June is Audiobook Appreciation Month, and that brings us to this interview with Eric Shonkwiler, the author of Above All Men, a grim and gripping novel of place, with echoes of John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. I haven’t “read” AAM; however, I did listen to the audiobook, performed beautifully and darkly by Dane Elcar and published by Fiddleblack. Here, Eric and I discuss his novel, post-apocalyptic fiction, the ideas of audiobook as adaptation, and among other things, that cowboy hat.
Eric has had writing appear in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. He was born and raised in Ohio, received his MFA from University of California-Riverside as a Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellow, and has lived and worked in every contiguous U.S. time zone. He is the winner of The Luminaire Award for Best Prose, was selected as a New River Gorge Winter Writer-in-Residence, and was a finalist in the Best Small Fictions Prize. He is the author of three books, Above All Men (MG Press, 2014), Moon Up, Past Full (Alternating Current Press, 2015), and 8th Street Power & Light (MG Press, 2016). Above All Men won the Coil Book Award for Best Book and was chosen as a Midwest Connections Pick by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. Find him on Twitter at @eshonkwiler.
When did you get your first cowboy hat?
Summer of 2006. I’d been busting concrete in front of my father’s house, and a friend drove by in his father’s truck — said father was a farmer. My friend reached back behind the seat and pulled out a cowboy hat and said, “You look like you should be wearing this.” I tried it on, and he said it looked right. I went out and bought a straw hat the next day.
How would you describe the way your current hat smells?
Not as bad as you might think.
An audiobook is a kind of an adaptation, much like a movie-version of a novel. What surprised you about Dane Elcar’s “interpretation” of your novel? Were there any disappointments, perhaps in terms of character voices that you didn’t agree with?
The entire thing is alien. I recognize that these are the words I’d written, but everything about it is different. It feels much darker. Dane pulls tension from places that I never saw. I think it’s a lot like getting the chance to really understand how two people read a book — That’s rare. You can read a book review and understand that a person saw characters differently, but with Dane’s reading, I’m experiencing how he interpreted every line.
Do you feel that listening to an audiobook is the same as reading it? For example, I haven’t read your novel, but I listened to it. I experienced its narrative. I felt its emotion. I lived with its characters. Still, did I miss something in not actually reading it?
No. I don’t think reading a book twice is the same thing, let alone listening to one. You read a book once in school, then again five years in the future, on the beach. Of course it’s not the same, so how could listening be? I don’t think you can discount how you experienced the book, but it’s certainly different.
One could call Above All Men post-apocalyptic, in that it is set in a near-future after a kind of ruination. How do you feel about that label put on your novel? And how did you arrive at that setting? Did it come to you early in the writing process, before the characters?
I don’t mind it, though it’s not accurate. It’s just a word to call to mind a certain set of conditions. AAM happens to fit most of them. I arrived at it pretty simply — I thought about how the world would look in about twenty years (from first writing). The whole thing arrived of a piece, pretty organically. I’d written two books that shared characters with AAM that were shelved, and AAM is an extension of those. So, the world and its people were already there. Making the world as you see it in the book just required some extra research and fleshing out.
There appears to be a proliferation of post-apocalyptic writing, especially by the younger writers. I can’t decide if every generation fears its extinction, or if we really are nearing the end. Do you fear the future? Do you believe we will end in what Eliot called a bang or a whimper?
I don’t fear the future. I’ve learned to stop worrying and love the bomb. There’s a self-importance that comes with thinking you’re the last people to see the good of the earth, and I think it’s natural (clearly) for each coming generation to think that of itself. I don’t think this is the end, though. Humanity seems to think that with us goes it all, and that’s simply not true. There are these terrifically beautiful photos of the last white rhino in Africa, being protected from poachers by men and women with high-powered machine guns. That’s what it will be like for us. The last human tended by its dogs, robots, what have you. All these extinctions go on all around us, all the time. And the world has yet to explode from them. We’re no different. We’ll go with a whimper.
I love this: “There are these terrifically beautiful photos of the last white rhino in Africa, being protected from poachers by men and women with high-powered machine guns. That’s what it will be like for us. The last human tended by its dogs, robots, what have you.” There’s a story there.
I think Bradbury already wrote it. “There Will Come Soft Rains.” Not exactly the same thing, but close.
In terms of this near-future setting, I like how subtle your references are to the context of the country’s collapse. There’s a war in Costa Rica over oil, people are forced into farming, and there are erratic storms and droughts. While you avoid giving the reader much information regarding these occurrences (for the better), it was enough to provide a believable and accurate vision compared to, say Howard Kunstler’s bleak predictions of how the end of oil will reshape America. How much research did you do for this novel, and how conscious were you in restraining yourself from showing it off?
I didn’t do a terrible lot. I read a book or two, and the rest was extrapolation. Using restraint in explaining the events that made the world of the book was just a matter of verisimilitude. It’s not realistic to begin at the beginning of those things, to give full context. How often do we have conversations about 9/11 that involve the entirety of its events? “Boy, I sure do remember that fateful September day when Al-Qaeda men, directed by Osama Bin Laden, a terrorist who gained power in part by American machinations in the Middle East, flew two planes into the World Trade Center, and killed 3,000 people.” No. You just say, “9/11.” You say, “WWII.” Describing the events any other way than tangential seemed like talking down to the reader. If you pay attention, you learn all you need.
I know you’re a fan of Cormac McCarthy, and it’s clear that Above All Men pays homage to him without ripping him off. How do you read McCarthy without copying his style? Are you able to read him while writing, or do you try to avoid it?
I wrote all the McCarthy out of me early on. I’ve got a whole book that’s just McCarthy-aping. Eventually, I ran out of him, and all that was left in the tank was my own style. I don’t read a whole lot when I’m deep in my own writing — research, mostly, and little else. I’m just too busy. By the time I’m done with a full day of writing, I’m an overcaffeinated husk. Occasionally, I’ll feel like my prose has gone off the rails, and I’ll read a little McCarthy or Hemingway to realign myself, but that’s it.
If Dane Elcar hadn’t narrated Above All Men, who would you have wanted to do it? (Someone other than Sam Elliott, of course.)
Interview originally published on 6/5/15.