Monday, April 18, 2016

Guest Post: Daniel Falatko, author of Condominium

Today we're doing things a little different. I'm excited to bring you a guest blog post from Daniel Falatko, author of Condominium, a darkly comic literary novel set in Brooklyn and available now from CCLaP. As you know, I'm always interested in craft and the writing process, and Daniel certainly didn't let me down with this piece. In fact, aside from Kurt Vonnegut (and I don't think even he was this stringent), I've never heard of an author sticking to the kind of writing routine that Daniel does. In all honesty, I find it fascinating and refreshing. So, read on to find out how Daniel Falatko puts the novel pieces together and then be sure to check out Condominium. Cheers!

Composing Novels: The Assembly Line Method

Some authors churn out entire novels in one fever dream sitting. Others take decades, falling into obsessive battles against themselves, struggling over commas and character direction and structure and other nightmarish roadblocks. Then there are the consistently reliable authors who put out one book every two years, the ones who most likely achieve a certain life balance and can actually take vacations and pay their bills on time. Unfortunately, these nine-to-five types tend to be the less interesting ones (I won’t name any names here, but check the release schedules to see for yourself), while fever dreamers like Phillip K. Dick and Chinese Democracy obsessives such as Donna Tartt put out the lasting works. It seems that the arts are just not kind to regular, stable people.
Which means they certainly aren’t kind to me.
I come from a working class background, so my approach to writing a novel has always been like I was clocking in for a shift at some sort of factory or warehouse. Each day, I punch in, do my shift, and then punch out. The shift itself has always included completing one perfect page of the novel. A perfect page that corresponds perfectly with the perfect page produced in yesterday’s shift. It’s the assembly line approach to novel writing, just like fastening the tire rods onto the frame that was completed in the previous shift. Once the page is completed to my satisfaction, I punch out and head for the bar for Miller Time or whatever it is that blue collar factory workers do when that whistle blows.
Just like in a factory, there is a design blueprint set ahead of time for the product. In my factory this would be the novel outline. Then the assembly line is put into place by a team of evil-genius engineers and it’s go time. Blow that whistle and watch the lone worker, me, limp in from the street with my thermos and time card. My own lonely assembly line.
It never fails to surprise me how much interest this gets from fellow writers. When I mention this method, at first they are incredulous. Then, when I let them know that I’m dead serious, the questions start rolling in. And they are always the same. What if you want to do two pages one day? What if you have a lot to do or have an emergency on any particular day? What if you have zero inspiration? What if the page just doesn’t come one day?
These are always the questions. And always in that order. And they always miss the point. Would you ask a factory worker standing outside the gates smoking a Newport on lunch break if he had the “inspiration” to complete his shift that day? It’s not about inspiration to that dude. It’s about doing what you gotta’ do. You’re hungover. Your wife just left you. Your mortgage is due. But you still have to complete that shift because this is what has to be done. And two pages in one day? Are you kidding me? He isn’t getting paid for extra work here. He’s getting paid to fix those tire rods onto that frame. Why would he go ahead and start affixing the doors when that isn’t what he’s getting paid to do? This would throw the whole operation into chaos. Assembly lines aren’t made to go the extra mile. They aren’t for go-getters. They are efficient, robotic processes set up to get the job done with methodical, perfect precision.
Of course, this method certainly isn’t for everybody, but it has always worked for me. The efficiency and timeliness appeal to me greatly. The original Condominium manuscript was 309 pages, which means it took 309 days to complete. My next novel, One Thin Dime, came in at a slim 279 pages, so it took 279 days to complete. I’m currently 184 pages into a brand new tome, so that’s 184 days on the lonely assembly line thus far. Someone like Donna Tartt would never be able to work in this factory. She would miss shifts. She would be a safety hazard. She would want to recall certain frames and reaffix the tire rods. She would question her work. Donna would be fired before her probationary period was over. Granted, D.T. writes much better novels than I do, but this factory is no place for dreamers.
Completing a page per day may have been tough back in the typewriter ages, but one of the lone things I enjoy about technology is that it lets you stretch out your assembly line much further than those factory walls. Have you been called away to a funeral? No worries. You can get that page done while the priest drones on utilizing the small electronic gadget of your choice. Did your place of residence burn to the ground? Just hit up a coffee shop with wi-fi, holmes. Do you have to work a nine-to-five office job? That Word file kind of looks like work, doesn’t it? Did your firstborn enter the world today? Let the kid scream for an hour and take the laptop to the basement. Aside from petty nuisances such as your death or your unconsciousness due to coma, there is truly no excuse not to get that page done. Motivation means nothing in this scenario. You do your shift. Some days it will be easier to complete your shift than others, but each shift must be completed in order to move the product toward completion on schedule. This is just how assembly lines work.
I’ve never come across any other page-per-day laborers when hobnobbing with fellow authors, but I’m sure they are out there right now with their blue uniforms, a pack of smokes rolled in the sleeves, safety goggles affixed, slaving away on their own lonely assembly lines. And I salute each and every one of them. Because for some rare artists, efficiency is key.
Many thanks to Daniel for stopping by! Be sure to check out Condominium and keep an eye out for the rest of Daniel's blog tour with features at Heavy Feather Review, Alternating Current and other hot spots....

Friday, April 15, 2016

King of Dreamers: An Interview with The Serpent King author Jeff Zentner

I haven't interviewed a YA author since sitting down with Anthony Breznican to discuss his novel Brutal Youth, and so I'm thrilled to bring you a conversation with The Serpent King author Jeff Zentner. The Serpent King, a coming of age tale of three friends struggling through their senior of high school in rural Tennessee, has just the right balance of grit and tenderness to make it honest, authentic and captivating. It's a definite recommendation for teenagers, but The Serpent King is also one of those powerful Young Adult novels that strikes a chord with adult readers as well.

Steph Post: Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that I am a high school teacher, I couldn't imagine writing Young Adult fiction. I think it takes such a deft hand to make it truly authentic, as you do in The Serpent King. In your opinion, what challenges does writing YA have over Adult fiction? What rewards?

Jeff Zentner: One of the great challenges of writing YA is that teenagers have an incredibly keen nose for artifice, disingenuousness, and preaching. Therefore, you have to be incredibly honest and wear your heart on your sleeve, hard though it may be. Also, teenagers have so many options for entertainment that you don't have much room for error in the stakes of your story. If you write a meandering, low-stakes story, you can count on that audience checking out quick.

The rewards, however, are even greater. No one clings to the art they love and allows it to be their lifeline like young adults. No one is more willing to make themselves vulnerable for the art they love. If a book made them cry or laugh, they'll tell you. That's what drew me to wanting to create for young adults. The way they open their hearts to the things they love. It's a wonderful audience.

SP: Still with The Serpent King's genre and audience in mind, I'm wondering how you were so fully able to capture the minds of the three main teenage characters- Dill, Lydia and Travis. Did you draw upon your own memories of being a teenager?

JZ: Absolutely. I have a very vivid memory of what it was like to be a teenager. Like it was yesterday. This is something many, if not most, YA authors possess. In crafting the three characters, I divided my personality into thirds and gave each part to one of the three to carry. Travis got my nerdiness for the things I love. Lydia got my sense of humor. Dill got my melancholy, struggles with faith, and general worldview. No one of those characters is all of me, but together they are.

SP: The Serpent King is divided into chapters each told from one of the three main character's point of view. Did this constant POV switching affect your writing process?

JZ: It required me to plan ahead quite a bit. Not only did I have to think in advance of what was coming plot-wise, I had to make sure it would be queued up in time for the right POV to tell it. I couldn't very well do a chapter where Dill visits his dad in prison if Lydia or Travis were up. It also made me keenly aware of voice--that is to say, that I was sufficiently differentiating the characters' voices.

SP: I have a feeling that most readers of The Serpent King will agree that Travis is the heart of the story. He was certainly my favorite character and not just because of the pathos he invokes in the plot. In having three main characters, I'm wondering if you ever felt closer to one over the others. If so, did these feelings ever change or shift as you went through the writing process?

JZ: I certainly did love Travis a great deal. I think I felt equally close to all of them, given that they each carried such an integral part of me. I'd say I felt closest to whomever I was writing at the time. I loved Lydia pretty unconditionally, so it was hard for me to hear from my editor that I needed to sand off some of her rough edges for her to shine through as a sympathetic enough character. But in the end, I think that judgment was correct, because even now with some of her sharper tendencies more in check, she takes the most critical heat of any character. I love her deeply, though, flaws and all. 

SP: One of the reasons I was drawn to The Serpent King was its inclusion of signs following Pentecostal religion, which is featured heavily in my upcoming novel Lightwood. How much research into Pentecostalism, and in particular, snake handling, did you do before writing? And why did you choose to set The Serpent King partially against the backdrop of Pentecostalism?

JZ: Over the years, I've done a fair amount. I used to play in a band called Creech Holler that did electric interpretations of Appalachian balladry, and our bass player was from rural East Tennessee, where he encountered a lot of signs gospel followers. He said we sounded like the music in the snake handler churches, so we adopted some of their imagery into our music and persona, as a shorthand way of expressing the regionalness of our music and our fervor. I've interviewed several friends who attended signs churches. As for reading, I'd say the definitive work on Pentecostal snake handling religion is Salvation on Sand Mountain, a book I would recommend to anyone.

One saving grace (pun intended) is that there's no central authority of snake handling religion as there is in, say, Catholicism. I invented Pastor Early's church, The Church of Christ's Disciples with Signs of Belief. Therefore, I'm the ultimate authority on its doctrine and practices, which is nice.

SP: On the back cover flap of The Serpent King you describe your novel as a "love letter" to struggling young dreamers. Can you go into more detail about what this means? Is The Serpent King perhaps more personal than it might appear to outsiders?

JZ: It is very personal. In a real sense, Dill's journey in the book mirrors my journey from music to writing, when I thought I had gone as far as I could in life, and then this magnificent door to a huge new world opened to me. Also, I tend to write what and who fascinates me even more than writing what I know, and I've always been fascinated with dreamers from places where dreams aren't thought to be able to survive past the county line.

SP: Admittedly, I don't read too much Young Adult fiction. Aside from Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican and the books of Andrew Smith, I haven't had much exposure to the genre. Can you give me three contemporary YA authors whose works you'd recommend?

JZ: I'm afraid I can't just limit myself to three. Here are some of the contemporary YA authors out there doing truly exceptional work:
Kerry Kletter (her book The First Time She Drowned is my favorite YA book ever), David Levithan, John Corey Whaley, David Arnold, Becky Albertalli, Adam Silvera, Kelly Loy Gilbert, Nicola Yoon, and Nic Stone.

So many thanks to Jeff Zentner for the conversation and recommendations! The Serpent King is available now so be sure to check it out and add it to your TBR pile. Cheers and Happy Reading!

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Coming Out Of The Darkess: A Conversation with Far Beyond the Pale author Daren Dean

Today, I'm thrilled to bring you a conversation with Far Beyond the Pale author Daren Dean. Far Beyond the Pale is a dark, disturbing, at times comic, at times heartbreaking tale of a tough thirteen-year-old coming of age in 1970s rural Missouri. There is a raw, urgent authenticity to Dean's writing and it is no wonder that fiction masters such as Robert Olen Butler and Kent Wascom have been touting its praise. Read on as we delve into regionalism, Flannery O'Conner, and what it means to write through all that darkness.

Steph Post: Far Beyond the Pale is described as a Southern novel and indeed, it has all the hallmarks of a Southern gothic tale in the grit-lit tradition. It takes place in Missouri, however- a place that I wouldn't necessarily consider part of the South. (Folks don't consider Florida part of the South half the time either and they're far from right....) Is Far Beyond the Pale a Southern tale? How does its Missouri setting set it apart from more traditional Southern stories set east of the Mississippi?

Daren Dean: This is a complicated question, as I’m sure it would be for you to answer this about Florida. I’d say the short answer to your question is: It is, and it isn’t. Missouri was settled in certain areas by Southerners in a big swath of an area I write about referred to as the Little Dixie. The name says it all, huh? My mom was born in small town called Fulton with a Southern past although her family was German. Wolfmeier is the surname. Doesn’t really sound like a Southern name and it isn’t. Germans weren't accepted in the old days by the Southerners in Missouri because they were new immigrants back in the nineteenth century and usually had leanings away from just about everything Southern. That being said, Fulton was the county seat of Callaway County and they decided to remain neutral, if I have it right, and secede from the Union, but they didn’t necessarily consider themselves Confederate either. They were mostly Union occupied anyway during the Civil War, if that’s how we want to judge Southerness by, but they created "The Kingdom of Callaway" as the story goes. The last I heard they had never rejoined the Union—not that the government is worried about it, but it's just a fun bit of trivia. All that being said, Pale is more Grit Lit than purely Southern for that matter.

SP: The strength in your writing clearly lies in your ability to perfectly capture and convey the authentic voice of your characters- both in dialogue and narration. How do you go about crafting this voice? Is this something that comes naturally to you or do you have to work hard at its development?

DD: I appreciate that compliment. I’d say a little of both. I’ve always been attuned to how people talk, but the challenge for this novel was to remember a language that, in many ways, has changed over the last 30-40 years. I mean, I wanted to capture how people talked and acted as I remember it, but at the same time not allow it to get in the way of telling a story people would want to read. Flannery O’Connor spoke of not eliminating mystery—and to me people are mysterious as hell. I guess I didn’t always get the references they were making as a child and I wanted to capture that.

SP: Without beating around the bush, I'd have to say that Far Beyond the Pale is one of the darker novels I've read as of late. What is it that draws you to such dark characters and their situations? Did you ever find it difficult to move around in the head of characters such as Vaughn?

DD: I intended the story to be dark. This is a complex question for me. Rather than say it’s a foreign feeling, the darkness is just the opposite light we all experience. There’s beauty in the light, but we appreciate it even more when we come out of the darkness. We all know we only have so much time on the earth and this is a kind of beauty I’d compare to giving someone a beautiful bouquet of flowers. The flowers may be beautiful, but after several days they’re going to shrivel and die. This doesn’t take away from the vibrant colors and the enjoyment of their beauty while we have them, but there is the underlying sense of regret that is quite haunting to understand this mortality of ours.

To make it more personal, I’d say as a kid I don’t remember my own parents being married. Many people don’t, but I’d say it’s not a competition. Having one parent can make it tough on a family economically speaking and to that sense of belonging and feeling physically and emotionally safe, protected and loved, and that sense of being connected to your family. So, I’d have to say I could not have articulated the concept of alienation as a boy, but now I know it for what it is. Maybe that’s where it starts. I didn’t grow up with my dad, so if I felt threatened by something or someone that sense of going to your father for help or protection was something I never experienced. Maybe it intensifies fears that shouldn’t be that threatening. Also, I have an older brother who was born mentally handicapped. One day Mom received a letter saying he had to attend a state sponsored school. Essentially, she had to give him up to the state system. It was sad, but at the same time maybe she was relieved a little, too. He couldn’t talk, communicate, or even walk very well. He had many physical besides mental problems (and still does today), but I can remember visiting him in foster homes and at facilities in Sedalia and Hannibal. We’d go visit him and see all of these children with many different conditions and problems who lived in these facilities. This made a profound impact on me. Most children probably don’t see this and if they do it’s not something that’s part of their lives.

One image from that time that haunts me until this day is from one of the foster homes Lane was in. It was a family that had a child of their own who was mentally challenged and they decided to be a foster family for other children. Their entire house and life was devoted to I don’t know how many of these children, but quite a few. The lower level of the house had at least 3 beds in the living room and bedrooms. There was a crib in one of the bedrooms and I was just tall enough to see over the sides and right on my level was a baby with encephalities. That is to say, the baby’s head was as a big or bigger than it’s body. It was like a watermelon shape or the head of an alien from another world. A “watermelon baby.” It was terribly sad, confusing, and terrifiying all at the same time. I think I was about 7 years old. I will never forget how I felt in that moment.

Vaughn was a challenge to write. I’ve known some people who were bad news, but not quite at his level. Actually, I’d say I tried to give him a few good qualities, so he didn’t seem too cartoonish or pulpy, that I took from actual people I knew, like his penchant for improving his vocabulary through Reader’s Digest vocabulary tests.

SP: Because of the dark overtones, I'd like to ask you about your readers. In writing Far Beyond the Pale, who did you envision your audience to be? Were you ever worried about alienating readers looking for a story a little more soft around the edges?

DD: As a writer who wants people to read his work, I’d say this is a totally legit question to ask. It is tough, because some people read fiction because they want to be a taught a moral or read a story to make them feel better. This is the message children get. What’s the moral to the story? There are certainly those kinds of writers out there. They do quite well it seems, even if their stories seem a bit unreal to me.

I used to work at the Columbia (MO) library back in the 1990s and there was a man who worked at the Reference Desk named Yancy Taylor. I liked Yancy, even if I was a bit intimidiated by his manner. He was a bit gruff sometimes and so I found it kind of ironic and amusing that he loved those Signet romance novels. He’d go cruise the new book shelves and pick out a new paperback romance and stuff it bravely into his back pocket. These weren’t one of the so-called “good” romances, just those little paperbacks. I didn’t have the guts to ask him about it, but another lady, my twin as I called her, Jane Loudermilk, told me that Yancy said he read them because they had happy endings. I loved that, because he never struck me as Mr. Sensitive and yet he must have had a great need for the happy endings these romances provided him with. The real irony was that his cousin was the famous Tennessee writer Peter Taylor. We had a conversation about it once, but there was no convincing Yancy that anyone had read or enjoyed the Pulitzer winner’s prose. Maybe his stories didn’t have the right kind of happy endings Yancy was looking for.

I like to think my readers are like me and want a little grit in their stories. I don’t think I could do what Nicholas Sparks does for instance, but wouldn’t it be nice to get those big checks?

SP: Like me, you attended the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. Although we were in different graduate programs, I'm curious as to how this experience influenced your writing. Did you develop any parts or precursors to Far Beyond the Pale while in the MFA program?

DD: I’m very proud of being a grad of UNCW’s Creative Writing Program. I know those stories always pop-up about how MFA programs ruin good writing and I call bullshit on that. I think the roots of this idea might go back to the 1980s and the minimalist Iowa Writers Workshop story. I think many a talented writer wanted to write like Raymond Carver. Who can blame them? Who wouldn’t want to write like Carver, but that being said, an MFA program will help a writer find a voice, find a community, and learn discipline in writing. Or, like that famous quote by the acerbic Flannery O’Connor: “My opinion is that they (Universities) don’t stifle enough of them. There’s many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.” In the writers I went to school with, I saw a hell of a lot of diversity in writing subjects and styles. As a matter of fact, I started Pale there at UNCW. I submitted a couple of sections in workshops. Some students in my first workshop didn’t know about writers like Larry Brown, Dorothy Allison, and Harry Crews. I don’t think they knew what the hell I was writing. In fact, I remember a couple of 3rd year students who expressed horror and dismay, “Why are your characters so mean to each other?” I tried not to laugh, but I surmised that those students came from an upper middle class suburbia where bad things apparently didn’t happen in families or between neighbors, except behind closed doors. Clyde Edgerton even stepped in at one point and talked about some of the writers like Brown and Lewis Nordan who were good friends of his and much to my relief told everyone that was the traditiion I was writing in.

I amazed myself as a student by writing 6 days a week every morning and wrote the first draft of Pale in about 4 or 5 months. While I was waiting for feedback on the novel, I started another novel and proceeded to write the rough draft of a second novel in about 6 months. It was a very creative and productive time. I think because I knew someone was going to read my work. I found that very motivating.

SP: Because of how well you owned the setting and characters in Far Beyond the Pale, I can definitely see you becoming known for writing about this particular part of Missouri. Do you see yourself as a regional writer? Are you working on other novels or stories that have the same setting?

DD: I seem to remember Toni Morrison answering that question once by pointing out that even a writer who lives in NYC and writes exclusively about the five boroughs is essentially a regional writer. That being said, if someone wants to call me a regional writer, then at least I’m in the conversation. It doesn’t bother me at all. But it seems like it’s sometimes meant to put a writer in a box or to say they aren’t relevant—an accusation to be responded to like being a Trump supporter! I’d say most of what I’ve written in terms of novels (I have a few unpublished waiting patiently in Dropbox) takes place in Missouri, like Daniel Woodrell’s more recent novels. I’d like to write about Louisiana at some point, since I’ve lived here for a number of years, but I’m slow on the draw. I think I have to wait until a story idea comes along that I can tell about the Sportman’s Paradise.

SP: Finally, I'd like to be sure that we spread the book-support-wealth. Who are three contemporary writers whose work you'd recommend to anyone in a heartbeat?

DD: Roberto Bolano—Everything, Brad Watson— The Heaven of Mercury and Aliens in the Prime of Their Lives, Michael Farris Smith— Rivers.

Thanks to Daren Dean! Be sure to check our Far Beyond the Pale, available now from Fiction Southeast Press. And keep reading, reviewing, recommending and supporting authors! Cheers!