Have you ever finished reading a book and had the burning desire to pick the author’s brain? (of course you have…) I think one of the hallmarks of a good book is that desire to engage with the author, to ask questions, to connect and to feel like, for a moment, you are part of the book’s journey. For without readers, would we really have books? I’ll dispense with the philosophy already because I got my wish with Eric Shonkwiler and his stunning novel Above All Men. He was gracious enough to answer some questions for me and I’m thrilled to share them with you.
Steph Post: I’m going to go ahead and jump right in with the most noticeably startling feature of Above All Men—your dialogue structure. I’ve seen this style before, of course, in works by Cormac McCarthy and others, but you take it to a new level by incorporating dialogue and narration together in the same paragraph without dialogue demarcation. This can be jarring at first, but soon feels completely organic. What made you decide to use this style in telling your story? What effect were you hoping it would have on the reader, and do you think you achieved it?
Eric Shonkwiler: It should speak to my presence of mind when I say that this is the first time I’ve realized I’m being more difficult than McCarthy. My style now started with the marriage of McCarthy’s lack of quotations marks, which I felt suited the sparse quality of the narrative, and a tic I developed early on in writing—I dislike the word said. I know readers gloss over it, but I couldn’t in my own writing, and so rather than tag dialogue that way, I use actions. I think this further pares down the page until what’s there is, hopefully, only what’s necessary. And, as the beginning of my answer indicates, I don’t think I was really hoping to do anything at all. I don’t think of the reader all that much, but instead I try to be as faithful to the story as possible. I trust the reader will benefit from that.
SP: One of my favorite things about the premise of Above All Men is that the reader never finds out exactly what has happened in America to make it the way it is in the story. Unlike, say, a zombie apocalypse striking, it seems as if the collapse has happened naturally and gradually—which makes it that much more realistic and unsettling. Why did you choose to create your setting in this way?
ES: A couple people have riffed on this, calling it the slowpocalypse, which I enjoy very much. I took this route because it is the most realistic one—at least that I could come up with—and that was important. Though this coming end is really just a combination of smaller, even somewhat common, disasters, it provides what I feel is a kind of foreboding you don’t get with zombies, or more supernatural apocalypses.
SP: Delving deeper, I’d like to ask you about David Parrish, Above All Men’s central character. He’s the protagonist, but many of his actions range from ethically questionable to downright morbidly disturbing. Yet David himself is obsessed with his moral obligations. Do you think David is a hero? Do you think most readers will perceive him that way?
ES: He’s just a man. I never set out to make him a hero or antihero, and I hope that shows with the decisions he makes throughout the book. This is David’s story, and I had to be true to him before anything else, and that often led to dark places. Readers are free to think of him as they like, but thus far I think most people see him for what he is: a deeply, deeply troubled person trying to do what’s right.
SP: Aside from David, Helene, and Samuel, the landscape seems to be the next biggest character in the story. The earth, the sky—they seem to be forces at work that literally do battle with the people trying to survive on the land. How central do you believe this conflict is to Above All Men?
ES: I think it’s one of the two largest conflicts in the book, the other being David’s own internal struggle. The smaller conflicts that arise in the book are born from this fight with nature, and this, ultimately, comes from humanity’s actions as a whole. All the lessons we failed to learn create this world that is fighting back, and so in many ways the battle with the land is the most important conflict.
SP: I think one of the reasons I love Above All Men so much is that its themes and style are in the same vein as many of my favorite writers. In reading your novel, I was immediately reminded of works by Daniel Woodrell and Cormac McCarthy. How would you describe your style and/or genre?
ES: I’d like to think I’m occupying that very niche, Woodrell’s and McCarthy’s. Frank Bill gave the most precise definition of my style: “sparse and poetic,” and I couldn’t do a better job describing it than that. My genre, it seems, is really a little more nebulous than I’d have thought. A number of people have called Above All Men sci-fi, a mystery, a thriller, I believe someone even said fantasy. I don’t think it pays to get too hung up on the idea of how to classify yourself—people will be quick to do that for you.
SP: What or who are you reading right now that excites you?
ES: I’m currently in a research phase for a book, and so a lot of what I’m reading is non-fiction, and books I’ve read before that I think will bolster the atmosphere, and get my head where it needs to be to start writing. The book I read most recently that really thrilled me was Schuler Benson’s The Poor Man’s Guide toan Affordable, Painless Suicide. Helluva voice, great collection of stories. I was lucky enough to read an ARC to blurb, and it’s a must. Particularly if you’re a fan of authors like Woodrell.
SP: And finally, I have to ask, what’s your writing future look like at the moment? Any works in progress or thoughts for future work you’d care to share?
ES: I’m finishing my second novel, and will hopefully be ready to send it out into the world any day now. I don’t want to spoil anything, so I’ll just say it’s got a bit of a noir twist to it. Once that’s out in the world I’m setting my sights on something with more of a western bent.
Thanks so much to Eric for stopping by. If you haven’t read my review of Above All Men, please do so. Then, go out, buy the book and write your own. This is the magic of reading and writing in action, people.