D. Harlan Wilson
2007 has been a good year for Eckhard Gerdes. In addition to continued editorship of The Journal of Experimental Fiction, he will be publishing not one, not two, not three, but FOUR novels this Spring alone: Przewalski's Horse (Red Hen Press), The Million-Year Centipede; or, Liquid Structures (Raw Dog Screaming Press), Nin and Nan (Six Gallery Press), and The Unwelcome Guest (Six Gallery Press). Few authors can boast that kind of compacted output.
Gerdes' fiction is distinguished by a darkly comedic sensibility that willfully violeates narrative and categorical boundaries in an attempt to explore the vagaries of social relations and the human psyche. I like to think of his work as a literature of anxiety that reifies and critiques the panic culture of everyday life. But generalizing Gerdes in this way is probably unwise; his work is as varied and wide-ranging as it is provocative and inimitable.
DHW: Your most recent book is The Million-Year Centipede, a fragmented, schizophrenic narrative extrapolated from a song by The Doors. Tell us about the book’s conception and composition.
EG: Schizophrenic? Well, I guess part of me agrees with that. Actually, the story behind that novel is rather unhappy. I was actually quite depressed as a teen and latched onto the music of The Doors at some point as a way out. The Doors have a piece on the Absolutely Llive album, something that they'd already printed the lyrics to in the gatefold of Waiting for the Sun, I think, a piece called "The Celebration of the Lizard," in which Morrison seemed to suggest that he was going to return seven years after faking his death. Remember, especially back in those days, Ray Manzarek was suggesting Morrison faked his death on almost every rock talk show on FM radio. I naively bought into that and figured I should be there on that day. So I figured, since Morrison had said he was returning to "the land of the fair and strong and the wise" and that, since he loved L.A. so much, he'd meant there, that I should go to L.A. I went to — where else? — the Morrison Hotel, a 7-buck a night fleabag transient motel filled with hookers and addicts, and stayed there, but, surprise, Morrison never showed. Anyway, I was delusional. I was certainly a child of the times. But I wrote it all out, couching it in a science fiction story, which I'd been reading at the time, especially Vonnegut and a lot of Michael Moorcock's science fiction, not his fantasy. It had a profound influence on my writing as well. But when I wrote The Million-Year Centipede, I wrote it because I had to. The experience was profound, and at the time I was sure this was the only book I'd ever do. I wanted to it do it well.
MYC has been called an "avant pop" novel. What is your understanding of this term. Is avant pop a postmodern formation, or is it beyond postmodernism?
Modern fiction has this sort of bifurcation that has persisted since Poe. We are still not over the mimesis question. Is art meant to be mimetic? Or does life follow art, and thus art needs to be produced for the sake of art? "Avant," of course, implies the latter, that art leads and life follows. Before NASA put a man on the moon, Cyrano de Bergerac and Johannes Kepler did. "Pop," however, implies, I believe, a willingness to set the work in one's own time and place, to pay attention to the particulars of one's unique situation, including its cultural detritus. Wasn't it Henry James who said that for a work to be timeless it must be grounded in its own particular time? Something like that. If you'd say that Joyce was avant pop for mentioning Plumtree's Potted Meats, an apparently real business, in Ulysses, then I accept that label proudly. At some level, none of these terms make any sense. I tend to think of definition as dismissal, and that if I could define for you easily what it is I'm doing, then you could dismiss it, put your notes in a manilla folder, put the folder in a filing cabinet, lock the filing cabinet, and throw away the key because you'll never need it again. The greatest concepts, like people themselves, resist definition. My hair tends to bristle at the back of my neck when I hear people say, "I know you — you're this or that or the other thing." I feel misunderstood. As for the formulation "avant pop" itself, I'd say certainly that it's within the bounds of postmodernism. My understanding of postmodernism is that it is the first major artistic movement that has not denied the validity of its immediate predecessor. Postmodernism, uniquely, takes a "Yes that, and also that and also that" approach to the arts. Before, each movement that came out seemed to be saying, "Dad's an idiot. Mom's a fool. The elders are stupid. We can do it better." The issue now is that we can finally step back and see the whole picture and put it together in new ways. I like this from the 18th Century and that from the 20th. Let's see what the mix looks like. It's all valid. Not all useful, of course. I think we've matured into being able to say, hey, what our parents did was okay, and so was what our grandparents did. It's all cool. It's a matter of how we look at it. And then we can filter out the most obvious stuff and throw it away. Look for the unusual. Where is the idiosyncrasy?
I don't like olives. Do you?
Of course, especially with my cats. They go nuts over green olives with pimentos. It's stronger than catnip. Something in it — I think the pimento — is completely psychoactive in cats. They freak. It's very funny. One of them actually ate some pimento once, but they'd rather just sniff it or lick some of the oil. My personal favorite are the queen green olives stuffed with almonds or with garlic. Keeps the werewolves away and protects them from my insane cats.
How long have you been editing The Journal of Experimental Fiction, and how did you get involved with it?
I started that and Depth Charge Publishing back in the 1980s. JEF was explored over and over again. My first wife, Persis, who died of breast cancer in '02, tried over and over again to prod me into doing it. We were on the verge once, had layout and stuff done, but she had predicated it on ad sales. Unfortunately none of us who were working on the journal at the time — meaning her, me, and the assistant editor — knew diddly squat about ad sales. Finally, when we were in Georgia, POD came around, and at that time iUniverse wasn't charging set-up fees (they're a fortune now), so away we went. We've changed printers twice since then, but are forging ahead. I guess I began the journal when I felt the vacuum left by Rampike's closing its offices. That, fortunately, was only temporary, but at the time, I was dismayed. It had literally been the only place for innovative writing in North America. So I had to start JEF. We've been pushing, lots of us, and the readership keeps growing. I don't mind holding this banner. It's something I believe in. I know some folks don't like the term "experimental" because of some pejorative connotations it has, I guess. I think of it as being open to the new. I want JEF to always be open to the new. I saw so many great presses die who, instead of remaining open to the new, decided that the list of writers they had in 1956 was still good enough now, and just turn their back on contemporary work. It was sad. Those were the presses I had grown up admiring, but they refused to let young writers in. We're here to be a touchstone for people who enjoy watching writers wrestle with language. And you'd be surprised at how many writers are working to be significantly innovative now. Far more than twenty years ago. It's not always going to be the same presses any more. Writers have taken matters in their own hands. If the major presses ignore us, then we are free to do whatever the hell we want, and that is one fantastic positive out of all this.
Do you think narrative experimentation continues to resonate in the contemporary world? Or did real interest in experimentation die with the high modernists?
First define "contemporary world." Then define "real" and "interest." You might want to define "high" while you're at it. That's a loaded question. Why limit experimentation only to narrative (i.e. the relaying of sequence of events). What if what I want to say is that life is nothing like a sequence of events? It is random and haphazard. Then, should I want fiction to be mimetic (for whatever the hell reason), it must also be random and haphazard. So, sure, experimentation will always exist. The art would die without it. Latin and Sanskrit—there you go, there's no experimentation in those languages anymore. If we are now finally evolved to the point, as F. Scott Fitzgerald said, where we can hold two contradictory thoughts simultaneously, then those thoughts will naturally play off one another. Postmodernism means everything is fit matter, even the flotsam and jetsam of daily life. If everything is fit matter, then the extreme polarized positions of the "realist" and the "experimentalist" reach toward each other and borrow from one another until they end up unified. Of course, by then the experimentalist is on to something else, while the realist is stuck, trying to define "reality." Good freakin' luck.
You have a beard. Why?
Ah, you have asked an interesting question, but I have already answered it in great detail in my book Przewalski's Horse, which Red Hen has just published. The secret is held inside that book, grasshopper.
What authors have influenced your writing?
Your questions are tough. Okay, here's the litany, if I can remember. You can sing this to the tune of Peggy Lee's version of "Black Coffee": Robert Louis Stevenson, Michael Moorcock, Richard Brautigan, Kurt Vonnegut, William Burroughs, Kathy Acker, Arno Schmidt, Italo Calvino, Raymond Federman, Hal Jaffe, Jim Chapman, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, William Gass, Firesign Theatre (maybe I should list them first!), Fred Shrier, Gilbert Shelton, Larry Todd, Jim Starlin, Derek Pell, Laurence Sterne, Tom Phillips, White Mans Telford, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, Virginia Woolfe, Patti Smith, Jim Morrison, John Entwistle, Roy Loney, John Lennon, Halldor Laxness, and Kenneth Patchen, for starters.
You hold an M.F.A. in creative writing. Did you have a positive experience as a graduate student? To what degree did your M.F.A. contribute to your development as a writer?
Another pointed one. Ouch! Yes and no. I had five goes at being a grad student, so it all depends on what you mean. The ultimate one, my MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was very positive. Of course there were folks who weren't interested in seeing me succeed, but they had an air of indifference about them, which was different from my two previous MFA attempts, where the instruction was downright hostile. I am taking into account that my material ain't exactly MFA cookie-cutter stuff. But I found allies in the Art Institute, which is something I hadn't really had at the other schools. The dean was a graphic designer, and he liked my work enormously, told me I should be thinking about billboards, not pages. I dug that. He was cool. And an art historian I studied with was so cool I took four classes with him. Jim Hugunin. What a great teacher. He even wrote an afterword for Cistern Tawdry when that came out. But in the writing program itself, I was an outcast. I was a thorn in everyone's side. I knew the theory inside out, and I knew how to express it. No one was ever able to corner me, though I did have one teacher threaten to choke me to death for making him read nonlinear prose. By then I knew what I was doing. Only one teacher inside the program, Michael Collins, a great writer who was shortlisted for the Booker Prize a couple of years ago, really knew what I was doing, but of course he really knew the theoretical underpinnings from where I was working.
What upcoming projects do you have in the works?
I am working on a new novel, My Landlady the Lobotomist. An excerpt just came out in the Notre Dame Review. In addition to that, I am working on a CD of readings with improvised music. The band is a great improv unit out of Omaha called Shelf Life. Together we are Scuff Mud, which is the name of the CD and one of the pieces contained in it. We're also going to do a live recording, Evil Scuff Mud, in Omaha later this summer. Other than that and the usual book reviews and stuff, I am also contributing a chapter to a scholarly book on Raymond Federman for SUNY Press. In the meantime, two more novels will be coming out, and the new issue of JEF should be out late March.
Lastly, who do you think was Jack the Ripper?
That's easy. That was Tex Ritter's boy. He was on that TV show, Three's Company. Jack Tripper was Jack T. Ripper was Jack the Ripper. I first thought it hard to believe, especially given the fact that Jack the Ripper was apparently also a freemason, but then I found out that Chuck Barris of The Gong Show was a hit man for the CIA, so now I'm sure.