Q&A with Eric Gansworth

Eric Gansworth’s latest book Extra Indians won a 2011 American Book Award. He has published nine books and a collection of poems and visual art. He is a Professor of English and Lowery Writer-in-Residence at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York.

Some of the stories in your latest novel sound fantastic and absurd, yet they are grounded in real life events, such as the Japanese woman looking for buried treasure in Fargo, N.D. Is reality stranger than fiction and does that impact your writing?

I suppose I’ve always been interested in odd news stories.  When News of the Weird started being syndicated, I was a huge fan from the beginning.  That said, I don’t generally prowl the news for ideas, or prowl anywhere else for that matter.  Much of my work has some seed in memory, which something in my current life has triggered.  I get preoccupied by whatever it is, and if it stays around long enough, I develop work around it to discover for myself why I’ve stayed interested.

That story, the death of that woman looking for a treasure that didn’t exist, I found in a standard newspaper, The Buffalo News, just flipping through it one day.  I was drawn to it immediately, cut it out of the paper that day and tacked it to my bulletin board.  It’s still there, now, yellowed in the ten years it’s been on my wall.  It might be that I am drawn to stories where just one error in judgment causes one’s world to crash.

What I recognized in the story of that woman’s death was that I’ve probably done similar naive and dangerous things at different points in my life, and thus far, I’ve been lucky enough to survive them.  It made me wonder if this is true for most people and they have no awareness of the dangerous things they do because they’ve obliviously averted danger by just a few minutes, or a few feet, by not getting in the wrong car, etc.  I wanted to go inside one of those stories where the person didn’t make it back from the edge.

What is your favorite topic or subject to write about?

I tend not to think about those things on a conscious level, or set out to write about some subject.  When I do, the work falls flat.  I like the tightrope, the exciting place where I don’t know the direction and only discover what I’m interested in by the process of writing.  But if I look at the work I’ve published, with the distance afforded by time, I would say there are a couple of themes that continue to show up.  The first is examining the ways history informs the present.  I don’t mean history with a capital H, necessarily, as I was never any good at that subject in school.

Instead, I’m interested in family history.  Whatever things, good or bad, that happen to someone, the baggage of those events gets manifested in their children’s lives as well.  I see that showing up in almost all my fiction.  I’m also really interested in entertainment culture.  I’d like to say “pop culture” but that wouldn’t be entirely accurate.  I love and will continue to revisit the Beatles and Pink Floyd, for example, but I’m not sure you could accurately classify the films of David Lynch or David Cronenberg or George Romero as “popular” in the broadest sense.  And for the record, my awareness of current entertainment culture that’s actually popular is sorely lacking.  I’ve never seen Jersey Shore or Lost and for a couple years there, when I started seeing the name Kardashian everywhere, I thought the reptilian aliens from Star Trek the Next Generation had somehow gotten their own reality shows.

What are you reading right now?

Because the semester has started, much of what I’m reading right now is connected to that.  Stewart O’Nan and Joyce Carol Oates are coming for campus visits this semester, so I have the distinct pleasure of re-reading their work for class.  I also chose some material I hadn’t read before so that I would discover its pleasures with my students.  That can be risky sometimes, but so far, O’Nan’s THE CIRCUS FIRE has provided much energy for discussion, and as I randomly open Oates’ HIGH LONESOME, a collection of stories, I am struck by the perfection of each one.

Our Creative Writing Major students have developed a movie night social event for their peers–focused on films about writers–and they’ve asked me to introduce Rob Reiner’s adaptation of Stephen King’s MISERY.  I decided to reread the novel as well in prep, and continue to be amazed at the Post-Modern tightrope he’s walking throughout. He actively makes fun of the potboiler, all the while constructing a truly remarkable example of the form, but with depth and subtlety and richness.

I also recently read KNOCKEMSTIFF by Donald Ray Pollock, a grim but compelling and periodically over-the-top collection of linked stories about a very small, very dysfunctional town in Ohio.   I enjoyed SHOCK VALUE, a book of film criticism by Jason Zinoman that examined the evolution of horror cinema, during the New Hollywood period–the repealing of the Hayes Act and the invention of the MPAA rating system–and the ways this cultural freedom allowed for the genre to move away from the Gothic and into the anxieties of modern America.  I was pretty familiar with all of the films, but I thought Zinoman had contextualized them in surprising and interesting ways I hadn’t seen before.  I also reread S.E. Hinton’s THE OUTSIDERS late this summer and was pleasantly surprised to see it had held up, for me.

How do you know when a piece of writing is complete? What are the signs you look for?

I’m not sure how to answer that one.  I draft a fair amount.  Usually, a novel has gone through seven drafts before it’s done.  I’m not superstitious or anything.  I would prefer the process to have fewer steps, but I accept the skill levels I have.  All the overhauling that happens in that process, though, is meant to sharpen the work that already has a meaningfully thorough arc.  I don’t tend to rewrite endings.  So maybe that is the answer.  The moment when I know a piece is complete, is when I have found that last sentence that just sings.  It has to pull every sentence on the previous 300 or so pages together into a satisfying resonance, like that lingering piano chord at the end of the Beatles “A Day in the Life.”  When I have the sentence written that gives me that sensation, I know it’s done and I can start the long process of making sure all the other sentences are up to that standard and working toward that moment.

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