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.