Vlad Savich: Today my interlocutor is Reb Livingston.
I won’t invent anything new and start the interview with a simple question. Reb, please, tell us a little about yourself.
Reb Livingston: These “tell me about yourself questions” are tricky. It’s often more telling what the person chooses to speak (and not speak) about than what they actually say. But OK, here goes. I’m a middle-aged American writer living in Northern Virginia right outside of Washington, DC. I prefer my 40s to all earlier decades. Youth is for dummies. My patience is limited for the willfully ignorant. As of late this is regularly tested. Our nation doesn’t seem properly equipped to handle this. Certainly I am not. My son turns 13 in a few weeks and is simultaneously the light and bane of my existence. I wish he’d take better care of his hair, teeth and skin. He’s very good looking and I’d like him to stay that way. I’ve been married to my husband for almost 22 years. Most of the time happily. He’s generous, smart, kind and tall. Too large for this small world.
I hoard three things: books, jewelry and perfume. I have no favorites. Hoarders love a great deal. My husband hoards wood, a true lumbersexual. My preferred exercise is hula hooping. I hoop while watching either “Hoarders” or “My 600 Pound Life.” I’m afraid of losing control. Also, I’m afraid of wasting my life.
When people ask, I tell them I’m a “cafeteria Pagan,” but I aspire to be a Gnostic. I’m searching for answers or guidance for some kind of mystery that I am unable to put into words. Usually I’m searching in texts. I read a great deal, not knowing what it is that I’m looking for. I don’t know what I’m doing and it shows. I regularly dream of being lost in a high school searching for classrooms and my locker. I’ve been absent for a long time. The other day I dreamed that I was in love with a long-forgotten high school crush, but his name wasn’t Timmy it was “Timmy Divinity.”
Anxiety is a regular component of my life. At one time I described it as a brain full of squirrels. A more accurate metaphor would be me sitting on a toilet with a hundred people rushing into the bathroom. My psyche has little respect for privacy and boundaries. It’s crowded and noisy in here.
VS: «chooses to speak» Tell me honestly. Do you like how you write and write exactly that you want?
RL: I tend to like the things I write after they are finished and published. But a lot of writing never gets finished, let alone published. That writing I don’t like (which is why I don’t finish it). As I’m writing, I usually hate everything I’m doing. If I like something while I’m writing it, I’m suspicious of my judgement. I have pretty mean inner critic.
VS: Shakespeare said «All the world’s a stage» Reb, can you tell me. What role do you play under the sun?
RL: I prefer the shadows, that’s where all the action happens. What happens on the stage is the distraction, where we’re being directed to look. I’d like to fancy myself the director, but that’s delusional. I’m a stagehand, maybe the person working the spotlight.
VS: «being directed» I’m a director, an actor, a playwright and I don’t understand Maybe you can explain to me. Tell me, as a writer, why people can’t realize an utopia and it’s easy to build an anti-utopia Russian – Putin. North Korea – Kim Jong-un. US – Donald Trump?
RL: Wow, challenging question. Maybe part of it goes back to willful ignorance. People don’t want the responsibility that comes with working for something greater than themselves or even what’s good for themselves. They’d rather have someone else “handle” it. Or give the illusion of handling it. They don’t want to know what’s in their sausage or who made their clothing, they just want to enjoy what they have. People don’t seem to want to think about difficult subjects or consider what goes into complicated solutions. They get upset if politics shows up in their sports, award shows or Facebook feeds. Some people might consider that freedom. A freedom from having to concern oneself with difficulty and challenge. So they pick or accept a blunt instrument as the solution and delude themselves with a father-knows-best attitude.
Also, I don’t think people agree on what an utopia would be. Would it be a society that allowed people to express themselves, warts and all or would it be a society where people behaved according to certain conventions? And what conventions are those? How does the utopia deal with inevitable misfits and threats? Accept as is? Integrate? Banish? I suppose I’m skeptical of the possibility of an utopia.
VS: I don’t agree with you. I saw how utopia becomes reality. Destruction of the USSR. The destruction of the Berlin Wall. The execution of the Ceausescu family. 40 years ago the USSR’s collapse was a wild utopia. Social justice interests you as a writer. Do you want to change the world with your books. How do you think, can art change the world?
RL: Maybe our definitions for utopia differs. Or our perceptions. Those events you mention I perceive as watershed moments that changed the course of society. But I wasn’t present to experience the events. I’m interested in what you mean when you call the USSR’s collapse a “wild utopia.” What was that like?
I think art changes individuals and individuals, together, change the world. Usually it’s a slow process, but potentially effective over a course of time. I certainly want to influence my readers who would then go on to impact the world (for good, I hope). If that did happen, I hope I’d still be alive to see it. Or at least in a place where I’d be aware.
VS: Reb, what do you think about it. There is male and female prose or there is no difference between them?
RL: I think prose can exhibit a variety of feminine and masculine traits (in the Jungian sense) just like individuals do. I’ve read too many authors to say women write like this and men write like that. There’s a great deal that influences our writing style and choices we make in regard subject matter, word choice, phrasing, etc. Some of it conscious, much of it unconscious.
I ran my answers to your questions at the Gender Guesser (http://www.hackerfactor.com/GenderGuesser.php) and it decided I was male. Go figure.
VS: Today is February 1. Boris Pasternak wrote a poem about February:
February. Get ink, shed tears.
Write of it, sob your heart out, sing,
While torrential slush that roars
Burns in the blackness of the spring.
Go hire a buggy. For six grivnas,
Race through the noice of bells and wheels
To where the ink and all you grieving
Are muffled when the rainshower falls.
To where, like pears burnt black as charcoal,
A myriad rooks, plucked from the trees,
Fall down into the puddles, hurl
Dry sadness deep into the eyes.
Below, the wet black earth shows through,
With sudden cries the wind is pitted,
The more haphazard, the more true
The poetry that sobs its heart out.
What do you know about Russian literature? Critics often talk about the special spirituality of Russian poetry and prose. What do you think about it?
RL: As I become more familiar with Russian literature, I am more drawn in. In college and graduate school I read the more (internationally) well-knowns like Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov and Anna Akhmatova which I admired, but didn’t develop strong connection to the texts. My youth and inexperience at the time probably was a major factor. It’s been decades since I read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, but I remember at the time being skeeved out by Humbert Humbert to the point where I can’t say I enjoyed the book. That’s a personal hang-up. I have trouble reading any fiction from the point-of-view of a child predator. No matter how wonderful and brilliant the prose or story might be.
More recently I’ve come across The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov which combines satire and spirituality in a really interesting way. A way I take as very Russian in sensibility: recognizing humor and, at times, the absurdity in the search for the divine. Or the search for anything, really. Along those lines, I find a lot of fantasy and science-fiction to have strong spiritual elements at play. I’m a fan of Ekaterina Sedia, most notably The House of Discarded Dreams and The Secret History of Moscow. The Blizzard by Vladimir Sorokin is sort of like a metaphysical satire of a journey of redemption that’s never achieved. Laurus by Evgenij Vodolazkin, Autobiography of a Corpse by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov are other examples I consider to loosely fit into this category.
VS: «Vladimir Sorokin, Evgenij Vodolazkin, Mikhail Elizarov»
I haven’t words to express my admiration! I take off my hat! You refresh my memory of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita.
Who seduced whom and how? Europe standing in as Humbert or America playing Lolita?
RL: I think Europe seduced itself and projected that onto America, which is more of an idea than anything else. America may not be innocent, but it does not fully understand where it finds itself.
VS: Fyodor Ivanovich Tyutchev, a Russian poet, said. «Blessed is he who visited this world at its most fateful moment…» Reb, are you happy about a visit to this world?
RL: Yes, of course, despite how anxious and fretful it makes me. I believe I’ve been here before many time and expect I’ll be returning soon enough. To me the world is a place of learning and experience. We’re here to make progress and work towards something more.
VS: «learning and experience» But all our learning and experience turns to dust. Experience is the skull of poor Yorick «Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy” Life is meaningless, but people still multiply. What for? Why they don’t stop this nonsense?
RL: Some of us believe we take the important lessons with us to build on for the next round. But it’s truly one of life’s mysteries and maybe the answer is simple or maybe there is no answer. Most people multiply for totally unrelated reasons or poor planning. Personally I don’t want the nonsense to stop. I hope to one day get a library card to access the Akashic Record.
VS: Reb, please, can you tell me. What is the secret of simple melodies?
RL: I think the secret is figuring out how to directly approach something complex, without being reductionist, and condense it into something can be understood differently on multiple levels. Sort of like religion, there’s interpretation and portrayal for the masses and then there’s the additional, deeper layers for those who delve in and dedicate themselves. I think of the 10 Commandments or the 7 Deadly Sins as “simple melodies”.
VS: When I was young 7 Deadly Sins were my weekend’s schedule. What do you think about our world: an unexpected accident, a divine creation, a virtual reality?
RL: It depends on what day it is. Often it feels like a science experiment, which is probably the same thing as divine creation. All creators are gods in their own way and usually the best (and the worst) that creators come up with is on accident: The Slinky, Play-Doh, X-Rays, Penicillin, Viagra . .
VS: You recently wrote a book. For me, the problem read your book. My fucking English. Tell me, please, this is a good book. Would you recommend me to take it to an uninhabited island?
RL: Bombyonder can be a challenging book for a native English speaker because it’s a “fractured narrative” meaning the story is told in fragments and various styles. The story is about a woman in the midst of a crisis who swallows her father’s latest invention, a bomb in pill form. When she does, her whole psyche goes kaboom (hence the fractured narrative). People who have a strong preference for a linear narrative or for things to make absolute ‘“sense” tend not to like it that much. More, I dunno, adventurous (???) readers accept the unconventional style and enjoy it. My adventurous aunt invented a Bombyonder drinking game. She has the eBook on her smartphone and takes it to parties and bars. Each person reads a page at random, then does a shot, takes a bite of food and yells “Bombyonder!” She says she can tell who’s smart because they’re the ones who enjoy the game and those who respond with “WTF?!?” apparently are not so smart. I take my aunt’s word for it.
So no, don’t take it to an island, take it to a bar and play the game.
VS: I see the benefits of mathematics, chemistry, physics, these sciences make life more comfortable. What is the benefit of the humanities and literature in particular?
RL: Aren’t the benefits the same as the sciences? To make life both comfortable and uncomfortable? I sooner turn to books than drink or drugs. Not that it always helps or has the answers I’m searching, but it’s where I look first. It’s one more way to try to make some kind of sense or meaning. Or sometimes it simply gives a momentary escape. Sometimes that’s enough.
VS: What do you think about our future?
RL: I believe in cycles, when something ends it’s to make way for something new to come. It can be sad, but its inevitable. Sometimes things return in new and unexpected ways. Bookstores in the US are that way. When I moved to my town in the mid-90’s, there was a really wonderful independent bookstore that promptly shutdown when Barnes & Noble and Books A Million moved in. Now both of those chains are closed and we have a new independent bookstore coming that started as a kiosk at the metro station. It won’t be the same as the independent store in the 90’s, it can’t be. There’s Amazon and ebooks to contend with. My town is full of book lovers. The problem is that retail space is expensive so it’s difficult for small businesses. This new store will have be evolved to stick around.
I think literature moves in cycles too, each cycle different than the last, but similar in many ways. I think we’re probably due for a new genre in the coming decades, what exactly I can’t say. But a lot is changing right now, how we read, how we access information and culture. Literature will continue to evolve.
VS: Do you write: plays, scripts, dialogue for serials. In general, how do you feel about visual genres?
RL: As an undergrad I spent several semesters studying playwriting, although I haven’t written plays since then. I find some visual genres interesting and have published work by other writers that I believe would fall into that category in Misfit Documents. A few years back there was interesting concept book published by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst. It’s was a novel with margin notes by two different readers communicating with each other, along with postcards and other miscellaneous findings. I really wanted to like the book, but the story felt flat for me and I couldn’t make myself continue reading it. But I really like the idea behind it, the unfolding of multiple mysteries inside one another, and hope to find something along the same line, but better executed.
VS: Thanks for the interview Reb. What do you want to wish our readers?
RL: Thank you, Vlad!
I hope our readers take time to read the Misfit Document section here at Queen Mobs:
Reb Livingston is the author of Bombyonder (Bitter Cherry Books 2014), God Damsel (No Tell Books 2010) and Your Ten Favorite Words (Coconut Books 2007). From 2004-2011 she was the editor of No Tell Motel, an online poetry magazine. These days she lives in Northern Virginia and curates the Bibliomancy Oracle. Reb is the Misfit Docs editor at Queen Mob's Teahouse. Vlad* Savich was born in the USSR, where he was educated, married and fathered his daughter. As soon as the chance appeared to leave, he did. At present he lives in Montreal, where he writes, directs for the theatre and breathes the air of freedom. He can be found online at savich.lit.com.ua.
*He prefers not to be called Vladimir, so as not to be associated with the disreputable activity of a certain barnardine Russian leader.