The Long Horizon: An Interview with Shya Scanlon

by Lawrence Lenhart

Protagonist and novelist Blake Williams cares for his cancerous mother in a Seattle about to be saturated by an imminent climatological apocalypse. Among the evacuees are Blake’s wife (her name’s Blake too) and brother. Determined to stay—or resigned to his mother’s determination—Blake sets out to, in the words of fellow Washingtonians, Modest Mouse, “shake hands with the masses.” His first crucial steps out of the house explain how a self-described solipsist goes on to become a preeminent writer of witness literature. Even as the radio assures Seattleites that the Ross Ice Shelf has melted and a city-soaking tsunami is anon, climate deniers abound.

In their profound insularity, remaining Seattlelites are wary of misinformation. When Blake gets the opportunity to contribute to the distortion of information in a preternatural way—his fiction assignment will be disseminated as History—the ethical and artistic conundrums become cornerstones of the narrative.

In THE GUILD OF SAINT COOPER, Shya Scanlon documents the absurd rhythms of the lesser-known (but equally tense) pre-apocalypse. Scanlon pens a multiverse of Murakami proportions and navigates its disparate dimensions with the iconoclastic swagger of David Lynch. The introspective, self-deprecating narrator, who has a penchant for intellectual pith, sets out to preemptively rebuild a city that is not yet destroyed. Starting with the psychological edifice of the members of the eponymous guild, Blake revises Seattle’s history, along with its future, by hijacking Northwest pop-folk hero, Dale Cooper.

From the thirteen-floor vantage of his apartment, Scanlon watched down-below Manhattanites as we spoke about the Seattleites of THE GUILD. Below is a portion of our conversation about apocalyptic schadenfreude, the paradoxical mythos of constructing future origin stories, and what it felt like to embody Dale Cooper even as the fate of TWIN PEAKS’ third season remains woefully undecided.

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Brazos Bookstore: Before reading your novel, I had just read this article discussing apocalyptic schadenfreude—this idea that we derive pleasure from the misfortune of others, specifically in the rarefied context of climate or the apocalypse. Do you think this sentiment is evident in the Seattle of THE GUILD?

Shya Scanlon: In the book, the apocalypse as it is, is always on the horizon. It’s not written in the aftermath of apocalypse, but it is imminent. For that reason, there’s a lot of disbelief or reluctance to take it seriously. Most people have moved out of the city, but there are a surprising number of people who haven’t. I wanted the novel to begin after the initial rush of evacuation so that within the long horizon, people are waiting for something, but they’ve also gotten used to waiting. That’s really that middle ground between eventuality and lukewarm potentiality.

I would say a large part of schadenfreude has to do with denial in a broad sense. Like any form of empathy, you associate yourself with the person in that position, but the discord is sort of that recognition of association coupled with the denial that it could be you.

BB: So the pleasure is in the denial.

SS: That’s certainly, in part, what’s going on with the characters in the book. It’s a palpable reality, but the feeling is divorced from its inevitability. And even later, you get hints that people within the Guild don’t really believe the tsunami is imminent. They have held themselves in disbelief long enough that they start to create alternate scenarios and begin to spin myth out of the misinformation that they pass around one another.

BB: That denial is rife in THE GUILD. Culturally, there’s a denial about what matters. I’m reminded of the fashion column in the novel: “Post-Evac Must-Haves.” To me, it’s more absurd than it is pragmatic. How would you characterize Blake’s register of denial when contrasted with that of society at large?

SS: There’s a running motif of pop culture garbage information. Blake gets a TV, and he and his mother see things, and they don’t know if they should take it seriously or as misinformation or remixed information or whether it’s just entertainment. That example of the evac must-haves, we do actually have in New York. There are guidelines about what to pack for an environmental disaster.

In the context of the book, people outside of the city are treating it as entertainment value, which harkens back to the schadenfreude comment. For my protagonist, his situation is complicated by the fact that he is kind of avoiding a lot of things he feels. It’s important for him to be there, and nominally, that’s because his mother won’t leave, but he has examples to the contrary. His wife left and his brother took his family. His mother all but encourages him to leave. She kind of ridicules him for locking himself away in his room. He’s kind of in this mode where this is a convenient way to manifest his own personal levels of avoidance. In an extreme situation, an individual who decides to stay in an intolerable atmosphere has personal reasons. Blake’s psychological profile—why does he need to be there—the book has a lot to do with that: grappling with or further avoiding action relating to this strange situation.

BB: Regarding his psychological profile, we see Blake early on as a reluctant novelist, but as he gets more involved in his community, he becomes a more willing documentarian. In that way, THE GUILD reminds me of Lars von Trier’s MELANCHOLIA as we watch the idiosyncratic ways people cope with an event over which they have no control. Is Blake a depressed person, and if so, how does his activation in the guild rescue him from that?

SS: I hadn’t thought of MELANCHOLIA in relation to GUILD before, but there are definite similarities, except that von Trier has almost no sense of humor. We work on different registers. Certainly, there is this malaise, and I would characterize Blake as being depressed. I would characterize his initial inaction as a hallmark of a person suffering from depression or extreme self-doubt, possibly self-loathing. It’s not just that he can’t bring himself to act. He doesn’t like what he’s doing or where he is, and I think that—despite the fact that when he’s initially confronted with the Guild, he finds the whole thing ludicrous as any sane person would—he’s drawn into it because, as you say, it awakens something in him productive. He’s trying to wrestle with this: the role of an artist, especially of fiction, in a world that really demands our immediate attention and action, which I would say is the world we live in.

We’re confronted daily with opportunities. There are dire needs for our contribution in a really practical way. Blake has his immediate environment to involve himself with and yet he doesn’t. He’s struggling with how to capture this, how to relate it to his art, and I think that that’s sort of the big paradox of the book.

BB: Speaking about storytelling, you tap the creative legacy of David Lynch’s cult television series, TWIN PEAKS, in GUILD. Can you talk about your relationship with TWIN PEAKS?

SS: It was a very important piece of art for me when I was in my late teens. I was really struck by how successfully it worked on multiple registers, particularly in how it used humor while also being invested in the exploration of such dark emotional and social territory. All the characters have their secrets, and it explores those secrets more so than even it does the supposed subject of Laura Palmer’s death. It’s about the town kind of meeting itself. I found it incredibly compelling and hilarious.

I can’t imagine not treating these very important topics with a degree of levity and self-sabotage. It’s folly. For me, that is represented and epitomized by the Dale Cooper character, who is sincerely entangled in the thematics of the show, but then stands apart from it in critical points and seems to laugh at his submission in respect to it. That made him a good fit for what I was doing with the book aside from my own personal affinity for this character.

BB: How does the pop cultural figure of Dale Cooper come to supplant established historical figures of the Pacific Northwest?

SS: For Russell, the guy who has created this Guild of Saint Cooper, his vision is a little more narrowly constrained by certain elements of Dale Cooper’s character. So it would be ill-fitting for Dale Cooper to be this character because of the reasons Russell would want him to be.

You know, Seattle gets its name from Chief Sealth. He’s been the spirit of Seattle—not just the namesake—in his embodiment of its natural environmental ethos. The real story is not that really. The speech he gave was very loosely translated to reflect the core beliefs of the translator. The way he was written about in local history textbooks is not fairly representative of who Sealth actually was. It’s that “we” want to create a fiction that represents what we want.

Why choose Cooper rather than a historical figure? I think the motif I was talking about earlier—constant bombardment and equivocation of pop culture influence and questioning iffy information—is a token of that too. The people in this world have such a tenuous relationship with the now outside world of non-Seattle that there’s a championing process of what information they do pull in. It becomes rarefied and has a lacquer of false profundity. It’s exoticized.

BB: For the record, your Dale Cooper is spot-on. I wonder, as your narrator tries out Dale Cooper’s voice, is this your way of auditioning for Showtime’s impending resuscitation of TWIN PEAKS? Is your representation of Cooper agenda-less?

SS: I loved the process of inhabiting that character and that voice. It has elements of fan fiction, but I didn’t want it to overwhelm or spiral out of control. Cooper’s position in this story has to remain that of a cipher in a way. He’s the raison d’être of much of the plot points, but he is always just out of sight, so when he was on the page, he had to be concrete and also finite. I really just wanted him to serve as a believable Dale Cooper. I think that he comes with his own set of such complicated and emotional associations that a reader who knows him is just going to be meeting me more than halfway already, so I didn’t want to load it with perspective in any concrete way other than serving as a particular kind of mechanic of the story. It was just fun putting new sentences in his mouth.

LAWRENCE LENHART holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. His work appears or is forthcoming in Alaska Quarterly Review, Fourth Genre, Guernica, Gulf Coast, Passages North, Prairie Schooner, Wag’s Revue, and elsewhere. Currently living in Sacramento, he is reviews editor and assistant fiction editor of DIAGRAM.

The Guild of Saint Cooper Cover Image
$14.95
ISBN: 9781936873616
Availability: Not On Our Shelves. Usually arrives in 1-5 Days
Published: Dzanc Books - May 12th, 2015

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