Recipes For Surrealist Soup:
An Interview with Eric Howerton
ERIC HOWERTON’S MOST recently published story, “Go Down, Diller,” features a bear with a speech impediment who works fast food. If that doesn’t convince you to read a story, nothing will. Many of Eric’s stories strike a similar balance: they are often magical and surreal with characters who are at once hilarious and affecting. I first met Eric at the University of Houston, where he taught an undergraduate workshop I had the pleasure of taking. Now, I am fortunate to have recently reconnected with him to ask a few questions about “Go Down, Diller,” his forthcoming work, and his craft in general.
Front Porch: You received an MFA from Penn State and your PhD from the University of Houston. It seems fair to assume that you’re a proponent of the graduate-level workshop. What did you find most beneficial about these programs?
Eric Howerton: If you decide to enter a graduate writing program, I think you’re making the statement that you’re not the type of writer who can or will be satisfied writing exclusively for the self. You want an audience, not because you’re vain (though some writers are!), but because you have something important to say and think others might want to hear it. In light of this, I think the greatest benefit of the workshop is discovering where the overlap exists between what you are excited to produce and what an audience will be excited to read. I think some degree of excitement on both ends is critical. If you’re bored when you’re writing, there’s a good chance the audience will be bored when reading too, which might make them stop reading altogether.
There’s a resistance in writing programs to view literature as a form of entertainment, but literature is entertainment and it always has been. Its origins are as entertainment, and I don’t think conceiving of poetry or fiction this way means you’re trivializing your genre, belittling its craft, or pandering to commercial appetites. For me, viewing your work as entertainment means you’re being realistic about the role of the professional writer as someone who trades in the public discussion of ideas by finding new and exciting ways to address these ideas. If you can’t discuss them in new and exciting way (I’m speaking as a reader here), it’s going to be difficult for you to convince your audience to continue following your work. The best writers are always attendant to their reader’s desire to be entertained, even while writing about the deeply philosophical, political, and moral concerns of “high art.”
FP: What’s been the biggest change during your transition from student to writer?
EH: The biggest change, if you don’t land a full-time job right away, is that you will suddenly have a lot of free time on your hands. You’re done teaching, done taking classes, done writing seminar papers, done with your dissertation and comprehensive exams. Finally, you have time to produce everything you’ve been telling yourself you would write if grading and life weren’t always in the way.
But, you say, I just finished a graduate degree in writing. I need a few weeks or months to decompress. I’ve earned it, right?
Wrong! Resist the allure of taking a holiday from writing. Resist! And here’s why:
If you’re only working part-time after earning your MFA or PhD—which is a very real possibility given how few tenure-track teaching jobs are available—use this time to create as much material as you can. There will be few times in your life when you’ll have this much time to write again, and when you do get a full-time job you’ll be surprised by how much committee work and meetings cut into your writing time. Many of the writers I’ve spoken to say that the first few years into a tenure-track job leave you little time for creative output. So don’t beat yourself up if you don’t get a teaching job out the gate; put this time to good use and build a solid body of material.
FP: Who are some of your favorite writers? When we first met, you introduced me to Haruki Murakami’s work, and I still can’t get enough of his fiction.
EH: I still love Murakami, though the writer I can’t get enough of is Vladimir Nabokov. He’s such an amazingly sharp writer in every respect. William Faulkner I love remotely, in the way one loves a grotesque painting you only want to peek at now and again. Other authors whose work I return to regularly include Flannery O’Connor, Kurt Vonnegut, Toni Morrison, Don DeLillo, and George Saunders.
FP: Your stories frequently venture into the surreal and magical. Is that generally a conscious decision, or do you find yourself naturally stretching the bounds of reality in fiction?
EH: It is always a conscious decision to make the story strange or absurd or surreal. I’ve tried writing stories that don’t have these elements, and the process itself feels uneventful and laborious compared to penning the more imaginative ones. The fact of the matter is I live in a world where I am limited by the laws of man and the universe, but when I’m writing these laws can bend or break entirely, creating space for metaphors and emotional experiences that wouldn’t have any resonance outside of the new world I just created. In developing these new worlds, it’s like I’ve discovered a parallel dimension and am the first one to observe it.
The main benefit to writing in a surrealist or magical or absurdist mode is that doing so helps me avoid the use of tired metaphors, rehashed emotional conflicts, and well-worn plots. At this point in history, and with so many people trying to publish their work, you can’t afford to write clichés of plot, metaphor, character, or conflict. I’ve read many, many books about white, upper-middle class domestic squabbles. Few of them are as masterful as the work John Updike produced, so I don’t feel the need to busy myself with this kind of literature unless it breaks new ground by responding to paradigm shifts in culture. This isn’t to say that new ground isn’t being broken; it’s only to say that I’m not interested in producing or reading work that doesn’t break it.
I recently came across a review of a soon-to-be-released TV show based on a popular story collection, and the reviewer asked whether we, as a culture, really need another narrative about middle-aged, middle-class white people having marital problems? Even as a white person who is closer to middle age than not, I thought this was the most poignant and responsible question the reviewer could ask, and I think this is the sort of interrogation that we, as writers, should be asking ourselves. “What’s new about what I’m writing, and why does the exposure I’m giving that newness matter?” The answer to this question is where you, as a writer, start to define whether you’re interested in leaving behind a body of work that grapples with problems and concerns that are much larger than yourself, or whether you’re simply writing homages to your favorite authors by adopting their subjects and styles.
FP: “Go Down, Diller” catches the protagonist, Diller, in crisis after encountering a talking, fast food working bear named Paulo. I’ve got to ask—where did the idea for Paulo spring up?
EH: Don’t ask me how or why, but bears made a shocking number of appearances while I was earning my MFA at Penn State. And not just in my own work. One student started drawing and writing comics about bears. Another student wrote a short with a bear trap in it. There was a zoo story with pandas. A story with the word bear in the title. Another tale of a herd of bears chasing down a cowboy. Bears even appeared on our reading series t-shirts. And then there’s the bear in “Go Down, Diller,” who was churned out of this ursine ubiquity after rereading Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, which contains the story “The Bear.” Like many things in life, Paulo the talking bear is as much a product of circumstance and influence as he is my own imagination.
FP: One of the elements I admired in “Go Down, Diller” is how bitingly funny it is while also dealing with serious drama. Yet, with both humor and drama so present in the story, neither gets in the way of the other. How difficult is it to find the balance between the two?
EH: The balance takes a very, very long time. I am a person given to extremes, so I have to catch myself if the story starts to feel overwhelmingly silly or weird for weirdness’s sake. As an author, I might get a kick out of amplifying the wackiness, but if I want my reader to take the story seriously, I can’t tip the scales too far in that direction. “Go Down, Diller” went through many drafts, more than I care to count. It took years of rewriting the opening scene—tweaking details and diction—before the rest of the story fell into place. In achieving this balance, I think the key for me is understanding that even though my characters are reacting to absurd or strange situations, they react in ways that the audience can understand because I’ve not compromised or made light of their humanity. George Saunders is an author who admirably strikes this balance and I often teach “Escape From Spiderhead” because even though the conceit of the story is far-fetched and satirical, the emotional treatment is about as sincere as it gets.
FP: I know that you’ve been working on your debut novel, RedRedRedRed. What can you tell us about it? Any idea when it might be available?
EH: I’m really excited about this novel. I wrote two clunky novels in graduate school, but this is the first one worth publishing. I don’t want to say too much, but music, heavy metal in particular, features very prominently in RedRedRedRed. I’ve been talking to an agent and am almost ready to send the novel to publishers. Once accepted it could take a year or two for the book to come out. I’m trying to place the story that spawned the novel, so if and when that story comes out it might act as a teaser for the larger work.
FP: It seems a lot of writers—especially those coming out of MFA programs—publish a collection of stories and then jump to novels without ever looking back to the shorter form. Others—say, Murakami or Jim Shepard—regularly publish both story collections and novels alike. Having now published several stories and with a forthcoming novel, in which direction do you see yourself going? Do you think you’ll always write both shorter and longer pieces or do you feel you gravitate more strongly to one over the other?
EH: In many ways, a short story is harder to write than a novel. It seems strange to me that graduate writing programs emphasize short story production over novel production when novels are easier to sell and stories require an attention to detail that can take years of discipline to develop. For example, “Go Down, Diller” took me five years to complete, mainly because I was concerned with economy of language and eliminating distractions. By contrast, I “finished” RedRedRedRed in about a year because while I still had to be concerned about economy and distractions, I didn’t have to be as concerned. With a novel, you can get away with more belt loosening, and knowing I have hundreds of pages to tell the story is really freeing. With more space, I can indulge in the voice of the characters more, let conversations unfold in real time, and go off on tangents and non-sequiturs.
The following analogy might put things into perspective: writing a novel is like making a large quantity of soup from scratch. When you’re making a full pot, a little too much pepper, salt, rosemary, et cetera, isn’t necessarily going to ruin the broth because the other ingredients will cover up most minor mistakes. Now imagine trying to make just one cup of soup from scratch. Suddenly, the ingredient amounts have to be perfectly controlled because a little too much salt or pepper in such a small soup portion is going to have a noticeable effect on the overall product. For me, the difference between writing a novel and writing short stories is a problem of scale and relative balance.
That being said, I have no plans on dropping the short story once my novel comes out. In the final two years of my PhD I finally understood how to write my stories the right way, and I feel like I need to write as many as I can before the magic runs out!
Eric Howerton holds a PhD from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program, teaches at Weber State University, and was a former fiction editor for Gulf Coast. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in PANK, The Locust, The Volta, Foliate Oak, Plaza, theNewerYork, The Legendary, Dying Goose, The Higgs Weldon, Night Train, Grey Sparrow, Duck and Herring Pocket Field Guides, Johnny America, Haggard and Halloo, as well as several alt-weeklies in Texas and New Mexico.