COREY MESLER with Alex Dueben
(Soft Skull Press, 2015)
Corey Mesler has been writing a series of novels, short story collections and poetry books over the past twenty years at various small presses. This year, Soft Skull Press published his ninth novel, Memphis Movie, which tells the story around a film shoot in the city. The Robert Altman-esque cast of characters include the film’s director, many of its actors, and various city residents including an elderly poet Camel Jeremy Eros who gets hired to add “Memphis mojo” to the film’s script.
In addition to his writing, Mesler and his wife Cheryl own and run Burke’s Book Store in Memphis, which celebrates its 140th anniversary this year. We spoke recently by phone about how this novel is different from his previous novels, writing dialogue, his love of experimental literature, and the long, strange story of how he ended up being published by Soft Skull Press.
Alex Dueben (Rail): Where did Memphis Movie begin for you?
Corey Mesler: In the early part of this century, and perhaps the latter of the last, something unusual happened in Memphis. Hollywood people came and made movies here. At the same time some young Memphis filmmakers, Craig Brewer and Ira Sachs, most conspicuously, were making their early films. Memphis is not known for movies. It’s known instead for engendering almost every important form of 20th-century music: soul, blues, rock. I thought, this is unusual, somebody ought to write the story about what’s happening right now. So when I started writing Memphis Movie we had this burgeoning film scene in Memphis that has since dissipated somewhat. I captured a moment in time which is seemingly not as relevant currently, I guess. [Laughs.] Other states, like Louisiana and Georgia, started offering tax breaks to people who made movies there. Craig Brewer, who comes from Memphis, had to make his last movie in Georgia. The TV series Memphis Beat was filmed in New Orleans for that reason. Not that filmmaking and filmmakers have disappeared in Memphis. There is still a vibrant scene and at least a couple fine film festivals. But I thought I was writing about the cusp of this great thing beginning—and then, oops, it didn’t. I still have hope that there is more to come in Memphis, film-wise.
Rail: Did you have much to do with the film scene? Do you have any background in film?
Mesler: I have zero. I’ve never even been on a movie set. [Laughs.] I was faking it in the novel. Of course I do what writers do: I read books about filmmaking. And there are movies about filmmaking,I’ve always loved, like Truffaut’s Day for Night. I had this naïve notion about how movies are made when I started writing the story that became Memphis Movie, and I realized it had to have some kind of verisimilitude to make it seem as if I knew what I was talking about. But, mostly, I was pretending I know more than I do. When I first put the manuscript out there, and I was trying to get blurbs for it, Peter Coyote was one of the people who agreed to blurb it. He said, boy, you really know the movies. [Laughs.] My friend Chris Ellis, who’s an actor from Memphis, said the same thing. So, writers, you can fake it and get away with it…sometimes.
Rail: That’s very flattering and maybe a little scary.
Mesler: I don’t want to step on another writer’s toes, but there are writers who do this incredible amount of research, so that they know their subject inside and out, and they plug that into their books. I’m working on the no-research novel. [Laughs.] I always think that you can get around your ignorance with good writing. That’s what I try to do. Even when I read books about moviemaking and made pages of notes, I found I could write much better if I didn’t place such emphasis on the nuts and bolts of moviemaking. Perhaps I am deluded…or just lazy.
Rail: Is that usually how you work?
Mesler: Yes, I don’t do a lot of investigation. I mean, I love to read, so I read a lot of books anyway. When I wrote a rock ’n’ roll novel, I read fifteen or twenty rock memoirs or biographies of bands, so I could pick up on how they talked and what they talked about. I do research in that way. But, when I’m reading a novel that employs a lot of arcane information, sometimes it feels as if the author is forcing this stuff it into the narrative, like shoving fresh cake through a keyhole, so there are these plush stratums of information that distract from the storytelling. I don’t want to suggest that this is a universal because there are better writers than I who use research beautifully. It’s just one way I am outside looking in.
Rail: I would argue that you depict the city of Memphis in a similar way. There are books that can function as maps and you don’t go that far, you’re much more concerned with conveying the feel of the place.
Mesler: I hope so. I had someone ask me, apropos of Memphis Movie, if I worried that when I write “Poplar Avenue,” somebody in Wisconsin might read it and think, why do I care what street he’s on? I don’t know. Most novels use the streets and addresses and landmarks of their particular locale. It makes the story more graspable, I guess. My next novel, due out in spring 2016, is almost literally written on a map of Memphis because it’s about two days in the life of an itinerant homeless man. My wife and I drove the route he traverses in the story so I could get the streets and the businesses and everything right.
What we’re talking about, as far as my writing is concerned, I like to call Memphis “Mojo”. There’s something about my hometown that’s beautiful and chthonic and veiled, that runs under the surface of the everyday in Memphis. That’s what I’m aiming at, whether I’m writing about music or books or, here, movies. It’s why I love Memphis and I hope that my love for it came through in the book.
Rail: I think it did. But one thing I do have to ask is that one of the characters in the book is the actor Hope Davis, who is working on the movie. Why did you decide to include a real person in the book like this?
Mesler: An insane desire to meet Hope Davis? [Laughs.] I made up ninety-nine percent of the book, but I wanted that one name in the middle of the make-believe to be something that the reader could hold onto and recognize. Even though Hope Davis isn’t famous like Julia Roberts, to me, she represents everything good about film and filmmaking. I think she’s an honest actress and always believable and low-key. Amy Adams is also like this, and when they cast my novel for the movie-version, and I am asked, who do you want to play Hope Davis? I will say, Amy Adams. Like my character, Eric, I’m crazy about Ms. Davis. I put her in the book as a sort of reality anchor, the antithesis of Hollywood hokum. There are real artists at work in film. I don’t know if I thought about it that clearly at the time. Maybe I was merely conjuring her name as a literary way of stalking her.
Rail: It changes the scale. I’ve been on movie sets and worked on films and there’s always this feeling that this is hugely important, and all of the other people in the movie have this sense about the movie and about themselves, but she’s not larger than life but is arguably better at her job than anyone else is at their jobs.
Mesler: Good, because that is my point. To Eric, she represents that. He’s trying to pull it together to make one more film. He feels like he has to make the magic work one more time, and he sees her as a centering force, something genuine in the epicenter of the inane hubbub. The scene where he goes to her hotel room to run lines with her, you sense his nervousness and his anticipation that she, perhaps only she, can make this work for him. And, you know, her name is Hope.
Rail: I think your love of the city comes through in the book, but Eric feels trapped by it.
Mesler: Yeah it’s love/hate. He’s made it big. Some Memphians, because of our inferiority complex, believe they have to go elsewhere to be discovered and to be notable, whether it’s Hollywood to make movies or New York City to write. Some of that kind of thinking has changed in the past fifty years or so, because there’s a lot more regional writing and regional moviemaking, but for Eric, it is a hang-up. In Memphis we tend to think that greatness is elsewhere, which one wishes to debunk because surely greatness is here, too. Like I was saying, there’s this mystic current underneath everything in Memphis. God is alive; magic is afoot.
Rail: Memphis Movie is a hard book to classify, which I admit is one of things I love about it. It’s about a large cast of characters, it’s about a city, it’s about filmmaking. There are magical realist elements. An appearance by the ghost of Elvis Presley. When you started, did you have this idea of the book being so large?
Mesler: That just occurred organically while I was writing. I knew that I wanted Elvis to be an element in the story. When I used to travel, it didn’t matter whom I met or where I was, as soon as someone found out I was from Memphis, their one question was, what’s Graceland like? Tom Robbins asked me that. Kurt Vonnegut asked me that. Elvis is the elephant in the “Room called Memphis,” but I didn’t set out to consciously create anything in the realm of magic realism. His ghost appears early on and that sort of set the tone for me. I thought, okay, movies are magic, movies are fantasy, wouldn’t it make sense to have fantasy be a part of the scheme? Having said that, I admit that I was suckled on Twilight Zone and Outer Limits.
Rail: Talk a little about Camel because he’s not the central character, but he is the heart of the book.
Mesler: Camel Jeremy Eros is my favorite character, of the dozens I’ve created. He first appeared in my rock ’n’ roll novel, We Are Billion-Year-Old Carbon. He’s a sixties poet, a contemporary of Richard Brautigan and Gary Snyder, and that mostly west coast crowd. In Memphis Movie he’s at the end of his life and he’s living in Midtown Memphis. Camel stands for everything that’s authentic and righteous about Memphis and its homespun artists. His scenes stand in direct contrast to the scenes of the filmmakers’ almost desperate attempt to conjure art in the form of a movie. Camel is a sincere cool cat; there’s nothing phony about him. His newfound life, with the character called Lorax, is part of that. I don’t want to say too much because I don’t want to prejudice people in how they should think about a character. I love Mr. Eros and, almost everyone who’s read the book and given me feedback, has said, I really loved Camel. The novel I’m working on right now is Camel’s biography. He’s dear to me.
Rail: The scenes with Camel are outlandish but they feel more like the real Memphis, as opposed to the film scenes where they’re not really about the city.
Mesler: Exactly. Camel doesn’t have a computer; he doesn’t even have a reliable phone. He’s, in a sense, unworldly, even otherworldly. No matter Eric’s belief that Camel can bring something tangible to the movie, Camel remains outside of it. There’s a scene late in the story when Lorax warns Camel not to get sucked into the dream machine. She senses that it’s objectionable, perhaps even anathema, to his soul, if that’s not too heavy a word for it.
Rail: I’ve never read your previous books, but there were a number of scenes that made me guess you were a poet. The book is also very dialogue heavy and those two things do not necessarily go together.
Mesler: Well, as a young man I was a very bad poet. I was one of those 2am-, sad-bastard, no-one-will-ever-sleep-with-me poets. I never dreamed I could write prose. I never thought I had the consistency, or discipline, or concentration to stay with something that long. Then I read What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Raymond Carver’s book of short stories, and I thought, wow. These are short stories, five to ten pages long, something that, at the time, seemed radical to me. I thought I could at least try that. That’s how I started writing prose. Still, for decades after that, I didn’t think I could write a novel. Friends of mine were writing novels and I thought, these guys are geniuses to do that. How I longed to be a novelist! Then, later, I backed into writing one. My first novel was called Talk and it’s nothing but dialogue. It’s assembled using completely unattributed dialogue. I discovered, in its fashioning, how much I love dialogue and how much dialogue delineates character for me. I read a lot of Albee and Pinter when young, and I also noticed, that in books by the great dialogue writers like Henry Greene or Iris Murdoch, the discourse tells you more about the characters than any description of their clothes or their house or whatever.
Rail: There’s a comment about Memphis Movie being Robert Altman-esque and I kept trying to think of a good literary equivalent.
Mesler: I don’t know that there is one. Iris Murdoch is close. She’s my favorite novelist and most of her novels are these 500-page, thirty-fifty character stories with people wandering around in each other’s lives. The Robert Altman comparison to Memphis Movie I actually started myself, hoping it would catch on. [Laughs.] I love film, second only to books, and Robert Altman to me is a Colossus. More than anything, for the book to succeed, I believed it had to succeed as a Robert Altman-esque movie. That was a conscious effort.
Rail: You mentioned your love of experimental writers and the way you’ve set the book up with deleted scenes and bibliography and everything you’ve created around the book. I thought of writers like Nabokov who were concerned foremost with style and approach.
Mesler: One of my favorite writers. I think Nabokov said that style is substance, or something like that. Memphis Movie has more plot than my other books do. I tend to pay more attention to crafting my sentences than with moving the narrative forward. I tried to push myself to create more of a story in this one, or maybe what I wanted to say simply called for more story, and I think that’s why, more than anything else I’ve written, it’s connecting with readers.
Rail: I was going to ask because you’ve published eight other novels and four short story collections. Is this very different from your other books? Did you intend for it to be different?
Mesler: Yes. I think it’s the evolution of me as a writer. I think I’ve gotten better. This is the best thing I’ve ever written because I did manage to—I hope—find a balance between my style and a more narrative-based method of storytelling. My other books have stories, of course, but I think this is more cohesive and less experimental. And, naturally, the novel I just finished, I believe, is even better than Memphis Movie.
Rail: Your previous books have been published by small presses like Livingston Press, how did you end up at Soft Skull?
Mesler: You got a few minutes? It’s a saga. [Laughs.] When I wrote the book I said to my wife, “This is the best thing I’ve ever written.” At the time, I had just had a book of short stories put out by Aqueous Books, and they did a beautiful job, so I sent it to them and they accepted it. That’s when I got in touch with Peter Coyote, who was a friend of a friend, and Ann Beattie, whom I knew, and I got these beautiful blurbs for it. Jeane Umbreit, who is one of Memphis’ finest artists, designed the cover for it. I thought, this is going to be the book that makes me. This was 2009 or 2010. Time went by and I got a note from Aqueous saying they were moving the book back to a 2016 publication date. This seemed a bad sign, and, sure enough, a couple months later I got an e-mail from them saying they were closing up shop. I was distraught. I was worse than distraught. I said to Cheryl, that’s it, I’m not writing anymore. This is a mug’s game. I’m not going to put up with the desolate and futile pain of this any longer. Twenty-four hours went by and Cheryl said, let me guess what you’re doing: you’re trying to find a new place for your book. She knows me. She knows I don’t give up.
I sent out queries to the people who had been nice to me during my writing of Memphis Movie. To Peter Coyote and Ann Beattie. To Shannon Ravenel, who used to be the head of Algonquin Books. To Fiona McCrae of Graywolf Press. I told them my tale of woe and told them the blurbs I had. The publishers at Algonquin and Graywolf said to send them the manuscript. Peter Coyote said, “Let me see what I can do.” Ann Beattie said, “Let me put you in touch with my agent.” There was this outpouring of help. Writing is such a lonely business, and to have that happen was so heartening. Two weeks later I got an email from Jack Shoemaker, the head of Counterpoint Press, who is a legend in publishing. He published David Markson, who’s a touchstone author for me. Jack said, here’s an offer on the book, we’d like to publish it in the spring of 2015. This was the fall of 2014. I was flabbergasted and since then nothing but great things have happened for it. I’m so grateful to them and I’m so grateful to Peter, who not only took it to his publisher but continues to stump for the book. He’s just been everything you’d want in a friend. That’s the story of how I ended up at this wonderful press, Soft Skull, a part of Counterpoint Press. They did a beautiful job publishing it.
Rail: Besides writing, you and your wife own and run Burke’s Book Store in Memphis. How did you end up owning one of the oldest bookstores in the country?
Mesler: 140 years. This is our anniversary year. The second-oldest bookstore in the United States. I’ve worked in the book business my whole life. I started when I was eighteen years old at Waldenbooks in the mall. I moved from there to independent bookstores and found, at that time, that this is really what bookstores should be about: small, passionate places of learning, joy, and enrichment. I don’t know how to do anything else. I’m a pretty good bookseller. I’m probably a better bookseller than I am a novelist. I still love it. Being in a bookstore is an exquisite way to pass your time on Spaceship Earth. The bookstore I was working at in the ‘80s went out of business when all the big guys started moving in and I started working at Burke’s which, at the time, was a mostly used and antiquarian bookstore in downtown Memphis. I got hired on and shortly thereafter we moved the bookstore to Midtown, which is the heart of our city, and decided to make it both a new bookstore and a used bookstore. My future wife came on board about a year later. In 2000 the owners said they wanted to sell it and were looking for a buyer, so Cheryl and I—hippies with no capital whatsoever—said, let us try. Due to my wife’s smarts we made it happen. To be honest I’m not at the bookstore as much as I used to be. She runs it and she’s there all the time. I’m only there a few hours every day. It’s a great bookstore, mostly because of Cheryl. We moved it to the glorious Cooper Young neighborhood, where we also live, in 2006 and it’s now nirvana. Come see. The godhead has descended.
Rail: Are you doing anything to mark the anniversary at Burke's this year?
Mesler: My wife has planned a bash, a shivaree, a cotillion, a hop, for sometime this fall. We’re inviting every former employee, customer and visiting author. We’re also inviting Thomas Pynchon and Mr. and Mrs. Obama.
Rail: Do you think is being at bookstore change what or how you write?
Mesler: Probably, in the sense that everything in my life revolves around books. Starting with my wife. I’m around readers all day. I get to talk books all day. It has to be informing my writing. I’ve always been a voracious reader and a reader willing to struggle with the difficult texts, Joyce and Barth and Gaddis and Gass. I did this when I was younger so that I would appear smart, but it stuck and it colored how I wrote and what I wrote, the fact that I fell in love with experimental literature. I bet if you scratched the surface of almost any bookstore employee you would find a secret or not so secret writer.
Rail: You mentioned that you have a few books coming up. A few months ago there was an excerpt of one—A Trip to the Falls—posted online.
Mesler: Yeah that’s my 250,000+ word novel which Counterpoint has right of first refusal on. It’s just about finished. I also have this novel, Robert Walker, the one about a homeless guy I was telling you about, which has been accepted by Livingston Press. They’ve done three of my books and they’re a really nice small press, run by Joe Taylor, a true beacon in the world of literature. Robert Walker comes out the spring of 2016. The reason I have so much work ready is because I finished Memphis Movie so long ago.
Rail: How is Camel’s biography coming? Has it been easy to find his voice again?
Mesler: It’s only a little fetus, floating in its dark bath right now, since I’m only maybe 15,000 words into it. The door is only cracked and, so far, not much light has emerged. I’ve gone back all the way to his childhood and, to be honest, it’s been a bit of a tussle. I’m trying to get to the Camel that I know from the other books. I hope that the chain engages because right now a good writing day is one single page.
Rail: I guess you can’t really get into his voice in order to write his biography, you have to construct his voice in a sense.
Mesler: Right. And I want to be consistent with what he becomes, the Camel of Memphis Movie. At the same time I want it to be fresh, so I’m not just copying myself, if you see what I mean. It has to be a brand-new yarn and I’ve, perhaps, found a way to do that. Perhaps. This may be a long gestation.
Rail: Will it read like a biography or are you still trying to figure out that aspect of the book?
Mesler: I don’t know. Right now it’s more like The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. It’s called The Adventures of Camel Jeremy Eros.
Rail: Going forward in writing other books, are you interested in doing more experimental work? Are you interested in trying to focus more on narrative like in Memphis Movie?
Mesler: One never knows. In the same way that every novel teaches you how to read it, every novel I write teaches me how to write it. I’m still learning. So I guess I’m still experimenting, in the sense that every new book is an experiment. I never want to write the same book twice.
ALEX DUEBEN has contributed to The Paris Review, The Rumpus, The Believer, The Poetry Foundation, The Comics Journal and other publications.