I spoke with Andrew Ervin recently about his forthcoming novel, Burning Down George Orwell’s House. His first book, Extraordinary Renditions, a collection of three novellas, is a reader’s delight. Ervin grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and has lived in Budapest, Illinois, and Louisiana. He has a degree in philosophy and religion from Goucher College and completed his MFA in fiction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His short fiction has appeared in Conjunctions, The Southern Review, Fiction International, and elsewhere. He currently lives in Philadelphia with his wife, flutist Elivi Varga.
K.E. Semmel: One of the very things I love about Ray Welter—he’s a wonderful character—is that he wants to get away from modern life and all the gadgets. He’s a kind of Everyman figure. What makes this truly unique is how you build Orwell and Nineteen Eight-Four into the narrative. Did you come to Orwell during the drafting process, or was he always in there?
Andrew Ervin: Orwell was always there. The whole book started with that question: Why did Eric Blair go all the way to Jura (which had to be even more remote in the 1940s than it is now) and all the way up to the least populated part of the island, in the so-called middle of nowhere, to write a novel about constant surveillance by the state and one’s peers? It seems like a contradiction, and I wanted to know how that came about.
And as to Jura being “the middle of nowhere,” that’s a perception that bothers me. I don’t see our big cities as the center of the world. Our wired civilization would be better called “nowhere” than any pastoral island, and I guess that’s part of the point of this book. The tension between the urban and the bucolic is what fascinates me. I’m suspicious of the popular opinion that all industry is bad and the entire natural world is good. There are moments of absolute transcendent joy possible in even the most awful circumstances and there are moments of abject terror possible in the most pastoral settings on the planets. Orwell’s decision to go to Jura, and Ray’s I hope, is a lot more complex than the romantic notion of getting off the grid.
KES: I couldn’t help but notice how this novel is divided into novella-length sections. Your first book, Extraordinary Renditions, was of course a collection of novellas. Is this how your storytelling mind works best—at that length?
AE: The novella is certainly a form that I love, but I didn’t purposely set out to write novellas in Burning Down. The structure of the book changed as I wrote it. At first, I wanted to show everything in chronological order, but as the story came together I felt the need to begin the book in Scotland.
In moving back and forth from Scotland (in the present) and Chicago (in the past) I wanted to make the similarities in the two places as apparent as the differences. That length of the sections helped me do that. I don’t personally think of them as novellas, but it’s not really up to me is it?
KES: Nor should you, of course, since this is a novel. I’m interested in what you say about the structure changing many times. Can you talk about that?
AE: Where to begin? I don’t typically know what I’m writing until I’ve written it, and even then I’m not always sure. Welter was a character whose voice changed a great deal from the early drafts. He started out as an extremely arrogant character but as the story came together I saw him getting more and more beat down by the world, mostly as a result of his own questionable decision-making. It ended up being more rewarding for me to start the book with him as a broken man, beat down by the world. Once I got a fuller sense of his voice and his condition, the rest of it came together. He was a tough nut to crack for me.
Again, the order of exposition was also a real challenge. The first structural model I had in place was the original King Kong from 1933, where there’s this slow buildup to getting to the remote island. That didn’t end up making sense for this story, but maybe the afterimage of that movie remains in some way I can no longer see.
Welter is being pulled between two worlds and the way it finally came together has the reader also getting tugged back and forth between Scotland and Chicago in those novella-length sections you mentioned.
KES: I’m not sure how accurate this is, but for some reason I kept thinking of Bernard Malamud or even, to a lesser degree, Sartre, while reading Burning Down. I mean this as a compliment. Both were gifted writers with something to say. What writers heavily influenced the composition of your novel?
AE: My first book channeled “Julius Caesar” quite a bit. Burning Down is, if it’s working at all, more of a “Midsummer Night’s Dream.” I like using the conventions of realism, but I also like stretching them to their limits. If they have limits at all.
KES: Do you think in terms of Shakespeare?
AE: Every native-English speaker does. Shakespeare is just such a part of the air we breathe there’s no getting around him. Our vocabulary, our understanding of human beings, he put it all on stage. More specifically to this novel, written in the language that Shakespeare shaped, I actually thought more in terms of Terry Gilliam. His understanding of the way the human imagination suffers due to advances in technology has been central to my entire writing life, but particularly to this story.
KES: Tell us about your book launch in May? Are The Dead Milkmen really going to play? How’d you pull that off?
AE: Yes, the Dead Milkmen are playing at my book release party in Philly. And I’m still surprised that I just typed that sentence. On May 3, my release party will be a charity event to raise money for Books Through Bars and the Dead Milkmen are donating their services. The drummer Dean Clean and I go back twenty years now and the former bassist Dave Blood, who is no longer with us and who I miss very much, once stayed with my wife and me in Budapest when he was living in Serbia. It will take place at the Free Library of Philadelphia.
KES: That sounds like the coolest book launch ever. I’ve got to ask something that I’ve wondered about since I started reading Burning Down: Did you spend some time on Jura to get a feel for how people there lived and thought?
AE: Well here’s a confession: I’ve never been to the Isle of Jura.
KES: That’s interesting. You wouldn’t know that from reading this novel. It feels very real.
AE: I discussed the possibility of going with many people, some of whom told me I had to go, others told me to stay away. I made the decision that I didn’t want the representation of Jura in my novel to be too tied to the real place of that name. I wanted to be free—albeit with several detailed maps and a great deal of time on Google Earth, an appropriately Orwellian tool—to let Welter experience the foreignness without my own experiences getting in the way. Maybe what I wrote is somewhat accurate, whatever that means, to the real place, but they’re probably not. It’s my characters’ experiences of setting that interests me, not some fake fidelity to real places in our own humdrum world.
Once the book comes out, if I haven’t made too many enemies on Jura, I’d absolutely love to go. The closest I got was to that ferry port over on Islay, the next island over, where the story begins. My novel begins at the exact spot where my own travels in Scotland ended.
(Read Melanie J. Cordova’s review of this novel here.)