Christian TeBordo’s Ghost Engine has everything I always want from a short story collection. These pieces are darkly humorous, formally inventive, oddly angled, and full of hard, electric prose. It deservedly won the inaugural Bridge Eight Press Prize, and it probably deserved to win a few other prizes too. It is one of the best collections published in the last year.
His novel, Toughlahoma, won Rescue Press’s Open Prose Series in 2014. He has written three other novels and one other story collection. He also directs Roosevelt University’s MFA program.
Marcus Pactor: When I took workshops, teachers and students alike came down hard on anyone who included pop culture references. But you don’t merely include pop culture (specifically 80s and early 90s pop culture), you transform it in ways that are wholly unexpected, and you make things like The Cosby Show episodes and people like Ultimate Warrior into central elements in your stories. How do you make these transformations come about, or are they spontaneous? Even if the initial impulse is spontaneous, you must find a way to make it functional—how do you go about that?
Christian TeBordo: The earliest stories in Ghost Engine started with ideas that sounded funny to me: What if everyone in the Scandinavian black metal scene adored a Christian band called Bridesmaid? What if those free-associative rants the Ultimate Warrior went on had actual political ramifications? Eventually I started searching out weird confluences in pop culture. In each case I spent a long time thinking about plausible social contexts, and usually even longer finding forms to represent them. Most of the time, the answers I came up with seemed both accidental and inevitable. Then I wrote and tweaked until the results felt funnier and more convincing than the original premises.
I was lucky that I never had any mentors who pushed back on pop culture. My first creative writing professor (John Ashbery) wrote sestinas about Popeye, and in grad school I worked with George Saunders as well as Arthur Flowers, who turned me on to Ishmael Reed. I think proscriptions against pop culture in literature are anti-comic and ahistorical. Cervantes invented the novel to make fun of the chivalric romance, his era’s equivalent of mass entertainment, and Dante created a hell to feed his political enemies a river of shit. The shit-eating in Dante is funny, but way more so when you keep in mind that he personally knew the people he was feeding it to.
MP: The stories in The Awful Possibilites had a “Burn Everything” feel. The stories in Ghost Engine don’t have a “Come Together” feel, but they do have a relative refinement, a polish. They seem post-hardcore. I’m thinking, if you’ll tolerate this metaphor, that The Awful Possibilities is like Minor Threat and Ghost Engine is Fugazi. It’s possible to love both (I do), but those bands are trying to do different things with music. Were you going for something different with these stories? Could you describe that different thing, and what led to your changed approach?
CT: First, I grew up in the hardcore scene and I love those bands, so I’m proud that my books evoked them, even if only for analogical purposes. But the metaphor definitely works. Some of it is a factor of age. I wrote the earliest stories in The Awful Possibilities when I was nineteen, and while I’ve always been concerned with prose style, I wanted everything to be fast and mean. With Ghost Engine, I wanted to make the individual parts more ambitious in scale—maybe even novelistic—and that required patience, which, fortunately, you also have to cultivate while raising a son, paying a mortgage, and trying to get tenure, all of which I did during the years of writing it. By the end of the book, I often felt myself dragging the process out, like I was enjoying not being done.
But there’s an ethical component that goes hand-in-hand with that. I think it would be fair to characterize the guy who wrote The Awful Possibilities as politically nihilistic. This was mostly during the Bush administration, and everyone was having a hard time imagining a better world. Plus, so much thinking and writing about ethics is boring. Even Kierkegaard, my favorite writer, is at his least entertaining when dealing with ethics, which he opposed directly to aesthetics, the category of the interesting. But as I came to realize I had to work through those issues in order to justify (to myself) having a kid and not being punk anymore, I decided I’d at least try to make it fun.
MP: Your characters share an urgent desperation to speak and, occasionally, to act. They do not, however, share the same sensibility. You seem to be, in each story, exploring a different kind of desperation from a new and unexpected angle. What methods do you use to differentiate your characters and stories?
CT: I’m glad that the characters seem differentiated because they’re mostly variations on me. I just have a lot of different moods. The best way I can explain this is with the story “Bear Country.” As my son learned to talk, I started thinking about how language and language acquisition would affect him. At the same time, I was having trouble with my own relation to language. I usually find it very easy to manipulate—when I have something to say, I don’t have much trouble saying it. And yet there I was, just struggling to get out sentences. So I decided the tone of the prose could reflect that. The syntax itself sounds like frustration to me, and finishing the story helped me get over it, and maybe also approach writing in a more complex way than I had before.
MP: Here’s another workshop standard: make everything concrete. Frag and Watt’s ghost engine is many things, but it is not concrete. We know it’s a thing, that wrenches can be applied to it and organs can be jammed into it, but those physical facts don’t give us any real sense of its physical shape. What are some of the advantages of vagueness, and can you recommend other writers who make good use of them? And what writers are you into right now, anyway?
CT: I think I want to make a distinction between vagueness and abstraction, because to me the former is the lazy version of the latter, though I can see how I could be accused of it. I started the Frag and Watt stories toward the end of the writing process, and my idea was that they would provide a kind of philosophical framework for understanding the book. I’ve always made fun of that workshop line about “a good book teaches you to read it,” because I could sit for ten years with a volume of Dostoevsky in the original Russian and not gain a single thing from it. But I wanted Frag and Watt to literalize the trope. And yet, the more they explain, the more complicated things get because they’re basically chatbots that happen to have bodies.
Frag and Watt as characters are a weird routine that my brother Timothy and I used to do. They’re short for Fragonard and Watteau, two of the major Rococo painters. Rococo as a style is highly ornamental, but mostly free of substance. The vision that they keep having is of Fragonard’s painting “The Swing,” which just depicts a dude looking up a woman’s skirt in an elaborate garden. In the same way, the ghost engine is composed of something insubstantial (ghost) and something complicated but mechanical (engine). So I guess I didn’t define it because it’s an impossible thing. (And also probably a really corny metaphor for making a book.)
As for who writes abstraction really well, I think Yuri Herrerra, Agota Kristoff, and Jesse Ball are my go-tos. And I just finished Little Constructions by Anna Burns, which is wild all around, but does this thing with a third person narrator who’s also a presence in the story that really had me thinking.
MP: Did you really go to high school with Eula Biss? Have you worked out the statistical probability of two legitimately talented writers attending the same high school at the same time? How autofictional did you get, exactly, in “Hard Times in Galt’s Gulch”?
CT: I did go to high school with Eula! She and Jim Scott and I were all in the same classes, and we all got along. I’m probably the wrong person to ask whether I’m legitimately talented, but I’m comfortable saying I’m the third most successful literary writer from my high school graduating class. At least so far.
“Hard Times in Galt’s Gulch” is meant to be a travesty of autofiction. The ex-girlfriend who narrates the bulk of it is all made up, so in the second part, I tried to tell stories from my real life through the personality she imputes to me, kind of impersonating myself in a way that someone else might see me, which is also, of course, a part of me since it comes from me. I like a few books that have been classified as autofiction, but overall I find the genre morally simplistic. My favorite younger critic, Lauren Oyler, wrote recently that “anxieties about being a good person, surrounded by good people, pervade contemporary novels and criticism.” I think she’s right, but I’d go a step further, and this might call back to your question about vagueness. The anxieties over goodness underlie a fundamental misunderstanding about the function of literature. Literature can’t provide moral clarity, especially expressed as a weird literalism, and it wouldn’t be literature if it could. At best, literature helps us learn to dwell in ambiguity.
In 2011, Marcus Pactor won the Subito Press Prize for his short story collection, Vs. Death Noises. His second collection, Begat Who Begat Who Begat, is forthcoming from Astrophil Press. His work has most recently appeared or is forthcoming in The Collagist, (b)OINK, X-R-A-Y, and Heavy Feather Review.