(Huntsville, TX: Texas Review Press, 2020)
Heather Lang-Cassera: Dylan, thank you for chatting with me about your exquisite novella, The Loneliest Band in France, the 2019 winner of the Clay Reynolds Novella Prize!
Might you please share what sparked this lovely, lyrical book? Do you remember what you were doing when the idea first came to you and how it progressed from there?
And, I know I should wait to ask this question, but I’m too excited and quite enthralled: how many sentences does this novella contain, and when did you know that your book would be composed of so few beautiful and breathless sentences?
Dylan Fisher: Totally! At first, it was just one very long sentence — easy to measure. It came out of a fascination with some of the writers operating in that long sentence space: Bernhard, Krasznahorkai, Sebald, Bolaño. At the time, I’d never encountered anything like their books. I’d just moved to Austin, Texas — in the midst of a heat wave — and was devouring them. It’s best, when reading, for the pages to become a bit sweaty.
But, really, it started as a game, a challenge to myself, a distraction from work. How long could I make a single sentence go? I wrote this draft, for the most part, in emails that I’d send to myself (from work) at the end of each day. What’s so nice about writing in this structure —especially for someone like me whose stories are chronically plot-less — is that, beyond the basic conceit, I didn’t think once about its plot. I trusted the sentence. As long as I could keep it going, I knew I’d be fine.
That being said, one of the best suggestions for the book came a few years later, during the revision process, from a poet (I think this is often the case) in a fiction workshop. It was pretty simple: “Add some periods. Probably at the end.”
This is all a long way of saying: I don’t know how many sentences are in the book. Seven? Eight? I should really count. I’m not sure what’s preventing me from doing it. There aren’t that many. At this point, it’s probably out of pride. I’ve been known to go to memorials, heritage sites, landmarks, but not enter them. Some people find this annoying. And it is kind of stupid. But, I guess, generally speaking, I’m more interested in what’s happening in the surrounding spaces than I am in the object itself, that thing everyone has come to see.
HLC: This makes sense to me, Dylan. Also, I feel like your challenge, a brilliant prompt of sorts, could be the perfect way for a poet to dive into the world of fiction writing. The conceit is based on syntax, as you have suggested, and in the case of The Loneliest Band in France, on imagery, as well, if I may. These elements of writerly craft might be considered particularly poetic, and I read your novella slowly out loud to myself, the way I would a book of poems. Dylan, do you consider yourself a poet? Do you write poems, or do you read much poetry?
DF: How would you define a poet? I’d only consider myself one in so far as I consider most people poets — capable of language that sings, that moves, that innovates. But not in any professional capacity — and I don’t imagine myself ever publishing a book of poems. The Loneliest Band in France is probably the closest I’ll ever get to that.
I will jot down a poem — or what I’ll call a poem — from time to time. Because I’m not entirely familiar with the formal expectations of poetry, I feel free doing whatever I want and calling it a poem. I know this isn’t exactly the case, no more so than fiction, with its own set of rules and structures.
In any case, the elements you note — syntax, imagery — are, indeed, what really appeal to me in a text, poetry or otherwise. I don’t enjoy reading (or writing) a book or story that lacks attention to the particular in one way or another. I talk to myself as I read and write, subvocalizing everything, announcing even the punctuation, and I like this idea of interpolating voices — the author’s, the characters, the readers — so it feels fitting for The Loneliest Band to be read out loud.
Maybe it’s ironic: My entrée into creative writing was via poetry — a poetry elective I took in high school. Unbeknownst to me, a teacher submitted a poem I wrote to a school-wide, Valentine’s Day poetry contest. I didn’t win, but came in second. The prize, if I remember correctly, was several boxes of Thin Mints. Looking back the poem was nothing special. But, then, the award was a huge ego boost. It wasn’t enough, though, at the time, to cement my interest (beyond a kind of abstract pride) in creative writing — which took a few more years to come around.
Recently, I’ve been reading more poetry. I’m reading the books I already own first. Honestly, it’s because their volumes are slimmer than much of the prose on my shelf, and I desperately want the experience of completing something these days. So I read these quickly, usually over the course of a single day, which isn’t how I’d like to be reading them. I just read Seamus Heaney’s The Spirit Level, and rushed through the first half of it so quickly I have no recollection of what I encountered. That’s a way to read, I suppose, for just the sonics. But it was much more rewarding to take my time with the second half of the collection. I finished it and thought, ***, that’s wonderful. In the past, I envisioned the ideal reading scenario for The Loneliest Band as a single-sitting. But that could be the wrong approach. I’m not one to tell people how to read a book — no less this one, which isn’t really my book anymore, anyway.
HLC: Yes, this is so true. Once we release our work into the wild, it is no longer ours. That said, those Thin Mints… I hope you didn’t have to share those! Not even with your lovely high school teacher. Have you sent them a copy of The Loneliest Band in France?
Also, now I am thinking about what is and is not ours as writers, and this brings me to ponder characters — who often take on a life of their own whether or not we’re on board. You’ve shared a bit about your impetus behind this novella, the structure propelling the work forward, and you’ve touched on the sonic qualities of writing. However, what about Migara de Silva, the narrator, who is recruited to play, last-minute, with a band debuting a potentially deadly song? Without giving away too much, could you tell us a bit about the narrator, what might have inspired him, how you established what motivates him, or what revisions you might have made to bring him so fully and intriguingly to life?
DF: I haven’t! But I should. I could send it with a box of Thin Mints — which are, in my opinion, top tier Girl Scout cookies. I’m trying to be better about thanking and acknowledging the people who have made a difference in my life. It’s not something that always comes naturally to me — particularly when it’s not a person I’ve seen in a long time or someone I’ve never met. For probably fifteen years, I’d meant to send a note to Robert Frank — the photographer. His work was a major influence early in my artistic life, when I thought I’d become a professional photographer. Frank died in September, and, maybe it’s selfish, but I wish I’d been able to tell him how much he’d meant to me.
It’s possible, and I’d welcome pushback, that this idea — what we can’t or are not able to say — is the driving force of The Loneliest Band. I don’t really think of it as a book about the titular “loneliest band,” but, rather, a quiet family drama hung on the frame of this eccentric, absurdist plot. I’m not saying The Loneliest Band in France element isn’t important or necessary to the book — if you took away the frame, it would fall to the floor — but I don’t believe it’s the heart, which has much more to do with multi-generational grief, with the complicated dynamics of parent-child relationships. More tangibly, in terms of motivation, I think there’s a decent argument that the story begins, in the very first line, with a lie, and the rest of the book is its aftermath. So …maybe it’s a misleading title.
Migara de Silva — and the whole de Silva family — comes from a short story (unpublished) that I’ve been working on and occasionally submitting to journals for a number of years. It’s most likely a terrible short story — its ultimate purpose to introduce me to the de Silvas — and I should take the hint. But, by now, I’m too close to it. I continue to reread it and revise it, and, each time I do, I feel moved. I can’t, not for the life of me, let it go. In a lot of ways, Migara, apt at over-thinking, is dealing with the same questions I am, questions of heritage, of growing older, of the shifting dynamics between parents and children, of being on the outside trying to fit in, of a feeling of placelessness and alienation — to the point where the geography of the book’s Montpellier is a fictionalized one, as is Calcium City’s, which, as far as I know, does not exist. This is different than Migara being me, or even being inspired by me; The Loneliest Band in France is neither autobiography nor autofiction. But I always want to see myself in the characters I write, as I do with friends, colleagues, celebrities, and, I’ve realized recently, having adopted a dog, pets. With Migara, our sharing these qualities, and writing and thinking into them, makes him a character that is difficult for me to love.
HLC: Is there anything else you’d like to share about your novella? Also, on what are you working these days?
DF: Sometimes, when I’m at my happiest and my saddest moments, I think this will be the only book I’ll ever publish. I don’t know if that’s true. But life is long, and there’s so much else I’d like to do, and writing is only one of them. Looking back at the novella, The Loneliest Band in France‘s downfall — if you can call it that — is their blind adherence to their art, that it takes precedence over human life, and intimacy, and friendship, and that’s not the fate I want for myself or anyone really.
To that end, as far as what I’m working on, it’s rarely writing, although I do have a novel or two in progress. These days, I’m reading — as much as I can. I’m taking long, solitary walks. I’m apartment hunting, since I’ll soon be moving to Atlanta, and packing my books, and buying more books. I’m drafting letters to my long-dead grandfather, a sort of daily journaling, I guess. I’m drawing and painting. I’m caring for the most incredible dog I’ve ever encountered — and I’m learning so much from her, becoming, I hope, a better person in the process.
HLC: Thank you so much for chatting with me, Dylan. Perhaps selfishly, for my own sake as a reader, I hope the world will have the pleasure of witnessing the publication of many more of your books.
Travel safely, dear author. I’ll be thinking of you, your geographic and artistic journeys, and of your beautiful little pup, as well!
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Heather Lang, recently chosen as Clark County, Nevada’s Poet Laureate, holds an MFA in Poetry with a Certificate in Literary Translation. In 2017 she was named Las Vegas’ Best Local Writer or Poet by the readers of KNPR’s Desert Companion, and her poems have been published by The Normal School, North American Review, Pleiades, South Dakota Review, and many other literary journals. She serves as World Literature Editor for The Literary Review, Faculty Advisor for 300 Days of Sun, and Editor-in-Chief for Tolsun Books. At Nevada State College, Heather teaches Creative Writing, World Literature, and more.