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We’re back with another author interview and today it’s featuring Blair Austin, the author of Dioramas! I was already excited to read this but I’m even more excited after putting this together.
Blair Austin was born in Michigan. A former prison librarian, he is a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers’ Program at the University of Michigan where he won Hopwood awards for Fiction and Essay. He lives in Massachusetts. Dioramas is his first novel.
“In a city far in the future, in a society that has come through a great upheaval, retired lecturer Wiggins moves from window to window in a museum, intricately describing each scene. Whales gliding above a shipwreck and a lost cup and saucer. An animatronic forest twenty stories tall. urban wolves in the light of an apartment building. A line of mosquitoes in uniforms and regalia, honored as heroes of the last great war.
Bit by bit, Wiggins unspools the secrets of his world—the conflict that brought it to the brink, and the great thinker, Michaux, who led the diorama revolution, himself now preserved under glass.
After a phone call in the middle of the night, Wiggins sets out to visit the Diorama of the Town: an entire, dioramic world, hundreds of miles across, where people are objects of curiosity, taxidermied and posed. All his life, Wiggins has longed to see it. But in the Town, he comes face to face with the diorama’s contradictions. Its legacy of political violence. Its manipulation by those with power and money. And its paper-thin promise of immortality.”
The first question, and my favorite to ask anyone, if you were a tree what kind would you be and why?
Trees are one of the things I love most. I’d be a black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia). In William Corbett’s The Woodlands: Or a Treatise (1825) the black locust has by far the biggest section. Corbett has great affection for it, and so do I.
The tree grows in a grove, grows fast, often in poor soil, so it’s considered an “early colonizer.” The wood is extremely tough and hard and won’t decay when in contact with the ground, so it can be used for posts, pilings and the sill plates for houses.
Shipwrights made nails (treenails) out of it to peg timbers in place. It splits easily, burns steadily. When I built a cabin for my dad, I used black locust for the sill logs, squaring them up with an axe and adze. When fresh, the wood smells like boiling pinto beans.
In Michigan, where I was born, the black locust was brought north and planted to be used for fence posts. But the locust borer devastated the plantations, in part due to the extreme concentration of the plantings, so the post idea failed, but the tree spread.
It is considered “invasive” in Michigan, but fossils of pollen grains show that the black locust was in Michigan before the glaciers and retreated to its warmer, southern range thereafter. So, who knows. Now, it is creeping farther north. The best part of this tree is its flowers, though.
They hang downward in clumps, similar to wisteria, only white. For the duration of the bloom (about one week) their smell travels out of the groves in waves and changes subtly day by day. You can’t miss it.
If you could only visit one country (or state) forever, which would it be and why?
This one’s hard, so I’ll cheat. I’d either live in Michigan, Colorado or South Korea. Probably Korea, though. The landscape, especially, reminds me of Colorado plus Michigan (it’s mountainous and heavily forested). Korean pine, edible chestnut, maple and many more kinds of trees grow there.
Interestingly, you can find black locust there, too (a North American tree) which was planted for bank stabilization/reforestation after the devastation of the Japanese occupation and the Korean War. This has led to massive encroachment on the native flora. Near beehives on the outskirts of Seoul, you can hear a tremendous hum when the trees are in bloom.
What is your favorite book? Or top five if you can’t pick one.
Nightwood by Djuna Barnes
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney
The Dark Tower series by Stephen King
Gunslinger (an epic poem) by Edward Dorn
The Oval Window (a long poem) by J.H. Prynne
What is a question you always wish you were asked in interviews and what would your answer be?
Stephen King once reported a conversation with Amy Tan (they’re in a band together called The Remainders) about this very subject. They agreed it would be cool to be asked about the language they were using.
Why, for example, this image? Why that image? For my part, the language of a book is archeology; it contains the fragments, sometimes entire lost cities, of books you’ve encountered, near and far. So the language takes the imprint of what you’ve read, and at the end of the day, you’d end up talking about books together with another person.
The dailiness of writing is so immersed in other books, and in solitude, that to bring the books and the speaking-about-them into the open, vis a vis your own book, would be something special.
Where do you call home and what is your favorite thing about it?
I live in Massachusetts but am from Michigan. My favorite thing about the former is probably the Cambridge Public Library. The fiction section is very good. They must have a huge budget. As far as “home” goes, I’m closest to Michigan and Colorado because of friends and family there.
What is your favorite way to spend your free time?
I’ve lost the knack of free time. I do like to walk and be out in the woods, though. Bike riding, working in the woods, that kind of thing.
I’ve almost always liked to read, from the very beginning, but the odd thing about reading when you’re writing is that the reading becomes a very serious bit of work. So you’re always “working,” always trying to learn and grow.
Have you always been a writer or is it more recent?
I’ve been writing since early high school. Some combination of ill health and solitude set me writing. I’m guessing I wouldn’t have touched it, had I been healthy.
What is your favorite style of writing? (prose, narrative, nonfiction, etc.)
I like all forms at different times. If I had to choose, I’d say poetry or “poetic prose.” I like prose with a complicated surface and complex sentence construction. Prose like that does something to the mind that I really enjoy.
What inspired the story of Dioramas?
Wiggins, the narrator, appears in a long book I was writing previously. His voice—and the entire city around him as well as its museums—formed all at once. As I got further and further into the woods, however, the project changed, his early wrynesses got erased and things got very serious very quickly.
Without spoilers, what was your favorite diorama to write?
I’m not sure I have a favorite. I don’t remember writing very many of them and have to look inside the book to know what’s there. Sometimes, I would write a diorama and have a sort of—what I believed to be an—epiphany.
I felt I’d finally gotten it, finally nailed things down only to find out later I was wrong. The diorama in question might even have been a “good” one, as a standalone.
But I’d have to cut it for structural or compositional reasons (i.e., it fit but also didn’t fit and you couldn’t shoehorn it in). There’s always that gap between how it feels to write something and the product itself. It’d be nice if they’d match up, but often they don’t.
But to give a provisional answer: probably “The Diorama of the Taxidermist” was my favorite for a long time (it isn’t now), because it was the first one I wrote, and unbeknownst to me at the time, it served as the bridge between the book’s two novellas, “Animals” and “People.” So the answer to the structural problems/puzzles in Dioramas was there at the very beginning although it took me quite some time to see it.
What was the hardest part of writing Dioramas?
The structure was toughest. To get especially Book 1 into shape was an unending task and had to be very carefully done so that the novel pulled you through as if by magic, without seeming to. I couldn’t rely on a plot to do the trick.
So it had to be a careful placing of things side-by-side and a careful cutting-away to reveal the image clusters and conceptual rhythms. Many times, I wasn’t sure I could pull it off and had to rely on intuition and help from Camilla, who’s my first reader—and an extremely astute one.
And what was your favorite part of writing it?
I’d have to say “hope in dailiness.” On the one hand the dailiness of writing is a struggle, with some days going well and others going poorly. But you have the extreme privilege of a “purpose,” which amounts to the gift of a compulsion-to-keep-going.
Many hard things happened along the way, but they were made easier by the hope that things were going somewhere and by the doing of the task itself, morning by morning. The compulsion, which sometimes is as simple as the need to have the writing done for the day, drives you on.
So the feeling in question I ended up liking was the feeling of having finished for the day—and sometimes the delusion of a job well done—and being able to get a breath of air till the next morning.
Do you have plans for any more books?
I’m writing a novel set in the same city as the one found in Dioramas, only in the districts that have gone off the rails. It’s filled with ruined cops, disgraced doctors, wooden men, dolls, bartenders and so on. The title is Syphilis Please. (Editors note: this sounds so intriguing!)
Have you read Dioramas? Do you want to pick it up? Let me know if you do and what you think!