Earlier this year I featured a review of Shonkwiler’s novel, Above All Men, and had the opportunity to interview him about his novel. Below is his biography and our Q&A:
Eric Shonkwiler has had writing appear in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. He received his MFA in Fiction from University of California–Riverside, where he was the recipient of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellowship Award, and is a regional editor for Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as a former reader for [PANK] and former Editor-in-Chief for CRATE: The Literary Journal of UCR. Born and raised in Ohio, Eric has lived and worked in every contiguous U.S. time zone, and finds himself on the road as often as not. He is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel, Above All Men, a 2014 Midwest Connections Pick released in March from MG Press. You can find him at ericshonkwiler.com.
1.) Let’s begin with the landscape that inspires all of the events that take place within the story’s main characters. The future is famine, crops dying from drought, dust storms sweeping through and further hindering the chance of animals and plants to thrive. Why did you decide the future would become a dustbowl?
ERIC SHONKWILER: It seemed like a logical and poetic result of global warming. While I might not get the location of the bowl right (Ohio’s been getting good rains for a few years, for instance, while California’s dry as a bone.), it seems rather likely that the change in climate is going to result in some semi-permanent disasters akin to the Dustbowl of the 1930s.
2.) The main character, David, struggles between family, independence, and revenge for the wrongs done to his friends in the story. Often, his wife complains that he is always leaving them behind. Why did you create a character with such complex wanderlust?
ES: It’s not exactly wanderlust that drives David; it’s a profound desire for service. David has in him a messianic complex that, when combined with his clearly deep war traumas, creates a man who’s ready to perform virtually any sort of self-sacrifice, without realizing that sacrificing himself comes at great cost to his family.
3.) Red comes across as a free-spirited man who served alongside David in the war that brings out David’s darker side. Can you tell me how you created Red’s character? Is he a foil to David’s family-man struggles?
ES: Because David is a closed-off individual, almost anyone who can keep up with him becomes a foil; Red, Helene, and O.H. all take their turns countering or interrupting David’s worldview. Red started as a much simpler idea than that—he was just David’s friend. They fought side by side, and, at a climactic moment, were split apart. These two different paths show that a single event or a single decision can fundamentally change a person, and though it wasn’t my initial intention to illustrate that with their relationship, that is what came of it.
4.) An African-American family moves in—believing a sales pitch in the city they used to live in and hoping to farm the desolate land—and are delivered a dose of reality by David. This seems to be a direct nod to Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Were you inspired to spin a modern version from Steinbeck?
ES: The similarities with The Grapes of Wrath are largely incidental—You’re bound to cover the same sort of territory because the subjects are similar; poor farmers and exploited citizens are shared characters in the two books. There is, however, a bit of a wink to Grapes when Fogel mentions going to California.
5.) Samuel, David’s son, makes friends with the new family’s daughter. The events that transpire afterward send Samuel into a deepening silence. Samuel’s path keeps leading back toward David’s, and his mother, Helene, worries about that path. What is behind Samuel’s character that he follows the man who keeps leaving their family, as opposed to a path like the women in his life who stay loyal and close to their own family?
ES: I think it’s natural for Samuel to gravitate toward David’s path, because from the outside it appears to be one of action and righteous anger. Samuel doesn’t see (and for most of his youth, doesn’t know) that David has and does “leave” the family. Complicating this is the intertwining of David’s path with Red’s, which Samuel finds even more exciting. Ultimately, I think you can’t ask a boy his age, having seen what he’s seen, to understand that the women in his life have been fighting the good fight longer and more consistently than the men he knows and admires. He’s a smart boy, but he is just a boy.
6.) What influenced your choice of landscape and setting into the future?
ES: I wanted a setting that was quintessentially American, and I’m a Midwesterner, so it seemed easy and iconic to write what I knew about, in that instance. I also wanted the issues that we seem to be facing today to be seen playing (or played) out on the page, and causing real and heavy consequences. This led rather naturally to the future.
7.) What books are you reading currently?
ES: I’m deep into Mario Vargas Llosa’s The War of the End of the World, and for research purposes, I’m leafing through a few books on mining in New Mexico. Next up will probably be either Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist or Eleanor Catton’s The Luminaries.
8.) What project(s) are you working on right now that we may be able to look for in the future?
ES: I’m finishing up and shopping around a second novel, with a light noir flavor, titled, Eighth Street Power & Light¸ that I’d love to see on shelves relatively soon. I’m also researching and repeatedly starting and deleting a third novel that has some Western elements to it.
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