So Many Forks: An Interview with Jack Pendarvis

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For our interview, Jack said we should get big steaks. I was pumped. I love big steaks! Even better, he told me to invite novelist and crack music writer William Boyle along. I couldn’t believe my luck. Now I was getting big steaks with two of my favorite authors in the world. This was going to be the best interview ever.

Except that I got the times wrong. When I showed up, Jack had been drinking by himself at the restaurant for a whole hour. I felt like a real jerk, but Jack assured me it was okay. And he pointed out that William wasn’t there yet either, so I didn’t have anything to worry about. Still, that’s pretty bad form for an interview.

Jack wore a snappy blazer, and I felt way underdressed, like I always do. I needed to reestablish my cool, so when Jack ordered a “Beefeater martini, up!” I said I would have the same, like a martini was what I always drank and not Bud Light. But then I ruined it by announcing, “I’ve never had a martini before!” I really hoped I could get my act together by the end of the interview.

Because I was really nervous. I mean, I’m always nervous about doing interviews, but Jack Pendarvis was a special case. For starters, Jack is one of my heroes. I’ve read his story collections The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure and Your Body Is Changing a dozen times each, and I taught sections of his novel AWESOME to my creative writing classes. His blog is a workday ritual for me, and recently he became a staff writer on Adventure Time, one of the best shows on television. He has written for Vice and The Believer, he plays the accordion, and he knows more movies than anyone I ever met. I kind of think Jack Pendarvis can do anything.

Pretty soon William showed up, we ordered big steaks, and I set the tape rolling.

Jack Pendarvis. Photo by David Swider - End of All Music

Jack Pendarvis. Photo by David Swider – End of All Music

JIMMY: You’ve mentioned that your time spent in Atlanta was a pretty formative period of your life. Can you tell me a little about it?

JACK: I often get nostalgic for Atlanta, but I think I’m really getting nostalgic for Atlanta in a specific time, which was the early ‘90s, when the music was really exciting there. The reason I moved to Atlanta was that I loved hanging out with my friends Kelly Hogan and Bill Taft. I kind of moved there because I loved those people so much. I had this friend named Caroline Young—she’s a poet now—at the time she was working for Turner. She got me a job at Turner. Caroline had a big influence on my life. She introduced me to my wife Theresa, for example. Caroline’s boyfriend at the time was Brian Halloran, who played cello in Smoke and Opal Foxx Quartet. So my whole life really, everything that ever happened to me of any importance, was bound up with those musicians and that particular time in Atlanta.

JIMMY: I love to hear you talk about those times. It must have been wonderful to have something like that.

JACK: Well you have it right now. You’re living it. You’re twenty-eight. So twenty years from now you’ll be saying the same things I’m saying now about what is happening to you right now. How right now is this golden wonderful time where everything that means anything to you came together. Sorry to break it to you.

JIMMY: Good. Because then everybody will be legendary. When you talk about all your friends they sound so legendary and cool.

JACK: In my mind all my friends from that time are like great giants. What they did. I looked at them. I watched how they lived and what they did and thought, “Oh there’s a different way to live. I want to try this way. It looks good.” I never quite did it. But I liked watching other people live the dream.

JIMMY: What’s the dream?

JACK: I don’t know. You know Kelly Hogan is still touring. She’s kind of doing more or less what she did back then. That’s the dream I guess. But if you ask Kelly, I’m sure she’d say it’s work, it’s a job.

JIMMY: The dream is work?

JACK: Well, yeah. Oh look I have so many forks! Put that in the article. Yeah, Kelly sang at Theresa’s and my wedding reception, and Brian played cello as we marched up the aisle. Bill Taft read a selection from Cole Porter during our ceremony. We told him he could read whatever he wanted and he read, “I get no kick from cocaine!” Everybody loved it and it was a lot of fun. So yeah our relationship was all bound up in that music scene of that time.

JIMMY: How did you get into TV writing?

JACK: Well, Caroline Young, who I mentioned earlier, she was at that time—in the early 90s—Kelly Hogan’s next-door neighbor. I was out shooting pool with Kelly at a place called Dottie’s. Caroline Young said “Don’t you write?” I said, “I guess so.” I was working at a coffee shop at the time. I was thirty and my boss was nineteen. So I wrote a little sample and TBS hired me.

JIMMY: What kind of stuff did you write for them?

JACK: Little things like, “Coming up next on TBS, a giant bird terrorizes a neighborhood. The Giant Claw, coming up next on TBS!”

JIMMY: What happened from there?

JACK: There is a connection to Adventure Time from there. I met Kent Osborne who is the head writer for Adventure Time way back before he was doing anything like that. At this time I think his main goal was still to be an actor (you’d have to ask him). He’d been in the movie School Ties. He had a small part. He said something like, “Stabbed him in the back!” That’s one of his lines. We had hired his brother Mark, who is a director, to direct something for us at TBS. We flew out to Los Angeles and we just loved Kent and wanted to think of things we could do with him. Because he was really funny, and such a nice guy. So many, many, many years later Kent was the one who thought of me when an opening happened at Adventure Time.

JIMMY: I guess that’s kind of payoff for being a good dude.

JACK: It’s not payoff, really, because neither one of us was thinking that way. We just liked to talk to each other and write things together, so it was nice.

JIMMY: Tell me about your first television show.

JACK: Adventure Time is my first television show. Unless you want to count this kids’ show I did on TNT, The Rudy and GoGo World Famous Cartoon Show. We were walking a thin line. That’s I think what we would call “packaging” in the television industry, more than a show. But we put a lot of work into it. It was just my friend Barry Mills. He’s this awesome guy from Pine Mountain, Georgia, and he wanted me to help him out with his thing he was doing and I did.

It was a very low-budget operation with not very many people working on it. It was back in the day when you would work all night to finish something and the sun would be coming up, and we would run to the network and hand them a tape and they would stick a tape in a machine. It’s hard for you guys to imagine. It almost seems primitive now. They would stick a tape in a machine and it would go out all over the country. As a result, it aired before anybody saw it, usually, except us. So we got away with all kinds of fun things.

We would get hate mail from parents. “Why is there so much screaming on this show?” We would get really nice letters from four year olds, five year olds, and then like stoned freshmen from NYU. It was fun. I saved some of those letters. They were nice.

I remember one really obscene letter that I won’t quote. It was probably some twelve-year-old kid trying to say dirty words. It was an email. I can’t even begin to describe it except that his knowledge of anatomy was seriously flawed. Something like, “Why don’t you blow your mother!” for example. I’m not even doing it justice, but that was one suggestion he had for us. Really just an obscene tirade.

JIMMY: What did you do to cause that?

JACK: You know, have an email address.

JIMMY: Where did [the character you voiced] Boney Bonerton come into play?

JACK: We had this great guy named Tom Haney who made all the marionettes that we used on the show, and he just had a skeleton marionette that was manipulated by keys like piano keys. They were on the front of the device and you would push the keys and an arm or a leg would move. So we played with that and shot it. The great thing about that show was we had to shoot just a limited amount of footage. For instance we had a live goat who was a character on the show, but you can shoot a live goat for a couple of hours and then that goat has done everything that goat is ever going to do. So we could reuse that footage endlessly. Same thing with marionettes. They’re only going to do a certain number of things.

Jack Pendarvis. Photo by Jeoff Davis – Creative Loafing

Jack Pendarvis. Photo by Jeoff Davis – Creative Loafing

We didn’t try very hard to match up the voice with the marionettes. There was a lot of improvisation going on. We’d say happy birthday to our favorite celebrities if it was their birthday. Like we’d say, ‘Happy birthday Al Green!’ and our friend Gus yelled, ‘Grits!’ He was a character named Jesse B. who was a marionette. But we couldn’t leave that in the show, because you know what grits means to Al Green. His girlfriend threw boiling hot grits on him and scalded him. That’s not funny, you can’t have that on a kids’ show. Although we did leave this in when it was Demi Moore’s birthday. Gus said, “Disclosure!” We left that in as a celebration of Demi Moore.

WILLIAM: How long did the show run?

JACK: Two years. And then one day, we got called in by the president of TNT. He said, “Show me what you’re doing.” And we showed him what we were doing and he said, “Haha, that’s not going on my network.” And he fired us, on the spot.

JIMMY: Was he a new president?

JACK: No, he’d been around forever. He’d just never seen the show. It was really under the radar. I mean it came on at like two o’clock in the afternoon. Nobody even knew it was on the air hardly.

JIMMY: When did you begin to pursue fiction writing?

JACK: I always wanted to be a writer.

JIMMY: Why’d you want to be a writer?

JACK: Well, it’s easy. You can do it by yourself. I liked reading books. I saw this TV show called My World and Welcome to It. It was based on the writings of James Thurber. I thought it was kind of neat, a sitcom kind of based on Thurber. So I got interested in James Thurber, and I began being interested in things like The New Yorker. Writing seemed like a cool thing to do. You didn’t have to pay for any equipment. In those days, I remember sending things off hand-written. I got rejected. I don’t know how unusual that was. But I would neatly print a story. This is a long time ago. I would carve it in rock with a chisel! But in college I would handwrite papers and nobody cared. Oh what wonderful times.

I failed for years and years and years at getting anything published. I followed too many rules. Like I would send a story to The New Yorker and I would wait nine months for The New Yorker to reject it before I would send it anywhere else. Because you weren’t supposed to do simultaneous submissions. When I stopped worrying about the rules, I started getting things published. I got so mad that I started purposefully using lots of adverbs, doing whatever people had told me not to do. That’s just superstitious-sounding, but I broke a spell by doing that. You get too caught up in the supposed rules of what you’re supposed to do.

JIMMY: Who was telling you all of these rules?

JACK: The little man who lives in my mouth. That’s a Shining reference! I don’t know, dumb magazines, things like that. Dumb how-to articles. You ever look at a how-to article and look at what else that person has written and it’s always like, “Stories of My Favorite Horses” or whatever.

JIMMY: It’s like those How To Become a Millionaire books that have sold millions of copies. There aren’t millions of millionaires, so it must not work. Or else everyone is just doing it wrong.

JACK: But those are the kinds of characters I’m attracted to. The characters who want to do something spectacular. Because, I don’t know, why not? I wrote a whole book that I whittled down to a short story called “Your Cat Can Be A Movie Star.” It’s about a man who wants to turn his cat into a movie star. My reviews would often say that I write about “losers” and I was bewildered and baffled at first, because I thought, “Which ones were the losers?” I thought they were all peppy. They wanted to do something. I guess they were all losers. I prefer to call them “strivers.”

Here’s the thing. If you’re in a class and everybody in the class hates your short story, the best revenge is to publish it in a book or something. And then the conversation’s over except for some critic somewhere. But critics only seem to review ten books over and over anyway, so that’s not a problem either.

Look, I understand about discipline and all that crap. I mostly had a very positive experience in the workshops I taught. I quit teaching, but when I did, I had a lot of positive experiences in workshops. I had one awesome undergraduate workshop—Chelsea Hogue was in that one, Steven Stringer, Maggie White, a couple of other kids—they could have been in a graduate class. I’m not sure Maggie White was in that same class, actually, but she should have been. And Donna Tartt went to Ole Miss, right, when she was an undergrad? Everybody read her stuff and they were like, “Get out of here!” I mean, Barry Hannah and whoever told her, “You’re really good!”

But part of your job I guess—I don’t know what your job is when you’re a teacher, that’s part of the reason I quit—but part of your job is to say to Donna Tartt if she’s your undergraduate student, “Hey, you’re really good. You should go somewhere else and do something.” Recognizing that someone is doing good work and giving them some encouragement. This is so wrong, this is so wrong. Don’t listen to what I’m saying, America! Because I know teachers have to tell you what’s good and what’s bad, but I just don’t feel that qualified to do that.

WILLIAM: Do you think it’s wrong to encourage people who are just not good?

JACK: I don’t really see the harm in encouraging someone who is not good. So what? Some of the best things I’ve ever read were not good.

JIMMY: It’s also weird because a show like Adventure Time follows almost none of the rules.

JACK: I’d have to disagree. Adventure Time is so formal. You wouldn’t know from just sitting back and watching it, but there’s a severe almost classical formality to the way it’s put together, especially in the early stages. When we do an outline, it’s almost like I have to write a sonnet every week. It’s that rigid of a format. Within that format, just like a sonnet, you can do a million different things. But you really do have to pay attention to the form. I’ve learned a lot about structure and form from working on Adventure Time more than I’ve learned from any other experience. It seems like it breaks rules, but it has its own set of rules that it really adheres to.

JIMMY: What’s the basic structure?

JACK: The basic structure of the outline is a three act structure in which the second act is roughly twice as long as the first act and the third act. Then once you hand that off to the storyboard artist, they can go wild and really bring it to life. My part is really getting that initial outline down on paper. It’s fun, and challenging.

It’s kind of like being in a workshop. I’m in a writer’s room with three other guys, usually, sometimes two, sometimes three. It’s kind of like a writing workshop in which Adam Muto—I’m not sure what his actual title is, supervising supervisor or something—anyway, he’s almost like the teacher in the workshop because he’s got the whole big picture in his head. Even if Pen has an idea that Adam finds objectionable, he doesn’t hesitate to say so. They’re old friends.

It’s kind of like me and Tom Franklin. I’ve known Tom Franklin forever. And I get that feeling from Adam and Pen, that they’ve known each other so long they really understand each other and they can be completely open about differences of opinion about a piece of work. It’s really healthy. It’s a good, healthy environment for a writer. You can learn a lot by just sitting in on that. That should be a class. I mean I feel like I’m in a class the three days a week that I do this.

One exciting thing was we did an episode called “We Fixed A Truck.” It was called “Everybody Fixes A Car,” but my dad has worked on cars and trucks and engines forever. I mean forever. Pen sent me a picture of a car engine and said, “Ask your dad what’s wrong with this car engine.” I sent it to my mom because my dad won’t go near a computer. But my dad looked at the picture and said, “That’s not a car engine. That’s a truck engine.” And right away he had already changed the show from “We Fixed A Car” to “We Fixed A Truck.” He just told me a bunch of stuff about the engine and almost all of it ended up in the episode. I was so excited when it aired. Plus it aired on his birthday, just by coincidence.

And it really shows how on the show everybody, whether it’s the storyboard artist or the people in the writers’ room or whoever, people bring a lot of their own lives into the show, which is one reason I think why people seem to respond to it. I think it’s got really honest emotions in it.

JIMMY: I’ve talked to a lot of writers who treat their characters simply as words on a page with which they can manipulate an audience. Is that how it is for you?

JACK: Well, in one way they are, sure. But, in another way, when you’re going into a show like Adventure Time, there are certain ways that I can’t make Finn act because Finn wouldn’t act that way. They do become more than whatever that initial impulse was. They take on a life. There are certain things you can’t violate about the characters. This phrase comes up a lot in meetings: “Finn wouldn’t do that,” or “Jake wouldn’t do that.” That means that the characters are something bigger. We can’t make them do whatever we want. Maybe Pen could make them do whatever he wanted at the beginning, but now they’ve really evolved to a point at which…I can’t finish this sentence. It’s too complicated. But you know what I mean.

JIMMY: What do you like to read?

JACK: I love reading! I read everything! One thing I really like to read is stuff written in the seventeenth century where it’s got a lot of extra Es like owl is spelled “owle.” I don’t like it when the spelling has been “corrected” or the punctuation has been “corrected.” I like to jump in there and swim around in all those extra Es. It really makes you kind of fight with the words one on one, and I love it. It’s a great feeling. There’s a lot books like that at the library on campus. You can find plenty of books where they haven’t fiddled with the old spelling. You really have to sit down and grapple with every sentence.

But I have big gaps in my reading too. Like I never read On The Road until I was forty-five. Everybody told me, “You can’t read On The Road now. You should have read it when you were twenty.” But I find that to be bull. I really enjoyed reading it. You know, to me it was very boyish. Chris Offutt and I were talking today about how it’s like Treasure Island, like a boys’ adventure story. Chris told me that he started wearing V-neck t-shirts because of that book, because Dean Moriarty wore one or something. Mine is the fate of the autodidact. You’re going to have these huge potholes in your reading.

JIMMY: Is the writing world very competitive?

JACK: I’ve never found that to be the case. I think writers are basically supportive of each other. Tom Franklin has been my biggest supporter ever in the world. All the writers in town are great. Poets though. Those are the ones you have to watch out for. Just kidding. I like all the poets I’ve ever met too. Writers help each other out, I find. Any job I’ve ever gotten is because some writer helped me out. Of course, I might not find them very cutthroat because I don’t try that hard.

Here’s a question. What in the world do writers have to cut their throats over? Nothing. It’s like two Beckett characters arguing over a piece of dirt. That’s what two writers cutting each other’s throats would be like. There’s nothing to cut your throat over.   Is it more important to be a writer or a good person? Of course it’s more important to be a good person. It’s not even a question.

JIMMY: Any closing thoughts?

JACK: Well, I taught Blake Butler in an adult education course once. I was living in Atlanta, and there was some guy who had a weird name, like Hamburger Fish. That wasn’t his name but it was something really close to Hamburger Fish. Anyway, somebody called me on the phone and said, “Hey, Hamburger Fish can’t teach this class. Can you teach this class?” And I’d never taught anything. I was like, “Sure!” because they said it paid six hundred dollars.

So I went to teach the class, and I’d never taught anything, never published anything. So I have this class that is basically ten old women and Blake Butler. And he’s bringing stuff in that says, “The somnambulant figure slouched mellifluously in the receptacle of seating,” or something like that. And I’m like, “Do you mean the guy sat in the chair?” I just didn’t get what he was doing. It’s on me. I do now, I think he’s great. I just didn’t get what he was doing at the time at all. And here I am, just a guy that literally wandered into the classroom because Hamburger Fish was not available.

I couldn’t use the Xerox machine. This is how pretentious I was. I was like, “I’ll Xerox the story ‘The Dead’ by James Joyce!” I gave it out and all the pages were out of order. It was just chaos. You know, an old woman saying, “I want to write about my old family recipes!” It was crazy.

Oh, but I learned an important thing about writing. Because there was this girl—and I put this in one of my short stories—there was this girl who said, “I’m writing a Christian romance novel.” Inside my head I was like, “Oh fuck.” She was a woman who was overweight, and her novel was about a three-hundred-pound Christian woman who would sit on and crush her romantic rivals, who were little skinny women. She would sit on them and crush them. It was the best thing in the class. Every week I was like, “I can’t wait to see what happens next in this Christian romance novel.” Because she would sit on and crush her skinny rival and then go home and be like, “Oh Lord, I’m sorry, what have I done?” It was really awesome. It was the best thing in the class by far. And I’m including Blake Butler. As good as he was, this Christian romance novel was better.

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