Today, Tyler R. Tichelaar of Reader Views is pleased to be joined by Owen Egerton, author of the short story collection, “How Best to Avoid Dying.”
Owen Egerton has lived in Austin, Texas, since 1991. For the most part, Owen made his living making people laugh. For years he was the artistic director of Austin’s National Comedy Theater and Comedysportz troupe. In 2000 he co-founded the Sinus Show at the Alamo Drafthouse, the most popular comedy show in Austin history. Most recently he directed and performed in “Plays Well with Others” at Zach Scott Theatre.
His first novel, “Marshall Hollenzer is Driving,” had the film rights optioned by Austin director/producer Jeffery Travis and Burning Myth Productions. Owen has penned scripts for film, television and stage, and he is a commentator for NPR affiliated stations.
Owen is also a vocal activist. He founded Austin’s The Right to Marry group which works for equal marriage rights for all citizens.
Tyler: Hello, Owen, and thank you for joining me today. I understand your collection “How Best to Avoid Dying” has gotten a lot of attention. I’ve seen reviews describing it as bizarre, disturbing, and having a strange affect on readers. To begin, how would you describe your work and what was your intention in writing the stories?
Owen: I suppose my stories fall into the realm of dark comedy…or perhaps seriocomic. I’m exploring issues of death, faith, love…you know, all the biggies…but most of my stories also aim to give the reader a laugh. I believe laughter can carry us deeper into stories, laughter brings down barriers, surprises us, and twists our perspective just enough to see things as we never have before.
Tyler: Do you feel there is a consistency, or connecting theme to the stories?
Owen: The stories in “How Best to Avoid Dying” are all linked, not surprisingly, by the theme of death. But I wouldn’t describe the collection as morbid. As I see it, death is an enormous part of life. He seems to take hold of our hand and walk with us from birth on. We hardly notice him until he whispers (or yells) that it’s time to go. This collection is my attempt to make friends with the bastard.
Tyler: The opening story seems to have gotten a lot of attention. It describes a spelling bee where children who misspell words are dropped through a trapped door to their death. How did you come up with the idea for this story and what were you trying to say?
Owen: People do seem to like that one. We live in a nation where the latest American Idol update sparks more passion than the events happening in Iraq. It doesn’t take much to imagine a world slightly more twisted than ours where international conflicts are decided by spelling bees to the death. But there’s also for me a frightening metaphor for life in Spelling. The truth of it is, we are all standing over a pit that will one day open. We can do what we want: memorize all the rules, act the clown to be remembered by the crowd, panic and cry. But sooner or later the pit opens.
There is more in there I think…To be honest, if I could tell you exactly what the message in a story is, then I’ve done some piss-poor writing. I like stories to expand the mystery more than clear things up.
Tyler: That’s a great point, Owen. I have on my desk a quote by E.M. Forster that is similar: “Expansion. That is the idea the novelist must cling to. Not completion. Not rounding off but opening out.” That sounds like what you are trying to do, to expand the mystery specifically. Let me ask then, what is your view of death in the stories. Is death something to fear, or to greet, and does it lead to life after death, or does it vary/expand from story to story?
Owen: How we see death defines how we see life. Most of us avoid thinking about death, and our lives suffer for it. But I don’t think we can know much. That’s the beauty and terror of death. It is a mystery. So in parallel to my writing ideas, the quest is not to solve the mystery but instead to develop my relationship to the mystery. There’s a door at the end of the hall. Eventually you’ll walk through it, and you’ll be walking through it alone. There are a thousand answers to the question of what lies past the door, but none really stick. So we have the door and that’s all we know. The door doesn’t change in the stories, just the character’s relationship to the door. Some of the characters in my collection arrive at the door with a smile, others turn and run as fast as they can, others have been watching their feet for so long that the first time they see the door is when they walk into it. In some stories there are hints of an afterlife, in others death feels more final. But these are hints, whispers. Not answers.
Tyler: Another story is a new interpretation of the biblical story of Lazarus. What made you decide to rewrite a biblical story and did you have any concerns about doing so?
Owen: A large part of this collection was me searching for a loop hole in death…a way out. Lazarus seemed a natural place to go. Here was a man who found a loop hole…one many people are betting on. Jesus. In my story, after walking from the grave Lazarus finds he can no longer die. He tells us his story from a one room apartment in current day New York City. He hungers for death. I was surprised as I wrote this. Surprised to discover that perhaps living forever, at least the way I imagine it in this story, is not very desirable. As far as rewriting a biblical story…did I have any concerns? No. It has been the job of art to retell old stories, to find new meanings or rediscover old ones. Biblical stories have been some of the richest sources for art. I’m not trying to rewrite the bible, just meditating on some of its stories. Every artist who ever painted a bible scene or any parent who told a child the Christmas story is doing the same thing.
Tyler: That’s interesting. It reminds me of the Wandering Jew legend–the Jew was cursed by Christ never to be allowed to die, and typically in such stories, he longs for death. I’m curious, then, if you know of this legend and if you are influenced by its literary tradition or other myths and their treatment of death?
Owen: Yes, yes. Like the Wandering Jew legend. There was also a popular legend in the early church that the apostle John wouldn’t die. In my story John is Lazarus’ roommate. He’s become a street preacher in New York City. I’m fascinated by the extra-biblical writings and legends.
And yes, I am interested in the array of myths surrounding death. One of the recurring ideas I find intriguing in different cultures’ views of death is the Hades idea, the realm of the dead. Not a place of punishment, but far from a paradise. And it’s not an end to personal existence…but it’s not living either. Our modern day zombie movies capture the same flavor. I believe these legends and films are the way we warn ourselves that living is more than simply having a beating heart.
Tyler: What would you say have been the biggest influences, literary or otherwise, on your writing and music?
Owen: Good question. I’m huge fan of Kurt Vonnegut. Discovering his books changed and charged my brain. I’m also an admirer of the fiction of George Saunders. His stories are some of best things being written in America today. Full of humor, full of compassion, full of life.
I love the music of Charles Mingus. The energy and force he brought to his compositions is so alive, wild, driven. It’s reaching past itself, stretched out. Often in one of his jazz recordings you can hear Mingus yelling, driving on the other musicians to dig into themselves and discover. You can tell when an artist (musician, writer, painter, etc) is discovering. It flavors the art. I listen to Mingus as I write, hoping some of that madness and style will soak into my words.
One other influence worth mentioning is Austin, Texas. I love the city. I love the people. I love the dance of the place, the style, the diversity. I love the hipsters, the hicksters, the musicians pretending to be waiters, the waiters pretending to be musicians, the breakfast taco in the morning, BBQ for lunch, and sushi for dinner. Every kind of music, all kinds of people. And everyone… everyone… is in a band, or is working on a movie set, or performs improv comedy, or has a radio show, or is starting a zine. I love the hills to the west, the flat to the east, the swimming holes in between. The coffee shops, thrift stores, and friendly porches under Texas Live Oaks. Yeah, I dig Austin.
Tyler: I understand you are also a member of the Austin boy band, Cedar Fever, which has released the album “Gratuitous Dudity.” Has your interest in music affected your writing or vice-versa?
Owen: Ha. Well, of course, being in a boy band, especially one as unstoppably sexy as Cedar Fever has touched every part of my life…okay, the band is built for laughs more than radio-hits. But I do like writing pop-mocking/pop-celebrating songs. And there is a connection between music and writing. A good story like a good piece of music should have rhythm, melody, and energy. But I’d hope my stories have more in common with the jazz of Charles Mingus than with the music of the Backstreet Boys.
Tyler: And your multi-talents continue since you have also released a comedy album “Big Thick Wooden Board” which was played on “VH1” and “The Doctor Demento Show.” What do you see as the primary differences between writing short stories and writing comedy or comic tunes?
Owen: I love doing both. But fiction is my passion. It is where I wrestle, where I discover. Fiction is where I pour (and find) my soul.
Tyler: Do you feel you have a common purpose or message that comes through in your writing, comedy, and music?
Owen: Great question. I’m not sure yet. I do believe whether someone is seeing me on stage or reading my fiction I have a responsibility to entertain and give. Someone is using their time, their money to see me or read my work. I better live up to that. I never want to bore them. A person’s attention is a gift and I need to honor that with a gift in return.
I also hope that my comedy and writing…any thing I create…all carry joy. That’s it. I want to create Joy Vessels. Here’s a Joy Bowl, here’s some joy to put in it. Pass it around. Put some of your own in it. Keep passing…
Tyler: I love how you describe that, Owen. That a person’s attention is a gift and that you want to create joy for people. Obviously, comedy is designed to make people laugh, and in your writing, you often mock human faults. But what do you consider the real value or purpose of comedy, especially in your work?
Owen: I’m big believer that humor is best when coupled with compassion. To simply mock is easy. And often cowardly. But to laugh at ourselves and others can be wonderful. Think of the family laughter around a dinner table, or friends around a campfire. And think of the laughter that inspires thought. We are silly, wonderful beings. One day in any life can hold enough tears and laughter to fill the Grand Canyon with salty waters and echoing chuckles.
Tyler: So, to return to “How Best to Avoid Dying”, you started out by saying it isn’t a morbid book. Can you give us an example or summarize a story in it that has humor or reflects joy?
Owen: Well, the book works as a collection, meaning that the stories say something individually, but say something more when placed together…like voices harmonizing. The first story, Spelling, ends with the narrator hanging by her pants above a pit of flesh-eating pigs and wishing that the “moment would last forever.” That’s us so often…life is hard, often horrific and seemingly without meaning…but please God, don’t let it end. The collection ends with another pit of sorts…a wooden frame floating on an ocean. In the story Lish, the main character, Lish, wrestles the story from the writer’s control. She takes over and carries the story into places the writer feels he can not go. Instead of holding on to the edges of life, begging death to leave her be, Lish dives into the mystery. I don’t mean she takes her life, not at all. I mean she embraces the strange mystery of death as part of life.
Lish’s poetry, Bean’s playfulness, Ms. Gobbler’s ability to forgive, Stimp’s love… all speak of life.
Many of the stories attempt to expose joy substitutes our culture creates… artificial celebrity, hollow dogma, weak art, low-love relationships, and almost anything you can buy at the mall. These are cheap replacements for inspiration, faith, daring expression, heart-expanding passion and commitment. We fill our hearts and heads with commercial jingles and plastic toys, and then wonder why our lives feel bland. I believe there is more worth in a single splinter of a moment of true joy than in a long, safe, comfortable life filled with the joy substitutes.
There are many morbid moments in this book, many dark places, but the aim is not to depress the reader or leave them feeling an empty sense of loneliness. The aim is to explore the rich, sad, strange, beautiful thing it is to be human.
But I could be wrong. Again, I’m writing from questions more than answers. For me lately, the key question…the one behind questions like “Is there a caring God?” or “Can people really love each other?”…The one question is, “What lies at the center of existence?” Is it random, cold, chance. Or is there love, is there meaning, is there joy? Can I honestly say it is good to be alive? This is what I’m asking.
Wait… I’m getting too serious… I’m telling you that my stories about talking penises and heroic hamsters are dealing with the meaning of life. Wow. And I haven’t even started drinking yet.
Tyler: Not too serious at all, Owen. I think everything you just said was fascinating. At the beginning of the interview, I mentioned a few of the words used to describe “How Best to Avoid Dying.” Would you tell us a little bit about the reactions you’ve received about the book and which reactions most surprised you or have meant the most to you?
Owen: The best response is laughter. I do love to hear people laugh…except when I’m showering. I’ve also been told by readers that stories stick with them after they close the book. I like that. And every now and then someone tells me they don’t get it, or I see a face at one of my readings look as if perhaps I passed gas and I’m pretending it’s the smell I meant to create. I kind of like that…everyone likes vanilla ice cream, but no one truly loves vanilla ice cream. It’s the stranger more daring flavors we love…or hate.
Tyler: Owen, before we go, can you tell our readers about your website and what kind of information they can find there about “How Best to Avoid Dying”?
Owen: My website is http://www.owenegerton.com. It’s packed with links to films I’ve made, pieces I’ve written, even a Cedar Fever video (U Gave Me the Clap). I also keep a blog there. It’s my thoughts on writing, living, and the adventure of not being dead.
Tyler: Thank you so much for joining me today, Owen. Can we look forward to any more books from you in the near future?
Owen: Yeah. I have a novel describing the 2nd coming of Christ happening in a Houston suburb in the hands of publishers right now. And I’m working on a new novel about Christian rock, hermit crabs, and the end of the world.
Thanks for having me as a guest. I’ve really enjoyed your questions.
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