Humor Makes Any Aspect of Life More Tolerable: An Interview with Greg Shemkovitz and James Tate Hill

Greg Shemkovitz teaches writing and literature at Elon University in North Carolina. His fiction has appeared in Foundling Review, Gihon River Review, the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Prick of the Spindle, and elsewhere. Lot Boy is his first novel. You can find him online at gregshemkovitz.wordpress.com

James Tate Hill is the author of Academy Gothic, winner of the 2014 Nilsen Prize for a First Novel. He serves as Fiction and Reviews Editor for the literary journal Monkeybicycle, an imprint of Dzanc Books. His fiction has appeared in Story Quarterly, Sonora Review, The South Carolina Review, The Laurel Review, The Texas Review, and elsewhere. He holds an M.A. in Creative Writing from Hollins University and an M.F.A. from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, where he served as Fiction Editor of The Greensboro Review. A native of Charleston, West Virginia, he is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and West Virginia University. Currently he lives in Greensboro with his wife, Lori. You can find him online at www.jamestatehill.com

GREG SHEMKOVITZ (GS): Where to begin. First of all, I want to say that I’m a huge fan of crime fiction and humor, and Academy Gothic reminds me of Gregory Mcdonald’s Fletch books in all the best ways. Where Mcdonald liked to satirize a general political or cultural landscape of the time, you seem to be doing the same, rather unrelentingly, with higher education. In doing so, you create a fictional world with Parshall College that includes a wide cast of characters that are intimately tied to, if not depend on, that crumbling world. Can you talk about creating that world, how you balance the narrator’s willful disdain for the college with a lineup of suspects and sympathetic characters, and, perhaps, how this might reflect your own experiences with higher education?

JAMES TATE HILL (JTH): I had only seen the Fletch movies prior to writing Academy Gothic, but I’ve since become a fan of Gregory Mcdonald’s novels. So much of the crime fiction I’m drawn to, from Gregory Mcdonald to Ross Macdonald to Raymond Chandler, tends to blend humor and crime as effortlessly as Reese’s mixes chocolate and peanut butter. It might have been these influences who were responsible for Academy Gothic turning out to be as much a comedy as the hardboiled noir I started out writing.

Or, given the state of higher education in America, a comic tone might have been inevitable. When I began writing Academy Gothic, it seemed more and more of my job teaching college writing had less and less to do with teaching or learning. Throw in state budget cuts and a faculty and student body increasingly suspicious of a curriculum one might generously describe as mercurial and the only natural response seemed to be laughter. It’s humor that makes any aspect of life more tolerable, especially work, and the books and movies that have explored our relationship to work most effectively in recent years, from the movie Office Space to Joshua Ferris’s novel Then We Came to the End, have been more insightful than any works I can think of with a serious tone.

Your own novel, Lot Boy, often reads as a comedy, particularly in the many scenes at the car dealership. Your narrator, Eddie Lanning, is not unlike the academics of my novel who wish they were elsewhere. With the car dealership and city of Buffalo drawn as vividly as any of your cast of colorful characters, it feels like place and work are more dominant influences on Eddie’s life than his family or friends. Would you describe setting as another character?

GS: Place is a driving force in most of my writing and I often rely on it to either define characters or set the tone. I think that setting—Buffalo, in this case—can provide its own genre with its own set of expectations. As for the narrator’s work, I’ve always been obsessed with what characters do for a living—that thing the character does for most of their day—even if that information is nowhere in the story. But it can be stifling when the story is about that occupation. I guess, in a way I was trying to overlay that stifling effect on the setting, so that I could explore each through a narrator who was trying to escape both. Luckily, readers have responded pretty well to how I treat setting.

I also think the result of that focus might be that place and work outshine the characters, leaving those characters—at least the narrator—open to wider interpretation. This is the first time readers have responded to work that I cannot revise. So, for instance, when a reader refers to my narrator as a sociopath, all I want to do is go back and explore that idea. I want to read the book through that lens and tease out any themes I’ve missed. But I can’t. The book is done. And so I’m left with the anxiety of releasing a book to the world in this one way. There’s nothing I can do anymore.

I don’t know if you’ve had this same feeling when you’re writing, but I think there’s a certain comfort to the fact that you can always change the story, tweak a character, or rework a scene. But when it’s published, that’s it. As a debut novelist, as well, can you talk about your experience with releasing that final draft into the world?

JTH: There’s been plenty of anxiety, to be sure. So far, I’ve been thrilled with the response of readers who seem to get the elements I hoped they would. Your novel has a head start on mine by a couple of months, so the varied reactions are probably on the horizon. Academy Gothic has been a little different from the other books I’ve written—the ones that never saw the light of day, thank God—in that the published version isn’t drastically different from the early drafts. There were edits, of course—many, many edits—but the story, characters, and tone emerged far closer to fully formed than anything I’ve written in the past. This might be the benefit of working in a genre with widely accepted conventions one can either use, discard, or play around with as desired. When I felt the novel was ready, I spent about six or eight months searching for representation before the frustration of unreturned e-mails started eating into my creative energy. Unlike with other books I had written, however, the rejection didn’t affect how I felt about the manuscript. I entered a few book contests, which is how it ultimately found a home at Southeast Missouri State University Press.

Whether it’s because there’s so much good work in the world these days or because the large New York publishers have more financial concerns than small presses, it feels like the publishing landscape has flattened quite a bit over the last ten or fifteen years. In terms of the books you read, do you see a difference between the books published by big houses and smaller presses? What has your experience publishing Lot Boy with a small press been like?

GS: Beyond initial book tours and schmoozing with book sellers, I think many authors at big publishers still have to do a great deal of their own promotional work and create that beloved platform. At least that’s what I tell myself. Of course, I’m sort of a doer, anyway. I want to have a hand in shaping my book and sending it out there. And I think you have more of that with small presses. Like you, I’ve struggled to gain the gatekeepers’ attention. I don’t think that’s necessarily a reflection on our work. There are too many factors. I think it was Stewart O’Nan who said about his time judging the Drue Heinz Literature Prize, an award he had received years earlier, that when it came down to picking among the finalists, the time of day that he read the manuscript was just as much a factor as the writing itself. That’s sort of telling and yet completely understandable. I bet the same can be said for all avenues of publishing.

As for publishing with a small press, while it might be more difficult to get reviewed and secure events at bookstores, I don’t feel any less welcome in the literary community. Good folks are good folks. I might not hear back from Franzen, but Lethem and Perotta have written back (Heck, Joyce Carol Oates briefly followed you on Twitter!). Folks like Roxanne Gay and Michael Seidlinger are always championing good writing from all levels. I feel like a part of that, even without being nearly the literary citizen.

As the fiction and book reviews editor at Monkeybicycle, as well as an active voice on Twitter, how do you feel your literary citizenry has played a role in your work?

JTH: At some point in a writer’s education, he or she hears the line, “It’s all about the work.” At some point, it absolutely is. If your work isn’t good enough, nothing else matters. But there’s so much work that is good enough that never finds a home, or work that does find a home and never finds readers. I attended one of those AWP round tables with agents and editors where someone on the panel said he firmly believed cream rises to the top, that good work does find a place in the literary world, but that’s easily said when the work that makes it to his inbox is always the work that’s already found its way to the top. And to be fair, it’s not an editor’s job to seek out good work floating somewhere in the bottom of the pot. To be frank, it’s not the job of most established agents either, most of whom find enough great clients through referrals and at conferences. Agents and editors are as busy as anyone else in the publishing industry, and the books they’re ushering into the world are, with few exceptions, deserving of publication.

You could say the writer has a responsibility to find his or her way into the cream—this metaphor’s becoming weird, isn’t it?—or you could say the writer has an opportunity to do so. Whether it’s through conversations with other writers on Twitter, reading manuscripts for a literary magazine, writing book reviews, or interviewing writers you admire, there are so many ways for writers to establish themselves in the literary community. Call it networking if you must, but I’d rather think of it as making friends. I also believe in literary karma, and even if you don’t see the dividends personally, isn’t the world a better place because you helped a book or writer you love connect with a few more readers? To say nothing of the positive influence interacting with other writers has on your own work.

GS: So, where does writing within a genre come into play? Like with many traditional MFA programs, it seems like genre is shunned by a number of folks in the literary world. Can you talk about navigating within that confluence?

JTH: There’s probably a think piece or twenty somewhere in the ether about how and why so-called genre fiction started to merge with the mainstream. To a certain extent, that’s always been the case—think Edgar Allen Poe, Mary Shelley, Aldus Huxley, even the ghost stories of Henry James. Because I’m answering this question mere weeks after my novel’s official release, I’m not yet sure if readers will see Academy Gothic as fitting more into the tradition of a detective story or something more literary. Either would suit me just fine, perhaps because I cut my teeth on literary fiction and also hold ostensibly mystery and crime novelists like Lawrence Block, Laura Lippman, and Megan Abbott in such high regard. Then again I’ve just named three writers whose prose and ambition are equal to that of any writers of fiction considered purely literary.

Talking about genre reminds me of something you mentioned to me right before Lot Boy came out. By most definitions, you could probably label your novel a coming-of-age story, but the language, age of the main character, and some mature content clearly place it into the category of fiction for adults. Editing those parts out, you had mentioned, might have reclassified it as young adult. Did you ever seriously consider that change?

GS: I’ve thought about stripping the language in Lot Boy—I guess kind of like Mark Haddon did with A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time—but Eddie would still be in his late twenties and there isn’t much room for a love triangle or vampires. So I curbed the idea of making it a young adult book pretty quick.

JTH: I could see Lot Boy working as young adult perhaps because one of my favorite aspects of the novel is the odd relationship between Eddie and Hannah, but one reviewer noted how male-centric the cast is. What’s your response been so far from women readers?

GS: Not many folks have noted the lack of female characters as an issue, which is nice. But I intended for a male-centric cast. There are a few places in the book where the narrator points to the dealership as a man’s world, partly as an excuse for the way he acts. But it certainly defines him. You can’t come up in a world like that without turning out a certain way. As for Hannah, I meant to create a sense of balance with her. While she and Eddie were inseparable in high school and have a similar sensibility about the world, Eddie has never left Buffalo, whereas Hannah has lived in several cities throughout her childhood. And the biggest difference is that they’re both basically fuckups but Hannah has paid for her mistakes. Eddie, to this point, has lived without much consequence. That’s what really defines his character. He’s a prince. He has privilege, even if it doesn’t seem like much. Hannah, on the other hand, has practically no family, no stable home, and suffers a physical impairment as the result of her wrongdoings.

Speaking of physical impairments, while reading your book, I couldn’t help but think of the many fictional detectives who suffer from non-physical conditions—Adrien Monk’s obsessive compulsive personality disorder and many phobias, the countless television detectives who suffer from PTSD, bipolar disorder, or Asperger Syndrome, and, of course, the speculation that Sherlock Holmes lands somewhere on the autism spectrum. In each case, their condition provides something that often gives them an advantage in their detective work. Can you talk a little about Tate Cowlishaw’s impaired vision, how it relates to your own experiences with the same condition, and how you chose to use it in the story?

JTH: Another flawed detective who comes to mind is Matthew Scudder, Lawrence Block’s alcoholic who became, midway through the series, a recovering alcoholic. Those Scudder novels are so satisfying, even when the plots are less remarkable, because of the time spent exploring Scudder’s relationship with that defining element of his life and personality. For me, as a reader and a writer, it would be hard to spend time with a narrator who isn’t more than a tour guide of crime scenes and suspects. Tate Cowlishaw is not only legally blind—central blind spots that make the rim of his peripheral vision his only useful eyesight—but he still very much struggles with how this defines him. What he can’t see and has to glean through non-traditional methods complicates the plot, but Cowlishaw’s persistent efforts to pass as a fully sighted person are what complicate his character.

Indeed, Cowlishaw’s visual impairment is based on my own, a rare condition called Leber’s Hereditary Optic Neuropathy, which first affected me when I was sixteen. It’s not progressive, but neither is it treatable. The diagnosis came late in my junior year of high school, so I had the summer to learn what was available in terms of low vision aids and assistive technology. This wasn’t effortless by any stretch, but adaptation was far easier than acceptance. Many years would pass before I’d become comfortable with my new identity—I cringed every time I saw the word blind on one of my professionally recorded textbooks—and as much as I was aware of how extensively I tried to hide what I couldn’t see, it took a while to recognize the absurdity of my charade. It would take a few more years still for me to see in those ridiculous efforts some fodder for a fictional character.

Fairly or unfairly, because you’re from Buffalo and because the portrait of a car dealership is so convincingly portrayed in your novel, people are probably going to assume you and Eddie Lanning share large amounts of DNA. People who meet you or see you read will likely think otherwise, but I’m curious how much you need to, or want to, identify with your main characters. I’m thinking of Lot Boy but also of your forthcoming novel, whose protagonist is a young female anthropologist.

GS: I was once a lot boy at a Ford dealership in South Buffalo. There. I said it. Oh, and I wanted to leave. But beyond that sentiment, Eddie Lanning is more an amalgamation of quite a few other people I worked with. This is something I’m sure you’re familiar with doing in Academy Gothic. With the exception of a few minor characters, almost everyone is a patchwork of two or more people sent through a Play-Doh Fun Factory and reshaped into a character that suits the story. But I think my DNA is all over this book (that’s a really gross thought, by the way). I don’t know if I’m writing from a place I know or writing to make sense of that place, but in many instances my work tends to reflect my experiences in some small way. In my forthcoming novel, the main character is a museum administrator at a place not unlike a museum where I was once employed. I’ve also revisited the postal service in a few stories, a profession that I would gladly return to for its treasure trove of story ideas and characters. I think it helps me have empathy for these characters. They’re mostly unlikeable, and I think that my ability to identify with them helps to generate just enough sympathy for the reader to maybe care.

Circling back a bit, I’d like to hear how you’re handling being a debut author. We’re in the same boat at the moment, both pedaling our words as relatively unknown newcomers, and we’re facing our audiences for the first time. I’ve been reading a lot lately about how to give an entertaining reading, basically how not to bore the audience, and it has me thinking a lot about my writing and how it translates to the spoken word. But now I’m awfully self-conscious of it because I realize that I’m not really writing in a vacuum. While we may have touched on some of these things earlier, how do you feel all your promotional efforts, especially readings, have shaped your perspective on writing?

JTH: The day before my first reading I tweeted something like, “Is there a pill to suppress line editing while preparing to read from a published book?” My previous reading for an audience was my MFA thesis reading twelve years earlier, and while preparing to read from my thesis I discovered how different one’s work sounds when it’s read aloud. Back then all the line edits triggered by practicing for my reading were for a work still very much in progress, but when the same tendencies arose while practicing for a reading from a book that couldn’t be changed, some brief panic set in. Three writers I admire, Erika Swyler and Julianna Baggott and Aaron Burch, all responded within minutes to say they were inveterate line editors of their own published work, which made me feel immediately better. Erika called it liberating to tell the audience she continues to edit her book in print, and Julianna said she’s been known to slash an entire paragraph mid-reading. However common or uncommon this phenomenon is, my takeaway is that it’s important to have some distance between what is in the finished book and what you’re presenting to an audience. Ultimately you’re trying to connect with people, and little adjustments, whether to the narrative or the rhythm of sentences, can help that happen.

And from my very early stages of promotion, it seems the only trustworthy element is personal connection. I’ve read and heard of unsuccessful efforts with, say, advertising, and from my own experience as a consumer looking for what I want to read next, it’s usually an accumulation of voices and mentions from people I’ve come to trust that leads me to buy a book. The more organic, entertaining-in-their-own-right pieces by a book’s author probably sway me more, giving me a sense of a writer’s voice and a book’s flavor, than even some book reviews. As you noted earlier, and as I’m sure we both knew well before our books came out, the promotion is mostly in our hands, but as you also noted earlier, this isn’t untrue for writers publishing with large houses. In an old Poets & Writers round table, literary agent Dan Lazar pointed out that the only surefire way a book will sell on its own, separate from efforts of the author, is for the publisher to buy table space at Barnes & Noble. That was dispiriting to read, but also liberating. It’s the job of stores and publishers to sell books. It’s the job of authors to find their audience. If the end result is still the same, it feels important to note that distinction.

Going back to your question of what you’ve learned, let me take that from reading and audience to the writing process itself. It’s been said that to write a novel, however many you’ve written, is to learn all over again how to write a novel. What did Lot Boy teach you about the novel as a form? What wisdom did you have to throw away or place in storage while writing your next novel?

GS: That’s a fantastic question. I wrote a novella version of Lot Boy during the summer between years in graduate school when I had a lot of free time. I had been writing mostly short fiction for workshops and had no confidence in crafting anything beyond fifteen pages. Expanding the story into a novel taught me a lot about developing multiple characters and about pacing a long narrative. And it taught me that writing a novel can take a long time. It didn’t help that I was the sort of writer that revised along the way, tweaking sentences and rewriting paragraphs before moving on. When I was done, I had other stories I wanted to write but I was reluctant to embark on that journey again. So I didn’t. Then a couple of years after finishing Lot Boy, while preparing the syllabus for an introductory fiction workshop, I read Stephen King’s On Writing and fell in love with his pragmatic approach to the novel. He makes it seem so simple. Close the door. Barrel through the first draft and don’t look back just yet. Lock the draft in a drawer for six weeks. Revise. I immediately started my second novel and followed every bit of King’s advice. Five weeks later I had a first draft and I sealed it in an envelope for another few weeks while I finished grading a stack of student papers I’d neglected. I learned two important things while writing that second novel: that I can trust the drafting process and that I work a lot better when I’m putting off other responsibilities.

That’s such a good question. After all, what good is any of this if we don’t learn from it? And it seems like a great way to wrap this up. So I’m going to turn that same question on you. What have you learned from one novel to the next?

JTH: I’ll second your method—or third it, with a nod in the direction of Mr. King—of plowing through an entire draft before stopping to edit the roses. I do wish I were a little faster, as my fastest first draft clocked in around seven months. The first novel I completed, a sort of romantic comedy set in the world of professional wrestling, taught me not to dwell too much on the pixels until you can see the big picture. I sanded and polished the first hundred pages of that manuscript so thoroughly before I ever wrote pages 101–300 that the novel’s problems, which were in its foundation rather than any particular scene or character arc, were never fixable.

The next novel was an odd—a little too odd, it seemed—speculative thing with four point-of-view characters, two of them former child stars with supernatural abilities, the first draft weighing in at just under five hundred pages. Next came Academy Gothic, and after that I rewrote the child stars novel as what I thought at the time was a young adult tale whose similarity to the original book was little more than conceptual. The novel I’m currently editing is at least another mystery, although with a fifteen-year-old protagonist rather than an amateur detective. All this is to say I seem to be cursed by a desire to dive into a different genre each time I begin a new project. If the genre keeps changing, however, the central lesson of each of them has been the same: my first, second, and third priorities are the story. Whatever else you want to include in a list of a novel’s parts—the prose, the voice, the dialogue, the setting—every one of them is connected to the story. This isn’t to say characters or ideas don’t sometimes come along before a story takes shape, but for me, as a writer and as a reader, the story is no different from a restaurant’s food. It doesn’t matter how romantic the atmosphere, how affordable the price, how convenient the location, how attentive the service—if they overcook the pasta, I doubt I’ll be going back.