Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Douglas W. Milliken’s fiction piece, Mascara
John: Beneath the comic elements of the cows and Lana’s unfortunate driving is the story of the dissolution of a family. Where did the idea for this piece begin?
Douglas: When I first drafted this story last May, I was employing a temporary process wherein I would gather together disparate information—poems and photographs and my own notes—then figure out how these random elements fit together to create a coherent narrative. For “Mascara,” I drew on Mike O’Connor’s translations of Chia Tao’s selected poems When I Find You Again It Will Be In Mountains, my own intentionally-oblique summaries of certain Raymond Carver stories, memories of my mother yearning for her own Mary Kay car (which back then would have been a Cadillac), and a decade-old and completely empty impulse to start a story with a narrator waking on a striped mattress in a bare, unknown room. But I also grew up in a dairy community, so the presence of cows—always seeming at once so stupid and so eternal in their profound sorrow—probably informs a lot more of my writing than I’d like to admit. That said, though, I think my investment in the story really started the moment I recognized the fire of Lana’s particular voice, equal parts poetic and antagonistic. The story would be nothing without her voice.
The structure of this story is really interesting—the POV shifts and the enigmatic section titles work really well in depicting the chaos of waking up after a blackout drunk. Was this the goal behind writing it the way you did, and how did you arrive at this set of techniques?
Despite my experiences coping with post-blackout life, I think the chaos has more to do with how my sober brain operates on a daily basis. I have generalized anxiety that becomes especially acute when writing, in particular when faced with the prospect of any interruption in the drafting process. It’s likely why so many of my stories are so brief: I’m aiming for a complete draft in a single sitting for fear I might never finish it if I walk away. In this particular instance, every time I felt a section coming to a natural break, I would change the rules, zoom to a different location, a different voice or narrative distance. It’s a technique I’ve employed since college, I guess assuming each time that, in the more meditative process of editing, I can rearrange the fragments into a sequence that makes sense. In this instance, I got the sequencing of the episodes right the first time.
In that same vein, are you a planner or a wanderer? Did you know how this story was going to go before you started writing, or do you just let things develop as they will?
Definitely a wanderer. I usually attempt a first draft with as little predetermined information as possible. There was a time when I would have explained myself by citing the traditional role of a shaman being that of a vessel, not a director, but these days, I think I just want to keep as much of my ego out of play as possible. Like a little kid drawing pictures. Her sense of taste has nothing to do with it. It’s her ideas getting put to paper that’s important. It’s only after I’ve transcribed the first handwritten draft that a more critical mindset comes into play.
I love the biblical feel of the end of this, toothless, one-shoed Lana leading her bovine apostles. As is befitting a biblical story, there is an odd sense of redemption here. In the end, we get the feeling that JJ loves his sister, and the cows as the story says, have Lana’s back. Is this the rarest of literary stories, one with a happy ending?
Ha! I don’t think anyone’s ever accused me of having written a happy ending. As far as the Bible’s concerned, I’m more invested in a Jonah-tortured-to-suicide-by-God narrative than any redeeming Christ. But I can definitely see a valid prodigal child theme here.
No, I think any semblance of hope is incidental to an ongoing personal challenge to incorporate humor into my work. When I first began to write in earnest, a friend and collaborator of mine pointed out that too many of my stories lacked any light or humor or hope of any kind. Which certainly fit my lived experience at that time. But his point was taken: if your readers never have a chance to catch their breath from continual examples of nihilistic entropy, you’re just punishing them, and likely reducing your total potential impact in the process (sometimes the most crushing moment in a story is immediately preceded by a punchline). And there’s also the Thomas Ligotti line from The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: “…pessimism without compromise lacks public appeal.” So you can’t be a downer all the time and expect to make many friends. And anyway, I want to accurately depict what it feels like to be a human aware of its suffering, and that means also acknowledging the staggering absurdity of being an under-haired ape worrying about its thoughts about its feelings about (for example) selling makeup to other under-haired apes. It’s a hilarious and devastating experience. So I guess if you end your story with a joke instead of a coffin nail, it might very well appear as though something positive lies ahead.