While taking a much needed break from election anxiety, we interviewed author Patrick Crerand. (Hooray for the House, and special congratulations to Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Deb Haaland, Sharice Davids, Ayanna Pressley, Veronica Escobar, Sylvia Garcia, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and also to Governors Jared Polis and Lou Leon Guerrero!)
Patrick Crerand is the author of The Paper Life They Lead: Stories published by Arc Pair Press, 2018. His stories have appeared in McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern, Conjunctions, New Orleans Review, Ninth Letter, Indiana Review, Cimarron Review among others and have received special mention in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and Best American Fantasy anthologies. Currently, he is an Associate Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Saint Leo University in Florida, where he lives with his wife and three kids.
Q: Right away, at the beginning of just about any Patrick Crerand story, one gets a sense of the fantastic, the magical, and the absurd. One of your stories, “The Paper Life They Lead,” was mentioned in a Best American Fantasy anthology. And, of course, like most literature, no matter the genre, there is often a more serious, human undercurrent about what it means to live in this world. But that isn’t easy to achieve with the style you are using. When writing in the realm of the absurd, one runs the risk of being too quirky, or too simplistic, or too gimmicky. Given the current moment of the world, how do you see stories of magical realism or fantasy fitting into the larger literary landscape? Is any bit of “seriousness” important?
As funny as it sounds given some of the premises of these stories, they all derive from some aspect in real life, something terrifying or troublesome that happened to me. And I think magical realism has always been rooted in the political. Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Kafka are the prime examples. But writers like Angela Carter, Rikki Ducornet, Aimee Bender, George Saunders (all of whom are much more accomplished than I am) they are all confronting real problems through different means than straight realism. When I first started writing, I tried realism but kept getting pulled into absurd premises that I realized I could take seriously and maybe I could say something about life easier than if I was writing about real life in a small town or a city, though there is nothing wrong with writers who do it. Cheever was one of those writers who could bounce back and forth, and I love his stories like “The Enormous Radio” as well as a more straightforward story like “Reunion.”
Q: Another element of a Patrick Crerand story is humor. The stories are funny, but as I recall reading once, humor often works because of its connection to the taboo. (I’m pretty sure my source is Portraits of “The Whiteman”: Linguistic Play and Cultural Symbols Among the Western Apache by Keith H. Basso. I remember examples about jokes that deal with dreams that work for the Apache only because speaking of dreams is taboo; they don’t work for “the whiteman” who doesn’t see dreams as a taboo subject. He simply doesn’t get the joke.) Yet, as any comedian knows, crossing too far into the taboo, or too far into political incorrectness, makes the joke crass, and it’s no longer funny. How do you balance humor with appropriateness? Is this something you think about?
I aim for funny before appropriate, for better or for worse. Jokes and stories often work on similar premises of confronting taboo or looking at a problem of language from a canted angle. Some of the humor crosses too far, I’d imagine, as taboo is sort of a shifting goal-line, depending on perspective. I remember once I caught my mom reading a section of a story I had written and just putting it down with a sigh and a disappointed look. I imagine she doesn’t like some of these stories, but her “taboo” is more restricted than mine is. In short, I do think about it though, and in early drafts I try to push as far as I can, though I do pull back sometimes.
Q: That leads me to your novel project. You’ve mentioned that you are working on a novel that involves Jesus. I imagine that raises a lot of eyebrows in some circles. Can you say anything about what this novel might entail?
My mother’s disappointment concerned a section of this book. So the novel presupposes a universe where Jesus is hit on the head during a stoning and forgets to die and ends up living for a very long time, until our current era. For the most part, he forgets he is God really, though some small, uncontrolled, and generally useless miracles do seep out from time to time. The book picks up after he somehow stows away on a cruise ship where he turns all men passengers’ penises into flowers and hysterically impregnates all the women. He is arrested in Florida and then hospitalized with heart trouble. Before he can be deported, Althea Turner, the dying head of a local fast food company called Snack-O-Ham, meets him, recognizes him as her personal savior, and bequeaths him her company. After Turner dies, her executor, Sharla Heck, a one-armed atheist accountant, is charged with protecting him from the interests of a CEO of a big hedge fund, an apocalyptic investigation from the Vatican, and the sadistic impulses of a local minister who runs a live-action passion play in Florida.
Q: I know you grew up Catholic. Does Catholicism, with its elements of the magical (in the form of Christly transubstantiation, or maybe even in the form of paganism and the kinds of magic associated with “heretics”), inform your writing at all?
Yes, very much so. It was my first introduction to magical thinking, mysteries of faith, incongruent symbols, etc. The magical always has real consequences, and I think that balance made sense to me. Maybe it still does. You raise Lazarus from the dead, but you can’t escape the Romans. You inspire a ticker-tape parade into Jerusalem with hundreds of people but can’t keep your closest friends from turning on you. I met a lot of people there with one foot in and one foot out, which is a perspective I’ve never been able to shake really.
Q: I want to end with a more general question about writing. Do you have a philosophy on literature? What should a writer strive toward? What should a story try to achieve?
I guess I don’t have a philosophy really, but the more I teach, the more I admire writers who invite readers into their work, no matter how different the world is from the one we live in. That’s something I try to inculcate in my students here, as many of them like to write about fantasy or science fiction or techno-thrillers. But no matter what we’re all dealing with humanity, whether or not the characters are human even. That’s the lens through which we see, so those common traits—fear of death, love, family, disappointment, humor—have to be in there no matter what where we are or how much happens. Dragons or AI robots or laser gun calibers are all secondary concerns to these issues. That’s the hill I’ve been dying on lately.