A farm in Vietnam. Photo illustration by Ryan Chapman.
This summer, Alex Gilvarry released his sophomore novel, Eastman Was Here (Viking), based on the life of Norman Mailer during the Vietnam War. On another side of the universe, Gabe Hudson also came out with his second book, Gork, The Teenage Dragon (Knopf), a bildungsroman about a fire-breathing poet in training. Both stories feature writers who turn to humor to work through the pain and complexity of human (even if reptilian) relationships.
Gilvarry and Hudson first met a few years ago when they were out celebrating Gary Shteyngart’s birthday. Fans of each other’s work, they bonded quickly and their conversations ran the gamut from the serious and philosophical to the down to earth and brutally funny. This fall they sat down to talk at a bar by the fragrant Gowanus Canal, where they discussed their new books, empathy for dragons, and the lingering impact of their fathers’ wars.
How did you go from writing Dear Mr. President, a book of short stories about war veterans, to Gork, the Teenage Dragon, a coming of age love story about a dragon who attends a military academy in outer space?
Gabe HudsonThere’s a tiny shelf of mind-bending writers that I feel a connection with, including Franz Kafka, Lewis Carroll, Philip K. Dick, Douglas Adams, and Kurt Vonnegut. Their weird imaginative prowess and potent truth-telling feel like they came at great risk to their psychic well-being. For a long time now I’ve felt a calling to produce work in that mode. And I very deliberately set out to do that with Gork.
AGSo why a dragon? And why a dragon in outer space?
GHI’m drawn to monster myths and my writing is a way to unearth the humanity therein. I’d say that both dragons and Marines have reputations imbued with monster mythology. In the case of the Marines, it’s self-perpetuated, part of the culture. When I was in the Marines, we called ourselves devil-dogs and sang old songs filled with battlefield lore.
In the Western narrative tradition, I’ve long felt there was an accepted bigotry toward dragons. Dragons either play the role of monsters or servant-buddies where they fly around with some dumb human on their back. It’s been the great narrative pile-on. Even all these schmucks talking about how they loved Dungeons & Dragons as kids and how it taught them to “imagine,” were playing a game where dragons literally cannot be a “player character.” What they’re saying is they learned how to band together as a group and decree that this entity who looks different than they do can only be a monster – the killing of which is something to be celebrated. From Gary Gygax, the creator of that game, to J.R.R. Tolkien, there’s this procession of white guys who’ve made a fortune from composing narratives where the red dragon is portrayed as some sort of depraved savage.
So I thought: considering the thousands of dragons that have appeared in western narratives, why has there never once been a tale told from the dragon’s perspective? For one very clear reason: a paucity of empathy. With Gork, I wanted to flip the script. Let the dragons tell their side of the story for once. And lo, it turns out dragons are a great deal more complex and evolved than anyone would’ve ever imagined.
AGWas there any real-world experience you had between writing these books that served as inspiration?
GHI lived in Seoul, Korea for five years. That definitely stretched my brain out in all sorts of new and extraordinary ways. I’m not sure I would’ve written a book about interplanetary travel if I hadn’t lived abroad for so long.
AGWhat were you doing in Korea?
GHI went there as professor and founding chair of the Creative Writing Program at Yonsei University’s Underwood International College. Chang-Rae Lee and I were close colleagues at Princeton and he connected me to the program because he taught there too. The students were thrilled to be taking creative writing classes – which are not traditionally offered in the Korean university curriculum. They created their own literary salon, a very sophisticated literary journal with high production value. It was a living, breathing community of smart and talented writers. I know that for many of them it was the most important development in their lives at that time. It was utterly unique for me too. They were teaching me more than I was teaching them. In many instances, there was overt artistic courage in their writing enterprise. One of my former students sent me an email from up near the DMZ where he was doing his mandatory two-year military service in the Korean army. He and his buddies who spent long hours guarding the DMZ had started a fiction workshop of their own.
AGDo you write about the people in your life?
GHIt’s not a one for one correlation, more of a mash-up. What about you?
AGI do. On the surface, Eastman Was Here is a roman à clef set in 1973, based on the life of Norman Mailer. After reading one of Mailer’s biographies, one he didn’t like very much, written by his ex-friend Peter Manso, I began to speculate on what would have happened had Mailer gone to Vietnam to report on that war. He didn’t. But what if he did? I imagined he would have written dispatches. And he would have turned them into a book. Only this book on Vietnam would be all about him in that new journalism sort of style. When I started writing Eastman, I was going through a bad break-up. So I gave Eastman my circumstances. Maybe that was self-indulgent, but I wanted to write a personal book that was a little closer to my life than Norman Mailer’s. The characters aren’t the same as the people in my life, but I used certain details that would place me in the right state of mind. My own break-up happened on a Sunday. So I set Eastman’s break-up scene on a Sunday.
GHYou still recollect that it happened on a Sunday?
AGOh yeah. I was miserable and alone. And I remember what I was doing four days later on a Thursday, moping about. I was recording it in my mind. I have a great memory for pain. That’s how my memory works. It’s a calendar.
GHWow, that’s a lot of nightmares accumulated. Each day must have so much baggage. I try to be oblivious.
AGIt’s just a way to access my memories and use those conversations as inspiration. This is getting weird, but I remember one line in particular from the night it happened. I asked, “Is there somebody else?” And she said, “There’s the idea of someone else.”
GHThat’s pretty potent. How could you forget that? I mean, I can’t forget that.
AGHaving a sense of humor about it helps. There’s a lot of humor in your books. How did you come to write funny?
GHI think I was funny throughout my life but I didn’t always know it. I was very sensitive and sincere and people would just laugh at me. Sometimes it would hurt my feelings. So what I learned over time is: Just be sincere and you’ll naturally be funny.
AGI see that in the character of Gork. He’s being very sincere and that hooks you in even before the comedy. He’s also a poet. And it’s funny that a dragon writes poetry.
GHGork’s character evolves with his evolution as a poet. In the beginning, Gork simply recites poems that are beamed into his head by his malevolent, power-hungry grandfather. By the end of the book, Gork’s able to connect with a more authentic sense of self through composing original poetry. In fact, this is the only novel I know of where the climax is constructed around the life-changing event of a protagonist composing their very first poem. In this fictional world where war and technology and mayhem are the rule, Gork discovers that poetry is the greatest weapon at his disposal. I hope the reader feels this arc is rendered with great feeling and sensitivity and sincerity. I’m a big believer in the transformative power of poetry. For a certain kind of reader, the book is intended to be a call-to-arms.
AGWhat works of fiction make you laugh?
GHKurt Vonnegut is very funny. But people forget that he experienced a real nightmare as a soldier. He was kept as a POW in a slaughterhouse and then they firebombed Dresden. Then he came up with his fellow POWs—just a hand full—and the whole city was burned to the ground. They were forced to dig all those corpses out. With your novel, I felt like you were engaging with what for me is a seminal myth in my life. Which is what we inherited from these men of the Vietnam era.
AGYes. I absolutely chose to write about Vietnam because of how it relates to my father. He was in that war. Unlike him, I didn’t go to war and I wasn’t in the military and I think I have some kind of complex. Or there’s something in my subconscious that is reacting to this dynamic. My first book was a satire about Guantanamo Bay and this one is about a war correspondent in Vietnam in 1973. But I’m not of the military.
GHWere you born out of that war?
AGMy parents met on Staten Island. My mother is from the Philippines. But I am very much the outcome of the Vietnam War in certain ways. I know my father had some level of post-traumatic stress after the war. I was just a kid then, so I have no memory of it.
GHOf course, and they didn’t have a name for it then. May I ask what your father did?
AGHe was in artillery. He enlisted in ‘63 or ‘64 very early in the war. He dropped out of college. And he went into the army.
GHI have a history of dropping out of different things in my life. I’m all for the drop out mentality.
AGI think it’s good for you. Dealing with disappointment is a skill if you can learn it early on. My father dropped out and ended up stationed in South Carolina. His sergeant there was just riding him. So he wrote a letter to Robert Kennedy to get him to Vietnam. He was in artillery first, but he blew out his ears and then shifted over to a desk job where he was stationed at Than Son Nhut. He reported body counts. So that’s who my Dad was. But to bring it back to how I came to write Eastman Was Here. 1) We’re always trying to please our fathers, aren’t we? And 2) because of him, I thought of Vietnam my entire life. But what could I add to this literature? And why should I try? I had to go to Vietnam myself in order to figure this out.
I visited Vietnam with the intention to research some locations at first. Wandering around a less touristic part of Cholon—which is essentially Chinatown in Ho Chi Minh City—I passed some men of my father’s generation on the street. One looked at me with hatred in his eyes and cursed at me, indicating he was once Viet Cong. He had fought in the war and was still very scarred. To see me, an American tourist, wandering around his neighborhood really pissed him off. I got out of there quick. So there was still something for me to understand, to feel, particularly in the way the Vietnamese think of their “American War.” Even to hear it referred by the Vietnamese as the American War flips everything I had ever known. In the middle of my novel, I was able to investigate another point-of-view, apart from the one I inherited from my father.
GHMy Dad was drafted for Vietnam but was posted in Germany. When I was a boy in Austin, we lived across the street from a Vietnamese family. My Dad used to go mow their yard because he had a lawnmower and they didn’t. And they would send over plates of Vietnamese food. The legacy of that war was so prominent. There was another family across the street in Austin and one of the men was just on a skateboard. He didn’t have any lower parts. He was a Vietnam vet. That stuff was just around. It was like cultural potpourri informing you as a kid.
AGAnd does this connect with you joining the marines?
GHDefinitely. At the time, I was a white kid at UT Austin and I wanted to mix it up with different folks from different backgrounds. Which I did. In my experience, there’s nothing more culturally diverse than the military in the US. Also, I read a lot of Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian was my favorite book forever. In fact, that’s why I ended up studying with Ben Marcus at UT Austin because I enrolled in his class after the add/drop deadline. I came up to him and said, “I see you have Blood Meridian on your syllabus. I want to take your class.” He’s asked, “You love that book?” I said, “I love that book.” He said, “I love that book. I’ll let you in.” He was hugely supportive and instrumental in me becoming a writer. Even after he left UT we stayed in touch and wrote each other letters.
AGGary Shteyngart is to me what Ben Marcus is to you. He was my teacher when I was an undergrad at Hunter College in New York. Through him, I learned of Chang Rae-Lee, Ahkil Sharma, Janice Y. K. Lee, Susan Daitch, Mary Gaitskill. Even Grace Paley. All of my favorite writers. Then I found my way. His teaching style made an impression on me. He was very cool and funny. You didn’t want to miss class because of that. And he had an amazing brain for fiction. I kept asking him what I should read next. He had just come out with his first novel, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. And the week school started he had a short story come out in the New Yorker. So when class got out all the students ran to the newsstand to buy a copy. Did you always love to read?
GHI did because even though we didn’t have much money growing up, it was important to be well-read in our house. I read Crime and Punishment when I was fifteen and that was a seminal experience for me. I still remember my dad reading T.S. Eliot out loud to me when I was a kid. He was in the PhD program at UT Austin for economics. Then he quit. He hung around UT Austin and took all these philosophy and literature classes using the GI Bill.
AGSo he was very well read.
GHYeah, I mean very well-read like a lot of people. But also very predictable in the descriptions of what it is they read and why it’s good—because you’re basically learning that in a classroom.
AGAre you suspicious of academia?
GHIt has zero to do with writing fiction or making art, so it’s just never been my jam.
AGI think I’m suspicious of academia too. Now that I teach, I feel like I’m trying to teach against those predictable descriptions of “great” literature.
GHYou’re trying to teach craft and how to write?
AGYes. So I don’t lecture on literature. I’m no Nabokov. I lead seminars on craft where we read novels. I don’t talk about themes and take apart beautiful metaphors. Maybe on occasion. I want their response to a book to be their response as a writer, as a practitioner. This way I learn just as much from a student’s read of a text.
GHTo have a creative response to something you’ve read is a more sublime and transcendent endeavor. In Stephen King’s nonfiction book, Dance Macabre, he says the academic approach is like killing a butterfly and examining it as a specimen in a case. You’ll never really learn or understand what it is to be the butterfly out there in the field.
GHIt’s a good metaphor, right?
AGIt’s a great metaphor. I feel like Nabokov did not hear of this.