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David Gordon on Desperate Characters, Online Sex Chats, and His Sickly Childhood

I interviewed the writer about his new collection, <i>White Tiger on Snow Mountain</i>, and all sorts of other things.


Photo by Michael Sharkey

A couple years ago, I read David Gordon's story "Man-Boob Summer" in the Paris Review. Though I don't like the word boob, much less man boob, I started reading it anyway because it was the first story in that issue, and fell for it when the narrator describes an intense and bizarre sympathy for a stranger who at a community pool lowers herself into a Jacuzzi with him. Gordon writes:

I saw how her thighs were scored with the plastic pattern of her chair. The marks looked like welts, like someone had whipped her, and even though I knew it was only from sitting and reading Us magazine, I instantly felt something sorrowful and wounded about her, like there was always smoke in her eyes, smoke only she could smell, or else she was allergic to something that was there around us but that I was too crude to sense.

As the story progresses and the narrator becomes involved with a teenage lifeguard, what seems to be a male fantasy come true is jarred by a horror-inducing confession before it shifts back into a familiar sense of reality. As with Gordon's other stories and novels, this shifting between the inside and outside of the characters' heads is deftly-and at times profoundly-handled. Sometimes, the splashes of terror one experiences as a reader are almost palpable, like you've dipped your hand into water you thought was room temperature but is actually ice cold. Yet the stories are also funny and moving and even tender. Gordon writes about love, sex, isolation, disconnection, loss, intrigue, writing itself, and, as he puts it, what is "compelling and mysterious to him personally."

In the title story of David Gordon's new collection White Tiger on Snow Mountain, a protagonist who fears he is impotent gets exotic alternative treatments for his problem and becomes involved with two masochistic women online. Though the story very much involves sex, it's the least sexy thing Gordon has written, and probably the most disturbing. What at first seems like a humorous dalliance in the online world of S&M becomes a sad and harrowing mystery. 

I spoke with Gordon over email about how it's hard not to read online sex stories, being sickly as a child, and why he imagines his readers as people he will never meet but happen to find his books and feel like they were left just for them.

VICE: I notice that throughout your collection, the stories are colored with elements of fantasy and horror. What is the relationship between these two, as you see it? And why did you chose to become a writer who somewhat straddles the line between literary fiction and genre, with the former keeping the upper hand?
David Gordon: The relationship between fantasy and horror? Well, I suppose as genres they are distinct, with Narnia at one end and Stephen King at the other, but they merge around the supernatural. In fact, all of these genres melt together for me because the influence is so fundamental, which is to say from early childhood. These were among the first real books I read: horror, sci-fi, fantasy, crime.

I never thought I was straddling genres really, I just tried to write fiction and that was what I came up with. If it is "literary," then that has to do I think with the primary impulse behind writing. You said the end of [my story] "I Think of Demons" freaked you out, and I was really pleased because affecting the reader that way feels like an achievement and it was very hard to pull off. But if you hadn't been scared, it wouldn't mean the story failed. Another friend told me he had to stop reading because he was laughing too much and that felt great too, but again-the work doesn't depend on that. If you are a standup comic and no one laughs-you failed. If you write Horror with a capital H, the point is to give people goosebumps. And so on. And these things are incredibly hard to do, if you try them. But for me something else is primary, so the choices I am making when writing may not be the one that leads to a laugh or chill or whatever. I'm trying to learn all I can from those books, but use it to express something else that is more compelling and mysterious to me personally, and that for lack of another word, I might as well call literature.

Speaking of what you "might as well call literature"-one of your stories is titled "Literature I Gave You Everything and Now What Am I?" I'm curious about what exactly "literature" is to you.
In that story I started out joking, though perhaps in a bitter way, with a character I imagined as the ultimate sour, struggling writer who combined all the most grouchy aspects of my otherwise very nice writer friends.

That said, I do think I had a sense of a "vocation" of sorts. I felt that I absolutely had to be a writer at an absurdly young age, like first or second grade, and just dedicated myself to that. Not to mention showing no interest or aptitude for anything else. Then a couple decades go by and you think, what have I gotten myself into? Does it make sense to do this with your life? In my case the answer was-why not? What else would I do?

I feel an intense connection to the books and writers I love and even like their actual presence there on the shelf.

I am not a religious person at all in the usual sense. It seems to be completely contrary to my nature, but I do think that it is helpful to think of yourself as part of something bigger than you. So maybe I am trying to see writing as a small contribution to something bigger. The reader, I imagine, is the person I will never meet who just finds my book somewhere and feels like it was left just for them.

So literature then is maybe the answer to a type of spiritual loneliness and longing? That connects all of us. That sustains literature. That literature both answers but also perpetuates maybe...
Yes, I think you are right. You put it better than me.

Speaking of which-loneliness and longing seem to me to be part of what drives WTOSM. How did the title story-which starts with the sentence "Last fall I became impotent"-come about?
Actually the story evolved very slowly. In real life I've gone to acupuncturists for many years, for everything from running injuries to allergies, and I always wanted to write about it. Also the whole world of online sex talk, sex ads, sex chatter, whatever... it is this new part of the culture that is there to be written about, the same way telephone conversations start appearing in books. The odd thing is that it is literally a "text" event, people writing to each other, so on that level it seemed very compelling to me, as powerful language to work with on the page. Why I felt these things belonged in a story... I don't know.

The story was like this box that these items just seemed to go in together. Some of the narrative choices were almost arbitrary to begin with: I didn't want to spend my time writing about a guy wacking off at a computer, so I thought maybe he's too shut down for that even. But then I didn't want to write like an "issue" story about a medical problem, so I made his self-proclaimed diagnosis really dubious. We're never quite sure what's wrong with him. I just asked myself, Who is this guy? What's his problem really? And I do think it is a kind of despair that he is in. He is feeling for one solution after another-maybe it is sex, maybe it is smoking, and so on. It's a winter of despair that we live through with him. I liked that his sex life, while intense, becomes verbal and nonphysical, a phantasm, while the healing that occurs is nonverbal and totally nonsexual but based on human touch.

That is the thing about these sex chats or texts. Even when it is creepy or nearly illiterate, it is hard not to read it, which makes it inherently interesting to me as a writer. I have to respect it somehow. The same with curse words. At their best they are literally "curses," like magic spells, which connects to the root of poetry and language. Like maybe the first word was some caveman burning himself on the first fire and going, "Fuck!"

I see this interest in reconnecting what is disconnected in your stories. What is your first memory of feeling disconnected? Mine is probably allergies. As a child I had terrible allergies that caused me to feel imprisoned in my body, that dulled and irritated my senses, made me not want to be seen. I got shots. I identified with the kid in your story "Vampire of Queens" who is "allergic to the world."
Really? As you might know I was a pretty sickly kid and suffered from allergies too.

Yeah. I'm sort of leading the witness here...
I exaggerate the scene in the vampire story, but I really did once fend off a grade school bully by threatening to cough on him. This kind of chronic stuff-bronchitis, red swollen eyes, and so forth-separated me from the world, literally, since I was inside, reading books, and never played sports and so forth, which added to my shyness and sense of being alien. It also made me feel disconnected from my body because it made my physical self a kind of untrustworthy enemy. I felt like it was hard to think or even experience things when I couldn't breathe properly or my skin was covered in rashes and so forth. I used to wake up with my eyes sealed shut and think I was blind. No doubt that also helped make me awkward and anxious. I also have to think it helped make me a writer-I was the classic skinny, pale, bookish nerdy dweeb, spacing out at recess while the ball bounced off my head.

Any advice for the disconnected?
I do think that, ideally, writing can be a way of creating a kind of live emotional experience which is transmittable, sharable with other people, who then read the words and have a personal and unique experience of their own, one at a time. This to me is amazing and one of the things that fiction still does so well. 

I am just a guy with a book to sell, but if you want my actual real advice? Help someone else. Think about someone or something else besides oneself. This is the only way to connect with others and be free from ourselves that I have seen work. I haven't come across any others. But then I am probably a more desperate character than most.

David Gordon is a visiting professor at Pratt Institute and a superstar in Japan. In addition to winning him the VCU Cabell First Novelist award, Gordon's first novel, The Serialist, garnered three Japanese literary awards, was a finalist for the Edgar Award for First Novel, and was made into a movie. He also cuts his own hair.

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