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Saturday, January 15, 2011

#8 Joey Goebel

20 Questions With Mourning Goats


What can I say about Joey? Torture the Artist is on my list of top five books for writers and the guy that wrote it, is awesome. He's a short story writer, novelist, singer, songwriter, and an all around great guy. I'm excited for you all to read the second interview of 2011!

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

I picture some gnarly young billy goats at a funeral home—Dave Coulier types. You know, sophisticated and petite, but with a little extra torque in the squat-thrusting department. One of them arrives and signs in at the guest book on the little podium with the pull-string lamp and thinks, “It never fails—no one signs their address in these things. They only sign their name, even though it clearly asks for the name and address. Screw it, I’m signing my name and address. That’s what it asks for, so why shouldn’t I?” So then this goat walks inside and licks some asses and gets his ass licked, and he goes over to one of the sitting areas where the family has set up a computer slideshow of the recently deceased goat as a child, with his family, dressed as Brian Austin Green for Halloween, etcetera, etcetera, what will be will be. But then Lyle starts thinking, “Ah, man. That might make me look self-important—like I think I’m special in some old-fashioned way—the way I decided to be the first one to put my address, while so many others just signed their names.” So he goes back and eats the entire guest book and leaves.

2. One of my favorite stories of yours is The Phallic Artist, from a now defunct journal, Cellar Door, did you write that during the same time you wrote Torture the Artist? I felt like they were connected in a lot of ways.

I wrote it not long after I finished Torture the Artist, and you’re right; the theme of The Phallic Artist is identical to that of Torture. The story behind that is that someone at the publishing house asked me to write a companion piece to Torture the Artist, such as a short story that could be placed somewhere in order to spread the word about the book. I got the idea from a friend who was in a figure drawing class in college. He would call me up almost every night and share with me his acute anxiety over having to draw a nude male model. He was seriously considering leaving the drawing blank at the crotch area. To comfort him, I said, “Who knows—maybe because you’re so worried about this, your heightened emotions will come through when you draw dicks, and maybe you’ll be so good at drawing them that you will have found your calling.” I could see him screaming to the heavens: “Damn this gift I’ve been given!” He ended up getting through it without any trauma, and I got a story out of it. I don’t know what happened with getting it published, but a couple of years later I eventually placed the storymyself when Cellar Door asked for a piece. It was then made into a short film by Lucky Rabbit Films out of Austin.

3. I saw that Pat Walsh was your editor for The Anomalies, he’s lined up to do an interview for Mourning Goats, what can you say about him, before he’s in for the 20 questions? Also, editors in general, what have they done for you?

Pat is very intelligent and has a great sense of humor. Not only is he intelligent in terms of the writing side of publishing, but also the business side of publishing. There was a long stretch of time—I guess from The Anomalies on through Torture the Artist—that I talked to him far more than I talked to any of my closest friends. I loved talking to him. He was good at making me feel good—which I think is a good trait for an editor. We had a lot of laughs. I remember the one time he did not laugh is when I made fun of California for electing Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. (I had to say something as it was nice to see another state embarrassing itself.) He took that one hard. He didn’t see any humor in that. What have editors done for me? Well, in Pat’s case, he got my novel-writing career started by reading my query letter and then asking for my manuscript. In general, I think editors are helpful for the author’s morale. The relationship with editors isn’t exactly what I’d thought it be; there haven’t been any in-depth series of letters about the writing itself, like with F. Scott Fitzgerald and Maxwell Perkins. Usually with editors, I talk more about business than the books themselves. I always enjoy talking to them.

4. I love the line you wrote, “Get mad at something and make it better through writing.” What did you get mad about for each of your books?

For The Anomalies, I got mad at how predictable everyone was. With so many people, you know what they’re all about without them even opening their mouth. Their appearance is their mold and everything about them fits into that mold. And as a result, so many people are basically the same, because they so often “look the part” and vice versa. (“Haven’t we met before?” I would find myself thinking.) For Torture the Artist, I got mad at how utterly stupid and talentless the entertainers of the 21st century had become. I was—and still am—gobsmacked at what passes for entertainment. And for Commonwealth, I got mad that American voters not once but twice elected a man into office who did not represent their economic interests. All the contradictions stared us in the face: a common man who was a member of one of the most elite families in the country, the more masculine choice who was also a cheerleader. All I can do is barf, and the barf comes out in book form. “Goebel” is slang for vomit in German, which I’ve been made aware of repeatedly when I tour over there.

5. Do you write every day? Every week? What does the writing process look like, for you?I do write every week, normally Monday through Friday.

I’m still trying to find the best process. Sometimes I do it according to time: As long as I put in approximately seven to eight hours a day into my book (as well as in book-related tasks, like answering e-mails or going through my notes), then I’ll be satisfied. Or lately, I’ve been doing it by quota: six pages a day. This is in an attempt to get the first draft done for my new novel. It’s a triumph psychologically to finish the first draft, which I find to be the most difficult.

6. In Torture the Artist, you described something beautiful and horrible rolled into one, what do you think about where entertainment is going these days? Should we start some experiments, see what we can create?

Entertainment is as ghastly as ever. It’s gotten worse since I wrote Torture the Artist. My views on this topic can best be expressed in a song I wrote for my new recording project (which I’m calling Nervous People). The song is called “Bodies Writhing (the American Music Awards)”: Bodies on the TV, dancin’ up a stormCallin’ themselves artists, I’m callin’ it pornI can hear the message, rubbin’ it’s way through:You were awful slutty, now I’ll have to outslut you
Yes, sweeheart I see you, yes, you’re all grown upMaybe someday we’ll forget your Mickey Mouse ClubYes, I said I see you, you’re bringin’ sexy backSubstituting lust for the talent that you lackChorus—Looks like they’ve made love obsolete Where once there was warmth, there’s only heat And bodies writhingThis is what it’s come to: Ga Ga Boom Boom PowBaby caveman orgies make that future soundNo imagination, but man, they sure can moveLooks like they’re thinking anything but thinking ought to do
Repeat chorus.Bridge: Touch my body, won’t you touch my body?Repeat chorus and bathe. I don’t think any experiments would succeed. The best we can hope for is that the occasional work of true originality and imagination will reach mainstream audiences. LOST would be an example. I am a full-blown LOST fanatic. From a writing standpoint, I’ve never seen a show that’s so ambitious. And the different narrative techniques they used throughout the six seasons always impressed me.

7. You were awarded Romania’s Ovid Festival Prize in 2009. How did an author from Kentucky win this? What did it entail?

My novels were published in Romanian, and the judges noticed, I guess. And the reason I was published in Romanian is because I was published in German by Diogenes, the largest independent publisher in Europe. They are well-connected all over the globe, and they handle my foreign rights, so that’s how I ended up getting published in all the various countries. To receive the award, I got a trip to Romania, and I brought my wife with me. We were right on the Black Sea in a town called Neptun that was formerly a resort for the communist higher-ups. I attended some conferences and went to readings, and it culminated with the awards ceremony. I tore it up, author-style. The whole trip was surreal for me, and the prize money allowed me to focus solely on writing and doing water colors of ear lobes for several months.

8. With that, it seems that you have a huge following in Europe, do you think America will catch up?

Well, check this out: ELLE Magazine in Romania made my book one of their book club picks, and so I did an event in Bucharest, Romania, where all these young Romanian ladies were gathered to discuss my book. My wife and I got a kick out of that, especially since it took place in a high-end furniture store. I’ve never read ELLE, but I would imagine the American version of ELLE doesn’t offer much page-time for authors or books. Who would want to read about books when we can read about which cast member of CSI: New York Angeles has the best set of abdominal muscles or learn about how great Kate Hudson’s fallopian tubes are? So from what I’ve observed, authors aren’t as marginalized by the media in Europe. Let me put it this way: If America “catches up” as you put it, I’d be surprised, unless I come up with some good plots for lonely vampire wolves.

9. You’ve been doing some freelance work this past year, how did it go? Anything you’re particularly proud of?

It went well. It’s sad how much more money I could make writing an article about Michael Jackson than I could being an educator. I liked the Michael Jackson piece because it made me feel like I was a part of this big news story, rather than just an observer. DIE ZEIT contacted me, like, the Thursday after he died, and I had to have it turned in by Monday. They wanted a younger American’s take on what he meant to pop culture. I discovered that with my ability to get published in the German papers and magazines, freelance work is relatively easy money, but what I don’t like about it is that it took away from my creative writing time.

10. You did your MFA in a low-residency program, after you’d already been published, what did you think of the program, and why go back after tasting success?

I went back after being published because I wanted the security of having a master’s degree so that I could get a “real” job. When it comes to my books, I never know from one year to the next how much money I’m going to make, so getting an MFA was something I decided to do when I knew that I would be getting married and eventually reproducing. So basically, it was the decision of rational guy being uncertain of his financial future. Oh—and I wanted to enrich myself intellectually. I was more than pleased with the program. I chose Spalding University, which is in Louisville. The workload was daunting, but I thrived under all the deadlines, and these deadlines helped me write Commonwealth, probably the longest book I’ll ever write. It was actually such a positive experience that I found it disconcerting. I kept thinking, “Why is this going so well?” The teachers were wise and my classmates were supportive. Some people say that the problem with these MFA programs is that they churn out batches of writers who all write the same way, and that they are therefore institutions breeding conformity. But you hear that argument so often that I think it’s just become something that people think they are supposed to say, kind of like when people say that Kanye West is a musical genius.

11. I read on a German site, that you’re teaching now, what books are you using with your students? Any of your own? 

I teach English 101 and 102, so they mostly have to read textbooks. However, I make it a point to have them read one novel, and one of their essays is supposed to be about that novel. I make them a list of novels that are either classics or ones that I think they’d like. I also usually pick short ones, for obvious reasons. One semester, I assigned only five novels, so that we could have five in-depth discussions about some of my favorite novels. These novels were: Cat’s Cradle, The Metamorphosis, The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, and The Stranger. It amazes me when someone doesn’t like any one of these books.

12. What’s happening with the Torture the Artist movie, with Lucky Rabbit Films?

I don’t have much to report. The producers have optioned the film rights a third time, and they are very much interested in making the film a reality. They flew to Kentucky to meet me and my wife. I liked them, and I patiently await to see what they do with the book.

13. Last year you wrote, “The song is so bad that while I was listening to it, it made me dislike life,” in reference to an Owl City song, topping the charts. I laughed out loud, or lol’d as the kids are saying, when I read that, any new songs you particularly hate or would like to rip apart?

I LOVE this question. I had forgotten that line, which I used on ye ol’ Facebook, I believe. Since you’ve brought it to my attention, I think I’ll make a place for it in my new novel, so thanks. There are so many new songs that I hate, and you might think, “Why do you listen to them, then?” But I think it’s good to be aware of them. It’s kind of like checking the pulse of youth culture, to see how much longer it will be before the world dies off. So every once in a while, in the car, I’ll listen to the pop stations, and I also watch the big music award shows, and I’ll sit there in a state of pure wonder, saying to myself, “This is REAL. This is not a Saturday Night Live skit. This is not meant to be a joke. And people LIKE it.” A perfect example would be the Black Eyed Peas updated version of “I Had the Time of My Life.” Okay, that in itself is stupid enough (Can’t you hear them pitching it to the record execs—“Yo, we wanna take that Dirty Dancing song and make it our own.”) But then—after Will I Am and Fergie struggle out the chorus, they inexplicably start saying “dirty bit” as the song falls apart into a techno atrocity. It is SO BAD. And then—this was at the aforementioned American Music Awards—when it was over, Will I Am yelled, “Welcome to the future.” So here is the future, everyone: the song from Dirty Dancing and the repetition of the words “dirty bit”…the complete absence of creativity or originality…And have you seen how they dress? My twelve-month-old niece has a cooler fashion sense than the Black Eyed Peas. They look like idiots. A couple of more observations from the American Music Awards: When certain buxom chanteuses like Katy Perry and Rihanna came out wearing dresses that actually covered themselves, I announced to my wife, “That dress is coming off within thirty seconds.” And I was right… You know those background dancers who basically just straddle things and writhe on the floor? I always think about how they have parents: “Hey, Mom! Be sure to watch me on the American Music Awards tonight. I’ll be dryhumping Ne-Yo’s thigh. Be sure to tell all your friends.” Why the hell hasn’t Justin Bieber’s voice changed yet? Isn’t he going on 18 by now? Does he have some sort of developmental problem? Is he a castrato? Sidenote: My sister always comments about how Justin Bieber gives her the creeps, which I think is hilarious, and I kind of see what she means. And two more songs that I’d like to address: Bruno Mars has a hit song called “Just the Way You Are.” Why?! You know that he or someone in his camp HAD to know the title was already taken by Billy Joel. I think it was an arrogant choice to call the song that. I mean, how did it even happen? Was he listening to the radio and heard the BillyJoel song and say, “Hmm. Since I can’t come up with an original idea, I’ll just take that chorus word-for-word but change everything else about the song.” Bruno’s song is melodramatic, with a melody that I would call “obvious,” and “easy” lyrics. There isn’t a tenth of the melodic appeal of the Billy Joel song. (And don’t get me started on how Billy Joel is always considered “uncool.”) And Ke$ha has a lyric in her song that says “we’re dancing like we’re dumb.” Finally, a 21st century performer who sings the truth.

14. When you wrote Torture the Artist, you said that you had a much darker ending in mind, before meeting your wife, where did you originally see it going?

I think I was going to have the Harlan character just wither away in his hotel room. Strangely, even with the way I ended up writing it, I’ve had a lot of readers and interviewers comment on what a sad, bleak ending it is. But it’s supposed to be happy.

15. You wrote four screenplays earlier in your career, do you ever think about turning any of the three left into novels (The Anomalies was a screenplay before being published as a novel)?

No, because they’re low-brow comedies, and anyone who still reads novels in the 21st century would not be interested in reading stupid comedies. Here were the titles: FRANKY DANDELION, THE SCHOOL OF WHATNOT, and GIRL HUNT. I’ve written several more since I became a novelist, and I plan to continue writing them. For me, screenplays are much, much easier than novels.

16. When you send out books to fans, I’ve seen on more than one occasion that you send out old pictures of teen idols, what’s the story behind this and do you still do it? (I personally got Bruce Springstien and Rob Lowe)

Ha! You fared better than most. Just yesterday I sent out C. Thomas Howell and Rachel Ward. My sister was a teenager in the 1980’s, and she would buy the Teen Bop magazines, and I’m assuming they still have magazines like this—each page would simply be a photo of a teen idol, everyone from the cast of the Breakfast Club to Andrew McCarthy to El Debarge to Scott Valentine. My sister would cut her favorites out and cover an entire bedroom wall with them, and because I wanted to be just like my big sister, I did the same thing, even though it was probably inappropriate for a six-year-old boy to have his walls plastered with pictures of Judd Nelson and Patrick Duffy. (I also really liked female soap opera stars of the ‘80s and had an album full of pictures of Emma Samms and Finola Hughes and Felicia from General Hospital. I was a weird little dude, even back then.) So my sister saved these old magazines. What people get in the mail from me are the pictures of celebrities that my sister and I didn’t deem wall-worthy. Yes, I still do it, though my supply is nearly depleted. I do it just because I like the idea of sending something extra, and because people tend to get a kick out of it. There’s no meaning or message behind it.

17. You said to a fan on your facebook page that the newest book, Commonwealth, took, “so long and was so much work that it made me start to hate writing,” can you go into more detail for us? What do you mean by that?

Oh, I meant exactly what I said. That book exhausted me. I know that it is a privilege to be a published author, but one big hardship of being an author rather than having a regular, nine-to-five job is that the work never really ends. You might be away from your computer, but you can’t get your brain to stop tinkering with a certain plot point. So with Commonwealth, I’d go to bed, but after I turned out the lights, I would think, “Well, I’m lying here doing nothing. The lights are out and it’s quiet so I have no distractions. This would be an ideal time to have my brain work out some details on the book—just until I fall asleep. And then, of course, the sleep wouldn’t come. So, yes, writing is an art form, or a craft, but I also think of it as work, and just like with anything, if you work on the same thing so hard for so long, it will leave you soured on that particular type of work. But I took some time off from writing novels. I worked on screenplays and the freelance articles. And now I’m deep into my fourth novel, but I’m sleeping well and trying not to completely give myself over to the book.

18. In November, you had a short story come out that you described as, “Mad Libs meets Choose Your Own Adventure meets 21st century marketing,” what can you tell us about it?

Strange career development: Mercedes needed an author to write a story, one which requires the person at the computer to enter information, so that the story becomes interactive. Because of my following in Germany, I was offered the gig. It’s surprisingly dark and surreal for a story on a Mercedes site.

19. If you had to give one piece of advice to aspiring writers about life, not writing, what would it be?

I think the single best piece of advice I could give them would be for them to protect their health. This is something I’ve only recently learned myself. For instance, I’ve learned that exercising thirty minutes a day can help me sleep better at night. The older I get, the more I realize how if you don’t have good health, you don’t have much of anything. Since I’ve started taking better care of myself in way of diet and exercise, I’ve noticed that writing isn’t as exruciating.

20. You were working on a new book this year, what can you tell us about it? Do you have a title yet?

It’s set in high school and it’s in first person point of view. This one has some really nice words! Nouns, verbs, a couple of prepositions—the whole deal, y’all. It’s funny and sad and might be described as a geek fantasy. No title yet. I have two of the three words of the title selected. The third one keeps eluding me. Maybe “goat” will do.

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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