The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week, The Bookshelf features short story Eric Schaller of Lebanon, New Hampshire. His debut collection features tales built on bizarre premises. In one story, a young man grows a tiny, live version of the author Edgar Allan Poe. In another, a parasite crawls into the mouths of sleeping people who snore. And a man talks to the corpse of his dead wife about his belief in the body’s ability to possibly repair and reanimate itself after death. The book is called Meet Me in the Middle of the Air and Schaller joined host Peter Biello to discuss it.
Eric Schaller's Top 5 Book Recommendations:
1. The Raw and the Cooked, by Jim Harrison. "Harrison has been on my mind a lot lately since he passed away this past March at the age of 78. He, like some of the lead characters in his novels, was Shakespearian in breadth, combining the appetites of Falstaff with the pathos of King Lear. His skills as a writer are on ample display in these lusty essays about food. 'We can’t become inconsolable just because life is incomprehensible,' he writes at one point, a line that is a sustaining meal in itself."
2. Year’s Best Weird Fiction, Vol. 2 (editors, Kathe Koja and Michael Kelly). "You can uncover the evolution of the horror tale, as inspired by Poe, Lovecraft, and Kafka, through anthologies such as The Dark Descent (David Hartwell, editor) and The Weird (Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, editors), but there is no better celebration of its current state than Year’s Best Weird Fiction. I’ve always loved folktales and fairytales and their emotional resonance is felt in many stories of this recent volume. Carmen Machado’s two stories, 'The Husband Stitch' and 'Observations About Eggs from the Man Sitting Next to Me on a Flight from Chicago, Illinois to Cedar Rapids, Iowa,' are particularly strong."
3. POPism, by Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett. "I recently caught a revelatory exhibit of Warhol’s work as a book artist at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York City, and picked up this memoir in the gift shop. Fascinating reading if you are a fan of a period and place that encompassed Dylan, The Velvet Underground, and the alternative becoming mainstream. Essential reading if you want to understand the strange convergence of celebrity and reality media that ultimately resulted in Kim Kardashian."
4. archy and mehitabel, by Don Marquis. "Whereas Kafka wrote about a man transformed into an insect, Marquis writes from the vantage point of a cockroach with the ‘soul of a poet.’ These were newspaper columns a century ago. Would that they were again. With splendid illustrations by George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat."
5. Grendel, by John Gardner. "The story of Beowulf as told from the monster’s perspective. An entire cottage industry has grown up around retellings of stories from the antagonist’s viewpoint (e.g. Wicked) since Grendel was published in 1971. Grendel is still the best. Gardner lets the monster be the hero of its own story. So aren’t we all?"
So the title of your book, Meet Me in the Middle of the Air, comes from an old folk song, “Ain’t No Grave Gonna to Hold My Body Down.” Johnny Cash did a famous version of this song. What is it about the song that inspired you to put a line from it on the collection?
I like Americana music quite a bit, and it’s something I tend to listen to again and again. This choice was partial serendipity, because I got a five-CD set of these old gospel Americana songs and “Ain’t No Grave” was one of them. I responded very strongly when I first heard it. Also, even though it was really about the eternal aspects of the soul, in many ways you could take lines and re-purpose them toward aspects of the collection.
There is lots of death in this book, but there’s also a disturbing kind of life. I want to talk to you about that kind of life. There’s a story about a miniature Edgar Alan Poe and a miniature Marilyn Monroe. Yhere are robots that are meant to look like Oscar Wilde—for me there’s something more disturbing about these manifestations of life than there is about the gruesome deaths that you have in this book. Would you agree?
I think things that disturb me have to do with false aspects of reality, and I enjoy trying to discern what’s real behind them. And so partly that’s what some of these stories get at, and as you say, the Oscar Wilde automata in has a semblance of life. But you can play against expectations of something that has more robotic movements. I’m a big fan of Oscar Wilde. That’s why I introduced those Oscar Wilde automata into that story.
There is also the other story with these miniature cloned versions ("petits") of Edgar Alan Poe and Marilyn Monroe, which was the last story I wrote for the collection. That was one where the humans were the bad guys, because they were just using these things as they would dolls. They had certain aspects of immortality to their behavior. Through these creatures, you get a distorted version of the world.
Was Edgar Alan Poe an influence of yours?
He’s a huge influence. I think for most people, Poe is one of the first authors that comes to mind when you think about literature.
My collection of stories tries to get some of the range that comes with Poe’s collections. Often we think of very particular horror stories of Poe’s, but he would also have science fiction parts to his stories, as well as some humorous stories. I really like his range of styles, so I tried very particularly to bring a little bit of Poe into the collection.
And Poe also was a poet—do you ever dabble in poetry?
The answer is yes. In the story, “The Three Familiars,” the story about the witch, she has three spells that she uses. Those are poems, and I enjoyed writing them quite a bit.
These stories are considered “literary horror.” How do you feel about that designation?
I’m fine with it. I think there’re different currents that have led to how people perceive what’s called “horror,” and now people see horror as something that should scare you. In general, most authors have a much broader view, where it has something to do with something strange, disturbing, that doesn’t actually scare you but makes you rethink what’s out there and what bothers you. It’s whatever gets at the inner core of your emotions.
So what bothers you?
Many things. Stephen King was once asked, “Why do you write horror?” And he said, “Many things scare me.” And I think the collection does deal with hidden aspects, and tries to uncover what those hidden aspects are, and sometimes what you don’t see can hurt you.
I think Stephen King mentioned that it’s not so much the demon that scares you, it’s the fact that you can’t see the demon, but you have a sense that he’s out there around the corner.
Yes, in horror fiction, often you have to set up a sense that there is something out there that is going to come after you, or do something to you, although you don’t necessarily know how it’s going to work out for the characters. So the reader is saying, “Ok, what’s going to happen next? Is this person going to have something happen to them?” It has to be set up so you know that something should happen but you don’t know where it’s going to go.
You teach biology at Dartmouth College. How does your knowledge of biology and your teaching of biology influence what you write?
There are some direct aspects and then there are indirect aspects. And most of the direct aspects are smaller aspects of the stories. So, for example, the parasite that takes up with snoring people came directly from reading a book about parasites. I just extrapolated it to a new situation.
There’re other smaller aspects, such as the story "Hemoglobin" that came via a Japanese print. But it partially came from my knowing that there are different kinds of hemoglobin in blood, whether that’s a fetal hemoglobin or adult hemoglobin. So that then gave me an entry point to try to do something different with this Japanese folk tale.
How do you know when an idea you have is good enough to warrant a short story?
That’s a really good question. I often know when I will be willing to spend the time working on the idea. I would say when I was first writing fiction, it took me much longer than it does now, so an idea would really have to hit me hard enough to keep me going back and going through the revision process. Nowadays I’m a little bit faster. But there are many stories that are partly done, and many that I will never go back to finish because I’ve lost interest in them.
But some stories just hit you. You find the right voice right away, and they are more like gifts than anything else. I ask myself, does it work well enough, for long enough, to hold me?