in conversation with Alex Shephard

How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive, Christopher Boucher’s debut novel, borrows its title and, to some extent, its structure from John Muir’s auto repair manual. But Boucher’s novel is anything but a straight-forward handbook. Though the central relationship is between car and driver, the car is — in the first of what seem like thousands of absurd (and moving) inversions, alterations, and shifts — the driver’s son.

The landscape, like Boucher’s metaphors, is constantly in motion. One moment, his characters will be climbing a mountain, the next that mountain will change and disappear. How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive is full of talking cars, Heart Attack Trees that feed on humans’ stories, garages at the bottom of lakes (with trout posing as mechanics), women made out of stained glass — but it never feels whimsical or, for that matter, trivial. Instead, this swerving, kaleidoscopic novel feels hyperreal. Boucher captures life’s perpetual motion in a book that, though reminiscent of the work of Richard Brautigan, also feels utterly unique.

The amorphous metaphors, the fact that time and place are tenuously fixed, make the novel into one of the most effective pieces of metafiction I’ve ever read. Boucher’s use of language can allow a plotpoint or a word to simultaneously signal several different kinds of “stories” at once – the novel is about fathers and sons, lost love, depression, our relationship to technology, what signals “truth” in fiction and non-fiction, and the nature of stories.

I spoke to Boucher over the phone about metafiction, auto repair, and Richard Brautigan.

The cover of the novel really captures the novel — a bright red heart amidst the blueprint, the broken down pieces of an automobile. A common critique of postmodern literature or metafiction is that it breaks fiction down into almost mechanical parts, that it lacks “heart.” What do you think of that criticism? Were you attempting to write metafiction with heart? 

I wouldn’t say that I was setting out to try to write “metafiction” or “postmodern” fiction – although I can’t deny that that’s probably what I wrote. For a long time, I thought that I was writing an impossible book, that the book just wasn’t going to pan out. One of the ideas that I took from my mentors – one of the things that I love about their work – is that it has such heart to it.

George Saunders was my adviser at Syracuse. I feel like he takes risk that might be considered experimental, but I also think that the emotional core of the work is always apparent. He never wanders from that. The exercise, the intent of the experiment never seems to win over the emotional journey that the reader’s going to take.

For me, when I thought about writing the book, I thought that nobody would be interested in it — the premise was so far out there — so I decided it had to be absolutely necessary for me, it had to be something that was the absolute best that I could do: these were the words that were closest to me, these characters and these situations weren’t gimmicky, but true, interesting, worth pursuing. That had to be my barometer.

Because worry guided this book – worry that I was boring the reader or worry that the premise wasn’t going to work or worry about wandering into cliché – I think that what I ended up doing was writing from a very self-aware perspective. The only way I could get to the heart of the book – or maybe the heart of the inquiry – is through these self-aware, maybe even hyper-aware, roads. Sorry for the pun!

Somebody asked me why a “Heart Attack Tree?” My father had a heart attack in 2003 and survived, but that heart attack was a real life-changer for me. Why wouldn’t I just write about a character who has a heart attack, instead of this tree? I don’t know if I know the answer to that question, but certainly somewhere along the way I decided that a Heart Attack Tree would allow me to get closer to it than if I decided to go straight for a heart attack.

I think that’s not very uncommon. I think that a lot of experimental work – if we’re going to call this experimental – is born from discomfort or fear or worry that the actual root is not going to cut it. So, while I didn’t think “metafiction,” I did think that I had to take this strange road to get to what I wanted.

You address the reader throughout the novel. Reading is always a kind of communal experience, between book and reader, perhaps between author and book and reader and I got a sense in the book that you think about fiction as a collaborative creative exercise. Did you have that in mind as you were writing? Did it affect the way you revised?

In the early draft, I didn’t think there was a reward for the reader who put the work in. I don’t think that the direct address to the reader, that that sense of collaboration originated with that, because I think that it was already there. But some of the early suggestions that I received, years before I arrived at a final product, had to do with the fact that this book was going to present the reader with certain challenges.

I made it part of my aesthetic approach early on. If I did have a worry, I was going to articulate it in the text. I’m giving a talk to the Boulder Writers’ Workshop tomorrow night. One of the things I want to tell them, is that if they’re stuck with a book they’re working on, they should invent an editor. For a while, there was an editor character in this book – the speaker would write letters to the editor and the editor would write letters back. The speaker would ask why he couldn’t do what he wanted to do.

The editor never really had any context, it never had any situation in the narrative. Finally, he went away. But the end result of that was this focus on this contract between the reader and the text – [I wanted to include] exactly what I’m asking of the reader and why I’m asking them to do that. It became a fun complication because the reader is talking about the book and the car at the same time.

The other thing that started that, was the fact that the John Muir book [which inspired my novel] is a direct address to the reader about how to fix this machine …. [so I] certainly had some guidance there – I had this book that I was inspired by and that book talked to the reader about how to keep this machine alive. I know that that had something to do with my approach.

Revision comes up throughout the novel — you devote much of one chapter, “Engine Stops or Won’t Start,” to the subject, in the guise of auto repair. How did you revise the book? How long did it take to write it? 

This book was started at Syracuse during my MFA program. It was my senior thesis there. When I handed it in for my senior thesis, I thought it was almost done. And I still had no idea what the plot was.

I had started reading Richard Brautigan somewhere around my second year at Syracuse. And this book was really inspired by Trout Fishing in America. That book has some through lines, but it’s pretty disparate. I thought that that’s what I was going to have with this book. I didn’t think about traditional characteristics of the novel, like plot. I just wasn’t thinking about some of those issues of momentum.

I thought that I was just going to finish [the book] up, then keep moving on. But it seemed like there was a lot more to say and there was a lot more to do. I was interested in these characters and I needed to see what was going to happen with them.

To make a long story short, I wasn’t working on it all this time between when I graduated from Syracuse in 2002 and now, but a lot of that time I was. I returned to the book over and over and over again. Some of that was surrendering to the traditional elements of the novel that I hadn’t originally planned to work with, like plot. Some of my revision process was saying, “okay, let’s get a sense for the linear progression here. What’s happening here?”

Some of that revision was about getting a sense for the voice of the character, figuring out what I was going for in terms of language. There are these words that don’t seem to make sense, but they made sense to me and I needed to make sure that they weren’t a gimmick. I was afraid that it was going to look like a gimmick, that it was going to look like nonsense. I needed it to make sense to me and a lot of that was trial and error and testing.

A lot of the testing I was doing during revision was figuring out the language. Why a “Heart Attack Tree” as opposed to a heart attack something else? The answer to a lot of that was sound. I certainly wrote a lot that didn’t make it into the book that had to do with other aspects of the world, other inventions, these other places that the book could go.

I tend to lean towards compression in my prose, to make a lot of things happen very quickly so the reader is reading backwards and forward at the same time. Sometimes I have to decompress things, to tell myself, “You need to tell this part of the story,” or ask, “How did this happen?” It’s not enough to just take for granted that it did.

So I wrote and rewrote and typed things over and tried every trick in the book to consider the ways in which the book was pushing envelope and make sure they were the right ways.

There’s a kind of unity to the novel’s language and its sense of place — both are amorphous, unstable, prone to mad explosions. Sometimes you switch words (money and time are reversed), other times words seem to be inserted based on sound alone. Is there a method to your madness? How did your sense of the kind of language you wanted to include in the novel evolve? 

It was never simply nonsense, though sometimes it was sound over sense. The other thing that I think is closely related to this is the [chapter] titles – a lot of the titles just don’t make any sense, in terms of preparing the reader for what the story is about.

So, clearly it wasn’t always about making sense. Sometimes it was about sound. I felt like I could find a word that captured something that the first word, the word I normally would use, could not. Sometimes it was about discord.

For a while, I had this sentence taped to my wall that said “Every story is a mystery story.” I liked the idea that I was creating mystery with this use of language. I’m also sure I was turning some readers away, but it wasn’t my intention to be exclusive or to keep people from accessing the story. It was more that, number one, I liked the musicality of the word and I wanted to thinking about that. Number two, I liked the idea that a little bit of that mystery might keep the reader pushing. It might wake them up.

I think that discord is a really good idea, it’s one that’s really central to me. A certain amount of discord creates an effect that might be compelling. …. I know that some of that was there. The other thing that was going on was the influence of found material. A lot of the titles were  titles that didn’t really make sense to the story, but they made sense to my life because I wrote it. Like, the title “Street Woman” makes no sense with the story that follows, but it’s an Ornette Coleman song and at the time I happened to be interested with the music of Ornette Coleman.

I don’t know where the title “Baywatch” comes from, but I like the idea that it seems like the last title it should have. Hopefully there’s something either funny about that, or engaging. I think that speaks to the words as well. That said, it does bring us back to the other question about “metafiction.” It does make me always aware that this is a construct. It also makes me hyperaware that I’m very quick to apologize. Throughout the book, I’m always feeling a little guilty about what I’m asking of the reader.

Richard Brautigan is clearly one of your biggest influences. What’s your relationship with his work? 

I owned Trout Fishing in America for about a year before I looked at it. What I liked so much about that book is that it was decidedly unaware. A lot of the framing that we’re talking about here – and I think it’s right to think about; it’s something I certainly think about when I read fiction – it seems like Brautigan is completely unaware of that. In that sense, in the very best sense possible, I saw his work as being really irresponsible. It seemed like he was going to try what he was going to try and if his whim didn’t take him, if he decided he couldn’t carry it through the book, so be it. He had this sense of freedom, this sense of experimentation and wonder and fun, that I had never seen before. And I really, really liked that.

I just got invited to participate in an anthology of work about Brautigan and fiction inspired by Brautigan. My assignment is to write something based on his latter books. I’m looking forward to that, but I had to think about it a little bit. His books are so different from each other – some of those whims don’t strike the same chord in me that others do. As one of my professors at Syracuse used to say, “There’s some of his work that I really hear and there’s some of his work that I just can’t quite hear.”

But I always get the sense that he’s not taking anything too seriously. I both like that and tend to take things very seriously when it comes to writing. That duality to me seems very comfortable – I’m experimenting and worried about experiment. That seems right to me. It’s the first part of it that seemed more organic to me with Brautigan than anybody else I can think of.

A lot of experimental books you read, the book is dedicated to one experiment, throughout. I don’t feel like Brautigan does that. In a lot of cases, in a lot of books, he doesn’t seem to have that sense of responsibility, or of rigor. There’s something refreshing about that.

For so much “experimental” work, you need to have a theoretical vocabulary. How To Keep Your Volkswagen Alive is experimental, but it doesn’t require any prerequisites. Was inclusiveness something you worried about as you wrote? 

In fiction, you have the ability to experiment and to label what it is you’re experimenting with, and to identify what it is that you hoped just happened. That’s certainly something that I relied on a lot here. The structure that I happened to stumble upon really helped me with that, because it had all of these obvious metaphors – the machine, the road, repair. It gave me a more direct way to get to these ideas. I was intrigued by what might happen if I make Colorado a character, but I also worried that I may have just lost a reader by doing that.

Naming is incredibly important to the novel. You seem to be really fascinated by the distance between name and thing, for instance, which seems to propel some of your experiments. 

I’m super close with my father – he’s my best friend. And he’s also not a reader. When I say “experimental fiction” or “literary fiction”to my father, he doesn’t really have any sort of familiarity with what that means. I found it very, very challenging to write about him. I had to get used to the idea that as much as I try, as close as I can get, I just wouldn’t get close enough – or at least not as close as I’d of wanted to.

That doesn’t seem to be a very unique artistic idea. That seems to drive a lot of narrative, whether it’s realistic or experimental – trying to name something that can’t be named. By changing the syntax, the idea of naming comes to the forefront and I can address the idea directly. As much as I can try to make this person into a character, it’s not going to work. At the same time, that creates a tension that, if I acknowledge it, can be helpful: I’m going for something with words having to do with this Volkswagen and I can’t make the words work right. It sort of justifies some of the linguistic experiments that I’m trying. Some writers would say, “You don’t need to justify that,” and I understand that. But I certainly felt the need to.

I learned a little bit about auto repair after my grandmother gave me her 1993 Dodge Dynasty. That car required a lot of work and while that could be fucking frustrating, it also created an incredibly strong bond between the car and me. DIY repairs seem like they’re quickly becoming a thing of the past. When my parents’ Prius breaks down, there’s no way you can do any of the repairs yourself — it’s all computerized; you have to bring it into a specialist (who then hooks it up to a computer, which then does all the diagnostic work).  Cars are something that doesn’t come up a whole lot in the whole analog v. digital thing, but I think it’s definitely part of that shift. Do you think we’ve lost anything now that computers run cars and diagnose them? Are there benefits?

My father’s the hardest worker I’ve ever known. He’s a retired high school teacher, but he owns all this real estate and seems to know how to do everything. He’s a landlord and that often brings everything under the sun with it – some things you never even know needed fixing get broken, and sometimes they need to get fixed right away. I was always amazed at his ability to respond in that way. I look up to him in that way; I probably know 50% of what he knows. But I was instilled early on with this respect for knowing how things work – and also, always feeling like I didn’t know enough.

The same would go with cars. I don’t know a whole lot about cars – I’ve changed spark plugs and the standard stuff. …. There are people who know everything, and I’m not one of those people. But that spirit of wonder, of trying to figure out what’s going on under the hood – I love the idea that I might know what’s going on there.

With almost any car that you drive nowadays, you open up the hood and there’s a plastic cover over everything. You have to remove the plastic cover to see the engine, to get to anything. I had a new Beetle for a while and that’s how it worked. Of course, I say that talking to you on an iPhone and having no idea how it’s working.

I’m not an engineer, I don’t have the scientific background. I’m terrible at math. But I do think this idea about how things work is a really healthy inquiry and that it was an inquiry that made a lot of sense with a Volkswagen Beetle – almost anything that needed to be fixed could be fixed. I talked to a guy at an event last night who said that, if I only need the carburetor in [my broken down VW to work] for a short time, I could have fixed it with a ballpoint pen. I think there’s something really endearing about that. I’m not sure that we’re losing it, but I do think that it’s getting further away.

The fact is, when I was driving [the VW that has since broken down] I thought, “This is not a great car, in any way shape or form.” I’m sure the Prius is designed to burn every little bit of gasoline. It’s super efficient. There are really, really good reasons why those changes have been made. But I also really love the prospect of trying to figure out how something works. I love the idea that, if I just take a close look, I can figure out what’s happening.


 

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