Punnery & Nunnery: An Interview with Rick Harsch

At over 700 pages, Rick Harsch’s The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas “is in part a story about what empire has wrought, and how over the recent two centuries the United States rose to global economic mastery and nuclear proliferate madhouse. But it is also an absurdist masterpiece and a metafictional epic rooted in American history (including the story of Hugh Glass, his journey along the Salmon River and the epic battle with Old Ephraim, a giant bear), and the impact of that history on our modern society (the movie by DiCaprio notwithstanding).”

George Salis: This is from a blurb for your new novel: “Rick Harsch told me that for The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas, he reached into a bag of tricks left in a closet in Brussels by forgotten literary masters…” Can you expound upon these forgotten literary masters and what kind of tricks they left behind? Why are these tricks worth dusting off?

Rick Harsch: First thing is I like to do these interviews spontaneously so it’s as close to a real live interview as possible, and the only way to do it in this case is to rush through your questions. Right now it just turned 21:58. I’m starting. (I’ll put the finishing time here: 22:45.)

All tricks are worth dusting off because tricks are fun. The most obvious example in Eddie Vegas is the Rabelaisian list, and when you read the page before the list and then the list you’ll see that it was indeed worth it, as the result was inspired nonsense, words flung about at roughly the speed I’m typing this, some punnery, some nunnery, a lot of hijinks, some dada, indigestion, some flak, and a lot of innuendo.

GS: Why should the style of fiction be as important as the fiction itself?

RH: I wouldn’t say that it should be. I would say I like to imbue my own fiction with philosophy, poetry, and crack words together, shake them, abuse them, let them abuse me, and always see if a bit of extraneous meaning can be gleaned.

GS: Does the writer have any obligations toward an imagined or existing audience, or should they be free to do whatever they want?

RH: The writer has no obligations whatsoever in my universe and I would guess that most of the best writing is done when a writer feels free. Yet, famously, when asked if his characters ever did things he did not expect, Nabokov said they were galley slaves. I hope he meant the pun. That’s Nabokov, and if he was being sincere, which is likely, he was a very different writer from whatever kind I am. My characters are sometimes very intransigent, which means several different things, of course. Sometimes they simply will not do what I want, other times they will only do what I ask of them. But I’m not a very strict master. I don’t always make them go through what they’ve been led to expect. Probably what is most important in this regard is that ruthlessness itself has a variety of meanings.

GS: In fiction, what should the relationship between tragedy and jubilation, solemnity and humor, be?

RH: I started the game of Instagram, and I saw on there a quote by James Baldwin that started ‘The writer something or other…’ And my response was fuck you James, this writer does not or is not. I find those kinds of comments pompous. A lot of people criticize workshops, believing that they try to form a kind of writer that is a mere crafter, unoriginal, self-conscious literary yet much like the previously read workshop writer. There is an inevitable truth to that, because it is difficult to make an academian writer product without beginning with the false notion that literature, that writing, is one thing or another. It isn’t any one thing or it would die out—without flame, without drama, without tragedy, to the jubilation of the near-dullards, and the solemn, humorless quietude of the rest.

GS: Is this your magnum opus? Did you expect the book to be as sprawling as it is?

RH: Any writer would love to have a novel called their magnum opus so I hope so. I expected the book to be very much what it is. I have no idea where literary notions come from, but it’s an entrancing mystery, a very pleasing mystery. For example, when I was writing a book not published yet called The Appearance of Death to a Hindu Woman, I was at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and I had a ten day period free from distraction, and though I generally write novels roughly from beginning to end, in this case I knew that a coming section would be about a ten-day write, hand written, and would be about 100 pages in one of the red and black Chinese notebooks I used to use. So I thought I would leap ahead and write it during that free time, at ten pages per day on average. I finished it between 96 and 97 pages on the tenth day. How can you know that kind of thing?

GS: The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas is a book about American history. What do you make of the American present? Is the country irrecoverable, as Don DeLillo recently said?

RH: The American present suggests that the country is irrecoverable, but I guess Don DeLillo recently said that, so I think I will disagree. The U. (let’s leave Uruguay alone, and all those other countries that produce such great writers south of the US—Canada may not be different enough from the US to produce greater fiction per capita than the US)…. Right, so the US you have at present is a product, very much a product of an origin myth that allowed it to become what it is. A country with an origin myth that strays very far from the truth of its origins becomes something grotesque inevitably. The worst that nations can do, such as Italy and Germany in the pre-WWII years, is generally rev into being on the wings of a strange new origin myth. The US origin myth requires manifest destiny to immediately declare itself, and once that happens it requires feeding, and with an origin myth like that it becomes a roving killer, cannibal but not only cannibal—cannibalism is just another energy provider. So if I am right about this, unfortunately the country is not something that needs recovering so much as a slew of mediocre actors in white short-sleeve shirts and black-rim glasses coming together with brave women in tight, mid-calf dresses and a disdain for hysteria to find a way to kill it before the planet is irrecoverable.

GS: Having lived so long in Slovenia, is this novel an attempt to connect with your home country, as it were?

RH: No. It might be an attempt to rid myself of the need to write another novel about the US or that takes place in the US I did think as I wrote that I wanted to write what for me would be the definitive novel about the US. But I failed, as after a few years I realized that I needed to write about the Reagan years, and more specifically than in Eddie Vegas about the post-WWII horrors the US was involved in.

GS: How important is historical accuracy in fiction? Where should facts end and imagination begin?

RH: I would not presume to answer this question, even for myself. I can say that in the right fictional hands historical accuracy can be a very powerful force.

GS: As briefly as possible yet giving fair play to the subject, please describe your favorite scene or moment in The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas?

RH: Great self-destructing question. Briefly as possible and fair play. No, self-destructing is the wrong way to put it, but that limitation makes for an answer that would be different on different days, more so than most questions. The scene is somewhat early in the novel, when the historical parts are still in their earliest phase, the mountain man days in the US. Hector Robitaille has been mauled by a bear the way Hugh Glass was mauled by the bear, which must be noted was the same event that inspired that DiCaprio movie. At the time I wrote it, to find out what happened I had to come across a reference in an obscure book and then obtain the obscure book about Hugh Glass that some film writer must have also come across. Historical accuracy in fiction? Hector Robitaille is the name of one of my own kinfolk of olde, once deputy sheriff of Cheyenne, once stage driver between Cheyenne and Deadwood. Glass was mauled somewhere around what today is probably Nebraska pretty near the South Dakota border. In my novel it happens in Idaho. Yet the actual circumstances of the attack are pretty near accurate in my novel, far more so than in the movie. For instance, Glass had no son or whatever they gave him in the movie. What he had was a rifle, which a feller needed back then, and when the two people were sent to watch over him (one of them was the young Jim Bridger, but the other was far more responsible for that atrocity), presumably to watch him die, they began to fear they were going to die by Indian attack, and for no good reason as this Glass feller was going to die regardless. They couldn’t bring themselves to kill him, but they did talk themselves into abandoning him and they took his rifle. That probably saved Glass’s life, as that was as objectionable a part of what happened as the very horror of coming across a bear meaning no harm and getting mauled.

So that is one thing I do discuss in the novel. And Hector recovers pretty much in the stages that Glass did. He kills a rattler as he did in life (I don’t remember if he did in the movie). He also staves off a wolf attack using fire, and that really happened, but in the novel much is accurately made of the difficulties of getting a fire going. Where he is in Idaho is partly Flathead Indian country, rootgrubbing folk, and one night Hector, who had been taught by his Uncle to make a fire, is trying to get one going, having found all the necessary ingredients, but he’s weak, and he doesn’t have the best ingredients—I don’t want to spoil the book here—and he fails one night only to wake up in the morning to the smell of fired fish, for two Indians, Flatheads, are eating some fish they cooked at a fire they made. They toss a fish for Hector to eat. They don’t pay him much attention, but one makes fun of the way Hector was going at that fire-starting business, and they have a bit of a laugh, then they toss the best of necessary ingredients to Hector after showing him how to use it to make a fire in seconds. They lope off soon after and I consider my favorite part of the scene the aftermath, which includes all the things Hector thinks about these two Indians who did him such a nice turn.

The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas (717 pages) is now available from corona/samizdat. The price is 20€/$. Shipping is around 8.57€ airmail. To purchase, send an email to rick.harsch@gmail.com and let Rick know how many copies you want and what your mailing address is.

Rick Harsch hit the literary scene in 1997 with his cult classic The Driftless Zone, which was followed by Billy Verite and Sleep of the Aborigines (all by Steerforth Press) soon after to form The Driftless Trilogy. Harsch migrated to the Slovene coastal city of Izola in 2001, just as the Driftless books were published in French translation by a French publisher that went out of business a few years later. Rick is also the author of Arjun and the Good Snake (2011, Amalietti & Amalietti), Wandering Stone: the Streets of Old Izola (2017, Mandrac Press), Voices After Evelyn (2018, Maintenance Ends Press), Skulls of Istria (2018, corona/samizdat), The Manifold Destiny of Eddie Vegas (2020, corona/samizdat) and Walk Like a Duck: A Season of Little League Baseball in Italy (2020, corona/samizdat). Rick currently lives in Izola still with his wife and two children. 

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below (River Boat Books / corona/samizdat). His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreads, Instagram (@george.salis), and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

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