Karen Spears Zacharias Interviews Jack Pendarvis

Karen Spears Zacharias is a frequent and always welcome guest at Beatrice. When she appeared at the final Southeastern Booksellers Association meeting a few months back, she shared a panel with Jack Pendarvis, who writes funny stories like “I Review Books Based on One Random Sentence” (The Believer), “Your Body Is Changing” (Nerve.com), and “Jim Jarmusch’s Notes for a Ghostbusters Sequel” (McSweeney’s). He’s also got his first collection out now, The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure, so it seemed like a good time to ask him some questions. (And then the exchange ended up sitting on my laptop for a while, until I got my act together…)

kszacharias.jpgKaren Spears Zacharias: Where did you grow up?

Jack Pendarvis: Bayou La Batre, Alabama. But its real claim to fame is that it is one of the places Forrest Gump lived. It was a pleasant place to live. Lots of fresh air. Lots of family. I did have a happy childhood. I think everybody had a happy childhood back then, didn’t they? But that was a long time ago. I did have my share of problems.

Karen Spears Zacharias: Such as?

pendarvis.jpgJack Pendarvis: I was the only Cub Scout who had to wrap and carry ulcer medicine on my first and only attempt at a scouting trip. I had to be picked up early.

Karen Spears Zacharias: So you had an ulcer as a kid?

Jack Pendarvis: Well, it wasn’t really an ulcer. I had a time with a sensitive stomach. Why am I telling you this? (laughs) I had a happy childhood but apparently I found reasons to worry. This was the time when we thought the Russians were going to drop a bomb on us. We didn’t hide under the desks. That was before my time. Maybe it was because I watched the Watergate hearings everyday on television when I was 9 or 10. Maybe that had something to do with it.

Karen Spears Zacharias: Where do you live now?

Jack Pendarvis: Atlanta. I was 30 years old 12 years ago, working in a coffee shop in Mobile. My boss was 19, so I thought maybe I should move. I got a job with Turner Broadcasting and moved to Atlanta.

Karen Spears Zacharias: When did you first get the itch to be a writer?

Jack Pendarvis: I’ve written as far back as I can remember. I wanted to be a cartoonist. I was writing comic strips at age 5. But I couldn’t draw then and I still can’t. So that part fell away over the years.

The really pivotal time for me was when I was about 9, there was this television show called My World and Welcome to It, based on the writings of James Thurber. I started reading Thurber’s short stories. That made me want to write short stories, then when I read Catch 22, that sealed the deal.

Karen Spears Zacharias: So was your mom the kind that chided you to put the books down and go outside to play?

Jack Pendarvis: Not at all. She only took one book away from me because she thought it was too mature for me—One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I think she did it because somebody told her they’d made a racy movie from it. But I got through a good bit of it before she took it away.

I tried to buy Woody Allen’s Without Feathers, but the bookstore owner thought it was too mature for a kid so he wouldn’t sell it to me. I found it at another store and bought it. My friends and I would read parts of it aloud at recess and laugh until we were crying. It was hilarious.

Karen Spears Zacharias: Any other books that molded you?

Jack Pendarvis: Pilgrim’s Progress. I grew up Southern Baptist. Pilgrim’s Progress had a huge, early influence. I thought it was exciting.

Karen Spears Zacharias: Did growing up under all that Southern Baptist discipline limit you?

Jack Pendarvis: I think that’s a myth. When I look back on my childhood in South Alabama, there was a lot more exposure to culture things than you’d think. We only had three channels on the TV. So if an old Ronald Colman movie came on, you’d watch it. Now a kid doesn’t have to watch anything not specifically designed for a kid.

With fewer choices, I think you get greater variety. At least I did. Like silent movies. I used to watch those. No kid watches silent movies now. They don’t have to.

Karen Spears Zacharias: Who has been your mentor?

Jack Pendarvis: Eugene Walter. He was the first cultured kind of amusing writer I knew in a personal way. [When I was studying journalism at the University of South Alabama,] I had picked the touchy subject of teen suicide to write about and when I told him that, he said, “Oh, dear! You must come over and write about me instead!.” Walter was a gourmet cook. He’d written the Time Life Cookbook on Southern Cooking in the 1960s. He didn’t have much money, but he could cook some amazing foods. And he would tell stories of Marlon Brando and Truman Capote… I was bug-eyed. He didn’t have a lot of money but he seemed to have a wonderful life.

mystsecret.jpgKaren Spears Zacharias: Where’d you get the inspiration for “Sex Devil,” the first story in The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure?

Jack Pendarvis: Ben Affleck. I went to see him in the movie Daredevil. The movie starts with a young man blinded in a freak accident and is tormented by all the other kids. As I was watching it, I thought this is what comic books are all about: kids getting picked on and what they wish they could to the people picking on them. I just changed the word “Dare” to “Sex” and the piece wrote itself. I wrote it as soon as I got home.

I’m a proud viewer of television and movies. I get a lot of ideas from television. Another one of the stories—”The Pipe,” about the DJ who is buried in a field—was inspired by a Sex & the City episode.

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14 November 2005 | interviews |