The Rumpus Book Club talks to Christopher Boucher about his debut novel How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, a decade’s worth of writing, Richard Brautigan’s literary influence, and being simultaneously intrigued and frightened by the thought of writing an impossible book.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author and we post an edited version online as an interview. To learn how you can become a member of The Rumpus Book Club, click here.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Alright folks, let the games begin. Chris, folks really enjoyed this book, and have been talking quite a bit all month.
Christopher Boucher: That’s great to hear. I’m so thankful that it was chosen for the book club. Thanks to everyone for reading it!
Bobby: I was wondering if you ever felt yourself getting lost in the world that you created while writing it, or if there were any specific rules that you set for yourself or the world in order for that to not happen.
Christopher Boucher: I was thankful every time I could get lost in the world of the story. It took me a few years to find it. As far as the rules of the world were concerned, I really tried to trust my ear. If something didn’t “sound” right, I didn’t pursue it.
Jenna: I wanted to wallow in the language, I loved every page of the book. How long did the writing process take?
Christopher Boucher: I’m so glad to hear that you were struck by the language. It took me a long time to write this book – ten years, though I took breaks from time to time – and a lot of that time was spent honing the language, trying to figure out what was necessary and what was extraneous.
Jack W: Did the book begin at Syracuse, then? Some of my favorite writers have come from there, Adam Levin, you, Deb Olin Unferth, etc. And of course George Saunders.
Christopher Boucher: Yeah, the book did begin at Syracuse. I went there specifically to study with George Saunders, and he was my thesis advisor. George has been incredibly helpful and generous to me–not only at Syracuse, but in the years since.
Georges: What was the genesis of the book?
Christopher Boucher: I started writing these very short prose-poem pieces in my second year at Syracuse, and I happened to title one of them “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.” Somehow a talking Volkswagen appeared in one of those stories, and then another. At the time, I was meeting with the poet Arielle Bywater to exchange work, and she suggested that I write more of these short pieces. Soon, I was working on a novel.
Christopher Boucher: I think you’re correct that Muir the engineer is related to Muir the naturalist. I didn’t know that when I was writing the book, though.
Betsy: So I was tripping. Figures.
Christopher Boucher: But perceptively tripping.
Besty: At what point did you start to imitate the layout of the VW manual of the same name?
Christopher Boucher: Very early on. I was intrigued by working with found materials, and so even in the first few weeks of writing the book I was reading the manual and referencing chapter titles.
Roxane: Did you ever worry that readers would find the book inaccessible?
Christopher Boucher: I absolutely did! For a while I thought that I was writing an impossible book. I was both intrigued and frightened by that idea.
Georges: Who are your influences? Who were you reading while you were working on HTKYVA?
Christopher Boucher: The writer who really sparked the VW project for me was Richard Brautigan. When I discovered Trout Fishing in America, it really changed the way I thought about writing.
Jack W: The way I have been describing your book to friends is that it is perhaps a lengthy collage of folktales full of literary graffiti (w/r/t the repurposed words), in the vein of a how-to book using poetic means. Am I far off in my assessment?
Christopher Boucher: I like the idea of literary graffiti.
Roxane: Do you consider yourself an experimental writer? How would you define experimental writing?
Christopher Boucher: I often classify this book as experimental and then chastise myself for doing so.
Roxane: Why is that?
Christopher Boucher: I guess I would say that it is an experimental book in one respect, because it challenges convention. Then again, though, the word “experimental” seems to invite marginalization.
Bobby: For those of us who are Brautigan ignorant, could you talk a little about how he changed your perception of writing?
Christopher Boucher: Brautigan seemed totally irresponsible, and I say that in the most endearing way possible. One of the first stories in “Trout Fishing,” for example, is about the cover of the book. I’d never seen anything like that done before.
Kevin Thomas: My most burning question is about the section titles you borrowed from other works (A Voyage to Arcturis, A Scanner Darkly, Baywatch). Are these just more literary graffiti? Baywatch can’t have anything to do with this story, can it?
Christopher Boucher: You’re right that some of the titles–like Baywatch — have no direct connection to the story. They weren’t random, though, because most of them had some significance to me when I wrote that story. I’d just seen the Linklater film A Scanner Darkly, for example, and to me the use of that title both: a) created some discord, and b) challenged the real world/fiction barrier.
Not that I’m a Baywatch fan.
Betsy: Is the narrator human? Not that it matters.
Christopher Boucher: I intended for the narrator to be human.
Jack W: Is there a particular “soft and plentiful center” that you would say stands out more than others in the book?
Christopher Boucher: Great question. I guess I would say that this book really took off for me in the months following my father’s heart attack. He survived it, thankfully, but it was a pretty bad heart attack. And it had a profound effect on me. He and I are very close, and I was so thankful that he’d survived. At the same time, I felt terribly sad about the prospect of losing him. And that joy/sadness seems related to the “soft and plentiful center” of the book.
Betsy: Something about two sides of the mother made me melancholy, more so than the memory of the father or the death of the VW.
Christopher Boucher: That’s interesting. I recently gave my mother her copy of the book, and I was interested to see how she’d read those characters.
Isaac Fitzgerald: How’d it go?
Christopher Boucher: So far so good.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Can you talk a lil’ bit about Western MA? I know some of our readers loved how it was like a character in the book… especially those familiar with the area.
Christopher Boucher: Absolutely. Do people know Northampton, Mass?
Isaac Fitzgerald: Some yes, some no, and some of us used to go to shows at Pearl Street.
Christopher Boucher: Pearl Street!
While I live in Boston now, and love it here, Northampton strikes me as a pretty magical place. In my heart, it’s my home. I think this has something to do with: a) the fact that I associate it with my father (who owns apartments there), and b) I had the opportunity to get to know the area very well while working as a reporter there.
Plus, a lot of the references in the book are no longer there–the Words and Pictures Museum, and the Fire and Water Cafe.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Yea, I enjoyed it too. Word and Pictures was rad when it existed.
Christopher Boucher: It was! Remember the gargoyles on the roof?
Jack W: So, there were a few metaphor switches that were easier to pick up on than others, i.e. time for money. Are there any others that we will palm our forehead for missing?
Christopher Boucher: I can’t think of any. There were some moments in the book which began as metaphors, but then the metaphors broke down.
Jenna: Are you excited for the book tour?
Christopher Boucher: I’m totally psyched and also a little nervous. I’ve never seen the car that’s supposed to carry me back to Boston. Which is to say that it’s in California–I’m flying out there next Monday and (hopefully) driving it back.
Jenna: It is such a great idea! And long road trips can be so fun. Who found the car for you? I mean, was it your idea?
Christopher Boucher: I found the car on a website for VW enthusiasts. The idea was hatched during a phone conversation with Nathan Ihara, a publicist at Melville House.
Bobby: Was the book a hard sell? How did it end up at Melville House?
Christopher Boucher: I introduced myself to Dennis and Valerie at a conference and told them how much a fan I was of Melville House. They were kind enough to suggest that I send along the manuscript.
Bobby: Ah! It seems so easy (if you write a really good book…).
Christopher Boucher: Not easy at all. They weren’t the first publisher I approached, and I was incredibly thankful to them for taking a risk on my book.
Jack W: Where do you do your writing? Do you have rituals, or certain spots or times?
Christopher Boucher: Jack, I’m neurotic about my writing–I try to write every morning, even if it’s only for an hour or so. I have friends who write at night, but I can’t do that. I wish I could!
Jenna: Are you writing something new?
Christopher Boucher: I am, but I don’t quite know what it is yet. It took me a while to figure out exactly what the VW project was, and that seems to be happening with this project as well.
Isaac Fitzgerald: Thanks Chris! Look forward to catching you on your tour!
Christopher Boucher: It was my pleasure–this was really, really fun. And I can’t thank everyone enough for reading my book and asking me such great questions.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Sam Riley.