A security guard and an EMT talk past each other over a DJ buried alive for a stunt. An unemployed man spies on sinister squirrels from a telescope in his attic. An aspiring comic-book writer sends in a treatment of Sex Devil, the story of a loser endowed with superhuman, um, endowments. And a very, very bad writer sets out to write the history of America, or at least of South Preston. Losers and loners populate the pages of Jack Pendarvis' The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure, a collection of short stories and a novella. Pendarvis spoke to me by phone from his Los Angeles hotel, while on book tour.
Q: How long have you lived in Atlanta? And what brought you here?
A: Twelve years. 12 years. ... [I came from] Bayou La Batre, Alabama. I was 30, and I was working in a coffee shop. And I had to wear an apron and my immediate supervisor was 19 years old. And I started to think I had done something wrong. I was [visiting] in Atlanta, shooting pool at Dottie's, and I happened to notice someone there who worked at Turner (Broadcasting), and I just asked casually if they had any writing jobs open. She said yes. ... I started writing promos for Turner. I quit Turner in 1999.
Q: You're associated with the McSweeney's stable, which seems to have ushered in a new era of high irony and absurdism. Where did this come from, and what impact do you see it having on fiction?
A: I don't really think of the book as ironic. I know what you mean about some of the McSweeney's stuff, but they've been very good to me. ... You know the "Cyclops" story? (The story is a collection of fan letters written to People magazine, all praising a celebrity Cyclops.) I had writer's block, and I wrote 70 pages of fake letters to People magazine. And they weren't funny, they weren't exaggerated, there was no payoff. I was just doing an exercise, more or less. And I told someone about it. ... She said, 'You should look at McSweeney's."
In the case of my book, I really don't think of the characters as ironic at all. I sort of have affection for them, and what I like about them is that disconnect between the non-ironic deepness of their feelings and their sort of comic inability to express them at all. And I guess if there's some irony it comes from that disconnect between what the characters want to express and their just complete inarticulateness.
[McSweeney's is] going to bring out a DVD quarterly now. They sent me a Turkish sitcom, which is a Turkish remake of The Jeffersons and got to me to write subtitles for it.
Q: Maybe "irony" is the wrong word, but certainly McSweeney's, and MacAdam/Cage (which published The Mysterious Secret), have brought a new freedom for fiction to step outside the model of the transformative moment.
A: I would agree, though I would say it has roots in Donald Barthelme or Robert Coover ... and he's still writing. I really like the modernists and the postmodernists, even though I suppose that's no longer fashionable. But I like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein and Samuel Beckett and all those people. They have a great deal to do with that.
Q: Let's talk about the title story. Writing a story in the voice of a bad writer is a risky proposition. What inspired that choice?
A: Just a terrible, terrible writer. It worries me when I do the readings. I always try to read something that shows that I know how to write, in addition to something from the novella. The truth is I love to read self-published regional histories and things like that. And once again, in a non-ironic way. There's just something refreshing about the writing ... sometimes amusing and sometimes all of a sudden there will be something kind of touching. I like that sort of tension.
Q: A lot of your characters are individualists under duress, not understood and not even left alone -- put upon.
A: Most of the stories, all of the stories in this book were written before I started getting anything published. And they were a lot about the frustration of not being able to get people to understand what I was trying to do. In a way they're about the frustration. It's a silly way to try to make a living; it feels silly, really. And then they started to get published. And so now that they're in a book, I think they have a different tone than they did when they were in a heap in the manila envelopes with the rejection letters. They were more poignant then. Now ... now they might feel more sarcastic.
- Jack Pendarvis writes of individuals under duress even bad writers in his short story collection, The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure.