Texas Book Festival: Q&A with Owen Egerton

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Local legend Owen Egerton is one of the comedic talents behind the Alamo Drafthouse’s acclaimed Master Pancake Theater, as well as a prolific screenwriter and novelist. L Style G Style caught up with him during the Texas Book Festival to discuss the new novel, sexy Christian rock and the Hollow Earth theory, as well as hear what’s next for Egerton.

The Book of Harold was about God’s illegitimate son, and this book is about a kind of Rapture where everybody’s out looking for religion. What’s your obsession with Christianity?

That’s a great question. I’m not quite sure, I’ve been actually thinking about this because today I’m on this panel with Reza Aslan, who wrote Zealot, and I think that’s something he and I have in common; an obsession with religion overall, and a specific obsession with the role of Christianity.

When I was a teenager, I had a conversion to Christianity: I went on staff with a group called Young Life for a number of years and it really defined so much of who I was. When I was in my 20’s though, I began moving away from that and finally stepped away from that faith completely. But, the remnant of being….I guess ‘obsessed’ is probably the right word…..with the impact both positive and negative that my faith had in my life has stayed with me, and it’s something that I’m continuing to explore. I love religion, I’m fascinated with the role it plays in cultures, with the role it plays in history and most specifically with the role it plays in individuals. I think it is so often the language we use to get at things that language can’t reach. Religion’s a kind of poetry.

I like that. You also did an interview a while back where the interviewer brought up the subject of “post Christian” literature.

Right.

You were saying that it was more of an expansion [of Christianity in literature] than a recession. Are you trying to fill that void, since you keep writing about it?

Not intentionally, I’m not. I end up writing about the stuff that just fills my head. So it turns out that when I’m typing, something like a religious fanatic creeps onto the page and I’m just as surprised as anybody. There is sort of this talk that the interviewer brought up, this sort of question of whether there’s any interest in readers to think about religion and the lives of characters and novels and such.

I still very much see religion as a defining factor in so much of what goes on, not only in America, but in international relationships. Aslan’s book is a great example of that, it’s hugely popular. So I’m not trying to fill the void, but I find that it is just the area that I’m most drawn to when writing.

There’s a part in your book where the main character’s Christian rock band has a unlikely hit with the LGBT community. How’d you come up with that part?

Pearl-Swine, the band in the book, is based off a couple of actual Christian-rock bands, a combination of two. One of them was some friends of friends, and I listened to their album quite a bit. I still listen to a lot of Christian rock, which is weird, in fact even my Christian friends don’t get why I listen to it. “You don’t even believe this and you listen to it! It’s awful!”

But often some Christian rock songs have this accidental sexuality to them. I was playing one of these songs for my wife, and the lyrics were something like “Father, may you have your way/making me, breaking me, filling me, shaping me/Like a potter to the clay,” and my wife was like “What is this song?!”

Oh, it just hit me.

And she’s a Jewish woman from New York, and so she hadn’t had any experience with Christian rock in the way that I had. So as I was writing, those lyrics sort of came back, and that was when the idea came up: that this rock band would have this huge hit in a way they never intended and place them in a situation that would freak out their own views and make them uncomfortable.

How do you feel about the intersection of religion and the LGBT community?

You know it’s interesting, I was just listening to a podcast, an interview with the Indigo Girls, and they were talking about faith in their own life. Religion, like anything else, can be used to humanize or dehumanize, it can be used to liberate or oppress. It has been incredibly frustrating for me, and this is one of the areas in which I moved away from my former faith in Christianity. I was hearing my friends who were proclaiming to be following a man who taught love, who taught the brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity, but who were also saying very vocally: “This community of people are wrong in their life and wrong in their desires and are cursed by God.”

When Prop 2 here in Texas was on the ballot, it broke my heart to see how much of Texas voted for that. When I turned on the television to see this legislation that was so blatantly denying civil rights to a group of people….the people who were fighting against it were having a rally at Schultz’s Beer Garden. And they were happy, and like “Alright, we didn’t win this, but we’re together.” Two of my friends had gotten married that day and were having a wedding reception, while the people supporting Prop 2 were having a rally at a church and felt that they were doing something for God by hurting a group and denying rights to a group. And it so struck me, this bizarre use of religion to stamp a form of bigotry and it was sick in that way.

In your book, I did notice a lot of great satire of, I guess you could say “Austin” institutions. I saw references to the Soup Peddler, to Master Pancake and Alex Jones too—although maybe I just shorthand him for “crazy man yelling into the radio”.

Right.

Do people not from Austin read this and do they respond well to it, or do they just have big question marks over their heads?

I’m a big believer in location being a character in a book. If a character has a real life to them, it shows through. Austin has a real life to it, so when I describe it, it comes through like a character. I think in some ways you fall in love with the character whether you’ve been there or not. For example, Hemingway’s Moveable Feast, as a book describing Paris, I don’t need to have been to Paris to fall in love with what it describes. I get the sense because he’s describing a real place.

I don’t think you need to know that it’s the Soup Peddler to enjoy the story of the soup guru in mind. But what I’ve really discovered has been interesting—there is a brief chapter in the book that is just describing Austin—it’s this sort of long poem to Austin, in a way .I think the truth is that when you live in a place that is lovable, a place that has enough of a personality, whether it’s San Francisco or NYC or Austin, you can relate to someone calling out their joy for a place.

I know why people loved it: it tickled their imagination, let them see that picture in their head. But you’re not a big believer in the Lovecraft idea that a story’s more effective when people think it’s right around the corner?

I think that’s insightful, especially in the world of horror, as Lovecraft does it. But no, no, not necessarily. I love Star Wars, and that tells me at the very beginning that this is happening very, very far away! I think what it does have to be is people that you believe exist and a world that you can believe in. Usually what that means is appropriately consistent.

The Book of Harold got accepted for a TV show, right?

It got optioned. Warner Brothers Television optioned it, and was working to make it into a TV show, and they had me come on as the fella that was pitching it, like the head writer. We pitched it to the networks. They ended up not picking it up. There’s still a chance of taking it to cable, and you know, some other possibilities. We’ll see how that goes.

Nothing you can get into on record?

Oh I can get into it on the record, it’s just the process is kind of interesting. You walk into these rooms and give a 30 minute description of how you would make this into a television show and what it would look like, and what would be the tone, and where the stories would go over the seasons. So right now, it’s basically me working with my producer to see if we can take it to the different cable networks and do some more pitching.

I think back in February you were….

Oh I should tell you…Ellen DeGeneres is my producer, actually.

Oh, wow.

Ellen DeGeneres’s company is my producer on The Book of Harold.

Back in February, you were talking about starting up with Master Pancake again right around this time. Are you, or…

I still do shows with them. You know, John Erler and I have been doing shows together making fun of movies for thirteen years now, because first we did it together as the Sinus Show, and now he does Master Pancake, and I joined them. I just did a run of Labyrinth with them…

Pan’s Labyrinth?

We did Labyrinth and we did Star Trek II, and we just did the Chronicle at Birthday Party, we did a movie called Tuff Turf, with James Spader and Robert Downey Jr., which you should never see. It’s not a good movie.

I’ve never even heard of it, with good reason probably.

So I’ll be joining them again, I imagine, in December for our Christmas show. We do that once a year.

There a plan for that?

What we do is we do kind of a channel surfing, we do clips of holiday shows from all over the decades and all over the world, and we keep them together as if someone’s channel surfing, and make jokes over that.

When’s that gonna be?

It should be every weekend in December until Christmas.

What else is down the line for you?

My short story collection, How Best to Avoid Dying, is being reissued with four new stories by Soft Skull, and that comes out February, so I’m excited about that. I’m working on a new novel, so hopefully that will come together soon, and I’m still writing screenplays. I worked on the screenplay for Free Birds with my writing partners and it’s coming out next week. And we’re working on more comedy and horror screenplays.

What can you tell me about the next novel? Are you going to keep the Christian themes going or back down a bit?

I think there are a lot of folks out there who are Christians who would be shocked if you described my stories as “Christian.” And a bit offended. Actually, I’m working on a novel which is I think the funniest and darkest book I’ve ever worked on. It’s about a man who is grieving the death of his child, and is questioning the nature of the universe, and in that way also, the nature of God. He’s also obsessed with the Hollow Earth Theory, which is fun. The theory that the Earth is not a solid, but actually hollow and inhabited.

I’ve heard that theory. You just love to give yourself handicaps, don’t you?

I just get a little obsessed with weird subjects. I am a believer that a book is defined often by the questions that the book asks more than the answers that the book finds. I’m also actually finding more and more that my life is defined by questions that I return to. I used to think I was searching for answers, now I feel I’m circling questions, and I will continue to circle those questions. Questions like: “What does it mean to be alive?” and “Is there a heart to existence?” and “Is there a soul to the universe?” These are questions I’m gonna go back to again and again, and those questions often are questions placed in religious words and religious language and sometimes not. But I think I probably will continue in that path.

Is circling questions the same thing as finding the answers? Is it getting closer?

Tim O’Brien once said that the object of fiction is not to explain the mystery but to expand the mystery. So the difference is I’ve become more at home with having no answers. I’ve become more at home with asking the questions that possibly don’t have the final answers. And that’s why I love fiction so much. Fiction can play and question and dance with those questions, as opposed to needing a direct and certain, from God’s mouth to our ears answer.

You can follow Sam, the interviewer, on Twitter and Facebook.

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