A Conversation With Catapult Instructor David Burr Gerrard
“Non-existence is a reasonably pleasant state, and if you’re going to use language to conjure people out of that reasonably pleasant non-existence and on to the terrifying page, you owe them your soul."
High as the Horses’ Bridles
What is your writing process like?
I show up at my laptop every day and make mistakes, and every once in a while I make a mistake I want to pursue.
Where does a story begin for you?
In the case of The Epiphany Machine, I started with the title and worked backwards, a process I definitely do not recommend. The idea of a machine that dispenses epiphanies—an idea I had as a student in Columbia’s MFA program, circa 2006—struck me as a perfect way to explore a number of things that interested me about fiction and life. It took me years to find my way from this idea to the characters whose story I wanted to tell, years that were often filled with frustration, self-loathing, and self-pity. But I knew that The Epiphany Machine was the novel I wanted to write. So while I would generally recommend starting with anything other than a title—a character, a scene, an image—starting with the title led me to where I needed to go. The only real advice for where to begin is to begin with something that won’t let you go until you’ve seen it through.
Was there anything in particular that inspired the characters inThe Epiphany Machine?
My life has very little in common with that of my protagonist, Venter Lowood—to pick one small example of where our lives diverge, my parents did not use a purportedly magic tattoo machine, and my mother did not abandon me as a result of using the machine, or at all. But I wanted to give Venter my deepest concerns and flaws, so that he would feel honest and real. One thing I often see holding student writers back is a reluctance to give themselves to their characters. Non-existence is a reasonably pleasant state, and if you’re going to use language to conjure people out of that reasonably pleasant non-existence and on to the terrifying page, you owe them your soul.
When I was writing Adam Lyons, the machine’s proprietor, I based certain aspects his personality—though of course none of the facts of his life—on my good friend Michael Seidenberg, the proprietor of the renowned Upper East Side secret bookstore Brazenhead Books.
Because Adam Lyons could be characterized as a cult leader, I was worried that Michael wouldn’t like the book. He loved it. Generally speaking, your fears aside, your friends will like it if you write about them. (Presuming that you don’t outright libel them!)
Which authors are your biggest influences?
Kafka is a huge influence—his story “In the Penal Colony” inspired the idea of judgment written on one’s body. The idea that the universe sends us messages that we can’t understand—that idea governs his work and mine. Other than Kafka, Philip Roth is probably my single biggest influence. I take from him the central theme of the attempt to find one’s own desires amid a cacophony of conflicting opinions about what one is supposed to want and think. And both writers are constantly funny.
Emulate the writers whose work electrifies you. Don’t care about whether they’re writers whom you think you’re supposed to like, or who happen to be cool at the moment.
What was the greatest lesson you learned in a writing workshop?
This is a lesson I learned in writing workshops and re-learn every time I give an early draft to a friend—that problems that seem impossible to solve when you’re alone with your Word document often give way following an observation from someone who is not you, and who, by virtue of not being you, is reading your work without thinking OH MY GOD IS THIS ANY GOOD AM I ANY GOOD DO I HAVE ANY TALENT AM I WASTING MY TIME ARRRGGH.
What or where do you turn to for inspiration/new writing?
It’s always helpful to return to the writers you love the most—in my case, Kafka and Roth. But inspiration comes constantly if you let it—a joke told by a friend, or a boring story told by the loud, obnoxious guy next you in a café who is preventing you from getting any writing done.
This past summer, the Carly Rae Jepsen song “Cut to the Feeling” was a big inspiration for me—it served as a reminder, in the manuscript I’m working on now, to cut to the feeling.
What are you reading right now?
I just started October, China Miéville’s new nonfiction history of the Russian Revolution. The last work of fiction that took me apart was Danzy Senna’s New People, which I read a few weeks ago with the same intensity that I read Roth as a teenager. I easily could have missed this book and not read it at all, and now I’ll read it again and again. One of the best things about writing is that you never know when you’ll read a book that will make you run back to your keyboard and do your best to match it.