The Rumpus Interview with Eric Puchner


We chat with PEN/Faulkner award nominee Eric Puchner, author of the novel Model Home.


Rumpus: First of all, congratulations on your nomination for the PEN/Faulkner.

Eric Puchner: Thanks.  I’m still picking my jaw up off the ground.

Rumpus: But here you are, entering the prize phase of a writing career.  Do you still feel like a “young writer”?

Puchner: No, but I haven’t reached the point where I’m correcting people about it, either.  I’m actually middle-aged.  But the publishing industry is different from, say, Hollywood — you can be “young” into your forties.

Rumpus: So you’re starting to feel like a mature artist?

Puchner: I don’t think as a writer you ever feel that way, do you?  I’m writing short stories again now, and every time I start a new one, I feel almost exactly the way I did when I was twenty-two.  Every story is its own invention, and the inventing doesn’t get any easier.

Rumpus: Deborah Eisenberg says the sentences get easier, but the stories don’t.

Puchner: But the sentences get harder too, if you’re challenging yourself.  The newness takes place on the level of style, too.

Rumpus: Talk a little about your transition from being a storywriter to writing your first novel, Model Home.

Puchner: I’ve always felt very comfortable in short story land.  The geography makes sense to me.  So it took me a while to work up the nerve to write a novel.  You need an extraordinary amount of faith I think to write one.  It’s almost a religious endeavor.  But I tried to keep in mind what Doctorow says about writing a novel being like driving at night in the fog: you can only see as far as your headlights.  Once I resigned myself to the fact that it might be a colossal failure and that was okay, at least I’d die trying – then I managed to write one.

Rumpus: I hope you take this in the right way, but I was surprised at the relative grace and ease with which you took to the novel form.  You always talked about your writing process as one that got caught in perfecting sentences before you could go on to the next sentence – a grueling way to write a novel.

Puchner: I sort of chucked my perfectionist tendencies out the window and just wrote the thing without looking back.  In fact, I wrote the first half more or less as separate novellas… I wanted to write a novel that wasn’t a short story writer’s novel – you know, where every chapter is more or less a discrete entity.  That was important to me.  I admire some short story cycles, like “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” which is brilliant, but often they leave me unsatisfied as “novels.”

Rumpus: Nice shout out to the competition! (A Visit to the Goon Squad was also nominated for the Pen/Faulkner).  Alice Munro and Stuart Dybek have stories as novels, too.

Puchner: Well, I love the Beggar’s Maid.  It’s one of the brilliant ones.

Rumpus: But the critics pounded Dybek for his, Sailing with Magellan. They felt cheated.

Puchner: Haven’t read the Dybek.  But I love his stories.

Rumpus: I was reading some Paris Review interviews recently, particularly with Graham Greene and Faulkner and they both had a terrifying section (for me) where they discussed – in great detail — the overall system of their novels.  Do you see an organizing system like that operating in your work?

Puchner: I think I probably do have a system, but I won’t know what it is until I write a few more novels.  For me, at least, it’s probably 80% subconscious.  But there are always going to be writers who think, as Nabokov famously said, anyone who writes a novel without having mapped it out first is an “amateur.”  Personally, if I had everything mapped out before hand, I don’t think I’d be able to stay interested.

Besides, we’re all amateurs at this stage in the game.  Who makes any money?

Rumpus: You’re a somewhat recent transplant from bookish SF to… LA.  As a writer, how are you finding the change?

Puchner: I find LA to be a very fertile place for the imagination.  Not the easiest place to live, but there’s something about the friction it creates that inspires me… it’s just so weird and huge and beautiful in totally unexpected ways.  Which sounds like a good description of a novel.

Rumpus: I was thinking about your recent piece in GQ and about the number of writers with con men types as fathers.  You, John LeCarre, and – famously – Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff.  Do you think having a dad who was a confidence man influenced you to become a writer?

Puchner: He wasn’t really a confidence man.  I think I should clarify that, since the majority of his life was spent as a nine-to-five banker.  But I do think that he withheld something from me and betrayed me in some pretty profound ways when I was a teenager – and (I can only speculate) that writing was my way of simultaneously getting back at him and trying to make him proud.  I don’t mean literally getting back at him.  But almost everything I’ve written – even the weird speculative story I just wrote – is about him in some way.

Rumpus: So my parallel doesn’t hold?

Puchner: I think he was always telling stories about himself that weren’t true, and the tragedy was that in the end he couldn’t live up to these stories.  So in that respect, we were both storytellers.

Rumpus: But you do your spinning in the open.

Puchner: So did my father!  In his case, the story was all you saw.  The truth – that he was broke, deeply insecure, possibly clinically depressed – was all kept under wraps.

Rumpus: Do you see anything heroic in your father’s behavior from this remove?

Puchner: I think you could see it as heroic, yes, but it was driven by a clear, almost pathological desire to impress.

Rumpus: What – other than vengeance — made you want to write?

Puchner: I wanted to make someone feel the way that my favorite books made me feel.  The first book I ever read that made me think I could actually put words on a page, though, was Ray Bradbury’s Collected Stories.  My brother got it for Christmas one year – a huge tome, over a thousand pages, I think – and it was the first time I ever really thought about authorship.  Like, I guess I imagined that books just wrote themselves before that, but something about the book-sized author’s photo on the back impressed me a great deal.  Someone actually sat down and wrote this!

And I read every story in there, a lot of them more than once.  I can still remember a couple perfectly.

Rumpus: Bradbury is an LA guy.  Are you still a fan?

Puchner: I’m too scared to go back and reread them.  I worry about the twists at the end.  But [Charles] Baxter told me recently that he thinks Something Wicked This Way Comes is a great novel.

Rumpus: It’s a great title, at least.  Were you one of these people who wrote “novels” when you were a kid then?

Puchner: No.  I wrote godawful poems.  Lots of them.

Rumpus: Rhyming?

Puchner: If only.  My hero was ee cummings, so you can only imagine.

Rumpus: What’s the worst title of a poem you can remember?

Puchner: “3:00 a.m. and trane on sax”

Rumpus: Was Trane capitalized?

Puchner: No!  I should have clarified.  I’d never been up till 3:00 am when I wrote it.

Rumpus: Do you ever try your hand at poems now?

Puchner: No.  I looked back at some of the poems I wrote in high school and college recently, and it was disheartening to say the least.

Rumpus: But do you ever see a flash?  Here’s the moment that shows I could do it?

Puchner: Occasionally when I write a metaphor or an image in a way that I feel no one else has ever done before.  And I think, I could be a poet!  But I think any fiction writer worth his or her salt secretly wants to be a poet.

Rumpus: You’re married to Katharine Noel, herself an accomplished novelist.  How do you two settle who gets the writerly material in your lives?  The funny stories, odd neighborly behaviors, etc.

Puchner: We sometimes have to fight for it.  We strike bargains all the time.  Well, if you get such and such, then I get the anecdote you’ve been meaning to turn into a story for years.  Nothing comes free.

Rumpus: Can you give a specific example?

Puchner: Well, there’s a moment in one of my stories, “A Fear of Invisible Tribes,” where the protagonist thinks about the Neur tribe of Africa and how they had over a thousand things they were scared of, some of them really arresting and weird and beautiful.  That was something she’d kept from college on a notecard.  She did not give it up without a fight

Rumpus: Earlier in the interview you said about writers, “We’re all just amateurs now.”  Have you ever thought about “professional” writing, like television?

Puchner: I never used to.  But there’s so much good TV these days — The Wire to me is as good as a great novel.  But there’s also the unfortunate reality that many people don’t want to hear the truth about life.  They want to be uplifted.  So it’s dangerous to confuse the size of an audience with artistic merit.

Rumpus: When you need some inspiration what book do you pick up?  What books stick with you?

Puchner: I was thinking about James Salter’s Light Years yesterday, and how much it had influenced me as a writer – specifically, how much of it had influenced Model Home.  They’re completely different in tone and style, but the breadth of it, the disintegration of family, all of it had an impact.

Though I read a review of the new Geoff Dyer book recently, and he’s quoted as saying that the married couple in Light Years have the most annoying names in the history of literature.

Rumpus: I love Light Years.  I love the part with the shirts.

Puchner: Yes, the shirts!  It’s almost like metafiction, since it echoes the Great Gatsby shirt scene.  I was put off by Salter’s fetishization of material things at first, till I realized what he was up to.

Rumpus: Charles Baxter, to bring him up again, has said that one of the things writers figure out as they become mature artists is what they can’t do.  What you would put on that list for yourself?

Puchner: Many things.  I used to try to write things that had a purely intellectual payoff, like Borges, but I realized some time ago that I’m not Borges or Calvino.  I like story, I like character, I like to try to move people rather than dazzle them with postmodern hi-jinks.  It took me some time to realize there are many ways to be original, not only the most obvious ones.

Rumpus: Have you played the Great Gatsby video game?

Puchner: Is that a joke?

Rumpus: Nope.  It’s awesome.

Puchner: What’s the object?  To f*** Daisy?

Rumpus: To find Gatsby.  You’re Nick.

Puchner: Find Gatsby?  He’s lost?

Rumpus: He’s elusive…

Puchner: Ah, like the green light at the end of the dock.

Rumpus: Exactly.  If there were to be a video game of Model Home, what would the goal be?

Puchner: To make me lots of money.

Rumpus: What are you working on now?

Puchner: I’ve got a number of embryonic novels sitting in untitled folders on my desktop, but I don’t think I can talk about them.  I’m too superstitious.  Right now, at least, I’m thinking in terms of a story collection – I just had one taken by Tin House, and I’m working on others.

Rumpus: Tell us the next book we need to read.

Puchner: Well, since I mentioned Geoff Dyer, I recently read Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi—there’s a book with a completely original structure that will also move you deeply. It’s pretty terrific.  I mentioned Egan’s Goon Squad already.  And of course there’s the brilliant Deus Ex Machina by Andrew Altschul, which I would have mentioned already except that he’s books editor at the Rumpus.

Rumpus: Good advice!  Oh, and I’ve got an idea for the video game.  Jonas is on his bike in the desert, searching for the mystery of the explosion.

Puchner: Or Warren is trying to find the answering machine that has Dustin’s confession on it.

Rumpus: I’d play it.

Puchner: I’m not sure I would.

Scott Hutchins is a former Truman Capote fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program at Stanford University. His debut novel A Working Theory of Love has been heralded by the New York Times as "charming, warm-hearted, and thought-provoking," and was a and San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of 2012. More from this author →