An Interview With Tex Gresham, Author of Sunflower
Joseph Edwin Haeger interviews Tex Gresham, the author of Sunflower, published by Spaceboy Books and now available.
At the beginning of Sunflower by Tex Gresham, he includes the epigraph: “Sometimes it’s better to confuse them for five minutes than to let them get ahead of you for ten seconds.” I can honestly say Gresham never let me get close to getting ahead of him in Sunflower. It’s a novel that kept me on my toes, and even in my moments of confusion, I enjoyed what was in front of me. There is an art of the scene that he’s employing here, displayed in his rich settings and engaging characters.
Sunflower is a multi-character novel where we exist in a world that’s not too far away from where we are now. For the most part, movie theatres are gone—except the one my favorite character, Jackie the projectionist, works at. Overshadowing the story, there’s an eerie sense that something terrible has happened, but no one is quite ready to talk about it, so we’re left with a presence of something unsaid.
Tex Gresham was kind enough to pull the curtain back a little and answer some questions.
The Big Smoke: Sunflower is deeply steeped in film, whether it’s talking about actual movies or looking at the art of exhibition. I’ve found that because I grew up with movies being such a cornerstone in my day-to-day life, my writing is far more influenced by film than it is by books. Do you find yourself influenced more by movies than by books?
Tex Gresham: Absolutely. Books are always there to reveal what we can do with written narratives and how words can come together and all that. I love experimentation of written words and taking the idea of narrative into directions that we expect are more openly-forgiving and malleable mediums to execute—like movies. I love books and have had my mind totally blown open by them. But everything I write I see as a scene playing out in a movie. Even abstract moments I see as something filmed. It’s the way my mind processes the unreal, the idea, the concept and makes it into a tangible scenario that I can try to mentally project to the reader. I can’t be a director in real life—I don’t think I have the gumption or the interest—but I can be when I write.
Based on following you on social media, I’ve seen that you do quite a bit of screenwriting. Do you prefer one form over the other?
I don’t, really. Screenwriting is fun and challenging in a different way. I feel like it’s more rewarding because I can be done with a screenplay faster than I can with a novel. When I write a screenplay, it usually takes me about two weeks to a month to finish a draft. It took me almost ten years to finish Sunflower. But with prose, it gives me the space to be as expansive or creative or experimental as I want. Screenwriting has restrictions, but they’re liberating restrictions. Structure encourages—almost forces—you to write a screenplay in a certain way and the result is always a movie. A novel gives you nothing and the result is sometimes chaotic trash that needs many, many, many revisions before it equals a novel. I start a lot of books that are “novels,” but I can tell they’re just farted out and therefore aren’t really a novel at all, but a progression of moments in the vague shape of a novel. That might sound elitist or pretentious or shitty, but sometimes I question the work that goes into the creation of certain projects. Now THAT sounded shitty. It’s all good. Bring on the haters.
As I read Sunflower I kept thinking about Brazil, which you even reference in the book. I can’t say I totally grasped or even followed that movie, but still found myself enamored with it, and I feel like your book evokes similar emotions. Is this approach of momentary or even long-standing confusion written by design? Or is that something that naturally happens as you’re drafting? Or—and fingers crossed this isn’t the answer—am I just dumb?
Hahaha—definitely not dumb at all. The confusions are intentional. How often do we feel dumb when we try to understand the intricacies of all the information that’s thrown at us every second of the day—and the way that information connects with one another? There’s a lot that connects and a lot that makes sense, but are you meant to make those connections and have them make sense? Not really. Unless you enact the same level of paranoia and obsession the characters in the novel do. Brazil is about being lost in that world that makes sense to those who ignore it, but to those who are aware it feels like it’s an endless, confusing labyrinth. The story of Brazil is simple, but the world, the atmosphere, and the character awakening are endlessly complex. That was absolutely a huge inspiration while writing this—I actually watched Brazil pretty endlessly the first couple of years I started writing it. Pynchon is also a king of intentional confusion, and Sunflower is definitely my Pynchon ripoff book.
There are some interesting stylistic choices throughout the book—having a chunk written as a screenplay and having a long section that is a single sentence come to mind. I feel like I can fit reasons for these choices: since the long sentence is in the “Intermission” section, it makes sense that we’re getting a kind of overview in one breath. Or the screenplay section, we’re looking at Bub as this meta character who can see the stings moving the story forward, so he has this behind-the-scenes view into everything. Without giving too much away, am I close? And what drove you to put these flourishes into the book?
Shhh, we can’t talk about these things yet. You’re definitely living on the same street as the truth though—that’s all I’ll say. But these flourishes have very specific purposes to the section in which they appear. The feeling meant to be conveyed in each section and the subject. The “Intermission” is usually a time where people go off and have a drink or smoke or piss and digest what they’ve seen. It’s a pause. But the “Intermission” here is an overwhelming slew of unbroken information—a singular tracking shot through everything we’re read up until that moment. It’s full of new information and connections. So, if you were to take a step outside during the intermission, you’d miss everything.
There are a lot of moving parts, whether you’re looking at the deleted scenes in the back, or the roving POV that moves to an array of different characters. How did you keep everything straight? What was your process when writing Sunflower?
Keeping everything straight was more or less all in my head. I wrote some things out, but I kinda just kept it all up there. I would connect the dots as if I was writing a screenplay. Each time I read or rewrote the book, I saw connections I didn’t in the previous version. So, in a way, creating the book was like solving a mystery that even I didn’t know the answer to. I started writing the book in 2011 and it was a very different book. It was more like a Bret Easton Ellis first-person narrative about a guy going home for a funeral. And then I started realizing there was more to the story. Then I put it down and took a break from writing. I had kind of a nervous breakdown of sorts—a very unfun time. When I went back to writing, I told myself I would only write about things that a) I didn’t understand and b) that made me uncomfortable in some way. So then, I just started writing characters and situations—all of which became most of Act One, which is a satire of a film’s Act One. I could go into the whole process, but I feel like that’s as far as I’ll go here because this would be like a 2,000-word response if I don’t stop now. The process ended up becoming: How can I satirize movies while also making a book that would make a great movie?
I’m a former projectionist and the way you wrote the booth and the art involved in this profession felt eerily accurate to me. Do you have a background in film exhibition?
I don’t have a background in film exhibition, but I tried to become a projectionist for a while. Nowhere would hire me because I didn’t have experience—and I lived in Austin, Texas, where film projection was as coveted as it is in Los Angeles. But I learned as much as I could. When I was a kid, I would sit at the back of the theater so I could hear the projector as I watched the movie. I had a deep appreciation for the work that goes into making sure that the movie we see in theater is up to the standard that the movie deserved. Projectionists used to be the gatekeepers into our viewing of a film—a very important job. Now, it’s less so. More important in smaller theaters. The delicate care and intricacies have been replaced.
Top five best books you’ve read recently?
Not in order:
Antkind by Charlie Kaufman
Search History by Eugene Lim
Ketchup by Sam Pink
Ordinary People by Judith Guest
Shadowbahn by Steve Erickson
And because you asked for top five, here’s a sixth: Good at Drugs by KKUURRTT
Top five best movies you’ve watched recently?
I’m going to give you new movies because I’m always watching and rewatching
older movies that I love.
The Green Knight
And because you asked for top five, here’s a sixth: Malignant
Based on your author photo, where you’re chewing on a VHS, I gotta ask: do you have a VHS collection? And if you do, what’s your prized VHS?
I don’t have a collection. I have two VHS tapes in my current possession: a copy of Coven, signed by Mark Borchardt and a copy of Night of the Living Dead, personally signed by George Romero. I’m sure I have VHS tapes at my parents’ house, but none here. I’m afraid of starting a collection—if I do, it’ll consume me. But I’ll probably start anyway.
Buy Sunflower from Amazon