Tucker Lieberman is a novelist, memoirist, literary critic, poet, editor, and photographer based in Bogotá. I was fortunate enough to offer editorial input on his forthcoming novel, Most Famous Short Film of All Time (tRaum Books, 2022); now that it is soon to be released, we sat down at our keyboards a hemisphere apart to chat about the book.
DS: Tell me about the genesis of the novel. Was there a scene or image that came to you and grew into a larger story? Or did the story arrive more fully formed?
TL: In 2015, I made a messy pile of nonsense scraps of text that I shuffled like a deck of cards. It had therapeutic value for me and I privately referred to it as “a novel.” Of hundreds of pages (unpublishable for various reasons), two key scenes wouldn’t let me go, and I pulled them out to become standalone stories.
The first was about a man who’s following a ghost and believes he’s on a game show. Despite a theme of suicide, it was essentially lighthearted. It was fairly easy to write because I already knew the scene by heart. It was thematically linked to a biography I’d researched for years and self-published in 2020, but it was a fictional interpretation. It was like transcribing a movie I’d seen a hundred times in my head. I submitted it as “Exit Interview” in 2018 to a Mad Scientist a.k.a. DefCon One anthology about imaginary friends, I Didn’t Break the Lamp (2019).
The second scene had a more ominous tone. It was about workplace threats and silencing. The narration was more philosophical. The character was brooding. The outcome was confusing. I submitted it to a different anthology in December 2018 and got a form rejection.
Again, I’d plucked these two stories from the same giant draft pile. I forgot, then rediscovered—an epiphany—that these stories were different episodes and moods in the same first-person narrator’s life, related in some complex way. His workplace was so stressful that he hallucinated a dream version of his life. That’s the quickest way to put it.
I joined these two stories—8,000 and 6,000 words respectively—with new connective tissue. It was a novella. Still, no publisher wanted it. It grew to over 125,000 words. I cut it back severely. It grew back again. Along the way, I hired a number of editors and sensitivity readers, one at a time, iterating. For three years, I kept submitting, until Rysz at tRaum believed in it and wanted it.
So you ended up with a very different book than you started with. Can you tell me more about the stages of the book’s evolution?
Process-wise, as I already explained, I scribbled a mountain of junk, extracted the two most valuable scenes and told them as stories that could stand on their own, and fused them again. But that was only the conception-to-newborn phase. I used that two-story fusion as the beating heart to build up another mountainous novel.
Thematically, too, it evolved. Early on, though I believed I’d successfully stitched the stories together, my narrator was still living, emotionally, in two different episodes. A sensitivity reader pointed out that he seemed more comfortable with one religion than another. I didn’t intend people to read it that way, but once it was pointed out to me, I saw it. The reason for the disconnect was that the Catholic imagery and the Hindu imagery were originally from two different stories. It wasn’t that he liked one religion better than the other. I had forgotten to establish that the narrator sees supernatural beings, an ability that is sometimes bothersome to him, and he doesn’t care what religion they come from. This is a big part of why the book got longer.
Also, as I began to think more in Spanish in my real life, I added more Spanish phrases to the book. My narrator is a white Jew in the northeast United States, and I needed to explain how he knew a little Spanish—unlike me, he had not moved to South America. This question created new possibilities for his past and future interactions with his closest friend, who I present as Mexican-American.
I referenced outside material, fiction and nonfiction, books and songs and films, and eventually it required a 200-source bibliography. It was as if the fictional narrator were writing an essay about how fiction works, about research and plagiarism, about stories within stories, and so forth.
So the narrator begins to gain consciousness that he is a fictional character. In case it matters for posterity, I’ll mention that the breakthrough occurred for me as the author in September 2021. (The story is set in the mid-2010s, so the fictional narrator has his breakthroughs then.)
Let’s talk more about that narrator. One of the novel’s strengths is Lev Ockenshaw’s distinctive narrative voice. I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot going on with Lev. Tell us about him as a character and his experiences in the book.
At the start, he’s an early thirtysomething with a stable white-collar job. He doesn’t have a lover, which eats at him, and he seems to have only one or two friends. He tends to see ghosts and goddesses, but he can take pills to make them go away. None of this is the core of his distress. There’s something else existential that’s bugging him, some rootlessness or aimlessness, perhaps a philosophical question he doesn’t yet know how to pose. He’s ripe for something to happen.
He shows a marked tendency to go down rabbit holes, his narration taking diversions from the events of the plot to dwell in his head awhile. This felt to me like a marriage of content and structure: the very form in which the story is told is reflective of the narrator as a character. Was that (always) the plan?
I didn’t have an original plan for how I’d structure the story, didn’t outline the order of events, didn’t know what all the events and backstory were. If I knew what was going to happen and what it meant, I wouldn’t have had to write it. I let it unroll, driven in part by Lev’s personality. He’s a daydreamer and ponderer. I assumed this about him from the beginning.
I always assumed that, as a matter of personality, this character spends a lot of time in his head, examines problems from every angle, and makes decisions slowly. And, yes, I let the story unroll from there. The story’s structure was built ad hoc, like a city of tents in the wind. I imagine some critics will say: This is not a proper story, and there is no valid structure. The wind is about to blow it all away. I declare this story to have entirely collapsed. Other critics might say: No, no, these are functional tents that you can spend a little time in, awake or dreaming. As long as you are sitting inside them, they can’t blow away.
Eventually, his visions and intellectualizing got to be too heavy, so I separated them from the more real-worldy bits of the story. By making the reality-structure visible, the reader is constantly reminded that they’re reading a work of fiction.
Can you talk about how the novel juxtaposes conspiracy theories (the John F Kennedy assassination or the death of Elvis Presley) with Lev’s sometimes unreliable experience of reality? There seems to be a common thread of calling into question what is real.
Lev’s boss kicks that off for him. Lev reports that he received a threat. He shows it to the boss on paper. The boss says: Nope, no thank you. The boss suggests that Lev’s experience or interpretation is unreal. He communicates, at least, that he won’t recognize or enter that reality with Lev.
No one wants to believe something false. No one wants to dwell in mind-altering fear. And no one wants to be perceived that way, either—to be unfairly judged as wrong when they’re actually right, or to be dismissed as paranoid when they are prudent and prophetic.
The novel does, at least implicitly, invite us to ask which cultural fictions might be useless, unpleasant, or misleading or harmful—what we tend to call “conspiracy theories.” If we have the tools to judge a falsehood, we can judge it to be immoral to spread it.
The novel also points out that judgment can be a mindbender. We use some cultural fictions—usually not conspiracy theories, but those that are more like meta-beliefs—as the building blocks of our reality. They are our reality-judging tools, so it’s impossible, or nearly so, to judge them as good or bad. It’s hard enough to become conscious of them and find a way to change them, never mind explain our feelings about them or justify our authority to veto them.
One possible takeaway is that, if you step into a strange fiction of the “conspiracy theory” sort, it becomes your meta-belief. You no longer have tools to judge it. It’s like stepping into quicksand and being swallowed up. As long as you’re standing on the edge of the hole, you see the quicksand from the outside perspective of the sky, and you can give reasons about why you shouldn’t go down there. But once you’re down the hole, there’s no light or darkness, no up or down, just quicksand all around, and that’s a narrative with its own internal logic.
This isn’t only about “good stories” and “bad stories.” More broadly, our lives are built of stories. We go about our days inside nested and interlinked stories. But we should ask the ethical questions: how we decide what baseline reality we want to live in, including social structures, and what ethical outcomes we want to create for ourselves and all the beings we care about.
Lev has developed an obsession with another man’s obsession, namely Chad Goeing’s unpublished treatise on time, and notions of time, timelessness, and cyclicality dwell on the page alongside Lev’s own experience of aging. Can you talk about Lev’s overpowering need to study and understand Chad Goeing?
I think it’s common for historians to feel that they’re storytellers, since they choose how to craft the history, especially when no one has demanded that they unbury the past at all. As in detective fiction, the historian-detective is inside the story but is also the one who decides how the story is told.
Journalism is a bit like this too, since the journalist of course has a standpoint, but journalism is different because, conventionally, the journalist isn’t supposed to narrate themselves inside the story. Classically, the journalist’s maxim is: Don’t become the story. Or, as we might caution today: It’s not about you.
Historians and biographers have a bit more leeway there. They can speak explicitly, within the story, about how they are storytelling it. It’s intended to be factual, but it’s also a story. And it’s they—not someone else, but they—who are telling it.
Anyway, to speak of Most Famous Short Film of All Time: Lev feels vaguely alienated. His longtime best friend stops speaking to him, and his only other friend is a new pal at the office. In his office job, working in tech, he is several steps alienated from what might be called “the means of production.” A former coworker seems to be out to get him, and his current boss doesn’t support him. He escapes into an academic interest about a long-dead man, Chad Goeing. Lev becomes the historian-detective who narrates himself. He knows he’s storytelling about Chad; what’s harder for him to realize is that he’s also storytelling himself.
Lev might have become fixated on any historical person or theme, but it matters that he picked The Nature of Time (the title of Chad Goeing’s book), written by a man who died in 1900. Lev is Jewish and transgender, and these identities drive his interest in time, especially with the difficulty of uncovering and interpreting what came before the 20th century. Lev doesn’t talk much to others about being Jewish and trans, partly because of a 20th-century snip in relevant cultural narratives that severs him from locating “himself” in history much earlier than his own birth. This makes him feel like a fictional character—which, of course—
Lev’s existential problems are about how he knows what’s real. Supernatural beings? Gender? Friendship, maybe? He’s also confused by how to know what to do. Once you do something, you can’t rewind the tape.
All of this is part of a general philosophical problem of time and helps explain, more specifically, why Lev is interested in a 19th-century manuscript called The Nature of Time. It has to do with how he struggles to interpret, through a historical lens, being Jewish and transgender in the 21st century, and how he perceives broader philosophical questions of realness, uncertainty, irreversibility, regret, and ethical accountability.
As you say, gender as a concept resonates through the novel, not only in terms of Lev and his friend Stanley but even with its exclusively male ghosts and exclusively female goddesses. But is this novel about gender identity?
Most Famous Short Film of All Time has little to do with questions of gender presentation (like clothing), traditional roles (like careers or parenthood), signage (like names, labels, and pronouns), where to fill our hormone prescriptions, how we have sex, or our private feelings about any of this. It’s definitely not speaking from an essentialist framework and doesn’t list elements by which you can interpret your own gender or someone else’s.
Instead, the novel raises questions about our common assumptions of gender binaries: man/woman, trans/cis. It does so within the context of the story and also through the story.
Lev operates with a supernatural system with a gender binary—only male humans can be resurrected after death as ghosts, but all deities are gendered as women. He storytells this to himself, and he half-believes it. The thing about this supernatural system is that it makes no sense. If you were to ask Lev the most elementary curious questions about what on earth he thinks he’s talking about, the ghost-and-goddess story would break down before you got to, say, your tenth interrogatory. Lev would be forced to throw up his hands and say, You know what, you’re right, JFK is dead and can’t be talking to me. His maleness cannot possibly facilitate this. Indeed, other people reality-check and logic-check him on this.
It’s an allegory of the gender binary for humans in the real world. We can operate contentedly with the gender binary for decades, but the moment we start interrogating it, we’ll have a Santa Claus doesn’t exist epiphany. Like, we’ve been putting out the milk and cookies for no reason, or at least not for the reasons we always believed in. This could lead to elaborate follow-ups, like: If spirits don’t have bodies and the spirit world can’t be divided by male and female, then what the heck am I looking at when I plainly see the ghost of Elvis or the apparition of the Virgin Mary? Or more academically: If gender is an unnecessary concept, then why do we persist in imagining it? Or: What are we really talking about when we talk about gender? That isn’t solved in the novel, but we are free to ask it in our lives. I am showing the story of gender revealing itself as a story.
There’s a lot of discussion of gender, mostly in this “meta” way. There are, too, investigations that are more grounded, regarding how trans men relate to each other as friends and how all people might express solidarity across their different genders.
The first version of the novel that I saw was simply structured into chapters, but you’ve since subdivided the text into flash fiction-length (sometimes microfiction-length) fragments. Can you talk about what motivated you to make such a radical reorganization? Or is “radical” the wrong word?
It’s aesthetically radical for me.
It came about in large part because of your reaction to the early draft. About half of the story was realist (if absurdist), and the rest was ghost story and philosophical digressions. I tried to rebalance it so the weight and pacing felt right, until it occurred to me that I might not ever be able to tell this story in a way that felt balanced or familiar to most readers. Instead, I thought, why not just partition the text into three categories? This way, at least readers know at a glance what kind of story fragment they’re in.
Each of the 486 reality-based sections, categorized as “Flashbulb,” has a maximum of 125 words. I imposed this structure as a trick to force myself to keep it as a “short novel.” But the ghost stories, called “Fog,” and philosophical digressions, called “Flyleaf,” are also substantial, so it’s a long novel, after all.
I marked the Flashbulb sections with images that each contain a tiny number in a corner. These images are derived from all 486 frames of the 26-second Zapruder film of the JFK assassination, used with permission from the museum that owns the film. I digitally altered the frames so they look like photo negatives, and I numbered and presented them in chronological order.
Whether Lev is philosophizing (Flyleaf), going to work (Flashbulb), or daydreaming (Fog), he’s always one unified self. These sections are clearly divided and labeled, but they’re also porous membranes. These different modes of his being are aware of each other. Lev can remember his dreams when he goes to work. He can remember his coworkers when he’s philosophizing. This is the way we all live our complex lives. I’m just making that reality-structure more visible.
I didn’t consciously model this after anything else I’d seen. I came up with the idea, and I did it. Though, as Short Film argues, everything’s a plagiarism on some level.
So, some general writer stuff. How do you work? Are you the sort to set yourself a routine?
Nope. I have no routine. I wake at sunrise and I start working immediately. Sunlight affects my experience of life, but I don’t think it affects what I create. I always have ten projects going simultaneously, and I toggle between them depending on whichever authentically calls me at the moment. Reading and writing; it’s all one activity for me. I never run out of stuff to think about.
I go overboard with research notes. Since I went off to college in 1998, I’ve always kept a personal website for my philosophical scribblings. I do like paper, but only for early drafts that I eventually recycle. If I hadn’t always aimed to digitize everything, by now I’d need a separate room to store all my notebooks.
So it sounds like you’ve long had writerly tendencies, but how did you come to novelistic fiction in particular? Do you feel you’ve undergone evolution as a creator?
Poetry came first as a kid, then short essays as a teenager. Fiction has come the hardest for me. For some writers, fiction seems to come naturally: Invent a couple characters, air-drop them into a sticky situation, and let them start talking to each other. Outline what they need to do, then fill out the story you pledged to write. Voila. For me, it is a giant mystery. It’s like being socially awkward at a party, except not only do I have to decide how I behave, I have to decide how everyone else behaves. Anyway, my germs of story ideas tend to be surrealist, absurdist, ironic, or satiric, which makes them hard to “develop” in any usual sense.
If my blank page says “nonfiction” at the top, my pencil will never stop moving, but if it says “fiction,” I just stare at it. That’s part of the reason why this novel has been years in the making and why it’s a nonfiction hybrid. The nonfiction can’t be scraped out of it; it’s the only way I could figure out how to make the fiction tick. I had to explain internally what the story means. I know one shouldn’t explain a joke, and generally a novelist shouldn’t explain a novel either—but the meaning of my weird fiction is always shifting, even for me, and I’d forget what it means if I didn’t write down the meaning, and it really isn’t guessable by others, so reading my provided interpretation is part of the intended aesthetic experience, like having a museum guide.
You’ve published poems, photographs, political writing—all kinds of stuff. Is eclecticism a choice or a necessity for you?
A “brand”—one type of stuff—certainly supports commercial success. Could also serve as a scaffolding or a guide for the creative process, too, I imagine, since, if you can keep pulling yourself back to “your brand,” you always know what you’re supposed to be making. Having a personal brand might be like outlining your fiction. It might be like outlining yourself as a fictional character.
But, just as I don’t do outlines, I don’t do a personal brand, either. I’m not saying I’m not a fictional character. I might be. But I let it all hang out and develop organically. It happens much more easily and prolifically for me with no outline and no brand.
It feels like an intellectual and emotional necessity for me to write whatever grabs me in the moment. Self-imposing a bunch of brand constraints sure would help me sell a “product” better, but it wouldn’t help me create it in the first place nor allow me to enjoy the process. The constraint would only frustrate me. My projects need to cross-pollinate across disciplines and genres.
I’d like to talk about the publishing process. Did you intend from the start to bring the book out with a small/indie press? Did you ever entertain notions of querying agents and taking a crack at the Big Five?
I’d self-published my nonfiction, and that experience was fine, but lonely. For this novel, Most Famous Short Film of All Time, I wanted emotional support from another person who liked and believed in it, but I never dreamed of contacting agents because I never expected it to be profitable. I couldn’t even write a comprehensible synopsis, let alone suggest an audience, and it looks just terrible in Times New Roman font. It’s not that kind of book. It’s something else. I hope the novel will have a small, devoted readership. A cult would be nice. A conspiracy theory cult.
When it came time to search for a home for the book, what was your experience of that process?
I browsed Submittable and watched for submission calls on Twitter. I looked into each press, sometimes bought and read one of their existing titles, followed submission guidelines, paid submission fees, and got form rejections six months later. This was OK. I was continuously improving my novel anyway, so usually by the time I received the rejection, my reaction was: “Of course they didn’t want it. That old version I sent them was terrible.”
We don’t need to name names, but I know that you withdrew the manuscript from at least one publisher because of, well, some stuff. Ideally we all want, not just any home, but the right home for a book. Tell me about how you knew you’d found yours.
First: Bryan Cebulski told me about tRaum, a small press that was about to publish his beautiful queer novella It Helps with the Blues. I trust Bryan, and I trust any press that appreciates Bryan.
After that introduction, Rysz Merey at tRaum read my nonfiction, Ten Past Noon, and loved it. Of course flattery will take anyone a long way with me, but really Ten Past Noon is a strange book, and it is long and hardly anyone has read it, and I am grateful for anyone who genuinely “gets” what I was trying to do there.
Next, I described my unpublished Most Famous Short Film of All Time, and Rysz responded: “I love this type of no-genre metaphysical cage fight novel so I would love to see a copy.” The novel is, mirabile dictu, a no-genre metaphysical cage fight, and I appreciate that he intuited this before reading it.
Fourth: After we signed an agreement to work together, Rysz mailed me a chocolate bar from Munich. The inside of the wrapper says: “Wir wollen, dass eines Tages in jeder Schokolade fairness, transparenz und respekt stecken.” We wish that, one day, every chocolate bar will contain fairness, transparency and respect.
This is how I knew I’d found the right publisher. I wish that, one day, everyone’s publisher sees their metaphysical cage fight and mails them a chocolate bar.
What are your plans for promoting the book? How and to what degree is tRaum involved?
Letters and phone calls to friends, let me tell you. People who have heard from me before are going to hear from me again.
Since this book is already carved up into bite-sized fragments, I plan to blog some excerpts. I have a mid-sized-toe-hold in the blogosphere, so that approach may work for me with this particular book.
tRaum has a Patreon where some of this blogging may happen.
I sent it to Kirkus Indie for a review, and I have no idea what they’ll make of it.
I haven’t plugged into an English-speaking community in Bogotá, so I may not organize any in-person book events here. I may organize an in-person event when I next visit the US. I went to AWP 2022 in Philadelphia, and I’d love to go to AWP 2023 in Seattle.
Readers who like what they see can of course seek out your other work, but if they specifically want another novel from you, is that ever going to happen?
I’ve got hundreds of micro-idea “what-ifs” that could fit on post-it notes, all of which ought to be crumpled up. Can’t remember what any of those story ideas are. I don’t have the concept or motivation to see any of them through.
I’ll keep writing nonfiction, since that gives energy back to me. Quite possibly I’ll enjoy writing another novel someday, but maybe it should be a happy story, for my own sake. Maybe, just maybe, I should even stick to an outline so I’ll know when I’m done.
Conversely, when readers familiar with your earlier writing come to the novel, do you think they’ll encounter any surprises, any facets of you not present in your other work?
This question blows my mind because, insofar as I am a fictional character, there are no facets of me apart from those that are present in books.
And now you’ve blown my mind because this implies that this very interview is a scene in your fictional existence. One more question before my reality unravels: I want to ask you about “darlings,” those story elements which writing manuals and blogs always urge authors to “kill.” Are there any darlings that made it into the book, favorite scenes or choice details that entire armies of editors could never induce you to cut?
Once a reader points out a bad sentence, I can usually see it from their point of view. Sometimes I realize the problem doesn’t lie inside the exact sentence they complained about, and what I have to do is better establish the surrounding context or tone so the sentence is understood the way I imagined and intended it. If I can resolve what fell flat, I allow myself to keep that darling.
I wouldn’t get rid of my brief references to atmospheric carbon dioxide and other ecological phenomena. The natural world is important. The planet must exist in fiction and should continue to exist in reality.
I’m anticipating that some readers won’t like the dream or hallucination sequences like Lev’s conversation with JFK in his apartment. I feel that these are inherent to the story, though. If it weren’t surreal, it wouldn’t be the Most Famous Short Film of All Time.
Tucker Lieberman’s novel Most Famous Short Film of All Time will be published on 20 September. Stop by the tRaum Books website for preorder links or visit the novel’s Goodreads page. Find him online at https://tuckerlieberman.com/ and the publisher, tRaum Books, at https://traumbooks.com/. If you like what you read, connect with him here.
One thought on “Tucker Lieberman: Author Interview”
Reblogged this on Tucker Lieberman and commented:
Dale Stromberg talked to me about my forthcoming novel. On process, reality, and chocolate.
LikeLiked by 1 person