Get ready. Our third anthology, with stories selected by Lev Grossman, publishes on October 1. It showcases the best emerging writers in graduate-level creative writing programs. In anticipation of publication, we are conducting interviews with our ten fantastic authors. This week, we talked to Eric Howerton, author of “Go Down, Diller” about Faulkner, talking bears, teaching fiction, and living with his characters. Howerton spent five years crafting this story, and it came to us as a flawless, complete world. You don’t want to miss this one. Pre-order the anthology here.
“Which is stranger?” Diller asked. “That the bear can talk or that he’s working fast food?”
Shelly chewed her salad slowly. “Why would it be weird for him to talk?”
He stared at her as constellations of freckles jounced in rhythm to her chewing. “Because bears can’t talk.”
She looked at him quizzically and swallowed hard. “Of course they can.”
What are some of your all-time favorite stories?
As you can probably tell from “Go Down, Diller,” I gravitate toward stories that dabble in the strange and off-kilter. E.T.A. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman” is one of my all-time favorites. Hoffmann wrote the story that The Nutcracker ballet is based on, and every time I read “The Sandman” I get chills. Vladimir Nabokov’s “Signs and Symbols” is a classic, and I teach it to every creative writing student I encounter because of its ambition, intelligence, and economy. Herman Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” also tops the list. “Bartleby, the Scrivener” is also one of my girlfriend’s favorite short stories, and we named our dog Bartleby as homage. The name fits too. He’s a beagle, so you can try and give him a command and what you get in return are these large eyes staring back at you, as if to say “I prefer not to.”
Other short story authors who have influenced me greatly and give me endless enjoyment are Flannery O’Connor, Donald Barthelme, Haruki Murakami, Aimee Bender, Roberto Bolaño, and Etgar Keret.
Your characters in “Go Down, Diller” are so clearly drawn: Diller’s critical and sweet daughter Shelly; the annoying and endearing Wine Guy at the hotel where Diller works; even the talking bear, whom you introduce flawlessly. Where did you come up with these personalities?
They were completely made up. I have the bad habit of not basing my characters on people I know (which my friends and family probably appreciate!), so it can take a long time for me to bring characters to life. I can churn out a story draft in a week or two, but to really make the characters speak and feel whole I have to welcome them as imaginary friends in my head for an extended period. How long this occupancy takes place is unknown at the time I start revising, so in order to “invite a character to stay” I have to really believe that the story has merit and is worth cohabitating with for months or years. As I’m revising the story—which in the case of “Go Down, Diller” took about five years—I’m sort of remembering these characters in my spare moments. I check in with them, see how they’re doing, talk to them, put them in scenes and play those scenes over and over again, tweaking little details here and there until those characters feel like they’re naturally acting of their own accord. That’s sort of how this story—and a lot of my non-flash fiction pieces—work. I grew the characters in my head like plants. What kind of fruit those plants produced was a surprise even for myself.
Now that this piece has finally been published, I’m evicting Diller et al. and leasing that headspace to another tenant. But Diller, Shelly, the bear, and even the Wine Guy will be missed. Maybe someday they’ll send me a postcard from wherever it is they go.
You hold both an MFA from Pennsylvania State University and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Houston. Quite impressive. What did you find beneficial and unique about each program?
Penn State was where I really continued to build the scholastic base I started as an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico. It was also where I first became a part of a community of literary writers, which was exciting coming from a background that was mostly rooted in philosophy and journalism. Houston was where I buffed out the rough edges of my work and improved my craft.
The Penn State MFA program—which sadly has been excised—was one of the most rigorous academic experiences of my life. The rare semester or two you weren’t in workshop (this was a three-year program) and enrolled in three literary seminars, you might be expected to read 1,000 pages or more of fiction and criticism per week. So the workload was heavy. This program gave me discipline and a broader understanding of where my work could fit into the bigger literary picture.
Houston was where I came to understand a lot of things about myself as a writer and what I needed to pay attention to in order to improve. I knew that I had been accepted by an excellent program, and I didn’t want to waste that opportunity. So I really started listening to what other people were saying about my work. Working with Robert Boswell and Alex Parsons helped me better understand what sort of sentences I wanted to write, the need for clarity and structure, the significance of a single detail, etc. I relearned all the basics, and applied them to my writing. I became a better reviser as a result and was able to edit a lot of older material that had been rejected by journals time and time again. A lot of this work has since been published, and I have the generosity of my teachers in Houston to thank for that.
You have published in many other journals, and are a pretty prolific author. Are you working on assembling your stories in a collection? And, if so, does this affect how you think about each individual story?
“Go Down, Diller” is actually part of the story collection Words vs. Numbers, which I will hopefully publish soon. For a while, I was going to use this collection as my PhD dissertation, but then I wrote a novel that developed one of these stories into a larger, more expansive work. That novel is currently undergoing a final draft of revisions and is the first novel I’ve written worth publishing.
I probably have enough stories to cull together a second collection, but not one as thematically cohesive as Words vs. Numbers, which addresses the concerns of individuals who have a difficult time deciding whether numeric or semantic content should drive their understanding of the world. Diller’s work as an auditor who reduces people to numbers (and doesn’t own a dictionary!) and the bear’s ability to speak are reflective of these contrasting drives. I like the idea of a collection that speaks to a general theme, but I can’t say that I devise each story so it’s related to the last. Rather, I think my own preoccupations find a way of working themselves out in my work, so if something troubles me for months or years then the stories I produce in that time often feel like they’re in conversation with one another.
Part of what we admired so much about your story “Go Down, Diller” is the ease with which it depicts a reality that is the same as our own, except for one key element. I don’t think it’s giving too much away to say: in your story, bears can talk. Where did you come up with this idea?
I started reading William Faulkner years ago, but it wasn’t until I reread Go Down, Moses in graduate school that the idea behind “Go Down, Diller” materialized. The most celebrated story in Go Down, Moses is “The Bear,” in which the sensitive Ike McCaslin participates in a hunting trip targeting Old Ben—a bear of epic proportions and mythic stature. The story deals with a waning sense of naturalism in the South, and also with the way a history of slavery affected wealth distribution and property ownership long after emancipation was ratified. But another story from Go Down, Moses interested me even more. The story “Was” is set a few decades earlier than “The Bear”—during the time when slavery was still legal—and in this piece Buck McCaslin (Ike’s father) goes hunting for his runaway slave, Tomey’s Turl. I was interested in taking some of the ideas from “Was”—misguided feelings of paternalism; trying to track and monitor human relationships; being unrightfully in charge of another person’s freedom—and removing the slave component so I could bring it into the modern day.
The idea of a talking bear was superficially a bit of a MacGuffin, a way to “weird up” the world while creating a crisis of knowledge for Diller to struggle through. But the more I started to write, the more I saw the bear as a strong nod to Faulkner that I couldn’t afford to treat lightly. For myself, the context surrounding the bears in Go Down, Moses and “Go Down, Diller” both represent situations in which characters struggle to understand the changing face of a modernity they cannot escape. Diller is confronted with the unnerving realization that there are minor details—gaps in observational understanding—that will always escape him, and that the lines of naturalism and intellect have suddenly been confounded by the knowledge that bears can talk. In “The Bear,” we see a changed South, one in which Ike struggles with the fact that even though slavery has officially ended, the South after the Civil War remains a place where the history of slavery continues to impact economic and hierarchical relations. So while “Go Down, Diller,” “Was,” and “The Bear” tread very different social ground, some of the fundamental concerns exist outside time, space, and race, and I wanted to harness those concerns and present them with a little more absurdity.
What is your writing schedule like (do you like to write at a particular time of day, in a particular place, etc.)?
I feel most creative in the afternoon and at night, so that’s when I do most of my writing. As I’m about to fall asleep, I’ll often have revelations about plot or detail or how to fix a particular scene. I think late at night is a creative time for me because I’m so relaxed that my brain isn’t dealing with distractions like food and bills and politics. I don’t often write in the mornings. When I wake up, I only want to eat eggs and bacon, but I don’t because bacon’s bad for you. Instead I read the news and eat a peach and grumble until inspiration strikes.
You just graduated from the University of Houston, and you are already teaching at Weber State University. How does your teaching inform your writing, and vice versa?
I’m fortunate enough that even though I’m only an adjunct faculty member at Weber State, I teach introductory creative writing. When I emphasize craft to my students, I’m forced to remember the importance of these issues when I’m constructing a story and developing characters. When I’m teaching composition courses, I’m constantly emphasizing structure and sentence-level clarity, and I have to hold myself to this same high standard. All of this is to say that things haven’t changed that much from being a student in a workshop to being the workshop leader. I’m still having conversations about writing and literature on a daily basis. The major difference is that now I’m the one who can’t skip class!