A Conversation with Eric Lundgren, Author of The Facades
Why did you choose to set The Facades in Trude, a fictional Midwestern city?
Before I started this novel, I had gotten into a creative rut. I was bored with my work, and I needed to do something to blow open the form, something that would let me feel its possibilities again. Inventing a city meant that I could go beyond just creating fictional people and problems; it gave me a chance to seriously mess with the fabric of reality. A recognizable, real world is still there. The city where I live, St. Louis, has been a profound influence on the landscape and the emotional weather of Trude. There are other elements drawn from Minneapolis, where I grew up, and Baton Rouge, where I lived briefly a decade ago. But there are a lot of things that are wholly invented. When you give yourself that much freedom, you also have to take great pains to ensure that the book maintains tension, that there's internal coherence and rules that are legible to the reader. That's the big challenge of writing an altered-reality novel like this.
Can you explain the role that Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities played in your development of Trude?
The initial connection was this idea of the Midwestern U.S. being kind of invisible. Not really distinct in people's minds, lumped together as the flyover or whatever. So when I came across the name Trude in Calvino, it clicked, because he describes Trude as this disappointed place that is endless and consumed with deja-vu, where "only the name of the airport changes." The fact that all of Calvino's cities have feminine names interested me, because in my novel, the disappearance of the protagonist Norberg's wife Molly is the impetus for the whole narrative, there's a tremendous sense of loss projected out onto the city. So I adopted that element. Also I would say that Calvino provided a model of imaginative freedom. The mind at play. Invisible Cities is both an incredibly free and an incredibly formal, structured book.
Washington University in St. Louis seems to be producing a lot of talented young novelists lately. Sarah Bruni's The Night Gwen Stacy Died was published in July and Anton DiSclafani's The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls was released earlier this summer as well. What is it about St. Louis that makes the city such a hotbed for new fiction?
Well, that's funny. Anton and I graduated in 2006, and Sarah was the next year, I think. And all of us went through an incredibly long, grueling process of finishing the books, shopping them around, and revising, and here in 2013, all three of us are publishing within months of each other! But a lot of credit has to be given to Kathryn Daviswho also has a new book this fall, her first in seven years. Kathryn is one of our very best writers, and an amazing teacher as well. Since her arrival at Wash U in 2005, the program has really soared. I'm pretty sure I could not get accepted there anymore. It was a tough but ultimately transformative experience for me, the opposite of the stereotypical MFA experience where all the idiosyncrasies are shaved off your work and you emerge with this bland product. I felt that I was really pushed to go out on a limb and explore the weirder aspects of what I could do as a writer.
And St. Louis is an inspiring place. It's falling apart rather beautifully. It's cheap, the culture is interesting, the literary tradition is strong, and we have great libraries and bookstores.
You aren't a parent yourself, although your protagonist Sven Norberg is. Did you find it challenging to write from the perspective of a father who's struggling to raise a son despite not having any children of your own?
There are a lot of aspects of the novel that I haven't experienced directly. I've never had the experience of my wife disappearing (thank god!) So you have to find a way to think yourself into those experiences. In the case of Molly's disappearance, it was her association with music that allowed me to relate to it emotionally. Because I was a very serious cellist growing up, and it was the center of my life for a long time, and I lost that. So that is why Molly is so closely identified with her voice and with music. In terms of Norberg's relationship with his son Kyle, I had a period in high school when I was a really bad kid, just awful to my parents, who didn't deserve it at all. So I've often thought back guiltily on that time. This influenced my portrayal of the relationship, although not in a straightforward way, because Kyle is not really a bad kid, it's Norberg who mainly falls short as a father. But the guilt and the strain, the miscommunicationI drew those things from memory. You draw from life and then find ways to bury it in the fiction, to let it nourish the fiction from below.
Who have you discovered lately?
Well, I am a great fan of Sarah Bruni's book, The Night Gwen Stacy Died. Sarah's book takes on a daunting subject, which is Midwestern boredom, and how it can lead people to construct these seductive but dangerous narratives for themselves. It is a beautifully written book, it takes risks, it has imaginative vision. I like to think of our books as cousins.
Another debut novel I really enjoyed recently was A Questionable Shape, by Bennett Sims. It's a zombie novel set in Baton Rouge on the brink of hurricane season. And it's a rumination on memory and loss and the ways there are to feel undead. So subtle, so brilliantly observant. And it has footnotesthat is actually a selling point for me. It was published by Two Dollar Radio books, an outstanding small publisher operating out of Columbus. It has been great to see Midwestern literary culture take off over the past few years, with the consistent success of places like Graywolf Press, Dalkey Archive, Coffee House Press, and journals like the Missouri Review and Midwestern Gothic. People are starting to pay more attention to what's coming out of the Midwest. They may still be flying over, but they're reading our books on the planes.