𝗔𝗻 𝗜𝗻𝘁𝗲𝗿𝘃𝗶𝗲𝘄 𝘄𝗶𝘁𝗵 𝗦.𝗚. 𝗘𝗹𝗹𝗲𝗿𝗵𝗼𝗳𝗳
We are pleased to bring you a very special interview with Steve Gronert Ellerhoff, PhD, good friend, past (and we hope, future) contributor, and author of “Shooter in Residence,” which appears in this issue of Granfalloon. We sat down with Steve at 10265 Cheviot Drive, CA, the address Ray Bradbury used to once call home—the original house having been demolished years ago, naturally, to make way for a brand new, fully equipped iHouse™. The iHouse™ was kind enough to allow us to sit on the curb without unleashing its coterie of high-powered (high caliber) security features upon us, provided we ‘played nice’ (part of its tourist-friendly A.I. protocols, no doubt). For ambience, the iHouse™ kindly provided us with a backdrop of a burning library, all virtual of course (no books were harmed in the making of this interview)! Below, presented in full for your reading pleasure, is the text of the interview conducted by our very own Fiona Chew-McLeod…
Q: Having read some of your academic work, I’d like to mention how refreshing it was for me to delve into your unique and visionary post-Jungian literary analysis of the short stories of Kurt Vonnegut and Ray Bradbury. I’ve come across such analyses of classic literature before, but none in the realm of speculative fiction, even though the ‘archetypal framework’ lends itself so well to analyzing fiction with supernatural, fantasy, or futuristic elements. I highly recommend your book, Post-Jungian Psychology and the Short Stories of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut (London: Routledge, 2016) to all our readers. So, after that very long preamble, please tell us briefly about how your study came about and how it took shape.
A: Gosh, you’re very kind to ask about my academic work. Thank you! It all came about through writing speculative fiction. I’d just drafted Time’s Laughingstocks, a novel about time travel, when, on a bench one afternoon in Portland’s South Park Blocks, I read Carl Jung’s essay “Psychology of the Child Archetype.” The hair on my arms stood on end because everything Jung talks about there had just poured out of me into that novel. That book played some beautiful tricks on me as I wrote it, so finding some theoretical explanation of those tricks brought a feeling of connection to the vast, rambling endeavor of human mythmaking. From there I wanted to learn more about where myths come from, how they find expression, and hopefully define how fiction fulfills a need for myth in writers and readers. Vonnegut and Bradbury seemed obvious choices due to their popularity in their own time, as well as their use of fantastic tropes and motifs. Short stories appealed because they offer quick, encapsulated stories (Vonnegut called them ‘Buddhist catnaps’) and astonishing variety. I was lucky to have my hope to study all of this championed by Philip Coleman at Trinity College Dublin, and from there I set to work. The book published by Routledge is basically my PhD thesis with some revision here and there.
Q: In recent years, speculative fiction has been gaining in popularity and experiencing somewhat of a mini-renaissance. What factor(s) do you think might be driving this?
A: Well, one of my hats is being a book clerk at Tsunami Books, an indie bookstore in Eugene, Oregon, so I get to talk with a lot of readers in my community on a regular basis. I’m hearing a lot of desire to find oneself lifted up and out of the maelstrom of life in the 2020s (pandemic/ politics/ discrimination/ war/ misinformation/ finances/ housing), so at least for the moment there’s desire for good ole escapism. But there’s also a desire to become rooted in wisdom provided by writers who are no longer with us. We can barely keep Octavia Butler on the shelf, for instance. As far as that goes, I see plenty of readers looking to the writers of yesterday who speculated about life in the twenty-first century to make sense of what’s going on. People come in cooing about how oracular Butler was. Also we’re finally seeing more diversity among writers of speculative fiction, so there’s excite-ment about representation and perspectives previously ignored or, worse, erased. So I see this mini-renaissance having three currents: escapism from the present, rootedness in the present (opposites!), and a conscious movement toward equity. Ripe conditions for mythmaking.
Q: As an academic and speculative fiction author, what is your approach to writing a successful short story or novel/novella? Are there any specific or ‘special ingredients’ required? Please walk us through your creative process. Do you have any advice you can give to aspiring speculative fiction authors out there?
A: For me it comes down to intuition. If narrative elements rise up in my imagination and linger or attract my attention, I try to look at them closely with all of my senses to find out what’s going on. It’s like when you’re out in the forest and your eyes catch something but you’re not certain what; you take a moment or two and realize there’s a whole mess of morel mushrooms growing around you and you’re going to eat well that night. Getting those bits arising from the unconscious down on paper starts the process of finding out if a story’s there. I believe stories know more than we do but they need us in order to manifest. I’m rubbish at giving advice, but I’ll say that if a character or a scene or image is gnawing at you, paying attention to it will draw something out. And if you keep at it until it’s no longer gnawing—and that’s the hard part—you might have yourself a real story.
Q: Now, let’s switch gears and talk a bit about your work that’s appeared in Granfalloon this year. The first was the wonderful Bradbury-esque short, entitled “The House,” which was published in the Spring, 2022 issue. Can you tell us a bit about that story and the themes (& archetypes) you explored in it? (Actually, we’ve published a story with a somewhat similar theme in this issue, called “A Rocky Marriage,” by Phil Temples, in a nutshell, without spoilers, about a man, a house, and his neighbor’s car—see pg. 74).
A: Granfalloon helped me finish that story, and I’m grateful for it. I’ve long admired Bradbury’s “There Will Come Soft Rains” (who hasn’t?). His house has routines but no real consciousness. With what became “The House,” I got stuck on an idea of a “smart home” that has limited consciousness (like us) and can’t compute what to do when the couple living in it are in a toxic relationship. The image of the house luring the husband down the coal chute to kill him would not leave me alone. But why would the house do something that horrible? Ultimately, I don’t have a definitive answer for that (limited consciousness here), but my hunch is that the people who programmed the house to serve and protect its inhabitants probably didn’t know what to do about intimate partner terrorism themselves, so why should the house? I’m glad you bring up “A Rocky Marriage,” by the way, because it’s tapping into archetypes too. Houses and cars are archetypal and can be profoundly numinous given our relationships to them. That was my instinct in calling the story “The House.” A wealth of meanings and associations are present in that alone.
Q: Moving on to your most recent story appearing in Granfalloon, you’ve mentioned that you received some negative feedback from editors regarding “Shooter in Residence” (see pg. 48 in this issue). Could you talk briefly about the challenges you faced finding a journal that would publish it?
A: It’s been a journey to publication for “Shooter in Residence.” I thought your acceptance email was a prank at first because in the past I’d had some editors school me on satire and how I failed to understand it. One said, “This story really made us feel uncomfortable in a way that satire doesn’t cover.” But then today I was looking through the rejections (seventy-one over four years) and found some who called the story ‘daring’ and said they appreciated it but feared their readers wouldn’t. So, heck. I’m reticent to say much because the story says a great many things to different readers. The thing that really strikes me about it is that in order for it to have even come to me, conditions in the world around me had to be pretty awful. It’s no mistake this story came to an American writer and not a writer from any other country in the world. Of course I’m grateful that you are publishing it and your doing so fulfills the only prediction I ever made: “Shooter in Residence” would only find a home in a publication outside the USA. There’s so much fear here around upsetting the people we used to refer to as ‘gun nuts.’ A slice of our population in this nation has amassed personal arsenals while most of the rest of us don’t even have a gun. So there’s lots of tiptoeing. Meanwhile we’re all sitting ducks, every last one of us. If folks find “Shooter in Residence” in poor taste, that’s fine by me. Really, it is. What I find tasteless is our collective acceptance of the ongoing, unobstructed massacre of people by people using firearms in the United States of America.
Q: You mentioned that you drew inspiration for “Shooter in Residence” from Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron.” Can you elaborate on this a little bit?
The influence is unabashedly present from the first sentence, where I took the syntax of Vonnegut’s opening of “Harrison Bergeron”—”The year was so and so, and...”—and from there sallied forth in a new direction. Little nods to our literary grandparents matter. Call it an invocation. But yes, that story has been so widely anthologized and, to my eyes, understood in naive ways much of the time. In it, an apparently gifted young man is laden, per government dictate, with weights and garish costumery to, as it were, negate and neutralize his giftedness. The future America presented is one where equality is wrought by “handicapping” traits perceived as exceptional. As his parents watch Harrison disrupt a ballet on TV and rebel against the status quo by declaring himself Emperor, the US Handicapper General pops up and guns him and a ballerina down. Many people have read “Harrison Bergeron” literally, taking at face value its absurd depiction of people being “handicapped” in some perverse aim at establishing a level playing field—the old “giving rights to everybody takes my rights away” bullroar. Even the allegedly brilliant William F. Buckley missed that when he reprinted the story in National Review. Interesting things occur, however, when we don’t take its imagery literally. What comes through its cartoonish tone is how ridiculous it all is. Take a step back and something about the story indicates that people’s fears of losing their liberty through its extension to all are stupid, clownish, preposterous. Americans given to such fears, always moaning about their rights being taken away, are the same ones gloating today over the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade this summer, an act that actually tore liberties away from citizens across vast swaths of the nation. “Harrison Bergeron” reveals the problem of letting ourselves be governed by people’s dumbest, basest worries. From that, I draw some immeasurable variety of inspiration.
Q: The tragedy in Uvalde, TX this year shocked the entire world, and yet, one of the headlines that appeared almost immediately after the mass shooting was a very ‘technical’/technological solution—an arms manufacturer suggested using an automated drone, a “designated shooter” if you will, to protect schools in the future. The suggestion was later withdrawn, but when we saw that headline, we obviously couldn’t help but immediately think of your story. It seems the proposal of a ‘technological solution’ is always the knee-jerk reaction to everything these days, but is more technology and more weaponry really the answer?
A: It’s chilling. “Just throw another gun at the gun problem, but make it more cinematic, like, with the gun on, like, a drone and stuff.” Can you tell I hate guns? I don’t think more technology will stop the killing. In his book A Terrible Love of War, archetypal psychologist James Hillman talks about how the only country that ever rejected guns wholeheartedly was Japan. And that was after they’d gone gun crazy in the 16th century, proliferating new firearms technologies left and right. When they reopened to trade with the world in 1853, the guns were all gone and even the word for them had been forgotten. Hillman thought their disappearance had to do with what Japanese culture valued. Guns were seen as cowardly weapons, inferior to the sword, which bore ancestral significance and an elegant aesthetic. “Guns were never banned in Japan,” he writes, “they simply faded away.” I don’t see that happening here though. Too many Americans find beauty in firearms. John Lennon criticized the American adoration of guns in the Beatles’ song “Happiness Is a Warm Gun.” He lifted the title from an article in a magazine put out by the NRA. He was murdered, of course, by a guy who used one on him.
Q: From Asimov’s ‘vehicles with robot brains’ to Bradbury’s ‘seashell’ earbuds (and we could probably come up with umpteen other examples), how can we think about science fiction as a predictor or ‘harbinger’ of the future? Could we perhaps understand it with the help of Jungian concepts? Or is it just random? How should we interpret the ability of science fiction to sometimes ‘predict’ the future? (I’m not saying all sci-fi authors have made great prognostications, but if not spot on, many of the best authors have come pretty close with some of their predictions).
A: It’s a curious phenomenon, right? How is it these writers envision aspects of life in the near future? Maybe even the distant future? Some think Poe anticipated Einstein’s theory of relativity in his long prose poem titled Eureka. Like you say, we can point to lots of examples. If we wanted to think about it in a Jungian way, I think the most obvious thought would be that these visionaries are making the unconscious conscious. They’re dipping into what isn’t known and bringing it forth. They may be doing this through active imagination, whereby one directly engages figures or images out of dreams or daydreaming. They might do this after experiencing visions, which some-times happens to human beings (from what I’ve read it sounds like Philip K. Dick experienced some of this, especially with the pink beam of light he perceived visiting him). They might even draw it out via intuition. It may also be that these people are just particularly sensitive to what’s around the corner. They may be able to read the writing on the wall, so to speak, extrapolating outcomes from a plethora of indicators the rest of us wouldn’t notice. Going back to Butler, look at her picking up on a resurgence of the slogan “Make America Great Again” in Parable of the Talents. That book was published in 1998, but it’s got 2016 written all through it. Ultimately this prescience is mysterious. I’m just grateful we’ve got some seers in our midst, whatever the mechanics may be.
Q: Satire is an ‘ingredient’ we frequently encounter in speculative fiction. We certainly see it in your work, and you use it brilliantly! Can you talk a bit about the power of satire in speculative fiction?
A: Well, thank you again. Like I said before, some disagree and that’s just as well. Isn’t that a mark of satire? Doesn’t it always rub some people the wrong way? If it rubs no one the wrong way, what is it? Satire is a mode of criticism that isn’t polite. It cuts through our niceties and it does so for any number of reasons. And it does seem to dovetail nicely with speculative fiction. All dystopian stories come out of some disgust with the way things are or threaten to be. Bradbury’s little tale “The Pedestrian” came out of an unpleasant experience he and a friend had with a police officer demanding to know what they were doing out at night; they were on a walk. Writers are odd. Present them with a horrible aspect of reality and they’ll fight it by telling a story. It’s good to find out what stories we’re living by though. Jung got to middle age and realized he didn’t know what myth he was living, what his story was. He encouraged people to work on figuring that out for themselves on an individual basis. Maybe writers can help with that. If the story we live by is that happiness is a warm gun, for instance, we’re inviting perpetual massacre. There’s way better stories out there—and in here—to live by.
Q: Can you tell us a bit about what you have on tap in terms of your future creative writing projects?
Cheers for asking. There’s the academic book I’m doing called Jung and the Mythology of Star Wars. That’s been a great joy to work on. And then there’s a novel I’ve been writing for four years. It’s not speculative fiction, but it’s certainly thematically related to “The House.” It takes place during the Trump years in Portland, Oregon, and is in some ways a love song to that city. A terribly sad love song. So now it’s just a matter of finishing these two books. I can’t see anything beyond them, and that’s rather invigorating. Here’s hoping I change enough from writing them to be able then to dream up books I can’t fathom right now.
We’re forced to conclude the interview here, since it seems the iHouse™ wants its lawn chairs back, and it’s turned the sprinklers on to get rid of us! Thank you very much for making the time for this highly informative interview, Steve. We learned a lot from this exchange, and we appreciate your candor. Until next time... ✦