An Unlikely Interview with Joseph Tomaras

There is a scene in Monty Python’s Life of Brian in which multiple rebel factions disagree and ultimately destroy each other arguing which follows the ideologically correct path to ending Roman occupation. We see this less humorously in revolutionary movements in the past and present. How do you see the revolutionary movement of The Joy of Sects overcoming these divisions long enough to overcome the established order? How did Lydia’s particular party position themselves as canonical?

The non-fiction version is not always less humorous: Sometimes it is more so. Before I started writing fiction, I had spent more than a decade of my life as a cadre of a small and obscure Trotskyist grouping. With the exception of this story and one other that has yet to be published, those experiences do not factor directly into my fiction, because the most interesting of those experiences would seem implausible to anyone who had not undergone similar. You can tell the difference between those who have and those who haven’t during any screening of The Life of Brian: The latter laugh uproariously at what is patently absurd, the former laugh grimly at what is all-too-accurate.

When I started writing this story, I was in a rare period of my life when I did not believe I had the answers. I had lost faith in certain tenets in which I had ardently believed — for example, the necessity of “democratic centralist” “propaganda groups” as intermediaries in building toward the inevitable uprising — yet I was still broadly optimistic that humans would figure something new out in time to overcome capital’s dead hand. I meant the name “Workers’ Unity” sincerely, as a token of the possibility for fundamental unity to emerge from a variety of ideological strands and intersectional positions on the basis of clear confrontation around class exploitation. Lydia partakes of that optimism, and also the hard-won certainty of someone who has struggled through to victory out of confusion. In that respect, she is my most beloved Mary Sue, or was at the time of her emergence. (That my most beloved Mary Sue is a pansexual transwoman has implications that I leave to the reader to ponder.) Since then, the story has been through many edits—how many will have to be reconstructed out of the metadata by some future archivist. I lost that optimism along the way. I can pinpoint the date: May 14, 2013, when I wrote and published this blog entry.

While the story has allusions to ecological catastrophe, Lydia is still confident in humanity’s communist future in a way that I no longer am. I couldn’t rob her of that without her becoming a completely different character, and the story becoming even more grim. (Could you imagine someone enduring what she does for a cause in which she no longer believes?) Lydia, despite her evident exhaustion, still thinks things are going fairly well. I see some shadows she has not yet discerned. At the time of first writing, I could have written a very didactic pre-history of this story, with various strands, tendencies, affinity groups, etc., joining in the Unity. I am no longer a person capable of writing that story. So this answer is a very elaborate dodging of the question. I will say, though, that I consider this story, the story “Bonfires in Anacostia” that appeared in Clarkesworld 95, and two others still knocking about in slushpiles, to exist within the same timeline, one that I can only see through a fractured mirror.

Authors are notorious for working strange jobs. Stephen King was a janitor and J.D. Salinger worked as the entertainment director on a luxury cruise line. What’s the weirdest job you’ve ever had, and did it inspire any stories or teach you anything you’ve used in your writing?

The weirdest job I have had is the one that I presently hold. I have been working in academic settings for 12 straight years now, at a variety of institutions, but always in roles that could be classified as having to do with “research administration”. I help college faculty compete for grant funding to support their research, in all conceivable disciplines. Once they get that funding, I help the accountants make sure that the professors don’t do anything flagrantly illegal with the money. Any job in academia, regardless of the role, will have a good deal of weirdness. The peculiar nature of the job, which combines high pressure and large stakes in an arena where the usual pace is dilatory and little but ego is at play, makes research administration peculiar even within academia.

This is my eighth story to be published, and there are hints of academia in nearly all. But I recall a moment that led to the development of my approach to fiction writing. At a previous position, I was being driven to an awards banquet with a group of faculty and administrators who had recently been successful in grant seeking. One person in the vehicle was a writer, so the scientists started asking, “What do you write?” “Creative non-fiction,” she answered. “Creative non-fiction!” they scoffed. “What the hell is that?” I butted in: “Grant proposals are creative non-fiction.” I had meant it as a joke, but it was one of those jokes that is more true than intended. At the time, I had been agonizing over a proposal in support of an administrator’s ideas that were total bullshit. The joke helped me get over the writer’s block. I realized that I had to engage the proposal science-fictionally, in Samuel Delaney’s sense. That is, I had to write it such that each sentence would evoke in a reader’s mind a world in which these bullshit ideas were actually working. I did that, and we got the grant. Several months later, using this technique, I wrote my first short story that did not totally suck. (“One-Sided,” which earned me an honorable mention in an obscure contest, a $5 paycheck, and a place in a Smashwords anthology.) This is my basic approach with all stories, even ones in a more realistic style.

The year-end reading list you posted on your blog covers a wide range of topics -- from vodun history in Brazil to family and class in post-industrial Chicago. Is your reading informed by your formal educational background, your current job, your personal interests, or a combination? To what degree does your non-fiction reading inform your fiction writing?

I probably read more fiction than non-fiction, but I am less likely to recommend fiction than non-fiction, more critical of what is out there. I have always been a voracious reader, but my highest degree is a B.A. in Philosophy. In retrospect I realize that it is because I was never able to stick to one subject for long. The universality of interests that made me well-rounded as an undergraduate was one of many things that turned my brief stint in graduate school into a season in hell. It took me a while, but I’ve found a position where being genuinely interested in everything is more an asset than a liability. I am referring here not to fiction writing, but to research administration. In fiction writing it means that my stories are jam-packed with references to obscure and disparate elements of our species’ varied cultural heritages, and thus very hard to sell. “The Joy of Sects” is a perfect example.

The research on Brazilian Candomblé found its way, through my usual process, into an alternate history epistolary story that I am about two-thirds of the way through writing. It also has Hasidic Judaism, slave revolts, multilingual puns, footnotes, and references to Walter Benjamin. I doubt it will be an easy sale.

In one of your recent blog posts, you mention a list of people some of your stories might offend. Who do you plan to offend next?

That all depends on which of my stories next emerges from the slush. I did get solicited to work on a project called Sirens, and if my contribution to it is accepted, it may already be out by the time this interview is published. That would most likely offend Greeks, cops, and fascists — the usual.

Pick an author whose work you enjoy (past or present) and tell us about the book they never wrote, but you wish they had.

One of my as-yet-unpublished pieces of slush involves an unwritten story by Isaak Babel, or rather an alternate version of a story he did in fact write and publish. In my story, he never even finishes the alternate version: “He makes several starts that he soon finds dissatisfying, for he cannot decide if the youth was in fact a spy, or perhaps some aphasic madman returned to Galicia from an ill-starred migration to New York. Other possibilities he senses not as conscious thoughts, but as a creeping dread that comes whenever he tries to read Pravda’s latest denunciations. He has not yet learned how to live or write with uncertainty, and tears the offending page out of his diary, locking it and his first jottings together in a bureau drawer.” A historian later finds these jottings in the archives of the Russian secret police, but even so they never come to human awareness.

There are in fact many such writings that disappeared into the archives of secret police the world over (including a novel by Victor Serge), not to mention the things that were never written because of lives cut short or, as in the quote above, unconscious self-censorship. The least modest of my aspirations is to bring all such writings back into existence.

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