“The Problem of Other Minds”: A Conversation with Chris Gilmore

Chris Gilmore grew up in Ottawa. He attended Queen’s University, where he earned a BA in English literature, and the University of Toronto, where he received an MA in creative writing. Gilmore’s writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, The New Quarterly, Hobart, Matrix, and Lemon Hound. He is currently working on a collection of poetry, a screenplay about William Faulkner, and a second volume of short stories. Nobodies is his first.

Nicholas Herring lives in Toronto and swings hammers and shovels for a living. He’s at work on a number of projects.

This conversation took place on December 2, 2016, over a few drinks at The Old Nick, a pub located on the Danforth. It has been edited for flow and clarity.

Nicholas Herring: The characters in Nobodies have a hard time getting out of their heads. They exist in a world of missed connections, self-consciousness, and isolation. I think you could have just as easily called this collection The Problem of Other Minds, which is the title of a very poignant story in the book. As a writer, you seem to be aware of how difficult it is to know anything with any exactness, [to know] how other people are simply feeling or what they may be thinking.

Chris Gilmore: Maybe I’ve been reading too much Nietzsche. I do think it’s very hard to know anything with certainty, whether it be another person or even yourself, or anything about the world in general, beyond the surfaces.

NH: Each time I return to your stories, I get more depressed.

CG: Yes, that was the goal! I want to make my readers as miserable as I am.

NH: This kind of epistemological nihilism has to be problematic, both as a human being and as a writer.

CG: It’s hard to find your bearings when there’s no certainty from the highest level—the questions concerning the big things, like God—all the way down to your everyday relationships—understanding why the person sitting across from you is yelling at you or not speaking to you or laughing at something that isn’t funny. There’s always this gap between the person we think we are and the person we are to other people—and then the people that other people think they are and who they are to you. It’s a bridge that’s hard to cross, if you can cross it at all.

NH: In Nobodies, there isn’t a great deal of physical contact. Hardly anyone touches.

CG: You know, that’s probably the most insightful thing anyone’s said about the book. I haven’t really thought about it before, but it’s true.

NH: I think there are two moments of touching: the sex scene in “Tickle My Ear” and the kiss at the end of the date in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Killoran.” Can you expand on this absence of intimacy?

CG: Well, I guess it sums up the main themes of the collection: isolation, loneliness, insecurity. Everyone is afraid of being vulnerable, of being rejected. They find it hard to be accepted by the people that they care about. It’s a testament to how rare real intimacy is, physical or otherwise.

NH: Would it be fair to say that you’re more interested in psychological drama than social realism?

CG: Yeah, I think there are better people to tell those kinds of stories. I’m not a sociologist by any means. Most of my characters, like you said, are stuck in their heads. They’re obsessives and neurotics, and if there’s external drama, it’s usually a power play between two or three people, not a social or political struggle.

NH: You have a couple of stories in which it’s difficult to know whether or not a character actually exists. They’re either figments of someone’s imagination or voices in the back of their heads.

CG: I think we all have influences that either encourage or discourage us, and it’s hard sometimes to get away from the negative ones. They seem to shout louder than the others. In the final story in the collection, the protagonist’s ex-girlfriend is a kind of haunting presence, just as Jonathan Swift is an ironic alter-ego in “The Problem of Other Minds.” They’re basically foils as well as sounding-boards and aspects of the characters’ inner psyche—their superego, to use Freudian language. They can be helpful in small doses, but if you don’t know when to ignore them, you can find yourself in pretty dangerous territory.

NH: Do you think the people in your stories would be just as isolated and socially uncertain without modern inventions such as social media and online dating?

CG: Probably. Maybe a bit more, maybe a bit less. There are some practical benefits to online dating. It makes it easier to meet people and get past a lot of the bullshit. I would rather meet someone through online dating than at a bar, because I know ahead of time what they’re like, in a general sense, and it’s a forum in which we’ve all agreed that it’s okay to approach a stranger. Bars make me feel like a creep. Three of the stories, “OKCupid For Dummies,” “My Coffee with Jim,” and “Exhibit A” obviously couldn’t exist without the internet and the mechanisms that allow strangers to interact. That said, the characters would probably find other ways to make connections if those online mechanisms didn’t exist.

NH: “Exhibit A” is a very painful story. The main character, Samantha, sends 72 emails over seven days to her favorite movie star, who she supposedly met at a bar, and she never receives a response. She’s at home, drinking, emailing, and slowly spiraling into a whirl of nothingness. Are you aware of how painful this story is?

CG: Kind of. I have a very dark sense of humour. To me, the pain is equal parts funny and sad. Samantha definitely deserves some sympathy, in that she’s clearly quite lonely and disturbed, but she’s also extremely dangerous, as we start to realize near the end. Louie C.K.’s comedy is similar, I think: tragic, self-deprecating, yet hilarious. I like trying to find that balance between sympathy and satire. It’s a hard one to strike sometimes. For instance, Cormac McCarthy’s novel Child of God is about a necrophiliac. How much one is able to sympathize with this kind of person is up to each reader, but the fact that McCarthy is brave enough and talented enough to represent this kind of person, I really respect. So when I write about characters like Samantha in “Exhibit A” or John in “The Problem of Other Minds,” I’m not just making fun of them. I’m also trying to humanize them and understand where they’re coming from.

NH: In the story “Faces,” you write that life is a joke, but a funny joke. The book as a whole seems to embody this vision. Do you believe this personally, or is it just the narrator speaking?

CG: I think, objectively, life is a meaningless joke—but we can create our own meaning on a subjective basis. That’s Existentialism 101. Whether one finds the joke funny or not depends on the individual. It would be hard to find any humor in the current refugee crisis, for instance. Life for these people is truly awful, and we shouldn’t try to sugar coat it or find a silver lining. For people like us, however, who are relatively privileged and not in constant pain, we can spin our problems in a humorous fashion. Sometimes, at least. If we’re lucky.

NH: The only natural life that appears in the collection occurs in “The Problem of Other Minds,” where you have a blackbird smacking into a window, some seven floors up, and John, the focalizer, wonders what would drive a bird to commit suicide. Given the immense difficulty most people have when talking about suicide, it seems you’re really swinging for the fences. What compelled you to talk about this issue?

CG: I just thought the blackbird smacking into glass was an interesting image, a pathetic image, funny in its sadness, and it illuminated or symbolized an aspect of John’s state-of-mind. In all honesty, suicide is just a side-issue in the story. For me, “The Problem of Other Minds” is really about how fascism gets started. People who start out trying to do something good, and who, through self-delusion or a lack of empathy, have some essential piece missing that causes them to do a lot of harm. Sadly, it’s still a relevant subject. There are a lot of well-intentioned idiots out there, from the alt-right to religious fundamentalists, who probably believe they’re doing the right thing and end up ruining the lives of everyone around them.

NH: Your stories also address those who find themselves “somebodies” and those who find themselves “nobodies.” What interests you about these categories?

CG: I think it’s an interesting dialectic: somebodies, nobodies, and everything in-between—the people who are nobodies but feel like somebodies, like John, the philosopher in “The Problem of Other Minds” who thinks he has this higher purpose, or people like Tucker and Todd, in the title story, who feel like nobodies, who feel that they have nothing to offer the world and that they’re just destined to be losers. And then you have the contrast with, say, Cormac McCarthy, who’s an actual character, and all the other celebrities. I was interested in representing the spectrum—one that, I think, oscillates. Everyone goes through phases where they feel like they’re utterly worthless to times when they feel they’re better than everybody else. The trick is finding the balance. Being comfortable and happy with yourself without becoming a self-centered dick.

NH: Your collection has a good architecture, in that the flow of energy and tension and logic is focused and translatable, but stories like “Infamous Endings” and “(More) Infamous Endings,” which are essentially lists, strike me as rather risky inclusions because they so drastically alter the reading experience. Were you mindful of this effect and of this—as I see it—gamble?

CG: Technically, yes—in a literal sense—they’re lists, not stories; but if you read between the lines, you get a history of writers and the quality of their lives. They bookend the story “Nobodies,” because this story, for me, is about two people who are by themselves, not just in an empty theatre, but in their own worlds. So you have two “nobodies” surrounded by darkness and empty space within the story, which is surrounded by two lists of “somebodies” who are all dead. Some have died tragically and painfully. Many of these writers have committed suicide, which may indicate that they probably weren’t that happy with their lives. If being a nobody makes you miserable, being a somebody won’t necessarily be any better. Basically, there’s no hope: we’re all fucked.

NH: You honestly think …

CG: To a certain degree, yeah. Oscar Wilde said it best: “There are two tragedies in life: not getting what you want and getting it.” Writers like Schopenhauer and Beckett and Kafka would probably agree. Most great writers, from Shakespeare onwards, have a very nihilistic sense of the human condition. They realize that they’ve been thrown into something without their consent, and they have to figure out a way to make the best of it. Some people don’t, of course. Some people check out early.

NH: Why tackle such a taboo issue, though?

CG: Because it’s endlessly interesting. Camus said that suicide was the only serious philosophical question, and I agree with him.Whether life is worth living: it doesn’t get any more significant than that, in terms of questions to ask yourself. This question has always fascinated me. I’ve never been suicidal myself. I’ve felt pretty awful sometimes, like everyone, but I’ve never really considered it, personally.

NH: Do you feel like you, as a storyteller, should address it as less of a philosophical abstraction and more of a real-life problem?

CG: Sure, maybe in the future. Like I said, it doesn’t play a prominent role in the book, but it could in the next one. Or the one after that. For the time being, I’m interested in the more universal aspects of the issue, the arguments for and against, than the specifics of a hypothetical individual’s struggle. That’s a different set of problems for a different project.

NH: How do you think you’re able to talk about something that most of us are incapable of talking about?

CG: I’m not sure. Maybe because I have some distance from it. It’s more of a curiosity at this point than a traumatic taboo. If I’d experienced suicide in my life, I’d probably avoid the subject.

NH: In your story, “Cormac McCarthy Orders a Pizza,” you have him give his address as being “at the intersection of nihilistic despair and aesthetic idealism.” Is this your address, so to speak, as a writer?

CG: Yeah, I think that sums me up. The despair is a little much; I don’t think I’m a bummer as a person. That was more how I imagine McCarthy. I can’t picture him as a very jovial figure. But maybe I’m wrong. I’ve heard he’s quite friendly—as long as you don’t mention his work.

NH: “Writer’s Block” is a well-placed story, because it prepares the reader for a later story, “Faces,” which is one of the most revolutionary things I’ve ever read. Each time I visit it, I’m blown away, and I want you to know that I’m not exaggerating. Can you talk to me a bit about the origins of this story?

CG: “Faces” is more of a poem, to be honest, inspired in part by Anne Carson’s “The Life of Towns.” I liked the idea of different masks expressing paradoxical aspects of a single person. The speaker is anonymous, but also fairly universal, I think.

NH: In “OKCupid For Dummies,” Rupert Pumpkin (a little nod to Scorsese there) states in Step Two of his instructional guide, “Remember: this is a performance, not a confession.” These are wise-beyond-years words, and I just wanted to get a sense of if they hold true for the characters in Nobodies.

CG: I think most of the characters in Nobodies are (perhaps subconsciously) performing roles that they think they need to embody, to live a meaningful and satisfying life: masculinity, respectability, courage, sanity, etc. It’s just a matter of time, however, before these performances become transparent, and they have a kind of existential crisis. In terms of Nobodies, it is mostly performance, in that the stories are not strictly autobiographical. However, there is always an element of confession when I try to get inside another character’s head and do their thinking for them.

NH: How about in your personal life: confession or performance?

CG: I try to be straightforward and authentic in my day-to-day life, but if I really unpack my thoughts and actions, I can sometimes see the performance behind the “confession.” Which is pretty much unavoidable and not necessarily bad, as long as one keeps things in perspective. When you get too invested in a performance (or convince yourself it’s really a confession), you might end up like Samantha Dorkins from “Exhibit A” or John from “The Problem of Other Minds.” When it comes to the virtual, as in online dating, the commodification and simplification of identity is a bit disturbing, to say the least. But it’s also pragmatic, and it saves a lot of time. Like most things, I have very mixed feelings about it, but I understand why it’s happening.

NH: Would all of us be better off if we confessed more?

CG: Maybe. I’m kind of shy, so I’m probably better at confessing through a medium. Partly to protect the privacy of people I know, but also because I don’t want to expose myself too directly either. There are aspects of myself and the people I know in everything that I write, but the gap between reality and the page is a pretty big one.

NH: In “OKCupid For Dummies,” under Step Nine, Pumpkin states, “If you’re ugly on the outside, you’re probably pretty on the inside. Too bad we can only see what we prioritize. The skin-deep beauty. The social shell.” Do you, as the writer, believe this binary exists? And, if it does, are the crosswinds—so to speak—so neatly inverted?

CG: I completely disagree with Jim, but it suits his character to propose such a simple-minded theory. It’s another of his sound-bite nuggets of pseudo-wisdom, which sound nice but falls apart when you think about them for more than a second. Like everyone, I’ve met pretty people who are wonderful and less pretty people who drive me crazy. Jim’s theory is more of a bumper sticker than a legitimate idea.

NH: I saw an article about a phone application called Meitu that allows the user to make themselves more beautiful by enabling them to “aspire to beauty.” Your stories do the opposite, in that they mostly uphold the ugliness of each character—usually intellectually or spiritually, and certainly behaviorally—as irreducibly true. But where does this truth sit, vis-à-vis performance? I think both you and Louis C.K. would assert that the ugly is not only true, but probably a smidge more truthful than the beautiful. Do you agree?

CG: I wouldn’t say that authentic beauty isn’t real, but it’s definitely in short supply. Ugliness is easy; any idiot can create it. In my experience, beauty usually means one of two things: Hollywood beauty—prettiness, nice cars, expensive vacations, etc.—which is plastic and meaningless, and subjective everyday beauty—in nature, each other, etc.—which is ultimately the meaning of life. One could add the aesthetic beauty of art, literature, and so on, but in the end that comes back to subjective (if not everyday) beauty. I have no respect for Hollywood beauty, nor should anyone else. Subjective beauty, on the other hand, is available on a daily basis, and we should all indulge.

In terms of human nature, I don’t think people are intrinsically good or evil, beautiful or ugly. We’re definitely a blend, but because selfishness is easier than altruism, we tend to embody aspects of ugliness more often than not. Beauty is an ideal to which we should all aspire, but our baseline is probably closer to beauty’s opposite. Julia Kristeva, I think, proposed the notion of abject aesthetics, where we find beauty precisely in ugliness. More and more, I think it’s the most reasonable way to experience and understand beauty. It recognizes the limits of our world, ourselves, and teaches us to see reality as it is, not as it should be. In many ways, as it is is as it should be—we just need to learn how to see it that way.

NH: I’m baffled by the ease with which you write about God. I would never think to address Him or Her so directly. Where does that come from?

CG: Knowing full well that He probably doesn’t exist, He still occupies a lot of my imagination. I think God is the ultimate metaphor. It’s tough to not think about Him, even if you’re an atheist or an agnostic. Camus, for instance, was an atheist, but he was obsessed with religion. My perspective on God isn’t so much that He does or doesn’t exist. It’s more like,“If He does exist, what is He like?” And,“How should we approach Him?” For me, these questions are more interesting than the question of existence. You can be just as fascinated by an absence as a presence.

NH: To what extent do you struggle with beginnings and endings?

CG: I usually have both when I start. They come either one after the other or kind of together. I’ll have the whole arc all at once, and then it’s a matter of filling in the pieces and figuring out the structure. Where the beats go, where the reversals go, all the little events that make up a story. I have tried in the past to discover as I go, but I prefer to have a roadmap.

NH: When a story that you’ve written does refer to time, more often than not, it takes place in the wee hours.

CG: I think that’s when the interesting things happen, at least internally. That’s when you have the fewest distractions. People are vulnerable and a little scared, because they’re tired and alone in the dark. At two in the morning, there’s nothing to keep you company except yourself.