Beyond Fan Fiction: Rewriting and Distorting The Shining
DW Gibson Speaks with Lonely Christopher About his New Novel, THERE
I first heard about Lonely Christopher’s novel THERE from the author Joshua Furst who was Lonely’s teacher when the manuscript garnered the 2009 Pratt Institute Writing Program Thesis Award for Fiction. Several years after the book’s auspicious beginning, Josh and I co-founded the Writers’ Collective of Kristiania, and when we decided to start publishing, Josh was pushing to make THERE the group’s first book. I think I resisted at first, the way we tend to resist known options, always seeking to ferret out the undiscovered band instead of listening to the group that everyone is already raving about. But that all changed when I read Lonely’s text. Then I was elated to jump on board with this exciting title.
Discovering THERE was like encountering something strangely familiar yet unlike anything I’d ever read. I still haven’t quite figured out how this is possible. I think all of the emotion, all of the loneliness and isolation and conflicted feelings of a fraught relationship seem familiar; it’s Lonely’s approach to language and his deconstruction of The Novel that feels much more like uncharted territory.
I remember Hemingway saying in an interview that every time he started a story or novel he set out to create something new, which always struck me as hilarious because so much of his work comes from the same place—same style, same sensibility, same life experiences, as is the case with so many writers. When I read THERE I knew I was experiencing what Hemingway was pining for as a writer: an entirely new kind of text.
I had the pleasure of editing THERE with Lonely, and with the book out now we had the chance to talk about the ideas and challenges that drove the project.
DW Gibson: What was the point of origin for THERE? Did the idea evolve as you worked? If so, how?
Lonely Christopher: The project came out of learning what fiction was, how it functioned, what it could do. It’s what I went to school for. I had been doing short stories and I wanted to write a novel. There was no pressure to deliver anything specific, or in a particular tradition, so I had the latitude to investigate and interrogate the form and sort of define it for myself.
So I was coming from an intellectual, structural place at the outset. That’s why I was comfortable with throwing out the writing process, as it is generally understood, and using a different way to generate a text. Many fundamental aspects of the craft didn’t appeal to me at the time. I didn’t enjoy producing anything that resembled “literary fiction.” I was reading a lot of theory, doing a lot of drugs, and excited to attempt something different. Once I locked in the conceit the process was unwavering. I didn’t try to change or develop what I was doing. I let the source material direct the text to some extent and my focus was on the level of the sentence not the scene and the paragraph not the chapter.
When I returned to the manuscript almost ten years after starting it, I didn’t have to be precious about anything in the final revision. It couldn’t be edited in the same way as a novel with more plot and structure, but the methodological element didn’t restrict me from rewriting and I never went back to the source material after the first draft. I am now more interested in the book as a story than a procedural experiment. I like how it functions as the fucked up anti-narrative of a troubled married couple living in a house, or something about addiction, or emotional abuse. When I was younger I wasn’t concerned about any of that, just the technical side.
DWG: It’s interesting to hear a little bit about how you worked on that first draft, engaging the source material as you wrote. Can you tell us more about the logistics of how you worked with the source material? And why did you decide to cut yourself off from it after that first draft?
LC: The book can be read as a self-contained “novel,” but it’s more than that. I used another text conceptually, structurally, and materially to generate a resultant yet original work. That’s what I mean by “source.”
The text that I was utilizing was the novel The Shining by Stephen King and the subsequent media iterations and interpretations and its cultural ubiquity. So I wrote my story in relation to another, more specifically on top of it. I took the basic tropes of The Shining and replicated and subverted them, and I also took chunks of language and interwove material pieces of Stephen King’s novel. The tortured author husband with a substance abuse problem and writer’s block, there’s something that I use that’s predicated on The Shining, for example. I’ve never read this book, but when I was writing the first draft of my novel I had a copy of The Shining in my lap and was actively using it to some extent or another the entire time. It was an almost trancelike process. There were drugs involved. I don’t remember much. Stephen King, who himself is an addict in recovery, says there are books of his he just does not remember writing. He was too coked out, I guess. I think Cujo is one of those.
After the first draft the source text had served its purpose. The book is not a straight-up erasure, where all the language comes from the source exclusively and each word appears in the order it was written or printed. I have written poems like that, it’s a different concept. There was no constraint in place that mandated I continue to use The Shining while revising THERE. To stop didn’t injure my intention.
“I wrote my story in relation to another, more specifically on top of it.”
DWG: You’ve described this book as “intertextual.” Tell us a little bit more about this book’s relationship to other literature.
LC: The book is a concerted rejection of the standards of any type of literature, so in that way it is reacting to the formal elements it eschews, and interacting with readerly expectations as well as the history of the medium.
I guess the reason why this isn’t “fan fiction” is because, first of all, it’s not enjoyable in the same way and then it’s vaguely academic. Aesthetically speaking, it owes much to Stein, Beckett, Robbe-Grillet, and Bernhard. Intellectually, it has a relationship to Barthes, Foucault, Derrida, Debord, and especially Baudrillard. So it is having conversations with different texts in different ways.
DWG: Have you ever had the opportunity to engage Stephen King about THERE? Any clue about what he might think of it?
LC: It’s obvious I didn’t feel I needed to ask his permission. We’ve never crossed paths. I am in no way affiliated with him. He does not know me. I don’t think I even know anyone who knows him. We are distant in the scheme of things. He’s been a worldwide bestseller longer than I’ve been alive.
I’m a social worker, with an adjective for a first name, who writes obscure poetry. I’m not trying to use his notoriety to attract undue attention. I’m not plagiarizing him or violating his copyright. His work is meaningful to me. I don’t know much about him beyond having read a dozen or so of his books as a kid, one of which was a memoir. I think his was the first sobriety narrative that I ever encountered. We’re both alcoholics who don’t drink. But I read about his problem before mine even began.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he were to be annoyed were he to learn about all this. There’s nothing that I know about him that would indicate he would be interested or amused. I don’t think it’s important he know about my plotless novel. I wouldn’t want to bother or offend him. I don’t know if I have a good answer as to why I chose The Shining for this project, except that it is iconic. In some ways, it doesn’t matter. It could have been any text or it could have been a different treatment of a different text.
DWG: This book is not a “horror story” in a conventional sense because it does not call upon the traditional motifs of the genre—blood and guts, physical fright—but rather the horror seems to be largely internalized in subtle action. How would you describe the horror of this novel? What’s the significance of identifying this novel as a horror story?
LC: When I endorse this book as a “horror story” I don’t mean to position it in a lineage that includes Stephen King and others who have defined the genre. It’s not successful in that sense. I’m doing something to that lineage, spooky mass-market fiction, but I’m attacking rather than propagating it. Not in a malevolent way but rather “the manner of beginning to play.” The horror present in THERE is interpersonal and existential. It’s horrible to read, what happens to Jack and Wendy is horrifying, that sort of thing. Maybe I’m being bratty because I’m using familiar terms in repurposed fashion. I think there is a lot of dread present in the text—and that the situation portrayed between Jack and Wendy is scary. I think being out of control is frightening and that’s where those characters are, especially Jack, sort of suspended in a timeless moment of crisis.
Although, you know, Stephen King is a solid, prolific writer who deserves his exalted status as a household name. And I know that his dominion extends beyond possessed cars, evil cellphones, and rampaging hedge animals. Off the top of my head, I think that Gerald’s Game is mostly about a woman handcuffed to a bed, “1408” has a man destroyed alone in a hotel room, and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon features a youngster lost in the woods.
There are many different ways to be frightened. In a sense it’s all psychological. I’m not trying to disrespect or pass judgment on a genre, but I definitely wanted to take “the horror novel” out into the woods like a child destined to become a serial killer playing with a dead cat, tearing it open out of curiosity about what it looks like on the inside.
“There are many different ways to be frightened. In a sense it’s all psychological.”
DWG: Time and space do not function conventionally in the book. Why is that?
LC: There was no advantage to telling this story in a linear fashion. Jack and Wendy’s relationship is as fractured and destabilized as their ability to exist in time and space or the functionality of time and space within the walls of their home.
I wanted to resist catching into a comfortable groove, or progressing or developing through narrative structure, so everything must jump around a lot, with scenes changing location between sentences and something like a simple conversation starting at one time then ending years later. When a scene extends into an episode, with cause and effect reasserting itself, the action is unnaturally emphasized—so Jack going into the bathroom and doing drugs becomes this in depth ritual that you can coherently track through space and time, it almost threatens to solidify into a story, but the severe dysfunction of the two characters can never sustain that.
This book does not have a beginning, middle, or end. The final words mirror the opening ones so that they could be connected, rendering the novel continuous, like a Möbius strip.
DWG: The tradition of a “novel of manners” seems to have had more significance in the 18th and 19th centuries. What attracted you to this modality? What does it offer readers?
LC: I feel that I am redefining the term more than directly engaging with that genre. The connection is nominal. The definitions of the word “manners” that are more important to the project are, per Merriam-Webster, “mode of procedure or way of acting” and “habitual conduct.”
Jack and Wendy are readable as inhabiting a specific social position—being the white middle class—but they are decontextualized to the point where that’s at least not the emphasis. What I mean by the subtitle is that the subject of this book is how we conduct ourselves. Telling a story via discrete behaviors, rather than a more holistic or socialized narrative. The way rather than the why. Jack and Wendy only have each other to react to, they don’t exist within a larger sociopolitical structure. In a way it’s about the society that two people form when they are together, but my intention wasn’t dystopian.
In terms of the contemporary relevance of an antiquated literary mode, since the White House is besieged by a mad king and his sycophantic, backstabbing courtiers, I feel like we’ve been enacting a super nihilistic version of a comedy of manners in real life. I hope heads will roll!
DWG: From your lips to God’s ears. It is true that there isn’t any real sociopolitical structure for Jack and Wendy—perhaps in large part because they are removed from society, which felt refreshing to me as a reader. The current political environment makes society feel like it’s driving force is the dehumanization of the individual. This book goes in the opposite direction. It feels like a crash course in humanizing two complicated, tormented people untethered to any one culture or political framework. Do you think this decontextualization completely uproots THERE from American or Western psyches? Or is there something inextricable about a your own cultural context when it comes to the work you produce?
LC: I consider all of my work to be political, in a way that I hope is meaningful, and which expresses a vehement hatred and critique of late capitalism. Jack and Wendy are displaced from their society but are, through their behavior and the dynamics of their relationship, indelibly recognizable as politicized subjects.
It’s always “Jack and Wendy” and never “Wendy and Jack,” for instance, because they are trapped in this misogynistic feedback loop. Inequitable power differentials. Jack is both repulsed by and attracted to Wendy; he both needs her and needs to destroy her. I’m not glorifying that behavior but exhausting it. Showing it to be pathetic. Lacking any external source of intervention, Jack is spiraling into his worst self. Wendy knows this but is still compelled to engage him. She doesn’t have a particular status, like that of “writer,” to coalesce around. She tries to define herself in relation to Jack. She requires another person to contribute to her sense of self and wellness, which don’t we all, but he is the only one available.
Jack’s human impulses are being corrupted by drugs. He is in a battle between the isolation of addiction, which has fused to his identity as a writer, and the emotional responsibilities inherent in romantic cohabitation. Wendy is looking for something but the only thing she locates is somebody who doesn’t want to be found. They created a child together who is more of an idea than a presence, who they can’t manage to solidify into existence beyond speech. The past and the future disintegrate around the thrumming, constant present.
For me today, this is an honest portrayal of a toxic relationship, it just renounces the tactics of realism and mimesis. Absence is a major theme, also, which I tried to use as a force of implication. Something that’s not there can still haunt us. In terms of the inextricability of cultural context, I am a queer American and that is fundamental to my identity. There’s no intention to be post-national or globalist. I reflect the culture and politics in which I am subsumed. No escape.