Excerpted from Pike's Folly by Mike Heppner. Copyright © 2006 by Mike Heppner. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
A Conversation with
Q: Entertainment Weekly has written that you’re a “fearsome cultural critic disguised in novelist’s clothes.” One could argue that the truth of this statement is borne out in PIKE’S FOLLY, namely with its descriptions of younger characters like Stuart, Marlene, Allison, and Heath. What are you trying to say (if anything), about the twenty- and thirty-somethings of today?
A: I don’t think of these characters as archetypal or emblematic in any way, and I’m reluctant to tell people what constitutes their collective identity. To be honest with you, I have such little contact with anyone other than my immediate family that I’m the last person to answer this. Generally speaking, I think one’s twenties are a time to experiment and make mistakes. Obviously some mistakes are worse than others, but when you’re young, you at least have the benefit of being able to recover from a vast majority of those mistakes. I’m thirty-three now, and I feel my mistake-making days are over. I guess you could say that the character of Allison is exploring life a little and screwing up a lot, and while all that seems traumatic at the time, there’s nothing particularly wrong with it. She’s more together than I was at her age. Heath is in that phase too, though I think he’s less likely to grow out of it. Stuart and Marlene, being a bit older, have a more defined sense of who they are, for what that’s worth—probably not much.
Q: Do you miss being in your twenties?
A: No, I like the age I am now. You have to get excited about getting older. I’m not looking forward to rotting away someday, but I don’t need to be twenty-one again.
Q: I’ve heard that true Providence history inspired much of the book. Is there a real life counterpart to the farmhouse where the Reese family crimes of yore were played out? Is there anything else that matches up to real events in history?
A: No counterpart to the farmhouse that I’m aware of. The brief chapters that take place during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are all “drawn from fact.” I’ve tried being accurate with my contemporary references to Rhode Island society and politics. But most of the book is a fable.
Q: So why Rhode Island?
A: I was born there and moved to Michigan with my mom when I was six. Every summer I’d go back to Rhode Island to spend time with my dad. Then when I was in my late twenties I moved back to Rhode Island. I just like it. It’s easy to make too much of the size, but the fact that it is so small gives it a special character. It’s possible to know every landmark and vista in the state, which I think makes it unique. I don’t live there anymore—my wife’s job took us up to Boston about two years ago—but we get down there a lot. It’s a short drive. By the way, I think not being a true “Rhode Islander” made it more possible for me to write the book. Sometimes it helps to be an outsider.
Q: The character of Stuart is a young novelist who has written a debut novel and is married. You are a young novelist who has written a debut novel (and successfully finished your second) and you’re married. Are we supposed to see a bit of you in Stuart?
A: I’d rather you didn’t, though that’s fine too. I made Stuart a writer because I wanted to put his feelings across with as little play-pretend as possible. He’s a lot more passive than I am, more cynical and defeatist. But I can relate to him, sure.
Q: In what sense?
A: In the sense of working toward a goal that in some respects has defined your life for a number of years (in my case, writing a novel), accomplishing that goal, then realizing you still have some time left on the earth, and wondering what to do next—that part I can relate to. But Stuart’s response and my response are so different. I didn’t become morose—at least I don’t think I did. I just wrote a morose character and put him in a book.
Q: PIKE’S FOLLY is, among other things, a snapshot of our imperfect world. All the characters are caught in some sort of foolishness. What made you want to explore this aspect of humankind and how did you come to the title PIKE’S FOLLY?
A: PIKE’S FOLLY just sounded right—I went through a number of titles but kept coming back to that one; it suggests something about the book without revealing too much. Reading from Thomas Cleary’s translation of the Dhammapada: “A fool who is conscious of his folly is thereby wise; the fool who thinks himself wise is the one to be called a fool.”
Q: I have to admit that my favorite character is Marlene. Where did you come up with the inspiration for her?
A: She’s my favorite as well. She wasn’t really inspired by anyone in particular. When I was writing her, someone told me they couldn’t understand why a person with so many body issues would want to expose herself like that. It made sense to me, but the challenge was getting it to make sense to a reader. She’s a potentially alienating character, but I think we come to sympathize with her.
Q: How do you go about researching a character like that?
A: I don’t think you can. You just try to imagine what’s in her heart and mind and go from there. Certainly you can find a wealth of information about exhibitionists and nudists on the Web, but I think most of it’s pretty dishonest—I don’t know how truthfully people represent themselves online. That’s part of the exhibitionism too, I suppose.
Q: Heath’s obsession with Brian Wilson plays a big role in the novel, to say the least. Why did you incorporate this into PIKE’S FOLLY?
A: I love Brian Wilson. I love the Beach Boys. Stop reading this right now and listen to “The Little Girl I Once Knew,” or “Let’s Get Away For Awhile.” Or “Darlin’,” or “Long Promised Road.” I love those artists who somehow manage to straddle the line between experimentation and accessibility. This book needed a spiritual guide—a guru of sorts—and Brian got the job. Like so much about this book, I was motivated more by instinct and feel rather than some rational plan.
Q: How do you think your writing has grown or changed since your debut novel, The Egg Code?
A: I haven’t read The Egg Code since I put it to bed, so my memory of it has dimmed somewhat. I was trying on a number of different hats, and some fit and some didn’t. Working with my editor Gary Fisketjon has taught me an awful lot about writing—I’m sorry, but he really is a genius.
Q: As a teacher, what advice do you have for other young writers?
A: Please make it worth the paper it’s written on. Try to change a life—I think anything short of that is a waste of everyone’s time.
Q: What’s next for you?
A: My next novel is so different from either The Egg Code or PIKE’S FOLLY that it’s nearly unrecognizable as the work of the same person. My writing has become a lot simpler and less showy as I’ve gotten older. I’m trying to write more from the heart than the mind. I went through a personally shattering experience while I was writing PIKE’S FOLLY (which had nothing to do with my “writing career,” but rather with something much more urgent and immediate). PIKE’S FOLLY, which is a boisterous and (hopefully) loveable book, was my way of maintaining my sanity during that experience. I didn’t write it because it made sense from a professional standpoint or to prove anything to anyone, but because it offered an escape from all that. The “all that” forms the subject of my next book. After that comes something lighter, but that’s far in the future.
From the Hardcover edition.