The Rumpus Interview with Andrew Ervin

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It’s probably fitting that a novel titled Burning Down George Orwell’s House doesn’t focus much on the author of classroom classics like Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Instead, Andrew Ervin’s debut novel centers on Ray Welter, a Chicago adman whose life has come apart and who flees the grid for Jura, the Scottish island where the writer born Eric Blair penned Nineteen Eighty-Four. More comedy than tragedy, Ervin’s novel shifts back and forth between the events that led to Welter’s self-imposed exile—let’s just say the SUV industry likes Ray more than he likes them—and his attempt to hit the reset button on his life in Scotland. Nearly half a century separates Ray Welter from Don Draper, that other adman fighting for his soul in the soul-stunted field of advertising, but in many ways Ray is even less equipped to navigate the fast-changing world around him.

From a young age, Ray Welter identified with Nineteen Eighty-Four, a connection that deepens as the dystopian parable seems to explain his capitalistic, increasingly joyless career. His marriage, too, is on the rocks, but life doesn’t get any easier or better when he arrives on Jura. The natives treat their visitor only a little less kindly than the local cuisine treats his stomach. Throw in a feisty, underage daughter of one of these locals, that daughter’s belligerent father, and what might or might not be the local werewolf Blair/Orwell himself alluded to in one of his letters, and that grid Ray left behind in Chicago doesn’t seem half as bad.

Andrew Ervin’s collection of linked novellas, Extraordinary Renditions (Coffee House Press), was named a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2010, and The Millions called it one of that year’s most underrated books. While preparing for the May release of Burning Down George Orwell’s House, the launch party for which will feature a performance by the Dead Milkmen, Andrew answered some questions via email about Big Brother, the double-edged sword of technology, the enduring relevance of Nineteen Eighty-Four, and how to acquire the taste for Scotch.

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The Rumpus: One of the reasons Nineteen Eighty-Four lingers in the public consciousness, if not in the classroom, is terms like “Big Brother” and “Thought Police,” which many use, I’m sure, without connecting it to literature. In fact, themes of government surveillance could be more relevant now than they were when Orwell’s novel was published—see Snowden, Edward or Act, Patriot. Is Big Brother bigger now than it once was, or does it just seem that way because of what technology makes possible?

Andrew Ervin: Every generation gets the Big Brother that its technology dictates. The ongoing transition from analog to digital technology is allowing for the collection of data and of metadata on a scale that was unthinkable in Orwell’s day. Only the tools have changed. The global war on terror (and what a perfectly Orwellian term that is) gave government agencies the opportunity to frame the debate as Privacy v. Security. With all those supposed evildoers out there who “hate our freedom” (whatever that means) we’re being told that we can be safe or we can have privacy, but we can’t have both and that’s of course absurd. If we’re determined to put things in simplistic terms, the debate would be better understood as Liberty v. Tyranny, but even that formulation is missing something important. Big Brother has exactly as much authority as we grant him.

Rumpus: The role we play in our own surveillance, this complicity, is a big part of Ray Welter’s predicament, isn’t it?

Ervin: Ray Welter believes that he’s facing a very similar choice: he can stay on the grid and have his every keystroke recorded or he can escape to a remote island where there’s limited electricity and fend for himself. What happens—and I don’t want to spoil anything here—is that those simple dichotomies (Privacy v. Security or Liberty v. Tyranny or Evildoers v. Good Guys) prove to be less than clear cut. My novel does not have a specific moral or political agenda, but it does try to question the very notion of binary logic. Limiting ourselves to either/or thinking is itself a form of self-imposed tyranny. I suspect that Orwell understood that.

Rumpus: Ray isn’t a writer, nor does he aspire to be, when he rents the house where Orwell wrote his most famous novel. But a lot of writers will identify with his need for isolation and his struggle to extricate himself from the world of iPhones and constant contact. Many writers I know, for whatever reason, seem more resistant to technology than the average person. Does this match your experience? Why do you think so many of us are Luddites?

Ervin: It would be very easy to blame “technology” for my inability to concentrate for long periods of time or for spending too many days in a row away from my writing, but that’s ultimately a cop-out. I’m responsible for my own inactions. When we try to specify what we mean by “technology,” however, it becomes a terribly flimsy excuse for some bad habits. My eyeglasses are a form of technology as is the process that makes the printing of books possible. The question, then, is one of categorization.

Are some technologies (Facebook, Twitter, Donkey Kong) detrimental to the writing life? Only if we allow them to be. There are all sorts of romantic notions about clacking away on a typewriter and drawing ink into a fountain pen. We—writers, I mean—are terrific at fetishizing the past. I just had bookplates printed for my home library. I understand the nostalgia for old-timey ways of doing things, I really do, but I also love the wondrous technologies at my disposal. We each need to find the specific tools that work for us.

The technologies I personally use change depending on what I’m writing. For this novel, I wrote the first draft by hand because notebooks and pencils were what my protagonist had at his disposal and they helped me get into his head. Also, I wrote it on graph paper because that grid on every page reminded me of the social structure from which he was escaping. The most valuable writing time, however, was when I transcribed those pages into Microsoft Word, which allowed me to edit easily. It would be silly of me, now, to bemoan the evil effects of technology. As with Privacy v. Security, the generally assumed formulation of Technology v. Artistic Freedom is too limiting for my tastes.

Rumpus: Many writers seem to be embracing social media. You’re on Twitter. Have you found that technology detrimental to your creative work?

Ervin: Social media presents detriments and advantages to my creative work. The reason I got on Twitter in the first place was because I needed to better understand Welter’s wired world, and I planned to get off again after the book got published, but it’s a tool that has helped me find so many interesting people and new ideas that I could not have possibly discovered on my own. I follow a lot of video game developers, and that whole world has inspired my own thinking about narrative in countless ways. I do own a smart phone now, but it’s not very smart. It’s an Android and not so easy to use, so there’s not a great temptation to spend a great deal of energy tweeting.

Rumpus: Have you had to strike a balance to separate the space for social media from the space in which you write?

Ervin: Yes, I suppose I do keep those spaces somewhat separate, but they’re close. My writing room is a newly converted attic. For most of my creative work, I use an early-generation iMac which is stripped of everything but a few word-processing programs and a Dropbox link. That desk faces out the window and overlooks the Schuylkill Valley. My wife and I live in a northwest Philadelphia rowhouse, but other than the attached neighbor on one side we’re surrounded by trees and a huge community garden. It’s an oasis in the city and if I squint it can feel removed from the technological realm. In that same room, though, I have a drafting table for writing and drawing by hand and also another desk with a newer iMac, which I use for other projects, like teaching prep and World of Warcraft and the occasional interview.

Rumpus: Since you brought up video games, your next project involves them, does it not? What is something about narrative you’ve learned from video games?

Ervin: I’ve signed a contract with Basic Books for a nonfiction project about video games and aesthetics. The transition from analog to digital technologies is an obsession of mine. Both Burning Down George Orwell’s House and Extraordinary Renditions look at this change, so to start nailing down my own thinking in systematic and critical terms is very exciting. The digital revolution could end up being as radical and far-reaching as the Industrial Revolution, but because we’re right in the middle of it there’s no way to see the scope or fully understand the eventual effects. One theory I’m working on is that the short history of video games, from Tennis for Two (1958) to Bloodborne (2015), can serve as a way of beginning to understand the post-human world. Also, the kinds of interactivity insisted upon by literature and by video games are different, sure, but I’m curious to see how they’re similar. The book is still very much a work in progress. I’m spending a lot of time with the paintings of René Magritte right now. That pixelated tennis net in Pong (1972) isn’t a tennis net any more than Magritte’s pipe is a pipe.

Rumpus: Returning to the digital-free zone of Jura, many readers might covet the serenity of an isolated rental house in the United Kingdom, but Scotland as it’s portrayed in your novel is hardly romanticized. Ray’s nausea is established in the first sentence, and the absolute hell he’s given by some of the locals makes Ray’s retreat feel like another shitstorm from which he needs to escape. On behalf of the Scottish tourism industry, is there anything you’d like to take back about the fair isle of Jura?

Ervin: Shortly after I finished graduate school, I took a two-year position down at Louisiana State University. What could have been the greatest gig in the world turned into a bit of a nightmare. I should have known things were going to be challenging when, shortly after I arrived, Hurricane Gustav blew through Baton Rouge. That storm didn’t get as much national attention as Katrina, for instance, and with good cause, but it did knock out power to most of the city for over a week. Louisiana is no joke any time of year, but summer’s a particularly bad time to lose the A/C. (That is another technology I wholeheartedly embrace.) On a basic level, living without power for a few days helped rid me of any romantic notions about the serenity of life off the grid. It definitely made me reconsider some of my own first-world assumptions. The idea of escaping from social media and voluntarily getting away from it all could only come from someone like me or Ray Welter who is very privileged. Maybe that’s true too of the disdain for technology. It’s easier to hate Twitter, even as some stand-in for “technology” in general, when one has consistent electricity and clean running water in the house.

I’ve never been to the Isle of Jura. The fictional setting I’ve created is more a representation of one American man’s (impossible) idyllic escape than an attempt to describe the actual place. That said, I have wondered many times how welcome I will be there after this book is published. The closest I’ve come was the ferry port over on Islay, next door, where the novel begins. The rest of it is complete fiction. The main reason I’ve stayed away is to maintain my plausible deniability: I’ve never tried to create a realistic portrait of that place. (And portraits are unlucky, right?) I’ve never met the people or been to the hotel and so there’s zero possibility that my characters are based on real residents. I’d certainly like to visit soon if I’m still welcome.

Rumpus: Your novel’s epigraph quotes a letter from Eric Blair referencing a werewolf on Jura. What all that means won’t be spoiled here, but it sets the stage nicely for Ray’s unpredictable stay on the island. If there’s one predictable aspect of his tenure, however, it’s the copious amount of Scotch Ray consumes. The reader is left with the sense that the author has some expertise in the matter of this particular export. For readers less well-versed in Scotch, who only know, to paraphrase Orwell’s other classic, single-malt good, blended bad, what kind of advice can you give Scotch beginners?

Ervin: Even Orwell was seduced by the comforts of binary thinking. Yes—I certainly did some extensive “research” on this particular topic. The flavors in scotch result from many different factors, as Welter discovers for himself, but the most important one is geography. There’s no separating where it’s made and how it tastes. In addition to the scotch produced on Jura, I’m a big fan of the Ardbeg and Bowmore. Both come from Islay, but they taste wildly different. Ardbeg’s distillery is right on the water and you can taste the peat smoke and sea air in every sip. The town of Bowmore—one of my favorite places I visited in Scotland—sits in the crook of a bay, so the conditions are a bit softer and the resulting scotch has some of the sweeter characteristics associated with the Highlands distilleries. I also like the lowland Auchentoshan a great deal, but it’s tough to find here in Philadelphia.

All that said, since I finished writing the book I’ve been (mostly) giving sobriety a try and I find it very appealing. After I submitted my final edits, I went to the doctor to get my liver checked out and was surprised to find out that it’s perfectly healthy. Still, I’m enjoying taking it easy on myself. My next novel will need to be about healthy living and exercise.

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Author photo © Angelica Bautista.


James Tate Hill is the author of Academy Gothic, winner of the 2014 Nilsen Prize for a First Novel, coming in October 2015. He serves as Fiction and Reviews Editor for Monkeybicycle, and his short stories have appeared in Story Quarterly, Sonora Review, The Texas Review, and elsewhere. Find out more at www.jamestatehill.com or follow him on Twitter: @jamestatehill More from this author →