Charles Holdefer, author of Dick Cheney in Shorts and George Saunders’ Pastoralia: Bookmarked, is an American writer currently based in Brussels, Belgium. His new novel Bring Me the Head of Mr. Boots will be released in the fall by Sagging Meniscus. His fiction has appeared in many magazines, including The New England Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, North American Review, Los Angeles Review and Slice. His story “The Raptor” won a Pushcart Prize. More information is available at www.charlesholdefer.com.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Bring Me the Head of Mr. Boots! I really enjoyed it. This past summer, you put out another magic-themed book, Magic Even You Can Do, by Blast. Mr. Boots isn’t an extension of that earlier offering, but it does continue the exploration/utilization of magic. And it’s not just a gimmick—I think a reader can tell you have a real fondness for the art. I’m assuming you have some personal experience in the area—can we start with that?
Charles Holdefer: Was I a magic geek, you mean? I’m afraid so. As a kid I chased after people, begging them to take a card. Drove my family crazy. Card manipulation got me interested in gambling and cheats and con artists. A movie like The Sting romanticizes that world but it does a good job of showing how personality comes into the mix. Fooling people involves knowing how they think. From there it’s not such a big leap into storytelling.
CS: So there’s the element of magic here—but you’re also working with some deeper connections. What is it about this subculture that makes it so appealing to the fiction-writer you?
CH: There’s a built-in play on desire, what people want. Even the irritating, cheesy kind of magic—I sure you know what I’m talking about—looks different from inside a performer’s head. And inside is where much of the story resides.
You can prance around in a sparkly suit and pull doves out of your trousers. How many people really want to see that? Not many. But that’s not the real story. What if you need to prance around in a sparkly suit? It’s very important to your sanity and well-being. What’s that all about? Why?
My main character isn’t that kind of performer but he’s driven to lengths that most people would avoid.
CS: I’m a long-time fan of your work—and it seems there’s been a trend toward more humorous treatments in your last three books (even though we see Erich, Mr. Boots’ main character, through some not-so-funny travails). Do you agree with this observation? If so, why the turn toward the humorous? Is it a reaction to our times? Or is it something you’re finding in yourself at this stage of your life/career?
CH: More humor—I suppose that’s true. My novel The Contractor was a lot different in tone, in overt seriousness. In some ways it’s still my favorite book. It also pissed off some people. But lately I’m not feeling more jocular. Maybe I’m just trying to cheer myself up in not-so-cheerful times.
CS: Humor isn’t a monolith—and there are many different kinds of laughs—the folks and situations we identify with and the others that make us cringe. What kind of situation to you find yourself more drawn to? What is it about it that attracts you?
CH: That’s hard to explain. Laughter is anarchic, like sex. If I pretended to be able to explain it, I’d mess it up. I like both empathetic and cringe humor. Some of my work is satire for political purposes but laughter doesn’t really have an agenda. How it gets coded comes afterward, in context. But this much I do know: it’s no respecter of rules. For that much at least, there’s a parallel with magic. Gravity, schmavity.
Another way of looking at it is like this: humor isn’t something a writer invents. I’d actually like to debunk that notion. Of course, in a technical sense, you have to get it down on paper, draft it, shape it—that’s a lot of work—but humor, even outrageous humor, is simply out there in the mix of human relations, a fact of nature like a powerful river. If you want, you can jump on it and go white-water rafting.
CS: Let’s talk about structure and form a bit. I’m a big fan of the short novel—and Mr. Boots fits that description. Did you have this size in mind when you started—or did it just work out that way? What do you consider the strengths (and weakness) of this smaller novel?
CH: Yes, it’s a skinny book! I have great admiration for writers who can pull off a 600 page, multi-generational saga with a huge cast of characters. Hats off to them. That said, if they don’t pull it off, you’re left with a lot of dutiful sociology, which bores me.
For Mr. Boots, I didn’t start with a particular size in mind. I knew the triggering incident that got the hero in trouble. And I had a mental image of his family, his struggle to move on after a failed marriage. That was something I wanted to explore and get right. Politics or cultural questions are not dwelled on, though they’re never far from the surface. What a short novel lacks in terms of a “big picture” is compensated for, I hope, in the pleasures of focus and pace.
CS: And another structural question—the chapters are also very short, which helps the book move along at a nice clip. I enjoyed the fact that the chapters were also given titles, which—for me at least—gave it a kind a vaudevillian vibe. What were your thoughts behind titling your chapters?
CH: I’m fond of vinyl albums where all the songs come in at two minutes, 30 seconds, or three minutes, tops. Keep it punchy. No time for noodling or extended solos. If you land enough punches, there’s a cumulative effect. By the end it’s not a collection of singles, but a larger experience, a whole emerging from the pieces.
CS: What’s next?
CH: Trying to finish up a little book of political shorts that came out in literary magazines. These will be flash bedtime stories for adults. Is that a genre? Also, working on a plump novel.