Dennis Haritou: One of the things that I like about how our blog is developing is that we are forming connections with authors. The Three Guys discuss a book in depth, offering viewpoints that are often at cross-purposes with each other. Then we invite the artist to comment on his work and our discussion. Lately, we have also been asking writers if they want to give us a story to post or link to online.
Unfortunately, our timing was off for Ron Curie’s first book, God is Dead; it having been published before The Three Guys really got started. This inferno of a work of fiction took up residence in my mind and refused to leave. I felt not so much that I had read a book as that I had been assaulted by a complex vision, as if Dante’s inferno had been re-imagined and retold in contemporary terms.
God is Dead is a collection of stories that explore the premise that God has been destroyed by our inhumanity. There is a lead story which actually depicts this event, followed by a set of stories that explore the consequences of the first story in the collection.
DH: Thanks very much, Ron, for taking the time for us. When I read God is Dead I was left with a feeling of disquiet that just simmered and simmered. I got a handle on the character of my unease by recalling an incident. I was out walking once and encountered a trapped animal. It was terrified and disoriented but I couldn’t help since when I approached it threatened to bite. Its situation was similar to the sense of dislocation I felt when reading God is Dead. And when I looked at the caged animal depicted on the cover of your book, I realized that I felt like that animal or like the animal that I saw on my walk. But I have to wonder, were you as disturbed by the content that you were treating as a writer as I was as a reader? Can you write emotionally wrenching material like that without being affected by it yourself?
Ron Currie: I’d like to say I was disturbed by the material, but the truth, as far as I remember, is my overriding emotion while writing God is Dead was amusement. Which obviously says more about me than about the content of the book. My sense of humor tends toward both the dark and the absurd–two great tastes that, in my opinion, taste great together. I will say, though, that a lot of the themes in God is Dead were inspired by what I perceive in the world around me, much of which I find increasingly disturbing, upsetting, and infuriating. As most thoughtful people do. So in a way, turning these real-life horrors on their ear and laughing at them can be curative. A lot of the despair we feel watching the news every day flows from our sense of helplessness, and as a fiction writer you get to control things, if only on the page. You get to run the show. You can right wrongs, bring departed loved ones back to life, even take vengeance on God, if that’s your thing.
DH: Each chapter in your book is preceded by a quotation from the bible. And I don’t think it was my imagination that I sensed a scriptural cadence to your prose, especially in the first story. You wouldn’t be the first writer in English letters that was affected by the prose and poetry of the bible. Although, I have to say that you seem to be reading a rather dark bible. How important was it for you to reference this source? Could you have written the same stories, for example, without reference to the bible?
RC: I’m glad you asked about this, because the Bible quotes haven’t received a lot of attention from reviewers or the readers who I’ve been in contact with. And I took a lot of care in selecting the quotes, for what I saw as their ability to add depth to and illuminate the stories that follow. That said, the relationship between the quotes and the stories they’re paired with doesn’t bear a lot of discussion, I don’t think–it either means something to you, or it doesn’t, and if it doesn’t then explanation won’t make a difference. But I think that anyone who grew up reading and being taught the Bible, as I did, can’t help but have their prose shaped by it later in life. I still have deep, almost primal responses to the language of scripture, and I think that comes through in all my writing, not just in GiD.
DH: Speaking of your bible quotes, I pulled out Ephesians and read it. That’s where your first quotation comes from, the damn provocative: “Slaves be obedient to them that are your masters…” It’s in a section that outlines the duties that members of a family have to one another. And the passage above the one that you quoted is: “And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger…” Also its seems like the forsaken inhabitants of Darfur are slaves or pawns to terrible destructive forces, to the evil “authorities”, that are mentioned in the Pauline letter. Does what I am taking from Ephesians make sense to you as something that you are reacting to in the creation of a moral vision?
RC: Well one of the great things about the Bible, one of the things I think keeps people coming back to it, is that it’s nothing if not perpetually topical. You don’t have to dig too deeply into today’s paper to find slaves and masters, evil authorities. But I’ve got my hands full just trying to write good stories; I don’t think I’m smart or talented enough to try to put together a moral vision. And even if I were, I don’t think I’m hopeful enough to make it worth the effort. I tend toward the pessimistic end of the spectrum, and unfortunately there’s little in human history to convince me that pessimism is unwarranted.
DH: The story “Indian Summer” in your collection was one of my favorites. It had what I would describe as a Shakespearean level of bloodletting as a chain of graphic suicides take place. But the sheer brio of the pacing and the richness of the explicit imagery led me to suspect that it may been very satisfying from a technical point of view to write. It’s probably the most violent story, page per page, that I have ever read. But what made it effective for me was that the level of psychic tension matched or surpassed the physical violence that was depicted. What did you think about the effectiveness of that story and and its place in your collection?
RC: It was definitely one of those pieces that flowed well even in the first draft, helped no doubt by the fact that it’s one of the only stories I’ve ever written that was inspired by a nightmare. The night before starting “Indian Summer” I dreamed that my friends and I were committing mass suicide in the same manner as the boys in the story: two at a time, pistols at point-blank range. There was no larger context, but when I woke up I realized the idea fit perfectly into the book I was writing, and so I don’t consider it coincidental that I had this particular dream at that particular time. And unlike most pieces that sort of tease themselves out, fight you every step of the way during composition, this one really wanted to be written, and had no patience with me flubbing my way through twenty shitty drafts. It arrived quickly, painlessly, and more or less in its finished form. As far as my opinion of it, I think it has one of the most convincing, organic, and satisfying endings I’ve ever managed. I knew I’d gotten it right because when it first occurred to me I was surprised, but then saw how I’d been setting it up all along, unawares. I’m surprised you think it’s the most violent story you’ve ever read. I guess I’m sort of inured to the violence, though I usually read it at appearances precisely because it has that grab-you-by-the-throat quality.
DH: I loved the way, marveled actually, how you could approach your theme of the death of God from so many different angles and with so many different treatments without ever losing your reference point. But your story: “Interview with the Last Remaining Member of the Feral Dog Pack which Fed On God’s Corpse” has got to be the limit in effective overreach. The story has a great many virtues: you describe animal consciousness and its transition to a more human-like state. You point out how this effects communication and the ability to relieve loneliness through the association with others and also what it might be like for a human to have divine knowledge. Its a damn good adventure story as well, like something out of the Arabian nights. This dog story also contains some communion-like imagery that I imagine would shock a traditional believer. I’m amazed that you packed so much into one story. How do you react to it?
RC: It’s probably my favorite, for a bunch of different reasons. I think it’s the most accomplished story from the perspectives of style, narrative arc, and characterization (though it’s rivaled here by “The Bridge,” which features probably the most vivid character I’ve created, Dani Kitchen). And I especially like how provocative the story is, without, I hope, being gratuitous. One of the story’s little pleasures, for me, is how it implies that the dogs are more deserving of and prepared for divine knowledge than human beings. Not that they fare well with it–they’re driven out of paradise, much like a pair of early humans who shall remain nameless, and are thereafter misunderstood, attacked, and taken advantage of–but they are at least able to function, unlike Professor Mubarak, the perpetrator of the communion-like moment you referenced, who simply goes insane.
DH: I once had a philosophy professor who said that the best she could do for her students was to try and dilute the thought that she was teaching so that her students could pick it up. I don’t want to dilute your work but it seems that you are moving in many registers and I wanted to give readers who hadn’t tried you some idea of the dynamism. You seem to be one of those writers who has to marry intellect with fiction when he tells a story. Do you see it that way? Would you name some writers that impact your work?
RC: Well I’m definitely excited by big ideas, both in what I write and what I read. Most days, reality is so mind-numbingly dull that I don’t understand why someone would write strictly realistic stories, given the almost limitless freedom fiction provides. I don’t see the point of making believe if you’re not going to actually make believe: hang your ass out in the wind, push at every boundary, make almost unreasonable demands on your reader’s willingness to suspend disbelief. This is dangerous, and prone to failure, but that’s part of what makes it fun. Some writers whom I admire and have stolen from include T.C. Boyle, Max Apple, David Foster Wallace, Harlan Ellison, Bukowski, William Burroughs, even some of Bernard Malamud and Kerouac.
DH: I get the impression from your publisher that we can expect another work from you, maybe in 2009. Can you tell us anything about it or whatever else you that are working on?
RC: Yep, I just finished another round of edits on a new novel, and hopefully that will be the last of the heavy lifting. It’ll be published by Viking in 2009. It’s my attempt at a family saga, only this one involves pre-pubescent drug addicts, the literal end of the world, baseball, domestic terrorism perpetrated by triple amputees, time travel, true enduring love, and quantum physics.
DH: I’m not going to ask if you believe in God or whether you think he can die. I’m more interested in what puzzles a writer or what he is exploring than what his settled ideas are. Nietzsche, of course, said God is dead in Thus Spake Zarathustra. But I’ve always found his comment in, I think, Beyond Good and Evil more interesting. Commenting on a movement that was current in his own time to have a secular version of morality, he said that people who thought they could have God’s morality but without God were being naive. Now that’s an argument that even a conservative catholic could make. So in your “God is Dead” stories, are you using that statement as an interesting metaphor, a sort of “what if” idea to explore in storytelling? Or are you gripped by the idea of religious loss or what faith could really mean to people in their daily lives?
RC: The question dovetails nicely with a quote from The Brothers Karamazov that’s in keeping with the real spirit of GiD: “If God is dead, then everything is permitted.” I think Dostoevsky and Nietzsche are saying the same thing in different ways. I know well what faith really means to people in their daily lives, as there are many people in my family whose lives are permeated by their faith: it dictates the way they behave and sustains them in tough times, of which we’ve had too many lately. And as an atheist and lapsed Catholic, I feel the absence of faith in my own life quite acutely. On a deep level that’s somewhat difficult to articulate, writing GiD was an attempt to explore my much-neglected but still strongly insistent spiritual side. Most of my writing is an effort, one way or another, to figure something out about myself, and often when I read dialogue between my characters I recognize it as a discussion between two aspects of my own personality, aspects which are too often at odds.
DH: Is there anything that you think I should have noticed in God is Dead that I didn’t mention? I found myself struggling with challenging ideas and feelings in your book and think my questions to you reflect that struggle at least a bit. And thanks very much Ron for answering my questions. Welcome to Three Guys. I hope very much that you’ll be back.
RC: Not at all; you’ve covered all your bases. I only hope I’ve done at least a decent job of answering your questions. Listen, I appreciate the close read, the thoughtful questions, and the opportunity and venue to discuss the book, especially given that you’ve broken form
at a bit to include me. Thanks very much, Dennis!