AARON THIER with Andrew Donovan
ANDREW DONOVAN (MIAMI RAIL): Why have Old Dan end up in Key West, of all places?
AARON THIER: Because the Keys are fragile—in two hundred years, they won’t exist—and the book is obsessed with disappearing things. And this is a place Dan’s been before—he has a sentimental attachment to Key West. My sense is also that a lot of marginal people end up in the Keys without knowing how they got there, like they were drunk on a bus and missed their stop or something. It seemed natural enough.
RAIL: Why is his name Daniel Defoe?
THIER: The true reason is that there is no reason, but the first fake reason is that I wanted to suggest a connection with Robinson Crusoe without being too pointed about it, and the second fake reason is that Daniel Defoe, the real or historical Daniel Defoe, was a mysterious character—just passing through, you feel, on the way from the past to the future.
RAIL: The novel is told in five sections of different time periods, 1560, 1750, 2016, 2200, and 2500, each with its own narrator. The narrators are all young people in existential crisis, and Old Dan appears in each section. What were you hoping to achieve by covering such an extended time period?
THIER: Well, I think of the Keys again. The issue for me is not so much that they’ll disappear as that it will be like they never existed, because no one will be left to remember them. And this is always true. To me, it’s striking and beautiful to think of my world—I’m talking about the real world, not my invented world—becoming a part of some future person’s imagination. That’s what the book is about. Our life becomes a dream someone dreams two or ten or fifty centuries from now. To get that effect, you need a lot of time to pass, but you need big intervals of darkness and quiet in between, so that you can hear the echo.
RAIL: And why young people in existential crisis?
THIER: Because young people don’t understand yet how time works! They live in the moment, or they spend all their time pining away for some other moment, an imaginary moment, which amounts to the same thing. A novel that slips so easily from one century to another needs people like that to give it texture, the way oatmeal needs fruit or nuts or something. Otherwise, how do you know you’re chewing? At the same time, these are people who are just starting out, so they’re just starting to wonder how they’re going to live in the world they live in. They ask the questions the novel wants to ask.
RAIL: Your last novel, The Ghost Apple, was also told in many different sections and in many different voices. Why have this chorus?
THIER: The other day we were out at a restaurant and I ordered a dessert that turned out to have peanuts on it. I’m allergic to peanuts, but I wanted to eat it anyway. I was sitting there saying to myself, “Okay, Thier, this is an easy one. If you eat it, you’ll be sick for weeks.” And the thing is, who was I talking to? Who is “Thier?” Who are all these people in our heads? Why should it be hard not to eat poison? To me, this way of writing, all these voices, seems perfectly reasonable and straightforward, like nature writing. That’s what being a person is like. All kinds of discordant voices, inside and out. I think the real absurdity is the omniscient third-person narrator who tells you that so-and-so thought this-or-that. “Jack thought about crab cakes. Jack went outside. Jack decided to drink some cough medicine and vandalize a mailbox.” In what sense did “he” decide, you know?
RAIL: The other character who shows up in more than one section is Quaco, Dan’s sometime companion and mastermind of various schemes. What’s the story with Quaco?
THIER: Quaco is the secret hero.
RAIL: You wouldn’t want to give it away, huh?
THIER: I guess the important thing about him is his mysterious larger purpose. What’s he after? He is a shaman, a freed slave, and as old as Dan or older, but he always seems to be taking part in some other, larger story. He’s a secret in that his interest in what’s going on is always in question. He’s a hero in that he’s ultimately the person who’s out for justice.
RAIL: You say you were in Florida when the idea for Mr. Eternity first started to take shape. What about it was inspiring to you?
THIER: We lived next to an old zoo in Miami, and all the old enclosures were still there, but they were covered in bright tropical vegetation and full of iguanas and peacocks. In a warm, sunny place, ruins are beautiful! I had this vision of Florida’s tropical plants escaping their confinement and marching north with the warming climate. Coconut palms in the Carolina piedmont, banana trees in Washington D.C. It was a beautiful vision, which is the central paradox of the book. Everything is fucked and it’s still a beautiful world. And it’s still just life.
RAIL: It’s fucked, but not for the flora.
THIER: Not for all the flora. Or fauna, ultimately. And of course humans are diabolically clever and we will find a way to survive and flourish, to the awful detriment of everything else.
RAIL: Climate change is an even bigger consideration when you’re looking into the 2500s. How did you come up with the level of seawater rise you describe in that section, where Florida and most of Louisiana and Mississippi are underwater?
THIER: Well, I looked at various journal articles and got fixated on the worst-case scenario, but now, a year or two later, that worst-case scenario looks a lot more likely than it did. A bad thought. There are lots of tools online that show you what five or ten or twenty meters of sea-level rise would look like. Some of them are amazingly detailed—street level, neighbor-hood by neighborhood. I used the one on Geology.com.
RAIL: The 2200 sections are interesting because the narrator relates the story in run-on sentences and the past tense has seen a dramatic evolution (or is it a breakdown?). For example, “I was so happy” becomes “I were so happy.” How did you formulate this futuristic linguistic tick?
THIER: How do you find a voice for a character who lives in the future? The problem with inventing slang is that slang sounds stupid if it isn’t your own slang, and in any case, invented slang has a way of becoming dated even more quickly than real slang. So I wanted to avoid that. I wanted one small thing that would suggest a deep foreignness. Padgett Powell has this rule about writing dialect: you don’t change much. One word in ten. Or maybe one word per sentence. In any case, you leave things mostly as they are and let the reader fill in the rest. Make too many changes and the fact of the changes drowns the effect.
RAIL: So, you weren’t worried about creating some Tolkein-esque language for elves or space marines or some shit…. That leads me to wonder what you would say to someone who wanted to classify Mr. Eternity as science fiction, post-apocalyptic, or fantasy.
THIER: Genre fiction works by mobilizing a preexisting set of expectations. The reader picks up his vampire novel and he knows beforehand what books of that kind are like. The author accepts these expectations and works within them. Vampire novels have certain elements, I imagine, and if they lack those elements—if they have no vampires in them—then they are not vampire novels. Mr. Eternity is what we call literary fiction, which means that it’s interested in being different from other books, it attempts to generate fresh expectations, it tries to surprise, it resists generic definition. More importantly, it wants to represent the inner life of human beings. If we could figure out how to say what science fiction is, we’d probably want to say that a lot of science fiction is actually literary fiction.
RAIL: The 1560 section takes place in South America, as Dan and the main character of that part, Maria, travel from the Caribbean coast across the isthmus of Panama, down to Peru, up the Andes, and into the Amazon basin. How did you come up with an idea of what these places would have been like in 1560?
THIER: The conquistadors wrote accounts of their various campaigns, but their narratives tend to have a summary flavor—a run-down of events rather than a representation of life. When I needed to know what daily life was like in a colonial Spanish town, I read inquisition documents from New Spain. That’s where you learn what people were actually doing. And I also read a very strange document called The First New Chronicle and Good Government, by Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala. He was half-Inca, half-European, or we think he was. He was trying to get to grips with the way things were changing, trying to write Christianity into the history of the Incas, and you get a sense of the awful fluidity and strangeness of that moment. We tend to see the conquest from the perspective of the Spaniards, but here it’s something that’s happening to everyone, an inexplicable thing that has to be explained, and it radically destabilizes the worldview of everyone who’s involved.
RAIL: Was there a kind of Big Idea you wanted to get across with the novel? I particularly enjoyed the exchange in 2016 between the filmmakers and Dan about present-day objects he would like to bring back to the 1700s. His initial reply is surprisingly practical—he would take back a cotton T-shirt. I thought this was a brilliant choice, given that much of the thorny, global history that wills a contemporary, mass-produced cotton T-shirt into existence is forgotten by the time someone puts it on.
THIER: A Big Small Idea, I think: the idea that our experience of the world is conditioned by our expectations. We think of the future and it’s terrible because maybe we won’t be able to charge our iPads, but the people who live in the future will have different expectations. If they don’t have iPads, they won’t miss them, except in some abstract sense. They won’t expect to have them. They’ll just go about their lives. They’ll kill themselves or make the best of things, just like we do. Dan understands that because he’s lived it. So they ask him this question and they expect some big thoughtful answer, and what they get is a trivial answer that has everything to do with real life, daily life, which is the only kind of life there is.
RAIL: What informs Dan’s answers to the filmmakers’ question? Is it awe of the T-shirt, or does he just wish he had it sooner?
THIER: He’s just a guy! For some reason he thinks that T-shirts are neat. I guess they are. Or maybe he hasn’t thought hard about the question. His experience of immortality has not disposed him to grandiose meditation, in any case. I guess that’s the thing about him. He doesn’t really know what the fuck is going on. Or rather, he knows that there isn’t anything to know. Or that you can’t ever figure out the stuff you really want to figure out.
RAIL: Would you also bring a T-shirt?
THIER: I’d bring the modern medicine. As much as I could carry.
Andrew Donovan is a poet residing in Gainesville, FL. His work has most recently appeared in the Mondegreen, Cartridge Lit, and the New Republic.