The Rumpus Interview with Christopher Boucher
Reading Golden Delicious is like entering a vortex back to childhood—if your childhood was, like mine, and like the narrator’s, highly introverted and largely populated by imaginary characters, drawn from novels and daydreams. In this world, language itself is alive (literally—the narrator takes home “I am” as a pet); vending machines, theaters, houses, cars, and TV sets all have agency and personalities and can get the flu and decide they’d rather not serve you food/seat you/house you/take you to work/entertain you today; fathers can grow like corn from seeds; and an armed militia-ish group called the Mothers live in tree houses and fight evil. Sound crazy? Well, it is. And that’s what’s so great about it. Though it has the bones of a basic coming-of-age story, Golden Delicious, is probably like nothing you’ve ever read—unless you read Boucher’s first book, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, in which the Volkswagen stands in for a baby. Boucher writes simultaneously very seriously and with a palpable sense of delight in words and also in the world. It’s delicious.
Boucher received an MFA from Syracuse in 2002. He currently teaches writing and literature at Boston College, where he’s also the Managing Editor at Post Road Magazine. His first novel How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive was published by Melville House in 2011.
The Rumpus: The narrator’s name is _____. I have so many questions about that: how do you pronounce it? Was it a struggle to get your editor to accept it? What inspired you to “name” him that? Is there a specific way you want it to be read?
Christopher Boucher: I’ve never been asked about that before, though I’ve always thought of it as one of the bigger risks I took. The narrator of my first book, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (HTKYVA), is an underline as well, and, in reading from that, I usually address it directly: explain the convention and say that when it does appears in the book, I’ll just say the word “underline”—otherwise I would have to make some sort of elaborate pause.
I don’t remember exactly how I started using the underline—I probably put it in when I began, thinking I’d figure out a name later, and then it just became fixed—but I do know that it started with an anxiety of “this character is me, but not me.” When I was writing HTKYVA, I was trying to find new ways to jump off of my life story—to take it as a springboard and spin it in strange directions—and the underline just seemed like a good way to signal both the truth, and the fiction, of the speaker. At Melville House, they never questioned the underline. It was always there and we went with it.
With Golden Delicious, it seemed natural to imagine the protagonist was perhaps the same as the one in HTKYVA, and yet the underline is ambiguous enough that there’s some wiggle room; it doesn’t have to be the same person. Both of my novels have enough biographical stuff for me to signal that I’m working from my own story, but I wouldn’t feel right using my own name. I think it might make me feel constrained to the truth, to biography.
At one point I had envisioned a sort of “Mad Libs” type of story—like, what if there’s a book that allows the reader to play an active role? Then I thought the story wouldn’t go beyond its conceit—but the name could stay; it seemed to organically express an anxiety I had about writing from places that were true and fictional at the same time.
Rumpus: The imagination in your work is readily apparent—it’s brimming with creativity. I wondered: could you speak about the role of reality in your writing?
Boucher: When I was in grad school I read Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America and I had it on my shelf for a while. Brautigan’s considered by some to be the last of the Beats and this novella, published in 1967, is still a cult book. It was a different kind of surrealism than I’d ever seen before: the language in the book was actually moving. “Trout Fishing in America” is the title of the book, but also a recipe, the name of a ballet, a hotel—it’s a varied sign. At the same time, I wasn’t so interested in surrealism specifically as I was in my favorite writers doing inventive things. I loved seeing writers move from a very real place to another one, one that caught my attention as a reader. But it wasn’t just Brautigan. Most of the reading I was doing in grad school was giving me permission to do different things. I went to Syracuse because I was a fan of George Saunders. I loved his work because it’s simultaneously so true and so off the wall.
My own writing always comes from the language. I don’t usually start a story thinking, how can I make this surreal? I start thinking, what do I hear in the language? what is the best sounding sentence? the words that are most engaging to read? I’ve found it’s dangerous for me to start a story thinking this will be off the wall or this will be wacky.
In HTKYVA, I started with my father’s heart attack, and, in Golden Delicious, with the story of my parents arriving at the town where I was born. I was born two months premature and was in an incubator during that time—it was a pretty straight translation to the Vox [a strange cage/machine that the narrator’s confined to during his first years of life]. It seemed organic to jump from there to the idea that language is going to be the narrator’s problem. The surrealism happens because I’m trying to tell the story in such a way that it’s engaging fiction and also has the kernel of the real.
I tell my students, I wake up every morning and write because I think it’s amazing to make something out of nothing. You don’t necessarily know what it is you’re making while you’re making.
Rumpus: Labels suck—okay, we all hate them—but I couldn’t help wondering: how do you label your work—do you call it surreal? Fabulist? Magical? Allegorical? Some combination of these?
Boucher: When the first book came out, I got “experimental” a lot. Many other writers I admire—Lydia Davis, Ben Marcus, Karen Russell—would probably be given the experimental tag… and, while I feel that’s apt, I do worry about marginalization. “Experimental” says, well, only read this stuff if you want everything you’re looking for in a book to be challenged, only read this if you’re up for something strange.
I once heard Ben Marcus say in a reading that he wrote like a failed scientist and I thought, I want to write like a failed musician. Because I love music and I love sound but I don’t have a lot of talent when it comes to music—I haven’t written a lot of poetry either—but sound is what gets me into a story.
If I think too much about labels—surreal or fantastic or experimental—I find I somehow write toward that and I’m in trouble. I can quickly paint myself into a corner. At the same time, I must lean in that direction because I gravitate toward books that wake me up to what a book can do—and that’s a pretty good working definition for experimentalism.
Rumpus: I found myself trying to find a one-to-one metaphorical relationship for almost everything in your book—and then it occurred to me perhaps some of the metaphors were more complex. Can you talk about the role of metaphor in the novel?
Boucher: One of my good friends is Salvador Plascencia, the writer of People of Paper. He was the experimentalist of our group, and he used to talk about the move of denying the metaphor, i.e. what happens if instead of making a comparison, you just move right through it. So: instead of my son was like a Volkswagon, you get my son was a Volkswagon.
My books are written from a standpoint of inquiry rather than a standpoint of immediate clarity. In some cases the metaphor’s there and I don’t even know it’s there. But sometimes I do worry about the metaphors being too bald. I have to test them out on my wife. For instance, in Golden Delicious, the happiness in the pipes stops flowing—I mean, that’s pretty apparent [as a metaphor]. Usually what I keep having to relearn over and over again is that if I’m working from an emotional place, that’s a step in the right direction. But if I’m working from a tactical place or a clever angle, then the writing’s not so good or it’s pretty empty. And, more often than not, I’m not aiming for a metaphor, and if it happens, it just happens as it goes.
A lot of is also conflation. There might be one or two [metaphors] that correlate to reality and then, after a certain point, I just started to think about what the book needed to be a book, what the characters needed. I just build what I need to build to get the story across.
Rumpus: Can you talk more about creating a world in your fiction? Do you set down rules for it before writing or do you figure them out as you go?
Boucher: It’s the latter. I wish it were the former because it would be so much more economic and sensible, but it is so the latter. I overwrite and it takes me a long time to figure out what I can get away with. In Golden Delicious, I loved the idea of the moving sentences and I knew it would be difficult to pull off. I just kept coming back to it and back to it. It’s always hard to know whether the idea is well formed and will pan out if you stick with it or if it just won’t fly.
The book started out as short stories. I didn’t know where they were set—they were just sort of floating—and then I started researching my hometown and found out Jonny Appleseed had lived there for a while…
Rumpus: So Johnny Appleseed’s a real person?
Boucher: Yes! He’s a real person, and he lived in my hometown, in Longmeadow, MA for a while and then I think he died in Pennsylvania. I read about the real person but what I really needed for the book was the myth—my own imagining of Johnny Appleseed. I also felt a little robbed that no one had ever told me he’d lived in my town. I went to the Longmeadow public schools and I don’t know why we weren’t singing songs about Johnny Appleseed for years. I felt like this story had been kept at bay and now I could riff with it—Appleseed, of course, got me thinking about the object of the apple and the idea of the pest, worms or aphids or things that would destroy this object.
I tried a lot of different things before I felt like I had something that was working as a whole. For a while, I was stuck on the idea that Appleseed [the town] would be shaped like an apple. I spent all this time drawing it out and mapping and then I realized that’s not that important and it’s limiting. What’s important is that there’s this kid and that his story is told. It was too clever.
Rumpus: So you settled on apples as the book’s—er, excuse the pun—core, because of Johnny Appleseed?
Boucher: Hah! I was worried because apples are so loaded as a metaphor… At first I just thought, this can’t happen. And then also—this might seem tangential—I’m allergic to apples, have been since grad school. I haven’t had more than an apple a year in like eighteen years. When I do eat them, it’s this amazing experience. I don’t know how much of a role that plays, but I do have reverence for the apple because it’s not readily available.
Another thing: my grandfather had an apple tree in the backyard when I was a kid. I remember helping him rake the leaves and once, I found this beautiful apple on the ground but when I turned it over, it was filled with bees. There was this inner shriek—whoa, this is beautiful and it’s also terrible. I remember that being a really intense awakening or realization, a sudden fear.
Rumpus: You’ve touched a bit already on the process of writing the book—it began as stories that eventually cohered. Can you talk, more generally, about your writing process?
Boucher: I write every day and I’ve been working on Golden Delicious pretty steadily since 2011. What that meant was writing and overwriting and writing mistakes and writing stories that never saw the light of the day. I can’t believe the years I waffled, or sort of floated—when I was moving in one direction and then another, when I thought I had something and then realized I had nothing.
HTKYVA took ten years to write so this one seemed pretty fast to me even though I don’t think it’s fast by industry standards. For the industry, five or six years is normal. At times [the writing of Golden Delicious] seemed blazingly fast, and I think that was because it took a long time to concede to the fact this was the story I was going to tell. I assign that to my writerly immaturity more than anything else. I tend to forget the lessons I learn and have to keep coming back to them—stuff like, Write from the heart.
I always tell my writing students how many pages I’ve written for the 300 pages that made it into the book. I don’t do that because I’m proud of it but because I’m stunned at how many pages it takes to get to the right ones.
Rumpus: How many pages did it take?
Boucher: Well, I do a lot of retyping. I just retype and retype the whole manuscript—even the sentences I think are good I’ll retype. It’s the best way I know to find new information in the sentences that exist, to stumble upon those very subtle synapses or transitional problems or opportunities in the reality itself—there might, for example, be a turn I didn’t see between sentence four and five. So, a standard writing day might be me retyping a story three or four times to find something that wasn’t there. So, it’s probably upwards of 1000 pages—but some of that is just recycled or retyped work.
Rumpus: There’s a lot of humor in the book and yet its world seemed to me to be unrelentingly bleak—there are the cages used for school detention, the TVs that film you at home, the lack of meaning. What’s more, if every object—a house, a vending machine, a truck, a tree—has life and agency then each one also has the potential to be mistreated, lonely, depressed. How do you balance the light and the dark?
Boucher: As I was hearing your questions I was thinking, wow, so much of the book sort of does start with sadness—even though so much of the writing wasn’t sad. I do think, though, I let the lightness find me. If I go looking for it, then I end up on the wrong side of it. Like when the house hangs itself: there’s something morbidly, if not funny, then odd, about it. It doesn’t make any sense for a house to hang itself, and yet it makes all the sense in the world for the character and for the book. I don’t want to say I start with the bleak stuff—but I am more likely to write from there and then let humor happen. That said, some of the most fun I have while I’m writing is when I trip over something, when I’m not taking the relationship between the reader and the text too seriously. Then I feel like the language is really doing something and I’m just watching it do its thing. Some of my favorite art is terribly funny or its terribly sad or both at the same time. If I can find be one of those things, it’s a sign I’m moving in the right direction.
I should also add that I’m a generally cheery guy. Writing about stuff from a bleak perspective is subconscious news to me; it’s not second nature. If you asked me, did I have a happy childhood? I would say, yes, I had a privileged, happy childhood. But it’s almost as if I had to go back there and admit there was more dimension to the picture than I saw at the time. My dad [like the dad in the Golden Delicious] did own two buildings in [a nearby town] and, as a kid, I didn’t really know how strapped he was because of those buildings. He worked three different jobs and he would get heating calls in the middle of the night from his tenants. He couldn’t rent all the apartments and he was just pouring money into them and did all the maintenance work himself… It was just a lot more difficult for him than I realized at the time. I probably knew on some level things were not as simple as I saw them to be. My parents certainly struggled to keep that reality from me but I needed to tell that movie back to myself in my own way.
Rumpus: Which of the book’s many invented words and phrases are you most proud of?
Boucher: In the first book, time is money—that is, time is the currency—and in this book, meaning is the currency. For a while, I tried different things there and thought I might fail on that whole idea… But in the end, I really like working with the whole idea of meaning as something different than it was. That was really fun.
Jack Kerouac was an influential writer just at the right time for me, around eighteen or nineteen, and, even more than his work itself, what interested me were his ideas on the writing process. Kerouac thinks so much about music and jazz—it seemed natural to think of words as sound. After all, words hit us first as sound a split second before they hit us as something with meaning. So, on a language level, making up words or ideas serves as a kind of reminder to myself to try different things, to not be afraid of taking risks. With each new word, though, I had to ask, Am I just being clever or is this getting something that goes beyond the original use?
Some of the invented words are also memorials to the moment I wrote that piece. I heard a sound at that moment in the sentence and even if that sound didn’t make “sense,” I went with it and then kept it. I felt that sound, that primary experience, has to be worth something. So there’s a bit of that going on, too, a reluctance to cover all of my tracks.
Rumpus: Why “golden delicious”—is that your favorite kind of apple? Did you just like the sound?
Boucher: While I was reading about [Johnny] Appleseed, I found a book about apples from 1980s. It was a compendium of sorts, with different cultivars, varieties of apples, directions on how to plant them, etc. and I was just struck by all the weird apple names—there are dozens or hundreds of them.
I went through a number of titles—five or six and “golden delicious” was at the top because it seemed like it did the work that the title of this book would need to do. There’s a little bit of a crescendo to it, even a majesty to it—that sounds so corny—but it’s true. Plus it wasn’t quite as specific as, you know, “Westfield Seek No Further” [ed note: real name of a real apple!], which I thought was the best thing ever, but it also wasn’t the title of the novel. Golden Delicious somehow just evoked the arc of this kid’s story to me—it wasn’t necessarily downtrodden, it wasn’t necessarily simple. Golden Delicious also sounds like the apple you want to take a bite out of. It just hit me right.
Author photograph © Lisa Bastoni.