Saturday, June 09, 2007

A Conversation w/ Jack Pendarvis

Interview by Chad Radford. Photo by Charles G. Steffen

Atlanta author and McSweeney’s regular Jack Pendarvis is a man of singular wit. His self-effacing sense of humor pushes the boundaries of social and moral perceptions and behaviors in his second book, Your Body is Changing. I recently spoke with Jack about the art of laughing at one’s self and others, and what it means to be a “Southern writer.”

In Your Body is Changing characters grapple with political correctness and being honest with each other. Do you spend a lot of time thinking about sincerity and semantics?

Instead of saying, “I want to be a jerk,” people say, “Now this might not be politically correct, but...” and then they can feel brave and proud for saying some common, snotty remark. You never hear someone say, “I’m politically correct!” Yet somehow people who brag about being “politically incorrect” seem to imply that they are facing down a mighty army of enemies. But weirdly, every single person on Earth, including me and you, let’s face it, seems to pride him or herself on NOT being “politically correct.” So what are we so puffed up about? What have we accomplished? The war is over, and I guess jerkiness won. Does that make us happy? Does this answer your question? Probably not!

How much are your characters based on people that you’ve encountered in your day-to-day life?

Some of all of them and a lot of none of them. Untangle that fragment and you’ll have the secret.

Much of your strongest material is also your funniest material. Is it important for you to get your sense of humor across?

I don’t think about it much, honestly. I heard George Saunders say something once about “giving yourself permission” to be funny as a writer. I think that’s the biggest hurdle: to allow your natural inclinations to bear some kind of fruit. In my case, there happens to be some humor involved.

Humor in “Southern” fiction is often tangled around sad and awkward characters and situations, which I find in a lot of your stories. Do you ever consider what it means to be a “Southern” writer?

Any kind of label (Southern or humorist or whatever) can be an excuse to fall into bad habits so I try to be as careful as I can. I once heard George Singleton speaking on a panel, and he was asked to name his favorite Southern writer. He said Gogol. That’s a much briefer and sharper answer to what you’re asking, I think, and it has the advantage of working like a Zen koan.

Your Body is Changing is your second collection of short stories. Do you have plans to write a longer work and could you tell me about what you have in mind?

My novel (titled AWESOME) is coming out in 2008. It’s about a happy, rich, handsome giant of the Paul Bunyan variety. I started out worrying about the perception that I write about “losers.” I thought, “What’s a winner? Can you really write about a winner? Is there a good novel about a winner? I mean, Captain Ahab is a ‘loser,’ right? Quentin Compson is a ‘loser.’ Madame Bovary is a ‘loser.’ Prince Mishkin is a ‘loser,’ Hazel Motes is a ‘loser,’ Jay Gatsby is a ‘loser’...” Whoa! Let me make it clear I’m not comparing myself to Melville, Flaubert, and those others. In any case, the dramatic impulse kicked in and fairly early in the novel the giant runs into some major problems... that’s the way fiction works, it turns out. It was impossible to write about a “winner.”