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?"
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.