By Peter McCrady
In case you haven't heard, Owen Egerton is a bit of an Austin icon, and he’s at the heart of the city’s literary scene.
The author and comedian easily embodies the sly juxtapositions that make Austin the weird city that it is, and the city has embraced him. With his numerous gigs and projects, it might seem like Egerton was born to write, and according to him, you would almost be right.
Egerton said the idea to be a writer started early for him. He remembers working on his first play when he was in the second grade.
“I was that kind of kid that made my younger sister and my neighbors be in plays and coming up with ideas for worlds that I wanted to create,” Egerton said.
He also remembers the first real lesson he learned about writing in the fifth grade when trying to cope with his grandparents’ dog being put to sleep.
“I scribbled this first person story from the point of view of the dog on his last day alive, and I remember walking away from that story feeling better but with no answers,” Egerton recalled. “That was the first lesson for me. I will find a form of expression or release, but I will not find answers.”
Writing was something that stuck with Egerton through high school and college, increasingly becoming a more important part of his life.
In an effort to devote more of his time to his craft, Egerton decided to forgo rent by pulling a bit of a Kerouac and purchasing a 1970s Volkswagen Camper and traveling around Austin and some of the western states.
“I would shower at Barton Springs in the morning and abuse coffee shops with free refills,” Egerton said.
To keep the tank filled, Egerton did comedy gigs in the evenings.
“Comedy comes naturally to me. It is my fallback. It’s just my personality,” Egerton said. “I was a middle kid with two older brothers and a younger sister. It was a big enough family that I think to make myself heard, comedy was the angle.”
During this time, Egerton was able to finish and self publish his first novel—the work that led him into the world of screenwriting. The novel was optioned by a filmmaker who was interested in turning the work into his first feature film. Egerton was able to work through a screenplay, learning the structure and the process of adapting a novel to a different creative format.
Egerton then transitioned from his comedy troupe to working with friends on more screenplays, eventually selling scripts to the likes of Warner Brothers, Fox, and Disney.
“I continue to struggle through novels and screenplays and sometimes a bit of a living,” Egerton said.
And when he says struggle through novels, what he means is that he has written three novels including Everyone Says That at the End of the World; The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God; and Marshall Hollenzer is Driving. He also is the author of a short story collection titled How Best to Avoid Dying, as well as a contributor to Salon and the Huffington Post.
The humor of writing
If his time on the comedy circuit is not enough of an indication, Egerton is funny. Both in his writing and in conversation, he can keep a person laughing. But his comedic nature was not always something he wanted to include in his style.
“When I was first writing—when I was younger—I was making an effort to not use comedy. I didn’t want to write funny stories. I was a serious writer. But as time went by, comedy would keep slipping in . . . and I made peace with that.”
For his writing, Egerton finds that humor can act as a way to lower the reader’s guard so ideas and themes can be experienced in an unexpected way. Humor deepens a reader’s relationship with the work and the topic.
“Humor can kind of come in and mix up that formula and surprise us,” Egerton said. “It can make us laugh out loud—suddenly announce ourselves vocally. It can make us have a physical response that we don’t necessarily want.”
Much like the way tragedy can open up a person, humor can also crack a person’s heart to let new emotions get through.
“Humor usually comes in best when it comes through a character’s voice,” Egerton said. “People are just funny. They just are. So that’s often where I find it, and then often in situations that are pushed just slightly extreme.”
Comedy is not the only style that shapes Egerton’s writing. He said all the different styles he works in, from screenwriting to novels to improv to articles, intermingle with each other.
“Screenwriting has—especially the screenwriting I do for Hollywood—taught me a tremendous amount about structure and narrative arcs,” he said. “Using that to inform my novel writing has been helpful.”
In the end though, it is still the struggle of the novel that fully engrosses Egerton’s interest.
“The novel is my favorite format,” Egerton said. “Screenwriting is something I really enjoy and the structure of it is really fun, but often a screenwriting assignment feels more like a job. It’s with novels that I wrestle with who I am and what life is. For me, novels don’t pay that well, but I sure do love writing them.”
Egerton is currently in the revision process for a new novel, working to pitch a sitcom, and recently finished a successful Kickstarter campaign with his wife to fund the writing of a “craft” book. If that’s not keeping him busy enough, he still has the numerous events that he hosts and organizes including the One Page Salon.
The Austin-centric lit scene
“The lit scene in Austin is pretty inspiring,” Egerton said. “There’s a lot going on here. There’s always been a cool literary scene here, thanks to The University of Texas, thanks to a creative community, thanks to being the spot in Texas where so many people who love to create and be in music, art, or literature kind of gravitate to.”
Even though Austin started with a strong foundation in creativity and the arts, there is still a sense of the literary scene growing here in the city through both readers and writers. Egerton credits the many creative writing programs offered through local universities as well as quality journals and presses, including A Strange Object, American Short Fiction and The Austin Review, that are using the city as their base of operations.
Even with all this creativity swimming through the streets of the city—its heritage and new horizons—Egerton feels that Austin has yet to settle on its own distinctive style.
“I’m thrilled to say there’s not [an Austin voice],” Egerton said. “The reason is because Austin thrives on variety. Variety is a great way of making things pop, more than everyone subscribing to one particular Austin aesthetic.”
Egerton sees this type of freedom as a positive trait for Austin and indicative of the culture as well. He said publishers like A Strange Object are publishing high-quality content in a beautiful format that allows the work itself to find its own market, rather than pandering. And this freedom extends outside of writing to other artistic formats including film.
“If anything, I would love Austin to be known for having this wide variety,” Egerton said. “Of having this surreal fantasy fiction mixed with Cormac McCarthy’s dark Western-type fiction to having everything in between. I like the idea that those types of voices can be in the same room talking to each other.”
Egerton said there is a lot of benefit to this community of writers and readers. This collective literary culture allows writers to grow and “cross-pollinate” with one another.
But not all is paradise in this Central Texas oasis. The laid back and welcoming atmosphere of Austin can also hinder creatives. Egerton stressed that Austin is a great place to find other writers to talk to, but not to mistake talking about writing with actually putting pen to paper.
“I love Austin. I would choose to live in Austin over Los Angeles or New York,” Egerton said. “But there is something that Austin creatives could on occasion learn from L.A. [and New York]. You actually have to do what you’re talking about . . . When you’re in more cutthroat communities like Los Angeles, you better turn off the phone, open up the computer, turn off the Internet, and type and type and type.”
What separates Austin from other large creative hubs is the kindness that allows for more collaboration and support. This collaborative culture creates a unique vibe for Austin in the creative world.
“I think it has something to do with the feel of Austin,” Egerton said. “I think occasionally on the other coasts, there is a mentality that there is a gold nugget on the top of the mountain and we’re all scrambling up to try and get it and cling to it. In Austin, there’s a bunch of people saying why don’t we each build our own mountain and then we can all hang out together.”
As Austin’s lit scene continues to grow through all its milestones and struggles, Egerton hopes it can keep its weirdness.
“I love the idea that Austin would encourage risk-taking in literature,” Egerton said. “I would like Austin to be known for risk in literature.”
Getting your fix
As the literary community grows in Austin, the opportunities to be involved with that group of people also are growing. Egerton encourages word-lovers to attend readings, find independent workshops to expand their craft, browse local bookstores, pick the brains of the people manning the counters at local book stores, subscribe to journals, and to just soak up the Austin atmosphere at the nearest coffee shop.
“I love our coffee shop culture,” Egerton said. “You have all these great public spaces, these public living rooms, where people are hanging out working next to each other. It can either be really distracting or incredibly exciting.”
A more off-the-wall resource that Egerton has found for writers and creatives is the city’s improv community.
“I know a number of different writers who have benefitted from taking an improv course.” Egerton said. “It frees them up from the feeling of permanence when you type a word and encourages some of that creative risk-taking.”
But for the capital city, the best things writers and readers can do is keep it local.
“Read local writers,” Egerton said. “It’s fun for a young writer to meet the person who’s written a book. . . . The opportunity to sit down with a writer you admire and hear their thoughts on writing is pretty fantastic.”
In Austin, you can get that experience just by offering to “buy the author a beer.”
To stay up on everything Owen Egerton is getting mixed up in, visit his website at www.owenegerton.com.