“Short stories are gems. Novels, however,” according to one of my favorite creative writing teachers, “are big bags.” Mike Heppner’s work both affirms and challenges this judgement. For while Mike’s novels are capacious, and even though their contours may be occasionally lumpy, they are anything but prone to shapelessness. His latest book, We Came All This Way (coming June 9 from Thought Catalog Books), is a fine example of how well he understands what novels can hold, as well as how big-hearted his acceptance of the form’s limitations are. Mike’s novels offer a plethora of pleasures—rich local color, gonzo riffs on pop culture, characters whose sangfroid can mask a sophisticated silliness, equal helpings of Gass-like profundity and Elkin-esque vulgarity, and an appreciation how fringe the most American of American lives often are—but their “so much” never balloons into “too much.” His responses to my always-more-than-can-manage questions below are characteristically unassuming. Fish around in their crannies and explore their seams, however, and, just as with Mike’s fiction, you’ll find that his comments re-define your expectations more than they conform to them.
From the publisher:
“We Came All This Way is the first novel in eight years from the author whom Entertainment Weekly calls ‘… a fearsome cultural critic disguised in a novelist’s clothing,’ and the Washington Post calls ‘… a young master of this old art.’ It’s the story of Roseanne Okerfeldt, a thirty-one year old mother of four who finds her life in Grand Rapids, Michigan stultifying, and runs off with her brother and eldest child to live on a decommissioned oil rig in the middle of the North Atlantic.
There, Roseanne and the thirty-seven other residents of ‘Mobility’ (as they call their new home) struggle against the elements and their own basic oddness to establish an independent society based on utopian principles of cooperation and self-sufficiency. As the months pass, the pressure increases on Roseanne to return to Michigan and confront her former life, while Mobility itself—with its delicate balance of extreme personalities—splinters toward chaos.
Roseanne tells her own story in a comic, aware, and self-deprecating voice, starting with her childhood in suburban Ohio, her early marriage and pregnancies, and her experiences on Mobility, which involve pirate attacks, the vague omens of a Belgian soothsayer, and a man with blue skin. We Came All This Way is about finding a place in the world and trying to grow up before your kids do.”
1) How did the character of Rosie Okerfeldt (nee Crim) first introduce herself to you?
As a voice. Especially when you’re writing in first person, it’s often what comes first. In my mind, I heard a woman telling me what her life was like growing up in Ohio, and I just followed her voice. As I came to know her a little better, I found her to be “a tough cookie,” like many women I’ve known. She’s smart but pretends not to be; she sometimes makes questionable choices, but there’s an odd bravery to them. I tried not to decide too much about her ahead of time, but to make her acquaintance gradually, the way you would with a real person. Writing requires good listening skills. You don’t want to impose too much upon your characters, or at least I don’t. When I started writing the book, my daughter was only a few months old, and so I was thinking a lot about the peculiar exhaustion that often accompanies that time. Inevitably your characters wind up being a reflection of your own strengths and weaknesses.
2) This novel participates in a long and distinguished tradition in which utopian schemes are viewed with great skepticism. What, in your opinion, is the worst way in which a utopia might go wrong?
I’m not the person to offer a particularly erudite response, but I will say that social movements sometimes go wrong when they become too expansionist in their goals. In that sense, I think the people of Mobility had the right idea. Our mutual friend, Joseph McElroy, turned me onto Small Is Beautiful: A Study of Economics As If People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher, which has something to say about this.
3) There’s a great deal, and a great variety, of humor in We Came All This Way. There is the book’s pointed satire, of course, but there are also moments of near-slapstick as well as observations that, in their bemused resignation, would not feel that out of place in Lake Wobegon. What, as you see it, is the role of humor in so-called “serious fiction”?
I thought a lot about Vonnegut while I was writing the book, particularly the second half, once the characters reach Mobility. Sometimes when I wondered if I was being too broad or straying too far from “reality,” I would ask myself whether or not Vonnegut would care. Often we look to older writers for permission to push ourselves a little. To the extent that serious fiction seeks to be all-encompassing, humor is a big part of capturing the fullness of life. That said, I tend to believe that in writing, humor just happens. I don’t think I ever write to emphasize the humor in a scene. I try to be mindful of my characters and how they might plausibly act in a given situation, and whatever humor might come out of that is a welcome bonus. As a part-Scandinavian, humorlessness is my default mode (though it’s the same humorlessness that forms the crux of Scandinavian humor).
4) Little more than midway through We Came All This Way, Rosie admits: “I didn’t want to face the consequences of my actions. The consequences of my actions were bullshit.” This seems, to me anyway, like one of the most genuine moments of grace in the entire book, as so many of the other individuals populating Mobility appear incapable of such an epiphany, even one that doesn’t really generate much in the way of “character development.” (I mean only that Rosie’s subsequent actions and choices appear to be influenced little by her admission / anti-confession.) Are epiphanies functional in the world of this novel, are they just drastically curtailed, or is all they can accomplish just a multiplication of the bullshit?
There’s a certain shared insanity that sets in as the novel goes on, which might upset the chances of anything as rational as an epiphany taking place. If I have a preferred narrative structure, it might be that of order into chaos; an incremental loss of propriety, which is sometimes reflected in the writing itself. My novels start out in business suits and wind up in torn and bloodied togas. I find myself writing a lot of argument scenes. Though I don’t like arguing in real life, I admire the shape of an argument on the page, the way talking points gradually give way to brute, almost pre-verbal expression.
5) We Came All This Way is also the story of one writer’s growth, and of one writer’s attempt to cope with the crises that come with realizing that one has become, of all things, a writer. One of my very favorite scenes in the novel in this regard comes near the very end, and involves Rosie and her single-volume edition of the OED. But does the end of this novel coincide with the end of Rosie’s life as a writer?
I think Rosie is writing for a specific purpose, to tell her side of the story. The novel takes the form of a mea culpa, but it’s a mea culpa on Rosie’s terms. She knows she needs to acknowledge her wrong-doings—primarily the abandonment of her three infant children—in order to rehabilitate herself in the public eye, but at the same time she wants people to understand that she felt pushed into doing what she did, and the pressures that caused her to leave her family could’ve been alleviated had other people been more understanding. As a confession, it’s fairly skin-deep; she’s making a flimsy gesture in order to get herself out of a jam. That’s her purpose in writing, and a somewhat sketchy one: to gain full forgiveness while avoiding full responsibility. Once she’s divested herself of that need, I’m not so sure the impulse for her to write would survive—thus the scene at the end with the OED.
6) Among all of the “big subjects” We Came All This Way addresses, would you agree or disagree that class is one of them?
I hadn’t quite thought of that. The Egg Code notwithstanding, I tend to avoid big subjects in my fiction, or at least I try to avoid being overly aware of them as I’m writing. Class is certainly an issue in the sense that being independently wealthy allows Dr. Clement Snow (the founder of Mobility) the leisure to develop his social theories and the capital to put those theories into action. There’s also a certain class stratification that occurs in the book’s fourth and final part, by which point so many people have left the island that each social “class” essentially consists of one member. (Vonnegut again, Galapagos in particular.) So I think you’re right. For me, “theme” often comes late in the process—it’s rarely a starting point.
7) If you could make one choice for Rosie’s daughter Star, what would that be?
At least to get more direct input than what she’s receiving from her mother. Rosie has a lot of positive things to offer her daughter, but those things need context, balance, other perspectives. It’s possible Star won’t receive enough of those other perspectives if she remains where she is.
8) Place, and associated (but not always commensurate) notions of home make themselves felt acutely in this novel. What attracted you to the brand name-studded Ohio of Rosie’s child- and young adulthood?
I grew up in Michigan, near Detroit. My mom still lives there, and I drive across northern Ohio three or four times a year when I go out to visit her (I don’t like to fly). I know the I-80/90 corridor pretty well. Ohio is a place I pass through, which certainly doesn’t qualify me to write about it. I think I do understand the Midwest a bit—I wanted Rosie to grow up in a place I had a rough cultural and geographical familiarity with, but wasn’t too close to home. Over-familiarity can be distracting to a fiction writer. In fact, Rosie’s hometown, Milner, is made-up, though I imagined it to be somewhere just south of Cleveland. As far as “brand name-studded” goes, I’ve long had a fantasy of actually living in a shopping mall. I’ve been massaging an idea for a long novel set entirely in a shopping mall, with each chapter centered around a different store. So: chapter one, “Pottery Barn.” Chapter two, “Art of Shaving.” I don’t know if I’ll ever actually write it. I suppose I’ve just given it away. I’m interested in the ersatz, the faux, the value neutral—I think it must have something to do with being morbidly inclined, like many Swedes. I like the smell of hotels. Signage. You know what I’m talking about.
9) Your career as a novelist essentially spans the last decade and a half. And your first novel, The Egg Code (2002) was one of the first literary documents I can recall reading which attempted a genuine engagement with the ways in which the Internet—not nearly as instantaneous and social in its textures then as it is now—is transforming our experience of both our world and our own humanity. I find, for lack of a better summation, more machinery than metaphor in how the phenomena of online existence are treated in We Came All This Way. How has your own relationship to the Internet adjusted and grown over the course of your writing life?
I like your phrase, “more machinery than metaphor,” and I think it suggests something about the way we evolve over time. As we get older, life itself becomes more machinery than metaphor. When we’re young, there’s a tendency to over-experience everything; to perceive connections, draw parallels, inflate the mundane and material to the rarefied level of metaphor. That’s what’s great about being young. When we’re twenty-five (my age when I started writing The Egg Code) the Internet is not only a metaphor for American society at the turn of the millennium, but also the fragmentation of our own individual consciousnesses. When we’re forty-two (my age now) the Internet is a way to pay our doctor’s bills online. But that’s also what’s great about being middle-aged! The Egg Code wasn’t widely read when it first came out, but I do think it retains some value as a snapshot of where our national discourse was located in the months before 9/11. Not my intention at the time, obviously.
10) All through my reading, I wondered particularly about Rosie’s brother, Wallis. I mean, I could not make up my mind about him. Rosie thinks the world of him, and cuts him no end of slack, but I’m less enamored of him. Perhaps because I’m concerned that there’s something unhealthy in Rosie’s constant re-validation of his genius and purity of intention. And then I wonder if Wallis isn’t the one of Rosie’s “victims” who suffers the most, if her worship hasn’t warped him, or at least paralyzed in some manner not utterly unlike the car accident that has confined him to wheelchair. If there were one more “Wallis and Rosie” scene you could write for We Came All This Way, what might that scene entail?
I share your feelings about Wallis. I always found him to be an enigma—we never really get all that close to him—but whenever I tried being a bit more emotionally forthright about him on the page, it rang false. I ultimately decided to embrace those reserved qualities as being true to his character. There are people who rarely disclose their feelings, even to their closest relatives. Rosie asserts that Wallis is the most important person in her life, but what she values in him is largely a projection borne out of her own shortcomings. Their actual conversations tend to be about trivial things, like suntan lotion. I suppose an additional scene might’ve involved Rosie and Wallis engaging with each other in a more candid fashion, but it just didn’t feel in character for either one of them. I think it’s fair to test your characters, but when they continue to resist what you throw at them, sometimes you just need to let them win. By the way, I don’t think of that as being a dereliction of a writer’s duties—it’s just being a good listener.
Mike Heppner is the author of two novels, The Egg Code and Pike’s Folly, a short fiction collection, The Man Talking Project, and a novella, Nada. His writing has appeared in Nerve, Golden Handcuffs Review, The New Guard, Poets & Writers, and Esquire Online. He lives in Arlington, Massachusetts.