Interviewed by Zack Kopp

Eric was interviewed by Zack Kopp for a special feature on Zack’s websites, Rent Party and Doggerel:
Author Eric Shonkwiler has had writing appear in The Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, and Midwestern Gothic. His debut novel, Above All Men, recently released by MG Press and available for order now here and here, is the story of war veteran David Parrish fighting to keep his family safe in a near-future America leached of oil. Esteemed writers have praised this book from their hearts. Seasoned editors have taken notice of Shonkwiler. Says editor Leah Angstman, long a shaker in the guerrilla publishing scene, “I describe the book as landing somewhere between a soberer Hemingway, a more linear Faulkner, a heavy rotation of Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads, a couple’a shots of Bulleit, an infected snakebite, and Cormac McCarthy.” His writing style has been compared to McCarthy’s, William Faulkner’s, Ernest Hemingway’s, William Gay’s, Marilynne Robinson’s, James Agee’s, Edward P. Jones’, John Steinbeck’s, and Denis Johnson’s.

Shonkwiler was born and raised in Ohio, received his MFA from The University of California Riverside, and has lived and worked in every contiguous U.S. time zone. His debut novel, Above All Men, is a Midwest Connections 2014 Pick and is available now from MG Press. You can reach him on Twitter: @eshonkwiler.

1. What’s the first book you can think of that impressed you with the transporting effect of writing, and how did it affect you?
As little bearing as you might see on my writing now, I think the first books that really got to me were the Redwall series by Brian Jacques. Such an immersive world. The first book that influenced me as a writer was probably a tie between The Iliad and The Sun Also Rises. Both have incredible power in small details. Before I read The Iliad I only knew “bite the dust” as a lyric from Queen, but that summer after high school, I read both The Iliad and The Odyssey, and on seeing it on the page I realized that it didn’t just mean to die—it meant to literally fall into the dust, mouth open. It’s a funny little thing, but I think that may have awakened me to the strength of a single phrase.

2.) I never knew that phrase to have such illustrious origins, and I thank you for sharing that illuminating factoid. Your first novel, Above All Men, has been acclaimed by several prestigious critics and authors, including Frank Bill, Susan Straight, and Lori Hettler. How does such a high degree of praise make you feel?
My immediate reaction is to say that I’m honored, but I think a more honest answer is that it makes me incredibly eager. To be recognized by these authors and critics is one thing, but to be among them is another. I want to keep going forward, and the praise I’ve been lucky enough to receive compels me to move faster.

3.) I encourage you to continue in the same enthusiastic vein, a winning quality increasingly rare in the new breed of authors. What will be your next writing project, and what can we expect to see of yours in the future?
I’m putting the finishing touches on a novel related to Above All Men, which is likely some time away from anyone’s shelves simply due to the speed of the publishing world. However, there will be an audiobook of Above All Men coming down the pike with the help of Dane Elcar and Fiddleblack.

4.) What, in your opinion, does an author of fiction owe his audience, if anything?
I know writers receive advice, whether in school or in the world, resembling something like “know your audience” or “remember who you’re writing for,” but it’s always been my ethic to write for the story first. I owe the story everything, even though I’ll inevitably let it down. I don’t believe messages get beamed into our heads by any kind of higher power or muse, but I do believe that there exists, somewhere in us, the perfect version of the story we want to tell—the Plato’s Theory of Forms version—and it’s our duty to cleave to that idea as best we can. The reader is the second master, and they ought to be pleased by a story faithfully told.

5.) Well said. For a long time I favored "hospitality" as a writer until its scrupulous pursuit began to seem too clinical, at which point I, too, gave primacy to the tale’s semantic gravity. Who are some of your favorite current writers, and why?
I was lucky enough to read and blurb an advance copy of Schuler Benson’s debut collection of stories, The Poor Man’s Guide to an Affordable, Painless Suicide, and I can say that was one hell of a ride. He’s a master of voice, both dialogue and narrative, and knows how to ride the line of violence without resorting to shock.

I recently finished Jesmyn Ward’s memoir, Men We Reaped, and that book will straight knock you to your boots. It is heartbreaking, encouraging, devastating. Her novel Salvage the Bones was the same. It’s also the first book of contemporary fiction in a long time that I’ve had to read criticism to completely understand and appreciate, which is refreshing.

6.) I’m glad to hear that about Mr. Benson’s writing. We met briefly several months ago and I look forward to reading his stuff. Likewise, Ms. Ward has been described as a powerful writer by other friends of mine. Who have been some of your influences, and why?
Breece D’J Pancake was and is a heavy influence on my writing. His nuance, his gentleness and subtlety always impress me, and his voice is remarkably adaptable and yet still distinct. I’m not one to shy from writing about rural problems, but Pancake looks deeply into the souls of a people, and lays some truly troubling ideas bare.

Another major influence is Marilynne Robinson. I tend to gravitate toward the darker aspects of nature—human and wild—and Robinson generally has a much kinder, mediated hand. Besides being a master prose stylist, she shows that not every gesture has to be soaked in some kind of violence to carry a great deal of weight. That was an important lesson for me.

I like Pancake’s depth of brevity, too, and I’ve been meaning to read something by Ms. Robinson for a long time. Think I’ll start with Absence of Mind. Thanks for taking the time to answer these questions, Eric, and I wish you continued success in your life.
Thanks for giving me the opportunity and time to be featured on your site.”

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