An Interview with Jack Pendarvis, by Thea Brown

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07/08/2008 1:00 PM |

It’s time for another in our ongoing series of author interviews here at Thelmagazine.com. Here, L Mag book critic Thea Brown talks to Jack Pendarvis, author of the forthcoming-this-week Awesome. Her words are after these words.

Jack Pendarvis is the author of two collections of short stories — The Mysterious Secret of Valuable Treasure and Your Body Is Changing — and, most recently, a novel about a giant who gets dumped at the altar. Awesome (Macadam Cage, July 11) follows a giant named Awesome as he crosses the country to win back his girlfriend and comes face to face with his greatest challenge: himself. We emailed Pendarvis to talk about egos, blogs, and what makes a character a winner.

The L: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that you count comic books among your writing influences. Were any on your mind as you worked on Awesome?

JP: Would it sound too pretentious if I said that Jonathan Swift and Rabelais and Donald Barthelme were more on my mind than comic books? That being said, Donald Barthelme wrote a great short story about Batman. And toward the end of Awesome, I did think of one of my old favorite comic books from when I was a kid, The Metal Men. The Metal Men were each made out of a different element: Gold, Lead, Tin, Platinum, Mercury, etc., and they all had personalities to match. According to the comic book—I can’t vouch for the scientific accuracy—"gold is the most malleable of the elements." I believe I used that line word for word near the end of the book, when Awesome encounters—SPOILER ALERT!—a giant robot made of gold.

The L
: Do you conceive of your work visually?

JP: No, not at all.

I really am a word person, though I love paintings and movies. I’d say
that describing things in visual terms is one of my weak spots. When I
write, I have the idea that I’m constructing a word object made of
nothing but words. Music would be closer kin than painting, I guess.
Wow! You’d think for someone who says he likes words so much, I could
come up with a better way to put it.

The L: At the outset, did the idea of writing about a giant come
first? Or did Awesome’s outsized ego somehow instigate giganticizing
him?

JP: What a great question, which no one has asked me before, yet
I think it gets at the heart of the thing. At first Awesome was just a
guy who wore a derby hat and was really, really proud of himself. The
derby, rather than his size, was his defining physical characteristic.
In fact, my original title for the novel was "The Admirable Derby." It
was about a guy who loses his hat and will stop at nothing to find it.
He could grow to giant size at will. Sometimes just part of him—his
fists, for example—would grow. So I suppose he was like Popeye, which
ties in to your comic book question. Still, I was calling him a giant
when I described the book to people, and he did accomplish legendary
feats, but he might as well have been Hercules (not a giant) as Paul
Bunyan (though I generally compared him to Paul Bunyan when someone
asked me about him). So Tom Franklin (the novelist) read a very early
draft and said, "Hey, he changes size." And I said, "Yeah." And Tom
said, "So… he’s not a giant." And I said, "Oh!" And I went back and
made him a real giant all the way through, which improved the book, I
think.

The L: Setting aside the age-old institutional bias against delving in to authorial intent, do you see Awesome as a fable? An allegory? Just a funny read?

JP: There are some satirical bits in there, but nothing as
systematic as a Spenserian allegory or anything. Two books that
prepared me to write Awesome were Calvino’s coollection of Italian folktales and Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.
In both cases, I admired the way the narrator kept my trust even when
something utterly irrational happened, making me happy to accept (for
example) that a knight could have his head chopped off and a woman
could dart out of a room in the castle and glue it back on, and the
knight could get up and keep fighting. I thought, "I want to write
something like that!" And maybe one day I will.

The L: I saw reflections of our culture’s rising level of
personal self-obsession in Awesome’s character, particularly in his ego
and his complete lack of humility; he’s smitten with himself, and feels
pretty good about broadcasting that. What with the proliferation of
personal blogs and forums like Facebook, do you think we’re turning
into a generation or culture of Awesomes?

JP
: In retrospect I saw that there might be a few political or
cultural applications of the character of Awesome. And I suppose the
impulse to create the character was cultural in a small way: I had
noticed that lots of reviewers referred to my characters as "losers."
Whether I got a bad review or a wonderful review, people used that
word. I thought, you know, "Reviewers must be the most mentally healthy
and successful people on the planet," because my characters are just —
or so I thought — people with problems, and we all have problems. I
thought, "What’s a winner? Should I write about a winner? Has there
ever been a book about a winner? Is a winner somebody with no
problems… a sexy, rich, handsome, giant with zero self-doubt?"

The L
: So, what was it like writing about a "winner"? Or maybe a
better question is: Did Awesome turn out to be the winner you’d hoped
for?

JP: Awesome almost immediately turned into a "loser," in that he
lost something. I think my original intent stayed with me until about
page 12, when natural fictional impulses took over. What I found out
was it is impossible to write about a winner. There are no books about
winners, unless you count the novels of Horatio Alger, I guess. Really,
what I concluded—and I may be wrong—is that there is no such thing as
winner. Maybe it’s because we all die one day. Today I was eating some
fried chicken and thinking, "Well, this won’t kill me." I think that
about a lot of the things I do. And maybe I’m right and nothing is ever
going to kill me, but I’m still going to die. Hope this answers your
question!

The L: You keep a blog that you update with impressive frequency — why’d you start? Do you find yourself compelled to post, or is it more of a chore?

JP: This worries me, coming on the heels of the previous
question! I hope my blog works as a commentary on blogging… such as
when I announce to the world that my head itches or I want to take a
nap or I forgot to read the newspaper today or my cat is playing with a
rubber band. But who am I fooling? There is little or no difference
between a blog and a "blog." On the other hand, it might be argued that
writing a book is a bigger act of hubris and certainly more harmful to
the environment and in the end perhaps sillier than writing a blog.
It’s a harmless addiction, like opium or formaldehyde.

The L: Your work is known for its humor, particularly via
characters who take themselves too seriously. Is being absurd/funny
paramount in your mind as you’re writing? Or does it find its way in on
its own?

JP: I believe — though I don’t know for sure — that the humor is
a side effect of the characters and situations I’m drawn to write
about. Well, I don’t know. It all comes out in a hideous lump, so it’s
hard to tell.

The L: So, are we laughing at Awesome, at the self-obsessed fog
he walks around in? Or are we laughing with him—maybe relating to him
on some level?

JP: You tell me! One reviewer said that Awesome, the character,
was "surprisingly likable" or something, and I thought, "HE
IS?????????????????"

The L: Your last two books were collections of short stories.
Were there any particular perks that came with working within the
framework of a novel for this one?

JP: Awesome is just barely long enough for me to call it a "novel" without giggling.

The L: I heard you’re working on a detective novel. How’s it going?

JP: Well, it’s done—the second draft at least. Aside from the
fact that it’s not much of a detective novel, I’m very happy with it.