“Midwest Antique Mall, Financial Troubles, Kidnapping, Etc.”: Alex Higley Talks to Luke Geddes, Author of Heart of Junk

Luke Geddes and I first bonded on Twitter over our shared admiration for the little-loved novelist Wright Morris. Like much of Morris’s work, Geddes’s novel Heart of Junk, published by Simon & Schuster in January, follows an idiosyncratic assortment of distinctly Midwestern characters whose chief—or perhaps only—commonality is the place they live: Wichita, Kansas, or to be more precise, the Heart of America Antique Mall in Wichita, Kansas. The novel has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist, and Kevin Wilson praises, “‘Luke Geddes has written something truly wonderful with Heart of Junk. His tender portrayal of each uniquely strange character who inhabits the Heart of America Antique Mall is strengthened by such perfect comedic timing. As Geddes digs deeper and deeper into a world most people would ignore, he finds real treasure, something beautiful and life-affirming.’”

Geddes holds a PhD in comparative literature and creative writing from the University of Cincinnati. Originally from Appleton, Wisconsin, he now lives Cincinnati, Ohio. He is the author of the novel Heart of Junk, the short story collection I Am a Magical Teenage Princess, and his writing has appeared in Conjunctions, Mid-American Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Washington Square Review, The Comics Journal, Electric Literature, and elsewhere.

The following interview was conducted over email in January and February of this year.

Alex Higley: Did you have the structure from the start? Was it always rotating close-third? Were earlier drafts closer to certain characters? 

Luke Geddes: It was rotating close-third from the beginning, mostly because it was a way to keep going. If I got stuck or bored I could just write a different or new character, which also helped when I stepped away from working on the novel for weeks or months and had to find my way back in. Of course, the number of characters and POVs made a lot of things harder, in terms of both the writing and selling of the book. There were even more characters and points of view in earlier drafts, even up to the last one before the published version. For instance, both Lindy Bobo, the kidnapped toddler, and her brother had whole POV chapters that were completely nixed.

Even beyond the character level, I cut a ton of other stuff, which was not easy to do. I’m not an over-writer or a sprawler. I actually hate cutting because the first-draft writing is so slow and laborious. In terms of time rather than pages, I probably cut a year or more of work for the final version of the novel. Maybe I shouldn’t even mention this, but there was a whole plotline about about one of the characters being a gerontophile that got (wisely) axed.

AH: Were you working on other projects as you wrote this novel? 

LG: During the times I was taking a break from the novel I suppose I was trying to write short stories but none of them went anywhere. I think the breaks were more about being afraid the novel was going to be a dead end than being that interested in other projects. And there were times where I wasn’t writing much creatively one way or the other, distracted by life or work or PhD program stuff. Once the novel was complete enough that I was pursuing agents I started working on different novel that I am still (slowly) working on.

AH: I wondered while reading how much darker (if at all) earlier drafts were? The Ronald sections are so effective because we see the result of his act throughout the book without necessarily seeing the pathology or even the initiating crime. In some ways, the readers familiarity with true crime (a given at this point in our culture) does so much of the work for those sections.

LG: Actually, some of the earlier drafts were lighter in a way that didn’t quite work. Kind of “The Ransom of Red Chief”-esque and as hokey as that sounds. In the beginning I’d wanted to keep the kidnapping totally in the background and even incidental to the rest of the book, but that didn’t work, either. I wasn’t thinking of it consciously as a model, but John Brandon’s Citrus County is definitely an influence on how the kidnapping is handled, i.e. mostly off the page. I sometimes refer to my book as a “fake mystery.” It’s sort of a joke on myself and the book (and the reader, I guess) that big question regarding the kidnapper is so casually answered so early. I admire and read a lot of crime fiction writers but I don’t have the plotting skills of the genre masters.

AH: No one talks about that Citrus County! I really loved that book in part because it was so mystifying to me, at least in memory. One of those books where you think, I can’t believe this exists/why does this exist?/I’m glad this exists. Heart has that quality too. Fake mystery makes complete sense to me. My last book was a fake road novel. I think a certain type of reader wants the familiar beats but many don’t. Hopefully.

LG: John Brandon is for me an example of a writer who very easily might never have gotten his books published, and I mean that as the highest of praise. He’s a deceptively pared down and accessible prose stylist, but his novels are so structurally strange, often eliding what would be centerpiece scenes in most books and lingering on seemingly banal exchanges that you’d expect a “Big Five” editor to nix. It’s depressing but not surprising that he struggled to get an agent even after his first two books were big hits for McSweeney’s. (See this interview, which I find both comforting and depressing.) His books don’t announce what they are to readers in the first three pages the way most widely read novels do.

I’m not surprised now to learn you are a Citrus County fan since I think the qualities I like about it apply to your fake road novel Old Open, as well. I wouldn’t call either book “difficult” for readers but maybe they are for industry people who read in terms of how to “package” a story or a book. To me there’s a confidence in not sweatily “pitching” the reader in the first or second chapter. Your book and Brandon’s never let the reader get comfortable knowing what kind of book they’re reading.

It’s a confidence I don’t think I have. Instead, Heart upfront promises something for everyone in a way that I hope I deliver just enough to satisfy: a mystery, a gentle Midwestern comedy of manners, a cynical satire, etc.

AH: Can you say more about why the number of characters or POVs may have made selling the book harder? Was it just from a summary and pitching standpoint more characters complicated things?

LG: Of the few agents who showed any interest in the novel, nearly all of them insisted that it was “really Margaret’s book” or that the story “belonged to Seymour and Lee” or Ronald or Keith or whoever. They seemed to think only one character (or maybe two or three) should be allowed ownership of the POV, but each had a totally different view of who, to them, were the obvious stars of the book. Then after an agent took it on, we heard the exact same thing from a bunch of editors. Now that the book’s published, and with the confidence of hindsight, I like to think that that indicates the amount of POVs works perfectly well; there’s a favorite or most identifiable character for readers of all temperaments

I wish the difficulty selling the book had only been a matter of summary and pitching, but you can skim the major beats pretty easily: Midwest antique mall, financial troubles, kidnapping, etc. You’d have to ask all the people who rejected it what made it so hard. And there’d be plenty to ask, since around 150 agents turned it down. (I tried to stay uninvolved in the pitching-to-editors stage, so I didn’t keep track of numbers there.) Cynically, my impression is that they thought it was too much work for the reader to keep track of each character’s individual narrative. I continue to feel surprised that it’s reviewed well and that readers and industry people think it holds wide appeal. All the rejection convinced me I’d written a “difficult” book but now the pendulum has swung the other way, where I worry I sold out and mainstream-ifed it. Luckily, some “bookstagrammer” recently posted that it was the “weirdest book [she’d] ever read”—as if I’m Milorad Pavic or something!—so that was strangely heartening.

AH: How many of the specific musical tastes of Lee are ones that you share? I’m not interested in what the overlap is as much as how much you used your actual passion for certain music as an engine to put the same in a character. 

LG: My personal tastes are more in line with Seymour than Lee (though I don’t know how many readers care about the distinction between the two characters’ tastes), and since Lee is somewhat estranged from Seymour it seemed important to give him a musical sensibility I don’t totally share and don’t quite understand. Lee loves a lot of the stuff I do, classic white-guy guitar pop like The Kinks and Big Star, but he’s a little suspicious of it, too, like it’s too friendly or pandering, and his wider taste reflects this. I get the sense he’s more comfortable with music that’s a little sludgier, more rhythm-centric than melody-centric, with more oblique structures. (He’s also intellectually if not emotionally interested in patently avant-garde works.)

You’re right that some characters, like Seymour and Lee, have tastes that overlap a fair amount with my own, but it’s less about flaunting my expertise or indulging record store guy one-upmanship more about getting at the loneliness loneliness of caring about things it seems no one else cares about, whether it’s certain bands, hobbies, objects, lifestyles, etc. A reader asked me how I came up with all the arcane music patter and I had to admit it required little research unless you count a friendless adolescence that allowed for a surfeit of free time.

AH: Why Wichita? 

LG: I lived in Wichita for three years while I did my MFA and it’s where I first got into antique malls and flea markets and vintage resale culture. It’s a city that’s hard to describe, especially without resorting to cliches about the mythology of the west or flat landscapes or The Wizard of Oz. It mixes Midwestern reservedness and the social judgment underlying “Southern hospitality” in a way that can be very alienating. But I hate to be negative! I’m nervous about how the book will be received by Wichitans. I identify strongly as a Midwesterner with resentment toward coastal culture’s dominance, so it’s not like Seymour (an east coat snob) is my stand-in. I’ll note that I had more fun in my time there than I’ve ever had in my life. All in all, I suppose it was a worthwhile setting because I have such complicated feelings about it, feelings I struggle to put into words. Since I want to college at a middling state school very close to where I grew up, it was the first city I lived in that was not “home,” so maybe Wichita’s relatively minor peculiarities took on outsize proportions.

AH: Were there books you were thinking about when first drafting? Or when revising? Movies? 

LG: I wanted to do for a Midwestern antique mall what Stanley Elkin did for Disney World in The Magic Kingdom. I really thought when I was finishing the first draft that the imitation was obvious but of course I was delusional. My sentences are not so elaborately virtuosic and my plotting is much more conventional. I think the basic DNA is still there though: roving third-person close POV, lots of interior riffing and neuroticism. Similarly, Michael Griffith’s novella Bibliophilia was an early inspiration.

The Alan Zwieg documentary Vinyl is a big influence, not even for the record collecting aspect but just as a dark and hilarious document of the collector mindset. The part about a guy who trashes his entire record collection because he doesn’t want anyone else to have it is taken from something one of the subjects says (though it’s also tragically semi-autobiographical). Seymour is named in tribute to Steve Buscemi’s character in Ghost World.

The graphic novel Wimbledon Green by Seth has captured better than anything the physical sensation of desperately searching for and then finally finding a “holy grail” as a collector, an intense heart-pounding anxiety that culminates, upon discovery, in an almost soulless calm. There’s almost always a tinge of disappointment afterwards.

AH: I haven’t read any Elkin, but now I want to. It’s funny you mention Buscemi as Seymour in GW, because your book made me think of another Zwigoff movie, Crumb. Thank god there is no Crumb-like character in your book, but I think your cast of characters would stand up to the rogues gallery that haunts that film. There is an intensity and a character-ness to the people in that movie and in your book, in the best sense. The major difference is that I think your book, oddly, is one I would recommend to a wide swath of readers despite the subject matter, and I can’t say the same for Crumb. I can’t imagine my parents ever watching that movie. 

LG: That you say that about your parents makes me remember asking my mom to pick up the VHS tapes of both Crumb and Todd Solondz’ Happiness for me on the same trip to the library when I was fifteen or so. She didn’t watch either movie with me though, thank god.

I wasn’t consciously thinking about Crumb but it is one of those works that probably has an outsize influence on my sensibility since it’s a favorite from back in the early development of whatever my taste is. I find Charles Crumb in the movie to be super charming and probably most like any of the characters in the novel. I’m drawn to stories about relationships outside of the standard dichotomies of husband/wife, mother/daughter, hero/villain, etc. Both Crumb and Heart are about relationships between characters and objects, characters and nostalgia/time, characters and the niche subcultures they inhabit. 

At least one negative review has used the word quirky to describe what I think you mean by character-ness. It’s not a term I think anyone would want used to describe their work, but pretty much everything I personally like book-, movie-, film-, etc.-wise has been called “quirky,” usually pejoratively. I’ve noticed that even a lot of people who have liked the book tend to view its humor as very intentional and measured when to me it’s just a natural sensibility. What I mean is people keep asking variations of “Why is this novel funny?” No one ever asks authors why their books aren’t funny, though I wish they would.

AH: I can’t go as far as “charming” for Charles Crumb but he certainly is heartbreaking in a way. His scenes are so rough, up in his bedroom. Jesus. And yes, totally. I often find myself not liking a book because it is too self-serious, which I think might just be my way of saying that a book wasn’t funny. Everything I love makes me laugh; but I hate jokes. I feel like your sensibility might be similar, almost like: No jokes needed, everything is already fucking insane.

LG: Yeah, I hate jokes, though my earlier drafts have plenty of bad ones that eventually get cut. A lot of writers who are praised for their humor I often find tedious and hackneyed. I think maybe it’s because reviewers of literary fiction didn’t grow up watching eight hours of TV sitcoms a day like I did so things that are stale and obvious to me seem fresh to them. Examples of writers I would call jokey include Lorrie Moore and Richard Bausch. To be sure I’ve enjoyed and admired their work, but not for its comedy, which makes me groan.

AH: Favorite recent work of art narrative or otherwise, non-book, and favorite book you’ve read recently (whether or not it was recently published)?  

LG: For the past few months, in the leadup to my own book’s publication, most of my reading was focused on recently released books of substantial hype that I assumed were overrated, which I read primarily to confirm that yes, they are overrated and that my book is better. I don’t recommend doing this because it’s a waste of time. The best books I read just prior to this lost period were The Unprofessionals by Julie Hecht and A Season on Earth by Gerald Murnane. I’m one of those dilettantes who knew nothing of Murnane until the fawning Times profile came out a couple years ago, and I can’t figure out why the release of Season hasn’t been treated like what it is: the debut of a long-lost masterpiece.

If comics count as non-books, I recommend the work of cartoonist Nick Maandag. His first book-length collection, The Follies of Richard Wadsworth, which came out a few months ago, along with his self-published minicomics Facility Integrity and Streakers, are some of the funniest things I’ve ever experienced.

AH: And maybe give us a song that has helped you recently?

LG: Well, I’m trying to shoehorn into every interview an endorsement of Benjamin Dean Wilson, since I started a record label with some of my book advance money expressly to release his sophomore album, The Smartest Person in the Room, on vinyl. Hearing “Sadie and the Fat Man” for the first time about a year ago was a momentous thing for me. I didn’t think I’d ever experience that teenage feeling of something sounding so completely my style and yet so totally new ever again.

But to mix it up a bit, allow me to also spotlight Sly & The Family Stone’s “Runnin’ Away” and Kiwi Jr.’s “Salary Man,” both of which I listened to a lot while traveling for book tour.

AH: Why has no one made a book tour documentary? Have four or five writers, different people, different kinds of books, ages, etc.?

LG: Good idea! I’d like it to take a super-boring Frederick Wiseman approach. Start with a half hour or more of a publicist making travel arrangements from their New York office. Long uncut scenes of bookstore employees unfolding and folding chairs. Evocative close-ups of authors trying to appear gracious when no one shows up until finally the inner anguish can be no longer contained.

Alex Higley is the author of the books Cardinal and Old Open.

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