In real life, D. Harlan Wilson is a thirty-something college professor who answers to the name David. In irreal life, Wilson is a fiendishly imaginative writer of short stories that are probably not quite like anything you've read before.
Over the years, a boatload of adjectives have been trotted out to describe Wilson's fiction. The author himself seems to prefer the term irreal, which American Heritage defines simply as "not real." Rather than belabor the point, it's safe to say that the closest adjectival reference points are surreal, absurd, or just plain weird.
Wilson's stories appear frequently in a variety of mostly small press publications. They have thus far been gathered in two collections (four, if you count ebooks), The Kafka Effect (2001) and Stranger on the Loose (2003), both published by Eraserhead Press.
Pseudo-City, Wilson's latest collection, brings together twenty-nine more stories, nineteen of which have previously seen the light of day. It is described as a "a story-cycle set in an imaginary, post-real metropolis." This metropolis, also known as Pseudofolliculitis City or Supercalifragilistic City, is a "metropolitan landscape of both dystopian and utopian proportions."
Named for pseudofolliculitis barbae, a skin condition more commonly known as razor bumps, Wilson's city is an exceedingly odd place indeed, a place where the "foremost mediamags" are People!!!, The Cowshit Journal, The Horseshit Herald, The Bullshit Telegram, The Elephantshit Quarterly, The Whaleshit News, The Dinosaurshit Review, and The Rabbit Pellet Press, and a place where doll hairs serve as currency—those from "the plastic head a Britney Spears fuck doll" are worth the least and those from "from the wooden head of a Howdy Doody ventriloquist doll" have the highest value.
Pseudo-City is scheduled for release mid-2005 by Raw Dog Screaming Press. Other D. Harlan Wilson projects on the horizon include Dr. Identity, "a speculative fiction novel about the life of a down-and-out ‘plaquedemic' and his psychotic, ultraviolent, machinic sidekick."
William I. Lengeman III: What is more irreal—your writing or the real world?
D. Harlan Wilson: They're the same. My irreal narratives are mere representations of reality in its natural state. I just call them irreal to make myself sound like I'm doing something special!
WIL: Explain, in five words or less, what made you the way you are?
DHW: Dreams and bullies.
WIL: What was the impetus/inspiration for Pseudo-City?
DHW: The narrative structure and premise of Pseudo-City was inspired by Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, a collection of stories set in the same small, fictional town. The book was published in 1919. It features a recurring protagonist, the coming-of-age George Willard, who struggles to negotiate the social dynamics of a place where people are emotionally impaired and lack the ability to express their true feelings and desires. These people are called "grotesques."
I like to think Pseudo-City is populated by grotesques of a sort, only I call them "follicles," and my recurring protagonist is an over-the-hill schizophrenic named Dr. Dorian "Bling-Bling" Thunderlove a.k.a. Stanley "Third World" Ashenbach. The main difference is my characters are extremely mediatized, urbanized technocapitalist subjects. This factor renders a society very unlike the one portrayed by Anderson, especially in terms of the carny ultraviolence that distinguishes my book.
You might say that Pseudo-City, with the helping hand of technocapitalist media, hyperexternalizes the repressed emotional violence of Winesburg's citizens. But Pseudo-City isn't really meant to be a commentary on Winesburg, Ohio. Above all, Anderson's book provided me with the framework to illustrate an imaginary, futuristic city that's partly an extension of the ultraviolent, schizophrenic, consumer-capitalist machinery that exists in the world today.
WIL: How do your stories come about? Do you pick up any story ideas from dreams?
DHW: When I first started writing fiction, I relied heavily on my dreams. A number of stories in my first two books, The Kafka Effekt and Stranger on the Loose, were extrapolated from dreams, a technique I encourage my students to practice. This isn't the case in my latest book, Pseudo-City, although many of the stories it contains are certainly dreamlike.
Nowadays my ideas materialize primarily from brainstorming and reading other authors. My wife Xtine is a big help, too. Like me, she's getting her Ph.D. in English from MSU (Michigan State University), and I often bounce ideas off her. We're actually conceiving a genre mystery novel right now that we plan to write in tandem if we can ever find the time. Because my writing is rather unusual and psychedelic, people often assume it's inspired by and produced under the auspices of some form of psychosis or drug-induced mania. But that's not the case at all.
WIL: Have you ever dabbled in writing more traditional types of fiction?
DHW: Traditional is a tricky word. It means different things to different people. I tend to associate it with marketable writing that makes a pile of money. Stephen King, Danielle Steele, Patricia Cornwall, Dean Koontz, Nora Roberts, James Patterson—their books. Others (academics, for instance) associate it with what, for lack of a better word, I will call "literary" writing. This is the stuff that's found in scholarly journals and magazines. I've written both. And I've been consistently discouraged by each of them. The scholarly hoo-ha tends to bore the hell out of me, no matter how many second chances I give it.
"Literary" writing is often exceedingly serious and the writers often take themselves too seriously. I'm acutely skeptical of and annoyed by writers who take themselves too seriously. Best-selling literature gets under my skin, too, mainly because of the atrocious prose and its formulaic structure.
These are all generalizations, of course: I'm sure there are plenty of best-selling and "literary" writers. I just haven't read that many of them! The paradox is I'm compelled to emulate them. I'm graduating with my Ph.D. in English from Michigan State University in May and I'm currently on the job hunt for a full-time college teaching position. My training is in American literature, but I'm applying for a lot of jobs in the creative writing field. In order to stand out, it helps to have publications in reputable scholarly magazines, so I'm trying to write more conservative pieces. (By conservative I mean blasé.) I'm also conceptualizing a genre horror novel that I hope to sell to a mainstream publisher. I'll write this book after I finish the one I'm currently working on, a speculative fiction novel called Dr. Identity.
Teaching is my main source of income and I enjoy it, but if I could make my living on writing alone, I'd forego my teaching, or at least minimize it to one adjunct course per semester. Ideally I'd like to find a happy, marketable medium between my strain of irreal fiction and mainstream fiction. I get closer to this medium every year, but I have yet to effectively actualize it.
WIL: When did you first get into writing and why?
DHW: Not until I started graduate school in 1995. I was about twenty-four. During childhood I read quite a bit, but I didn't write much. I loved to draw. For hours and hours every day I'd draw pictures of Star Wars and He-Man characters and spaceships from that old animé television series Starblazers. As I grew older my life revolved increasingly around sports, namely basketball, which I played for two years in college at Wittenberg University before becoming a frat boy and wasting my time drinking and chasing women. I majored in English and wrote some bad poetry at Wittenberg. I continued to write bad poetry after college and didn't stop until 1999 when I realized I was not only a crummy poet, I didn't even really like poetry. By this time I'd been writing fiction for a few years.
My first stories were written for a creative writing class taught by the novelist Patricia Powell at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where I was working on my M.A. in English. I trashed them long ago, but I remember they were respectively inspired by Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker. They were quite terrible, these stories—poorly written and poorly conceived. At the time, though, I was just happy to be writing fiction; back then I viewed it as a kind of magical undertaking and it was satisfying enough for me to create imaginary characters and make them do things.
I suppose this simple activity is why I write. The real world has always bored me. I enjoy creating new, strange beings and worlds to entertain myself as much as a readership. Anyway, after Patricia's course was over, I wrote more stories. And over the next three years I wrote a few novels. I didn't think so at the time, but in retrospect none of these narratives were worth a shit, and I didn't submit any of them for publication. In fact, I've only recently started to become more comfortable as a writer. This isn't necessarily a bad thing: I think it's good to be doggedly suspicious of the quality of your artwork, whatever it is.
WIL: What kind of books did you read as a kid?
DHW: Two of my favorite children's books were Where the Wild Things Are and the lesser-known Awful Marshall, which is about a kid who antagonizes adults by literally attacking them with his imagination and putting them in compromising positions. I also loved Shel Silverstein's wonderfully perverse poems. Later on I read and reread loads of Hardy Boys, Amelia Bedelia and Judy Blume books (especially Superfudge). I spent some time reading encyclopedias, too, not so much out of a sense of preintellectual industriousness or curiosity as it was a desire to be like Encyclopedia Brown, the protagonist of a series of books written by Donald Sobol. As his name suggests, Brown, a child detective renowned in his neighborhood for his manly lexicon and acuity, read encyclopedias voraciously.
There were other books. I recall C.S. Lewis' Narnia Chronicles, Lloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain, virtually every available Roald Dahl novel, and a book by Daniel Pinkwater called Lizard Music about a secret society of fun-loving, anthropomorphic lizards. These fantasy narratives had the most influence on me when I was young. They continue to inform my aesthetic sensibility today.
WIL: What book(s) are you currently reading?
DHW: On my plate right now are Jonathan Lethem's Gun, With Occasional Music, John Toland's biography of Adolf Hitler, Kevin Kelly's Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and a little book by Deleuze and Guattari called Nomadology: The War Machine.
I'm always reading five or so books, and one of them almost always belongs to Deleuze and Guattari. Their theory on capitalism and schizophrenia deeply informs my creative and critical writing as well as my worldview.
WIL: Who are your favorite authors?
Along with Deleuze and Guattari, Burroughs, Baudrillard, Kafka, Gogol, Ellison (Ralph and Harlan), Hemingway, Poe, Aylett, Kafka, Barthelme, Miller, Kroker, Zizek, and Dick.
WIL: Who or what are influences on your writing?
DHW: In addition to the authors I mentioned, my writing is heavily influenced by cinema and media technology. I'm an avid moviegoer and pop culture enthusiast, and I often integrate elements of visual media into my narratives. Burroughs was the master of this technique. His cut-up novels, for instance, are impregnated with various mechanical and thematic aspects of film. As such, the novels function like films and comment on the pathological nature of the postmodern condition, particularly the way in which reality and perception are progressively determined by a fictional ethic. I do something like the same thing in Pseudo-City.
WIL: Who is your favorite cartoon character? Favorite fictional character?
WIL: My favorite cartoon character is Hong Kong Fooey. I used to get up at the crack of dawn when I was a kid to watch him, and I still look for him on the Cartoon Network. It has always been my dream to leap into a file cabinet as a canine everyman and emerge as a superdog!
I have many favorite fictional characters. One is A Catcher in the Rye's Holden Caulfield. He's a masterfully written character. So is Lolita's Humbert Humbert.
WIL: Writing appears to be an avocation for you right now. Do you ever hope to make it a vocation?
DHW: Absolutely, although I don't know if I'd ever give up teaching completely. If I did I'd probably have to find some sort of part-time job other than writing to occupy myself. I'm so used to writing in my spare time, I don't know how I'd manage if that's all I had to do. I write almost every day, but in small increments. Sometimes no more than a sentence or two comes out. And I almost never produce more than two pages in one sitting. I'm also a revision Nazi and obsessively nitpick my work. I spend more time revising than writing. It works for me, but it doesn't feel "professional."
WIL: According to your website, your previous occupations include international salesman, model and actor, casino dealer, security guard, garbage man, tax collector, sommelier, town crier, and flâneur. Which did you like the most and the least?
DHW: For obvious reasons, I liked working as a sommelier the most. It doesn't get any better than being paid to taste-test wine all day long. At the same time, my most rewarding work experience was as a town crier. I received my M.A. in Town Crying from the University of Liverworst. After I graduated, I found work in a little village in northern Wales. I took great pride in proclaiming daily, sometimes hourly announcements in the streets on a wide range of topics. Every now and then my enthusiasm was mistaken for that which belonged to the village's resident idiot, but for the most part my services were understood and appreciated and respected.
I did this for a year and a half before getting bored and returning to America to become a security guard, my least favorite occupation. I wasn't allowed to carry a gun, and even when there was nothing to do and nobody to watch, I wasn't allowed to sit down or read.
WIL: Which, if any, gave you the most material to write about?
DHW: Probably working as a flâneur. I was living in London at the time. I had plenty of time to loiter and eavesdrop on people. I also had the opportunity to mix in a variety of social circles. If and when I become a vocational writer, perhaps I'll return to flâneury again, at least as a part-time gig.
WIL: Talk about your forthcoming novel, Dr. Identity. Will it be another work of irreal fiction?
DHW: There are irreal elements in the book, but for the most part it operates in a realistic (albeit futuristic) diegesis. It's set in an imaginary place called Bliptown that's essentially an overgrown suburb. The protagonists are a nameless English professor (or "plaquedemic") and an android (or "'gänger") named Dr. Identity. They're spitting images of one another. The professor surrogates himself with the android on a regular basis in his classes, which are constituted by "student-things" and their 'gänger's.
In Bliptown, almost everybody owns stand-in, look-alike machines that they use regularly to replace themselves on the stage of life, despite profession, age, gender, race, and class. The plot concerns Dr. Identity's accidental murder of a student-thing and the android and the professor's subsequent flight from the "papanazzi," vigilantes, and the sundry minions of the Law. I'm very happy with how the novel's coming along so far. I plan to finish a draft this summer and revise it through the end of the year, so keep your eyes peeled for it in 2006!
WIL: In addition to The Real World, MTV now offers The Surreal World. If they ever devise a show called The Irreal World, who would you like to see as the featured cast members?
DHW: I like this question. Let's make it a Charlie thing. I'd like to see Charleton Heston, Charlie Chaplin, Charlie Brown, Charles Bronson, Charles Darwin, and Scott Baio's Charles in Charge living under one roof with the camera rolling. To spice things up, I'll throw in Charlize Theron as serial killer Aileen Wuornos!