Two thousand twelve is here and with it a phenomenal new installment of our online fiction series. Charting new territory in both content and form, our January 2012 web exclusive, “An Introduction to Cosmography, Parts 1 through 5” by Kelly Ramsey, is the perfect send-off for our voyage into the wilds of a new year. And speaking of newness, we’re pleased this month to announce the introduction of visual elements into our web publications; this month’s story includes a beautiful, whimsical illustration by the artist Jules Buck Jones. You can check it all out on the ASF website, and be sure to read our interview with Kelly Ramsey below. Happy New Year—and happy reading!
1. Tell us about the genesis of “An Introduction to Cosmography, Parts 1 through 5.” Where did the idea for this story come from?
At least in part, the idea came from my first reading of a nonfiction book since I slept through Mr. Brutout’s U.S. History class in the eleventh grade. I started reading Alan Taylor’s American Colonies and learned about all the species the Paleo-Indians found when they migrated to what we now call America: the mammoth, the mastodon, the bison (all creatures I vaguely remembered) and, lo and behold, the giant beaver. I was amused—amusement being one of my prime motivations to write. At some point I read about Cosmographiae Introductio, the publication that first mentioned the name “America” and the full title of which translates roughly as “Introduction to Cosmography With Certain Necessary Principles of Geometry and Astronomy To which are added The Four Voyages of Amerigo Vespucci A Representation of the Entire World, both in the Solid and Projected on the Plane, Including also lands which were Unknown to Ptolemy, and have been Recently Discovered.” How great is that? I think I only read about eighteen pages of any historical source, being naturally disposed to nod off in the presence of nonfiction, but I woke in the night thinking of Vespucci, wondering what his life was like. And so, the story.
2. What do you think you and/or your writing gains when you look to history for content?
History is such a rich palette of character and language. I think my writing gains depth (of detail) and contrast (in language and syntax) from the incorporation of “real” historical documents into a faux historical narrative. The risk is always that the fiction will stray too close to life, but I avoid that by keeping my research casual, superficial, or incomplete. I listened to a biography of Vespucci on tape while driving to work or to pick up a jar of salsa, but I share a car with my boyfriend so I’d only hear every third chapter or so. This was incredibly confusing. But if I were an expert on the character’s life, I’d have no reason to write; there’d be nothing left to invent. Vespucci’s real letters were almost too good, so I felt I could only use part of one and then only if I altered its meaning substantially through selective erasure. This little bit of purloined language, and the way the man bragged about everything he took by force or consumed, gave me the idea of Vespucci stealing all the pearls from the New World for Medici. So the historical letter gave rise to the Third Voyage, an almost totally fabricated letter.
3. This is an experimental piece—the structure, narrative, the formatting all challenge our expectations for a short story. Can you talk a little bit about your process for writing a story like this? Did you set out with a goal to write something unconventional or did the story just come to you in this form?
Paragraphism, a movement which I recently founded and which nobody knows about, interests me a great deal, being so totally opposed to this kind of quotidian realism that is verging on true domestication for the first time, really, in the history of fiction. Paragraphism has plenty of unknowing adherents who I imagine are already changing the face of the literary landscape like so many Daphnes’ outstretched arms hardening into trees. In Paragraphism, nobody has the time to describe to you what Linda is feeling as she stands washing a dish before the kitchen window. A door slams, and Linda knows who has left. End of story.
But to answer your question: a little bit of both. My writing is always somewhat unconventional by default, but I also set the formatting deliberately with an image in my mind of the skinny vertical columns of informative text that often accompany old National Geographic maps. I wanted the text to be less an expansive plain on the page and more a taught, cryptic guide on the periphery of some wider visual experience. A map to the map, maybe. This idea shaped the narrative leaps, too, because I wanted to touch upon a major moment and then zoom across time and space to another—from Ptolemy writing the first piece of music theory to the children playing near Vespucci’s deathbed—like points on a tour. Then again, I may be making this up in hindsight. I felt my way along, went on my nerve as Frank O’Hara would say, and in the end it’s all too facile to package the process as wholly deliberate.
4. Who do you look to for inspiration when it comes to experimenting with your writing? Anyone who gives you confidence to try new things in your fiction?
Yes! There are current writers who give me confidence, because they write in new or reimagined ways and are actually published, read, hired to teach, etcetera. Lydia Davis comes to mind; I admire her tremendously. Kelly Link is also great, and I love that she’s made a double career for herself with Small Beer Press. Dead writers inspire me equally, however—particularly Richard Brautigan. Now I acknowledge that some of his work is lazy or downright glib, but some of it’s sheer genius, and he was making work in the ‘60s that our current “experimental” writers and the proponents of flash as oh so daring and out-there could barely dream of. He was the second master of the paragraph, after Rimbaud and before Charles Simic. I’m also inspired by poets—mostly those writing in prose.
5. The fragmentation of this story is one of its great strengths, I think. Reading it feels a bit like sorting through the contents of an archive or digging through some long-lost treasure chest. Because it’s told in parts—each distinct in focus or time or voice—it requires a kind of piecing together on the part of the reader. How do you build a story in parts? How do you decide what’s essential and where to leave gaps in the narrative?
Good question. I don’t know, exactly. I want to say it’s intuitive, but that feels like a cop-out. Originally there were more sections, and I had these blank pages where a hole in the story was supposed to be filled in, “Vespucci’s childhood” or something like that. But in the end, I felt like the story was finished without those (and besides, Vespucci was a fairly unremarkable child and a mediocre student). When a section is essential it feels whole and round, a ripe fruit; it echoes other moments but illuminates some element of character that is not repeated elsewhere. A weak section jars and requires additional writing rather than excision—you can test for weakness by removing the passage and seeing whether you miss it. In this case I cut and trimmed and felt that I simply couldn’t add to the weird skeletal story that remained. This is often considered a weakness of my writing—that I write the barest, most suggestive version of the story and feel completely incapable of filling in the color of scarf someone was wearing, the necessary dialogue, or the sweaty chase through the dappled woods that would create some suspense and move the reader appropriately. I want to make someone weep, but I simply can’t do things in the straight-and-narrow way. I alternate between wrestling with myself and trying to write quiet, interior twenty-seven page stories, and on the other hand saying: forget it. This is what I’ve got. Paragraphs.
6. What’s on your plate for 2012? What are you working on next?
Well, I live on a small island in the Atlantic where I’ve just cofounded a fellowship program and arts collective called the Lighthouse Works. In 2012 we’re hoping to open a letterpress shop, start a little literary zine, host the next two or three rounds of fellowships and form a strong advisory board. In an ideal world, of course.
Writing-wise, I’m working on a story involving an abandoned military bunker, a blind person, and some big feral cats. For unclear reasons it has a lot to do with deBroglie’s equation predicting that all matter exhibits wavelike motions. I’m working on a longer project, but the principles of Paragraphism and my own limitations, I mean gifts, dictate that I must proceed three to five clauses at a time. So the book should be done in approximately the time of four transatlantic crossings. By sea.