Now that Lance Armstrong is disgraced, the title of Most Interesting Person in Austin may belong to Owen Egerton. Here are a few reasons why: His short film, Follow, is debuting at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March, he’s a regular performer in one of the most popular comedy tickets in town, and his book launches are standing-room only. It’s no wonder the Austin Chronicle routinely names him the city’s favorite local writer. With his most recent novel, The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God, and his soon-to-be-released Everyone Says That at the End of the World, the rest of the world is discovering what Austin has known for a long time.
Pick up any of Egerton’s books, and you’ll find the rare combination of humor and spirituality. As a result, The Book of Harold has been called beautifully-crafted, wise, and poignant, but it’s also very funny. The promotional video for the novel even caught the interest of late-night host Jimmy Fallon, who linked to it on his website.
Egerton was kind enough to answer a few questions about this comic-religious novel.
The chapter shows us the basic events of the Christmas pageant multiple times. It’s almost like you’re using dress rehearsals to make the reader familiar with how the scene will play out–only to surprise them with the actual events. Was this repetition intentional, or did you find that the practice runs through the pageant wrote themselves onto the page?
I’m a fan of theme and variation, of establishing what should be and then sharing what is. We see it in jazz, in comedy and in narratives. As Robert McKee likes to say, story is found in the gap between expectation and actuality. Your buddy Jim comes over for dinner every Friday at 7 pm. He always brings a bottle of wine and bag of day old donuts. 6:55 pm on Friday there’s a knock on the door. You open it expecting Jim. Instead a beautiful woman in a long black dress stands with a severely cut hand. There’s a story there. We are more aware of the gap – the space where the story lives – when we have some detail of the expectations.
Most of your readers have likely seen a Christmas pageant–and perhaps appeared in them–and most of those pageants probably followed a similar storyline. All pageants are basically the same, in other words. That sameness would not seem like a great premise for a story, yet the every element of this novel’s pageant seems fresh and new. How did you approach telling the pageant story so that it escaped our expectations for pageants-past.
Point of view and characterization are keys to making the familiar fresh. Every wedding looks the same, basically. But it’s not the same old wedding for the secretly pregnant bride or the jilted lover in the back row or the groom who is in love with bride’s mother.
You can even get away with describing monotony if you allow at least one character to be passionate about the monotony.
It also helps if you hint or tell the reader that this is going somewhere. In my chapter, the narrator shares that the event he’ll be describing led him to believe God was hunting him down like a “pissed off loan shark.” The reader is willing to wait through some of the less fascinating details because they feel it building towards something. We’ve promised a payoff. Now we must deliever.
I’m also eluding to those all too familiar pageants for a reason that touches on the novel as a whole. The novel, like the pageant, is a story they do not know based on a story they do know. I’m retelling the gospel—I even begin with a nativity, but the nativity goes wonderfully astray. Hopefully this tells us that the story we’ll be reading will continue to surprise us. But also that the story we know – that pageant we’ve seen or participated in – is as different from the actual birth of a impoverished baby to unmarried parents in Roman-occupied Israel two thousand years ago as it is from the series of missteps in the story. We think we know the story, but we don’t.
In a recent New York Times piece, Paul Elie argued that religion (especially Christianity) no longer plays a role in American literature. In Elie’s words, the role of Christian belief in fiction is “something between a dead language and a hangover…if any patch of our culture can be said to be post-Christian, it is literature.” Your novel would seem to refute this claim. Do you see questions of Christian or religious belief reflected in much of the literature you read? Is Elie simply reading the wrong books, or does he have a point?
I love reading Paul Elie. Amazing insight and warm passion. But I think he is mistaking a change in religious focus for death. Elie correctly recognizes that fewer and fewer “believers” populate modern literature. And that there appear to be fewer writers with Flannery O’Conner’s goal to “make belief believable.” Elie’s conclusion that religion no longer plays a role in American literature is based on the premise that the center of religion is belief. He feels one’s beliefs – not one’s actions or the tradition in which one participates – define one’s religious identity. But a Passover Seder can be impacting even if one doesn’t believe in a literal God sending plagues to ancient Egypt. And the power of the passion and death of Jesus is not limited to only those who believe in a historical, literal resurrection.
What Elie’s sees as a shrinking of religious themes, I see as an expansion past a narrower definition of religious devotion. I’d argue that we’ve lost some interest in the dogmatic discussion and distinctions, which for O’Conner and Percy Walker separated the saved and unsaved. We are less concerned in what a person or character believes and more interested in what they do. The beauty of a Catholic mass and the themes of community, sacrifice, and transcendence are not dependent on the doctrine of transubstantiation. More and more of us recognize this. Many moderns have a religious life free of belief.
And literature is a perfect vehicle for pondering the questions of religion without being moored on the dichotomy of belief and disbelief. We are moved by the characters and story and images of a novel without ever having to declare that we believe the events of the novel to be factually true. In fact, we recognize that our fiction by definition is not fact, but it no way limits the power.
The stories and rituals of faith traditions – whether you hold them to be history, myth, or both – are still often the language we use to wrestle with themes of mortality, morality, and meaning. Whether in James Reich’s dark, poetic 2012 novel I, Judas or the Christ imagery rampant in the final Harry Potter book, religion is still very much a living language.
I am not a believer, but I return again and again to religious themes in my writing. I see the shared power of these stories, the universal appeal to these themes, and perhaps I’m searching – and my readers along with me – for something beyond belief.
In addition to writing, you’ve built a reputation as an improv-comedy performer. In some ways, improv seems like an imperfect match with writing. One requires spontaneity, and the other favors revision. Do you find that improv has influenced, and perhaps even helped, your writing?
Improv and writing are wonderful bedfellows. Long before I revise, I must create! In that place – that hot cauldron of creating, that hunt for self-surprise – the revising mind is an enemy. That part of my mind questioning my choices, correcting my spelling or simply asking “what are you doing here?” – that part must be shut up if I’m to thrill the page. I leave the revising for tomorrow. It’s the same in improv comedy. In improv we train ourselves to say “yes” to the wild, untested, unwritten ideas. We do not stop to ask, is this the best idea? It is the idea! So we play with it, we build upon it. So when I write, I tap into this mode. I splatter my pages with messy ideas and fractured sentences and fantastic surprises! Fire doesn’t think. It burns. Lovers don’t plan. They fuck.
Michael Noll edits Read to Write Stories. A writing exercise based on the first chapter of The Book of Harold is available here.