Truth in the Surreal: An Interview with Eric Lundgren
Words By Eric Lundgren, Interviewed by D.M. Hedlund
Branding is an essential part of the literary industry. Any published author knows the importance of marketing a novel as a specific genre, forced to pigeonhole plotlines into predetermined categories. Unfortunately, this results in bookstores filled with “cookie cutter” books. The practiced reader can infer the next plot twist or, at the very least, the general direction of the work. Rarely do we find novels that surprise us, when, halfway through, we can’t even determine what genre we are reading.
Facades, by Eric Lundgren, is just that rare enigma of a novel.
The book takes place in Trude, a city constructed by the radical—and quite possibly mad—architect, Klaus Bernard. Now long dead, the architect’s mind-bending landmarks have become the strange setting for a war between art and politics. The Mayor condemns the public libraries, the literati takes up arms to defend their precious volumes, the intellectual elders take refuge in an elitist retirement home, where one can only pay for room and board by producing harrowing memoirs, the darker the better.
In the midst of this bizarre landscape, the most common event unfolds: a man loses his wife, he mourns quietly, he fails to help his son do the same.
That father is Sven Norberg, who spends his nights driving the convoluted streets of Trude. He’s looking for his wife, the famous opera singer, Molly Norberg. Months before, she popped across the street for an egg to sooth her throat, never to be seen again. Norberg is convinced she’d been taken, possibly by the overenthusiastic fan who leaves paintings on their doorstep: artwork spotlighting his wife beside a strange, faceless man in gray, always watching from the corner.
Obsessed with finding this “gray man,” Norberg turns to the detectives assigned to his wife’s case. They encourage his conspiracy theories, thrusting him into the mysterious underground of Trude. Guided by Bernard’s bizarre buildings, Norberg finds himself battling gun-toting librarians, art critics who embed clues in their columns, and a religious super church, strangely interested in “adopting” Norberg’s teenage son.
As these two elements—the surreal landscape and the familiar tragedy—slowly intertwine, the reader is carried into unexpected territory. Just like the city of Trude, Facades creates a landscape of surprising twists and turns. The reader is never quite sure where the path will lead them, if the street will suddenly open up to a fantastical marvel or the most human of conclusions.
By balancing these contradicting motifs, Facades disarms the reader, courageously telling the story of a man’s heartbreak, of how destructive our flaws can become, and how our intentions, no matter how noble, can destroy the things we love most.
Lundgren on Facades
As I sat down to interview Lundgren, I first inquired about the landscape of the novel, the strange city of Trude. “In 2004, I came to Saint Louis to study at Washington University,” Lundgren explained, “and at the same time, I was reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities” Describing how this reading influenced his trip, Lundgren told me that he knew almost nothing about Saint Lois before he arrived, and what he did know was mostly negative—all the crime and urban decay. However, he ended up finding the landscape fascinating. “That, together with reading Calvino, really got me thinking about this idea of invisibility and seeing the potential for transforming a certain kind of drag American city into something that’s compelling and a place a reader would love to visit.”
With the inspiration for Trude already brewing in his mind, Lundgren unearthed old subplots that had been bouncing around in his brain for some time. “For years, I’d been interested in writing a conflict with a father and son about religion, but reversing the way that is usually done, with the son becoming devout and alienating his more secular father.” Thus the struggle between Norberg and his son came to life, but Lundgren still needed the catalyst.
That’s when the noir detective plotline surfaced. “That was the last thing that came together,” Lundgren confessed, noting the strangeness of this primary plot element coming to him so late in the construction of the novel. One of the reasons for that is Lundgren has never been fond of traditional mystery plots. “I don’t like the part of the mystery story where you get tangled up in the elements, the sort of forensics and that sort of stuff. I read those books for the atmosphere, that sort of the weirdness.”
Thus Lundgren let the landscape and the internal character development evolve to almost overshadow the mystery of Norberg’s missing wife, contributing to Facades ability to keep the reader guessing. “A lot of that I credit to Kathryn Davis,” he said, “who I worked at Washington University. Her book, Duplex, came out around the same time my book came out. It was a good convergence because she was the one who emboldened me to go out there into that other worldly landscape.”
Both Davis and Lundgren were passionate about stories that made it difficult for the reader to ascertain what was going on. “We love those novels, where you can’t quite come down on an interpretation or certainty in terms of what’s real, what’s the correct reading.”
By allowing the surreal and real elements to intertwine, Lundgren sought to write a book that would always leave the reader guessing. “For me, I asked myself: is there a book out there that I want to read, that hasn’t been written yet.” When he considered the plot of Facades, he realized there was. However, that sort of book turned out to be an extremely difficult project—consisting of almost a decade of writing, rewriting, and marketing—but Lundgren is proud of what he produced: “As much as it has first novel flaws to it, I can look back and think that I left it all on the field. I shot high and was ambitious.”
Lundgren on Writing and Publishing
Lundgren started work on Facades during his MFA studies in 2005. Because he’d never written a large project like this before, he wasn’t quite sure how to progress. Although he’d only written about seventy pages, he brought in half of the novel to his writing workshop. He was hesitant to do so at first: “I was really worried that if I was openly criticized in workshop, that it would kill my momentum, that I wouldn’t be able to finish it.” However, much to his surprise, everyone had a very positive reaction to his work. “They were all very encouraging and that really helped me when I went out on my own.”
Lundgren was still working on the novel when he left the MFA program, and after four more years, in 2009, he finally had a workable draft. At that point, he began looking for representation. When I asked him how he found his first agent, he explained that he had a good friend who helped him along the way: “Teddy Wayne, who’s published a few novels himself, was kind enough to introduce me to his agent, Rosalie Siegel.” She ended up loving the novel and began submitting it to publishing houses. “We got real close, lots of editors liked it, but because of the issue of tying it all up into a marketable package, we ended up not finding a place for it.” Lundgrend paused, shaking his head. “Then Rosalie ended up retiring. I might have driven her into retirement,” he added with a laugh.
After that roadblock, Lundgren resigned himself to the fact that Facades would likely end up in a drawer for the rest of his life. However, unbeknownst to him, his friend Teddy Wayne never gave up. “Teddy had shown it to an editor friend of his, Liese Mayer, at Overlook. I didn’t even know she was reading it.” Lundgren had all but put his first novel out of his mind—moving onto another project all together—when he got a call out of the blue, saying that Overlook was interested in picking Facades up for publication. “It was crazy,” he confessed, “the whole publication process has always been like an extension of the book. Just as surreal.”
Lundgren’s Advice for New Writers
Before our interview came to a close, I asked Lundgren if he had any advice for new writers who were trying to get published. Immediately, he started talking about his MFA program. “Getting involved with Washington University was a big thing for me. I grew a lot as a writer, and I was really encouraged to go out on a limb and take risks.” Even more important was the connections he made during his time there. “That little handful of people was really helpful when I started out on my own.”
For those writers out there who didn’t study for an MFA, Lundgren had other suggestions on how to make these essential connections: “Be a good literary citizen,” he declared. “I’m not living in a center of publishing. I’m kinda away for the Brookline scene, so I try to go to as many readings as I can when authors come into town.” From his own book signing tour, Lundgren knows that some nights, only a handful of people show up. “If you go to talk to the writers afterwards, they might be really appreciative.”
Excerpt from Facades
I used to drive downtown every night, looking for my wife. The rush hour traffic was across the median and I traveled the westbound lane of I-99 without delay or impediment, sure I was going the wrong way. The city assembled itself, scattered lights in the old skyscrapers meandering the night sky like notes on a staff. What could I have hoped to find there? People didn’t just disappear, I thought at the time. They left fingerprints, notes, receipts, echoes. If Molly had walked from her opera rehearsal to the corner deli and had not materialized there or returned, she must have left a residue behind. I expressed this view to the authorities after filing the missing person report at Trude’s tenth precinct station. “It’s not always a Hansel and Gretel type situation, you know,” said the detective, a fellow named McCready who was apparently on the late shift alone, surrounded by dim idling computers. Crew-cutted and monobrowed, he looking like a man who repaired machinery with his bare hands. He listened to my story and took notes in his pocket pad, a mere scribe. On his desk, instead of a family picture, was a grainy photograph of Wittgenstein. The matte frame was inscribed with a misquotation: THE CASE IS EVERYTHING THAT IS THE WORLD. McCready promised to call if anything turned up, but I was in no mood to wait. I set out on my own through the streets, my pockets jammed with plastic evidence bags. I was a student of sidewalks. Tracing Molly’s possible steps in widening circles, I returned each night to the Opera House empty-handed, the watchman nodding me in.
This night watchman had been the last to see Molly and became the de facto authority on her disappearance, even though he was “not that perceptive,” as he admitted later in interviews. He seemed hardly to notice me as I went in and out. His good eye browsed in my direction, then slumped back into the couch of his cheek.
She was projected outward from my mind, a wavering image across the city. I began the nights as a stalker, then faded to a stumbled, a somnambulist. I rounded every corner with the conviction that she was near, but what I found in those deceptive and winding streets was only a series of dispersed apparitions. The curve of her spine in the shadow of a lightpost. The pattern of her freckles in a smattering of plaster dust. In the winking of a broken tragic signal, the green of her eyes…