Interview with Evan Gillespie

You just published your first novel, Backpaddling: A River Adventure in Reverse. How did the project come about?
I've been working on this book for years, but my journalistic writing--the stuff that pays the bills--has always gotten in the way of my turning out a finished novel. The publishing world has changed so much in the past decade, though, that now it's feasible for me to send this book out into the world. It's exciting and terrifying at the same time.
Backpaddling is part comedy, part history, part political commentary, part travelogue. How would you classify the novel?
I set out, first of all, to write a story about a journey. I'd been reading lots of travel writing, and I was intrigued by the idea of turning a nonfiction travel narrative into a fictional story of personal transformation. I was inspired by The Odyssey, but I wanted my story to be more fun, and I wanted it to have an element of truth in it. I wanted the boundary between fiction and reality to be blurry.
How much of the story is real and how much did you make up?
The characters are all entirely fictional, but a lot of the things they do come from my own experience. My narrator visits a lot of real places--along with a few places that don't exist at all. And a large part of the history that's revealed in the course of the story is real, although there's a good bit of it that's nothing but fantasy. That becomes a central theme of the story, actually, that much of what we call history is just a construction that doesn't necessarily have a connection to what really happened. One of the characters at one point says something like, "History is just interpretation," and that's what this story is. Interpretation.

That being said, I can assure you that some of the most outrageous things that happen to the narrator have actually happened to me. I haven't, however, ever been chased by the police.
Why did you decide to set the story in 2004?
Well, I wrote the first draft of the novel in 2004, so it was very much about the moment in which I was writing it. But I had a sense even then that we were living through some kind of turning point. Pundits on TV were telling us that the cultural divide--the whole "red state-blue state" thing--that had surfaced after the 2000 presidential election was false, that one way or another, America would find a way to come together again. It was clear that the 2004 election was a referendum on that point. George Bush was tremendously unpopular, and if we were going to come together over anything, voting against his unpopular policies was going to be it. We had a choice. So I had the idea of exploring how my characters lived in that context--the choices they made, the stories they told themselves about what was going on in the world--and how they decided to move forward at the end of the day.
Your protagonist spends some time searching for a mysterious monster in a swamp. Where did that idea come from?
It comes foremost from the fact that I love the idea of hunting for monsters. But it also becomes a metaphor for people who cling steadfastly to the things that matter to them, even in the face of all the evidence that tells them they should pack it in and go home. It was great fun watching the narrator get swept up in the enthusiasm that Bill McCormick has in his hunt for the Bartsville Beast. He learns the value of having a goal, even if the goal doesn't seem to make much sense to everyone else.

It's funny. The early readers of the manuscript unanimously liked the monster-hunting episode, but they were a little baffled by how odd it was. Now, all these years later, Bigfoot hunters are all over cable TV, and no one thinks twice about them. I was a little bit ahead of my time, it seems. The same thing happened with the drug dealers.
How so?
The other unanimous reaction that my readers had was in thinking that the drug dealers--Tommy Ritchie and his son, Junior--were a little hard to take, because their world was so bleak and raw, and the way they presented themselves was so unflattering. I'd always intended them to be funny, though, and I thought it was important that they stay extremely rough around the edges. I also wanted to de-romanticize them. These aren't the slick gangsters that are in action movies. They're the kind of guys who are really out there, and it's their incompetence more than anything else that makes them frightening.

Again, time marched on, and after I wrote my story, the gritty, funny, very human drug dealers on Breaking Bad became the most beloved characters on TV. I don't think, in that light, that there's anything particularly shocking about my characters anymore.
What can we expect to see next from you?
I've got several projects in the works, but the one I'm most excited about is a pure adventure story in the spirit of Jules Verne. I'm always going to be drawn to telling stories about journeys that are fraught with both danger and humor. This one is going to toy with notions of history and memory, too, but it's also going to be infused with a big helping of magic and fantasy.

I also hope to revisit the narrator of Backpaddling soon, just to see what trouble he's gotten himself into over the last 10 years. I like the idea of following him as he stumbles through life.
Published 2015-03-19.
Smashwords Interviews are created by the profiled author, publisher or reader.

Books by This Author

Looking at Women
Series: What Were We Thinking?!. Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 8,730. Language: English. Published: August 31, 2015. Categories: Nonfiction » Social Science » Gender studies, Essay » Literature
From big-game hunting to understanding NASCAR, women face the challenges of the 21st century with determination and strength. Well, most of them do. Some of them think obsessively about clothes and sex instead. Evan Gillespie reviews a handful of books that, although written by women, are instructive for everyone as examples of the myriad ways that millennial women see themselves.
Horrific Reads: Horror Fiction and Graphic Novels, 2012-2015
Series: What Were We Thinking?!. Price: $0.99 USD. Words: 10,140. Language: English. Published: March 31, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Horror » General, Essay » Literature
Zombies, demons, psychotic killers, ravenous predators, vengeful teenagers--all the scariest characters from horror fiction show up in this collection of essays and reviews, an opinionated meditation on how the horror genre has been getting in our faces lately.
Backpaddling: A River Adventure in Reverse
Price: $2.99 USD. Words: 114,110. Language: English. Published: March 19, 2015. Categories: Fiction » Literature » Literary, Fiction » Humor & comedy » Satire
It’s the summer of 2004, and a Harvard-educated journalist sets off on an outdoor adventure, expecting to find the essence of America in the uncharted backwaters of his adopted Heartland home. Instead, his trip is undone by drug dealers, monster hunters and his own rapidly disintegrating personal life.