Broken Piano for President by Patrick Wensink
1. First off, I really enjoyed reading Broken Piano for President. What was the basis for this book? In other words, how did you come up with such a compelling idea(s)?
This book came because I had three different ideas for entire books and instead of writing three separate novels, I just folded the three-story ideas together.
After I read this fascinating book, Emperors of Chocolate, about the rivalry between Hershey and Mars and how drastically different the two men who founded the companies are, I was compelled to write a corporate rivalry story. This book is great, Milton Hershey is a benevolent, publicity-hungry trickster and Forrest Mars is very private and secretive and brilliant. While I was reading this book, maybe seven years ago, the Carl’s JR by my work in Portland, OR was always selling some weird burger with four patties, or pastrami on it, or jalapeño poppers. Boom, I had this urge to write about rival hamburger restaurants trying to outdo each other with ridiculous burgers. The duel between a freeze-dried space food hamburger and a Nyquil burger more addictive than meth purposely mimics the battle between the Snickers bar and the Mars bar, believe it or not.
Second, I drank way too much in college and my early 20s.
My wife says I still do.
I was (am?) one of those guys who drinks a bunch and then pretty much forgets everything that happens during the night. It is strange and embarrassing to retrace your steps by talking to your friends and I mostly fake remembering things instead of suffering that embarrassment. So, I wanted to write a book that explored this problem I have, but amped up the situation to where a character was actually more productive while intoxicated, but doesn’t remember what good things he does.
Thirdly, I wanted to write a rock novel. Specifically, a novel about a band I would want to listen to. At the time I started writing Broken Piano for President, I was a rock critic with Willamette Week in Portland and my beat was primarily weird, avant-garde, noise bands. Most people hate this kind of music, so it was fun to have a majority of the characters hate the band, Lothario Speedwagon, who (in my head) was an amalgam of Lightning Bolt, Caroliner Rainbow, Arab on Radar, Nick Cave and Iggy Pop.
[Crazy side note: Deathbomb Arc Records released a cassette version of the book and the label owner actually convinced the drummer from Lightning Bolt, Brian Chippendale, to play on the tape. One of the biggest thrills of my career thus far.]
2. Obviously every book an author writes is different but can you explain the maturation process, or evolution in your style/voice etc… from your first story collection three years ago and debut novel two years ago to this most recent title?
Broken Piano for President took six years to get published. Since the time I started writing it, I saw a short story collection, Sex Dungeon for Sale, and a novel, Black Hole Blues, published. Those were both written AFTER Broken Piano, actually. So the timeline is a tangled mess.
Basically, over the course of six years and about 25 drafts and maybe 100 rejections [I wrote a story about all this failure for Thought Catalog], I saw my style and voice go from very plot-driven, to more character-driven. I’m really proud that Broken Piano is a perfect blend of plot and character and my humor. Others would disagree, though. An editor at Viking actually called the book “Nauseating,” which I loved. [You can see that rejection here.]
3. How long did it take to write? How’s your writing process? Is it more organic and free-flowing or is it slow and meticulous?
Like I said, six years. But, more specifically, I wrote the first draft in a one-month blur and nailed down most of the plot. For the next several years I revised, revised, revised.
I never make an outline. I usually have some ideas of big events or characters and just let it run loose. I figure if I’m surprised by what’s happening on the page, so will readers. Oddly, I’ve become an improv comedian in the last few years and learned that melding three unrelated stories without any outlining or preparation is a staple of long form improv! It’s called a “Harold”. Who knew?
4. I’ve read people categorize your writing as satire and absurdist among other things. Do you agree? Do you see these labels as hindrances to your writing or just as ways to classify it?
Categories like that don’t hinder my writing. I don’t think about stuff like that while I’m working. I just try and write stories that would be exciting to hear about if I weren’t already me.
Those categories seem to turn people off, if anything. I’ve learned it’s incredibly hard to be taken seriously when you’re trying to be funny. A lot of people think, because my books are comedies, that I just sit in an office talking to a rubber chicken and not putting much thought into my work. But in reality, I spend most days beating my head against a desk and hating myself in order to produce writing I can be proud of, that says something, and speaks from a place I could never reach verbally.
So, for example, with Broken Piano for President I put a lot of thought into the jokes. But probably twice as much time went into thinking about corporate culture in America, the pitfalls of being a 20-something man during this recession and what is the actual value of work and jobs.
5. How would you describe the book to a stranger?
“Broken Piano for President is a dark comedy about a guy who’s more productive when he’s drunk than when he’s sober.”
“Broken Piano for President is about Harvard syboligist, Robert Langdon, as he unravels a secret European mystery tying together the Mona Lisa, the Knight’s Templar and Jesus’ secret wife.” My mom seems to like this description better.
6. What are your future plans? What are you currently writing?
I’m working on another novel that will likely be out next year. It’s essentially about a father who thinks only assholes are successful in life, so he sets out to teach his 5-year-old son to be an asshole.
7. Any specific piece of advice to young/new writer’s out there? Any secrets that helped you along the way or have proven prophetic?
My best advice is that you don’t need an MFA. I got rejected from 10 MFA programs and, looking back, I couldn’t be happier. Instead of critiquing other people’s short stories in a workshop for three years, I worked shitty jobs and busted my ass to become a better writer on my own, unique terms. I think it made me a much stronger person and stronger writer (But, sadly, not a stronger weightlifter).
Also, read writers who make you feel like shit. Whenever I read Don Delillo or Flannery O’Connor I want to throw my computer into the street and retire. I love that feeling. It reminds me that I have so much more to learn and improve upon. Self-loathing is the best motivator money can buy.
Published on March 1 by Lazy Fascist Press, Broken Piano for President by Patrick Wensink is a laugh out loud, thought-provoking novel. I wasn’t sure what to expect before reading the book, especially considering the ill-conceived Publisher’s Weekly review of the book that I found on the internet. Either I was getting ready for a major letdown of a read or a pleasant surprise. A few weeks ago the latter happened.
I hadn’t read Wensink’s prior work, a short story collection and a novel, so going in to this most recent title I felt highly susceptible to the PW review. I had nothing else to judge him by. But then a funny thing happened; his work overwhelmed me, took control of me, and made me realize that you can’t judge a book by a first impression.
It’s a great feeling, as a reader, when you get to read a book by an author you’ve never read before. It felt like I’d found a treasure, discovered a secret meant only for my eyes. I’ve since gone back and read most of his short fiction available on the internet and am planning on purchasing his two previous titles. In short, Wensink’s talent proved to be his best marketing tool. The guy can write his ass off. His voice is so distinct, so utterly unique that it caused me to rethink an entire genre of writing. Some call it satire, others absurdist, whatever it is, I loved it. I found it freeing somehow, giving me the room to inhabit the story, to project my own whiskey induced memories, and the opportunity to be with his cast of crazy characters for a roller coast of a ride.
What stuck with me after reading this book was Wensink’s ability to command alternate universes. Well, writing universes. He so adeptly pivots from outlandish drunken escapades to the deeply engaging satirical moments that it’s amazing that this is just one book. That is, for a while, I was sure that the story would fall apart, prove too daunting to juggle, to maintain the fast paced breakneck speed he was on seemed impossible. But with each page, each new chapter, Wensink’s story not only continued but improved, rolling to a grand ending that is worth the effort of reading the first ninety percent of the book alone.
In Deshler Dean, Wensink has created a character that is at once reprehensible and likeable. The drunken captain of this hysterical tale is a man you’ll likely never forget. Dean’s voice, his blurred vision rings so true at times you’d swear you can taste the whiskey on your own breath. You find things out on the go, as Deshler does, and the feeling of immediacy created by these clouded revelations are sobering in their wit and intelligence and also mind numbing in their absurdity.
There’s no point in explaining the plot. It’s not that simple. It’s not that kind of book so this won’t be that kind of review. Wensink has created a world where everything and anything is possible. By introducing the reader to a world of so many thoughts, so many different ideas, Wensink is offering a direct challenge: keep up or stand aside.
If Broken Piano for President is absurdist or bizarro fiction then count me in as a follower and a believer. This type of writing, so pure and well crafted, isn’t absurd at all. I’m beginning to realize, thanks to Wensink, that the rest of contemporary fiction may be the weirdo’s.