Author Q&A: Luke Geddes

Luke Geddes’s fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, Mid-American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Washington Square, etc. He is also a sometimes critic for The Comics Journal and Electric Literature. His short story collection, I Am a Magical Teenage Princess, has received praise from The New York Times, Publishers Weekly, Rain Taxi, The Collagist, etc., as well as the authors Chris Bachelder, Alissa Nutting, Roxane Gay, and Michael Griffith. Geddes has a Ph.D. in comparative literature and creative writing from the University of Cincinnati. He lives in Cincinnati.


TBL Author Q&A Series: Luke Geddes

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

Do you think there’s a place for “weird” in popular fiction today? Is “weird” a more natural form, or does it take more effort to produce and enjoy?

I guess I like things that are “weird,” but I’m wary of fiction that self-identifies as “weird” or is self-consciously so. I understand, though, that you probably mean to draw a distinction between a predominant strain of literary fiction that willfully acquiesces to conventions like linear plot structure, sympathetic characters, mimetic realism, etc.—books that are easy to pitch (“a multigenerational family saga of love and loss,” “an uproarious page-turner exposing the fallacy of the American Dream”) and easy to read. I think a lot of fiction that calls itself weird or “magically real” can be just as facile, however; a story about a frog having a midlife crisis isn’t necessarily more interesting than one about a college professor having a midlife crisis.

I prefer to think in terms of “risky” vs. “safe” rather than “weird” vs. “normal” or “indie” vs. “mainstream.” For me, what’s most rewarding as both a reader and writer, and probably takes more effort to produce and consume, is writing with a sense of risk. I want a sense of vulnerability or disclosure on the part of the author. I’m not talking about thinly veiled autobiography or confessional writing. I mean that the author (and the book itself) is wrestling against ineffability. I like fiction that’s made up of thoughts, feelings, and observations that normally evade being pinned down into words because they are too messy, idiosyncratic, uncomfortable, or, I suppose, weird. One of the best things fiction can do is describe in concrete language things that the reader has only intuitively thought or felt his entire life.

What a relief it was, when I was a younger reader, to follow a character in Paula Fox’s The Widow’s Children into the bathroom not to use the facilities but to momentarily escape her bickering family; naively, I thought I was the only one who hid in bathrooms to avoid certain social interactions. What a hilarious thrill it is when Tom Drury in Pacific identifies a cultural gesture I’d long recognized privately but never seen remarked upon publicly, describing a character staring at a lit cigar “as all cigar smokers must for some reason.”  I call moments like these risky because expressing the heretofore unexpressed can be a scary thing. If the reader doesn’t get it, the author can come across as foolish or failing.

To answer the second half of your question, I think this “weird” or “risky” fiction is harder. It requires a keenly honed sense of observation (of the self, of the outside world, of the capabilities and limitations of language) that comes much less naturally to most writers than the conventions of plot, structure, and characterization, which we begin to learn through sublimation from a very young age by constantly consuming narrative in the form of TV, movies, advertising, picture books, comic strips, social media, etc.

What do you look for when you review a piece of writing you’re developing? Other than basic structural elements, is there anything in particular that you make sure each chapter or story contains or accomplishes?

I wish I could be so conscientious. I often feel like I can barely think further ahead than the next word. Like most people, I get “ideas,” general concepts or images that could serve as exigences for stories or novels or whatever, but when I begin writing I inevitably realize that in terms of actual text, those ideas translate into a sum total of only a few sentences or paragraphs. I’m not someone who can hold a lot of narrative in my head before I begin writing. There’s joy in the unplanned element or self-surprising turn of phrase, sure. But writing for me isn’t like daydreaming. Very rarely does a story just “flow.” It’s pretty tedious, actually; every sentence or word is a decision I have to consciously make, and it’s only once I’ve made significant headway into a project that I start to feel like I even halfway know what it is or what it’s about.

That’s just me and my process, though. I don’t doubt that there are writers out there who fully develop complex narratives in their head before they’ve even begun writing and type it all out as if transcribing a movie. I assume that such writers work in the epic multivolume sci-fi/fantasy idiom and are richer and happier than I am.

What is it that you hope to experience before/during/after you read a piece of fiction?

Mostly the sorts of moments of recognition I talked about in response to your first question, when a heretofore ineffable truth is rendered in concrete language. I also want whatever any reader wants: compelling characters, interesting plots, immersive settings, etc. But I can get a lot of that stuff more efficiently from other forms of media like TV shows or video games or podcasts. The best fiction prioritizes the mechanisms literature does better than other media, letting story emerge from narrative voice, interiority, structural invention, etc.

I don’t favor an essentialist view of fiction, in which every element contributes to a singular unified whole; I like digressions and details that seem extraneous but are compelling in and of themselves. This, by the way, doesn’t mean my tastes are so high-minded and “literary.” I like “pulp” writers like Charles Willeford and Chester Himes and Don Carpenter as much as or more than anyone in the “literary” canon.

I’m not a fan of fiction that tries only to be funny, but I’m not interested in any works devoid of humor.

What is your stance on the oft-quoted-in-workshops phrase “write what you know?”

My life is boring, and I don’t know that much about anything, so it doesn’t work for me. I generally just try to write about something I’m interested in.  “Write what you’re interested in” sounds obvious, but I’ve known a lot of writing students who get some idea in their heads about what subject matter is worthy of fiction, so they labor over draft after draft of quiet, Carveresque stories of working class disillusionment that, even if they relate to biographically, they have no sincere interest in.

In my early days, I was one of those students. It wasn’t until I started writing about things that seemed too goofy or unimportant or “weird” to belong in literature, things I was interested in but always assumed no one else would be, that I began to produce anything halfway good. In the case of my short story collection, this ended up being mid-20th century youth culture detritus like Archie comics, AIP beach movies, Hanna Barbera cartoons, old educational hygiene films, etc.

Obviously I’m not the first person to write fiction about or inspired by pop or “low” culture, but I long avoided it as subject matter for fear of exposing myself as insufficiently intellectual. My desire to be seen as high-brow and sophisticated superseded my ambition to write something actually interesting. To relate it back to your first question, writing about that stuff seemed very risky to me. For the few literary journals that deigned to publish me, I imagine there were countless others who saw what I was doing as sophomoric and fan-fictionish (certainly some of the people in my MFA workshop made it known that they felt that way). And maybe they were right! But at least I was excited by what I was writing.

From what I understand, you’ve been working on a novel. How did the idea and first chapters develop? At what point did you look at what you were writing and say, Yes, this is a novel. Was it a feeling you had the whole time, or did it hit you once you reached a certain number of words?

I’d made a couple feeble attempts at novels before, but even when what I had written seemed like it could serve as a solid foundation for a longer work, I wasn’t confident that I was interested enough or a good enough writer to actually reach the end. This one was different maybe only in the sense that, even after I gave up and abandoned it or lost interest or confidence in it, I eventually returned to it. This happened a few times, actually. I suppose once I got a significant amount of it written, maybe 100 pages, even in rough form, it became easier to imagine as a real thing that would one day be finished.

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