Jeff Parker – Interview

Jeff Parker is the author of the novel Ovenman (Tin House Books) and The Back of the Line (DECODE), a collection of stories and images in collaboration with artist William Powhida. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared or are forthcoming in The Believer, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Hobart, Ploughshares, Tin House, The Walrus, and other pubs. He teaches at the University of Toronto and is the program director of Summer Literary Seminars in St. Petersburg, Russia.

November 8, 2007

Doug Moon: Your novel Ovenman has the mantra of the pizza restaurant “make food, not war” which cues you into a vivid amalgam of all these different backdrops: the food service industry, the Gulf War, the skateboarding scene, and the music scene. Which one of these came first while writing?

Jeff Parker: The landscape of the pizza restaurant came first. That’s what I was trying to do. I was trying to find a story in that milieu and then worked on it for a little bit. My process is one of  –  just start writing, having pretty much no idea what I’m writing about except for maybe a setting or a character or a sound or a voice and seeing what develops around it.

DM: So did the protagonist When Thinfinger develop naturally from that setting?

JP: Well, kind of. For me, I didn’t know that was his name even when I started. I don’t remember exactly what I had. I probably just had one of those lines like “I am a motherfucking skateboarder.” And I just started working with that, trying to write little scenes in the restaurant and figure out the sound of the character, how a character talks. Just do that by vicious editing and revising of your own stuff, and you start to get an idea. With the name  – I changed the name probably twenty times until I just found one that I liked that seemed to make sense with what was beginning to develop in the story. So my process, I think, is a real organic one in that respect. In the end, it can lead to problems, that kind of process, because, for instance, there are writers who are very structural and they start with outlines of their whole pieces, and the consequence of that is a novel ends up feeling really ordered. It does all the right things in all the right places whereas in my book the plot doesn’t really get going until page 90 when he wakes up and finds the money in the pizza box. So that’s sort of one of the flaws that comes out of that kind of process. You just sort of build and build and wait for things to happen, and they do in their own time. If that doesn’t sound too new age-y.

DM: [laughing] Was it a conscious decision to set the novel during the Gulf War, or did that arise from writing about the pizza restaurant environment?

JP: Well, I started writing it a long time ago. A version of it was my graduate thesis. It was a lot closer, first of all. It was much more natural for it to be that time. It seems now in 2007 to be a much more deliberate move than it was at the time. Because of the timing of it all, it definitely impacts the story like if the timing weren’t thus a slogan for the restaurant like “make food, not war” wouldn’t really work there. Or it would only work as a sort of funny line or quirky line whereas hopefully it begins to build some thematic unity.

DM: Published now, do you feel that the circumstances of the novel might be easily transposed from the background of the Gulf War to Gulf War II?

JP: Well, as I got deeper into this thing I started to—because I would be technically a little younger than this character is—I started thinking back to when I was in high school when the first Gulf War was on and sort of thinking about what that did to my psyche and what that did to other people who I knew. There are basically two areas that came up. The first was that lots of people I knew—it was a really trendy kind of thing or very common thing throughout the 80s but even more so in the late 80s and the early 90s that people would just go into the army reserves or go into the army so that they could pay to go to college. Didn’t even cross your mind that you would go fight in a war. You didn’t even begin to think about it when you were 17 or 18 years old. So the first prominent thing that came to mind was, OK, so people are having to redefine this idea. All of a sudden what was a move to get some college tuition isn’t just that. It has some more grand consequences. And the second thing was that you have to figure out how you feel about that. Which for me, I was a degenerate redneck growing up in the woods in Tallahassee, Florida, and I didn’t even know, to be quite honest, like what a Jewish person was. I had a vague idea, but I had all kinds of retardations. Let alone had I ever really thought at the age of 16 or 17 what my moral compass would tell me to do in a situation like the first Iraq war or the second Iraq war, you know? So all of a sudden you have some pretty—I guess whenever any war comes along you have people trying to figure out where they stand on issues that they never before thought about. All of a sudden your consciousness is trying to sort out an issue that’s much larger than, say, your particular popularity at the time in whatever high school you happen to be in. So I forget even why I went on that long tangent but basically what I was getting at is these are the kinds of issues I was trying to transpose onto these characters. These are the kinds of things they’re trying to figure out. When’s very much trying to organize some kind of ethos by trial and error, and he’s failing and he’s figuring some things out for himself.

DM: About that ethos—at times the novel seems to triumph the position of ovenman and other times, critique it, and When is trying to figure that out himself. To what extent do you feel Ovenman is a critique of the food service industry? Of a restaurant job?

JP: You mean literally the position of operating the oven? Or you just mean that as emblematic of—

DM: Well, to start, how do you feel about the position of ovenman?

JP: So I worked in a lot of restaurants, and you meet a lot of people there with very different work ethics. But the point is that people who work in restaurants have work ethics, you know? So people who might look like slackers on the outside aren’t necessarily slackers in that way you might traditionally think of them. And I don’t think that the character When is. He maybe sets his goals low. But there’s nothing really wrong with that. [laughing]

DM: Right, and he certainly has an ethic, and when he becomes the manager of the restaurant, that’s when that ethic is endangered. That provides the most moral quandaries for him.

JP: Right, and that’s also in a way mirroring this—he’s suddenly invested with power. Not only power in the general sense in that he’s elevated in this stratus of workers in the world, but all of a sudden he can fire one of his friends, hire one of his friends, or hire a totally hot girl with a bellybutton piercing. So that’s yet another thing that he’s trying to sort out, and he’s very uncomfortable with that one. He’s much more uncomfortable with that one than with, say, the war because it’s much more tactile or much more in the moment.

DM: Do you think it’d be fair to pin the wandering aimlessness of When at times to the scene that he’s developing from? The local life in Central Florida, the skateboarding culture, or even the restaurant job?

JP: You mean to find some cause and effect there? That’s an interesting question. I don’t think so. Doesn’t seem that way to me. Not necessarily.

DM: I’ve noticed a lot of intertextuality in your work: the post-it notes in Ovenman and the illustrations in the graphic novel The Back of the Line offer a play between these texts, the images and post-its, and what’s going on in the narrative. Is this something that you are particularly invested in or something that naturally occurs from the narrative circumstances?

JP: I think it just kind of organically happens. Again going back to that whole thing I was talking about, the organic process, I forget exactly when the post-its came in, but I remember I really liked them when they came in. I think I was trying to sort out his membership in the band or his place in the band, and I was going to try him out as being the singer of the band. I just put a post-it note in his pocket and had him write down some lyric. And then I started thinking about it and the post-it note made a lot of sense to me because what is a more clear signifier of cubicle culture, everything he would be completely against, than a post-it note? So then I was just working backwards and trying to make those post-its which seemed to me to embody this conflict that this character had. How to make them intrinsic to him. Then eventually I came to the move that when he passes out he writes himself post-its. So all that stuff I think kind of happens organically: just trying things out, seeing what works, and what seems to make sense on some level. When something works, allowing the story to change or working backwards to justify it.

DM: You said Ovenman developed from your thesis. Was any constructive criticism particularly helpful in developing the novel that you took with you?

JP: Oh yeah, tons. One of the best reads I ever got on it was from one of my professors who said, you know, throughout the first half, my interest level was up here, and in the second half, my interest level was down here. It’s just the most general comment, but it ended up being the most helpful. So I basically just threw away the second half and rewrote it. Because you’re a writer as well, right? You’re writing some stuff. So you kind of have a sense when things aren’t working, but sometimes you can’t always just quit there. Sometimes you have to really push something that’s not working. With this particular piece, that’s where I was on it in 1999. I knew I needed to do more work on it, but I just didn’t know where to go with it at the time. I knew I needed to rewrite that second half. So I just threw it in a drawer and started writing short stories for about three or four years. But you find out a lot because while it’s sitting in the drawer, it’s either still calling you back to it or it’s not. If it’s not, then you just don’t go back. But it kept calling me back, and when I finally pulled it out a couple of years ago, about two-and-a-half years ago now, to work on it again, I felt like I had a much clearer perspective. So I rewrote most of it, and I think it comes out much more supportable.

DM: Having gone through the workshop process in school, do you feel that a lot of that criticism you still recall while writing now, years after?

JP: Some of it. It’s strange what sticks and what doesn’t. The problem for me is that I went in really young. The work I was doing wasn’t deserving of the high level of criticism it was getting. Had I been further along—and I don’t necessarily mean just in age. I was young in age, but I was also really young in thinking about my writing. Some people were there who were my age were much older in thinking about their writing. And I think they got more out of it. I got a lot out of working with certain people. But I could have gotten a lot more out of it if I had—I’m putting this back on me is what I’m doing. I should have gone to Peru for three years and sold weed on a beach [laughing] and then gone to grad school and I probably would have gotten a lot more out of it. Instead, you know, I went in, I wrote a novel, because that’s what everyone said you had to do, and I got out and the novel didn’t work. It was this, a version of this. So I was in a bad situation if I wanted to continue to be a writer. One of my friends who had worked on a lot of short stories for a few years, even if a couple of them didn’t work, he had a stack, so he was sending them out, getting them published. So I basically went back to work in some restaurants, did some jobs in computers, did some adjunct teaching, whatever I could and just tried to get better. And then after grad school you have a support network. People who you can turn to and say, hey, what do you think about this? That’s when it becomes maybe even more valuable. After the fact.

DM: I actually Googled you and found you did some work in hypertext as well. Are there any obstacles having that sort of work published? Are there stories limited to or excluded from that genre as opposed to others?

JP: Well, I’ve kind of left that world because I was very disappointed with a lot of the work that was being done. I do think there is some interesting work being done, but I don’t know if that brief moment which is referred to as hypertext fiction which to me seems to be the time period between like 1996 and 2002 or something—I don’t know if those will ever work. None of them ever seemed to be like really working to me. It’s an interesting concept, right, because all of a sudden here is essentially this new medium on which one could work on a narrative or lyrical, literary form. So you had lots of experimentation going on and experimentation is good, but I think there’s a point where you realize that the work that’s being done in these experiments somehow—these experiments aren’t bearing fruit. So what I think is really interesting and what I think will be the outgrowth of the kinds of thinking that a lot of people did with regard to hypertext fiction will be in some form of videogame. I mean already now you’re hearing all the time even in the popular press how videogame screenwriters are becoming more and more—you know it used to be ten years ago the script for a videogame would be like “NEW GAME” and “GAME OVER,” but now they have videogames that have significant scripts and there’s now a guild of videogame writers and whatnot. There are people like these guys who do this videogame called Façade, I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of that. But it’s this group out of Portland, Oregon. It’s a really interesting piece. If you’ve ever read this Raymond Carver story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” it’s kind of like that story if it were done as a videogame.

DM: Is Façade where you sort of enter the apartment of two people—

JP: Yeah, that’s it. It’s very primitive but the developers—a guy named Andrew Stern does a lot of the programming. He basically invented this kind of application that’s supposed to generate dialogue. It has lots of limitations in Façade, but it also does lots of interesting things too. There are numerous different outcomes depending on how you behave at their house. They can decide to end their marriage or decide to come back together. The context of it is when you walk in they are in the middle of marital strife. So I think that’s really interesting, and I’m following closely where that’s going. I’d like to work on those kinds of things.

DM: Beyond the nonlinear narrative, is there any experimental work going on right now that you find interesting, that you think has the potential to bear fruit?

JP: Do you mean in the electronic medium or literature in general?

DM: Literature in general.

JP: That’s what was so interesting about hypertext is it just seems like there’s—I mean, what else can you do in print fiction? I don’t know. There have been periods of intense experimentation throughout the 20th century. Like the Oulipo in France have done all kinds of interesting experiments, everything from writing whole novels without the letter E to using computer processes to parse out literary texts. I don’t know. I mean, hypertext was interesting because it provided a real opportunity to go into some new frontiers. But I don’t know, maybe I sound kind of pessimistic. Maybe I don’t read a lot of experimental fiction anymore. I used to read a lot of experimental fiction. [laughing]

DM: Fair enough. Is there anything that you’re working on right now that you’d want to share—

JP: Wait a second though. Let me not leave that. I answered that question really poorly. One of my teachers was a great guy named Arthur Flowers. He taught this workshop at Syracuse called Experimental Fiction. And he’s a literary bluesman. His prose, he works it over and over again. It takes him ten years to write a novel. But when it’s done, his prose literally sings. It just sings to you. He has a book called Another Good Loving Blues. And I remember when we were in the Experimental Fiction class, he said one time—and he wasn’t talking about formally or what he does with language, he said, you know, I write about love, what’s more experimental than that? [laughing] What was so interesting to me about that statement is he is writing in an experimental form. But he doesn’t even really acknowledge that. It’s more that there’s some other core that he’s interested in. What ends up being experimental about it in the sense of literary experimentation is incidental to the thing that really interests him about writing. It’s nothing new, but the age-old criticism of experimental writing is that its heart drops out. Puzzles aren’t known for being very emotional things. That’s what a lot of experimental fiction especially amounts to. It’s not that I’m against those kinds of things, but Ben Marcus said it really well in the introduction to the new Anchor anthology. He said, I think what contemporary fiction needs to do is it needs to synthesize the innovative and the heartfelt impulse. I think he’s calling for some kind of middle ground of traditional and craft and also innovation. However a particular writer is innovative.

DM: Is there anything you’re working on right now?

JP: Well, I just finished up a short story collection, a regular one, without an artist involved. So I’m going to be sending that one around. And I’m trying to put together a novel, a new one. I’ve been making notes for a few years, but there’s not so much of it existing right now, unfortunately.

DM: I would love to end the interview on the word “unfortunately.” So we should do it there.

JP: Cool. Let’s do it. Feel free to insert the word “unfortunately” anywhere else.

DM: That’s all I have. I really appreciate it.

JP: Thanks for taking the time to read the book, unfortunately.