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SunLit Interview: Over 20 years, Gregory SETH Harris grew his Kafkaesque short story into a novel

"The Perfect Stranger" evolved, as he did in real time, and became many-layered -- part parable, part satire and totally devoted to having fun with the language

Gregory SETH Harris, best known as the performance poet SETH, is a fiction writer, poet, actor, musician and producer. He is the author of two books: “A Black Odyssey,” a poetic memoir intertwining his personal experiences as a Black poet in contemporary America with the journey of Homer’s Odysseus; and the recently published novel, “The Perfect Stranger,”an absurdist satirical study of human folly and the folly of human institutions. He lives in Denver, where he currently heads Art Compost & the Word Mechanics, a musical-poetic ensemble. Learn more at www.wagaingart.com


Tell us this book’s backstory. What inspired you to write it? Where did the story/theme originate?

The first novel I read after graduating college with a B.A. in English was Kafka’s “The Castle.” I had already read his other works; his body of work is not that large. After reading “The Castle” I had this intuitive sense of where he generated his ideas. 

So in homage to Kafka I wrote a short story titled “The Perfect Stranger.” It was about 22 pages, divided into seven sections. I was not a strong fiction writer at the time. I knew that. And I knew it was not a good story. But I loved the overall concept. So I resolved to hone my fiction writing skills, then rework the story, expanding it into a novel.

UNDERWRITTEN BY

Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.

Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole? Why did you select it?

I chose this section for two reasons. One, when Neimann discusses “The Breaking Wind of Reason,” he touches upon one of the major themes—if not the major theme—of the novel: how we humans reason based on our desires and are thus capable of justifying anything we want to believe. A great deal of the humor in “The Perfect Stranger” comes from the characters twisting language, and in doing so, distorting the laws of logic to rationalize even the most absurd positions.

The other reason I chose this section is it perfectly illustrates the kind of satire and commentary you can expect throughout the novel’s 358 pages. It’s a novel simultaneously silly and deadly serious.

Tell us about creating this book. What influences and/or experiences informed the project?

When I set out to hone my fiction writing skills, the first author I studied was Dickens. Dickens is a master of characterization. I quickly recognized he did this by emphasizing each character’s idiosyncrasies, then repeatedly reminding the reader of those idiosyncrasies. 

I pushed the technique one step further. The bulk of my characters—there are 50 total—have at least one over-exaggerated or absurd character trait. All the main characters have two or three. So Dickens was a definite influence.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

One thing I found interesting was how the novel evolved as I evolved. I’m a student of philosophy, religious thought, history, world literature, etc. As my understanding of history and the human experience broadened, I was able to slip in a great deal of what I was coming to understand into the novel. 

“The Perfect Stranger” was written over a span of 20 years. Many of the ideas I explore would not have found their way in had I finished it a couple of years after I started.

You do play with language a lot: how the words appear on the page, puns, malapropisms and deliberate misspellings. Why did you do that?

In a word: for the fun of it. F-U-N in capital letters. For one, I wanted to let the reader know from the first paragraph that s/he was no longer in Kansas. The ordinary rules of your typical novel did not apply here. 

But more importantly, I wanted the reading of the novel to be a fun experience. Playing with puns, misspellings, making up words and fiddling with how words appeared on the page became part of my strategy to elicit as many chuckles from the reader as I could muster.

Once you began writing, did the story take you in any unexpected directions? What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered?

One surprise for me is as I was plotting my book, what I was writing about manifested in real time. I was incorporating some ideas I had honed from Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.” I quote Hitler almost verbatim in one section of the novel. This happened to be when the George W. Bush administration was mounting a campaign to justify invading Iraq when the Iraqis had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack. 

The same tactics Hitler espoused were being used by Bush and Dick Cheney as if they too were reading “Mein Kampf”— not that they needed to. “Mein Kampf” is merely Machiavelli updated for the 20th Century. The point is, they were providing me with a working model of something I was trying to articulate based on my abstract understanding of human nature and history. I felt simultaneously blessed and saddened.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Has the book raised questions or provoked strong opinions among your readers? How did you address them?

I’ve heard several different responses to the novel. Several readers have told me they had to read it slowly—presumably to both savor and absorb everything I have crammed into each chapter. A friend, also a writer—a very good writer—said she would read each chapter twice. She did this, she said, because she recognized there were layers. That delighted me…mainly because I knew there were layers but wasn’t sure anyone would notice, not without reading it several times.

I’m now tempted to recommend everyone read the novel twice. The first time just to deal with all the absurdity, the convoluted plot twists and how the novel ends. Then go back to see how it all fits together. More and more I’m noticing I need to watch a movie several times to catch all the nuances. I’m beginning to think you need to do that with “The Perfect Stranger” as well.

Walk us through your writing process: Where and how do you write? 

I don’t have one writing process. I write poetry, short fiction and this is my first novel. Each genre demands something different. Over time I have discovered that when I gravitate to a particular writing process, everything I produce will share a “sameness,” something they all share in common. 

My creative sensibility is such that when I detect a sameness, a pattern I fall into, I want to immediately break out of it. And the way to break out of it is to change the process. So I shy away from a standard process.

Having said that, I can easily recall the process I fell into when writing “The Perfect Stranger.” The first seven to eight chapters were improvised, which is to say I trusted anything that came out of my head. I just wrote it down, trusting I could make sense of it all later. 

From chapter eight or nine in, I shifted to interweaving those absurdities into some kind of cohesive whole that would make sense by the end of the novel. I always knew how the novel would end, so I concentrated on exploring the various threads and weaving them toward some kind of climax.

I also kept notes. As new ideas came to me, I would jot them down, keep them in a folder I would review every time I returned to the novel. As I had forged a successful career as a performance poet, I was not able to write the novel straight through. 

Performing requires an intense focus the closer you come to the performance date. I would write a number of chapters, put the novel away for months, if not more than a year, then pick the novel up when I had a substantial chunk of time to devote to it. Whenever possible I would hide away in a cabin for weeks at a time.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Looking back at the process and all the twists and turns in completing your novel, is there anything you are particularly proud of? Or is there anything you would do differently next time?

What my friend said about layers: that’s what I am particularly proud of. My original concept was that some readers could read the novel as a parable: A peculiar stranger enters a town looking for someone, though not knowing who—a perfect stranger…or is he the perfect stranger? 

Others could read it as a satire in the tradition of Jonathan Swift. The “micropolis” he enters is a contemporary take on Lilliput, full of colorfully absurd characters, and lots and lots of satirical commentary as my protagonist encounters each of the town’s major institutions. 

And finally, if you are an English major, or a poet or a lover of literature, you can enjoy the novel for its dexterous use of language and endless wordplay. Those were my goals and, at least according to this friend, I managed to succeed. Therefore, mission accomplished as far as I am concerned.