A Conversation with Joseph G. Peterson

JOSEPH G. PETERSON is the author of three novels and of the epic poem, Inside the Whale. As a kid, he ran through the fields with his brothers chasing rabbits; he fished ponds and rivers for carp; he played kick the can with the neighborhood kids. And then he matriculated to the University of Chicago where he received his BA in General Studies. He tended bar when you could smoke cigars in bars; he labored for the bricklayers who threw bricks at him for quoting poetry on the scaffolds. He still reads Wordsworth and Yeats. He lives in Chicago with his wife and two daughters.


Lori Hettler: I hear you’ve got a collection of short stories being released through CCLaP (Chicago Center for Literature and Photography) this spring. What can you tell us about it?

JOSEPH G. PETERSON: I’ve got a new story collection (my first) called, Twilight of the Idiots. The basic model of the story is what I call “The Noah and the Ark” story. In that story, a voice comes to Noah and says, “Build an ark,” and without too much questioning, Noah builds an ark. I’ve always been fascinated by that story, by the blind faith Noah had. However, I’ve come to see that we all act on ideas that come into our heads almost from another source. In fact, writing a story is an act of faith very similar to building an ark: a writer hears a voice and attempts to record it. The characters in my collection all hear voices, and they are responding to what those voices are telling them — they let the consequences of those actions take second seat.


So it was an intentional, conceptual collection?

I’ve been working on it for years. I’ve been looking for a certain language and storytelling modality that was different from what is so common today. I wanted out from quiet formality, out from stories with epiphanies; I wanted out from the pleasant book-club-appropriate aesthetic. I wanted out from the slightly overthought, overworked MFA-workshopped book. I wanted out from the spastic “I’m-a-brilliant-genius-look-at-me” maximalist prose project. I wanted out from pop-culture irony, sarcasm, humor that’s meant to demonstrate the superiority of the author at the character’s expense. I was looking for that Noah and the Ark modality. I wanted language that was low, dirty, bawdy, stupid, broken, and hurt. I wanted to write about inarticulate people living non-graceful lives doing things they didn’t understand and that the author doesn’t understand. I wanted confusion, pain, love, humor; I wanted direct language combined with metaphorical complexity, and in the arrangement of stories… the call and interplay between them and between what is said and left unsaid; I wanted to register the beauty of sophisticated patterns and the tragic glory of our all-too-brief lives.

Twilight of the Idiots. What inspired the title?

The book is called Twilight of the Idiots because a lot of the actions the characters take are idiotic, and in the process, they come to face the twilight of their own extinction. That being said, it’s not a mean-spirited collection; in fact, I think many of the characters in this book are poignant and lovable.

I’ve been working on this collection for the past couple of years, and I had all sorts of titles while I shaped the book. At one point it had been called, Rawfish. At another point, I was calling it, A Certain Monster in the Land of Worms. These are titles from stories in the collection. One evening, though, I was walking east on 56th street in Hyde Park. I was coming home from 57th Street Bookstore, and that’s when the idea of the title hit me. It’s a play on Nietzsche’s book, Twilight of the Idols. I was so thrilled when the title occurred to me. In fact, almost instantaneously thereafter, I ran into a friend of mine also walking home down 56th Street and I told him, I said, “Kennan, I just came up with the title for my story collection: Twilight of the Idiots!” We both laughed. We thought it was funny, and it is also amazingly descriptive of the book. Just moments after my conversation with Kennan, I opened up Nietzsche’s book to a random page and came up with my book’s epilogue:

“When stepped on, a worm doubles up. That is clever.”
 — Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols

This was an amazing piece of luck because it’s also perfect for my book.


How did you initially come to know Jason Pettus and his basement press (CCLaP)?

Jason and I met for drinks at a famous Chicago bar, The Green Mill, in Uptown. He interviewed me for his podcast about my novel, Gideon’s Confession. After the interview, he asked me if I wanted to do a story collection with him, and of course, I agreed. Jason is great at what he does. He’s a formidable critic and literary thinker, and I’m very honored to be working with him.


You’ve previously published three novels (Beautiful Piece, 2009; Wanted: Elevator Man, 2012; Gideon’s Confession, 2014) with Switchgrass Press, one novel-in-verse (Inside the Whale, 2011) with Wicker Park Press, and contributed to Artistically Declined Press’ Daddy Cool anthology. Does any one experience or project stand out for you above the rest?

The first novel is always the most thrilling. When my editor, Alex Schwartz, asked to meet me at Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap so he could offer me a contract on Beautiful Piece, I was absolutely thrilled. Because that book is so in-your-face, both in terms of its aggressive language and because of its endless repetition, I knew that book was going to be a challenge to publish, and it was. I also knew that Beautiful Piece was eventually going to find its readers, and it has.


In which order would you suggest a first time reader approach your work?

I think it would be interesting to read the books in the order in which they were written. However, if a reader were only going to read one of my books (other than my forthcoming story collection), I think they would be delighted by my comic novel, Wanted: Elevator Man.


If you could live inside one of your books, which book would it be, and why?

Most characters live miserable lives in my books; many of them die, though not before they express their joy and gratitude at having lived. That being said, I think I could easily live in my novel, Gideon’s Confession. Here you have a guy, Gideon, who gets monthly checks from his uncle, and very little is expected of him. He has a small cadre of associates who like him. He has a lovely, rich girlfriend who only wants the best for him, and yet he wants none of it. Instead, he spends long hours on his couch watching the twilight cut luminous patterns against the shadows in his living room, while he dwells on what it means to be. In other words, he’s a philosophical loafer. I’m so busy I would like to loaf a bit, I would even like to have time to be philosophical. In fact, I’m a bit envious of him.


Gideon Anderson (Gideon’s Confession) versus Eliot Barnes (Wanted: Elevator Man) — who would win in a fight?

Eliot Barnes is a pretty scrappy dude. He’s a helper to an elevator mechanic. He descends by ropes down into empty elevator shafts to free frantic females stuck in broken elevators. Gideon is a slacker who, when faced with a fight, would likely rather take a nap.


Short stories versus novels — do you have a preference reading one over the other? How about writing them?

I actually read poetry, short novels, and short stories. I seldom read any book longer than 200 pages. I like short stories because they can be brutally direct. I like short novels, because they can be both direct and wondrously complex. Take for example, one of my all-time favorite novels by William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow. It tells the story of a boy growing up in the early years of the twentieth century. His mother succumbs to the influenza in the 1918 flu epidemic, and he is forced as a young teenager to leave his Edenic life in small-town Lincoln, Illinois, for the city of Chicago, with a grieving father. Life will never be the same for him. In this novel, Maxwell recreates with loving detail the moments leading up to his mother’s death and then his move to Chicago in a relaxed yet direct prose style that is complicated by the arrangement of time presented in different chapters of the book. Though it’s a short novel that you might speed through, the complexity of the novel’s arrangement slows you down, and in that process you are brought back to the ‘time-space’ of those early bucolic small-town years of our rapidly changing country.


What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned throughout your career as an author?

Have the courage to write an epic poem in an era when nobody reads epic poems, and if you do write an epic poem try and make it the best goddamned book ever written even if nobody ever reads it.


What’s your favorite —

Part of living in Chicago? I once told my wife: “We can move to Madison if you want.” She laughed, genuinely laughed at me, as if it were the most absurd thing she’s ever heard. I am Chicago; what are you talking about? And that’s what I like about it.

Place to grab a bite? I like to eat at the Twisted Spoke for a Fatboy burger and a beer (or martini) on Grand and Ogden. My family (wife and two daughters) is beyond tired of the Twisted Spoke. Luckily for me, they still join me.

Watering hole? I love any bar without a television. My favorite one that fits this definition on the south side of Chicago is the Skylark Lounge on 22nd Street and Halsted. They serve a good Cubano sandwich, tater tots to die for, and decent local brews on tap. They have a shrine to Mayor Cermak who took a bullet and died in an assassination attempt on Franklin Roosevelt, and they have ancient cleated urinals in the men’s room. The urinals are so ancient you can’t help but wonder who else has stood in those cleats.

Bookstore? I love my hometown bookstore, 57th Street Books, and the Seminary Coop. Many consider the Seminary Coop one of the greatest bookstores in the country.

Lit venue? I recently read at a Reading Under the Influence (RUI) event, and I absolutely loved it.


Interview originally published on 2/20/15