The Austin Review: If you were reviewing your own work, how would you describe its style or point of view?
Eric Shonkwiler: I’ve heard it said by others, and would have to agree with the “stark and poetic” description of style. If you really made me sit down and review my own book, I’m afraid I’d end up tearing it apart. That’s probably not unique to me, though.
TAR: Who are some of your favorite contemporary authors?
ES: Marilynne Robinson—I am remarkably excited for her new novel, Lila. You can guess I’m a big fan of Cormac McCarthy, which is true. Some of the newest authors and works I’ve read this year have also become some of my favorites. Schuler Benson just had a new collection out, and it’s as grungy, scary, and powerful as anything I’ve read in recent years. Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and Salvage the Bones ruined me. On a lighter note, Tom Williams’ new novel, Don’t Start Me Talkin’, was the most fun I’ve had reading a book in a long while. Louise Erdrich is guaranteed to bowl me over. I’m also an admirer of Charles Bowden, who just passed away. His work about the border made me reconsider the way a writer ought to rail against the world.
TAR: What classics do you most identify with?
ES: Identify is a difficult word. I’d like to take it easy and say that I identify with Hemingway’s novels, and while I enjoy a number of them immensely, I don’t know that I really identify with them entirely. One book, and protagonist, I can likely identify with entirely is The Odyssey, and Odysseus. I feel like I’m taking ten years to get home, myself.
TAR: What book do you feel embarrassed never to have read?
ES: I am woefully under-read when it comes to Russian literature. I have read not a scrap. Name a Russian classic and I haven’t read it, and am embarrassed to say so.
TAR: What were the main challenges you faced in bringing your first novel—Above All Men—to life?
ES: It was a long process, and the main challenge was likely one of attrition. I wrote the novel relatively quickly, but it took years to get it into shape, and even more time to find a proper home for it. All that time passing, it was hard to keep my spirits up, and there were a few days along the way in which I considered abandoning it as a project.
TAR: How did your experience getting an MFA influence you and your writing?
ES: Aside from the normal gifts of an MFA—getting the time and money to write—I came away from UC Riverside with a stronger faith in myself, and my idea of my own writing. The workshops there—and this will sound bad, but I don’t mean it to—really ground down at what I saw Above All Men as being. I stuck to my guns for the most part, but the influences that changed AAM in the workshop were influences and changes that were, eventually, cut out of the final product. That may seem like a poor or misguided workshop experience, but I don’t think it was. I think it’s necessary to test yourself that way. And of course, a number of other workshops helped build and whittle at AAM in a positive way, and I left UCR with a few professors I hold up as mentors.
TAR: What advice do you give other writers about how to market a first novel?
ES: The best advice I can give is to try to be everywhere. You never know what one person is going to see, and how that one person might change how your book is received. I’ve been all over Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and a number of journals. On top of that rather wide net, I’ve taken AAM on the road, and toured cross-country, which I’m about to do again, from September to October. That’s one of the more fun things you can do in promotion of your book. I’ve met a lot of great people on the road, and am sure to do so again.
TAR: If you were told you couldn’t write anymore, what job would you pursue and why?
ES: Probably some sort of law enforcement or investigations job. It would be challenging, and it would be helpful to society. That’s a lot of what I look for out of writing.
TAR: When you think of Austin, what comes to mind?
ES: A flood of food trucks and good vinyl wash over me when I think of Austin.
TAR: Answer the question you wish we had asked.
ES: I am working on a new book, as a matter of fact. I’m shopping my second novel as we speak, and getting started on my third.
Eric Shonkwiler has had writing appear in Los Angeles Review of Books, The Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. He received his MFA in Fiction from University of California–Riverside where he was the recipient of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellowship Award, and is a regional editor for Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as a former reader for [PANK] and former Editor-in-Chief for CRATE: The Literary Journal of UCR. Born and raised in Ohio, Eric has lived and worked in every contiguous U.S. time zone and finds himself on the road as often as not. He is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel, Above All Men, released in March from MG Press, and chosen as a 2014 Midwest Connections Pick by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. You can find him at ericshonkwiler.com.