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The Impossibility of Knowing Any Truth: An Interview with Andrew Ervin
Andrew Ervin’s debut novel (Ed. Note-Out Today!), Burning Down George Orwell’s House, follows his critically lauded trio of novellas, Extraordinary Renditions. We chatted the old-fashioned way, by email rather than by Skype, and I’ve excluded the part of the conversation about the possibility of staging a revival of our sock-puppet theatre production of Sartre’s No Exit mashed up with Rocky IV and the butter scene from Last Tango in Paris, which was canceled after only one performance in Bowling Green, Ohio, in 2011. Three audience members were in attendance, and only two stayed until the end of the show. But I digress.
Kyle Minor: I was struck immediately by the difference in material and approach between Burning Down George Orwell’s House and your first book, Extraordinary Renditions. I was wondering: What happened in your creative life in the period between the two books, and how did you get started with this one?
Andrew Ervin: I finished Extraordinary Renditions while I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which was also when and where I began writing Burning Down George Orwell’s House. The tonal difference between the two books derives from my personal exhaustion at that time. My first book was so full of rage and self-righteousness that living in that world for so long made me want to write something lighter. I’m not sure if that happened, though.
Burning Down George Orwell’s House began as an independent study project with Richard Powers. I think it’s fair to say that he stands as of one of our truly great American literary voices. At its best—Gain and The Gold Bug Variations and The Time of Our Singing—his fiction both explains the times in which we live and offers profound new possibilities for where we’re headed. That he’s also one of the most genuinely giving and warmhearted people I’ve ever met made the genesis of this novel all the more rewarding.
For our project, he assigned me some books to read and we spent the semester—the fall of 2006—talking about them and about novel writing in general. I didn’t do any actual drafting of the book during that time. In the semester that followed he taught the graduate fiction workshop and I began writing the Chicago sections. I had some ideas Walden-esque ideas about Welter’s escape to Scotland, but didn’t get many of them on the page until much later.
After grad school, I accepted a two-year position at The Southern Review down in Louisiana. A number of different factors made that a tremendously difficult—even traumatic—time for me despite the fact that I sold Extraordinary Renditions then. My wife Elivi stayed behind in Illinois for a one-semester visiting professor job, which ended up being fortunate. Hurricane Gustav blew through town shortly after I arrived in Baton Rouge. An uprooted oak tree came a few feet away from crushing my house with me inside it. It also knocked out my electricity. If you’ve spent any time in the Deep South in summertime, you have some idea of what the heat is like. The humidity. After three days without air-conditioning, most of my romantic notions about life off the grid went out those open windows. After a week, I was cursing the name of Henry Thoreau.
Around then, I began to focus more on the subtle similarities between the wired world of Chicago and the pastoral expanses of the Scottish isles than on the obvious differences. That might not have happened were it not for the difficult experiences. Welter went from being a sexist jerk (I donated those traits to his boss) to someone more nuanced and complicated. He remains a damaged man in many ways and his obsession with Nineteen Eighty-Four may or may not be especially healthy.
KM: The novel seems to invite the reader to consider the uses of George Orwell. I was thinking about how the CIA secretly financed the 1954 animated version of Animal Farm, or how the right-wing English teacher at my religious high school taught Nineteen Eighty-Four as though it was meant to be a completely uncomplicated allegory of the then-contemporary “far left” (as they estimated it) takeover of American politics by the Clinton administration.
AE: George Orwell has become the patron saint of paranoia, which is understandable given the utter prescience and genius of Nineteen Eighty-Four. That there exists a reality TV show called Big Brother about people being watched around the clock is both grotesque and perfect. I can’t open the newspaper—and I still get one delivered every day—without reading at least one superficial reference to thoughtcrimes or memory holes or Newspeak. What’s missing from the Orwell-this and Orwell-that commentary is the fact the he wrote things other than Nineteen Eighty-Four. The term “Orwellian” refers to one aspect of one novel, albeit a profoundly great and important one.
Eric Blair did his best writing in his essays and personal correspondence. His generosity of spirit, his unwillingness to brook lazy thinking, his pristine clarity of expression—those are the things we should consider “Orwellian.” I hope readers of my novel will be moved to pick up Keep the Aspidistra Flying or The Road to Wigan Pier or Down and Out in Paris and London or, especially, the Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters. Those books contain many of the best sentences ever written in English.
Everyone should feel free to skip the Diaries that got published a few years ago, though. They were tedious.
KM: I was thinking that one preoccupation that always seems to rise from your stories has something to do with an interrogation of what it means to be an outsider, a person in a place not one’s own.
AE: It’s difficult for me to analyze my own fiction and I’m not convinced that my own interpretations deserve more attention or carry more weight that those of any other reader. It’s possible that various forms of estrangement (from one’s self or peers, from one’s family or one’s home) are the primary themes of all storytelling. I also enjoy the technique—perhaps better translated as “defamiliarization”—that Shklovsky identified in Tolstoy. Both of my books feature American characters who have gone abroad. Exile, be it voluntary or enforced or some combination of the two, provides the writer with not only a effective way to amp up the estrangement of her characters, but it also allows us to do different things with setting.
Welter wouldn’t devote much attention thinking about a place he’s intimately familiar with, not unless something has changed there. When I drop him off in a new location and he sees it for the first time, his initial observations of the physical place allow me the easy opportunity to describe it. That sense of being an outsider or a person in a place that’s not his own, as you put it, helps me define setting. That said, there also needs to be some familiar place where we can see the character is his own element, in his own natural habitat, so that we understand his baseline personality before throwing him into a new situation, otherwise there’s no way to know how well or poorly he is handling the new circumstances.
KM: When I think of Nineteen Eighty-Four, I always think of the rat scene in Room 101, which opens out onto a series of metaphors that bear, as Lawrence Weschler once prescribed, a “multiplicity of interpretations, some of them contradictory,” one of which has something to do with an unpacking of the animality at the core of human beings, which can rise up under great pressure. I was thinking along these lines as your novel moved in the direction of the werewolf hunt, which similarly invited a metaphorical complicating of so many of your own themes.
AE: The finale of the book—and this is described on the dust jacket, so we’re not giving anything away—involves a wolf hunt on the night of the summer solstice. Some of the people involved believe there’s a wolf on the loose, others insist there isn’t, and one fellow thinks he himself is a werewolf. Yes, contradiction and the impossibility of knowing any truth are of course vital themes in Nineteen Eighty-Four. 2+2=5, remember.
The great theme of all twentieth-century and now twenty-first-century art derives from the crisis that Richard Wagner alluded to in Twilight of the Gods (1876) and which Nietzsche articulated in The Gay Science (1882). Our primary job as humans is to figure out how to get along with each other now that—theoretically speaking—God is dead or absent or gone fishing and we no longer have a shared moral foundation. From Rilke’s lament, “If I cried out, who would hear me among the Angelic Orders?” to Talking Heads’s “Stop Making Sense,” that sense of confusion and alienation is defining us as a species—and as a self destructive one at that.
In 1955, during the aftermath of mankind’s most hideous mechanized atrocities, William Gaddis published The Recognitions and J.R.R. Tolkien published The Return of the King. The former turned to the ancient magic and mythmaking described in The Golden Bough for inspiration and J.R.R. Tolkien, who was Catholic, looked to pagan Nordic mythologies, just as Wagner had done. On the surface, they’re wildly different novels, but they do have a lot in common and I love them both in large part because of the way they look beyond Christianity to respond to the Great Not-Knowing.
More recently, and if I may say so, your Praying Drunk did a beautiful job of framing some of these questions and Ron Currie Jr.’s fiction does so as well. I’m currently reading Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child, and I haven’t been able yet to formulate a coherent interpretation of it beyond my relishing of every sentence, but I see her unparalleled oeuvre as one that is attentive to some of these questions. She and Stephen King are two authors who are establishing new and vast and uniquely American mythologies, both grounded in the horrors of our real world and both so rewarding because as I understand them they embrace the Not-Knowing.
KM: What are you working on now?
AE: Recovering from writing this novel. Plotting a new novel set in contemporary Philadelphia but with the Lenape still present and in which a woman accidentally starts a religious cult in her backyard. I’m also making slow, incremental progress on a few short stories, one of which is looking a bit too much like Escape from New York fan fiction. I’m also editing and publishing a one-time zine called Vorpal, which will be distributed exclusively on 3.5” floppy diskettes. All of my writing time these days is devoted to a nonfiction project under contract with Basic Books.
The book is about aesthetics and video games, specifically on the on-going transition from analog to digital technologies. Because we’re right in the middle of this change we can’t see just how massive it is, but I suspect that the Digital Revolution will make the Industrial Revolution look like child’s play. The short history of video games give me a way to witness exactly how technology is changing and it’s pushing us toward a post-human existence. My research began with playing a recreation of the first video game, Tennis for Two, on an oscilloscope. That was invented a mere decade after the publication of Nineteen Eighty-Four, at a government laboratory and by a scientist who has worked on the Manhattan Project.
The book is unlike anything I’ve ever attempted, but it also feels like a natural follow up to Burning Down George Orwell’s House. Orwell’s greatest contribution was the way he identified that the state would attempt to fill the spiritual vacuum of the secular age, but no one could have predicted the ways in which these new digital tools have empowered Big Brother.
Andrew Ervin grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and has lived in Budapest, Illinois, and Louisiana. He has a degree in philosophy and religion from Goucher College and completed his MFA in fiction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His short fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, The Southern Review, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Philadelphia with his wife, flutist Elivi Varga.
Kyle Minor is the author of two collections of stories: In the Devil’s Territory (2008) and Praying Drunk (forthcoming, 2014). He is the winner of the 2012 Iowa Review Prize for Short Fiction and the Tara M. Kroger Prize for Short Fiction. His work has appeared at Esquire and Tin House, and in print in The Southern Review, The Iowa Review, Best American Mystery Stories 2008, Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers, Forty Stories: New Voices from Harper Perennial, and Best American Nonrequired Reading 2013. He also writes a biweekly audiobooks column for Salon.