An Interview with Jack Pendarvis
Jack Pendarvis is the author of two short story collections, The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure and the just-published Your Body Is Changing, both published by MacAdam Cage. What’s funny about Pendarvis’s writing is basically everything -- his stories leap and writhe and more often than not the laughs come to the reader at about the same rate as the cringes do. What’s deceptive about Pendarvis’ work is that the characters -- southerners, largely, and folks it’d be generous to describe as With It -- are, in fact, loved by the author. The humor sometimes has a real caustic tinge to it and can easily be misunderstood in the Flannery O’Connor way -- that the author’s simply a puppet-master, manipulating these dopes for kicks. Pendarvis’s characters, though, like George Saunders’s or Lorrie Moore’s, are not simply there to make the reader laugh, and a close reading reveals characters who are often horribly flawed and people anyone would likely try to avoid, but still real and struggling and who, like all of us, are after a bit more peace and hope and goodness in their strange worlds. The following interview transpired over something like two weeks, over e-mail, and any remaining clunkiness in the text is the sole fault of the interviewer and not the incredibly cordial and prompt Mr. Pendarvis.
In the most general possible terms, what are some of your influences -- books but also movies and music and whatever else (like paintball, if it was a huge influence of yours, would be appropriate here).
As far as books go, here are some things I remember having a big influence on me at an early age: The Hardy Boys, Catch-22, James Thurber, Pilgrim's Progress, Without Feathers by Woody Allen, some pulp novels about The Shadow (I believe the writer's name was Maxwell Grant, I'm not sure). Comic books: Plastic Man, Captain Marvel, The Metal Men, The Defenders, The Incredible Hulk, oh, you name it. The Scrooge McDuck comic book stories by Carl Barks, which were sort of traditional adventure stories, except they were ducks instead of people. And somehow I got hold of Philip Roth when I was pretty young, too. And the Bible.
I saw Randy Newman on Saturday Night Live when that show was first on the air, and I went out and got a bunch of his records. I think the way he writes songs had an influence -- you know, narrators revealing more than they realize. When I got to college, I remember thinking that Robert Browning reminded me of Randy Newman. I read a lot of Browning poems. They probably had an impact. At a very young age I would play the record player, the radio, and a tape recorder at the same time, all tuned to different things at once. I just thought the sound was interesting, the accidental combination of tones. So when I discovered Charles Ives in my teen years, I had sort of prepared myself sonically (without knowing it) to listen to what he was doing. I think his mixture of the popular, the vernacular, the weird, the serious, the playful -- that must have had some impact on my writing. I discovered jazz when I was about 17. That was a big deal. A Sonny Rollins number called "Blue 7."
Movies and TV, sure! The way I discovered Thurber was through a sitcom based on his writings. I watch a movie like Rio Bravo, just as a random example, and I want to understand how I'm pulled in, why I care so much... Rio Bravo is a really good movie, but the hoariest old genre piece can have the same impact. Haven't you ever been watching a bad movie, and you'd like to turn it off, but you still want to see what happens to the characters? I'd like to achieve that effect with my writing, but I think I'm still a long way off. Also, the director Billy Wilder. He saw the movie Brief Encounter, which is about two people having an affair in a borrowed apartment. Billy Wilder thought, "Right, but whose apartment is that?" He imagined the peripheral character in the story, and that's how he came up with his movie The Apartment. I always like trying to imagine the peripheral character... that's how I came up with the security guard and the paramedic in my story "The Pipe," which normally would have been about the guy who buried himself as a publicity stunt. Instead, I wrote about the people who guarded his air pipe. That way of thinking came directly from Billy Wilder.
How long have you written? And what’d you do before?
I've always written stories, and before I could write I drew comic strips that had a story element.
Is there, do you think, something like a writer’s community that you’re a part of at the moment? I’ve read your blog a bit, and you’re obviously friends with some other writers, but I’m thinking in terms of, like, McSweeney’s, and how there are almost, like the old Hollywood studios model, groups of talent that all sort of play together -- is there a sense of that? M. Ward’s a good example of it in music -- he helped Beth Orton with her last disc, is buddies with Jim James from MMJacket and Conor from Bright Eyes, and those guys all spread out from there, to Britt Daniel in Spoon, to Neko Case, etc.
Ha ha! Funny you should mention M. Ward. I don't know him, but my friend Kelly Hogan just sang backup for him on Conan O'Brien. I wrote a song for Kelly once. It's on her first solo album. I know a lot of musicians. Writers, though... I don't hang out with too many. I'm in contact with a lot of them, as you mention, but most of the ones I know well live in other cities. I'll be in Oxford, Mississippi, next year as a writer-in-residence at Ole Miss, and I'll get to hang out with Tom Franklin more. He's one of my oldest friends. I've never met any of the people from McSweeney's, with the exception of John Warner (who edits the web version). I met him twice... and that was long after he had published a few little pieces of mine. I have cordial e-mail conversations with a few other of the McSweeney's people, but that's the extent of it -- and there's almost always some professional reason behind it. I met Tom Bissell when we both happened to be visiting Oxford, Mississippi. I'm not sure you could call him a "McSweeney's" writer exactly; he has done so many other things as well. Anyway, we hit it off, but that was before I had been in any McSweeney's publication. I found out later, as we talked, that he had written a McSweeney's humor piece that I really enjoyed. But that was a coincidence. Oh, and once I met Salvador Plascencia, who wrote The People of Paper, a fantastic novel published by McSweeney's. We did a reading together in Tempe, and he kindly dropped by my reading in Los Angeles, where he lives, a few days later. But a lot of people seem to think I hang out with those guys and have a grand old time like Dorothy Parker and the gang. The truth is, I just send things in and get accepted or rejected the old fashioned way. But they're all very friendly and polite and solicitous.
What’s going on with any of the movies you’re involved with? And how weird is it to be involved in movies that come from your work? Is it hard to let go of the stories, to let a director or whoever get working with them and push them in new directions and shapes?
The movie I was writing for Cartoon Network got scrapped. As far as I can tell, movies are harder to get done than books. As for the short film of "The Pipe," the director called the other day and said that it won some kind of screenwriting award. And I think they're putting my name on the award, though I didn't really have anything to do with the movie... just a "from a story by" credit. But that's nice. The director said Showtime wanted to look at the movie, I think. But as I said, that sort of thing falls apart all the time -- I probably shouldn't have even mentioned it. Movies are a mystery.
“On The Train, Returning” (I'm sure I've got that title wrong -- don't have the book in front of me, sorry that I'm this unprofessional) seems a lot more serious (“literary”) than any of the other stories in either this collection or the last one. Is getting more overtly/obviously “serious” (almost entirely subject matter-wise, I’d argue) something you want to do? There seems to be a split between arch/wry funniness and gutbusting/colorful funny (think: the difference between New Yorker cartoons and things like Wedding Crashers), and you do both well, but do you feel a pull toward one or the other? Do you feel like you should write more serious/funny stuff?
Yeah, I don't know. The honest truth is, that story you're talking about is cut down from a story I wrote in the 1980s. I gave it a polish, cut about 12 pages out of it, and stuck it in there. So in a way, it doesn't represent what I'm doing now. I mean, I changed it a lot (those are big cuts) and what was left over seemed to fit my writing mood of the moment. But it's probably not the best example of what I'll do next. In other words, I have no idea how to answer that question. I guess it makes me nervous that people come to my readings and expect to laugh. That's not my main objective when I'm writing... I don't think about getting laughs. It's a side effect of the kind of situations and people and ideas I like to write about. But then, when I have to go read it out loud, I remember: "Uh-oh. What do I have here that won't disappoint everybody?" Usually nothing!
How tough is writing a novel versus your short stories? The book’s called Awesome, and it’s coming next year, right? Was it a lot tougher working on something book length, or was it pretty natural? (I’m thinking of Saunders and how he’s been quoted a bunch as saying he really wants to do a novel but it’s just not his thing.)
Well, every time I rewrite the novel it gets shorter. A lot of the stories in Your Body Is Changing were going to be "novels" at first, but I just kept slashing them down and finally gave up. I think the cutting is my favorite part of writing, so I find it hard to imagine writing anything very long. Awesome is going to be a short novel. The subject matter is kind of ridiculous and I don't think it would bear the weight of 600 pages, or even 200. I enjoy reading very long books sometimes (I just finished a 600 page biography of Gershwin) but I don't think I could write one. Awesome also has a strong folk tale or fairy tale component, so it sort of wants to be short, if that makes sense. I'm thinking of The King, Snow White, or The Dead Father, all by Donald Barthelme. I mean, that's not the tone, exactly, but it's somewhere in the neighborhood, I hope.
You wrote about the goal of your writing not specifically being about laughs/comedy, so I guess the question is: what’s the aim? (I totally submit that this might be the stupidest question possible, and if it’s possible to ask it in a non-idiot way, that’s the way I intend it. I feel like writers are all after the same huge abstractions -- truth, illumination, human condition -- but are there more specifics you can get into?)
Maybe I do have "points" I'm trying to make, but only in the most instinctive and roundabout way... or maybe I'm writing to try to figure out or clarify my "points." But was it Samuel Goldwyn who said, "If you want to send a message, use Western Union"? Maybe "concerns" is a better word than "points." I guess my writing wants to be empathic and funny, and sometimes it succeeds for some people. This is going to be the longest interview ever! Writing fiction is a great way to avoid these kinds of questions. Maybe that's why I do it.
Also, just in general: what’s success for you? Are you successful right now, making your living as a writer?
What's success for me? I don't know. I certainly can't complain. We seem to luck into a little money whenever we need it, or when things just begin to look desperate, knock wood. And we have pleasant hobbies. Nobody bosses us around! Is that success?
Oh, and just because it’s getting all sorts of nerds into fits right now: what’s your take on blogs vesus print (considering, too, that you’ve got a blog and this interview will end up on a blog)? Do blogs hurt readership? Is there something noble and real about print that blogs can’t replicate? Does it matter?
Blogs or print? Neither! I believe the kidskin scroll is the only way to read. In the future, I want all my works handwritten on scrolls.
What’s the view out your window?
The view out my window: a little row of shops. But there's also an enormous old tree that I love, and when the leaves get really thick (as at this time of year) we could be living out in the country somewhere, for all we know, rather than on a busy street in the middle of Atlanta. All we can see is green. I'm going to miss that tree when we leave to start the writer-in-residence gig at Ole Miss.