Interview: Elvia Wilk
Elvia Wilk’s nonfiction debut, Death by Landscape (out July 19, 2022, via Soft Skull Press), investigates how we might displace human-centered narratives. Through literary immersion, research into spectral encounters and virtual reality, reflections on her own physicality, and first-person narrative reporting on participating in a vampire LARP, the reader is invited to consider the nonhuman around us—whether it’s technology or the natural world.
Wilk self-describes the book as “fan nonfiction,” so the prose and point of view are passionate, not pedantic. With the collection’s structure, she endeavors to background herself and place in the forefront literary depictions of plant life that challenge the human body, interrogations of the neoliberal idea of utopia and the commodification of trauma healing, and examinations of the work being done to employ VR as a tool for empathy building.
Reading the collection, my perspective about my little place in the world shifted, and I began to feel like one small piece of a much larger schema in a way that has lasted for months. As a writer, the essays felt like permission toward boldness and making more space for my most genuine curiosities.
Speaking over Zoom, Wilk and I discussed what it means to be a fan, the parallels between the natural world and tech, and why writers don’t have to fear the increasing prevalence of artificial intelligence.
Claire Lobenfeld: The first thing I want to ask you is where the term “fan nonfiction” comes from and what it means to you?
Elvia Wilk: In an earlier draft of the book, I explained the term “fan nonfiction” at length, but ultimately I took out the introduction because I felt like it was okay to just go kind of gonzo and let people make free associations with it. Now the term is only mentioned on the back cover. This book is a pretty wide-ranging project that draws from work I’ve done over many years, which I’ve reshaped into something that I hope has some kind of surface tension. Part of the cohesion comes from my method as much as a thematic throughline. My approach was guided by deep affection and affinity for the material—fiction, movies, art—that I was writing about. I found myself almost flustered by how much I enjoyed the research—I had no pretense of critical distance. For this reason, I struggled throughout the process with where to put my “I,” especially given that this is a book largely about decentering the human in the stories we tell ourselves about the world. I use the first person throughout, but at least at the start, the book is not at all about me or who I am. One topic I return to is the relationship between figure and ground in fiction, the problem that the human protagonist tends to be foregrounded and the rest of the world backgrounded, which creates an implicit hierarchy. If I take that as a topic, I obviously have to reflect on whether or how I’m foregrounding myself in my own narrative too. So, where am “I”? Where is anyone’s “I”?
Taking on the role of a fan was the way I tried to resolve the question of where to put myself in relation to the material. The fan doesn’t have critical distance and doesn’t pretend to. The fan is fully involved in the object of devotion and, in her adoration, asserts a kind of claim to it. If you’re a fan, you’re obsessed with something, and in your obsession you make it your own, ultimately changing it. I’m thinking of fandom as a kind of mode of relating to the world as much as any specific fan universe. I also liked the femme association with being a fan. It’s kind of adolescent and girlish, at the same time that there’s something muscular about it.
So the term “fan nonfiction” gave me a way of framing how the material passes through me rather than positioning myself at a distance from it—really what it means to incorporate a text or a biography or a movie or a plotline or a phrase into your life. There are certain phrases or quotes from other people in the book that get stuck in my head. I find myself often saying things Anne Carson wrote as if I came up with them because I worked with her writing so much in the book. Now it’s become part of me. Of course, I cite everything in a bibliography!
CL: I come to literary writing from music criticism, and I teach it. A lot of my students ask me how to separate their fandom from their writing, so that is a lot of interesting food for thought.
EW: In music criticism and even in visual art writing, it’s more common to talk about yourself and your huge affinity for an artist or admit that you can’t gain critical distance from something because you like it too much. But I feel like this might be talked about less in literary criticism, that you can get so wrapped up in it that you couldn’t possibly pretend to be objective. But, of course, nobody can pretend to be objective.
CL: In the book, you show how your reading reflects or runs parallel to your life in a very cerebral way. As it continues, we find you reporting on people who are developing VR for the use of, to put it very simply, empathy-building. It’s an experience that is technically all in the user’s head but could also be considered a physical experience. Then, you attend a vampire LARP, which takes the book into a much more distinctively first-person place. Was this movement part of the surface tension you wanted to create? How did you make choices about the sequence of essays?
EW: I do tell people that the juiciest part of the book is the last section, and I know that constructing it that way is a formal risk. Typically, you frontload with the “I” or some kind of relatable or identifiable narrator who can draw the reader in, often by divulging personal details. I was worried that bringing myself in slowly could alienate readers, but I hope that instead, it offers an unusual kind of payoff. Keeping myself out of the frame for a while is not meant to be withholding, but it does demand active participation on the part of the reader. I begin with ideas and texts and movies, and as you read the book, you become more and more familiar with me as a person. I creep in, almost like I can’t help myself from sneaking into the story. Then, at the end, I enter the scene pretty dramatically. Suddenly, here I am having an ecstatic encounter with a painting. Here I am at this vampire LARP. Here I am at my desk, writing a story. Here I am in a VR headset experiencing vertigo. Finally, the epilogue is ultimately the most intimate, diaristic writing that I could do. The epilogue is as zoomed in and personal as possible. I center myself at that point, but I hope that because of all the discussion about figure and ground that has come before, the reader experiences my presence in the text differently than if I had led with a discussion of my identity and my life.
It’s also worth saying that many of the essays existed in other forms and were then rewritten, recycled, and reshaped. A lot of new work and connective tissue were added. It is choreographed or maybe plotted much more precisely than if it were, say, an anthology of existing material. Originally, I thought I was going to collect some essays and put them together, but as I worked, I realized I really wanted to make a book that tells a larger story—a story about the author’s relationship to the text and to the reader.
CL: The structure impacted me because it made me feel like just a tiny part of a big world, and I mean that in a good way. It felt almost like that was the intention. I’d never felt so good about some of my grosser bodily functions, like, Hey, I’m just contributing to the atmosphere. But there are distinct references to poop in both of your books now.
EW: Oh, I’m sure. I didn’t set out with this intent, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s shit in all of my books for the rest of my life. It’s fundamental. It’s elemental!
CL: Well, on the subject of interconnectedness, lately, I’ve been noticing some similarities between the ways some technologies work together and the way different processes in the natural world occur. Of course, technology is nonhuman, but when human interference is removed, so to speak, I’m starting to see its activity as more akin to what goes on in nature—although with a modest understanding of how nature really works. Your work is concerned with both technology and nature. How do you balance those two interests, and how do they intermingle for you?
EW: They’re both encounters with the nonhuman. In a typical Humanist construction, nature is other than human, technology is other than human, and in different times throughout history, the three have been ranked, moralized, and valued differently. According to different agendas, maybe nature is presented as pure and exalted, or maybe nature is savage and threatening. People have mapped the same kind of reactions onto technology depending on what they think progress looks like. I’m interested in deranking these things as they’ve been arranged and rearranged for a couple hundred years. Rather than moving them around again and saying nature is good or technology is bad or what have you, I want to portray all of them in connection with one another.
Given what’s happening now in the world and what drastic, devastating planetary changes we are aware of, we can no longer think of natural and artificial as opposites of any kind. The environment has been too intervened in by humans to be described as a “natural” space, and it’s impossible to think of technology as something separable from the environment. A lot of what I wanted to do in the book is point to the specific fears or anxieties that drive the use of nature and of technology in cultural narratives. For example, much of what’s been done with VR shows us what people are afraid of—for instance, that we are somehow becoming less human or that we’re losing our place at the center of the world.
CL: At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a meme going around on Twitter using the phrase “nature is healing.” You use it as a talking point in the book, but I’d like to know more about what you think of it.
EW: Nature is not healing [laughs]. I loved that meme and a lot of things that happened with it as it became more convoluted. But I don’t know what healing is supposed to look like—which I guess is why it’s so funny. Would healing be some kind of reversion to a prehuman state? The erasure of people? People coexisting with nature? Natural preservation? Eco-systemic revival? You can’t reverse extinction. There will be no return to a previous state. Healing also suggests closure. It suggests resilience in the face of adversity, which is something I really take issue with in the book—how people are made individually responsible for being resilient in a violent world, how people are supposed to remain productive as a measure of health. You would have to override the ongoing trauma of living in the extinction era to say that healing has been “achieved,” at least if you think healing and resilience are the same thing.
CL: For The Atlantic, you wrote about the “real-life science fiction” book Pharmako-AI, written by the human author K Allado-McDowell and the artificial intelligence (AI) language-processing software Generative Pre-trained Transformer 3 created by the research lab OpenAI. As these programs are better developed and become more accessible, there is a bubbling fear that AI-generated art and literature could supposedly replace human-made art and literature. In the piece, you make a really compelling case for AI language processing as a tool for writers. You write, “Might [the] profound difference [between human and nonhuman writing] constitute a form of creativity we could collaborate with and learn from?”
I completely agree with you. I love constraints and prompts and different ways to play in writing. You reference in that piece that the human author and the nonhuman author talk in the book about William Burroughs, which makes sense because a cut-up story is definitely a form of artificial consciousness. That is to say, more analog versions of these tools have been accessible for a long time. What possibilities do you see for craft when it comes to writers using AI?
EW: Since I wrote that piece, K Allado-McDowell had GPT-3 write a whole romance novella, so there’s already a new example from this human-author/artificial-author conglomeration. I think they will continue to work in that vein, so it will be interesting to see how that work changes over time due to the changing nature of the collaboration.
Of course, a lot of what AI will be used for will not be creative whatsoever. Image captioning—that sort of thing. But it’s funny how quickly I have adopted my knowledge of AI-generated text into my way of reading. If I read a terrible press release, I actively wonder if a bot wrote it. Saying that used to be an ironic statement or a dig, but now I’m earnestly curious, because it’s not outside the realm of possibility. That just highlights how there’s always been a feedback loop between types of speech and writing that become codified, how language is never static. Algorithmic writing, as you said, has been around for a really long time. I think one thing GPT-3 can show is that the relationship between constraint and creativity is fundamental, although its parameters are constantly changing. AI can also show how machinic much human writing is and probably challenge us to do things differently. Not to make us “more human,” but to allow us to create new types of writing and art in conversation with other intelligences, including machines.
CL: I think what I often call Buzzword Feminism—the idea that one individual achievement by a woman can be constituted as an act of feminism even when it has nothing to do with improving material conditions for larger oppressed populations—is one of those feedback loops that I find personally a little frustrating. In a conversation you did about digital art and weirdness, you said the phrase, “a narrative cannot be feminist,” but that there are feminist ways in which writers can play with tropes of the nonhuman in weird fiction. Can you expand on that a little bit more?
EW: I wonder what I was thinking when I said that! It could have been that writing is as much about appropriating as it is about inventing. For instance, the genre of weirdness—which was the topic of that particular conversation—is not historically feminist. But what’s happening is that it’s being appropriated and mangled for new political aims today. A genre itself is not intrinsically feminist or not-feminist. I don’t think you can say that any genre of creative production is inherently politically inclined in any direction, just like no technology has an inherent ideology—it depends on what you do with it. And it depends on whether you acknowledge the history of where it came from, because it may have started as some horrific, colonial project—which is where a lot of the weird literature I’m interested in began. How powerful to take that kind of lineage and flip it on its head.
CL: Before this collection, you published a novel. You also have a background in writing studio art criticism. How do you balance the different challenges of writing long and writing short?
EW: Writing short form is how I make an income, which is the first reason I do it. Luckily I find it nourishing and generative to work on long-form and short-form at the same time. At a given time, I always want to have something that’s conceivably going to be published within a month. It might just be digital-native impatience, but I get anxious when I’m not in conversation with the current moment. Books just take ages. They’re really, really slow, and that’s okay. I’ve come to respect that slowness, but I couldn’t manage to only work at that pace. What was so unexpected when working on a novel was that all of this research I was doing for other kinds of pieces just fed into it, and I also ended up with a bunch of spin-off pieces about things that didn’t fit in the book. The same thing happened with the essay book. It became a container for everything I was thinking about, and plenty of runoff. Having a big container is awesome. Writing big and slow also gives you all these new challenges, such as how to manage intricate detail versus macro construction, world building versus character development, and so on.
CL: I know for myself that when I’m working on something with a bigger container, I can get bogged down by reoutlining or doing more research or organizing my source material—doing anything but writing. How do you balance all of those things? How do you keep from letting the threads get too long?
EW: Having a hard deadline means you have to stop researching at some point, so it’s useful to have a rigorous pace where I’m always writing for publication. I’m never just holding onto the good stuff in my fist and refusing to let go, even though I might want to. I can’t be precious, and I can’t be stingy. If I were allowed to work on something forever, I’d just get bogged down in stacks and stacks of books. I do have a lot of really strict systems for keeping track of stuff. The way that I notetake is super exhaustive, at least when I’m doing a specific kind of reading as research. With that kind of obsessive, passionate reading, you are deep in it. It’s a really involved, active process that consists of a lot of organizing and copying. That type of reading might also be part of this “fan nonfiction” approach that we talked about, which is like a devotional practice. But I’m working on a new novel now where I’ve made some brand-new rules for myself like I can only have one document. I am not allowed to have multiple documents going at the same time. I’ve never done this before.
CL: That sounds really scary!
EW: It’s terrifying. But I’m in it. It’s okay. I’m probably reacting to what happened last time—with the book of essays, I just had an incredibly complicated system of folders. I didn’t have any algorithm for how to make a book, and I still don’t, so this time I thought I’d try the one giant document.
CL: So, you’re going to allow yourself to lose material with this process?
EW: Yes. As long as I can save a new document when I think things have changed too much, then I’ll always feel like I can revoke if I need to [laughs].
CL: I think people who write for the internet, we are kill-your-darlings people. It’s really hard to stay attached. I don’t remember a lot of things I wrote two years ago.
EW: Totally. I’m finding there’s a nice feeling of abandonment in this process that’s liberating as much as it is scary. I don’t know how long it will last. Maybe next week I’ll fail and have to come up with a new method. I’ve tried every method of outlining you can imagine. Notecards and thumbtacks and everything. I’ve tried a bunch of writing software at various times. I’ve tried it all. Writing is always going to be a problem, and there’s no one-size solution. There’s no software that will solve it.
CL: Writing in collaboration with AI or using prompts or constraints or any sort of play or trying to engage your subconscious is a good way to try and relieve the burden of writing.
EW: I agree. Every project has a set of constraints, even if you don’t think about them or you take them for granted. You might as well decide them yourself. I have a friend who writes the first sentence of every paragraph of a novel and then goes back and fills it in. That couldn’t be more foreign to my concept of a writing process. Another friend writes the last page first. And then there’s César Aira, who begins at the beginning and writes one sentence after another and refuses to look back. I’ve been reading more and more about the construction of story and how narratives are supposed to be done, how different writers do it. “Are you a plotter or a pantser?” is the title of seemingly every blog. Until now, I wasn’t familiar with any of this lingo. I’ve been resistant to the idea that there are existing solutions for problems that I’m having. I’m kind of like, I must be the first person who’s ever had this problem. But lately, I’m interested in being more efficient. I have not seen any results.
CL: I do think approaching certain writing problems as if you are the first person to have them does sort of force you to really tailor your solutions to something that works for you. I have a friend who loves reading commercial craft books for little nuggets of wisdom, even though she’s not writing that way at all. I just don’t ever want to be sequestered into a Freytag’s pyramid hell.
EW: For me, the claustrophobia is real. If there’s no joy of invention every day, then what are we doing? Every day isn’t necessarily joyful, but you know what I mean.
CL: That goes back to your idea of “fan nonfiction”—that there was a lot of joy in creating this project. I’ve been talking about this a lot with friends who are writers, this idea of finding joy in the writing process. Tell me a little bit more about research as a process of joy and finding joy with writing, in general.
EW: I’m also thinking so much about this lately. During the start of the pandemic, my relationship with work changed drastically. The epilogue of the book is about how my obsession with productivity hit a dead end at that time. I have always had a very intense and strict framework for how I get work done, a kind of maximalist process. It’s often punishing. It’s often excruciating. During lockdown, I started to discover that there is a difference between punishment and discipline. I think that creating a space of discipline without resorting to self-punishment is where the potential for joy opens up. Anything enjoyable requires some measure of dedication or commitment. If you have any kind of writing or studio practice, a practice of friendship, a practice of reading, a practice of exercise, a practice of research, whatever it might be, you have to be dedicated to something in order to engage with the world in a meaningful way. That is different than saying you will punish yourself if you don’t write a thousand words. It’s a fine line. But it feels different.
ELVIA WILK is a writer and editor living in New York. Her first novel, Oval, was published in June 2019 by Soft Skull Press, and a book of essays called Death by Landscape is forthcoming in 2022. She is the recipient of a 2019 Andy Warhol Arts Writers grant and a 2020 fellowship at the Berggruen Institute. From 2012 to 2016 she was a founding editor at uncube magazine, and from 2016 to 2018 she was the publications editor for transmediale and a contributing editor at Rhizome. Currently, she’s a contributing editor at e-flux journal and teaches at places including the University of the Arts Berlin, Eugene Lang College, and City College of New York. Find her on Instagram at @elviawilk.
CLAIRE LOBENFELD is a writer and music critic. She is a New Artist Society merit scholar and MFA candidate in writing at School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Originally from New York State, she now lives in Illinois with her partner and their cat. Find her on Instagram @clairelobenfeld.