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KGB Interview: Erik Raschke

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“Voyagers discover that the world can never be larger than the person that is in the world; but it is impossible to foresee this, it is impossible to be warned.”— James Baldwin

Born and raised in Denver, Colorado, and having spent time working and learning the craft of writing in New York City, rising novelist Erik Raschke’s voyage has taken him now to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where he lives with his family and continues to display the literary talent that made his debut novel, The Book of Samuel (St. Martin’s Griffin), a critical success.  Praised by Booklist as a writer who “works with a palette of decidedly heavy issues but applies them with such an unfailingly light hand,” Erik took time recently to answer questions for KGB readers about his work, being an ex-pat, and what’s next in his writing life.

Q: The Book of Samuel is told from the perspective of Samuel Gerard, a 12-year-old boy.  One of the book’s many strengths is its ability to provide readers with insight into mindset of a character who is being pulled emotionally and intellectually between the world of children and the world of adults.  What is it about this divide that interests you, and how challenging was it to write from this age viewpoint?

I was teaching in Washington Heights, New York I was always surprised how mature and immature inner-city teenagers could be. On one hand, they would, sometimes daily, witness gruesome, violent things, things that would send us running to our therapists for years. On the other hand, if I was passing out packets of Gummy-Bears to the winners of our class spelling bee, the losers would pout with more drama than any two-year old. I mean, these kids had wads of hundred dollar bills stuffed in their pockets, yet would pucker their faces and cross their arms if I didn’t give them a five-cent bag of Gummy Bears.

I think so much great American literature deals with how fast kids have to grow up. I love Stephen Crane. Mark Twain. Even the teen writer Walter Dean Myers. There’s nothing like a young person navigating dark Americana to leave you one the edge of your seat. It’s the combination of naiveté, hope, innocence, all those clichéd terms of youth applied to a uniquely challenging American circumstance, whether it be in a suburb of Phoenix, a trailer park in Iowa, or a housing project in the Bronx. 

I’m finishing up a teen novel now about a fifteen year-old Bosnian immigrant in Limon, Colorado who has a talent for making drones. He originally creates a drone to make his father’s farm more efficient, but by the end of the book everyone wants the drone (or drones- he makes different kinds) for their own purpose, many of which are questionably legal. I can’t imagine a better main character than a teen, who is developing his own system of morals, to narrate this novel. The voice was so strong and so compelling and the circumstances so fascinating to me, that I wrote the book in only a few months.

Q: Your description of the housing sprawl outside Denver in The Book of Samuel hints at an underlying lawlessness, a bit of the Wild West in the suburbs.  Tell us a little about the City during your youth, and how it impacted on the writing of the book.

Ha! I’ll tell you about my juvenile delinquency over a beer sometime Mr. McCaffrey, just the two of us…but Denver is a much different place now than back then. When I got back from my Freshman year in college, my old neighbor, a World War II veteran, came marching out of his house, chomping on cigar butt, frowning like MacArthur himself, looked me up and down and said, “I heard how much your mom’s paying for that school out East and you sure as hell don’t look any smarter for it!” And that was it. He went back to his porch to watch golf and clean his guns. When I was back in Denver two years ago, the people now living in his house had xeri-scaped the back lawn and were de-oxidizing the interior of their 100,000 Audi TT. Of course they had just returned from the Farmers Market and we talked about locally-grown produce for twenty minutes.

I think we writers often mock the middle-class, did our very best to deconstruct or simply level it. But now that it’s gone and now that the Transgender Cowboys and Cheyenne Native Americans who sang Hall and Oates duets on Colfax Avenue have been pushed out by this new, slightly nervous upper middle-class, what do we have left? Perhaps fodder for a new Jonathon Franzen novel? I don’t think it was Denver itself, but what Denver was at the time that impacted my writing. Denver was the place where anyone who didn’t fit on a ranch or in a small western town came to escape. It was where people like Dean Moriarity grew up. Denver was the place where misfits who couldn’t afford a bus trip to L.A. or New York went. Luckily, I happened to be there during that messy confluence. 

Q: You now live full-time in Amsterdam. Has this move affected your writing? If so, how?

So continuing with what I just said, the Dutch are very Egalitarian and, as a writer, the rocks in which to turn over to find “the dirt” are much smaller. Everyone is middle class and if they aren’t they pretend to be. No one here is homeless and if they are it’s by choice. No one here is starving or is refused medical care. So instead of going through the silt, as you might in America, you have to search the foam. The tiny little bubbles of inequality or injustice that rise to the surface. And there are a lot of them, they just aren’t readily apparent. And they’re diffuse. I’ve been reading a lot of John Updike who is a master of peeling open the most boring WASPy town and splaying it’s flesh open like a ripe pomegranate. He knows how to find a good story in the smallest details.

Q: Tell us about your latest writing projects.

Well, there’s the drone book, which I just mentioned. And two months ago I finished Strangers Leap, which took me three years to finish. It begins in New York, moves to the Sahara, and ends in Amsterdam. It begins in a hard, realist style and ends in the surreal. So basically, according to String Theory, you are supposedly reading this interview in eleven different ways. You might be a cat or a dog, but you are split into eleven separate possibilities, in eleven different dimensions. And, for thousands of years, Arabic culture and Islam has preached that genies exist alongside us, in parallel worlds, interacting and interfering with our lives. Action at a Distance, set to the backdrop of the Second Iraq War, weaves modern physics and ancient myth into this modern narrative to ask the question, “How do our choices affect what we cannot see?”

Luckily, my wonderful agent, who worked with Anthony Burgess through the majority of his career and has a lot of experience with the metaphysical writing, had me reign in a lot of the extraneous parts, focus the characters and story itself, including chapters where George Bush was a character, and the book went from 550 pages to 350. Stranger’s Leap is very, very different than the first draft, but I think it’s a much better read.

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Erik Raschke received his B.A. in English from Earlham College and his M.A. in creative writing from the City College of New York. He studied Peace and Reconciliation in Northern Ireland during The Troubles and, later, served in Armenia as a Peace Corps volunteer. He is a certified teacher with the New York Board of Education where he taught English to children from the Bronx and upper Manhattan. You can see a short documentary about how his life is connected to the main character of Samuel in his first novel The Book of Samuel: www.thebookofsamuel.com.