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SmokeLong Quarterly

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“Beyond my perception”: An Interview with Guest Reader Ahsan Butt

Interview by Shasta Grant October 7, 2019

Are there certain themes you find yourself returning to in your writing?

Yes, I’ve noticed that grief, trauma, and mortality seem to show up with an unsettling regularity. Also, when I’m exploring those themes, I’m looking at the tension between despair and faith. I think I’m obsessed with the way people go on (or don’t) in the face of the worst tragedies. I recently saw a fantastic one-man show put on by Bill Irwin. It’s essentially his mixtape of favorite moments from Samuel Beckett works. In discussing Beckett’s allure, Irwin said it’s thrilling to watch these heroes face off against despair. For me, as a child, I watched loved ones struggle in this way. In real life, it’s terrifying. But in fiction, I agree with Irwin, that when the writing is uncompromising and emotionally rigorous (as Beckett’s is), it is thrilling, and perhaps cathartic.

I’ve come to realize that my obsessions as a writer mirror what haunted me as a child. For instance, beyond the sad stuff, my writing is also concerned with that which lies beyond our perception, usually in a mystical sense. As a child, I was also concerned with what was beyond my perception. I remember whole months in which I couldn’t sleep because I was terrified of something walking out of the pitch black of my closet, or of being abducted from my bed into the sky. Now that I write about those things, I’ve forgotten how bad those nights were. Wow, I’m a Stephen King cliche.

What are you reading right now?

In the fall, I get especially romantic about horror. I just finished Helen Phillips’ THE NEED and Brian Evenson’s latest collection, SONG FOR THE UNRAVELING OF THE WORLD, both of which exploit ontological questions to build dread and unease. Phillips is so good at creating a disquieting tone through her language and keeping you off-balance while the novel’s conceit of a kind of doppelganger is properly milked for its eeriness (and raw meaning). In Evenson’s collection, there’s all this mirroring and internal rhyming between stories, giving off an inexplicable creepy resonance. I love what he’s able to do with the barest prose. Next up I was thinking of Yogo Ogawa’s REVENGE, but a friend of mine is reading HOUSE OF LEAVES for the first time and I’m so jealous I might do a re-read.

What does a perfect writing day look like for you?

It’s so easy when answering this question to lapse into fantasy. I immediately thought of writing by a window with a view of tall, dark pines and that forest mist that looks like steam rising off the earth’s scalp. But I’ve never actually written in such a place. Maybe it’d be distracting or lonely feeling. I think a perfect writing day simply means I’m feeling inspired and there’s nothing else on the agenda, so that might look like…I saw a great film or read something potent the night before, or the work itself is blooming in my mind. There’s a feeling of having endless time, either because I’m up early or I’m uncannily awake in those night hours that seem really elastic sometimes. There’s good coffee and shawarma (not together) and maybe something sweet. And I guess most importantly, a perfect day looks like me liking what I’m writing enough for me to keep going.

What kind of story would you love to find in your queue this week? 

I’m looking for a story that lingers well after the first read, however that’s achieved. Something I can’t shake. I care about how all the elements — language, form, narrative, character etc. — are being used to craft an experience. What does the story do to me? The story I’m hoping for would answer the question by leaving me obsessed with answering the question.

About the Interviewer

Shasta Grant  is the author of the chapbook Gather Us Up and Bring Us Home (Split Lip Press, 2017). She won the 2015 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest and the 2016 SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellowship. She has received residencies from Hedgebrook and The Kerouac Project and was selected as a 2020 Aspen Words Emerging Writer Fellow. Her work has appeared in cream city review, Epiphany, Hobart, wigleaf, and elsewhere. She has an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College and divides her time between Singapore and Indianapolis.

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