Sunday, April 2, 2023

Q&A with Blair Austin


Photo by Mark Ostow



Blair Austin is the author of the new novel Dioramas. A former prison librarian, he lives in Massachusetts.


Q: What inspired you to write Dioramas, and how did you create your character Wiggins?


A: I was making the transition from realism to a more speculative approach to fiction. Wiggins came all at once as a voice speaking out of the dark. He was lecturing about dioramas, and his voice gave an instant portrait. The theater in which he was lecturing, as well as the entire city, came all at once. He was very insistent, fussy and sometimes wry.


The job was to write down what he said and to give it form. The task took somewhere between seven and 10 years. In many ways I’m still working on the book even though it’s done.


Q: The Kirkus Review of the book says, in part, “The nightmarish aspects of this novel’s setting sneak up on you and linger.” What do you think of that description, and how did you create the world in which the novel is set?


A: Dioramas is built brick by brick, diorama by diorama. The plan all along was to take that gradual, accumulative approach. Since the portrait of the city comes bit by bit, I knew I could take advantage of that point-of-no-return feeling. I thought of the book as a purse-seine, where the net would quietly gather.

I knew also I wouldn’t have a traditional plot and that the material would dictate its tension. Whether a finished section stayed or whether it had to go depended in part on how each of its details factored into the overall portrait of Wiggins, the city and its museums. The hope was to let Wiggins speak. He knew his city. I would rely on him for the details; he would rely on me to give them shape.  

Q: Did you know how the book would end before you started writing it, or did you make many changes along the way?


A: I followed many false paths along the way. All I could do was trust my intuition.


By splitting the book into two separate novellas, I gained two endings. The tricky part was balancing the human ending (Wiggins’s journey) with the nonhuman ending (the larger sense of the world).


The final ending came as a result of spending time reading about and observing pigeons. When I had time, I would go where pigeons lived and I would watch them: their gestures, their pattern of movement across the square and back again.


I wrote a long section on pigeons and then decided to split it into shorter sections and seed them throughout Book II. This provided a certain drama and a certain form. The ending came about as the “conclusion” of a single pigeon’s journey across space and time.

Q: How was the novel’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?

A: Dioramas are blank symbols onto which we project our own understanding. They wait that way—for our interpretation—even though they were created long ago in a most unpassive manner and with a very specific intention. So I was thinking of their evocative nature as pictures of a world.


I didn’t want to give a “directive” title that would point to one specific theme. I wanted one with a certain look and feel, one that sounded technical and distant but also mysterious.


Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m working on a few novellas set in the same city as Dioramas. These stories follow the undercurrents of the city and stand at the border of logic and illogic. Peopled with detectives, ruined doctors, womens’ bicycle clubs, bartenders, and trillionaires, it’s called Syphilis Please.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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