Photo credit: Andrew Breig
Before the publication of my second book, Something Pretty, Something Beautiful
, I had lunch with my friend Paul, who said, “Eric, I’m looking forward to this next book. But, man, I just hope it’s not as dark as the first one. I mean, you’re a lighthearted, funny guy. Why so much darkness?” I couldn’t bear, at the time, to tell Paul that Something Pretty, Something Beautiful
makes my first book, Shimmer
, seem like a Monty Python episode. Instead, I decided to let him discover that for himself.
Yet I think about that comment quite often now, as my third novel, The City Where We Once Lived
, is published. It’s a deeply dark novel. There’s one joke in the book (punchline: “windmills”) and the conversation about the zookeeper and the hippo is certainly meant to be funny. However, coming as they do after more than 200 pages of quiet, sometimes relentlessly bleak reflections on a city that’s been abandoned, I’ll forgive anyone who doesn’t laugh.
There are few things less humorous than declaring oneself to be funny. But I’ll do so now. I am funny. I make the people around me laugh. More to my point here, though, is that my friend Paul is not wrong — I’m not a person who lives a dark life. To meet me is not to be made afraid. Yet my novels have that effect on people. People who’ve read my books tend to look at me warily. They shake their heads just slightly. They stand, guardedly, at a safe distance.
All a way of saying, What’s going on with THAT guy?
Some part of my subconscious, it seems, is consumed by darkness. And that darkness finds its voice not in my daily life as a friend or parent, but in my writing.
As to my friend Paul’s reaction to Shimmer
, my first novel, and his hope that my second novel would be lighter, I have to remind myself of the many ways in which Shimmer
is in fact dark. It’s a novel about a company built upon a lie, with the weight of that lie borne by the narrator who, throughout, is trying to find a way to undo his deception and, in turn, save the employees of the company and the friends he has unwittingly brought into this situation. But Shimmer
is also quite silly. At the heart of the novel, there are digressions into the silliness of office life, corporate lingo, and the uniquely bizarre dysfunction created by the people who run the company. The management team has weekly meetings while sitting in a set of children’s school chairs. Company parties include spitball fights. And, for me, the description of the head of IT’s office, where everything — computer, books, pieces of paper — is set at right angles, makes me almost giggle.
I’m old enough now to know that most people carry some sort of darkness with them.
By comparison, Something Pretty, Something Beautiful
has, by my memory, only two funny moments. One is early on in the book, when one of the narrator’s friends is using a microwave for the first time and decides to blow up an egg, all while inexplicably standing naked in his friend’s kitchen. The second comes later, when the narrator and that same friend take acid and go hunting for grouse in the woods in the shadow of Mount St. Helens. Otherwise, Something Pretty, Something Beautiful
is a novel filled with the unrelenting awfulness of four teenage boys careening through violence, risk, and a constant attempt to push even further against those few limits they still see or feel.
When I reread even the smallest sections of Something Pretty, Something Beautiful
, I find myself horrified. Horrified not that I wrote the book, but at the things these characters I created manage to do. The depths of the violence, and the darkness, surprise me every time. What’s most strange to me about the aura of darkness over all three of my books is that I did not set out to write novels so dark. Shimmer
, in hindsight, was meant to be comedy, a comic adventure of office life. I tend to write my way into a plot — I’ll write 50 to 100 pages before I have any idea where the book is going — and most of the early pages of Shimmer
were of the narrator wandering from one floor of the building to the next, making silly observations about his company, and encountering strange — but not in any way dark — characters.
Soon, though, I needed a plot for these wanderings. And I came upon the idea that the company itself was built entirely upon a lie. I realized that all of this silly behavior on the part of the narrator's coworkers was, in fact, nothing but a classic cry for help, as the stress of supporting the company was tearing each of them apart. Eventually, I realized that even the narrator’s wanderings through the building reflected some deeper failing in his character; I was 200 pages into the book and I’d never had him leave the building. Not once. Months had gone by. And he’d never gone outside.
Similarly, Something Pretty, Something Beautiful
started as a road trip, two teenagers on a cross-country drive, drinking and getting high, and all was meant to be light and fun. But the narrator's thoughts always came back to the memories of his life before the road trip, a life so violent and haunting that he could not let it go. Eventually, I cut hundreds of pages of the road trip and made the memories, in all their awfulness, the heart of the book.
And with The City Where We Once Lived
, I wanted to write a book about a city that had been abandoned and why society could let something like that happen. In some ways, my intent was to write a novel without characters, as strange as that might seem. I wanted, instead, to write about the dynamics of this nearly empty place. How the water is still pumped from the ground. How power lines cross the highway. How decisions like the placement of the highway itself led to the city’s eventual destruction. I can’t say I had a light book in mind. But it was a more clinical, journalistic notion of studying the dynamics of a city.
But of course I needed characters. And once I’d populated the city with the few characters there are, each one had a story and a past and a reason for choosing to be there. And those stories were dark. Each and every one.
I don’t have a clear answer. I can say more of Shimmer
is true than I’d like to admit. I can say that far more of Something Pretty, Something Beautiful
really did happen than I will ever make known. And I will say that there’s a reason The City Where We Once Lived
is dedicated to Nora, a sweet and private joke long ago made about herself by my now ex-wife.
I’m old enough now to know that most people carry some sort of darkness with them. Be it memories of childhood, or of mistakes made, or of a job gone haywire, or a relationship that's come apart. But most people aren’t writers. And so they don’t have a means of releasing those dark moments onto a page. For me, now, that release is freeing. It leaves me, in my daily life, much more lighthearted and at ease. My friend Paul isn’t wrong. But, also, I have to admit he’s not completely right.
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the novels Shimmer
, an IndieNext Pick from Unbridled Books, and Something Pretty, Something Beautiful
from Outpost19, which The Millions
called a "remarkable book...where cars are freedom, stories are everything, and home is thick with ghosts." He has also published nearly 40 short stories in Prairie Schooner, North American Review, The Literary Review, Best American Mystery Stories
, and other publications. By day, he is a publisher of newspapers in Memphis and Nashville that cover business, politics, the arts, and more. On Fridays, he hosts a news talk show on his local PBS. In the past, he was a reporter and editor in Connecticut and New York. Years ago he drove a forklift in Tacoma, Washington, and then Kenai, Alaska; worked construction on Puget Sound; and, many years ago, he graduated from the MFA writing program at Columbia University. The City Where We Once Lived
is his most recent book.