Little SoldiersInterview by Barry Engelhart
Unpatriotic, ridiculous and just plain bad writing. The world of Gabe Hudson.
Sometimes fact and fiction merge into an eerie gray dream world where reality becomes distorted or manipulated. Things aren’t merely as simple as black and white, but become consumed by a colorless void too difficult to interpret.
Welcome to the world of Dear Mr. President, the debut ‘stovel,’ by fiction writer, political satirist and general prankster Gabe Hudson. DMP is a powerful series of stories that take place during Operation Desert Storm and regard such topics as posttraumatic stress disorder, biological warfare and Gulf War Syndrome in ways both witty and profound. Using a surreal world and imaginative protagonists, Hudson’s work mimics Donald Barthleme’s absurdity and reads as The Things They Carried of the Bush Generation. Hudson has since used the notoriety of DMP’s success to pull a prank on our current political administration and remind our Commander and Chief that he is working for us, the American Citizens. Also, to the best of my knowledge—and Gabe’s, for that matter—this will be the first time the press release has been published in its entirety.
Let's hit the ground running:
--There has been a great deal of literary discussions regarding [Herbert’s] Dune or [Orwell’s] 1984 being modern day prophecies. As the political satirist, do you have a personal favorite to help predict your views on the imminent end of the world?
I was over in Berlin this summer, and we went to the Jewish museum there, as well as a concentration camp. It was a necessary but hugely disturbing experience. The text that accompanied the exhibits, not to mention the sites themselves, were enough to convince you of the futility of the human endeavor. If that doesn’t work, though, you can get the same effect by reading any Hallmark greeting card. Birthday cards are the most apocalyptic. That, or the sound of a bird chirping in the morning.
--I know you’ve cited Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as a huge influence. I think you’ve claimed to read it a couple dozen times. What other novels do you cite as major influences and/or relevant to the subject matter and style of your current work? Did you actually read Slaughter House-Five or Catch 22 or The Things They Carried as you wrote the stories in DMP?
I didn’t read Catch 22 or Slaughter-House Five or The Things They Carried when I was writing DMP. I taught some creative writing classes at Brown, and I would assign The Things They Carried. I glanced at said books when I was done, because people kept mentioning them after looking at my stuff, but I can’t say they had any impact on the composition of my book. I’m not sure if I was influenced by any particular books, but some writers who I think everyone should be reading are: Anne Carson, George Saunders, Rick Moody, Flannery O’Connor, Kafka, Beckett, David Wallace, Lydia Davis, William Vollman, Donald Barthleme, Dave Eggers, Borges, W.G. Sebald, William Burroughs, Aleksander Hemon, Carol Maso, Don Delillo, Chuck Palahniuk, Donald Antrim, AM Holmes, and Denis Johnson.
--Pre-Dear Mr. President, where and what had you published? I know you attended Brown Univ. and studied under Rob Coover and have been published in a number of college literary journals before DMP. I’d be curious to read from your pre-war lit era.
I’ll be honest, I can’t even remember the work in Dear Mr. President, let alone what, if anything, came before. I know I have a novel in my trunk, but I won’t ever bring it out, or look at it. The last person I showed it to, and this was years ago, suffered a severe anaphylactic attack. They paralyzed a lung. I think I may have posted some earlier work on the McSweeney’s website, and maybe back in their early, early letters section on the site. There was a letter I wrote there from my brother announcing that I had died (hit by a truck). It was a kind of suicide without the gore.
--I recently heard you state that you don’t view DMP as a short story collection, which, if I interpret correctly, means you intended it to fit more of a novel in short stories format—the most stereotypical examples of this are Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses and Welty’s The Golden Apples. Another example is Beth Lordan’s And Come Ye Back, which will be released in January. What separates these examples from DMP is that they don’t have overlapping characters. What do you feel separates your novel from a short story collection?
Well, this is a difficult question for me to answer, because I regard short stories and novels with equal admiration. I think the distinction between "Stories" and "Novels" is something that probably matters more to the Publisher, and a good many of us writers could care less about these titles. I am drawn to fiction for its intensity, ambition, imagination, beauty, and passion, because it crushes my brain in a way that only fiction can. So whenever fiction gives me the crush, that’s where I go.
I will say, that for the paperback version of DMP, you’ll notice my publisher decided not to place the words "Short Stories" on the cover. Also a good many reviewers addressed DMP as a book as well, as a whole. I think the idea was that DMP was something more akin to Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, not a novel or a short story in its conventional sense. Something in between. Maybe something you’d call a "stovel".
--There were rumors and finally, a confession that the letter you received from President George W. Bush in regard to DMP was a forgery. This prank has been called everything from a satire and a mockery of the president’s campaign philosophies to a rude hoax and publicity stunt to generate book sales. I know that, for the most part, you’ve been silent in regards. Would you care to give me your side of the story?
Sure. But maybe first I should give a rundown of what happened.
I stated in an interview with Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at the New Yorker, that I had sent my book to President Bush. I then went on to claim that he sent me a scathing letter back, calling my book “unpatriotic and ridiculous” and “just plain bad writing.” A couple of papers picked up my story. Then a journalist ran a piece mentioning my letter from President Bush in the Washington Post, and Ari Fleisher promptly called them to deny its existence. Meanwhile, the White House began frantically calling my publisher, Knopf. The White House was confused and they were trying to figure what was going on (they kept claiming there was no record of any such letter, and yet I suspect they thought/were scared that Bush was stupid enough to send me such a letter).
I immediately got a call from the chief legal counsel at Random House who found the whole situation amusing. He even immediately wrote a letter to the President that morning. Mr. Fine, the attorney at Random House, said that I’d done nothing wrong, and that if I wanted, he’d patch me through directly to the White House so that I could explain to them that what I had done was satire. I’ll be honest, it was a little fun. Nothing like giving the biggest bully in the world (Bush) a little whack (metaphorically speaking) in the knees. At that point I felt as if I had made my point and accomplished what I wanted to accomplish (letters to the President were streaming in through my site), and so I released a statement to the White House and to various media outlets through my publisher. Here it is:
Statement Released Through KnopfI never sent my book, Dear Mr. President, to the President, and I never received a letter from him. My claims that I received a letter from the President were meant as satire, and were intended to be perceived as such. I will say, though, that in making these claims, I used the very same technique that I learned from watching the President, which is to dispense unverified information through the media.
I think the President and his administration have embarked on a dangerous campaign to convince people that submission is a form of patriotism. That so many people could perceive my absurd joke as a fact is testament to how far the President has carried his campaign of censoring the citizens he serves. I worry about the silence around the country, the blind deference of the people to the President as he continues to gear up for a war that will result in the unnecessary deaths of Americans and Iraqis. I believe that if you love this country, then you make your voice heard, and challenge the administration if you see them taking America in a direction that strikes you as wrong.
The overriding purpose of this gesture, of course, is to encourage my fellow citizens to engage themselves in this debate -- to write to the President, to let him know what is on their minds. In response to my remarks, hundreds of people have already sent letters to the President through my website. I hope many more will continue this letter-writing campaign.
I still haven’t given up hope that President Bush will truly write me a letter. And I do hope he will read my book.
So I want to be clear, there was no forgery. Because the letter just straight up didn’t exist. There is/was no letter. The only place the letter existed was in the minds of the people who believed that the letter existed. Which was supposed to be the point. This was an anti-war gesture, directed at President Bush and his Propagandist Team. This all happened during the build up to Gulf War II. And just as this letter from the President did not exist, neither did the weapons of mass destruction, the imminent threat of Saddam, the connection between Saddam and Osama, and the connection between Saddam and 9/11--except of course in the minds of the people who believed it existed. Basically, the American citizens who the Bush Team was scaring with their Big Scary Lies.
I should also say I was hoping to incite people to take action, to pick up the proverbial pen and paper and let Bush know what they thought of his intentions regarding the war. I run this Dear Mr. President Project on my website (www.gabehudson.com), where people, using a function on my website, can go and write a letter to the President. Every so often we publish what we consider to be the most interesting letters on the McSweeney’s website. The Bush administration has scared the people into silence, and so, I was trying to incite people to step up and write the President a letter.
--And finally, what, if anything, are you willing to disclose, of your debut novel? How far are you into it…what types of themes are you addressing…is it another piece of war lit, and if so, are you afraid of pigeonholing yourself?
The novel’s coming along. I’m pretty far into it. And it isn’t about war, though war does play a role in it. I’m not too worried about being pigeonholed as a “war writer.” When I consider my potential trajectory as a writer, I think of a writer like Kurt Vonnegut, who wrote a book about war, but then went on to write several books about a myriad of subjects. The book engages the subject of immigration, but hopefully seems fresh. I’m trying to approach the subject at an angle that hasn’t been done before.
One thing I can disclose about the forthcoming novel is I’m experimenting with different writing techniques. Which is to say I’ve written some of the book while undergoing severe, self-imposed food and sleep deprivation. For instance, I went for three months of intensive writing while subsisting on water and an ounce of goat cheese once every three days. I’ve also written a portion of this book with my hands bound behind my back, using my face to strike the keyboard. I’m currently living in a house, and have been digging a pit (a.k.a. The Grave) in the backyard, so that when I come to the final stretch of the book, I plan on going down into the pit, yanking this makeshift roof over the top, and not allowing myself out until I’ve finished. I can also tell you that in my forthcoming novel you’ll find the following:
The giant invisible fist of justice, a peaceful yet terminal race of humans called the Poop Plugs, Helpful tips on how to live underground and a new dance called the Crucifix Two-Step.
Writer’s note: A shorter, narrative on Hudson can be found at Bandoppler Magazine’s website (www.bandoppler.com). In coming weeks, you will also find an interview with Palahniuk-esq author Stephen Elliott.