Interviewed on JMWW

Eric was interviewed by author and lit blogger Melanie Page for the Fall 2014 issue of the online literary journal, JMWW:
An Interview with Eric Shonkwiler

In Eric Shonkwiler’s Above All Men, years from now, America is slowly collapsing. Crops are drying up and oil is running out. People flee cities for the countryside, worsening the drought and opening the land to crime. Amid this decay and strife, war veteran David Parrish fights to keep his family and farm together. However, the murder of a local child opens old wounds, forcing him to confront his own nature on a hunt through dust storms and crumbling towns for the killer.

MELANIE PAGE: Three characters in Above All Men are black, though this detail is not immediately revealed to readers until someone has a problem with it. To what extent is your novel about race relations?
ERIC SHONKWILER: Race was not an issue I set out to explore in the book. When it became clear that I wanted, and that the story needed, to have the Reckard family in it, though, race inevitably became a part of it. I wouldn’t say that the book is about race relations, but I only say that because I don’t think enough time is dedicated to it to really merit that description. It’s far too complex an issue for the few pages I was able to fit it into.

MP: When David tells his son Samuel to stop reading around company, why does Danvers express that he doesn’t want Sam to end up a farmer like him or David? What is the power of book knowledge in a post-apocalyptic novel?
ES: I think that Danvers understands there is a bigger world out there, and that knowledge is the key to accessing it. When means become limited, time becomes dedicated to holding on to what you have—not reaching for more—and even though I think David, in his heart, wants more for Samuel, he’s more immediately concerned with him being equipped for survival. This is a visceral concern that Danvers isn’t burdened with, and, like Helene, he’s able to see that they ought to be pushing for Samuel to go beyond the acres around them.

MP: Danvers seems rather calm about the decline of the economy and possibilities of survival. He mentions that people farmed without fuel longer than they did with, for example. Does Danvers’ character suggest that reliance on “convenience” is too great in the United States?
ES: Danvers’ calm comes partly from resignation and partly from a life of work, and knowing that is the thing that doesn’t change in life—whether you’re out all day in a tractor or out all day behind a mule, you’re still out all day. I don’t think it’s convenience that he’s critical of, but rather the “daydream,” as he calls it, of aspirations. He sees the immediate past—our time—as one during which we thought someday we might all be relieved of hard work through technology, or through government help, or what have you. The future is wealth, is ease. But he knows that is not what happens. He has a broader perspective.

MP: What made you decide to keep money and jobs to earn money post-apocalyptic?
ES: The world is not all that far gone in AAM. There are still vestiges of government, and still plenty of local economic infrastructure. As such, I felt that cutting currency and work as we know it today would be a little extreme. I think removing one likely removes the other, really. And AAM is not exactly post-apocalyptic. It’s mid-apocalypse, at most. The world has changed, but it hasn’t ended.

MP: One reader described this book as the “slowpocalypse” because she felt the setting wasn’t quite apocalypse or post-apocalypse. What do you think of that description?
ES: I love the slowpocalypse description. It’s difficult describing the book quickly without relying on somewhat inaccurate terms—I run into problems with post-apocalypse all the time, as you can tell. My standby is post-collapse, which doesn’t call to mind anything consistent from person to person. Slowpocalypse conveys a lot of what’s going on in the book immediately, while also being fun, which I enjoy even if “fun” isn’t a word you’d immediately associate with AAM.

MP: How did AAM change throughout the creative process?
ES: Quite a lot. My first draft was over 400 pages long, and it involved a perspective shift back and forth from Samuel, at one point. There were many more side-stories that got left on the floor. As I was writing it, it was being workshopped, and my peers were trying to open it up, to get more feeling and thought out of it. I worked with that, to some extent—though in my head I railed against it. Eventually, the changes that were made that opened the book became that overlong first draft—which I loved. But I found that much of what I didn’t want to include, and a lot of what I did, was unnecessary. The book that you have today is much smaller, harder, darker, than I thought it would be.

MP: In what ways did growing up in Ohio influence your writing?
ES: That’s hard to say for sure, isn’t it? Most of my life was lived in Ohio, and so of course I owe, in a way, all those experiences to that place. Who knows what all would be different if I lived a state over, or even a town over? In a broader sense, I am very much a Midwesterner, and so a lot of my perspective comes from growing up there. I was around farmers, quiet people, drunkards, druggies, good people and bad who were all of those things. I don’t think you can remove the past of a writer from the writer—or the writing, for that matter. As much as I try to make my work independent of me, and to serve the story before anything else, I still have to reach for the tools that I have at hand, and all those come from my past.

MP: Did you do any farming to learn more about that kind of life? It’s also interesting, to me, that O H Reckard would come from Atlanta to farm and not realize that there is a lot to know. Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but David didn’t know much about farming either—he’s taken in by Danvers, yes?
ES: I’m from the country, and though I haven’t done any farming personally, you end up soaking some of it through your skin. I did raise hogs, though, and I’ve thrown a bale of hay or two in my time. As far as O H, he’s a particular example of a trend. Before the Dust Bowl really got underway in the early 1930s, people were grabbing up land that they didn’t know what to do with—and, at the time, farming practices weren’t as learned as they are now, so even the canny farmers were hurting the soil. The mass migration of city-folk to the country in AAM is really just a duplication of real events that occurred a hundred years before.

David is given the land and house by Danvers, yeah, though I admittedly don’t recall how much he’s said to know about farming in the book—in a longer draft I might have mentioned that he’d worked for Danvers in the past. Having an experienced farmer whispering in your ear is about as well-equipped as you’re bound to get, though.

MP: Your author photo is very masculine, as if you might be a character in the story. Did you plan the photo that way, or is that your author photo for all of your works?
ES: It is the photo for all of my works, insofar as I’ve had works that asked for a photo since AAM came out. A close friend took the picture once my publishers asked for an author photo. We might call the fact that I look like I could ride through my own novel a happy accident, as I don’t mind that it comes across that way.

MP: Did the hat you wear in your author photo inspire you/your writing?
ES: Ha, no. I think it was the other way around, actually. When I was starting out, the more I wrote about country people, the more I began to identify with them—so much so that my accent (which was regionless Ohioan) began to take on a more backwoods flavor. Eventually wearing the hat became natural, and it fit.

Melanie Page is an instructor in South Bend, IN. Her work has recently been anthologized by Unknown Press, Jaded Ibis Press, and Spuyten Duyvil. She runs the ladies-only writer/book review blog Grab the Lapels.

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