Corey Mesler is something of a Renaissance man in the world of literature. He’s a poet, a fiction author, a book reviewer, and the owner (with his wife, Cheryl) of Burke’s Book Store in Cooper-Young.
This Saturday (Leap Day), February 29th, at 3 p.m., Mesler will celebrate the release of his 10th novel, Camel’s Bastard Son (Cabal Books), with a reading and signing at Burke’s. In advance of the event, I caught up with Mesler to talk about separating the parts of his practice, living with the absurd, and his new novel, which he calls “your typical boy-meets-girl, boy-gets-girl, boy-loses-girl, something-goes-horribly-wrong-with-the-time-machine story.”
Memphis Flyer: I’ve primarily thought of you as a poet. Is that wrong?
Corey Mesler: Some people think I’m a poet, some people think I’m a fiction-writer, and some people think I’m neither. [laughs] I’ll take any of ’em.
MF: Do you feel that practicing in other forms make you look at writing differently?
CM: You know, when I’m doing it I’m not conscious really of the fact that I do both. In a finished novel, I hope it sometimes shows that I have some sense of the poetry of the music of the line. But while I’m doing it I’m not conscious of anything except — well, sometimes I’m not conscious of anything. In a novel, I’m working on the big canvas. A novel takes a couple years to write. That’s all I’m focusing on — what are the characters going to do, where are they going?
MF: It seems to me that absurdity is an important element in the book.
CM: [laughs] Yeah, in my writing and in my life. When I was a young man, I read a lot of Kafka and Camus. And you know, Camus’ statement is “The absurd is the first truth.” So I like to think that when I’m being absurd, I’m being truthful. This novel is deceptively silly. One of my early readers compared it to Vonnegut, and I sort of took that and ran with it.
MF: I couldn’t help thinking about — and I don’t want to ruin anything — but the joke at the end, the recurring motif of not understanding. And I feel like you have to be able to live with a certain degree of absurdity just to exist right now.
CM: I think we’re skirting around mentioning the squatter in the White House.
MF: Well, I didn’t want to make you go there if you didn’t want to go there.
CM: I wrote this book when I thought he was a joke. I thought what would be really funny is if I wrote a novel from the perspective that he won. And then I’d already finished it and sent it to a publisher, and then he won.
MF: Oh, my god.
CM: Yeah, which still to me is more science-fiction than my novel is.
MF: It definitely feels like we slipped through the wormhole. But getting back to the book, before we make ourselves upset, I noticed the husband and wife relationship is pretty important.
CM: The first part of the book is basically a love story. … Basically it’s a guy who falls in love with the wrong woman, and she plays all sorts of havoc with his life. And the second half is my idea of a metaphor for that.
CM: I didn’t set out to write a Vonnegutian novel, but he is very important to me. Years ago, I wrote a book called Following Richard Brautigan, and everyone assumed, “Oh, well, he’s telling us who his gods are. Richard Brautigan is one of his favorite writers and that’s what the book’s about.” And it really wasn’t.
It was more the fact that I thought Richard Brautigan as a ghost would be a really funny character. But having said that, I loved Brautigan’s books when I was younger. I have my touchstones. Kafka and Camus and Vonnegut were the first authors I read when I decided that I didn’t really learn about books in high school. And I went to the library and was going to teach myself what good books were. Those were the first three [authors] I checked out.
MF: Has being on the retailer side of the book business ever soured you on the creative aspect of it?
CM: No, they’re pretty much compartmentalized in my brain. I don’t connect the two.
MF: One last question — with time travel and absurdity being components of Camel’s Bastard Son, was it intentional to have your booksigning on February 29th?