- By Joe Gross American-Statesman Staff
Owen Egerton would like to see the city of Austin decide to end homelessness.
“I absolutely think we could do it,” Egerton said. The novelist, volunteer, screenwriter, director, husband, father, event and podcast host and ongoing hardest working man in Austin entertainment and cultural production is discussing “Hollow,” his new novel.
“Hollow” is about Oliver, a man who goes through a crisis of, well, all sorts of things after the death of his child. It’s about the particular madness into which grief can toss us. It’s about the Book of Job and humanity’s millennia-long struggle with the nature of suffering. It’s about the hollow Earth theory (yes, really). And it’s about homelessness, specifically homelessness in Austin, where the book is set.
Indeed, “Hollow” takes place largely in an Austin that rich tech bros, or bearded blow-ins from Los Angeles, or folks here for the Austin City Limits Festival might not know all that well — a world of cheap flophouses, the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless shelter and soup kitchens.
Then again, given the sheer volume of unhoused Austinites hanging out around ARCH and given its proximity to Sixth and Red River streets — not to mention a whole mess of hotels — homelessness is increasingly something associated with the tourist-facing side of Austin.
Egerton thinks this can be avoided. “We do have a shortage of affordable housing,” Egerton says, “but I also think Austin could be the kind of city that says, ‘Let’s effectively end homelessness.’ The resources are here. Let’s be an example.”
In addition to all his cultural work, Egerton has volunteered with Hospice Austin and the Trinity Center, the homelessness resource organization associated with St. David’s Episcopal.
“Volunteering at Trinity has been a really beautiful part of my life,” Egerton, who spent some time in his teens as a born-again Christian, says. “The ability of those folks (at the center) to practice practical compassion is extraordinary.”
He says none of the characters in “Hollow” are based on a specific person he encountered at Trinity.
“I remember someone describing writing fiction as like a dream,” Egerton says. “In a dream, some of the people and places might be recognizable, but they are not really themselves, and they are in the wrong order. Like, your gym coach from sixth grade is at your wedding. ‘Hollow’ is like that. This book for me captures a lot of the people and places that I have seen in Austin, but not specific folks.”
Egerton traces the book back about five years. “I became obsessed with two things,” Egerton says. “Questions that arise after reading the Book of Job, specifically if suffering has no meaning, does the universe have no meaning, and the hollow Earth theory.”
The Book of Job has, of course, long hypnotized writers and artists with its extraordinary beauty and power and its concern with the Really Big Questions, perhaps the Biggest Question: If God exists, why is there suffering in the world?
“The passion and the pain in the central poem of Job raises questions that are absolutely fundamental to what it means to be alive,” Egerton says.
One of the key moments comes in Job 13:23 — “How many are mine iniquities and sins? Make me to know my transgression and my sin.”
“This is a huge moment,” Egerton says, “because Job is essentially saying, ‘Look, let me know what I am being punished for, because if I have done something wrong and I am being punished, then the universe still makes sense.’”
Egerton brings up that cultural bromide, “Everything happens for a reason.”
“I never really got that one,” Egerton says. “Sin does not equal punishment, and suffering often does not have meaning.”
“Hollow” doesn’t answer this question, which Egerton sees as in keeping with Job: “The important thing is that we continue to circle the question.”
Egerton ended up plumbing his (and any parent’s) darkest fear: the death of a child.
“I have not lost a child,” Egerton says, “but I have friends who have, and I ended up thinking a lot about where your mind would go in that confusion and pain, what questions I would ask and how I would unravel.”
Egerton says his wife and kids gave him a lot of space to dive in to this very unpleasant headspace: “There were a few extended writing trips, a lot of time in the shed behind our house for 72-hour marathons of protein shakes and instant coffee, just getting as much out as possible at once.”
As for the hollow Earth stuff, Egerton says he just fell down that rabbit hole (as it were).
“I have always been fascinated in what people believe,” Egerton says. “Humans seem hard-wired with this capacity to believe, and some beliefs are accepted into the cultural mainstream and some are more fringe. The hollow Earth theory is the latter. It ended up being this fantastic landscape for our hopes and fears.”
Egerton became increasingly interested in the metaphorical implications of the hollow Earth.
“The hope of enlightenment is part of certain hollow Earth ideas,” Egerton says. “The idea that we are perhaps the sinful cousins who have been kicked to the surface, and if we find these big holes at the North Pole, holes that do not actually exist, of course, then we can escape to Eden.”
Does Egerton believe in a hollow Earth? No. In fact, recent events have made this aspect of the book somewhat distasteful to him.
“All of this stuff was a lot more fun before the rise of ‘fake news’ in the past year,” Egerton says. “Suddenly, there is mounting evidence that way too many Americans believe absolutely anything that fits with their fantasies or prejudices.”