Tripoli College. Originally founded as a free school for Native Americans in the late 18th Century, it now has an international student body, a branch campus in the Caribbean and no money. Soon, the college is forced to enter a repressive financial relationship with snack food giant Big Anna® Brands. The college president is discarded and the students and faculty are used as test subjects. Then, the year takes a dark turn…
American novelist Aaron Thier’s epistolary debut is biting satirical and acidly hilarious. Christy Ku caught up with him for a chat about writers’ roles in politics and tips for writers.
We’re living in very turbulent times – do you feel literature gets a say in politics? Should writers have an opinion on political issues?
One of my favourite books is a novel called U.S.!, by Chris Bachelder, which is about this problem. Young American liberals keep exhuming and reanimating the corpse of progressive novelist Upton Sinclair (he is remembered for The Jungle, a book about the depravities of the American meat-packing industry, but he also ran for governor of California). They get him moving and then they drive around trying to resurrect the progressive movement itself. Sinclair keeps getting assassinated. One of the central jokes is that even though Sinclair is a mostly admirable figure, a great believer in justice and fairness and compassion, etc., his writing is comically awful. He has a certain kind of political integrity but no aesthetic integrity. I think that’s the inevitable trade-off. To make good art you have to want to make good art more than you want other things. Political activism is very important, but it’s something different, a different category of utterance. U.S.! is a progressive book, that is, but its motive is aesthetic rather than political. It’s about life. It’s only about politics in the sense that politics is a part of life.
What inspired you to write The Ghost Apple?
For me everything starts as a joke and then gathers its seriousness later. The first things I wrote were the fake course descriptions. I wrote them during graduate English seminars, as a way of negotiating the tedium. But then I think I read U.S.!, which also contains some fake documents, and I starting thinking about institutional language more generally. What if all of these dry institutional documents—things like course descriptions and health center pamphlets and travel brochures—were written by peevish and outraged people who were ultimately trying to articulate a private grievance? This seemed very funny to me, and that was the main thing. I wanted to write a book that was not boring. As for how it turned into a book about slavery… At this point it seems like a natural outcome. I was thinking about what things really mean. Subtext. All of these codes and clichés. Slavery is the most important thing about the United States, the subtext of all our political arguments, the grievance that begs to be expressed. Usually we try not to talk about it, but we can’t help it. It’s there in all that institutional language. It is the large grievance of American history. That’s what The Ghost Apple is about.
It’s your debut novel – whilst it was a lot of fun for me to read, how did you find writing it? Was it a challenging book to write?
It was a joy to write. I wish I were still writing it! Of course I struggled for years with other failed novels. The Ghost Apple only came easily because I’d already worked all that stuff out.
What did you study at Yale University? Did you find your experience there helps you with your writing? There’s a lot of academic satire in your book!
I studied comparative literature, but “study” is a pretty generous way to describe it. I mostly wasted my time drinking grain alcohol and trying to feel melancholy. I loved Yale, though, and that’s definitely where I taught myself to write. I built a podium so I could write standing up in the early mornings. I worked very hard and ignored my coursework. As for The Ghost Apple: Is it credible if I say that I wrote it without thinking I was writing satire, let alone academic satire? I was thinking about institutions in general—the ways they fail us, the ways in which they are sometimes much worse than we are. A college was a good institution from a literary perspective because it’s small, contained, easy to manage, susceptible to corruption, etc. And everybody knows about college.
What are your influences? Which books do you read again and again?
I carry a disintegrating copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Autumn of the Patriarch wherever I go. It has a biblical importance for me. Borges too, both fiction and nonfiction. Latin American writers. I joke that I’m a postcolonial writer myself. No one finds this funny. I love V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas, and I reread Beckett’s Molloy and Malone Dies. Penelope Fitzgerald too. And Mary Robison, Flannery O’Connor, Faulkner, Padgett Powell, Denis Johnson, Bruce Chatwin, Joan Didion, Peter Matthiessen. And P.G. Wodehouse!
Do you have any advice for young writers?
Just sit alone in a room and read everything, I guess. It is not glamorous advice, but the only thing you can control is how hard you work, so you have to work as hard as you can. Read everything and write every day. And when you’re not reading and writing, try to get some distance. Scramble your brains somehow. Stare into the sun. Exercise immoderately. Anaesthetize yourself. Or maybe just do things you like doing? Try not to be unhappy. I really think this is important, but it’s no small trick.
What’s next for you?
I just finished a new novel. It’s still called Mr. Eternity, but I think they’re scheming to change the title. It’s about a thousand-year-old sailor who calls himself Daniel Defoe and wanders around spreading misinformation and causing trouble. It starts in 1560, when he’s in the jungle looking for El Dorado, and it ends in 2500, when the United States has fallen apart and he’s an advisor to the desert king of St. Louis. Ultimately it’s a novel about climate change. I guess I was trying to console myself? It’s supposed to be a heart-warming novel about apocalyptic climate change.
Have you heard of Yaron Brook? He did a controversial talk recently at our university for XTV, and very strongly believes in capitalism (he did the thing you don’t do in Britain—denounce the NHS!). I noticed his views are very different from the points raised in the book, so I was interested in your thoughts:
Twenty minutes of Mr. Brook and my hands and feet start to go numb, so I can’t speak to the details of his argument, if “details” is the right word. This is religious fundamentalism, isn’t it? And religious fundamentalism is not something that has contributed to the sum of human happiness. In any case, he seems like a profoundly dangerous man. When I see him in Hell, I’m going to hide.
You can buy the Ghost Apple here. For more information, visit the links below!
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