Miles Clark: Some people have claimed that your stories are guilty of “hick-baiting.” The omnipresence of exaggeration in your work, in both syntax and theme, is apparently lost on whichever quotidian critics end up with ARC’s of your books. But while purposely eccentric, there’s also something genuinely genuine about your characters, particularly their encounters with sadness. Do you draw them from real life? Or are they dragged down from Parnassus by an octopus tentacle, placed on an operating table, and given, as Ben Marcus might say, a “Saunders Injection” before being pushed violently into the world?
Jack Pendarvis: I would hesitate to call any critic of mine “quotidian,” mainly because I don’t know what it means. Besides, I wrote the book and I shouldn’t really whine or complain about what people make of it. The book should be its own argument or apology. As for where my characters come from, sometimes I take a stray, fleeting, tiny thought or notion and try to hold on to it and develop it—the kind of thing we usually allow ourselves to dismiss or forget at once. Many of my characters come from wondering what it would be like to follow a crazy or rightly repressed thought to its conclusion.
MC: I’m curious about the choice of setting for your stories. Many authors who write fiction similar to yours, like Saunders or Karen Russell or Tao Lin, don’t consistently choose a single “real” setting, or else purposefully do away with any “reality” in this regard. Your latest collection was unique in its proof that “Hysterical Realist” fiction can, effectively, be anchored to a single place. Did this concern ever enter your mind? Why do you base so many stories in the south?
JP: I have never heard of “Hysterical Realist” fiction before reading your review. My first book doesn’t have anything very “Southern” in it—maybe some of the dialogue. As for the second book, I don’t know. I’m from Alabama. I feel comfortable using the word Alabama. I know what things look like in Alabama. That way, I keep “research” down to a minimum.
MC: As a follow-up question: I once asked a literature professor how Hemingway would write about the desert. The professor explained that the desert, while a preeminent characteristic of British fiction, was “inappropriate to the discussion of an American writer.” Anyway, you are not Hemingway, you are Jack Pendarvis. But are there settings, besides deserts (which apparently you are not allowed to write about), that you think would be particularly challenging for a Jack Pendarvis story? Why?
JP: I just read a really good book by Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays. That’s an American desert book if I ever read one! Well, what that literature professor said is a good example of why I don’t like to talk about writing. Everything one says is wrong, somehow. To answer your question, I like to write about empty places where one or two characters can kind of bang around in a hollow fashion. So maybe a big crowd scene, a big party, a wedding like at the beginning of The Godfather… I wouldn’t do too well with that. Mostly the settings I use seem to be closed or unpopular stores, abandoned homes or businesses, fields… I’ve never really thought about this before. It may not be true.
MC: At a recent New York City reading you transformed yourself into a jukebox of Broadway show tunes. Have you ever acted in the past? Any thoughts on the relation of the stage to storywriting?
JP: I was in a couple of plays as a young man. I was truly, absolutely terrible. I don’t know what I was thinking. Plays are a different kind of writing. I don’t understand how they’re put together. I like them, I feel warmly about them, but I don’t understand the mechanics or the structure. They seem mysterious, and maybe that’s why I like them. Frequently my characters express themselves in soliloquies; that’s the only connection I can think of, but that comes from more of a Randy Newman/Robert Browning influence than any playwright.
MC: I’ve heard that you used to write stories without so many exclamation points. Did an aesthetic sea change accompany this shift towards the saturation of chirographic excitement? If so, in what ways?
JP: Well, reading The Dog of the South by Charles Portis gave me permission to really let my natural tendencies go to town in the exclamation point department. More so in my first book, though there are a few straggling exclamation points in the second book that I suppose I had to get out of my system. They’re always in character. I will defend them that far. And most of them in the first book belonged to one particular narrator.
MC: Apparently, there’s a real-life tale behind the owl anecdote in the title novella from “Your Body is Changing” that trumps the otherworldliness of its fictional equivalent. What’s the story? Or is this information classified?
JP: There’s a real-life anecdote behind every story. But we don’t like to talk about them. If the real-life anecdotes were interesting at all, we wouldn’t need to write stories.
MC: You had a choice of three TV stations while growing up. Interestingly, you describe this dearth of media alternatives as beneficial, as it forced exposure to a variety of programs – whereas now, surrounded as we are with a profusion of stimuli, we stimulate ourselves with media objects designed to fit our unique desires. At the risk of asking you to stimulate yourself into a corner, I’m wondering if you could describe the unique Jack Pendarvis reader: what brand of toothpaste does he use? Is he fond of wearing sandals in the grocery store? Does he fly in private jets and manipulate the global supply of sugar? Or did I get the gender wrong?
JP: A shy bookstore clerk of whatever gender.
MC: Elsewhere, you’ve called “Pilgrim’s Progress” an exciting book. Are there any Bunyanesque authors afoot in contemporary literature that you can recommend?
JP: Why not just go back to the man himself?
MC: The University of Mississippi is soon to take you onto its faculty. Have you ever taught writing before? Have you been taught by others? What did you learn? What will you teach?
JP: If you want to find out, you’ll have to pay your money like everybody else.
MC: Finally, can you give any hints as to what your forthcoming novel, “Awesome!” will be like?
JP: There is no exclamation point in the title, although you are the second interviewer to make that understandable assumption. In fact, there are no exclamation points anywhere in the book. I take that back. At one point the narrator quotes a poem by the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, and there is an exclamation point at that juncture, but it belongs to Matthew Arnold, not to me.