Gork is a dragon, but not the kind you might be familiar with from HBO's blockbuster TV show. "Not only are your reports about us dragons wildly inaccurate, they are downright insensitive and repugnant," Gork tells the reader. For example, Beowulf is "nothing but a pack of slanderous lie about my kind, written by a bum poet who didn't have the gumption to sign his own name to the book."
In Gabe Hudson's hilarious debut novel Gork, the Teenage Dragon, dragons are not mythic earth creatures but a terrifying extraterrestrial species hell-bent on conquering the universe with help of their cyborg slaves and talking spaceships. Then again, some dragons, like Gork, are sensitive souls with puny horns and Will to Power ratings of a mere "Snackalicious" who are more at home reciting poetry than incinerating new species. Gork is less Game of Thrones and more The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with fire-breathing characters and a John Hughes-esque plot.
Fifteen years ago, Hudson's Gulf War satire Dear Mr. President made about as big of a splash as a story collection can make. Hudson was included in the New Yorker's 2001 debut fiction issue – with Jonathan Safran Foer and Nell Freudenberger – and then in Granta's Best Young American Novelists list in 2007, alongside Foer and Freudenberger again, as well as Karen Russell, Yiyun Li and Anthony Doerr, among others. Then, from the perspective of the literary world at least, he disappeared.
"I wrote so much. And just flailed. Fumbled. Whatever verb," Hudson tells Rolling Stone when we meet in the tiny backyard of a downtown New York City bar. "Just making a mess of thing, not gaining any trajectory, any velocity." Writers are famous for having issues with a second book, and even a 15-year gap is not unusual. In Hudson's case, he had both the the pressure of being anointed by the the literary establishment as well as the expectations to stay in a box he didn’t want to stay in.
"[The publishing industry] wanted a Gulf War novel, because I had sort of done that the first time. But by that time everybody was talking about Iraq and it was completely boring to me," he explains. "I wasn't interested in cementing that identity." After floundering for years and "hitting rock bottom," Hudson says he heard the voice of Gork and "wrote out of joy."
Hudson grew up in North Carolina and Texas. Then, after graduating from UT-Austin, he decided to join the Marines. "I think I was probably depressed actually and just didn't know it," Hudson says. "I'd been reading a lot of Cormac McCarthy; Blood Meridian was my favorite book for a long time. And I was like, you need to get out of this soft, white whatever you're in and have an adventure while you're young."
When he went to the recruiting office, they seemed taken aback. He had good grades, so said they could get him working on computers. "I want to be a grunt, like I read about," Hudson told them, to which they replied. "Really? It's the worst!" But Hudson persisted, and he was thrown into a very different world: "Next thing I knew, everybody was different. All different ethnicities, and hybrid ethnicities, different walks of life, and tattoos just out the wazoo." This new environment taught Hudson to be "more compassionate and loving of different kinds of people" – even while the Marines were instructing him "how to sneak up on somebody with a knife."
After serving as a rifleman in the Marine Reserves, Hudson entered the MFA program at Brown University, a famously experimental program headed by Robert Coover. Near the end of his time there, Hudson heard about McSweeney's, the then-in-its-infancy project of Dave Eggers. "McSweeney's popped up out of nowhere, and it seemed like a revolution. You could be funny, weird, all this stuff."
Early issues of McSweeney's quarterlies combined the era's emerging icons (David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, Lydia Davis, Denis Johnson) with new authors who would soon cement their status in the literary world (George Saunders, Heidi Julavits, Ben Marcus, Zadie Smith). In a literary culture of staid lit mags publishing seemingly endless Raymond Carver clones, McSweeney's tried to make literature fun again with lots of humor and a try-anything approach to design, editing and fiction.
In addition to the quarterly, McSweeney's had an early humor website – still active and popular today – which is where Hudson started publishing letters. He soon met Eggers and was asked to operate as a plant in the audience during an Eggers reading. Hudson was tasked at interrupting with comments, like, "I'm sorry to bother you, but could you just slow down?" and "I’m thinking about getting a pet. Would you recommend I get a goldfish or a dog?" while everyone simmered in anger.
What happened next was a whirlwind rise to publication. Hudson sold his car and moved to New York, where, after another Eggers reading, he was introduced to his editor. "I talked to her for like an hour. And then there was a two-book deal on the table within a week of that from Knopf and Vintage." The first book, Dear Mr. President, was a surreal satire of the Gulf War, where chimpanzees and mysterious extra body parts mingle with traumatized veterans and injured civilians. It won an Academy of American Arts and Letters prize for debut fiction.
The second part of the two-book deal would take another 15 years.
After the highs of publication, Hudson says he fell into the familiar pit of writer's block. "I was literally miserable for years," he says, although admits that outside of writing his life was pretty enjoyable. His mother and stepfather were living in Thailand, and he began traveling around Asia. "I went to Vietnam and lived there for a couple months. I went down to the islands of Thailand and lived in a beach bungalow on a beach for six weeks by myself trying to be a writer. I was like, 'This feels very writerly, let's let those words fly now.' But it didn't come so much." Then he took a tenure-track position at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea, living there and teaching until 2012.
While Gulf War satire and science-fiction dragon coming-of-age novel might seem like very different beasts, what connects Hudson's two books across the 15-year gap is his sharp humor. Comedy has always been important to Hudson, who says "in a parallel universe somewhere, I'm just doing stand-up. To me that is one of the great art forms." Hudson considers Kurt Vonnegut his guiding light, having read him constantly since seventh grade. "Never stopped. Except for a little bit of time when people tried to tell me that literature was something beyond that, and I waded in that for a while, and it was not satisfying. Then I went back to Vonnegut."
Even when he was studying avant-garde literature at Brown, Hudson was prone to pranks. He describes introducing himself at the start of one of Coover's classes and explaining he was studying "neuro-linguistic science" that let him change the physical world with words. To demonstrate, he took the class outside and gave them water balloons. "You can throw a water balloon," he told them, "just say 'Gabe, are you thirsty?' And I say, 'Yes, mother, can I have a glass of water?' Then they'd throw and miss because, well, most people don't really know how to throw. When one hit, it bounced off him without breaking and Hudson said, 'Do you see how this is working?'"
Gork fully commits to its voice and premise, telling the story of teenage warrior dragons without any human characters. Gork, with his puny horns and big heart (both literally and figuratively), has a hard time being the terror he has to be, and when "Crown Day" comes – a kind of dragon prom where instead of slow dancing you conquer planets – he goes on an epic quest to find his queen. Outcast cyborg dragons, underworld demons and Gork's mad scientist grandfather, Dr. Terrible, all get involved in a plot as bizarre as a Vonnegut novel.
Sitting at the bar, Hudson is animated and excited that his writing led him – if in a circuitous path – to Gork. "You need to create a freedom for yourself, so that no one ever tries to box you in as 'the Gulf War novelist' or whatever the heck it is," he says. When writing Gork, he told himself to cast his literary net across the history of storytelling to employ everything he loved from all genres of literature. "You're going to use it all and have a kind of joy in the writing. And if they don't accept this novel, screw it, at least you had a good time writing it."