The Self That No One Chooses: A Q-and-A with Chris Dennis on “Here Is What You Do: Stories”




I MET CHRIS DENNIS 10 years ago in St. Louis — he’d been awarded the prestigious third-year fellowship at Washington University where I was starting my MFA. I remember throwing a party and setting off a trunkful of illegal fireworks with him in an alley behind my house, and thinking he was one of the funnest and funniest people I’d ever met.

His debut story collection, Here Is What You Do, came out this June with Soho Press. It’s dark, campy, and brilliant, with characters who feel like they’re desperately clawing themselves out of a metaphorical (and at one point, literal) hole in the ground. The title story, which came out in Granta in 2011, begins:

You wet your hair in the sink, then comb it back, slick as a new trash bag. You look nice. Okay, so your name is Ricky. You are twenty-three years old. People say you’re sweet. You say to them, “No, I’m not.” But you are. You know you are. You can’t help it. It’s like there’s a piece of candy hidden deep inside you and everyone is trying to find the easiest way to get it out.  

Like his character Ricky, Chris is very sweet, and also like Ricky, Chris was recently in jail for a drug-related charge. I interviewed Chris after he’d just been released; we talked about writing into our futures, speaking in tongues, and “the self that no one chooses.”

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KATYA APEKINA: Interviews are always these weird disembodied voices talking to each other. I like to be able to picture the people talking. Where are you right now? What were you doing right before you opened this email and sat down to write a response?

CHRIS DENNIS: I’m sitting at a covered picnic table. It’s raining. I just left an NA meeting. The topic today was “meaningful activities.” The facilitator wanted to hear about the things we enjoyed doing before drugs consumed our lives, or new things we’d like to do now that we’re sober. One guy, a cable repairman, said he has a baby grand piano at home that he’s rebuilding, and wants to teach himself to play. Another lady said there wasn’t much she liked to do now, except sometimes she plays ping-pong. I talked about how much I’ve missed writing, how it was something I did every day when I was sober, out of pure habit, but that last year I hardly wrote a sentence, and even though I’ve been sober seven months I’m still anxious about beginning again. Part of being a writer is thinking like a writer, and substance abuse changes the way you think. Also, I cannot get these lines from the Carl Phillips poem “ENTRY” out of my head:

How

much of what seems
deliberate isn’t, is

instead unavoidably

inherent, a fact
of character, of the self
no one chooses —

Do you think it applies to your work? Do you find yourself writing about the same subject from different angles?

I’m most struck by Carl Phillips’s idea of “the self that no one chooses” because I’m often writing about that too, and I’ve never heard it put quite that way. All of my characters seem at odds with their own nature. I think that’s the case for people in general. We’re often leveraging our best self against our worst self. We’re compulsive, or compelled by something we’re often only on the verge of comprehending. Having suffered from severe depression most of my life, I feel tricked by own perceptions of the world. Which is the lie of the self and which is the lie of the world? Or the truth of either? Self-destruction is fascinating partly because very few people are actually suicidal, but every person at some point or another acts against their own self-interest. Some do it constantly. It’s not outright suicide. More like a dangerous test. What, exactly, are we trying to destroy? What part of ourselves? Perhaps we’re curious to discover if by killing one particular thing, by following some dark massacre to its outer limits, what we might be left with. This selective annihilation is one way of learning how to endure the self no one chooses.

I’m rereading your stories now, and they’re so damn good. I wonder, with the title story (a second-person story about a man in jail on a drug charge) — you wrote that before you went to jail. How do you feel about it now that you’ve experienced what he’s been through? I wrote a story about being pregnant long before I was pregnant, and I was looking at it recently and thought, oh, I wasn’t far off. It was almost more right without the weight of my own boring experience attached to it — I didn’t end up imagining an experience very similar to my own, but it seemed plausible enough. Would you have written that first story now?

About writing one’s own future: Oscar Wilde wrote a long, devastating letter while he was in prison, aptly titled, “From the Depths.” It was to his lover, who had basically instigated his arrest and incarceration. In it, he talks about the things he wants to write about after he is released, of how the experience has altered his perception of the world so deeply that he’ll never be the same sort of writer he was before prison. The letter, though, was one of the last things he wrote. He died shortly after his release. I wrote the title story 10 years ago. But was arrested for the first time last year, right after I sold the book, and spent over six months in jail for possession of a controlled substance. He was imprisoned for two years, in the late 1800s. Very different experiences, but I certainly understand how deprivation and bleak conditions and violence might permanently bend your understanding of the world. There’s plenty of shocking research on the institutionalized mind. Another exceptionally moving moment in the letter comes when he discusses the ways his work “foreshadowed and prefigured” his own horrible future.

I think I also mostly got it right in the title story of my book, unfortunately, but, like you said, without the crushing tedium. Incarcerated men aren’t all developing sexual relationships with one another, by any means, but it happens more than I would have even expected, and for men who don’t in any way identify as gay. They are in a constant state of agitation and longing, as are many of the correctional officers. The inmates are often directing their rage at one another in strange ways, both mentally and physically. Wilde says, “At every single moment of one’s life one is what one is going to be no less than what one has been. Art is a symbol, because man is a symbol.” I’m sure part of what you were prefiguring about motherhood came from an understanding of the mother you might become. I always think that writing is an exercise in empathy — toward others or toward our various past and future selves.

Do you think about parenthood when you’re writing?

All the time. Every story in the collection deals with the interchanging roles between parents and their children. Being my son’s father is the most important thing I’ve ever done, and has likely had the most influence on my writing. “This Is a Galaxy” is in many ways a tragic love story about fatherhood.

I think about being a child more than I think about being a mom. I remember things now from when I was my daughter’s age.

I’ve started to feel a kind of empathy toward my child-self that I had never considered before becoming a parent, the desire to nurture and protect the most vulnerable parts of myself. 

There are butchers and meat in a lot of the stories.

My grandparents owned a slaughterhouse. And I stayed with them a lot, so I kind of grew up around that industry. That was part of “Nettles” and “This Is a Galaxy” too. I was thinking about that time a lot, about being around dead animals, about watching hundreds of animals being killed. I was a sensitive kid, so those moments stuck with me. This guy used to come and collect the parts they didn’t use. The offal. And I would always get in the back of the truck, in this lift on the truck, and it was disgusting, all those organs, but I was so fascinated by it. I look back at that time with confusion and wonder.

Were you ever religious?

My family was Pentecostal. I grew up attending a church that has since been recognized as a cult. We were always preparing for the apocalypse. There were upward of 10 Gospel Assembly churches in the Midwest, and our reverend was over all of them. He was considered a prophet, and nearly all the brothers and sisters in our congregation had an 11-by-14-inch portrait of Reverend Brother Jolly hanging prominently in their home. We were discouraged from associating with anyone who wasn’t a member. We spoke in tongues, and believed the Holy Spirit was a presence who, if you allowed it, could possess and control your body. We stopped going when I was maybe 12 years old, after Brother Jolly was indicted for embezzlement and dozens of counts of child sexual abuse.

Do you feel like writing is speaking in tongues?

There was the belief that through the power of the Holy Spirit we were speaking a language we did not know, defining things we couldn’t define in our native tongue. There was often a senior member of the congregation who would “translate.” A huge part of writing for me is not really knowing what I’m doing or what’s going to happen. In that way, it’s like speaking in tongues, not knowing exactly what’s on the other side of the sentence that I’m in, following the rhythms of the language. I usually don’t understand what I’ve made until the 20th revision, after I’ve translated the peculiar mystery of those early drafts. I like that feeling. Writing well means I’ve made something I did not think I was capable of. I’m too neurotic and confused most of the time, but when it’s good, it’s so much better than me.

A lot of the stories in the collection are set in rural places. What was it like where you grew up?

There are many small towns and villages surrounded by farmland and the Shawnee National Forest. I think there’s a sense of loneliness when you live in a rural community that has stuck with me. You’re isolated but you’re also surrounded by remote natural beauty. Living here can be difficult. There’s very little diversity. You don’t have access to good education, to employment, good mental health care. But also there’s a spirit of self-sufficiency and quietness about the landscape that defies technology and time. Growing up as a gay person in a rural community … it just seems so wrong to me now. It was in many ways a nightmare for me as a gay child in a small conservative town. When I encounter young LGBTQ people here now, I want to tell them, “Run! Go now! Don’t look back.”

What do you think about ghosts?

I hadn’t realized there were ghosts in so many of these stories. I don’t think that I believe in ghosts. Or at least I say that. Well, what is a ghost? 

I don’t know. It could be a lot of different things. There are some people who say they have seen ghosts. As a writer, I always see how much I can lean into something that I don’t necessarily believe in just to see where it goes.

I do that all the time, too. I am totally open to considering just about anything. I absolutely believe in the possibility of other dimensions. I’ve just been thinking, and this is related to “Dioramas,” I’ve been thinking a lot about other worlds. It sounds so kooky. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it has to do with mental illness, a little bit? I’m not trying to discredit our strange, vast universe. There are times when reality feels so fragile, so slippery. I’ve been reading about cosmic rays, how they’re constantly falling to earth, altering things on a cellular level. And they interfere with electronics all the time. The idea seems so interdimensional to me. It’s comforting in some ways, because nothing in reality makes sense a lot of the time. I like to write the line between what I do know, staying as close to it as possible, while still reaching a hand out into the, as yet, inconceivable darkness.

Reading the collection over again, do you feel like there’s a central question that you’re trying to understand? Something that your stories are circling?

Yeah. One of the reviewers said the stories seem “possessed by that feral clarity that comes when you’re about to take your last last chance.” Which is absolutely something I’m always thinking about: mortality, grief, redemption, the best and worst ways to love ourselves and one another. All the characters feel like they’re racing toward a vantage point of diminishing options, like the world is about to burn down, and they are trying to either come to terms with it, or stop it, or more often, madly throwing everything around them into the flames.

Do you read all your reviews?

There’s no way I couldn’t. I don’t know what I’ve written until someone else tells me. [Laughs.]

What’s it been like seeing the book? Does seeing all the stories together in one place change them for you?

Somehow, in this electronic era, where music and movies and even money exist only as data, this book did not seem entirely real until I could hold it, all together, and turn the pages. I spent over a decade writing on computers and cell phones I’ve since thrown away, napkins, notebooks, pulled off to the side of the interstate to write on the backs of unpaid utility bills, on my son’s homework, on Post-it notes stuck to various bedroom walls, in libraries, coffee shops, bathrooms, classrooms, in jail, in dozens of cities and weird little towns. And here it is. Reading them as a collection helped me to appreciate my own tendencies better, to realize the imperative of storytelling. I had no choice but to write. I couldn’t not do it. The stories are linked in ways I hadn’t recognized before, like variations on a theme. Each of the central characters is involved in a somewhat tumultuous relationship with their own subconscious, so that it feels like I’m telling the same story over and over again, but from alternate points of view.

I guess everyone is, right? Do you have a favorite story in your collection? Do you think that’s like asking if you have a favorite child?

Yeah, it is. Though everyone probably does. But there are different things that endear your children to you. The last story in the book, “Dioramas,” is the one I still think of most often, likely because it is also the most recent. If the stories are siblings, then “Dioramas” is the Janet Jackson of the family. What attracts me to Pam, that story’s protagonist, is the same thing I admire most in people, a spirit of miraculous innovation, a person’s ability to dream beyond their pain, to touch the unreal. I think it’s that rebellion against life that ultimately forges a person’s individuality.

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Katya Apekina is a novelist, screenwriter and translator. Her novel, The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, was named a Best Book of 2018 by Kirkus, Buzzfeed, Literary Hub, and others, and was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. She lives in LA.


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