Issue 35, Final Fringe

Q&A With Michael Stewart

by Amanda Kimmerly 08.03.2011

The Hieroglyphics, Michael Stewart (Mud Luscious Press, 2011)31-year-old Michael Stewart wrote a novel/la that, like the work of fellow Mud Luscious-er J.A. Tyler, is difficult to classify. Spanning 80 pages, The Hieroglyphics is novella-length, with some paragraphs as compact as one sentence–do we call it prose? Poetry? Should time even be spent packaging imagination into neat, pristine categories? Fiction, after all, is not simply a storage unit!

Shifting the focus to content: The Hieroglyphics is a reinterpreted version of Horapollo Niliacus’s Hieroglyphica. Discovered in 1419, Hieroglyphica totaled 189 explanations of the Egyptian hieroglyphs. Since gaining popularity, however, its authenticity has provoked many questions from Egyptian scholars and inspired new translations in the academia environment. Stewart’s version is a mix of his own research and unique vision of an ancient, misinterpreted world, with heavy emphasis on linguistic tricks and startling images, the type of writing that causes as much pause as reading a book of proverbs.

Stewart teaches creative nonfiction at Brown University.  The Hieroglyphics can be found through Mud Luscious Press.

Amanda Kimmerly: What inspired the idea to re-write Horapollo Niliacus’s Hieroglyphica?

Michael Stewart: A friend who was studying the book in grad school (she was translating it) kept sending me these amazing sentences. After the first dozen I thought, I’ve got to do something with this.  So, I started playing with the lines, braiding in my own and after awhile–unexpectedly–a narrative started to form

AKWere you into Egyptian history before your friend sent you the sentences?

MS: I like to think I’m interested in just about everything. So yes abstractly I was, but I hadn’t any serious research into it before.

AKWhat major differences does your version, The Hieroglyphics, convey, as opposed to Niliacus’s?

MS: Other than a few borrowed lines (which I twist and reinterpret), there are very few similarities.

AK: As I was reading, and thinking about this interview, too, I kept wondering, how much of your interpretations do you personally agree with … about God, about society, about sex. For instance, in “What The Stars Signify,” you write, “To read the stars is to know God’s will. &, because time is unknown to God, our history as well as our future is written in the same script in that same book…. His notes are kept secret. Even the King may not know what is written in them. Divination without worship is an abomination. It is to not know time, which is an affront to God.”

MS: Hmmm, that’s a difficult question. I enjoyed writing the book because it allowed me to explore a lot of ideas about god, sex, language, etc… without having to make those ideas either reasonable or tolerable. that is to say, I liked being able to speculate free form any constraint of meaning. I think almost all of the philosophical ideas postulated in the book fall apart when they are looked at closely, mostly they are linguistic tricks or sophomoric interpretations of more complicated systems of belief.

Does that approximate an answer?

AKYes! So, basically, this novel (or novella? What do YOU call it?!) allowed the opportunity to explore different philosophies, and not so much prove your own theories of the subjects.

MS: Yes!

AKInteresting, too, that you mention linguistic tricks, because translation is SUCH a big deal … over time, words lose meaning and gain new meaning… reading The Hieroglyphics–and I’m sure you get this a lot–felt like poetry. You used the same elements, with word play and double meaning, and terse, streamlined sentences. How much of poetry are you influenced by?

MS: I’m greatly influenced by poetry. And I would be hard pressed to say if any given prose piece in the novel/la borrows more from a short story or a poetry tradition.

AK: As a professor, do you ever feel yourself slipping into “academic” mode when trying to write?

MS: Yes, especially during the semester when I spend most of my time in academic conversation I find it bleeds over into whatever I’m writing. With some pieces I like to encourage this (it’s such an interesting language) but certainly not with all of them

AKIt’s hard to even try and talk about your style because, to me, it is such a mix of poetry and prose, like J.A. Tyler’s. As a poet, I adore that type of writing. The “less is more” approach. I wonder, what effect do you think this type of storytelling–where the narrative is there but sort of (purposefully) fragmented–has on a story, the reader? Also, more importantly, what effect do you want it to have?

MS: I like the idea that the story is only seen peripherally. I like the idea that each reader connects the fragments together in a way only they could, that each little story is more in the mind of the reader than it ever was on a page. I like a single word to stand out in a bare sentence, almost stripped of any reason other than that lovely echo it leaves.

AK: Do you think this freedom could also leave a reader hanging and wanting more from the author? How do you decide what is enough, what is too much, etc? Is this even a conscious process, or more intuitive?

MS: I cut mercilessly. Typically, my stories start at around two or three pages and I prune until I’m left with a few lines, a hundred or so words. I’d rather be vague than redundant.

AK: Do you have a favorite section, off the top of your head, in The Hieroglyphics? Mine is, “Marriage: When they speak of marriage they talk of crows nesting in an old woman’s cunt.”

MS: Ha, that was the first Hieroglyphic I wrote! I’m proud of the line: “The ear is shallow and may only hold little.” from Hearing

AKI have to ask … even though you said the philosophies in the book weren’t YOUR philosophies … you mention “The Horoscopist” several times. I noticed, through Facebook, your birthday is the same as comedian Bill Hicks! A Sagittarius! Do you believe in the zodiac?

MS: I have some friends who are very indebted to the zodiac for their world views and who use its vocabulary to manage their personal relationships. Personally, I find it very interesting in terms of a language–I love any system that reads random events, which can make a narrative out of accidents or consequence out of happenstance. I find that I keep returning to the ideas of astrology and divination in my work and for the last several years I’ve been working on a longer piece called SIN BODY which explicitly explores these subjects.

AKWhen will SIN BODY debut?

MS: I don’t know, it has required a lot of library time and the research isn’t anywhere close to being finished. That said, some sections are finished and it’s starting to take on a nice, larger shape.

AKIs there anything scheduled for publication for sure that’s next on the docket that Fringe readers might want to know about?

MS: J and I have talked about publishing my ANSWERS project which is a series of unhelpful answers to user-submitted questions. (which can be found at: http://www.strangesympathies.com/stories/answers.php ) But mostly right now I’m focusing on finishing some larger projects that have been in the works for awhile.

without any specific plans or timeline

AKAny last words you’d want to pass along to the Fringe literati?

MS: Thank you so much for taking the time to read!

Amanda Kimmerly

Amanda Kimmerly

Editorial Assistant, Fiction

Amanda Kimmerly went to school for journalism, and after two years of slinging coffee, is finally putting those skills to use!  She edits novels for author Robert Stikmanz and is the Editorial Director for Confabule, a brand new publishing company based in Austin, Texas.  Her fiction has appeared in Storychord and Keourac’s Dog, with poetry appearing in Poetry For The Masses and forthcoming in Pear Noir!, REAL, and Strong Verse.  Reach her at www.messymuse.wordpress.com, where she blogs about sci-fi conventions, road trips, new books, and moon cycles.  Or stalk her writer’s collective, We Put Words on Paper, for tips on surviving the post-print apocalypse.

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