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Thursday, December 15, 2011

#28 Megan Abbott

Twenty Questions with Mourning Goats
Megan Abbott

Recommendations are a hell of a thing, and Megan was highly recommended by a friend to not only interview for the site, but read for pleasure. When doing the research for this, I found a lot of common connections between other Mourning Goats authors and am positive that a lot of our readers would enjoy her work. Thank you for answering my questions, Megan! Everyone else, go pick up what's currently available, as well as her next book coming out in July!

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "Mourning Goats?"

Every time I see it I misread it and think of the Mountain Goats, the band.

2. What was it like having The End of Everything being named one of Publisher’s Weekly best books of 2011?

Very exciting. With so many books coming out all the time, you’re always so grateful to be singled out.
So much of publishing is the feeling of being down a mine shaft, calling out, “I’m here! Really!” Best of
all was to be in the company of so many other wonderful writers, Kate Atkinson, Laura Lippman, Reed
Farrel Coleman.

3. Do you think living in Queens puts you around the center of the publishing industry? Has it affected anything in your writing career?

Proximity to Manhattan does have its conveniences. But in some ways, it’s challenging. You become so
aware of the business of books and I have to try to forget all that in order to write. The business side, the
networking, it can be overwhelming, and stressful. It’s important to shut it all out and crawl inside your
own head. Find the story, find the character, find the voice.

4. You did a PhD in Literature from NYU, how do you think it shaped your career? Your writing?

I think so. I loved graduate school. It was this priceless opportunity to talk about books around the clock.
To uncover so much. It brought my mind to life, in many ways. And I discovered classic hardboiled and
noir fiction there. It’s where I first immersed myself in Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain. And that’s
what started me writing.

5. Do you think you’ll ever have the opportunity to write full-time? Would you want to?

I pretty much do write full time, but I have no desire to quit my part-time job (at a nonprofit social service
agency) because I think I’d go crazy if I didn’t have some place I had to be a few days a week. It pushes
me out in the world, forces me to have a part of my life that isn’t publishing and isn’t solitary. And the
place I work, Union Settlement, does important work among the hardest of circumstances and it inspires
me. Keeps me grounded too.

6. Do you feel like you’re being asked less questions about being a woman writer of noir/crime/etc,
these days? I don’t see sex as a reason to write in a certain style.

Hmm….I haven’t noticed any decline in those questions yet. But I think they’ll keep getting asked as long
as we keep defining genre so narrowly, and defining gender so narrowly.

7. It sounds like you love Raymond Carver, he’s one of my favorites of all time, do you feel like he’s been an inspiration on your own writing?

Oh, boy, I love him. He was one of my big revelations in my early 20s. But his style is so contagious, and
my attempts to mimic it were terrible, so I had to force myself to stop reading him for a long time. A few
weeks ago, though, I was at Dove & Hudson, this great bookstore in Albany and I picked up the recent
biography by Carol Sklenicka. I couldn’t put it down and it was like falling in love all over again, and
getting your heart broken too. Beautiful.

8. Do you think that being a writer nowadays is a lot less of a lonely thing because of the constant connections online?

Maybe. Probably. That’s a great question. I would say yes, but I also think it’s awfully dangerous. My
life has been transformed by finding so many people online with the same book-loves as me, the same
odd interests. For years I thought I was sort of a freak for some of my tastes (for obscure true-crime, for
unsolved cases, etc.) and now I know there’s thousands of souls out there like me. But the risk is that
I might spend all my time on Facebook, talking about the Winnie Ruth Judd murder case, instead of

9. Have you been in any writing workshops or groups? What do you think of them?

No. I have a rotten time showing anyone my work until it’s finished. I count on my agent and editor. Too
many voices in my head paralyze me. I am always impressed with writers who can do that, who have a
thick enough skin.

10. What was it like growing up with two parents in higher education? Do you think you were pushed harder than your peers?

I think my parents’ greatest gift to me, one to which I owe everything, is the way they encouraged me all
the time to explore every interest—from 1930s gangster movies to Frank Sinatra to Sigmund Freud. They
would take me to used bookstores, old movies, museums, trips to unusual places—if I expressed even a
passing interest in something, they’d find ways to fuel it. I’m so grateful for it.

11. You met Sara Gran, the co-author of your blog, The Abbott Gran Old Tyme Medicine Show, in
person for the first time at the same place (Poisoned Pen Bookstore, Scottsdale AZ) I met two of my favorite authors, Craig Clevenger and Will Christopher Baer, what do you think having another
author in the same genre as a friend, has done for your writing and for your life?

I feel like Sara and I were separated at birth. We grew up in very different environments (suburban
Midwest vs. Brooklyn), but we have an unbelievable amount in common and I know there’s nothing too
strange, esoteric or obscure to share with her. Funnily enough, we don’t talk too much about our works-in
-progress, or publishing, because, I think, both of us find relief in not having to talk about that. In having
someone with whom we can just talk about weird books we find, the endless pleasures of Twin Peaks, or
why Jacques Lacan is so hard to read.

12. On your last book tour you traveled all over the place, including Scotland! What is touring like
with you? Do you enjoy it?

I am not a natural at it, it’s true. I don’t sleep and generally want to hide under the nearest table the whole
time. But it’s led me to unforgettable experiences, from drinking pony bottles of Miller at a dive bar in
San Francisco’s Tenderloin to exploring Edinburgh Castle at the crack of dawn.

13. Do you have any kind of writing schedule or is it just when you can fit it in?

I write all the time. I start at 7 AM most days (unless I’m at the office) and go off and on all day. There’s
just no other way for me. I lose the thread of the book otherwise. And I don’t know what to do with
myself. It’s a compulsion, even though I do write very slowly.

14. Your first published piece was poetry, do you still write any?

It was? Really? I did write poetry in college—do you mean the college literary journal? At age 19 or so, I

do know I wrote many, many variations on Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy.” Mostly, I think my early poems were
stories in disguise, and my stories were novel fragments. I think I’m meant for the longer form.

15. When you were writing your dissertation for your PhD, you needed an outlet and started writing fiction, can you tell us a little bit about what went down there?

Boy, I just needed a break from critical thinking, from analysis. And I loved the books I was reading so
much—Chandler, Cain, Himes, Hammett. So I began a novel on the side as a way of, essentially, writing
my way into the world of those books. Somehow—and I’m still not sure how—it became Die a Little, my
first book.

16. I read somewhere that you think that the best writer of all time was William Faulkner, what makes you think that?

The Sound and the Fury was the book that changed my life. A transformational reading experience and
the only time ever that I finished a book and then immediately began it again from the beginning. I can’t
think of any other writer who’s so smashed the world around us, built a dark, glimmering new one, and
invited us in. You read him, and you are his. His books own you.

17. I’ve heard whispers of your books being turned in to movies, what’s happening with them, now?

Die a Little (for film) and Queenpin (for TV) are both under option now. We’ll see, but you know the
siren song of Hollywood. I try to manage my expectations and focus on books!

18. Are there any new authors you’d like to give a shout-out?

Too many to mention for fear I’d leave someone else out! It’s an exciting time for crime fiction. In other
genres, there’s a memoir I’m dying to read: Darcy Lockman’s Brooklyn Zoo, about a psychotherapist’s
year rotation at Kings County Hospital. I was able to get a sneak of the first chapter and was mesmerized.

19. What’s the best advice you’ve received for a career in writing? Best you can give?

Read constantly, read what you love. Write all the time, write the books you want to read.

20. What’s next for Megan Abbott?

My next novel, Dare Me, comes out in July. A journey into the dark world of cheerleaders. I think of it
as Fight Club set in high school. It’s about the warrior hearts of young women, seeking a chance to roar.
And, of course, there’s a crime.

Thank you!


Tuesday, November 15, 2011

#27 Fred Venturini

20 Questions with Mourning Goats
Fred Venturini

A friend of mine told me about Fred and explained how nice of a guy he was and that not only that, he had a heck of a book out. Now that I've read the book and interviewed the author, I agree with both. Please read the interview and go pick up the book!

1. What comes to mind when you hear, “Mourning Goats?”

The Cubs have won the World Series, so a group of goats are standing around a flaming garbage can in a back alley, lamenting their fade into obscurity since no one will talk about the “Curse of the Billy Goat” anymore.

2. In a recent Facebook post you said that your new book is on pace to be four times longer than The Samaritan, can you tell us any more about it?

I’m jumping into a sandbox full of my favorite toys in the new book, that’s for sure. We have a young man, Ben, who is about to finish up college and has run into that “what am I going to do with my life” wall. Then he ends up becoming one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, but this doesn’t sit well with him because, by golly, he’s fallen in love. So he decides to stop the other three from unleashing the Beast and ending the world. I must add that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse do not sparkle, not ever.

3. At one point you had some traumatic spinal injury, what happened? Have you ever been inspired to write from an injury?

Oh yeah, I’ve had a ton of injuries. I’ve been in a truck that got rear-ended so hard, we ended up in some guy’s kitchen. Broke my neck in another car accident. Got burned when I was ten years old; a bully set me on fire. I’ve just had weird things happen to me—a can of corn exploded in a bonfire, hit me in the chest. Once, in high school, my desk just fell apart around me for no reason and I got skinned up pretty good. I do write from injury. For one thing, recovering from injury or being on painkillers is a great time to do some writing. And, I mean, if you’ve been on fire, you kind of owe it to your audience to write about it at some point.

4. You’re a big sports fan, who are your teams for this year?

I’m a Chicago sports guy, through and through. Upcoming NHL season, look out for the Hawks. They have a chance to get it done. There’s no NBA season so far, so I miss watching Derrick Rose play. NFL, the aging Bears are giving me a heart attack. I live in southern Illinois, so it’s St. Louis sports country, so believe me, I have a great time because these fans are passionate and they love any reason to hate on a Cubs fan. They also love squirrels.

5. I read The Samaritan on my Kindle 3, is that the same one your wife got you for your birthday? Do you love it?

I can’t believe how much I enjoy the Kindle. I never knew how much effort it took to turn pages, and it really does look like real paper. Kindle Fire is already out, so like any good electronic device, I guess our Kindle is obsolete already. But you know what? I don’t want movies or apps mixed with my books, so this Kindle shall serve me well for years to come, I’m sure.

6. What type of writing would you categorize yourself in, you hit on a lot of areas in your short stories?

I’m terrible at self-categorization, that’s for sure. I try to mix it up, stay uncomfortable, not do the same thing over and over. It’s tough because you want to revert into your comfort zone. Sometimes I pitch my stories or ideas to a friend and they’ll say, “You really are f’d up, you know?” So that’s a good category for me, “f’d up.”

7. A lot of our readers spend their time on The Cult (Chuck Palahniuk’s website) and The Velvet (Craig Clevenger, Will Christopher Baer, and Stephen Graham Jones’ site), do you think that these writing communities are changing literature?

Changing it, no. Improving the hell out of it, yes. I’ve been on those sites and talked to a lot of those writers, and quite simply, the creativity and drive is there whether or not the website or community is there—it’s just that having that outlet, that networking capacity, that feedback and support improves the work. For instance, I have no doubt that a guy like Richard Thomas (a talented guy I met via The Cult) is going to write his ass off and make good things happen, but when he has access to The Cult, it’s like literary steroids—he’s going to hit .300 because he’s a hard worker and has passion, but The Cult helps him hit .330 and slug a few more jacks.

8. What was it like doing a virtual tour? Will you do it for your next book?

I’d love to do it for my next book. One word to describe the experience—unpredictable. You never know what a certain audience is going to think of your work or how they’ll react to it, so you’ve got to be ready for anything. Be interactive, be gracious, have fun, and it’s a great experience. Can’t wait to do it again.

9. Was being contacted about the TV and movie rights to your book a crazy experience? What went down?

Crazy, indeed. The big climax was, I ended up on the phone personally talking to a producer of a couple 100 million dollar films, and we talked hockey for about the first twenty minutes. Then it was an hour of insider film talk, just a treasure-trove of information, like getting a master’s degree in film over a one-hour phone call. I’ll never forget it, that’s for sure. I found out all the reasons my book would work as a film, who might make it, and what’s working against it being made, etc. The huge bonus was that he let me pitch all my other concepts (in a follow up call) and ideas and pointed out the ones that would be the most commercial. You don’t get a chance to do that too often. Let’s just say I’m trying to not waste the capital I built up in all these interactions.

10. The Samaritan is your fourth novel, are you doing anything with your first books? Do you think you ever will?

Right now, they are collecting virtual mold in some hidden folder. I’m not sure I’ll revisit them; sometimes what’s done is done. But it’s fun to look back at the writer you used to be, before your work took a leap, just to remind yourself that it may not feel like it sometimes, but you’re getting better with every page.

11. You mention your MFA in a lot of interviews. Where did you go? Would you do it again if given the chance?

I went to Lindenwood University, and yes, the MFA was lights out awesome. I know a lot of people are getting a similar experience for less in an online workshop, but let me tell you, the friends and contacts that I made, the leap my work took, the quality of the instructors I studied under, it was just an unbelievable experience and if you’re thinking of the MFA route, just do it. You won’t regret it.

12. In one interview you said that you’re now interacting with authors that you were previously a fan of. What’s it like to get praise from your own literary heroes?

Distilled down, the feeling I get is “I do not want to disappoint them; I do not want them to take back their praise.” Once you get by the “wow this is cool” reaction, that’s the feeling I’m left with. Quite motivating and scary at the same time. Never once does my mind allow me to put myself even close to their level. Fanboy for life, so to speak.

13. You did a visiting writer series Kaskaskia College, what was that like? What did you do?

That’s in November, but I’m excited for it and I’m pretty sure it’s another opportunity to swear in public.

14. Did you go to Bouchercon in October? How was it?

Different, for me, since I’m not a mystery guy. I was a little unfamiliar with the territory, but like any good writing convention, you meet some people, catch up with some people, have a beverage, read some stuff, and walk out with a stack of great books.

15. Who’s your first reader? What do you ask for on a first read?

This might be dodging the question, but I’m my first reader. You could say I’m really insecure with my early drafts. I have a group of writing friends that I’ll ask to take a look at stuff, my publisher reads stuff, I can always hit my online avenues, but usually they get a second draft. But when I do hand it off to someone, the answer is, whoever has the free time to take a peek. My trusted readers have busy lives as well, so I don’t like to burden them.

16. Do you enjoy reading in public? How do you prepare?

Once I start reading, I love it. I do get nervous during the run-up to the reading, but hey, if you don’t get nervous, where’s the excitement? I take a long time picking out stuff to read, practicing it, getting the rhythm down. First person is great in public; dark humor is great in public. I read perhaps my “sickest” story recently and the laughs didn’t stop.

17. You first considered yourself a writer when you wrote the poem, “The Midnight Walk,” was it about a girl? Do you still dabble in poetry?

No poetry for me. I’m officially retired. But no, it wasn’t about a girl, it was actually about a guy trying to convince a stranger that the USA is the best place to live, but the stranger is unconvinced and ends up being Satan. So when it came to horror stuff, I got an early start.

18. Do you enjoy working with a small press?

I can’t imagine what it’s like working with one of the huge publishing houses. Emails get returned, the attention to detail and outside-the-box thinking are just incredible. I love the support I get from Blank Slate Press. The Samaritan would never have been finished without them.

19. What’s one of the biggest things you’ve learned from publishing your first book?

A few things. One, it’s hard. Two, you can’t do it alone. Being a writer and an author are two different things; I’m grateful for the audience I’ve built with this first book and I hope to keep them as this ride continues.

20. What’s next for Fred Venturini?

In April, fatherhood, so I’m excited about a whole new chapter and challenge in my life. As for writing, my plan for the future is simple—stay humble, stay hungry, keep writing. Cream rises to the top so I’ll just keep my fingers crossed that I am actually creamy. Only one way to find out, and that’s to keep going . . .

Thank you!


Tuesday, November 1, 2011

#26 Mykle Hansen

20 Questions with Mourning Goats
Mykle Hansen

Mykle has some of the most amazing book titles I've ever read, Help! A Bear Is Eating Me!, The Cannibals Guide to Ethical Living, and my favorite, Rampaging Fuckers of Everything on the Crazy Shitting Planet of the Vomit Atmosphere. The titles brought me in, and the stories kept me around. Please read a fantastic interview with an fantastic author.

1. What comes to mind when you hear "mourning goats?"

On a damp hillside under oppressive gray clouds, a cluster of hairy, horny, smelly goats surround the cairn where they have buried their assassinated leader.  In the middle of the night his head was kicked in by paratrooping giraffes. The goats swear vengeance!  They are already constructing a huge inflatable sheep. They will take the battle to the skies.

2. You have some of the best titles, ever. Do you have a favorite?

Thanks!  Titles matter! I briefly considered calling my next book MY PUBLISHER SAYS THESE LONG UNWIELDY BOOK TITLES SELL REALLY WELL SO HERE'S ANOTHER ONE.  But I've recently seen a lot of other writers using the same trick -- sometimes really well, like when Josh Lieb called his book I AM A GENIUS OF UNSPEAKABLE EVIL AND I WANT TO BE YOUR CLASS PRESIDENT. So now I'm trying to be both clever and concise, which I find is harder than being clever and long-winded.  My new book is called HOORAY FOR DEATH!, and that's definitely my favorite title at the moment.

3. Who's your first reader? Why?

My wife, Gesine.  She is the one who encouraged me to take all this seriously in the first place. She's a voracious reader -- she reads way more than I do! -- and although she's totally fluent, English is her second language. I think she's very sensitive to English in general and specifically to what I'm trying to do. She notices when I do it wrong, and I trust her enough to take her advice to heart.

4. What goes down at bizarrocon?

First we fill the hot tub with buttered unicorns ... actually Bizarrocon is the occasion when all the Bizarro writers and promoters and supporters, and even a few plain-old fans, descend on this weird psuedo-gothic former insane asylum in suburban Oregon.We talk, we drink, we strategize the takeover of your planet. It's fun!  There's panels, discussions, an Ultimate Bizarro Showdown, and usually the publisher of Eraserhead brews a bunch of beer.

5. I feel like Portland is where most of my favorite writers come from.  
What is the draw out there for art and writing?

Portland is so positively overstuffed with amazing artists and writers that it's becoming difficult to even obtain basic art supplies like marijuana.  Therefore we have all recently gotten together and sworn an oath to discourage any more of you from moving out here! Our talking points: Portland is dry, ugly, miserable, expensive, tornado-prone, plagued by syphilis, and there is a giant Turd Monster in the river that climbs out at night to eat bicycles. All of our police have OCD and all of our strippers have mustaches.  The food tastes like cardboard and the beer tastes like Zima.  And the people are mean -- especially me.  You'd be much happier in Detroit.

6. Do you think location dictates the type of stories you write?

I'm struggling to find a more interesting answer than "no," but ....

7. What's your process? Do you write every day? Pen and paper? Computer?

Typewriter.  I try to write first-thing in the morning as the coffee hits.  When I'm working on a story, whether it's a novel or a short thing, I spend time with it every day seated in front of the typewriter in my office-slash-trailer. No music, no other distractions.  It's torture, but it works.

8. What's your definition of bizarro fiction?

I think what SF does -- loosen the bounds of the plausible in order to explore ideas and possibilities -- is analogous to what Bizarro does, but Bizarro does it to prod and provoke much lower level stuff: fears, taboos, fetishes, the dusty junk in the bottom of the brain.

9. Do you ever write in any other genres?

The lowliest genre I know is computer programming, and I've done tons of that. I'm not a stickler for genre; it's something to think about when selling a book -- and yes, I care about sales -- but it's not something to be concerned with when writing.  I have been working on a little biography of a pen-pal of mine who passed away, which is not Bizarro at all.  And I've written some children's books, and children's television projects, which probably have some strain of that weirdness running through them but are much gentler. I keep thinking I'd like to write a nice normal story about nice normal people and their lifelike problems, but I don't even know anybody like that.

10. What's your favorite thing to write? Are you more a fan of short or long?

I really do adore short stories.  Conciseness is beautiful. I try to keep everything short; my stories only get longer if they absolutely demand it.  Even my novels are pretty short by novel standards. Omit needless words!

11. How have you gone about getting your work published? Did you go through an agent?

Short answer: I went from photocopying my own 'zines to photocopying my own first book -- a very awkward route -- because I never really considered the possibility of success.  Then various people "discovered" me. At some point I realized I had been doing everything wrong, but by then it was too late.

Long answer: I tell that story better in the afterward to the new edition of EYEHEART EVERYTHING, my first book.  And that afterword was published online at a great site called THOUGHT CATALOG, so you can just go read that to get the nitty gritty details of how to succeed the Mykle Hansen way.

12. If one of our readers finds themselves being eaten by a bear, what advice would you give them?

There is a complete (and handy!) step-by-step guide to being eaten by a bear at helpabeariseatingme.com, and Google can also offer a wealth of advice.  If you're heading into bear country where smart-phone reception can be poor, it's probably a good idea to print out the whole internet and take it with you.

But if the bear is already eating you, chances are you have already flubbed the first several steps of the encounter.  Sorry to add insult to injury.  The good news is that few bears are hungry enough to consume all of you.  Most likely you'll only lose some limbs and die. If you've carried a copy of HELP! A BEAR IS EATING ME! with you, this is a great time to smear it with your bloody hand prints. That'll give your next-of-kin something valuable to sell on eBay.

13. Do you believe that the naked pictures of your cat on your website show her in a whorish light?

Actually, LOL is a boy cat.  But he'll still sit in your lap if you dangle enough string.  Some people would call that prostitution, but I think LOL would prefer the term "hustling."

14. I heard that you're also a musician, what do you play? Do you think writing and music go hand in hand?

I played drums in my last band, guitar and singing in the one before that.  I'm teaching myself trumpet at the moment, much to my family's chagrin.  I do think that language is full of rhythm and music. I strive to write prose that sounds good to read, and I read everything out loud as part of the revising process. For the podcast of HELP! A BEAR IS EATING ME! I went overboard on that, re-writing each chapter from the recording but then editing the recording from the rewrites.

It's very tricky, trying to communicate this music of language, because every reader applies their own voice and timing to written prose. I think that's why sometimes a given reader can't enjoy a given writer on the page, but when they hear it spoken they suddenly get it. I often wish I could write actual notes in text -- especially rests! 

I am always struggling with how to express various pauses, often by abusing commas.  In sheet music you have very specific symbols for time: half, quarter, eighth, whole, et cetera.  In prose you can only assign different durations of dead air to periods, commas, colons and semicolons, paragraphs and line breaks and chapters, and hope that the reader has similar ideas.

15. Do you think having a child changes the way you write and the subject matter?

Certainly. I spoke about that a little bit with Patrick Wensink for his blog project a few months ago.  Having a child broke down some of my pretensions about art and literature and put me much more in a mood to appreciate the things kids appreciate.  But now that my daughter is eleven she's developing her own pretensions.  We can be elite aesthetes together!  Such fun.

16. What's it like being a stay-at-home dad? Is it as great as it sounds?

It's been a lot of things.  I'm fortunate to have a really nice home, the remodeling and repair of which has been our other major art project for the last decade.  But I need outside stimulation.  People who commute to work get a certain amount of that for free, but I have to go looking for it.  If I don't, I'll get stuck in a rut.  

When my daughter was small I'd just strap her on the back of my bike and ride off in pursuit of adventure. These days she's old enough to stay home, so I have a bit more freedom to take risks.

17. When did you start writing? 

I can't even remember not writing.  My mom let me toy with her electric typewriter when I was a toddler, and I used to play it like drums. 

18. Who are some of your favorite bizarro writers? Or, writers in general?

Bizarro is a big family and I haven't read all of it, but Carlton Mellick III has been doing it longer than almost anybody and he's still great. I also really like Anderson Prunty and Cameron Pierce's recent books.

I just discovered Sam Lipsyte and read everything he ever wrote. I like writers, like him, who understand poetry and use it to write prose. I enjoy beautiful language, but not for its own sake. Joy Williams is another great writer like that. I'm also very keen on the generations just previous to mine: Martin Amis, Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, Donald Barthelme ... I'm largely ignorant of the classics, but I do like Moby Dick.  I got to read a chapter of that aloud last winter as part of a 24-hour marathon reading of the whole novel . It really holds up.

19. What advice do you have for the writers out there?

Get thee to a well-maintained typewriter.  It's the best tool for the job.

20. What can you tell us about your next projects? 

With HOORAY FOR DEATH! coming out in November (oh boy!) I'll be focused on promoting that for a few months at least.  Then, I'm either going to finish my novel about porn robots, restart my other novel about gay unicorns, or develop a children's television show about mutant squirrels. Or some combination of those.


Thank you!


Saturday, October 15, 2011

#25 Rob Roberge

 20 Questions with Mourning Goats

For interview twenty-five, we have one of the best interviews I've been lucky enough to receive. Mourning Goats interview #7, author Craig Clevenger, recommended Rob to me, saying that his work was, "truly amazing stuff." Well, he did not let down and neither did Rob. I am proud to give you what I believe to be one of the funniest and most thought out interviews yet!

1. What comes to mind when you hear, "mourning goats?"

Well, when I first heard of this (very cool, by the way) series, it made me think of the band The Mountain Goats, maybe because it sounded sort of the same, and I like some of their stuff a lot, and a friend of mine plays with them sometimes.

Then, after reading the interviews, what came to my mind was this page. It had replaced The Mountain Goats, once I knew what it was.

But, it also makes me think of Alonzo Mourning, retired from the NBA and starting a goat-breeding business called “Mourning Goats.” Cause, you know, that would probably be the name of Alonzo Mourning’s Goat-Breeding business, wouldn’t you think? Or “Mourning’s Goats”…he might like the sound of the possessive. I can’t speak for him. We had a falling out years ago. I can’t say much (it’s part of the settlement). But, let’s just say it involved us both being involved with a very famous and beautiful Hip-Hop star (again, I’d like to name her…but, the settlement) and it didn’t end well. It got ugly. This happens surprisingly often when unknown writers and rich NBA stars compete for the affections of beautiful, ridiculously famous women. Much more often than you’d guess. Just last year, my friend Tod Goldberg and LeBron James had quite the dust-up at AWP. I shouldn’t talk about that, though. It’s not really my place. All I can really say is don’t mess with Tod Goldberg, or you might end up so rattled that, even months later, you’ll play surprisingly poorly in the NBA Finals.

Though Tod is hardly as unknown as me…he’s a big-time famous writer. But still. My point was…well, you don’t want NBA stars and fiction writers in the same room unless you’re the kind of person who likes adult-sized trouble.

But, you know, back to Alonzo for a moment. He might call his Goat-Breeding business “Zo’s Goats”, but that doesn’t sound as cool. Maybe if he starts a Goat-Breeding business and uses your name, you can sue his rich ass and make some serious cheddar. But the settlement will include a gag-order, I can assure you.

2. You have fantastic reviews of your books on Amazon.com, how hard is it to not think about them when you write? 

Those are probably all me under a variety of fifty fake names.

Seriously? It’s easy not to think about them when I write. F. Scott Fitzgerald said (and he may have been quoting someone, so it may not originate with him, but he was the first I heard say/write it) that if you believe the good ones, you have to believe the bad ones.

I’m very flattered by them. And I do think of them when I think I suck. Though, on days I think I suck, they’re of no comfort because any praise I get on the dark days, I tend to think is wrong.

But, I really don’t think I’ve ever thought of them while writing, or even when I’m working on a project, but not sitting that moment writing. I wrote for a lot of years before anyone read anything of mine, save for the editors rejecting those pieces. So, my training had little, if anything, to do with worrying about an audience I didn’t have.

When I write, I think about the writing.

Actually, that’s not quite true. When I revise and edit, I think about the writing, narrative theory, issues of craft, and so on. When I write, I try to clear my head, listen to the language, and try to think of something that would happen next that would excite me, if I were reading the book. Writing is very “in the moment” for me. It’s some of the only time I’m not worrying about the future or regretting the past. Writing is a lot like sex. Somehow it’s become a sort of Zen-state for me, where I can be totally in the moment. And thinking doesn’t have much to do with it at that point.

3. How did you get involved in restoring old medical devices? 

In all honesty (and why not just be honest?), some friends of ours had this really electric cool sex toy they showed us called a Violet Wand.

(And just for the record, if anyone who’s in charge of the ethics clause in my wife’s contract is reading this, I’m talking about another wife. I’ve had eleven. Maybe sixteen, over the years. I’ve lost track. I’m the Liz Taylor of incredibly obscure writers…this parenthetical is less honest than the rest of this answer, but you can’t be too careful these days).

But, back to your Q: A Violet Wand is kind of a variation of a Tesla coil (not exactly, but this isn’t a science class, and I’m not bright enough to teach such a class, anyway), and it can give off a really mild, warm sensation, or it can be turned up (safely) to zap the hell out of a person. Or anywhere in between those two sensations. And they’re really beautiful…they use (mostly) Argon gas in a vacuum blown glass attachment, and they glow a stunning kind of purple/violet (hence the name) when they’re turned on, and the gas is excited. The glass attachment plugs into the hand-held device that is black (plastic now--Bakelite back in the day) about the size of a D-Battery flashlight. They had a bunch of different shapes of glass…one that looks like a comb that was supposed to cure baldness. This wacky shaped one that was for your heart. This was VERY quack science, as far as working medically. Other gasses in the glass give off different colors. Neon is a kind of orange.

Not often, but every once in a while, some of the glass parts were Mercury-coated in the old ones. They’re not clear, but the color of the Mercury in an old thermometer. Obviously, you shouldn’t be running electrically charged, heated Mercury over your skin. Those are the attachments you don’t use, and actually should get rid of safely. Mercury poisoning can make a person as whacked and loony and bat-shit crazy as Michele Bachmann. Or her husband. He’s even loonier, maybe, but that’s a tough race to call.

Anyway, new Violet Wands were really expensive and we were kind of broke, so I did some research and found out the new ones were just a modern version of this electric health/medical device from the 1920’s-1930’s called a Violet Ray. At the time, they were dirt cheap on eBay, so I bought a few, figured out how they worked and restored the best of the three, and re-wired it with a ground plug for safety.

And then, I ended up finding out about some other cool stuff—like Electro Muscle Stimulant Units (sort of a higher powered and more Dr. Frankenstein-y version of a TENS unit they use today for muscle rehab in physical therapy). There are unsafe ways to use those, so anyone out there reading this who is going to run out and buy them, read up on how to use them safely.

After that, I found a few others that were just kind of cool-looking. It’s odd…people were CRAZY for electric medical devices in the 1920’s and into the 30’s…electricity in homes was a little new, as more towns and cities installed AC current, and people seemed to think (or were told by ads and media of the day) that electricity could do everything and anything. So, a bunch of them are just cool looking and have no practical application unless someone wanted to lobotomize themselves, or read their personality by the bumps on their head with a Phrenology cap (very cool, if very stupid). I had a Phrenology cap and sold it. It’s one of my great regrets. One should never sell a Phrenology cap…they don’t grow on trees. They’re not something you trip over at Costco.

But, originally? I got into them for sex. It’s why I do a lot of things.

4. Do you think there's a connection between writing fiction and writing lyrics? 

When I write prose, I put a lot of pressure on myself and set the bar pretty high.
With music, the bar’s a little lower…I’m having fun with my friends and making noise and playing to bigger crowds than writers tend to get…getting to tour…I wish writers would tour like bands. It’s a hell of a lot more fun. Actually, Craig Clevenger and I are thinking of doing some version of a group tour, a travelling literary freak show. Wordapalosa or something.

Back to lyrics: Sometimes I come up with a really good line here or there, but often, they’re (the lyrics) the thing that carries the melody and keeps the song from being an instrumental.

It’s hard to say, though. Good question. I do know for certain that I’m far more nervous/uncomfortable playing my songs solo with an acoustic guitar than I am doing a reading. So, maybe it’s just that I have more confidence and faith in my prose.

5. In your interview on The Rumpus, you say that you write to understand who you are, can you expand on that? I completely agree.

Yeah…I’m not sure exactly how to explain it. Maybe an example would do the job: From 1996-2003, I wrote two novels, maybe ten to fifteen stories that I kept (and probably double that in failed ones) a few screenplays, and maybe five plays. It was probably the most sustained productive stretch (by word count, at least) of my life. 

And only sometime in 2004, did I realize that, while each writing project was a different narrative with different plots and characters, there was one enormous thread they all shared. In a way, everything I wrote in those seven years was about me trying to deal with the horror of life changing in an instant. And that fear—of loss of everything than matters being gone in a second—ran though all those narratives—some overtly, some not.

They were all ABOUT something else, but they shared this fear in some way. And I didn’t realize it until after I’d written them all. And that fear was triggered by two events in my life where everything, as I understood it, DID fall apart in an instant (once, a very long time ago) and where it seemed about to happened (maybe six months before this stretch of writing) when there was the enormous threat of a life-altering event. An emergency surgery on the person I love the most in the world. Luckily, that one didn’t end badly, but the threat was there. And that can trigger PTSD, if you have it, where the initial fracture (of life/security/meaning) comes back at you, like it’s all happening again, not in memory, but all in the same moment. It’s a freakish brain anxiety overload. So, all those things I wrote were VERY different from each other in plot, character, structure and language. But the one thing they all shared was this enormous fear of loss that I was working my way (unconsciously) through with the writing. I didn’t have any idea I was doing that, and I like it that way.

But, I think (or I fear) that stuff’s only interesting for the writer (so I apologize for going on about it a bit), and maybe his or her friends. Telling people what you discovered from your own writing is a little like people telling you their dreams. No one cares. Nor should they. It’s whether the narrative (in whatever form or genre) works or not.

But, in general, it’s a pretty amazing part of the process for me. I write the best narrative I can…I try to write the book that I would most like to read. I don’t ever think about theme—the word alone makes me cringe. And I don’t, to paraphrase Gordon Lish’s wonderful observation, ever want my narratives be “reduced to meaning.” Stories and novels are bigger than meaning. They’re like living things.

I never think about what a story “means.” I find that a reductive and boring way to look at the gig. I prefer to look at how they exist, what differentiates how they exist from other stories. But, you know, it works for a lot of people…theme and meaning and so on. I’m not interested in being prescriptive. Whatever works for anyone else? Cool. It’s just not a way of looking at narrative that’s very interesting to me.

6. Not only do you have an MFA, but you teach in an MFA program, what do you think about teaching the craft? 

I love it—though I’m doing a little too much of it at the moment. If I won the lottery or something, I’d still teach. Of course I’d have to play the lottery. But I’d do it less. However, it’s a great job. I learn a lot from my students. And, hopefully, I pass something along from my experience in the craft (and the business) that helps them tell their stories better than they did before we got to work together.

Also, it keeps you sharp (or, I should say it keeps me sharp), as I’m always breaking stories down, trying to see and share how they work (or where and how they don’t). And when you teach, you give a lot of advice. And then, sometimes, I realize I’m giving good advice and not following it myself. It keeps me relentlessly challenging my aesthetic. It’s very healthy to try and explain how a narrative works, and then try to show how it can be applied to everyone’s work in a different way (because they’re unique, so their stories should be, as well). And I’m always learning, if I pay attention to what I’m asking my students to pay attention to.

7. You said in an interview on The Hipster Book Club that you write very autobiographical, do you think it's possible to not include yourself in your stories? 

Yes and no. Part of a long book I’m working on is set in the Bikini Islands in 1946, when the United States moved (temporarily, we told/lied to them) the people who’d lived there for hundreds of years off their home island so that we could test atom bombs. We bombed the shit out of this little atoll for seven or eight years with atom bombs. Then, in 1954, we tested nuclear bombs there, and the island has been poisoned, is still too hot with Cesium 137 for anyone to live there, and the native people live on a shitty, much smaller island that we left them on.

Anyway, in that book, I have the POV of a woman, who clearly wouldn’t be me. And of a soldier in 1946 (again, I have no experience like that), and then 4 more POV’s all the way up to 2006. If I write from the POV of a woman or a 20 year old soldier exposed to radiation in 1946, it isn’t autobiographical in the strict sense that the thing happened to me in my life. But they all are autobiographical in a way they’re all processed through my world view, the people I find interesting enough to write a novel about, the plots that resonate with me and my history with and use of language. Stuff like that.

8. How did you get in to teaching? When you went for your MFA, was that the plan all along?

I’ll answer the second one first. Nope—teaching was not the plan. I went to the MFA program to learn how to be a better writer. Going for any other reason isn’t wise, I think.

Teaching? Well, I’d hated every real/honest job I’d ever had. So, I thought I’d try it. I got into teaching Composition at a crappy, creepy religious school (I have no idea what religion it was…they all kind of blend to me…religions are like watching Australian Rules Football on, like, ESPN III to me. I can watch it forever and still have no idea of how it works, how they keep score and what anything means at the end of it) where the head of the English department was this dusty 60 year old woman who threatened to fire me for wearing red Chuck Taylors. I had to wear a tie. A tie!? Ties are for using in a pinch if you don’t have any fun bondage gear. So, it didn’t start out so well.

But then we moved to Long Beach in 1995, and I had a terrible editing job. I was line-editing 1,200 pages 60 hours a week for 17 grand a year. I was good at it, but it was killing me. My friend Rachel Resnick recommended me (for which I’m enormously grateful) to Linda Venus at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program in 1996. Linda took a chance on me (I only had maybe 3-4 published stories..so, I’m enormously grateful to Linda as well), and it was a fabulous program, and it turned out I was good at the job. It was probably the first job of my life that I didn’t despise. Except for playing guitar, but that wasn’t really a job. I’m just not made for real jobs. I stunk at every job I had before this one. Absolutely dreadful employee.

And I had some awful jobs, too, but they could have been worse. Like, in some ancient kingdoms, they had a food-taster, who would take a bite of the meal. If he dropped dead, the King’s dinner had been poisoned, so the king wouldn’t eat it. If he lived…well, he still had to do that job the next meal. That’s a bad job.

9. What do you think about where publication is going, with e-readers, etc.?

Honestly, I have no idea. I love physical books—they are special, nearly sacred to me, as objects, let alone what’s on their pages. Books saved me, in many ways. Can a text on a Kindle or an iPad save someone’s life? Probably. It doesn’t have to be the object it’s been. But I will miss it. I’ll be the last guy on my block with my Horseless Carriage, while my neighbors zip around in their Model T’s.

I write books. I promote them (which I love)…traveling/getting to do shows/readings. I’ll bust my ass for a publisher who had the faith to partner up with me and my work. But, how they are going to get to the reader/what delivery method? Really no idea. I probably should pay attention to that stuff, but I’m not good at business and money stuff. I’m kind of a stooge, in many ways. Career-wise/trends in publishing and that kind of thing, for sure. Stooge.

10. Do you think that writing has helped you move forward as a person? It sounds like your late teens forward was pretty rough. 

Well, everyone has their troubles. My problem was how I choose to deal with my troubles. I self-medicated quite a bit and lost a lot of years. It’s a typical course—at first drugs worked and made me feel good for the first time in my life. And then they stopped working. It would have been nice if I could have stopped doing them when they stopped working, but I decided to give them many more years of trying. I just could not manage life when I wasn’t loaded. But, eventually, you can get to a place where you’re not the talented, young, promising fuck-up who’s the life of the party…you’re the person who’s hurt everyone around you and has hurt yourself, for years. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you realize, deeply, that you don’t know anything. You’re being selfish with other people’s lives, and you have to change and learn how to live, or you’ll probably die or go to jail.

I also believed in that drunk/addict/suffering artist horseshit, and thought it justified my behavior. I’d be kicked out of bands, lost friends…I was kind of a train wreck. I’d been with some wonderful women and let them down in a variety of ways and they would get upset, they would suffer, and I’d kind of float around saying, “hey you knew I was a royal fuck-up when we met. Public record.” It turns out that’s not so charming in the long run. Go figure.

But writing? Once I was able to do it again (I hadn’t written for years, at one point) I think writing helped me lead a more engaged life. It makes me pay attention. Listen. Be in the moment. Empathize—narrative prose (fiction/memoir) is an art of empathy enacted in language, for me. And that’s powerful and essential. Most hideous human behavior is at least partially a result of a thorough lack of empathy for others. To learn and respect without judgment what it is to be in someone else’s skin and head. It’s good for me. I think it’s good for a culture, too, and if we lose too many more readers and continue dumbing down our instant gratification/reality-TV/celebrity-obsessed culture, I truly think we’re fucked.

11. What was it like winning the 2003 Instructor of the Year Award in creative writing? 

Just getting to teach has been one of the many unexpected blessings of my life. I had no idea how good it could feel to have a positive impact on someone’s life (I’d been much more proficient at being a negative influence). So, being noticed for being a good teacher? It made me feel appreciated. So much of the writing life is rejection, not much money and a lot of time alone. So, it was really nice. I work hard. I care a lot about teaching and I give a lot, because my best teachers gave me a lot. You owe to people the best you’ve received from other people, if that makes sense.

Saul Bellow said, “A writer is a reader moved to emulation.” And I think a teacher is a student moved to emulation, as well. It’s a different art form than writing and I think a lot of writers don’t see as a different discipline—the writing and the teaching of writing.

12. How do you find time for it all? You write, sing in 3 bands, restore old amps, teach, and are married; I'm tired just writing that out.

You know, until about 5 years ago, I did all those things, and could somehow manage to do them all at the same time. Not now. I need to change my bio-ha! Maybe it’s age. Maybe it’s just that I have the biggest teaching load I’ve ever had this term. So, that’s only allowed for squirreling away time for writing and my relationships, and the rest of the stuff has suffered of late. Only one of the bands is totally active. I don’t know how I did all that stuff, but I know I can’t do it now. I haven’t rebuilt an amp for a year, which kind of bums me out.

But, I’ve also focused more on my writing and tried to not let anything get in its way. I have a lot of books I want to do before I die. Writing, along with Gayle and my friends, what I need to find time for. You could live 100 years and still not get to see the people you love enough. I doubt I’ll be on my deathbed someday wishing I’d rebuilt one more amp, you know? Someone else can rebuild amps for a while, I guess. There are plenty of people who are better at it, anyway.

13. You've talked a lot about Gayle, your partner, is she your first reader? 

Sometimes. When she isn’t buried in student papers, she’s the first. She’s a great reader. When she’s busy, there are a few writer friends of mine and we read each other’s work. But if she’s not the first, she one of the five people who I send work to. When she can, she always reads a story before it leaves the house. And with a novel, I won’t send it to my agent until she’s had a look. I think it might be pretty rare for your partner to be a real editor. She’s very honest and she doesn’t just say, “oh it’s wonderful, you’re so brilliant.” She’s a real reader—critical in the best ways. Rigorous. Supportive. Incredibly smart.

As far as talking about her a lot…well, Gayle warrants a lot of talking about. She is pretty fabulous.

14. You have a story being published in Penthouse, what's that about? How did you go about getting it in there? 

It was a memoir excerpt about my cock piercing. My friend Steve Almond read it and suggested one editor at Playboy and one at Penthouse. Penthouse took it. They paid more for that 4 page piece than I’ve been paid for two of my books combined. Apparently, I should be writing about my cock more often. If I were more of a Capitalist, you might see nothing but cock from me for years.

15. Who are your favorite writers on your bookshelf? Anyone new that we should watch out for?  

This is super tough, and I’m going to dance around it a bit. I hope you’ll forgive me. I would love to name a bunch of deserving people and hope that your audience became their audience. But I know SO many great writers and many of them are very close friends of mine. And if I tried to give you a list of the writers who I admire from my generation/my contemporaries, it would be ridiculously long, and I would still, inevitably, accidentally forget someone (or a few people), and feel like absolute shit about it.

I will mention two who are friends, but I’ll mention them because they are not exactly my contemporaries. Also, while they are good friends, they were, at first, mentors to me. Probably, in many ways, my two biggest teachers and influences and just fabulous writers: Francois Camoin and Darrell Spencer.

Francois, I got to study with in my MFA program. In fact, he’s the reason I ended up getting the degree. I pretty much was thinking about dropping out, then I heard him read the story “Marty” from his incredible collection LIKE LOVE, BUT NOT EXACTLY. I’d had some fine teachers, but hearing Francois read was the first time I’d ever heard someone who wrote stories like I wanted, desperately, to write them, but couldn’t for the life of me do at the time. At Vermont College, where I got my MFA, there was a system where the students list the mentor they want to work with the most, and then the second most, and so on, and you had to list five. It was weighted to seniority. I met/heard Francois when I had three terms to go. I picked him first. I didn’t get him. I figured, the next time, I’d have only two terms left, and I had a better chance to get him. And you were allowed to work with the same mentor two terms in a row, so I was hoping to work with him the whole final year. Again, I didn’t get him.

By then, we were friends. Also, by then, I’d read every word he’d ever published and was getting pretty pissed off at whoever assigned mentors. At that point, I had been there too long to drop out (though I had thought about it a lot, but I was damn well sure I was going to get to work with this guy)…I was pot-committed, in poker terms. I also figured they HAD to give me my first choice for my last term. Or else blood would be spilled in the program director’s office and no one there would ever read in poet voice again, if I didn’t get Francois.

And then Darrell Spencer, who I never studied with, but his stories taught me a lot about writing, and then we became friends and he’s amazing. An afternoon hanging and talking casually with Spence can teach you more about writing that a semester long course with many people.

Those are two writers who should be much more widely read.

16. Can you tell us about The Cost of Living? When should we expect it? 

It’s a novel that takes place over 30 years (though not chronologically) in the life of the narrator—whose father killed a man when he was 13 and whose mother left the same year and committed suicide when he was 17. So, he’s got some issues. I think it’s my best book. I could be wrong, but this one got closer to what I’m trying to do than any of them so far. I’m doing the final edits now.

It’s coming out on Other Voices (OV) Books, who are associated with Dzanc, and I’m happy to get to work with them. Especially working with OV Books editor Gina Frangello. She’s a great writer, as well, and the best editor I’ve ever had. And I’ve been lucky with editors. But, she’s in another league.

It’s coming out in Fall, 2012. Unless those End Times bastards are right.

17. I see you interviewed yourself on thenervousbreakdown.com, What's it like to be such an incredibly attractive writer--maybe the world's sexiest author?

Ha! It’s going pretty well.

18. I saw you're writing a book on writing, how's that going, why did you feel you wanted to write it? 

I think I started it for teaching. So I could have chapters on issues that come up so often in student manuscripts, and I thought I wouldn’t have to keep saying it over and over, with every new group I get to work with. I could just say, “You’re withholding information. That’s an issue. Look at page 42, where it explains why.”

It’s suffering a bit, because I have so many other writing projects I want to do. I’m hoping to find more time for it in the future.

19. What's the best piece of advice you've heard in writing? The worst?

The best? Read. And read like a writer. How you read, the quality of what you read, and the amount that you read goes a VERY long way to determining how far you may go as a writer. And work you ass off and expect two careers. One that pays for the writing, and the writing

The worst? Well, I won’t name names, tempting as it may be, but this guy was the absolute worst guest-writer we have EVER had at UCR/Palm Desert, where I teach. A moronic cow-fucker of an idiot. After reading an astoundingly shitty story, he told the students he never revised (as if that were not frighteningly evident), and neither should they. I don’t mind if I hear bad advice. For better or worse, I’ve been at this a while and I do what I do and I listen to good advice to improve. But after doing this for over 24 years, I can spot a moron.

But when someone says dumb-ass shit to my students? He’s just lucky I’m a civil human being…or a chickenshit coward. Either way, someone should have gone on-stage and stapled the bottom of his tongue to his forehead.

Of course, after his terrible advice, what did he do? Went out on the University’s dime and ordered the most expensive thing on the menu. The first smart thing he’d done all night.

20. What's next for Rob Roberge

Well, once I see if it poisons my food-taster or not, I might have dinner. Thanks for the interview!

Thank you!