Shards On the Tip of the Tongue :: A Chat with 'Mouthquake' Author Daniel Allen Cox

by Obed Medina

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday September 23, 2015

In the canon of queer letters there are a few truly literary figures. Some, like William S. Burroughs, have earned that distinction with no little controversy, even resistance, along the way; others, like James Baldwin and Christopher Isherwood, enjoy widespread acclaim.

But perhaps no one writing queer fiction today has the literary power and the lyrical voice of Daniel Allen Cox.

A Canadian author of several novels -- including "Shuck," "Krakow Melt," and "Basement of Wolves" -- Cox also co-wrote the screenplay for the Bruce LaBruce film "Gerontophilia," about a young man whose sexual interest in older gents leads him to take a job at an elder care facility.

While the material Cox tackles might incite the squeamish -- May/December romance; anti-gay attitudes in fiercely Catholic, formerly communist Poland; rent boys -- his prose is a dream of exquisitely phrased sentences. His latest novel, "Mouthquake," is the biography of a first-person narrator who never reveals his name, but who lets us in on a few crucial facets of his life and personality from the get-go. One: He is, to his own way of thinking, more dog than boy, and resorting to a second pair of boots to keep his hands warm in the Canadian winter reinforces this. Two: He's had at least one imaginary friend, a great huge bulk of a man whom the narrator likens to a wooly mammoth. But was the boy's friend entirely imaginary, or has a child's fancy reinvented him in memory? And were the unspeakable deeds the police suggested to the boy that his friend did to him really things that happened? And if so -- were they perpetrated by the big, beloved friend and protector? And, three: His exquisite ear for music contrasts with his stammer, but also co-exists with a dark streak running through him, of sadism and sexual wildness. Luckily, he has an understanding boyfriend (who happens to be deaf).

"Mouthquake" is all about the uncertain, the fragmentary, and the way that disparate elements can be super glued by memory into what seems, superficially, to be a smoothly flowing and consistent account of the past. Cox asks whether (and how) we can be certain of our memories -- and, therefore, of ourselves. Is identity a solid thing, or does it, too, shift and restructure itself?

EDGE had a chance to catch up with Daniel Allen Cox recently.

EDGE: First things first... "Gerontophilia" is now on DVD. I'm sure you are used to seeing books on the shelves with your name on them, but how does it feel to see a DVD of the movie made from your first screenplay?

Daniel Allen Cox: I'm thrilled to have worked on a Bruce LaBruce film, to have co-written the screenplay with him. DVDs are an interesting part of a film's trajectory, coming long after the premiere and festival circuit, and after theatrical runs in different countries. It's a way of extending its life, which I've learned can be quite long. "Gerontophilia" opens in theatres in Thailand this week. I'm happy with how much conversation about intergenerational issues have sprung from it. I'll be speaking about intergenerationality at McGill University in October after a screening of "Gerontophilia."

EDGE: Have you any plans to write more for film -- perhaps for Bruce LaBruce once again?

Daniel Allen Cox: I would love to, we'll see what opportunities come up!

EDGE: Now to the new book... "Mouthquake" has got so much to say, that it's almost fitting the book is about someone who suffers from a stutter.

Daniel Allen Cox: Ha.

EDGE:Do you feel that you have an emotional stutter, if not an actual one?

Daniel Allen Cox: I do have an actual one, but I'm intrigued by the idea of an emotional stutter, now that you bring it up. If we're talking about a change in consistency in emotions, and somewhat on an unpredictable level, I experienced that a lot with this book. I've allowed it to mess with me a bit, to make me a bit unpredictable, but also more open.

EDGE: It's all here in your new book: Music, imaginary friends, the treacherous quality of memory, recurring dreams, mother love, an obsession with music... I think you said somewhere recently that writing this book just about did you in. What was harder, mining all those different elements or folding them into one seamless work?

Daniel Allen Cox: For me, the timing was right for this stuff to come out of me. It felt torrential, like an exorcism, one that I could encourage by playing certain music at uncertain times. At the peak of the outpouring, which I was careful not to interrupt, like how you don't wake up a sleepwalker, I was quite unaware of the material. So the first drafts were harder emotionally, but the grunt work was all the time later spent piecing it together.

EDGE: Your fiction always has the quality of reading like a sparkling series of aphorisms. How do you create such striking sentences? Is it a matter of how you think anyway, or do you spend hours shaping each one?

Daniel Allen Cox: I think that's a result of how I edit, and for this book, that meant throwing away half of the original material. If a sentence is solid enough, it doesn't fall through the sieve. In terms of whatever striking nature you notice in individual lines, that would be my editor Susan. Susan is the best and has saved me from many awkward sentences, over many years.

EDGE: The book's references to music, musicians, and specific songs seems like the topmost layer to an innate musicality. The prose (and the narrative flow) have a real musicality to them -- but I'm not sure whether that musical form would be more classical or jazz. What did you have in mind?

Daniel Allen Cox: Love this question. I'd say it's a jazz style, a sort of meandering, openness to unexpected cool moments. Maybe that's what I want out of life.

EDGE:So where do you want life to take you? A surprising, unexpected tonic? A tritone?

Daniel Allen Cox: I would like life to take me to the woods. And deeper into people. I have no doubt it will always be surprising, I guess because I've always used writing to take myself into new situations. And I'd love to get back into music. I used to be in a band and miss the experience of watching new songs take shape in the hands of friends.

EDGE:There's also a cinematic quality to the book, as the afterword by Sarah Schulman points out. If you were to write a film that took the general form and shape of "Mouthquake," say, or your novel "Basement of Wolves," what would it look like? A Derek Jarman film? Something by Antony Hickling? A lost work by Luis Buñuel?

Daniel Allen Cox: Interesting! I have a not-so-secret crush on the work of David Lynch, so while I haven't imagined what "Mouthquake" or "Basement of Wolves" would look like as a film, I'd try to have a lot of symbolic imagery that is open to wild interpretation. I'm a fan of writing that is complicit in sharing creative actions with the reader. It's a collaboration, a partnership, not a one-way relationship.

EDGE: David Lynch! Of course, I see that now. [Laughter] So, if you are writing in a Lynchian mode, what do you want a reader to see? Where do you hope a reader goes with the trail of bread crumbs you throw out?

Daniel Allen Cox: I suppose in a book like "Mouthquake," this involves tracking different scenes of a character's life and accepting the gaps in that timeline, as a commentary on the fact that memory might create gaps in our lives where we don't expect them to be, and that memory can't account for everything.

EDGE: Your main character for "Mouthquake," the narrator, is an intriguing creation. There's a remarkable consistency of voice, even as the story he's telling fractures to shards, only for those shards to almost magically assemble themselves into a surprising psychological profile at the end. Are you inventing him from the inside out, feeling your way through his story and finding ways to ties the pieces together, or are you simply dictating what the story tells you to set down and polishing it later? What's your process been here?

Daniel Allen Cox: It's a bit of both. There's a harmony in those processes you describe. Semi-directed sleepwalking, as I mentioned a bit earlier.

EDGE: I don't think the narrator ever reveals his name to us. Does he have a name? Is he, in some sense, Everyguy? Does it matter?

Daniel Allen Cox: I just think that's a function of there not being many opportunities to use his name. Otherwise, it would've felt most natural to me to name the character Daniel. But besides that, I often completely forget to do things like name characters, describe physical settings, how people look. Which leads me to believe my focus might be on other things.

EDGE: So... conceptually, emotionally, is this an autobiographical work?

Daniel Allen Cox: Yes, I'd say all of my books are, to different degrees, and in different ways.

EDGE: One character who does have a name is Eric, the narrator's lover. Eric is deaf, which is an interesting contrast to the narrator for many reasons -- not least of which are the narrator's love of music, his sophisticated way with words, and his stutter. These characters seem to me to be two of the book's biggest shards, and they fit each other so perfectly.

Daniel Allen Cox: Shards, interesting. Whatever narrative tension they have is probably diffused by the sly, almost sarcastic kindness they show each other. Who knows. I hope that in any relationship I represent, the unusual nature of their specific coupling comes through.

EDGE: One topic the book circles a bit and then finally cites by name is sexual abuse.

Daniel Allen Cox: Yes.

EDGE: It's not hard to see how the narrator's struggle is tied to some sort of early trauma; even as an adult, he's spinning his wheels trying to process something that was simply too large and complicated for his then-young psyche. If the narrator is Everyguy, I can see in his struggle any sort of lingering trauma -- not just sexual abuse, but tragedy, separation, too much responsibility at too early an age, all sorts of things that happen to kids and play a role in a person's subsequent life.

Daniel Allen Cox: Thanks for these observations. Not sure I would describe him as "Everyguy" -- that's not my presumption or intention.

You talked earlier about memory. There's an internal struggle relating to the validity of feelings about events that may have happened, versus clear-cut and neatly packaged memories of those same events. Spoiler alert: This character decides to accept that memory doesn't tell the whole story, that feelings and dreams can also be part of telling his story, that our definition of 'evidence' must be adaptable to specific situations and contexts. I believe the book also shows some of the pitfalls involved in that, the danger of certain assumptions and the impacts they can have on people's lives.

EDGE: How do you feel you handled that topic, specifically as it relates to memory?

Daniel Allen Cox: I believe I handled it in a nuanced way, and maybe even nuanced to a fault, but that's how it had to be. Any approach too direct, and the character might start looking for something that doesn't exist, a falsity. He has to create conditions in which something is allowed to materialize.

Memory is organic and changes shape within us, so I think we have be creative when trying to coax something out, while recognizing the dangers of engaging in this work, the dangers to ourselves and to others. The character also has to be OK with the idea of not being able to recall conventionally-defined memories, which is also a complicated space to occupy. I hope reading it can be healing to others, as writing it has been healing to me.

EDGE: It's unusual enough to find books like the ones you write -- really quite literary, in a heightened sense, in form and execution -- but to find such books featuring gay characters is really very rare. I'm not sure I can even cite likely influences for your writing. Do you have influences you can name?

Daniel Allen Cox: Any comparisons would only be unfair to the writers I would name! But musically, perhaps "Mouthquake" is similar to Pink Floyd's "The Wall," but in reverse -- the middle of "The Wall" is bricked over, whereas the middle of "Mouthquake" is allowed to crumble before a final re-assembly. Or maybe "Abandoned Luncheonette" by Hall and Oates. Look at the album cover art: A dilapidated trailer sitting in a field. What is there about its history to learn? What stories lurk in the saturated and faded colours of the 1970s, the ones that Instagram has learned to mimic?

EDGE: It may be a little early to ask this, but what are you thinking for your next project?

Daniel Allen Cox: A bit early! But I've started some thrilling new collaborations this year that I'll be announcing soon.

Obed Medina is a playwright & theatre director in Los Angeles.

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