BIG BROTHER: ANDREW ERVIN with Owen King
Burning Down George Orwell’s House
(Soho Press, 2015)
Burning Down George Orwell’s House, Andrew Ervin’s first novel (and second book, after the very fine Extraordinary Renditions ), is the story of Ray Welter’s self-exile on the Isle of Jura, in the house where George Orwell (aka Eric Blair) composed 1984. Ray’s personal history is destructive, his professional history is worse, and he wants to begin again with a fresh slate. But Jura has no sympathy for him. At the end of the world he is plagued by memories of his ill behavior back home in Chicago, trapped by the horrible Scottish weather, and at the mercy of the island’s moody inhabitants. Also, someone—or some thing—is leaving animal corpses on his doorstep.
While Andrew Ervin’s cheerfully anarchic tale is always engaging, Burning Down George Orwell’s House is also deeply invested in exploring modern notions of loneliness, responsibility, and satisfaction. It’s a real treat, and so is Andrew.
Owen King (Rail): One of the things I like best about Burning Down George Orwell’s House is that on paper your protagonist, Ray Welter, sounds like a villain. He’s the mastermind behind a brazenly immoral advertising campaign for a kind of super-Hummer called the Oil Hogg, he’s unkind to his mother, he’s continuously drunk, and although he has dumped his life and traveled all the way to the remote Scottish outpost of Jura to study Orwell’s writings, he can hardly ever find the will to read more than a page or two of the author’s work. You do humanize Ray, and he’s not without conscience, but there’s a significant bastard streak in the character that goes right down to the spine of him. Where did Ray come from? Was he the seed of the novel, or was it something else?
Andrew Ervin: The novel originated with what felt to me like a contradiction. Why did Eric Blair go all the way to the Isle of Jura—the remotest and most solitary place he could find—in order to write about constant surveillance by Big Brother? Would it not have made more sense to remain in war-ravaged London? But there’s no arguing with the results: 1984 is the defining novel of the 20th century. (As far as books written in English go, I mean.) The man knew what he was doing in getting away from it all.
Welter came about as a way to relive Blair’s escape to Jura, but I had to give him something to escape from. You’re right that Welter is a bastard, but he knows that and what he’s running away from is himself. Kelly Link told me recently that readers will forgive a murderer more easily than a bad tipper and she’s right. I can’t say if readers will forgive Welter for all those terrible things he’s done, and in many ways the novel is about his feeble attempts to forgive himself. He’s a mess. Many of my favorite characters in literature are flawed and damaged but ultimately loveable people, Jean des Esseintes in Against Nature, Ōba Yōzō in No Longer Human, Hugo Whittier in The Epicure’s Lament. I’m not saying that Ray Welter is in their league, only that there are different varieties of likeability to draw from.
Rail: I don’t want to get too far away from your book, but I do want to follow up a bit on Blair/Orwell. Ray reads 1984 in college and, perversely, is inspired by it to major in advertising. (Fascinatingly, he’s half-aware that this is a perverse reaction. “Ray knew that some key to his self-preservation sat hidden among the now dog-eared pages.”) Did you first read 1984 in college? What did you think then, and what do you think now?
Ervin: I first read 1984 when I was 17, spending a month as an exchange student in what was then West Germany. A bookshop a few towns over had a small shelf of English-language novels and I bought this and Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. What a great combination those two turned out to be. Now that I think about it, I wonder which author has inspired me more over the years. That was the Cold War summer when Bush the Elder was running for president, which is to say the beginning of our nation’s age of imperial dynasties. In all of my pretentious, teen-angst logic I felt a particular thrill in reading Orwell for the first time so close to the Iron Curtain. The book felt important. And it still does.
After maybe six re-readings since then I haven’t lost that initial awe, but it’s a much different book now than it was when I was a kid. It was the book that has changed, right? Not me! It remains a marvel of contemporary letters and one of my absolute favorite novels, but I do see a few flaws that I didn’t years ago. The rhetoric is a bit over the top at points, almost—almost—to the point of being dogmatic. The pathos is a bit heavy-handed. Orwell was never particularly great with female characters. It might sound strange, but I enjoy the book more because of those fault lines. It’s wonderful in its humanness and it also remains very frightening on so many levels.
Rail: One impressive aspect of the novel is that, at least in my opinion, while a familiarity with Orwell adds extra flavor, the narrative doesn’t require it. Can you talk a little about the challenges of writing a novel that is partly constructed around the life and work of a major literary figure?
Ervin: Here’s the thing, I’m not sure if Burning Down George Orwell’s House is about George Orwell at all. I’m not trying to be coy or clever here, there’s simply an extent to which his ideas have taken on lives of their own. People who haven’t read 1984 still, on some level, understand what is meant by Big Brother. The reach that book has attained is an incredible thing. My novel isn’t responding to Eric Blair himself as much as to the omnipresent specter of him. His biography isn’t all that important—it’s not Orwell’s life that matters to me as much as the way one of his books has taken root in our lives.
All of that said, while mimetic realism doesn’t interest me very much, I did throw a few bones to the serious Orwell aficionados—that is, I did try to please those who Ralph Ellison refers to in his essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station,” “There’ll always be the little man whom you don’t expect, and he’ll know the music, and the tradition, and the standards of musicianship required for whatever you set out to perform!” I did try to get the biographical details right, but only when it was convenient for my story.
There are some iconic pieces of music—say Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 or “Let It Be”—that are so familiar they’ve become imprinted in our DNA. It’s impossible to really see the “Mona Lisa” anymore because of the vast context that has sprawled around it over the years. “George Orwell” might be operating the same way; he’s no longer a real person, but a societal function. My target audience is everybody who questions what happens to personal privacy—and person-ness itself—when we operate a cell phone or a GPS or an E-Z Pass device. Those sacrifices are obviously worth it, I suppose, otherwise we wouldn’t be using them.
Rail: The novel includes a large Scottish cast, including Farkas, a whisky distiller who may also be a werewolf. I thought you did a remarkable job drawing the lives of people who live in such an isolated place. Did you travel to Jura for research? Have any Jura natives commented on the novel?
Ervin: I’ve never been to the Isle of Jura. The closest I got was to the next island over, Islay, which is where my novel begins. Some people—including my editor—urged me to go, but in staying away I’ve maintained some degree of plausible deniability about the residents. I haven’t heard from anyone on Jura and the distillery won’t return my publisher’s emails. I can only hope that I haven’t upset anyone, but if I have, there’s nothing I can really do about it except apologize, which I would gladly do. It’s all in fun.
My first book was a collection of three novellas, Extraordinary Renditions, set in Hungary. After that came out I got quite a few angry emails about my depiction of Budapest and how polluted and violent I made it appear. It is a terrible thing for an outsider to critique a place, particularly an American. As a lifelong fan, I can badmouth the Phillies all I want but when a Mets fan does it, that’s not cool at all. I get that. As I saw it, Extraordinary Renditions wasn’t critical of Hungary itself as much as the American influence the nation so eagerly adopted.
The Isle of Jura in Burning Down George Orwell’s House may or may not have any resemblance to the real place of that name. I honestly don’t know. Again, realism and fidelity to some experience of a real place don’t interest me. If 1984 has taught us anything, it’s that what we believe to be true isn’t necessarily true. Let’s hope the residents there have a sense of humor—and that they keep producing that great single malt until the end of time.
Rail: There’s a lot of material in the book related to Ray’s career in the advertising business. I came away with the sense that you view the advertising profession and all its wicked possibilities with equal parts delight and horror. Have you ever worked in advertising?
Ervin: No, I’ve never worked in advertising, but I was present for the early stages of the widespread and public internet as a creative medium and, soon thereafter, as a commercial one. When I lived in Budapest in the 1990s, I worked for one of the earliest developers of online video games, which was a blast. We were inventing a lot of the conventions we now take for granted. I had the idea—and I hadn’t heard of it happening elsewhere, though I bet it was—of letting users at home upload their own representative avatars to our servers. The images had to be tiny, small enough I think to fit on a 3.5-inch floppy diskette, and yet we faced the seemingly insurmountable challenge of how to store all that data. Those were different times. Right now I have the entire 26-episode run of Space Battleship Yamato 2199 on my key ring.
When I moved back to the States in ’99, I got a job at an e-commerce company and from my cubicle watched the most promising creative outlet of our time get neutered and commodified. Despite the kind of salary that would be unthinkable now, I hated my life. After about a year and a half, I quit in order to write occasional freelance articles for $20 or $50 a pop. It was a tough time, but the liberation I felt then—which found expression in dyeing my hair Grover blue, among other ways—was something that likely inspired Welter’s decision to leave the workaday world.
Rail: Late in the novel, Ray has the misfortune to find himself dragged into a werewolf hunt. How do you feel about werewolf hunting? Is it wrong?
Ervin: On one hand, it’s very important to maintain these traditions while we can, right? There are certainly cultural and perhaps spiritual—if not dietary—reasons that werewolf hunting can prove beneficial. In many places, it’s a matter of cultural identity. We cannot understate the value of reconnecting with these traditional ways of life while we still can. On the other hand, however, given the depleted populations not only in Scotland but worldwide I do understand and appreciate the opposition to this supposedly “barbaric” practice. It’s a tough call, and you’re putting me on the spot here, but I suppose that—yes—I am ultimately in favor of the limited and carefully controlled hunting of werewolves.
OWEN KING is the author of the novel Double Feature (Scribner, 2013), and co-author of the forthcoming graphic novel, Intro to Alien Invasion (Scribner, September 2015). His work has appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Lady Churchill?s Rosebud Wristlet, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, One Story, and Subtropics.