Reif Larsen, of the Collected Works of T. S. Spivet, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

by |June 23, 2010

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Reif Larsen,

author of

The Collected Works of T. S. Spivet

Ten Terrifying Questions


1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born in Boston, by a lake that never freezes, no matter how cold it gets. My mother and father were both fisherman who dreamed of being artists, though they were both nearly blind from windshear and thus their paintings were rarely good, though sometimes brilliant. Luckily, I found a mentor in my sixth grade teacher, Mrs. Shander, who encouraged me to continue writing my poems about dead birds and keep up with the badminton. “A strong mind depends on a strong body,” she said, and so I ran a metric mile each morning and slept with a shuttlecock beneath my pillow—quite uncomfortable, I might add, but it reminded me that one must never grow complacent, especially during a famine, which swept through New England during the infamous winter of ’92 and took many of the children.

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

At twelve, I wished to be a badminton champion, though this dream was tempered by a secret desire to also be a live mannequin in a department store window, a wish that I never revealed to another soul (until now, that is). My dreams of Olympic glory were dashed when I injured my right wrist playing chess and was never again able to conjure that same palpable air of intimidation on the court. I began losing to lesser opponents (for example: Brutus), and after one humiliating tournament in Tangiers, I tossed my racquet into the sea and never returned to the game.

At eighteen, my dreams had shifted to being a novelist, which I found romantic and somewhat tragic. I wrote fourteen novels but threw them all away after showing them to Mrs. Shander, who praised their originality but through her subdued, lacquered tone I could tell she actually thought them to be quite bad.

At thirty, I had settled down to reality, and I suppose I now want to be what I am: an assistant quality control monitor (Bolts and Washers division) for Plankton Industries. I am good at what I do, and you cannot ask for much more than this in life.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

That the essence of life can be described with the help of proper punctuation and that love exists as something that can be touched and folded, like fine linen.

4. What were three works of art – book, painting, piece of music, etc – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced your own development as a writer?

Dr. Strangelove or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb, The Tin Drum, Anselm Kiefer’s Notebook series, the one with the cut-out clouds.

5. Considering the innumerable artistic avenues open to you, why did you choose to write a novel?

The first of my fourteen discarded novels I wrote almost by accident, or at least I set out not intending to write a novel per say. On an especially cold winter afternoon (although the lake was still not frozen), my mother yelled at me for not cleaning the fish legs like she had asked me to. I told her that I had not wanted to clean the fish legs so instead went on a long walk around the lake, listening to the crunch of my boots on the freshly fallen snow. She said there were many things in this life that she did not want to do but that she must do them because she was adult with responsibilities. I asked her what those things were. She began to list them: empty the sewer tanks, clean out the worm tubes, gather the lichen, prepare the eggy surprise, etc. I went up to my room and began to write down all the things that I did not want to do in this world, and then became so absorbed in this task that three days later I had only risen from my desk to lavitate and fetch the grunge bread mother had prepared (the preparation of which was one of the items on her list!) I looked down at the 143 pages and realized that I had just conjured my first novel, though later Mrs. Shander would let me know that the manuscript was too morose and no good at all.

6. Please tell us about your latest novel.

My last novel, which I believe has the most promise of all fourteen, though is still probably fatally flawed (I have yet to show it to Mrs. Shander, who now lives in Constantinople, and is more difficult to reach due to her liver condition), is an international thriller about an epileptic radio operator who lives in the swamplands of New Jersey and stumbles upon an underground puppet troupe who perform surrealist shows about particle physics. A genre book, really.

(Note from Toni Whitmont, Editor of Booktopia BUZZ: I don’t think so. It is The Collected Works of T S Spivet which is an absolutely wonderful whimsy of imagination, cartography, writing, diagrams and story telling which produced a bidding frenzy in New York. It is equally as beautiful to read as it is to hold in your hands and marvel at the visuals which are adorn each page, seamlessly adding to the whole reading experience).

7. What do you hope people take away with them after reading your work?

Well, if anyone should ever read one of my books (besides Mrs. Shander, to whom I owe a great deal), then I suppose I would hope they might be able to understand, through the lens of thinly disguised autobiographical fiction of course, where I myself have gone wrong in my own life, and then I would hope that they might write to me—preferably on a postcard depicting their hometown in a color photograph—how I might live my life differently. I have posted my address at the bottom of this letter. They may write to me there or to my place of work:

Mr. Reif I. Larsen

Bolts and Washers Division

Plankton Industries

45 Eustis Drive

Fitchburg, MA 05625

If they would write at the top of the card: THIS IS HOW YOU SHOULD CHANGE YOUR LIFE in large letters, then I will not get their letter confused with the incessant stream of junk mail I seem to receive from all of those lingerie catalogues these days.

8. Whom do you most admire in the realm of writing and why?

Good gracious, how you have asked me this and now I can think of no one. Funny how that happens, isn’t it? The mind organizes information in such strange ways. For instance: your friends says, “What’s his name who grinds the organ with the monkey down by the cheese shop?” and of course you know this organ grinder’s name; you’ve know it for sometime, ever since he made an inappropriate comment about your winkle when you were only four-years-old and had just the vaguest ideas about what a winkle actually was, but now that your friend can’t recall the man’s name, and suddenly your mind has grown fuzzy and neither can you. “Oh, what is his name?!” you scream and in your agitation, you toss your thermos into the fire. “Oh, it will come to me!” you say and begin pacing, but the harder you think, the more your mind gears jam, and it is only much later, as you are feeding the goat his spasm medicine, that you remember the man’s name was Larry. Yes that was it: Larry the Grinder.

Larry the Grinder

Larry the Grinder

Lost his wife to a horse

And now he can’t find her!

That’s what we used to sing as kids, and I would sing along with viciousness in my heart, for I was still angry at Larry for making that winkle comment to me before I even knew what a winkle was. The secret knowledge that adults lord over children can grow quite tiresome.

And now! Yes it’s come to me. While I was thinking about Larry (who incidentally was hit by a Buick and died, though his monkey survived and now lives at the cheese shop). Writers whom I love: Danilo Kiš, Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Bruno Schulz, Cormac McCarthy, Mr. Herman Melville, Vladimir Nabokov, Aleksandar Hemon, David Mitchell, Günther Grass, and Mr. William Faulkner.

9. Many artists set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

I have heard of artists and their goals and I believe I saw a Norwegian movie about this. I don’t think it was very good, though this could have been because there was no subtitles and I only know the little Norwegian that I picked up from my father, who sang off-key Norse nursery rhymes in the shower and occasionally swore in his sleep. My own goals as a writer are quite modest: to finally impress Mrs. Shander to the point where she does not crinkle her brow and get that distant look in her eyes, as if she has just received very bad news: for instance, the death of a much-loved uncle. I do not want my books to have that kind of effect on people.

My goals as a Bolts and Washers man are much more comprehensive. You see, the more I work with washers, the more I understand them to be an imperfect invention. They are cheap and easy to make, yes, but we as a civilization have not thoroughly examined the actual function of the washer and then thought outside of the box as to how we might make this little flat bagel of metal work in beautiful and miraculous ways. I intend to do this, just as soon as I get enough free time. Perhaps I need to take a long walk around the lake but there is always so much to do that prevents us from taking these kinds of walks.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Ah! I asked this very same question to a famous writer whom I had never heard of when she recently came through Fitchburg on book tour. Someone mentioned that a famous writer was speaking that evening and I dropped my balsa model and headed straight for the library, because one must never abandon a chance to have your life changed for the better. Well, this woman appeared quite tired at her reading, and perhaps not so excited to be speaking in our sad little post-industrial hovel. In the Q&A period she perked up a bit—one could see she enjoyed this part much more than the actual reading of words—and though she had no doubt been asked these questions a thousand times before, she acted as if we had just stumbled upon a great little piece of wisdom together, and why don’t we explore it, shall we? She made everyone in the room feel warm and important.

I gathered my courage and took off my lynx mitt and raised my hand: “What would you say to a young writer?” (slightly different than your question, but there are similarities enough, I think, to warrant the substitution). The woman eyed me, summing up my contents, and when she was duly satisfied with my merit (at least this is how I like to recall the incident), she said, “Keep writing. No matter what, find a way to keep doing what you love. It is not the fame which must lure you but the violent act of writing itself.” Oh, these words affected me deeply. The violent act of writing. The incident is what made me return to my own discarded novels. She was such a wise woman. And now what was her name? Danielle Seal, I think it was, though I can’t be sure. Funny to have a last name that is also a mammal of the sea.

Reif Larsen, thank you for playing. I officially bestow upon you the award for most original answers to our Ten Terrifying Questions.

7 Comments Share:

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  • Shell Tobihn

    June 24, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Reif Larson has won my heart instantly. I suppose I will read his book. An entertaining, amusing and lyrical interview. Beautiful. “The violent act of writing”. I will remember that phrase always and perhaps it will become an inspiration.

    • toniwhitmont

      June 24, 2010 at 10:09 pm

      The interview was a great pleasure to read. In fact it is clearly my favourite so far. Not a whiff of the marketing machine.

  • Shell Tobin

    June 24, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Oh dear, my name is Shell Tobin, not Shell Tobihn. Typo!

  • Ian Tester

    June 24, 2010 at 4:48 pm

    I adore this book, it’s bittersweet and brilliant. I”ve bought it three times because I keep giving it away, wanting to share it’s magic with family & friends. Thanks for this interview, it reminds me that I miss Spivet, will have to buy another copy and hang on to nit this time 🙂

    • toniwhitmont

      June 24, 2010 at 10:07 pm

      I miss Spivet too. How he managed to do that without being mawkish or cute, I have no idea. But he is definitely an acquired taste don’t you think? He does divide his audience.

  • July 21, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    Great interview, I enjoyed this book including all the illustrations, I have recommended it to my school library and many individual creative students. When is your next book coming out? Your book reminds me of Nick Bancocks

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