The Rumpus Interview with Luke B. Goebel

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Luke B. Goebel’s new novel Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours is the best kind of mind fuck. The book is a road trip through the wandering brain of a truly unique main character, and his perceptions—the hallucinations in the mundane—stay with readers long after we’ve turned the last page.

The novel would also fall under the rubric of experimental prose, and such a book shouldn’t have the normal interview. It shouldn’t be bothered with here’s a question, here’s an answer, question, answer, all dry facts with no literary condiments.

No, Luke’s book requires a more liberal interpretation of the interview process, and in that spirit, a Rumpus family friend, Joshua Mohr, and Luke have conducted an interview in prose-poems.

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The Rumpus: You are Luke. But inside you, living in your imagination is your main character. And we need a kind of literary Ouija board to reach inside of you and extract him. I mean, I don’t really want to interview you. I mean, I like you. You have a fantastic beard. But I want to talk shop with the narrator from Fourteen Stories. Can you yank that guy’s attention my way? Can you turn a pillow into a silencer? Can you construct an Ouija board from old cereal boxes, duct tape, and Sharpie? Can you mix your metaphors? First thing I need to ask him: how would he describe the voice of his novel, the style, the personality on the page?

Luke B. Goebel: He would say no Ouija. He would say he said it on the page. Then he would take that back, come back, come over here and I’ll take you shooting except it can’t happen here. He would say he’s closed shop. Closing. Where to next, Josh Mohr? He would say Josh baby you’re famous for your words in their orders let’s start our own colony and art school and teach writing in Joshua Tree, CA. Grab Karen Russell and a few others, she loves it there. A low Rez MFA for USF?

Something like that. Or anyone’s got the bucks, their name up top the stationery. He would say we went to school together at different times on that gleaming hill where you Josh Mohr get to now teach. He would say we have a lot in common in the rearview; let’s hit Joshua Tree, CA. He would say what’s the trick? Do you behave up there? On the hill? At USF? He would say not that he doesn’t have East Texas for at least until third year. He would say pray for me but I don’t know which side to pray or place your bets on the three line. He would say his alter ego can make space time turn to magic in the classroom with people with their whole hearts mostly going and afire like angels.

He would describe the personality on the page as mostly accurate, My Dear. Having the right main concerns at the downside of maybe there being nothing more. A little holy and a little burned out. Maybe a bit of a Catholic sort of Hellenistic Skeptic patriot. Maybe a bit too full of shit but at least for-the-love-of-mother-life, at least trying. A bit of a lunatic still after the honey in the lap and the face for the love of being.

Hey, you asked. Of course that’s not really what he sounds like because he can’t talk right now. Danny isn’t here.

Rumpus: I don’t know if this happens to you, too, senor Luke, senor Danny, Senator Goebel, but I struggle with panic attacks, and I’m fighting one off right now. I’m basically inceptioning myself as we speak, though we’re not speaking. Though we’re typing. Or I’m typing. I know that the anxiety cranks up when I have this thought: my hands are basically bags of blood. Shit, all our hands are blood-bags, so why am I worrying about it now? Not that I’m even under my desk. Luke, it’s the truth that eludes me. Ask anyone I’ve ever broken bread with and she’ll tell you, one blood-bag to another, that I’m a fucking liar, which is why I like your book. You are a good liar, too. You are skilled in topnotch deceptions. Which sort of sounds like inception. So be honest about these Fourteen Stories. Luke, you’re fucked up in the best possible way, and I want to know inside what fever did you crawl from to dream these wondrous lies?

Goebel: That blood bags thing is a real mind mess man. I can’t get it out of my head now. You’re a sick beautiful man. Did you learn that at voodoo camp. Is this all a trick? Wait is that prejudiced toward voodoists? What’s your problem man? You messing with my head or are you really having a freak out? How’s SF tonight? Go show some dudes on the street the hands. See if the collective brain of that dirty city can get you out of the predicament. Although, that’s the town I lost my cool inside of and went Into the dark days. Man I hate to even think of those times. I hate these blood bags. Get a grip. For both of our sakes. Please.

Rumpus: SF does have the knack to bring the dark days out in us. We devolve into cavemen and cavewomen and cavebabies. We don’t even know what a nicoise salad is because we’re being chased by dinosaurs. Good news for you, Luke. Or for me. I’m out from under the desk. I’m sitting like a good little boy. My shoes are tied. I have moisturized my cheeks and taken in the recommended daily allotment of antioxidants. Did you draw on that SF-era of your life while conceiving on this character? I’m curious about how you approach that grand dilution between our work and life.

Goebel: Joshua, I did indeed draw upon the dark days of San Francisco. Although for the record San Francisco back then was bright bright white light. Icarus flight. Then bamboozled spiritual crash delusional madness insanity broken mouth mind wreckage and I wish I could go back to before the crash sometimes. Man though those clean open years they were something.

I’d say the story chapter “Tough Beauty” is a long allegory homage to San Francisco at its peak in my lifetime and all the madness that came thereafter from nervous breakdown bananas plant crash. Cactus if you can read into it and know what that can actually be like. But before that I had a huge one bedroom modern apartment building with a centralized courtyard with underground parking and tons of light for $1050 a month.

And now it seems things have leveled off the ball and the Ebola scare in the US has receded the ISIS is now old hat awful awful hat. With the repeal of our hour from daylight savings time the winter is coming early and all has returned to normal Joan Didion in her white Stingray life goes on.

How’s that glorious city; is it surviving Google nerd-dom? Will the prices ever drop? Is it going to have to be the kind of city you have to marry into for rent control to live there assuming you didn’t go to some Ivy League bullshit school for business?

Rumpus: There are cranes all over SF, plucking up artists and replacing them with Twitter employees. It’s a thing. We walk around hoping to evade being snatched up. This must have been what it was like to live in the time of dinosaurs—you’re minding your own business strolling on a leafy knoll and suddenly a fucking tyrannosaurus bites you in the ass. But we’re trying. There are a few of us trying to hold out, though it’s a rigged game. It’s sad, really, that a town that traditionally loved artists trades them in for homogeneity. SF is turning into a suburb. My wife and I are hell bent on staying. Our daughter sleeps in a shoebox under the bed and sometimes she says things like, “When will I have a room of my own, parents?” and we pretend to sleep. I’m curious how a writer like you thinks about plot. This is a serious question, Luke. Don’t piss on it. What does plot mean to your book?

Goebel: Well I’m driving through Texas’s flat listening to Elvis Presley singing “Devil in Disguise.” Yes yes I wish I was, or were—it’s were—still in San Francisco surviving in the territory of tech killer dinosaurs and cranes with y’all. I always thought those big old loader cranes out there in the Port of Oakland looked a lot like dinosaurs when I would fly out over the highways leaving the old city.

Ha! Your daughter in the shoebox. HA. Piss on your question? I wouldn’t dare, but how did you know I would have the impulse to run out on the tab on a question about craft and things like plot? How do you know me so well? We who have never met in person? I told you that I had a date—I’m getting to the plot question don’t worry—in SF last time I was in the city and the lady was talking to me about loving you? Your books. Okay plot. Hmmm. Shit. There were plots in the stories and plots in the larger novel structure. I figured them out kind of in terms of emotion and emotional power and then it was again it was a dance of slowly removing the skin around my heart.

I guess I’ve always thought of literature as being in two different major categories. There are the people who are worried about the plot and the people who are worried more about the words. Course that isn’t true because everybody’s worried about both and there are no real groups but I still got to see it in that way and I’ve always been on the side of the words—and the plot well the plot is this thing that happens you don’t plan you just attend to what’s happening as you go about your business from place to place to place then all of the sudden shit you got these points that you’re hitting coming back to you and they are like magnets and they pull everything back like those flight pattern lines to major airports in the free magazines on airliners and those magnets are developing and they are pushing all departures further into story in terms of a plot.

Rumpus: Your book comes at the reader at such a great velocity that I found myself speeding from page to page to page. I like plot and my books all use plot as their solar system’s sun, and the characters orbit in its gravity. Sort of. Except when they don’t. I’m with you that it’s hard to unpack our books because it’s like unpacking our imaginations and our hearts and who wants to do that? Or who can with any accuracy?

Plot gets slandered in some literary circles, but it’s such a huge way to create anxiety in our readers. Let them experience the book’s danger viscerally. Make them stew in the book’s beating heart. To my grad students, I talk about Plaracterization, or the intersection of plot and character, trying to make sure the plot is being dictated by the protagonist and not the author.

Goebel: I used plot. I knew the basic events. I just made many plots around and orbitals of many suns. Many systems. Many interposed systems. But the basic plot. I knew it. It’s simple. But it could NOT be told in a simple singular system. It was a lot of worlds to live.

Rumpus: In my process structure comes way late. I write all this crazy source material having no idea how I’m going to assemble it all. It’s like ice melting in my hand for a long time. Years. And then I get down all the floor and start working with the water. How does structure work on your side? Did the book go through a lot of remixes?

Goebel: I like “it’s like ice melting in my hand for a long time. Years. And then I get down all on the floor and start working with the water.” I think it always feels that way and the question is does it feel that way for a small part of the process or for the entirety of the project. Maybe that’s the question.

I worked my novel out of short stories. I’ve spoken to this a great deal elsewhere but once I had the short stories in order so they were working as a very linked collection I took to the road, after the collection was taken and awarded a prize and set for publication, I took the road with a giant, tall, 31-foot motor coach.

As Kerouac called it: “the dumb saint of the mind” took over. It was the inspiration freeway through the Southwest into California and I was behind the wheel in the 31-footer. I had a 3600 W generator, the pistol my brother gave me, plenty of gas, and a whole lotta miles. The adventure took and took me and I took it and we wound our way through language into a novel. Was pure heavenly feeling mania and my heart with all the stories and worlds that have been lived and were being lived. Also I got some pretty good training from studying from Gordon Lish and from working on my own writing for many years. From paying attention to life and storytelling and how it all works. I apologize if that all sounds rather fey but to be honest it was just a miracle of months amongst great sadness and loss. I was in this momentary stance of giving life everything it deserves and being devout to the pursuit of art and being delusional and I got mildly lucky and then it ended. Now I’m a schlep and wondering what next. I really like talking to you. Does any of this make sense?


Joshua Mohr is the author of five novels, most recently “All This Life.” More from this author →