Over the Inkwell

Over cupcakes at the West Town bakeshop Lovely, our writer—a short-story author with a knack for the weird—sat down with Joe Meno. The occasion? The May publication of his new book, The Great Perhaps, about a man who goes on the hunt for a giant squid


Joe Meno and Elizabeth Crane

The Great Perhaps
(W. W. Norton, $24.95)

Q: This book is a bit of a departure for you, but at the same time it still feels very much like a Joe Meno book. Can you talk a bit about your inspiration? 
A:
I started working on it in 2005, and there was still this kind of pervasive mood of fear, so it came out of that era leading up to the 2004 election. There were characters I already started working on in different short stories or plays, and I realized that the problems they all had all related to fear, and then I thought, What if they were actually related? So I built this family, and the thing that they have in common is that they’re all cowards, and each also has some sort of physical manifestation of that cowardice—epilepsy, stress-induced asthma, hives, etc.

Q: One of the things that really engaged me was this idea of searching. I had the sense that whether they were conscious of it or not, the characters were all looking for answers that science or the world wasn’t giving them.
A:
The father, Jonathan, is looking for this squid, which he thinks is going to help him prove the theory of evolution. The mother, Madeline, she’s a behavioral scientist. For the daughter Amelia it’s politics; for the youngest daughter, Thisbe, it’s religion; and for the grandfather it’s through a historical context. Each of them thinks they have the answer, and then it fails them, and then they have to look for something larger.

Q: I thought it was really lovely that all the characters had their different obsession with clouds. Where did this playful twist come from?
A:
The first thing was the White Album by the Beatles. It’s incredibly complex. The other two things were Slaughterhouse-Five by Vonnegut and the early films of Godard. All were making this work at the height of the Vietnam War, and had this incredible inventiveness and humor and playfulness even though they were dealing with incredible issues. For a book to have meaning doesn’t mean it can’t have a sense of humor or absurdity or imagination.

Q: What’s your take on Chicago’s literary scene?
A:
It’s amazing! You, Stuart Dybek, Aleksandar Hemon; there’s also a great underground literary scene. What I really love about Chicago is the willingness to work with one another, which seems unique and welcoming and genuine. As a writer there’s so much room to explore. I don’t know how many people have written about Hyde Park in that way, whereas in New York, I think Brooklyn has the highest amount of writers anywhere in the world, so you’re always worried about stepping on someone’s toes. Here there’s all this territory to stick your flag in.

Q: How is it that you’re still so prolific, now that you’ve got a young daughter at home?
A:
I would say I’m not! I’m happy I got as much work done as I did before she was born. But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

GO: Stop Smiling magazine hosts a book release party for The Great Perhaps at Quimby’s on Thursday, May 7th. For info, quimbys.com

 

Photograph: Joe C. Moreno

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