[This is the second in a series of interviews with past and current Timber contributors. In this installment, Interviews Coordinator James Ashby chats with Fall 2015 contributor Nat Baldwin (“The Spaces Between Teeth”) about writing with restrictions, destroying structure, and the musicality of language. –Ed.]
“The Spaces Between Teeth” consists of short, one paragraph sections, and your sentences are also short and declarative. What drew you to set this kind of pacing for the story?
I’ve always been attracted to stories that maintain a specific voice. I love the idea of creating maximal sound and variation within minimal space. This story actually came out of an assignment in a workshop I took with Peter Markus last summer. The assignment was this: twelve sections, twelve sentences in each section, twelve words in each sentence. These restrictions created a very particular kind of space that in turn dictated the pace. I found that the restrictions turned inside out and became generative. At first, I was so concerned with fitting the words into the structure that I wasn’t aware of the story. When the story emerged, or became clear to me, it seemed to have always been there, as if I were simply pulling it out of the established architecture (like pulling bodies out of mud?). The blank page became less terrifying and akin to fitting words to melody, something I’m a bit more accustomed to. In fact, I realized, it wasn’t a blank page at all! When I finished the assignment, I knew a story was there, but I also knew that I’d need to hack off about two thirds of the sentences to unearth it and then, once again, obscure it. I suppose that’s not dissimilar to my normal editing process anyway. I had three perspectives at work: the bodies, the finders of the bodies, and those watching the bodies being found. As I started to hack away, those distinctions became blurred, which I think created a more intriguing mess, to me, especially in contrast to the static nature of the sentence structure and tone. Of course, I abandoned the rule of twelve in the editing process, but I didn’t stray far from it. It’s also important to add that Peter directed my attention to where it needed to be, and this story wouldn’t exist without his generous eyes and ears and, not to mention, his influence.
Does playing, singing, or listening to music play a role in your fiction writing process?
My experiences playing music have definitely informed my process as a fiction writer. I wouldn’t have the same discipline or patience, I suppose, but that can be traced even further back to my basketball playing days, so in that sense, basketball has as much influence on my process as music. But music, obviously, in regards to sound, texture, pulse, rhythm, arch, stasis, melody, narrative, anti-narrative, dissonance, assonance, pitch, tone, microtone, repetition, etc., certainly plays a huge role in how and what I’m trying to create with words. I love the musicality of language and see the layers and possibilities to be quite similar to those in songs, compositions, improvisations, noise, etc. The act of singing, however, does not really play a direct role in any different way than already stated. I don’t actually enjoy singing that much, but just use my voice as a vehicle to create songs. I never decided to write songs, they decided to be written, and that’s why the period of songwriting, in the beginning, was insanely productive. Essentially, that’s how I was infected with the fiction writing bug—it seemed as though I had no choice. There was no thinking, only action. As far as listening to music while writing, I went through a brief period, which may have been around the time of the Timber story, that I listened a lot to old favorite Morton Feldman, and new favorites Terry Riley and LaMonte Young. I couldn’t imagine listening to anything while writing other than static, drone-like, trance-inducing sounds. I suppose that has something to do with the kind of stories I’m writing, but listening to music with lyrics or significant dynamic shifts and sonic density just seems distracting. As far as music that has inspired me over years playing a role in process, I think it certainly does, but only in the same abstract yet still very connected, conceptual way that the act of playing music parallels as well.
As a kind of counterpoint to the previous question, how do literature and your experiences with writing fiction inform your work as a musician?
A lot of the songs I made for my last album, In the Hollows, were inspired by the fiction I was reading at the time. The lyrics became more linear, or narrative-driven, less impressionistic, while still paying attention to the sound and shape of the words and how they interacted with the melody, tone, etc. I was still fitting these narratives within a normalized structure of a song, in relation to verse, chorus, etc. I wrote what I think are some of my best songs within such a structure and so then naturally began to think about destroying the structure. When I studied with Anthony Braxton, I rejected any inkling of conventional structure or linear melody or traditional song, and, back then, wondered what the literary version of such unconventional, radical sounds could be. It was maybe 2002, but I was barely aware that other books existed beyondNotes From the Underground or Nausea or Portrait of the Artist. Not that those aren’t revolutionary books in their own right, but I thought, in relation to style, that surely there could not be a literary equivalent to John Cage or Sun Ra or Stockhausen. Of course, I wasn’t looking hard enough. As my literary interests grew, shortly after the time I was writingIn the Hollows, I discovered this kind of literature, or something like it, as close as it gets, and it was through this literature that my interest in the abstract and the beyond was reignited. So my stories are an attempt to regenerate and rebuild through destruction and chaos—a new kind of song, so to speak, at least for me. My music and literary endeavors are therefore sutured together, one in the same, and I aim to continue to explore sound and texture, structure and chaos, narrative and form, in whichever ways they leak out into the semblance of a shape.
Nat Baldwin is a writer and musician living in Maine. His fiction has appeared in PANK, Sleepingfish, Timber, Deluge, and Alice Blue. He has released several solo albums, and plays bass in Dirty Projectors.