Editor’s Note: Michael Deagler wrote the following introduction for a reading Andrew Ervin did at the Rutgers-Camden Summer Writers’ Workshop in late June and gave us permission to reproduce it here.
Andrew Ervin is from Philadelphia, and one day he will use his considerable talents to write a novel about that city. It will be insightful, it will be funny, and it will capture the essence of Philadelphia even as it confronts us with the universal struggles of our age. But until that day, we will have to content ourselves with Andrew’s masterful depictions of other places. In his first book, he offered a panoramic view of Budapest, a city of cosmopolitan boulevards and byzantine alleyways. In his new book, he treats us to an otherworldly account of the Scottish Isle of Jura, a place of peat smoke, rain, wool, rain, offal, rain, and scotch.
It has been said that writers obsessed with place are actually obsessed with history: that a place simply provides a point at which history bunches up on itself and reveals its layers of influence. Yet Andrew is one of those rare writers of place who is perhaps more obsessed by the present day. He never allows our attentions to stray far from the uncomfortable politics of now, reminding us that if art is a refuge, it is a temporary one. Burning Down George Orwell’s House (Soho Press, 2015) is a novel about a man trying to escape the modern world by traveling to the place where Orwell predicted so much of it. It’s a meditation on ethical living, interconnectivity, society, and truth. It’s also a hilarious riff on the fish-out-of-water tale, complete with an explanation of the aging process of whisky that will make you cry a little bit.
Amid all the quirkiness, the drunkenness, the rumors of werewolves and witches, a lesson for writers emerges: we are now. As writers we may canonize or demonize our predecessors, but we should never forget that they are gone, and we are here. Regardless of our level of infatuation with the scribblers of the past, they matter most insofar as they can tell us about our present. For there is no escape from the present. Even as we seek haven on remote isles and in quiet rooms, we are ever tethered to a contemporary world. We share in the responsibility for making sure that it isn’t burning down.
Andrew Ervin: Thank you—it was a long and wonderful and strange alchemical process that took some pencil shavings and, years later, transmuted them into a bound book. I started thinking about would become Burning Down George Orwell’s House way back in the fall of 2006, when I was a graduate student. That semester, I was fortunate enough to do an independent-study project with Richard Powers, a writer whose fiction has meant everything to me. He was incredible. We spent several months just talking: about novel writing in general, about specific books he wanted me to read, about how narrative can derive from character motivation. I think of those meetings in his University of Illinois office as some of the most productive writing time of my life, even if I wasn’t yet committing words to the page.
From Illinois, I moved to Baton Rouge for two years to work as an editor at The Southern Review and teach at LSU. That wasn’t especially productive time for this book, though I did write a good amount of short fiction then. It wasn’t until I moved back to my native Philadelphia in 2010 that this novel became more or less what it is now. What I learned along the way, I suppose, is that there’s no correct way to write a novel. There are no rules, no guidelines; what has worked for my contemporaries and my favorite authors isn’t necessarily going to work for me.
My fear now is that what I learned while writing Burning Down George’s Orwell’s House might only be pertinent to this novel. The next book might require an entirely new set of techniques, ones that I’m only just figuring out now.
CS: I read in your Rumpus interview that you’ve never actually been to the island of Jura—which was a mild surprise (and a testament to the book’s writing). How did you put yourself in that state of mind? What kind of research did you do?
AE: Again, what worked and didn’t work for me in writing this novel is specific to this novel, so I don’t want to make too many blanket statements about fiction writing in general, but in this instance I felt that traditional research wasn’t very important. I looked at some maps, read a few books, sure, but I’m not all that interested in any fictional place (be it the Isle of Jura or Budapest or Philadelphia) in itself except insofar as how my character feels about that place.
It’s not the real Isle of Jura that matters to this book, it’s how my former advertising executive Ray Welter feels about being there. So my research is more internal to my characters: reading the books and magazines Ray would read, listening to his music and understanding where he comes from. One tool that helped me with this—and you might think I’m joking—was online dating sites. I filled out some profiles from Ray’s perspective and in his voice, which helped me clarify some ideas about him. There was one Christian dating site that told me finding a match for him would be impossible. That one in particular was extremely inspiring.
CS: There’s a lot of drinking in the book. I’m a beer drinker, but I’ve never had a taste for whiskey. What am I missing?
AE: The real answer isn’t the fun one that people want to read in an author interview. You’re not missing anything. There are many pleasures in this world, maybe too many, and you have to find the ones that speak to you. I enjoy drinking scotch because—like wine, to many people—every sip reveals so much about where and how it was made. A bottle of scotch is a time capsule full of complex flavors that might never exist again in quite the same way.
CS: Drinking good whiskey is a big part of Ray’s experience on Jura. But then I got the impression that his drinking was part of a wider motif—how the things we dream of and anticipate are wonderful at first but then rarely measure up to reality. Ray’s trying to replace his reality with another—an idealized one—and that’s tricky business, even for the most stable of us. Yet this desire is very human. What have been your experiences with similar situations—the things you once dreamed of that, once realized, didn’t shine as brightly as you’d thought they would?
AE: That’s a fascinating and generous interpretation. Ray frequently drinks to excess and like all excessive or obsessive behavior his drinking is an avoidance technique. What exactly he’s avoiding is perhaps open to interpretation, and you may very well be getting at it here. Spending quiet, meditative time alone with our own thoughts is the scariest thing in the world for most of us, so we come up with these things (whisky, television, writing stories) to help us put it off as long as possible. What Ray tries to do, and what I’m always striving to do (and only rarely accomplishing) is to clear away all the mental distractions and think about what I think. But then here comes a new season of Game of Thrones, or a playoff series (albeit without a Philly team), or yet another posthumous Bolaño novel…
The trick is to choose our avoidance techniques wisely.
CS: My son read 1984 this past year, and I reread it along with him. I loved the book as a teen, and I was happy how strongly it’s held up (at least in my opinion). Much of it now seems sadly prophetic to greater or lesser degrees around the globe. I’m assuming it played a significant role in your artistic life as well? If so, can you tell us a bit about that?
AE: I’m not suggesting that this is really the case, but what if 1984 wasn’t prophetic at all? What if its influence was prescriptive and not descriptive? If the political forces that be—The Man—read this book, thought Now there’s a great idea! and put them into practice? That’s one mental exercise I did when writing Burning Down George Orwell’s House. Imagine the guilt Eric Blair would have felt if he knew that he had given the oppressors the tools of his country’s oppression. (Of course he didn’t do that—he simply gave a name to our very real Big Brother.) Ray’s own immense guilt derives from a similar sense of shame and disappointment. His years of selling SUVs made him rich, but only by helping to destroy his own planet.
CS: Can you share an insight to your personal writing routine? Do you set aside time and write daily? Or only when the inspiration hits? Do you think developing a routine is important for a young writer?
AE: My own routines change from project to project. I don’t write every day, or even every week, but I’m always jotting down notes and mentally moving myself in the direction of what I plan to write next. Then, when I feel ready, the rest of my life gets put on hold and I’ll spend all day and all night, for weeks at a time, doing nothing else. That’s not a method I’d recommend. In fact, I half-wish I could get better at treating my writing like a job: check in at 9, clock out at 5. I’m not wired that way. And I do love that quiet, concentrating time—free of those distractions and avoidances we were just discussing—more than just about anything in this world.
Beyond that, I certainly don’t labor under the belief that people are waiting to read what I write next. I’m not so smart and important that I need to get every thought down in order to better serve my adoring public. I write for myself, for the enjoyable quiet time. And then if I decide I want to take the results of those efforts and make them public, and if other people find some pleasure in what I’ve done, that’s unbelievably cool.
I know how little reading time I have and how many books there are that I’m dying to read. The idea of other people spending their own valuable time with something I’ve written is awe-inspiring and intimidating and very gratifying. It sounds corny, but I’m thankful for each and every minute someone spends with my fiction. I hope that I’m rewarding that time and confidence in me.
CS: Do you create a plan for your work before you put pen to paper? A point B to shine a light and pull you through? Or do you just plunge in and see where the tide takes you? A combination of the two?
AE: I do an enormous amount of pre-writing and planning, but then I also give myself the freedom to go far afield when I feel like it. It helps me to have a destination in mind whether I make it there or not.
CS: We’re both Philadelphia people. How would you describe the city, especially in terms of the arts, to those who only know us for our cheesesteaks and crazy sports fans?
AE: Philadelphia has turned into one of the great American cities and given the quality of the museums, the innovative urban planning, the bike friendliness and the walking paths and miles and miles of parkland, the long and still-vibrant history of innovative poetry, I’m surprised it’s still the butt of so many national jokes. But I’m also relieved by those jokes because I love it here so much and don’t want all of our secrets to get out. We do a great job of putting on a brutish show for outsiders, but Philly is actually the friendliest big city I’ve ever been in.
And what are you trying to suggest anyway? I’m probably one of those crazy sports fans you’re talking about. The Eagles’s second-year wide receiver Jordan Matthews recently addressed the team’s rookies. The advice he gave them was extremely smart and worth repeating for young writers who are tempted to compare themselves to their peers:
Don’t look at what this guy over here is getting paid and start changing the way you act in the locker room based on what somebody else has. […] If you start comparing, you’ll start slacking, and then you’re going to find yourself looking for a different team. Focus on what you have to do and go get that done.
I’m also a strong advocate for good cheesesteaks, especially from Dalesandro’s or my local corner shop here in Manayunk called Sorrentino’s. Every time I walk past it I think of Gilbert Sorrentino’s novels, which I adore almost as much as cheesesteaks. Wait. Okay, I think I like Aberration of Starlight more than 99% of the cheesesteaks I’ve ever had. And I’d forgo Pat’s and Geno’s for the rest of my life before giving up Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things.
Michael Deagler’s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Glimmer Train, the minnesota review, Buffalo Almanack, Front Porch Journal, the Yalobusha Review, and elsewhere. Look for him online at at www.michaeldeagler.com.
Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chap books, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. Dock Street Press has just put out his latest book, Communion, an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing will publishing his next book, a collection of essays about Slaughterhouse Five.