Joe Meno is the kind of guy who feels the same way I do about reading, viewing it as really almost a religious experience--an intimate, imaginative way to respond to the world we live in. His latest novel, The Great Perhaps, is highly original, tremendously readable, and so well written that I now must seek out every single book Meno has published. He's that good.
A Chicagoan, Joe Meno writes fiction, including the novels The Boy Detective Fails (Akashic 2006), Hairstyles of the Damned (Akashic 2004), Tender as Hellfire (St. Martin's 1999), How the Hula Girl Sings (HarperCollins 2001), and The Great Perhaps (Norton 2009) and the story collection Bluebirds Used to Croon in the Choir (TriQuarterly 2005). His online serial, The Secret Hand, runs through Playboy magazine at playboy.com, and his short fiction has been published in McSweeney's, TriQuarterly, and The Mid-American Review. He also writes plays and teaches creative writing at Columbia College Chicago.
Can you talk about where your ideas for your novels or short stories come from?
I would say definitely everything I write comes from some sort of question that I have. For a novel like The Great Perhaps, I started with a collection of interrelated questions. For that book specifically, the question was about living in this complex complicated world. How do you not get overwhelmed by fear? This is the question that comes up in each of the lives of the characters in the book. Each of them is afraid of something, and the way they deal with it is, they try to oversimplify.
For the father, he’s using biology; for the mother, she’s using social sciences. For the daughter, she’s looking at the world through the perspective of politics; for the other daughter, religion. For the grandfather, he’s trying to deal with the world through history. They all are trying to solve this complex world through these overly simple ideas. They all come to realize that life is much too interesting and complex to simply be summed up by one theory or perspective and you need all these different ways of looking at the world to understand and appreciate it.
I read a recent profile of you in Poets & Writers, where you talk about switching publishers from Akashic to Norton. You’re a huge supporter of independent publishers. Can you talk about your experiences working with both a small, independent publisher and now a large one?
I have such high respect for both publishers. I feel without a doubt that Johnny Temple really saved me, strictly because of his willingness to take risks and look beyond sale figures. The question (corporate publishers) always begin with is, how many books is this thing going to sell? The way Akashic and Norton work is, they work based on how they feel about a book--the way it connects to them. They have a very similar editorial process. I feel in a really important way that independent publishing, and independent bookstores as an extension of that, are so intrinsic to the idea of intellectual development and thought and what a democracy is. And it’s exactly the kind of answer and response to some of the questions I’m asking in The Great Perhaps. What kind of country or what kind of literature do we have if only certain writers are privileged to have their writing printed, or if the only marker is how many copies sell? Barnes and Noble has been incredibly supportive of my work. My fear with publishing is that it becomes oversimplified. The same authors and the same kinds of books are the ones pushed and given recognition. I have a sinking feeling when I walk into a bookstore and look at the covers and they all are the same...
People go to books in a very different way than they go to film or television. You have this incredibly intimate relationship with a book. You have to complete it. I feel very strongly that they shouldn’t simply be treated as any other kind of product. I think it speaks very poorly of us if our only understanding of books is what their retail value is.
You also talked in that profile about the commercialization of books, and how you see the book as a sacred object separate from the market value, or how many books sell.
A lot of this comes directly from my own experience. I can’t tell you how many books have just completely changed my life or informed who I am as a person. I can’t really say that for television and film. I just feel like I’ve been very fortunate to work with two publishers, Akashic and now Norton, who feel about books the same way that I do. Any publisher at this point who’s publishing poetry, shows a certain disregard for commerce or the economic value, but more for what kind of impact or influence they want to have on people's lives, beyond how much it's going to sell.
The Great Perhaps really takes an intimate look at the modern American family. Would you say one of your aims is to explain the dysfunctional family?
I didn’t set out to make these characters particularly dysfunctional. I feel very strongly about each of the characters. Instead of making them dysfunctional, I wanted to make them complex. It was definitely a book that I wanted to write where I spent equal time on each character in the family. It was really influenced by a play by Thornton Wilder called Skin of Our Teeth. I’ve written about families in different ways throughout the course of my work, but never where the family was the sole focus of the entire novel.
It represents the way that American families exist right now. The idea of separation or the possibility of divorce is a real possibility that so many families in America deal with. There are these moments where the parents and children try to come together and miss and try to come together again. That was really kind of my goal in writing the book, was to explore how all the drama in the world originates from the drama you have with your family. The conflicts you have in your life come back to these conflicts you originally had with the family.
Was any of this autobiographical?
It’s less about my family and my parents and my siblings than it is about my life now. I have a daughter. She’s 16 months. It's more about how I'm afraid of what I'll be like as a father. I share a lot of similarities with Jonathan in the book. He spends a lot of time alone searching for this mysterious creature. That’s very comparable to being a writer, where you’re hoping this book is going to establish you or get you some recognition. And it’s also very solitary in the way that Jonathan works, and I think that’s what he really loves about the squid.
I asked some friends on Twitter if they had any questions for you. Stephanie Anderson (@bookavore) wants to know if the squid really exists somewhere.
The squid -- it’s entirely possible. The book is set in 2004, and that year was the first time anyone had gotten video footage of a giant squid. People know about giant squid, and there are people who have devoted their lives to understanding the giant squid. No one had ever seen a squid in their natural habitat before. No one had seen a living giant squid underwater. Two different scientists off the coast of Japan had figured out a way to track them through the movement of whales. There’s this idea that Jonathan has that this prehistoric squid might still be alive. It’s entirely possible. If any animal ever might still be alive from that era, it would certainly be a great contender. Certainly because its modern counterpart, the giant squid, lives in isolation in the depths of the ocean. If anything could have survived, that’s the best bet. That’s exactly why I chose it.
And Russ Marshalek (@russmarshalek) wanted to know why so much of your writing deals with heartbreak?
To me that’s the cost of being alive, is that inevitably, no matter how lucky you are, at some point your heart is going to get broken. There’s a million ways it could happen. He’s so correct in that all of the books I’ve ever written are about characters who are inevitably forced to deal with some sort of disappointment or catastrophe. Hopefully for all those characters, its never the end of the world. It happens in this book to every member of the family. The thing they think is going to save them doesn’t. The worst possible thing that could happen to them, happens. But then, they manage to survive, and keep going. I think for almost all of the material I’ve written, very few stories end at this point. Although I think it'sthe cost of being alive, having your heart broken plenty of times. It's not the end of the world. That’s what is interesting about people, is that they always find a way to endure and try again.
Would you call yourself an optimistic writer?
I don’t know if i would. My first and second books have pretty dark endings. Human beings have always found a way to start again. That's what interests me.
Everyone probably always asks you in every interview who some of your favorite authors are. It’s sort of the obligatory question. I can’t resist. Who are your top five?
For this book, I went back to rereading Kurt Vonnegut, and Thornton Wilder. Each of those writers I felt like I deliberately borrowed from. Don DeLillo’s White Noise is a book I really love. He’s dealing with questions of fear in some interesting ways. Those are the main ones I went back to to help me look at my writing in a different way. The author I always feel humbled by is William Faulkner. And I think he does everything that we kind of talked about, in that he asks a lot of readers. Probably more so than any other author I know. Because of that he’s a little terrifying to some people. What makes reading him so extraordinary is because you put so much work into it. It’s nice that there are some authors who ask a lot of us as a reader.
And who are your top contemporary novelists who are currently writing and publishing?
Dave Eggers' stuff is always so compelling and interesting. He always has earnestness, and a sense of hope. I love Zadie Smith. I think she’s a great novelist. I’ve read all her novels. She kind of comes back again and again to this question of what does it mean to be a family. Jonathan Lethem; I really, really appreciate his willingness to try all different genres and forms. I think it's important that literary authors are given the same freedom that the genre authors have in using their imagination. Denis Johnson is one of my favorite living authors. I like that all those authors have a willingness to take risks.
I love how you take on different styles for each character. Do you believe in using the form of the story as almost a character in itself, to express part of what you’re trying to say?
Definitely. I think the way you tell the story is as intriguing or as important as the story you’re telling. I felt really strongly the way the book should be told is complex. For Jonathan, he has these reoccurring abstracts, there are sections from scientific journals. For Madeline, all her chapters are written in field notes. Amelia has these angry rants that she writes in her school newspaper, and the other daughter has these really violent and hopefully funny prayers that she’s invented. The grandfather is writing to himself and also has this sci-fi radio program that he listens to. Using those were a way to differentiate the characters and also reveal another aspect or quality. It’s a real important way to distinguish who these characters are. I wanted the book to have this feeling as you were reading it that you didn’t know what would happen next. There’s intrigue in the way the novel looks on the page.
As a creative writing instructor, what would you say is the most important thing writers who are trying to get published should know?
In order to write one good story, you’re going to probably write ten bad ones. You have to actually in this weird way enjoy or accept that that’s the process. You should approach each story as a kind of experiment, and you try it, and if it works it works, if it doesn’t, you move on to the next thing. Writing is like every artistic endeavor in that it's entirely about practice. If you can't enjoy being in front of the computer for a couple of hours and writing something and throwing it out, you’re probably not going to enjoy being a writer. That’s all I do every day. The least interesting thing to me about writing is that it’s immortal or that it’s bound in a hardcover book. That’s less interesting to me than the part where you’re building the story. The most fun for me is the actual writing.
I think it’s real critical, and it happens less and less when you are an adult, that you spend time using your imagination. The older you get, the less you are asked to do that. That’s what makes books different than television and film and a gym shoe. You’re forced to use your imagination. You don’t have to use it when watching something that has already been filmed. I would say if you look at the Bush administration, it’s easy to understand what happens when you’re not asked to use your imagination.
Look at things like reality television. It really gets to that question. That’s why I feel like whether you’re religious or spiritual or not, I feel like that’s probably the most important part to me about being alive is being able to use your imagination. That's why I feel like whether you're religious or not, I feel like probably the most important part to me about being alive is being able to use your imagination. It’s really, really sad that there’s not enough opportunity. The book to me, without sounding evangelical, to me is almost religious. It gives you a couple of hours to do something you can’t usually do in other parts of your life--to make believe.
Are you a voracious reader as well as writer?
It’s really hard once the school semester starts. Reading my students' work is just as inspiring. I have such incredibly talented students that their reading is just as compelling as something I might come across in The New Yorker. Simply because they are just so willing to take a risk. They aren’t writing because they are worried about how much money they make. They’re writing because they love writing.
If you could meet one of your characters in real life, from any of your books, who would it be and why?
Oh my gosh, that is such an interesting question. I don’t know. I feel like I need to think about that one. Well, I’ll just say this. I worked on The Great Perhaps for four years and did so much research, but out of all those characters in the book, my favorite is the youngest daughter, Thisbe, and the reason is because when I initially started working on her, she was very dogmatic and almost unappealing in her search for God. But the questions she was asking were really, really important. After working on it she’s kind of my favorite character in that book. What she really wants is love, which is such a great thing, but she just goes about it in a horribly, horribly bad way. That’s what so attractive about certain fundamentalist religion. It promises a simple answer, but life is ultimately more complicated than those simple answers provide.
She was initially a character that personally I never would have wanted to be around. In trying to make her complex, you feel sympathy and are actually rooting for her, even though what she’s thinking about is ridiculous and kind of offensive. You understand why she so badly wants to find God or wants to have this relationship with this other girl. Those are my favorite characters in literature. The ones who you would never want to spend time with and at the same time you see something very human.