An Interview with Eric Garcia
Eric Garcia is a novelist and screenwriter who writes insane things. Interestingly, he seems to be able to make a living selling them. Nobody's quite sure how this works.
His first novel, Anonymous Rex, was published in 1999, and was quickly followed by prequel Casual Rex (2001) and Hot and Sweaty Rex (2004). These stories feature Vincent Rubio, a detective who is one of the many dinosaurs that live among us, shrunken through evolution and hidden underneath ingenious latex disguises. I know what you're thinking, but somehow Eric pulls it off, and the books have a strong cult following.
His two other published novels fall outside the hard-boiled-dinosaur-detective genre. Matchstick Men (2002), which features a conman (“matchstick man” is a synonym) with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Warner Brothers turned it into a movie, with Ridley Scott directing, Nicolas Cage as the OCD-afflicted conman, and Sam Rockwell and Alison Lohman in other key roles. Cassandra French’s Finishing School for Boys (2004) is a diabolical and painfully funny satire of the chick-lit genre.
Eric and I (Jake Freivald, editor of Flash Fiction Online) have known each other since our college days, where we were friends and members of the same fraternity. I hoped that this would make for a fun, lively, and amicable exchange when I caught up with him in Toronto for the filming of The Repossession Mambo, which is due out in 2009.[Update: Renamed to Repo Men! and now due out in 2010.
Flash Fiction Online: Eric, thanks very much for writing a story for Flash Fiction Online, but I think of you more as a novelist than as a flash fiction writer.
Eric Garcia: Yeah? Well screw you, buddy.
EG: Okay, maybe not the best way to start. Again?
FFO: Yes, let’s. Ahem. I think of you as a novelist, not a flash writer.
EG: That’s not too surprising, considering I see myself as a novelist, as well. Actually, to be fair, I identify myself these days as “writer.”
FFO: That’s pretty generic, don’t you think?
EG: Quite generic, thanks. But over the last few years I’ve delved into projects that branch beyond novels, and when the subject comes up at parties and whatnot, it’s a bit of a mouthful to say “I’m a novelist-slash-screenwriter-slash-TV writer-slash-musical-theater-lyricist who’s recently become enamored with flash fiction.” Lots of eye-glazing with that.
FFO: I’m sorry, were you saying something?
EG: Hey, Mr. Funny Man, leave the jokey-jokes to us paid ($.05 a word!) professionals.
That said, I do identify myself as “novelist” whenever I’m in a Hollywood setting, because “writer” automatically gets you lumped in with screenwriting, and though I enjoy it, and it’s how I partially make my living, everybody out here is a screenwriter, and I like to feel a teensy bit special now and then. I suppose if I lived in New York, “novelist” would be the cliche, and I’d have to go for something like “chimneysweep” to stand out.
FFO: I’d like to come back to your screenwriting in a moment, but first, how did you get interested in flash fiction?
EG: Though I’ve been an aficionado of flash fiction for quite some time, I never really tried much of it beyond college. Never even wrote that many short stories outside of college, either; once I started writing novels, I found my prose-comfort zone and stuck in it. I do have a collection of micro-fiction 100-word stories I wrote sometime just after I graduated, but those are probably best left in the closet.
I didn’t start up again with flash until you, Mr. Freivald, approached me when you started thinking about the Flash Fiction Online site, and now I’ve gotten the hankerin’ again. I find myself being forced not only to be concise in my syntax and diction (concision not being my strong suit), but to come up with creative solutions to my characters’ problems that I might not have found had I had 4,000 more words to play with. There’s something exciting about working under such tight conditions — it’s almost liberating to be that constricted.
Does that make sense?
FFO: Sure — but then, almost anything seems to make sense when you’re talking to a guy who wrote novels about dinosaurs who stuff themselves into latex diguises.
For those readers who don't know, I’m referring to your Anonymous Rex trilogy. I have to be honest: the first time I heard about modern-day dinosaurs in latex, I cringed...
EG: — Because you have no joie de vivre.
FFO: ...But I loved the final stories.
EG: Ah. Joie de vivre reestablished.
FFO: That helped me when I received your first draft of “The Materialist” — when the premise turned out to be a guy excreting metals, I raised my eyebrows but was able to suppress the urge to panic until I’d made it all the way through. In the end, I liked the story. Which leads me to wonder, how do you take absurd premises and make them real for the reader?
EG: I get this type of question a lot. “Why doesn’t the book come across as weird as the idea?” seems to be the general gist. Also: “How do you make these things seem real?” And sometimes: “Why do you keep staring at me? Seriously, stop. I’m calling the cops.”
FFO: Yeah, to be honest, that causes me some real problems. Sometimes I’ll reject submissions with the comment that they seem too unrealistic, but once I’ve published one of your stories, how can I say that with a straight face?
EG: If there’s any sense of realism to those works of mine that are naturally unrealistic (The Rex series, “The Materialist”, the forthcoming The Repossession Mambo), I think it’s because I never see the stories as all that weird in the first place. Some of it probably comes from a lifetime spent acting and generally making an ass out of myself, putting myself into a mindset of a separate character and just rolling with it. It’s like an improv show, only at the keyboard, and no one goes for drinks afterwards.
The Rex series, for example, are all first-person accounts of one dino-cum-human named Vincent Rubio, and when I write those books, I more or less write them as Vincent. As a result, I’m just telling the stories and relating the world as he sees it — and if it’s not weird to him, why should it be weird to anyone else? I guess what I’m saying is that I approach these types of stories from an internal viewpoint rather than an external one — not always narratively, as “The Materialist” is third-person, but in terms of worldview. In “The Materialist”, we’ve got a guy who’s spent his life trying to cure cancer, and can instead sweat silver. That simply is what it is. To me, there’s no absurd or not-absurd. It’s the way the story goes, and those who can roll with it roll with it. Those who can’t move on, and their lives, though they will never know it, will be forever missing something small but crucial.
I am often accused (by my agents and editors, primarily) of “backing into” a story when I should be charging headlong at it. I’m most guilty of this in novels, and I think it’s another way of letting myself into the rules of the story — figuring out how it all makes sense in my head before applying the characters and narrative to the world. If I’ve figured it out and am fully comfortable with the world, then my readers will be, as well.
That all sounds pretty hifalutin, but in truth: Hell, I dunno how it works — I just write the things I find amusing and hope someone else gets a chuckle.
FFO: You mentioned screenwriting and The Repossession Mambo — tell us about the project, and whether screenwriting is different from novel writing.
EG: The Repossession Mambo is one of those long-gestating projects that’s near and dear to me, which is probably disturbing considering the subject matter. I wrote the novel that the film is based on nearly 8 years ago (and the short story that the novel is based on over 10 years ago), and co-wrote the screenplay with my friend Garrett Lerner, a TV writer (House) nearly 5 years ago. And in Hollywood, that’s quick.
In short, Mambo takes place in a very near future where artificial organs have been perfected and are readily available, except they cost quite a bit of money. As a result, people have to take out huge loans, like mortgages, in order to get a new kidney, liver, what have you.
Unfortunately, some people can’t keep up with the payments, and that’s when the repo guys step in. If you can’t make the payments on that heart, you get three final monthly notices, and on day 95, they come to take it back.
Yes, it’s a comedy.
I like to describe it as sort of a mixture of Python’s Meaning Of Life (“we’ve come for your liver”) and Brazil, two of my all-time favorite things in the world.
In the film, Jude Law plays the part of Remy, the main repo man, who, after an on-the-job accident, finds himself on the wrong side of the repo equation, and Forest Whitaker plays his best friend and partner, Jake. To be specific, Jake Freivald. No relation, right?
FFO: When the folks at my day job see that I’m moonlighting as a guy who will rip out his best friend’s heart, they’ll claim it’s typecasting.
EG: We’ve also got Liev Schreiber as their boss, Frank, John Leguizamo as a black-market organ dealer named Asbury, Alice Braga as Remy’s first wife Beth, RZA (look it up, people over 30) as an on-the-run music producer, Carice Van Houten (Blackbook) as Remy’s wife Carol... Oh, and my daughter, Bailey, as Rope Jumping Girl.
FFO: That’s too cute!
EG: That’s right, I finagled her a cameo. Best Actress, here she comes. Also, they made Garrett and me film a bit where we’re looking to buy an organ — we pass by Jude as he comes into work, and I’m pushing Garrett around in a wheelchair as we speak with a sales associate. Sweet.
The film comes out in Spring 2009 — not sure of the exact month yet — and the novel will be out either in tandem with the film or just before.
FFO: As to whether screenwriting is different from novel writing...
EG: Without a doubt, it’s different, though to my mind the difference has more to do with end-purpose and audience than anything else. Obviously there’s a format difference, a length difference, a question of emphasis on structure or character or plot... but at the end of the day, novels are meant to be read by the end-user, so to speak, whereas screenplays are meant to be read solely by those who are then going to turn around and create the new work that the end-user will enjoy. Screenwriting is but a step on the way to creating art (or entertainment or crap or whatever’s eventually on the screen), whereas novel-writing (and short-story writing and flash-writing, etc) is direct creation. There’s something exciting about mainlining fiction, getting that one-to-one connection that a novelist has with his readers.
That’s not to denigrate screenwriting at all — in all filmed entertainment, everything pretty much starts with the words on the page, as our recent strike-chants were fond of pointing out (my favorite, created by yours truly as we marched in a large circle outside a Desperate Housewives location shoot: “Fade In: Blank Page, We Just Want a Fair Wage”). And I get a huge thrill knowing that millions of people are exposed to my work at once (yes, yes, I like “exposing myself”, get it out of your system). A darkened theater, set to the tune of laughter and gasps that I’ve caused — there’s not much better than that.
When I’m writing for film, though (especially if I’m writing something for mainstream entertainment, which is mainly what I do), I’ve got the all-important Three Act Structure to keep in mind. Now, you can rail against said structure all you want, and sometimes that’s just peachy (Memento, for example), but often you’ll find yourself wandering and lost in the weeds. Look at the current Oscar nominees — the whole bleak lot of ’em — and you’ll find Three Act Structure galore. The good thing is that there’s a comfort to it, a knowledge that if you keep to the path, you don’t have to worry about your narrative going off the rails. It gives you more mental energy to focus on the characters, the heart and soul of the piece. Of course, there’s a downside, which is that tangents and non-linear side-stories are discouraged.
Some of my favorite parts of novels (my own and others’) are these side-stories, bits of information and character that have nothing to do with the main story (or B story or C story or so on) but are delightful nevertheless. It’s probably why no one’s ever gotten a Vonnegut adaptation “right”, or a Tom Robbins adaptation, for that matter. Can you imagine trying to film Still Life With Woodpecker? What’d be the point? The fun is in the tangents, in the narrative voice, and you simply can’t do that in film — not in the same way, at least.
As for preference, I’d probably say I have a lot more fun writing novels than I do screenplays. I enjoy screenwriting — and I cannot deny that it has its fiscal pleasures, as well — but I often measure my happiness, work-wise, by how quickly the day goes by. When I’m writing prose, I can set fingers to keyboard and look up, hours later, barely even realizing that I’ve forgotten to eat, walk the dog, or pick up my daughter from school.
C’mon, it’s only like a mile or two. She’s seven. She’s got legs.
FFO: If you’re trying to get me to sound outraged, it won’t happen. Remember, I have seven kids myself. I occasionally gang them together and make them tow barges along the canal for their lunch money.
I’m sure there are a billion other things to talk about, but we have to stop somewhere. Any final thoughts?
EG: Yes. In closing, I’d just like to say that I love Flash Fiction Online — not only for the forum it offers quality flash-fiction writers everywhere, or for its noble attempt at bringing said art form to the general public, but because it has, through its generous and professional-scale $.05/word payment rates, enabled me to buy multiple books on Amazon.com, the funds for which would have otherwise come directly out of my children’s college funds.
And on that note, we bid Eric Garcia adieu, thanking for his time and support.
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About the Author
Eric Garcia is a 97-year-old Norwegian fisherman who occasionally writes novels and screenplays under the pseudonym Eric Garcia. Aside from his meaty catches of arctic flounder and northern pike, he’s best known for his novels Anonymous Rex, Casual Rex, Hot & Sweaty Rex, Matchstick Men, and Cassandra French’s Finishing School For Boys. Matchstick Men was made into a 2003 film directed by Ridley Scott and starring Nicolas Cage, and while Eric had nothing whatsoever to do with the adaptation other than hanging out on set and eating craft services, he’s quite proud of the result. Anonymous Rex was made into a 2004 movie for the SciFi channel; the less said about that, the better. He co-wrote the screenplay adaptation of his upcoming book, The Repossession Mambo, which is currently being filmed in Toronto for a Spring 2009 release, starring Jude Law, Forest Whitaker, and Liev Schreiber. These days, he’s readying the film version of Cassandra French’s Finishing School For Boys while working on his next novel.
The photograph you see of Eric Garcia is not actually Eric Garcia, but one of the children of FFO’s editor-in-chief Jake Freivald. Eric Garcia didn’t have time to find a hi-res picture of himself for publication. You read all that nonsense up above; he’s a very busy man. Now go away. You’re bugging him.
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