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Outposts: Stories and mysteries

 

 Sean Akerman writes about his novel Outposts, soon to be released by Threekookaburras.

 

For many years, I was haunted by the image of a man who returns home after a long exile to find himself standing in the midst of an apple orchard while winter bears down — he is destitute, his clothes and hopes falling to shreds, searching for what he cannot remember, much less name. Outposts grew out of this image, both backwards and forwards. How did he get there? What happens next?

I was completing my doctorate in psychology when I began Outposts, without any sense of how to write a novel. The novel writing was a night-time activity, which was fitting, because the whole process was like poaching in the dark. The nameless man in the apple orchard had to be compelled by a sense of quest. What was it? It had to be one of those thankless quests, too, like understanding yourself, or where you came from, or art.

So I began with a newly minted academic, a guy who is open and curious, believing he’s hit the jackpot when he gets the job of writing a short biography about his favourite writer, Nestor Dunn. The project is so attractive because Nestor came from the same place as the narrator, so perhaps he can find his way home via proxy.

Nestor is a recluse, however, so the work is hard. His daughter, Emma, is the only access point and she, too, is a mystery. A literary scholar of Nestor’s work claims to have the answers, but he’s a charlatan. A dancer makes the same claims. Eventually, the narrator has to go to where Nestor lived and make his research hands-on, which means he has to come home and reckon with the past. And before you know it, there he is in the midst of that apple orchard. The movement of the story is the effort of tracking, and the logic behind most characters’ arcs is that people are always more interesting when they’re falling apart.

I had been writing since I could hold a pencil, but this was the first time I was compelled enough to construct a story in full. Simple actions proved to be the most difficult. How does this character enter the room? What happens on this subway ride? Those in-between moments, which we can hardly describe in our own lives, become impediments when making a story. Editing until you’re blue in the face is the only medicine. Gradually, you fall out of love with your own preconceived abilities and demonstrate the humility necessary to make something someone else might read.

I have to say: there is an unfortunate misunderstanding when it comes to speculating on a writer’s tendency to draw from life. What this means is foggy. In my experience, you write autobiographically about place – because geography has to be evoked from where you’ve been – but all else exists somewhere in the horizon where perception ends and imagination begins.

I wrote about academia because I knew that place; yet those people and events are composites and fictions. I wrote about New York City and Maine because I knew those places well; but what happens in those streets and woods came from what I saw and what I never quite saw.

It was important to include details of our age without being too heavy handed, as well. Realities like Occupy Wall Street and the perilous state of the knowledge economy lurk in the background. Plenty of people are leaning on their addictions. Self-involvement abounds. But I like to believe this is a more timeless story about making art — for the author (me), the nameless narrator, and the mysterious character of Nestor Dunn.

How and why do you make anything? There are no easy answers in this story, just like there are no easy answers to this question in life itself. The only thing that’s clear to me now is that writing translates a jangle of emotions and memories and gravitational forces into a series of pages. If there is any change through telling a story, the change occurs in the writer, and it has to do with making meaning where there was once meaninglessness.

Then there’s the spectre of the death, a big engine in the whole process. For the narrator, much of the past is dead. Nestor, too, becomes a corpse. So then what? Once time passes or in human terms, once the bodily systems shut down and the heart rate flat lines and the last bits of mucus are choked up the esophagus, what we know of that person — their body and the identity we have ascribed to it — end, and what form their essence assumes afterwards is up to the interpreter.

We trace and we track, through the faces and words of others, through snowbanks that might be the image of so and so, behind thickets where an unknown noise calls out, where they have gone. What was once lost is still lost, so if writing achieves anything it is that an invisible artefact now has a name. 

 

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