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An Interview with Edward Mc Whinney

JEFF:  You mention your character’s reticence, his withdrawal to the attic, where he can spend happy hours lost in his internal world. This gives us some clue to the importance of the interruption. That passage I quoted above from “If for Days on End…” features an interruption, and so do many of the stories. Your character is often interrupted, either from his thoughts or his observations of nature or his attempts to write, and he’s often interrupted by something ordinary, like a doorbell, a landlady, a traveling salesman. I want to ask you about the role of the ordinary. You’ve even shared with us a story called “An Ordinary Day,” in which a number of ordinary things happen—the character is unnerved by a man eavesdropping on his conversation in a pub, the character takes a bus, he picks up a prescription for his wife—yet as the story relates these ordinary events it vibrates with profundity, I want to say. Am I wrong about that, or is there something profound about the ordinary?

ED: When viewed through a certain lens or seen from a different angle, the ordinary can be profound. It sounds like a paradox, but the longer I live the more I realise our lives are driven by contradictions. It was there in the first answer concerning musicality, the melodious/the discordant and in the second about the external and internal, one impossible without the other. The character of these stories revels in paradox. He loves to elaborate on his confusion in the chaos of the everyday. He employs words like vertigo and bewilderment and dismay because he likes to dramatise a certain sense of alienation he enjoys. He knows he is just another ordinary, slow-witted old sham but here is the contradiction, he wants to feel different as if he has just been dropped in from another planet. The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new may be true for everyone around him but not for him. Everything is strange. Everything has hidden meaning. The sunrise, the moon above the rooftops, a girl in a red raincoat on a station platform.

With regards to the importance of interruption in these stories, well, it’s crucial. This self-styled lonely, attic scribbler has a short attention span. He can last at his desk for about an hour or two, then his fuse blows, and suddenly the all important act of thinking or writing becomes as disagreeable to him as shovelling muck and he needs distraction. The external world beckons, get out there and live in it. Probably, the most classical example of interruption is Coleridge’s Person from Porlock, whose unexpected arrival ensured the incompletion of “Kubla Khan.” Who’s to say that STC wasn’t happy with this distraction which saved him from caverns measureless to man and a sunless sea, awoke him from his opium nightmare into a beautiful sunny day in the Lake District?

We hear all the time about the functions of Art. It holds a mirror up to reality, it is an escape route, it’s our confessional, therapeutic and cathartic, and honing in on this third question, Art can make the ordinary profound. It’s a matter of taste what you go in for. In the literature, cinema, painting and photography that I love, the ordinary is always the focus of attention, and is always profound. For example, even the magic realism of Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Paramo is in my opinion embedded in descriptions of lives ordinary to the author, where they live, the vegetation, the empty streets, the stifling heat, howling dogs, their rooms, their clothes, possessions, the horse, the donkey, the crucifix. The surreal atmosphere rises up like smoke from the ordinary. The stories of The Burning Plain are also grounded in the landscape of his Mexico, ordinary peasants suffering brutal hardships, ordinary humans facing dilemmas that unfortunately remain commonplace in our world, how to survive under the threat of violence and poverty, displacement and exile. The dreamlike quality of Kafka’s novels also to my mind emerges from the ordinary. In The Trial for instance, we are drawn in by the banal; the stairways and doorways of the tenement house where the court is placed, the washerwoman, the ragged children, it’s the juxtaposition of the banal with the surreal that creates the gripping atmosphere, the kind of weird reality we encounter in dreams, so much that is recognisable but out of place. Surrealism itself, of the mood set in Paris, early twentieth century, is also grounded in the ordinary. Think of Duchamp’s inverted urinal. R. Mutt 1917. Ordinary made profound?

By the way, you might get the impression that I am warming to this interview process. There are moments, yes, when I forget myself, that’s fine until the panic returns and I retreat, bolt the door, secure the windows, pull up the drawbridge, find the fragment of a story to get lost in, after all who cares, for an hour or two, it’s Paul Celan, Miquel Bauca, Robert Walser, now there was a master at finding profundity in the ordinary. Robert Walser. The ordinary made profound. I’d guess that Robert would welcome the Person from Porlock, join him on a long walk, enjoy the colour and wonder of an ordinary day. It’s easy to empathise, as I said, an hour or two and everything changes, the blank page turns into a monster to flee from, the process that was all important an hour before, meaningless now, not savoury for the personality that has woken up to take over. Open the windows, unchain the doors, put on the hat and coat and Walserlike take off into the streets, what is more wonderful than a workday, for the flaneur that is, sun or rain, the river, the bridges, the alleyways, the cafes, the people going about the most ordinary business? The girl in the red raincoat of course. I’m drawn to the photographs of Bruce Davidson, William Klein, Thomas Struth among others because they find profundity in the ordinary. If I can do something similar in a story then the day is done. The commonplace in their pictures is beautiful, street signs, shop fronts, graffitti, traffic, the shape of cars, people’s expressions, the enactment of the most mundane habits, a simple cafe, the angle to the sky in the window, the colour in advertisements, the underground train.

To some I know the films of Nuri Bilge Ceylan and Aki Kaurismaki for example are painful, like watching paint dry. Yet, I love the depiction of the ordinary here as much as anywhere in literature. The camera work of “Once Upon a Time in Anatolia” and “Three Monkeys” makes us look at commonplace objects as if they held a deeper meaning, afterwards we look around us with a new perspective, like the stories of Juan Rulfo, everyday citizens dealing with predicaments that we could as easily face ourselves. It’s the same with the films of Aki Kaurismaki where the ordinary is presented with a sharpness that stimulates the imagination. The ordinary world is transformed. It’s wonderful to see how the expression on the face of a lonely lady at a table in a cafe is captured or that of a man with a terminal disease, alone in a room, gazing into a distance. But it’s not always bad, there is hope, the ordinary person is driven by hope, no matter what the circumstances. In Kaurismaki what I love the most are the minor victories of good over evil at the most basic level of society and you can see something new with every viewing, multiple viewings not prohibited. To do something similar in a story is the objective. I contend that it is the ordinary that makes the films of directors like Jim Jarmusch and David Lynch stand apart from the predictability of the glossy blockbuster movie. The cameo appearance of some ordinary freak (paradox again) enervates the scene, the juxtaposition of strange objects with the banal as in Kafka drawing us into the dreamlike interior world of the artist, ordinary desires, fears, nightmares, paranoia. Tales of Ordinary Madness as Charles Bukowski put it. A rundown roadside saloon becomes the gateway to all the complexities that define us as humans, if I remember rightly Alice either fell down a rabbit hole or walked through a wardrobe mirror, maybe both. It’s that same ordinariness about the paintings of Edward Hopper or Wilhelm Hammershoi. Ok. Maybe the rule about name dropping should apply now. One more please, a favourite painting is “L’Absinthe” by Edgar Degas. There they sit forever in The Cafe de la Nouvelle Athenes in Paris, Ellen and Marcellin, the most common of scenes provoking the most profound of feelings. To create an impression like that with words and images…

Oops. The doorbell. The Person from Porlock, no, it’s the postman? A nasty looking electric bill, a car tax reminder, a wedding invitation. Salvation. The sky is blue, for an hour, the Summer is coming, there’s hope for us, or the illusion of, Stop, not that voice, not now, I’m off. There’s a pint of plain awaiting in a local tavern, who needs publication and if any of them were by some weird chance ever to stumble on this interview it would be hello from reality, come here boy, you’re some chancer? My hour is done. Keep it quiet, the sacred pint alone can unbind the tongue of Dedalus, it awaits with a chat about our chances or lack of in the hurling on Sunday or the best deal for electric supply or broadband as with a tip of the cap to Flann O’Brien, who made hay out of making the ordinary sublime in his comical fashion, I’ll bid adieu;
When money’s tight and hard to get
And your horse is also ran
When all you have is a heap of debt,
A pint of plain is your only man.

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Editor Jeff McMahon writes about climate change and energy for Forbes. He has written for newspapers and the newfangled and has been a regular contributor, on writers and writing, to PEN International magazine. His commentaries have won a national first-place award from the National Society of Newspaper Columnists, and he was the first writer to win two Golden Quills for commentary from the International Society of Newspaper Editors. He also serves as Contrary‘s commentary editor. He teaches various forms of non-fiction writing at the University of Chicago.