Interview: Barth Anderson
By Darin C. Bradley
1 May 2006
Writing from the convergence of Fair Trade, the Cooperative Movement, food, and Tarot, Barth Anderson fills organic fiction with speculative combustion. Powered by decay, epidemiology, and break-beats at the end of time, his stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov's, On Spec, Flytrap, and a number of others. A graduate of the Clarion Writers' Workshop, he repeatedly garners honorable mentions from The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror and has gained the same notice from The Year's Best Science Fiction, The Fountain Awards, and The Locus Awards. His story "Lark Till Dawn, Princess" won the Spectrum Award for Best Short Fiction in 2004.
His first novel, The Patron Saint of Plagues was released by Bantam Spectra in March of 2006.
Darin C. Bradley: You're involved in Free Trade, organic foods, co-ops, and other "foodie" pursuits. How has all of this influenced your writing?
Barth Anderson: Well, there's no high culture without bug culture. Writer Dave Hoffman-Dachelet told me that I see humanity as microbes, and he's absolutely right. That point of view feeds both my fiction and my foodie work. By foodie work, I mean I write about the organic foods industry, and I interview farmers, do research on natural foods, Fair Trade, co-op groceries, and all that rot. In this line of work, I have the opportunity to hear farmers rant about, say, nitrogen fixation (a rant that occurs with alarming frequency in the organic farming scene), or hear a nutritionist talk about the flora of bacteria necessary in the digestive tract for humans to even exist, or hear agronomists talk about the fragility of the topsoil—well, there's a poetry there that really hums in me. The apocalyptic duel between virus and immune system, and the far more transcendent merger of good and evil in the bacterial mosh pit of a compost heap. My novel Patron Saint of Plagues, the Bringweather stories, "The Psalm of Big Galahad." They're all branches forking from the same geek tree (and I blame Maureen McHugh for planting it in me—Mission Child did it). If I'd stumbled across this obsession with microbes earlier in life I might have dumped writing and leapt into microbiology or epidemiology with passion. Because we are—we're all just bugs. Devouring, digesting, emitting, feeding on/off one another, breeding, and dying. And you know? I'm ok with that.
DCB: Yes, decay (and more largely, entropy) is clearly an agent in your fiction. Other writers have depicted these phenomena as effects, but in your fiction, they're causal. Why is that?
BA: Decay is a vital process and a fascinating one to me, so, yes, I love exploring the implications of rot for rot's sake, not simply employing it as symbolism. That's not to say that there isn't a certain "big D" Decadence at play—decay of commonly held virtues, decay of middle class standards, decay of realism. "Show Me Where the Mudmen Go" is probably my most metaphoric use of mud or muck (writer Lyda Morehouse said of that story, "Is it mudmen or madmen?") but, generally, I don't like treading too far from the vehicle in metaphors about decay. How a compost heap works is more interesting to me than finding ways to shock the bourgeoisie (they're unshockable, so let's move on).
Your question really strikes me, though, because it totally burps up something old from my childhood. I hit Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut at the age of ten—still have my original copy— and it occurs to me that Bokononism deeply informs my fiction, more than I ever realized—maybe my outlook on reality, too. I love Bokonon's last rites, where God talks to mud. My dad and I would quote it to each other all the time—Vonnegut's depiction of God caring deeply about mud, and mud congratulating God on creation. "Wow! Great work, God! Nobody could have done it but you!" My sincere little fourth-grade self was pretty rocked by that idea.
So it occurs to me that when I write about rot, you know, I'm writing about it on that level: the generative drive of the universe in concert with the entropic one. And I think the only respectful way to talk about that powerful thing is to talk about it honestly, with its dirtiness, its stink. Mud. Viruses. Urban decay. Microbes, bacteria, and their anaerobic foundation for the functioning of life on this planet. Jesus, if that's not causal, what is?
Furthermore, every human being is a descendent of Black Plague epidemic survivors, so it makes sense that our societies and religions are generally obsessed with cleanliness. But it's a half-truth—no, a lie. Survival may be in cleanliness, but life is in the funk.
DCB: So decay actually informs your fiction long before it ever gets a chance to power it?
BA: I think you're right—it's all connected, or at least, I believe it's all connected. I mean, you certainly will not talk to an organic farmer without talking about composting, nitrogen fixation, and proper soil-building methods. Even the organic coffee growers I met down in Nicaragua got more animated and very vocal when discussion turned to composting.
So, yes, harnessing the power of decay is part and parcel to organics, and organics are integral to my strong opinions about environment and agriculture. We live in an upside down world. Literally 99% of US farmers just dump on the high-nitrogen chemical fertilizer and don't think about what it is or what it's really for. Nitrogen is food for plants. But high-nitro composts actually weaken plants—it may make them grow more quickly, but the trade-off is a heightened susceptibility, which then means more pesticides, more herbicides, more fungicides, more high-nitro fertilizer, and leads to ridiculous choices like genetic modification to counteract that weakening and may ultimately explain the higher incidences of cancer in rural areas of America. I mean, it's insane. Organic farmers, meanwhile, rely on the microcosmic world of beneficial bacteria to take care of the nasty micro-organisms. This is why farmers rattle on at length about their green manure, their crop rotation, crop covers, or the power of compost, which actually returns and fixes nitrogen in the soil, so that chemical inputs aren't needed.
Rot could save America, Darin! Go on, ask me about landfills now. Ask me!
DCB: For a bit of variety, let's return to Bokononism. How do you think it has informed your process? Is it the inherent dishonesty, the outright admission and celebration of the opiate of the masses, the splendid absurdity?
BA: That's a damn big question. My relationship to Vonnegut is huge. If I start pulling up roots, I don't know if I'll ever see where he begins and I end. Like I said, Cat's Cradle came in early.
The absurdity, yes, is key. Vonnegut's playful contempt for convention—standing as he does with his feet planted on what I recognize as solid, Midwestern, no-bullshit common sense—is certainly deep inside me. Vonnegut gets compared to Mark Twain a lot, or at least he used to, and I totally agree with that comparison. For instance, they're both fantastic young adult writers because (a) they aren't trying to write for kids, (b) they write simply and precisely, and (c) their intellects are like crowbars for the as-yet-unopened mind. I mean, think about what The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn describes to kids. Think about how effortlessly Twain offers up an abomination like slavery to his audience, all the while making it seem a high-adventure lark down the Big River. Huck's ironic observations of the cruel and absurd world of adults would be considered bare-knuckled and devastating if they came from an adult character.
And every generation reading Huck gets the opportunity to have their skulls popped open by Twain again.
Well, Vonnegut was that crowbar for me. Billy Pilgrim and Bokonon were my Huck Finns (I didn't read Huck till I was in high school, but by then, I knew exactly what I was seeing in Twain). I grew up in a very politically aware family. My dad was a reporter, so the news of the day was discussed constantly, and my older brothers and sisters were adamantly against the war in Vietnam. So Vonnegut's willingness to step back and call the events in his own story nonsense made sense, you know? His absurdity was digestible because I was ten and believed war was wrong, in that adamant and sincere Huck Finn sort of way, and my whole family was constantly stepping back from America and going, "This is nuts!" Billy's journey back and forth between the planet Tralfamadore, Germany, and various other parts of his life made sense to me in ways that, I imagine, wouldn't have, if I were an adult reading it with a mind thoroughly infected by the madness of the straight world.
On a side note, I'm pretty sure I saw all science fiction and fantasy through this lens, when I was a kid. It was weird for me to hear that Vonnegut disavowed his relationship with science fiction because, as a young reader, nearly all the SF I consumed registered as various degrees of Vonnegutian irony. Every departure from reality is a critique of reality or various commonly held sacred cows in some way, isn't it? Certainly The Left Hand of Darkness, Watership Down, and John Varley's Barbie Murders all worked on that level (to name some of my faves as a young adult). I just saw no irony in seeing everything ironically. It was only later, in college, that I started to look back on SF and fantasy with different eyes and saw that, no, Conan was pretty much just Conan.
That's not to say that I'm an Absurdist, just that I appreciate that view, and therefore, it's frequently part of my stories in some way, though my narratives are usually straight-forward. Patron Saint is certainly an upside down America, that's for sure. And Bringweather is as much an ironic Gandalf as he is a punch at the "cleanliness is next to Godliness" misconception. But other writers embrace absurdity, humor, and true irony with far greater gusto than I, and I adore them for it. Doug Lain, first and foremost of the genre's "new" crop. Ray Vukcevich, Stepan Chapman, Jeff Noon, Carol Emshwiller. I love them all. In some ways I think Robert Wexler may be closest to the Vonnegutian mind without pimping the style. He doesn't have Vonnegut's caustic venom, but he certainly has the playful, "aren't humans bizarre?" approach. I found In Springdale Town absolutely hilarious the second time through.
DCB: Since The Patron Saint of Plagues is so clearly addressing the idea of epidemic and the re-ordering of society as it copes, can you call the novel a weighing in, a manifesto of your thoughts on bacteria, combustion, decay, and their upswings: fertilization, growth, sweat? Is this the speculative fiction puree that resulted from throwing all of your interests into a cognitive blender?
BA: It's yet another campaign into the microbial, that's for sure, but because it addresses viruses, The Patron Saint of Plagues is an entirely different campaign. Bacteria are life, and there's life on this planet because bacteria have been eating, breeding, and emitting for a billion years. By contrast, viruses aren't life, per se—they're just heinous wads of DNA or RNA—so right away we're talking about an entirely different process. No anaerobiosis. No sugar-obsessed microbes. No eating. Viruses don't freaking eat. So all metaphors about digestion, transformation, and culture are out the window.
But viruses do act, and they dance a vicious dance with immune systems. I'm not big into binary morality—good versus evil, etc.—but it's hard not to look at that viral dance and see a classic face off, a sort of reverse Lord of the Rings with a lone, unliving microbe sneaking its evil way past the immune system in order to sabotage the good, pristine body. Plus, you start paying attention, and you begin to see this Manichaean system is deliberately shot through the poetry of immunology. It starts with the visiting team, using the root word "body." A body has entered the body. To counter it, an immune system cell is called up: an "antibody." It stands opposed to the invading body. Once the invading body inspires this response, it's referred to as an "antigen," that is, "antibody generating." Round and round we go in the binary hoe-down.
Patron Saint comes from that radical dualism. In early drafts, it started with just a villain (who actually called himself "Virus") bent on toppling a government with his bioengineered virus. I found the villain so interesting that it didn't even occur to me that I needed a hero, too. But once I realized this was a mystery in need of a sleuth, I decided to stick with this virus-as-metaphor angle and looked to the immune system for clues as to who the hero should be. So the hero is a well-intentioned, "good" scientist who's powerful in the sense that he's in charge of vast, global resources, but he has maddeningly huge blind spots, too. After that, I did my best to blur the lines in this Good vs. Evil trial—the hero and the reader will both be sympathetic to the villain's goal, I think, though his means are bloody, but I really did my best to keep it as a duel.
DCB: Music figures prominently in your work as well—it punctuates "Lark till Dawn, Princess," "We Stand on the Verge of Getting It On," and "Into Something Rich and Strange." It's weird, I read the music in your fiction more as a form of locomotion, a catalyst, for the characters listening to it or experiencing it than as a simple, mimetic expression.
BA: My bond to music is pretty physical, so it makes sense it would appear kinetically in the story—not just as passive mimesis. "We Stand on the Verge of Getting It On" is probably closest to what you're describing—obliteration of self on the orgiastic dance floor of a Funkadelic concert, in rhythm to the beat that ends the universe. The story doesn't simply use song lyrics to convey "music," so I guess you're right. Music suffuses every aspect of pop culture in some way, so every writer's relationship with it almost has to be intricate and thorough at some point in his career. Plus, as a package of images and sensations, music swats the reader right where she lives—not just on ye old Dionysian front, but on the reader's cultural associations, memories, poetic resonances, loves, fears. So I don't know how a writer in the modern world could just stop at the mimetic if music is injected into the work deliberately.
DCB: Tell me what a process-vacation is?
BA: It's where I deliberately change my approach to writing or creativity by reworking the themes of an on-going project in a whole new format. Patron Saint took me so long to write, mainly because I'm plotless by nature, and I was using it to learn plot, if I could. The microcosmic duel between virus and immune system, from antigen challenge to ultimate immunity, turned out to be a pretty good model for writing a medical thriller: the villain appears. The hero responds. The hero is tricked! The villain changes guises and tricks the hero again! The hero rallies in the end and creates immunity (but at great cost to the "body" that has been invaded). As a result, I wound up back-engineering a page-turner. Or so I'm told.
Anyway, to cleanse the palate, I worked on a short story where language and rhythm were central instead of plot. In other process-vacations, I've done collages, drawings, sculpture. The short story that came out of this vacation was "The Psalm of Big Galahad" (Rabid Transit #1), which was Patron Saint boiled down into a teeny little package. (It was also a music story, come to think of it. Prince's "Seven." All his hipster-at-Sunday-school earnestness played well into "Big Galahad's" viral dualism.) My writers' group at the time didn't like "Big Galahad," for the most part, though an odd axis of appreciation was struck between the poetically-minded Alan Deniro and science-obsessed Kelly McCullough—writers who normally didn't agree on much. Somehow that made the process-vacation feel worthwhile.
DCB: There seem to be a few dance numbers between prophecy, religion, and microbiology in The Patron Saint of Plagues. Some of your shorter fiction, "In to Something Rich and Strange," "Bringweather and the Portal of Giving and Taking," and "The Apocalypse According to Olaf" (Year's Best Fantasy and Horror Honorable Mention, 2003) deals with the synthesis of these three ideas to an extent, though I'd argue they're aligned more to magic than religion. Does Patron Saint mark a shift from microbiological magic and psychological divination to epidemiology and religion? I'm thinking specifically of Sister Domenica.
BA: I don't think it's really about "religion," as such—not a critique of Christianity or organized beliefs, anyway. But as opposed to "magic," which is almost always a metaphor for power or will, yes, Patron Saint is certainly about beliefs that attempt to structure the unknown, and, especially, the doubts that accompany them.
Sister Domenica is a little bundle of opposing beliefs and doubts. On one hand, she's visited ethereally by a character she calls "the woman in white," who might be the Virgin Mary or the ghost of one of Domenica's ancestors—either way, it's weird for the nun, since the woman in white is obviously a Native Mexican, not your classic European variety of Marian apparition. Yet, the things this Native woman tells Domenica do come to pass. So is this the Virgin Mary of Catholicism who's come to warn humanity or a pre-Columbian, Nahuatl goddess, maybe? Who knows? This gets further confused when we find out that Domenica isn't Domenica, that she's a performance artist who underwent "faith realignment" surgery, and that her "prophecies" might simply be psychotic visions resulting from a medical mishap.
I hope there's plenty of fun identity-muck to dig your fingers in, too, but this sets up my ongoing questions about life, reality, metaphysics, sanity. I'm not a nihilist. Enough weird, unexplainable shit has happened to me that, no, I don't think this is all there is. Obviously, there are no concrete answers. None. But doubt works in two ways: there might be nothing, or there might be something behind the veil. All anybody gets is a quick peek (if you even get that), and the miraculous flash is followed by more questions, or a yearning to see the fleeting miracle again, or pain and angst over not-knowing, or a crippling inability to accept the wonder of it, or a sense of grinding futility and despair in the event's wake, i.e. doubt. Prayer-dogs, street-preachers, the Big Box ministers, and tent-revival Christian sideshow barkers (I'm a preacher's kid, twice over, so I've seen it all, man) squeeze their eyelids together extra tight so that Jesus will perform a miracle for them, but even if the cripple walks, the doubt about what you've witnessed is ultimately more riveting, I think.
DCB: So you've studied this doubt through alternative spiritualities. Tell us about Tarot. How were you involved with Dr. Fox and the Hostelry of the Free Tyro?
BA: Tarot is a tool, like my computer. I don't know how it works, but it works, and I use it every day. Like my computer, Tarot seems magical, but I'm pretty sure it's not. Sorry if I sound blasé, but I've been throwing cards for almost thirty years, so it feels as normal as driving to me. It's not necessarily tied into "spirituality" at all.
DCB: You didn't really answer the question about Dr. Fox.
BA: I know.
I wish I could talk about Fox's story, but, really, there's not much to say. I tracked down the Hostelry of the Free Tyro right after my son was born and wound up throwing cards for them, because (a) my wife and I desperately needed cash, and (b) I was researching New Age schools for my next novel The Magician and the Fool. The HFT was beyond New Age—an absolute freakshow—and Dr. Jeremiah Fox was part of creating that freakshow. Anyway, according to an overly zealous, cokehead corporate lawyer working pro bono to get rid of community service hours, I'm technically still an "employee" (even though I was never officially "hired"), and she managed to get a gag order on the HFT's staff and singled me out when she found out I was a writer.
DCB: In the past, you've alluded to a parallel between the Hostelry and The Magician and The Fool. Do your experiences there inform the novel?
BA: Well, I wish I could, but thanks to the cokehead, I can't talk about my experiences there. Consequently, I won't be incorporating Fox's disappearance into my book. I won't be writing about his reappearance, either, nor the so-called "mental health fall-out" in the HFT of which I have no first- or even secondhand knowledge. That would be illegal, right? Besides, anyone who went to Clarion with me can attest that I was working on this material long before I heard about the HFT. So there.
DCB: In addition to your work with the Wedge Co-op (and your non-fiction work on Fair Trade, organics, and all other things food), you're involved with The Journal of the Mythic and the Arts and Rabid Transit. How do the spirits of these independent projects color your work? Are they with you always? Did they help define your poetics? Tell me about the Ratbastards.
BA: I think my "poetics" helped define these other aspects of my life, actually. No, it wasn't poetics that did it. It was economic need. Poverty goes hand in hand with deciding to write. Writing has always been top priority, so the day job, the meal ticket, could have wound up being anything. I ditched the notion of an MFA after my first nine years of struggling to fit in as an undergrad, and I realized, I just want to write!—I don't want to wait to get permission to do it anymore. So I forewent the professorial route, and, out of sheer necessity, I've been a waiter, a proofreader for a graphic arts studio, a tarot reader, a telephone operator, a hospital janitor, a radio news reporter, a bartender. The whole organic certification, Fair Trade, foodie aspect of my life snuck up and shanghaied me while I was just stocking apples at the co-op and writing fiction. So I can't pretend that it all fits together neatly because it just freaking happened that way. It was falling-down ass-backwards luck that I helped the Wedge create the first certified meat department in the country or wrote the first domestic Fair Trade contract in Minnesota. Poetics? Not really part of the mix.
As for the Ratbastards, they were/are Kristin Livdahl, Alan Deniro, Christopher Barzak, and I. We went to Clarion East together, the class of 1998, which was an exceptional class, all the way around. Later, the four of us were in an online writers group. The name of the chat room we gathered in was something like "you ratbastards!" so the name just stuck. Anyway, we thought we were hot shit (all publishing evidence to the contrary), so we decided to self-publish a chapbook and load it up with our own stories, the stories we believed in that nobody wanted. Rabid Transit did very well—Paul DiFilippo gave it a glowing review in Asimov's, and later, all four stories in the collection received Honorable Mentions in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror.
Attempts were made at manifestos and Ratbastardly weltanschauung, but that's not really what it was about. It was simply DIY publishing in the vein of Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet, pure and simple. It was the self-same arrogance it takes to say, "I'm going to be a writer." The fact that we happened to be putting our chapbook together around the same time that Nightshade, Small Beer Press, Prime and 'zines like Say. . . and The Journal of Pulse Pounding Narratives were gelling into something of another DIY uprising in the "genre" just added to the fizzy headiness of throwing our voices into the chorus and actually being heard.