Reviews/Interviews Editor Ann Beman interviews Eric Shonkwiler about Above All Men, his stark and striking novel set in a future American Midwest.
Do you come from a storytelling family?
I come from a long line of people who live stories rather than tell them. I mine my folk for stories, though, and the kernel from which Above All Men emerged originated with my uncle, who told me about some of his experiences in Vietnam.
Where in the process of writing the novel did the title emerge? [It comes from 1 Corinthians 15, right? We are to be pitied above all men.]
I had the title relatively early on in the process of writing the book, but while it was gestating it had no name. I had that delicate anxiety that you get when you don’t know the title of a thing, sure it will come to you and equally sure you’ll be forced to lift a platitude.
The great thing about a title is that, if you say nothing about it, the reader gets to make their own conclusions. This comes in handy when the book has long ago moved on from what the title supposedly meant, yet the title still seems to fit. I followed Hemingway’s orders with a number of short stories and adapted titles from Ecclesiastes, but all I’ll say regarding the novel is that I’m quite happy with its ominous, religious implications.
What spurred you to write Above All Men? Was there an inciting incident?
AAM came from the ashes of a couple other books, and those came from ideas I’ve had for quite a while. After writing those first two books, the first one, really, I knew there really wasn’t anything else for me but writing. I wrote the first, sent it around and was summarily rejected, wrote the second to the same, and, after a few years, ended up going to UC Riverside for an MFA on the strength of the first. As soon as I got out there, I started working on Above All Men. I knew by then that the first two books weren’t very good–I was cutting my teeth, getting my voice. But with AAM I knew I was on to something.
Is David Parrish inspired by a real-life character or composite of characters?
David’s trauma comes from my uncle, largely, but the rest of him is a fiction. I’m sure there are bits of my father, bits of myself in there, but nothing too large.
Why did you choose to forgo quotation marks in dialog? Is that standard operating procedure with your writing? I had to get used to it, but I imagined that curly quote marks would have been frilly embellishments in a story where frilly embellishments did not belong.
You hit it on the head. I didn’t start off without them, but by the time I began AAM I’d toyed with the idea enough that the page just didn’t seem right with quotation marks floating around. I’ve got a number of short stories with quotation marks, some without, too. It depends on the aesthetic of the piece. It does take getting used to–my first McCarthy took me a while to get a hold of–but once you do, I think it has its benefits. I’m seeing a lot of novelists shirking quotation marks these days; I think the last three or four books I read didn’t have any. Chris Abani and Louise Erdrich, for instance, both dropped them in their latest works. There’s something to be said for that.
If you could give this novel a soundtrack, what would it be?
You got me thinking about a movie version of the novel. Score by Nick Cave, Michael Shannon as David, Jeff Nichols directing. Wouldn’t that be grand?
Are we wanting the whole deal, here? Twelve songs? Here goes:
1. Curs in the Weeds by Horse Feathers.
2. Cowboy Dan by Modest Mouse.
3. Dry by William Elliott Whitmore.
4. Hard Ain’t it Hard by Woody Guthrie.
5. So Long, It’s Been Good to Know You by Woody Guthrie.
6. Georgia Lee by Tom Waits.
7. Revelator by Gillian Welch.
8. One Too Many Mornings by Bob Dylan.
9. Rank Strangers by The Stanley Brothers.
10. Homesick by Ryan Kickland.
11. The Dead Flag Blues by Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
12. Sodom, South Georgia by Iron & Wine.
Most of those songs, to mix your questions a bit, were included at one time or another in my AAM playlist, which I listened to when I was first writing the book. I think they reflect my feelings and my needs as much, if not more, than they do the book itself. But you could do worse than to have some Woody Guthrie in a story about working man woes and dust storms.
Do you listen to music as you write? If so, what is it? If not, do you have music that inspires you?
I do. Music is essential. I prepare a playlist of around 200 songs for each novel I write. An important part of these playlists is postrock–lots of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, This Will Destroy You, Valley of the Giants, Set Fire to Flames, etc. I’ve found postrock as a genre to be productive even when it doesn’t fit precisely the mood you’re trying to convey on the page–I played This Will Destroy You in workshops I taught and the kids loved it, found it helped quite a bit. I’m polishing off a second novel right now that has a lot more blues in its playlist, more Tom Waits. More grime, more glitz. A. A. Bondy and Jason Molina play a big part.
On your Twitter homepage, you say you’re “preoccupied with ruination.” From where did that preoccupation stem?
Likely it comes from a background in evangelical Christianity. I think we’re all a little preoccupied with ruination, though, and always have been. We’re all looking for that sudden shift down the pike. The truth of the matter, though, is that we’ve never been closer to the end of the world.
Which authors influence your writing?
The largest influences are Ernest Hemingway and Cormac McCarthy. One of the better moments of my writing life, though, came when I was reading over AAM and found that I sounded like neither. I think early on it’s extremely important to stick to one or two influences, to ride on their sound until your own begins to show through. When I was writing earlier work, I can remember soaking in McCarthy’s Suttree and later that day wringing it out onto my own page. Eventually, though, I stopped keeping him near at hand and found I didn’t need to go back to the well, as it were.
What are your favorite books about the American Midwest?
Four come to mind right away: Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead, which is one of the loveliest books I’ve ever read–I think of Robinson’s take on ashes every time I’m near a fire; Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism, which conveys Midwestern pedantry with an accuracy I’ve never seen; David Rhodes’ The Last Fair Deal Going Down, which describes Des Moines, Iowa, with a hole in it I suspect many Midwestern cities share; and Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which in a way combines many of the traits I love about the above books and tells a story so real and familiar I could easily imagine it as the biography of a distant aunt.
What’s your definition of Midwestern?
Geographically, I follow the standard definitions. Otherwise, I define us as under-educated, over-worked stoics.
In your bio, you say you’ve lived and worked in every contiguous U.S. time zone. What’s that about?
I am lucky enough, and rootless enough, to have gotten to travel quite a bit. Over the course of these travels I’ve ended up holding jobs in Ohio, California, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Texas. I’ve been a 911 dispatcher, a teacher, and an Assistant Director of Security, to name the highlights. I figure I’ve got at least one more entertaining job in my future, before I have to settle down somewhere.
Do you have other projects in the works?
I’m polishing a second novel toward a presentable first draft, and am feeding and watering (with bourbon) a third book which I should be ready to start writing in a month or so.
Eric Shonkwiler has had writing appear in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, and Midwestern Gothic. He was born and raised in Ohio, received his MFA from The University of California Riverside, and has lived and worked in every contiguous U.S. time zone. His debut novel, Above All Men, is forthcoming from MG Press, March 2014.