Simulation is a good starting point.

AK: Do you think creating literature that is non-commercial makes a political statement and functions as a sort of literary activism, or is it a necessity to convey something fresh and different?

DHW: If my writing is political, it’s only for satirical effect. Politics, for me, is sheer entertainment. I don’t watch the news anymore because shows are completely dominated by commercials, but I read it, and it’s terrific, a bona fide theatre of absurdity. Donald Trump, for instance, is a riot. In every sense, he’s a caricature, like a Looney Tunes character. He’s orange. He’s loud and stupid-looking, with the lips of a mollusk, and this manic, almost ethereal hairdo, which seems to have a mind of its own. His lexicon belongs to a feral child. There’s nothing to parody or spoof – he’s already a cartoon. It’s unfortunate for everybody that he’s serious and takes himself seriously, and yet it makes him even funnier. I get the same enjoyment from reading his tweets as I do from watching Trailer Park Boys or South Park. He’s an extreme case, but all news is full of interesting, inane bullshit, despite the political stance of networks. Everybody needs ratings to stay alive, and people want to hear about the state of celebrities’ asses more than the state of the nation, let alone the world.

To more directly answer your question: I don’t think being political is contingent upon being novel. It’s not necessary at all, really, at least when it comes to commenting on current events. My efforts towards innovation have to do with language, narrative form, and the interactions between characters. If I consciously do anything, I try to destabilize and evade readers’ expectations. There’s a code to popular fiction. I write against it. In this capacity, I take a stance.

AK: Do you feel anyone’s shadow – maybe one of the Great Predecessors looming over you (or literature as a whole) that you wish would be gone?

DHW: Great question. A lot of authors feel like they’re writing in the shadow of somebody else, and I certainly used to, but not anymore. After a while you stop caring. You just do your thing and keep going until you lose interest. I kind of wish I would lose interest. There’s no reason I need to write so much at this point in my career. I’ve never gotten writer’s block. Part of me thinks I’ll lose my knack if I stop or take a break. But I should. I’d be happier. When I was in my early 20s, I wanted nothing more than to be a writer. Now it’s a habit I can’t break.

I published my first stories in the late 1990s. My first book, The Kafka Effekt, a collection of stories, came out in 2001. So I’ve been doing this for over 20 years now. As a young man, I read fiction voraciously and was in awe of just about any published author, although I had a big hankering for existentialism. Kafka loomed largest, but also Sartre, Camus, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Mann, Beckett – all those modernist European white guys. When I got into science fiction, I became obsessed with Steve Aylett and especially Philip K. Dick, both of whose work is starkly Kafkaesque. I guess everything goes back to Kafka for me.

I can’t remember the last novel I read for pleasure that I had never read before. These days, my fiction reading is limited to books I’m reviewing for magazines and journals. I do regularly read stories in The Café Irreal and a few other publications, but mostly I read biographies, historical nonfiction, and film and literary criticism. My younger self would be disappointed in me.

AK: Who and what excites you these days?

DHW: Frankly, I’m profoundly unimpressed by everybody. Too many people have overblown senses of self-importance. LMS (Little Man Syndrome) – it’s why violence exists. In fact, we’re all cut from the same turd. As I say in The Kyoto Man, “we all live and die and are forgotten.” If more people understood that they were not objectively special, the world would be a far better place.

Living in rural Ohio isn’t the best prescription for happiness, but it has perks. Well, two perks: safe neighborhoods and a low cost of living. Otherwise, I feel like I’m already dead. The landscape is flat and barren and so are the people that inhabit it. I stay here because of my daughters, who I co-parent with my ex-wife. It took years, but I’ve learned to cope, largely through meditation, mindfulness, and exercise.

Aside from my girls and writing, the most exciting thing in my life is my home gym, theatre, and espresso maker. It could be worse. And despite my bad attitude, I’m grateful for what I have and try not to take anything for granted. If you met me in real life, you’d never know I’m such a pisser. I always wear my mask in public. I usually even keep it on for myself.

AK: In 2014, you told Novelle that The Psychotic Dr. Schreber has been the big project that took years to do justice. What’s the next big thing for you?

DHW: Thanks for asking. Right now, I’m working on two book-length projects: a novel, Outré, and a monograph on the film Minority Report. The novel will be published by Raw Dog Screaming Press later in 2020; it’s finished, but I’ll continue to revise it for another few months. I just started doing research on the monograph, which will be part of Auteur Publishing’s Constellations series. Auteur is an imprint of Columbia University Press and publishes books on individual science fiction films for film scholars and college instructors. After that, I’ll return to a collection of plays that I need to complete, Jackanape and the Fingermen, and I’m conceiving of a sequel to Outré called Usurper. In addition, I have a backlog of smaller projects – reviews, essays, stories. I need to have multiple projects going at once. I’m a certified multitasker, and if I had to focus on just one piece of writing at a time, I’d never get anything done.

READ OUR REVIEW OF THE PSYCHOTIC DR. SCHREBER.

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