1. Tell us a little about your new novel.
Simple Machines is a novel of myth and ritual, telling a story of Wisconsin dating from the Ojibwa flood myth to the end of the twentieth century, all within the frame of a year in the life of Tomas Zimmermann, the book’s narrator, as he spends a last summer at home on an island in Lake Superior, then leaves for college in Madison, where he falls in with an unusual, and ultimately destructive, crowd.
2. I’d call Simple Machines a coming of age story that’s also, as one of your blurbs states, picaresque. I’m curious about how this story took root—is it based on people you know?
Though I didn’t model the character of Ernst after my own father, there is one ritual that recurs throughout the novel that is central to my original conception of the book, and that is Tom and his father riding bikes together in circles around the island. My own father and I rode together from when I was five until when he died fifty years later. When I was a kid, he had to wait for me to catch up, and then there came a time when I was in my teens when I got to be faster than him, and that was a very fraught period for both of us.
For tens of thousands of miles and tens of thousands of hours we rode together. Mostly, those rides felt rote and obligatory for both of us, I think, but there was also an intimacy and an ease of communication. That’s what I was trying to convey.
The picaresque aspects of the novel were inspired by growing up and going to school in Madison. My family moved there just as the anti-Vietnam-War movement was turning violent. It was a time of very vivid personages, and that tradition carried over when I was in college. Most of the characters in the second part of the novel were based on other students I observed from a distance on campus and wondered about and made up stories about.
3. You write so lyrically but also accessibly about the Wisconsin landscape—I’m guessing you knew before you started this novel that it would be set in Wisconsin; can you comment on how important setting is in your writing overall? Your first novel, When Bad Things Happen to Rich People, was set in Chicago and Lake Forest, and I'm guessing setting was also of primary importance to you as you told that story.
Yes, absolutely, although I was steeped in aspects of northern North-American landscapes and culture when I was growing up—particularly winter days spent outdoors—I didn’t truly recognize how distinctive and compelling it all was as a setting for writing until I moved to the south for four years for graduate school. I remember sweating while walking to class one early November morning in Fayetteville, Arkansas, and thinking, “What the hell? It’s thirty degrees back home.”
What the characters in both my novels have in common is that they don’t have money. They are not poor, but they struggle to get by. People in those circumstances tend to be observant of the details of day to day life around them.
4. There are postmodern flourishes in Simple Machines that I loved—lists, excerpts from of a play, song lyrics—do these different forms simply appear organically in your mind as you're writing?
I doubt any literary movement was ever more thoroughly reviled than Postmodernism—and that was while it was happening! Now it’s worse. But I first started writing in college in the eighties, and I was exhilarated by so much of what was coming out in those days that my hands used to literally shake when I was reading and writing. Lorrie Moore was one of my first workshop teachers, and Self Help is still one of my favorite short story collections. I loved Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes. A lot of Postmodern fiction was inspired by Borges, whom I also loved, and by Joseph Conrad’s frame tales and Turn of the Screw by Henry James and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Marguerite Duras. All of that cleverness really excited me. I would urge writers and readers of this intertextual, post-mash-up age in which we live these days to revisit the literature of the eighties.
5. This novel is told in 27 briskly paced chapters—is this the structure you envisioned from the start? Or did it gradually reveal itself as your progressed in your writing?
Oh, thank you for saying “briskly.” Shoehorning hundreds of years of history into a year in the life of a character was an act of trench warfare that required a lot of revision. So, it was something of a relief to me, when I started to read the book back to myself, that the action actually moved along pretty well. I based the circumstances of Ernst and Tomas on the Icarus myth, so their fates were predestined. Everything else was more or less a surprise to me.
6. Tomas’s father Ernst’s character is informed by his intimate experience with loss and disappointment—was he a more challenging character to write than any of the other principals?
In a lot of ways, his worldview was the most familiar. Anyone who grows up aspiring to be a great athlete or an artist is schooled in the mathematics of failure from an early age. Professional cycling at the time Ernst would’ve been at it was a very working-class sport, a lot of pain, a lot of long hours in the saddle for very little money, and a lot of lingering bitterness among athletes of different European countries following the war. Tomas understands how his father takes his life’s disappointments out on him. It’s a familiar dynamic, I think. The fear of failure is the hobgoblin of our aspirations, and it often appears to us in the form of our parents.
7. What are you working on now if you don't mind sharing a few details?
The book I am working on now is set in the comedy clubs of the Catskills in the 1960s. I was born in a small town along Route 17 in Upstate New York, where my folks grew up. That was the main highway from the city to what people who vacationed there used to call “the mountains.” I have wanted to write about this time and place for a long time and am very excited to be started.
Ian Morris is the managing editor of Punctuate: A Nonfiction Magazine, published by Columbia College Chicago. He is the author of the novel When Bad Things Happen to Rich People (Switchgrass Books, 2014), and is coeditor, with Joanne Diaz, The Little Magazine in America (University of Chicago Press, 2015).