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Bad Writing Done Good

Jack Pendarvis finds the tension between irony and sincerity

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A security guard and an EMT talk past each other over a DJ buried alive for a stunt. An unemployed man spies on sinister squirrels from a telescope in his attic. An aspiring comic book writer sends in a treatment of "Sex Devil," the story of a loser endowed with superhuman, um, endowments. And a very, very bad writer sets out to write the history of America, or at least of South Preston. Losers and loners populate the pages of Atlantan Jack Pendarvis' The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure, a collection of short stories and a novella.

How long have you lived in Atlanta? And what brought you here?

Twelve years ... [I came from] Bayou La Batre, Ala. ... I was [visiting] in Atlanta, shooting pool at Dottie's, and I happened to notice someone there who worked at Turner, and I just asked casually if they had any writing jobs open. She said yes. ... I started writing promos for Turner. I quit Turner in 1999.

You're associated with the McSweeney's stable, which seems to have ushered in a new era of high irony and absurdism. Where did this come from and what impact do you see it having on fiction?

I don't really think of the book as ironic. I know what you mean about some of the McSweeney's stuff, but they've been very good to me. ... In the case of my book, I really don't think of the characters as ironic at all. I sort of have affection for them, and what I like about them is that disconnect between the nonironic deepness of their feelings and their sort of comic inability to express them at all. And I guess if there's some irony, it comes from that disconnect between what the characters want to express and their just complete inarticulateness.

[McSweeney's is] going to bring out a DVD quarterly now. They sent me a Turkish sitcom -- which is a Turkish remake of "The Jeffersons" -- and got to me to write subtitles for it.

Maybe "irony" is the wrong word, but certainly McSweeney's -- and [your publiher] MacAdam/Cage -- have brought a new freedom for fiction to step outside the model of the transformative moment.

I would agree, though I would say it has roots in Donald Barthelme or Robert Coover... and he's still writing. I really like the modernists and the postmodernists, even though I suppose that's no longer fashionable. But I like James Joyce and Gertrude Stein and Samuel Becket and all those people. They have a great deal to do with that.

Let's talk about the title story. Writing a story in the voice of a bad writer is a risky proposition. What inspired that choice?

Just a terrible, terrible writer ... . The truth is I love to read self-published regional histories and things like that. And once again, in a nonironic way. There's just something refreshing about the writing ... sometimes amusing and sometimes all of a sudden there will be something kind of touching. I like that sort of tension.

A lot of your characters are individualists under duress, not understood and not even left alone -- put upon.

Most of the stories, all of the stories in this book, were written before I started getting anything published. And they were a lot about the frustration of not being able to get people to understand what I was trying to do. In a way, they're about the frustration. It's a silly way to try to make a living; it feels silly, really. And then they started to get published. And so now that they're in a book, I think they have a different tone than they did when they were in a heap in the manila envelopes with the rejection letters. They were more poignant then. Now ... now they might feel more sarcastic.

The Mysterious Secret of the Valuable Treasure by Jack Pendarvis. $21. MacAdam/Cage. 187 pages.

Other Worthwhile Words

Comedian, radio host and rumored U.S. Senate candidate Al Franken reads from The Truth (with Jokes), Wed., Nov. 30, 7 p.m., at the Carter Library, 441 Freedom Parkway. In addition, Franken will tape his Air America radio show, "The Al Franken Show," live Thurs., Dec. 1, 3 p.m., at the Variety Playhouse, 1099 Euclid Ave. Both events are free.

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