Midwestern Gothic staffer Sydney Cohen talked with author Chris McCormick about his collection Desert Boys, juxtapositions of home and identity, autobiographical elements in a bildungsroman, and more.
Sydney Cohen: What’s your connection to the Midwest?
Chris McCormick: I moved to Ann Arbor in the fall of 2012 for graduate school at the University of Michigan. I’ve been free to leave for a couple of years now, but I love this place. A great book town, a great beer town — I get to expand my mind and my gut at the same time. I don’t have a car, so I don’t need to shovel snow in the winter. I’m lucky to be here.
SC: Your novel, Desert Boys, deals in transformations – the transformations of deserts to cities, from boys to men. These transformations inescapably involve time as an active agent in the development of one thing into another. What interests you about the dynamic of transformations and the passage of time?
CM: Boys 2 Men was an alternate title for the book, but we couldn’t clear legal. As for time — yeah, transformations are about the before and after and the space between, and that means time. Unless we’re talking about Beckett or that camp, time is the oxygen of narrative — it’s easy to forget it’s there, working, always. For my book, I fragmented the narrative so that I could — like a cubist painter, who can show both sides of the face in profile — show multiple aspects of the story at the same time. I think that strategy works well with first-person narrators, who don’t look back on their lives in perfect chronological order. They remember moments. But the moments have to add up to something, a larger story, which is another way of saying transformation.
SC: Your novel also addresses the juxtaposition centered around home and identity – a yearning to belong to one’s root community contrasted by a longing to escape and forge a new path. How do your characters navigate between these two contrasting motivations?
CM: Ah, that’s the heart of the book — you’ll have to read to find out. But I will say that the main character, Daley “Kush” Kushner, is absolutely convinced as a young person that he’ll belong in a major city, and then, after he moves to San Francisco, after he travels to New York and Paris, he’s proven wrong. It’s not so much an inability to find a “home” so much as it’s a misunderstanding of what “home” means. He’s looking for a place that doesn’t exist. Which is why, at the end of the book, he’s forced to find a new strategy.
SC: Although set in both San Francisco and the Mojave Desert, Desert Boys shares many themes in common with Midwest prose, including the conflicting desires wrapped up in one’s sense of home. How did your time at the University of Michigan and your connection to the Midwest influence your writing in Desert Boys?
CM: Other than the people and books I’ve encountered here, and the luxury of time and funding from the MFA program, I’m not sure. I grew up in a family with no money in the California high desert, but my dad is originally from Detroit. I thought maybe I’d feel something stir in me by doing the opposite of what he’d done, by coming to Michigan decades after he left it. But other than admiring that poetic circularity, I can’t say I felt any stir. Of course I continued paying attention to the details — noticing how different the weather is here, the flora, the way people talk, etc. The specifics of this place are in obvious ways in contrast to the specifics of the Mojave Desert, and it’s vital to start with the specifics before leaping to the big questions. But those big questions – Why is my home not a home? Why do I love the person I love? What am I willing to do to belong? — those questions are the same anywhere you go. Or at least, anywhere I’ve been.
SC: Desert Boys has been described as a bildungsroman, a novel highlighting one’s coming of age. How has your own personal history influenced or inspired the character of Daley Kushner and his development into adulthood, if at all?
CM: Like Kush, I’m the son of an Armenian immigrant. Like Kush, I grew up on the California side of the Mojave Desert and went to Berkeley for college. Unlike Kush, who is better off financially and a better student than I was, I went to a community college first. More than Kush, I felt like a fraud at Berkeley. Unlike Kush, I am straight and did not fall in love with my best friend. Unlike Kush, my mother is not sick, and my friends who went to war did not get killed in action. The list goes on, but of course all of it is me, my fears and anxieties, my doubts, my curiosities, my obsessions. It’s all me.
SC: What is your ideal writing environment – the sights, scents, and sounds?
CM: Ideally, I’d have a quiet cabin in a place where the weather was always 68 degrees and overcast, where there was no rain or bugs, and where the wind was quiet. But I like my current situation too: a nice apartment I share with my girlfriend, a much more widely-read and talented writer than I am. And I like writing at coffee shops — sometimes a couple people talking in the background helps to remind me that writing shouldn’t only be self-expression, but conversation, too.
SC: Do you have a favorite genre to read? And how does that influence what you write?
CM: Character-driven fiction is my home base. But I dig witty, skeptical, and close-reading historians like Susan Jacoby. I think great poetry moves me more than almost any other art. A recent collection I can’t stop re-reading is Derrick Austin’s Trouble the Water. As for influence — there are people who think avoiding other writers’ work is the way to maintain an “authentic” or “pure” voice. Those people are idiots. Every voice is a canon, and the more books you’ve read, the more options you have to enrich and complicate and specialize your you-ness.
SC: What’s next for you?
CM: I’m writing a funny novel about the Armenian Genocide. Wish me luck.
Chris McCormick is the author of Desert Boys, a collection of linked stories out from Picador. He was raised on the California side of the Mojave Desert in a place called the Antelope Valley. He has degrees from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Michigan, and recent work appears in Tin House and The Atlantic. He lives in Ann Arbor.