We, the Culprits: An Interview with Steve Erickson

George Salis: What was your primary purpose for writing your latest book of nonfiction, American Stutter: 2019-2021? Was it catharsis, documentation, a way to stay sane, or maybe all of the above?

Steve Erickson: Oh, of course the answer is all of the above. Fiction just wasn’t speaking to me, there was too much going on in the real world that was previously unimaginable, and there were also things going on in my own life that were falling apart along with the country. Yet as a writer, writing is the only way I knew how to process it.

GS: One of the main concepts of Shadowbahn involves something manifesting out of thin air after vanishing into it, specifically the Twin Towers. What is something from your past that would shock or disturb you if it were to manifest again?

SE: The person I was when I was 16.

GS: Why? What was it about your teenage self in particular?

SE: Narrow, afraid, close-minded, judgmental, reflexively contrary. All the traits some people grow into as they get older, I had to decide to outgrow.

GS: What do you think of the other 9/11 novels that came out since the tragedy, such as Don DeLillo’s Falling Man, Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, and Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge? Did reading any of these prove fruitful when writing your own novel?

SE: When I started writing Shadowbahn at the beginning of 2014, I hadn’t read the Foer, I hadn’t caught up with the DeLillo, and I somewhat purposely avoided the Pynchon for the reasons implied in your question. These books notwithstanding, some of the publishers who read Shadowbahn were still nervous about the 9/11 reference, one worrying it was “too soon.”

GS: Did anything in the response from critics or readers make you wonder if some of those publishers were right or do you think were they proven unequivocally wrong?

SE: With every book I write, I’m pushing the boulder back up the hill when it comes to publishing. Twelve publishers rejected Days Between Stations, which wound up getting a fair amount of attention for a first novel by a writer who came out of nowhere. Nine rejected Zeroville, which went on to be my most successful novel commercially. Six rejected Shadowbahn—which may have been my most successful novel critically along with Tours of the Black Clock—until one morning I suddenly had three offers including two from publishers that already had turned the book down but then heard somebody else wanted it. So at this point I have no idea how much the publishers know what they’re talking about and I’m not sure they do either.

GS: When it comes to writing about tragedies, especially recent ones, where is the line between art and a kind of disrespect or grief appropriation, as it were?

SE: It’s obviously a fair question. I read recently Neil Young has always felt uncomfortable about his song “Ohio” because he worries that it felt exploitative of the event and the four students who were shot down, though I’m not sure how many people who have heard the song ever thought that. Would it have been better, creatively or morally or historically or any other way, for Young to have not written “Ohio”? Is it better for art to not address these things? I think it comes down to how it’s done, which is to say every work has its own line between art and exploitation, drawn with respect to the time that’s inspired it and to the tone of the work, that can’t be demarcated objectively. I doubt anyone believes War and Peace “appropriated” the grief visited upon Russia by Napoleon or that Resnais’s Hiroshima Mon Amour gratuitously exploits that atomic genocide—although when it first played at Cannes some audiences did wonder about it—or that nobody should be telling stories about the Holocaust or the descendants of African-American slaves being lynched in the South.

GS: The following is a guest question from Garrett Rowlan: “Why did you choose A Place in the Sun as the emotional focus for the protagonist in Zeroville? And when he became a director of movies, were you thinking of any particular director?”

SE: There’s not really a model for Vikar the director in Zeroville, because as we see in the novel, he has no business being a director, he doesn’t have the collaborative tools that even the most auteurist director needs to make a movie. As for A Place in the Sun, people assume it must be a favorite film of mine when, in fact, it’s a movie I like and admire but is hardly my favorite film or one of my ten favorites or one of my fifty favorites. I chose it because I thought it would say something about the character—because it’s a profoundly hysterical film in the classic sense of the word, there’s something about it that’s deeply, romantically, morally, even erotically unhinged, and the fact that Place in the Sun speaks to Vikar reflects something unhinged about him.

GS: Speaking of films, which of your novels would you most like to see adapted to the big screen? Who would you want in the director’s chair?

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Steve Erickson is the author of 10 novels and two books about American politics and popular culture, most recently American Stutter (Zerogram Press). For 12 years he was the founding editor of the national literary journal Black Clock. Currently, he is the film/television critic for Los Angeles magazine and a Distinguished Professor at the University of California, Riverside. He has received a Guggenheim fellowship, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award, and the Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. 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 FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at www.GeorgeSalis.com.

The Collidescope is an affiliate of Bookshop.org and will earn a small commission if you click through those specific links and make a purchase.

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