To provide a brief biographical sketch of Luke Goebel would be like putting a campfire in a cardboard box. Luke’s debut novel, Fourteen Stories, None of Them Are Yours, plays with novel-as-memoir, the seriousness we attribute to biography, and the self-mythologizing of writers, predominantly white male American writers, from Twain to Hemingway to Kerouac.
The narrator of Fourteen Stories doesn’t quite fit in with earlier American writers scrambling for the pantheon. He is, above all else, earnest. My disposition to the narrator was similar to the Kid’s description of his brother in the following passage from one of the novel’s stories, “Apache”. When we read this novel we see “…a guy who was how he was, hardly a distance from himself and himself, there in front of you, knowing he was every inch, not putting on a show, laughing, owning a pistol he drove with, a giant with a laugh like a holiday.”
I had the chance to meet Luke in Minnesota and hear that laugh in person. The following conversation took place over landlines from our respective bread jobs.
WILL CHANCELLOR: Chronologically, which story in Fourteen Stories came first?
LUKE GOEBEL: Well it started with the ones I threw out. But, of the ones in the book, I think it was “The Minds of Boys,” which was a freer style, which makes sense because I wrote it on the beach in San Francisco. Ocean Beach, is that what it’s called?
WC: Yep. OB. Had some miserable paddleouts there.
LG: There’s also the Ocean Beach in San Diego, which is totally different. I guess there are a lot of Ocean Beaches. I guess I kept going back to that spot in my mind. But I wrote it at UMass Amherst on a typewriter that’s actually right here in my office. It’s a Coronet Super 12. Baby blue electric. And I stole it off Hannah Hudson–
WC: Luke hold off on the typewriter because I want to get back to that.
LG: And the case is right behind me. It’s got a piece of duct tape on it that says, Hudson.
WC: Luke, hold off on this because I want to…
LG: So I stole it off her and I wrote the story, I think I wrote it before I studied with El Capitan Gordo back when I was in the UMass program.
WC: Wait, I don’t know who that is.
LG: Oh. Gordon Lish. The dread pirate Gordon. My sweet friend who people seem to think lots of different things about.
WC: When was this?
LG: I took his class one summer, oh gosh I’m really bad with years. I think it would have been 2009.
WC: So you’re at Amherst…
LG: Yeah I went into the program with a novel, which I finished and then luckily abandoned on the side of a cliff just below the road to a sure death. But it was definitely included in Fourteen Stories. Rather than taking the novel whole hog, you smash it and make a mosaic of the little pieces. Which was great! To be able to let go of your story and then use the little pieces you want. I’m speaking metaphorically, metaphysically, ontologically, numerically.
WC: It’s interesting that “The Minds of Boys” came first because that one struck me as distinct from the central narrative.
LG: That’s definitely an outlier story in the collection. I know why I put it in there and I’m glad I put it in there, but it’s definitely a different style and a different type of story.
WC: Why did it need to be there?
LG: I included it because it’s a disappearing act. And the way you lose somebody and it feels like a trap door opened and they’re suddenly not there anymore. And that one’s obviously about how it feels to lose your only brother, but the narrative there is like a child getting punched in the face…in the book it comes after a good amount of adult reckoning with that loss, but then it hits you again like you just saw a kid get punched in the face…that’s us…kids getting socked open-eyed in the face.
WC: I read it as a biographical allegory with you as Cutlass and your brother as Keiko.
LG: I’d never thought of that. But I do identify a lot with Cutlass. I did cut my hair with a knife while driving in a piece of shit car through the desert in California, so that makes sense. It’s cool you used the word ‘allegory’ because that’s how I describe it when I give a reading or something. I think of the book as one central narrative, but then with these interruptions of stories that work as allegories, which allows us to explore what’s happening in the main narrative through story.
WC: Do you think it influenced you to start with an allegory that foreshadows the loss at the heart of the novel?
LG: Well, you know that’s the thing. It’s all accident with intentions. I didn’t plan to make a novel; I just wrote stories. And when I wrote that story I hadn’t lost my brother. Again, it’s that smashing something into pieces and then putting them together in a way that makes sense both from one’s own life and with the pieces that make the book. I just wrote that story trying to learn how to write. I didn’t really start with allegory. Or it was an allegory then about looking at clouds and not being a kid anymore. If I had to start with which story started the actual narrative, it would be “Insides” which is the first story in the book. That’s the first one I wrote that I thought, This is a decent story, maybe, and it’ll be the first one in the collection.
WC: So these began as stories and then they cohered as a novel? What was that realization like?
LG: It was always a collection of discrete stories–even through its acceptance. It became a ‘linked collection’ when I submitted it to a couple small little presses. I never thought I wouldn’t send it out to major presses. I just sent it to some smaller outfits and got a couple contracts and that was within a week of sending it out. But I forgot that I had submitted it to the Sukenick prize, which is the only place I sent it of any repute or whatever so I was already in a contract when they called me at 8 am and said, “Hey, you won the Sukenick prize!” And I said, “The what?” So then I had to talk to the outfit I was with, Yes Yes Books out of Portland and told them about this deal–and they were great and said, “Take the prize! Take it!” And when it won the prize it was still a collection without the narrative intrusions–the parentheticals and the double parentheticals and the brackets. I signed the contract with FC2 at the University of Alabama and bought that thirty foot RV and took my time on the road just to edit the collection.
WC: Still a collection at this point?
LG: I just thought I was going to clean up a collection. But then I started having these adventures: windstorms and tornadoes above and driving this thirty foot thing with the lights and horn going out and the pistol and just having another adventure. And I didn’t want to let go of the project yet. You know that fear of what’s the next book going to be? I wasn’t ready to look at that and I still felt like man, there’s more that could be done with this thing. Maybe I was just testing the waters of it too quick. Or I just didn’t want to let it go.
WC: So you bought an RV with the intention of a six month edit or so?
LG: No, you know. I’m a sort of professor, or was, or am…except I teach more like I’m free to do what I like…so what is that called now? Fired? Except I’m still working because my students are getting fellowships and published and lots of awards. So it was the summer. I bought this 1988 Bounder, pretty much the identical model to the one in that show Breaking Bad–which I hadn’t seen at that point but everyone quickly informed me of. And I just took to the road. Headed down from East Texas to San Antonio and then started cruising across through Marfa and then west on I-10 to the 8. I was just going to spend one to three months on the road just editing. I probably somewhere in mind knew that I would do more.
WC: Hence the pistol.
LG: Well, that was a gift from my brother. It’s a Colt model sheriff’s gun. Turn of the century. Revolver. The walls of an RV are pretty thin and I knew I was going to be sleeping in neighborhoods throughout the country and I thought, shit, I don’t want somebody coming in.
WC: So you’re in your RV headed west, with a pistol, planning on editing and it seems like the word ‘novel’ is hovering around. When did that word land?
LG: I think the moment that happened was at the Teardrop RV Park. Somewhere in the flats of Arizona. Should I Google it? I’m dating a girl at Google now, so I’m allowed to do it. Google. Can you believe that? After all that shit I talked about San Francisco in the book and how it’s all owned by Google nerds, I’m now dating a Google…nerd. I think it was somewhere near Tucson when I started shooting fireballs from the tailpipe–which is on the side of the RV by the propane unit, and I’m shooting these five foot around fireballs coming down the mountains into Tucson. At some point I stayed at this RV park and I started writing into the story “Tough Beauty.” And, again, I had no idea what I was doing. I’m sitting here fucking crying in an RV park–there I said it–I was thinking–I said fuck I mean–about my bro and realized I just had more to say. Sorry. The answer is: west of Tucson, at an RV park, at night, I started to interrupt the story that existed.
WC: That is amazingly specific, Luke. But the story of this becoming a novel seems like it’s at the heart of Fourteen Stories as a novel. It’s relevant because you go back and forth chronologically in the novel.
LG: Absolutely. There are three time frames: the time frame of the actual story; the time frame of them being reoriented around the loss of the brother; and then there’s the third time frame, which is the most present, of the guy driving around the country in an RV. I mean that’s the journey, sure. And then he’s using all of these pre-existing stories as the material he’s using to sew together the narrative. But the third time frame, when he’s driving around, is the most present time frame. The surprise to me was that it all reads really smoothly, coherently, a miracle of modern narrative plumbing. It’s harder to talk about than to read.
WC: The narrator seems to be reading his own story.
LG: Yeah. Totally.
WC: And as he’s doing that he’s analyzing himself.
LG: And then comes the question, Is this nonfiction, then? In the sense that the most present character is reading his own work as I was reading my own work and reflecting on it as I was traveling throughout the country.
WC: Do you think you invent yourself through your writing?
LG: Yeah. I think everyone is inventing themselves through their writing. The world invents itself through story. It’s all we got. There’s very little fact going on here on planet Earth.
WC: The tradition seems to go back to Emerson’s and Twain’s self-mythologizing: this idea that if you don’t make a grand narrative of yourself you’re not moving things forward. There’s a line in the novel, “…trying to make something out of yourself, trying to figure out how to present yourself as yourself. Making up your myth. Finding a way in.” And, contextually, this is in that third time frame of driving around in the RV.
LG: Yep. This was in Teardrop RV Park. And conceptually I knew the project I was setting myself up for at this point. I knew what I was up to and that was what I wanted to do.
WC: As somebody seemingly obsessed with height, I noticed that you physically grow throughout the book. You start at six foot six then six foot seven, then six foot seven and a half. And, by the last story, you’re six foot nine!
LG: Yep. I hit six nine. But it’s funny because in real life all this writing has actually shrunk me. All this writing has curved my spine. I used to be six five and now I’m about six four. Some of that zimzum. The creation expands as the creator retracts. It’s a process of erasure. Whitman went through that. I started reading about him and his self-narratization and the concept of self in relation to the country. And all the ways his identity changed. I think he erased himself as well. I think the more you express yourself through art, especially if you’re writing about yourself, the more you kill off that part of you and you’re left with this chasm of Oh Shit. Because we do rest on stories. We are our stories. And once you make that so transparent and so apparent to yourself and the world that you’ve made yourself into a story then it becomes like, OK, well I better come up with something else!
WC: Or it allows you to be engaged with your characters. I think bigheartedness is this book’s most salient quality. Do you think lack of self allows you to enter into that space?
LG: Some of that’s just your impulses. I’ve always not known just how real this whole thing is. And as a result I’ve always been running around just trying to give it away. Some people have a real strong sense of reality and identity and kind of protect it, or know that they own it. And then there are people like me who are just a little bit…funny.
WC: When you say “give it away” do you mean give your identity away?
LG: No. Your heart. Your love. Just to go around and let people know how you feel about them. Who the fuck am I and what story am I telling and while I’m telling the story I just want to convey how incredible it is just to be on this fucking planet when it doesn’t seem real or possible. But part of it may have been the peyote.
WC: This book reminds me of Ken Kesey circa Merry Pranksters, and Kerouac–both being writers who stress movement.
LG: Absolutely. Everything is lit up and dancing and moving and what is solid is nothing.
WC: This might go back to the different frames of reading the book. You, when you were editing this, were physically moving a lot. You were on the road. But the scenes that I remember best are all static–after the driving is over.
LG: Well there’s that one little part where he’s driving up the coast thinking of the teacher.
WC: The eagle feather does go out the car window, you’re right.
LG: There are a few parts, but you’re right. Most of it is in static scenes, anchored down into the ground with loss or sex–the two things that anchor you deep.
WC: To me it felt like the narrator was tied to a mast: you were watching these things pass, but not in the same way as a Beat novel.
LG: Where the narrator fully lets go. Yeah. There’s part of my character that’s been torn from the mast, but he’s still trying to cling on to it to stop from drowning. There are two parts to the character: one that’s trying to remember, or ground into something, and the other that’s windswept. That part of sitting in the car and taking the notes is that part that’s trying to anchor, to remember something that can be kept. So I think the writer is always in the two poles of far-flung movement and wanting to put something down so that the movement exists.
WC: There’s holding on to the memory of Carl. Holding on to the memory of Catherine. There’s a lot of holding on.
LG: Well sure, those are home, those are family. Love and familial bonds. The elements of comedy.
WC: Speaking of family, I would say the book is more maternal than paternal. The mom seems to be omnipresent and the father isn’t really in sight. Does that parallel the anchoring? I mean, the book is almost a matriarchy. There’s almost this mother god at the book’s center.
LG: I’m writing through a lot of traditions that can be seen as masculine. And I’m playing with masculinity in the book through performance and speech and the evolution of gender. I was very intentionally playing with those elements. The mother is part of that. Matriarchy is stabilizing, sure. But, then again, these are arbitrary gender notions.
WC: The prose reads more as feminine than masculine, but then again it also seems performative.
LG: You picked it up. It’s performative, but it’s also true. I can’t deny or pretend that I wasn’t formed in the years when I was formed and wasn’t influenced by characters of the American mythos. And it’s funny you mentioned Kesey because I called him on the telephone when I was thirteen years old. I finished One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, again, this is one of those things where my book is this accident and my life is this accident and the question of fate is interesting. It seems like my whole life was predestined. And yeah, I read Cuckoo’s Nest and there’s this little bio in the back that says Ken Kesey lives in Pleasant Hill, Oregon and I said, Shit I live in Oregon now. So I called 411 on the landline and I said, “Ken Kesey please.” So this woman, his wife, Fay, answers the phone and I said, “Is Ken there?” She asked who this was and I said, “You don’t know me, I’m just some kid in Portland who read the book, but was hoping I could talk with him,” and she yelled “Ken! There’s a young man on the phone.” And he answers the phone–and I’ll never forget that voice–“Hellloooooo?” but deep like this owl. And I started this rampage like “I just finished your book and it totally changed me and this book…” and he says, “Which one?” And then I go on and on and then there’s this swollen up nose of a long pause and he’s like, “What did you think?” And I tell him and tell him and then the pause again, and… “Well, what else you got for me, kid?” We’d been talking for fifteen minutes. I tried to invite him to come to lunch in Portland, but he said he didn’t leave the farm.
Obviously that was before I had imbibed or taken part in any of the counterculture productions that came from him. Later on I realized who I had interacted with. Years later I brought his original wife, Mountain Girl, coffee each morning and evening for a week. She and I became friends. Fast forward to when I’m studying with Gordon Lish and who’s his best friend but Ken Kesey. So I hear this and chase Gordon down the street after class, which terrified him. He’s kind of cowering, saying “Oh what do you want?” And we started talking about Ken and that’s how we became friends. After that he would call on me in class and kind of tear me apart and celebrate me or not. It’s all one long bullet shot.
WC: Kesey too, maybe more so in Sometimes A Great Notion than in any of his other books, seems to balance between the ‘feminine’ lyricism that seems to come naturally and this overly performative masculinity.
LG: I was anxious about how people would read the masculine performance in Fourteen Stories. I’ve been pleasantly struck by some comparisons. I got Kathy Acker the other day from a professor–which was great.
WC: I read the narrator’s entire story as anxiety of maternal influence, like she was this great artistic spirit that is impossible to know or surpass.
LG: They’re warring for who gets to be the person. For who gets to be the artist. There was a period of a few years where my mom and I didn’t speak. Some of that comes through. And I guess when I look back I know why people say I’m hard on the mother–and she hasn’t read it yet. There are ways I wish I could apologize and make some gesture to say sorry for giving you so much shit at the end of the book. Hopefully an astute reader will see that there’s love there. And violence.
WC: It’s interesting that the sister only crops up in Hawaii. It’s more a related relationship than something in the present.
LG: Well she’s the queen of hearts. She’s the trump. The narrator doesn’t give a lot away about the dynamics of his family. He’s trying to memorialize his brother and speak, but as far as details you don’t get much. There’s this tripling of identity between the sister and brothers. It’s one myth. One tribe. As a reader, you never really get into this circle.
WC: The same is kind of true with the love of his life, Catherine. There’s this sense of maybe, a gentleman doesn’t tell.
LG: He’s such a jerk. He says at the beginning that he’ll tell you everything about her, but then he decides abruptly that he’s not going to tell you anything more when it gets juicy.
WC: To what extent was this book about a girl?
LG: It begins that way. But life and writing blur. I wrote one story, “Insides,” in a hospital with pancreatitis and I don’t even remember writing it. Maybe I was drugged. The experience I remember is looking at a tree through a window in Western Massachusetts and a certain quality of light. But I wasn’t looking at a tree at all. She was a piece of the book for sure. A building block. Family. But the book is about trying to capture experience through something that’s neither memoir nor fiction. I mean, it’s obviously fiction, but it’s about trying to construct some storyline and, ultimately, identity. And she is family. Gone as she is. Family, disappearing, and the miracle is they are here at all.
Luke B. Goebel is a fiction writer from Portland Oregon. His first novel: Fourteen stories, None of Them Are Yours, was released in September of 2014 by FC2 as the winner of the Ronald Sukenick Prize for Innovative Fiction. He was co-editor for several years with The NEW YORK TYRANT and is the Fiction Editor of THE AMERICAN READER. He has fictions/nonfictions published in/at: Elimae, Green Mountains Review, Unsaid, Gigantic, The American Reader, Ocean State Review, Pank,The New York Tyrant, and elsewhere.
Will Chancellor is the author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall.