Monday, May 9, 2016

Where Are They Now? Interview with Eric Hendrixson

by Karl Fischer

Eric Hendrixson began his career as a not-so-humble member of the Magnificent Seven, the 2010-2011 New Bizarro Author Series, which has become the stuff of legends.

Pictured here killing varmints.

In celebration of Eric's latest novel, Drunk Driving Champion, a bizarro racing adventure evocative of The Gumball Rally and Cannonball Run, I reached out to Eric for a heart-to-heart regarding his escapades.

Let's start with the basics. Tell me how you found Eraserhead Press and/or bizarro fiction in general?

I went to a class on publishing fiction at the library. The instructor worked in fantasy, so she focused on knowing your genre. But I didn't have a genre. I was always the odd man in any writing group I belonged to, and none of the publications out there seemed to publish what I was doing. So after the class, I tried to talk to the instructor about the kind of fiction I wrote, and she said, “Well, I guess you're just bizarro.”

I muttered, “Yeah, thanks,” and left. I don't believe most things people say and assumed she was just fucking with me. I'd done a lot of reading and writing, and I was pretty sure there was no such thing as "bizarro." Still, I spite-Googled it a couple days later and bought the first two Bizarro Starter Kits. The first story I read was The Greatest Fucking Moment in Sports. After picking up a few more books, I knew I wanted in on this. Imagine being a devout Catholic all your life without knowing the Catholic Church existed. Then, one day, while out shopping for printer toner, you stumble into Vatican City. That's what finding bizarro was like.

Back then, there was a questionnaire that Eraserhead had you fill out to see if they wanted to work with you. I filled out the form, and I guess they were willing to work with me. And specifically, it was Donihe who wanted to work with me, which was a big deal because he's the one who got me into this genre. My application was accepted, and somehow, I didn't feel like they were fucking with me. So I wrote a novella for the NBAS, which was rejected (it really was just cyberpunk), and I went to BizarroCon, where I met the bizarros, the first generation of NBAS, and Michael Allen Rose, who was in the NBAS class after me.

We've interviewed Michael Allen Rose before and talked about his unending font of masculinity. Do you feel any kind of generational connection to the rest of the Magnificent Seven or subsequent NBAS groups?

I think of each year of NBAS writers as a graduating class, so there's a community of sorts among people who have had this common experience. It's like a college alumni association except that it doesn't ask you for money, send out newsletters, or officially exist. I was fortunate in moving to Chicago, since we have four NBAS graduates in this city.

How did your year in the NBAS go and how has it affected your career leading up to Drunk Driving Champion?

I started off writing a story about a narcoleptic disc golf player who fights an army of Rickrolling squirrels who turn the White House into a giant Rick Astley. I'd just gotten back from my first BizarroCon and was eager to get this story on paper. It was also November, and I had done NaNoWriMo before, so I got started. The problem was that it was a really dumb idea for a book. It was obviously just wish-fulfillment, so I stopped writing it. In an online workshop with Bradley Sands, I came up with the idea of a doughnut shop worker and his kiwi fruit girlfriend selling human faces around Washington, D.C., while dodging a Michael Jackson-impersonating hit-tomato. That made a lot more sense, so I wrote that book instead. Then I lost the book. I went to a cheap motel in Natural Bridge, Virginia, and rewrote it over the course of a few nights and revised it with Kevin Donihe over a couple months.

Back then, NBAS was more competitive. My NBAS class worked together a lot and supported each other, but it was still stressful. There was a set number of books you had to sell—hard copies, not e-books—to be even considered for future submissions. I think it was a period of character-building. I learned a great deal about marketing, more about what doesn't work than what does. However, selling a book is more than just writing a book, and the year changed a lot of my thinking about writing. Jim Koch, the founder of the Boston Beer Company, once said that there's only room on your coaster for one beer. I'm assuming he meant at a time. Similarly, at any given moment, for a person to be reading your book and not any of the other books out there or that have ever been out there is a pretty big deal. You have to make it worth the reader's while.

Given the short format of the NBAS, how did you convince people to put a little beer on their coaster instead of a big one?

If you have small glasses, serve whiskey.

Tell me about Drunk Driving Champion - the process of writing it and getting it published. Was it always your intended sophomore release?

I pitched this book as a joke. Drunk Driving Champion came out of a month-long anonymous online pitching session with a bunch of Eraserhead authors and editors. It was essentially a pitch workshop gone bipolar. Because of the way the message board worked, all of our ideas either got shut down or were simply ignored. The pitches most recently commented on went to the top while those without comments were buried. That's also how 4Chan works. We'd spend days on a pitch to just get a "nah" or "meh" from the group or for things to be buried and not ever read or voted on at all. In the second week, everyone started getting a little testy. I mostly vented by attacking my own pitches, using language I would never use against someone else. I was getting pretty surly. So full of frustration and beer, three hours after bedtime but ten minutes before bed, I threw together three pitches called "Chainsaw Nunchaku," "Fuck Fucks the Fucking Fuckers of Fuck," and "The Great American Beer Run," which became Drunk Driving Champion. When I woke up, the beer run story had caught on. It was really popular, and Eraserhead accepted the pitch.

So I had to write it now, but as I wrote this story, the characters became very real to me. Because of the risk involved, a person has to have a good reason to participate in a cross-country drunk driving race, so I worked on each character's personality and motivation and let that be the driving force for each character's story. That was something I learned from reviews of Bucket of Face, how people responded to the character-driven plot. That allowed each racing team to have its own story arc. There are no auxiliary characters except for victims along the road, and even they have to be real. Each character in the story deserves a story. I also built on the faster voice that I was developing in Bucket of Face. Don't waste the reader's time. Make things happen. Always escalate. So there was a balance between developing the characters and always moving the action forward.

It's a thing of beauty when a farce turns honest. Tell me about your favorite character in Drunk Driving Champion.

I like characters who act as the voice of reason in unreasonable circumstances. Anita, William's A.A. sponsor, accidentally gets dragged into the race when she gets into his car at the starting line to stage an intervention. After offering support, encouragement, and A.A. slogans for miles, she starts to lose faith in her mission. This is used both to comedic effect and as a form of character growth. Her failure as a sponsor allows her to question a lot of the roles that she's been pushed into, stop being a sidekick, and take the lead role in her own life. There are a lot of characters in the story who are crazier than she is, but she's a sane person in an insane situation. She'd be better off if she were a lunatic.

If you were in a 70's racing sex farce, what would your character drive and would he stand a chance at making it to the finish line?

I'd drive a goat-drawn wagon. It wouldn't be drawn by ordinary goats but by disco goats. My disco goats and I would get to the finish line with the power of music and friendship. Or a Dodge. They made a pretty solid car back then, and you could fit a couple goats in the back seat or the trunk, depending whether or not those damn goats can fucking behave themselves for once. Also, instead of Sally Field, I would have Sissy Spacek as my co-pilot because I think she's a damn good actress. Did you see her in 'night Mother? That was some solid work, and I think that's the kind of person I would need riding shotgun.

And I'd want a shotgun.

I have not seen 'night, Mother, but then Bradley Sands would argue that I've never seen any movies. Is Drunk Driving Champion satirical or absurd?

The ultimate purpose of satire is to preach to people by pointing out their flaws. I think one of humanity's largest flaws is preachiness, so I try to avoid writing too much satire. There are satirical parts, mostly making fun of preachy people, but it's not the book's overall purpose. National Lampoon's Deteriorata and We Drive Drunk by Rucka Rucka Ali are parodies that transcend the subject matter, but most satires and parodies don't. I'd say the book, like most things, is absurd, but absurdity is not randomness. Absurdity has a logic of its own.

What do you have in store for us in the immediate future?

Giving the Finger was in the Bizarro Starter Kit Red, and being in a Starter Kit was one of my goals going into the genre. I'm working on assembling a collection with that story as the tentpole. Essentially, the piece is a retelling of the Little Dutch Boy story. Once the boy has stopped the leak in the dike with his finger, the town has no real incentive to let him take his finger out of the hole. The leak is stopped. And when new leaks spring, it only makes sense to take more body parts from the boy for repairs. I had a lot of fun with that one.

I've always been a fan of anti-comedy, so I wrote a sort of anti-horror novel, a zombie story without zombies, which is on Kevin Donihe's desk right now. As a part of the world-building process, my novels usually have an underlying cosmology. Charles from Bucket of Face was a Fifth Day Philistine. Drunk Driving Champion has an afterlife involving reincarnation and the void. This novel, which will either be called Precious Blood of the Lamb or All Our Future Thursdays, works on a modified Last Thursdayist worldview involving tacos, Thursday being the fifth day and tacos being amazing.

I think "All Our Future Thursdays" is a beautiful title. I'd like to hear a little bit more about that, if you can tell me.

It's the usual boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy dies, boy tries to win girl back, boy turns into a sheep, boy looks for tacos, girl dies, boy raises girl from the dead, boy accidentally turns girl into a sheep, boy destroys the universe looking for tacos story. And he does this kind of thing all the time, which is probably why the girl dumped him in the first place. I know this description sounds like a typical romantic comedy, but I tried to put an original spin on it.

Last question. If I told you that you had a beautiful body, would you tell me how to live one's bliss?

You would never say that.

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