An Interview with Dolan Morgan
Where did Dolan Morgan come from? The stories in his first collection—just published by Aforementioned Productions—make you wonder. Here, psyches stretch the dimensions of physical space, and the most intense aspects of relationships (yearning, loss, pursuit) are played out on geographies that may feel like game boards. The weather is alive.
Morgan came from Connecticut. He grew up in a family that was both large and miniscule, in a space that was both rich and poor. He got himself out of high school early, and at age seventeen he headed to New York City and never looked back. He became a full time schoolteacher and quit in his twenties when he realized he was looking at the rest of his life. Now he designs curricula, and writes fiction and poetry. Currently, he’s thinking about hijackings as myths, as well as the literary subgenre that features monster sex.
When the Knives Come Down also happens to be the first full-length, one-author work to come from Aforementioned Productions. Since 2005 they’ve been publishing work online, in chapbooks, and in an annual print journal. This is a glorious debut for both parties.
I. JEFF GOLDBLUM OFTEN FAILS
NELLY REIFLER: So, my first question is about your sense of That’s When the Knives Come Down as a whole. Each story has its own, complete world, and the characters and their experiences feel completely organic within those specific worlds. For me, the contrasts and echoes from story to story make the book and its arc super strong. I’m wondering if you conceived of the stories as pieces of a collection while you were writing them? Did they respond to each other? And if so, how?
DOLAN MORGAN: In some ways, the collection is just a bunch of unrelated stories without any kind of theme tethering them together. No rhyme, no reason. Just one thing after another blindly shouting at you without aim or purpose. But of course that’s not actually possible. I’m willing to admit that I’m a person and I wrote them and I have things I care about and those things shine through whether I write about goats or planets or monsters.
In an earlier iteration of the collection, I intended for all the stories to be linked around a central idea. That idea, taken broadly, was catastrophe, and in particular that everyone secretly wants disaster to happen to them. The original structure was contrived and a bit forced, and I ultimately made a lot of changes to the lineup, but that initial concept still shows up in a lot of places. Characters lust after bad choices, pray for things to go wrong, and gently nudge their lives in the direction of collapse. Likewise, I’m obsessed by good acts being the root of all evil, that somewhere behind every abomination is a series of reasonable decisions made by people trying to do the best they can. There’s that old tale about a beggar who runs into death at the market. Death points at the beggar, inspiring so much fear that the beggar borrows a friend’s horse, rides to the city and hides for the night. The friend, pissed to lose a good horse, asks Death why he scared the beggar like that. Death replies he was merely surprised to see the beggar in the market—because their appointment was for later that night in the city. The end. Anyway, it’s possible that all of my stories are that story, except that the beggar usually knows exactly what’s coming.
NR: It’s true that, in many of these stories, there’s a sense of people desperately (secretly, perhaps unconsciously) wanting to be delivered from the cages of their lives by some powerful and painful outside intervention.
Did you have readers through these different conceptual phases? If so, who was reading the stories and how did you work with them?
DM: For a lot of the stories in That’s When the Knives Come Down, I shared initial drafts with a small group of friends. They’d help locate points of confusion and amusement. I wasn’t interested in deciding if a story was good or bad, but more along the lines of: What happens if I do this? Or this? Or that? Like a science lab. I wanted to gauge effect/impact of specific maneuvers more than quality/value overall. I think this approach stems most likely from my sense of wonder/awe (abject fear?) at the chasm that exists between a person’s brain and the rest of the world. How does anyone manage to say anything to anyone. It’s a lot like Jeff Goldblum trying to teleport things in The Fly. He has two chambers, and he tries to get something in X to travel to Y. You know, like from the inside of my head into anywhere else. And in the movie, like me, Jeff Goldblum often fails. The item in the teleporter won’t translate correctly. Things aren’t received as intended. The steak tastes funny. The monkey dies. That’s how I feel most of the time, and feedback has helped me to know if I’m writing a story or accidentally transforming into a human/insect hybrid.
"I moved to New York City in late August, 2001. Right away, I made new friends that I’m still close with today. Life in the city that year took an unexpected turn. As I remember it, there was a wardrobe that we discovered, through which you could walk forever. We passed into it and found an overcast landscape, lit only by a single streetlamp amid the snow. But wasn’t it early September? Still summer? Why should it be snowing? We played duck/duck/goose in the empty streets while a military convoy passed. Movie theaters were free. I stood at St. Vincent’s hospital, volunteering to feed doctors who expected long hours, but no patients arrived, and in fact the hours weren’t long at all, but short. A satyr took us by the hand and we were adolescents even if we weren’t. Bodegas gave free water. The end of the world came and went. It was here and then it was gone. Just like that. In the years that followed, I felt so disgusted with myself to miss it, to think on it with a kind of fondness."
Wherein Dolan Morgan continues to obliterate me with his mind. I don’t understand how we can share a space every morning and every night while he quietly believes in this world.
Catch us at the Philalia fair Sept 25-27—get psyched for it with this interview!
I’ll be reading at the Bloof + Coconut event at Philalalia Fair on Friday the 26th at Snockey’s Oyster House! Love me some Philly. <3
I had a violent neighbor five years older than me. It doesn’t seem like that much older, but when you are 8 and they are 14, there is a big difference. He always terrorized the neighborhood kids. Threw bricks. Held our heads under water for way too long. One day, my neighborhood friends and I were playing—all boys and me—and we played a game in the basement in which I was the damsel and they were the muggers. Children are bad people. They hit me with pillows and fists, to be expected. I didn’t mind being hit by boys, I hit right back. They all fled the room and locked the door. The violent neighbor was still there. He peeled off my clothes one by one. I still don’t remember if he peeled them off or if I followed the orders to peel them off. He pushed me onto this piss-soaked mattress in the room, I don’t know why it was there. The cableless television was on and blared blue in the darkness. In the darkness he felt the lumpy gestures of undeveloped womanhood on my body. I lay stiff and frightened, willed myself to experience this as a woman. That thought has kept me for too many years from speaking. I was embarrassed that a part of me tried to attempt mimicry while he terrorized and rubbed and smacked and massaged my eight-year-old body in the dark. My brother and his friends were in the next room the whole time. How long did this go on, I’m not sure. When I exited the room clothed again, they called me a tramp. My brother was there and he called me a tramp.
I never told anybody about this day. Not my friends. Not my parents. Least of all my brother. I developed eating disorders at a young age. Not too long after this experience, I lay in the newly paved road in front of my house, waiting for a car to hit me. Even my want of nothing had a blockage on either side of my street. Years later, I let other men abuse me. On my 13th birthday, my first boyfriend forced his way into my pants and cornered me in a bathroom full of
promises threats until I gave up my dignity and blew him. He called me a ditz. Again, friends were one room over and I had to walk out of there. They knew what to call me. One older man, whom I met at the mall, came to my house on a Friday night and told me to get in his car and I did. He was 20 and I was 13. He wanted to take me on a joyride, but he never drove me home. He took me to his empty house and made me get in bed with him. He stripped me to some version of Girls Gone Wild. I didn’t want to be there. My mom was deathly ill in the hospital; my dad had no clue where I was; I had no cellphone then. He put his hands on my body and I briefly took his hands off my body, airily mouthed that I had my period, because I thought that was the plague-y Out men had to hear to snuff out their desires. It didn’t work. He called me by a name he made up for me at the mall, because I looked like a Final Fantasy character. It hadn’t occurred to me that that was a fetish of his. This was a a game and so why should he stop himself. He did not stop himself and I could not stop him.
My friend found me the next day with her older boyfriend who totally had a car. My dad had called the police, the hospitals, and then finally the morgue after he came by my room and saw the cold indents of an empty bed, a parent’s nightmare. Before he knew where I was, he kept taking breaks with his patients to weep in his office. His wife was trapped in her very sick body in the hospital and his daughter was potentially dead in a ditch and it didn’t matter if he was awake or asleep when it happened because it happened anyway. When I called, I told him nothing of what happened though he kept saying What Happened and I kept saying I Fell Asleep Somewhere. I felt the shame of being a tramp. He grounded me, possibly assuming I was a tramp. Or irresponsible. Or dumb. Or all three. I felt like too much of a dumb, irresponsible tramp to ever correct him.
Hi everyone. I’d like to start a project about sex abuse/trauma in which I read and record the anonymous stories of others, especially those who’ve attempted to speak out and had their stories ignored. This is open to all races, genders, and religious affiliations. My second book focuses on trauma and opts to imagine the world as a dystopian future without men. (A chapbook from this second collection, AND I SHALL AGAIN BE VIRTUOUS. is forthcoming with Big Lucks.) I want to aggregate other people’s stories and read them in public places—at readings, on the streets—anywhere that strikes me. I’d record them and post them—anonymously—to my tumblr. It is my hope that by reproducing the tragically infinite stories of abuse, people will allow that awareness to trickle into potentially unchecked aspects in their lives. If you have a story you’d like to share, do send to me at email@example.com. It can be brief, or not. I promise to leave your identities out of it, but provide a necessary channel from your experiences. Feel free to share this.
Issue No. 118
I first read Dolan Morgan’s work in late 2010. He’d submitted a story for the first print issue of the journal I run, apt, and it was a crowning jewel on our inaugural annual. The story was funny and touching, surreal and sad—qualities I would come to recognize as trademarks of his work. Not long after the issue hit the shelves, I was asked in an interview: among my contemporaries, whose work did I like to read? I named Morgan, and described his writing as charming satire aimed right for my heart.
A couple years later, when I first read the manuscript for his collection, That’s When the Knives Come Down, I was again struck by Morgan’s charm, but I realized my assessment of him as a satirist was rather limiting. Satire requires a target, and while his targets range from capitalism to sex (which is to say, targets worthy indeed), Morgan renders them with a disarming affection. His approach, specifically the evidence of his fondness for his subject matter, allows him to surpass the role of satirist, and to more fully occupy the role of benevolent absurdist.
That combination of benevolence and absurdism brings me to “Nueé Ardente,” a story about a man waylaid while traveling by train to see his errant sister. As the delay persists, he becomes more interested in the unfamiliar landscape and his fellow passengers than continuing his journey. In the resultant purgatory, the protagonist comes to recognize that he will age even as his fantasies remain young, to accept that the only way to hold himself responsible for his actions is to leave himself no other choice, and to realize that he both resents and resembles his sister. But despite every drawback, we retain hope. Morgan has depicted disorder and disarray humanely, as characters we need not fear encountering.
That’s When the Knives Come Down just came out. I’m so proud to have had a hand in its publication, not just because it’s funny and touching and surreal and sad—though it is all of those things—but because it goes beyond buzz words. As grand and irrational and crazed as the stories are, Morgan’s collection, and “Nueé Ardente” in particular, reveal the ways people retain their humanity, in all its selfish and haunting glory.
Co-founding Editor, Aforementioned Productions
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by Dolan Morgan
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On the train ride north, I see an explosion in the distance. Black smoke rises into the afternoon sky, and I watch it out the window as the train speeds through tiny, blue-collar towns. The tower of smoke is like a building, a distant skyscraper that curves without care. The mountains beneath it seem almost uninhabited, covered in a thick rug of frosted pines. What’s happening over there, I wonder. A forest fire? An industrial accident? A dormant volcano that has suddenly awoken? The landscape is unfazed. Still, I imagine all the mountains bursting open like bottles of cheap champagne—pop, pop, pop—covering the northern New York countryside with molten rock, washing over small towns with magma and steam, trailing smoke across the Eastern seaboard. The whole area will come to a stop once the 60 mph pyroclastic wave rolls down the hillsides and into town, I think. Like Pompeii, everyone will be halted in their tracks—and no matter what they were doing, be it humiliating or heroic or mundane, it will all be frozen here in the upstate territories like an enormous carbon photograph stretching the length of the Catskills. Soon it might become a sort of solemn tourist attraction like that of the World Trade Center or Pearl Harbor. People will come to witness tragedy firsthand, to see everything as it was “that terrible day.” After a while, the shock and sadness of it all will most likely wear off, as if tragedy were just a perfume or cologne or bug spray you applied at the right moment, and people will come unabashed to look at all the privacies left behind and unguarded. No one will pay attention to its enormity, of course, or at least only pay it lip service, but everyone will string along their families to be voyeurs of the dead, standing their children in front of copulating corpses and taking photographs to be hung on the wall at home. At any given time, I realize, I probably would rather not have a volcanic plume rush over me and immortalize whatever it was I was doing at the moment. There are very few points in my life that I would choose to showcase as a tourist attraction, simply because most of the time I look like an idiot. Right now, for example: I’m slumped against the train window, my cheek stretched against the glass like putty. I probably resemble a puffer fish as it’s prepared by a chef to be eaten: confused and asphyxiated.
Yet I’m breathing and fairly cognizant. In an hour, the train will pull into Binghamton, where my sister will meet me at the station. She’ll be driving some beater that needs a screw driver shoved in the ignition to get it started, rust about to eat through the axles, and one window made of plastic garbage bags duct-taped gingerly to the frame. We’ll zip along dirt roads for an hour until we reach her trailer on the top of a hill where we will eat hot dogs with her children, surrounded by jars of everything from pickled cabbage to pickled nuts. It’s been years since I’ve seen her, but I know what to expect. And the years passed aren’t because of a falling out or any kind of drama at all; simply, we’ve been busy—or I have—or just as much, we’ve never been close enough to warrant the expensive commute between NYC and the Canadian border. She’s much older than me, a decade at least, and I sometimes have trouble seeing myself in her. She has said to our mother that we are oil and water, nothing alike and not worth comparing. It might be all we agree on, in fact. Really, everything else is so foreign to me, just as I imagine my life must be to her. The city, the noise, the fast pace—it’s nothing like what she has sought and found. And how she came to living out here in the backwoods of America, in the middle of nowhere? I can’t understand it. What does she find out here all alone? Maybe the cold: the area is known for its harsh winters—sometimes more than eight to ten feet of snowfall—which, unbelievably, leaves people even more removed than they already are from each other. I suppose, though, if you come for the isolation, then the winter snowdrifts aren’t all bad. Luckily for me, it’s November and that isn’t winter in my book. The train speeds onward, now curving around a lake and giving me a better view of the smoke. It appears that there might be another cloud rising, but I can’t tell if it’s just another part of the first. I haven’t heard any other explosions, but we are a great deal farther off by now as well.
The sound of the train rushing along the steel tracks is suddenly audible as a woman whom I had seen earlier boarding the train drags her bags through my car and into the next. I recognize her as someone I may have known or been associated with, if only slightly, maybe an old college classmate or subway rider. I know her, I think. Still, she is familiar, just as much, as the type of girl that exists as a ghost in my head, the woman who seems like some perfect ideal—but whose parts are strewn across the bodies of millions of women, some limbs and smiles here, some eyes or clothes over here, and attitudes and laughs over there. The platform woman’s snarly, sharp-toothed smile is a smile taken straight from the ghost’s blueprint. Her eyes and legs seem familiar too, as if they were somewhere inside me once, like a type of blood? No, that isn’t right, I think, but more as if I had already held them, looked into them. Dumbly, I am reminded of the women I’ve slept with, the women I’ve loved, rarely the same, as the train slows, pulling into another station along the way.
This right here is what you need to read immediately. IMMEDIATELY.
Breakfast around the world
breakfast is the only meal that matters
The most hypnotic and compelling post this morning is breakfast.
[Gifset: Laverne Cox speaks at the GLAAD media awards, she says,
"Each and every one of us has the capacity to be an oppressor. I want to encourage each and every one of us to interrogate how we might be an oppressor, and how we might be able to become liberators for ourselves and each other."]