Comedy, as Steve Martin once said, is not pretty. Novelist Luke Geddes, who brings his novel Heart of Junk to the Tattered Cover Aspen Grove on January 29, might add: But it’s collectible. Or at least, the objects that populate our antique stores and junk shops and thrift stores are — and the Americans obsessed with them are ripe territory for funny. Such is the premise for Geddes’s new book, which explores the lives, the sales and the mysteries surrounding a Kansas antiques mall and the disappearance of a local beauty pageant star.
In advance of his visit to Denver, we spoke with Geddes about his book, and about the stuff-obsessed heart of America.
Westword: You're making an appearance at the Tattered Cover in Littleton. Have you read in Denver before? Any experiences of the city itself on a professional or personal level?
Luke Geddes: I've been to Denver a few times before, but I've never given a reading there. My first visit was for the [Association of Writers & Writing Programs] conference in 2010. Denver seems to have a robust literary, artistic and "underground" culture that should be the envy of cities many times its size.
Tell us a little about the story behind Heart of Junk. Where did the idea for the novel come from? And why set the novel in Kansas?
I attended graduate school and lived for three years in Wichita, Kansas, where the novel is set. Growing up in Wisconsin, I was very into thrift-store shopping. It started around eighth grade as part of my punk phase, but I kept at it through college just for the sheer thrill of finding weird junk you'd never know to look for. I swear, my home town, Appleton, has the best thrift stores in the world. In fact, they're so good that when I moved to Kansas for my MFA program, the thrift stores in Wichita just couldn't compare. However, it was in Wichita where I first got interested in antiques and vintage resale, perhaps as consolation for the lack of thrifting quality. The antique malls in Wichita — and there are a bunch of great ones — offered a more curated yet more diverse set of wares than any thrift store, and since then I've cycled through a number of collecting interests: Marx figures, postcards, pulp paperbacks, Halloween decorations, coin banks, etc.
Marx figures are one of those things that can be pricey, but if you don’t know anything about them, you’d never guess they were worth a dime. Perfect symbol of a pure collectible: They’re hunks of plastic, but such awesome hunks of plastic. Any favorite finds?
I like the "Campus Cuties" line aimed at girls, especially the one named "Lodge Party,” which reminds me of Audrey Horne. I have all of the series one figures, but sadly, series two is nearly impossible to find. And, of course, the Universal Monsters line is excellent.
Anyway, if you spend time at flea markets or big antique malls where various vendors rent and stock different booths, you get a sense of the personalities of the proprietors by the type of stuff they sell — the way it's organized or disorganized, how often the stock changes, the layers of dust, etc. — even without meeting them. That's pretty much where the novel came from. An antique mall seemed like the perfect microcosm for the types of characters I like to write about: lonely, neurotic obsessives.
There's a comic sensibility to the writing; is it tougher to write funny? Are there days when you just can't summon up the will for humor? Does the creative juice of humor come from a different place than that of a more serious bit of writing, do you think?
Comedy is just my natural sensibility as both a writer and reader, so I don't think about it too much or too effortfully, except in the editing stage, when I'm cutting dud jokes. I'm not interested in any literature devoid of humor — in fact, I can't take a book seriously if it is never funny. But I also don't like it when books are only funny or only trying to be funny. It helps that I find most things funny, even when other people don't. I recall a grad school class where my peers looked at me like I was crazy for reading both McTeague and Blood Meridian as comedies.
Both those books are definitely comedic at times — or at least some of the characters and their comments are. It’s black as pitch, but it’s comedy!
I feel less alone seeing you say that! Maybe it was just a serious-minded class...
So your first book was a collection of short stories (I Am a Magical Teenage Princess). How was the experience of writing a novel different from that of putting together a collection of short fiction?
The writing process is much more protracted and harder overall for a novel than a collection of stories. With the stories, I focused on one at a time and finishing and sometimes publishing each allowed for a shorter feedback loop, whereas with a novel you can work on it for years or half a decade or more without ever being sure that it's not a horrible waste of time. When it was acquired by Simon & Schuster, I didn't feel a sense of victory or glory, only exhausted relief.
The press for the novel talks about it being a "biting commentary on our current Marie Kondo era." What do you think Marie Kondo would say in response to Heart of Junk?
I think she would be okay with it. As far as I understand her philosophy, it's not about instituting a uniform minimalism on everyone; it's about encouraging individuals to develop an awareness of how they feel about the things they own. In other words, it's not that you need to own as little as possible, but that you should strive to retain ownership of only the things you actually care about. I just happen to care about a lot of junk. And if Kondo wants to publicly endorse Heart of Junk for her millions of social media followers, that would be great!
Are you a collector of anything? What are your guilty pleasures, stuff-wise? What flea-market booths would draw you in?
Unlike most of the characters in Heart of Junk, I've never been given to single-minded completism. I collect or have collected vinyl records, comics, pinback buttons, coin banks, vintage toys, Halloween decorations and noisemakers, mid-century advertising ephemera, pulp paperbacks, and other odds and ends, but never with the aim of acquiring a full set of anything. I don't have any guilty pleasures — just stuff that might be hard to explain to people visiting my house for the first time, like the six-foot papier-mâché giraffe in my dining room. I'm most drawn to booths most like that of the characters Seymour and Lee: full of kitsch, plastic mid-century iconography, toys, rock-and-roll stuff, etc.
Does the six-foot papier-mâché giraffe have a name? A six-foot papier-mâché giraffe must have a name.
That's a good point. I've thought about it, but I can't commit to anything. I think I've been waiting for it to tell me its name.
You mention comics. Comic books are sort of the opposite of Marx figures. Everyone knows they’re worth something these days, but tend to overvalue them if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Makes it tougher to find good stuff at fair prices. What are your biggest scores in the comic-book department, out in the wild?
Fortunately, the comics I like are the least sought-after among the types of people you typically see selling and shopping at conventions: Archie-style teen comics, Little Lulu, Herbie, etc. Best finds include a bunch of Boody Rogers stuff like Babe and Sparky Watts and various Big Shots and the first two self-published issues of Wally Wood's Sally Forth.
Anything you're sorry you threw out (or had thrown out for you) in your younger days?
Before I moved from Wisconsin to Kansas to pursue my MFA, I sold most of the record collection I'd accumulated since age sixteen. I consider it my greatest regret. I think at the time I felt like I had to focus all of my identity on literature and being a writer. I didn't realize then how long a life was, that you might return to old interests you'd set aside. Thank God I kept my Jonathan Richman LPs! Fortunately, I've since rebuilt my original collection and then some.
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So what classic vinyl LP — say, one that might be found at a local antique mall anywhere in the USA — would be the perfect pairing for reading Heart of Junk?
I'll do you one better and give one classic and one new one. For the classic — and if you find an original, send it my way — I recommend the New Creation's Troubled, a 1970 Canadian private press Christian garage album, just the type of ultra-rarity a crate-digging veteran like Seymour would lust after. But unlike a lot of holy grails, it's interesting for more than just its scarcity. It's a little bit Shaggs-ish, surprisingly Velvet Underground-esque, with that singular "real people" charm.
For the new one, I'd be remiss if I did not take the opportunity to endorse the unsung genius Benjamin Dean Wilson. I fell in love with his first album, Small Talk, last year, so much so that I've used some of my book advance money to start a record label to release his sophomore album, The Smartest Person in the Room, on vinyl. These are albums destined to be the obscure cult classics that crate-diggers of the future will lust over, but I'd like to use what little influence I have to garner appreciation for Wilson while he's still living and active! His songs are like Cheever stories in music.
Luke Geddes will be reading and signing copies of his new novel, Heart of Junk, at 7 p.m. Wednesday, January 29, at the Tattered Cover Aspen Grove.