A Bit Contrived
features interviews with authors who exist about books that don't, with covers designed by people who do.
Please note: A First, Wincing Sip does not exist, nor will it ever (probably)—it's been improvised during the course of the interview. If you really want to read it, do yourself a favor and check out Andrew's debut, What Ends.
Release no. II:
A First, Wincing Sip by Andrew Ladd
After landing in London, I corresponded over email with Andrew to arrange a place and time. It was my choice, he insisted, so I chose an unassuming sports bar in The South Bank. But then he said that wouldn’t do, something about a hockey player he hated to watch. I didn’t understand; hockey isn’t popular in the UK. Nonetheless, we settled on at a cocktail bar.
When I arrived, I noticed a distinct smell of something I couldn’t put my finger on, a scent that just doesn’t exist on my side of the Atlantic. I walked over to the bartender to order, but before I could open my mouth he pointed me to Andrew, at a table against the back wall of the room. He was sitting as still as a photograph, hunched over, staring into a glass of nearly black liquid. I stood over him for two, maybe three minutes before he noticed my existence. He motioned for me to sit down. I held up my recording device. He nodded. Below are excerpts of our conversation.
I appreciate you speaking with me, Andrew. You’ll have to excuse me if my words don’t come off right—they’re the first I’ve spoken since reading your newest novel, A First, Wincing Sip. After I finished the book I put it down and sat in silence, unblinking and thoughtless, for nearly three hours. When my partner came home and I tried to communicate to her what I’d just experienced, words failed. They couldn’t possibly match the orchestra you were able to forcibly bend them into. So why even try? Sure, What Ends (a 2015 NYPL Young Lions Fiction Award finalist) was a great book. But this—well this is past language my friend.
It’s obvious you’ve rendered the critics dumb as well. Jacinth Parker over at The New York Times said “This book I read and the words inside magic melt.” A bit more cogent was Gualberto Sandalio for The Los Angeles Review of Books, who called the book “a place for desperation to come face to face with hope, and to dance the dance of death until dawn.”
I must know, we all must: What brought about this change? Did you, like Picasso, become a child to forget to relearn what you never remembered?
First of all, it’s really a pleasure to talk to you too, Andrew. Like you, I’ve been mostly unable to process language since finishing the book. Or I guess I should say, I’ve been mostly unable to process what we conventionally think of as language. But in the process of writing A First, Wincing Sip (a truly pedestrian title, I think you’ll agree, relative to the book’s actual prose), it slowly dawned on me that the rather mundane rules of mainstream English vocabulary and grammar and prosody just can’t possibly describe the chaotic, impossibly complex laws and relationships that we increasingly understand to make up our natural and social worlds.
So why try, I thought? There’s this common, I guess, belief, that world-changing fiction has to be comprehensible, but think about the ridiculous contradiction there: how can something comprehensible possibly describe something as incomprehensible as the universe? That’s why I abandoned the original story, a historical murder mystery starring the tea maker Thomas Twining in the detective role, and instead developed that original plot and concept into what is now the published novel.
I mean, that was the point no? Using the title to set up the reader for the shock of the actual prose?
We could talk more about the writing, but there’s no point. It would be like dancing about dance or building buildings about architecture. Quite simply you made Finnegans Wake seem as accessible as an IKEA instruction manual.
But plot, my god. We get the titular concept and that’s all we get. A man taking a sip, with the repetitive promise of more sips to come, thus reinforcing this one is, in fact, the first. But subplots galore! I could do my best to thread them out, but why not have you take us on that journey?
It’s funny that you mention Joyce in your question, because I thought for fun I would try and thread all the subplots from all his books through mine. That still left me with a few hundred pages to fill, though, which is when I was forced to start coming up with more of my own.
At the core, of course, is still the kernel of the book about Twining. Except instead of tea, he makes oceans, and instead of solving murders, he works for Apple. And instead of being set in 18th century England, obviously, it starts around 20,000 BCE and works its way forward, in tessellating flashbacks and flashfowards, to 1969. My copyeditor complained that Apple wasn’t even a company for the entire timeframe of the book, but having abandoned syntax I didn’t really see why I should cling to historical fact — because isn’t history, in its own way, a form of syntax? Besides, if the book didn’t end in 1969, there would have been no way to have that final, climactic chapter with Twining and Genghis Khan and Neil Armstrong doing LSD on the moon.
And then, you know, because my publisher insisted, there was the love story between the two plantation workers, who are really metaphors for tea trees themselves, which are in turn really metaphors for Joyce and Pound — taking us full circle.
History is surely just its own syntax. Why else would we learn history through books and not plays or musicals?
Let’s zoom into the plantation love story. The tea tree metaphor was finely wrought and, in a major way, the lynchpin of the story. And yet. And yet, and yet you really do let the subplot stand on its own. We have the two lovers—one alternatively named Stephen or Perseus, the other alternatively named Perseus or Holly—playing a sort of Romeo and Juliet, but in a way that challenges the original story and, I argue, crumbles it to irrelevancy.
First, these characters were obviously taken straight from your life. How else would they be so lifelike? Who were they based on?
Second, was there any worry over the financial burden you’d be leaving our school systems to replace the Shakespearean texts that are sure to be burned?
Well, Stephen/Perseus/Tree One was based on my high school English teacher, a red-haired lapsed Catholic with a speech impediment. That’s why S/P/TO — as I mostly refer to him in the book — refuses to read to Perseus/Holly/Tree Two from E.L. James, as she is constantly requesting. (Stylistically, S/P/TO’s speech impediment — or, rather, Mr Peroni’s — is ironically alluded to in the way that all of his dialogue, unlike any other prose in the book, follows perfectly the rules of English spelling and grammar.)
P/H/TO, on the other hand, is based on one of my college girlfriend’s friends, at least in her mannerisms and personality — she also used to tell a lot of dirty jokes — though I freely admit that P/H/TO is really meant as an homage to Susan B. Anthony.
As for your second question, I sincerely hope that nobody burns any classics in response to A First, Wincing Sip. You need those classics as context, or my book is (un)meaningless.
You can’t be serious! Am I reading between lines that weren’t there? It’s apparent, flagrant almost, that you are asking the reader to burn early Shakespeare, late Barthes, all of Wittgenstein and the middle works of R.L. Stine. I’m…I can’t call you a liar here, but…
I should clarify; I don’t regard the works you list as “classics,” with the possible exception of Goosebumps 21: Go Eat Worms.
You had me there! Of course.
Now, I don’t want to call your work ‘experimental’ or ‘avant-garde’, but at the risk of sounding gauche: It’s very rare for an experimental (ugh) or avant-garde (bleh) work to achieve commercial success alongside critical, albeit nearly instantly. And yet. As they say: “the books are flying” (figuratively). Joshua Mikutis over at Business Insider pointed out a new trend called “bookshelving”. Apparently, young collegiate readers, eager to, mmm, impress visitors to their dorm rooms, are leaving copies of A First, Wincing Sip out to be seen. In some cases, we’ve had single customers buying three, four, six copies.
We’re used to the commodification of art, but this is commodification of the medium. As an artist, does this bother you?
I would be very surprised if my book has ever helped entice college students into bed. That certainly hasn’t been my experience.
As for commodification of the medium, well, yes: of course it bothers me. This is why I wanted the book to be printed in Courier on recycled laser paper, and handed to readers, letter by torn letter, by a blind, sunburned monk. Too often these days we see these “beautiful” “objects” made out of literature — I suppose as a way to encourage physical book sales over e-reader sales — but to me this only emphasizes the ugliness of the printed words therein. Literature — any kind of art — isn’t about beautiful thoughts or even beautiful objects, it’s about beautiful people going to beautiful bars and then dashing off a few hungover strokes on a canvas to satisfy everyone who’s too ugly or too boring or too cool to do it themselves. I think it’s important, as digital culture grows and grows, not to lose sight of that.
First, let me say I appreciate your use of “literature” to take the word of “art”, referring to anything expressed. The concept is simply too broad to use the latter.
Second of all, it’s refreshing to finally hear someone imbue the industry with some sort of romanticism. My god if I hear hard work or putting in your time or you’ve got to write it before it gets published once more, I’m going to just hand in my self-entitlement and get a job where I provide materials or services people depend on. It’s a bare reality that too many people want to write and edit and not enough people want to call themselves “writers”. Thank you for reclaiming that.
I’m going to let you get back to all of the hot mess of the written word. But first, and finally—we have to know: when the cup hits the table, does he say “ahh” like all refreshingly-like, or does he, ya know, just sort of quietly enjoy the sip?
Well, I deliberately left that ambiguous because I want readers to draw their own conclusions. But personally, I always imagined him leaning back, putting on some Carly Rae Jepsen, and finally feeling like he’s discovered what tea really is.
Late night watching television / But how we get in this position? / It’s way too soon, I know this isn’t love / But I need to tell you something.
Thank you for your words, Andrew.
Cover by Devin Washburn. Devin is a graphic designer based in Brooklyn, New York. He is currently an Art Director for the online magazine Matter. He has worked for Rodrigo Corral, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Penguin Books, The New York Times and Johnson & Johnson. Devin graduated from the School of Visual Arts in 2011, where he later taught as an adjunct professor with Paul Sahre. In 2013 Devin's book jacket design was named as one of The New York Time's Best Book Covers of the Year.
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