David Rice is a writer and animator based in New York, who spent a year studying in Berlin with the support of a DAAD Study Scholarship grant. His interests cluster around horror, noir, and the grotesque. He published his first novel, A Room in Dodge City, when we first interviewed him in 2017, and his second, Angel House, is out now.
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We asked David for some updates:
- Tell us a bit about your latest novel, Angel House. What are some things that inspired you to write this novel and inspired you while writing?
I started this novel when I was living in Berlin through the DAAD in 2010, and worked on it off and on until 2017, when I started seeking a publisher. In this way, it’s been a kind of meta-novel for me - something that’s been in the background for a long time, and whose themes came to mirror the struggles and developments I was going through over the course of many other projects.
What initially inspired me was a need to put what I felt was a developing personal style into practice—to make something that would, in a tangible way, announce my arrival as a new writer. I wanted to filter a lot of my fading memories of adolescence (I was twenty-three when I started drafting) through a lens of surrealism and fantastical, nightmarish imagery. I was aware of the cliché of so many writers’ first novels being thinly-veiled autobiographies, so I tried to work both with and against this by filtering my nostalgia and ambivalence about growing up through a kind of wild and bizarre genre lens that would recast it in a new way—a way that, perhaps, was actually closer to the very bizarre headspace that I operated in as a teenager, a kind of psychic freedom that I was afraid of losing as I moved through my twenties. I was convinced that the only way to keep the right to my own imagination as an adult was if I became a real novelist, not just someone with a lot of ideas.
In terms of plot, the novel is about a satanic entity called Professor Squimbop who sails across an Inland Sea in an ark called ANGEL HOUSE, which docks on the shore once a year. Wherever it docks, a town sprouts up from the seafloor, full of people with memories of having lived there all their lives. The book details a year in one of these towns, focusing on the Professor’s interactions with the spectral, lonely, and past-haunted townspeople, some of whom were based on myself and my friends.
- How do you think your work as a writer and animator has developed since your first novel?
This is a hard question, since, technically, I began ANGEL HOUSE before my first published novel (A Room in Dodge City, which came out in 2017). Overall, though, I think my relation to the novel as a form has developed in that now I can see it as a complete thing, something with a definite beginning and end, and thus just part of the sequence of novels and other projects that make up a career. Before, when I began ANGEL HOUSE, I saw it more as an all-encompassing life pursuit, something potentially infinite, which, at a certain point, is a mindset you need to leave behind if you ever want to finish anything.
The bittersweet part of this is that now I know I can write and finish a novel, and hopefully many novels, but I also know that no single novel will entirely “redeem my life,” or whatever quasi-mystical transformation I was hoping for when I started this book.
- How has your experience in Germany shaped your career and influenced your work?
It was very important for this book about life in a small American town to have the distance of being abroad. It let me reflect much more deeply and internally on the world I’d left behind, because I had to conjure it from scratch in my imagination, rather than being immersed in it.
In terms of cultural impact, I think the depth of German folklore and mythology really influenced me—the strains of Romanticism and yearning for individual transcendence through nature and deep thought that you see in authors like Novalis, Stifter, and Nietzsche, and directors like Herzog, is very moving, though of course it’s important to also be aware that these same mythic feelings can lead to incredible darkness if they’re deployed in the wrong way.
- Have you included Germany or your experiences in Germany in any of your previous works? If so, could you give us a few examples?
The closest I’ve come so far is a short story called “Gmunden” (set in Austria), about an old man living in a cabin in the woods, who gets roped into some very dark games by his son, who’s gone away to film school in Vienna. It’s partly an homage to Thomas Berhnard and Michael Haneke. It’s up here, for anyone who’d like to read it.
Now, I’ve turned to Germany much more directly in the novel I’m currently working on, which is called The Berlin Wall. It’s about an alternative history of Europe in which the Wall became a conscious, living entity. It takes place in the present day, when the atomized pieces of the once-living-Wall are wandering all over Europe, trying to reunite.
- What was the focus of your studies in Germany? What is your most memorable experience from your time in Berlin?
I focused on literature and media studies at Humboldt. The most memorable course was one on technology in film with Joseph Vogl, a very fascinating thinker with whom I’ve kept in touch . My most memorable experiences were probably just long, contemplative walks all over the city, either alone or with friends. I had a lot more free time when I lived in Germany, so, when I wasn’t writing, I was walking all around Berlin, stopping in cafes to read, and generally just keeping myself immersed in daydreams.
I also have a vivid memory of a day-trip to Eberswalde to see a ship-elevator. The elevator wasn’t working when we got there, so we took a long walk through the surrounding woods. It must’ve been February, so it got dark around 3pm. I remember looking up at the sky and feeling like I was in a Caspar David Friedrich painting. I think Northern Europe has a kind of wintry melancholy that’s very beautiful.
- Have you been back to Germany since you received the DAAD Study Scholarship? If so, how was it different?
Not yet, though I’m hoping to soon! Perhaps my new book on the Berlin Wall will take me back there.
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