D. Harlan Wilson

portrait D. Harlan Wilson

interviewed by Kristina Marie Darling

Published in Issue No. 128 ~ January, 2008

D. Harlan Wilson is known as a fiction writer and literary critic. His books include The Kafka Effekt (2001), Stranger on the Loose (2003), Pseudo-City (2005) and a pulp science fiction novel, Dr. Identity, or, Farewell to Plaquedemia (2007). Harlan is an assistant professor of English at Wright State University-Lake Campus in Ohio, and editor-in-chief of The Dream People, a journal of Bizarro texts.

Kristina Marie Darling: Where would you place your work within the context of contemporary fiction?

D. Harlan Wilson: My writing is something like magic realism, albeit in a perverted way. Traditional magic realism is a Latin American formation that speaks to and about a particular cultural ethos. Irrealism is a better, more global term. Basically irrealism combines a dreamlike aesthetic with an absurdist sentimentality–that’s how I always explain it.

I also deploy techniques and rudiments from several other genres (e.g., absurdism, science fiction, fantasy, horror, splatterpunk, literary fiction, postmodernism). These are all fairly broad terms that encompass a wealth of styles and narrative ingredients. In the last few years, my writing has fallen into the category of “Bizarro.” This is also a broad term that might be quantified as the literary equivalent to a cult film. In light of my preoccupation with media forces and technocapitalist violence, however, probably the most apt title of all for my writing is “Avant-Pop.” According to hyperartist Mark Amerika in his Avant-Pop Manifesto, “Avant-Pop artists themselves have acquired immunity from the Terminal Death dysfunctionalism of a Pop Culture gone awry and are now ready to offer their own weirdly concocted elixirs to cure us from this dreadful disease (‘information sickness’) that infects the core of our collective life.” Plain and simple, right? In the end, I guess I’m as confused as anybody about what I write. But I like writing it.

KMD: You have described your writing as “irreal.”

DHW: As I said, irrealism conflates the landscape of dreams and absurdism. I’m extremely interested in dreams on a personal and theoretical level–where dreams come from, how they inform our lives, how they interpret experience, the stories they tell, what they indicate about brain function, etc. Dreams are essentially an instance of raw imagination at work, and the assertion and exploration of the imagination is of seminal importance to me, both as a writer and reader. As for absurdism, I’ve always been drawn to its existential moodiness. Authors like Camus, Sartre, Kafka, Beckett, Gogol and Dostoevsky have been and continue to be great sources of inspiration for me. I’m not an existentialist myself–I’m actually pretty spiritual on certain days of the week. From a stylistic and thematic perspective, though, I like what these guys did. And I like the basic premise of existentialist thought, which is slightly different than absurdist thought, but they’re intimately related. Anyway it makes sense. There’s certainly plenty of evidence out there in support of an absurdist ideology. Acausal horseshit happens every day, everywhere, to all kinds of people, for no reason at all.

KMD: What does irreal fiction offer to readers and writers that more traditional types of writing don’t?

DHW: Above all, a divergence from formulaic writing and narrative convention. At the same time, irrealism proper isn’t necessarily experimental. In some ways, it’s rather conservative. The fiction you’d read at The Café Irreal, for instance, a definitive online irreal literary journal, is structurally and stylistically tame. The content of the stuff they publish is pretty tame, too. That is, the content lacks a certain aggressive quality. I’m not saying this is a good or a bad thing. I’ve had a few stories published in The Café Irreal, but, for the most part, I think my writing is too outlandish for the editors’ tastes. I guess you could say my writing is a divergence from a divergence.

KMD: Could you tell us more about your novel Dr. Identity?

DHW: Dr. Identity is my debut novel–not the first novel I’ve ever written, but definitely my first publishable novel. It’s set in an ultraviolent, irreal, Nazified futuristic dystopia called Bliptown in which people surrogate themselves with android lookalikes called ‘gängers on a daily basis. The protagonists and narrators are an English professor and his ‘gänger, Dr. Identity. The plot involves the accidental murder of a student by Dr. Identity and the duos’ subsequent flight from the minions of the Law and the Media. I’m calling it a “pulp” science fiction novel. It alludes to a lot of historical SF tropes, themes and narratives, and it’s excessively misogynistic, patriarchal, goofy, adventurous and sycophantic–a kind of caricature of the prototype pulp SF novel. I’ve tried to construct a more lyrical prose style than the clunky stuff of pulps, though, and in addition to paying homage to the SF genre, the novel is intended to be a critique of capitalist technoculture and the universe of academia (hence the subtitle: Farewell to Plaquedemia). Dr. Identity is the first installment in a series of novels called The Scikungfi Trilogy. The others are Code Name Prague and The Kyoto Man. All three novels, as the name of the trilogy suggests, contain too many science fictionalized kung fu fights for their own good.

KMD: Tell us more about The Dream People. As editor-in-chief, what type of writing do you like to support?

DHW: My taste is heavily irreal, but we try to publish a range of different fictions. We get more horror submissions than anything else. But we’re interested in all speculative genres, especially pieces that combine those genres in innovative ways. What I look for personally is clean, dynamic, offbeat, darkly humorous writing. And we’re thankful for the small collective of assistant editors and reviewers who lend their talents to the publication. In addition to fiction, The Dream People publishes microcriticism, book reviews, drama, nonfiction, creative nonfiction, comics and animated works. Right now we’re on a biannual schedule, but we hope to move to a triannual or quarterly schedule in the not-too-distant future.

KMD: You’re a big supporter of the Bizarro genre and its authors. How would you define Bizarro writing?

DHW: The most concise, user-friendly definition of Bizarro can be found at the beginning of The Bizarro Starter Kit (Orange), an anthology of short novels and story collections by ten of the leading authors in the genre. Six of my stories appear in the book. Bizarro is described in list form as follows:

1. Bizarro, simply put, is the genre of the weird.

2. Bizarro is literature’s equivalent to the cult section at the video store.

3. Like cult movies, Bizarro is sometimes surreal, sometimes goofy,

sometimes bloody, and sometimes borderline pornographic.

4. Bizarro often contains a certain cartoon logic that, when applied to the real world, creates an unstable universe where the bizarre becomes the norm and absurdities are made flesh.

5. Bizarro strives not only to be strange, but fascinating,

thought-provoking, and, above all, fun to read.

6. Bizarro was created by a group of small press publishers in response to the increasing demand for (good) weird fiction and the increasing number of authors who specialize in it.

7. Bizarro is Franz Kafka meets Joe Bob Briggs, Dr. Suess of the

postapocalypse, Japanese animation directed by David Lynch.

This definition, I think, was written by Carlton Mellick III, Bizarro’s most popular and widely read author. I couldn’t have written it better myself.

KMD: Where do you see the Bizarro genre in ten years?

DHW: That’s hard to say. I hope it really takes off. It’s already taking off. More Bizarro-oriented publications, presses, authors and readers spring up all the time. But I suspect Bizarro will remain an underground phenomenon. The trick, then, will be to raise the underground to sea level.

KMD: As a professor of English at Wright State University-Lake Campus, what advice do you usually give to students who want to become writers?

DHW: Above all, I encourage them to get used to rejection and keep writing. It took me a long time to get my work published, partly because it was weird, mostly because it was crappy juvenilia. But the more I did it, the better I got. I also have an overactive imagination and love reading and learning.

And I have a pretty robust work ethic. I think these things are more important for fledgling writers to have, as opposed to “talent,” whatever that is. I’ve heard some authors say nobody should pursue a writing career unless they have some kind of innate knack for writing. I think passion, imagination and endurance are what new writers need. And even imagination can be cultivated. Talent? I don’t know what that is.

KMD: Before you went to graduate school, you worked in a variety of jobs from international salesman to casino dealer, to a model and actor, and a garbage man. Quite a background to draw from in your writing.

DHW: Yes, although I think the degree to which writers effectively harness material from actual life experience is overrated and mythologized. The different jobs I’ve had, places I’ve lived, people I’ve known, etc. certainly emerge in my writing. But more influential have been other media, such as books and films, the reading and watching of which have been my most valuable “experiences.” In other words, what I find especially useful are ideas about people, places and things rather than people, places and things themselves.

KMD: Growing up in Michigan, were you a Bizarro inclined kid with a wild imagination or did it develop over time?

DHW: I was a pretty imaginative kid. But not Bizarro-inclined, per se. My life revolved around collecting and playing with Star Wars, G.I. Joe and Masters of the Universe action figures and vehicles. Rather mainstream young male toys of the 70s and early 80s. Mostly, though, I liked to draw. I spent countless afternoons drawing robots, aliens, spaceships, laser guns, and other SF bric-a-brac. My illustrations were ok, good for my age, but not great, and I was always better at mimicking somebody else’s artwork than conceiving of and creating my own. I don’t draw much anymore, but my method of drawing back then, as I remember it, involved an acute attentiveness to detail, something that informs my writing today.

KMD: Many might be surprised that you have a Ph.D in Twentieth Century American Literature. Obviously, you have a comprehensive background in the more traditional literary tradition.

DHW: Yes. I spent 10 years in graduate school (between 1995 and 2005) learning the critical study and teaching of literature. During this time I did two M.A. degrees, one in English from the University of Massachusetts-Boston, and a Ph.D. in English at Michigan State University. I always did my creative writing on the side. Inevitably, it affected my critical writing, and vice versa. This is still the case.

KMD: What about your short animated film The Cocktail Party?

DHW: I’m really proud of this project. I’m especially proud of the very talented filmmaker, Brandon Duncan, who made it shine and turned me into an award-winning screenwriter. The Cocktail Party garnered multiple nominations and awards in 2007 at nationwide festivals and conventions (e.g. Comic-Con, Worldfest, Ace Film Festival, Fantasy Con, Fear No Film Festival, and others); for a comprehensive list, check out this page on my website: www.dharlanwilson.com/films.html. The film is 10 minutes long, black and white, and rotoscoped (à la Richard Linklater’s films Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly). It’s based on my story of the same name that appears in my first book, The Kafka Effekt. Here’s what a writer at The Kansas City Star said about it: “A brooding man in a black hat flies into a room where the partygoers are oversized hors d’oeuvres munching on tiny people. It’s a surreal masterpiece culminating in a non sequitur-heavy conversation between our leading man and a stoic barkeep. Amusing and marvelously weird. Dali and Magritte would have loved it.” That about sums it up . . . Right now, Brandon and I are working on another screenplay tentatively called Beebody. It’s based on my story Classroom Dynamics in Pseudo-City from which I extrapolated the core themes and motifs for Dr. Identity. Look for the finished product in 2009.

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Kristina Marie Darling, an English major at Washington University in St. Louis, received a nomination for a Pushcart Prize in 2006. Her chapbooks include: Fevers and Clocks (March Street Press, 2006) and The Traffic in Women (Dancing Girl Press, 2006), among others.