An Interview with Jack Pendarvis
by Luke McKiddy
Jack Pendarvis is the author of one novel and two collections of short stories. He is a columnist for Oxford American, and The Believer. His work has appeared in many other publications, includingMcSweeney’s, The New York Times, and the 2006 Pushcart Prize anthology. His short story "Pinkeye" appeared in Pleiades issue 33.2 and can be found here.
In the introduction you wrote for Maegan Poland’s short story “Spores”, which was an “Introducing” feature in Pleiades 34.2, you mention a number of skills that younger writers can often have difficulty with. Specifically you note the ability to structure a story, create convincing dialogue, and an unwillingness to explore personal insecurities. Could you elaborate on these subjects, and remark on any other skills that beginning authors should focus on developing?
I didn’t mean to sound tough on young writers. I love young writers! They are a lot more fun than old writers. I think I did say that young writers have a problem with structure sometimes, but who doesn’t? When I’m writing a short story there will always come a point when I suddenly realize I am typing an “ending.” That’s how loose my own grasp of structure is. I’m always surprised that the story is over.
Could you name other young writers work that you have recently enjoyed reading?
I’ll mention a few of my former students who are out there getting it done. Abigail Greenbaum, Bill Boyle, Anya Groner, Michael Bible, Brendan Steffen. There are tons more I could mention but those are just a few I’ve noticed recently out there knuckling down at the word factory and shipping word product to the world like pros. I’ve seen their names recently, here and there. Bill lives in town so we’ll get a drink or watch a movie. The thesis he turned in for his MFA degree was an amazing crime novel, Gravesend. It was strange and thrilling to have a student turn in a crime novel. I quit teaching, though. Maybe it happens all the time now. I hope so! Gravesend was published and now Bill is working on something else great. Practically everyone at Adventure Time, where I work now, is young. I haven’t read many of their comics. I read the two volumes of Forming that Jesse Moynihan published and thought they were incredible. He’s some kind of visionary. I love everything Natasha Allegri does. I’m ashamed I haven’t read more by the other people I’ve met through Adventure Time.
In recent years you’ve been writing for the show Adventure Time, which is a children’s television show that has found something of a cult following among teens and adults for its imaginative world and characters. I am not an expert on the show, but having watched a number of episodes, it felt like the episodes in which you are credited there is a subtle shift towards darker or more mature themes. You can see this in your first episode writing, “Root Beer Guy”, which is based loosely on the motifs of Film Noir. This trend was especially noticeable in the first episodes of season six when Finn meets his father, and with the return of the genuinely unsettling character Lich. Your short story “Pinkeye” published in Pleiades 33.2 as well as other of your works handle mature themes in humorous ways but oftentimes in a realistic setting. How has working on Adventure Time influenced your creative process and vice versa?
I can’t take any credit for the tone of Adventure Time. I’m just a cog in that beautiful machine. You mention the noir mood of “Root Beer Guy,” the episode in which I did the title character’s voice, but there was at least one other noir episode of the show long before that, seasons before I came onboard. And as for the Lich, he’s been there from the beginning, when Pendleton Ward thought up the show. He very purposefully wanted to include a villain that had no comic element—just pure darkness and fright. I did urge Jesse Moynihan to kill off Root Beer Guy in the recent episode “Something Big,” and Pen said it was because I had a fantasy of witnessing my own death. Fans were upset when Root Beer Guy died, which surprised me because he had a speaking part on only one previous episode. I can’t recall whether it was Pen or Adam Muto, the supervising producer, who said, in the aftermath, “Killing off a character can be fun for the writers but not fun for the fans.” So I think I did learn something from that. Tying this back to the first question you asked me, I would say that Adventure Time has made me much more aware of structure. It hasn’t made me better at structure in my own stuff, but it’s made my lack of structure more glaring to me.
Reading your novel Awesome in many ways felt like it could have almost been an extension of the Adventure Time universe. Granted, the show probably could not include so many situations that hinge on the character Awesome’s genitalia. Could you talk about some of the themes that are important to you, or you feel like can be seen in a number of your works? The concept of “joshing” in particular I noticed in your novel and several short stories.
“The concept of ‘joshing’!” I’m not sure what that is, but I like the phrase. It sounds like something one of my characters would say. Maybe I’ll steal it. I guess what interests me most is the depth of our longings and the inadequacy of the tools we’ve been given to express them. Is that pretentious enough? That gap produces comedy with a tinge of melancholy, one of my favorite tinges.
Through your stories it is impressive your ability to create short cohesive narratives. Even your novel Awesome felt like there were chapters or sections that could have been short stories in and of themselves. Can you give some tips for creating satisfying narratives in only the course of several pages of a story?
Well, the part I like best is cutting stuff out. I can’t pretend this will work for everyone, but I often find out that I can cut off the first two pages and at least the last paragraph. Just give people the tender heart. So a short story is like an artichoke is what I’m saying. I hate artichokes.
How much of yourself did you bring to the character you voiced “Root Beer Guy”?
You know, I did draw on my growing dissatisfaction with my day job, and I contributed from experience to the scenes where Root Beer Guy tries to work on his dumb novel in the middle of the night. He throws his typewriter in the trash at the end of the episode, a detail that just felt so satisfying to me. And as I noted earlier, Pendleton Ward thinks I took some pleasure in killing myself off in Season Six.