An Interview with Owen Egerton

27 Jul

Owen Egerton is the writer/director of two films and the author of four books, most recently Hollow.

Owen Egerton is an author, performer, and filmmaker. He is the writer/director of the psychological horror Follow and the author of several books including The Book of Harold, the Illegitimate Son of God, Everyone Says That at the End of the World and the short story collection How Best to Avoid Dying, and newly released Hollow from Soft Skull Press. He also wrote and starred in the Zach Scott produced play The Other Side of Sleep. As a screenwriter he has written for Warner Brothers, Fox, Disney and many others. Egerton is also the host of public radio’s The Write Up and the reading series One Page Salon. Egerton and his wife, poet Jodi Egerton, wrote the writing craft book This Word Now. 

To read an excerpt from Egerton’s new novel Hollow and an exercise on learning what your characters believe, click here.

In this interview, Egerton discusses writing characters with expertise, writing uncomfortable stories in a way that readers will want to keep reading, and finding a novel’s ending.

Michael Noll

The narrator of the novel, Oliver Bonds, is a former University of Texas religious studies professor. It’s a profession that works really well because of the space it gives you to talk about faith and religion in a way that might not be possible for a layperson. But it also presents the challenge of creating a convincing portrayal of someone with a very particular and high-level skill set. It’s the same problem faced by many action movies, including Bond movies (Denise Richards a nuclear physicist because she says the word plutonium), and most recently in the film Arrival (She’s a linguist because she lectures on language in a classroom). How did you approach making Oliver seem like a real academic without getting so far into the weeds of his field of study that non-academic readers would get lost?

Owen Egerton

I think one of the biggest dangers of creating an expert in fiction is making that person too intelligent. Or at least too knowledgeable about any particular subject. I think we’ve all seen a scientist character who can’t think of anything but test tubes and numbers and speaks in scientific and mathematical formulas. But that’s not a person we meet in the real world. Turns out most academics are people—just people—who have read a few more books on one particular subject than the rest of us. For me, the challenge was to allow the subject that Oliver is an expert in to organically inhabit his thinking and his conversation. For example, to describe a pretty morning I might think in my head of the Beatles lyric, but Oliver might think of a Tillich quote. The fun part is an expert knows things that I have to look up. But of course, that’s not always enough to help him on his journey.

Michael Noll

Oliver thinks a lot about the Book of Job, and this novel parallels the basic structure of that story: a good man gets everything taken away from him through no fault of his own. At one point, Oliver explains that the book in the Bible is actually a theological treatise wrapped in a very old tale, which is so much of the middle of that book is Job arguing with people about how to think about what has happened to him. Did you think of Hollow as having a similar structure–using a story premise that we’re familiar with in order to work out the implications of that premise?

Owen Egerton

Owen Egerton’s novel Hollow, according to a NPR review, contains “the kind of grace not usually seen in accessible modern fiction.”

Yes and no. The book does loosely follow the structure of Job. But it also starts with an invitation to make a journey into the Hollow Earth. So it doesn’t quite start out in a “Oh I know where this is going” way. But I do think we have a prevalent story in our culture that suffering has a reason—the myth of redemptive suffering. We know the storyline. A character suffers; the character finds new love, new community, or a new calling; The character finds his way out of suffering and is stronger and wiser for it. (I love these kind of stories. They have me weeping in the theater each Oscar season). Perhaps that’s the fairy tale that Hollow plays within and subverts. It’s a good question. I’m not sure my answer does it justice.

Michael Noll

The novel contains moments that are hard to read because they portray some of our worst fears, like the death of a child. That particular fear is actually a common trope in film. Without dead or endangered children, Liam Neeson wouldn’t have a career anymore. But your novel isn’t about revenge (or it is, perhaps, but revenge is difficult when you can’t identify a culprit), and this, I think, makes the premise even more challenging to a reader. We’ll accept a scene with a dead child if we get to partake in the emotional catharsis of vengeance, but what happens to the audience experience when vengeance is taken away? How did you approach keeping the reader from walking away from the novel simply because it was too emotionally taxing?

Owen Egerton

I was worried about making a story that was just too uncomfortable to read, too unpleasant or too dark for dark’s sake. I explored the works of better writers than me to see how they manage writing tragic events and used some of those techniques in my book. For example, the most painful event of the book is Oliver losing his son. That was hard to write, and I knew it would be painful to read. Chronologically that event happens three years before the major action of the story. This gives us a little space, a little distance. And although we know about the child’s death throughout the book, we don’t read about the details until nearly halfway through. This gives the reader a little time to know the narrator, to feel the world, and perhaps trust the author that this painful event is not simply gratuitous or for spectacle sake.
The most important part, for me, was the use of humor. Humor arrived on the page a number of times and saved my ass. For me, the character of Lyle came just when I needed him and saved this book. Humor helps lighten the dark moments but it also highlights the humanity.
You make a great point about revenge. Revenge, when we watch it or experience it, usually feels good. It offers an action to go along with these deep trouble and emotions. It whispers to us that something can be done, even when nothing can be done.

Michael Noll

The novel is about a character’s sense of a moral universe being stripped away. It’s the same thing that the Lost Generation writers were struggling with—how to live when everything you believed in turns out to be untrue. Unlike, say, a story about monsters rampaging through a city, your premise isn’t easily concluded. How did you approach the ending to this novel?

Owen Egerton

I started Hollow with a question. What’s at the center of everything? Is it love? Is it apathy? Is it nothing? Could it be that the concepts of compassion and justice are just human inventions and not essential to reality? These questions have been asked by wiser minds than mine. I knew I did not want to end with the pat Hallmark answer. I knew I did not want to end with nihilism. And, of course, answers come and go, and it’s the questions we return to again and again that shape our lives. But I did come to an answer in the book’s climax. A thought about what makes up the heart of this world that is so tragic and so beautiful. I don’t think I could word it here very well. It’s taken me a whole book just to get to those sentences.
I did want to end the book with compassion. Compassion in our own suffering and in the suffering of others. Compassion keeps the light on.

July 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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