In anticipation of the upcoming launch party for Peripheral Vision, we sat down with author Miranda Steffens to ask all of the questions — read on for some of her insights on the writing process, making an e-book, and the weird convolutions of English grammar.
MP: One of the first motifs I noticed in Peripheral Vision was the parenthetical, self-conscious commentary on choices made by it speaker — a demand to better articulate a given claim, or observing the finer points of changing tense, made at a slight distance from the “other” story we’re being told in the book. Could you talk about how you developed these parenthetical parts, and how you see them working in conjunction with the other sections?
MS: Well, I guess I wasn’t thinking of the parentheticals as a removal from the narrative but rather going into it deeper, which probably is also sort of removed — trying to follow the meaning behind each previous section. I guess that does in turn pull away from the moment through the overthinking and over-analysis.
MP: Totally, I think the speaker even says outright in the book that those moments are distracting them from a task at hand … I’m also really interested in this book’s commentary on being alone or loneliness, especially since the speaker sometimes sees this loneliness as a result of their own artwork, could you touch a little bit on that on that?
MS: Well, the piece actually came as a response to a video I saw —
MP: Oh really! I didn’t know that.
MS: The reason I didn’t mention that was, I don’t remember the name of the video or who it was by! It was from a prompt in a class I was in with Matthew Goulish called Writing Systems. My assignment was to respond to this video in writing, and because I’m not a visual artist I had a really hard time with it. The video was sort of abstract and conceptual —interesting, but I had no idea how to respond, so I probably got a little anxious about it and felt rather isolated from the piece. I was trying really hard to do it justice, but writing is so much more logical than a visual piece needs to be. The first section is a dream, because when I had that dream I thought, Okay, I need to use this because it’s going to be the only way I can respond to this video! So I wrote it down, thinking I would use it somehow and not knowing how. Then I ended up deciding to respond to my own dream, which was in turn a response to the video — so, taking my subconscious response to this work and adding a conscious response. And at that point I had a piece that was totally separate from the original prompt.
MP: So was this dream of the object you reference in the book, the board with the four openings?
MS: Mhm. Now I remember her video had something to do with a ball bouncing, just one shot of it, so in the dream that art piece was my only way of making art — I’m not a visual artist, so I don’t think in those terms, so my brain gave me this object and I knew I needed to work with it.
MP: Speaking of objects — so what was it like to collaborate with us on the book; could you talk about how you made certain decisions in the design? Now that we have the finished product it’s so compelling to me because every aspect feels so intentional — the vellum pages, the binding, and so on.
MS: It’s been really cool having other people work on it because the original piece was already a response to someone else’s work. So with Peripheral Vision, further collaboration seemed like the natural way to take it … actually, for my reading I’m going to do something similar where I have the audience interact with the text. I feel like the piece is about responding to something, whether it’s responding to your own thoughts or other people, so it seems really appropriate to let someone else see where they can go with it. Rebecca [Elliott] was totally spot on — the slightly transparent paper, and visually separating each thought from page to page.
MP: Oh, absolutely. I also love the overlap in certain sections, how once sentence will partially obscure one on the next page.
MS: Totally — and I think that’s actually how the brain works, how you’ll have one primary conscious thought and then so many other fragments behind it that you can still kind of see, and it’s just a matter of getting to them.
MP: Going off of that, could you talk about the way different grammatical tenses work in Peripheral Vision? I’m so taken by how the speaker is literally transparent about it! It’s funny because I feel like that’s something that we wouldn’t normally try writing about — the ideal of “too much telling”, or whatever — but it’s so lovely to see what can happen here where there is that amount of disclosure. I became so aware reading this of how the shifts in tense would seem very natural until the speaker went on to break it down further, at which point one could see the scaffolding, so to speak, and notice how unusual it was — and how much room there is for error.
MS: The tense thing … it’s interesting, now that I think about it I wasn’t actually doing this when I wrote Peripheral Vision, but I teach ESL, so I’m really aware of verb tense and how when people misuse it totally changes the meaning of a sentence. I did also teach for a bit before writing the book, so maybe that was it. But what tense to use in writing is always a question, regardless of genre — the present tense makes it more immediate, but if you’re writing in the present tense about something that really happened, then by the time you edit it you can’t anymore since it’s already in the past! I think that’s what I was going for, this process of each movement down through tense as an editing of the previous section.
MP: So cool. Well lastly, this is kind of a trendy question, but what was it like for you to make the e-book? Actually, how do you feel about e-books in general, and did that change after you actually made one?
MS: I never read e-books! It changes the way reading feels, you can’t handle the paper or anything — and it’s bad for your eyes. But I also think there’s a lot that e-books can do that paper books can’t quite do, so I was open to making one. I’d thought about trying it myself in the past for other pieces, but I don’t have the technical skills; I’m not very good with computers. When I was talking with Tim [O’Rourke] about it, he was describing all of these possibilities and I was totally blown away —you can make something in three dimensions! It was such a fun process, and even though I don’t personally read e-books, if I knew something like what he made existed I would want to look at it.