Interview: Peter Bognanni on Pauly Shore, Punk Music, and the Midwestern Novel
by Laura Owen
Peter Bognanni is the author of the recently released novel The House of Tomorrow (Putnam/Penguin). A graduate of The Iowa Writer's Workshop and author of short stories, humor pieces, and screenplays, he currently teaches Creative Writing at Macalester College. Sometimes he blogs hilariously at peterbognanni.com.
On March 25, Bognanni read from The House of Tomorrow at The University of Minnesota's "First Books" event, and a little later allowed me to bug him with some questions about Biospheres, Pauly Shore, and the horrors of the writing "process."
Laura Owen: In The House of Tomorrow, you use the life and scientific-philosophical thoughts of R. Buckminster Fuller as the basis for your central character's rather strange life (he lives in a dome with his grandmother, who is obsessed with Fuller). Reading the book, I thought that Fuller was a Saunders-esque invention on your part, a cheerful exaggeration and parody of a certain strand of American scientific-utopian thought. Upon doing a little research, however, I realized that Fuller was very much a real person. Why did you choose him as the focus of Nana's obsession, rather than inventing your own, say, Lucklister Tuller, whose odd ideas you could simply make up?
PB: I'll admit, the idea did occur to me of creating my own eccentric genius. But in the end I felt like any parody or invention I made up wouldn't do justice to the real thing. Fuller is just so fascinating to me, and the more I read about him, the more I wanted his voice and ideas to be in the book directly. Also, although he's immensely popular in some circles (modern-day dome-dwellers, futurists, etc.), I also felt like many readers wouldn't be well acquainted with his ideas. I was a history major in college, and I think that part of me was attracted to the idea of treating him both biographically and fictionally in the book. Yet, all of that being said, a lot of readers are still convinced I made him up. It's the number one question I get: "How did you come up with that character?"
LO: Speaking of the dome that Sebastian and his grandmother live in, I'm from Tucson, Arizona, near Biosphere 2, an enclosed area that several "crews" lived in for years, doing research about how people might live in enclosed systems on other planets. There was a fair amount of personal drama involved in Biosphere 2, including two crew members who vandalized the Biosphere. Anyway, it still exists, but was taken over by universities for fairly benign scientific research that doesn't involve humans living inside the Biosphere for years. It also inspired the classic Pauly Shore movie Bio-dome.
I couldn't help but think of Biosphere 2 when reading about Sebastian and his grandmother living in the dome. Was that an inspiration?
PB: What does it say about me that I got more excited about discussing Pauly Shore than the Biosphere 2? But I'll put that excitement on hold temporarily to address the legit science stuff first. Basically, I have memories of this experiment growing up, but I didn't research it too much for the book because Nana's goals are much more rooted to this planet than in preparing for life on others. She wants Sebastian to save this world with Fuller's ideas. But now that I've read about the strange drama surrounding the experiment, I'm having second thoughts. Maybe I work this into the sequel (which I will never write). More importantly, though, let's talk about Pauly Shore. I have probably seen at least half of his movies, and, for the record, I would place Bio-dome third behind Jury Duty and Encino Man. Is this contentious?
LO: What about Son-in-Law? I think that one's quite sweet.
PB: I'm embarrassed to admit that Son-in-Law is a hole in my Shore-ography. But now that I see it co-starred Tiffani-Amber Thiessen, I may have to throw it in my Netflix queue.
LO: One thing I really admired about The House of Tomorrow is that you have this very distinctive first-person voice: Sebastian is formal and thoughtful in the way he phrases his thoughts, but he's also very much a teenage boy.
I particularly admired how you allowed Sebastian to have moments of lyricism, moments when he observes the world around him in a way that doesn't just move along the plot or tell us something about the characters. For example, at one point when he's going home, he thinks,
I hiked up the hill toward the dome, looking up at the basswoods that marked the exit from the heart of the woods. They were completely bare now and they contrasted greatly against a sky that look white with clouds even in the dark. It was probably going to snow. If there was one thing I understood, it was the portent of snow.
This is very much in Sebastian's formal and idiosyncratic voice, and they tell us something about him and his relationship to his environment. But at the same time, it's also just a lovely description of trees against a winter sky that helps give us a sense of the setting. Did you think about that as you crafted the book--weaving in moments in the first-person voice that could be lyrical or descriptive while still seeming true to Sebastian and his character?
PB: In early drafts of the book I resisted some of these sorts of digressions because I didn't want to slow the story. "Kill your darlings," and all that. But I realized as I moved further in the book that in order to make this character's perspective believable, I had to create a unique and complex way in which he sees the world around him. It wasn't enough to just place him at the center of the story. From the beginning, I saw Sebastian as a character who was after a larger connection with nearly everything around him. This is something Fuller would have celebrated. Ironically, Nana, his disciple, has raised her grandson in a way that stifles much of his curiosity. In order to show there was more inside him than simply what he had been taught, these moments of just living in Sebastian's thoughts seemed more and more necessary. I'm glad you felt they added to the book. Some of them ended up on the cutting room floor. But I like the ones that stuck.
LO: Another thing I think that the book does really well is that it helps convey Sebastian and Jared's growing excitement and passion for punk music. Even if the reader knows little or cares little about punk, they can still share in the characters' growing attachment to it. I think that's hard to pull off--after all, the reader obviously can't actually listen to punk music through the book. So potentially you could risk alienating a reader or boring a reader. When writing the book, did you think about that--how to communicate a passion for punk music through the very un-punk-music-like medium of writing? The New York Times seems to ascribe your success in this to keeping the musical description pared down to a minimum. Do you agree?
PB: Early on in this project, I came across that famous un-attributed quote that goes something like this: "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture." (Some say it was first uttered by Elvis Costello.) And there's certainly some truth to that. But, alternately, I love reading about music almost as much I as I love listening to it and going to shows. I think, in the end, I wanted to capture the energy and the transformative power of punk in the scenes themselves whenever possible, i.e., the way it created dramatic and funny situations between the characters (coming up with a ridiculous band name, discussing the merits of sniffing glue, just plain sucking at guitar). Just writing about songs, notes, chords, was never going to do it for the very reason you mention: no matter how good your prose is, it's not music. So, hopefully, the way I approached it with a combination of musical references and using scenes inspired by music was the way to go.
LO: Both of these aspects of your writing--the accessible first-person voice and the way you share an excitement/passion for a particular subject--remind me a little bit of Nick Hornby's writing: I'm thinking of the way he enables me to enjoy a book about soccer (Fever Pitch), which I could not care less about as a subject, or his well-rendered young adult voice in About a Boy (a book that, like yours, has a pivotal scene at a talent show!), as well as the way that you both blend comedy and more serious subject matter into an organic whole. I don't know if you're a fan of Hornby or not.
But--and this sounds like I'm hating on Hornby, whom I love--I think one thing I really appreciate in your writing is what I mentioned above, the attention to moments of lyrical detail, even within the first-person voice. Sebastian creates fully fledged sensory world for us as readers--he always pays attention to how things taste, feel, and sound. I think sometimes the first-person voice in work like Hornby's can feel a little airless, because we're restricted to just this one person's thoughts and that's it--their thoughts. But I felt like I got such a great sense of the world around Sebastian, as well the world in his head.
PB: I'm a huge fan of Hornby too, and I really like the way he approaches music and integrates it so organically with character. He was definitely an influence when writing my book. But as you suggest, I really wanted this book to be a full-on sensory experience for the reader. And I hoped that in following Sebastian's first encounters with so many things that we take for granted, it would allow the reader to re-contextualize the way they experience the world too. You know, like tasting imitation grape drink for the first time, riding your bike through an empty town on a winter night, experiencing your first pangs of unrequited love (not to mention other related things I don't want to give away). That was one reason why I chose the first person and never looked back: to allow direct access to each of these moments as they happened. I always think the senses are important in writing, but they seemed even more so in a book so much about firsts.
LO: Along the lines of creating this fleshed-out sensory world and setting for us as readers: how do you see the setting of Iowa relating to the book as a whole? You've lived in various places in the Midwest: would you say that the Midwest has informed your literary sensibility as a writer? Is there such a thing as a "Midwestern writer"? Is that a dumb question? Perhaps it's indicative of the self-deprecating Midwestern ethos that I feel the need immediately to apologize for that question.
PB: Ha. No apologies necessary. I kind of like the idea of being a "Midwestern writer," even though I too have no real idea what that means. But it appeals to me for two reasons. Number one: at least in my reading experience, it's an underrepresented region in literary fiction. I've read so many books about New York City in my life, I almost feel as if I've lived there. Yet I can count the number of books I've read set in Iowa on two hands (And I sought them out, man). In the most basic sense, I just feel like I want to do my part to validate the experience of living in the Midwest. Stories happen there too. People live fascinating and complex lives there too. Really! Number two: Part of what I wanted to capture in this book is a sense of the possibilities of the imagination to expand one's sense of the world. And when you live someplace that might not necessarily be the bastion of cultural opportunities you're seeking, imagination and personal discovery become huge. Someone handing you the right book, the right album, these can be larger-than-life moments. And that's only amplified in the small-town setting I chose to write about, where you're dying for something new and different.
LO: I deeply identify with your blog post about your writing "process," or rather lack thereof. I said something similar when asked about my own writing "routine." Perhaps it's simply a justification of my own difficulties, but I'm distrustful of the idea of too orderly a process: i.e., "I always go about things this exact way--and I write for exactly 2.5 hours in this particular way..." It strikes me as an attempt to codify and organize something that can't be codified or organized. It's not that I don't think sitting down to write is important, or that there aren't important things to be taught about writing craft, and discipline, but...I think we all need to acknowledge the fact that the writing process is often frustrating and disorganized.
PB: I couldn't agree more. Frustration and disorganization are unavoidable. Personally, I go through seasonal fits and starts. Sometimes (mostly in the summer when I'm not teaching) I can actually be disciplined enough to do it three or four hours a day, every day. And I must say, this kind of intensive continuous concentration is really helpful when writing a novel. But then there are those other times (i.e., the rest of the year) when I binge and purge, write when I can find a moment, and go weeks without typing a word. Yet I can't say that the work is noticeably worse during those erratic times. I had one writing teacher who said three hours a day, no exceptions! Then I had another who said, do it when you feel it, but really work hard during those times. I guess my ultimate method is somewhere between the two. I have noticed, however, that I get very cranky when I go too long without writing. It is probably avoiding this crankiness that keeps me going as much as any larger artistic desire.
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Photo by Melissa Copon