The Void Beneath Our Feet: An Interview with Eric Puchner
by J.C. Sirott
One of the more fashionable knocks on literary fiction is that contemporary novels and short stories no longer concern themselves with work. An editor at the New York Times Book Review recently cataloged some prominent complaints, from Granta editor John Freeman on the invisibility of the daily grind in fiction to popular philosopher Alain De Botton's call for a more poignant literature of the workplace.
Obviously none of these people have read Eric Puchner. In Puchner's first collection, Music Through the Floor, his characters engage in a stunning variety of jobs (ESL teacher, attendant for the developmentally delayed, baggage handler).
Of course, in Puchner's short stories, as well as in his debut novel, Model Home, it's not what his characters do, but the emotional complexities that he captures about how they feel when they do it. The recently released Model Home follows a Southern California family as their emotional and economic fortunes fluctuate. Shifting from perspectives as diverse as an eleven-year-old boy to a middle-aged mother of three, Model Home manages to inhabit multiple voices and simultaneously convey hilarity and despair. I interviewed Puchner via email for dislocate.
dislocate: A lot of the blurbs about Model Home seem to dwell on the tragedy that occurs in this book--we get words like "heartbreak," "despair," "travesty," and "desperate"--and yet there are some very humorous parts. How conscious are you of the balance between the two? Was the process of writing the comic or the tragic different in any way?
Puchner: I'm very conscious of trying to balance the comic and the tragic, not only because I think they're cosmic bedfellows but because I think, from a craft perspective, it's often best to approach moments of high emotion with a comic touch. It's a way of counteracting the melodrama; without that tension, there's too little distance between the characters' emotions and the writer's pride over creating those emotions, his desire to move you. I also think that the sort of hysteria brought on by grief is very close to the comic hysteria we feel when things go awry. Bergson, in his theory of comedy, calls it "mechanical inelasticity": someone pulls a chair out from under you, and you fail to adapt to the change. The same goes for tragic occurrences, I think: someone pulls a chair out from under you, one you thought would be around forever, and you can't begin to adapt.
In the second half of Model Home, in particular, I wanted to try something risky and see how far I could swing between hilarity and despair--or rather, how closely I could confuse the two. Laughter and despair come from the same place for me, in that they're both responses to the absurdity of life. We've all had those moments when something horrible happens, the void opens beneath our feet, and our first response is to laugh. Beckett's a big influence on me: that vaudevillian aspect was central to his plays, they're very funny, but of course they're also full of terror and despair.
dislocate: Music is a huge part of the characters' lives in Model Home, from Dustin and his band's punk ethos to Jonas and the Grateful Dead. Additionally, music often plays in the background of scenes in Model Home. How much effort did you put into deciding things like what song might be playing at a party in the summer of 1985 and how one of your characters would react to it?
Puchner: Well, honestly, I chose a lot of the music that I listened to when I was a kid. It was a huge part of my identity in the eighties, going to punk shows in Hollywood and liking bands that didn't get played on the radio. It was how I defined myself against Southern California yahoo culture. Meeting someone who listened to the early Replacements or the Minutemen was sort of like finding a long-lost cousin from Lithuania: there was this instant connection. As much as I'm grateful for the Internet, how accessible it's made adventurous music, I think something's been lost.
dislocate: Many of the stories in Music Through the Floor take place in Northern California, San Francisco in particular. Model Home primarily takes place in Southern California. Obviously, the two settings are quite different. Do you see yourself exploring either further? More California locales? Is there some aspect of the state that interests you, or is it simply a matter of writing places that you are familiar with?
Puchner: I am fascinated by the West, and by California in particular. Not the myth that some people subscribe to, but the reality of its economic collapse, and what its sprawl and diversity and increasingly homogenized-looking cities say about where America is heading. Underneath all that, there's a pioneering spirit that remains vital, I think, and which accounts for some of its incorruptible weirdness and pride. There's something, too, about the Californian version of the American Dream--its stubborn faith in capitalism, the way it seems so at odds with the majority of the population--that I'm drawn to as a writer. The discrepancy between the dream and the reality of most people's lives is just so extreme. And just in terms of the landscape, there's so much strangeness and beauty. I loved writing the sections of Model Home that are set in the Mojave Desert.
dislocate: How did you approach writing "bad" poetry from the point of view of Hector, one of your characters in the novel?
Puchner: I just thought about some of the poetry I was writing as a teenager. It was really bad. Even as an undergrad, I wanted to be a poet. Finally, my adviser took me aside and foisted some story collections on me, tacitly trying to tell me something, I think. (One of those collections was Charles Baxter's A Relative Stranger, which changed my life.)
I love writing poorly on purpose. It's incredibly liberating. I always thought I had to write beautifully--at least that's what I've always been taught--so just to say "the hell with it" and write something bad or ungrammatical can free up the imagination. I did that with my story "Essay #3: Leda and the Swan," which is written from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old girl with some serious grammar issues. It was a real breakthrough for me. The idea of "beautiful" writing can be something of a curse, I think, and its own form of bad prose. I see this again and again with my students who try too hard to be "literary." I do an exercise in my workshops now where I force students to write as crummily as they can.
dislocate: Do you have a theory of endings, particularly when it comes to short stories? How do you know when the story is complete?
Puchner: I don't have any theories, unfortunately. I wish I did. I do know that I often need an ending in mind to get started, and that invariably this ending evaporates in the course of writing the story. A new ending will emerge and surprise me, and it will just feel right somehow--that "whoa moment" that Louis Menand talks about, when the actual and emotional plots converge in an unexpected way.
dislocate: Any insights on the differences in your writing process when it comes to short stories versus the novel?
Puchner: I'm a painfully slow writer of stories, but I knew if I was ever going to finish a novel, I'd have to pick up the pace. So I wrote the first half of the thing without looking back at all--just forged ahead, a couple pages a day (a lot for me). It was a completely different process for me, and with a new baby in the house, a matter of survival.
I also very consciously tried to avoid what I think of as "the short-story writer's novel," which is sometimes just a bunch of stories in disguise. I made sure that the chapters were unresolved at the end, that they led into the next--even, in some cases, ended in cliffhangers. In some ways, I had to deprogram myself: I didn't want the singularity of effect that you strive for in a story, but something that accrued meaning and emotion and thematic resonance over time. Writing a novel takes ridiculous patience, I think, as well as an extraordinary faith that something will come of the years of hard work.
dislocate: Was Model Home written chronologically? Or would you, say, write Lyle parts, and then intersperse them with other characters?
Puchner: At least with the first half of the book, I wrote each of the point-of-view characters' trajectories separately, almost as if I were writing five separate novellas. It was the only way that felt natural to me, the only way I could discover who the characters were, what they wanted, what sorts of messes they would get themselves into. I don't know how I could have written the novel otherwise, given the number of subplots.
The downside was that I ended up with over eight hundred pages. That's when the real work began, with the second draft. I cut a whole lot of darlings.
dislocate: Were there any works by other authors that you returned to while writing Model Home? Are there any books you find yourself re-reading consistently?
I'm a big fan of The End of Vandalism by Tom Drury: it's a comic novel, but very moving, too. It's also sprawling, with dozens of characters, and it gave me the confidence to tackle multiple POVs in Model Home. On the sentence level, Joy Williams was a great inspiration to me. I love her sentences: so surprising and original, and yet they never seem to work too hard. I kept The Quick and the Dead on my desk and flipped through it when I was stuck, just to remind me what a sentence can do.
In terms of the classics, Anna Karenina is maybe the novel I return to most often. It's sort of the Platonic ideal for me.
photograph by Saeed Mirfattah