[Editor's Note: Benjamin Parzybok reads at Smallpressapalooza tonight at Powell's City of Books at 8:15.
Order signed editions of Couch while they last!]
While walking around the bustling booths and hustling sales reps at last year's Book Expo of America in Los Angeles, I noticed two guys carrying around a couch. Upon closer inspection — they set it down in front of me — it was an inflatable couch, made of red plastic. It looked like it might be comfortable in a big swimming pool. One of these guys was Gavin Grant, who runs Small Beer Press with Kelly Link. They were promoting the release of Couch, the funny and fantastical debut novel of Portland writer Benjamin Parzybok. Their giddy excitement about the book was almost unbearably palpable. But a couple of months later, when the book was officially released, it proved to be prophetic, as critics, readers, and booksellers have all fallen under the weird wanderlusty spell of Parzybok's hilarious prose. The story is essentially about three guys (Thom the computer geek, Erik the con man, and Tree the gentle clairvoyant) moving a couch. But it somehow morphs into an epic chase of unexpected tragedy and personal discovery.
Besides writing, Parzybok has been a fount of other artistic ventures like Gumball Poetry (distributing poems in gumball machines), Walker Tracker (for pedometer enthusiasts!), and crazy treasure hunts.
With help from my fellow Powellsian Liz Vogan (also a big fan of the book), a few questions were constructed for this mad scientist/man of letters.
What are some other famous couches in literature?
(Dave as in Eggers, I assume.) The first thing you notice is: Dave has a drinking problem! Look at those giant bottles! But from this picture one realizes there are probably a lot of very important couches behind the scenes in literature. And of course, there's no small amount of literature written about the psychiatrist's couch, or after the writer has visited the psychiatrist's couch, none of which has anything to do with my Quixotic object.
What's the most difficult piece of furniture you've had to move?
There is nothing harder to move than a big mattress or futon. We used to joke about "mattress attacks" — where a mattress mover breaks down into manic giggling over the impossibility of moving something so heavy and malleable and with no firm way to hold onto it. Might make a good sequel, come to think of it.
Do you have a prejudice against cars? Don't you need one for "questing"?
Yes! I hate cars. Although, like most Americans, I suspect, I have a romanticized notion of road trips, and I like the smell of gas, and I like the thrill of speed.
But clogged in traffic surrounded by a couple of tons of tin and belching smoke makes me feel like a cartoon character in a Bill Peet book I read to my children about stupid aliens who temporarily inhabit a planet until it's unlivable. I don't think there's anything that makes me feel the pettiness of our insignificant human existence in the universe more than a traffic jam. I don't think cars are necessary for quests, either.
A decade ago I set off with my sleeping bag and walked a few days out Highway 30 on the railroad tracks. The purpose there, really, was just to out-walk my brain for a while, to walk long and hard enough that all I was doing was walking. Walking is a superb way to undertake a quest. My characters took the same route in Couch.
Do you listen to music as you write?
Pretty much exclusively. Music has a big influence on my writing. I'll find myself putting something on loop and then, when I go back to edit that section, I won't understand what I was trying to do until I listen to the same music. I know a section is working when I don't need to listen to the music anymore for the writing to evoke the same feeling as the music evokes.
Have you ever had premonitions, like Tree?
I was just thinking about premonitions this week. I was at the Blazers game where Rudy Fernandez was taken away on a stretcher. Rudy fouled someone, and I saw a close-up of his face on the big coliseum TV. He was smirking a little, and he was a touch sheepish, but there wasn't a look of premonition there.
The image of him burned in my mind and I got to thinking about what makes him tick. A few minutes later, he was laid out on the floor. Had I had a premonition? Had I fixated on him for some reason?
In all honesty — probably not. Yet I do wonder if learning to listen to premonitions is similar to learning to remember your dreams — they're there, you just need to train yourself to see them. My rational mind says premonitions aren't possible, but my— err... other mind says the world is a hell of a lot more interesting if they are possible.
Do you find your interest in both gumball machines and pedometers mutually exclusive? Were these other projects coming from an overactive need for creativity, or do you have some form of Attention Deficit Disorder?
I don't think I'm ADD, since some of these projects go on for an unfortunately long time. ADD might be a blessing there. But I do find my "overactive need for creativity" (to have a few projects running at all times) a bit tiresome, sometimes. Why can't I just relax? I've wanted to be a fan before — say, of a sports team, or a TV show — but I'm too output-oriented. To answer your question on gumball machines and pedometers being mutually exclusive: In my mind, no. I'm sure both were started sometime in the past with, "Hey, that's really neat! I wonder if you could..." This reminds me of a joke I heard Will Oldham tell:
What's the last thing a redneck says before he dies?
"Hey, Mom, watch this!"
I suppose I can relate.
I understand that you wrote most of Couch while living in Ecuador. Did this affect the outcome of your novel?
Definitely — the city I was living in was built upon an older civilization, and the older civilization was built on top of an even older one, and thinking about the layers of human history below my desk was too compelling to ignore. My partner, Laura, and I also made a trip deep into the Andes with a mule and a couple of crazy, fearless European musicians. It was a very difficult trip into a village with no roads or electricity into it — getting a feel for how they thought and lived was cause for a lot of thinking on my part, much of which made it into the book in one way or another.
Has anyone approached you about doing a film — of the novel or anything you've worked on?
I think there's been some talk about doing a film of Couch — but nothing firm. I co-wrote and directed a short film with Levin Schersvanaskitty called Levin's Bicycle — it was shown at the Filmed by Bike film festival in Portland and at the Celluloid Cycles film festival in Australia. It can be seen here.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a book in which water plays a pretty major role — in no small part influenced by the very strange weather we've had this year.
There's also been heavy talk of getting the Black Magic Insurance Agency running again.
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Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section at Powell's and is the publisher of his own micro-press, Future Tense Books. His books include Creamy Bullets, Portland Noir, and the memoir A Common Pornography.
Books mentioned in this post
Kevin Sampsell is the author of A Common Pornography: A Memoir