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Andrew Farkas

Andrew Farkas is the author of Self-Titled Debut, Sunsphere, and the forthcoming novel, The Big Red Herring.

Blurbs

"This brilliantly satirical and playfully experimental collection upends all expectations--Sunsphere is the perfect book for our absurdist times. Each story is a new philosophical labyrinth of delicious, Barthelme-style surprises. Don a pair of ironic (or earnest!) sunglasses, and enjoy this incredible book."

– Alissa Nutting, author of Tampa and Made for Love

"How does the brain think about itself? The brainy Andrew Farkas answers endlessly in this crazed, cracked, creased collection of flipped-out origami, folding and unfolding fictions, Sunsphere, mapping the Borgesian brouhaha of seismic self-consciousness on steroids. These zesty vest-pocket labyrinths are tingling Tinguely machines—kinetic, corpuscular, cornucopic—saturated with negated negative spaces, foiled and foiling, as they tear themselves and all of us-es apart."

– Michael Martone, author of Michael Martone and Brooding and The Moon Over Wapakoneta

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Sunsphere

Energy, Entropy, and the Sunsphere: An Interview with Andrew Farkas

09/17/19

Andrew Farkas’ story collection Sunsphere is a funhouse of energy and potential energy revolving around the Sunsphere, a former World’s Fair tower that is now a derelict tourist attraction in Knoxville, Tennessee and to which Farkas brings iconic status. These nine stories engage and circle the mysteries of human relationship, the fine points of entropy, and the classic automotive joys of the Mercury Comet, among many other things. I was motivated to talk with Andrew because he and I share an affinity for story collections with broad scope and ambition.

Ron MacLean: What is the origin story or creation myth of this collection called Sunsphere?

Andy Farkas: In 2002, I was accepted to the University of Tennessee’s M.A. program in English. Beforehand, I’d never been to Knoxville and knew nothing about it. When I arrived, wandering through the city, I ended up seeing the Sunsphere for the first time. Since it’s kind of down in a little valley, this World’s Fair tower isn’t the imposing, awe-inspiring structure that you’d expect (like the Eiffel Tower or the Space Needle). Instead, it’s honestly kind of ugly and dwarfed by the buildings up on top of the hill. At the time, the park surrounding it was a wreck because it was at that stage of remodeling that makes me think it’s all been a lie, we’re not actually trying to fix anything, we’re just having fun breaking things. Looking at this kind of ugly, not particularly awe-inspiring structure, I immediately knew that I liked it more than any other World’s Fair tower because it seemed like a parody of all of them. And so I began doing research on the Sunsphere and the 1982 World’s Fair. Once I learned that the theme for that exposition was energy, I instantly connected that to the way the place looked now (having reached entropy), which led to me researching energy, entropy, and quantum physics (with a big thank you to my friend, Jim Westlake, for helping me out with that research). The stories mostly sprang from there.

MacLean: In Sunsphere, the narrative grounding is very different from story to story — with “Do Kids in California Dream of North Carolina?” or “Everything Under the Sunsphere” at one end of the spectrum, and “I Don’t Know Why” or “No Tomorrow” at another. Others fall in between. What for you is the core of a story? The fulcrum on which it balances, the nucleus that gives it energy? And how do you find/build/grow what surrounds it?

Farkas: Experimental work can be more idea-based, so I normally start with an idea instead of, say, a character or situation. “Do Kids in California Dream of North Carolina?” started with the idea of potential energy. There’s a ton of potential energy all throughout the story. The problem for Trevor is that he thinks there’s no way to access that energy because everything he tried in the past led to ruin. Now, whereas this story is a little more realist, I still started with an idea (potential energy) then expanded the idea (potential energy that can’t be accessed). So, I didn’t decide I wanted to write a more conventional story, I just followed where the idea took me. “I Don’t Know Why” is the same. Entropy is all throughout Sunsphere, but “I Don’t Know Why” is the entropy story. I knew I wanted to pack in as much entropy as possible. That led to the post-apocalyptic city of Knoxville being filled with white noise (for communication entropy) and chaos (the Sunsphere being deconstructed, the city impossible to navigate). Since it seems like everything is truly over, I thought, “Well, it’s the end of the world,” and so I started looking up potential ends to the universe (which is how each section of the story ended up with a subtitle that describes a different end to the universe). From the original idea, then, everything else springs. Since I’m not working in realism, I have no problem creating characters who represent ideas themselves. Though I would say normally these idea-characters of mine are critiques of the ways we turn others into paper cutouts of themselves, or turn ourselves into two dimensional robots.

MacLean: I’m smitten with Kat and Trevor from “Do Kids in California Dream of North Carolina?” What would Kat say about Los Angeles? What’s her take on “No Tomorrow?” What would Trevor say about Knoxville? Did he ever get confused by the many names for a single street?

Farkas: Kat needs to keep moving, so she’d probably kick the driver out of the Mercury Comet in “No Tomorrow” because he’s going too slow. And plus, he’s in Knoxville, and she’d definitely rather be in Los Angeles, weaving in and out of traffic, finding the next power source. When we see her in “Do Kids in California,” though, she’s burned out because she was trying to channel all of the energy of not just L.A., but all of California at once.

Trevor might be attracted to Knoxville because of the Sunsphere, which he could end up seeing as the center of energy he’s looking for. As for a guy like him, he wouldn’t get confused by the street names because he’d convince everyone else to call the streets by the names he uses. Gene, from “Everything Under the Sunsphere,” however, can’t even convince himself what they should be called.

MacLean: What is an example of an uplifting, aphoristic billboard that would describe your best life?

Farkas: When I wrote Sunsphere, I was sitting between two very large pieces of paper, each with a very small sentence printed in the center of them, that came from the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center. One said, “Somewhere better than this place,” while the other said, “Nowhere better than this place.” I think that space in between fits me no matter where I am. On the other hand, I also thought of a movie poster for Being John Malkovich (1999) that I had on my wall for a long time. It said, “Ever want to be someone else? Now you can.” I feel like writing, whenever it’s going well, allows me to be someone else.

MacLean: What makes an Andrew Farkas story a story?

Farkas: Since my stories are rarely about plot, I instead look for when the material has reached critical mass (as Michael Martone puts it). This is particularly the case in a piece like, “The Physics of the Bottomless Pit.” There are lots of different sections, most of which don’t connect to each other, except that they take place in a bottomless pit, or are about the bottomless pit. Once I build up all of this material, I look for the moment when it feels like I’ve explored this idea enough. Call it the Goldilocks moment. But even though there’s no real beginning-middle-end, when the story’s over, you have that satisfied sensation you get at the end of a Freytagian piece. The difference is, instead of riding the rollercoaster, you’ve been let loose in the funhouse and experienced all there was to experience there. If I’ve done my job, you look forward to going through the funhouse again.

MacLean: What makes a story an Andrew Farkas story?

Farkas: Definitely the voice. People who know me and who’ve read my work always say that they can hear my voice when they’re reading something I’ve written. People who don’t know me, but have read my writing, when they meet me, they always seem to say I sound like my writing. I think that happens for two reasons: 1) I am not at all a fan of “invisible style,” writing that works hard to make you forget about it so you only focus on the plot or characters. Plot and characters are interesting, but I want people to think about the language and the voice too. 2) When I’m writing, I constantly read my work out-loud. It isn’t done to me until I like the way it sounds from beginning to end. If I trip up at all while reading, I know I need to rewrite a sentence or a section.

MacLean: I am deeply concerned about Mr. Yang from “The City of the Sunsphere.” At this writing, what is Mr. Yang’s condition, and/or his proximity to James Agee, expressed in terms of Knoxville City Hospital room numbers?

Farkas: 42

MacLean: Can we discuss Freytag’s triangle and the obsession with classic story structure? In particular, can we find a way to undermine its dominance?

Farkas: I think the way you undermine Freytag’s dominance is by introducing people to work that doesn’t follow the triangle and hope it clicks with them. That’s what happened to me. When I was an undergrad, I had to read Samuel Beckett’s Endgame (1957). At the time, I hated it. I also watched Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). I hated that too. But I’d been exposed to them. And they stuck with me. I found myself thinking about them, telling other people about them (usually how much I couldn’t stand them, though they perhaps were thinking that I, you know, doth protest too much), until finally I just had this compulsion to go back to them. Now, I love both works. And I’m really into work like Dead Man and Endgame (and pieces that fit into this outsider category). I expose my students to this kind of art all the time. One of the best compliments I ever received about my teaching was when one of my students asked if all the movies in the class were going to be weird, and before I could answer another student, who’d had me before, said, “Everything you read or watch in an Andy class is weird. But then you discuss it afterwards and it doesn’t seem so weird anymore.”

MacLean: What is your perihelion?

Farkas: Closer than you think.

MacLean: Given that your stories are structured non-traditionally, on what basis do you revise, and how do you know when a “story” is “finished”?

Farkas: Revision is actually my favorite part of writing. The most difficult thing for me to do is look at a blank page. So, at the beginning, I hate whatever it is that I’m writing because it doesn’t conform to how I see or hear the piece in my head. The worst thing for me to do, then, is to revise along the way. Unfortunately, all too often I do just that. At some point, however, I finally have to pound on my keyboard (I write on a computer mostly, with some handwritten notes on the side) until I have as many of the ideas out on the page as possible. That draft is horrid. I then print that draft out and pound on the keyboard while looking at the horrid draft, rewriting and normally adding more (though sometimes subtracting, but I find it’s mostly adding for me). I keep doing this until I get to the point where all I have to do is think about how to craft the sentences. This is my favorite part because the piece mostly looks the way I want it to look, it just doesn’t sound the way I want it to sound yet. I guess it’s rather like sculpting, if sculptors first had to collect the atoms to make marble, then they made a block of marble, and then they made the statue. I’m only exaggerating a little there. I then know the story is finished when I read through and everything sounds exactly right. Ideas and style/language are more important to me, I suppose, than plot and suspense. It’s probably no surprise that, in a culture full of people saying, “No spoilers,” I say, “Give me all the spoilers now and don’t dally.”

MacLean: “There is a way to battle the torrid world, a way to understand it. But somehow, I’m on the outside.” This line, from “Everything Under the Sunsphere,” is one of the most moving things I’ve read in a while. Why? And what is the way, for us hungry readers?

Farkas: At one point in “Everything Under,” Gene is trying to get into a shindig and he can’t find the way in. Later, when he’s describing this experience, he says he isn’t sure if he wants to be on the inside or stay on the outside. So not only is he alienated throughout the story, he has no idea what he wants. He blames the torrid world for this because as you raise the heat in a system you create more disorder. Gene thinks if the world were completely organized, then he’d know what he wants. This, of course, will never happen. But since Gene is constantly trapped in between, he’s not only alienated from society, he’s alienated from himself. Strangely, this makes it so he can battle the torrid world because the way to battle the torrid world is to be outside of everything. He’s in the ideal position, but can’t see it because he’s bought into the idea that alienation is bad. I think that’s why you find that sentence to be so moving. It’s tragic that Gene can’t see what position he has and use it for something because, in a lot of ways, the outsider is often seen as a loser. With this discussion, I also wonder if Gene might represent the position of narrative art that isn’t quite conventional.

MacLean: What is the most dangerous condition a human can contract through (accidental) contact with the Sunsphere?

Farkas: You might get proselytized by the Cult of the Great Golden Microphone. If you allow yourself to be blessed by the adherents, you will end up covered in glitter.

MacLean: What are you working on next?

Farkas: Right now, I’m working on a collection of essays called The Great Indoorsman. In each piece, I explore some indoors space (since I’m not outdoorsy at all), but I also connect my experience to something in the world. For instance, my essay, “Filk,” that appeared in The Iowa Review, is about old video rental stores, but it’s also about filk music (folk music inspired by the science fiction, fantasy, and/or horror genres) and the cult film Dark Star (1974). Just recently, 3:AM Magazine published “Wait Here?” an essay that’s a metaphysical investigation of waiting rooms.

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