Luke Goebel has something of a reputation in Tyler, Texas. When he goes for a haircut, say, the barber is likely to know him, even if they haven't met. Word of the eccentric writer spreads throughout the smallish East Texas town via the parents of his students. "People go, 'Oh, you're that creative writing guy," he says. Goebel is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at The University of Texas at Tyler. He left the University of Massachusetts -- the school that conferred his MFA -- to accept that position in 2011.
Goebel doesn't fit the profile of Tyler's average resident, or even the University's average professor. "When I first entered the UT Tyler world, people were looking at me," he says. "I was the first young person, and the first man in a while. It's a matriarchal, church based culture. People looked at me like, 'What are you?'" But if Goebel attracts attention, it's not just his gender or youth that's responsible. Goebel would stick out anywhere.
He gives off the sort of magnetic, unpredictable energy that's characteristic of genius. In both writing style and persona, he's reminiscent of the Beat poets, and there's a legitimate connection there. Goebel was a pupil of Gordon Lish, the writer and editor famous for championing American authors such as Raymond Carver, Richard Ford and Don DeLillo, and who counted Beat poster boys Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg among his friends.
I spoke to Goebel by phone on the eve' of his 34th birthday. He was in Oregon visiting family for Thanksgiving and had pulled into the parking lot of a Safeway to chat with me. At the beginning of the call, I heard someone talking to him in the background. He later explained that a guy in the parking lot had approached him, thinking he was someone from casual encounters on craigslist. That incident seemed apt considering that there are quite a few casual encounters in Goebel's debut novel, Fourteen Stories, None Of Them Are Yours.
"Fourteen Stories" was published in September and it gallops from the first page. It's a tale of heartbreak and loss, and much of it is drawn from Goebel's own experiences, although it's nevertheless a work of fiction. The narrator is mysterious, but he reveals himself through the succession of radically different stories that make up the novel. "The narrator has kind of exploded himself and he's playing with all of these pieces," Goebel says. That fragmentation suggests the difficulty of identifying and communicating a self, but also the value in continuing to try. Ultimately, "Fourteen Stories" is as much about pain as it is about resilience.
How has your experience teaching in Texas been so far? It's been good. Texas is toughening me up and fattening me up. I think I've gotten some interesting perspective here. The Texas experience is integral to what America is, but it's also entirely foreign. It's American culture on steroids. Especially where I am. It's Applebee's and giant pick up trucks and box stores. Consumerism.
What's your relationship with your students like? I fall in love with each new crop of students. I just come into the room and something happens. I'm my weird self and they seem to catch on. I have a reputation for being kind of harsh. There's an exercise at the beginning of the semester where I'll have my students present a first sentence. We'll look at the construction and the syntax. In one semester, they go from can't get a first sentence to putting out whole stories that are really incredible. Out of a class of 20, 17 are writing better than most of the students I was an MFA with. A lot of my students go on to be published. If I go somewhere else, I'm not sure I'll have the same experience. Way of speaking seems to be an inherent strength in the South.
You share a lot with the narrator of "Fourteen Stories" -- was this the story you felt you had to tell with your first book? Yeah, in that way that you look back at your life. There's always that higher self looking back. It's right for the first book. It's very personal. It's all fiction, but there's a lot of me in it. I wonder if the next book will fulfill me in the same way, because this one's so urgent.
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"Fourteen Stories" started out as a collection of stories, but it became a novel. Tell me about that transformation. I knew I wouldn't be satisfied with a collection. So, I started revising and adding stories that were happening out on the road while I was in California. I was writing in real time.
The title implies that the events and experiences in the novel are unique to the narrator, but part of what I find so intriguing about the book is how relatable it is. The difficulty of forming a coherent identity is something most people can relate to, I think.
My attention was always trained on trying to find the universal things. There's so much of the confessional in Internet writing. There's so much self-obsession in our generation especially. I didn't want to write personal stories. I wanted to write about archetypes and universalities that included things that happened. I leave out a lot of the details you would expect in a memoir. The narrator is meant to be a kind of every person.
Luke Goebel will be at The Wild Detectives on December 9th. He will read a selection from Fourteen Stories, None Of Them Are Yours and sign copies, with a discussion -- led by me -- to follow.