from The Register-Guard
I was only a few pages into Dan DeWeese’s Gielgud and already was sufficiently inspired to find a piece of paper and write this down: “DeWeese has an aptitude for mundane but essential internal trails of thought as well as dialogue exchanges that are perfectly balanced between clever and awkward and remarkably revealing — REAL conversation.”
Gielgud (Propeller Books, 2017) is the second novel from the Portland author, publisher and writing instructor. It’s the story of Don Geary, not quite middle aged but no longer young, intermittently employed, single father trying to make sense of a modern landscape that seems to have been painted over the top of the one he once understood.
I found Geary relatable — his station-to-station approach to life, preference for Chicago over Bon Jovi, memories rooted by televised sporting events — so much so that I really wanted to talk to his creator to get a sense of his origins and where the author’s own insights might intersect with Geary’s.
DeWeese was kind enough to oblige.
Question: Living with your protagonist took me through panic and despair to kinship and catharsis — such is a year in the life of Don Geary, who doesn’t make anything easy on himself or those who care about him. How did you invent such a fully realized individual, an utterly complex, simple human?
Answer: I’ve heard nonfiction writers mention ways in which they like to borrow the techniques of fiction — for some this has to do with crafting narrative arcs, for others it may just be the challenge of writing good scenes. And while it’s not necessary to be “realistic” to write good characters — a slime mold can be just as credible a main character as anything — I decided that in this novel it would be best to borrow some of the techniques of nonfiction.
Question: To prove your point, there was a story in Forest Avenue’s City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Tales where the characters were slime molds — and it did work! Are you revealing that you borrowed elements from yourself, maybe people close to you? You and Don Geary did both go to film school.
Answer: If I ran into Don somewhere and we chatted a bit, I think he would be surprised at how many places we’ve both been. It seems like we just barely missed each other. We probably walked right past each other at some point.
Question: I’ve introduced our interview by letting readers know just how real your character’s observations and exchanges are. I saw a tweet from fellow Portland author/publisher Kevin Sampsell while I was in the middle of Gielgud, and my reaction was that it could have come right out of your pages.
“Eavesdropping on two men at Whole Foods talking about their Keen shoes and their ‘quest for comfort.’ ”
I’m sure Don rolled his eyes at these same guys. Do you keep a notebook of those dorky, commonplace human moments we all observe — and participate in?
Answer: I know Kevin, so it goes without saying that I find his Twitter reportage beyond reproach. But you’re right — we all participate in these kinds of conversations, because one of the joys of conversation is the freedom to speak about whatever we want, however we want. I don’t keep a notebook, but certain conversations or moments lodge in memory. When moments stick with me, I assume it’s because something significant was nested there. I wanted “Gielgud” to be a book that could move naturally between humor and drama, so one of the challenges was to find a way to honor the lightness of conversation, but also to assume that lightness is, for many people, a favored mode for encrypting messages of gravity.
Question: And you pulled off that fluid duality brilliantly. The namesake conversation of the book, when Don meets with the venture capitalist “thought leaders,” as you describe them, is exactly what you were reaching for. Their pitch slid from an absurdly entertaining analogy about the movie “Arthur” into a mafia-like warning — it was not a question posed to Don — that he would sign the nondisclosure agreement. But their slap-on-the-back bro delivery never faltered.
I recently read a 2012 OPB interview where you shared this: “DeWeese says he’s learned some surprising lessons along his path, including how the publishing business is less complicated than he once thought it was, and how social media helps him connect with readers.”
The comment about social media, though not deeply revealing, kind of surprised me because I had gotten so enamored with the reality of the world you constructed in Gielgud, I was sure you’d be more derisive. Do you share at least a bit of Don’s cynicism when it comes to the value of these (now mandated?) extras? Or maybe you did eight or 10 years ago, when his story transpires? Here’s a snippet from the brilliant dinner party rant, the bruised heart of the book for me:
“There are publishers I used to admire. Their logos on the spine of the books, I used to admire the logos — they meant something. They all have Facebook accounts now. They were posting pictures of cats the other day. Major publishing houses were posting pictures of cats and puns about cats. I don’t even recognize that.”
Answer: I suspect what’s been summarized there may have had more to do with me talking about the Web magazine I run, and how any writer could now write a good article, post it on Facebook, and their post would reach readers as quickly as the latest piece from national newspapers or magazines. But I should just be clear on my not-unique opinion regarding social media: It seems to me a particularly effective form of what used to be called “brainwashing.” By that I just mean the psychological effects of massive repetition, particularly effective in social media because while being placed under surveillance and bombarded with repetition, we are invited to relax and enjoy ourselves by surveilling others and bombarding them with repetition. The enjoyment makes us that much more receptive to the brainwashing.
But that moment you’ve mentioned from the novel is really about a related issue, which is grief over the disappearance of adult authority — or over the loss of the idea that there might be entities in the world who ask us to rise to their level of discourse and who decline invitations to jump on the bed at our slumber parties.
Question: Do you think as we age we might tend to pander to the perceived dominant culture, in attempt to keep ourselves relevant? Survival sellouts — particularly when technologies are reinvented so rapidly, before we even approach full understanding, let alone mastery? (Not to mention the etiquette and decorum that get churned in the wake). Designed obsolescence is so prevalent in our lives. Like Don, I frequently feel like my energy is better spent digging in than trying to keep up. It feels good to flaunt my curmudgeon retro graphic T-shirt.
I just worry that “the self” is a more porous construction than we like to believe. A technology’s surface presentation can be fun or annoying, but it’s the motives behind a technology that can seduce and change me. I understand that Facebook was invented by a misogynistic young man with underdeveloped social skills. So are those attitudes — fear of people different from me, fear of the ambiguities of in-person conversation — somehow baked into the program? If so, I should be suspicious of any moment in which I’m “enjoying” Facebook. But detecting dangers in social media is easy. What’s harder is acknowledging that those dangers are really dangers in myself.
In fiction, a writer can construct an experience in which readers can see and understand a character’s goals, but can also see a wider context in which those goals maybe don’t mean what the character thinks they mean. That’s probably just a clumsy way of describing the dramatic irony built into novels as a form. In “Gielgud,” I hoped to use that irony to write a story that is engaging in and of itself, but that would also allow suspicious readers room to say, “Hold it — there’s a piece missing. What’s really going on here?”
Question: Is it possible that the missing piece, the veiled in plain sight takeaway, is that the core story of Don Geary is his failure to recognize that he could be, within all of the swirling madness, living a sweet, messy fulfilling love story instead of a bitter, messy — ultimately empty — personal quest for something that always seems to be just out of reach or even comprehension?
Answer: The problem is that when you can’t see there’s a fulfilling love story just beyond the focus of your heroic epic, there’s no guarantee the love story is going to sit around waiting. Sometimes we find our lack of vision a source of comedy, other times we look in the mirror convinced we’ve constructed a tragedy. Technically, I suppose it depends on how things work out.
Question: And let’s not give that away. The above mentioned rant, which I like to think of as more of a spiritual unburdening, is set in motion when one of Don’s friends reads to the group a snippet from a piece of short fiction Don had published in a literary journal that, he decries, no one reads “except for writers trying to get something published in it, and they don’t actually read it, they just skim it and read the author bios.” Does that story, “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” actually exist in full? Did it exist before this book or did you just cook up a few pages for your novel? Because, I kind of love it.
Answer: “The Greatest Game Ever Played” exists only in the netherworld of a computer file. It’s a short novel I wrote, revised, finished, and then decided the world did not need. It’s written in an entirely different voice, so it was convenient to ascribe its authorship to someone else. It shows up a few times in Gielgud like a ghost that appears, mutters something meaningful only to the ghost, and then disappears through a wall.
Question: I feel like that story is a picture of Don Geary inside the picture of Don Geary you’ve given us. Your protagonist is double-walled fortified!
Answer: He is maybe a Russian nesting doll who feels that one of the figures inside of him could have been better painted.
Question: Do you really know someone who does a bad Werner Herzog impression in social settings?
Answer: I of course only know people who do very good Werner Herzog impressions. It is one of the benefits of my particular milieu.
Brian Juenemann is the executive director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association and a contributing editor for NWBookLovers.org.