The Rumpus Interview with Jack Pendarvis


Jack Pendarvis is the author of two short story collections, The Mysterious Secret of Valuable Treasure and Your Body is Changing, and a recently published novel about a well endowed derby-wearing giant. He just finished his next novel, entitled Shut Up, Ugly, which should be out this fall. There is a place where Jack Pendarvis has a “blog.”


Part I: Jack Pendarvis Is a Writer

The Rumpus: How long does it take you to write a story? What is your process like?

Jack Pendarvis: A story can be written fairly quickly if you let it stew for long enough. I’m not sure what my process is, but a big part of it is probably “let it stew.”

Rumpus: Did you experiment with other types of writing before you arrived at your “style”?

Pendarvis: I didn’t so much experiment as flounder around. But experiment is a nice word for it!

Rumpus: What genres or kinds of stories interest you/would you like to try writing? War novel, historical fiction, erotica?

Pendarvis: I consider Shut Up, Ugly a detective novel. You may have noticed in my earlier books a tendency toward the trappings of the detective novel. This time it’s more explicit. But I must emphasize that I respect the discipline and talent of actual mystery writers and realize I have only written a pastiche. I thought I might try a gothic novel next. But so far that has only resulted in a few false starts.

Rumpus: Is there any kind of story/subject matter you don’t think you could write about?

Pendarvis: All I can write about are fat white hypochondriacs. Everything else seems beyond me.

Rumpus: How do you come up with your characters? If you want to get specific, Awesome, the paramedic and the security guard in “The Pipe,” the characters in the “Toll Booth Confidential,” Brother Lampey?

Pendarvis: I will be glad to get specific about the characters you have kindly mentioned. Awesome came from a guy I saw wearing a derby in the Little Five Points section of Atlanta. I wondered what he was thinking, and the first line of the book (“Man, I look fantastic in this derby”) came to me. The character developed from that line. The characters in “The Pipe” are sort of Beckett rip-offs, obviously. I was watching an episode of Sex and the City about a woman who was living in an art museum as part of a performance piece. I wondered, “Who’s guarding her at night?” And those characters suggested themselves. “Toll Booth Confidential” came about because our cat had cancer and we had to drive her a lot to a special vet in a part of Atlanta that could only be reached via tollbooth. And I guess looking at the tollbooths so often made me wonder about the people who were working there. Also, I was reading a lot of reprints from the publisher Hard Case Crime at the time… pulpish stuff from the 50s and 60s. So that had something to do with the direction of the story. Brother Lampey was suggested by any number of folk artists and evangelists, and I suppose I was thinking of the visionary abolitionist John Brown… that’s who I saw in my mind’s eye when I pictured the character.

Rumpus: While reading Awesome, we got the sense that it could have been written by one of the characters from your short stories. Do you write from a “character” or is it Jack Pendarvis sitting at the computer inventing the story?

Pendarvis: I always write from character. I sort of consider it cheating to do otherwise.

Rumpus: Do you like readings? Have you done any book tours?

Pendarvis: I very much enjoy book tours. I like meeting the people. I like reading out loud. I try to keep it short so no one gets tired.


Part II: The Mysterious Secrets of Jack Pendarvis

Rumpus: Tell us a story from your childhood.

Pendarvis: Once my grandfather was pointing out where a snake had shed its skin and a breeze came up and the snakeskin wrapped itself around my ankles.

Rumpus: What are some of your previous jobs?

Pendarvis: Coffee shop, record shop, book shop, TV producer. Once I wrote a film score.

Rumpus: What are your favorite TV shows and movies?

Pendarvis: Last night I watched the insane, dreamlike Mario Bava movie Lisa and the Devil. It was great! Completely devoid of concern about plot. Perhaps not for the Bava newcomer. Ease yourself into it. But lately my favorite movie is The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). I also love Curse of the Cat People (1944). Jerry Lewis movies like The Patsy. I have a million favorite movies. Those are the ones I’m thinking about tonight. In a Lonely Place. Barton Fink. Once Upon a Time in the West. I guess my favorite TV shows are Top Chef, Mad Men, and The Simpsons. I loved The Wire, but it’s over now. I thought the most recent episode of 30 Rock was the funniest one yet. Liz went to a corporate retreat with Jack. I laughed a lot. I miss Gilmore Girls and Veronica Mars, so sue me! I’m still hanging in there with LOST. I watch Frasier reruns. Have you ever noticed how often he takes off his shirt? Constantly!

Rumpus: What did your bedroom look like when you were in high school?

Pendarvis: Lots of books. Stacks of stuff. Notebooks. A Laurel and Hardy poster. A record player. A poster for the Woody Allen movie “The Front.” An electric organ.

Rumpus: What do you think of the internet?

Pendarvis: I like it fine.

Rumpus: What was the last thing you bought that you were really excited about?

Pendarvis: Well, my friend McNeil sent me a book cover, which I posted on my “blog.” The book was called The Case of the Dancing Sandwiches, which I thought was hilarious. But then I looked up the author—Fredric Brown—on the Internet (see above) and he sounded really interesting. So I went to the local bookstore (Square Books) and ordered one of his books. It’s called The Fabulous Clipjoint. It’s about a young man who wants to be a detective, and how his uncle (I think), a carnival barker who used to be a private eye, teaches him the ropes. That sounds great to me! So I’ll buy it soon (when it comes in) and be excited. And that should teach you not to laugh at your elders and their funny sounding books and movies and songs and such. I felt bad for using Fredric Brown as a “blog” joke. He seems wild and full of promise.

Rumpus: What are your favorite bands? Did you ever play in one?

Pendarvis: Yes, I have been in a few bands. My favorite bands are the Kinks and the Clash, I guess. And the Mekons. I also love Sonny Rollins and Thelonious Monk, my heroes. On the classical side of things, Messiaen and Charles Ives—also my heroes. Country music: Buck Owens. Gospel: A Dust-to-Digital compilation called Goodbye, Babylon. I like Blind Willie Johnson. I like Hank Williams. I love Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies. Rap and Hip-Hop: J Dilla, Public Enemy. Instituto Mexicano del Sonido. I recently found out about the Brazilian singer Elis Regina. I saw a video of her on YouTube I fell in love with. I love YouTube, which may help answer your question about the internet.

Rumpus: What compelled you to start your book with a Celine Dion quote?

Pendarvis: It was sort of a parody of epigraphs. I saw the quotation in an article my friend Mark Childress wrote for the LA Times. They sent him to Las Vegas with $1,000 and wanted him to write about spending it. I laughed so hard when I read that quotation, I guess I just wanted to share the laughs.

Rumpus: When I went to buy Your Body is Changing the clerk directed me to a book about puberty in the young adult section. Does this happen a lot?

Pendarvis: Gosh, I wouldn’t know. But I did do one reading for Awesome at which I was introduced as a young adult author. That’s because Publishers Weekly originally reviewed it as a young adult book, which startled me. It’s filthy!

Rumpus: Ever get any good fan mail? If so, what is the best thing you’ve received?

Pendarvis: The best fan mail came when I used to help my friend Barry make a kid’s show for TNT. We got adorable fan mail from four-year-olds and stoned college freshmen at NYU. Those two groups seemed to be our primary demographic.

Rumpus: Have you ever been on television? If you had a talk show, who would be on it?

Pendarvis: I’ve been on TV a few times. PBS for the books. And I used to do the voice of a skeleton marionette for that kid’s show I was telling you about. On my talk show? Jerry Lewis and Cornel West. That would make for a stimulating panel.

Rumpus: Awesome wears a derby. What is it about people in hats? Do you have any favorite hats of your own?

Pendarvis: I used to think I wanted a pork pie hat, but that was about 25 years ago. Never got one. Around that time I was skinny and wore a fishing hat as some sort of affectation. And I believe there was a brief and unfortunate episode with a beret. It started out as part of a Halloween costume and I got the idea that it looked really good for use in real life. It didn’t. As I say, I was young.

Rumpus: There was so much absurdity and weirdness in this past year’s presidential campaign that at times at times it seemed like a crazy piece of fiction. Are you attracted to these sorts of spectacles at all or are you more inspired by small instances like a man in Little Five Points wearing a derby?

Pendarvis: I admire people who can describe large, complicated world events in a fictional format. I like to work on a miniature scale, or maybe it’s a peripheral viewpoint. Scope is not my strong suit, but I like to think I write about the same big themes as everyone else, though my characters have limited access to the big world in which those things are going on.

Rumpus: Influences and inspirations?

Pendarvis: The pulp writers I mentioned before… George Saunders… Charles Portis… Donald Barthleme… I think about Beckett a lot when I write, though maybe it’s not that apparent. (I should point out I don’t think I’m nearly as good as any of these people.) I see a lot of James Thurber in what I do. He was one of the first writers I responded to at a very young age, and I think you always keep a part of that person in your work, even as you become “smart” and “outgrow” him (or her), or so you like to think. Woody Allen (his prose) was another early influence and his fingerprints are all over my first book especially. I like a bunch of 18th-century writers. I like literature before everyone figured out the exact boundaries and the academic names for what they were doing.


Juliet Linderman and Thomas Seely conducted this interview with Jack Pendarvis together.

Thomas Seely lives in Bushwick, Brooklyn, and is currently riding the wave of the New Great Depression. More from this author →