Christopher Merkner – First Book Interview
Author: Christopher Merkner Publication Date: January 14, 2014
Christopher Merkner is a Shirley Jackson for the contemporary Midwest, where the ties of family and community intersect darkly with suburban American life. In these stories, an enraged village gaslights unsuspecting vacationers and a young man delays a impending confession, fondling the nostrils of his mother’s pet pig. Sharp and uneasy, for these inheritors of tradition, that which binds them most closely—offering stability and identity and comfort—are precisely the qualities that set them back, pull them down, burden, limit, and ruin them.
First Book Interview With Christopher:
What is your favorite part about having a new book published?
Well, for starters, my wife and kids have sacrificed a lot for me to write. They have sacrificed without complaint or remark, but I’m just really grateful to be able to have something concrete and physical to show them.
Also, I’m not a young person. More or less every book I teach now is the work of an author younger than me, which is awesome in many ways and for many reasons. But I guess I value that the book is something like an affirmation that writers can still “get” their first book quite a few years after the average age of writers publishing their first books today.
And lastly, this might be kind of lame or pathetic or whatever but I have to just say that it’s been really fun getting to meet new people. I have really enjoyed getting to meet writers and readers I would not have met had the book not put us in contact. The people at Coffee House Press, for one example, have been absolutely incredible; getting to know the people who put books and their velocity together, books that I have been loving for years, has been really a stunning privilege.
When did you start writing this book and when did you finish?
I wasn’t really writing “a book” until a few years ago. I was interested in playing with the form of the short story in various ways, and I was interested in testing out my stories against audiences that I had been enjoying as a reader – Gettysburg Review, Black Warrior Review, Cincinnati Review, etc. – but I do remember that this changed for me when I somewhat randomly started reading Miranda July’s No one Belongs Here More Than You on the train home in Denver one day a few years ago. I remember looking up from her book, which is this lovely slender thing full of bizarre, enchanting narratives, and I remember thinking, I think I have been doing something like this.
So, I did it deliberately. I put the stories together. I ordered and reordered them, and I began sending them out as a book to contests and presses, etc. It didn’t go particularly well. I was not encouraged. No one reached out and said, Dude, you have something here. It was nothing like that. It was a lot of silence – a lot of money and a lot of silence. So, I was pretty sure I was making a fool of myself. But it’s strange, once I had made “the book,” I really couldn’t rationalize undoing it and going backwards to what I had been doing before it was “a book.” I kept fiddling with it, and I kept telling myself this was a waste of my time and energy, and what I really needed to do was finish my damn novel, etc, etc, but I kept coming back to it and messing with it, sending it and sending it, and I was still fiddling when Coffee House called last fall and asked me about a version I had long-since ditched.
That phone call felt pretty good, and in answer to your other question about when I finished it, I guess I would just say that I just gave my first reading at McNally Jackson Books in New York, and I was crossing out lines and paragraphs in preparation for that reading, so I think I’m still not really finished with it. I have no idea if that’s healthy or normal.
Is there a particular way that you hope people read your book? Must it be read in the order that it is presented?
It’s been my sense for some time now that it’s a luxury and privilege to read books from beginning to the end, start to finish, and at this point in my life, anyway, I’m not really interested in offering that experience to those who can afford it. If they can afford the time and mental/emotional space to read any book from start to finish, they should be more directly helping people who don’t have that time and space. How’s that for some blithe moral judgment? Hah!
But mostly for this reason, this issue of luxury and privilege of time, which really concerns me and I suppose makes me a little bit priggish, I’m not a big “escape into the book” sort of person. I think The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic is to a degree a reflection of that. I think it’s probably an objectionable book for someone who wants to sit down and slip into the pages, be absorbed into gorgeous dreams of narrative.
It is, I hope, a somewhat more satisfying book for someone who would like to step briefly into a politically or culturally charged argument, a spat between two neighbors, say, and then step away and be haunted by it for a while, maybe go about their lives with it on their mind or heart, and then maybe, ideally, go back and peek to see how things are going. I think that’s how the people who don’t have the privilege of time and space tend to access stories, and I hope that’s something the book offers them.
When did you start writing? Do you remember what drew you to this art over other art forms?
I try to conceal this as much as possible because I was very, very bad at it, but I played football in high school and college. The teams and my teammates were very kind to let me join and stay on. But join them I did, and the practices and the “training” and the games/events kept me running away from things in my life that mattered—sadness, loneliness, looking, listening, thinking, reading, etc. Periodically, I would journal-write, probably because my classes were forcing me do so, and I remember realizing at some point that writing brought me closer to these things that seemed to matter, and I liked that realization, and it also scared me, and for many years I just kept playing sports, playing very badly, running around and away from the things that seemed to matter. And I never really made time for the writing.
Eventually things changed, because I started to grow up, and I started to use my brain, and I started talking with some of the smart and interesting football players who used their brains, also, and I began to spend more time in the library, thinking quietly, tuning out the world, and tuning into things that I started to realize probably mattered more than physical discipline—and I started studying creative writing, whatever that means, and thinking about storytelling, whatever that means.
I remember, too, that I was lucky enough—and somehow wise enough to get my ass out of the library or off the football field—to go listen to Grace Paley and Gary Snyder read at St Olaf College, and I remember those being important nights toward clarifying what it meant to write and live, and, mercifully, things began to shift for me toward a more clear sense of how I could best stay closer to things that mattered.
What is your revision process like?
Well, since we’re on the topic, I might underscore that I was actually a really, really very bad collegiate football player, and I think what you learn when you play organized sports badly for a long enough period of time is that hard work will not improve anything you’re capable of doing in any sort of overwhelming way. I could have run my slant pattern four thousand more times, and I could have sprinted the 40 with a tree strapped to my waist in practice for improving my speed a bit, but I would never tie up my laces one day and suddenly be Willie Gault or Art Monk.
As an athletic loser, you instead learn that all the hard work is really just about improving the texture of the performance and deepening its purpose to your own relationship with the world; because you’re not out there succeeding for anyone else, if you plan to remain sane you probably have to find ways to succeed for yourself in ways you are pretty confident will help others around you. You’re trying to at least look decent, I guess is what I’m saying, and, at the same time, demonstrate an ethos of integrity that will somehow both toe the line of performance with vastly more talented athletes and also challenge these athletes to remain consistent, diligent, and focused.
The point of my dithering here is that I still hear my coaches recommending I get my head out of my ass. I still see their fat fingers laced around my face-mask, and I can still smell their snuff-breath as they shout in my face. And the shaking of their heads, and the throwing of their hands in the air, and the spitting, and the benching, the shaking fists at me: it’s all still with me when I write, and I think it’s been really helpful for me, as a writer, to terrorize the sentences and the ideas that come to my pages. They aren’t good enough; they do not perform with consistency or care or focus; they have their head in their asses. So I’m tough with myself, and I’m tough with my writing, and while I very much doubt I’ll be a star writer selling millions of copies of my work—and what good would that be, anyway?—I feel pretty good about the work, about the texture, about the ultimate hope that this work has broader benefit and purpose.
If you had to describe The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic in 2-3 sentences, how would you describe it?
I like to say that the book is a collection of warm-hearted satires, and that it’s a book that explores the relationships between place and language. It’s a playful—and I hope enjoyable—representation of the way we use and talk about heritage in the contemporary American Midwest.
What did you do the moment you found out your book was going to be published?
I hung up the phone, and I came downstairs, and I told my wife, and then I hugged her and thanked her.
What was the worst part of having your book published?
I couldn’t answer this. I am too grateful.
What have you been reading/researching/looking at that inspires you?
This past summer I traveled with my family through New England to study and research the churches, homes, art, and communities of former and current Swedish immigrants in Delaware, New York, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire. This trip was hilarious and informative, and I have outlined a novel that seems to fit the subject. Here’s a teaser:
What are some other ventures you’d like to explore?
Our kids are right now five and seven, so the next ten, fifteen years or so are going to be huge for us, for them, and I frankly want to be a great husband-partner to my wife and a great dad to my kids. If we can enjoy and focus on the awesomeness of these years preceding puberty, get them through puberty and into functional, intelligent, and progressive adulthood, I will be so incredibly grateful. That’s my “other venture” ahead, in addition to continuing my ventures to be a good teacher and fair writer, and I feel like I am pretty lucky to be facing all of this.
“Christopher Merkner wastes no time establishing the odd atmosphere that pervades this debut collection. . . . the longer [stories] show what Mr. Merkner can do when he marries his absurd plots and unnerving deadpan tone to genuine emotional concerns.”—New York Times
“The 17 stories here are wondrous strange. Husbands and wives, parents and children, they all come together in surreal and dreamlike ways. . . . [P]rofound and terrifically fun.” —Star Tribune
“The true beauty of these tales lies in their delicate endings, which manage to both tie up loose ends and leave everything hanging, so that they are simultaneously satisfying and mysterious. Such complexity makes great reading for lovers of short fiction, and for all who wish to witness a new master at work.”—Booklist
“Merkner’s narratives pulsate with confidence, mixing the weird (a five-year-old the size of a 15-year-old, a couple that paints an entire house one color) with moments of earnestness, and the result is a memorable book.”—Publishers Weekly
“[B]oth chilling and funny too, and oft-uncomfortable for people familiar with the settings. Merkner is really good at melding his observations with his imaginations into something hugely entertaining.” —Detroit Metro Times
“Merkner’s sentences are crisp and cruel . . . As a whole, the book resembles the movie Fargo with its heart fed through the wood chipper, leaving a work that is often possessed of cold, uncompromising beauty.” —KGB Bar Lit Magazine
“Sharing the seemingly ordinary setting of the Midwest, these short stories turn simple and normal into weird, melancholy, and wonderful. . . . The stories range from darkly comic to genuinely sad, to more than a bit unsettling. But all share a strong voice . . . and they all exhibit the author’s ability to keep his work in the realm of plausibility.”—ForeWord Reviews
“[B]y the end of The Rise & Fall of the Scandamerican Domestic, I felt I was just getting to know Christopher Merkner—not only the talented writer of this intriguing collection, but also the extraordinary writer he will become.” —Three Guys One Book
Christopher Merkner is the author of the story collection, THE RISE & FALL OF THE SCANDAMERICAN DOMESTIC (Coffee House Press). His stories have been in Best American Mystery Stories, Black Warrior Review, Chicago Tribune: Printers Row Journal, Cincinnati Review, CutBank, Gettysburg Review, Gulf Coast, Fairy Tale Review, New World Writing, The Collagist, and elsewhere. He teaches for and co-directs the creative writing program at West Chester University. He and his wife and kids live just outside of Philadelphia.