AN INTERVIEW WITH SEAN GILL
Janola Sauther, an undergraduate student in the English program at the University of Central Missouri, interviews Sean Gill, winner of Pleiades’ G.B. Crump Prize in Experimental Fiction for his story “The Statement of [Redacted], Revised,” which appears in the Summer 2019 issue.
Sean Gill is a writer and filmmaker who won The Cincinnati Review‘s 2018 Robert and Adele Schiff Award, the 2017 River Styx Micro-Fiction Contest, the 2016 Sonora Review Fiction Prize, and was chosen as a finalist for the Summer 2016 Glimmer Train Very Short Fiction Award. He has studied with Werner Herzog and Juan-Luis Buñuel, created educational content for Mid-America Transplant in St. Louis, bounced for Public Enemy and Isaac Hayes, and once played a rock star extra for Martin Scorsese. Other recent work has been published or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, ZYZZYVA, and Joyland.
JS: In your short fiction piece published in the upcoming issue of Pleiades, “The Statement of [Redacted], Revised,” winner of the 2019 G.B. Crump Prize for Experimental Fiction, you wove together two different first person voices. How did you balance the two characters’ perspectives while writing this piece?
SG: I tried to come to [REDACTED]’s statement with a kind of terse, post-Solzhenitsyn remove. It was important to me not to speak for or ventriloquize a specific, contemporary refugee experience––and I was able to use redactions and legalities as devices in order to broaden the universality. The reader is free to project as much as they wish onto [REDACTED].
Then came the voice of the advocate, whose basic intention (asylum for a former political prisoner) may be noble, but he’s tackling this grave matter with essentially the tone of a screenwriting guru. I had to capture the attitude, the sureness, of someone more than happy to tell another’s story, and an overarching system that just might reward this behavior. I hoped it would feel a bit like Robert McKee wrestling over the fate of history with Franz Kafka.
JS:“The Statement of [Redacted], Revised” is presented as a redacted legal document with revision suggestions by a defense lawyer written in the margins. What inspired you to write your narrative in the form of a legal testimony?
SG: Years ago, I worked in an editorial capacity on a documentary about public defenders for National Geographic. I was privy to hundreds of hours of raw legal proceedings, and I was often surprised and appalled by what I could glean of the system as a whole from these scattered fragments. It was amazing to me how much meaning you could extract––about the system, about the individual––from, for instance, a seemingly bland, four-minute arraignment. Sometimes, if you looked at it just so, you could almost glimpse the contours of the machine, the people behind it, those working in good faith and bad, and the gray zones in between. I’ve experimented with a few different pieces in this mode over the years (sometimes they come across as a little too dry), and I think that this story is probably the most successful of them.
JS: As the story deals with issues regarding immigration law, a controversial topic in American politics, what do you feel is the best way to address weighty political subjects in a narrative?
SG: I don’t think there’s one right way to go about it––in approach, I equally appreciate the blunt, semi-journalistic terrors of a George Orwell or an Arthur Koestler, the melancholy humanism of a Kurt Vonnegut or a Chinua Achebe, the haunting expressionism of a Toni Morrison or an Octavia Butler.
In a novel like Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here, he comes at fascism head-on with a humorous, mocking tone, but it quickly turns sour. By the third act, it’s all too real, a bleak picture rendered bleaker by those light shades of buffoonery at the start.
And I have to give a special nod to Muriel Spark’s technique in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, where by way of some coming-of-age sleight of hand, she’s able to paint a surprise portrait of a fascist in a quiet classroom, far removed from the typical fictional environment.
JS: You have won a number of awards for both your writing as well as your film work. How do you balance your time between these two creative endeavors successfully?
SG: A lot of the films I direct could easily be categorized as video art––they’re often silent, experimental, elemental. This is not so commercial, as you can probably imagine. In a lot of my film and television work, I’m not the leading creative voice: I’m the editor, or a designer, and I’ll be hired for an edit cycle or a season, and it is very structured. These latter sort of positions allow me to make rent, write my fiction, and film my video art.
Even though it can occasionally divide my focus, I do think there’s a freedom in having multiple disciplines, to jump between visual thinking and the written word. Writer’s block on a novel can lead to an expressionistic short film; filming delays can lead directly to a new short story.
JS: You have done the sound design for a good number of films. Has working on different aspects of a film affected your writing at the time? Has each film you’ve worked on affected your writing?
SG: I do a fair amount of editing and sound design for television, film, and stage. I’ve found that editing someone else’s project, particularly a documentary with a great deal of raw footage, has really strengthened my organizational skills in my own writing. When you’re whittling 200 hours down to two (or to forty-four minutes of network television), you have to make some difficult decisions. You acquire a talent for killing darlings. You have to cut to the heart of the story you’re telling, but without accidentally removing all the quirks and peccadillos that lend it character.
When you design sound, particularly on a horror movie, you’re playing with sheer mood. Building a soundscape out of noises, punctuations, tonalities, and music (I’m also a musician, but not professionally) can feel refreshingly abstract when you’ve spent a day trying to hone the perfect sentence. It’s comforting to work without words sometimes, to lose yourself in this pure feeling. I think it does help the prose, particularly when it comes to building atmosphere, Gothic or otherwise. In another lifetime, I bet Emily Brontë’s sound design would have been spectacular.
JS: When writing plays some authors prefer to write extremely specific stage directions while others prefer to stage directions more open ended. Do you prefer your plays to present a well-defined vision or do you prefer your scripts to act as a guide for actors and directors?
SG: I think some playwrights and screenwriters try to make their work “director-proof,” so that there’s no way somebody else can come along down the line and color outside the lines. I can understand the urge, and I think I was sometimes guilty of that in my early plays. But as you work more and more, in any creative industry, I think you have to see the value of compromise and collaboration.
Now, I do have perfectionistic leanings and, in private, will tinker for hours with a paragraph or a video sequence or whatever until it’s just the way I want it. But just because it’s perfect for me doesn’t mean it’s going to fly with someone else’s conception, whether it’s a theater director, a television network executive, a writers’ workshop, or a publisher. Sometimes you have to ask yourself, “am I doing this solely for me, or do I want others to read/see/experience this?” And once in a while, a project is so deeply personal I am doing it solely for me, and I can happily shelve it away in my equivalent of Prince’s vault of unreleased music. But that’s certainly not the norm.
Anyway, what I’m saying is that I’ve been learning a lot about letting go and not being so precious. Frankly, it’s exciting to hand off a script to a director and actors, skip the rehearsals, and see how they interpret it. I think creative people do their finest work when they’re given a latitude of trust and not micromanaged.
JS: Who are you reading now?
SG: I just finished a very disturbing non-fiction book––Milton Mayer’s They Thought They Were Free: The Germans (1933-1945). In the early 1950s, Mayer interviews former, low-level Nazi party members in a sleepy university town in the hopes of understanding what it was like to witness the rise of Nazism from a quotidian perspective. He encounters some incredible mental gymnastics and feats of rationalization. Some of them maintain that Hitler never did anything wrong, it was only his advisors and “the politicians” who led him astray. One man insists that Germany twice won World Wars, and was twice betrayed. The Nuremberg Trials are seen mostly as the Allies “piling on,” a penalty for losing the war, not for committing genocide. During the war, even anti-Nazi Germans think they should hunker down, be patient, and let the win or loss of the war decide Hitler’s fate. It’s hard to read it without seeing constant parallels to our own situation.
JS: Do you have any upcoming projects you’d like to share?
SG: I’m currently developing an immersive theatrical experience with my brilliant wife, Rachel Klein, who is an Off-Broadway theater director. It fuses together some of our literary and theatrical sensibilities and features F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald during a fascinating, bizarre, and rarely-discussed phase of their lives. We’ll be workshopping it this fall with a projected run in 2020.
Janola Sauther is an undergraduate student in the English program at the University of Central Missouri, an editorial intern for Pleiades Magazine, and a fiction editor for Arcade Magazine.