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Dreamlike and druggy, poignant and sad, deeply disturbing, a wonderful read. This group of stories is so poetic as to be almost prose poems. Reading it makes life seem unbearably sad, yet deeply important. Excellent!
I asked Douglas Milliken a few questions:
Q: White Horses is so powerful. It clutches me, wrings me out, leaves me with a deep melancholy. what kinds of syntactical choices did you make to inject it with such utter sadness? (or, how did you do it?)
A: To answer this by means of a tangential anecdote: in the process of refining WHITE HORSES for print, Andy (Lyman, of NaDa Publishing) and I have developed a pretty close relationship. We get together a few times a week. We ride bikes out of the city and into the woods. We make asses of ourselves in public. During each of these little get-togethers, Andy updates me that another reader has contacted him by one means or another to tell him that, if nothing else, the book has left them weeping. In one instance, the reader (a close friend) called him in tears the moment she was finished reading. She got the book in the mail, read it straight through, wept and called him weeping. Which is very overwhelming! My objective in writing--not just WHITE HORSES but any story or poem or song, in drawing a picture, in cooking dinner for a friend--has always been to simply create a scenario wherein someone--anyone--might feel something. Feel anything. Just feel. WHITE HORSES definitely explores some dark and challenging territory, so I'd assumed that people would have a melancholic response. But actual tears? I'm blown away every time another report comes in. I don't know how I did it. I had read an interview with Gary Lutz around the time I first started writing WHITE HORSES. There was a lot of discussion on his process, which I found really inspiring. The way he writes a story like a stonemason building a wall. Only one stone can fit between all the others. Only the correct works will tell the story correctly. Any substitutes are just filler. I know I did not come anywhere near the expert finesse of Lutz, but then again, I wasn't aiming to. I was pushed by the idea of Lutz's work, not the possibility of recreating it. I was also morbidly depressed while writing WHITE HORSES. It was a cold winter, and the woman that I lived with was slowly falling out of love with me, which was sort of like watching a car crash in slow-motion. I was haunted by nightmares of her and my brother and all the other people I loved disappearing or being murdered or simply leaving me. I think WHITE HORSES was my attempt to create something that might possibly make all these bad things better. Like I could weave a safety net out of words. Like I might be able to save what little I still had. I think all these desperate factors together created a sort of poetry.
Q: White Horses seems to be a series of dream-like yet very realistic stories. It's also very poetic. Yet it somehow hangs together, almost like a novel. How would you define it, or, would you prefer not to?
A: I don't know of any succinct term that can sum up whatever literary form WHITE HORSES might be. "Interconnected short stories" doesn't seem to cut it. A patchwork novella? Whatever. I'm not terribly concerned with labeling my work. From a traditional writer-publisher standpoint, being unable or unwilling to define what you do is almost always a near-fatal pitfall. Luckily, NaDa is not traditional by any way, shape, or means. Andy read the manuscript and immediately got behind it. There was no real talk about its potential marketability. There was no conversation as to how it should be defined. As far as either of us was concerned, WHITE HORSES was label enough.
Q: Would you say that your writing was more "psychological," as in, a pouring out of angst or more "constructed," as in the stone by stone you refer to "above?" If angst, do you feel that your previous training as a writer allowed you to construct your outpouring in such a way that it has such incredible impact?
A: Well, I've never been the sort who writes for the sake of therapy. Writing can be a valid way of coming to terms with events, but rarely is that the sort of thing anyone would want to read. The first story that I wrote was the title piece, which came out of a conversation with my ex about how I was suddenly able to afford life insurance but not health insurance, that I was worth something dead but not necessarily worth anything alive. The next piece was "On Marriage," which was based on a dream. Then came "XXVI," which was based on the horror of accidentally revealing yourself. We're all so embarrassed about ourselves! It hurts when we can't hide who we are. Inexplicably, these three stories--told by different people about very different circumstances--all seemed of a whole to me. These voices were all singing the same song. I began to imagine an alternate version of myself and an alternate version of the woman who I considered to be my wife though we were in no legal sense married. What would I be like if I gave myself up completely to my dreams and my fantasies? What would it be like to live with and be married to someone like that? I pushed my current circumstances to an extreme to see how horrible it could become. I could have taken it much further. Maybe I should have. Maybe I wimped out. But I grew to like these people, who had at some point become unique individuals, no longer stand-ins but actual people in their own right, if only in my own mind. I loved them. I didn't want to hurt them any more than I already had. I saved them from their circumstance when I could not save myself from mine.
Q: When revising the work, did you revise most for poetic construction, plot, character, or emotional impact. I realize you probably wanted to maximize all of these, which you did successfully, but how did you make choices as to what to leave, what to cut, what to embellish?
A: There were two entire stories that didn't make the cut. Andy never even saw them. Neither was strong enough to hold its own weight. "Naked Light" almost got axed as well, because the language was originally really opaque and clunky. I'm glad I was able to save it, though I still consider it the least-readable portion of the book. Ten minutes before we sent the final manuscript to the printers, I was still making edits to that story.
None of the changes made were for the sake of plot because it isn't a plot-driven story. A lot of the re-reading focused on consistency in tone and rhythm. If something sounded wrong or felt wrong in my mouth, it needed to be fixed. A lot of attention was given to making sure the female character was real and rounded and believable, partly because of her limited air-time but mostly because of the simple nature of my own maleness. Female characters are hard for me. I tend to construct them with more care and attention than the males. I still don't think she's as complete as she could be. Certain things are universal among all people, but some things aren't. You can't just shrug off these considerations.
More than anything else, though, I wanted to make sure that there was no point in the story where anyone could ever say that these two people (or any of the auxiliary characters, for that matter) aren't full of love, that they do not love one another. Things get bad and things get worse, and all the crazy mean destructive things they do to each other, they do out of love. People do horrible things while screaming "love love love," and people do beautiful things while singing the same dumb song. It's probably a really cheesy theme to emphasize these days. I hope it doesn't come across as cheesy.