Friday, June 29, 2018

Book Bites: Jared Yates Sexton, author of The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon Your Shore

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

One of the most interesting, and well written, books I've read this spring is Jared Yates Sexton's The People Are Going to Rise Like the Waters Upon You Shore: A Story of American Rage, a chronicle of the insanity of the 2016 election. Many of you know may know Sexton for his infiltration of and live tweeting from Trump rallies and for his political essays, but Sexton is also a talented fiction writer and all around brilliant and compassionate human being. He graciously took the time to stop and answer some of my more challenging questions. Read on and then be sure to check out his work. You won't be disappointed, I promise you.
"Sexton’s is a critical and important voice in helping readers understand the cultural and political sea change the election created." ―Booklist

What drew you to the genre you write in?

Honestly, I always wanted to write. When I was little all I wanted in the world was to make stories, even before I could read. I’d sit there while my family read to me and think about how great it was that somebody could put all their thoughts down in a book. I used to sit on the floor with my tablet and draw characters and then make up stories about them – that was my way around not being able to write. I’m currently doing this political thing, which is a side-effect of my family’s focus on the political world, which was always a topic of discussion and dissection, but the fiction I write and want to write is more focused on trying to make sense of the world, which I’ve been trying to do since I knew there was a world to make sense of.

What piece of your own writing are you most proud of?

There’s a novel I wrote called Southpaw that never got published. It’s about a former Tea Party senatorial candidate who gets disgraced and has a chance to make a comeback in the era of Donald Trump. It got me my first agent and then the political thing took off and with Trump’s ascent it felt reactive instead of predictive, which it was in the beginning. I think it’s good, I’ve been told it’s good, and it’s just…yeah.

In your eyes, what does it mean to be a “successful” writer?

I have a hard time with this question. Probably a harder time than with anything. The answer is to feel like you’ve done your best job of articulating your thoughts on the world and getting across your philosophy. It’s about the writing, obviously. The other answer is that I don’t think writers ever actually feel successful. I had a decent-sized book in this last one, got to go to places, engaged with readers, some attention, and that should be considered successful, but like everyone else it feels like it’s not enough. It’s a constant struggle.

What single book has been the most influential to you as a writer?

This is such a hard question. I could point to any number of writers who basically taught me how to construct work, how to frame things, who gave me permission to write whatever I wanted however I wanted, but the one that really changed me the most was On The Road by Jack Kerouac. That book takes a lot of grief, but it more or less transformed me as a young man. I came from a very conservative town and when I read that book at the age of 20 I saw that the world was so much different than I ever thought it could be. It challenged everything I knew, made me reconsider the very nature of reality, and ushered me into adulthood.

What do you wish more readers would ask you about?

My fiction. Honest to god, I miss it so bad and I just wish there wasn’t this Trump thing to contend with. I didn’t want to wrestle with Donald Trump and the decline of our democracy. I wanted so much for him to lose in November of 2016 so I could get back to writing, but I feel like as long as this thing is burning I have to try and fight it. My fiction touched on this stuff, the masculine insecurity, the fascist tendencies, the fragility of culture, and I want to fight this war on that front.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Book Bites: Robert James Russell, author of Mesilla

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

Today, I'm lucky enough to bring you an interview with Robert James Russell, a literary Jack-of-all-Trades, who just so happens to do incredible work with all of those trades. Author of the novellas Sea of Trees and Mesilla, Russell is also the force behind Midwestern Gothic and Cheap Pop. Oh, and then he's also a talented artist and highly honored short fiction and non-fiction writer and poet. All around, he's a kick-ass writer and literary citizen and I'm thrilled to have him stop to give his take on the necessity of setting, feral camels, Faulkner, and what it truly means to find success as a creative person.
If McCarthy and Emerson collaborated on a novella, solicited Herman Hesse to edit it, Jim Jarmusch to film it, and Leonard Cohen to do the score, the result might capture some of the elusive seductiveness of Russell’s work.” —Matthew Gavin Frank, author of Preparing the Ghost

In your eyes, what does it mean to be a “successful” writer?

Being successful, to me, is, at its heart, a simple thing: to be true to my vision, to write stories I want to tell, stories I think need to be told. Success is, then, not feeling pressure to conform.

But, see, with writing, it’s so easy to compare yourself to other people, especially if you work in a similar genre or have a comparable style—this is doubly so with writers who use social media and are actively involved in the community. I think it’s important then to define what “success” means and that what you get out of it might be something completely different than writer X, Y, or Z. For me, this is a constant battle—reminding myself what I need to be happy and content with my work. I’ve been fortunate to have a couple novellas published; I write the things I want to write, and publishers have decided they were good enough to take on. That, alone—that my words have been shared, that editors have said Yes to my work when there are so many compelling writers and stories out there—is success. At the end of the day, being happy with your creation and your vision has to be enough: even if you are putting down a dozen words a day, those are words that didn’t exist the day before, words you are literally breathing into being that no one else has. That is a miraculous, marvelous thing. That is success.

What was something interesting you learned while researching that didn’t make it into one of your books?

For Mesilla, it was a lot of stuff, to be honest: I love the history of the American West (while recognizing how problematic it has been to mythologize it in popular culture). And yet, I get swept up in all the little nooks and crannies that aren’t readily talked or written about. I had a scene I wanted to put in about feral camels in the Southwest United States—they were part of the very real United States Camel Corp, an ill-fated experiment to import camels to be used as pack animals in Texas and New Mexico territories. Once the Civil War hit, the Corp was disbanded and the camels either were sold or escaped. I loved the idea of my characters coming into contact with them, even in passing, this romantic notion that the camels have flourished out here in the wilds, no longer bothered by humans. I also researched a lot about wild horses, how they were captured in the Old West, and Mustangers especially, specialized hunters whose job it was to find and capture wild mustangs. It was a grueling, dangerous job, and there was a trick called creasing that many of them employed. Creasing involved firing a shot—Oh, you had to be a crack shot!—and piercing the mustang’s neck just below the skin in an exact spot. An inch in the wrong direction and the horse would be killed instantly, but if done right, the horse would be temporarily paralyzed, knocked down, so the mustangers could ride up and collect it. It was a brazen, hazardous, cruel thing that only worked a small percentage of the time—this, to me, exemplifies the foolhardy spirit of The West, the brash pioneer spirit of expansion.

Neither of these made it into the novella, but I loved learning about them and am hoping to incorporate them into future work.

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received? 

Goodness, perhaps it’s cliché at this point, but the advice that has resonated most with me as a writer comes from Elmore Leonard: Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip. For me, this has been a creed: write effectively and don’t lose your audience. It’s taught me to be efficient, to tell the story in 100 words instead of 1,000, and to be able to anticipate the reader’s needs. How can I lay out necessary exposition while not going overboard, and then jump to a thrilling, terrifying scene where the antagonist is closing in and you don’t know what’s about to happen? The way I read this advice, it is constantly about teetering: give just enough, dangle, and then go in the completely other direction for a bit, then back again, and back again. I want the narrative, even in a short literary story, to be twisty, to keep your interest, to give you just enough to help outline the basics and ground rules of the world, but without giving it all away. The best stories, the absolute best work, I think, allows our minds to make a narrative our own. I am desperate to make sure that there’s no parts to skip—that it all means something in the end. 

How important is the setting in your novella?

Critical—I often start stories based on settings and landscapes; in real life, I’m captivated by landscapes, by lush forests and wild low deserts and everything in-between. This is where my imagination is at its most raw: I touch the bark of a tree, imagine the possibilities of my characters hiking through these same sceneries, and start to build narratives. How are they here? Why? Who’s after them and how can I make it interesting? For Mesilla, I wanted to write a story in the desert set during the Civil War featuring a deserter. It all started with this basic concept, set in the New Mexico Territory, this lawless, wild place. And then, I answered my own questions: It made it inherently more interesting, I thought, to start the story in media res, where our hero—anti-hero, really—is already gravely wounded, on the run from a mysterious figure relentlessly hunting him down, having to navigate a fairly inhospitable tract of land, trying, desperately, just to survive. To me, right there…that was the story, and it was completely dependent on the setting. It couldn’t take place in California or Alaska—it needed to be after the Battle of Glorietta Pass, in a place that was just so unknown to most Americans, a place to get lost in. That, too, represents one of the themes of the book: Is it possible to ignore our past and start over? What do we carry with us, whether we know it or not?

In my new book, which takes place in northern Michigan in 1943, it was essential to set it in a remote place, removed from the world. I wanted to explore the effects of World War II on a small, detached community, how terrifying that might be, not knowing the extent of the terror in the world, its reach. I had in my mind the lavish forests of northern Michigan, the bucolic beauty unrivaled, far as I’m concerned, and a horse farm there, at the edge of a large, dark, dangerous wood. It was the first thing I imagined when laying out the book, and the central focus of the narrative. I do not want my stories to exist in a vacuum—I want them taking place somewhere specific, and only that place. Maybe it’s a call back to when I was a kid, imagining the trees in my neighborhood as sleeping, towering giants, power lines as portals to other worlds, but landscape is where it all starts: It’s what inspires and awes and terrifies. So, yes, I want the reader to look at it Mesilla, any of my work, and say: Yes, it could only be set right here, at this time, in this space. It couldn’t be anything else.

What single book has been the most influential to you as a writer?

I am continually finding books that influence me—I think it’s how we grow as writers, to learn and push ourselves to do better. But the one book I come back to that showed me how to expand my ideas of what a novel could be, that it could be anything we imagine it to be, is Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Oh, it was a marvelous discovery: he completely tore apart everything I thought a novel had to be, created his own, uniquely American world in a rather slim book. I loved that level of creation and creativity, how dependent on place it is to establish identities and relationships and the main narrative arc, and then how many rabbit holes it goes down to further dissect each of its characters’ psyches and inspirations and fears. Even now, writing a book that is completely contrary to the tone and style of As I Lay Dying, I think about it often: How can I use the world I’m creating in the book, around the characters, to help tell their story? How can I keep it interesting? How can I do something, no matter how small, that no one’s seen before? It pushes me, always pushes me, to be thinking about these things as I craft my narrative in ways, I hope, will interest the reader.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Classic Crime, New York Style....

Oh, hey. I'm over at LitReactor today, talking to Terrence McCauley about his latest crime novel, The Fairfax Incident. Have a look.... (and then pick up McCauley's book- it's terrific!)

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Our Lady of North Florida Noir: Rabble Lit

Is there anything better than when a reader and reviewer really "gets" your work? So many thanks to Anna Lea Jancewicz over at Rabble Lit for this insightful (and, frankly, kick-ass) review of Walk in the Fire and for giving me the chance to talk a little about why I write the way that I do...

Friday, June 1, 2018

Book Bites: David Sayre, author of Some Are Shadows

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

It's always a thrill to meet a reader and online supporter of your work in person and it's even more exciting when you discover that person to be an author themselves! This past weekend, I had the pleasure of 'meeting' David Sayre at a reading with Alex Segura at Books & Books in Coral Gables. Sayre is the author of the Miami crime novel Some Are Shadows- a classic mystery tale of a detective searching for a singer's killer- and was gracious enough to stop by and answer a few questions.

What drew you to the genre you write in?

I've always felt that the stuff I write should be something I would want to read. I'm always the first person whose interest I want to pique and crime fiction, mysteries, that's the genre I tend to read most. There's also something intriguing in the fact that, in life I want absolutely no part of crime or violence, but fiction allows writers, and readers, to explore that world.

How do you handle writer's block?

Well, first I have to determine if I just have writer's laziness. In which case I shame myself into sitting in front of the laptop, or the legal pad, and doing some work.

If it's writer's block, I have to get outside. While I don't really experience fear of the blank page, I believe staring at the blank page isn't really productive. I'll drive around, go for a walk, visit other parts of town (get out of the suburbs and into the city), anything. Think about my characters, think about my story. Inspiration is anywhere and everywhere in this world. I will walk around Downtown Miami, go to the public library, sit in a coffee shop and people watch or overhear conversations (which is one of those creepy things that I think writers just have to accept that they do). Ultimately a spark will happen, I'll stumble into something. I always keep a journal or some sort of writing pad with me because I never know when an idea is going to pop up.

The worst thing to do with writer's block is to let it consume you and create a whole other level of anxiety. Writing is a very psychological exercise. The last thing I need is to complicate neurosis by beating myself up for a temporary struggle with creativity.

What piece of your own writing are you most proud of?

At the moment I would have to say my second novel, Dirty Side of the Storm, which has been written, but not yet published. I think because I attempted a story that was larger in scope, intertwining several stories that ultimately come together around one particular incident. I played a little bit with time as it pertains to the narrative, using flashback chapters to tell the stories of these characters that led them to this cross section in their lives and then what happens in the aftermath. Just the fact that I was able to pull it off felt like a great accomplishment. It's certainly a proud moment, as a writer, when you can actually recognize how you have grown in your storytelling.

Another reason that story is particularly meaningful to me is because I had written much of it in the year after my father had passed and there is a thematic element of fathers and sons in it that I didn't fully comprehend until I'd read through it to rewrite subsequent drafts. That realization was a special epiphany that I cherish.

How important is the setting in your novel?

It's pretty significant, especially from a historical perspective. In 1952 Miami was something of a boomtown, on the verge of becoming very rich with tourism and entertainment dollars. But it was also in a segregated state and Miami certainly had those racial separations at the time. The diversity in the history of Miami neighborhoods like Overtown, Richmond Heights, South Miami, Miami Beach, Brownsville and the banks of the Miami River all play into one of the key questions in the story... Are these boundaries that society sets for itself really that important, and what happens when we choose to reach across those perceived borders?

What single book has been the most influential to you as a writer?

I love this question because it's hard to answer. If I had to choose one it would be "A Firing Offense" by George Pelecanos. It was the first of his Nick Stefanos books and the novel that introduced me to his writing. I think it's one of the best origin story private detective novels I have ever read.

It's personal significance to me is that it's the first crime fiction book I can remember reading where the author included everyday life experience. There are basic, unglamorous actions that have nothing at all to do with plot that Pelecanos describes throughout his work. But it allows the reader to really get to know Nick Stefanos, warts and all. We therefore understand him better, relate to him more. Almost as if the reader is observing Nick's life and then we happen to go along for the ride when the action starts. I appreciate that kind of slow build. Seeing that, as a writer, gave me much needed confidence to let my characters live and breathe. Before I may have doubted myself, thinking, "Will anybody really care about this little thing that doesn't pertain to the plot or the investigation?" But the lesson I learned from Pelecanos' work is that you can take the time to let your characters be people and not just servants to your storyline.

I've always maintained that no amount of car chases and explosions can be more fascinating than the absolutely crazy dynamics of a human being. I think the genre is evolving now where we see more and more writers are developing and growing their characters for the long haul, not just putting the emphasis on the ABCs of the mystery plot.

It's a very exciting time to be a crime fiction writer.