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Saturday, January 1, 2011

#7 Craig Clevenger

20 Questions with Mourning Goats

As he inscribed in one of my books, years ago, "You've been there since the beginning," and it's for good reason. His first book, The Contortionist's Handbook, introduced us, his second book, Dermaphoria, secured his place on our bookshelves, and now he's at work on his third novel, which we're all salivating for. I'm proud to say Craig Clevenger is Mourning Goats first interview of 2011! 

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

I’ve never heard a mourning goat, so I don’t know. If I have, I didn’t know they were in mourning.

“Mourning” hits me as a verb in this case, so it sounds like a band. Like “Flogging Molly,” maybe. But definitely the act of mourning , some person or persons are mourning their deceased goats. So what makes these goats so significant? What kind of people hold goats in such high regard? Maybe they’re a tribe of itinerant herders, and that all their goats are dead means there’s some maurading predator that’s begun to wreak havoc on their way of life. Questions come to mind, which make for stories.

2. As an author, what do you think taught you the most about writing, and why? Education? Experience? Writing?

Reading and writing. Reading always came first. And I then learned by doing, by writing, making mistakes and learning from them, and ultimately cultivating a regular writing habit. College writing workshops were a major part of my education, but the ceiling for what you can learn from workshops is lower than most people think. Workshops get you out of your own head, and they teach you to see your work from a cold perspective.

But there comes a point where you realize you could run yourself ragged trying to account for all of the criticism that comes your way. You could transcribe Nabokov and pass it through a workshop and it’s going to bleed red ink from all the feedback. It’s important to gain what you can from the input, but it’s equally important to know when criticisms are made just for the sake of speaking up in class. When you can identify that point—when the criticism ceases to be helpful—you’re done.

Experience is important, but it’s a mistake to think a writer needs to actively seek or have some kind of adventure to write about. Birth, death, falling in love, etc., happen in the blandest parts of suburbia or remote countryside as much as anywhere else. Observation is critical; without it, experience is meaningless.

3. When Dermaphoria came out, you said that you thought you would lose some fans because it’s completely different than your first novel, The Contortionist’s Handbook, while I don’t believe this was the case, what are your thoughts on your current project?

The current project is a big change of direction for me. It’s not a neo-noir novel like my first two.One reader described an early chapter as magical-realist, but that chapter is from one of three distinct story threads, so it’s not a reflection of the entire book. Two of those story threads are written in the third person, whereas my first two novels were both entirely first-person narratives.

I want to be a different writer with each book. I’m not interested in “pushing the envelope” or being “transgressive.” But I do want each book I write to exceed the previous one. While I’d like to have a steady but growing audience, I don’t want to write the same thing, or in the same style, over and over.

4. Bolivia, what’s the best story that came out of your stay there (not fiction)? What was it like living with author, Wendy Dale?

What few stories I do have are on my web site. I called the travel diary “Dispatches from Interzone,” but it’s only three or four entries. I didn’t get out much except for groceries or coffee. The whole point of going to Bolivia was so I could stretch out my last royalty payment. My Spanish is crude, at best; I had no wifi in the house; the dvd player on my laptop was busted; I only knew Wendy and her boyfriend; I was in a virtual writing lockdown for three months, and it was the most productive I’ve been in years. Living with Wendy Dale was cool. She’s a night owl, just like me. And she’s extremely hard working with her writing. We rarely interacted, except for once a week at the kitchen table where we’d shoot the shit into the wee hours with her boyfriend. The three of us called the place, La Casa Vampiro.

5. You’ve done a few classes over at the cult, have you thought of taking teaching further? Have you been approached?

When the Cult first offered me a teaching gig, I was reluctant. I’m always learning, and didn’t think I had anything to add to the existing repertoire of creative writing “how to” books, classes and web sites.

The classes have been a success, overall. I just wrapped up my latest one, and I’ve got a standing offer to teach again. We’ll see.

6. In the past you described your writing process as, “going in the pit,” does this happen with every piece you work on? Was it different with your new piece?

“The Pit.” That’s my colorful way of saying I have a dedicated place to work, and I tune out distractions, turn off my phone and email. Ideally, anyway. It’s been tougher with this new one. Aside from my time in Bolivia, I’ve seldom had a dedicated space to work on this new one. The last few years since “Dermaphoria” have been up and down. I’ve moved several times. Lots of couch-surfing, and the lack of stability makes it hard to get lost in a writing project.

7. The last interview I read of yours, it said that you were looking for an agent, have you found one yet?

Not yet. I’ve had a few inquiries about the synopsis and sample chapters, but I’m still working on this rewrite, so nobody’s seen the finished manuscript.

8. With your new book, you holed up in a hotel with Chris Baer (Will Christopher Baer) at the beginning; do you still share your writing with him? Are there any plans for another meeting with the windows blacked out?

Chris and I have talked on and off about doing a screenplay together, either feature-length or some sort of serialized tv-drama. Aside from that, we correspond semi-regularly—a one or two-week email volley every five or six months—but otherwise never talk writing. We’ll convene again at some point in our virtual fallout shelter with a big-ass whiteboard, our laptops, a library and a coffee maker. No telling what we’ll emerge with or how long it’ll take.

9. You have one of the coolest tattoos I’ve ever seen, the Sisyphus tattoo. What others do you have that you want to share? What do they mean to you?

They all mean different things. Among the more significant is the six-fingered handprint I had tattooed on my left wrist after I completed a draft of my first novel. I haven’t had any since then, except for a little color or detail added here and there. It’s been several years since I’ve had enough cash to indulge in more ink, but I am by no means finished. My left sleeve is more or less done; my right is still empty below the elbow.

The Sisyphus tattoo you mentioned, it’s a reminder of the daily office grind I’d been at for fifteen years or so that I gave up to pursue writing. It gives me some perspective when I think about the money I could have accumulated in the last ten years, had I stayed in the business world. I have a heart on my inner-left forearm; it’s anatomically realistic, but it’s been sutured together. It followed a rough period years back, and it’s an illustration of putting my life back together. Then there’s the traditional Virgin of Guadalupe on my right shoulder, but instead of the Virgin Mary icon, it’s Alice from the original woodcut illustrations of “Alice in Wonderland.” The closest thing I have to any real ethnic identity is my Catholic upbringing, so I wanted to acknowledge that. But being a fallen non-believer, replacing the image with a fairy tale more accurately reflected my beliefs.

10. How much research goes into your books? I know that you read through psychiatric books and art forgery books for The Contortionist’s Handbook and Dermaphoria, what kind of books are you looking into for Saint Heretic?

It’s unlikely that “Saint Heretic” will remain the title of this one, for a number of reasons. We’ll see. Anyway, the nature of the Handbook’s narrator, John Vincent, required the story to be laden with the minutiae of his criminal life. I wrote it to sound like someone talking to themselves while seriously coked-up, so the recitation of trivia was part of the voice. But I’m doing less and less research as time goes on, because I want to engage the reader with the story instead of hooking them with random factoids. Looking back, I would have written that book very, very differently.

With “Dermaphoria,” some research was of course necessary, but I wasn’t interested in tittlating readers with a how-to on crystal meth or LSD manufacture. More importantly, the story wasn’t about drugs, it was about human touch, connection and identity.

And now there’s this third novel, maybe “Saint Heretic,” maybe not. There’s no criminal enterprise in this one, as with the first two. It’s all just things happening, the characters and what they say and do.

Ultimately, I enjoy the analogue outlining process more than the research. Like having a map of the Mojave Desert on my wall when I wrote DpH, with photographs from a road trip tacked around it. Or sometimes I’ll find a magazine picture of someone who matches my mental image of a character and I’ll clip that out. Or spreading out pages from blank calendars to mark events in the story, to make certain there aren’t any misfires in chronology between the backstory and present narrative, or that I’m correctly citing an event from a character’s past. I love letting the proces take up physical space around me, as long as I’ve got a dedicated work space. It lets me physically immerse myself in the story as well as mentally.

11. I just read your short story, Mercury, on my kindle, what do you think about e-books? Good/Bad/Indifferent?

I don’t know where to begin with this one. I’ve committed to writing a piece about my whole take on e-books and the future of publishing (this stemmed from my last writing class, after a similar question from one of my students). I don’t think they’re good or bad; they’re simply the next wave. I can think of a score of practical uses for an e-reader, such as for traveling or if I were a law student. But I love books. I love paper and ink and binding and holding one in my hands. I like the artifact of the thing, the way it soaks up its own history as it gets shelfworn, re-read, lost, stolen, sold, lent out and damaged. I love the saying, “a room without books is like a body without a soul.”

I don’t have an opinion about ebooks as much as I have an opinion about the starry-eyed incredulity of the publishing industry toward the advent of ebooks. I started to write a more detailed response to this, and I stopped myself when it hit the four-page mark.

12. You seem to almost play games with your books, like when John Dolan Vincent visited in Dermaphoria, are there plans to keep these visits going?

Dermaphoria’s narrator, Eric Ashworth, is seriously paranoid. His pattern recognition filters have been blown wide open, so he sees signals, messages and threats everywhere. The story reflects that, in its own set of cues and signals buried within the text. Eric is convinced the chirping crickets he hears at night are transmitting signals and ratting him out. If you follow the Morse code as relayed by Eric in the narrative, they dots and dashes of the chirping crickets spell out “chirp, chirp, chirp.” Part of that was meant to layer the novel, to have all of these hidden things be discoveries the reader makes with subsequent readings. The crickets chirping, the dog barking, the bug bites on his arms, the names of characters and code names for labs, all of these are pieces of Eric’s paranoia manifested in the story. The appearance of John Vincent was part of that, yes, but also a way of playing a game, of nodding to readers of the first book, to see if they could catch that. And to be honest, after narrating a whole novel from Vincent’s point of view, it was fun describing him from the outside, as a total stranger. Yeah, he’ll be back in the third novel. Maybe.

Someday I want to do an entire novel like this, a single block of narrative game-playing like Calvino’s “If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler” or “The Castle of Crossed Destinies.” I have lots of ideas for the kinds of games I’d like to play, but they all have to take a back seat to character and story.

13. If I remember right, wasn’t Wendy Dale a big part of jumpstarting your career? What went down?

Wendy Dale is responsible for Chuck Palahniuk reading my first novel. Actually, Dennis Widmyer, the webmaster for chuckpalahniuk.net, passed it onto Palahniuk, but Wendy sent it to Dennis. We’d never even met, she just thought the book deserved some exposure. We corresponded after that, met a few times while she was living in L.A., (the first time was during Palahniuk’s “Diary” tour), and we’ve kept in touch ever since. But with Wendy getting it to Palahniuk, yeah, things got a jumpstart. More than just an Amazon spike while he was touring, he gave me a slow-burn longevity. And given how unprolific I am, slow burn is a good thing. Indeed, I owe Wendy Dale, bigtime. So on that note, everyone, buy her book, “Avoiding Prison and Other Noble Vacation Goals.”

14. You’ve had a lot of different jobs since your first book, are you still working in the bars or are you doing something else? How does that affect your writing?

Most of my jobs have been bar tending, with one stint working at a bookstore, plus the occasional teaching gig. The jobs don’t really affect my writing, but they’re good for my mental health. Too many days with the windows blocked out, staring at a notebook and talking to sock puppets... that’s not good for my sanity. Bar tending keeps me in touch with humanity. The trick is, as every writer knows, to balance the necessity of work while carving out time to write. Which I’m not doing right now. I’ve pushed everything aside so I can finish this re-write and start circulating this manuscript.

15. Now that you’re stateside, what’s a day in the life of Craig, look like?

I haven’t had a typical day in months. I’ve moved twice since I got back, so haven’t been able to establish a routine. I just finished putting my library back into storage, and I’m living on a friend’s couch right now. The dust is settling and I’m pulling out of my funk; I’ve been hitting the gym in my friend’s condo complex and indulging in the odd vegetable or two. I shrank down to “The Machinist” level of weight while in Bolivia, and putting the pounds back on has been a bitch. But I’m eating and exercising, and the hard work of moving is done, at least for now. I got some recent feedback on the first chapters of the novel, and I’ve returned to it in earnest. My ideal routine is getting up and working on the novel, first thing for a few hours. Lunchtime means food, email, whatever business needs to be addressed. Evenings are for other writing projects, and I’ve got plenty. My focus and drive vanished after I returned home, but they’re coming back.

16. In an earlier interview about Dermaphoria, you said that you did around 20 drafts to get it down, now that you’ve got the first draft of your new book down, do you think it will take the same? How do you think your process has changed?

I wrote this book almost entirely longhand this time around, re-working each page as I wrote it. There isn’t a set of linear footprints telling me exactly how many drafts I’ve done; some parts have been re-written more than others, in multiple iterations until I had a finished working draft. This forced me to slow down and think about each line more carefully. I’m letting the prose breathe a lot more this time around, rather than firing the reader out of a cannon (the way I opened my first two). I typically have two or three notepads laid out, or use distinct pages from a notebook. On the first, I rough out a line, over and over, shuffling my word choices until I have it right. Sometimes it works immediately, other times it takes me half a page. Once I have it, I transcribe it to a fresh page, go back to the first and tackle the next line. When the second page has a full, finished paragraph, I cut through that. Polishing every line one by one and then compiling them into a single paragraph creates what I call the Liberace effect. All of these perfect little sentences sparkle, and all that effort backfires. The paragraph sounds too much like writing because the prose overpowers the story. So I have to grind down the edges a bit, make those lines work together instead of clamor for the spotlight and derail the flow of the story.

I still work on my dialogue separately. Instead of extracting the dialogue from the chapter after I’ve written, or writing it after the narrative prose, I’m writing each chapter’s dialogue first, this time around. This way I’m certain to have the characters—their words and actions—driving each chapter of the story, instead of having them pulled along by the narration. No phonetic spelling this time, except for “y’all” and “ain’t.” But no “wanna” or “gotta” or anything like that. This means choosing my characters’ words more carefully, which means making their voices more distinct, the characters more nuanced. Same with similes and metaphors. I’m stripping those back to as few as I possibly can, which forces me to describe things more precisely in the first place, rather than leaning on a comparison to something else to back up whatever image I’m trying to convey.

There’s other things I’m sure I’m forgetting, but the biggest change over the years has been working longhand. I like paper and ink, the tactile sensation of physically writing instead of a cursor on a screen. This makes me slow down and think more carefully about what I’m doing, and that’s how I get happily lost in the process.

I don’t put foil on my windows anymore, but I still stash or hide any clocks in my workspace. It’s easier to fall down the creative rabbit hole if I’m not aware of time passing. I still outline rigorously, mapping out every beat of the story in as much detail as I can.

My process will likely never stop evolving. Complacency is hazardous to creative work.

17. You’ve given a lot of great recommendations over the years, do you have any books you’ve been reading recently that you love, or has the current book taken all focus?

“Kockroach,” by Tyler Knox (William Lashner) wasn’t exactly a recent read, but it’s one of the few I can think of over the last few years I forced on everyone I could. Daniel Woodrell’s “Winter’s Bone” was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Subdued but powerful writing, all in service of a very simple story. That’s the kind of wordsmithing I aspire to do. I met Woodrell recently, and I was shaking like a schoolgirl. I just couldn’t stop gushing. He took it in humble stride. Harry Crews, too. There’s this fat anthology of his that’s been staring at me from my bookshelf for ages. I finally cracked it open, and it’s been my companion during my couch-surfing of late. Old Micky Spillane. And John Ridley. Now there’s a solid noir writer, and truly underrated, in my opinion. Jennifer Egan’s “The Keep” was easily the highlight of my reading in Bolivia.

18. Channing Tatum. On one side, I’m pumped that it’s going to become a movie, on the other, I’m terrified. What are your thoughts? Are you going to have any input?

I’m optimistic about Channing Tatum. Plenty before him have overcome the low expectations set by their bone structure. Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp both come to mind. Both could have easily been typecast as pretty boys, but both have gained credibility and respect as actors over the years. Now that Tatum’s firmly established himself as bankable, as someone who’s not only a box office draw but who can open a movie, I think it’s entirely possible he’s looking to take the risks he was warned against early in his career. Yeah, I have high hopes for him. That’s the good news.

The bad news is that my high hopes are in vain if the Handbook film goes forward with the current script. No manner of casting could save this thing from certain disaster. The script is full of gunplay, fist fights and at least one car crash… loads of violence that has no basis in the story. It completely whitewashes Vincent’s drug habit. Most of the original characters in the novel are gone; most of the characters in the script have no basis in the novel (especially the midget mob boss named Hugo). It’s full of racist stereotypes and the treatment of Keara is appalling (she’s a bipolar stripper whom the audience first meets when she’s having a meltdown during her dancing shift… yeah, she’s taking her clothes off and crying in front of a roomful of men). To say nothing of the unrealistic settings (such as the combination strip joint and casino in Vegas where Keara works), the atrocious, tinny dialogue and the misguided happy ending. Seriously, it’s awful. The studio asked for my input, I gave it to them, and haven’t heard anything but a brief email response since then.

IMDB says Dustin Hoffman attached, but it doesn’t name the part and I haven’t seen it confirmed elsewhere. I’m hoping now that Tatum is also producing the film, he’ll have some say in the script and perhaps pull it away from the straight-to-streaming trash bin it’s so destined for. As far as I’m concerned, Channing Tatum is the film’s only hope.

19. If you were to get any piece of advice before you left your corporate job to write The Contortionist’s Handbook, what would you tell yourself?

Get an agent.

20. Where do you see yourself as an author in the next 10, 20 years? Do you have any specific goals you want to hit?

I suck at the future. I rarely see beyond the next year. My eyes are usually right on the path at my feet. All that concerns me now is getting this rewrite finished, making up my mind about the title and getting it out to agents. Then writing another book.

Thank you!


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  1. Great interview!

  2. Great way to start off the new year! Congrats on the good feedback, Craig. I can't wait to read it.

  3. The Liberace Effect. Noted (and I love that label). :)
    Always fascinated to hear Craig's process, the care taken to get things right. Looking forward to the new one.

  4. Yeah, I never seem to get sick of reading Clevenger interviews. His process, like his writing, is fascinating, admirable, and nothing short of brilliant.

    Can't wait for this new book.

  5. Excellent interview. Great way to come out of my New Year's hangover and back into, as Craig calls it, the rabbit hole.

  6. Fantastic stuff, so great to get caught up with you, CC. Nice job, MG.