“Don’t Think About the Elephant”: An Interview with Andrew Farkas, Author of The Big Red Herring

Andrew Farkas is the author of a novel: The Big Red Herring (KERNPUNKT Press), and two short fiction collections: Sunsphere (BlazeVOX [books]) and Self-Titled Debut (Subito Press). His work has appeared in The Iowa Review, North American Review, The Cincinnati Review, The Florida Review, Western Humanities Review, Denver Quarterly, and elsewhere. He has been thrice nominated for a Pushcart Prize, including one Special Mention in Pushcart Prize XXXV and one Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2013. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago, an M.F.A. from the University of Alabama, an M.A. from the University of Tennessee, and a B.A. from Kent State University. He is a fiction editor for The Rupture (the new iteration of The Collagist) and an Assistant Professor of English at Washburn University. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

This interview was conducted via email from June 5-August 14, 2019 by Patrick Parks.

Patrick Parks: Your first collection of stories, Self-Titled Debut, is almost a handbook for writers interested in experimentation and literary gymnastics. I want to talk about the stories individually, but first, how did this book come about, in terms of your compiling and organizing the stories?

Andrew Farkas: At the time, 2008, I had written two books of short stories: one very consciously (Sunsphere) and one less consciously (Self-Titled Debut). The reason I say “less consciously” is because Self-Titled Debut isn’t a linked collection the way Sunsphere is. Instead, as my friend Travis Hessman described it, the collection is all of the stories from that time that didn’t have the Sunsphere in them. I actually called the book Self-Titled Debut because I thought it was going to be my second book, and I thought it’d be funny to call my second book Self-Titled Debut. As it turned out, the publisher I’d been talking to about Sunsphere didn’t take it after all, so Self-Titled Debut ended up being my first published book.

As for the order the stories appear, I always have trouble ordering the stories because I’ve never read any collection in the presented order (unless I know the book is a novel-in-stories or a linked collection where the order is important). Instead, I jump around depending on whether I feel like reading a longer or shorter story (or, I base it on how much time I have to read). Although the novel is far more popular than short stories, I like the two forms equally. However, that means I think of each story as its own entity, so to me collection order isn’t that important (I think the same way about albums, which is why I never quite got on board with the return of vinyl, since easy skipping on CDs, iPods, and music streaming is definitely my style). However, I understand that order is very important to other folks who read collections. Luckily, Elisabeth Sheffield, my editor at Subito, helped a good deal with order. She told me that “The Last Light You See” should be the last story and that otherwise I ought to go back and forth between shorter and longer stories. 

PP: The first story, “An Immaterial Message” is unlike the rest of the collection. It is brief, realistic and linear. Why did you pick this one to lead off?

AF: True, “An Immaterial Message” is brief, realistic, and linear. But it’s also a direct parody of Franz Kafka’s “An Imperial Message.” In his, the message that’s coming to you is from an emperor; in mine, it’s coming from a pothead. In his, the message is distinct; in mine, the message is garbled. In his, the messenger is indefatigable; in mine, the messenger is lazy. In his, the messenger must cross a vast, maybe an infinite space; in mine, the messenger needs to just walk to the other side of the dorm room. But in both, the protagonist waits for the message, no matter how unlikely it is to arrive.

In other words, although very short, I feel like this is what’s happening in most of the stories in the collection: characters believing something will finally change their lives, something will finally give meaning to their lives, though again and again that fails to happen.

PP: In “Delusions of Nandeur,” you take on the Napoleon delusion and turn it upside down (an insurance agent!), and, at the same time, ask your reader to keep track of a chronology that does not follow time’s arrow. What drew you to this particular historical figure and to his confusion about his own identity?  Does the time line reflect somehow the confusion?

AF: “Delusions of Nandeur” came from a collision of sources. The first is the oft-repeated character who appears in various fictional mental institutions (film, TV, and print) who believes he is Napoleon. The second is my long-held belief that insurance companies, more than laws even, dictate what we can and cannot do (which is a kind of tyranny that’s sold to us couched in terms of freedom—”With life insurance you’ll be free!”). The third is the fact that many Napoleon quotes, the quotes from a dictator, mind you, are strangely all about freedom (and all of Napoleon the insurance salesman’s lines are Napoleon quotes repurposed to be about insurance). Finally, there’s a line in the movie Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) that goes like this: “Insane asylums are filled with people who think they’re Jesus or Satan. Very few have delusions of being a guy down the block who works for an insurance company.” When I heard that, I thought, “What if Napoleon had a mental break and thought he was an insurance salesman?”

From there, I knew my Napoleon had become unstuck in time, while his auditors got the uncanny feeling, whenever they talked to him, that they’d slipped into some alternate reality. So, Napoleon is confused, his auditors are confused, and the reader is confused. I think, however, that the confusion for all three dissipates, but a haze hangs over the situation (for the characters) and over the story (for the reader) making them unsure of what to believe. This uncertainty is perhaps made more intense when you look up the names of some of Napoleon’s auditors in this story and find out they’re the names of horses Napoleon owned. 

PP: “Life Insurance” is Kafkaesque in its portrayal of bureaucracy gone mad, and there are a couple of other stories in the collection that share that view. What is there about a bureaucracy that lends itself to an absurdist treatment? In this story, the narrator is accepting of the rigmarole he must go through to stay legally dead. Why did you make him so compliant? 

AF: Absurdism, of course, is the philosophy that says we are incapable of finding any meaning in life, that the only meanings are those we invent. Bureaucracies lend themselves to absurdist treatments, then, because there is always a moment, when you are stuck in the gears of a particular bureaucracy, that you realize all of this is meaningless. Stories that focus on, say, romantic relationships are far less likely to conclude that everything is meaningless because even if the relationship is ending, it still feels meaningful in some way. Granted, that meaning is invented, as Camus teaches us, but it feels real.

The fear we can end up with when ensnarled in a bureaucracy also feels real, but we don’t get as invested in bureaucracies as we do in romantic relationships. Consequently, we’re able to step back and realize this system is, as it were, absurd.

But since we want there to be a meaning to life, it’s rare that people embrace true absurdity (Kierkegaard, Camus, and Cioran all point this out). So, in order to show the reader how powerful meaningless systems are, if you’re Franz Kafka, you have Joseph K. begin by denouncing the outrageous process he’s been forced into, and then have him take that process more and more seriously. Anxiety builds for the reader as The Trial goes on because we don’t understand why Joseph K. doesn’t just ignore these mysterious courts like he said he was going to at the beginning. In “Life Insurance,” I approach things a bit differently. Since the narrator’s been declared dead, he doesn’t have to do much of anything—the bureaucracy comes to him, which he really likes. There’s no reason for him to rebel because everything is done for him. It’s only once he realizes that engaging with the meaninglessness of life is the only way to be alive that he decides he better start operating on his own again. Once he starts operating on his own, he’s able to see the absurdity, but he’s also able to see that he’s not very good at confronting absurdity. It seems likely he’ll be more like Kierkegaard (and find a meaning) than Camus (and heroically stare down the absurdity of life). That shouldn’t be surprising, though, since he’s proven to be an innocent abroad.  

PP: You noted that the first story, “An Immaterial Message” is a parody of Kafka, and I’m wondering how parody works for you, why you choose to parody something like London’s “To Build a Fire” in “To Build a Fire … in Space,” and (it seems to me, anyway) Barthelme’s “Paraguay” in “Timbuktu”? How much of your experimentation focuses on form?

AF: When I was a kid (and even now), I was a big fan of Weird Al Yankovic. I liked his versions more (much more) than the originals almost always. And my first assumption was that he hated pop music, so he made fun of it. At some point, though, I learned that he treated the musicians he parodied with a great deal of respect. This changed my view of the parody. Instead of hating pop music, I started to think that Weird Al maybe liked it, but also chose to make fun of it the way we might jovially make fun of our friends for their foibles. How does he do that? Well, most pop songs are about love (sure, and probably lust), and Weird Al, frequently, turns those pieces into songs about food. Why? Well, technically you could live without much love. It would be depressing, but you could still live. If you tried to live without food at all, you’d die. (So, we can say, Weird Al sings about what’s important.) What I learned from Weird Al, then, is that parodies can take ideas from other works and laughingly question them, critique them, reveal they’re ridiculous even if you have no interest in damning the original artist to the abyss.

That’s what I do in “An Immaterial Message” and “To Build a Fire … in Space.” With the former, I latched onto Kafka’s idea of the infinite, but showed that you don’t need a vast empire to depict the infinite. You can find the infinite in the smallest, most unlikely places—like a dorm room. With “To Build a Fire … in Space,” I thought about the fact that Jack London’s narrator is obsessed with procedure. Sure, it’s his overly masculine pride and lack of imagination (spoiler alert for a 110-year-old story) that kill him, but I think it’s just as likely (if not more so) that absurdity can take you out, an absurdity stemming from an obsession with procedure above all else. As for Donald Barthelme, he showed me how to do literary parodies (since the end of “Brain Damage” is a parody of James Joyce’s “The Dead’), and probably also gave me a major jones for formalism. Whereas my voice may be similar throughout all of my work, I like the pieces to feel very different. And so, “Timbuktu” is like a pamphlet for a paradise island getaway (much as “Paraguay” is like an encyclopedia entry for a country that isn’t the country we think it is), even though you could never go there, even though you’ve probably already gone, while “A Name You Can Trust” is a hard-boiled detective story that undermines hard-boiled detective stories, while “The Divine Plan” is a collection of notes for a movie that can’t be filmed.

PP: While form is clearly of interest, “Oubliette” is a story in which you seem to delight in language, almost as if you used your thesaurus as an obfuscator, taking familiar vocabulary and replacing it with synonyms from the bottom of Roget’s entry on that and thereby creating an opacity  that adds to the impenetrability of the plot. Though I hate to ask the obvious “does language matter,” does it? How so?

AF: To me, language matters a great deal. I am not a fan of what is called “invisible style,” that being the kind of writing where the author works hard to make the reader forget they’re reading by using a narrative voice that no one would ever stop to interrogate, by using words no one would ever need to look up. I want to think about the voice (and where the voice is coming from, even if it’s not first person) and the language, along with characters, plot, place, etc. I sometimes think that voice is what drives my work more than anything else. To me, a piece isn’t done until I can read through it out loud without stopping. If I stop, that means something is wrong, and that sentence or paragraph or section needs to be reworked. That isn’t to say the other aspects of my writing aren’t important. It just means that I’m not willing to sacrifice voice or language in order to speed the plot along. I’m more likely to ignore other things briefly so the sentence sounds right. And whereas there isn’t always a climax of events in my works, there is usually a crescendo of voice and language. I would say “The Last Light You’ll See” is perhaps the best example from Self-Titled Debut of what I’m talking about here, though “Oubliette” has it too. “Oubliette” was the story where I finally realized I wanted to explore language as much as possible. In this case, it worked. There’s a story that I cut from Sunsphere, called “Nothing New Under the Sunsphere” (it’s about nuclear energy), that did not work.   

PP: I’m also interested in your use of the second person point of view. What do you think that does to the reader’s engagement with stories that ask them to accept an unreality?

AF: I have a perhaps unhealthy love of the second person in literature. So, I’m more likely to continue reading a piece, even if I don’t think it’s especially good, if it happens to be in the second person (it’ll get good any minute now because it’s in second person!). So, for me, well, the second person pulls me in. From what I can tell, though, other folks don’t think like this. In fact, using the second person almost immediately sends the alienation effect into overdrive for most readers. Many times I’ve heard people say, “I wouldn’t do that, so I stopped reading.” For those who are willing to brave second person stories, I think the second person makes the piece even more uncanny. If, after all, that second person is a character with a name (like the protagonist of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City), then you end up feeling as if you were sucked into someone else’s body or consciousness. If the second person is explicitly stated to be the reader, it’s as if you’ve been hypnotized to do what you’re doing. But if the second person is unspecified, it feels like there’s a hole in the center of the story, or maybe a kind of ghostly presence. This last type of second person is the kind I use the most because it defamiliarizes the work for the reader, since there isn’t exactly a traditional main character to either cheer for or tsk at. “The Last Light You’ll See” operates like that. 

PP: In tone and, to some extent, structure, “The Last Light You’ll See,” reminds me of The Big Red Herring. Is that a fair appraisal?

AF: I hadn’t thought of that before, but I think you’re right. As I’ve said, both Self-Titled Debut and Sunsphere were written at about the same time. The last two stories I wrote in that period, then, are “The Last Light You’ll See” and “You Are Where I Am Not.” In very different ways, I think both of those stories point to what I would end up doing in The Big Red Herring.

PP: Generally speaking, humor plays a large role in your work, be it pun or slapstick or parody or any of a number of other varieties. How do you use humor to counterbalance the sometimes bleak worlds you create?

AF: Before I really got into fiction writing, I wrote humor columns, first for my high school newspaper (the Stohion), then my undergrad newspaper (the Daily Kent Stater). At that time, I wanted to be the next Dave Barry. When I realized that my sensibilities were probably darker than Barry’s, I found Vonnegut and saw that he used humor so he could write about darker subjects without making them seem completely hopeless or repellent. Later, I would find lots of other writers who did the same thing. And so, I joined the postmodernist and absurdist writers who unflinchingly look at the bleaker aspects of our existence, while also making you laugh. I can actually even pinpoint when this happened, since I took a bus trip from Knoxville to Austin, and over the course of that trip I read Beckett, Pinter, Stoppard, and Caryl Churchill. (I suppose that’s another thing: I read a lot of plays, which likely is what has led to me using a lot of dialogue.)

I would say, then, that my work is similar to the Theatre of the Absurd playwrights, in that I think the best way to deal with existential anxiety is to laugh at it. That doesn’t cover the anxiety up, nor does it lead to a state of denial. Instead, you laugh so you can continue on. “The Last Light You’ll See” in Self-Titled Debut and “White Dwarf Blues” in Sunsphere both do that. Herbert Zerbert in “White Dwarf Blues” is even overjoyed to be in this position where he can comment on burning out. He has an enthusiasm for it, which is why he doesn’t fit in at all. There’s plenty of dark humor in that story, but it’s delivered by someone who doesn’t seem to understand you’re supposed to deliver those lines in a deadpan. I guess in that way I poke fun at the history of dark humor itself.

PP: One of the things that drew me immediately to your collection, Sunsphere, was your apparent affinity for the tower and all that it might have represented when it was erected and what it comes to represent in your fiction. Like you, I love finding these singular and odd structures (for me, it’s the Corn Palace in Mitchell, SD, and Salvation Mountain outside Palm Springs, CA) and wondering about the individuals who created them. What was it about the Sunsphere that triggered your interest? I know that you lived in Knoxville, TN, for a while and were aware of the tower’s existence and history, but was it the object itself or the idea of objects like it that got you thinking? If it’s the latter, do you have any other similar constructions that fascinate in the same way?

AF: I think what triggered my interest was the fact that World’s Fair structures are normally iconic (the Space Needle, the Eiffel Tower, the Unisphere), while the Sunsphere isn’t. I’d never seen it before, nor had I ever heard anyone talk about it. Although I was a fan when I was a kid, I didn’t see The Simpsons episode with the Sunsphere until after I finished the book. Plus, while I was living in Knoxville, you couldn’t go up inside of it and no one seemed to care. I gave a reading at the University of Tennessee after Self-Titled Debut came out and Michael Knight, one of the creative writing profs there, remembered that I was really interested in the Sunsphere, though he still seemed confused (as everyone else was) why I’d care about it. If you can imagine a friend of yours moving into a new house and, inexplicably, there was a World’s Fair structure in their backyard, but they didn’t tell you about it when they described the house to you, and you went over and they continued to not talk about it until you said, “Well, you do have that World’s Fair structure there,” and they said, “Huh. Yeah, so I guess there’s that,” well that was the general response people in Knoxville seemed to have to the Sunsphere at the time.

So, the fact that it’s so overlooked got me interested in it.

I’m especially attuned to the times when things get weird in life. So, I’m not likely to write about the obviously beautiful. But the bizarre, like the Sunsphere, and, as you say, the Corn Palace and Salvation Mountain, those sorts of places are for me.

PP: In an earlier interview, you noted that Sunsphere is not a unified collection in that you experiment with different styles and subjects and, in effect, don’t allow readers to feel they’ve figured you out as a writer. Would you say that you’re intentionally disappearing behind a curtain or that this is a consequence of your preference for writing the kinds of things you’re writing?

AF: I often think about the low opinion a large number of people have for fiction. First, you have the fact that so many people think that fiction is mostly just creative nonfiction, but for whatever reason the author was unwilling to say so. Then, any time a work of fiction gets even a little bit weird, people immediately start talking about the drugs the author must’ve done. In my fiction, then, I would say my preference for the kind of fiction I write comes from the fact that I want to subvert people’s expectations, which ultimately leads to me intentionally disappearing behind a curtain. My fiction is fiction (and often, being metafiction, it tells you so), not thinly veiled creative nonfiction (my creative nonfiction, by the way, is rather meta in itself, so it tells you it’s creative nonfiction). And the strongest drug I can use and write anything that’s worth a damn is caffeine, and even that is only in the coffee or soda pop forms.

PP: Sunsphere, as you’ve stated elsewhere, is influenced not only by the history of the tower and the city over which it looms, but also by science—physics, specifically. Could you elaborate on the underpinnings of physics in terms of subject matter and, perhaps more importantly, as concepts that define the stories as a whole?

AF: There’s a combination of astronomy and quantum physics in Sunsphere that I believe holds the collection together. The astronomy gives the book a universal view, which in turn provides a sense of ironic detachment throughout. Although irony has gotten a bad name in the past twenty years, I still think it’s artistically essential because of just how complex reality is. Constant sincerity, on the other hand, always assumes a simple reality where we can know everything, and if we just express what we all know, then the world would be better. That sounds nice, but I don’t live in that universe. Instead, we frequently don’t know what’s going on or how we fit into the universe, so I think a more complicated stance is needed. Furthermore, this ironic detachment comes from the fact that, universally speaking, our actions don’t amount to much. That doesn’t mean we can’t invent our own meanings. But once you have a universal view, I feel like you lose the narcissism that comes with the delusion of maximum importance. 

There’s a great deal of quantum physics throughout Sunsphere in part because of an idea I stumbled upon in Nick Herbert’s Quantum Reality (1985). In that book, Herbert says the world we see is real, but it rests on another world (the quantum world) that is far less real to us. In “Criticism and Fiction” (1891), W.D. Howells talks about how realism for that time was revolutionary and based somewhat in science. The science he was talking about, though, was Sir Isaac Newton’s. Realism fits into that model of science, where as long as you have enough time, you can observe and observe and observe until you know everything. The quantum world upsets that idea. So, I think my constantly changing collection fits with more contemporary science, where we understand there are going to be things we don’t quite understand, meaning the straightforward nature of realism isn’t really an option. However, since these ideas come up again and again in Sunsphere, I feel they paradoxically operate by making the book seem fragmented, while simultaneously holding it together.   

PP: Could you talk a bit about the four-gear structure of “No Tomorrow”? You’ve got four different narratives operating here, which, briefly, collapse into two. How do you see these sections working with/against the others?

AF: “No Tomorrow” uses the universal, the local, the objective, and the subjective. Since we jump from one to another throughout the story, though, they all fuse together into an indistinguishable mass, meaning this story about a guy reuniting with his father after years and years also involves comets. I decided to do this because, although we ditched the geocentric model of the universe quite some time ago, I feel like people forget that we live in this vast universe. “No Tomorrow,” to some extent then, shows where my absurdist view comes from, since the gears in a car help explain the movement of comets, and the movement of comets help explain family relations, though none of the explanations are ever easy, they always require interpretation. Furthermore, the different depictions of reality (the reality of the story) don’t quite add up to reality each on their own, so they have to be taken as a whole, even though that whole is difficult to take in all at one time. This comes from the fact that I think reality can never be seen as simple. So, thinking that first gear is “reality” is just as worthwhile as having a car you only ever drive in first gear. But thinking that each strain in the story can just be lain on top of each other to create an easily embraceable reality is ridiculous too because you can’t drive in first, second, third, and fourth simultaneously. Instead, you have to accept the different levels and find ways to rectify the differences.

PP: Regarding your story, “I Don’t Know Why,” you again infuse the narrative with physics, but this time it seems more ingrained in the telling as well as being a subject. My impression is that you’re employing a kind of entropy in syntax and structure that demands something different from your reader than a more straightforward story might expect. For example, you have a page of “shshsh” rather than stating, simply “a hissing;” you use keyboard symbols to create new punctuation; and you have one section written in three columns. How do you see a reader interacting with this text? Is it fair to label this as entropy, in that disorder increases until, at story’s end, the story doesn’t end?

AF: It’s true, the readers my works are looking for are the kind who will want to read pieces multiple times. And anytime, myself included, we come upon a strange or difficult story, we have to be willing to look for those things we can parse now, while accepting that we’ll have to return later to understand more. Consequently, “I Don’t Know Why” operates by giving readers something they can grab a hold of right away (the fact that the title comes from the children’s song, “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly,” for instance), and in later readings you’ll be able to put more and more together. I know most readers want things to be comfortable right away. But through my reading and viewing life, I’ve found that pieces that require more work, well, I tend to like those more. The first time I tried to read Gravity’s Rainbow and Blood Meridian, I thought they were nonsense. But I came back to them again and again, and I ended up loving them.

As for the keyboard symbols, the hissing, and the story splitting into three simultaneous columns, I actually see these as being the chaotic forces we normally ignore in fiction. There have been plenty of times in life where an experience seemed completely inexplicable, and a wall of white noise (“shshshshshsh”) is a far more accurate depiction than anything else. Furthermore, I’ve been in plenty of situations where so many things were going on, it was like trying to watch three movies projected on the same screen with the sound playing for all three simultaneously. I suppose this story, more than the others, shows how suspicious I am of absolute clarity. Part of that clarity could be revived with a tidy ending, but “I Don’t Know Why,” as you point out, refuses that, too.  

PP: I would like to ask a couple of questions about The Big Red Herring, but I’d like to keep them general lest I act as spoiler for the novel. Given its many twists and turns and rollbacks, I don’t know that a spoiler is even possible, but what I’d like to do is address the book as a continuation of what you wrote previously. You mentioned before that you can see a connection between “You Are Where I Am Not” and “The Last Light You’ll See” and the novel, and I’m wondering if there are other stories that you can see reflected in Herring. Is your intent, your artistic vision in Herring, a murder mystery combined with an alternate history, presaged in anything in the prior collections?

AF: The noir aspects in The Big Red Herring can certainly be found in stories like “A Name You Can Trust” and “Everything Under the Sunsphere.” I think the same buoyant satire I use in “The Committee For Standing on Shoulders” and “White Dwarf Blues” is there, too. Actually, since the novel is so much longer, I’m able to make fun of so many things, more than I was able to before. And since Lewis Moyse, who I dedicated The Big Red Herring to, has said that the purpose of the novel is to make fun of everything, I guess you could say my earlier smaller satires and parodies have absolutely exploded. I also think the formalism I used in stories like “Timbuktu” (written in the form of a vacation pamphlet) and in parts of “The Physics of the Bottomless Pit” can be found in Red Herring, since there’s a part where I combine the UFO abduction narrative and infomercials for condo resorts. 

The Big Red Herring started off as a short story that I never really felt was done. I wrote so many different versions of it, and I never liked any of them. The original, which was called “Vayss Uf Makink You Tock,” was just the Gestapo interrogating a character who didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life, so he was doing nothing. When I finally decided that this would never work as a story, I decided to turn it into a novel. Since the Gestapo were there but not in their right historical time, I thought it should be an alternate history novel. And whereas I knew that the novel would be influenced by Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds and Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, I decided I should have more of a plot than I’m used to working with. And so, that’s where the murder mystery came from. Earlier, I’d started writing a novel that really didn’t have a plot at all, and that novel just kept expanding out into madness. At one point, I figured it’d be 2000 pages long, and that’s when I stopped writing it. So even though the plot, as in most of my works, isn’t the most important thing, it’s the thing that reined in my tendency to explore way too much in one work.

Patrick Parks has had stories published in The Chattahoochee ReviewThe Beloit Fiction JournalFarmer’s MarketClockwatch Review, and elsewhere. His novel, Tucumcari, was published in May 2018 by Kernpunkt Press. He lives with his wife near Chicago.

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