With Shriver, Chris Belden has written a fascinating, hilarious book, poking fun at authors and the reading and publishing communities.
Best of all, the book takes our cultural fascination of authors who still remain secretive, including Thomas Pynchon and the late JD Salinger, and turns it on its head, spins it around and has great fun with it.
As the book starts a man names Shriver is invited to a writing conference. He thinks it’s a prank, a joke from one of his friends, since he is not a writer. So he calls their bluff and agrees to go. As things escalate, as he travels, receives per diems, signs autographs, it becomes clear those at the writing conference think he is another man named Shriver who wrote just one novel, a huge tome of a book most say they could not finish.
Shriver does not want to admit the error but around ever step he, and the reader, think the jig will be up. It does not help that he keeps getting asked questions only the “real” Shriver would know and he has to guess at.
The book is a fun gem. I interviewed the author by email.
How did you come up with this story? Your publicity note gives one explanation (that you yourself felt out of place at one point in your literary career) – can you explain?
I was invited to be a “featured author” at the North Dakota Writers Conference way back in 2005. At this point I had self-published one book, had a few stories in some tiny literary journals, and had co-written a B movie that no one had ever seen. I’m also a songwriter and had written a few one-act plays. That sounds sort of impressive, except no one had ever heard of me, and there I was on panels, doing a reading, and being driven around to various soirees alongside folks like Charles Johnson (National Book Award), Kathleen Norris (New York Times bestsellers), and Carolyn Forche (countless poetry awards). I kept waiting for someone to point out that I didn’t belong in this company and send me home. When I got home I still felt like I had somehow bamboozled these people, and turned to writing to help me process this uncomfortable feeling. And that’s how Shriver was born.
Are the characters entirely inventions or based on anyone?
The characters are almost entirely invented—they’re all pretty exaggerated—but I certainly took a trait here and a trait there from people I’ve known. There’s no shortage of ego, pomposity, and arrogance in the publishing and academic worlds, so I had fun taking that to extremes.
Did you do research for this? If so did you learn if there have always been reclusive authors like Thomas Pynchon and JD Salinger?
No research. Obviously I know about Pynchon and Salinger being reclusive, and there are others (Elena Ferrante is the latest one to capture people’s imaginations), but I didn’t look into their lives to glean information to use in Shriver. I was just playing with the “reclusive author” cliché, especially as it relates to Pynchon, because so many people don’t finish his books.
A few weeks after receiving this book to read I heard this New York Times story about a book that may or not not have been written by Pynchon and I had one of those “is art crazier than real life or vice versa? moments” Did you follow that story with any added interest?
I did see that in the Times and I thought it was pretty hilarious. Once you have a reclusive author and a book appears written in his style by another reclusive author, there’s a hall of mirrors effect that’s pretty hard to resist.
What’s it like to have someone as witty and clever as Richard Russo praise your book?
That was very gratifying, to say the least. Many people in publishing don’t take the blurb seriously, even as we’re all scrambling to get one, and often blurbs come from friends or colleagues who feel obliged to support you. But I’ve never met Richard Russo, so his kind words certainly meant a lot to me.
What have your past books been like and about?
My first novel, Carry-on, is about a young man whose wife leaves him and so he takes off on a road trip through the Pacific Northwest. The novel jumps back and forth in time, and is written from different perspectives. It was kind of an experiment for me, and I had a lot of fun writing it. All the references to “Goat Time” in Shriver are direct references to Carry-on, whose hero is also named Caleb (though no last name is given). I wanted people who read both books to feel like there is a connection between them, that perhaps Shriver is the same character, several years later.
My other book is a story collection, The Floating Lady of Lake Tawaba. All the stories are set in a small lake community, and several characters appear in more than one story. The Floating Lady won the Fairfield Book Prize (judged by Dani Shapiro) and was then published by New Rivers Press, a venerable small press out of Minnesota.
You used to teach writing in soup kitchens and a maximum security prison? What was that like?
I still teach at the prison. There’s not enough space to truly describe the experience except to say it’s tremendously satisfying. I’ve been going in once a week for 6 years now, and every week something special happens. The inmates are talented, funny, and grateful that someone takes the time to help them express themselves in a way that is productive. We have occasional readings for invited guests, and I’ve put together five issues of Sentences, a collection of their work.
What are you working on next?
Right now I’m writing what I call a “neurotic mystery,” featuring a private eye who is sort of a combination of Shriver and Philip Marlow—neurotic and tough at the same time. The working title is “The Private Dick.”[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00U3VTEH6]