Contributing Editor Vera Falenko

Interview: Featured Writer Erik Harper Klass

Erik Harper Klass studied mechanical and manufacturing engineering at UCLA and music at Berklee College of Music. Now he writes. He lives in Los Angeles, California. Erik Harper Klass is the O:JA&L Featured Writer for December 2019.

 

Falenko for O:JA&L: Tell me about how you got started as a writer.

EHK: I had a late start. Let me back up. Having a vague interest in automobile design, architecture, professional American football, and music (I’d been drumming since I was a kid), I took the sensible path and studied engineering down the road at UCLA (I was good at math). But I knew pretty early on that engineering was not my passion. Soon after graduating I had hit my life quota of solving differential equations and watching digital bridges fall down on computer screens (we just barely had computers back then). I had been playing drums through most of school, and I decided that if I didn’t pursue music at some point in my life, I would always regret it. So I quit my job—I was working at a facility that converted UPS trucks to run on natural gas—broke up with my girlfriend (or, really, kind of the other way around), packed up my gear, and moved to Boston, where I attended Berklee College of Music. I studied drum set performance in the late 90s and early 2000s, and after graduating, my life was drumming for the next decade or so. Sex, drugs, and rock & roll . . . minus the first two (and really most of the third as well—I was mostly a jazz drummer). But I had been thinking about writing for several years while drumming, especially near the end, and eventually I made the switch. Not an easy decision. I recorded my thoughts in a journal for a year before putting down the sticks. It’s been about six or seven years now. I just sold my last kit, a beautiful blue—a phthalocyanine blue, something like the sea—Yamaha Maple Custom. It felt like selling a child.

Falenko for O:JA&L: Were you writing at all during your drumming days?

EHK: Not at all. I honestly don’t remember even thinking about it, at least not at first. So much of my energy was put into drumming and music—there was nothing left. Music demands so much time practicing, especially the kind of jazz I was frequently playing (the weird stuff in odd time signatures that no one listens to except other jazz musicians—we used to say: the better we get on our instruments, the fewer the number of people who have the slightest clue what the hell we’re doing, until we are happily playing in a room with an audience of none). When I first moved to Boston, I was putting in 8 to 10 hours a day. Not to mention, eventually, gigging at night. There just isn’t anything left in the tank after beating objects all day long.

Falenko for O:JA&L: It sounds like you were having success as a drummer. What made you choose writing?

EHK: Well, the money obviously. [laughs]

Falenko for O:JA&L: [laughs]

EHK: Drumming had started to become a chore for me, especially practicing. Playing with great musicians in front of a receptive audience is an amazing feeling, something I’ll always miss. I’ve done the touring thing. South-by-Southwest. Playboy Jazz Festival. House of Blues. I’ve headlined at L.A.’s Whisky a Go Go. I played and recorded with Alison Porter (from some program called The Voice). The Weepies. Some great shows. But to be able to play at a high level, I still had to spend hours every day out in my studio. Drumming is so physical. It’s a little like being an athlete. Even after a few days off, I’d begin to feel the physical loss in my hands and feet. So that was part of it, the ball and chain feeling.

But here’s the real reason I think: Drumming is a very non-intellectual exercise. The better you get as a musician, especially a jazz musician, the less of your conscious brain is being used. You’re really flying by instincts—meticulously and repetitively practiced instincts. I was missing something. I guess I’ve become a learner. Can I reflexively use the word polymath? That feels pretentious. Let’s say: wannabe polymath. Writing is this wonderful excuse to learn about butterflies, philosophy, orthography, rocks, particle streaks in cloud chambers, weird names for colors, whatever.

Falenko for O:JA&L: Do you think there’s some advantage to having gone through these other areas of study?

EHK: Yes and no. I wish I could say that my experiences as a drummer, and, going back, as an engineer, find their way directly into my writing. But for whatever reason I can’t seem to, as they say, write what I know. Maybe someday, but so far music and engineering weave their ways into my writing only tangentially and sparsely. So do I find some advantage to these past careers, in terms of my writing? My short answer is: no. I can’t say I don’t wonder what kind of writer I would be today if instead of drumming when I was six in our garage, or figuring out the fastest way to bolt CNG tanks onto trucks in my twenties, I had been writing poems or keeping journals of obscure words. I’m often jealous of those writers who seem to get perfect prose down in a first draft. For me, writing is still a struggle. It may always be.

But there’s another answer. I do believe that artists who come from different, perhaps non-artistic, backgrounds have an easier time creating works that, I don’t know, pop. Writing that jump’s off the page, you know? I’m happy that I didn’t go through a creative writing program. Or at least, I’m at peace with it. Somehow, I think this benefits my work. I don’t see everything as a writer would. I can come at things from different angles. Pull from different experiences.

Falenko for O:JA&L: It is interesting that writing came so late to you. What about reading? Were you a reader all along?

EHK: Again, this was kind of a late start for me. I was probably an average reader as a kid. In high school, you could call me a reluctant reader. We were assigned books such as Dante’s Inferno and Paradiso. The Iliad. The Odyssey. Of course, I turn to these books today, but for a disinterested high school student, they were a bit of a drag. Who knows how my life would have been different if somebody had thrown some Vonnegut or Nabokov on my desk back then. As an engineering student in college, there just wasn’t any time for reading. Your life gets kind of wrapped up in numbers and xs and ys. It wasn’t until I went to music school—I was in my mid-twenties then—that I discovered reading, really for the first time in my life. I think it was loneliness, being in a new city, experiencing my first heartbreak, changing careers, a little time on my hands, not enough money to afford a television. I distinctly remember the first two books I read, although I don’t remember the order: One was Of Mice and Men. The other was A Farewell to Arms. Could I have picked two more depressing books? Anyway, somehow I was bit by the book bug, and I’ve been reading ever since.

Falenko for O:JA&L: Who are some of your most important literary influences?

EHK: Sebald’s Austerlitz was a game changer for me. Also, Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual. I love the way Pamuk and Kundera play with history in their writing. Laurence Binet wrote a wonderful book called HHhH, which influenced my approach to the novel I’m working on, as did William Vollmann’s Europe Central. I’ve been heavily influenced by Alain Robbe-Grillet. I kind of go back and forth in my novel between “pretty” prose—reminiscent of writers like Alessandro Baricco, Rick Bass, Anthody Doerr, Cormac McCarthy—and more playful, postmodern writing, writers like Nicholson Baker, Italo Calvino, William Gass, David Markson. David Foster Wallace has always been a huge influence, perhaps too huge (ah, the agony of influence!). And then, of course, writers like Hemingway, Nabokov, Vonnegut, and the modernists, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, of course. Shit. I forgot Borges. Otherworldly, he. I could probably go on. I’m sure I’m missing a thousand writers. They each leave a little splinter.

Falenko for O:JA&L: Let’s talk about the novel you’re working on, The Letters and Diacritics of East Central Europe. Can you give me a brief synopsis?

EHK: As the title says, the novel is ostensibly about the letters and diacritics of East Central Europe. But of course, it’s not really about that. The narrator—who happens to share my name—wanders the streets of modern-day Łódź, Poland (note those beautiful letters and diacritics!), retracing the same steps that he and his girlfriend (now, importantly, ex-girlfriend) took exactly a year earlier. Each chapter, while exploring a number of letters or diacritics of one language or another of East Central Europe, also explores parts of European interwar history—the interbellum. But it’s safe to say that a careful reader—or, in truth, even a clumsy one—will hear echoes of the narrator’s lost love in each of the chapters.

Falenko for O:JA&L: So many novels are set during one of the bookending wars, or they explore the rebuilding of postwar Europe. I haven’t read as many novels that seem to limit themselves to the time between the wars as you are doing. What made you focus on the interbellum period?

EHK: The time between the wars is fascinating—such an important part of our history, and in some ways, I think, overlooked. When I first started thinking about the novel I had an idea of where I wanted it to take place (East Central Europe), mainly because of the beautiful languages (the letters, the diacritics) in that region. But at first I imagined that the novel would take place primarily during World War II. But as you said, so many books are set during this time. I thought it would be more interesting to study the years between 1918 and 1939, and really dig in to what was going on after the Great War. We had these movements in art and literature. We had Modernism. We had revolutions in philosophy, narratology, linguistics, psychology, architecture. Ulysses. Proust. Freud. Picasso. Just a really rich period to mine.

Falenko for O:JA&L: What was the novel’s catalyst?

EHK: There was no exact moment. I was reading a book by Timothy Snyder called Bloodlands, about Stalin’s Russia before World War II and Hitler’s Germany during the war. This was when I first started thinking about the letters. The book is filled with these beautiful diacritics, these interesting letters. I wasn’t sure how I would fit this into a novel. Honestly, the whole thing sounds kind of ridiculous. But there was just something visually beautiful here that seemed to resonate, to act as a counterpoint to the horrors of what was going on at this time, what was going on elsewhere on the page. This was several years go. Around this time I read Vollmann’s Europe Central. This book, and others, gave me a sense of what I could do with history, in fictional form.

Falenko for O:JA&L: The Polish Poets series [“Polish Poets in Beds with Girls, and Other True Stories”]—an excerpt from the novel—is a glimpse into the life of eight poets. I know you’ve written two parts. The first finds the poets in various beds with various girls the night before Mayakovsky’s visit to Warsaw in 1927. The second part explores the same poets after Mayakovsky’s suicide in 1930. I’d love to know about how you come up with a subject like this.

EHK: Before I started writing anything [of the novel], I had a very rough idea of what each chapter would be about. I read a ton of books on European history, and then I retraced my narrator’s steps through the city of Łódź, looking for connections, and following my own interests. It turns out, an important figure in interbellum Poland is the Polish poet Julian Tuwim, a native Łódźian. At a certain point on my narrator’s journey, he comes across the monument to Tuwim on the city’s main street. It’s hard to miss. The poet is just kind of sitting there on his bronze bench, a little grin, ready to chat. Of course, this allowed me to explore the Polish poets of this time, which led me to the more specific events of the chapter: Mayakovsky’s visit to Poland in 1927, and then his death three years later. There was an interesting tug of war going on among Poland’s intelligentsia, this turning to the east, to Marxism and revolution and these communistic utopian ideas that were being played out in Russia, but also this growing sense that all was not quite right, exemplified by Mayakosky’s suicide.

Falenko for O:JA&L: How do you balance fiction and nonfiction, the experiences of the novel’s protagonist and those of the historical figures, and of history itself? Dare I ask, how much of the novel is autobiographical?

EHK: For the most part, I try to be careful with my facts. Years, names, references to other works: all of this is real, or at least 99% of it. In the Polish Poets series, for example, the poets are real; their histories are real; if I name the girl in bed with the poet, she is real; of course, their poems are real. I don’t speak Polish (or any language but English—an uneasy admission from a writer of a book on foreign languages!— I tend to metafictionally make fun of myself for this lapse in the novel), so the extent of my research is necessarily limited. But I hope that even a very good reader—let’s say, someone just less than a scholar of Polish poetry and history—will have a difficult time finding obvious, or I should say unintended, mistakes. That’s my goal, at least. There’s a freedom in the writing of Sebald and Perec, and going back, Borges. Try reading Borges with Google open. It’s really fascinating to see what parts of his stories are historically accurate and which parts are not (I recently did this with “The Garden of Forking Paths.” It’s a great way to spend an evening.) But I adhere more closely to the methodology of Vollmann, who proudly uses endnotes to display historical accuracy.

And then there are the parts of the novel that are more obviously fictional. I’ve never been to Łódź (although I intend to go before wrapping up the novel), I’ve never had a girlfriend named Rachel, I do not possess a magical backpack from which my narrator pulls hundreds—literally hundreds—of books during his journey. Nor am I aware of the sexual proclivities of the Polish poets of the interbellum. And so on. History has its limits.

Falenko for O:JA&L: A related question: Reading these very short stories—I think you refer to them as “vignettes”—it becomes clear that all of the poets’ girls share the same physical attributes and mannerisms. They all have green eyes, freckles, auburn hair, etc. It’s as if they are all one. This can only be intentional, yes?

EHK: You don’t say! I hadn’t noticed that. Hmm. [sly smile]

Falenko for O:JA&L: Let’s talk about your method. What’s a typical day of writing like for you?

EHK: It really depends on where I am with a chapter. I embark on a ridiculous amount of research before I start writing each chapter, so if I’m in this research phase, I try to spend about three hours at the beginning of my day just reading. I might also do more reading at night. When I get ready to start writing, after I’ve outlined, then those three hours are spent writing. Sometimes I burn out early, and other times I feel like I could write forever, but those three hours are carved out of my day, and I protect them somewhat obsessively. One word or a couple thousand—I don’t have daily word goals.

Falenko for O:JA&L: You talk about research. The excerpts we’ve published seem meticulously researched, and you use footnotes liberally. How much time do you spend researching? Is most of your research completed before you put “pen to paper”?

EHK: Yeah, I spend a lot of time researching. Definitely more time researching than actually writing. That’s just what this particular novel seems to call for. I probably spend a few months researching for each chapter. I’m lucky to live in a city with an amazing public library, and I have alumni privileges at UCLA’s great library system, so I accrue piles of books that I kind of plow through before I even start thinking about an outline. When I start researching, my ideas are pretty inchoate, really by design. I want to be open-minded and let the stories blossom from the research. This whole process could be miserable, but I’m really fascinated by the history. But at some point, I have to make the decision to stop chasing these unraveling threads of history and close the books, and then things get scary: trying to turn my notes into an outline and turn my outline into something worth reading. Years ago I researched a story about a mattress salesman. It was horrible. Mattresses just aren’t that interesting. (The subject is soporific, needless to say.) I even went to a mattress store near my house and asked if I could hang out for a while and see how things are done (to which request, incidentally, I was rebuffed). I promised myself that whatever I write in the future, the subject will be something that interests me. I think that’s a good rule for a writer. (I also promised myself that I’d never become a mattress salesman.)

Falenko for O:JA&L: I know some writers outline extensively, and follow their outlines meticulously, while they write. Others write more freely. How do you use outlines?

EHK: Here’s a great quote (Flaubert, via Julian Barnes): “It seems to me, alas, that if you can so thoroughly dissect your children who are still to be born, you don’t get horny enough actually to father them.” So, as far as outlining is concerned, I think it’s important to not have things too neatly lined up. I do have a working outline when I write, but I work at my computer and keep my Internet wide open. No matter how carefully I outline, there are inevitably these wonderful rabbit holes that I will fall into, that I want to fall into. Oh, the strange internet journeys I’ve taken! I’m sure I’m on a few FBI watch lists.

By the way, if it’s not clear, I outline and write one chapter at a time. This works for this particular novel, since it’s quite fragmented, and the chapters are relatively self-contained. I have a blurry sense of how the novel will end (thanks to Ulysses (spoiler alert?)), but I’m nowhere near ready for outlining that far into the distance. I take the chapters one at a time, like walking, step by step, up a very steep mountain.

Falenko for O:JA&L: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

EHK:  Well, I’m still trying to figure this whole thing out, so I won’t say much. But I’ve learned a few things. First, read. Second, write. I suppose this is obvious, right? But there’s a bar that every writer must clear before anything worthwhile makes it to the page. A minimum level of, let’s call it, competence (I think of this as somewhat tantamount to keeping time as a musician), and I think this primarily comes from extensive reading. It’s osmotic. A little magical. It’s not something you can cram. It’s a lot of words, a huge lifelong read-word count. Of course, a writer must be familiar with what’s been done, and so on—read your Shakespeare, your Homer, blah blah blah—but I’m talking syntax, sentences, grammar, phraseology. I don’t care if you’re writing experimental fiction or historical fiction or a memoir, whatever—the flow of the words needs to be sound. You’ve got to keep time.

And then write. As a musician, I actually thought that Gladwell’s 10,000 hours [the hypothetical number of hours needed before becoming an expert] is about right. How many words can be written in 10,000 hours? I’ll throw out the number: a million. It’s a nice, big round number. That’s a lot of stories that end up in your Discard Folder before you have much of an idea of what you’re doing.

And I guess a final piece of advice: Write with balls (figuratively speaking). Take some chances. Make a mess of things and see what happens. Write exuberantly.

Falenko for O:JA&L: What’s next for you?

EHK:  I am about halfway through the first draft of the novel. At this point I suspect I’m going to see this one through to the end. Because there’s so much research involved, it’s a pretty slow process. I have at least a few more years to go. Hopefully I can keep this one out of my Discard Folder. I’m enjoying the process, and luckily I can submit chapters, at least the ones that can stand on their own, so there are these little victories along the way. It’s a long road. I’m going to bungle this, but I think Doctorow said that writing a novel is like driving along a curving road in the dark, or maybe it was a foggy road (I should really look this up). Your headlights only illuminate a little of the way in front of you. But it’s enough to get you home. I hope so.[/vc_column_text]

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About the interviewer:
Vera Falenko is a 2017 graduate of the Moscow Aviation Institute, a State University. She is a native Russian speaker and a language specialist with fluency in English (English level C2, according to the European frame) and Spanish (Spanish level C1). Falenko provides selected Russian and Spanish translations for our readers in the Eurozone and in eastern Europe. She maintains an independent book review site, offering book reviews in three languages.

Images: Courtesy of Erik Harper Klass.