Author Jon Herbert was born in Salt Lake City and raised in a Mormon household on the outskirts of town, the youngest of six children. From his father, Herbert learned how to write, penning his first book in fifth grade. As a teenager, Herbert acquired a love of the urban lifestyle and, after graduating from the University of Utah with a degree in English Literature, he settled in the downtown area of Salt Lake City, where he manages a business and writes fiction.
Herbert’s first book, Life on the Dingleball Fringe, is a collection of short stories about a side of Salt Lake City that most may not realize exists. Set mostly in bars and taverns, the book chronicles the misadventures of a ragtag group of individuals who drink heavily, do drugs and hook up with the wrong people. With compassion and wit, Herbert acutely observes the good, bad and downright ugly aspects of living life on the fringe.
How did your upbringing help to shape who you are today?
I was raised Mormon so I would have to say, not very much pertaining to that these days. I was a pretty normal kid, maybe a little eccentric. I went to public schools and also home-schooled in the summer. My upbringing involved a lot of storytelling and reciting poems and journaling at the direction of my father, who was an English teacher and complete Shakespeare nut. We both had summers off. I suppose the lure of storytelling has remained with me ever since in that regard.
It sort of painted me as an oddball. My friends would laugh when I told them how I couldn’t play football because I had to either memorize a Faulkner phrase and recite it at the Sunday dinner table or keep a nature log of what is happening in our backyard for six weeks.
Raised Mormon in Salt Lake meant a lot of church-related activities in Boy Scouts and Mormon Priesthood (Male Mormon stuff) too. I was the youngest of six. I have an Eagle Scout Award. I also served an LDS mission in the middle Tennessee area. I did it mainly for the adventure. There’s something mysterious about being a missionary. It’s like you’re a private investigator of lost souls. The early-in-life journaling had the most impact on my writing in general though.
Who are your biggest creative influences?
Something that’s funny and nicely phrased always grabs my attention. I think as writers go; Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Joyce, Poe, Whitman, Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, William Carlos Williams. After discovering Robert Walser, Mark Leyner and Donald Barthleme in college, I really felt liberated. Barthleme is just so very smart. I could never ever in my wildest dreams write a story like Donald Barthleme, but I sure as hell will try.
What made you decide to write Life on the Dingleball Fringe?
It all started so innocently. Sometimes I experiment with voice characters and come up with phrases that are appealing and try to improvise along to create some context. The narrative voice for Dingleball started happening one night with some people I met at a bar. They would express mundane and routine things to each other, and then there would be a segue into something a bit more bizarre, maybe to just keep someone’s attention or something.
I started to narrate by dictating on my phone and then improvise as a passive observer, essentially close-reading the situation as it developed. It created a real sense of intimacy. I soon realized there were a lot more things that needed to be said in this context. It was a lot of fun discovering this way of writing and I started accumulating a lot of material. Plus, no one bothered me at work because they thought I was on the phone talking to someone.
What was the most challenging aspect of writing this book?
The amount of material in such a short period of time was both exhilarating and exhausting. I really had an obligation to keep telling the story and keep it all together after so much material and so quickly realized. In the end I had to find a typist, I just couldn’t keep up. Looking back I am glad I asked for help. I’d do it again if necessary.
What are the pros and cons of writing a story with a narrator who is an impartial observer?
It seems the benefit of an impartial narrator is giving the reader a sense of safety and intimacy. You get to observe along with your observant friend (narrator).
But it’s pretty hard to create a trust relationship with a reader when they either don’t believe you or simply don’t care about the consequences of the characters’ decisions.
Early on in writing the book, I had an urge to want to hear from some of the characters so I tried to include — what would have been — some of their conversations but realized adding too much of what they had to say diminished the overall trust the narrator initially set-up and it didn’t go over too well. You’d like to think these people could speak for themselves. Perhaps in the process of them carrying on conversations you could draw your own conclusions. But rather than focusing on the consequences of their life choices, I decided to look at them from this perspective:
A while ago a friend of mine adopted a pit-bull and unfortunately it got out and ended up attacking another dog. The reality is humans make conscious choices where animals act on survival impulse. But at the same time, I realized these people are just trying to survive, doing the best they can. I think most people go along in their private world assuming that the animal nature is basically non-existent in humanity itself, but the reality is it’s just been systematically suppressed since the dawn of millennia. I couldn’t judge the characters for the decisions they make, just like I couldn’t judge the pit-bull. The narrator tries to judge them, perhaps wants to, but in the end realizes it’s pretty impossible to stop what’s already been set into motion. That kind of makes the story.
From your perspective, what are the biggest differences between Salt Lake City in 2015 and Salt Lake City in the 1970s and 1980s?
From 1970-2015, the Salt Lake Valley filled up with homes and business. In 1970, it was basically a thinly developed valley. Pollution is getting worse. It settles in like a primordial miasma of refinery, construction, auto emission and jet fuel gasses. I’d love to bring back the ’70s. But if you’re wearing bellbottoms in 2015 in Salt Lake City, it’s because you’re covering up an ankle bracelet monitor.
In your opinion, what separates a great bar from a mediocre one?
Great bars 86. Mediocre, cut off.
What is your drink of choice these days?
A couple shots of Wild Turkey and a few beers.
If you could only eat at one Salt Lake City-area restaurant for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
What would you like to do that you simply haven’t found the time for yet?
Paint my masterpiece.
What are you working on next?
I am working on a new novel. It’s a low-end upward mobility story where instead of hearing how a hotshot new lawyer is promoted to partner after winning a high profile criminal defense trial, you hear about a concession stand attendant who jockeys for position as night security guard at a downtown parking garage.