Ben Parzybok’s first novel, “Couch” rose from the primordial sludge of the slush pile at Small Beer Press in 2008. Next month, Parzybok’s second novel, “Sherwood Nation” will be released. He will be reading at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 16 at Powell’s Books on Burnside.
Parzybok’s creative trajectory seems to confirm Newton’s first law of motion: an object in motion tends to stay in motion. Part of that may be that he and his partner, writer and Street Books founder Laura Moulton do a remarkable job at keeping up with their artistic pursuits as well as two curious children. The other part? Parzybok set himself in creative motion years ago and aside from the distraction of fatherhood, hasn’t stopped since.
He is keen on thoughtful, artistic projects, most of which have a socially just bent. He is the creator of Gumball Poetry, a now-defunct journal published through gumball machines. He was a member of the Black Magic Insurance Agency, a team-based city-wide treasure hunt, in true James Bond-esque caper, high-tech mystery style.
Parzybok is a self-proclaimed technology geek with Luddite tendencies. He is a developer and runs a startup called Walker Tracker, a narrative, map-based walking challenge for large groups, including cities, universities, corporations and large organizations.
Whereas Parzybok’s first novel, “Couch,” explored the seemingly mundane task of carrying a couch across town, his latest novel, “Sherwood Nation,” examines the function and structure of governments, and in it he hypothesizes about what might happen if governments and people don’t react to our changing global climate. The book is a Robin-Hood like, post-apocalyptic, drought story set in the Portland biosphere.
Sue Zalokar: What motivated you to write your second novel, “Sherwood Nation?”
Ben Parzybok: There were a lot of little seeds.
I technically started the book in Brazil. We had gone there for a family wedding and it ended up being a rather long stay. We were there for six or eight weeks and I was there alone for the last two weeks. I toured some favelas — very crazy, anarchic, enclaves, really. They are sort of their own nations inside the city.
You go in with this impression of what (the experience of walking through a favela) is going to be like and end up with a completely different impression.
There is amazing community organizing going on. There are people who wield power inside that infrastructure. Yes, maybe outside society sees them as really dangerous, but inside? Half the work they are doing is social logistics: making sure people have water and that everybody has power because they’re all stealing power off the grid. It’s really fascinating. So I wanted to play with that (idea) a bit.
I also am really interested and fascinated by history. For example, the city of Rome collapsed in a day. It was besieged, it fell, the city was ransacked. But that empire went through several hundred years of this sort of slow post-collapse period.
I think (the idea for) the drought came accidentally. I am very interested in environmental and water issues of course. But it was also a wonderful way to portray how we might manage as a society and how we might reform and recombine and create new governments in the sort of situation where the government is gone. We can’t rely on the United States government or even state or local. We have to combine to build our own city.
S.Z.: You recently participated in the American Library Associations conference in Las Vegas, Nev. One of the events involved you and other authors reading from banned books. (Banned Book Week is Sept 21-27). What book did you read from?
B.P.: I chose Sherman Alexie’s “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.”
S.Z.: How can that be banned?
B.P.: I know. It’s banned all over. I think it’s partially because there are a number of masturbation scenes in there. You know how lethal that is …
S.Z.: I don’t know anyone who masturbates.
B.P.: Exactly. The book has some foul language. It’s one of those books that is crazy that it is banned because it could help so many people. It’s an incredible book.
The incredible dichotomy he paints between living on the res and trying to fit in, in the white school where he is actually having success, but it feels false to him in some way.
It should be more read and taught in school. It’s really so close to the immigrant experience.
I just read “Cajas de Carton” by Francisco Jiménez. He’s a brilliant writer. He came illegally across the border when he was 3 with his parents. His parents were dirt poor and they’re giving birth in their shack. And yet he’s going and actually excelling in school. His father is sort of super dismissive of anything he is doing in school and is pulling him out to do farm labor.
S.Z.: You have an affinity for computers and technology. Tell us about that.
B.P.: I suppose there is some irony in that. In the world of “Sherwood Nation” there is essentially no electronic technology whatsoever. Maybe it was sort of wishful thinking.
I have a complicated relationship with technology. I’ve been very addicted to it off and on. I’m a programmer for pay and I run a software startup.
I feel like technology is changing me in ways that I’m not entirely comfortable with. The effects of it are the antithesis of slowing down or being thoughtful or being a deep thinker.
S.Z.: You also have a creative, diverse web presence. Branding oneself as an artist isn’t easy, but it is important.
B.P.: The changing nature of publishing does put a lot of pressure on a novelist to promote their book through social media channels or to have a big web presence. I find that really challenging. I don’t necessarily like a lot of attention. It would be awesome if the book just did all the work. You know, “I worked on you a long time. Stand up now, please.”
S.Z.: Let’s talk about drought. It’s happening, and not just in a science fiction novel.
B.P.: It’s insane right now. In fact, I was just reading about how they were going to start enforcing water rationing in San Francisco. Sao Paulo, Brazil is in the middle of the worst drought in 85 years. The city there is calling for rationing. Oregon is in a drought right now as well.
S.Z.: This summer is the hottest on record since we started keeping track in Portland in 1940. Maybe as far back as 1890 when records were kept in Vancouver.
B.P.: Nine counties are in a state of emergency because of that drought. When you look at (United States) Drought Monitor — which is a really amazing tool — the headings range from abnormally dry to exceptional drought. All of the designations are a bit grim.
We have a natural tendency to procrastinate as humans in our reaction to change. And a change that happens like drought happens on a geological scale that we just can’t comprehend very well until we are already deep into it.
The first person to recognize that humans were changing the atmosphere with carbon emissions was a British guy in 1938. That was almost a hundred years ago. It happens on a timeline, but we aren’t reacting in a timely way.
S.Z.: What is your writing process?
B.P.: Writing is so tedious. I wrote “Couch” pre-parenthood. When I had kids, I went through a darker period where I didn’t write at all. “Sherwood Nation” was a real effort to become disciplined again and to change my biological tendencies, which were to stay up really late at night.
Now I get up really early before everyone is awake and I do my writing then. I write every day.
S.Z.: Tell me about Project Hamad.
B.P.: A gentleman named Adel Hamad was a Sudanese man living in Pakistan. He was rounded up by Palestinian officials paid by the United States government to gather possible suspects after 9/11.
He happened to be an immigrant laborer who was working as a hospital assistant. He was taken to Guantanamo.
Our intent (for the project) was to find a Guantanamo inmate and create a real narrative of this life to bring attention to what was happening there.
He was an amazing ping pong player. He was sort of a prankster. He had absolutely no ties whatsoever to terrorism and was never charged. He spent 11 years in Guantanamo. He lost his eyesight there. He had a family that he had been supporting in Sudan.
At the same time, there was a legal team in town who represented him as well. Our combined efforts blew up. We were picked up in La Monde in Paris and on Boing Boing. He was eventually released about a year later. He was never charged with anything.
S.Z.: You’re a poet, though you say on your website that you haven’t written poetry actively since pretty much the start of Gumball Poetry in 1999. You have also said that poetry saved your life.
B.P.: Everybody has dark periods and I definitely have experienced some dark periods. I don’t know — are they biological or chemical? Sometimes they don’t make sense to me. Over time I’ve gotten a lot better about managing those. There was a time in college when I read Jim Harrison’s, “Letters to Yessin.” It’s a series of 30 poems that he writes to a Russian poet who has hung himself. In the course of these 30 poems, Jim Harrison manages to talk himself out of suicide.
S.Z.: One of your characters from “Sherwood Nation,” Nevel, lets readers know early on that he suffers from depression. “He wondered if he were depressed and whether he ought to see a doctor about getting some medication.” Then he turns his attention toward digging a furrow underneath his home. What are some of the underlying themes that you address with this novel?
B.P.: I had a ton of fun writing Nevel. His character is one that I couldn’t have written pre-parenthood. He’s a father. He’s saddled with a lot of responsibility. And he has a totally irrational reaction to the disaster that is taking place. I mean he’s digging a tunnel, which might be perfect for bomb shelters, but it’s not working out for a drought. He can’t help himself. It’s become a sort of mania. And he certainly depressed and stressed and unsure and immobilized.
It’s sort of like the outside world is requiring him to take action and he has no idea what kind of action to take. So when he takes action, it’s a totally meaningless action. There is a lot to unpack there.
Another question I am asking is whether democracy as we have invented it, as we are practicing it, can really handle urgent crisis like climate change. And my answer? It’s a great system when it’s working.
There is a lot of money involved in politics and it’s absolutely ridiculous. Short term limits which make for fad issues that may not have at all to do with the longer vision of how we want to live? How do we want to be in this country over the next 50 years? How do we want to treat each other?
Renee (the protagonist in “Sherwood Nation”) becomes a dictator. The Romans invented that word.
A dictator was somebody who was elected by the senate to run the empire in times of absolute crisis. They acknowledged that a senate, with numerous voices and arguing voices cannot handle a large scale crisis. A dictator, who can congeal a single vision and a single plan of action, can really handle an emergency in a crisis much better.
One last theme that was important to try out was the idea of heroism. What is the arc of a hero? In this case, Renee does a somewhat heroic act and then the media completely overblow it and make her way more of a hero. And she has this inner conflict trying to figure out where she stands within that range of media and public reception and the act itself. In this case, she decides to rise up as much as she can into that role they created for her.
Ben Parzybok will be reading at 7:30 p.m., Tuesday, Sept. 16 at Powell’s Books on Burnside.