Interview with Eric Cecil
February 28, 2019
What is the significance of the eponymous theme of tunnels? Be it metaphysical, or literal, such as in subway tunnels, they figure in a majority of the stories. Could you elaborate on why tunnels?
They’re often dark, cramped, unknowable, and sometimes they take us to unlikely places. They’re also good for hiding.
I’ve interpreted these as horror stories before, but you don’t consider yourself a horror writer. Still, the element of fear (of the unknown) and the supernormal, menacing or ethereal, are omnipresent in the collection. What do you think drives this? Do you have any fascination with the macabre you may have sublimated? Or does this come from an entirely different place?
I read a fair amount of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy as a kid. But I was really fascinated by the unexplained. I have this memory, and I’m not sure if I made this up, but I’m eight or nine years old, and someone in my family shows me this article in the local paper. A man has filed a police report, claiming that this huge beast ran his truck off the road in the middle of the night. It just shoved his pickup aside and disappeared into the shadows downtown. The man’s not injured, but he’s unsettled, distraught, and his truck is wrecked. The police are stumped. The driver is sober. There’s no evidence of a hit and run. Nor are there any other reports of damaged property. Real or imagined, this memory is very important to me. There’s something in its essence that I still draw from today.
I don’t read much traditional horror anymore. I don’t mind some weird fiction, but I find most of it to be underwhelming because the writing itself just isn’t that good. Shirley Jackson is probably the one exception. “The Daemon Lover” is a perfect story. The Sundial is also great.
With the exception of “The Water,” all of these stories are set in urban milieux. It is a prominent feature of the collection, to the end that the city itself seems to have agency. In “The Water,” naturalistic imagery pervades, but this imagery is no less lush when describing flickering lamps, the grit and populous, shuffling compact pedestrian corridors of city life. How has living, working and reading in New York City informed this?
To me, the most interesting parts of this city are the empty public spaces. They’re just not that common or obvious, or they don’t stay empty very long. Something like a shady grove in a park or an unoccupied room in a museum is initially inviting, but there’s also an ominous quality to these areas, like they might be deserted for a reason. Any sense of tranquility is usually blown by the looming feeling that someone’s just around the corner, waiting to disrupt, exploit, attack, perform, cajole, or simply crowd the space with their indifference. I find it tiring. Predators and the emotionally needy seem to be invigorated by it.
Tell me about “The Water,” as it’s something of a showpiece, and stands apart.
You tend to see nature differently when you’ve gone without it for a while. Especially when driving long distances. You start to notice these gradual changes in terrain, new flora and fauna, shifts in elevation. Driving can render the land animate. When you add tension and drama and a bit of the unknown, everything gets a little strange.
Tell me about the nature of hallucination as it pertains to these stories. The characters undergo episodes of intense derealization, and the fabric of reality tends to be malleable, culminating in mystery rather than resolution. In “Pests,” for instance, there appears to be more to the relationship between Beth and the protagonist, but you use the motif of the pests to illustrate, while in “Friends,” what you’re writing about is clearly more than meets the eye, in this case a grotesque personification of a violent yet somehow tender urge…there’s also a transcendence that isn’t all dark, but definitely, spiritual, or at least beyond the material world. Are you a spiritual person?
I’m more superstitious than spiritual. I do think there’s something larger than us at work, but it either doesn’t know we exist or doesn’t care. Or maybe it cares about us only to the extent that we can serve it, sort of how we view atoms or insects. Of course, this is an idea central to a lot of popular horror and science fiction.
Life is often senseless or disorienting. Occasionally, in moments of anger, I’ll experience these stark epiphanies and see the city for the con that it is, or my job for all its shortcomings, my personal relationships for all their inconveniences and failures. Many of us are barely navigating through complex systems that others have created for us. Sometimes you have to inhabit someone else’s myth just to draw a small paycheck. There’s something inherently psychedelic about being fed up or broken, either availing yourself of these ties or finding bizarre pathways through them.
Are you a fan of hard-boiled literature/film? I sense an interest in noir, particularly in “Lester’s Boots.”
It’s been a while since I’ve read the classic titles, but yeah. Absolutely. There’s definitely a hardboiled influence in “Lester’s Boots.”
How was being born in and raised in a small town in Illinois, the rust belt, informed your writing?
Probably in many ways I haven’t considered. Galesburg, Illinois, is surrounded by cornfields, and there’s a manmade lake, and some woodlands, some parks, a liberal arts college, a quaint downtown, and a medium-security prison. It was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Carl Sandburg was born there. So was George Washington Gale Ferris, the inventor of the Ferris wheel. I only recently discovered that Dorothea Tanning, the painter and poet who married Max Ernst, was from there, too.
It’s never really offered much by way of subculture. Its population is 30,000, but it’s a simple blue-collar enclave, at least as I knew it in the ’80s and ’90s. The people there are normally somewhat provincial. Workmanlike, dour, quiet. I aspire to that way of living now, but as a kid, I wanted flash and excitement. So I had no intention of looking back after I left.
I visit infrequently. I think the last recession did a number on it. Some of it’s barely recognizable to me now. Some of it’s gone forever, and I’m left wondering how much of it I imagined and how much of it might’ve been real. There’s a grim and mysterious beauty in that.
The eight-part novella-length “Barefoot” which bookends the collection, is another showpiece. There’s something antiquated about the notion of the Help, and in fact, a lot of these stories seem to draw on more traditional rather than contemporary literature. Not once is the internet mentioned, or any trappings of life in 2019. Instead, there’s an agile physicality to the way the characters move, push, struggle through elaborately punishing environs, and an almost labyrinthine surrealism.
Cell phones, computers, social media, celebrities, pop politics: I can’t imagine writing about any of that shit. It’s pervasive enough in real life. I resent that I’m expected to accept these things as a given, so I’ve created a world where they don’t exist. I’ve also written out all the social climbers, the adults who throw their own birthday parties, the idle rich, people who use the word “monetize,” perpetual tourists, and all the other archetypes I’m forced to deal with in reality. They’re gone. Give me the lost ones instead.
I try not to overthink this, but if forced to admit it, I’m interested in making something that feels familiar, but vaguely skewed or partially obscured. Exaggerations on a theme. Once you boil life down to its most important details, it becomes surreal anyway.
This is a good opportunity to shoehorn the trite but quintessential: what kind of literature or films or art have influenced you? What have you been reading or listening to?
The two best books I’ve read so far this year are The Box Man by Kōbō Abe and The Case Worker by Geörgy Konrád. I just finished The Mustache by Emmanuel Carrère, which was also good. Other recent favorites are Piano Stories by Felisberto Hernández, Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban, Motorman by David Ohle, The Sibyl by Pär Lagerkvist, and Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter.
I don’t really listen to music when writing, but I played Dickie Landry’s Fifteen Saxophones a lot while working on “The Water.” The two became intertwined. Ida Lupino’s The Hitch-Hiker influenced that story as well. There’s this shot in the film where shadows fall just-so over the titular character’s face as he scowls in the backseat. That made a lasting impression on me.
You’ve always written fiction, haven’t you?
I wrote and sold my first book when I was in the second grade. It started as a class assignment, but the teacher saw something in it and took it to some kind of trade show, where she shared it with some publishers. An Australian subsidiary of Houghton Mifflin bought the rights, intending to publish it in an English textbook. They never did. I was in the local news and all that. My first public reading was at some sort of luncheon in the capitol building in Springfield, Illinois.
I didn’t really start writing fiction with any sense of form until I was in my early twenties. I’d graduated from college, moved to Milwaukee for a year, then settled in Chicago. I had no idea what I was doing there. I only wanted to hang out and play music. I did some of that, but mostly I bummed around in bars and got fired from office jobs. Out of boredom and frustration, I started writing these sentimental things about drinking, women, family. Typical and boring subjects for a young man, and with all the usual tropes and influences. I never did anything with that stuff.
I moved again, worked more lousy jobs, wrote a bit more on the side. The stories started taking on a different character a few years ago. City life had a hand in that, but I attribute much of it to age and bitterness.
What’s your opinion of ordinary American life? You ruminate heavily on hopelessness and working class fatigue, your characters are hardened, grizzled, haunted, and also feckless. One gets the sense of a dark, damning indictment of culture, yet again, there’s serenity juxtaposed with rage. The serenity tends to come from an oneiric place though…
America is definitely hopeless, but I find a kind of comfort in hopelessness. Hope often seems naive or stupid to me. It’s a childish conceit. Life doesn’t care about you. No one does. No one’s coming to help you. All the forces of the world guarantee your failure. You’re going to die. It’s your duty to find the most graceful way to do it. Or you can hide behind hubris, like a lot of folks do. The best of us are usually suckered or made to play the fool, while the worst of us are rewarded for our cunning and selfishness, at least in the short term. I still believe in the beautiful loser. I don’t like or trust ambitious people.
And like all fiction of this sort, there’s a presence of death…that’s not a question, but most of these stories feature murder, death, being maimed. An essential violence…
There’s also a lot of uncertainty in there, which is, to some, a fate worse than death.
Tell me about your writing process with Tunnels. Did you set out to write something in a specific vein, like were you immediately inspired by a style of writing, or a theme? Did it grow organically or was it willful discipline that birthed it? When do you write, and what facilitates the vocation for you? With respect to writing, has personal growth and creative change intersected?
The book started as something very different from what it became. I was initially drinking too much and making passes at a few ideas that weren’t working. Then I hit on “Lester’s Boots,” which was inspired by this bar down the street from my old apartment. I spent a lot of time there. Ironically, I couldn’t dedicate myself to that story until I quit drinking altogether. That was over two years ago now.
“The Water” and “Barefoot” were the most involved. Those took a while. I could see my writing improving as I edited. That made the process even more laborious. “Friends” was the fastest piece, as I’d arrived at the idea a long time ago. I just wasn’t ready to write it until I did. That’s probably the most personal of them all. The title story was inspired by real events in my former apartment building. The police were there twice in three days, addressing two separate incidents. The first was thought to be an attempted break-in, but I think the guy was just high and confused. In the aftermath of the second, I woke to find blood and hair and broken glass all over the hallway. I wish I still had the pictures. It was far more gruesome than anything you’ll see or read in the book.
What do you plan to do or write next? Are you working on anything now?
I’m working on a few different things. Too soon to tell how long they’ll be or what shape they’ll take.