Books In Conversation
Tobias Carroll with Kurt Baumeister
(Astrophil Press , 2022)
Tobias Carroll is a seemingly tireless advocate for the work of others. In addition to his role as Managing Editor at Vol. 1 Brooklyn he pens the Words Without Borders’ Watchlist column and has contributed fiction, nonfiction, reviews, and criticism to Tin House, Rolling Stone, Hazlitt, The Scofield, Bookforum, and others. His books include the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms), the novel Reel (Rare Bird), Political Sign (Bloomsbury), and the forthcoming novel Ex-Members from Astrophil Press (June 15).
Through the contents of a series of recordings Carroll weaves a complex history of ruination in Ex-Members—an odyssey of decaying lives, dreams, and the very reality around the members of the fictional cult punk band, Alphanumeric Murders. Carroll and I sat down—on different computers at opposing ends of the East Coast megalopolis—to discuss topics as varied as vengeful characters, Ali Smith, J. G. Ballard, Roberto Bolaño, stress-eating at Applebee’s, punk rock, failed (or, perhaps, not so) projects, and the critical utility of the term “rock novel.”
Kurt Baumeister (Rail): Your new book, Ex-Members, has a lot to say about how we construct our realities and about the energy required to restructure them. More than that, you get at how we long to reform different, better times, not just in ourselves and those close to us, but the world around us. Were you consciously going for a sort of meditation on these issues, or do you see such thematic concerns as secondary, simply the product of a story you felt compelled to tell?
Tobias Carroll: It’s more a case of the latter, I’d say. I had a rough experience early on with a novel that’s never been published, called The Driver North—and is unlikely to be—where I started with themes and went from there; it’s had an influence on how I worked on longform projects ever since then.
That isn’t to say that Ex-Members was free of certain things I wanted to wrestle with going in—for instance, as opposed to the relatively compressed timeframe of Reel, I knew I wanted to write something that would play with the passage of time more, where you could see characters age and observe how their place in the world changed.
Some of it also had to do with wanting to write about punk and hardcore and New Jersey again. There’s another failed book (title: The Polite Rebels EP) I have squirreled away somewhere that contains a novella where I wrote a lot about those things, and where a lot of the book was about my home state of New Jersey. A lot of the process of Reel was a reaction to The Driver North, and since that book was very northeastern in its concerns, I tried my best to set Reel almost everywhere else in the country. By the time it came time to work on this one, I felt a little more comfortable coming home if that makes sense.
Rail: You speak of two failed projects in The Driver North and The Polite Rebels EP. Do you remain hopeful these projects will eventually find their way into the sunlight? If not, what would it take for you to revisit one or both?
Carroll: I don’t think either one will. I feel like I learned a lot from both projects, but I also feel the allure of … shiny new things, if that makes sense. A couple of years ago, I thought about revisiting the first third of The Driver North as a standalone novella—there’s some imagery and some psychology in there that I remain really fond of—but I didn’t really like the implications of where that would go, narratively speaking.
At the same time, I’m fond of never saying never. Maybe someday I’ll be hit with a bolt of inspiration and figure out something to do that’ll make one work. I have the first half of a novella that’s been floating around for years waiting for me to finish it, and I think I’m getting closer to some stuff clicking into place. It’s also possible that I might end up smashing two different unfinished novellas into one another—one of them, my “eco-horror Geoff Dyer” project, one of them my “J.G. Ballard and stress-eating at Applebee’s” project—and seeing what emerges.
Rail: I need much more information on the “J.G. Ballard and stress-eating at Applebee’s” project immediately.
Carroll: That was the elevator pitch of the project, but I’m not sure how far it’s ever going to get. I was riffing somewhat on Ballard’s 1960s work where something phantasmagorical happens to the world; this project was—is, at least in the latest telling—about a journalist who comes to a small town where, several years earlier, something took place that suggested a rupture in Reality As We Know It. Which also involved a lot of cicada imagery, and me doing a post-apocalyptic riff on the part of the world where I grew up.
Long story short, the protagonist would be investigating all of this bizarre stuff, but he’d also be periodically eating his feelings at a suburban Applebee’s, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.
I got about a quarter to a third of the way in and just hit a wall; for all of the weirdness in the premise, it didn’t quite seem to be sparking, and I’m not sure why. I’d like to return to it at some point—though I think that certain elements of it are manifesting, in a very different way, in the novel I’m working on now.
That said, I really like the idea of turning places I know intimately into something completely alien; I just need to figure out a different way in. Like I said, that might involve smashing it together with the other project, in which the eco-horror segment begets the break in reality that the journalist is dealing with … but we’ll see.
I’m also realizing that this is likely to be another short book, if it does happen, because I love making things easy for myself.
Rail: What parts of your personal experience did you draw on for Ex-Members? Are there characters that seem more or less recognizable in yourself?
Carroll: There are no less than four major characters in this book with which I share some personality traits in common; in an inside joke that will probably only appeal to my friend Scott and I, the character who interviews Dean a couple of times shares a name with the pseudonym that a few people used when writing for the zine I edited in the late 90s and early 00s.
(Vague thematic spoilers for Ex-Members follow.)
That said, Virgil is especially autobiographical in some senses, though he represents something of a curdling of certain qualities I have. (The protagonist of my story “An Old Songwriter’s Trick” was also written that way, albeit with other negative qualities magnified.) There are parts of the tapes section where Virgil is recounting things that happened to me—the “looking for greeting cards in an all-night supermarket” one is especially mortifying.
That said, it’s also a little weird to put some of your own worst qualities into a character and then—spoiler for the first part of Ex-Members—kill them. I actually think that Virgil got some sort of revenge on me during the first year of the pandemic, to the extent that I believe a fictional character I created can get revenge on me. Then again, I do have a Grant Morrison line tattooed on my body, so that’s not all that surprising.
It’s probably also telling that the two longform fiction project I’ve been working on since finishing Ex-Members have protagonists a bit more of a safe distance from me.
Rail: Talk more about Virgil’s revenge, the metafictional/metaphysical side of it. Such relationships fascinate me. Do you think any of it was authorial in the sense that you were thinking, “Well, he’s going to die: Do I owe some sort of literary penance here?”
Carroll: (Cues up the sound of rueful laughter, and also oversharing.) So: part of Virgil’s arc in the novel is that he leaves New York City, moves back to his hometown, and becomes essentially completely sedentary, developing a host of health problems as a result. And in 2020, I basically didn’t leave my apartment for extended stretches of time during the pandemic, ate my feelings, and put on a lot of weight—and I was not exactly svelte to begin with. And by late in the year, I’d ended up back at my parents’ place in New Jersey because the solitude of living alone during a pandemic was also having a substantial effect on my mental health.
Long story short, I ended up developing an umbilical hernia as a result of this rapid weight gain, for which I had to have surgery last year, and spent the vast majority of 2021’s “hot vax summer” with an open wound in my chest that was slowly healing.
The writer Grant Morrison once talked about how, when they were writing The Invisibles, they put the character who most resembled them through a number of really harrowing situations and developed serious health problems as a result, and this felt very similar - like the fate I’d given this character was beginning to rebound onto me.
It’s definitely left me thinking more about the ways in which I incorporate my own life - and the things I’m thinking about regularly—in my fiction. I think there’s a little more formal distance in the longer form work I’ve done since finishing this. That said, the stories I’ve been writing as of late are a bit more of a reckoning with different aspects of my life and the spaces I’ve moved through, so I wouldn’t say it’s a complete break or anything like that.
Rail: This is your second novel. Talk about your growth as an artist from Reel to Ex-Members. How do you see Reel now, looking back on it?
Carroll: I’m happy with it. Both that novel and this one—and really, every longform work of fiction I’ve done—is a pretty accurate summation of where my brain was when I wrote it. There are things in Reel that, in my mind, map directly on to my emotional state when I was writing it, even if that’s never going to be obvious to anyone else who’s reading it. The same is true for Ex-Members, though this took a lot longer to write and was much more of a bear to figure out, structurally speaking.
Rail: Is there anything you’ve achieved with Ex-Members you wish you had with Reel?
Carroll: They’re very different books to me, with very different goals. With Ex-Members, I really wanted to try playing with longer stretches of time and make use of a very different temporal structure. This is probably the most pretentious sentence I’ll ever write, but here goes: If the two big literary influences on Reel were Javier Marias and William Gibson, the two big literary influences on Ex-Members are Ali Smith and Roberto Bolaño. (The short novel I finished after Ex-Members was inspired by the music of Destroyer, and the novel I’m working on now seems heavily influenced—to me, anyway—by Arthur Machen, Anne F. Garréta, and Robert Aickman.)
Rail: Oh, but I think you have a sense that talk of literary and artistic influences is catnip to me. Tell me more about the Bolaño and Smith influences on Ex-Members. What specific aspects of their writing do you see coming through in Ex-Members?
Carroll: When it comes to Bolaño and this novel, it comes mostly down to the oral history section. Some of that emerged from wondering if the oral history of a fictional band could work as a method of storytelling or not. (And, full disclosure, I’m not the only writer to have wondered this; David Keenan and Michael T. Fournier have also riffed on that format in their fiction.) But for me, the breakthrough came when I realized that the middle section of The Savage Detectives wasn’t too far removed from this format, and so the idea of a number of storytellers working around an absent figure (or figures) came even more into focus.
In terms of Ali Smith, I was introduced to her work via the novel Hotel World, and both that and There but for the were instructive for me in terms of the way they used unconventional structures. I feel like that represented a different kind of breakthrough—of realizing that temporally doubling back could be used both for evocative effect and to tell an emotionally satisfying story.
Rail: Ex-Members is, of course, suffused with musical references and musician characters. Tell me about the place music holds in your life.
Carroll: I came to music through writing about it—I started doing a zine when I was 19. (Technically, there was a zine a friend and I did in our hometowns that had a print run of, like, ten copies, but it’s probably best to not delve into that any further.) And, to a pretty substantial extent, doing that zine ended up getting me connected with some of the first people who encouraged me to write. The two have always been interwoven in my brain, for better and for worse.
Rail: Sometimes it seems like everyone in the literary world is and/or was a musician. Any idea what accounts for this? Is it just a product of our culture and how central music is to it or is there something more to there?
Carroll: Honestly, I’m not sure. I think there are a lot of people in the lit world with experience in a different form of art—Henry Hoke and I are graduates of the same film program, for instance. But it also warms my heart when folks I met through music turn up in the lit world—I first met duncan barlow of Astrophil when I interviewed him about the second Guilt record in the mid-90s.
I do think that there’s an increased sense of overlap with people on the small press side of things; when duncan and I toured in 2017, about half of our readings were in non-traditional spaces, and neither of us found anything odd about reading in places that weren’t bookstores and making with the Square reader.
That said, I sometimes have sleepless nights since the pandemic began, because I think what felt like a really great way that one could balance out not necessarily having a huge press budget or being on a Big 5 press would be to go the DIY events route, but I’m not sure how viable that’s going to be this year, or how viable it’ll be going forward. And that’s really saddening; the writers I know who are doing the largest number of in-person events going forward are those with significant followings, which makes sense. But I don’t know if in-person events are going to gradually become something that only — say — bestselling authors get to do from here on in. I enjoy virtual events, I think there’s a lot that’s great about them, but I also don’t want them to be the only types of events going forward. But that—as well as the sense of camaraderie and community that come from the best in-person events—is probably a diatribe for another day.
Rail: The idea of the rock novel: Do you see that as a valid critical term, or have we gone past that? Was it ever valid? If so, talk to me about some of your favorites. Great Jones Street? Destroy All Monsters? Others?
Carroll: Oh, I absolutely do! I’m not entirely sure “rock novel” totally covers everything in terms of fiction with music at its core—I’ve read notable novels where the fictional musicians played everything from funk to modern composition. Leni Zumas’s The Listeners is definitely a favorite of mine—it has a lot of incredibly lived-in details that evoke the sense of playing in a band that’s achieved a certain level of success without ever having quite achieved a higher level. Chris Terry’s Black Card resonated with me in part because the musical milieu he’s writing about is one that I also feel pretty familiar with.
Destroy All Monsters is definitely a recent favorite. Stacey D’Erasmo’s Wonderland and Cody Goodfellow’s novella “Breaking The Chain Letter” are also up there in my personal pantheon. In terms of great writing on 90s/00s punk/emo/hardcore and its discontents, both Jessica Hopper and Hanif Abdurraqib have done some fantastic nonfiction on the subject.
Rail: What’s one question I haven’t asked you that you wish I had? And what’s the answer?
Carroll: As an unasked question: “So, what’s the deal with the weird radio drama that the Alphanumeric Murders records on one of their albums?” My answer would be that it’s a tip of the hat to the band Les Savy Fav, whose rarities collection Inches features a version of their song “Reformat” done as a radio play. I always thought that was a wonderfully strange thing to do, and that’s my homage to it.