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.