Fiction Writers Review
Above All Men, how he defines it, natural disasters he’s encountered, tornadoes, the Bible, and getting your head dirty to write terrible things, on Fiction Writers Review:
“Slow Apocalypse: An Interview with Eric Shonkwiler
“I have never castrated a calf or repaired a fence”: Eric Shonkwiler talks to Brian Ted Jones about writing Above All Men, Eric’s debut novel set in a near-future, mid-apocalypse America.
Eric Shonkwiler was born in Ohio in 1985. His first novel, Above All Men—out now from MG Press—tells the story of David Parrish, a veteran of a near-future war whose return to the farm he shares with his wife and son is haunted by fear, regret, and a terrifying sense that the world he used to know is gone for good. Set around the year 2030, Above All Men is peopled by characters struggling not only to survive in an America plunging headlong into collapse, but who admirably struggle to assert, as best they can, the good old bonds of family, industry, charity, and justice.
Above All Men earns its place in the tradition of Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Cormac McCarthy, and Shonkwiler is a novelist likewise attuned to the special problem of manliness—the way strength and hardihood, intelligence and handiness, somehow bring men into even closer association with their own frailties and blind-spots. And like John Steinbeck, James Agee, and Edward P. Jones, Shonkwiler locates a moral grandeur in the back-breaking work his characters put in, just to eat, just to have shelter. Here, let me show you this one quick scene:
“David rolled to the calf’s rear and pinned the tail to its back with his elbow and pulled the scrotum free of the legs. He took the knife from his pocket and lined the blade up and cut and pulled. The calf recoiled and screamed and Red lay overtop it to keep it from thrashing away.
There’s the fight.
He took the calf’s testes and pulled them until the muscle in the cord separated and he crimped the first with the emasculator and held it tight. The tail slipped loose from under his arm when he reached for the other testicle and the calf began whipping its tail about and it spiked on the knife lying at an angle in the grass.
Hell. Blood was painted across his chest. He crimped the second testicle with his face averted.”
Shonkwiler’s fiction and nonfiction have appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, and Midwestern Gothic. He graduated from high school in Mechanicsburg, Ohio, took a Bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University (double-majoring in English and East Asian Studies), and received an MFA from the University of California, Riverside. This interview is the product of emailings, G-chattings, and textings over the month of November, 2013.
BRIAN TED JONES: You were going to store some of your gear at my house in Oklahoma City this last summer, while you helped out with cleanup after the Moore tornado—but that fell apart at the last minute. What happened?
ERIC SHONKWILER: I had lucked into a security gig in February, and relocated to the Texas/New Mexico border for the job. A week or so after I took it, I got word that MG Press was publishing my novel—so I knew I wouldn’t be around for very long. Toward the end of my time in the area, we had a series of bad storms—the first of which, I believe, also struck Moore. The last storm to come through battered my car with hail, shattering the back glass, cracking the windshield, and busting a side mirror. Paying for that, on top of the surprise layoff from a TA gig the day I quit my security job, made my staying in Moore to help out pretty tough. Unlike in Joplin, I hadn’t been able to find any churches to put me up while I volunteered. All this to say that I feel like a heel for not helping, but it was for the best, because I’m down to dimes now after more surprise expenses (knee injury). It’s been a tumultuous year.
BTJ: Good lord, I guess it has been. I knew that you’d helped out after the Joplin tornado, too, and also there’s a tornado in Above All Men, and a damned accurate description of what the sky looks like and what the air feels like before one hits. Makes me guess you’ve been through one yourself. Is that right?
ES: No, actually. I’ve had some close calls—the last storm in Texas was the closest, despite having lived most of my life in tornado-prone areas. I’ve seen plenty of those skies. The most striking ones, to me, weren’t the traditional green. At the fair one year—I was showing hogs—the sky went gold, and the light permeated everything, settled over the fairgrounds like a blanket. We had hellacious storms that night. The sky in Texas, that day, was almost purple.
BTJ: Wow. That surprises me you haven’t been in a tornado yourself, but I guess it shouldn’t. We wouldn’t have fiction if there wasn’t this strong desire in people to go somewhere they haven’t been, or couldn’t go—and I think that desire is as much there on the supply side of storytelling as on the demand. By the same lights, it’s always impressive when a writer is able to be so accurate about something they haven’t actually experienced. Like the farm and ranch work you depict in Above All Men.
ES: There is so much I don’t know about all of the work in the novel—and so much that isn’t included in the book for the sake of it remaining compelling. I can’t oversell how much work goes into running a property like David’s. I have never castrated a calf or repaired a fence. That’s almost purely research and extrapolation. Very little of it, I’m embarrassed to say, is based in experience. There’s a Faulkner quote I’ve loved ever since I heard it roughly paraphrased by my first writing professor: “A writer needs three things, experience, observation, and imagination, any two of which, at times any one of which, can supply the lack of the others.” This is gospel.
BTJ: Agreed. And hell, man, I wouldn’t be embarrassed not to have done that kind of work, when you’re able to write about it so well. Those parts of the novel remind me of the Journals of John Cheever—that same seamless blend of physical description and transcendental reflection. One of my college teachers had a saying: “Scratch a cowboy, find a poet.” That seems to be the kind of writer you are, but does that sound right to you?
ES: I wouldn’t mind being known as that sort of writer. The truth, I think, is closer to the reverse of your professor’s saying. I’ve come to enjoy the physical work of life more in recent years than as a kid or a young adult. I mentioned above that I hurt my knee earlier this year; I dislocated it throwing hay. I had caught my boot between the bales and, pivoting to pitch a bale over to the stacks, only part of my leg went with me. The second or third thought I had—after this glowing, blue X-ray image of my knee flashing in my mind—was, “So this is what it feels like.” My instinct went immediately to writing, to having a new sensation to add to my repertoire.
BTJ: That reminds me of something else I wanted to ask you, about imagining acts of violence. There are two parts of the novel in particular, and I’d rather tantalize than spoil, so I’ll just say “the part about the tourniquet” and “the part about the chair and the campfire.” Were those things you came up with yourself, and if so, how do you feel about the head-space you have to get into to create things like that?
ES: The tourniquet wasn’t made up. I don’t remember who said it (maybe Tim O’Brien) but generally the more awful a thing is, the more likely it is to be true. Which probably means the campfire thing is also true—but I didn’t take that from anyone. Imagining horrible things is like any other part of writing. The extraordinary parts, whether good, evil, or otherwise, all feel delicious in their way. I do step back sometimes, though. I figure I would make a spectacular black ops think-tanker.
BTJ: It’s funny that you say all these horrible things feel delicious to the writer—I couldn’t agree more—but they definitely don’t feel delicious to the characters, which is sort of odd, almost troubling. I’m thinking of the way David Parrish tries to keep his son Samuel away from all things death- and violence-related. His motivation is clear enough—David saw a lot of bad stuff, did a lot of bad stuff, in the war, and it all clearly pains him, changed him in bad ways, maybe even lowered the ceiling for how happy he could ever hope to be. At the same time, David seems to feel that making a difference in the world—righting wrongs, pursuing justice—is what gives life its meaning. So how is it that David’s hopes for Samuel aren’t at cross-purposes with his own personal moral code? Isn’t David hoping for Samuel to live what amounts to a meaningless life?
ES: I think they are at cross-purposes. I think that David would love nothing more than to see Sam do absolutely nothing of consequence with his life. That’s a common enough desire—for your kid to live an uneventful, hopefully happy life. A life like that, though, is in a vacuum, and I don’t think for a moment David believes this kind of ignorance is possible, but he can still wish for it. And David, while wishing in one hand and turning things to shit in the other, is also doing his best to prepare Samuel for the life he knows will come for him.
BTJ: And that’s important, because things are getting really bad in the world where this novel’s set. I’ve got to say, I was fascinated by the background of Above All Men. It’s post-apocalyptic, but not in the traditional kind of way. It’s a slow apocalypse, a kind of gradual but inexorable unraveling. Can you talk a little about how you came to have this vision of the near-future? And do you think it might be an accurate vision of where we’re headed?
ES: I like the phrase “slow apocalypse.” I might have even used it myself, once or twice, to describe what happens in the book. I’ve taken to saying the book is post-collapse, now, to veer away from the images people get when you say apocalypse, though it’s not particularly post-anything. It’s mid-apocalypse. The end of the world is in progress, however glacial that may be.
There were several motivations for writing the story in this setting. I’ve always had a yen for the end of the world, particularly when I was younger—I read all the Jenkins and Lahaye Rapture books, way back when. Now I’m less for the little horn and all that, metaphor or not, and more for the morals behind some of those passages. (My favorite verse of the Bible is Revelation 3:16.) Growing out of that, but seeing the world change, seeing these storms getting worse, and more frequent, seeing the government get more and more corrupt—it made me realize that a slow apocalypse is more likely. A series of smaller disasters that, one by one, erode our way of life.
I don’t know how accurate it is. I started planting these seeds thinking John McCain was going to be elected, though now I’m becoming convinced it doesn’t matter which hand of the puppetmaster I vote for (I thank Bill Hicks for that image). Probably I’m underselling global warming. That’s a scary thought.
BTJ: That is a scary thought. Let’s ignore that and talk about punctuation for a bit. I noticed you don’t use quotation marks—in solid McCarthyite fashion—but that you do use apostrophes for contractions (don’t/can’t) and elisions (goin’). How’d you come to make those decisions?
ES: You could likely track the origins of that tic to McCarthy. I like the look of his pages, undecorated with various forms of punctuation. I emulated McCarthy a lot in my earlier writing, but by the time I wrote Above All Men, a book that’s less emulation and more my own, the tic became a firm habit. And now, to include quotation marks in my writing—as I do, occasionally, in short stories—becomes a conscious decision that, to me, brings out a different aesthetic.
BTJ: I used to not use quotations marks, too, and felt it seemed to demand a little more thought for how the dialogue took shape on the page. Seems to me there’s a precision to Above All Men‘s dialogue—both in the content, of course, and also just in the presentation of it. It’s almost like, when you can’t just immediately signal a difference between prose and dialogue with quote-marks, then you have to, well—use craft, I guess, but in your case it’s an almost invisible craftsmanship (which I figure is maybe the best kind). Does this sound familiar, or am I talking out the asshole?
ES: Not at all. That’s completely true, and I think it’s not something that gets discussed a whole lot. The writer has to pay close attention, and so does the reader (which is the little-attention-paid part). In my writing, if the reader can’t tell what’s dialogue and what’s not, I’m doing it wrong. Similarly, I don’t use traditional dialogue tags—I never use the word “said” the way almost everyone else on the planet does. If the reader can’t tell who’s talking, I’m doing it wrong. This forces a lot on my part, and those rules create a lot of my aesthetic.
BTJ: You think it asks more of the reader, though? It seems like, when the writer can pull that off, it actually makes it easier on the reader. The discipline that went into it shows up in the clarity.
ES: I don’t know that it makes it easier. I think it becomes as easy as any other sort of reading. I remember a ten-to-fifteen page learning curve with McCarthy, first reading All the Pretty Horses. And there are passages of dialogue that still require strict attention (even some backwards counting, at times) to figure out who is speaking. I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
BTJ: We’ve talked around McCarthy, but he seems to have been crucial to your development as a writer. (You once even told me you’re never not rereading Suttree.) How did you first get ahold of him?
ES: Funny story. Stephen King led me to McCarthy. A girlfriend lent me the first Dark Tower [The Gunslinger], and before I could get very far, a professor told me to “read a real Western.” I went out to a used bookstore and grabbed All the Pretty Horses. It was a game-changer. By that time, I had read a little Faulkner, and plenty of Hemingway. But I’d never encountered a book like that, that seemed to set out to force the language to do its bidding. (I hadn’t read, if you can’t tell, The Sound and the Fury, Light in August, or Absalom, Absalom!)
BTJ: Same with me. I read Blood Meridian the summer before my senior year of college, and I remember thinking, “I didn’t know we were allowed to do stuff like this!”
ES: That’s right. McCarthy is tied inextricably in with my biography. Hemingway, too. Not just in their books, but in palpable ways their books have influenced my life. People I’ve met, ways I’ve reacted.
BTJ: You’re going to have to say more about that, bud.
ES: Ha, well. When I first discovered McCarthy, thanks to King and my professor, I was working full-time while going to school full-time. I was a double major, writing a novella that would become my first book (later thrown in the drawer), writing two theses, and juggling a long-distance girlfriend. All this boiled over at the end of spring, and I wound up on my first roadtrip, Blood Meridian in hand. All I did was go to a little town in Nebraska, north of Lincoln. I stayed at a bed and breakfast. Walked around town. I bought a shirt with the town’s name on it, and spooked some of the residents into thinking I was a runaway. There was no park, per se, but there was an open area in the middle of town. I’d sit there and read Blood Meridian, getting only occasional stares from passersby. It seems strange, but that was a formative experience. Nothing much happened, but I was on my own, writing, reading.
One of the most important relationships of my life was grounded in a mutual love of Hemingway. Hemingway got me through a previous relationship—reading Islands in the Stream beside the pool at my condo in California. (I had to move out a month later, couldn’t afford it.) I go to Hemingway for strength—grace under pressure, he would say.
You probably saw me mention McCarthy moments on Twitter. When you get stopped outside of the church in Chimayo, NM, by a man who feeds you piñon nuts and chile powder out of his hand and tells you that because of your eyes he knows that you’re special—that’s a McCarthy moment. I’ve been lucky to have a lot of those. When I encounter random people—folks that are clearly, in some way or another, touched—I do my best to take the time to treat them well, and I think I make that time because I know they’ll give something to me. Usually, it’s just a story. Sometimes, it’s more. It’s because of McCarthy, I think, that I see people this way. Everyone is a window into a different way of thinking, and these people in particular are windows into radical ways.