Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Taking Life to New Heights: An Interview with Will Chancellor, Author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall

In the summer twilight there is a moment of perfection. The light becomes copper, unnatural, the air shimmers and a door of possibility opens. These moments, elusive and startling, make a body give pause, reflect and, most unexpectedly, wonder.

If my favorite moment in the span of a summer’s day could be tamed and encapsulated inside of a novel, that novel would be Will Chancellor’s epic debut A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall.

There are myriad layers to A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, but at the outermost is the story of Owen Burrs. Twenty-one, poised for the Olympics and near unstoppable, Owen loses an eye in a water polo match and is forced to reconsider and re-imagine his future. He goes on to do what any intelligent, reasonable, Stanford student would do: cast off his father, run away to Europe, become immersed in the art world, meet people whom he can’t stand to see alive and can’t live without, fall to the depths, rise to the heavens and experience LIFE.

Peel back a layer from this and you get a map of comparative mythology that Joseph Campbell would have liked to get his hands on. Keep going and the quest archetype gives way to the destruction of the concept of art, which gives way to the existence of innocence, which gives way to the winding staircase of falling in love and so on and so on… This is the sort of book that was meant to be examined, analyzed, read and re-read. The sort college professors need to be adding to their reading lists for the fall.

It is also simply the beautiful story of a man in the world. I think there is no shame in reading it at that level as well. However you choose to approach A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, I hope that you do. In the meantime, there’s more. I was fortunate enough to be able to ask Will Chancellor a few of the questions that were swimming around in my head while reading my already dog-eared copy of his book. Please enjoy.

Steph Post: You have an extremely unique voice and story, but I’m one of those readers who is always making comparisons. About halfway through A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, I found that your writing style and content, for me at least, reads like the crazy lovechild of Jennifer Egan and Donna Tartt. Would you make comparisons between yourself and other writers? Are there are any authors who had an impact on the writing of this novel?

Will Chancellor: Seems like you've already peeked at my family tree, Steph. You're dead on about Tartt and Egan. It's funny though, I only read Tartt this year (Brave Man was 'finished' and submitted in April of 2013). There are some uncanny parallels between Goldfinch and my book, which makes me think that we have common ancestors in literature and probably read similar non-fiction/do similar things when not reading. What I hope I share with Tartt and Egan is crafting something that is first and foremost highly readable. I want to write books that people finish. I try to keep a forward lean at all times. This has been the biggest change in my writing during the past ten years. I get lost in the maze of literature and experiments with language if I'm not always keeping an eye to readability.

This book took so long because I was learning how to write. I wrote the first draft isolated in northeast Texas. It was 1200 pages of highly referential shit that was explicitly in dialogue with Joyce's Ulysses. I moved into the Chelsea Hotel in 2004 with this unwieldy draft and spent three years tinkering before eventually scrapping the entire experiment, let's call it the Joyce draft.

I started the second draft from a different point of view (first person) with a character who is no longer in the book. This was my Patricia Highsmith draft. The book was tight and entertaining, but antithetical to the central theme of Brave Man--that central theme, by the way, is explicitly voiced in the first paragraph of the book. So I hit Control A for a second time and deleted that draft.

The third draft owes much to two of my favorite writers, Bulgakov and Walcott. I was aiming for the dream logic of Bulgakov and the closely seen, deeply felt, imagery of Walcott. I wasn't conscious of this until the book was in galleys. But looking back on it, I think that's what was happening all along. To me, it just seemed like I was being truer to the book I wanted to write.

SP: Although A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall really only focuses on a year in the life of Owen and Joe Burrs, it reads like an epic. In part, this is due to the obvious references to Greek myths and Icelandic Sagas, but I think the structure and form of the novel has something to do with it as well. For starters, there are only seven chapters in the span of 377 pages and the book contains no quotation marks or action tags to indicate dialogue. How would you classify the genre or form of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall?

WC: The first draft was explicitly trying to adapt seven of the Sagas of Icelanders. The book began trying to figure out the psyche of Owen, who is not only privileged, but unburdened by existential paralysis. The nearest/only antecedent I found was in the warrior poet sagas. Structurally, I was also working with the Odyssey and the six poetic revisions in Bloom's Anxiety of Influence--sounds like a hoot, right?! Jesus.

Vestiges of all the early drafts are probably still there. It's a saga. And a thriller. Everything in my life for the past ten years has been filtered through this book, so that's why it's hard to classify. Luckily 'novel' is a hell of a catch all.

SP: One of my favorite aspects of your book is the focus on colors. Owen Burr, as a child and a few times after he loses his eye and goes to Europe, sees the world in washes of color that he connects to Greek gods and goddesses. Owen tells his girlfriend Stevie, “The world was tinted a particular color, as if I were looking through a colored film, a laminate.” He continues, “It wasn’t just a sensory thing. It’s like the inside of my head was lit with a strange light; my intuition, my thinking, it would get shifted. When I was little… the world was a sacred place.” I found this concept fascinating; it’s almost a mythical, spiritual form of synesthesia. Where did you come up with the idea of Owen’s ability to view the world through a god/color lens?

WC: That's a really tough question. I think what you're highlighting is just me translating the way I see the world into story form.

Terrence Malick's Thin Red Line was the first thing I experienced that made me feel like someone saw the world the same weird way I do. Color is everything for me. But it's color in a glowing twilit sense. It's non-literal and mystic.

Ooph. There's no way I can reverse engineer this part of the book. I think it just has to be experienced.

SP: This is a ridiculously enormous question, so take it as you will. Much of the novel is concerned with the contemporary art world. When Owen interacts with rock star artist Kurt Wagener, questions of economics, status and concept vs. product abound. Although I don’t believe he is mentioned directly, Kurt and his artistic endeavors reminded me of Damien Hirst and the controversy that surrounded his 2007 For the Love of God sculpture. So, my big question is: in your opinion, what the hell is art anyway?

WC: Easier question than the last one!

To me, there are two essential components to art: honest execution of a vision and technical mastery. Both are necessary components; neither is sufficient. If you only have a good idea, sorry, but that's not art. If you happen to be a fantastic draftsman or painter but lack that original seed, I'd say you're skilled, but you're not making art.

I wasn't thinking specifically about Hirst, though I think he certainly passes the test I'm setting here. I was thinking more of Chris Burden. Somebody recently saw Darren Bader in Kurt. I totally get that, but I didn't have him in mind. Honestly, there are a hundred successful Kurts in contemporary art. Some of them are total frauds, some are very talented. My goal in depicting that character was for any artist who reads this and sees parallels with his own life to feel that it is harsh, but fair. Kurt does horrible, immoral things in the service of art. I think there are a lot of artists who would agree that an artistic end justifies monstrous means. That's Kurt's outlook at least.

It took me a long time to learn how to see contemporary art. Thomas McEvilley's book, The Triumph of Anti-Art, is a must. I've also been fortunate enough to be close friends with artists from this book's early days (Van Rehny Hecht Nelson) to present (Damian Loeb and Daniel Subkoff).

SP: And while we’re talking about art, I just wanted to say that I appreciated the mention of one of my favorite artists, Joseph Beuys. One of my favorite lines in the novel is, “Kurt said he looked like Joseph Beuys and asked if they could find a coyote or maybe a dachshund. Something yappy.” How much research into art history and the contemporary art world did you conduct while writing A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall?

WC: Well this book began as a take-down piece. A lot of contemporary art enraged me. I read it as bad philosophy and/or bad poetry, carelessly thrown into the world. I bought that McEvilley book I mention above expecting it to be an echo chamber. Instead, McEvilley praises the genius of conceptual art. This threw me. I wanted Brave Man to be a grenade lobbed at the anti-art camp, and here was this theorist, whom I deeply respect, defending the wrong side.

Around this time, I became close friends with a conceptual artist named Daniel Subkoff. I told him about a central theme of in-betweenness in Brave Man and he immediately saw parallels with his own artwork. The chance arose in 2010 for us to collaborate on a large-scale installation for the New Museum. We designed a conceptual artwork and were invited to exhibit in the 2011 Festival of Ideas for a New City.

It took us over a year to design the 14-foot sculpture that visitors removed from the gallery one handful at a time. They pressed the clay into plaster molds and left with a small figure embedded with wildflower seeds. From there, the choice was the viewer's: they could either keep the figurine, in which case it would dry out and crack in a few months, or they could throw it into an abandoned lot, thereby allowing the soil and clay to interact with the elements and serve as a makeshift incubator for wild flowers.

During the year we worked on this project, Past Fits and Future Pulls, my views on contemporary conceptual art changed radically. I saw how much care and technical skill goes into the choice of materials or presentation of an idea.

The upshot, I hope, is something that is not strictly satirical. I prefer the term 'playful'. At the end of the day, I love Kurt and think his biggest artwork, the culmination of everything at Art Basel, is legit. And, in my opinion, satire only works when it comes from a place of love.

SP: Along with art, there are many references to music, especially when Stevie and Owen are together. I was surprised by how many band and artist names mentioned brought back memories of my own time as a college student exploring and defining the world. I mean, Portishead? Wow. And the music “game” that Owen and Stevie play was one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful ideas I’ve ever encountered. These scenes between Owen and Stevie really reminded me of the power of music, of one song, even, to influence the direction and perception of our lives. Is there a story behind Stevie’s CD game with Owen?

WC: It's the only way I could think of to describe two young people in love. But it's entirely fictional. I will say that I fell head over heels in love with a girl at sixteen and that we spent most of our time talking about the Beatles.

SP: Outside of being the author of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, how crucial is art and music in your own life?

WC: I have a large-scale installation planned for sometime next year in California. I was close to doing something at Miami Basel this year with an NYC gallery. I think I'll continue to make art, but with two provisos: 1) that there's no way to translate the idea into fiction or poetry; 2) that I don't attempt to make money from the work--I have too much respect for my friends who are real artists to dabble in that way--not that I'm turning down checks! The art world is every bit as fucked, financially speaking, as the literary world.

As for music, I'm not very talented. Despite this, my friend Noah allows me to co-write songs occasionally for his band, Noah and the Megafauna.

From an aesthetic standpoint, both are crucial to my world view. It's interesting though, I'm almost positive that I'll never write about art, or the art world again. My best guess is that I'll continue to draw on Anselm Kiefer and Joseph Beuys et al, but the concerns of my next book are totally different. It's about physics and outer space.

SP: Finally, I wanted to bring up a line from the novel that, for me, summarized the entire story: “Owen put both his palms to his brow, trying to undo the world.” In the direct context of the story, Owen here is trying to grapple with being at Art Basel and his inevitable confrontation with Kurt. I found this line, though, to represent all that Owen, his father, Stevie, really everyone, wrestles with throughout the story. The characters are trying to fight who they are, or have become, and find a new self out of the ashes of the conflict. Do you think this character analysis is accurate? What do you think these characters and their struggles can tell us about life?

WC: Not only accurate, that's exactly the point. First off, the world is almost irreversibly fucked. I tend to view things on a large time frame, like hundreds of years, and when you look at things in that light, we're all in ashes. Now here's the trick, as a writer you get to invent the physics of your universe. In mine, kindness is gravity. So even though things might be dire, we still have to be kind. And to me, that takes bravery. It's incredibly difficult to build again when everything around us has burned down. But we must.

Owen is kneading his head because we have to sculpt ourselves again every time the world chips a piece away.

Thank you so much to Will Chancellor for stopping by! Pick up a copy of A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall and read, think, share, discuss, live.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

More Than the Giant Squid: An Interview with Matthew Gavin Frank, Author of Preparing the Ghost

This past week, whenever my husband asked me what I was reading the conversation went something like this:

“What’re you reading?”

“Squid book.”

“Squid book? Like a book about squid?”



“And ice cream. It’s about ice cream, too. And giant squid.”

“Makes more sense.”

Because explaining Matthew Gavin Frank’s book-length essay, Preparing the Ghost, is not easy. Yes, it contains the biography of Moses Harvey, the first man to obtain a photograph of a giant squid, but from that jumping off point the discussion alights on topics ranging from family, death, insects, ice cream, pain, guilt, commerce, obsession, otherness, and mythology. Miraculously, no matter how bizarre the subject matter, Frank connects each element so organically that it seems perfectly natural that the giant squid, butterflies, and death by chocolate ice cream occupy the same space in thought.

In homage to one of my favorite parts of the book, here is how I would describe Frank’s work….
Preparing the Ghost as interconnected conversation.
                                       as glimpse into a mind uncomfortably close to our own.
                                       as homage to our deepest fears of knowing the unknown.
                                       as inducing mint-chocolate chip cravings at inappropriate times.
                                       as playful.
                                       as mind-bending and eye-opening.
                                       as a good way to alienate yourself at boring social gatherings.
                                       as experiment in stretching the limits of genre.
                                       as a hell of a good book.

I was lucky enough to have a chance to talk with Frank about his book, its creation and what on earth goes on in his head half the time. It’s not for the faint at heart….                       

Steph Post: I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting when I picked up your book, most likely something along the lines of a straight forward biography of Moses Harvey, but from the very first page I knew that I was in for an unusual, wild ride. What do you imagine other readers expect when they first crack open Preparing the Ghost? For that matter, do reader expectations matter to you?

Matthew Gavin Frank: Reader expectations certainly matter when they’re actually made manifest— after the book-as-artifact is out there in the world, ready to be engaged— but, during the writing process, I can never know what they are.  And of course, they’re not just one thing.  They’re myriad.  They’re endless.  They’re informed by everything else said readers have ever read, or, for that matter, ate.  They’re informed by sex lives and cultural milieus, and good kisses and bad haircuts, and that ad in Good Housekeeping for the air-freshener that ribbits like a frog as it belches lavender-scented glycol ethers into the living room.  If there’s anything more mysterious than the giant squid, it’s reader expectation.  If I’m attempting to engage a fascinating subject in a unique way, I hope I’m doing my job.  If I’m fascinated, I think, the reader will be fascinated.  Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, but, during the process, that’s probably the best we can do.

SP: You claim that Preparing the Ghost is an essay, but it also clocks in at 280 pages. Yet it is obviously not a novel, and not a traditional non-fiction book. How does Preparing the Ghost work as an essay? What elements in the structure of the work make you classify it in the essay genre?

MF: That word, essay, simply means, among other things, an attempt.  Oftentimes, the essay strives to find connections between seemingly dissimilar objects/people/places/events/linguistic leaps, and finds a holiness in this act, in the careful shuffling of experience, narrative, observation, language, and research, even if it does not uncover any clear “answers.”  The holiness is in the attempt. The success of the essay lies in the engine that drives the attempt, the meditation, because, implicit in this attempt, is a comment on a very particular– and perhaps damn-near universal– human desire, obsession, identity, and curiosity, all eventually thwarted by the larger fascinating context– whether the world, or the subject(s), or the physical form of the essay itself. And this larger context, in spite of our failure to clearly connect things within it, and perhaps even because of our failure, becomes more mysterious and, thereby, more fascinating.  Permit me a moment of corniness, but, during the writing process of PREPARING THE GHOST, as I was wandering through the meadow of the giant squid, so many ancillary burrs kept attaching themselves to my pant cuffs (ice cream, cultural expressions of pain, et. al.), and, in engaging said burrs—in allowing for digression— the essay form permitted me to draw a sort of chalk outline around the body of the squid, evoking its shape, while maintaining its mystery.  And we all know: the body in shadow is oftentimes more alluring than the body under fluorescents. 

SP: Along the same lines of asking about the essay structure, I have to remark on the book’s similarity to a well-researched and well-thought out conversation. It reads as if much of it is springing straight up out of your mind instead of being labored over. There were times when I was reading and wanted to respond immediately to a passage I had just read. I felt myself mentally asking questions and making comments. Clearly, though, a lot of planning and thought has gone into the arrangement of the book. As Preparing the Ghost has a huge scope, how did you decide what to include and where to present it in the essay?

MF: Oh goodness, it was a serious labor.  My scans and Xeroxes and books and magazines stuffed with post-it notes spanned floor-to-ceiling multiple times over.  My wife calls my writing process, The Fire Hazard. The first draft was nearly 700 pages and included many additional ancillary burrs.  Like many writers, I fall in love with my research.  It’s such a devoted courtship, then marriage, then separation, then custody battle, then reconciliation, that it’s tough to cut any of it loose. One thing leads to another, and it’s this ecstatic cascade down the rabbit hole.  When I’m sifting through that roomful of Xeroxes with my pink highlighter, I’m seeking out that rare thing—that thing I’ll find on only one page in that room; the fact, for instance, that squid corpses, even when cooked, retain their sexual reflexes and have been known to inseminate our mouths.  And I’m interested in seeing what happens when we hold something like that up against a more known thing, like the fact that calamari dominates the appetizer sections of our restaurants.  How did that come to be?  And how does that back-story—if at all—relate to the ways in which I want to engage the giant squid?  I’m interested in seeing where such collisions will end up.  During the revision process, the book had to be seriously girdled, and so many ancillary obsessions and back-stories had to end up on the cutting room floor, in order to maintain the illusion of a singular, if twitchily digressive, focus.

SP: Although much of the book is grounded in reality and historical fact, you admit that you take “imaginative leaps with many scenes.” You go into imagined detail all the way down to clothing and even to what historical figures might have thought of or dreamed about. Why was it important for you to re-create these details and scenes?

MF: Because detail—even imagined, inflamed, visceral, details (all of which were, in the book, I’d argue, natural extensions of my research)—attends ecstasy.  Oftentimes, detail is the obligation of ecstasy— Moses Harvey’s ecstasy in obtaining, then photographing (in his rowhouse bathroom) the first intact specimen of the giant squid; in riding next to the carcass on the deck of a ship, measuring his fist next to its eye, cooing to it as if some sick horse...  And my ecstasy too, in writing about such things; in being untethered amid all of this beautiful research and choosing what to grab onto, and what to let float away...  Rendering said details is a way to stitch Harvey’s ecstasy to my own and, in turn, ideally to the reader’s.  It’s a way to force an overlapping.  And, if I’m lucky, empathy.  A strict adherence to the facts may not always be the best way to transfer the real sense of a particular event.   Imposing narrative on fact always involves choice—what to leave in, what to leave out—and thereby softens fact, allows it a malleability.  It’s our duty as writers to stretch such facts via exaggeration, understatement, juxtaposition, et. al. in order to see how much of a beating the fact can take before it breaks.  The trick, sometimes, is to stop just short of the breaking. 

SP: So much of Preparing the Ghost is about the essence of story, connections, and the importance of myth. At one point you state, “In this way, I can tell myself that I empathize with Moses Harvey. In this way, we possess, we possess, we are possessed by the myths we destroy…” This reminds me of an interview I show and discuss with my students when we study myths. In the interview, Pan’s Labyrinth director Guillermo del Toro states that we need myths and monsters to explain our fears about the unknown world. Why do you believe that we need myths? Because we still know so little about the giant squid, but have confirmed its existence, does it still occupy a place as a monster/myth in our collective unconscious?

MF: Yeah: It’s interesting how the things we most want to possess end up possessing us.  There’s this whole section of the book wondering why, after all, the giant squid was the recipient of our desperate need to mythologize.  And why, even after its existence has been proven time and again, it still seems to straddle that border between myth and reality.  We make myths, it seems, of our respective cultural obsessions; to encapsulate what we can’t easily process (intellectually, emotionally) within a narrative shell.  We get story.  In story is sense, comfort, trajectory.  Myths are shorthand, contextualizing our collective and individual obsessions. If we objectify fear or awe, turn it into god or monster, we give it parameters—a beginning and an end.  Therefore, it can be both like us, and Other.  We can have our cake and eat it too.  We can thereby identify with our myths, control them, exhaust them eventually of their usefulness, and kill them, replace them with a more relevant narrative, and shape.  Occasionally, we’ll have the need to resurrect old myths.  Again, there’s comfort in that; a familiarity.  They help us to navigate this quagmire, to simplify and put a lid on the uncontainable complexity of... what? Stars!  The sea! We need our myths because they are useful tools to explain us, to us.  And as with any tool, we use them until we use them up.  And what does that tell us about ourselves? 

SP: One of the defining traits of Preparing the Ghost is its ultimate emphasis on connection. Every element presented by you in some way relates to another, so that the book eventually reads like some giant diorama of string theory. Do you see these types of connections all the time? Do you think these connections can be felt or perceived by everyone? 

MF: I love that notion of some giant diorama of string theory! I’m ever looking to find connections between seemingly dissimilar things in my work.  How does the story of my first kiss in the Aptakisic Junior High School parking lot relate to Alberto Santos-Dumont (the lecherous balloonist and dirigible pioneer) and locusts, for instance?  I want to know.  I write essays, in part, to seek out such answers, however fuzzy.  I want to know how an engagement of grasshoppers will affect the narrative of that kiss, and how that kiss will relate to the fact that some species of grasshopper are biologically compelled to change their own color when in a high population density; that they are equipped for leaping, but not for flight.  For better or for worse, we writers have allowed ourselves the ability to manipulate connections between just about anything—all it takes is sufficient (read: obsessive) research, imaginative alchemy, meditation...  What is that perfect “bridge” ingredient that joins my lips, Dawn Liebermans’s lips, a castor-oil-fueled blimp flown my a mustachioed philanderer, and jumping bugs capable of desperate camouflage?  What does the archetypal first kiss have to do with flight, death?   The journey to find out often embodies this skittish, and addictive bumping-and-grinding between moony necromancy and eating sandwiches in the car while on stakeout.  I’m sure some of this is a product of OCD, but I’m convinced the connections are there, though they take endurance to unearth—the looking and looking and looking after most everyone else has stopped. 

Thanks so much to Matthew Gavin Frank for stopping by! To learn more about Frank, Preparing the Ghost and his other titles visit www.matthewgfrank.com. To read lots of random (but extremely interesting!) tweets about squid, follow Frank on twitter- @matthewgfrank

Monday, July 14, 2014

Tattoos and Writing...

To go ahead and state the ridiculously obvious- I have a lot of tattoos. I'm honestly not exactly sure how many. One of my students really wanted to know once, I think it was for a research paper or something, so I tried to figure it out, but all I came up with was that I Think I've been under the needle over 30 times. That being said, I don't really like to talk about my tattoos. I gave up hanging around tattoo shops years ago and I'm one of the most awkward people ever when people ask the dreaded question: 'so what're your tattoos of?' This, usually while I'm waiting in line at the grocery store, already anxious to escape, because, well, I'm in a grocery store for Christsakes. So I usually answer something along the lines of 'stuff,' which probably makes the teenage cashier who thought she had a friend for life in me think I'm a total bitch. Except that then comes the inevitable, 'so what'd they mean?' to which I eloquently respond 'oh, you know, things.' Fortunately, the conversation usually ends with said teenage cashier telling me about the tattoo she's going to get next month or showing me the dolphin circling around her belly button while sixteen carts are piling up behind me, but I'm okay with that. Because then I can end on a good note. It's much easier to respond to someone showing off their own tattoos than trying to summarize fifteen years worth of life decisions and thoughts important enough to merit breaking the skin into the fifteen seconds of time between swiping my card and waiting for my receipt.

ANYWAY, that's not what I'm writing about today. What I'm writing about is writing. And if you've read any of my previous musings on writing, you know that I'm always thinking about the story. While sleeping, pumping gas, out at a bar, etc. So, of course, it would stand to reason that I'm also thinking about writing while getting tattooed. This just happened last week and here's what it looked like:

Hour 1: The outline begins. (which is the least painful part in my estimate) I'm thinking about the research I need to be doing for the new book I'm starting at the end of July. I'm thinking about the books I need to look up for information and a possible new outline process, as I'm doing something completely different from the last two novels I've written. I'm thinking pretty clearly here and only gritting my teeth occasionally.

Hour 2: Finishing the outline, shading begins. At this point endorphins have kicked in, but the shock of switching needles hits and the pain returns. More gritting teeth, and a lot of trying to distract myself with thoughts. I'm not able to focus enough to think about research, so I do a lot of 'daydreaming' about the characters, trying to get into their heads, etc. I'm hoping that I will remember later the revelations I'm discovering, but have been through this enough times to know that I won't. It hurts.

Hour 3: Deep into shading and inner line work, but because of the detail involved it's going slow. At this point I no longer care about writing. I'm bored. The pain isn't bad enough to keep me on edge; I'm so used to it that it no longer matters. I spend a lot of time looking up at the ceiling, making out the shapes of sea creatures in the plaster. Bored.

Hour 4: Final shading. We're trying to knock it out now and so it's just a straight grind. Endorphins have worn off, everything is raw and the drilling on my shin bone is just about the worst thing I've ever felt. This is the teeth gnashing, table gripping part (except, of course, I can't do much of either since I have to stay still) This is the part where in my head I'm screaming, "For the love of God, Come on, Already- How much More can you Possibly have to Do?!?!"

And then it's over. And I have a beautiful new piece. And I go on with my life without bone shattering pain. And I write.


Saturday, July 5, 2014

Interview by Heather Jacobs

Last week I was interviewed by the always fantastic and fierce Heather Jacobs. We discussed my new novel due out this September, A Tree Born Crooked, and growing up with alligators. Yes, alligators.

Check out the interview and get to know more about Heather while you're at it. She has a killer political thriller, We the People, on the horizon. Thanks!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Through the Mountains: An Interview with Smith Henderson, Author of Fourth of July Creek

If you haven’t read Smith Henderson’s spectacular debut novel Fourth of July Creek yet, you need to get a jump on it. Not only are you missing out on a book that will seduce you, enthrall you and wrench your heart out, it is THE book that everyone will be talking about this summer and for a long time to come. It is also, incidentally, the best book I’ve read all year and is certainly at the top of my list of favorite books of all time. Yes, it’s that good.

Fourth of July Creek is the gritty, epic tale of social worker Pete Snow and his determination to help a wild young boy, Benjamin Pearl, who appears like a phantom one day out of the mountains of Montana. Through Ben, Pete meets the boy’s father, Jeremiah Pearl, a near-crazed survivalist with a dark past and a desperate desire to confront both the government and God when the end of the world arrives. While cautiously connecting with Jeremiah, Pete is also occupied with protecting the children on his caseload and frantically trying to locate his own missing daughter. Fourth of July Creek reads like a whirlwind, tossing the characters and the reader around like detritus in a storm, but is also achingly tender and rife with jarring moments of unexpected pathos. In short, it is a masterpiece of American literature.   

I fell in love with Fourth of July Creek on the first page and was beyond thrilled when Smith Henderson graciously agreed to talk to me about his book. While driving through the mountains of Montana, Henderson responded to my questions over the phone with a candor that I had expected and also greatly appreciated. If we had met in person I would have bought him a beer and tried to get him to talk all afternoon.

I discovered Fourth of July Creek in reading an article about “Grit Lit,” an emerging genre that is rising out of the darkness of modern Southern Gothic and the grittiness of contemporary Westerns. In the past, Henderson points out, Western literature was too “sanitized.” According to Henderson, the reality of the West “has much more blood, sinew and bone” and it is this stark, and often graphic, realism that Henderson so perfectly depicts in his novel. He didn’t want to write about the stoic cowboy; he wanted to write about real characters and portray them as genuinely and sympathetically as possible. 
That being said, it is notably his vivid, complex characters that charge the story forward and keep the reader up at night. Henderson admits that his characters could easily have become caricatures- the survivalist religious fanatic, the self-sacrificing social worker with problems of his own- but due to Henderson’s meticulous attention to craft, not once does this idea enter the reader’s mind. Instead, the characters break the barrier of verisimilitude to the point that they are impossible to love without a faltering moment of hate, to hate without a shivering glimpse of love. As Henderson notes, he and his readers feel towards these characters in the same way “you feel about your family.” They become almost too familiar; we see their flaws bared wide open and yet we still love them to death. Henderson’s goal was to write these characters “with as much compassion as possible,” and his achievement is palpable. There is much darkness in Fourth of July Creek, and much suffering, but the immediate and consummate connection with the characters makes it all worthwhile.     

Smith Henderson spent a decade writing Fourth of July Creek, (while also, among other things having a family, writing the Emmy-nominated “Halftime in America” Super Bowl commercial and picking up a Pushcart Prize) and his labor of love is evident in every facet of the novel. Whether showcased in the anxiety created and maintained by the book’s structure, the pacing that delicately controls the reader’s emotional journey or the lyrical language and all-encompassing world of the narrative, Henderson is a master craftsman and this maturity makes Fourth of July Creek both a satisfying and thrilling read. As readers, it is everything we want, as writers, everything we want to do. It is a tour de force of classic American writing that reminds of us the power of a story, of a character, and of an author’s narrative vision.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Honesty and Brevity: An interview with Triplines author Leonard Chang

Nobody combines the delicate and the startling into one literary knockout punch the way Leonard Chang can. Chang’s latest debut, Triplines, an autobiographical novel, is the perfect showcase for his attention to detail, manipulation of subtlety, and ability to sting with story and then sooth with diction. In all of Chang’s work, the presence of the author is felt and this is especially true in Triplines.

Written in third person, Triplines chronicles the childhood of Lenny Chang, focusing particularly on the events leading up to the breakup of his family. As Lenny navigates a claustrophobic, confusing, and at times violent world, he finds refuge in the library, martial arts, and his new friend Sal, a local marijuana grower. During this brief window of time, Lenny straddles the roles of child and adult and becomes more confident, independent and self-aware.

If we think back, we all had that one summer, that one year of school, that one defining sliver of time where we slipped into the twilight bridging innocence and revelation, simplicity and complication, and became aware for the first time our lives were shifting beneath us. With the grace that only a master of fiction can conduct, Chang guides us through this crucial time in his life and reminds us of the poignancy, and power, in the simple act of growing up. 

Leonard Chang is one of my modern literary idols and so you can imagine how excited I was to be able to ask him some questions about his work. He was in the middle of a research trip for Justified when I caught up with him, but still graciously took the time to respond.

Steph Post: Triplines is labeled as an “autobiographical novel” and is written in third person, with your childhood self as the main character Lenny. How does an autobiographical novel differ from a memoir and what made you decide to use this unique form?

Leonard Chang: I wrote an early draft as a memoir, with all the usual trappings of the form -- first person, a distance from the events, the rumination and contemplation from the perspective, etc. -- and, quite frankly, I wasn't satisfied with it. Moreover, when I showed it to my family for their approval, since I was writing about them as well, my mother's reaction was more of concern for me and the legality of it. She was worried about me being sued, about the criminality in it, the ramifications of telling this story as fact. A lawyer friend also had some concerns. So I did a lot of thinking about the form -- most memoirs have a fictional element, since how can everyone remember everything in such detail? Of course they can't. I also thought hard about my strengths as a writer. I'm a fiction writer, and feel most comfortable in the form. So I decided to rewrite the book as a novel, but keep it rooted in fact. I wanted to be honest with the reader -- this is clearly and unabashedly autobiographical -- but I did conflate events, collapse timelines, and I allowed myself the flexibility of fiction to shape some scenes. Most memoirists will do a version of this, but I gave myself the protection of calling it fiction, since that's what I am: a fiction writer. The difference between the two forms is that I acknowledge the truthfulness to most of this, but also acknowledge that I took fictional liberties, so this must be considered a novel.

SP: Throughout Triplines meaningful totems appear (I’m thinking in particular of the maple tree and wood chips, the bear rock and the church), but symbols like these are most often used in fiction. Did you know how important these items and places were to your life at the time or is this something you came to realize during the process of reflecting and writing?

LC: Great question, because in a strange way I *did* know even as a kid that some of these things were important. After the maple tree went down, I really did collect the wood chips because I knew those little pieces of wood were important. I didn't know or really understand why, and I suspect I had a sentimental streak that just pushed me in that direction, but I saved it all. I saved a bag of wood chips for twenty-plus years, until I made those pendants. I saved the bear rock for almost four decades. The back cover of the novel has a faded image of the bear rock which I *still* have in my possession, for the precise reason I mentioned in the book. I will never get rid of it. I've lost many things over dozens and dozens of relocations all over the country, but I will never lose that rock. I feel like I've had an unstable and bewildering life, but there are some things that can be stable and understandable: meaningful things, people, memories. Perhaps this helped determine my path as a writer.

SP: Because of your signature minimalist writing style, I’m curious about your revision and editing process. For example, the single line “You killed my tree.” broke my heart and encapsulated the entire story for me. The restraint used in your style is incredible and also takes guts to use. Do you start with more complex drafts and then edit away everything that is unnecessary or do you write in this style from the beginning?

LC: Probably more of the latter. I definitely do a lot of rewriting, revision and editing, but my writing is not too far a reflection of my personality and my own personal style of communication. I tend not to talk a lot. I like to listen more than talk. I try to choose my words carefully in both speaking and writing. This is not anything artful -- it's more personal style. So, yes, I was drawn to the minimalists as a writer. Yes, I tend to believe less is more. And yes, most people who know me would agree that restraint and subtlety is almost a way of life. My sister once visited my apartment in Oakland years ago and her comment was: "This looks like a yoga studio." It was very bare, with wood floors and sunlight streaming in. I looked around, and thought, This looks like a clean, uncluttered living space.

SP: I am always in awe of authors who dare to write about themselves. As a novelist, did you find it difficult to focus on yourself instead of a fictional character? Were you nervous about repercussions from your family or judgments from readers who are being given an insight into your private life?

LC: Absolutely. I wasn't nervous about strangers or readers, I was nervous about writing about my family and, going even further and *naming* them as characters, rendering them on the page. That felt like a violation, and that's why I needed their approval before moving forward. I don't care so much about writing about myself -- most good fiction writers do that in some permutation. After all, you know yourself better than anyone. Or, you should, if you're going to be a writer. If you don't understand the intricacies of self, then how the hell are you going to write about the intricacies of characters who are Other? Understanding character begins with the self. And the repercussions? Yes, I worried very much so, which is why, as I mentioned earlier, I rewrote this completely from a new fictional perspective. But I feel like it's a better book -- it's a more artful book.

SP: Near the end of Triplines, we begin to see the seeds of a writer being planted. You mention devouring books, writing to authors and “using reading and writing as a way to keep connected.” Even your mentioning of dreaming of escape is keenly familiar to any writer’s childhood recollection. When did you first realize that writing was your future and how did you handle that realization?

LC: I would pinpoint a moment when my high school best friend Joe told me he wanted to be a writer, and I had to readjust my understanding that the novels on my shelves were not only written by someone -- weren't a pre-existing piece of art that just came into being -- but that someone could be me. With that epiphany, I began writing, and I envisioned books on the shelves that I created. I think most avid readers consider the transition for the very simple reason that they want to create the things that make them happy. If reading is nourishment, then it's natural for an avid reader to want to create his or her own food.

SP: I first discovered your novels because I am a tremendous fan of the television show Justified and was an admirer of your work writing for the show. Is it difficult to transition between working on your own books and being part of a writers’ room for a television show? Are the writing experiences and processes comparable?

LC: It wasn't difficult to make the transition; quite the opposite, it was actually a welcome relief. Imagine spending twenty years in a room writing by yourself, agonizing over characters and stories and spending year after year pecking away at novels that sometimes worked, sometimes didn't, and then doing it again and again and again, in solitude. Now imagine doing this with a group of like-minded, intelligent, funny, kind and generous friends. Suddenly the pain is shared by others, and the questions you were banging your head quite literally on the desk about and the massive amounts of alcohol you were drinking to help dull the agony of this was no longer your sole burden, but one that ten other people were banging their heads in unison on the table in front of them as well. Suddenly it's not a lonely, shuddering experience but a communal one, and it's not solely dependent on you to come up with all the answers. This doesn't mean when you're writing a script the head-banging may commence, but guess what? You can walk out of your office and peer into another, and ask a question that may spark something for you. You're not alone.

The writing experiences are the same, but you're working with others. The processes are the same, but you have others to discuss and argue and fight with, ultimately finding a solution that you may have found on your own, maybe not. Yes, you are always alone when you're on the page, typing, but you're not completely alone when you want to talk it out, and there's someone else who knows the path you've been crawling on.

I'm writing this in Lexington, Kentucky, where I've just spent a week with a handful of other Justified writers, talking to many, many people in Harlan, where Justified is set, and we're all thinking about this final forthcoming season, and some of the terror is shared and diminished by the fact that we're facing it together.

SP: Finally, what can readers look forward to in the future from you?

LC: I'll be diving into the sixth and final season of Justified with my fellow writers, while beginning to think about this very question. Once Justified ends I'll be working on creating my own TV show, since I'm enamored by this form of storytelling. But I'll always be writing in some way, so that's always in the future.

Thanks so much to Leonard Chang for a kick-ass interview. If you haven’t read Triplines yet, get on it! Check out his other novels as well (you can read my review of Crossings here) and, for the love of God, I hope you’re already watching Justified. If not, yeah, fix that now. Thanks for reading.