Aaron Schneider’s What We Think We Know (Gordon Hill Press) is a debut collection of short fiction that tests, expands, and sometimes explodes the limits of the short story, setting conventional forms alongside fragmented narratives, playing with perspective, and incorporating the instruments of data analysis (figures, tables, and charts) into literary fiction. Says Toronto Book Award finalist Jean Marc Ah-Sen, “one of the most daring books to come out in recent memory. Schneider is a literary marvel.”
Aaron Schneider is a Founding Editor at The /tƐmz/ Review and was a Founding Editor at The Rusty Toque. His stories have appeared/are forthcoming in The Danforth Review, Filling Station, The Puritan, Hamilton Arts and Letters, and Prolit-. His story “Cara’s Men (As Told to You in Confidence)” was nominated for the Journey Prize.
Your book opens with a second-person narrative. There’s something about the distancing from Cara, whose sex life the narrator is recounting as to them in confidence. Is this a betrayal of trust, or is the narrator internalizing? Is this post-confessional?
This question is interesting because I don’t think of that story as having to do with confession, although it very obviously does. For me, the story, and the choice of narrative voice has to do with the listener/reader. Cara is unburdening herself to a listener who is, I think quite obviously, male and interested in her, and I see the story as being about him and his interest in her. He is, also quite obviously, using empathy and supportive listening to try to seduce her, and, for me, the story is about that uncomfortable dynamic that is created when empathy is enlisted on behalf of (you could even say, weaponized on behalf of) male desire. I chose the second person to collapse the listener and the reader. My hope is that the story will create in some of its male readers, in men who are undoubtedly empathetic and supportive listeners, a flash of recognition, and, perhaps, a minor frisson of discomfort. It is, in short, a story that I hope will make men like me just a little bit less sure of how we move through the world.
Is any of this work autobiographical or did you recreate the tone of knowledge and familiarity from scratch? For example, did your father really run the Hincks Farm rural treatment centre until 1987?
There is one piece of autofiction in the book, and that is, in many ways, more autobiographical than fictional. The details in that piece that have to do with my father, such as him running the Hincks Farm treatment centre, are as accurate as I have been able to manage within the limitations of my memory and the records that I was able to access through my research. He did run that centre. It might have been until 1987, or it might have been until the year before or after. In this case, the specific date is less important than the trajectory of his career. In other instances, such as when writing about his qualifications, I was very careful to check the facts, going so far as to contact him (although we are estranged) to confirm what my research had revealed.
Although much of that piece is autobiographical, some elements are fictional. In some places, I invented scenes. In others, I bent the facts. This was always with an eye to creating a piece that carried the reader into the emotional core of the experience that I was writing about. For example, there is a detailed description of bullying that is accurate in its details, but whose time frame I shifted. The bullying took place when I was in junior high school, but, in the book, it happens in the middle of grade school. I did this to dampen its impact on the reader and on the piece as a whole. It’s fairly extreme, and I worried, perhaps needlessly, that it would be too shocking for the reader, that it would dominate a work of which it was meant to be a, but not the only, part. Lowering the ages of the children involved made it less consequential—it reduced its gravity and allowed it to sit more naturally alongside the other elements of the piece. It was also a way of distancing myself from it, of setting it at a remove that made writing about it bearable.
A lot of the other pieces in the book draw to greater and lesser extents on my autobiography, but they also draw on the biographies of people whose lives have intersected with mine, on the stories of family, friends, exes. Lives move differently than narratives, they have their own logics, rhythms and ruptures, and I often find that the best way to create the sense of a life moving through and developing across a story is to ground that story in a person’s lived experience, or, at least, what I know of it. More than a few people will recognize versions of themselves in these stories. In some cases, I worry about what it means to borrow like this from a life, and about whether I am doing it responsibly, ethically. I have tried to address this is by consistently foregrounding the tenuous and uncertain ways in which we see and know other people, the essential instability of that knowledge, so that the stories are about those lives, but, also and equally, about my understanding of them. This is, in part, why I chose the title of the collection—“What We Think We Know.”
In combining subjective emotionalism with cold objective data, such as in 106 Missiles: An Autofiction in Fragments, what did you find you were creating?
I have never been very good at explaining what it is that I have created, not least of all because I think that a mark of a piece’s success is that it resists straightforward explanations and easy categorisation. So, instead of explaining what it is I was making, I want to talk about the framing of the question. The question contrasts “subjective emotionalism” and “cold objective data.” This is a conventional juxtaposition, and one that is rarely interrogated, but it should be: if we look at it carefully, what we find is not a simply binary opposition, but a pair of concepts that overlap, bleed into and reflect each other. I think this may be one of the things that the pandemic has really driven home: numbers, data, figures, the whole apparatus of statistical and scientific knowledge is weighted with feeling. I don’t think that I am the only one who found myself having strong emotional reactions to daily tallies and trend lines, and who spent the past year and a half being terrified, depressed, and, now, finally, revived a little by raw data. One of the things that I was exploring in that piece and several others in the book is not the distinction between objective data and subjective emotionalism, but the way in which emotions attach to data and date evokes emotions, or, in other words, I was exploring the warmth of data.
How do lit journals factor into your goal-setting ways as a writer?
I have always paid attention to the notes on publisher’s websites that tell you that you need to have a track record of literary publications for your manuscript to receive serious consideration, and I regularly submit stories to journals, but I have never thought of this in terms of goal setting beyond “get some stuff published.”
What is more important to me is the other side of literary publishing. For the past decade, I have been involved in running literary journals. First, The Rusty Toque, and, now, The Temz Review. This work doesn’t directly intersect with my writing, and I don’t link it to my writing through goal setting, but I see it as integral to the work of being a writer in the sense that I see contributing to the literary community as a necessary extension of writing and a compliment to it. So, if I have goals when it comes to literary journals, it is to publish new and unique voices, and, if that has anything to do with my writing, it is that it is a small contribution to creating the kind of literary community I would like to be a part of.
What’s your favourite Gilles Deleuze quote or book and why?
Probably his and Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, simply because it was my introduction to his work and the book whose ideas I find myself most often returning to. Although, I don’t return to them that often. I was introduced to his work in graduate school and I have a difficult and fairly complex relationship to a lot of the thoughts I encountered during my doctorate. I have managed to return to some of it, but I am still not yet at the point where I can read Deleuze easily, without evoking any number of quite unpleasant memories. This is not an uncommon experience, and it’s one that one of the characters in the books shares. I should say that this is not the fault of Deleuze or a comment on his work. It is a comment on how the milieu in which we encounter a thinker can deeply influence our response to them, and on the way in which alienation from a thinker can be one of the unfortunate effects of grad school.
Who are some of your favourite Canadian authors?
I am a die-hard Alice Munro fan, although not of the Munro that I think most people see when they read her. My favourite book of hers is Who Do You Think You Are?—I reference it in the collection. That book is both quietly political and very much dedicated to chronicling the violence that was/is endemic to Southwestern Ontario. As someone who has lived most of his life in Munro country, I have always appreciated the way in which she has grappled with the less than pleasant aspects of the region.
I admire the work of D.A. Lockhart. He’s amazingly prolific, and he has a moral clarity and willingness to address the powerful in his books that I really appreciate. He also manages to run a small press and write as much as he does, which makes his output doubly amazing.
There are also a lot of younger/emerging writers whose work I appreciate and find energizing: Isabella Wang, Manahil Bandukwala, Khashayar Mohammadi, and Ben Robinson, to name just a few.
Finally, I would say that Canadian writers are great, but one of the most important things for me is reading writers from around the world. Probably every third book I read is in translation, and I don’t think my writing would look anything like what it does if that weren’t the case.
What is something that you never thought you would ever write about but ended up writing about anyway / eventually?
It’s not so much subject matter as an approach to that subject matter. I would never have thought that I would write autofiction. I am still not entirely comfortable with the fact that I have, but here I am…
What advice would you give someone struggling to complete their first book?
This is difficult because there is no one-size-fits-all formula for writers. Every writer is different, and every writer needs to find the way that they work best. I think part of finishing your first book is figuring this out. So, listen to all the conflicting advice that writers give about writing, try it, and throw out the stuff that doesn’t work.
In my case, what works is consistency. I have a fairly demanding job, so I can’t write a lot all at once—I just don’t have the time. What I do instead is set a goal of writing about 150 words a day for a total of about 1000 words a week. This isn’t much, but, if I keep doing it steadily week after week, it starts to add up. That’s my approach, and it’s what works for me; someone else’s approach might be, likely is, entirely different.
What are you working on next?
Right now, I am wrapping up a novella set during the last big flood in Houston called “Susan, Alan and the Storm.” The two title characters are a couple, and, in the opening pages of the novella, they divide four times each into four Susans and four Alans moving through separate realities—it’s both as strange and not at all as strange as it sounds. After that, I’m going to focus on finishing a collection of stories that I have started called Death Drawing. Each story begins in the same moment in a high school life drawing class, and follows one of the students through their life to their death. I also have a novel called The Supply Chain coming out in the spring of 2022, so I expect that I’ll be working on edits on it fairly soon.