Interviews

February 15, 2010      

An Interview With Eckhard Gerdes by David Hoenigman

Eckhard Gerdes. Photo by Rose O'Keefe.

Eckhard Gerdes is a writer of innovative novels associated with the Experimental and Bizarro Fiction movements. Since his first published novel, Projections, in 1986, he has published nine novels to critical acclaim, has been nominated for the American Book Award and the Georgia Author of the Year Award (for which he was up against President Jimmy Carter!), was a runner-up for the Blatt Prize, the Starcherone Prize, and the Wonderland Book Award (twice), and won the Richard Bissell Award (twice). His most recent book is My Landlady the Lobotomist, published in 2008 by Raw Dog Screaming Press. A double book of two short novels, The Unwelcome Guest b/w Nin & Nan will be published by Crossing Chaos Enigmatic Ink in April 2010. His work is renowned for its emphasis on experimental technique, sometimes ignoring time, space, or cause-and-effect, in the service of stories of individuals struggling to transcend fear and limitation. He is also known for his editorship and publication of a series of anthologies, festschrifts and recordings known collectively as The Journal of Experimental Fiction.

David Hoenigman: What projects are you currently working on?

Eckhard Gerdes: I am getting my next book ready for publication. I am very happy that it is being done by Crossing Chaos, one of the most exciting new publishers around. Crossing Chaos operates out of London, Ontario, and publishes absolutely gorgeous books, so I am very happy that they are doing a back-to-back of two of my recent short novels, The Unwelcome Guest, which had two short excerpts appear in Fiction International and Hayden’s Ferry Review, and Nin and Nan, which was published in an earlier version in the Bizarro Starter Kit (Blue) anthology and had excerpts appear in Blatt and Golden Handcuffs Review. After The Unwelcome Guest b/w Nin and Nan, Crossing Chaos is also going to be publishing a book of three of my early short novels, Three Psychedelic Novels, which will include my first published novel, Projections, which has been out of print for many years and was only originally published in a limited edition chapbook of 200 copies, as well as two others from the same era, Systems of Flux and Aspic Interregencies. I am completely delighted that these are coming into print.

Additionally, I am working on a longer novel again. After Cistern Tawdry and White Bungalows, which together took ten years of my life, I had been writing only short novels. That worked well for Raw Dog Screaming Press, especially, because they prefer to publish short books, as do all the Bizarro publishers. But this new one, Aasvogel, has taken on a life of its own and keeps growing and growing. It’s a joy to write because it keeps pulling me in new directions, and at this point it’s over 300 pages. I have only a rough idea of where it’s heading. It reminds me of what my friends and I used to do in college for road trips. We’d collect maps of the entire Midwest, shove them in the car trunk, and then spend the first half of our trip driving randomly off down rural highways, just checking out whatever came our way. We’d have a blast, and then, when our time was somewhat more than halfway over, we’d pull out the maps and figure out where we were and then plot the way home. Actually that’s a metaphor that applies to Aasvogel very well because, as much as anything else, it’s a novel about the consciousness of place, about how every place has its own feeling and energy to it.

I am also working on polishing up and bringing to light more of my older manuscripts that, for one reason or another, have not seen the light of day. The companion novel to Przewalski’s Horse is another longer novel called Hugh Moore that I have great affection for. It’s only in typescript, and I only recently rediscovered it among my papers. I would love to see that published.

I am finishing the editing of my first wife’s novel, 99 Waves, which is a big project in itself. Persis died of breast cancer back in 2002, and one thing I promised her was I would see the novel through to publication. I am doing that now. I want our sons and all my in-laws to enjoy a nice edition of her work, but beyond that, it really is an excellent novel. It was never published during her life because she became sidetracked by her screenplay as soon as she’d finished the novel. The screenplay obsessed her, and she wrote and rewrote it more than 17 times. Many good people were interested in the film back then, and she had gotten letters of intent from Robert Guillaume and Academy-award winner Estelle Parsons, who were going to participate, but then Persis’s health collapsed.

In addition to that, I am finishing up another CD of spoken word and improvisational noise. The first, Scuff Mud, did well. Bryan Day and Shelf Life backed me up in the studio for that first CD, so we took the opportunity when Bryan came to Chicago to record a live gig together at the Elastic Arts Foundation. The CD will be coming out as !Evil Scuff Mud.

On top of those projects, I am also continuing to edit The Journal of Experimental Fiction both in its print form and in its audio editions, known as ATTOHO, which is an acronym for “After They Tore Our Heads Off.”

There are other projects as well which are in much more embryonic form. I like to keep busy, obviously.

David Hoenigman: When and why did you begin writing?

Eckhard Gerdes: I have probably been writing all my life. My father and mother are very literate people. My father, actually, has always been rather book-obsessed. He used to say our house was really a library with sleeping privileges, and we had books everywhere. On every wall, above every doorway, in every bathroom, everywhere room permitted, we had book shelves stuffed with books, those cool repositories of information and knowledge. I always wanted to participate in the making of those things. It was completely natural to me.

Through high school I wrote poems, hundreds and hundreds of bad poems, but I guess I eventually got better. When I was a senior, my English 4 Honors teacher, reading my poetry, asked me if I might not have talent for writing fiction. At first I was taken aback, but then I realized what he was saying made sense: my poems were all somewhat narrative anyway. So I just started to connect my narrative impulses into longer statements that I called novels. Problem solved.

David Hoenigman: When did you first consider yourself a writer?

Eckhard Gerdes: Again, there was no conscious decision made to be one, but when I finished writing my first complete novel, The Million-Year Centipede, back when I was 17, something clicked. You never know if you will ever write a symphony until you’ve written that first one. After I wrote my first novel, I knew that I could do it, that I had done it, that no one could undo it. I had seen it through. That was a feeling I loved. I still love that. When a novel reveals its ending to me—most recently that was with My Landlady the Lobotomist—I am amazed. I stop and am completely aglow. It’s like that post-coital moment when all is right with the world. But after finishing a novel, that moment can last for weeks!

David Hoenigman: What inspired you to write your first book?

Eckhard Gerdes: Not writing a book was never an option. I always knew I wanted to write one. At first, though, I had figured it’d be a collection of poetry. The decision to write a novel came after two very profound reading experiences. I read two books that showed me novels could be so much more than the conventions I’d been fed in English classes. The first was Black Corridor by Michael Moorcock and the second was In Watermelon Sugar by Richard Brautigan. Together they were Pandora’s Box for me, and all manner of sins against convention were now permissible.

David Hoenigman: Who or what has influenced your writing?

Eckhard Gerdes: After the two aforementioned books, I devoured all innovative work I could find and gravitated especially to the novels of Kenneth Patchen, William Burroughs, Arno Schmidt, Italo Calvino, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Samuel Beckett and, of course, James Joyce’s Ulysses. I was also deeply influenced by the original Fiction Collective, especially the novels of Raymond Federman, Harold Jaffe, and Yuriy Tarnawsky. It is a great joy to me that these three great writers became friends of mine over the years. Raymond, I am sad to say, passed away this last year. He and I had become very good friends, and I actually contributed a poem for him to the memorial issue of American Book Review that was dedicated to him. The poem is about the kindness Raymond showed my wife when she was dying of cancer back in 2002. He had been wonderful to her. He was a great friend to everyone who knew him. And of course he had been friends with Beckett, who was Joyce’s assistant, so hanging out with Raymond was like hanging out with that entire lineage. It was exciting. From Raymond I learned more than a thing or two about digression and the use of exaggeration in writing, but even more than that, I learned how to take life’s blows and come out of the experience laughing.

David Hoenigman: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?

Eckhard Gerdes: How hasn’t it? Both the positive model of my literature-loving family and the negative model of growing up in a literature-hating dominant culture have affected me profoundly. Of course, the enormous disconnect between the two models has caused deep confusion over the years. Why are Americans so hostile to literature? Why are mainstream conventional writers so hostile to innovative writing? But I see signs that the younger generations are actually getting bored with the gizmos and gadgetry of their parents and are seeking something deeper. I heard that Palahniuk said, for example, that the younger generation are self-identifying themselves more by the authors they admire than by video games they play or even musicians they listen to. There is hope.
David Hoenigman: Do you have a specific writing style?

Eckhard Gerdes: I believe that the best writing anyone produces is the writing that only that writer is capable of producing. So the essential question is, for me, simply, have I written something that only I, of all people on this earth, could have written? If so, then what is interesting is not only what I have to write but also how I write it. If how I write it is irrelevant, then all that matters is the story itself. I’m not very interested in the stories for the sake of stories. As Beckett said, all the stories have been told. Only the storyteller matters. I love idiosyncratic work. I want to see the hand of the fabricator at work. Remember that the word “fiction” actually comes from the past tense of the Latin fingere, or to form out of clay, to fashion by hand. As such, fiction is something that is handmade. It is not just a regurgitated story. Storytelling is an oral art form, a verbal spewing. But fiction is a fashioning by hand, much more akin to sculpture or pottery than storytelling.

David Hoenigman: What genre are you most comfortable writing?

Eckhard Gerdes: Genre? Genre is just one of the many tools at the disposal of the author. All the tools can be used. What type of screwdriver does a good carpenter prefer? The one that works best for the project at hand. I understand that there may be carpenters who only use Birmingham screwdrivers and nothing else, but they are not, by-and-large, the producers of the subtlest work.

David Hoenigman: Is there a message in your work that you want readers to grasp?

Eckhard Gerdes: I try to resist making my work reactive. I am not trying to create framework for messages, but rather I am investigating deep questions I have about the world around me, about myself, about the nature of things. I want the work to be purposeful, but exploratory. But believe me, if I could reduce it to a simple sentence, I’d save everyone the time and just give you the sentence instead of the book. I do not want my work to waste your time. I want you to come away from it changed in some way or another.

David Hoenigman: What book are you reading now?

Eckhard Gerdes: I am reading Joseph Suglia’s Watch Out. It is very interesting—the most solipsistic and narcissistic book ever written (intentionally so). And the language is perfect. It fits the narrator’s pomposity very well. As soon as I finish, I’m going to have to check out Steve Balderson’s movie version that came out a couple of years ago. I think it’s out on DVD now.

David Hoenigman: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?

Eckhard Gerdes: I just read Forrest Armstrong’s Asphalt Flowerhead and was deeply impressed. I had Burroughs and Apocalypse Now flashbacks all during the reading. It is very dark and junkie psychedelic in a fascinating disturbing way. Deep ugly psychic wounds against the backdrop of a hallucinogenic war. And Armstrong’s style pulls it off great as the syntax goes in and out of focus to match the subject matter. Good stuff. Forrest has a load of talent—I can’t wait to read his next book.

David Hoenigman: What is the most misunderstood aspect of your work?

Eckhard Gerdes: I think what happens to me must happen to many writers. People think that I am writing nonfiction. I have had old friends confront me in grocery stores and restaurants, saying that one character or another was based on them. Of course not, I say. At best you’d have been part of a composite of many characters. That’s not good enough, though. They won’t leave until I say, “Oh, yeah, that was you!” Actually, most of my work is from imagination—a relatively little part of it is from reality, and if it is, it’s treated and exaggerated beyond recognition.

David Hoenigman: Any memories of particular works: the writing of, feedback, the thought behind…etc.

Eckhard Gerdes: Every novel has a long and twisted history, much too much for this short space. One really nice event, though, occurred when I was on my Midwest book tour for my novel Truly Fine Citizen. I was flown back from Alaska, where I was living, to the Midwest by my publisher at the time, Martin Northway of Highlander Press, and we began the tour in Warren, Ohio, at the Kenneth Patchen Literary Festival, where I was a featured reader. Because I had come the longest distance to the festival, I was given the honor of having lunch with Kenneth Patchen’s widow, the delightful Miriam, and her companion. These two fantastic elderly ladies and I shared lunch at the Patchen Coffee Shop in the Trumbull County Hospital. We had a terrific conversation, and Miriam gave me some very sage advice, explained some of the history the Patchens had with James Laughlin, and graciously agreed to give me a forward to my novel Hugh Moore, which I hope to have published in the next year or so with her forward attached. Kenneth Patchen’s fiction was a huge influence on my work. My MA thesis was on his fiction, so you can imagine how huge this meeting was. To meet my hero’s muse was awe-inspiring.

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