Lindsay Lerman and David Leo Rice Interview
In the spring of 2023, while both preparing to move to new homes, David Leo Rice and Lindsay Lerman conducted the following interview by email. Starting with the concept of “the beyond” in their bodies of work, and picking up where Lindsay’s appearance on the Wake Island podcast left off, the two authors touched on the relationship between silence and speech in the drive to create, the pornographic thrill of relinquishing control over your own attention, and the point where self-knowledge and self-annihilation converge.
David Leo Rice: We’ve decided to center this conversation on the theme of “the beyond” in both of our bodies of work. What does that term mean to you, and how have you been thinking about it lately?
Lindsay Lerman: In the most general sense, it means pushing past old ways of living, thinking, knowing, creating, being. Without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, because the past can never be outrun and must continually be studied alongside the present. Right now, for me it’s a state of mind. What about you?
DLR: I also think about not throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and why it’s both tempting and dangerous to consider doing so. It’s the old tension between revolutionary and gradual change, the question of whether a clean break is necessary or even possible, or whether life on any scale and in any realm—personal, artistic, historical—is always a continuum. And if so, is that unbrokenness a source of comfort or of suffocation?
A lot of my characters are torn between yearning for total change and recoiling from the knowledge that such change would mean the end of their lives as they know it, if not the end of their lives altogether. I often think about the idea of being “reincarnated as yourself” and how this is both a tempting prospect—to face death or the total obliteration of everything you know and yet somehow emerge intact from that experience—and also a kind of horror, the failure of all progress. My impulse to write probably comes from this tension—I want to escape myself by tunneling even further into myself, and to produce works that are “non-David” and “ultra-David” at the same time.
Do you see your characters grappling with this, wishing to destroy and to preserve themselves at the same time? If so, how do they navigate that paradox, and how do you?
LL: I can really see how your books grapple with this. Your response got me thinking about how Gribby—the protagonist in The PornMe Trinity—could be understood as an extreme example of tunneling in (to one’s deepest, darkest, most unspeakable desires) so far that you end up in outer space, floating in the vast nothingness of space—some other reality—the plane/s from which we emerge and to which we return, with Sun Ra and Hitler singing to you about the origins of pornography.
To answer your question, yes, every character I’ve ever written exists within the push and pull of creation and destruction—with maybe a little too much awareness of it. I long for clean breaks but I know they’re a fantasy. I think that always shows up in my writing—the impossible tension at play in all motion and stillness.
After I finished my last book, I wanted to never speak or write again. But I had to do the things people do when they publish a book—lots of writing and talking—and I ultimately realized what was going on with me: it wasn’t that I didn’t want to speak or write ever again, it was that I had created something that felt like an expression of every polarity within me and within the universe as I know it. All the polarities you mention above—obliteration and death as the polar opposite (yet also the precondition for, and inseparable from) life and creation. Where do you go from there? There are as many answers as there are minds on this planet, but for me it means that going forward, everything I do must recognize that everything contains the seeds of its opposite. Living with that fundamental truth broke me. In a good way—or necessary way. So, every story I write about love must also be about hatred. Every time I think I’m enjoying success, I am also enjoying failure. Every act of kindness contains the possibility for cruelty. And so on. It’s not easy, but it’s how I’m meant to live.
Can I ask, how did the character of Gribby come to you? How did the PornMe story come to you?
DLR: Books and characters always come to me out of periods of distress. I perceive the genesis of a new project as a clotting effect, a coming-together of disparate disturbed energies, like a gas cooling into a liquid and then a solid. In this sense, every book is a relief, no matter how dark or un-relieved its characters and content may seem. For this one, I started thinking about it in the wake of the 2016 election and the way I could feel my attention being pulled out of my face by my computer, like an arm was reaching through the screen and tearing out any sense of self, privacy, or autonomy I had left, forcing me to watch Trump nonsense around the clock, and to feel prepackaged emotions about every bombshell allegation and “BREAKING NEWS” event that crawled across the screen, or popped up from its seething depths.
I started thinking about this as a form of pornography, which is a term I use in a lot of my work. Rather than just images of sex, I consider pornography to be any layer of media that de-individualises the viewer, accessing whatever is universal rather than specific in our attention—any imagery that plays on innate drives like fear, lust, rage, and nostalgia—thereby turning us into puppets or automata, or “animals” in the pejorative sense of that term, rather than thinking, self-aware subjects with unique personalities, the way that most art claims it wants its viewers to be.
Gribby is an avatar of this conundrum, someone with no access to any bedrock selfhood nor any investment in the world around him—no friends, no family, no goals—who goes down the digital rabbit hole without being fully aware of what’s at stake, or, more ominously, without there being anything at stake for him.
Going back to the way my attention poured from the wound of the trauma, or perceived trauma, of 2016 and the years that followed, I became interested in the idea of an internet user playing both victim and victimizer at the same time. I felt scared and angry that my attention was being wasted by the endless feed, but also intrigued, even aroused, to realize that I was the one wasting it, that I’d been given the supreme power to fritter my own life away, and that this was a power I couldn’t refuse to exercise. It was a sadomasochistic relationship with my own consciousness. I came to see porn as not just the primary content on the internet, but the essence of the internet itself, the fundamental message of that medium, regardless of what happened to be on the screen.
As far as Gribby is concerned, this is the paradox of masturbation, insofar as it’s rooted in the fantasy of an interpersonal interaction that you aren’t having at the moment (and may never have), while also being, fundamentally, contact with yourself—so here too it’s both self-centered to the extreme and even more self-obliterating than sex with another person can be, since in the depths of fantasy, there’s no “you” there at all (and no one to see you and make you real by seeing you). As in a dream, you are the scene, rather than a participant in that scene. To blaspheme a bit, masturbation is therefore analogous to prayer, just as monks and nuns are often understood as having renounced human sexuality in order to enter an exclusive sexual relationship with God, one that their minds and bodies host within themselves. In this way, PornME is my most mystical book, and the one that draws most directly on my “Esoteric Studies” major in college.
On the topic of monasticism and prayer, I’m interested in the idea of silence you mentioned above. What made you want to never write or speak again after writing your last book, and what makes actual silence impossible, beyond the requirements of book promo? Where does the urge to produce so many words come from, as opposed to the urge to cease that production, and is writing, for you, a mixture of conversation and silence, a way of speaking silently? And do you think you can be broken again and again, in new ways, or did the way the last book broke you feel like a definitive change, an actual clean break?
LL: Yes, that’s the tension of the moment with the internet and social media! Maybe it’s the perennial tension of being tool-making creatures—the power we can’t refuse to exercise, and what it’s like to live within that tension.
I think I’ve learned that I can speak (or write, or sing) in the spirit of silence, if that makes sense. But it took me intensely desiring some kind of pure or total silence to achieve that, to learn that. But no, there’s no purity, no clean breaks. Changes, yes. I’m sure there’s no end to the ways I can break. Speaking of the twin flames of nullifying and aggrandizing oneself, in the name of being part of something larger than oneself.
You seem to be very prolific. What draws you to writing? Is it mostly reaction/response to periods of distress, as you wrote above?
DLR: I think that’s part of it, though perhaps the essence of that distress is always internal, even if it appears to take on an external referent, as with all the media agitation that went into PornME. The real internal distress, which is also a profound internal excitement, is the feeling that something has crystallized and is ready to come out, or is ready to crystallize by coming out. That’s the dividing line between thought and action in art: when do your thoughts reach the stage where they can no longer develop in your head and thus, if you don’t want them to rot, you need to externalize them in order for their life cycle to continue?
On a more specific level, I’ve begun to feel my various books straining to cohere onto a single map, a tweaked version of the contemporary world where different projects correspond with and generate new projects, rather than each growing from a separate stem. I’ve been thinking more and more in terms of trilogies—The PornME Trilogy, The Dodge City Trilogy, which I’ve just finished, and I see my recent novel The New House as the first in a trilogy as well.
This feels like a profound phase shift in my creative life, from an earlier phase where I was actively generating the work in order to generate myself—to create an adult form I’d be proud to inhabit—to a phase now where I feel like more of a bystander or caretaker, tending to projects that generate themselves through their conversations with one another. To add a note of gratitude here, this is an adult form I’m proud to inhabit. Many people pine for their twenties, but my thirties have been much more fulfilling insofar as they’ve opened onto this plane where the work creates its own energy and all I need–not that this is easy–is to give it time and attention.
Have you also felt a phase shift in your creative life, and if so, how would you characterize it?
LL: Yes, a big shift. I no longer create because I want to create. It’s more like I feel I have some kind of mandate. It’s hard to explain, and it’s not that I don’t find joy in creation because I do. Part of it is what you’re saying—sometimes imaginary worlds (which includes theoretical work, for me) reach a point of saturation in me and if I don’t force them to live somewhere else, I’ll go insane. But part of it is this sense that I’m doing the things I positioned myself to be able to do over the past 30 or so years (I just turned 40). My life of studying books and movies and ideas and paintings and people and places and watching people die and working lots of jobs and having a child and making dinner and doing dishes and getting my heart broken and being an American is organically coalescing into “artwork.” It’s not as though it always flows naturally—sometimes I do have to work at it very hard. But it’s not “work,” really, it’s just attention and focus and interest and also some blind faith.
What are you working on now? What’s next for you?
DLR: I absolutely resonate with the feeling that the past puts a creative mandate on the future, ever more so as you get older and that future shrinks. This is true, as you say, in the sense that everything you’ve experienced earlier coalesces into the work you’re forced to produce now, and also in terms of all the time and effort you’ve put into developing a practice, a voice, a style, and hopefully a circle of colleagues and readers. Earlier in life, it feels like wasted potential to not work as hard as possible on your projects, but I’ve lately felt this shift where it’s not just potential I’m trying to honor but also past investment, like I’d be telling my younger self to go to hell if I didn’t do my best work now, and from now on. To mangle the Wordsworth quote, I feel both that my past self is my father in that he gave his life for me, but also that I’m his father, in that I’m tasked with caring for his youthful aspirations and the purity of intent he entered the world with.
As for new work, I just finished A Room in Dodge City: Vol. 3, which completes the trilogy I began over ten years ago. Ending the trilogy is a phase shift in my creative development, and the book itself mirrors that, dealing with the questions of how to leave Dodge City behind and if there’s anything outside of it. Circling back to the paradox of clean breaks that we discussed before, this book centers on the protagonist’s ambivalence about leaving Dodge City–on the one hand, he fears he’ll never escape; on the other, he fears he’ll never be the same if he does. While I was editing this book, my wife and I left the apartment where we lived for ten years, and where our daughter was born and where we each came to our own equilibriums with New York. That feels like a major phase shift in its own right, since all my published works so far were completed in that apartment, never to be entered again.
I’m also finishing a new story collection, The Squimbop Condition, which acts as both a standalone saga and a body of apocrypha for the Professor Squimbop character in my novel Angel House, another project that’s been running for the past ten years, so this too is part of the phase shift. I first met this character while writing Angel House in Berlin in 2010-11, and the other book that’s coming out soon is called The Berlin Wall, so that’s another psychic recurrence. That one deals with a heresy in which the Berlin Wall became a living, conscious entity that atomized into a subculture when it was broken apart. It’s my first book set entirely outside the US, and my first work of historical fiction.
How about you? What’s up next on your end?
LL: Speaking of Berlin, that’s what’s next for me. I’m saying goodbye to America. Not a clean break or even an escape, really, just closing an apartment door. It’s good to make friends with change.
Lindsay Lerman is an interdisciplinary writer and translator. Her first novel, I’m From Nowhere, was published in 2019. Her second book, What Are You, was published in 2022. Her first translation, François Laruelle’s Phenomenon and Difference, was published in March 2023. Her short stories, essays, interviews, and poems have been published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Tyrant, The Creative Independent, Sarka, and elsewhere. She has a PhD in Philosophy from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. She is currently a posthuman art fellow at Foreign Objekt. She lives in Berlin.
David Leo Rice is the author of several books, including Angel House, The New House, and Drifter: Stories, as well as the Dodge City Trilogy, the final volume of which is coming out soon. He’s online at: www.raviddice.com.
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