The Penmen Profile: Award-winning Author, Editor, Playwright and Poet Eckhard Gerdes

EG-1Eckhard Gerdes is the editor of The Journal of Experimental Fiction, dedicated to the furthering of forefront fiction. He has published criticism in The Review of Contemporary Fiction and American Review of Books, and has a chapter in SUNY Press’s recent “Federman’s Fictions.” His fiction has appeared in Fiction International, Notre Dame Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Blue Print Review, Coe Review, Oyez Review, Rampike and elsewhere. He is the author of ten published novels, including “Hugh Moore” and “My Landlady the Lobotomist,” which was a top-five finisher in the 2009 Preditors and Editors Readers Poll and was nominated for the 2009 Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel of the Year. He has twice been the recipient of the Richard Pike Bissell Creative Writing Award for excerpts from “Przewalski’s Horse,” has also been a finalist for both the Starcherone and the Blatt fiction prizes for his unpublished manuscript “White Bungalows,” and for “Cistern Tawdry” he was nominated for the Georgia Author of the Year Award in the Fiction Category. He has recently published his first book of poetry named “23 Skidoo!” (Finishing Line Press), a play called “’S a Bird” (Black Scat Books) and has a book of literary theory, “How to Read,” due in August (Guide Dog Books). He lives near Chicago and has three sons.

Have you always written?
I grew up in what my father used to call “a library with sleeping privileges.” We had bookshelves crammed full with books everywhere: above door lintels, on every wall, even in the bathrooms. So it was very natural for me to grow up wanting to have something to do with making these things called books. The physical objects had great appeal to me, and so I always wrote, and always with a mind towards ultimately producing books. I wrote my first poem in second grade, attempted a novel with a friend of mine in sixth grade, wrote hundreds of poems throughout high school, and began my first serious novel when I was sixteen. That first novel, “The Million-Year Centipede, was eventually published by Raw Dog Screaming Press many years later. I am always working on multiple writing projects, and I always think of them in terms of how they will become books.

What’s your process in developing your storyline and characters?
I try to vary this as much as possible in order to get different voices and situations to come forth into my writing. The starting point might be a sentence, a line, a word, or an image. On rare occasion it’s an entire scene. Once I have my characters in mind, I just let them go. They have to be who they are.  I throw them into different situations, and I see how they react. I try to make it all as organic as possible. I don’t try to force anything onto the work. I have found that when I force my work into the service of character development or plot structure, it can sound forced. If I relinquish control of that part of the writing and let language take me where it wants to go, the writing sounds better. I do not want my writing to sound like I am playing to the LCD. Nor do I want it to come across as didactic. I write with serious intent, and even my humor is part of that. I explore language, thought, and emotion through story and character.

What challenges do you face in your writing, and how do you overcome them?
Every new work brings with it new challenges, but a few challenges that recur have to do with the overall continuity of the stories. Much of what I do is digressive, and I can easily lose my way in digression, as the narrator of “Tristram Shandy” does, though in Sterne, of course, the losing of one’s way was intentional. Yet I do not want to reduce my characters into a set of flat beings who suffer from repetition compulsions and have no ability to contradict themselves or express ambivalence. Sometimes I feel like I am juggling so many elements of my writing simultaneously that I have a hard time not dropping a ball or two. But then again, dropping a ball or two is a very human action, and I want my work to be human, not merely some embodiment of literary theory. I do not want to dumb my work down to LCD level and make it all hand-holdy and superficial, but I also don’t want to chase away readers who may not be as gymnastic in their reading abilities as readers who appreciate complexity and intentional ambiguities. It’s all a matter of keeping the elements balanced. If I can keep them balanced, the juggling is easier to manage.

What has the road to publication been like for you?
It has thus far been a very long, slow, difficult journey. I do not write LCD fiction, so I am limiting my audience to readers who actually care about the aesthetics of prose. Rather than writing what I think readers want (i.e. cheap fast-food storytelling), I want to treat them to interesting and exotic cuisine. I think many readers have left literature behind because so much of what they found was all the same cookie-cutter hand-holdy storytelling, as if they were sitting on the lap of the writer. I don’t want the reader on my lap. I want to have a serious conversation with the reader, one that is fun and makes us laugh, but which ends up feeling profound and significant. Most big publishers don’t want that. They don’t even care about the quality of the prose. If you look at many popular novels nowadays, you can see that no attention has been paid to the actual prose. The quality of writing itself would barely pass a freshman comp class in college. I guess the major presses assume that people are stupid, so they give people stupid books. I don’t assume the stupidity of the public, which has offended the sensibilities of many of the larger presses. Fortunately people who run small presses do so not for lucre but for love. They appreciate and publish work that is idiosyncratic, like mine. They understand that the best work is work that only that writer, of all people on the planet, could have produced. I hope that the publishing world changes back to caring about quality, but more readers need to stop being tricked into swallowing cheap fast-food fiction. I want them to develop their palates so that they can tell the difference between a gourmet meal and swill. As a literary restaurateur, I refuse to serve up swill. I am NOT the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries. The last Big Mac I had made me vomit.

How do you market your work?
I try just about everything I can think of that I can afford. I work with limited funding, but within my constraints, I try anything to see how it’ll work. I advertise in some periodicals. Most of the time, I do not see much of a return from the ads, but I know it is all going towards getting our name out there. I have tried ads in literary magazines, and I have tried targeted ads in specialty magazines that have something to do with the subject of the novel. I have gone to conferences and set up shop. I have done mass mailings to libraries. I also have as large a presence on the web and in social media as I can. I promote our titles any way I can. I go to local libraries, I set up public readings, and I go to local bookstores.

Who are the writers that have inspired you most, and how have they inspired you?
Oh, what a list!  In chronological order about as well as I remember: Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, J.D. Salinger, Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, Michael Moorcock, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Kenneth Patchen, Raymond Federman, Yuriy Tarnawsky, Arno Schmidt, Kathy Acker, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Conger Beasley, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Italo Calvino, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, William Gass. I read an interview with Arno Schmidt once in which he was asked why he had so few friends in real life—he and his wife lived as recluses. He pointed to his books and said he had all the friends he could possibly handle right there, in those books.

When a friend of mine gave me a copy of “In Watermelon Sugar” by Brautigan many years ago, I was absolutely smitten. Here was a writer who wasn’t talking down to me, but was showing me what a delight a novel could be. I never knew one could write like that. I had the same response to Patchen’s “Sleepers Awake.” His use of concretism opened up a multitude of possibilities. Schmidt showed me how to juxtapose words for the sake of the words themselves. And Federman showed me how to play with digression and how to laugh. He also showed me how to put myself into a work, and Robbe-Grillet showed me how to take myself out of it. Calvino showed me how to use structure as part of the storytelling element, and Barth showed me how to pay close attention to my subtext. What they all have in common is that they wrote books unlike anyone else’s. To me, that is the mark of a great novel. Is it something that only that writer, of all the people on earth, could have written? If so, it is contributing something to the sum-total of human existence.  If not, it’s just a copy.

If you could keep just three books in your library, which would you choose and why?
My favorite, of course, is Kenneth Patchen’s “Sleepers Awake,” on which I wrote my thesis for my MA in English at Roosevelt University. The book follows no rules.  It is “A magnificent failure,” as says biographer Larry R. Smith. “Patchen’s “Finnegan’s Wake”” (Smith 85)[1], but funny as all hell.  Patchen’s comedic novels are my favorite work of his, though obviously “The Journal of Albion Moonlight” is brilliant.

My second favorite is a little volume that goes by the name “Ulysses,” as does one of my three great sons.

I want to say “Zettels Traum” by Arno Schmidt, but the translation isn’t published yet, and I am far too feeble in German to attempt the original. Plus then I’d need to list “Finnegan’s Wake” instead of “Zettels Traum” because the latter is based on the former. I can’t pick just one of the “Molloy” trilogy, so, instead, I’ll say “In Watermelon Sugar” by Richard Brautigan.  These are all books that hold up under repeated scrutiny.


[1] Smith, Larry R. Kenneth Patchen. Boston: Twayne, 1978.