“Are You Experienced?” opens as a young couple in a boarding house—Billy and Meg—have dropped acid and are waiting for the high to kick in. Why did you want to start the story at this particular moment?
That’s a tough question for me to answer because, really, a story can start anywhere. Yet this one had to start at that point, inside the silence as they wait for the kick; it’s a calm moment, totally quiet, and then it’s destabilized, with so-called reality distorted, and then out of the strangeness of the drug trip—the Crumb image on the poster—the idea of robbing Uncle Rex appears. Later you get flashes of backstory—that Meg was a runaway—and, of course, as a reader you have to imagine everything before and after.
The story is set in 1971, and Billy is compared to Jim Morrison at one point: “Some said he looked a little bit like Jim Morrison, but, really, the resemblance lay in the way he moved, suddenly swaying his hips in his leather pants, radiating a charisma that seemed on the very edge of violence, launching into fits of jubilation.” And the story shares a title with a Jimi Hendrix song. How important are Hendrix and Morrison to “Are You Experienced?”
Music was a big part of that cultural moment for Billy and Meg, the background sound and the songs and noise that were feeding, at least partly, young people’s identities. Morrison was sexy and somewhat dangerous but also kind of silly, too—and, as someone in the miasma of cultural currents of his time, he was misogynistic. Morrison also talked a lot of poetic mumbo-jumbo, some of it interesting, some of it absurd—shifting from high diction to low—and maybe these qualities fed into Billy, or at least into the story. Hendrix seems to me to come from the future—from some other plane—and also in a paradoxical way from the past, too, like Bob Dylan. The song “Are You Experienced?” is a seduction song, but it’s dated, locked into a historical moment. If you listen to it, you hear this strange logic, the projection of desire into the narrative that the song is willing into shape. On the other side of the coin, I imagine, now that I’ve finished the story, that Meg, as a survivor, is inside a Lucinda Williams song—not so much the lyrics as the lilt in singing voice—or maybe that amazing Patti Smith song “Land: Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer (De).”
Hendrix’s song “Are You Experienced?” includes a question mark. It appears on an album of the same name (in the story, Billy is rolling the joints he’s going to sell on its cover), but there’s no question mark on the album. Was that something you thought about when titling the story?
I had a moment of crisis when I saw the album cover again and I realized that the question mark wasn’t there. I wondered if I should change the title of the story, but then I felt that the title—with the question mark—is directed outward toward the reader, so it has a different physics. This is a question that all fiction asks the reader: Are you bringing your own true self, the hidden truths of your own life, to the reading of this work and your own imagining?
Billy has returned to Michigan after a stint out East and, with Meg, he’s full of schemes that will fund “their experiment—as he called it—in alternative consciousness.” The latest scheme involves a plan to rob some elderly relatives who once had a farm and now live in Lansing. He calls this an adventure. Does Meg know what to call it?
I like to believe—and I felt it writing the story—that later in her life she’ll know what to call it. Who knows? Perhaps she has words for what they were doing by the end of the story. Billy tries to justify the robbery by explaining that it keeps the money in the family, maintaining some kind of status quo. I’m interested in the way people spin narratives to justify their own relationship to cash, building elaborate rationales around dubious, even criminal acts.
In Lansing, Billy discovers that his Aunt Minerva has died and his Uncle Rex likes to talk. Did you have Uncle Rex’s voice in your head before you started writing the story? Did you know how much he’d want to talk about his lost farm? Did you learn anything about soil as you were working on this?
There’s a certain kind of voice, a sound, a vernacular that I know from the old days in Michigan. I did have an Uncle Rex, a great-uncle twice removed, or something like that, who had been a farmer and then moved to Lansing. When I was a kid, my grandpa dragged me to his house a few times. That’s how it was back then. You went to some old house somewhere and paid a visit. I remember sitting in his stuffy front parlor and listening to him talk about the old farm. Later, after I wrote the story, as I was revising, I began thinking about how James Joyce once claimed that if Dublin disappeared suddenly from the Earth it could be reconstructed out of “Ulysses.” That’s the kind of dynamic Uncle Rex was revealing when he began talking. As for soil, I didn’t really research. I just let Uncle Rex talk, and when he talked he said some things—phrases—I had heard when I went to a summer camp as a boy and spent some time on farms.
For much of the story, Billy is talking and Meg is listening. Or Uncle Rex is talking. Meg’s voice isn’t heard. Yet, toward the end of the story, it’s her perspective we get and her understanding of where Billy’s obsessive storytelling will take him. Were you always aware that this shift would take place?
Not when was I was beginning to write the story. I might’ve had a slight sense that she would be a survivor, and that the story would be told in retrospect, and I felt relief when perspective shifted and she had that revelation and began to see into his dynamic—the bullshit narrative spinning, the so-called mansplaining of both men. That’s the twist in the knot for Meg—I like to think—but it’s the kind of knot that when you pull hard enough it disappears. Joan Didion famously said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” That’s true. But we also tell other people stories in an attempt to rope them into our stories. The way I see it, that’s what Billy was doing.
You published your fifth collection of stories, “Instructions for a Funeral,” earlier this year. When you’re writing new stories, do you think about how each story will live next to another in a collection or are you focussed solely on the individual story? Would you ever follow Meg or Billy into later chapters of their lives in future stories?
I’m solely focussed on the story. It’s like looking out the windshield while driving in a rainstorm. You can’t look any other way, or even glance in the rearview mirror. You have to lean forward and keep your eyes ahead. I think Tom Waits said something along the lines of, If you don’t catch a song, it’ll get mad at you. That’s how I feel. On the other hand, characters do reappear from time to time in my work, often at different stages of life, and I don’t mind as long as it happens naturally—as long as the story can stand on its own.
Billy and Meg, in fact, play significant roles in your novel “Hystopia,” which came out in 2016 and is narrated by a Vietnam veteran. That book presents a kind of alternative history of the United States in the shadow of the Vietnam War. Why did you want to return to Billy and Meg?
I made a number of fictional sketches when I was writing “Hystopia,” digging around, exploring the characters—and I had a scene of a young woman being slapped by her mother, taking off, walking around a lake and knocking on the door of an older teen-age boy, who happened to be Billy, and in one of the sketches they were robbing Uncle Rex. But when I returned to these scenes later, after I’d published the novel, feeling the urge to write about Meg and Billy again, I had to cut in from a different angle, because the sketches were mostly from the first-person point of view—and it was only when I found the right point of view, one that would allow me to hear and see the story in a different way, that it began to click. In a novel, characters are part of a much larger edifice, and, in a strange way, they seem to know it, to have more freedom while also being caught in the wide arc of a plot. But, in a story, at least in this kind of story, the characters are isolated within a profound moment, or scene, and they seem to know it. Everything has to conspire—the music, the trees, voices—to deepen, to leave something behind, to resonate again and again.