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Monday, November 15, 2010

#4 Monica Drake

20 Questions With Mourning Goats
Monica Drake

Monica has a lot going on right now with teaching, a family, a new novel, two films, and a plethora of other exciting activities, but she fit in Mourning Goats, and we're happy she did! I definitely never thought one of our interviews would involve juggling and a vibrator demonstrator, but as you read below, it has! 

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

I ran this question by a friend. She immediately said, “An erection.” I have no idea why. Personally, I think of a mournful bleating, a forlorn field, a gently clanging bell. Maybe the impression falls somewhere in a combination of the two, an erection in a forlorn field, a solemn bleat, a thrill, a bell. Mourning Goats. Rock on.

2. Kristen Wiig, of Saturday Night Live, is planning on starring in and writing the script for Clown Girl's big screen adaptation, where is she in the process and what do you think about it?

I’m excited to see how she interprets it and translates it to the screen. I have no idea where they are in the process right now. Those Hollywood folks don’t keep me updated.

3. You’ve already seen one of your stories go from paper to film, what is it like watching your story? Georgie’s Big Break was just made into a short film by Andy Mingo.

That film is in process right now too, and I think it’s going to be fabulous. Andy Mingo has re-conceived of the story in a mocumentary form. He’s making use of Wordstock, Portland’s literary festival, as a backdrop, and blending the line between truth and fiction. We've got a great line-up of celebrities stepping in for roles, too, including Zia McCabe of the Dandy Warhols, Willy Vlautin of Richmond Fontaine, and Cheslea Cain, thriller New York Times Best Seller author. It’s a great chance to work with creative people I admire, and people who make me happy. I’m thrilled to see the story move into a new form.

4. In Clown Girl, there’s a lot of talk about juggling and balloon tying, can you tell us how the novel grew from a temp job out of college to where it went in your novel?

The clown work I did wasn’t so much a temp job out of college as one of the many jobs I had while in school. I went to Portland State University, an inexpensive commuter college in the city, and I worked the whole time. I never had that experience of dedicating myself to school without carrying one or more jobs on the side.

In college I studied animal behavior, psychology, art history, theater arts. I look at my transcripts now, and see how little focus I had, but how much stone solid enthusiasm. I was a hand-raiser. I was in a movement arts class when somebody needed a clown, and I raised my hand. I got the contact information, and later got the job as one of two or three hired to be a clown at Portland’s “Food Fair,” a corporate event in the convention center where restaurants came together to promote their image. While I was working that first gig, individual companies at the event hired me, so I had a string of clown work.

Later, at other jobs, the clown energy would stay with me. I’d feel it as I worked selling art, and when I made phone calls for telemarketing. I felt it as I carried trays in restaurants and asked customers to follow me, as a hostess. It was all clown work, in one costume or another, on a changing stage. It was a way to see the world. At the same time, I was working on art, painting and drawing and writing stories.

I wanted to capture some of that in Clown Girl, to show what it means to be a creative person in a world that may not always be receptive to the art in question.

5. I enjoyed your book on my kindle. What do you think about e-publishing? Do you think it’s going to take over, or will there always be paper books?

I don’t know anything about e-publishing. Sometimes I read on my computer, but love my books. I’m glad Clown Girl is now an e-book, but I don’t know when or if I’ll start reading novels that way. Was it a good way for you to read?

6. If you look up Monica Drake on youtube, the first two videos are of or about you, then they almost all focus on music or news about Monica and Drake (musicians). What do you think about the access to information on the web? What does it mean for authors and publishing?

It’s amazing to be able to be in touch with readers and writers so easily. I’ve heard from readers in Ireland, Australia, Italy and Thailand. I wouldn’t know my novel made it to those places if readers didn’t send me notes, or friend me on Facebook. I’ve seen pictures of my novel in bookstore windows in far-flung towns. That makes my heart sing. It’s outrageous, in a good way, really. I love it.

7. I love the story you tell about the first time you met with Spanbauer’s writing group at the condemned house, could you tell the readers about this meeting? What was your favorite part about your time with them?

When I first met Tom, he was teaching an evening class set in a grade school. We all sat at tiny chairs, in the grade school library, and talked writing. Then he moved it to his house. He gave out an address, and I signed up. I took the bus, looked for the house. It was dark, winter, and raining, and when I got there the only house had a big orange “condemned” sticker on the front door. The steps had fallen away. It was scary. But I went up and into the yard and around the side of where the steps should be, and knocked on the door, and Tom was there. It was the right house, on a dark and stormy night.

That was the first big hurdle to learning to write—to be brave, and knock on that door, in the dark. It seemed so wrong, and yet so inviting. Those of us who were willing to take that step, I think we were a self-selecting and daring crew.

My favorite part about my time in Tom’s Dangerous Writers workshop was definitely the brandy. The brandy started after the wine, and the wine only started after workshop wrapped up, because we took the work seriously and didn’t drink while we read or commented, but after workshop nobody wanted to go home and Tom’s couch was as a good place as any to sleep.

But wait. Maybe you mean something else. Something more about writing.

In that way what I liked most about Tom’s was the sense of urgency and camaraderie. We were all in this writing thing together, for better or worse. One night Tom held his hand over his big dinner table, and said, “Lets pile up the rejections. Send work out, and we’ll pile’em right here.” And in that way he gave us all permission to fail, with the understanding that if we persisted and let ourselves fail, sooner or later we’d break
through. He said, “Clock in, do your work, eventually you’ll get a raise.” I still imagine that invisible pile of mingled rejection letters, and somehow that’s an image of success in my mind.

8. Did I read right, you’re still doing workshops with Chuck, as well as Chelsea Cain (author of Heartsick)?

Yes, we meet once a week. It’s an honor and a party.

9. You went to the University of Arizona for your MFA, what can you tell us about the experience? Did you enjoy the MFA?

These are questions I still ask myself…Did I enjoy it? At the time, when I was at the University of Arizona, it seemed a hard, alienating, competitive place, where I met some fabulous people. Oddly, I feel closer to those people outside “the program,” than when we were writing and sharing work together on a regular basis.

It was very unlike the workshop situation I’d been in with Tom Spanbauer. What I learned in Tom’s workshop gave me the motivation to start writing and keep going. What I learned in grad school had more to do, perhaps, with how to critique the work of others, and so look more objectively at my own writing.

10. Splatter Art with Painter Boy, is probably one of the funniest/saddest sex stories I’ve read, please tell me that wasn’t based on a real story. 

Ha! So glad you got a kick out of it!

11. You are an associate professor at Pacific NW College of Art, what do you teach and do you have any book recommendations from class?

I teach composition and literature to art students.

12. Hawthorne, your publisher for Clown Girl, said that their first print run was 2,000 more than normal for their books, what did you think when you heard that? Also, what are your thoughts on Hawthorne overall?

Hawthorne has been great. They design the most beautiful covers I’ve seen anywhere, really, and they get behind each book they produce. It’s a small operation with a big heart and a genuine love of literature. The company was started with the aim of finding literary work corporate publishing wouldn’t take on. They’ve done a great job of it.

13. You’ve had a lot of success with your short stories (Arizona Commission on the Arts Award, the Alligator Juniper Prize in Fiction, a Millay Colony Fellowship, and were a Tennessee Williams scholar at Sewanee Writers Workshop), what do you have your eye on next?

I’ve just finished another novel. I hope it finds success out there.

14. Your husband, Kassten Alonso, is also a novelist, is there a lot of collaboration here when you’re working on a piece, do you share, what is life like living with another writer?

We both work really hard all the time. Day jobs, night writing, parenting. It’s a lot of work. Sometimes we talk writing. More often, we talk about our lives, our days.

15. You have a young daughter, where do you find the time to write? What’s a typical day look like to Monica Drake?

I'm a mother and a professor, and I have about sixty students each semester. I spend a lot of time thinking about reading other people's work, coaching them along when and as I can.

But I've always been busy, always working, usually more than one job, so I'm used to  carrying an idea or a sentence in my head until I find time to write it down. I don't manage to write every day, and certainly not at the same time each day--that kind of writing guide book wisdom assumes a level of luxury, based on time and autonomy.

Instead, I try to balance everything: home remodeling, sheet rocking, child care, grading, riding my bike, writing, workshop, reading, cooking...all of it.

Also, I make things more complicated because I tend to be enthusiastic. I say yes, when invitations sound fun. This coming week I'll be modeling swimsuits in a fashion show, if you can believe that. Today I have a swimsuit fitting, between writing time and when I take my daughter to ballet. 

16. I heard you once took a job demonstrating vibrators, care to elaborate?

Ha! Where are you getting this? Actually, I was offered the job, and I took it, but then when I showed up on the first day they said I had to dress better. Dress better? I was in black jeans, a turtle neck. I was in ordinary Portland, Oregon fall clothes. I didn’t want to spend money to make money, even if the amounts under consideration were small all around. I said, “No thanks,” got on my old clunker bike and road home again.

17. Are you still saving Schipperke’s? Any more psychic dogs in your life?

I have one dear rescued Schipperke at my feet right now, Ruben, sleeping soundly.

18. You’ve had a few different agents over the years, do you currently? How have they influenced your writing and publishing?

I’ve had two agents over the past decade, both really top-notch, but at the time neither seemed quite right for selling the work I was writing in particular. That was earlier on in my writing career, especially the first agent, which was a really long time ago. We parted on good terms. I sold Clown Girl myself, instead, then went on to sell foreign rights and movie rights, all un-agented.

I believe Clown Girl proved itself. It’s a small-press book that’s found its way into the big world. Now I have new novel completed, and I’d like to find the right agent to sell the work. For a while I worked selling art. From that experience, I know that a little conviction can go a long way. I’m looking an agent who can speak about my work with conviction, compassion, and love. If there were a match.com to hook writers up with agents, I’d sign on. For now, I’m in conversation with an agent or two. We’ll see what happens.

19. Do you think being a clown earlier in your career helped you move into teaching easier?

Yes, completely. As a teacher, I don’t try to take on the role of having all the answers. Instead my aim is to model a willingness to take risks—risk taking is a clown quality—and to encourage students to feel okay about taking risks, too. I try to let the class be casual, smart, surprising. That’s my goal, anyway.

20. You’re currently working on The Stud Book, can you tell us a little bit about it? Do you have a time frame for when it will be out?

I’ve recently finished this novel, and am the start of looking around for the right match with an agent. It’s an edgy dark comedy. It takes some risks, with broad humor and bawdy scenes, and reaches what I hope is a serious and significant level of content, despite some good times. In some ways, it is similar to clown girl in using an element of physical comedy, but overall its very different. It has an ensemble cast, and a social
conscious I think. We’ll see how readers interpret what I’m trying to do.

Thank you, Monica!

And finally, don't forget to "like" Mourning Goats on Facebook and pick up Chewing the Page: The Mourning Goats Interviews on Amazon! 

Monday, November 1, 2010

#3 Vincent Louis Carrella

20 Questions with Mourning Goats

When I read Serpent Box the first time, I finished it with a deeper understanding of being human. It left me with a sense of loss and sadness, but that deep down, it was all going to be okay. This interview did it again. I hope you read over the words slowly and delibrately, I know Vincent did.

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

The world is a smoldering ash heap. Blackened oak silhouettes on bilge water horizons. There is no daylight and there is no moon. It is neither dark nor light. Everything is still and crackling. Miles and miles of hard pan flats rimmed by cinder cones. Spider web trails of ground-hugging soot. No wind. No ambient buzzing. And then there is the bell. A weak clatter, erratic in the heat waves. Some vague memory of green pastured dairyland, the vague sound of babies. The earth is bleating. The goats stand together, themselves blackened and shaggy like miniature Pleistocene oxen. A copper bell hangs from the neck of the big one, the leader. His horns are spirals of ancient wood. They bleat together sadly for the lost world.

2. You have one of the most beautifully written books I’ve ever read, it feels like you look at every word and perfect it. What is your process? Does it just flow like that or are you a master editor?

I close my eyes tightly and force myself to see. Sometimes I have to press the palms of my hands into my eyes so that the optic nerves are stimulated. I watch to see what happens. I can almost always see a place, and sometimes a person or parts of a person. I watch them to see what they do and I record that like a stenographer. Sometimes it comes easy but most of the time it doesn’t. I struggle for every word and I think that it feels often like I build sentences out of bricks, one word at a time, hearing them together, and listening for an echo of resonance. I will often know the number of syllables for the word I am searching for before I find the word itself. I write words like I imagine a composer might write music. It’s about cadences and feeling and sense. The poet Stanley Kunitz talks about this.

“The struggle is between incantation and sense. There’s always
a song lying under the surface of these poems. It’s an incantation
that wants to take over—it really doesn’t need a language—all it
needs is sounds. The sense has to struggle to assert itself, to mount
the rhythm and become inseparable from it.”

I relate to this idea of incantation and sense. When I heard this I identified with it and it helped me to affirm something I felt but could not articulate. I do a lot of revision and I read everything aloud all the time. It’s always oral. It has to sound right to the ear and feel good moving through my mouth. With Serpent Box I wrote the whole thing long hand and then transferred it to the computer. I like to build things up over time, layer upon layer. I love the revision process. But I am a clumsy surgeon. I chop things up and splice things together like Dr. Frankenstein and then I smooth it all out, or I try to. I am far from a master of anything, let alone editing. I wish that it was like the old days and I had a trusty editor. Cutting things is awful. The first draft of Serpent Box was over 600 pages. I had to cut a lot of material I loved. But I did have an editor on that book. Her name is Marie Estrada. She was wonderful. I owe the whole thing to her, really. I lost her though. She left the business before the book came out and I have not spoken to her since nor have I given her a signed copy. I hope I can see her again before I die. If anybody knows where she is please tell her to get in touch with me.

3. Currently, you’re the director of licensing at Nickelodeon Kids & Family Games Group and director of licensing at MTV Networks, when do you find time to write with such responsibilities? Do you find time?

I don’t. I am hardly writing at all and it’s taking its toll. I do write in the morning, but not for very long (I am writing this now in my precious few morning minutes). I am lucky if I get in an hour a day, which, if I’m lucky, is enough to complete a single paragraph. It’s slow going. When I wrote the first draft of Serpent Box I was unemployed and married. I was very lucky that my wife supported me and the book. This is why I dedicated it to her. But all that has changed. I’m a part-time single father now and I must work a steady job. So time has become the biggest impediment to my work. Still, I squeeze it in. Right now, as I write this, I am sitting on a ferry making its way toward San Francisco just after dawn. This is a lovely way to work and I could see myself taking the trip back and forth for a few hours just to write. There is something about being close to the water that evokes images and emotion. Process changes. It evolves because I evolve. But I have only completed one novel so I don’t think I’m really qualified to talk about process.

4. You have a pretty impressive background in video games, what are some of your favorite highlights from the gaming world?

I really enjoyed making games when I was part of a small team that had full creative control. We had a chance back in the 90’s to create worlds that were visually compelling and also somewhat literate. At the time we were aiming for a new kind of story-telling, but after awhile I realized that the old kind of story-telling was really the most effective and most satisfying. Fiction gives the creator the most control. I was always a world builder in my own way. I used to play Dungeons and Dragons when I was a boy. But I soon grew tired of being among the hapless party of adventurers. I wanted to run my own dungeons. I wanted to build the worlds through which the other kids explored. When I became a dungeon master, that was the first time I remember feeling at home doing something. I have a clear memory of that feeling. Authoring an imaginary world that real people would willingly enter. Watching them and listening to them discover the fictional world of my creation. I don’t get to do that anymore – watch people read my stories, but I do occasionally get a nice email or comment like the one you gave me, Goat. But if I had to pick a highlight from my gaming experience it would have to be when I was working on the CD-ROM game Bad Mojo. We came very close to something there. It was an immersive world, and a world that nobody had ever been to before. The world of a cockroach as seen through its eyes. And there was a story. A lousy story, but a story with real people and real lives, and the things you did in the roach-world had an effect on the human side of the story. The people who worked on that game were the best I’ve ever worked with and that was the pinnacle of my interactive gaming career. There are parts of me that want to do it again and as recently as yesterday I saw a compelling text-based ‘game’ experience on the web. I remember playing Multi-User Dungeon’s, or MUDs, back in the early 90’s. It was all user defined and on the fly, text only. There was something compelling about that idea that has yet to come to fruition. The potential for these new technologies to tell good stories has yet to be reached.

5. Who do you believe is the biggest influence of your work, up until now? Another author, friend, family member? Why?

I don’t think it would be fair or honest to single out one person. I think Salinger was the first writer to reach me, but so many writers bled into my DNA. Jack London, Hemingway, Patrick O’Brian, even Stephen King. I was a huge Stephen King fan when I was young and I marveled at his ability to craft a believable world and to hold me there spellbound. But it took Cormac McCarthy to show me what was possible. Until I found his books I was drifting, What he showed me was a living model of what I was learning from John Gardner; which was a real example of how to spin a spell that holds the reader in the story, that sucks the reader into an utterly real and convincing world, and how to use words, language and sentence structure in that musical way I mentioned earlier. But it was more than that. McCarthy is a landscape writer and I am a landscape writer. This is a term I didn’t discover until recently. It was brought to my attention by my dearest and best friend. For McCarthy the land itself is as much a character as any of his protagonists. Take The Road. That desolation was not devoid of character and menace. In every one of his books the land is part of the story. I realized through osmosis that whatever talent I may have springs from that same source. I am a product of the land. That is a strange thing to say from a boy from Long Island. But even Long Island has beauty and trees. We have big skies there too and we have torrential rain. We write so much about human interiors but I think it’s more interesting to erase the boundary between outside and in.  I can’t speak for the masses. But for me, the land means something. Trees mean something. Sunlight affects me. A single cloud can make my day. So McCarthy gave me the confidence to write what I always felt about the natural world; which is a fickle character of both terror and beauty. There is no better character than the land around you.

6. Your mother and father divorced when you were five, but it sounds like your father showed you a true appreciation and love for nature, how do you think this shaped your life?

My father’s insistence on being out in the woods was almost an obsession for him. I think it was the place he felt most comfortable, being, as he was, a policeman in a major city. But it also provided him with a free and easy way to entertain his sons. My father is a student of nature but he’s also a consummate observer. He instilled in me the power of observation and an endless curiosity for the strange ways of nature. He knew the names of trees and animals and he was strict about the need for silence in the woods. He didn’t only teach me to see, he taught me to listen. I fell in love with the woods as a boy at least partly because that’s where I could be close to my father, but also because it tapped into my innate curiosity and urge to explore. The woods and the outdoors provided me with a feeling of safety and confidence – which I sorely lacked as a boy. I have turned to nature throughout my life for inspiration and for answers, but also for peace and solace. I think about the natural world much the same way I imagine an American Indian would. I respect it. It humbles me. I feel a certain spiritual harmony with it. But it also terrifies me. I had a recent experience in the wild that has altered my feelings about nature somewhat. I used to believe that in nature I was closer to God but now I am not so sure. God may have made the world but I am no longer convinced He manages it. The wild is just that – wild. And I don’t always feel God there. I feel other things. Darker things. And that’s all I want to say about that.

7. The way you talk of your childhood, insomnia, and where your mind went when you were alone, I would think that your writing would be much darker, how do you explain the crushing beauty that is Serpent Box?

I am flattered by your description, but I don’t see much beauty in Serpent Box. I think it’s a sad story with a lot of dark elements to it. I write dark things all the time, I just don’t publish any of them. Serpent Box was my search for faith. It reflects a certain optimism I have in the world and for human beings. But the underlying current in that story is man’s cruelty to man. What we do to other people who don’t look like us or who threaten our view of life. We know that human beings are capable of horrific acts of violence, yet there is still love and light. I cannot reconcile this. I have my own beliefs about it that I won’t get into here. But it’s all there in the book, I think. And still those beliefs are evolving. Before Serpent Box I was not so sure about God so I asked ‘Is there a God?’ but now that point is clear and I am left with a question I keep coming back to. Who am I? I have always found light and I strive toward the light from the darkness. There are many things I choose not to write about because they are too dark. I choose to write with hope in my heart. I choose not to focus on death and violence. But I won’t ignore those things either. I believe that for every act of evil or cruelty in this world there is an equal act of kindness and love. That’s my philosophical equivalent to Newton’s law. In Serpent Box I tried to include a lot of love because I think there’s a balance and that in the end it all evens out. Though I hope that love does one day conquer all.

8. You once wrote one of my favorite lines about books, “Every great book is a funeral and a celebration.” With this said, what do you think about the way we’re getting our reading material these days, e-books, online, etc.?

Well, I believe in the book. I believe in the bound, physical, tactile experience of books. I believe that holding a book is a kind of magic. That carrying a book around, close to you, imparts a certain feeling. We spend so much time in front of screens. TV screens, movie screens computer screens. We are bombarded with digital data. We are addicted to electrons and tiny windows, and images. Why would we want to increase our exposure to electronic media? Are we not already over-exposed? Is there anybody out there who can make serious a case for more gadgets and devices? So-called “personal” electronics killed the vinyl album and those of us who are old enough to remember them miss them terribly. They gave us so much more to look at and learn about and feel from the musicians. And they were part of our physical space. Vinyl record albums occupied space in our lives. They were handled and touched. We had a relationship with the media that we no longer have. Do we really want to do this to books? All this technology is ostensibly about convenience, but do we really need to carry our entire record collections in our shirt pockets? Do we need all of our books all of the time? Is there not an art to selecting those few things we can carry with us? The tape we’ll bring in the car? The book we’ll choose for the plane? What happened to the joy of serendipity? Books are endowed with life. A human being writes them, a human being designs them and binds them and chooses the paper stock and typeface. There is something inherently missing in an e-book. What good is a soul without a body? We experience an actual book (an a-book) in three dimensions, but really we experience it in four. The fourth dimension is time. Right now I am carrying a copy of The Undiscovered Self by Carl Jung. It sat on my bedside table for a week before I chose to open it. I looked at it for a week. I saw it there from time to time as I was living my life. I read the spine and looked at Jung’s face on the cover. I didn’t know it but it was calling to me. Three days ago I picked it up and put it in the messenger bag I carry to work. It was with me for a few more days, just sitting in my bag where I was able to see it as I fished around for pens and papers. All the while it was speaking to me. Then I opened it and began to read it. I can quickly grab it from my bag whenever I have a few spare moments, whenever I am waiting for a bus or a ferry. When I have to move quickly I can jam it back in. As I am reading it I take out a pencil to make notes in the margins or use a highlighter to mark a phrase I want to come back to. I can bend the corners of the pages if I want to mark them for future reference. This book is with me during a certain time of my life. It will only be with me for a week or so. This weekend I will bring it on the plane when I go to L.A.. This book, and this book alone, will be my companion during the month of October 2010. I will mark the date on the inside cover. In this way this book, an a-book, becomes part of me and part of time. It is unique. Its size, its shape, its cover, its typeface, its pages. It is not some homogenized experience. So there is no case to be made for e-books. The e-book is a scam, a fraud, a great tragedy. They were invented to make corporations more money, not for our comfort and convenience. It’s planned obsolescence. Buy more. Consume more. Milk more money from intellectual property. I refute, rebuke and reject them. To me they are the equivalent of the Real Doll, the surrogate artificial lover. An e-book will never whisper. An e-book will never put out a subtle call from the shelf, or jump out at me from time to time after I’ve read it, enticing me to pick it up again. Book lovers understand what it feels like to be in a roomful of books, to be surrounded by them. A-books, real books, are endowed with the spirits of those who made them and that is not something an e-book can ever do. This is a sort of genocide in my opinion. And we are all complicit in this eradication of something beautiful and yes, klunky, heavy, awkward to hold. But so what? We should be willing to bear the weight of something that we are willing to make a part of us.

9. I heard there was a short story collection in the works, is there any truth to this? Is there anything you can tell us about this, or your current project?

I have been writing short stories since I finished Serpent Box and have what amounts to a collection, but I am not yet sure it stands together as a unified whole. I put them all together recently and thought I had something interesting and unique. But time spoiled that. After letting them sit for a couple months I went back to them and re-read them and lost faith. So now I’m not so sure. I’ve decided that they are not good enough yet, they need a lot more work, so what I’m considering now is whether or not I want to invest the time it will take to not only revise what I have but to write some more. It’s as much work as a novel and I’m thinking maybe I should just write a novel but I am having problems with that as well. I have not been able to arrive at a decision as to which of several ideas to write about. I seem to change my mind every other day. I have two or three things I am passionate about but I don’t want to elaborate on them. Hemingway said that talking about a story in progress is like rubbing the dust off a butterfly’s wings. So I’m going to keep the butterflies to myself for now.

10. On your website, you have letters that you wrote about how Serpent Box came together, where you were at in the book, and your inner-workings. Do you think this kind of freedom to put these out for all to read disappeared after the book was published? Are you still writing these letters, to Andrew, today?

I read this question, I felt the urge to cry. No, I am not writing the letters to Andrew today and maybe that’s part of my problem. Andrew L. Wilson is a brilliant writer and he was my mentor. He gave generously of his wisdom and his time during my darkest hours. He loved me unconditionally and he loved my writing. I could not have written Serpent Box without him. During the past few years we’ve become estranged and I regret that. I could sure use him right now, and maybe that’s why I feel so uncomfortable. I don’t want to ‘use’ him that way without being able to give back and I don’t know that I have anything to give. He wrote a novel that really moved me and gave me the courage to write from my heart. It’s still one of the best books I’ve ever read and yet it’s not been published because the book business is so brutal and cruel. But maybe I will write to Andrew again. I used to write to him without expecting a response and he answered maybe 1 out of 10 of my letters; which was okay by me. I didn’t always need him to respond, I just needed him to be there, because writing is so damn lonely and depressing sometimes. Writers need each other. I know I do. I need other people around me who are reaching for something beyond themselves and trying to find some meaning in this life. Andrew was instrumental in the formation of the final version of Serpent Box. You should interview him.

11. You say that you were not trained as a writer but you learned how to write by reading. What books were your biggest influences?

I’ve mentioned that Cormac McCarthy’s sensibilities and use of language appeal a great deal to me. He creates the most compelling landscapes – both physical and psychological – of any writer I’ve read. All the Pretty Horses was my entrée into McCarthy and I think it was a great place to begin. But Blood Meridian also captured my imagination and, to this day, is the most powerful novel I’ve read. But my favorite McCarthy book is The Crossing, which is the second book in the border trilogy. Like McCarthy, I am also interested in the transition of boys into men. He sees through a different lens of course being of an older generation but at the core I deeply understand his younger characters. I would also say that Call of the Wild was a book that proved instrumental in my thinking and development as a writer. London is also a landscape writer, as is Hemingway. I came to Hemingway late in life. I had always avoided him because I felt that he was too obvious and too popular. I intentionally ignored him because I didn’t want to be influenced by him. The same is true for Faulkner. When I read The Old Man and the Sea however, I understood that I had been missing something that could have helped shaped me as a human being, forget about being inspired as a writer. I looked down my nose at all those books that we were compelled to read in high school, since I was rebellious and anti-establishment as a boy. But that was foolish of me and arrogant. When I look back on it books like Catcher in the Rye, A Separate Peace, Slaughterhouse Five, Siddartha, 1984, Of Mice and Men, Lord of the Flies and Salinger’s Nine Stories were the very bedrock foundation of my literary soul. Thank you English teachers, everywhere, my writing, the fact that I write at all, I owe to you, Mr. Broza, Mr. Gober, Mrs. Dissen.

12. You once said, “I think I am trying to convince myself that I am sane.” This goes through my head often when I write, maybe writing is the only thing that keeps me sane, do you want to go delve deeper into this thought? You wrote that line eight years ago, what does it mean to you now?

It means more to me now than it ever has before, because I am basically a neurotic who cannot stop thinking, cannot stop the words and images and emotions and ideas from making themselves heard. I write because I don’t know what it means to be alive. And I don’t understand why God made the world, or why He made man this way – so fallible. I don’t understand the behaviors of human beings. Life is a mind-boggling mystery to me and writing helps me to gain just a little bit of insight into what it means to be living and to make some sense of it all. I have said that writing is organized thinking - thought recorded and carefully arranged to create an emotional and intellectual effect. So the mere act of sculpting thoughts, observations and ideas into a cohesive whole helps me to understand the world and to understand myself. I don’t know why it is so, but I know that when I am writing, steadily, I am much less edgy and prone to depression. Writing helps me to organize what I’m feeling but it does much more than that, because journaling accomplishes this same thing. To be clear I am talking about writing stories, fiction, and I am only talking about my own experiences. Writing is very personal and precious. To tap into my subconscious is to tap into the collective subconscious of the world. Thus, when I am writing, as Salinger would say “with all my stars out”, I am communing with mankind, all the living and all the dead. That’s how I see it. Stories are floating through the air like radio waves. Radio waves that are millions of years old are bombarding the earth from other galaxies. I don’t want to get too metaphysical here but there is so much we don’t know, don’t see. Read about string theory and it’ll blow your mind. Alternate planes of existence? Parallel universes? I already know there’s a spirit world. So it makes sense to me that there’s this stream of stuff floating around, the collective experience of man. Archetypes. Funny I’m reading Jung again now. I am fascinated with the collective subconscious. Maybe the voices I hear and the things that I feel are echoes of that. I don’t know. I just know that I feel at home when I’m writing. It feels natural to me and most of the time it feels good.

13. You turned a twelve page short story into a novel, how does this happen? Did you know you were writing a novel when you started?

I started Serpent Box as a short story. I had no intention of writing a novel. But the story garnered some attention when it won the Literal Latte Fiction Award in the year 2000. At the time I was 35 years old but I was a very young writer and all I wanted to do was write some good short stories and work my way up to a novel by the time I was 45. I gave myself 10 years. But an agent saw the story and she convinced me to turn it into a novel. I did that bit by bit. 50 pages here, 20 pages there. I didn’t think I could write a novel. But this story dovetails into your question 19 so why don’t I leave it at that and get into there?

14. What is/was your daily writing routine like? Do you have one?

You ask two questions here. What was my routine like (I assume during Serpent Box) and do I have one now? During Serpent Box I would write every morning from about 8:30am until noon or 1. I’d go to a local café and write in long-hand. I’d do each chapter in long-hand and then transcribe it to the computer. I think I filled 26 notebooks. I would often read a bit before I got started or write a letter. I wrote to Andrew Wilson as a way of warming up and preparing myself for the day’s work ahead. I borrowed that idea from John Steinbeck who wrote a daily letter to his editor Pascal Cavici while working on East of Eden. I thought this was a fine idea and it wound up working very well for me. In this way I would organize my thoughts and pin down what problems I was facing on that given day. What will Jacob do now that Charles is dead? How will Rebecca get to Georgia? Should I bring Hosea Lee into the story so late?

My routine today is much less organized. I don’t have the luxury of unemployment and my days are not my own. I have to squeeze my writing in when I can. Usually I will write on the thirty minute ferry ride between Marin and San Francisco. An hour is not much but it’s enough to keep a story going. I’ve written several stories this way. I am a morning person and have a difficult time writing at night. I wish I was one of those night owl writers, but I can’t focus at all after dark. I do think a ritual and a routine is important, at least for me, so maybe that’s something I should look into starting again.

15. We hear all the time that one should “write what they know,” if this is true, how did Serpent Box come to be? Did you do a lot of research or was this something you were familiar with?

I have a big problem with “write what you know”, because I think it is misinterpreted. I don’t think it necessarily means write about your life as a mailman or theme your story on your background in plumbing. Though any of those could be fascinating in the hands of a good writer. While your background and experience can add a lot to your writing, I take “write what you know” to mean what you know in your heart. What do you believe is true and valuable? I know the world can be cruel and unjust, but I also know it is capable of beauty and grace. That’s my truth. That’s what I know.

But for me, I have a different aphorism I live by: Write what you don’t know. I knew nothing about the rural south. I know nothing about Holiness Pentecostals, or snake-handling, or God. I knew little of what it meant to have so much faith, so much conviction. But I wanted to know these things. Why did these people risk their lives drinking poison? Why do they believe so fervently in the Gospel of Mark? What does the bible really mean? These were questions I needed to answer for myself. So I just read the bible, and I read biblical analysis, and I read first-person accounts about what it’s like to handle serpents, and I read about the Holiness movement and I read about rural Tennessee and Georgia and Appalachian Folklore and I read about the terrible legacy of lynching in America. I looked at old photos and watched some documentaries and then I sat down and wrote. I wouldn’t say I did a lot of research. I did just enough to infuse myself with a spirit and the rest I made up. I didn’t want the book to be accurate, I wanted it to be mythical and rich with feeling. I wanted it to feel like a dream. Dreams contain both concrete truths and ephemeral possibilities. That’s what I did, I recorded my dream.

16. There’s a quote, “I read so I can live more than one life in more than one place,” by Ann Tyler, do you believe that authors live more than one life as a result of their stories?

I can’t speak for all authors. I don’t know what they feel or experience. I don’t talk to a lot of writers. I know that for me it’s not about living more than one life, it’s about projecting myself through a prism so that I can see all my component colors. I don’t need to write to feel like I live more than one life. I feel like I’ve already lived a dozen, which may be one of the reasons why I am so compelled to write, or why my head is so full of vivid images that surely don’t come from this life I’m living now. This jibes with what I was saying earlier. The characters and places I write about don’t feel strange to me. I am not visiting them, I am liberating them. I feel like they’re already inside me. But as a reader, now that’s a different story. I am a reader first, and I became one in order to escape. So Ann Tyler’s quote holds true for me, as a reader. Yet even those people, other author’s characters, when written well, they feel like they are mine too. Sometimes though it is purely vicarious. Take Shantaram. What an incredible journey that was. What an amazing book. I can’t relate to any of those characters but I sure didn’t mind going for that 600 page ride.

17. I’ve noticed that you’re a fantastic photographer; do you think there’s any correlation between the way a writer sees the world and the way everyone else sees it?

I love this question and I thank you for the kind words about my photography. It has always been a passion of mine. I began taking pictures long before I began to write. I think that many writers see deeply, beyond the mere surfaces of things and some writers are like photographers of the soul. I think Don DeLillo is one of those. He has an eye that is just uncanny. He notices every detail of even the most mundane thing and he shows it to us as something not at all mundane. Again, I don’t know how anyone else sees the world. I imagine that writers and photographers and painters and police detectives see it more closely. My father was a policeman and he taught me to look at things closely and to examine everything. He taught me pattern recognition and how to spot things that didn’t belong in a given scene. So from boyhood I was trained to look, though I think it came naturally to me since I’ve always had this ability to find things – watches, money, jewelry. I was born with, as my father would always say, a good game eye. My mother was a photographer and painter and she taught me how to use a 35mm SLR. Photography was very important in our home. The captured image was always something that intrigued me. Photography allows me to save precious moments and to chronicle what I find interesting. It also serves my collector nature. I collect things, physical objects, but I also collect memories. I suppose this is rooted in a fear of losing memory, or of losing time. When I write I often write about memory. Perhaps this is the correlation you’re looking for. I write stories that focus on memories and things that evoke memories. A good writer is like a photographer I think. She composes a photograph of an event, or captures a frozen moment in time and renders it to the reader as a clear image, or series of moving images. But a whereas a photographer aims the lens outward, at the external world, the writer aims his lens inward where the picture is not so clear. But you asked me if I saw a correlation between the way a writer sees the world and the way everyone else sees it. What you’re really asking is if there’s a correlation between how an artist sees the world and how “everyone else” sees it. But I would ask is there really an everyone else? And what is the difference between a person who chooses to express her interpretation of life and the world and a person who does not? What does it mean to be a creator of art? What is art? Why do some of us need to do it while others do not? And, more importantly to me, would we all, given the right encouragement and opportunity, be artists of some kind or another? Is art, and the creative drive, latent in us all? I think it is, to a degree. But how we process what we see, how if effects us and then what we do with those feelings and ideas evoked by our senses, that’s what makes a poet or a sculptor and not a toll collector or a politician.
18. If you could go back ten years and give yourself one piece of advice, what would it be?

There are so many things I would advise my younger self to change or avoid, but I think one thing I would counsel that young writer to do would be to not focus at all on publication and to not get caught up in the machine of the publishing business. Just write. Write what you want and expect nothing. Be more judicious with your time. Read more. Experiment more. I think that I have gotten sidetracked by things like book marketing and blogs when I should have been writing. I read that Michangelo’s last words were “Draw Antonio, draw. While there is still time.” Antonio was his assistant and he was telling him to just do the work, just do that thing that drove you to create in the first place. Time is so precious. We’re here to write, not Tweet or blog.

19. Do you think Serpent Box would have ever come to fruition without the push of Lane Zachary? Could you tell us about that?

It would never have come to fruition as a novel without Lane. She saw something in me, and in that story that I didn’t see and she pulled it out of me like a stubborn tooth. She took me under her wing and gave me the encouragement I needed to write the book. I would write a little at a time and then show her the results and she would tell me it was good and urge me to write more. While she never guaranteed me publication she did guarantee me serious consideration. I know that if I finished a decent draft of the book that it would be seen and have a shot. But as important as Lane was, Serpent Box owes its existence to many people, all of whom I mention in my acknowledgements. Marie Estrada was a key contributor and champion and Laura Strachan was absolutely critical and in many ways more important than even Lane in that she responded to me during that very dark and difficult time when I was hunting for a new agent. She got the book out there. She got it in front of Marie. So many people are a part of Serpent Box that I feel that singling out one of them is unfair. Terry MacMillan….

20. I feel like you found out a lot about yourself when you toured for Grateful Dead, can you tell us a little bit about what came out of that cross-country tour?

You’re talking about the summer of 1988 when I left New York for California. I think that was *the* defining moment of my life. I needed to break away from everything I knew, and everything I was comfortable with in order to begin to discover who I am. I lived in a constant state of fear and dread in New York and I lacked the courage to be my authentic self. I spent over a month on the road with my two best friends selling tee-shirts at Dead shows in order to eat and buy gasoline. I learned a lot that summer, but the journey is not over. In many ways I am still on that trip, I am still learning who I am. What the Grateful Dead teaches me, through their lyrics and philosophy, is that everything’s going to be alright. Don’t worry so much. Life is a cyclic escalation of joys and plummets into sadness. They remind me to be happy with what I have and to be grateful for it. They remind me that there is a lesson in everything and an answer where you least expect it. They are really an optimistic band. They’re all about hope in the midst of madness and despair. They are about resurrection and redemption. Even their name suggests this. Legend has it that Phil Lesh chose that name at random out of a dictionary of myths and legends. I found that dictionary and I own two copies. The funny thing is that book has led me in all different directions. I’ve used it in my own work time and time again. The Dead are all about these connections, and serendipity, and light at the end of the tunnel. They are also about paying attention and observation. Robert Hunter and John Perry Barlow are overlooked in the pantheon of great lyricists. As much as I love Jerry Garica and Bob Weir and Phil Lesh (and of course Mickey and Bill and PigPen and Keith and Brent) it is Barlow and Hunter I admire most and who keep me connected to the music. They are great poets whose words are as much part of me as Rumi and Whitman. I listen to the Grateful Dead for the music, but they stay in my heart because of the words. Just keep moving, don’t give up, tomorrow is another day, look on the bright side, sometimes you win and sometimes you lose, love conquers all, don’t worry be happy. You hang out with these old hippies and the hardcore followers that call themselves the family and you see that these people didn’t have a pot to piss in. They lived one day at a time and there was an odd Zen quality to them. People often disparage hippies but hippies are optimists and humanitarians.

Thank you!

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