An Interview with Shawn Wen
By Lucy Schiller
Lucy: I’d like to start by asking you a dense question about creating something in a dark, empty space. The opening page of A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause gestures at Marcel Marceau’s own creations, his work as a mime between “things that exist” and “things that do not exist.” When most people think of biography, they think of a totally comprehensive, exhaustively indexed, narrative book, usually large and heavy, that purports to tell the entirety of one person’s life. These have existed for as long as any of us can remember. Conversely, the essay as a genre seems to stump expectations; it’s so wide and roomy, and pushed to precisely define it, most would have a hard time doing so. Can you speak about where you see A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause in terms of these two markers—biography and essay—and how you have used existent structures or expectations to create something new? What, in your mind, can the essay lend biography, and vice-versa?
Shawn: I didn’t think that I was working on a biography as I was writing, though that’s of course one of the ways that this book functions. But I was driven more by an interest in form than by a hunger for information. I was concerned with keeping the writing very tight. So, unlike a traditional biographer, I cut out many details, or disguised them in poetry.
I can’t speak with authority about biography as a genre. But as an outside observer, I feel that biography is defined by maximalism. Even after dozens of books have been written about Thomas Jefferson, new ones are comes out examining his relationship with his slaves.
I do think that we as essayists can strive towards the curiosity, obsessiveness, and discipline of biographers. And, of course, I think that all genres, including biography, could learn from the essay’s inventiveness.
Lucy: When we talk about essays as finished things, we sometimes lose track, I think, of the thing that first snagged the writer and compelled them to not just tell a straightforward story but to essay: to roll their mind around and over that thing, exploring and venturing sometimes pretty far from their initial point of interest. What first snagged you about Marcel Marceau and felt like something you wanted or needed to push on intellectually? Over the course of your research and writing, were there other moments where you changed direction, pushing one way or another because of a connection you made or a discovery you had while researching?
Shawn: I came up with the idea to write about Marcel Marceau when I read his obituary in the New York Times, which mentioned in passing his work in the French Resistance and the death of his father in the Holocaust. I was interested in the disjointedness between his dazzling career as a mime and the devastation he endured during World War II. It opened up a space where I felt like I could explore as a writer.
So if disjointedness was my starting point, then contradiction was my throughline. Obviously, I was using written language to describe an art that had rejected words.
Early on, I decided to try to mimic mime’s sparseness. I made choices on what to withhold, in attempt to mirror the intentional absences that defined Marceau’s style of mime (the lack of dialog, props, or any sort of real set). I wanted the book to feel similarly bony. For instance, I avoided describing Marceau’s physical appearance, because I want him to live in movement and in his quotes. I don’t explain the lists of objects I’ve included until the very end. I try not to give away my own feelings about Marceau.
Lucy: Essayists have such different approaches to the act, and the art, of research. What did a typical research day look like for you?
Shawn: Well, I had a few different phases of research. First I interviewed mimes who had studied with Marceau or performed in his troupe, during which there was no typical day. I was running around Paris, Berlin, and Dresden chasing down interviews and observing mime performances.
When I moved into archival research, I spent my days in the special collections section of the New York Performing Arts Library, flipping through newspaper clippings and watching performance videos. I wasn’t sure what I’d end up using, or even what I was making, so I wrote down everything.
Lucy: I’ve read that this first started as a sound-based piece before settling into a text-based form. But I imagine that even once deciding to move to text, there were still lots of decisions to make about form. Why did it make sense to write this book as a kind of collage? How did you work, in this form, to establish if not linearity then continuity? And did your extensive work in sound inform the formal choices you made while writing?
Shawn: I started this project at a time that I was infatuated with audio production, and I thought that I would be making “mime radio.” But, ultimately, the newspaper clippings I read were much more compelling than the tape I gathered, so it became a book instead.
I learned a lot about writing through my radio work. There’s a lightness and informality in radio writing. It’s writing to imitate speech, writing to move forward to your next piece of tape.
Is this a collage? If it reads that way, that may be an artifact of how separate the research and writing phases were. I had a few months of concentrated research. And, once I began writing, I had to take all of this material and arrange it.
To establish continuity, I created a few separate threads that run throughout the book: biographical sections, performances, lists of Marceau’s possessions, and then these floating poems. These threads are meant to pull the reader from one page to the next. My hope is that the logic of the book reveals itself as it progresses.
Lucy: The way you write about Marceau’s performances has made readers rush to YouTube and watch him, often for the first time. I imagine that you watched these performances intently and many times in order to write about them with a level of granular knowledge. What decisions did you have to make as you “translated” Marceau’s art into text?
Shawn: Are people rushing to YouTube? I didn’t know that. That’s funny. Within the text of the book, I pretty much openly complain about how poorly mime translates to video.
The performance sections were tedious to put together. I took notes on how Marceau was holding his spine, his arms, his legs, and then what we were supposed to see. I was tracking two separate, parallel sequences.
The research also felt high stakes. Most of the performances I wrote about were not online. I had already moved to California when I was expanding the book, so I had to travel back to New York to visit the Performing Arts Library. I was taking notes in the service of future writing, without really knowing how I’d use it. I remember casting a very wide net, because I felt like if my notes were incomplete, I’d be fucked.
Lucy: Relatedly, while Marceau is an inspiration in himself, I’m curious about what essays or other works of art informed your writing. Were there any essays, sound pieces, books, or anything else that you came back to over the course of this project for inspiration of form or just spirit?
Shawn: For this project, I was deeply influenced by John D’Agata’s Halls of Fame, especially his essay on Martha Graham, which I used quite shamelessly as a blueprint for writing about performance. I also turned again and again to Eliot Weinberger’s An Elemental Thing, Wayne Koestenbaum’s The Queen’s Throat, Kathy Acker’s Blood and Guts in High School, and Thalia Field’s Point and Line.
Lucy: Something I love about this book is that it feels deeply personal in its formal choices, and that it is shaped completely and masterfully by your sensibilities as a writer and a person. And yet there’s no personal pronoun from you, no overt statement of intent, no stated connection (“I watch Marceau and I feel…”). I think a lot of essayists, even when writing about something unrelated to them, end up overtly inserting themselves into the work. Can you talk about your decision to keep yourself as even an incidental character out of your book, and why you chose to do this?
Shawn: I didn’t see any need to explicitly insert myself into this book. I wanted the readers to have the space to form their own thoughts and feelings.
I think that first-person is the fashion in nonfiction these days. But, you know, a long-lasting trend, like denim. I employ it in many essays. But I do think that it can be a crutch—a shortcut for inserting emotion or a sense of immediacy. Once you write “I feel” or “I think,” you are directing your reader. More often than not, I find the insertion of the writer into the text to be unnecessary, even indulgent.
Lucy: The Collections sections in A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause are a kind of clothesline: they occur nearly from the beginning to the end of the book, and from them hang an expanding list of Marceau’s possessions, which seem to become more and more ornate before finally being auctioned off by the French state to pay his debts. How did you settle on stringing this list of Marceau’s possessions through the book? And why did a list feel necessary?
Shawn: I’m so glad you picked up on the expanding lists of collections towards the end of the book. I wanted these objects to begin to proliferate, even to overwhelm, as Marceau declines. And I hope that the auction serves as a payoff to the seemingly-random lists of objects.
Right around the time I finished the first draft of this book, I saw the auction announced in the news. You can imagine, I was loathe to go back to producing new writing. But I had to. I mean, I had spent a year researching and writing about someone, and all of a sudden, I had access to a catalog of his personal belongings.
I think the collections sections serve a few different functions in the book. They are a source of voyeuristic pleasure. They anchor the reader in physical artifacts. And they provide a bit of a breather, amidst these richer sections of poetry, biography, and performance.
Lucy: Stop me if I’m getting too corny, but it strikes me that now that your book exists, it lives somewhere between the ornate objects that Marceau left behind and the less tangible, far more immortal and invaluable art that he created and performed. Do you feel, having completed A Twenty Minute Silence Followed by Applause, that the essay as a form—or your essay in particular—allows a resurrection of its subject that lets it breathe long after it has ceased, in real life, to exist? And how do you classify your book in relation to Marceau: is it a paean, a resurrection, an exploration, a commemoration, or something else entirely?
Shawn: I think, depending on how you look at it, all writing is a way of resurrecting or animating. I’m fine with readers seeing about this book as a paean, commemoration, etc. All are fair interpretations. That said, none of those were useful ways for me, as a writer, to see my work. Instead, I feel like I studied Marceau. I tried to understand him, and then I created something new.
Lucy: What are you excited by in the world of contemporary essays? Where do you think there is room to go, essay-wise, that you’re excited to see in the future?
Shawn: My God, this is a very exciting time to be writing essays. Look at how Valeria Luiselli and Claudia Rankine have utilized all of the essay’s artistry, flexibility, and capacity for interrogation to look at pressing issues. Look at Maggie Nelson’s effortless braiding of poetry, scholarship, and memoir. And, of course, Elena Passarello’s brilliant, delightful, imaginative work. I could go on.
I have no idea where the essay will go. But it’s a thrilling moment where essay writers are pushing the form, and by extension, each other.