Standard Elisions: An Interview with Joyelle McSweeney on Nylund the Sarcographer
Joyelle McSweeney, co-founder and co-editor of Action Books and Action, Yes, a press and web quarterly, teaches in the University of Notre Dame MFA program. She is the author of The Red Bird, The Commandrine and Other Poems, as well as the more recent Flet. Her 2007 publication, Nylund the Sarcographer, is notable for its use of language and the unique concept of “sarcography.” Nylund is a book almost wholly informed by that concept, which guides its language and character development.
CR: For the uninitiated, could you explain what sarcography is, or what it means?
JM: ‘Sarcography’ is like negative capability on steroids. Whatever the protagonist, Nylund, encounters, he becomes a more hyperbolic version of that thing. At the same time, he is an outsider, like any noir antihero, so he comprehends everything from the outside—again like a sarcophagus. So the neologism ‘sarcography’ is meant to evoke a sarcophagus, a bejeweled, elaborate version of the body it contains. Importantly, when Nylund encounters something, not only does he become a souped-up version of it, but the writing becomes baroque and ornamental, too. So sarcography both describes Nylund’s way of encountering the world and the method by which the sentences of the book operate.
CR: What fueled your ideas for Nylund the Sarcographer?
JM: Honestly, the style and the concept of sarcography both came about in the same moment of writing. Then I explored the idea both as a style—what could happen in a book in which the sentences behaved this way?—and as a matter of character—what would happen to a character who reacted this way? That’s how the murder and memory plots began. Nylund gets hopelessly entangled in both, to his own peril.
CR: Did you come around first to the idea of Nylund as a character or to sarcography as an idea?
JM: Sarcography begot Nylund.
CR: Would you say that Nylund is an extension of sarcography or that sarcography is an extension of him?
JM: I would say that Nylund is sarcography, as is this book, and it’s pretty hard to imagine the book without Nylund, or sarcography without Nylund. It would be fun to try to write a sequel. What a hilarious idea.
CR: In the book Nylund has a twin who, tellingly, goes missing. There is also a decided theme throughout of twinhood as duality of the self, as a splitting of the self into multiples. One passage reads, “If only we could twin our behavior to oppositely arrive.” Would you say this idea of duality extends into sarcography, or is it something that is inherent in Nylund’s way of thinking?
JM: Once you put the sarcography in motion as a matter of writing, then anything can happen, because the sentence can always open up trapdoors and catwalks via its clauses and phrases and puns and jokes and fantasies and so forth. In fact, the one rule I had when writing this was not to use good taste or understatement or comely resonance at all, but just to follow all my stray ideas, at the level of the sentence, to keep it opening, twinning, diverging, dividing. I used more conventional aspects of noir—a dead woman, a missing woman, a young hood, an (elderly) femme fatale—as sort of course correction as the book ran along.
CR: At times, the writing points to a devolving of the ordinary into the obscure, nearly into a poetic metaphysicality, especially in a passage where Nylund recalls sitting with his sister, and marries his senses to the minutest of what surrounded them: “The vein-hued and the colorless grubs rotoring the soil to get at the cardboard instincts. Wrong stuff in my wiring. Gummed paper guts. Play-brite vinyl sheathing my still copper blood.” Would you say that this passage indicates a sort of imprinting of the self onto the earth’s physicality, or perhaps the incorporation of that physicality into that of the self, and is this an extension of sarcography?
JM: I would say that this is sarcography working away on the memory plot. Sarcography creates a situation in which you can’t tell what’s foreground and what’s background, or what’s vehicle and what’s tenor. The metaphor becomes a ‘real’ aspect of the scene, the fantasy becomes ‘real’ and effects the things we normally take to be ‘real’ in fiction, like the setting, the events, the characters’ bodies, etc. In this book the style is what’s real. Everything else is an effect of the style.
CR: What challenges, if any, presented themselves to you as you wrote this book? Did you find yourself pushing poetry into prose, or pushing language to become something more (beyond ordinary)?
JM: As I mentioned above, the main challenge was actually a kind of permission—a permission to let the sentences go on and go too far. I loved giving primary consideration to the sentences. I loved seeing what this sarcography could do.
See Cynthia Reeser's review of Nylund the Sarcographer in this issue.
Nylund the Sarcographer by Joyelle McSweeney. Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2007
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