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Tay Arrow Sherman (one38.org): Email interview with the author

(April 2002)

1. Where are you from?

I grew up in a small town in northern Germany, near a lake lined by a stretch of swamp in which we used to play. A few miles further east was the so called iron curtain, the border to eastern Germany. The opposite shore of the lake was already forbidden territory, mined and protected by watch towers. They evidently did not want us in their country, which made eastern Germany rather attractive for me. I often had phantasies of crossing the border and hiding in the rural east, blending in, working unidentified in one of the agricultural co-operatives, watching the sun set over endless dusty fields. Later, on a day trip to east Berlin, I would pop into the Ministry of Education in to discuss whether I could move to the East and study there.

2. Tell me about your project, Secret Ballet. What do you think is it about?

In order to explain what secret ballet is about, it is necessary to describe in a few words the technique of writing, or rather, composing it. All sentences come from one voluminous dictionary which contains 90,000 example sentences taken from actual usage in conversation, novels, journalism, technical writing, biographies and so on. I think this dictionary is in itself a masterpiece; after a term is explained, the examples often demonstrate deviating ways of using of the term, say, metaphorical, idiomatic or ironic use.

At first I began with a nucleus of a few sentences, searching the dictionary for words that might produce fitting adjacent sentences. Not surprisingly, the examples given for a particular word rarely fit the surface level of contextual and narrative constraints, so the process was quite laborious and search had to be extended to synonyms, connotated terms and their synonyms, until a fitting phrase popped up.

Then came an interesting turn. I abandoned directed search and simply worked through the example sentences linearly, starting with the letter 'A', letting each individual sentence resonate on my knowledge of the entire body of text composed so far. Often, I immediately knew where a particular sentence would fit in terms of modus (reflection, action, dialogue, description), characters, situation, and atmosphere. There are a few limited permutations which I defined as permissible; I will turn to these later.

Now I can answer the question what 'secret ballet' is about.

It is possible to answer on the level of the novel's main character: Jane, a middle-aged female politician with a big but rather unsettled and neurotic ego, a scheming, sulking, ranting, and righteously lecturing monster recollecting her childhood and politically active youth, bitching about her husband, falling in love with the au pair girl who detests her, and trying to seduce more or less everyone around her. She is really quite a pest.

It is possible to answer on the level of plot: a scheme by Jane and Howard, a seasoned politician, tries to remove, in the best interest of society, the blundering head of state through a carefully orchestrated mud slinging campaign, and, after this attempt has failed, through murder masked as terrorist attack, this time successfully, but with dire consequences for most characters apart from Jane as the investigation into the murder sets in.

Another layer of plot traces the troubled relationship of Jane to her husband John, a gloomy and unsuccessful painter, who eventually abandons her for a chaotic and adventurous life in other parts of the world, to meet her again years later for a brief and uneasy spell of happiness, after which the relationship rapidly deteriorates with Jane finally getting rid of John with the help of a gun.

There is another, quite different level of aboutness: that of a largely unintentional mode of writing. Composing 'Secret ballet' relieves me of the need to fabricate a plot intentionally, as a means to engineer sustained interest in a novel's narrative content. All this business seems rather rotten to me, or at least deeply problematic. Given the chosen mode of composition, an intentional approach would be futile: you never find the sentences you think you need. In 'Secret ballet', the bits and pieces slowly assemble following their own mutual attractions.

I see the plot emerge as if by itself, ever so slowly, imperceptibly, without the option to steer it; instead the attitude is one of patient expectation of the sentence that will suddenly make a difference, introduce a turn of events at a certain point of plot (since there is a plot, after all).

3. Is there a special importance you place on composing a work of already-composed parts? Why dictionaries, particularly?

This may be answered by way of a short digression. I just finished reading a novel by David Lodge, a writer who is mentioned in one of the example sentences and therefore became, more or less by chance, an author the characters in 'Secret ballet' discuss at length. I became curious what David Lodge's work may be like, and ordered 'Small world', a novel which has an elaborate but also rather dispersed and forced plot. It is probably no accident that Lodge was at some point lecturer at the University of Birmingham, the university that developed the dictionary on which Secret ballet is based. In 'Small world' there is one character, Robin Dempsey, an expert in something called 'Computational Stylistics', who has digitised the entire work of one author, Ronald Frobisher, and, by analysing his gritty style statistically and presenting on occasion to the author his most favoured word ('grease') and a few other particularities of style, causes Frobisher to be 'blocked' for the next 8 years of his life (he finally comes across the first sentence of a new novel near the end of the book).

The stylistic database which kills off invention invites comparison to COBUILD, the Collins Birmingham University International Language Database which is the basis of the Dictionary from which in turn 'Secret ballet' is composed. One rather pretentious aim of 'Secret ballet' is to reclaim a presumably lost and destroyed novel from the scattered sentences enclosed in the thousands of dictionary definitions. The texture of narration that had once been torn and submerged in a work of reference should be unearthed and given opportunity to reassemble, helped by quasi-archeological care and patience on the side of the 'author' (or rather, 'composer'). This is of course in itself a fiction (the dictionary contains exerpts of many different texts), but a useful one to describe the spirit of the whole enterprise.

Limiting the body of text to just this one dictionary is a vital boundary. It is one single book, and one other book shall come out if it. Second, its choice of example sentences lends this dictionary a distinct quality; the emphasis is on actual use, on an informal, everyday aspect of language. Many sentences seem to evoke the entire situation in which they were once embedded. And finally, where else could I draw a meaningful boundary in practical terms? Including other books would invite back rampant intentionality that had consciously been excluded.

Dictionaries are not neutral, but they reflect convention. Turning around the explicit conventionality of example sentences simply through what I would call the 'neighbourhood effects' of composition uses and at the same time subverts such conventions. It often leads to entirely new and unexpected passages that could have never been conceived intentionally. Inserting new phrases here or there reveals the way they match, but not quite; resonate assertively or obscurely; create disturbing redundancies or cancel themselves out in the most self-forgotten manner; or spark off unsuspected overtones and inferences. A real stylistic problem is the short length of most example sentences, which gives the text a factual and slightly jaggy air.

4. Any opinions on manta rays? You know, those square things? In the sea? I think they are creepy.

No idea..

5. It seems like Secret Ballet will have to eventually contain every word in the dictionary. Do you think thats accurate?

Yes, ideally; it's a practical problem. It would take me at least another 12 years to get to the end, and at that point I really should start all over to include all the sentences which I left aside in the first round because I could not immediately think of a fitting context. But I doubt that I will have the madness or stamina to carry it through.

7. What constraints do you place on your sampling? Is it acceptable to alter punctuation, names, or personal pronouns?

Two simple sentences may be combined and linked together through a comma, colon or hyphen. Only entire example sentences must be used (not parts of them). Names may be replaced, but male names only by other male names; of course the same rule applies to female names. Also, surnames must not be replaced by first names and vice versa (with the one unique exception of 'Howard', which I use both as first name and surname). Singular personal pronouns can change sex, i.e. 'he parked the car' can become 'she parked the car' but only if the activity is sexually neutral; I wouldn't use a phrase such as 'he gave birth to a child' . In sentences with several personal pronouns, these can be swapped, i.e., 'he invited her' may become 'she invited him', but not 'she invited her'. In fact, alterations such as the ones just mentioned are quite rare, and are becoming rarer the longer I carry on writing. When I come across them, I actually remove any illegal alterations that may be left from the very beginning of writing when the rules were not yet clearly defined.

8. You have just been eaten by a giant space shark. Whats the plan?

Doesn't sound as if there was much scope for planning

9. Who, if anyone or if not everyone, should be reading a book like Secret Ballet?

People disillusioned with the usually regressive and insultingly trite nature of plotted narration

10. Do you feel this project to be particularly academic or anti-academic? Is that a relevant question?

Judge for yourself. I guess I am more obsessive than academic, although I have some academic training

11. Tell me a little about what interests you in literature.

I keep returning to Beckett's trilogy of novels (Molloy, Malone dies, the Unnamable) which is simply inexhaustible. Poe and Balzac I read a lot, and with great pleasure. My dearest book is perhaps Flaubert's 'Education sentimentale'. One book I admire for its structure is 'The Saragossa manuscript' by Jean Potocki. I enjoyed Pynchon's 'Vineland' but didn't get through 'Gravitiy's rainbow' or 'Mason & Dixon'. In all, I don't read fiction very often. How much time do you want to spend reading , and how much time remains for writing? I have to work for a living too, and I have children, so there is not much time left. Much of current literature, especially German literature, I simply can't stand. All this weak and blatantly ignorant narration. I can manage reasonably funny books like Lodge's 'Small world' occasionally.

12. What do you make of Al Hansen?

I am afraid I don't know Al Hansen's work.

13. You weren't born in August, were you?


If you ever feel like you have anything to add to your answers, or change about them, just let me know. Interviews, I think, should be somewhat fluid and unstable.

OK - get back to me if you have more or different questions.

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