You are one of a handful of writers I can name that write humor and write it well enough to talk about. Why is humor a rare occurrence in fiction?
Is humor rare? There are plenty of wonderful comic writers. I like Flann O’Brien and Charles Portis, for starters. Of course, one of them has been dead for a long time. Even supposedly “dark” writers like Kafka, Flannery O’Connor and Beckett have a great deal of humor in their work. Tom Franklin’s novel SMONK, which is very, very violent and harsh, is also comic—insanely so. Barry Hannah, George Saunders, Philip Roth, James Whorton, George Singleton, Lorrie Moore, I could go on naming funny writers. Donald Barthleme, Grace Paley, Robert Coover. I think humor is a natural inclination for some people. I believe the combination of CRACKERS by Roy Blount, Jr., and WITHOUT FEATHERS by Woody Allen, both first read when I was an unformed glob, is still echoing in my work right now. I once heard Saunders talk about giving himself permission to be funny, and how that opened up his writing. If humor is a rarity, maybe it’s because people who feel funny inside don’t give themselves permission to let it out in the “serious” literary world. Humor is personal—I mean reactions to humor. So if you write humorous things, you accept right off the bat that half the people who read your stuff might hate it. Perhaps that’s another discouraging factor.
Do you believe that all fictional characters fall into an archetype—the hero, the shadow, the trickster, the guardian, and so on? If so, what role does the baby, “Taco Foot,” play in this story?
Sometimes a baby is just a baby.
I can’t help but ask: How does the mind of Jack Pendarvis work? Where do your ideas and characters come from?
My characters seem to pop out in one of two ways: I’ll see or hear something to which I have a strong reaction, or I’ll take a fleeting thought, a mild phobia, the kind of thing we normally push straight to the back of the mind, and I’ll nurse it and worry with it and try to follow it to its most extreme and absurd conclusion. As an example of the first way, I was watching an actress being interviewed by Conan O’Brien and what she was saying—and O’Brien’s reactions—struck me as unbearable for some reason. All of a sudden, there was a fully formed character in my head… a sensitive teenage fundamentalist with a crush on the actress. The whole title novella of my second book, YOUR BODY IS CHANGING, spun itself out of that little segment on the Conan O’Brien show.
Tell us about your novel, AWESOME, which is forthcoming from MacAdam/Cage in July of 2008. It’s a tall tale, right?
AWESOME is about a happy, rich, sexy, handsome giant who goes on a scavenger hunt. In another example of reacting to something external, I saw a guy walking around wearing a bowler hat, just out on the sidewalk in Atlanta, and this line popped into my head: “Man, I look fantastic in this derby.” The character emerged from that line. Also, at the time I had been bemused by the critical consensus (even in good reviews) that I write about “losers.” I had been wondering a lot about what people think a “winner” is. Is it a happy, rich, sexy, handsome giant? But the way I wrote him, I suppose everyone will say that he’s a loser, too.
SLQ completed issue 18 at the close of summer and launched this issue, 19, on the threshold of winter. During the three months in between, the crops were harvested, the leaves fell, the rain returned, temperatures dropped, darkness lengthened. Death in increments. How does the turning of the seasons affect your “muse,” your inspiration?
To tell you the truth, I’m very suggestible, and if I start writing a book in the winter, all the characters are wearing coats and they’re chilly all the time. In the summer, I write about people who are hot and sweating. That’s fine for a short story, but with a novel I keep having to remind myself to keep things consistent, and not just dumbly react to the temperature of the room in which I’m writing.