Interview with author David Burr Gerrard
David Burr Gerrard is the author of the just-released The Epiphany Machine (Putnam) and the 2014 debut Short Century (Rare Bird Books) and lives in Sunnyside. He sat down with Executive Director Tim Fredrick to talk about writing and his new novel.
Tim: What was your personal journey as a writer?
David: My journey is the same as a lot of writer's journeys. I really enjoyed reading books. In my case, my favorite books were Kafka and Philip Roth, and I tried writing stories. For a long time, they were really bad. And then they got less bad. And now here we are.
And how long from bad to less bad to where you are right now?
A very, very long time. I really decided that I wanted to become a writer when I was in high school, and I'm now 36. My first book, Short Century, came out three years ago. I switched back and forth between that novel and The Epiphany Machine for about ten years before I managed to finish one and then the other.
So you were writing them simultaneously?
I was writing them simultaneously, which I definitely don't recommend. I would hit a wall with one and then go back to the other. I experienced that as sort of an extended failure. I would often think, “Oh, I'm never going to get either of the books published. I'm just wasting my time.” But, in retrospect, even though I said I wouldn't recommend it, it was probably better than just sitting with one manuscript and getting stuck.
My advice to aspiring writers is that, if you have two projects and you think, “I need to finish one before I have the other,” maybe you're right, maybe you should finish that first book. But if you're really stuck, maybe try something else.
You said that was like an extended period of failure. What helped you get through that?
I knew I wanted to be a writer and I had a lack of other useful skills. I was working as a copy editor at a research firm for much of that time. Then I taught the GMAT for a while. Those were both fine jobs, and the people I worked with were great, but in order to feel fulfilled, I had to work reasonably diligently on my fiction. And I knew that I had to get these books out and I knew that there was a lot that was valuable in these books.
I knew that both books were good, but what I doubted was my ability to really get them to where they needed to be. That was why I felt it was an extended period of failure. But I think that before you're published, all writers feel like they're kidding themselves and it's hard not to feel that way. And, I would say that that feeling doesn't totally go away, even after you're published. That’s a thought I occasionally have now, "Oh, you're not a real writer, you're just kidding yourself," rather than a thought that I have all the time.
David’s latest, The Epiphany Machine, centers on the titular machine, which tattoos epiphanies (e.g., TAKES TOO LONG TO NOTICE WHAT’S IMPORTANT) on the forearms of those who visit an apartment on the Upper West Side. The main character, Venter Lowood, is searching for his mother, a devotee of the machine and its operator, Adam, and winds up working with Adam, taking testimonials from those who’ve used the machine.
Tim: How did this book come to be? How did the idea start?
David: So it started when I was in grad school, and I had observed the idea that short stories were supposed to end in some kind of epiphany. Really, my teachers never told me that, but that was just something I picked up on. I found it very frustrating, because on the one hand I thought, “Why should I wrap up everything in a neat little epiphany. Life is more complex than that?” On the other hand, I thought, “Well, if I really have no bit of wisdom in which my story can culminate, is it really a story? Do I really have anything to say?” That got me thinking, “I just wish I had some kind of machine that would dispense epiphanies,” and then I thought, “Instead of wishing for that, I could just write about it.” And that's what I did.
You were working on it for a while. Can you give a sense of how long you were drafting, how long you revised, how you got feedback during that process?
I wrote many hundreds of pages, taking many different approaches, and none of it was really working. There were a lot of individual pages, a lot of individual ideas that I liked a lot. I got in touch with some friends from grad school and for a while, I was getting feedback from them. But really, I knew what the problem with the book was, which was that there just wasn't enough there. I wasn't taking the ideas as far as they needed to go. To a certain extent, I was just taking the wrong approach. I was focusing more on the person who found the epiphany machine, rather than on the characters who were affected by it.
So, at that point, what did the book look like?
It focused on a character named Adam who had found the epiphany machine. But, none of what I wrote from 2006 to 2013 is in the book. Maybe a handful of sentences, a handful of a minor storylines survived in some way or another. But, after I finished Short Century, I thought, "Do you I want to go back to The Epiphany Machine or do I want to start something new?" I was worried about getting stuck in the same kind of morass that I had been stuck in for years already. I thought, "Why don't I just write bits of flash fiction in the voices of people who used the machine. And I'll write one every day for the month of August." I did that and I liked what I had. Those became the testimonials.
For a while I thought it was going to be a collection of flash fiction, just involving the testimonials, nothing else. Then I think I got interested in who was taking these testimonials and that's how Venter arose. Once I had Venter, the novel came fairly quickly. The only missing piece was the character of Adam. At that point, I knew I wanted some towering figure, but I also knew that I did not want some kind of cliched cult figure in robes and touchy-feely language.
At the same time, I was becoming very good friends with Michael Seidenberg, who runs a secret book store on the Upper East Side called Brazenhead Books, and he liked my first novel a lot. One night, he said, "I've always wanted to be a cult leader." And that made me say, "Okay, he's Adam."
So I had the testimonials, I had Venter, and now I had Adam. And then I wrote the book, I think, in less than a year. Almost everything that's in the book now, I wrote between August of 2013 and the summer of 2015. Really, the 400 or so pages that are in the book, were written in two years, which is a decent rate. But that disguises the years and many hundreds of pages that are not in the book.
That leads me to one of my questions: There were a lot of unanswered questions about the epiphany machine—the where it came from, how it works, and if it was real. I don’t what to know what the answers to those unanswered questions, but are there answers in your head?
I will say that I changed my mind a couple of times between 2006 and 2015. I do know now the answer to that question, but you don't want to know the answer. The most interesting questions when you're reading a book, you never really want to hear the author so much, even when you think you do. You always want to be able to choose the answers for yourself, or leave them tantalizingly unanswered.
I agree. I'm interested in the process of a writer, when you have material where not all of the questions are answered, does the writer have an answer in mind and then how does one write without giving that answer?
Really, I'm just another guy with an opinion. I've created this world and if it's drawn you in enough to want to know the answer, then your answer to that question is just as good as mine.
That's an interesting way of looking at yourself as an author and relationship to your own writing.
Absolutely. I am now just another person who's read The Epiphany Machine. I don't have any real insight beyond that. I can see the text, just like you can. I, of course, also know stuff that I wrote that didn't get in the book, but there's a reason why it didn't get in the book.
One of the themes that I was most interested in was the tension between public and private. I heard you speak at Community Bookstore about choosing the forearm as the place to have it, because that was both private and public, a sort of an in-between place. In the process of writing the book, did you go in with a certain mindset of public and private or did your mindset as a writer change or develop, as you were writing?
I started the book in 2006, and public and private were very different then. Already, there was a great deal of us on the Internet. But, it's changed tremendously since there. So, to a certain extent, there's a relevant question as to whether the private sphere exists anymore. I forget which tech figure it was, who said, "You already have zero privacy, get over it" and Eric Schmidt of Google said, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it." It's kind of a really chilling thing to say.
Nonetheless, it's certainly true that we arguably have no privacy anymore, unless we disconnect from the Internet, which is increasingly impossible to do for any sustained period of time, no matter how much you might want to do it. It’s easy to announce you’re doing it. It’s easy to write a Facebook post announcing that you’re quitting social media, and you’re going to be writing with a typewriter and only send physical mail. I see some version of that post, almost every week, followed, two weeks later, by a post from that same person, going on as if nothing has happened.
We have lost a lot, through having lost privacy, and as we confront an increasingly authoritarian government, who knows what kinds of problems we will encounter as a result of having totally forfeited the private sphere.
At the same time, though, a lot of the stuff on social media is curated and so there's a selection process that you use to present yourself. Which makes me think of the epiphanies and the sales pitch of “Everyone else knows the truth about you, now you can know it, too.” The epiphanies aren’t so much what’s going to be revealed to other people, it's more that it's revealed to yourself. And now everyone knows you know the truth.
Which works in a similar way with social media. So, social media, you think you're projecting an image of yourself, but often people are reading something else entirely different. They see through what you've posted. "There are a little too many exclamation points in that particular post. This person seems deeply unhappy to me." But, yes, absolutely. Part of the machine's appeal is that it's supposed to be opposite of the way that we present ourselves.
Once the characters get an epiphany, they take different routes. Sometimes they lean into it, like, "Yep, that's who I am," and then they'll like commit themselves to that. Then there are people who try to fight their epiphany. It was interesting to see how the theme of self-acceptance and identity developed through the book. You also have the ongoing questions of the origin of the machine, is Adam reading people and choosing the epiphanies, or is the machine somehow mystical.
Yeah, right. And, to a certain extent, I wonder if the question matters, because if it's Adam ... Adam has a certain kind of insight that itself might be supernatural. What does that mean? Then you have a much larger question as to what we know and how we know it and what role the universe is playing in what we know. So, to say the machine is real or the machine is fake, is almost beside the point.
If you want to take a different view, if you want to say it’s a totally different book depending on whether the machine is real or fake, that's absolutely a valid thing to say as well. As I say, I'm just one reader.