Art Talk with Danielle Evans
September 6, 2011
Danielle Evans. Photo by Nina Subin
Barely into her mid-20s, fiction writer Danielle Evans---a literature and creative writing professor at DC's American University---has already distinguished herself among her peers with such recognition as the 2011 Paterson Prize, the 2011 PEN American Robert W. Bingham Prize for a First Book (with Susanna Daniel), and not one but two coveted spots in Best American Short Stories 2008 and 2010, guest edited by Salman Rushdie and Richard Russo, respectively. To quote the Washington Post's review of the Iowa Writers Workshop grad's debut collection---Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self---"I hope Danielle Evans is a very nice person because that might be her only defense against other writers' seething envy." As I learned in this interview with Evans, not only is she a "very nice person," but she's also thoughtful, articulate, and a passionate believer in communicating our shared human experience through the arts.
NEA: What's your version of the artist's life?
DANIELLE EVANS: I’ve yet to develop a daily routine, and I’d like to keep it that way. For now, it’s part writing, part being an academic, part guarding what’s left of my solitude, and part spending enough time out in the world to remember why the other things matter.
NEA: What do you remember as your first experience/engagement with the arts?
EVANS: I was lucky enough to grow up being read to before I could talk, so I don’t really ever remember a time when reading, and all of the things it let me access, weren’t a part of my life. But the first time I remember being aware that there was such a thing as an “arts community” was when my first grade teacher submitted a poem for a contest, and it won for its age category and was published in the county literary magazine. I got to go to an awards ceremony and meet the other writers and get a copy of the magazine. I think it was the first time I really understood that the books I read didn’t come from some magical mythical place, that writing and publishing were actually just processes involving more or less normal people.
NEA: You teach in the MFA program at American University in Washington, DC. What do you think are the benefits of an MFA program for creative writing students? How about for the writers who teach in these programs?
EVANS: I think there are many different things a person can get from an MFA program, most of which are going to depend on what the writer is seeking. The most obvious benefit is that it buys you time---there’s a tremendous tremendous luxury in having two or three years to allow writing to be a centrally important thing in your life. There’s also, for students who are determined to use the program properly, a certain freedom to experiment and risk things---for most people who will go on to have professional careers as writers, it’s the last time in your life that your livelihood won’t be directly and immediately linked to your work, and so there’s a freedom to try new things, to read and write things that you wouldn’t otherwise, and to do it in a setting that supports and facilitates that. And of course there are more pragmatic things: money, a teaching credential, a better understanding of the world of publishing. I think of MFA programs as a chance to read reviews and criticism of your work before it’s ready to go out in the world---a way to learn early what to take from feedback and what to leave behind. For students who have a good sense of who they are as writers and a certain investment in their own work, an MFA program helps to make them much better editors of their own work much sooner, and ultimately those editorial instincts can save the writer time and keep the big picture more obvious at every stage of the writing process.
That said, I certainly don’t think a person needs an MFA to write, or that MFA programs are the best step for everyone. I don’t worry much about all the handwringing about MFA programs hurting people who are actually in them---frankly, if your work is going to be destroyed by your own reaction to criticism, good or bad, then your work is not going to make it anyway---but I do think we need to make sure that cultural spaces to discuss art and put forward critiques and demystify the murkier aspects of writing and publishing continue to exist outside of the MFA world, and that people in MFA programs continue to engage outside of those programs. I think about this sometimes when I realize how far behind I am in responding to friendly emails from strangers, some of whom have perfectly valid questions about process---if so much of my non-writing energy weren’t going into teaching, and to my students who, as students, are entitled to a great deal of my attention, would I have more time to engage those other people, and to build communities outside of the university? And with so many contemporary writers attached to universities, are we losing some of that external space and potential for people outside of universities to actually talk to and get to know writers?
These are things that I think artists who are also academics often think about, but ultimately, teaching is a really rewarding job, especially at a supportive university. I get to do something that I’m genuinely passionate about, and I get to leave my job most days thinking that I possibly made the world a little better or at least didn’t make it any worse, and for doing that I am fairly compensated and well insured, a safety net that lets me spend time with my own work in a way that I couldn’t if my rent depended on it being done on deadline. I think sometimes it’s easy to feel defeated by all of the forces out there declaring literature obsolete, but every time I introduce a new text to a class, there’s almost inevitably a moment where at least one student really connects with a book, or suddenly understands it, and something about that connection or understanding changes the world for them. When I am feeling most hopeless and defeated as a writer, it’s those moments I come back to---it’s hard to argue that writing doesn’t matter when you’ve seen it matter, over and over again. That is what I get from teaching---a chance to constantly inhabit that space where writing matters and open up that space for other people.
NEA: What has been the most significant arts experience of your life to date?
EVANS: I’m a day late with [responding to this interview] because this question has been causing me so much anxiety, and I don’t know that I have an answer. It’s hard to rank this kind of thing---most of the transformative experiences I’ve had with art have happened because I was in a particular place in my life when I needed to hear a particular thing or was ready to listen, and then whatever that transformative moment was, it helped me get to the next place and be open to the next thing. It’s hard to pull out just one thing without unraveling the whole.
NEA: What do you see as the role of the artist in the community?
EVANS: There’s a quotation---so frequently attributed and misattributed to different people that I’m not going to try to suss out who said it first---that says the job of the writer is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. I think that’s ultimately the job of an artist working in any form---to point out the unsayable, to trouble people by making them confront what they’d rather avoid and see what they might have overlooked, but also to make people feel less alone, to make them feel connected to and included in something bigger than themselves, even at those moments when they feel most isolated, to do what James Baldwin famously described when he said, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive.”
NEA: Conversely, what do you see as the responsibility of the community to the artist?
EVANS: Well, the artist generally can’t function without an audience, so I think there’s a responsibility to be open to art, even when that art is difficult or troubling. That doesn’t mean there’s a collective responsibility to support everything that is or calls itself art---part of the responsibility of engaging art is the responsibility of honest critique---but I think it’s important that communities remain receptive to that space, that they don’t treat it as frivolous. I think as a culture, in this country, we often treat artists as though by virtue of doing something that they actually care about, they are getting away with something, and that when we treat art that way, critique no longer comes from an honest place. Instead it becomes a way of enforcing a kind of bland and fearful practicality or neutrality that some people think of as pragmatism, a way of asking, “Who do you think you are and what are you trying to pull?”
For people who are deeply invested in the arts, I think there’s a responsibility to limit the degree to which we treat the artist as a public commodity. The art is a public commodity, but the artist himself or herself is just a person, with limited time and a right to privacy and a need for solitude, because ultimately the important work, the thing the artist is actually good at, doesn’t tend to happen in public exhibitions or while the artist is Tweeting or Facebooking or responding to email or hanging out with admirers at receptions and cocktail parties---it happens alone in a room. On some level that loneliness has to be complete---every project worth doing has to start from a place of risk, has to start from a willingness to fail, and most artists are willing to fail themselves, but it becomes harder and harder to get to that point of willingness to fail when it feels there are other people on the line. So there is sometimes a real need to tune people out, even, maybe even especially, the people who believe in you and have literally or emotionally supported you, in order to do good work. And that need to guard your own time, to maintain ownership of your own work can be misinterpreted in any number of ways. I’ve seen people get really angry that their favorite artist didn’t write back to them, or say something meaningful when they met, and I understand that disappointment, because as a person who was a fan of art before she was any kind of artist, I know what it feels like to feel intimately recognized by someone’s work and then realize that the person behind it doesn’t actually know you or recognize you---it’s devastating, because it feels like losing a friend. But, I also think that it’s important to realize that what the artist actually owes strangers is to make art from a place that is honest, and to hold that art to rigorous standards. So I think “the community” also has to understand that there are consequences to infinite access, and that an artist can’t say yes to every invitation or be everything to everybody, because performing “artisticness” is not the same as making art.
NEA: Why do you think the general public needs creative writing? Why do you need creative writing?
EVANS: For more or less the reasons discussed above---to confront things outside of one’s own experience, and to be confronted by mirrors of one’s experience. Ultimately I think both reading and writing are acts of intelligent empathy, acts of translation that allow us to live other kinds of lives and in doing so become smarter and more compassionate people who are able to make moral judgments but also struggle with complexity.
NEA: How do you think we can get younger generations to engage with the arts outside of what they might see on American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance?
EVANS: I don’t know that I would call the younger generation unengaged with arts---I think there’s a tremendous amount of creativity going on, and I think when it’s presented to them, kids and teenagers tend to gravitate toward art and are often quite smart about it. What alarms me about American Idol---which I think is actually a substantially different show than So You Think You Can Dance?---is that it’s so blatant about the machinery behind music, so blatant about the conceit being “we can take anyone and make them a pop star,” and it worries me that we’ve lost even the need to pretend that art is about a person honestly doing something they love and being good at it. But the thing about American Idol is that it hasn’t actually been able to categorically predict who will become a star, or to make all of its winners into household names.
I think most of the culture that younger people interact with exists outside of that space entirely---in part because technology and the literal machinery that more and more people have constant access to has made it possible for people to make and share things without that more metaphoric machinery of fame behind them. There are, of course, consequences to that: sometimes it feels like people are interested only in making their own art, and not in engaging existing art, and an artistic community doesn’t work when it’s a bunch of separate artists working in private echo chambers, precisely because that’s not a community at all. Sometimes increased access to audience gets you genius that would otherwise go unheard, sometimes it gets you stupidity gone viral. But I don’t think that’s strictly a problem of youth. I generally think the kids are all right, or at least no worse off than the rest of us. I have been able to formally and informally talk to a lot of kids about writing this year, and I have to say most of them are bright and curious and creative and much better than the things we project upon them or the world we keep threatening to leave them. I have high hopes for the younger generation---except when I see large numbers of them wearing the fashion monstrosity that is saggy skinny jeans, which cause me to have fleeting doubts. Seriously kids, pick a decade: you can have the 80’s or the 90’s, but not both.
NEA: When we interviewed Kronos Quartet founder David Harrington he said, “I try to know as many of the things that are missing from our world of music as I possibly can...I try to put the thrust of my time into realizing those things that aren’t yet part of our work but should be.” When it comes to the field of creative writing---or even the arts as a whole---what things do you see as missing? What should be part of the work that the community of writers is making that isn’t yet there?
EVANS: I think that question of maintaining community---of making sure we’re not cutting ourselves off or speaking into echo chambers---is critically important. I think creative writing as a field needs to treat writers from marginalized backgrounds---minority writers, female writers, LGBT writers, writers marginalized by class or region---as artists and not sociologists, to make sure that we’re not forcing people into boxes and limiting the conversation based upon what we are and aren’t willing to hear. I think that, speaking for creative writers in particular, we have a complicated relationship with technology and we haven’t quite figured out how to negotiate with it. I was really interested in Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad because it made that problem of technology a problem of aesthetics, and I’m curious to see how artists deal with the aesthetics of technology in the future. From the commercial side, I’ve heard various pushes to make interactive e-books, in which the “interactivity” is basically a bunch of web-based Cliff Notes to the book, and I’d be interested to see some artistic pushback, to see people thinking of ways that we can use that kind of technology to make work that is richer and more complex.
NEA: What does Art Works mean to you?
EVANS: I like the agency that the phrase implies for Art itself. Once a piece of writing is out in the world, I have let it go---it isn’t mine anymore and I am not the boss of it and truth be told I am generally less emotionally connected to it than the new thing I am working on. But I like that Art, once it’s out there, is having its own life and doing its own thing and forming relationships with all kinds of people whom I will never meet.
NEA: Anything you wish I'd asked? And how would you have answered?
EVANS: I used to struggle when asked what my book was about, because I think that’s a lot of writers’ least favorite question---rarely is a book actually “about” the literal things that are happening, and the plot points that matter most you can’t give away, and anyway, I wrote a book of short stories, so it’s even harder to describe them collectively. But, I recently did a school visit with a fifth grade class, and when pressed to say whether my book was sad or funny, and then how to explain what I meant when I said it was both, I said “Well, did you ever fall down, and then pretend not to be hurt, because everyone was looking? It’s kind of like that.” This seemed to satisfy the fifth-grader, and I’ve decided it’s my new all purpose answer for the question, “What is your book about?” I’m interested in the ways that we perform both toughness and vulnerability.