Christopher Boucher on How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive | Interview
The author discusses his new novel, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive.
When I get Christopher Boucher on the phone in Boston, he sounds relieved. That’s not uncommon for authors being interviewed. Having spent years writing a book and then a couple more waiting for it to run through the publication process, its arrival on the shelves relieves some anxiety. But for Boucher, it’s a little different.
“As I was writing, I would think to myself at times, ‘This is an impossible book,’ ” he says. “It just seemed so challenging and so off-the-wall, that I didn’t know if I was writing myself into a corner, or creating problems that I couldn’t possibly solve.”
The challenging, off-the-wall book in question is his debut novel, How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive (Melville House, $15), and he’s not being hard on himself; the descriptors fit (though we could think of a few others, like innovative, addictive, bonkers and beautiful). The narrator’s ex-girlfriend—named the Lady from the Land of the Beans—gave birth to a 1971 Volkswagen Beetle, and the narrator is left to raise it. The car can talk, and runs on stories, though at the beginning of the book, he also eats cake and pizza and ends up puking it all back up again. The narrator’s father is kidnapped and killed by a Heart Attack Tree, a deciduous tree that feeds on hearts and the stories that make them run. The father was waiting for his son at a farm’s diner, and after seizing his heart, the tree makes its getaway by driving the farm down the road. One of the only witnesses is an invisible pickup truck who tried to stop the whole thing.
Though at the outset the reader is absolutely deluged with oddities—time is literally currency, breathing life into the “time is money” cliché, and language is repurposed and words given new meanings—the book’s strangeness proves compelling, invoking fits of curiosity in the reader at every page turn. But there’s also something persuasive about being in the hands of an artist so completely committed to his outré project. Eventually, one finds oneself walking in lockstep.
“There were some times, with the inventions, where I said no,” Boucher says. “It’s difficult for me to pinpoint why some work and others don’t. There were a lot of moves I rejected because they didn’t fit, or didn’t have emotional resonance at the end of the day.”
That strikes at what’s most astonishing about the book, that it could have such a solid emotional core. But initially embedded, and then as one grows accustomed to this new world, forefronted, is the unique pain of losing a parent, and caring for a sick child. Boucher says the book found its direction after his own father suffered a terrible heart attack in 2003, lying unconscious for three days before making a full recovery. The book, initially a series of prose poems about a living Volkswagen Beetle, began to serve as the vehicle for Boucher writing about his father’s heart attack.
“I resisted writing about my own experiences for a long time,” he says. “This sort of surreal spin on them was as close as I could get. I consider it a challenge to pull off a Heart Attack Tree, and I hope the reader sees that challenge as something that’s sustainable, that it says something to them. For me, there’s enough laughable, ridiculous distance, that it gives me permission to write that story.”
Boucher reads Wednesday 24 at Quimby’s.