Interview with Austin Storm
Austin Storm: Austin Storm grew up in Annapolis, MD and moved to Moscow in 2003. He and his wife Laura have a sparrow named Rocky and a quail named Sticks.
Caleb Warner: How do you approach your ambitions?
Austin Storm : Oh my gosh, I am a terribly ambitious person. How do you quantify ambition? All I know is that I have a lot of it and it’s dangerous. Vaulting ambition: bad. Shakespeare says it, God says it (laughs).
CW: I would often describe my excess of ambition as a lust for the future. As an ambitious person, do I even have the right to think about the future? Or should ambitious people keep their heads down, stay quiet, and keep working?
AS: Ambition is preferable to the acedia I felt in high school and college. I used to not know what I wanted to do and felt like I had vast expanses of free time, which mystifies me. I don’t know where that went. And when that was replaced with an overwhelming sense of my own finitude and mortality and the sense that I will never get done the things I want to get done in my lifetime: that’s a big life moment. But I prefer the current uncomfortable relationship with my ambition over not knowing what I want to do after dinner (laughs).
CW: What is your relationship with cynicism?
AS: Cynicism and I used to be like this (laughs and crosses fingers). I’m wondering how you are going to express that (laughs). In high school, I was exposed to a lot of culture and cynicism helped me maintain a level of discernment, because cynicism gives you an emotional detachment. But C.S. Lewis had this idea of suspending judgment on art and letting it speak on its own terms. I was also really wary of sentimentalism in high school—I viewed it as the death of cultural engagement—so I avoided it at all costs. But, you get older. And, um, I have a much higher tolerance for sentiment. So now I endeavor to like all of the things that I like simply—
CW: Without irony?
AS: Without any irony. I don’t like anything ironically.
CW: Do you think irony is an excuse or a cop-out?
AS: I didn’t have a lot of tools for discernment. It served me pretty well, but if you have a choice, there are probably better tools to cultivate discernment. It’s hard to turn off once you tap into that well.
CW: Since high school was a season of certain cultural engagements for you, can you give me a narrative of the following seasons?
AS: Of my life (laughs)? Like Proust? It’s a little bit blurry, I guess (laughs)…um…I wanted to be an aesthete, I wanted to appreciate beauty, but I was very wary of beauty. In a Protestant context, faith is word and reason and, you know, aesthetics can be deceptive.
CW: You sound like Augustine.
AS: Yeah. I empathize with that guy. By the way, when I say “Moscow,” I’m referring to the Christian cultural project here. It uses irony a lot, this project, or it used to…There is this idea of pointing out that the emperor has no clothes by using parody, which I think was good for establishing a reputation for truth telling…And I think that’s helpful, but in terms of rhetorical growth, it feels like a very high school thing. It’s easy to make fun of stuff! It’s fun! It’s much harder to make stuff that other people will make fun of. But I still do it (laughs). I want to be on the side of the people making stuff; although that is not the divide. Some people want to make art out of protest, and I think a lot of people start in protest. Gosh, the Arts and Crafts movement was a protest. An awesome protest.
CW: So, what motivates you to make?
AS: Discontent motivates people to make! People make stuff out of a sense of lack. And Moscow has recently lost sight of that. Our cultural ambitions, which seemed so broad, have narrowed. The only reason that one would start a classical school is if one was discontented with one’s current schooling options. And I think the same thing goes for the fine arts. There is gratitude and discontent mixed together.
CW: What do you mean?
AS: You’re grateful for the things in the world, but also discontent with the current state of things. As a counter-example: the worst kind of music is something that is made to sound like everything else in the world. And the best music is made by someone receiving [the world] with gratitude, but also wanting something more.
CW: Which is innovation.
AS: Yeah, exactly. You see people making things that are attempting to be exactly like other things on the mass market and that’s sad…But divine discontent is what made us start a college in the first place, because we were…
CW: Unsatisfied with the current college choices?
AS: Yeah—yes. We imagined better things. I want to be the happiest, most discontented person in the world. There is no area in the modern life that we cannot not imagine better if we only tried.
CW: So would you say…um…
AS: Yes, often.
CW: (laughs) So discontent seems to be related to imagination?
AS: Yeah. You can’t put in fake laughs, by the way (laughs). Anyway, God gives you the whole world, which is a pretty big one gift-wise, and you’re supposed to respond to it. And your response has something to do with our subcreator role. But that is super abstract.
CW: God made us to continue His work of creation. And he left space for us to make the things he made good, better?
AS: Man, now I’m getting all melancholy and egoistic…We have to realize that there is only so much in our world that we can change. We cannot control everything in our cultural orbit. That’s all I got. I don’t know.
CW: Do you have mentors, or people that make you want to keep getting work done? How important are mentors in the creative process?
AS: I am a big fan of the do-the-work school. It’s better than the genius school. There is the do-the-work school where you study, produce a body of work, and then genius comes somewhere in the process. And I am a fan of this school, because it’s the only option open to me. I know that I am not a particularly gifted person, so I know that in the process of pursuing something for a long time, I will get better at it. And I think mentorship is one of those things that can provide a lucky break; at least that’s how it looks in my life.
My landlord is my mentor. He has been very successful, but is very unassuming, which is a rare combination. I am very assuming, but I would like to think that if I become successful I will mellow out. Otherwise, I’ll become insufferable! You can get away with insufferability up to a point, or at least that’s what I tell myself. But you can’t refer to someone in their forties as precocious. That just sounds terrible. I think you can incubate yourself a little bit. You can create your own self-sustaining bohemian culture, where maybe you can get away with a, like a blue man group type-of thing into your late thirties—
CW: Are you referring to Sufjan Stevens?
AS: Yes (laughs).
CW: Where does ambiguity and the weird fit into expressing our orthodox faith of the historical Jesus Christ?
AS: Uh. You’re gonna make me say already/not yet. Moscow is a land of aphorisms. One of the best things of Moscow is that it has no memory, because of the rotating student population. It could have sprung into existence ex nihilo four years ago and no one would know. Before that, it was a swirling sea of mists. The good thing about Moscow’s lack of institutional memory is that you can grow and change.
There is this disorienting experience as a college student where you go away, you grow, you read new books, you are exposed to new TV shows and you go home and no one knows that you’ve grown and suddenly you feel like your high school self and everyone interacts with you as your high school self. But it’s a good thing in Moscow, because you can change and people will accept that. Many an NSA student (laughs, hand out, a pause), between their sophomore and junior year, go home and come back with a whole new wardrobe, a sweet pair of Warby Parker glasses, and a pipe-smoking habit—and that’s cool, it’s a safe place. But the bad thing is that the level of discourse stays the same and you hit the same things over and over again. And I don’t feel like I have anything to offer in the already/not yet, but you should attempt ambiguity; it’s a good way to express that tension and anticipation that is in the Gospel and in your art. That was a long way to get back to that.
CW: Well, here is a long question: when you are daydreaming about being interviewed on primetime television, what do you imagine the country will remember the best?
AS: This is a hard question to conceptualize because I have lately seen my life as rejecting a system that perpetuates reductive ideological thinking (laughs). I think if I had a moment like this, it would have to be…like that guy [Howard Beale from Network] who has a meltdown on live television and exhorts the audience to open their windows and scream “I am mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” If I had a soundbite, it would be some sort of meltdown. I’ll allow late-night TV. It’s benign, but there is something effective about it. I like that every late-night TV host has a nemesis…I wish I could be Stephen Colbert’s late-night nemesis, but he already has one: Jane Fonda. She went on his show and basically out-charactered him. I do wish I could be a late-night TV show’s nemesis (laughs).
CW: When did you decide to stay in Moscow and why?
AS: God clearly brought me here. There has to be some clear indication from him that I have to leave. That sounds very pentecostal, but I like that I’m here.
CW: Would you ever run for mayor?
AS: Um, no. A lot of my life decisions are made specifically to preclude me in the future for running from mayor. I often think of myself in the future as a different person. I refer to him as “future Austin.” And sometimes for his good, I have to do things now (laughs) to PRECLUDE FUTURE AUSTIN—that needs to be in caps.
CW: Thanks for your time, Austin.
AS: Thanks. I hope I don’t get you in trouble in your first issue (dead serious, walking away slowly).