Considering the subjects of Owen Egerton’s stories—a sexually frustrated man who’s obsessed with his own penis before it literally jumps ship from his body, Christian camp leaders purposely martyring themselves to inspire kids to turn to Christ, a writer who gives up on words to focus on finding the perfect poop after pictures of his defecations sweep the art world—it should be no surprise the Austin-based writer believes in what he calls “the power of play.”
“Even when you’re breaking your own heart, it should be fun, or at least pleasurable,” Egerton says. “Having fun is a huge part of my relationship to writing.”
The stories in Egerton’s How Best To Avoid Dying are at once enlightening, perplexing, somber and laugh-out-loud ridiculous. Much of Egerton’s playfulness comes from his experience as a performer. When he first moved to Austin, Egerton was living out of a Volkswagen van, earning money with comedy and improv gigs. He still performs with an Austin comedy troupe called Master Pancake Theater. To Egerton, if there’s no sense of joy in the process, there’s not much point to doing it.
“A necessity of writing is to start at the point where I don’t know what’s going to happen next and begin writing there,” he says. “I love fiction that has a flavor of discovery and surprise. And I find that if I’m not being surprised when I’m writing a story…I shouldn’t expect my reader to be surprised.”
Sitting with Egerton in a South Austin coffee house, one gets the feeling that he’s always performing to some extent, but always in an incredibly sincere way. He’s visibly giddy talking about how humor allows people’s guard to drop, which in turn allows for ideas and emotions to be transmitted. In other words, it allows for good art.
Humor also allows Egerton to approach some fairly heavy subject matter in an original way. Matters of faith—religious as well as faith in relationships—are omnipresent in Egerton’s stories. Take for example “The Martyrs of Mountain Peak,” set at a Christian camp whose counselors grow jealous and competitive about who will be the next one to kill themselves in absurd accidents to inspire children to dedicate their lives to Christ. Or there’s “Christmas,” a four-page powerhouse of a story featuring a wife who wants nothing more for the holidays than to have her husband put a gun in his mouth and pull the trigger—all as a test of faith.
Egerton himself went through a religious phase as a teenager before breaking away from Christianity when older, but the questions of faith, particularly all that it can inspire, are something he says he is “obsessed” with.
“Faith in whatever leads us to these wild moments of revelation and insight and love and sometimes in the same half-hour moments of exclusion and bigotry. That’s a powerful thing. So yeah, I like to write about it,” he says with some laughter.
Egerton is busy following up his story collection with similar questions of faith and absurdity as he revises an upcoming novel. The premise of the book is that a father is grief-stricken after his child dies because he left the kid locked in a hot car. If that doesn’t sound like an Egerton story, wait for it: The father then becomes obsessed with hollow earth theory, the belief that the earth is hollow and filled with various worlds and various beings.
Hollow earth theory dates back to at least the 17th century and there are still some modern expeditions to research it today. Think what you will of the theory and those who believe in it; what interests Egerton is the tenacity with which some people maintain their beliefs. As he reveals in How Best to Avoid Dying, he is especially deft at humanizing those mainstream society views as the “other.” In the story “Cold Night Alligator,” Egerton takes readers inside a cult that believes in communal sex and the powers of eating alligator eggs. But potential wackos are rendered as compelling people whose whole world, their entire way of belief, is about to be destroyed by a police raid.
The point Egerton makes is not that we are all bigots of some form or that we should be eating reptile eggs. He invokes a Tim O’Brien quote to explain another one of his writing credos: “It’s fiction’s job not to explain the mystery but to expand the mystery.”
And for Egerton, a happy-go-lucky writer who wants nothing more than to entertain a reader to the fullest extent, the source of much mystery in the world is faith of any form.
“I am a big fan of exploring belief,” he says. “To believe anything, including that the sun will rise tomorrow is a little crazy. And that’s OK.”
Sean Rose is a former crime reporter and current MFA student at Texas State University. Follow him @swritenow.