Gabe Hudson grew up in Austin, Texas and attended the University of Texas. He was a rifleman in the United States Marine Reserves and has an MFA from Brown University. His writing has appeared in The Quarterly, McSweeney’s, The New Yorker and other periodicals. His book of stories and a novella, Dear Mr. President, has recently been published. Gabe Hudson makes New York City his home base and is working on a novel.
Robert Birnbaum: You have been anointed, apparently. Dear Mr. President was included in last year’s Debut Fiction issue of The New Yorker and, of course, you have been published in Dave Eggers’ McSweeney’s, which has its own clout.
Gabe Hudson: Right.
RB: I was puzzled by the accompanying photograph to Dear Mr. President in The New Yorker. That is, the author portrait complete with the gas mask, that is attached to the story.
GH: I know the magazine usually does a photograph of the debut writers. In my case, it was this German photographer [Katharina Bosse]–it was all her idea. I didn’t really talk about it that much because the people I dealt with were the editors, Bill Buford and Deborah Treisman, who were both supportive and really wonderful.
RB: I would have thought that readers of The New Yorker have sufficient respect for the editors, especially something labeled the Debut Fiction issue, to read unfamiliar work.
GH: It was curious. It changed a lot for me. To the editors’ credit, many people have responded to that issue. When I go out into the world they remember the story and they remember me.
RB: Is it the case that you submitted your story for that particular issue of the magazine? How does one get into the Debut Fiction issue?
GH: It was something that my agent took care of totally. I just got e-mail from him—he was in Israel at the time—and he said there’s some serious interest. The next thing I knew they were in touch with me personally. I knew that issue was out there, but I perceived it as a real long shot.
RB: How do you have an agent before you publish anything?
GH: Well, I had published in McSweeney’s. And I had published in journals extensively. University journals, which some people follow, for years and years.
RB: Why wasn’t that included in your press materials?
GH: That’s a good question. These are all questions that are related to things that I don’t have any control over.
RB: Well, maybe you do and maybe you don’t.
GH: Truly, I don’t. They [publicity department] make the calls as to what magazines I’m to be associated with and what my credentials are.
RB: Recently, I have talked to a number of writers, alumni of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who have for various reasons chosen to exclude their academic backgrounds from their dust jacket biographies.
GH: I see what you are saying. In my instance, I went to the Brown MFA program, which is a completely different thing from Iowa. They push a totally different aesthetic there.
RB: Are Robert Coover and Carolyn Maso still at Brown University?
GH: Coover has been a really brilliant support for me and was kind of a mentor and my thesis adviser. I think in the context of the book jacket Knopf thought it was intriguing, that I had this real world experience, that I had been in the Marine Reserves and but that I had this MFA background. I don’t think it’s as easy to pigeonhole me as it might be for somebody else who just has an MFA and it looks like they were groomed to be a professional writer.
RB: Okay. You grew up in Austin, Texas. Did you go to the University of Texas as an undergraduate?
GH: I did. I did.
RB: And then you joined the Marine Reserves. Why did you do that?
GH: I wish I could say that I was coerced, but I wasn’t.
RB: In what year did you enter the military?
GH: I’m fairly confident it was at the end of ’92. After the Gulf War. I did get some sort of ribbon that signified that I had enlisted in a time of conflict. So that they didn’t perceive the Gulf War as completely over. I grew up in a really artistic household. I played the violin rigorously as a kid—often I wasn’t allowed out of the house until I practiced for several hours. There was no television and my father and mother were both very literate. My father used to read to me at night—hours and hours. It would be Moby Dick, poetry by Wallace Stevens. I had no idea what he was talking about. None. He was a really compelling reader. He is a very enthusiastic person about literature, and he had the idea that if he read to me at an early age that the cadence of language would get in to me and somehow help me be a better human being.
RB: What did your father do?
GH: He was like the uber father. He was a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas, for a while. Then he worked at the Chamber of Commerce. He was always doing things so that he could pursue—he plays the clarinet, he plays chess competitively, he does all these intellectual things—his occupation was just a means to provide for the family. Growing up like that, it was much different. There was no television and so pop culture, I had no idea what that was. As an act of rebellion I elected to go into the Marines. Really, to shock my parents and get a little adventure. I should also say that I really revered the book Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy—I probably read it 10 or 20 times. So, I wanted to know about that stuff. I wanted know about when he says things like, “When you look into the round and it speaks to your inner most heart.” It’s somewhat preposterous to recite, but I felt that I wanted to know what that was all about. So I thought, “Infantry, Marines.” They wanted me to take a desk job. But I said, “No.” Subsequently, I ended up showering with ex-gang-bangers and so forth.
RB: When did you start reading Cormac McCarthy?
GH: It was a book that father initially gave to me. We started with Surtree. I’ve read everything that he’s written a couple of times. Of my own volition I probably started around 16. Blood Meridian stayed with me for a 4 or 5 year coma.
RB: Ever considered making a pilgrimage to El Paso to visit McCarthy?
GH: Through a friend of a friend there is somebody in the family that I am close to that is fairly close with him. They talk on the telephone and meet every once in a while and I’ve never met him personally and have always wanted to and I am waiting for the opportunity.
RB: My impression is that he is pretty reclusive.
GH: The funny thing is—I don’t know if he would ever read this—I don’t really think he is that reclusive. He’s friends with Sean Penn. There is word of him being in more high society circles than we might imagine. His book was made into a movie…
RB: Well. We’ll see…
GH: We could get him in here.
RB: I’d be happy to go to him. He doesn’t have to come up here. Why should he? Why would anyone? Anyway, you were in the Reserves. What does that involve?
GH: It involves undergoing the same training as any active duty soldier. I went to boot camp. I went to Marine Combat Training—which is standard infantry training for every Marine–and then I when to the School of Infantry. It’s regarded in the Marines as the toughest school you can go to. When I went there, everyone else went to their other jobs. They definitely made fun those of us who were, ostensibly, on their way to hell, for a couple of months.
RB: Do you have Semper Fi tattooed anywhere on your body?
GH: No, no no.
RB: You were not a gung ho Marine?
GH: There are things that you learn about yourself in that environment. It’s actually a really humorous environment. You are basically doing a dead pan the entire time.
RB: If you are not in combat it may be humorous.
GH: Even people who are in combat—if you look through historical books or in fiction—they have a strong sense of irony. All soldiers have. That’s the funny thing. People have asked, “Is anyone going to be offended by your book?” No, those guys have a much darker sense of humor than I do and they would tell jokes that would make me blush and want to leave the barracks. So yeah, it’s a really pure life style.
RB: You are asked that question by people who have read your book?
GH: Both. There are some real basic things. I have guys who leave their troop or their fire team or their Green Beret team. Ostensibly, in real life that would never happen. Those guys have a code. They also have a code that they never leave anyone behind, so they are doing things [in my stories] that they say would never happen.
RB: As opposed to cross-dressing jet fighter pilots or veterans growing extra body parts?
GH: That’s the thing. You can take the book how you want. There are stories in which I make more of a case for them. It was very important for me—people in uniform are not a demographic that I grew up with or knew much about. What was really interesting was that when I became involved with the Marine project, I did learn that they were human beings. I stayed up and talked to them at night and their parents have the same problems, as most parents and most people from my generation don’t know that because they have never been in the military. It seemed really important for me to grant these characters a little bit of grace. But also to have an anti-war sentiment in the book too. I wanted to make arguments for all sides. That seemed most compelling.
RB: Reading this book probably took me more time than I ever spent considering the Gulf War. It came and went like that—I paid more attention to the invasion of Panama. Pop culturally it was a television war.
GH: I think that even for the soldiers it was a bit of a farce. A 100-hour virtual war, 130 casualties of which 30 or 40 were friendly fire, as opposed to Vietnam. That [the Gulf War] was the first war where you actually had censorship. The journalists were only allowed into certain areas and when they were allowed the soldiers knew and they would do their hair, and look good. And so it became a stage set. Look, to some extent the book is an act of resistance against that. If you are going censor something then I’m going to get in there and write about it. If you want to tell me that this didn’t happen, that’s fine but maybe you want to show us what did happen. There was a lot of cover up.
RB: The biggest being the Gulf War syndrome. But there is nothing new there because we have the precedents of Agent Orange and the Nuclear Veterans from the testing of the ’50s. Are the symptoms that you describe in the first story “The Cure As I Found It”, real symptoms?
GH: No. In each case those were tropes.
RB: I got that.
GH: Well, you never know. Somebody told me they were looking for a mouth on the back of their head.
RB: The case of gaps appearing in the bones [“The Cure As I Found It”] seem possible.
GH: I wanted that to be just a little bit more believable. When the character remarks, “I was going to be the human blob.” You can get the sense that I am playing. What I am asking the reader to swallow is pretty far fetched in the context of the book, so I opened the book with a seeming reality and then continue to stretch the truth throughout the book.
RB: What literary reference points does this book have?
GH: I knew that there was stuff out there and I had read it, but I didn’t want to go look it until after I had finished my book. I did go back and look at Catch 22 and Slaughter-House Five and Dr. Strangelove—there is also this lesser-known book called Learning Processes with a Deadly Outcome by German writer Alexander Kluge.
RB: Say more about that book.
GH: It’s fiction, science fiction. He actually has photos and it’s really dark and satiric. You have all these government documents and journal entries and these characters emerge. It’s beyond the End of the World. They have taken their war to outer space. That kind of tradition was important to me. I haven’t written about war prior to this book. It was something I did not want to do straight journalism. I had heard all these stories from other soldiers and I had waited long enough until my imagination could kick in, which is really important to me
RB: Tell me about the stories you had written before Dear Mr. President.
GH: They were standard stories. Stories about families and things that happen in the world. They weren’t revolutionary.
RB: Why did you decide to go to Brown University?
GH: It just came time for me to apply to MFA programs. I had published a little bit in some journals like The Quarterly with Gordon Lish. Brown seemed like the kind of school that would be empathetic with the kind of aesthetic I was into at the time. So I applied and was accepted. I was taken aback when it all happened. All my life I have gotten in trouble for being subversive and not acting in accordance with the status quo. Going to Brown, hooking up with Coover, getting to teach there was the first time where an institution or a group of people said. “You know, that thing that you tap into that gets you into trouble, that’s a good thing and we want you to explore that for a couple of years.”
RB: Nice. It seemed to validate your existence.
GH: Really. I had been pranking and pulling pranks and I wasn’t aware that one could construe a prank as a piece of art. I just didn’t make that connection. No one in Texas espouses that.
RB: Performance art hasn’t made it to Texas? And the Merry Pranksters of the ’60s…
GH: All that stuff is terrific. And improv. I’ve read and studied that stuff. It’s really important.
RB: So after Brown did you intend to make a career out of writing?
GH: Not at all. I knew nothing about agents and publishers. I really didn’t know anything. It’s not something that is encouraged at Brown. They want you to be pursuing art for art’s sake. I had been in touch with Dave Eggers through McSweeney’s. So I placed a piece there. I moved to New York with a manuscript and I lucked out. I got an agent within a couple weeks. Then an editor at Knopf, Jenny Minton, got hold of the manuscript. She called me at home three days later. A couple of days went by and they had an offer on the table for me.
RB: Which manuscript?
GH: For this book. It all happened super fast. I haven’t really looked back.
RB: What’s a novella? Or what makes Notes from A Bunker Along Highway 8 [from Dear Mr. President] a novella?
GH: I wish I could say there was something like subliminal messages. I don’t really know. It’s just a longish story. Maybe it’s marketing thing. There was a title page that didn’t make it into the book that was very ironic. It said, “Stories and a novella, heretofore known throughout the world as Dear Mr. President.” Sort of making fun of that fact.
RB: Why didn’t it make it in?
GH: An editorial choice at the end.
RB: Sounds like the kind of thing Dave Eggers would do with the colophon or the copyright page.
GH: Right. It’s really terrific. I feel like Dave and the magazine [McSweeney’s] have changed the appetite of the American reading public. There’s a lot of fiction that’s out there now that people are willing to take a look at that they would not have been were it not for the magazine.
RB: That’s pretty generous. I don’t quite see it that way. But I do think he has brought about some changes in publishing.
GH: There are so many young people in New York that I encounter that are just enthusiastic about any sort of risk you want to take on the page.
RB: That may be true. Eggers has become a gatekeeper that seems to be accessible to certain kinds of work, perhaps more so than others. I wonder about his self-publishing his new novel.
GH: That’s an admirable thing.
RB: Yes and interesting. He is selling it online, a first edition of 10,000 copies. He knows that the book will sell more—probably way more—than 10,000 copies. Why such a small initial printing?
GH: Honestly, I don’t know what that is all about. The fact that he is selling through only independent bookstores—because those are the stores that sell McSweeney’s—is terrific. The other good thing about Dave—what’s rubbed off is he is really interested in making space for all different kinds of writers. So it’s not as if you need to be experimental—having come from Brown I do know that these vanguard types hate conventional stories and conventional storytellers also resent the vanguard. Dave makes a very good point in what he publishes and what he says in his interviews; there should be space for all. There’s really no reason for all this infighting.
RB: You’ve been very lucky and I presume that you are working on your next book. Had you not been lucky what would you have done?
GH: An MFA at Brown probably qualifies you to work behind the register at the grocery store. I think that I would always be writing. It’s just something that I’ve wanted to do since an early age. It’s the thing that makes sense to me. It’s a particular kind of dialogue that I am intrigued with.
RB: You would have and will continue to write.
GH: Oh, absolutely. I came to New York because I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I wasn’t going to go back to Texas. I didn’t really think per se that something was going to happen with the book. I had every intention of trying to make something happen. Given the fact that I knew nothing about it and I did see these kids from Iowa and the other bigger and commercial programs, I had no idea how any of that happened. What I discovered was that people in the publishing world and the editors at magazines were a really incredible group of conscientious and generous people. It has just been really amazing. You can’t imagine how much some of these people care about the written word.
RB: A little over a month ago I was talking with Richard Russo about among other things Jonathan Franzen’s book and he said in that context, “It’s strange isn’t it? I don’t know whether it was just the Oprah thing—it always amazes me that there are such failures of generosity among writers and among publishers. There’s a degree of venom, out there—I ran across it, in of all places, Barcelona.”
RB: It’s nice that you have the point of view that you have, but I suspect that your life in publishing won’t be all days of wine and roses.
GH: I am not suggesting that I am living days of wine and roses. I live in a tiny squalid little studio…
RB: (laughs) All right, let’s hear some indignation.
GH: …with a lot of roaches. I don’t have health insurance as we speak. There are a lot of sacrifices being made in the course of this. There are really terrific people and they really care. They are very dedicated to what they do and that is amazing. When you are writing you feel like ultimately you are the only one that cares about your work that much. But then you encounter these other people who do as well.
RB: You are on a book tour that takes you around the country for what, a month?
GH: Yes, and this is the first day of it.
RB: Then you come back to New York and then what?
GH: That’s a good question. I may go to England for a little bit.
RB: For the book?
GH: No, to just go away. To go somewhere else.
RB: You’ll find a squalid little flat in London?
GH: Right. Well, I’m going to move underground in London. These are curious times in this country right now. I don’t know what’s going to be going on a month from now. I’m in the midst of working on this novel. I wrote a lot of this book while I was down in Mexico. I tend to move around a bit and New York is the home base. I’m really not sure where I’ll be.
RB: Where in Mexico?
GH: I was in Mexico City for a long time. Then to Oaxaca. Then there were some private beaches we ended up on, the names of which I can’t remember.
RB: It’s a long way from Mexico City to Oaxaca.
GH: Yeah, you get on these buses with movies and you just go.
RB: Is there still revolutionary activity down there?
GH: Oh sure. There is a lot of activism. I encountered some of it. Especially post 9/11. It was very bizarre to hear the responses there in regard to the attacks. It was really healthy for me to be outside the country and get a different perspective on things than those that were here and immediately just whipped their flags out of their pockets and started waving them around.
RB: Do have a writing form that you prefer? Or fiction versus non-fiction?
GH: Oh sure. I definitely prefer fiction. I can do non-fiction but the human element and creating characters and emotional turbulence is really what this is about for me. I’m not often satisfied with reality. Don’t misconstrue that remark but I like to tweak reality. And fiction is a good place to do that.
RB: You might be able to trade up from your currently squalid digs by working for one of the great journals of our times who if they are not using better writers are at least employing more well-known ones.
GH: Right. If somebody wants to send me overseas…a part of me is attracted to the old Hemingway thing, but I am also ambivalent about it. Part of this book was to take a subversive approach to that and the machismo man. So the myth of that, traveling somewhere and writing in a war zone like Afghanistan, is intriguing, but I’m not sure if it would ever take place.
RB: Tell me again where you are with the novel you are working on?
GH: I’m an indentured servant to Knopf.
RB: You owe them a book.
GH: I owe them a book. It’s kind of them, I guess, to want that from me. There is this big gulf of time before your book comes out. I found a really good time to distract myself from all this anxiety surrounding the publication date; it was to throw myself into the work. So yeah.
RB: Do you look down the road, 5 years, 10 years?
GH: Sure. I think about death and beyond death.
RB: I didn’t mean that far down the road.
GH: That’s all part of it. I just hope to be writing and hope to be in a place that I can do that. And be excited about it.
RB: Do you have writer friends?
GH: Sure. I have friends that are writers.
RB: Writer parties and writer baseball games?
GH: No, nothing like that. Most of my friends are visual artists or writers, they tend to be youngish, and it can be a real inspiration to know those people. I also spend a lot of downtime by myself. I’ll go days and days without seeing anyone in person. Which is fine. New York can be really anonymous. You spend a lot of time amongst people but you can be very alone.
RB: How likely is your trip to England?
GH: It’s pretty real. I tend to keep a lot of things on the horizon as options. I don’t anyone to predict what my next move is, so I keep a lot of options open and I just move with one.
RB: When will your new fans see the novel?
GH: I would guess September of 2004. It has to do with immigration and that’s all I’ll say.
RB: How much has your life changed in the last year or so?
GH: Well, it’s changed a lot. Probably for the better. I’m able to spend my days with a great deal of privacy, which is important to me. In the course of writing a book you end up with a much clearer sense of what the issues are that concern you. That’s really the best part.
RB: Well good, Thank you.
Copyright 2002 by Robert Birnbaum
All photos by Red Diaz / Duende Publishing