Gregory SETH Harris, better known as the performance poet SETH, is a fiction writer, poet, actor, musician and producer. He is the author of two books: âA Black Odysseyâ, a poetic memoir interweaving 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 absurd satirical study of human madness and the madness of human institutions. He lives in Denver, where he currently directs Art Compost & the Word Mechanics, a musical-poetic ensemble. Learn more about www.wagainart.com
Tell us the story of this book. What inspired you to write it? Where does the story / theme come from?
The first novel I read after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in English was “The Castle” by Kafka. I had already read his other works; his work is not so great. 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 called “The Perfect Stranger”. It consisted of approximately 22 pages, divided into seven sections. I was not a strong fiction writer at the time. I knew it. And I knew it wasn’t a good story. But I loved the overall concept. So I decided to perfect my fiction writing skills, then rework the story, developing it into a novel.
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Put this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the whole book? Why did you choose it?
I chose this section for two reasons. First, when Neimann talks about the âShattering Wind of Reason,â he touches on one of the major themes – if not the major theme – of the novel: how we humans reason according to our desires and are therefore able to justify everything. that we want. to believe. Much of the humor in âThe Perfect Strangerâ comes from the characters twisting language and in doing so, twisting the laws of logic to rationalize even the most absurd positions.
The other reason I chose this section is that it perfectly illustrates the kind of satire and commentary you can expect throughout the novel’s 358 pages. It’s a novel that is both stupid and deadly serious.
Tell us about the creation of this book. What influences and / or experiences have influenced the project?
When I first started honing my fiction writing skills, the first author I studied was Dickens. Dickens is a master of characterization. I quickly recognized that he had done this by emphasizing the idiosyncrasies of each character and then repeatedly reminding the reader of those idiosyncrasies.
I took the technique a little further. The bulk of my characters – there are 50 in total – have at least one over-the-top or absurd character trait. All the main characters have two or three. Dickens therefore had a definite influence.
One thing I found interesting was how the novel evolved as I evolved. I study philosophy, religious thought, history, world literature, etc. As my understanding of history and the human experience grew, I was able to slip much of what I was beginning to understand into the novel.
“The Perfect Stranger” was written over a span of 20 years. Most of the ideas I explore wouldn’t have found their way if I had finished them a few years after starting.
You play with language a lot: how words appear on the page, puns, messes and deliberate misspellings. Why do you do that?
In short: for fun. FUN in all caps. On the one hand, I wanted the reader to know from the first paragraph that he was no longer in Kansas. The ordinary rules of your typical novel did not apply here.
But more importantly, I wanted reading the novel to be a fun experience. Playing with puns, misspellings, making up words, and playing with the way the words appeared on the page became part of my strategy to elicit as much laughter from the reader as possible.
Once you start writing, has history taken you in unexpected directions? What were the biggest challenges you encountered or surprises you encountered?
A surprise to me is that while I was preparing my book, what I was writing about manifested itself in real time. I incorporated a few ideas I had refined from Hitler’s âMein Kampfâ. I quote Hitler almost verbatim in part of the novel. This was when the George W. Bush administration was campaigning to justify the invasion of Iraq when the Iraqis had nothing to do with the 9/11 attack.
The same tactics Hitler adopted were used by Bush and Dick Cheney as if they too read “Mein Kampf” – not that they needed to. “Mein Kampf” is simply Machiavelli updated for the 20e Century. The point is, they were providing me with a working model of something that I was trying to articulate based on my abstract understanding of human nature and history. I felt both blessed and saddened.
Did the book raise any questions or generate strong opinions among your readers? How did you approach them?
I have heard several different responses to the novel. Several readers have told me that they have to read it slowly, probably to 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 that there were layers. It pleased meâ¦ mainly because I knew there were layers but wasn’t sure anyone would notice, not without reading it a few times.
I am now tempted to recommend that everyone read the novel twice. The first time, just to deal with all the absurdity, the convoluted twists and turns of the plot and the end of the novel. Then go back to see how it all fits together. More and more, I notice that I need to watch a movie several times to catch all the nuances. I’m starting to think you have to do that with “The Perfect Stranger” as well.
Explain to us your writing process: where and how do you write?
I don’t have a writing process. I write poetry, short fiction and this is my first novel. Each genre demands something different. Over time, I’ve found that when I gravitate to a particular writing process, everything I produce will share a âsemblance,â something that they all share in common.
My creative sensitivity is such that when I detect a similarity, a pattern that I fall into, I immediately want to get out of it. And the way out is to change the process. So I’m afraid of a standard process.
Having said that, I can easily remember the process I fell into while writing “The Perfect Stranger”. The first seven to eight chapters were improvised, meaning I trusted whatever came out of my mind. I just wrote it down, confident I could make some sense of it later.
From chapter eight or nine, I moved on to nesting these nonsense into some kind of cohesive whole that would make sense at the end of the novel. I always knew how the novel would end, so I focused on exploring the different threads and weaving them towards some kind of climax.
I also took notes. As new ideas came to me, I wrote them down, kept them in a folder that I reread each time I came back to the novel. As I had forged a successful career as a performance poet, I was unable to write the novel cover to cover.
The performance requires intense focus as you approach the performance date. I would write a number of chapters, put the novel away for months or even over a year, and then resume the novel when I had a good deal of time to devote to it. Whenever possible, I hid in a cabin for weeks.
Thinking back to the process and all the twists and turns in making your novel, is there anything you’re particularly proud of? Or is there something you would do differently next time?
What my friend said about layers: This is what I’m especially proud of. My original concept was that some readers could read the novel as a parable: a strange stranger walks into a city looking for someone, but not knowing who – a complete strangerâ¦ or is he the complete stranger?
Others might read it as a satire in the tradition of Jonathan Swift. The ‘micropolis’ he enters is a contemporary take on Lilliput, full of absurd and colorful characters, and plenty of satirical commentary as my protagonist meets each of the city’s major institutions.
And finally, if you are an English student, poet, or literature lover, you can appreciate the novel for its deft use of language and endless puns. Those were my goals and, at least according to this friend, I managed to be successful. So mission accomplished for me.