David Burr Gerrard’s new novel The Epiphany Machine is one of the more ambitious books you’ll read this year, centering on a device that can reveal the epiphany of your life by tattooing the words onto your arm. “ABANDONS WHAT MATTERS MOST” is just one example of the sort of permanent self-owns that get written on the flesh of characters in his funny and riveting novel. Gerrard is a mid-aughts graduate of Columbia University’s MFA program in creative writing, so, of course, I asked him what James Franco is like in real life, but, alas, they just missed each other. We talked at the HiFi Bar in Manhattan ahead of an edition of the Whom Wants to Cry reading series in June 2017.
The Rumpus: How did you come up with the concept for the novel?
David Burr Gerrard: Mostly because I was resentful and lazy. I was resentful of having to create epiphanies in stories and too lazy to really try. And also fearful that I couldn’t do it, fearful that I didn’t have any kind of wisdom to share. How could I lead my characters to wisdom when I really didn’t have any myself? And then I was in an MFA workshop and I just came up with the idea: “Oh, I can just write a short story about this thing called ‘an epiphany machine,’” and so that’s what I did. I liked the way it turned out, but I was like, “Okay, I think this should be a novel.” And I thought, “Okay, I can write this novel in about a year.” That was in 2006.
Rumpus: Was there a moment during your most recent draft where it clicked in?
Gerrard: I’m staring at your iPhone, which has an icon of a physical tape. I got the idea to write the novel in the form of these testimonials. One day, in August 2013, I decided, “Everyday, I’m going to write a flash fiction piece about the epiphany machine.” And, for a while, I thought that was going to be the book. It was going to be a collection of these testimonials. But then I got curious about who was taking these testimonials and I thought, “Okay, let me explore this character.” And then it became kind of a deeper story.
Rumpus: You can notice that tension in the book where you can see the version of it where it is just the testimonials and I feel like that feels like more of an experimental novel. It could have been a postmodern exercise about the annoyance of coming up with epiphanies, but it’s great that it doesn’t feel like that. It’s a fully fleshed-out novel. Was that difficult for you, finding that balance?
Gerrard: Absolutely. Throughout the process of writing this novel, I was playing up against the thought of: “Okay, is this just a gimmick? Is this just an idea that sounds cool, but then doesn’t really have any heft? And does this expose my own deep callowness? That I don’t have anything meaningful to say and I’m just doing this trick?” Because I do think that’s how the novel began. That was true when I started writing the novel. And the novel could have been many, many different things. I think it’s reflected in the novel, it carries with it all of the ghosts of the different novels that it might have been, which I think is also true of any novel. I think it’s one reason that fan fiction is so popular. When you read a book, you kind of write your own book. “I wish that this went in this direction or that direction. I’m interested in this character or that character.” I would love it if that happened for readers. If readers said, “Okay, I want to write my own testimonial,” that would be great. But I’m very happy with this novel, which is the best that any novelist could hope for. When I say that I’m very happy with it, I mean I only hate it maybe forty percent of the time.
Rumpus: What was it like to walk the line between humor and more delicate subjects in The Epiphany Machine?
Gerrard: All of the books that I love do that. My biggest influence is probably Philip Roth, blending humor and blending tragedy, and big historical tragedy, is what I think books really should be doing—at least to capture my attention. That’s not to say every book should be like that, but the books that I’m interested in reading will tend to do that. And it feels very natural to me in that I look around and I see horrible things happening every day. And I also see constant humor in both the absurdities of daily life and in the absurdities in how people behave.
Rumpus: You graduated in 2006, so what was it like from 2006 to 2014, when your first novel came out?
Gerrard: Until 2012, when I signed the contract for my first novel, I felt like I was nowhere and I was going nowhere in life. I think the things that all writers feel in their heads: “I’m wasting my time, I’m not talented,” et cetera, et cetera. I had various jobs. I was a copy editor at a research firm for a while. I taught the GMAT. In retrospective, those were good jobs that allowed me to do a lot of writing. But at the time, I thought, “Okay, I’m seeing my friends go out and get real careers and start real lives and what am I doing?” At the same time, I never really considered doing anything else because I knew that this was what I wanted to do and at a certain point I just decided, “Okay, this is it for me. I’m going to write and I have no control over what happens.”
Rumpus: The Epiphany Machine centers on this device that you stick your arm inside and it tattoos the epiphany of your life. How did you come up with that specific device? Were there a few versions of the epiphany machine?
Gerrard: It always looked like a sewing machine, even in that short story I wrote more than ten years ago. And that needle was important, I think because of my fondness for that Kafka story, In the Penal Colony. You talk about someone who blends humor and horror and he’s definitely up there. In that story, there’s an apparatus that describes that prisoner’s crime on the prisoner’s skin until the prisoner dies. Really, it probably should have led me to the tattoo idea almost directly. It took me a few years to say, “Okay, why don’t I just have it be a tattoo? Why don’t I actually have the truth about oneself written onto the skin?” As, in fact, it tends to be in life. Looking at somebody’s face when they tell you how things are going usually tells you more than whatever they happen to be saying.
Rumpus: What do you think the epiphany machine would inscribe on you? Have you gotten this question yet?
Gerrard: Of course, that’s the most natural question. I’m going to give a cheat answer and a real answer. The cheat answer, which maybe is the more real answer, is that I simply don’t know. I can’t know because your epiphany is something that you on some level know, but you can’t admit to yourself that you know. And you certainly can’t admit it in an interview that will be read by, hopefully, many people. You’re not going to admit the unpleasant truth about yourself. And that’s why you have to have it inscribed on your arm so that people can see it and you have less of a choice about whether you reveal yourself or not. That being said, I did ask myself, “What would I be most afraid of to have as my tattoo?” And the answer to that seemed to me to be dependent on the opinion of others. I think I have been dependent on the opinion of others and I think that would probably be my tattoo. And certainly what I fear my tattoo would be.
Author photograph © Albert Cheung.