Eric Shonkwiler is the author of two novels and a collection of stories and novellas. The stories in his collection, Moon Up, Past Full (Alternating Current Press, 2015), won a series of honors, including the Luminaire Award for Best Prose, shortlists for the Queen’s Ferry Press Best Small Fictions Prize and the Coalition of Texans with Disabilities Pen 2 Paper Fiction Prize, and several nominations for the Best of the Net Award, the storySouth Million Writers Award, and the Pushcart Prize.
His novels follow two generations of the Parrish family after climate change has led to dwindling resources, and the war that followed has scattered the American people and all but eliminated the national infrastructure. In Shonkwiler’s debut, Above All Men (MG Press, 2014), David Parrish, a veteran of the recent bloody conflicts, struggles to protect his family and their farm while dust storms, gas shortages, and food scarcity threaten to destroy them. In the stand-alone sequel, 8th Street Power & Light (MG Press, 2016), Parrish’s son Samuel patrols the streets of a recovering Midwestern city even as forces of chaos and corruption swirl within it. Like his stories, Shonkwiler’s novels were widely recognized with honors such as the Coil Book Award and the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association’s Midwest Connections Pick, as well as inclusion on several Best Book of the Year lists, including The Next Best Book Club’s and Chicago Book Review’s.
After growing up in Ohio, Shonkwiler received his MFA from the University of California-Riverside, where he was a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow. In addition to serving in editorial posts at the Los Angeles Review of Books, [PANK], Crate Magazine, and Alternating Current Press, Shonkwiler was a New River Gorge Winter Writer-in-Residence in West Virginia. In November 2017, Shonkwiler and I exchanged a series of emails wherein we discussed westerns, Tom Waits, revolutions past and future, and the very first step to writing any book.
David Bowen: 8th Street Power & Light is a sequel to Above All Men, and both are literary genre novels. Aside from a speculative, science-fiction element that shapes the world where these stories take place—climate change has endangered resources, leading to a war that’s fractured American society and infrastructure—Above All Men is a western and 8th Street Power & Light pulls from hardboiled detective novels. Were these genre choices deliberate or did they develop unintentionally from the material?
Eric Shonkwiler: With 8th Street, the choice was absolutely deliberate. I wanted to veer away from the aesthetic of AAM, one that created a symbiotic relationship between the land and protagonist and the reader, and I can’t think of a genre with a more combative landscape than noir. The setting and plot naturally lent itself to it, but as I wrote I also felt that there was an inevitable marriage of the tropes of noir (which I enjoy) that I wound up steering into, rather than away from. Being conscious of genre with 8th Street let me have a little more fun, let me trust that the reader knew what to expect, so that I could push what I was writing.
I don’t think of Above All Men as a western, so it’s safe to say that in that instance, the choice was not deliberate.
DB: Aren’t there a lot of western elements in AAM? The main character, David Parrish, is a homesteader in conflict with a local mining baron. The characters seem to be near the line that separates civilization and wilderness. For me, though, it may be the landscape itself—the desert imagery, the dust storms—that evokes the West.
ES: I can see the reasoning behind thinking it’s a western—and I’m firmly in the camp that a book is what a reader says it is, not the author—but westerns to me evoke a particular sort of struggle with justice—the protagonist’s imposition of it upon a town, a villain, a landscape, etc.—that AAM does not possess. David’s pursuit of justice is so narrow, so much closer to revenge. But you’ve got me thinking about Unforgiven, now, and how justice is pursued in that film, and how William Munny acts at the end, meting out nothing at all like justice, but a pure and cold reckoning. David doesn’t quite do that, because he fumbles toward that role rather than simply assumes it, but his actions are as brutal, as swift, and as sure as the snap-to of Munny’s shotgun. Maybe it is a western.
DB: Have you spent a lot of time in or around frontier landscapes?
ES: I’ve spent quite a lot of time in the West. I’ve lived, off and on, in New Mexico three separate times, and love it more with each visit. That landscape and AAM’s, though, I think differ in the traditional sense. AAM, sand-blasted as it is, is Midwestern. And just to prove that every time I quibble, I come away agreeing with my reader: when I finally visited the precise (though nebulous) locale of Above All Men, I was shocked at just how Western it was. While you could look in one direction and see prairie, you could look in another and see a very Hole-in-the-Wall type hideaway. Climbing up above Lake McConaughy north of Ogallala, Nebraska, I encountered cacti growing on the rocks, even though I was surrounded by the best grazing land in the country. So, really, AAM exists at the nexus of these worlds, or, if you judge westerns by books more than John Ford movies, it is simply in the West.
DB: You’ve said that you think of Above All Men and 8th Street Power & Light occurring during an era of “mid-apocalypse,” but themes important to post-apocalyptic literature inform both books—in particular, individual survival and the survival of society and social institutions. What’s the pull for writers and readers to imagine worlds that have survived widespread trauma?
ES: Every generation thinks that it’s special, and so, I think, every generation contemplates the possibility that they are the last one—this leads us to imagine that demise. The themes that arise from those imaginings are far more complex, though, than simple narcissism. I think that there is a desire for a clean-slate narrative that we enjoy on our baser levels, and that coexists with the post-apocalyptic novel as warning, which originates from higher up.
DB: Are stories like these especially important in the 21st century?
ES: This is a particularly interesting question for me, because I would have told you something completely different, I suspect, last year. Thinking about the place of the post-apocalyptic novel, in many ways it is especially important in the 21st century—an answer I may not have given you approximately thirteen months ago. But now we’re faced with existential threats with which we cannot play brinksmanship, and we cannot trust our politicians to defeat. To ignore climate change—to ignore the world we’re in, in broader terms—is irresponsible as a writer. Alex Steffen, a futurist who cracked open my thinking about climate change, has said that he disdains the genre “cli-fi,” as every novel now ought to be inundating the public with the idea. It ought to be inescapable in fiction, as it surely is in reality. I think it’s important that we carry our share of the weight.
DB: Do ideas like “present” and “future” take on special meaning when we approach speculative fiction?
ES: I’m not sure, but it makes me think of the fact that the “present” that we enshrine as the past in speculative fiction is this laughable city-under-glass that inevitably shows its age. The world I lived in when I began writing Above All Men was palpably brighter than this one, and so the apocalypse I imagined feels considerably less demoralizing than the one I would imagine for our current time.
DB: Race becomes an important component of Above All Men when the Reckard family moves from Atlanta to the setting of the story, a town somewhere in Nebraska. At what point in the process did you realize that race would be part of the story’s conflict? How does the issue inform the emotional stakes of the story?
ES: Honestly, I don’t think I fully realized the importance of race in the story. I wanted the story to be—and felt it needed to be—very tight. Even in its sweeping early drafts, the focus was narrow, and stayed with David and Samuel. Because of that, issues become tangential in a manner that I think may be reckless. The stakes of AAM are not intrinsically intertwined with race, but rather they, and the book, are wrinkled by it as a complication. That, looking back, is a cavalier way to treat one of the most important issues in this country. I’m not ashamed of the book for this shortcoming, but I am cognizant of it.
DB: I don’t think the novel’s treatment of race is a shortcoming at all—it’s wrinkles and complications that make stories memorable. The friendship between David Parrish and O H Reckard is particularly well-drawn.
ES: If you came away from the novel with a more generous reading, I’m glad for it.
DB: Did you approach these two novels differently, or was the process similar in both cases? A lot of writers have different experiences coming to the second book—I wonder if completing the first novel gave you momentum or made you dread the enormity of such a project.
ES: The process was similar, yes. I had written two books before these (which shall never see the light of day), and so I had done enough writing, by the time I’d finished the first draft of AAM, that it was just another kind of work for me. I enjoy work. I started 8th Street weeks after finishing AAM, and while the biographical side of writing the book differed—I moved, I worked, I was interrupted by the sale of AAM—the process was the same. I very much enjoy starting a new novel, and while it may be daunting, it’s also thrilling.
DB: Was writing the novels very different from the work you did to produce the stories and novellas in Moon Up, Past Full?
ES: Moon Up was quite different—I had largely completed those stories before compiling them into a collection, and so the work wasn’t so much creative as it was meticulous. Those stories, individually, were also a different process. The ideas were much more specific, and contained. There’s a lot of blank space when I start a novel, and it becomes populated very gradually. With stories, I find it better to have most everything understood from the jump.
DB: Were there specific novels or other sources of inspiration that you drew on while you wrote these books?
ES: I don’t think that any one work inspired me, for these. Instead there was a lot of soaking in breadth, rather than depth. Music helps me as much as any book—if not more so. And there were nights staring out at a fog-wrapped Capitol Building in Lincoln, Nebraska, that certainly helped me build an aesthetic for 8th Street.
DB: Do you arrange a specific track list for each book, or does whatever you’re listening to at the time just become part of the work? What’s playing in the current lineup as you work on the next project?
ES: Absolutely. The first step in writing any book (and, sometimes, a story) is to create a playlist. I’m mostly between projects right now, having a novel out with my agent, a novel with beta-readers, and a novel just getting cracked open again after its second still-rough draft. Constants for me are Dirty Three and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, and Tom Waits. I’m leaning into bluegrass as I start to think about my next project, but that’s a ways down the line.
DB: There’s a very deliberate, spare music in your prose. Which writers or other artists have contributed to the way you approach sentences?
ES: I started with the standard pedigree: McCarthy, Hemingway, a dash of Faulkner. I often hear all three when someone describes my prose, and I’d like to think that means I’m in my own territory, since Faulkner and Hemingway are mutually exclusive.
DB: At the end of the day, is it the greater challenge to map story or carve prose?
ES: Far and away, it’s harder for me to plot. Getting from A to B is the joy—finding where A and B are can be pretty difficult. I never get any better at it, either—each book I write, I find I’ve unlearned the process. Or perhaps the metaphor is apt; A and B are different on every map, in every book. You get a little better at traveling, but you still have to find where you’re going.
DB: Talk about your experience in the MFA program at UC-Riverside. In what ways were you a different reader or writer at the beginning and end of the program?
ES: The most important thing the MFA did was begin to shatter the idea of what my work could be. Writing Above All Men at UCR, it began as a larger book that got broken down over time, pared away, until finally I was so distant from the work that the only thing sacred that remained was the core idea that I’d started the book with. It’s something I have to continue to do, both in constructive and destructive ways. I think each subsequent novel has furthered that notion; I push at what I can create—what to write about and how to write it—and then I break whatever it is I thought I was writing so it can become what it has to be. That all is a rather dramatic way of saying that I keep trying to grow as a writer with each book, to keep from stagnation, and I do my best to keep from getting a big head about it.
DB: You’ve published three books with independent presses and you’ve also served in various editorial roles with literary magazines and publishing concerns. Describe your experience working with small presses as an author and as an editor. How do the two roles inform each other?
ES: I keep those hats largely compartmentalized—being a writer means that you shouldn’t concern yourself with whatever work your editor is doing until you have the finished product, and being an editor means improving the work to the best of your ability within the confines of the writer’s ego. On a day-to-day basis, these two jobs don’t need to overlap, and I think making them do so in moments outside of direct communication is counterproductive. The principal concern should be the work.
DB: How do you see the current opportunities and challenges facing independent and small press publishing in America?
ES: I think small presses have mostly found their niche—there’s growth, from there, and further recognition, but any change might risk artistic freedom, and that defeats the purpose of the small press. There’s the omnipresent enemy of Amazon, but if publishers and indie booksellers can wed in a more holistic fashion (look at Two Dollar Radio’s HQ as a model, which melds press, bookstore, bar, and cafe into a writer/reader paradise. Malvern Books in Austin, too, is daring enough to focus on indie publishers) then we can see the community thrive in the same way craft beer and liquor is. I look forward to that movement.
DB: What are your feelings about the digital revolution?
ES: Is the digital revolution still a thing? It seems it filled its purpose; half of us got Kindles, and we bring them on airplanes or what have you. I’m all for getting books into more hands by any means, but I think the “revolution” was overspoken. I haven’t seen a “death of the book” article for a long time.
DB: If we’re past the digital revolution, what’s next?
ES: I’m satisfied with the cultural revolution underway thanks to the “#MeToo” movement.