David Burr Gerrard’s debut novel, Short Century, has just been published by Rare Bird Books. His work has appeared in The Awl, The Millions and the Specter. He teaches creative writing at Manhattanville College. Visit him here.
NAW- Ummm David, I think it’s best if you can tell our readers about your book, Short Century and what it is all about because you’re the best person to tell us how to interpret the book and what’s the message that you want readers to take away from it. For my part, I must confess, I was simply blown away after I read it and couldn’t shake off the experience for some days.
The book is about Arthur Hunt, a pro-war pundit and former ‘60s student radical, furiously writing a defense of his life after a blogger reveals a secret about his past, namely that in 1969 Arthur had sex with his own sister. I disagree that I’m the best person to interpret my book; in many ways, I’m the worst. Ideally, literature shouldn’t tell you what to think or even what to feel. You as the reader should decide. That said, what I hope readers will take away from this is not any particular message but perhaps an uneasy feeling about the ideologies that so often take us to war under the guise of spreading freedom and/or feeling empathy.
NAW- Why did you write such a dark book? Not that I am complaining, I loved it but the lead character comes across as seriously screwed up- I mean an incestuous relationship, anti-Vietnam war and pro Iraq war. I mean did you not feel that you perhaps went a bit overboard in exploring Arthur’s negative side or maybe concentrating only on his negative side?
I’ve always been attracted to dark fiction; for me, exploring darkness is what fiction is for. In boring places like social media and real life, you generally have to pretend that things are better than they really are. What makes fiction exciting is that, paradoxically, it’s a place where you don’t have to pretend. You can express any dark impulse you’re feeling, albeit through an invented story and invented characters. (I do not, in case you’re wondering, have a sister.)
You’re a better judge than I am of whether I focus only on Arthur’s negative side. I like to think that I portray multiple sides of his personality. Many readers have told me that they found Arthur seductive and even sympathetic, because he often seems to be doing the right thing, or at least he makes a convincing argument that he is doing the right thing.
NAW- How long did you take to write the book and how did you come up with the title?
The title came very easily; the book took ten years to write. Short century, long decade.
NAW- Short century also explores political themes, how significant is fiction an instrument in exploring and driving political ideas? I mean if you go overboard then the actual story gets overshadowed and if you explore too little then people won’t get the message. So how do you decide the mix?
See above: it took me ten years! I just kept rewriting until I had a story that I was confident would make readers turn the pages, and enough worthwhile ideas (not only about politics) that readers would keep thinking about the book after they turned the last page.
NAW- Tell us about your other works. How difficult (or easy) was it getting Short Century published?
Getting literary fiction published is always very difficult. When I finished Short Century I had never published anything, so I had no track record at all. (I’ve since published essays, interviews, and short fiction.) But I got lucky in that, after a great deal of rejection, an author I know read my book and loved it, then gave to his publisher. His publisher loved it and became my publisher. So getting it published was very difficult and then suddenly very easy.
NAW- How have readers responded to the book? Have you received any hate mail as yet?
No hate mail as yet! But there’s always tomorrow. The feedback I’ve received has been quite enthusiastic; many readers have said that the book is a page-turner and a great deal of fun to read. Naturally I find this gratifying. Maybe I’ll also find hate mail gratifying, since my favorite books are always the ones that you either love or hate. Maybe this interview will inspire some hate mail. To quote George W. Bush, a character in my novel: Bring it on!
NAW- Tell us about yourself. What do you do when you are not writing?
Beat myself up for not writing. Even when I’m doing essential research I feel like I should be writing.
I also really like to run. Every once in a while running feels good enough that I stop worrying for a few minutes that I’m not writing. But that doesn’t happen often.
NAW- Who are your favourite writers?
Philip Roth is the writer I have the most intense, sustained argument with. I also love Vladimir Nabokov, J.M. Coetzee, Thomas Bernhard, Milan Kundera, Muriel Spark, Flannery O’Connor, Richard Yates—writers who have the highest standards for prose and an eye for human self-deception.
NAW- How do you write, planning the complete plot beforehand or do you let the book take its course? Take us through your writing process.
I do a lot of planning, and that doesn’t work, and then I let the book take its course, and that doesn’t work. I basically fail every possible way until I run out of ways to fail.
NAW-What are you currently reading?
I just reread a lot of George Orwell’s work. Orwell fandom can lead to terrible intellectual complacency—most of the war supporters on whom I modeled Arthur Hunt were big Orwell fans. Orwell’s ideal of paying close attention to language only works if you apply it to your own language as well as that of others. And I was surprised at the sophisticated narrative style and emotional vitality of Animal Farm, a book I hadn’t re-read since high school. It transcends its allegorical origins.
NAW- What’s next for you? And will you be exploring similar darker themes?
I’m working on a novel called The Epiphany Machine, about a mysterious device that tattoos epiphanies on the forearms of its users. It’s about self-knowledge, which is the darkest theme there is.