Books In Conversation
Andrew Farkas with Kathleen Rooney
The Great Indoorsman
(University of Nebraska Press, 2022)
Hiking, camping, skiing, rafting—Andrew Farkas wants none of these. Rather, as the title of his latest essay collection indicates, he’s more the indoor type. The Great Indoorsman, published this month by University of Nebraska Press, is wry, absurdist, and absurdly amusing, with Farkas serving as a casual yet expert guide on a sublime tour of what he defines as the in-of-doors. Sure, they’re not lofty mountain peaks or oceans deep, but Farkas proves that dive bars and coffeehouses, dilapidated movie theaters and dying malls, waiting rooms and pool halls can reward our exploration all the same. The author of the novel The Big Red Herring (KERNPUNKT Press, 2019), the short story collection Sunsphere (BlazeVOX Books, 2019), and the short story collection Self-Titled Debut (Subito Press, 2008), Farkas is known for crafting what Alissa Nutting calls “philosophical labyrinth[s] of delicious, Barthelme-style surprises.” With an approach as erudite as it is chill, Farkas has written an enchanting yet down-to-earth collection perfect for any reader in any clime, be they sitting on the couch and rarely going out or turning the pages in a tent by flashlight. We spoke over email in early February 2022 just as his book was about to come out, about how sartorial style ties to literary style, how you cannot declare yourself to be a cult author, and how writing might just be the ultimate indoor activity.
Kathleen Rooney (Rail): Of what does a typical day in the life of Andrew Farkas consist?
Andrew Farkas: Nighttime is when I pace and pace and pace (I bet my downstairs neighbor loves me) and then I write. During the day, I complain that the sun is too bright a lot. I miss the cloudiness of the upper Midwest.
Rail: The optimal way for people to find the answer to this question is to read your book, but why do you think so many people are drawn to an outdoorsy lifestyle, whereas you gravitate inexorably to interior spaces?
Farkas: I’m much more into the beautiful on purpose, rather than the beautiful accident. Other people maybe see the outdoors as spiritual, mystical, but I do not. I think of it as a place you can go to and you either enjoy it or you don’t. My view: the indoors was made self-consciously by people for people. The fact that I like that probably also explains the kind of art I like: self-conscious, stylistic.
Rail: Of your novel The Big Red Herring, Publishers Weekly observed: “Farkas leaves narrative convention lying dizzy on the floor, with prose that invokes Thomas Pynchon and Neal Stephenson.” I’m not a huge fan of the (usually false anyway) opposition of “traditional” and “experimental” literature. But I do admire your work for its experimentality and deliberate embrace of strangeness in both structure and content. What is your attitude toward narrative convention? How do you approach those conventions differently in nonfiction as compared to fiction?
Farkas: I’m attracted to things that are weird. So whereas I have no problem with conventional narratives, I’m always going to be drawn toward works that make me ask, “What’s going on here?” I suppose you could say that my view of art isn’t the old mirror up to nature, instead it’s art adds to nature. As for my approach, I actually think the only difference is in nonfiction, if I make something up, I make sure to tell the reader.
Rail: Are Pynchon and Stephenson influences? Who else do you consider an influence? What’s your desert island favorite book to read and what’s your dreamiest book to teach?
Farkas: Pynchon’s earlier works are. Otherwise, Samuel Beckett, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme, Tom Stoppard, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lydia Millet, Anne Garréta. Desert island book: Raymond Chandler’s The Long Goodbye. Dreamiest book to teach: Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel.
Rail: You teach at Washburn University in Topeka—what do you love and not love about being a teacher? How about living in Kansas? You reside in Lawrence, right, and not Topeka? How did you choose that town?
Farkas: Lawrence warmly reminds me of Kent, Ohio, maybe because it’s a college town in the Midwest that has a different vibe than much of the state. What I don’t love about Kansas… well, I miss Chicago. On teaching, I love it when I have students who are excited about their writing and who I can help in some small way. As for what I don’t love, I think every writer would like to have more time for their writing.
Rail: You teach a Cult Films class, and in your syllabus, you say that you’ll “explore the intersections between cult films and American culture and counterculture” and that “we will attempt to define the idea of ‘cult’ film. Since the term ‘cult’ is used to define movies as diverse as Fight Club and Plan 9 From Outer Space, Apocalypse Now, and The Breakfast Club, Reefer Madness and Citizen Kane, there are obviously myriad definitions for what a ‘cult’ film actually is.” What drew you to this subject, and what do you think a cult film is?
Farkas: As a teenager, I was one of the unconventional conventionalists at The Rocky Horror Picture Show every weekend. And the deeper I dove into cinema, the more I realized most of my favorite movies were cult films. To me, cult films are darker and much more difficult to fathom than mainstream movies. They’re also, either consciously or not, fine with being ungainly. I think cult novels do the same things that cult films do, but reading is a solitary activity (which is good because we need the community found in cult films and the solitude found in reading).
Rail: Do you consider yourself a cult writer? Can someone set out to write a cult hit, or must it happen organically?
Farkas: Whereas you can purposely write a cult novel, you can’t declare yourself a cult writer. You can only aspire to be one. Now, who’s with me?
Rail: Something I love about your writing is a blend of unexpectedly ironic sincerity or (if you’d rather) sincere irony. You have a keen sense of the ridiculousness of basically all life and human beings, crossed with a massive amount of love and compassion for people and their endeavors in all their glorious silliness. In your essays, you have a willingness to hold your own foolish moments up to the light, especially in the absolutely killer, “Noir Girl (an Essay in Two Takes),” which shows you being a romantic fool at the Crystal Lounge in Montana. Was it hard to be that vulnerable, and how do you approach tone and sympathy in both fiction and nonfiction?
Farkas: When I hang with my friends, we make fun of each other a lot. Not in any cruel way, but in a jovial way. It’s not done to criticize, or to bring about change. Maybe it’s more like a standup comic doing an impression. Celebrating the great things and the not-so-great. I think this is how I manage the sincere irony you’re talking about. Part of the game, though, is to make fun of yourself too. None of us is number one. Being vulnerable isn’t all that difficult, then. In “Noir Girl,” I didn’t worry about looking foolish, I only worried about writing the best essay I could with the source material.
Rail: You have a self-aware and meta approach to writing, too, and in this essay collection you write a lot about games—pool and bowling and cards and so forth. Where does this playful approach originate, and how is (and isn’t) writing kind of the ultimate indoor game?
Farkas: Part of it comes from my laid-back way with everything, which stems from my absurdist worldview. I guess that’s why I like the postmodernists so much. Games, then, are an extension of that. When you’re playing a game, you’re supposedly not doing anything important (“We’re not playing games here!” say many people who want to be very serious). But since we (humans) assign the importance, games are just as likely to be important as anything else. This fits with my idea of joking around with your friends by making fun of them. From there, yes, we can see writing is the ultimate indoor game. Each time, I have to invent a new one, figure out how to play it, and “master” it, which requires me to spend lots of time by myself in my apartment. But then there is no mastering since the next piece always comes along, and I have to go through the whole process again. Just like a game, I could not play. But that’s not an option I savor.
Rail: Full disclosure, you and I met when you were earning your Ph.D. from the University of Illinois in Chicago and are friends to this day. The observant reader might notice that I blurbed your essay collection. Why did you pursue a Ph.D., and do you think it helped you achieve anything that you could not have done otherwise? What would you tell somebody who is toying with the possibility of getting a Creative Writing Ph.D. themselves?
Farkas: Creative writing programs are always opportunities to find more people through workshop who might become your lifelong responders, the people who help you out (and you, in turn, help them). I know some people dislike workshop, but I found people at each one of my schools who continue to comment on my work and I comment on theirs. This is invaluable.
Rail: You also got your MFA from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa. Can you say how that experience went and how it differed from the Ph.D.?
Farkas: The MFA was the degree I always wanted. And Alabama, when I was going there, was a great program because it was open to everything. There was so much energy! Granted, many of us did not like Tuscaloosa. The program, though, was phenomenal! You were constantly challenged because everyone else was working on something amazing. I felt like I was in one of those art schools or film schools where years later folks say, “All those people went to school together?!” The Ph.D. was similar, but there it was the program and the entire Chicago literary scene.
Rail: You’ve gotten at least a couple blurbs from Michael Martone. Is he one of your mentors? We are big fans of his at Rose Metal Press, too. How great is he? How has he shaped your own approach to mentorship?
Farkas: Michael Martone is definitely my mentor and he is awesome. I remember once while I was in the MFA program I had a meeting with him and he talked to me for a long time about what I was doing in my writing and how he thought I was holding myself back, not really doing what I actually wanted to do. That was an extremely important revelation. As for mentorship, I noticed he was happy to work with any writer, no matter what style they happened to be interested in. Back then I was pro-experimental, anti-realist. I stopped thinking that way thanks to Michael Martone.
Rail: Style and stylishness shine through in each of these essays—like in “Wait Here?”, your far-from-boring essay about the boredom of waiting rooms, which is organized around questions, and “An Essay About Nothing,” almost entirely in dialogue to name just a couple. You also have a distinctive sartorial style. Can you tell us about your approach to dressing and accessories (especially shirts and spectacles) and how you see clothing style pertaining to literary style?
Farkas: The glasses come from Martone (he wears Shuron Ronsirs) and his teacher, John Barth, also used to wear them. I see the glasses as connecting me to a lineage. As for my island shirts and bowling shirts, well, in my dress and in my writing I hope to come off as laid back, wacky, and (hopefully) knowledgeable. I got this from Larry McCaffery. When he came to UIC, he wore a Hawaiian shirt and jeans to give his talk. He looked laid back, wacky, but he knew what he was talking about. I immediately thought, “That’s what I want to be like.”
Rail: The array of texts and source material you draw upon in your essays is dazzling, but you integrate this knowledge in such a low-key way. My favorite essay is maybe (it’s hard to choose!) “When Hamburger Station Is Busy,” about a burger joint in Ohio that you loved and often went to with your dad. Near the end, you quote MIT physicist Max Tegmark to insinuate that instead of feeling sad about the inevitable demise of this beloved spot, a better approach might be acceptance because in a four-dimensional understanding of the world, Hamburger Station is both perpetually alive and open and perpetually already dead and defunct. How do you decide what allusions and citations to include, and how do you strike this balance between braininess and accessibility?
Farkas: Writing The Great Indoorsman, I struggled with the same problem nonfiction writers always struggle with: why would anyone want to read about me? My solution was to bring in different texts, so it’s not just all about Andy. In fact, I often even start with the allusions I’ll make and then figure out how to write the rest of the essay with the outside sources as a guide. I think that’s why my allusions feel low-key—they’re so integral to the essay, they couldn’t not be there. “When Hamburger Station Is Busy” begins as a thought problem; physicists use thought problems; I need a physicist. Of course, I used to think that extreme difficulty was a good idea. I don’t think that way so much anymore. Now, I provide some explanations so people who may not know my references can understand what’s going on. I still leave the reader plenty of work to do, though, since I’m not into texts that leave us with no questions at all.
Rail: You serve as the fiction editor for the online literary magazine The Rupture—another noble indoor activity. How does your work as an editor there inform your work as a writer?
Farkas: At the 2018 AWP in Tampa, Gabe Blackwell and I did a reading together (we had originally met at the 2009 AWP in Chicago). Afterwards, Gabe said that he was a bit overwhelmed with all of the submissions he had to read, since he was editing multiple genres at the time. I offered to help out and, after a probationary period, I became Co-Fiction Editor. My work as an editor helps my writing because I get to see what’s going on out there. It keeps me from hiding in the bubble writers sometimes get into.
Rail: Not to pressure you to be excessively busy or productive, but in my experience, you’re always working on something interesting. What are you cooking up next?
Farkas: My next book is going to be a collection of short stories called Movies Are Fine for a Bright Boy Like You, wherein I play with movie tropes in lots of different ways.