An Interview with Steve Erickson
February 14, 2018
by Bruce Bauman
In his ten novels and two nonfiction books since the debut of Days Between Stations in 1985, Steve Erickson has created a world unlike that of any author working today. When people ask me to describe Erickson’s work—as they often do, knowing I was senior editor for thirteen years on the national literary journal Black Clock, of which Erickson was co-founder and editor-in-chief—I quote the Lovin’ Spoonful: “It’s like tryin’ to tell a stranger about rock ’n roll.” Erickson is a literary magician. His work is a unique North American magical realism: Faulkner meets García Márquez meets the Dylan of Highway 61 Revisited. In the last thirty years he has imagined a reality both completely recognizable and what only can be called “Ericksonian.” Writers from Jonathan Lethem to Rick Moody to Mark Z. Danielewski have credited his influence. While working with him on Black Clock, I saw the respect and admiration he received from David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, Joanna Scott, Susan Straight, Samuel Delany, T. C. Boyle, Aimee Bender, Greil Marcus, Janet Fitch, Geoff Nicholson, and Don DeLillo. Erickson has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award, and an American Academy of Arts and Letters Award in Literature. Recently Steve and I talked over Mexican food and via email about literature, politics, being and becoming a writer in these times, and his new mindblower, Shadowbahn [out in paperback February 2018].
Years ago your novel Arc d’X  included a section about “Steve Erickson, an obscure novelist who died . . .” to which a couple of your other novels have since made reference. Also, the character Banning Jainlight from Tours of the Black Clock  makes frequent cameos in other novels. This adds to my feeling that all your books are one long novel.
People have mentioned this over the years. It isn’t part of any epic intent other than that sometimes one book bleeds into another. A couple of decades back I realized that each novel tends to pick up on something that doesn’t get fully resolved in the previous one. Shadowbahn is a bit unique in that it wasn’t born that way, though it has characters from the earlier book [These Dreams of You, 2012]. I just had this brainstorm of the Twin Towers appearing out of nowhere in the Dakota Badlands twenty years after their fall, and in the south tower is trapped Elvis Presley’s stillborn twin while the north tower, where Elvis should be, stands empty. If all the books are a single thing, it’s circular—you can enter the orbiting system at any point, and the whole suddenly becomes something else. I’ll let readers decide what it adds up to.
Where do think that image of the Towers came from?
Whatever kind of flashback someone who’s never taken acid has [laughs].
Consider yourself lucky. This was after These Dreams was published?
Did you start writing right away?
Being a novelist, you know that an idea is one thing and a novel is another. For years I had this idea of a secret movie hidden by God, frame by frame, in all the movies ever made—but I couldn’t write Zeroville  until I had picked the lock of the story’s main character, which took years. Similarly, Shadowbahn still needed a couple of tourist guides to get us cross-country while the rest of the story unfolded, and they turned out to be These Dreams’s siblings twelve years older. I pondered for a year or so before beginning work the first week of 2014.
You know I’m a big fan of, and have been influenced by, D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature and Leslie Fiedler, who expanded on the theory of the American novel as a road novel. Shadowbahn is most definitely a road novel. Did you think of it in that classic tradition?
Is Moby Dick a road novel?
You get seasick instead of carsick.
I guess all American wanderers are in search of their white whales. Someone—it may have been Sarah Vowell in the Believer—once called my novels “restless” because, for better or worse, they cover a lot of ground. Whether that’s just the nature of my storytelling or because I have a kind of narrative ADD, I don’t know. Obviously this new book adheres most classically, to use your term, to the road-novel trope, with Parker and Zema driving from Los Angeles to the Great Lakes to see their mother. Coincidentally, in the last few months I went back to the Lawrence, which I last read forty years ago, and was reminded how great he is, particularly on Poe and Melville. I’m not sure he’ll ever convince me about James Fenimore Cooper
Fiedler tried to convince me about Cooper too, and I didn’t buy it.
What do those guys know? [Laughter.]
Other books of yours are time-travel/spec-fiction road novels, as opposed to classic time-travel sci-fi.
If we’re going to psychoanalyze this—which, as you fully realize, is a dangerous thing to do—most immediately striking is the untethered nature of the stories. The sense of things coming apart. Others should draw their own conclusions on what this says about me.
Can you talk about going back and forth in time in your books?
I grew up in a Los Angeles where time was a ball of tangled yarn rather than something stretched end to end. Out in the valley hinterlands that later became the porn capital of the world, you had old Western frontier sets under a sky streaked by purple jet trails from rocket tests in the Santa Susana mountains—past, present, and future jammed into a single moment. My childhood landscapes routinely changed not in years or months but in weeks or days. So even relatively stationary novels with geographical or temporal centers like Amnesiascope  and Our Ecstatic Days  are interrupted by detours. There’s the sense of a center that grows more entropic than gravitational.
Read the rest of the interview in SLICE: Issue 20.
Bruce Bauman is the author of the novels And The Word Was and Broken Sleep. His website is brucebauman.net.