Chris McCormick is the author of a collection of stories, Desert Boys, winner of the 2017 Stonewall Book Award. Born in 1987 and raised on the California side of the Mojave Desert, he is a graduate of the University of Michigan MFA program and now lives and teaches in Minnesota. His debut novel is The Gimmicks and he recently agreed to talk about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.
What was your inspiration for The Gimmicks?
I wanted to write about the legacy of the Armenian Genocide in a way that didn’t feel explanatory, didn’t feel like I was trying to prove a point or defend a set of facts. Instead, I wanted to use those facts as a starting point—the genocide happened, its denial happened and continues to—and explore what it means to live with the consequences. So I set the book generations later, and instead of trying to provide any answers, I set out to ask some questions. Primary among them, I think: what’s the difference between the performance of justice and the real thing?
Are Avo, Ruben, Mina or any of the characters inspired by or based on specific individuals?
Not consciously, no, though they have very different ideas about their responsibilities as Armenians, and as a half-Armenian growing up in Southern California, I heard those ideas debated my whole life. Avo and Ruben and Mina do, however, interact with real figures from history, including Hagop Hagopian of ASALA and Monte Melkonian, both of whom I’ve fictionalized.
How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?
When I first began writing The Gimmicks in 2014, I thought the central characters would be a young American couple who escape their small town to train with a professional wrestler in Los Angeles named Avo Gregoryan. It took me almost two years of drafts before realizing Avo was the true center of the book. The young Americans, alas, did not survive the revisions—but I’m still grateful to them for introducing me to Avo.
What drew you to write about the Armenian experience during this particular time?
My answer is two-parted: most simply, my mother grew up in Soviet Armenia at the same time as my characters, so I have a strangely personal and yet distant sense of the place at that time—through her stories, her homeland always felt both vivid and dream-like to me. I hope I’ve made it vivid and dream-like for my readers, too.
Setting the novel in the seventies and eighties also let me explore some of the larger political themes I was thinking about, in both Armenia and the United States. I’m interested in the mythologies nations make for themselves, perpetuate, and try (or fail) to live by. My characters are living in the Soviet Union as it dissolves, as the Cold War is grinding to its finish, and this time of transition seemed to put a lot of pressure on such national myths and those who believed in them. I think the United States is going through a similar pressurizer now, and I think that shows up in my writing, too.
Did writing The Gimmicks require you to research the historically tense relationship between the Armenian and Turkish peoples? If so, what was the most unexpected or interesting thing you discovered in your research.
Like most Armenians, half or full or otherwise, the genocide was an early pillar in my understanding of not only Armenian history but human cruelty and the capacity for injustice. In researching the book, I read thousands of pages by historians from all backgrounds, and the facts are so overwhelmingly clear that to deny them requires either total ignorance or hatred. The sad reality is, to paraphrase the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy, “The truth is not almighty against bastards.” And not just bastards, I’d add: facts are not enough to convince most people. People are busy, and there’s a lot of pain in the world, and it’s hard for us to connect to the tragedies of a hundred years ago. One of the problems I tried to address in the book is how to get past just the facts of the atrocities, and how to deal with the psychological and emotional realities of those who inherit the pain of Turkey’s structural, state-imposed denialism.
As for the most unexpected thing...you know, I’ve spent my whole life angry at denialists. But by the end of writing this book, I kind of grew to understand that denial is really about shame, and the inability of people to fold shameful facts into their stories of themselves. And for that reason, more than anger now, I feel pity.
Do you play backgammon? Have you ever played at competition level?
I used to watch the older men in my family play backgammon for hours at every gathering, and I tried playing a few times, but unlike Ruben and Mina I had no talent for it. In the novel, Ruben and Mina’s teacher says that backgammon is the game most like life because it combines skill and luck—I had to rely totally on the luck!
What’s currently on your nightstand?
This might be too sappy to print, but I usually read a short story to my fiancée every night before bed, so my nightstand is stacked with short story collections by writers I adore: Peter Orner, Charles Baxter, Alice Munro, Bharati Mukherjee, Clark Blaise, Ann Beattie, Amy Hempel, Babel, Chekhov, and Saroyan, of course.
What was your favorite book when you were a child?
I liked reading everything as a kid, but the first book I remember experiencing (as opposed to following along with) was Of Mice and Men, when I was eleven. I cried as though I’d lost my own friend!
Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?
In high school I started hiding all kinds of things from my parents, but I can’t say books were one of them, I’m afraid.
Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?
Chekhov for the range of his curiosity and tone, Louise Erdrich for the insider/outsider relationship in her books, Kazuo Ishiguro for the ways his characters connect to one another, Toni Morrison for her language and her sense of the illusory nature of time, Philip Roth for his freedom and life on the page.
What is a book you've faked reading?
Bleak House by Dickens. That homestead sure was glum, no?
Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?
Mathias Énard’s Tell Them of Battles, Kings, and Elephants—the cover is stunning, like a collaboration between Franz Kline and Turner.
Is there a book that changed your life?
There are books that changed my life in that I wanted to write books of my own after reading them: Erdrich’s Love Medicine; Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses, to name a couple. And there are books that have opened me up to questions I hadn’t considered before or challenged my thinking about things, by writers like James Baldwin and Bertrand Russell.
Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?
I’m torn between the collected stories of Chekhov and the collected stories of Alice Munro, two writers who believe there’s no such thing as an ordinary person.
Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?
I love re-reading books so much that I would hate to give up that possibility in favor of reading a book, again, for the first time. But I taught Beloved recently and felt genuinely excited for the students who were encountering that masterpiece for the first time.
What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?
I’m easy. Conversations with friends over drinks at night, and even better if we’ve all read or written or seen something interesting earlier in the day.
What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?
I can’t think of a specific question, but I wish people would ask me about writing about race. That question rarely gets put to white writers, and I think I’m writing about race, particularly about whiteness in America, in all of my work.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing up my first short story in more than five years, and in the very (very!) early stages of what I hope will be another novel.