"I Was Off on a Journey Into the Jungle"

Article by ben

by Benjamin Rybeck


“This might take a while,” Peter Turchi tells me as he stares at the Ginger Man’s beer list, trying to pick the right one. Turchi takes his time—now, and in general. He wants to get things right.


Most people don’t take so long to order a beer. But that’s because most people don’t see a beer list as a list of clues to parse, a problem to be solved. Turchi’s brain seems to work this way—viewing life as a series of puzzles demanding specific answers.


I don’t mean to suggest that Turchi is stern or unapproachable. On the contrary, he has the affable air of a ‘90s sitcom neighbor. He allows himself to get excited about things, and as soon as we sit down together with our beers (he settled on a pumpkin ale), he starts to tell me about something he just heard on NPR’s Science Friday.


“They were doing a Halloween-themed show,” he says, “about what makes scary music scary. There was somebody who wrote a book called THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON MUSIC, and he was talking about the part of the brain that searches for order, and how dissonance is scary--which, of course, is right up my alley right now.”


He refers, of course, to A MUSE AND A MAZE, an expansive work that examines a disparate series of materials—including Orson Welles, Thomas Bernhard, Sudoku, Looney Tunes, and Oulipo—to tease out the reasons we feel so drawn to puzzles, and how this connects with the act of writing.


“The tension between puzzle and mystery is the tension between pattern recognition and the things that don’t make sense,” Turchi says. “If you’re reading and you can’t find any progression pattern, you’re probably not going to continue reading.”


What he means is, basically, that a good piece of fiction needs to operate like a good puzzle: whether or not strictly “realistic,” a story or a novel needs to walk a line between mystery and making sense (i.e., being “solvable”). 


As an example, Turchi tells me about an unpublished story he read recently, which describes an infidelity with which everyone—spouses, lovers, kids, etc.—is completely happy. He laughs. “There’s a problem there. I don’t know anybody in my life who has had an affair without anxiety or depression.” Because there’s no realistic tension, the story doesn’t seem solvable.


At this point, it seems important to mention that Turchi has been teaching for a very long time, most notably at Arizona State University, Warren Wilson College, and now, the University of Houston. He seems delighted to talk about matters of craft, and I press him to speak a bit more about mystery in fiction—and especially how it relates to puzzles. After all, a good puzzle works because it withholds just enough information to make it challenging, but not so much that it seems to cheat. Is it the same way in fiction?


“There are cases where [the author] withholds information, and it’s a useful manipulation. That’s how most narratives work: the writer knows something the reader doesn’t.” He mentions Michael Ondaatje’s COMING THROUGH SLAUGHTER, which “withholds all kinds of information to pull us into this complex constellation of ideas that he will eventually draw together, though it takes a while. Thomas Bernhard denies us all sorts of grounding information, too. But Chekhov said that the most boring person in the world is the person who tells you everything. As readers, we want to feel like we can fill in some blanks.”


Turchi quickly pulls an example of this from ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN—an example, perhaps, he uses when talking to students (which I suddenly feel like). “When we get to the line where Huck says, ‘All right, I’ll go to hell’ for deciding to help Jim, we know that Twain doesn’t think Huck’s going to hell, and we know Huck isn’t going to hell. There’s a pleasure in knowing that, even though nobody has said, ‘He wasn’t going to hell.’”


Turchi has knowledge of film too, and he discusses Asghar Farhadi’s A SEPARATION, which he admires for its willingness to omit information about its characters. For instance, he mentions one of the film’s central characters—a husband who seems needlessly difficult, until we learn the pressures he faces dealing with a senile father. “We’re encouraged to judge [the husband], but then another point of view is added, and we’re moved to sympathy for that character.”


I wonder whether such puzzle-making can go too far, or whether there can be too much pressure on contemporary writers to launch those puzzles immediately. I ask Turchi about this, mentioning the languid openings of some of Alice Munro’s works—stories that take pages to develop characters and settings before any conventional tension has been introduced.


“Munro has a story that opens with the narrator seeing a father carrying a drowned boy,” he reminds me, patiently. “There’s another where a plane is about to hit a house…”


I take his point.




Turchi’s earliest writing jobs were in journalism, in which he worked from high school on. “I was published every week in some form,” he says, “and that was very useful, because when you misquote the head of the English department, you hear about it, and you’re reminded of the importance of doing these things correctly.” Through journalism, he got his “publication itch scratched.” 


He earned his MFA from the University of Arizona, where he met Robert Boswell, Tony Hoagland, and Antonya Nelson—lifelong friends that he now teaches with in Houston. Turchi’s first novel, THE GIRLS NEXT DOOR, came out in 1989. He had worked on it for six years and was still young (in his late twenties) at the time of publication. A collection of short stories—MAGICIAN (a title that already hints at Turchi’s later interest in puzzles)—followed in 1991.


From there, though, the traditional path of a fiction writer got somewhat disrupted. In 1993, he became the director of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College—widely considered the finest low-residency creative writing program in the country. “When I became director,” he tells me, “there was a cardboard box under the chair. I had to kick it to sit down.” What was left behind? “It was the text of some of the lectures that had been given at Warren Wilson—some in fiction, some in poetry.” There seemed to be an anthology to produce from those lectures, so Turchi got to work.


As of now, Turchi has co-edited three anthologies of writers discussing their craft—including THE STORY BEHIND THE STORY, which he worked on with Andrea Barrett. “We wanted to take a bunch of writers and ask them very difficult questions about how they wrote their stories. So we came up with three questions and sent them out. But nobody answered them! They avoided them in every possible way.”


This preoccupation with rules and constraints is also evident in another, earlier work: SUBURBAN JOURNALS, a book in collaboration with artist Charles Ritchie. “For a long time, [Ritchie] only made images the size of a postcard. They had to be in black and white. They had to be things he could see through the windows of his house at dusk. Those are a lot of constraints. What he wanted to do was observe, as carefully as he could, just a few things: how trees moved, how houses decayed, and all that.”


Turchi’s interest in art, constraint, and writing led him to 2004’s MAPS OF THE IMAGINATION: THE WRITER AS CARTOGRAPHER. In it, he examines the philosophical connections between mapmaking and writing, mingling culture both high (the ancient Greeks) and low (Roadrunner cartoons) to parse out the conventions and rules that artists employ across disciplines.


“I get excited by things that make me think about writing differently,” Turchi says, “and I want to try to create that experience for readers. In MAPS, it worked more than I would’ve ever imagined. I could’ve written a sequel, but that wasn’t interesting. People said, ‘You could write about these maps, or those maps,’ but mapping itself was never my interest. My interest was in how mapping was like writing. To really get excited about a new book, I needed a new metaphor, a new tension.”


Thus, puzzle-making. Thus, A MUSE AND A MAZE.


“I just about killed myself writing this book,” he says.


In asking Turchi a bit more about that—as our beers get low—I learn that a book like A MUSE AND A MAZE becomes its own sort of puzzle. Each individual piece might seem clear, but what shape does the whole need to take?


Or, as Turchi puts it, “I felt like I was off on a journey into the jungle and I might not get home. It felt more like fiction. There were really stretches where I didn’t know if I was going to be able to do it. Even though, at any individual moment, I had a sense of what I wanted to say, I couldn’t figure out how it would all fit together.”


Does he have the same sort of doubts about his fiction? Do his stories and novels come together through the same sort of process—tiny pieces of culture in his brain, forming and breaking apart and forming again?


“It seems to me that the thing I have to have for everything to come together is voice. If I can’t get the narrator’s voice in my head, whether it’s first person or third person, I can’t figure out the story. The stories aren’t necessarily about the voice—they’re about a person with a problem, or a particular image that gives somebody a problem—but if I can find the voice, then I can pursue all the rest.” For Turchi, voice collects the world around it.


“You know,” Turchi says, our beers gone now, “I went to go see Jesse Schell [author of THE ART OF GAME DESIGN] at Carnegie Mellon, where he teaches video game design. I said, ‘Tell me one thing: if you’ve got a game, and you’re trying to make decisions about it, is there one thing that you have to lock down to figure out all the rest of the problems?’ And he said, ‘The music. If I know the music for the game, then I can figure out everything else.’ It’s always interesting what people build from.”


As usual, it’s not enough for Turchi to limit himself to his own work, or even to writing in general. There’s a whole outside world worth drawing from.

Peter Turchi will sign A MUSE AND A MAZE at Brazos Bookstore on Tuesday, November 4 at 7PM. Reserve your copy here! 


A Muse and a Maze: Writing as Puzzle, Mystery, and Magic By Peter Turchi Cover Image
ISBN: 9781595341938
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Trinity University Press - November 11th, 2014

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