CHRIS EATON INTERVIEWS CHRIS EATON
While perhaps better known as the front man of folk-rock outfit Rock Plaza Central, Chris Eaton is also the author of three novels, the most recent being Chris Eaton, a Biography (BookThug, 2013), a book that assembles online records from the lives of other, real Chris Eatons into one-giant-Voltron-of-a-semi-fictional Chris Eaton. The concept, which quickly became an 8-year obsession, came to him as a result of being confused by Amazon for another Chris Eaton who wrote books on how to do short-term missionary work, which led him to read every page on the Internet with his name, and like a conspiracy theorist, he began collecting these random bits of coincidental nonsense into a narrative.
A few months after Chris Eaton, a Biography came out, Chris Eaton received this email:
Subject: Hi Chris Eaton, I’m Chris Eaton
But most of my friends call me Christopher.
I am one of those Chris Eatons who is also a writer; I’m a poet, and I’ve published under the name C. Violet Eaton for the past several years to distinguish from those other writerly Chris Eatons and, perhaps more importantly, to distance myself from my own ill-conceived work of many years ago that might still live on through the Internet.
I’m 31. I don’t use any social media. Most everything about me online is related to my pen name. It’s been so long since I’ve thought about any information that might still be searchable under my true name.
My initial impulse to the book was a curious mixture of both voyeurism and exhibitionism; something you must have felt while researching and writing it.
I bought the .pdf of the novel & stayed up (literally) all night reading it. It’s a fantastic book, first of all, so congratulations are in order. Really amazing.
I wanted to see if I was “in there,” obviously. Well, I am. I’m pretty sure. I also read in another interview that you’ve been in contact with several of the other Chris Eatons, and I deduce from that and from the entire project in the first place that you’re interested in the “real story.” Am I right?
So here it is: I am, I think, to a large extent the obnoxiously pretentious aspiring writer from pages roughly 106-114.
Several of the elements were easy to find through Google, and I was able to replicate the results.
1. That I went to Oberlin
2. That I was writing poetry at the time under that name
3. That I was obsessed with experimental and/or heavy music (you might have found an embarrassingly purple Amazon list I created at age 18 and/or a few equally purple posts to a John Zorn listserv from the same era)
4. That I was, at the time, fond of “daily rants” about the state of literature (same listserv)
5. That I had been a teenage Phish obsessive and then dropped that in favor of said experimental music — this part in the book FLOORED me and made me think you’d been inside my brain: “She liked his concrete poetry when it wasn’t too conceptual, seemed able to reconcile his attraction to experimental works like Trout Mask Replica with his days as a Phish-head, and put up with his daily rants on the state of literature.”
But you might not know how close you had it. I wasn’t able to produce any of these results by Googling the combinations. Maybe you somehow did, I don’t know. Maybe they’re amalgamated from other Chris Eatons; maybe they’re elements of your own life; maybe they’re entirely fictionalized. Either way, here are a few other things that rang true:
1. That my college girlfriend, whom I met very shortly after getting to Oberlin, was indeed named Emily. After having established several pages earlier that Chris Eaton goes to Oberlin at some point, the sudden line: “It was in Ohio that he met Emily” made me catch my breath.
2. That she was beautiful in a very strange way; almost awkward and birdlike with large droopy eyes (the ‘turkey wattles’ line made me laugh, but it’s actually a pretty apt description). Also, she worked in the library, though I did not meet her there.
3. That at almost this exact same time, I had recently become acquainted with/obsessed with Sol Lewitt, although to be fair I was more interested in his “Sentences on Conceptual Art” than his actual art.
4. That we had an intense 18-month relationship that ended badly.
5. That I was, indeed, massively obnoxious and pretentious at that time.
One thing I never thought about when picking up a pen name was this: THAT Chris Eaton would always remain frozen in time. At least according to the Internet, he’d always be somewhere between 18 and 21 years old. So it’s odd to see that. And even though every detail in the passage wasn’t the same, it felt so much like reliving those months that it was a very magical, and yet somehow, sad, feeling.
Enough that I felt compelled to do a little stalking of my own and find your email address.
I don’t really do this kind of thing really; I’m a pretty private person. I just wanted to write and say your novel moved me.
Portions of this conversation were conducted via email, and parts through Gmail chat.
I. CHRIS EATON V. CHRIS EATON
Chris Eaton: One of the most interesting reactions I have always received when describing this book to people (and maybe interesting isn’t exactly the right word), from the moment I thought of it eight or nine years ago, is “Aren’t you afraid you’ll get sued?” And I’d never really thought about it until after the third or fourth time someone had asked me. So now I really have to ask: Are you planning to sue me?
C. Violet: That’s pretty funny. My mother (a lawyer, but a family law practitioner) basically asked me the same thing when I told her about finding your book. Now she’s totally into the whole thing. She’s been recommending the novel to a whole group of people.
But no, a lawsuit never crossed my mind even for a second. I rather enjoyed the uneasiness I felt looking “in” at myself. Even if it had bothered me, how could you put a legal dollar-value on unease?
CE: Were you “uneased”? How disconcerting is it that people you know might read things in here that didn’t happen to you and believe that they did?
CV: It honestly doesn’t concern me that people might read the book and falsely attribute certain things to me. From a practical standpoint, other than maybe a few writer friends, I don’t think many people who know me well enough to recognize aspects of my character will read the book. It could happen. And I suppose maybe I’m even interested in allowing them to have their suspicions.
CE: That’s good. I’ve never spoken to a lawyer about it. I actually have no idea where the line is. But I assume there isn’t one. I mean, if Robert Coover can have a novel where Nixon is an evil mastermind having anal sex with Uncle Sam to get his power, and he doesn’t get sued, how can anyone? Can you have copyright over your own life? We need your mom in on this.
CV: I think maybe the line has something to do with being a public figure. Does being Googleable in itself constitute public availability? And is it unreasonable to assume that the figure in question could be recognized? I mean, you named these people outright, but I don’t have to tell you what kind of wormhole you’ve opened when they all have the same name.
CE: I also feel people must read the story and know it’s not “true”. I mean, there are things that could never have happened. Even if there are some facts taken directly from people, say the woman who teaches nursing and enterostomal therapy in California, it must be obvious that the story about her playing with Bootsy Collins is a bit far fetched.
CV: I was hoping that one was legit.
CE: Well, it partly is. That Chris Eaton really did record several records. I just can’t find them online. So I took liberties. But that’s what fiction is about, no? Appropriating people’s stories? Some of mine are just directly traceable back to the original source. It’s like a global roman a clef, only I’ve left the door unlocked, and other stories have snuck in.
CV: I think most people who would read that book probably have a good sense of that, either before starting, or upon finishing. But it might be a fun situation if everyone ever emails you from that perspective. You know, “You asshole — who do you think you are?!” And you could say, “I’m Chris Eaton.”
II. BLIND DATE
CE: Was there ever a point when you also thought one of the Chris Eatons was you, but then changed your mind? Sort of like when you haven’t seen someone in a long time, or only online, and you’re checking out every person who comes into the coffee shop or bar, and almost every person elicits some sort of maybe until the real person enters and you’re, like, how could I have ever had any doubt?
What was that anticipation like? Excitement? Fear?
CV: I suppose I was fortunate that my sequence appears early in the text. I wasn’t kept hanging in the tension of “not knowing,” but also in that after the conclusion of the sequence, I felt that I became Chris Eaton. Everything the fictional Chris Eaton experienced throughout the rest of the novel became the potential of my own present.
What’s really digging at me is not knowing what’s responsible for these feelings: is it the common name or the common circumstance? I think the book, as you say, really is about all people, and the ways in which their lives imbricate and resemble each other’s.
Of course now that I’ve said all that, the elephant in the room is how much did you implicate yourself in the narrative, Chris Eaton?
CE: Ha! That’s the question I keep saying I’ll never answer. Mostly, as you point out better than I could, because I think it doesn’t matter. But naturally I feel like owe you more honesty than I owe some others, so I’ll say that my father really did have a male dog he named Betty, I nearly drowned at 3 and my sister saved me, I once had a private audience with Pope John Paul II, and I was, like you, a pretentious undergraduate artist.
While I was working on the novel, I never felt compelled to seek out any of “the others”. In fact, I didn’t want to talk to anyone about their own idea of the truth because I knew it wouldn’t be the truth that was interesting to the story. That was one of my rules, I guess.
CV: What other rules did you have?
CE: Basically, the main rule was that I couldn’t lie about anyone. I couldn’t contradict a “known fact.
CV: That’s interesting. How did that work in practice? Did you have a set of parameters?
CE: I could, however, fill in any gaps I couldn’t find online in whatever fashion I saw fit.
CV: OK, I see. So you couldn’t have had “me” attending Vassar or Reed or NYU or something. It had to be Oberlin.
CE: Right. I mean, in practice, it became slightly looser, in that I didn’t have to include all of the information I found, either. But yes, you had to be at Oberlin.
CE: I could also take small obsessions and really run with them, because I had no feelings of obligation to people who were not named Chris Eaton. My liberties with Philthy Phil, for example. Or finding an entry about a custom-made Star Wars figure and making it that Chris Eaton’s entire reason existence, combining it with another entry about another Chris Eaton who “works at Texaco with figures,” or something like that, which probably meant that he was an accountant but it was too great a coincidence to pass up.
CV: Ha! For me, primarily writing poetry, I compose based largely on two major sources of “inspiration,” if you want to call it that. The first is my individual human perception; so looking at a tree or hearing a violin piece or something, and then distilling that experience. The second comes out of the experience of reading (or sometimes even just touching and experiencing) books and being obsessed with the material of language. That can get semi-procedural too, like collaging or culling language.
Having little experience with narrative writing, I wonder how did you write yourself into something like this?
CE: In a lot of ways, I think one of my operating systems is also collage-based, albeit with facts instead of words. I’m constantly doing research of one sort or another, and the common words and dates just leap out at me until a story starts to form in my head. A story that, for me, doesn’t feel non-normative, because I feel that it is like the conspiracy theories you find on the Internet. Or even the way my mind thinks, forming links to new things before I’ve even completed a thought.
CV: That’s really interesting. I don’t remember who said it (probably many people), but it’s been suggested that a common trait of artists is the ability to or the predilection for creating connections where it’s not apparent, to a non-artist I suppose, that there are any.
CE: It’s a fiction of exhaustion, like a lot of French writers seemed to do, but adding to that, a literature of distraction, of asides, or constant digression that you find being able to hyperlink from one story to another so easily on the internet.
CV: Which is kind of exactly what the Internet is like. Like when you find yourself 12 degrees down the Wikipedia rabbit hole from the thing you looked up in the first place.
CE: Sure, and maybe most of the time writers make some kind of philosophical or metaphorical connection to help people gain insight into the human condition (not that I think that’s what literature is supposed to do and I threw up a little as I typed it), but I grab “real” connections. I think my mind was always kind of wired that way. And thank goodness for the Internet or I might never have understood myself.
I have to assume the idea for the Internet just came from someone wired like myself.
CV: I hope they use both of those as blurbs on the back cover of the Internet.
CE: Can we use smileys in an interview? I want you to know, in some way that also doesn’t feel gross, that I’m smiling.
CV: I think you just did.
CE: Maybe they could put it on Ken Goldsmith’s version of the Internet when it’s finished. The blurb, not the smiley.
CV: I thought I would become obsessed with trying to work backward. You know, using the details from your text to find all the other real Chris Eatons (here’s the Iraqi veteran; there’s the LGBT activist, etc.). But I didn’t. I don’t think I have an interest in doing that at all. To me, the exciting part is the transitional character elements: the similarities and coincidences that drive one Chris into the next. I’m trying to say I was interested in the blurring rather more than any singular subject.
CE: Me too. Although now that I’m finished my relationship and feeling towards the others has altered significantly. I recently followed all the Chris Eatons I could find on Twitter, and I was pretty excited the other day when one of my tweets about the book was reposted by the Chris Eaton who was the head of security for FIFA.
I don’t really know how to describe this new feeling other than to say they’ve (you’ve) started to become feeling like family to me, in the same way that our real families probably form bonds because we have also been around them so much. Is family and friendship just a form of information accrual? Is the Internet, then, the greatest form of love?
CV: That’s a really interesting idea to I which I feel a kind of immediate repulsion, ha.
CE: I know, it’s weird, right? But it’s interesting that I likely feel more of a connection to you, for example, than I should for someone I recently met through email and have corresponded with a half-dozen times.
I’ve actually been thinking about contacting every Chris Eaton I can find who’s not in the book and interviewing them. Everyone has at least one compelling story in them. I don’t want to fictionalize them in a book any more, but I would love to hear more of them, just to see if any common themes arise. Can you think of anything I should ask?
CV: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. Since the mechanism by which we now “know” each other has defaulted to an Internet search, I guess my first questions would skirt that boundary: “what is the thing you’ve done that you wish would show up online?” Conversely, “what is the thing in your life that you’re glad doesn’t show up online?”
My theory anyway is that most of the answers to these questions will mention LOVE, or a lack thereof. When we speak to a common human characteristic, isn’t this really what we’re talking about?
I also have an amusing anecdote. This was related to me by my wife a few weeks ago and I’m surprised I forgot to mention it until now. My wife’s high school friend, a young poet in Washington DC, was telling the story about this whole situation to her new roommate, and her roommate’s friend. And she gets through all the crazy twists and turns for what I like to imagine was a 10-minute monologue, and she gets to the end and they say, “well, what’s his name?” “Chris Eaton,” she says. And everyone’s quiet.
And the roommate’s friend says, “That’s my dad’s name.”