Luke Geddes has a ‘Heart of Junk’

Luke Geddes is funny. Full stop. He’s funny on Twitter, when corresponding via email, and knows how to be funny on the page. Writing funny is hard, and he pulls it off with ease.

His debut novel, Heart of Junk is filled with dark humor that teeters on absurd, but is paired nicely with heartfelt moments that brush against melodramatic. His writing does this in the best way possible.

The novel, which comes nearly eight years after a debut story collection, is about a variety of characters in an antique mall in the middle of America. It’s rich with small moments that build and build to something bigger and even though there are a plethora of these quirky characters, readers will never feel shorted of time spent with one.

I wanted to get to know a little more about how Geddes ticks and how Heart of Junk came to be and corresponded with him via email prior to our upcoming conversation at Tattered Cover Bookstore in Denver.

You’ve gotten a lot of well-deserved advance praise for your debut novel. You’ve also written a story collection in 2012. How do you feel you have grown as a writer since then?

I Am a Magical Teenage Princess wasn’t really conceived as a book. Though there are some overlapping themes, it’s more of an anthology of all the short stories I’d written in the seven or eight years before that were published in small literary journals or that I for whatever reason felt “worked.” I don’t say this to denigrate it as something lesser. (Actually, as a reader of short story collections I prefer the kind that collect miscellaneous work rather than those that labor to position themselves as “novels in stories” or “themed” collections.) But I have felt somewhat ambivalent about it over the years because as a naturally self-conscious person it’s hard for me to read it and see it as anything other than a public record of my learning how to write. 

That said, there’s enough distance now that I enjoy the collection more than I probably ever have. Because it’s so much of a particular time in my life as a person and a writer, it’s full of stories I’d have no idea how to go about writing nowadays. I guess I’m finally starting to be able to read it as if someone other than me wrote it. It’s out of print right now; the hope is that people like Heart of Junk enough that I get the opportunity to republish it. I deeply regret the title and wish I had named it Defunct Girl Gangs of North American Drive-Ins, the title of one of the stories.

The biggest thing as far as writerly growth goes is just having read a lot more. I think that has a much bigger effect than any single class, teacher, experience, etc.

What have you been up to in years between that collection and this novel?

Most of the stories in the collection were written before or during my MFA. After that I moved to Cincinnati to pursue a PhD from the University of Cincinnati. I love the city, so I’ve stuck around since graduating and have been teaching at various area colleges, mostly as an adjunct.

During all that time I was working on Heart of Junk, but not consistently. It was very much an on-and-off process. I never had any dramatic moments like Stephen King tossing Carrie into the trash can or whatever, just periods where I decided I wanted to work on something else or take a break from torturing myself with it. Luckily it worked out as well as it could have: it got me an agent, it got acquired by Simon & Schuster, etc. But it still feels like it all just as easily could not have happened. Years went by where no agent or anyone else seemed to show much interest in it.

I feel it’s important to note here that it would have been a lot harder and probably impossible to write the book if my wife did not work in industries that paid a lot more than college teaching and that allowed me the time, resources, and insurance that my own work did not provide.

Your novel opens with an epigraph that is a very peculiar Craiglist ad. When and how did you discover that particular one and why include it in Heart of Junk?

If I remember correctly, it’s from the “Best of Craigslist” page. I sought it out because I wanted something low brow to pair with the excerpt from Tennyson poem for a nice bathos effect.

The one thing that stands out is the array of characters. Was there one character that stands out to you for one reason or another?

From conception the novel had many POV characters (there’s seven in its current form and there were even more in earlier versions), and I always wanted them to be of equal interest and depth, so I intentionally tried not to have one stand out more than any other. A lot of pre-publication readers (including agents and editors who turned the book down) wanted me to narrow the focus to one or two or three characters, but each had a totally different idea of who the “real” characters should be. “This is clearly Keith’s book,” one would say, while another would recommend nixing Keith altogether, for instance. I like to think this shows that the book provides a central character for readers of all dispositions. 

Nevertheless, I do think of Margaret Byrd in many ways as the book’s engine. She’s such an agent of conflict that she helps to get the other characters, who are very internal and neurotic and self-obsessed, out of their own heads.

You put all of these characters into an absurd sitcom-y location. Did you frequent a lot of antique malls growing up? When did you first realize this location would work for your novel?

I remember going to a couple as a kid, but I found them pretty boring except for one or two booths that maybe had old toys or comic books. They felt like museums to me and I preferred watching TV to anything resembling education or cultural enrichment. When I was a teenager and though college, I was very into thrift shopping (an outgrowth of short punk phase) and eventually this transitioned into a love for flea markets and antique malls. When you frequent the kind of places that inspired Heart of Junk, you start to get a sense of the personalities of the individual vendors that operate each booth, based on what they sell or how relatively organized (or disorganized) they are. That’s where the germ of the novel came from. There are particular booths at specific malls that I could point to as inspiring, say, Seymour and Lee’s booths. But to protect the innocent I’ll stay mum!

Your novel is very emotional yet uses humor particularly well. How do you balance the drama and comedy? Which is more natural for you to write?

It’s not something I consciously think about, though I’m probably warier than most writers of earnestness. As a reader, books without any sense of humor disinterest me. I suppose comedy is my natural disposition. Growing up, I aspired to become a cartoonist or sitcom writer. I’ve had to settle with the middle ground of being a comic novelist.

Are there other writers you feel readers of yours would enjoy if they liked Heart of Junk?

I could come up with an endless list for this, so I’ll just offer a few that come to me offhand: Wright Morris, Ge Fei, Jack Pendarvis, Julie Hecht, Paul Beatty, Erin Somers, Stacey Richter, Alex Higley, Tom Drury, Woody Skinner, Helen Dewitt, Dana Spiotta. (I’m sure immediately after I send this, I will think of a ton more I regret not mentioning.)

The book is in development by Fox 21 Television Studios. I’ve talked to enough authors to know how much or little you have a hand in that project, but I am more curious if you are interested in writing for television or film? 

I’m interested in it but happy for the time being to let more experienced scribes take the reins. I wouldn’t really want to do the redundant work of “adapting” the novel into a pilot script and whatnot, since I feel I’ve already told the story once. I’d like a Heart of Junk adaptation, whatever form it might take, to be its own thing, and the best way to do that is to step aside. 

On the off-chance that all the stars align and a full season or series gets produced, however, I’d love to write an episode or otherwise contribute as one non-authoritative voice among many. 

I love the complete control and lack of having to leave the house that novel-writing allows, so I’m not sure how it lines up with my particular skill set, but yes, I’m interested in TV/movie writing in a general sense, as well. I was not especially gifted or bookish or high-brow as a kid or teenager or young adult. I read a little bit, more as I got older and truly became invested in literature, of course. But my earliest understanding of storytelling and structure comes from watching like 8 hours of TV a day from age 2-18.

Finally, and speaking of television, why should people go back and find Once and Again to binge?

First, so it doesn’t reflect on you, I want Debutiful’s readers to know that this question is in response to my own inane tweeting! To ensure that my social media presence appeals to exactly no one, I have lately been posting about the sedate family drama TV series Once & Again, which ran on ABC from 1999 to 2002, among other esoteric topics.

I can’t in good conscience recommend anyone live the way I do, but I nevertheless endorse rebelling against the monopolistic streaming hegemony of Disney/Netflix—with their flashy, high-concept series algorithmically designed for consumers to binge over the course of a weekend and then forget entirely—by indulging in this slow-paced, low-stakes, low-concept relic of an earlier era, wherein thoughtful viewers demanded not “prestige TV” but “quality television.” But I insist against a binge! Watch only 1-2 episodes per day or week and luxuriate in a quaint narrative world in which conflict is expressed through thoughtful conversation and the occasional voiceover! 

Please subscribe to Debutiful’s brand-new podcast, which releases once a month with an in-depth interview with one debut author.

Adam Vitcavage is the founder of Debutiful. His interviews and criticism have also appeared in Electric Literature, The Millions, Paste Magazine, and more.

Visit Luke Geddes at his website and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

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