WIPs Conversation: Aaron Tillman on His Work in Progress

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAaron Tillman is an Assistant Professor of English at Newbury College. He received a Short Story Award for New Writers from Glimmer Train Stories and won First Prize in the Nancy Potter Short Story Contest at University of Rhode Island. His short story collection, The Cross-Eyed Monkey Cabaret, was selected as a finalist in the 2013 Autumn House Press Short Fiction Competition and the 2013 Santa Fe Writers Project Awards. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Prick of the Spindle, great weather for MEDIA, theNewerYork, The Carolina Quarterly, The Drum Literary Magazine, Opium Magazine, The Ocean State Review, Scrivener Creative Review, Burrow Press Review and Glimmer Train, and he has recorded two stories for broadcast on the Words & Music program at Tufts University. His essays have appeared in Studies in American Humor, Symbolism, The CEA Critic, and The Intersection of Fantasy and Native America (Mythopoeic 2009).

Aaron, these opening chapters of The Voice of Artland Rising represent the starting points of dual narratives, chronicling the circus life of Berni and her magically talented son, Artland. Do their stories continue to unravel sequentially as the novel continues?

Unravel is really the right word – a lot of that taking place here. And yes, the unraveling happens in what I’ve been calling co-chronological order, leading toward and away from the events at Bean Hollow State Beach where Artland’s supernatural abilities first appear (publically, at least). The novel shifts between the Before Bean Hollow chapters—tracking Berni’s tumultuous early adulthood, including Artland’s birth and formative childhood—and the After Bean Hollow chapters, where Berni and her lover, Seymour, work to conceal and to exploit Artland’s extraordinary new talents, anxious for him to appear “just like everyone else—only more!”

Before Bean Hollow a young Berni must make do after her parents’ tragic and ironic death, so she hooks herself up with The Mortini Brothers Amazon Circus and its eccentric cast of creatures and characters, from the “scarlet-faced mandrills swinging beside acrobatics in the thickets of mangroves, bears cycling through wicket palms” to Rosella, the contortionist and “The Amazing Adolescent!” What inspired this aspect of the novel’s storyline?

In many ways, the novel is about difference and identity. As a not-so-atypical teenager, Berni fancies herself an outcast and a rebel, even a bit of a freak. But once she loses her parents and becomes more of a true outcast—feeling rejected and fleeing her home—she is struck by the reality that in the Mortini world, at least, she is not freak enough. Her experiences with the Amazon Circus force her to consider who she is and what she wants, and they propel her to think about and search for her own special place and purpose. She becomes more driven than ever to determine what it is she can and should be doing. When Artland—a product of her circus experience—is born, he becomes both a vehicle for that search and an obstacle inhibiting her efforts. At this point, her tenure with the circus has come to an end, and we get to see the aftermath play itself out. Scattered ambitions, relative poverty, and an inconsistent regard for an only child: some of the finest ingredients for bad parenting.

The Voice of Artland Rising’s wonderful prose is beautifully written and at times laden with a whimsical style to match the story’s circus atmosphere. Is that something you consciously strove towards as you wrote the novel? Is magical realism a genre you’ve worked in before?

Thank you for the kind words. In writing the novel, particularly the early, Before Bean Hollow chapters, my goal was to conjure a whimsical world with enough momentum and authority to allow the supernatural elements to emerge as naturally as possible. I also like the way the whimsical/comical and tragic can function together. Not to diminish the seriousness of the tragedy, but to capture the frantic process of acting and moving to avoid the reflection that creeps in when we pause.

I have always been interested in and enjoyed magical realist fiction, and I have written some meta-fictional and magical realist stories, but this is the first sustained effort that I have made, and the first time I have had a reason for why I was writing this way (other than for the cheap thrill of making magical shit happen). I see the magical realist mode as uniquely able to illustrate anomalous cultural positions. Sherman Alexie’s novel Flight is a great example of this. The protagonist is a half Native American, half Irish American foster child who goes by the name of Zits and ends up embodying different, largely ordinary people throughout history—all potential ancestors—as he searches for ways to understand the disparate elements that have shaped his identity. It’s funny and sad and allows readers to consider how complex our identities really are. The portrayal of the natural and supernatural as normal parts of the same world—fundamental qualities of the magical realist mode—can help to shed light on the dichotomies of deviant identities, or so I like to claim. I’m hoping that a sliver of that light can help to illuminate the identities that inhabit The Voice of Artland Rising.

Berni and Artland are intriguing protagonists. Berni is an especially tough cookie, having honed her survival chops by bloodying the nose of Avi Joseph and earning her keep with the circus by blackmailing Mortini with a cry of “Take me with you or I will make trouble for you forever!” In Artland’s chapter, he seems perhaps more sensitive and contemplative than his mother. Is that the case, or does his personality ultimately emulate hers?

Berni and Artland are very much opposite sides of the same coin, as the idiom goes. Berni is more extroverted, acting out in response to her troubles, while Artland is more introverted, holding his troubles down and denying them in a different way. The supernatural capacity that comes out of Artland is ignited, in part, by the combustible cocktail of experiences and observations and fears that he struggles to hold inside.

What stage is the manuscript? Is it something you’re shopping with agents or publishers yet?

I see the novel as essentially complete, and I have recently started sending query letters to agents. Thus far, I am still untethered.

 Are you working on other creative projects these days?

I am always writing fiction. I have a document of random ideas that I pull from and add to fairly often. Currently, I am writing a story that seems to have a magical realist element to it. Probably a residual effect from working on the Artland novel for so long. And I recently completed a children’s picture book (minus the pictures) called “Tali the Tomboy Princess.” It just sort of came out of me, and now I’m not exactly sure what to do with it. But it’s funny and sort of sweet, and I’m hoping there’s an illustrator or a publisher or both who might be interested in turning it into a real live thing.

 Thanks, Aaron. Is there anything else you’d like to share with or explain to readers?

I do want to say how grateful I am for the opportunity to share the opening chapters of the novel and to think through and concretize some of the ideas that have been whirling around my brain for a while now. Chaotic place, that brain. I appreciate your questions. The responding process was valuable and enjoyable (for me, at least), and I am open to any comments or suggestions that anyone might have.


Read the first two chapters of The Voice of Artland Rising, Aaron’s novel in progress.