Rob Stephenson is the author of Passes Through, about which writer Samuel R. Delany has commented, “Stephenson’s Passes Through is the most exciting book I’ve read in some time. It has something to do with his pitch-perfect mastery of the underlying logic of association and his observational eye that sweeps through sex, art, death, and obsession–an obsession that may be love or that may be the desire to kill, or both. Here’s a book that succeeds through pure writing to do what only the best fiction does.”
FC2: How did you first learn about FC2?
Rob Stephenson: It feels as if I’ve known about the existence of FC2 since the early 80s, probably from my three-year stint working at the J. Paul Leonard Library at SFSU and rooting around in used bookstores around that time, but I don’t have a specific memory handy. I suppose the awareness of it arose in me slowly over time as I came in contact with interesting books and people.
FC2: Tell us about Passes Through.
Rob Stephenson: In a large way Passes Through is an experiment in memory. The text is the residue of a nine month long performance piece during which I carried out a specially designed three-pronged system for culling and mixing material from more than a decade of my own journaling with tiny bits of other texts, according to a schedule designed to challenge my short-term memory in various ways. Fueled by the early writing of Henri Bergson on the physical and biochemical mechanics of how movement creates and shapes memory and several texts on the history of memory, I did quite extensive research on how processes shift in the way we remake our memories depending on how much time has passed and how often the memories are recalled. I incorporated my findings into the scheduling of when and how I carried out my systems. My systems in this project were partly translations of models I compiled from particular composers, ones that use radical approaches to the distribution of the sonic material in their pieces.
Passes Through is about THE ABOUT and delights queerly in the notion that memory and language are imperfect, incomplete, but astonishing, tools for representing a world. It considers questions like: What relation between form and formlessness will yield a novel conception of WORLD? How best can the rules of language be changed and then employed to re-imagine other ways of saying/meaning? Are the internal world and the external world discreet objects? How does (((((((self))))))) know what it knows? Does good writing always follow predictable linear storytelling logics? Are autobiography and fiction more alike than different? Oh, and Passes Through contains a somewhat submerged aviary of bird references as a tribute to composer Olivier Messiaen.
FC2: FC2’s mission statement reads, “The Fiction Collective Two is devoted to publishing fiction considered by America’s largest publishers too challenging, innovative, or heterodox for the commercial milieu.” Will you elaborate on what you believe it means to write innovative, challenging and heterodox fiction in 2012?
Rob Stephenson: Regardless of what art or subject matter or materials or techniques one embraces, engaging deeply in activity that pushes toward the unfamiliar will result in something the artist hasn’t seen or known before, particularly if pursued to an extreme position over time. So I am concerned not only with what is made, but with the whole process that is initiated around the making, in how this activity influences life/self. I am very interested in engaging in controlled or contrived situations that over time allow some things to happen I cannot possibly predict. This fascinates me. One of the things I have been exploring is the repositioning of where rigidity and openness occur during the process of making art. Passes Through seems to be evidence that pursuing this kind of activity can produce writing that is challenging, innovative, and heterodox.
FC2: Steve Katz has written that FC2 began with the desire to “make a literature.” What does that phrase mean to you?
Rob Stephenson: I like very much how Steve’s phrase implies that there should be many literatures and that FC2 is only a fraction of what is out there that we can call literature. I tend to like definitions of literature that suggest it includes what is worthy of being remembered. Of course, people differ greatly on what they think should be remembered. That’s probably a very good thing.
I get the impression that the original authors of FC2 weren’t thinking outside the box. They were making a whole other smaller box altogether. It was a pulling away from a much larger box that would not contain them, and establishing something that had another agenda thought necessary for carrying on in that mode; and yet, thirty years of expanding the collective in accordance with FC2’s mission (in question three above) has made FC2 in a compelling sense something of a tradition. Could it be that the very unique literary entity called FC2 is on the verge of thinking of itself as something that isn’t only a box? A sponge, for example, has lots of holes in it, but it holds water in a way that is unlike the way a bucket holds water.
FC2: For what FC2 backlist title are you an evangelist?
Rob Stephenson: Since she is underappreciated and not here to speak for herself, I mention here the two Marianne Hauser books that FC2 has published: Shootout With Father and The Collected Short Fiction of Marianne Hauser. In place of the reasons for my enthusiasm, I quote from the short fiction book’s introduction she wrote in 2003 when she was 93 and still willing to ask, “What happens when I do this?”
The traditional dildo didn’t do it for me. However, at this point, approaching dotage with crippled fingers, my up-to-date vibrator is the answer to a maiden’s prayer. It plugs into an outlet by the bed and comes with various interesting attachments. I have become attached to it myself, intimately, I should add. What entered my life as robotic helper has turned into my lover.
A robotic lover? This may be too weird even for you who, I assume, belongs to a high tech generation where robots are common fare, not sci-fi fantasies. Fantasies! Here we have stumbled, by no means accidentally, my ghostwriter claims, back to the pursuit of love. It isn’t down between the legs where the ecstasy of love has us fly. It’s up in the head.
A truly fantastic flight, higher and higher, solo or with a partner of flesh and blood, of any gender, real or invented. So why not a robot, at my age? It’s all in the head.