By Gina Covelli
|Photo by Benjamin Wilks|
It was like old times, sitting in the yellow vinyl chair across from Karl Elder in his Lakeland College office, which was lit only by the late afternoon sun. The standard can of cola in a faded coozie sat to the right of his computer keyboard, hidden among the stacks of books and papers littering his desk. And like I had done so many times before, when I was Karl’s poetry student, I took a casual glance over my left shoulder to see the beautifully classic and complex poster-sized portrait of Anne Sexton before beginning the conversation.
I’ve interviewed Karl Elder, Fessler Professor of Creative Writing and poet in residence at Lakeland, many times in the past as a student journalist. But this time was different. I didn’t sit down with a prepared list of who, what, when, where questions that would become my interpretation of Karl’s story of how he wrote his debut novel Earth as It Is in Heaven. I went in hoping to have a candid conversation that would allow Karl to tell his own story.
For the first time in my experience of meeting with Karl, I was a little nervous about how the interview would go. But it really was like old times, and the conversation took off.
G: You speak of some books that I happen to have read, the 30 books listed on the back of your novel that in some way inspired yours.
K: To the best of my recollection.
G: Can you elaborate on how some of those books inspired you?
K: It almost always had something to do with craft. In the case of Slaughterhouse Five, Kurt Vonnegut—that’s the only novel he gave himself an A for, by the way; he graded all his novels—I was so taken by the refrain that occurred in the novel, “So it goes. So it goes.” You see it every 500 words or something like that, “So it goes.” He used it in such a way that it suggested the mindset of the characters so that I just started using devices like it. Every once in a while, the main character will say, “That’s another story, although it ain’t really.” And there are other phrases like that.
G: Every time [the protagonist] Stick mentions Digger, he says “Bless him.” He had certain phrases for certain people.
K: Yeah. But like I say, those things are craft. I was so taken by the book Riddley Walker, which I had read in the early ’80s. It just blew my mind because it was the greatest example of manufacturing a language that I had ever seen. I was inspired to do that, even though what I do is a pittance relative to what Russell Hoban does. It’s just fantastic. There’s a book in the list that I’m sure nobody around [the Sheboygan, Wisconsin area] has read before called Loony. It appeared as a special issue of Apple, a magazine that came out of Champaign-Urbana. The book of poems was authored by William Kloefkorn, a poet from Nebraska, and Loony is about a guy who just does not have his act together. He’s intellectually challenged, so it was on my mind that I could have a character that was intellectually challenged. Again, it’s a matter of craft.
G: As far as process goes, you have all these books that inspired you, but how did you put this together?
K: There’s not much that changed from the first draft. Not much at all. [The changes] had to do with making the language consistent afterwards. The storyline itself has seen very little change from the ’80s. I found, completely by accident, the first note I took—what I believe to be the germ of Earth as It Is in Heaven. It’s on the back of a small piece of letterhead from my first job in Missouri in the late ’70s, which probably means I had been kicking the novel around in my head for five or six years before I began it in earnest. I can only remember one change. I added a joke. I thought of it when I was reading a passage to a class one day. For me, it’s the funniest line in the whole damn novel. I prefer not to say what that is. But for me, personally, it was, “Why didn’t I think of this earlier!”
G: Was it a story line you mapped out, or was it something that came very organically?
K: Organic. The underpinnings of the story involve life experiences that are like little platforms, and I jump off of that platform onto another thing. I’ll give you an example. When I was twelve years old, I spent a lot of time in the summer riding my bicycle around town. The town was only 650 people and I know all the streets, and one day I’m about two blocks from my house. I see a car I’ve never seen before and the car is moving, not parking. And a few minutes later, I see the car again, and it’s still moving. That’s the impetus for the Corvair the narrator sketches [in the novel]. Because there was, in this little town, a bank robbery. So I hear about the bank robbery, and of course I’m like every other kid, I don’t have anything else to do, so I go to see what’s going on at the bank. In fact I may have heard the alarm, but I can’t say for sure, because with this particular bank, the alarm was known to go off on its own. But I’m standing there with a bunch of other people outside the bank, and all of a sudden this guy comes out of the bank. He’s wearing a three-piece suit, and he wants to know if anyone’s seen a strange car. He’s the FBI. So they took me into the bank and they had paint samples of cars and he wanted me to pick it out. I picked it out even though I’m somewhat color blind. But back then, there weren’t that many shades of silver. It’s little things like that in my experience. I do know this, though: it was my dream to create a story with a female Christ figure.
G: So, going into the novel, when you developed the Schoolteacher’s character, did you go into it knowing she was going to have this message [as the female Christ figure], or was that discovered along the way?
K: Discovered. I didn’t know how I was going to do it when I started. And you know what, there’s not much that I discarded. It’s pretty much like one sentence led into another. I wasn’t pulling out whole sections and rewriting. I spent a lot of time on individual sentences and went from one sentence to another.
G: Do you think that you went with that approach because of your background in poetry?
K: Certainly I have a great deal of difficulty abandoning sentences. I can’t get to the next sentence easily. I’ve spent an awful lot of time on lines. I’ve never been able to live up to the advice I give my students—write it all out first. Oh, I take that back. I’ve been able to do that with flash fiction about ten times.
G: You had mentioned in a Sheboygan Press article that writing this manuscript helped you to write poetry. How did that happen?
K: I don’t know how it happened, but I know what the effect was. I know that, for example, shortly thereafter, I was able to write a fairly long poem that was one sentence. I found there was more music in the line than previously. I would love to know, but I have no way of knowing how, unless I were to be hypnotized or something. You know, I wrote the novel in this room. I wrote it from eight in the morning until noon. I had a sign on the door, “Stay Away”—or something to that effect—because I wrote it while on sabbatical. I’d read in the afternoon, and I’d go home at night and get the kids supper and get them to bed, but then, later that night, I was writing poems. I’d be exhausted by the time noon rolled around, and the rest of the day would go by and then I was writing poems. I bet I wrote in the neighborhood of a dozen poems while I was writing the novel. I’m not one who dates the stuff, so I don’t know what poems I actually wrote then. I just wonder if that contributed to the transition in some way, from a style that was much more stark to one that was much more…. This is funny, I haven’t thought of this. It was that the stanzas, shall we say, subsequent to the novel, weren’t as heavily edited. They were longer. Before this novel, they were not heavily edited, trying to get all the stanza out. Previously, they were heavily—I mean, initially I was working with lines instead of stanzas. And afterwards, it was more like I was working with stanzas instead of lines. That’s a crude way to describe it, but that’s the only way I can put my finger on it now.
G: The novel is set in Freeland, and there’s the nearby town of Lawless, but you don’t really see the world that they’re set in. Is there a reason why you chose not to have that in there?
K: If I could have done it without Lawless, I would have done it without Lawless. But I figured I had to have Lawless for a very practical reason. I had to have something to bounce this community off of so it would make it its own. If it was just there by itself, it wouldn’t have seemed as real. But the thing that led me to keep it as confined as I did was the first sentence: “It were the Schoolteacher come to call it such as Anarchtopia what with all the goings-on.” A utopia is a confined thing. It has to happen outside the context of the rest of the world, it seems to me. And another thing, this being only my second novel [first published novel], I needed to help myself maintain control over it because I knew it wasn’t going to be realism. I had to put some kind of fence around it, and, thus, to make it more credible. If these weird things are going to happen, it seemed to me, it would be more believable if they happened in a place and not any other place.
G: Did the voice of the narrator come to you pretty easily? You just spoke that first sentence of the story. Did the dialect and the voice just come out of thin air to you, or was it something you had to find?
K: I loved the way my mother-in-law says certain words. And I love that I have a brother-in-law who, out of jest, plays with pronouns. He’ll use what for that. I love that there are sayings that seemed almost indigenous to the community I grew up in. And that led me to give a more southern tinge to the language. The voice came pretty easily, and I can remember being pissed off when I saw Forrest Gump, because I said, “Oh, shit, he’s stealing what I’ve already done.” I had written the novel before the film appeared. I’m taken by the colorfulness of certain southern dialects, too.
G: I suspected you either had a lot of fun throwing everything in there or gave yourself a lot of headaches trying to make them all connect.
K: It was a lot of both. It was a huge puzzle. But I went with it because I had the strangest experience with the first novel. Maybe it wasn’t a strange experience because I think everyone has it, who writes fiction. I threw in as a detail a pocket watch into the first novel, and I don’t know why I did it. And it turns out, it’s the pivotal thing, it’s the answer to everything in the mystery.
G: Were there other knots you had to untangle?
K: Oh, yeah. The “incest.”
G: Yes, I was going to ask you about the relationship between Stick and the Schoolteacher, because “she is but she isn’t.”
K: And then the vehicle to convey that, it seemed to me, was Floyd. Floyd knew her. I’m not as close to the story as I once was, and I can’t tell you that what I’m about to say is accurate, but what I believe is that I got away with it by simply saying, she was getting younger every day. Or “ever day,” as the speaker says. So her body is changing. She’s not the same person, literally. And I can imagine someone potentially being offended by what they perceive to be incest, but on the other hand, I can imagine that reader worming out of the problem by saying, it is miraculous. She’s physically not the same person.
G: I suspected, as I read it, that something was going to happen with the two of them. There was always a connection. In the beginning it was the Schoolteacher’s eyes and the focus on her, and then as she got younger every day and [she and Stick] kept interacting, something was going to happen. And then you find out who she is, and it takes your mind a little bit to piece it together. “She is but she isn’t.” It was interesting.
K: I’m glad you say so.
G: Which character did you resonate with the most, or have the strongest connection to, as you were writing?
K: It’s hard to leave any of them behind; they’re all my children. I don’t tend to see people as schizoids. I think of people as their minds being complex. There are a lot of influences that go into the making of a personality. In order to answer your question, I think I have to say the main character. He wonders things that I wonder, like when he’s talking about Cromangon Man for example. Cromangon Man might have the right idea, but it seems to the narrator, if he keeps thinking that way, it’s going to be a hell of a life—he’s going to have a lot of conflict. There are things I’ve wondered in my life that I put into the mind of the main character. I have affection for nearly all of [the characters], except for Termite and the Banker and Pyro. I don’t have much affection for them. I have a lot of sympathy for the Banker’s wife. It’s real easy to identify with Luda, also. She’s got some great motherly advice. I don’t know. But I love Little Ludy. Love Little Ludy. You know what my thought was when I finished the book? Little Ludy will be in the sequel. It didn’t happen. I started writing poems again.
G: One thing I wondered as I read the novel was about the term gink. What does that look like to you? I kept trying to picture what it meant. There’s a very distinct difference in the narrator’s mind of who’s a gink and who isn’t, and that’s the way it is. It didn’t appear his own father was classified as a gink with the rest of them. I’m curious what that means.
K: Had I apprised you earlier of the fact that gink is an actual word? I was shocked when I looked it up to find out it was a real word. But I heard my mother-in-law use it. And what she was talking about was a weird kid. So if you look it up, you see definitions like this: a peculiar boy, an odd boy. It’s always a male.
G: What’s one thing you hope readers will take away from your book?
K: Just joy. Have a good time with it. But when you produce something like this, you say to yourself, wouldn’t it be interesting if somebody came along and made a movie out of it?
G: One final question—on the novel’s back cover, you mention a thank-you to Mark Strand for his question. Can you tell me the question?