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Seriously Funny: An Interview With Deb Olin Unferth

Interview by Mark Edmund Doten.


3:AM: Both in this book (Vacation) and the last one (Minor Robberies) you’re very preoccupied with questions of travel. What is the fascination there, would you say? And do you like to travel?

DOU: There’s a long tradition of American writing that uses travel, tourism, and expatriatism as conceits for exploring human loneliness and estrangement. Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano and Paul Bowles’s The Sheltering Sky are two examples. I’ve always loved this tradition and I relate to it intensely. I always wanted to contribute to it. Somehow these writers seem to use travel in a perfect way to express that essential loneliness of being, to make the characters suddenly and appallingly aware of themselves, to be forced, in a Petri dish, to deal with intricate moral questions and situations.

Also there’s nothing more silly than the American tourist. The phenomenon just begs for comic representation. I myself am the ideal example of this and I’m always aware of it, am always cringing at myself. To have that alienation beside the ridiculous, well, that’s me, and I wanted to write it.

I usually travel miserably alone, but one time I took a trip with Diane Williams. We had so much fun. We laughed the entire time and I didn’t feel alone at all. She and I kept congratulating each other. We were both astounded by our ingenuity — for traveling together instead of alone. At one point we realized that people do this all the time. This was normal human behavior. So I think not all travel is existential.

3:AM: I’m interviewing John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats for a different online publication, and the timing was purposeful, just in terms of organizing my brain – I find that your work and his rub up against each other in an appealing way, with both of you embracing this peculiar internationalism that’s not exactly in service to a political or sociological end, but seems for lack of a better word psychological. Kaka’s Amerika, Heart of Darkness, the Melville of Mardi and Moby Dick would seem to fit with this group. By way of contrast, novels like Eggers’s What Is The What, Edward P. Jones’s The Known World or Melville’s Typee and Omoo seem to be doing something that’s also interesting and important but fundamentally different — in these last cases a more objective idea of realism being essential to the way these books position themselves politically and historically. With the caveats that of course objectivity is a very complicated term these days, and the two categories are somewhat arbitrary and desconstructible and no doubt in each of the specific cases I mentioned interpenetrate in weird ways. Do you buy this? And if so, what do you gain and lose in your chosen mode?

DOU: I love the Mountain Goats. They’re my current favorite band. I’m buying their songs one by one on iTunes. This week I can’t stop listening to “Dance Music”.

I think the two sets of work have separate ambitions — and the ambitions are exactly as you describe it: one is psychological and philosophical, and the other is sociological and political — although there is some overlap, of course.

I don’t feel knowledgeable enough about any topic or place to be able to write in the style of the second category. I suppose it might also feel too particular or specific for me personally to want to try to capture. My own concerns in writing are of a more vague, general, philosophical nature: what is the point? why is everything so hard? are we capable of love? That sort of thing.

3:AM: How much work did you do on the book with the editors at McSweeney’s? Did you just email it to them and that was that, or was there a lot of back and forth?

DOU: The publisher of McSweeney’s, Eli Horowitz, was my editor for Vacation and he worked hard on the book. I often imagined him sitting on the floor and patiently picking apart a knotted mass of string for six months straight. He made the book much better. He focused mostly on big things, broad strokes — the characters of Claire and the wife, for example — but he also worked at the level of the line. “This makes no sense,” was one thing he said a lot. Or, “Everyone’s just wandering around lost in this part. I’m bored and annoyed”. Towards the end I was desperate to finish the damn thing. At one point Eli told me to fix a certain passage and I said I couldn’t do it. I said that I was too tired and that if he wanted it different, he should write it himself. And he did! He wrote it up and sent it to me and said, “Okay, now change all the words”. I remember it had something about the “birdies tangled up in the telephone wires”. I loved it and didn’t want to change the words. But in the end, we cut the scene.

I loved working with him. I think he’s brilliant and extremely focused and artistically minded. I worried I would become very depressed when the book was published and I wouldn’t be receiving edits from him anymore. Fortunately, so far, I’ve been too busy to notice if I’m very depressed.

I’ve been lucky with editors. Diane Williams has been the other genius-editor in my life. Her editing style is completely different, it’s line-based, sound-based, word-based. It feels practically antithetical to what Eli does, once I’d worked with them both. I would call both kinds of editing inspiring and sobering.


3:AM: This book is in part about isolation in the face of the desire for connection, the breakdown of the human body, and suicide. It’s not unusual that such a book would be funny (see Beckett, Bernhard, etc.) but this one moves past your standard pitch black existential comedy to a tone that is at times light-hearted, even whimsical. How did you arrive at that?

DOU: I had a note over my desk that read: You will have conflict on every page and you will have humor on every page. I often lost the note because I was moving around so much while writing the book. I had to rewrite the note several times, which hammered the idea of it into my head.

I love dark humor, especially sad dark humor. I love it when people are funny about misfortune. So in writing Vacation I felt very committed to being humorous about their misfortunes, but I found that the more I wrote, the more I moved beyond the blackness and irony of the humor. I felt like I was writing through it and to the other side, to actual light-hearted, gentle humor — which felt akin to hope. And I liked that: hope in the face of, no, because of, grave adversity and ruin. To me that proved the validity of the misfortune, that I wasn’t just being ironic about it. It was like I was saying, “Look, I’m serious here: This is funny”.

3:AM: I’m curious about the dolphin. Have you always liked dolphins?

DOU: Once I found myself on a small island off the coast of Nicaragua. I was very depressed and alone. In much the way it’s described in the book, I met a man named Richard O’Barry, who became the model for the character of the untrainer in Vacation. I didn’t know anything about dolphins or sea animals. I told Richard and his wife, Helene, that I was a writer. Sort of a journalist, I said, which was a lie but I said it so they would bring me with them. They were about to release two wild dolphins into the sea. They had rescued them from a dolphin trainer. They had shown up at the dolphin trainer’s with automatic weapons and walkie-talkies and burly men.

The understanding was that they would let me come on the release boat with the other news people and that I would write an article about it. Well, I didn’t write an article about it. I’ve written very few articles in my life. But I always remembered my promise. I was ashamed that I’d led them to believe I was a journalist and that I’d never helped gain publicity for their good cause. So the first scene of the book that I wrote is the last scene, where a dolphin is set free into the ocean. It’s not the same as an article, but at least now I have written about it. In the book I describe the dolphin release just like it happened — the hurricane, the ministers of the environment, the filmmakers and the brave walk, the sexy women in bikinis, the people running screaming from the dock, the waiters throwing cans of soda — minus the last six words of the book. I hope you will learn more about their important work. This is their current project.

During the time that I was writing the book, I became a stricter vegetarian than I had been (I had been a rather sloppy one). I am now trying to be a vegan. I feel evangelical on the topic.


3:AM: The characters are quite often lost, confused, passive, and generally shuttled about by forces that can’t really seem to get their heads around. In contrast to that, the narrator (I should perhaps say make that plural, since there seem to several distinct narrative voices here, but I’ll confine myself for now to one aspect in particular) sits way up above and seems to enjoy nudging the characters, asking questions about them, and generally provoking disruptions and digressions. For instance, chapter four begins, “Had Myers done anything wrong or was everything her fault?” and then the narrator engages in a Socratic-type dialog with him or herself about just what Myers may have done wrong. How did that evolve? In writing, how do you know when it’s time for the narrator to break in like that?

DOU: I don’t know how that evolved. It just got in there somehow. I spend a lot of time alone and I talk to myself. I argue with myself, make fun of myself, accuse, pretend to be a smug outsider providing running commentary on my behavior. Doesn’t everyone do that? I think everyone does that in some way. The page you’re referring to sounds more or less how I sound when I’m doing that — being a critical outside observer of myself.

3:AM: Your novel is in part about a man following his wife, who is in turn following a second man. This might be far fetched, but there’s a Carver story in Cathedral that begins, as does Vacation, with two people in a train compartment, one of them named Myers, and deals with similar themes of familial alienation. It struck me that in a book about following, this was maybe a conscious choice, a sort of literary pursuit. And I remembered that the same Carver volume contains a story call “The Train” that takes up and reexamines a Cheever story called “The Five-Forty-Eight” — so then we have a structure of you following Carver following Cheever, just as in Vacation Myers follows his wife following Gray. That couldn’t be right, could it? But even if not, I wonder if you could talk a little about influence, and how you conceptualize it. It’s a question that’s particularly interesting to me in a book like yours which is quite expansive and inclusive, voice-wise — so that there are moments when I think, “Ah, there’s Beckett,” and “OK, here’s Lydia Davis,” and “That’s Carver for sure!” — but it’s really more slippery than that, isn’t it?

DOU: Wow, I am amazed and excited about the Carver and Cheever stories. I wasn’t thinking specifically of either of those stories, but I have made many such connections in my life between stories and writers and I am very happy to be one of the subjects of such a connection. I love both Cheever and Carver.

I had a lot of influences in writing this book. Some of them I’ve already mentioned. Also Chris Ware, Salvador Plascencia, and David Ohle. The movie Magnolia by PT Anderson had a great effect on me, both in terms of his willingness to face hard emotions head on and in terms of structure and organization. I think the Cheever stories were probably the most influential in helping me form the character of Myers — a more hapless, hopeless, sillier version of the Cheever man. I internalized that character long ago.

As a side note, this book is kind of a long letter to someone, someone who will likely never read the book in its finished form. In a sense the book is a one-sided discussion I’m having with this person about all these writers and it’s also a final calling-out to the person, a goodbye, a confession, an explanation — in much the same way Myers and his wife are still writing to each other even after they can no longer reach each other on email.

3:AM: My copy of the book is full of underlining and marginal scribbles and exclamation points because the prose is so beautiful and strange and interesting, but I’m going to restrain myself for the most part from quoting your book at you or else I’ll get mired in a Chris-Farley-style “Remember when you wrote that? That was cool” awkward sort of dialog. That said, here’s a quote: “This was so early in their marriage that they still had packing materials around, half-empty boxes, silver in sleeves, Styofoam noodles. The apartment felt huge when she wasn’t there, too white. It was so early in their marriage he still believed he knew her, that he could. He still believed in that — knowing”. Your book deals a lot with pretty fundamental epistemological and ontological questions. How do we know who we are? where we are? Could I have made different choices? What’s the deal with death? At the risk of alienating potential readers, is it fair to call Vacation a philosophical novel?

DOU: Yeah, I guess so. I did study philosophy as an undergraduate. And I do feel like my reasons for writing are personal and philosophical, which to me are the same thing. I know what you mean about alienating potential readers. It is kind of a weird book. But it means a lot to me to have even one careful reader like you, seriously.

3:AM: I’m going to close with something I asked Darnielle, which I’m stealing from Bishop: “Should we have stayed at home and thought of here?/ Where should we be today?/ Is it right to be watching strangers in a play in this strangest of theaters?/ What childishness is it that while there’s a breath of life/ in our bodies, we are determined to rush/ to see the sun the other way around?”

DOU: I don’t know about Darnielle, but I, for one, am glad I went.


Mark Edmund Doten is the managing editor of Soho Press. His fiction has appeared in Guernica, Exquisite Corpse, Word Riot and Elimae.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, December 6th, 2008.