Florida author and blogger Bill Ectric is one of my very favorites among the indie writers I've met here on Literary Kicks. He and I first bonded many years ago over our mutual regard for Henry David Thoreau, and he made a big showing in our 2004 collection Action Poetry. His playful intellect and sweetly philosophical frame of mind make him more interesting, in my opinion, that most of the mainstream authors crowding our bookstores these days, though his work does not fit neatly into any category (is it comedy? speculative fiction? boys adventure? Nobody knows for sure).
Tamper is Bill Ectric's most cohesive novel so far. It opens in a small town in a past golden age, as two boys take pictures in the pitch blackness of an old abandoned church with a clunky ancient 35mm camera and ponder the mysterious orbs that bloom in the resulting photographs. What do you see when you take pictures in the dark? That's the kind of question that absorbs the mind of a writer like Bill Ectric. Tamper evolves into a classic good-time mystery/adventure that explores the legend of Amazing Stories writer Richard Shaver, and somehow ends with a printed diagram of a folded-paper fortune teller, the kind I remember playing with as a kid. Ambiguity? Sure. I decided to ask Bill five questions about his new novel, and the results are below.
Levi: I've been enjoying your work for a while now, but your new novel Tamper appears to be your most ambitious and focused work to date. Can you talk about your evolution as a writer, and why you wrote this particular book at this particular time?
Bill: I’ve been writing Tamper off and on for almost three years. I started having crystal-clear dreams and visions when I stopped drinking three years ago. Looking back, it seems like I placed my writing life "on hold" upon joining the Navy in the seventies, and only picked it up again years later when I discovered Literary Kicks in the nineties. While writing Tamper, I got in touch with feelings of awe, wonder, fear, and enchantment that I hadn't felt since childhood.
More to the point is why I was able to finish writing this particular book at this particular time. It’s because of the numerous books I’ve read and studied, which equipped me with the tools I needed for the novel I wanted to write. Just to name a few: The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera, who talks about the "dazzlement" of discovering hidden truths in one’s own writing (thanks to Jamelah Earle for bringing Kundera to my attention), and books by writers I identified with because their childhood memories seemed as magical as mine, like Swann’s Way by Proust and Dr. Sax by Kerouac.
Philip K. Dick's novel VALIS used the concept of an "influencing machine" -- a term coined by psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk to describe a common trait among schizophrenics who think that some type of machine is trying to control them. Which is what many people theorize was happening to Richard Shaver, the pulp science fiction writer, who claimed that the stuff he wrote in Amazing Stories magazine was true! The question in VALIS, of course, is whether or not the main character is crazy, or is a satellite in outer space beaming signals to his brain, or is God speaking to him, or is the satellite and God one in the same? And does it make any difference?
Levi: Tamper seems to deal with the paranormal, and yet is highly grounded in real life. Do you seriously believe in supernatural influences in our life, or are you just screwing around with the theme and having fun?
Bill: I seriously believe that magic and science are both flowing wide-open at the same time, like two parallel river currents that converge briefly at points. When we really tune in to it, we see that it’s the same river, but if you look too close, it diverges again.
Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Back in the 1600s, if you said “some day men will fashion a small moon from the Earth’s metallic elements and hurl it into the heavens, giving us power to direct thoughts from our brains to our fingertips and out to people miles away” there would have been cries of, “Witchcraft!” but I’m simply describing satellites and cell phones. When I say it like that, it sounds like I’m leaning more toward science, but I should add that there have been times when my mother could sense that a family member was having some kind of problem or illness, which turned out to be true, and sometimes it was downright uncanny! Or, maybe you’ve heard about the well-documented out-of-body experience of Pam Reynolds, who nearly died in surgery in 1991. Like in many near-death experiences, she said she looked down at her own body on the operating table, surrounded by the medical team, but the fascinating part is, she described several things that she couldn’t possibly have known unless her astral experience was real!
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve read countless books on unexplained mysteries -- all the supposedly documented stuff about ghosts, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, spontaneous human combustion, the devil’'s footprints in Devon, the Bell Witch, and so on. But what a lot of people don’t get is that I am fascinated in equal measure by the stories themselves and in the mechanics of documentation. This goes to my interest in meta-fiction, which includes devices of writing as part of the story, like the poem and footnotes in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the books within books of VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, or the complete text of Aylett’s Lint.
I sometimes find unintended humor in the way paranormal investigators use some facts and omit others. Take the Bell Witch legend. There is a house in Adams, Tennessee where in 1817 a man named John Bell and his family experienced poltergeist activity. The word spread until even General Andrew Jackson heard about it. This part is true. Jackson, his wife, and some friends actually traveled by covered wagon to Adams, Tennessee to spend the night in the Bell house. By all accounts, nobody got much sleep that night. People were pinched and slapped in the dark, covers got pulled off of beds, weird noises were heard. Andrew Jackson is widely quoted as saying, "I would rather fight the British than to deal with the Bell Witch!" But what he actually said was, "I saw nothing, but I heard enough to convince me that I would rather fight the British than to deal with this torment they call the Bell Witch!" I tried, in Tamper, to capture some of the humorous aspect of paranormal documentation. To convey the fun of it.
Levi: Does the fictional town of Hansburg, Virginia correspond to a real place? Can you talk about the places in this book and what they mean to you in real life?
Bill: Oh, for sure, I based Hansburg very much on the town in Virginia where I was born and raised, called Christiansburg. It started as a settlement called “Hans Meadow” in the 1700s. Later, they changed the name to Christiansburg. A small, idyllic town like in the old television shows, Leave It To Beaver or Andy Griffith or that Twilight Zone episode where Gig Young tries to revisit his childhood. Seventy-five percent of everything in Tamper really happened, but of course, I embellished parts of it. The treasure hunt, the layout of the streets, the bag of bones, Main Street, the woods, racing sleds and bicycles downhill, are all based in reality.
Besides the events in my hometown, some of the other stuff is based on real experience too. For example, I really did sit on a beach under the night stars in Spain, with some friends, looking out at the Rock of Gibralter, listening to "Four Cornered Room" by WAR on a small, battery operated cassette tape player, and it seemed almost transcendental at the time.
Levi: How do you plan to market and sell this novel? Do you enjoy being an indie writer, and do you have advice for other indie writers?
Bill: I would prefer that a major publisher picked up my book and promoted it to the masses. There is one thing I like about being an indie, which is the realization that just because a book is supposedly finished, that doesn’t mean I can’t go back and fix things. I learned by trial and error on my first two books, and I used to stress out, thinking, "What if I release a book that’s not good enough?" I either put the book out too soon and grieved over the errors, or toiled endlessly for perfection. Partly, it was not being able to afford a second edition with some of those high-priced, so-called self-publishing companies. So, I founded Surtsey Publishing, and I use CreateSpace for print-on-demand, and it’s no longer a problem. Obviously, I have to draw the line somewhere with revisions. At some point, you have to let it go. I don’t foresee any revisions on Tamper -- it’s nearly perfect. But I’m going to combine the short stories from my first two books, Time Adjusters and Space Savers, into one volume, re-release them on Surtsey with some killer revisions! Anyone who has already purchased one of those books will get a chance to buy the new edition at the greatly reduced price, or maybe even get a free copy for a limited time. I haven’t worked out the details yet. But anyone interested in reading Tamper need not worry -- it’s not going to change.
As for marketing, there’s been a lot of talk lately, mainly from Cory Doctorow, about making books available online for free. Doctorow says that making his books available free online has not hurt his book sales. I’m not quite that adventurous yet, so I’m going to make the first three chapters of Tamper available on the internet.
I’ve got two book signings lined up here in Jacksonville, Florida so far, where I’ll read excerpts from the book and talk about it.
I plan to use blog ads to target the various types of readers who I believe the novel will appeal to. These include, on one hand, the pulp science fiction fans and the Forteans, folks who know that Richard Shaver was an actual writer for Amazing Stories Magazine in the 1940s. People who like offbeat historical fiction. My first draft had Richard Shaver as one of the central characters, in the manner that James Morrow includes Ben Franklin as a character in his novel The Last Witchfinder, but I wasn’t sure how far I should go, so I invented Olsen Archer, a friend and colleague of Shaver, to fill out the plot. I also think Tamper will appeal to those who enjoy dark psychological excursions into the locked desk of Henry James, as well as enlightening psychological expositions from the open lectern of his brother, William James. And books about the intersection of mysticism and science, like Deciphering the Cosmic Number by Arthur I. Miller (thanks to Jessa Crispin for recommending that one on her blog).
Levi: Many blogs such as Largehearted Boy and Paper Cuts ask writers what music they listened to while they wrote their latest books. Instead, I'd like to ask you a better question: what foods did you eat while you wrote this book?
Bill: I fell in love with olive oil and feta cheese about three years ago. I went for weeks at a time eating nothing but a big salad every day, with all kinds of fresh vegetables, topped with olive oil, vinegar, and feta cheese, and later in the evening, drinking many cups of black coffee, staying up all night. But from time to time, maybe to compensate for the lack of booze, I went on binges in which I ate big bowls of cereal with milk, bananas, raisins, peanut butter, and ice cream piled on it. I seem to be one of those all-or-nothing people. I won’t even go into the prescription drugs I eat.
For more about Ectric's novel go here, or check out Bill's website.
MT Cozzola is a Chicago-based screenwriter, playwright, and actress, and a native of Oak Park, Illinois (the hometown of Ernest Hemingway). She has written the screenplay for the film Eye of the Sandman, which will appear in theatres in Fall 2009. Eye of the Sandman is adapted from a short story entitled The Sandman by German writer E.T.A Hoffman. I spoke with MT at the Cafe Neo in the shadow of the El tracks on Lincoln Avenue.
Michael: So, MT, I’ve read the script of The Eye of the Sandman. How did you get the idea to do the film, and where did you find the story that you adapted the screenplay from?
MT: Actually the project came about before the story. A producer, Dave Evans, wanted to do a horror film, and he approached me and two other directors, Jeff McHale and Dennis Belogorsky, about collaborating on a horror film. We tossed around some ideas, some serious ideas, some comedic ideas, and Dave was really interested in this story The Sandman, the E.T.A Hoffman story, and we all read that. He talked with another screen writer, who did a very serious treatment of the story. It wasn’t getting any traction –- it was interesting, but not something we were really interested in. So we started talking about other ideas, and doing more of a comedy. And I really loved the story, and I thought there was a lot of humor in it. Although it can be looked at as a very serious story, and there's definitely some scary imagery and there's serious themes in it, I thought that there's also a lot of humor in it. There's even that line at the end after the poor hero falls to his death, and the writer says something about how his poor bereaved fiancee shortly thereafter met someone else and is now living very happily with a big family -- so that's pretty funny. Anyway, I took a stab at just taking the elements from the story that I found interesting, that idea of obsessions and seeing in an object of beauty, in this case this man, and sort of pouring everything into him that you think you want in a lover. And believing because of his passivity that your love is returned. I started from there, and I wrote this story. Actually, I wrote the last scene first and then everything kind of fell into place, so then I wrote the opening scene, and then the scenes that happen in the middle, and I brought that to Dave, the producer, and he really liked it and the other directors really liked it. I knew because I was familiar with the production company, that if I wanted to get this made, I needed to give them something that was production-wise very simple. You'll notice that it's a single location ...
MT: Very limited cast, those are all things that ... I think because I was thinking about the production, and I wasn't starting from "if I could tell any story in the world what would it be?", that really worked out well in terms of the idea, but that was also where my focus was initially with the story -- let's really limit this to just a few characters in a single location, and let's put these people together and see what happens. All of the characters in the movie are based on either a character in the story or a suggestion of a character. The main character in the film is a young woman, but she's very much based on the hero of the story, who was a man.
Michael: There was a robot in both stories, as I recall …
MT: Yeah, there's an automaton in the short story, but it was more complicated than the film, because there's the young man's father, and the mysterious Sandman (evil guy) who comes to the house, and then there's another scientist that the young man meets later on in Germany who is the one who actually created the robot. But in my story, the robot was created by the heroine's father and another scientist, and their relationship is very important. So, the elements are all taken from or inspired by the original story but just laid out differently.
Michael: So, the process then, as I understand it, is you took a story that everyone involved in this project was interested in, and you took a crack at giving it some shape, and then you took that back to the producer, and then he said yeah go ahead, and then from there you created a more fully fleshed story ...
MT: Yeah, I think the thing that I gave him was like a treatment with a few scenes broken out, you know, with the opening scene and a couple of interior scenes and an ending scene broken out. In a lot of treatments I've seen ... are you familiar with treatments or what a treatment is?
Michael: No, I'm not, actually.
MT: It's essentially a kind of a detailed synopsis of the entire film. So you might think of each paragraph of a treatment as describing one sequence in a film. So you could write a very concise treatment and say, "Mike goes to the cafe, he finds the murder weapon, the owner doesn't want him to take the weapon but he grabs the weapon and leaves." Then the next paragraph is "Mike is in the car ..." But you could also detail that treatment a little bit more, which I think really helps directors and producers and anybody reading it, and just throw in a little bit of dialogue, so you think of it more as when you're telling someone a story, you know, "Mike goes into the cafe, he finds the murder weapon and the owner says ‘grab it and I cut your head off', but Mike says 'no, I've gotta do this for Julie', and he runs out of there". And like, suddenly, once you insert some dialogue into it, it becomes much more specific and real, and the characters become real, and it's not just this and this and this.
Michael: So it's kind of like when you are trying to pitch a book to somebody -- you have a synopsis -- you don't have the whole thing written but you have a synopsis, and then you kind of walk them through it with a few details, to try to get them interested.
MT: Right, right. You're giving them the flavor, it's not just dry summary. So yes, the treatment I did had a few scenes broken out with full dialog and then other scenes where just this happened and this happened -- that was what I did. And actually, I didn't think they would like it because they were really talking about a serious horror film, and that's just not what I'm into. I'm not a horror film fan, I don't know most of the references -- most of the horror films I've seen are from the 1930s. I don't know Nightmare on Elm Street. So all I could really write was just, like, this is what I'm interested in –- this is what seems fun and interesting to me.
Michael: So after the treatment, the director or producer can either say go ahead write me a screenplay or ...
MT: Or thanks anyway.
Michael: So is there a lot of rejection in film?
MT: [Laughs] it's all rejection!
Michael: So it's like any kind of writing, then, you write and you write and write, and you work and you work and work and ...
MT: ... and no one's interested!
Michael: What's the difference between adapting an existing story, versus writing something new?
MT: For me, when I'm adapting something I'm reacting -- to an idea or something in the story. When I'm creating something new it's more about discovery of a story. Not that there's not a lot of discovery in adaptation but it is your spin, something that you see in another work.
Michael: For a new work, do you start with an idea and let that idea germinate over time and then at some point you feel like you can start writing it down, or ...
MT: I usually start writing right away. I usually figure out what I think through the writing. For me that discovery comes from dialogue. And maybe to some extent I'm influenced by -- maybe that's why I enjoy improvisation, and when I performed more I did a lot of improvisation which is really, you know, discovering through dialogue, and letting something build in that way. I think with writing, even adaptation, it's really letting the characters speak and kind of seeing where they're going and who they are and what's on their mind. And with the Sandman piece I didn't feel bound by the story in any way – because I wasn't using the plot, I didn't have to end up in any particular place. So I could just go with that main character who so clearly has memories that he is not dealing with, and our heroine also -- she has memories that she's not dealing with, she sort of takes all her desire not to deal with what's going on in the present and just project it onto something else, so you just start with that and go wherever, so you have a lot of freedom when you adapt.
Michael: So it sounds like rather than constructing a rather complex plot, you get the characters talking and interacting and then the plot sort of falls in behind? Is that right?
MT: Yeah, especially in the first draft. The first draft is all about the characters and the relationships that develop between them and yeah, you're not so worried about the plot. Then you get through that first draft and you figure out who you've got and do you have something interesting going on. And then maybe in the second draft I focus more on the plot and the structure, and usually the second draft is kind of dry and icky because it's all like "we've got to get to this point!" so you kind of lose something. But then when you get to the third draft that's when things seem to coalesce. There are some things you can do in terms of the plot in that second draft because you know you have to get somewhere, and you write these clunky scenes to get people to the climax and then you come back to that a little while later and it's "this is awful" -- these characters -- you're just using them to get somewhere. So in the third draft you get away from it a little bit, and you come back, and you go –- oh, ok, he's not going to get there this way -- we know he's got to get there, but he's not going to get there this way. So I feel that's it's a three draft process.
Michael: Do you visualize what these characters are going to look like on the screen at this point?
MT: Oh, totally! I see 'em.
Michael: What is the process then that goes from getting a final script to a film -- how does it get from that piece of paper, those pieces of paper, to the screen? Can you describe that process?
MT: [Laughs]. There's a really long winded, rambling answer to that. That's a tough question. Once you know you're on the same page just in terms of the broad concepts. Like with this script -- it's campy but it's serious, too. And I wasn't sure if it would come across to the other directors.
Michael: It's kind of a spoof of a horror story in a way.
MT: Yeah, there are a lot of spoofy references, but it was also important to me that what the characters were going through from their point of view was entirely serious and the stakes were high for them, and they felt this very deeply. So I didn't want a film that was about laughing at the characters. So once it was kind of clear that the other directors were on the same page as I was about that – that they got it -- you sort of trust that they got it. You don't really know until you're actually shooting it. Then there's storyboarding and all of the production planning. Even before we got to storyboarding there was the concept of the art direction, and meeting with the production designer and that's also again where you're creating the world that your going to shoot in, so then things start to come out like "what does this world look like?" So, before storyboarding we talked about production design, talked about costumes, talked a little bit about music, although the music is just now being scored. So we were basically kind of creating the world where this is going to happen. And there was really another stage, preparatory to storyboarding the scenes -- storyboarding is just basically, you know, whether narratively or just by quick sketches, showing how you see a scene being shot -- before storyboarding we had a meeting where we all brought in images, scenes from films we liked and that was a great way of communicating some of the things that are really hard to describe such as how you feel this looks like. And I remember Jeff brought in some scenes from Moulin Rouge and Return to Oz which was a film I'd never seen. I brought in and the adventures of Mr. Toad –- you know The Wind in the Willows, the illustrations, and Fritz Eichenberg engravings of Jane Eyre. So it was all kind of show and tell –- this is kind of the feeling that I have. So we went into storyboarding, and especially when we started out we all brought in our storyboards for a scene, and I found that my ideas visually were a lot lest interesting than Jeff's, because he has much more of a visual eye than I do. And because he is a great editor, he really sees things in sequence so he has a really strong sense of how this shot is going to tie into this shot and where the viewer's eye is going to be and how this will all fall together, whereas I might just have a feeling of I can see this one moment, where he has a more comprehensive vision of an entire scene. So storyboarding was next. And then when it came to the actually shooting, Jeff and Dennis tended to be more focused on things like lighting and composition, and I tended to focus more on the actors and their relationships with each other and their interpretation of the dialogue and the characters. And that worked amazingly well.
Michael: So it's quite a process, then.
MT: It's a really long process.
Michael: You take this thing that's your baby, and you hand it to a bunch of other people, and it turns into something else again.
MT: At least in low budget film making which is [laughs] my world. Which is –- what you really pay for in film making -- that is, large-budget versus low-budget – is time. And on a low-budget film when you're in the situation we were in where we've got this fantastic location to shoot in and we've got these wonderful actors; we don't have a ton of money to spend on sets and costumes but we have wonderful designers, we've got everything that we need, but what we don't have is time. Every day we have an assistant director who has a schedule for tomorrow. And at 9:00 we're shooting this shot, and at 9:40 we need to move on to this shot, and at 10:10 we need to move on to this shot. So all of a sudden the limitation of time means that you may have this image in your head or this thing that you want and it may not happen. You might not have time to get the thing that you want. So you're constantly battling with the clock. And depending on the kind of person you are it can be really easy to say "just screw it, let's just get the shot and move on", because you're feeling all this pressure. And that I think is the most challenging part of this work.
Michael: To turn in something really good under a really tight time constraint.
MT: Yeah. And it's really hard on the actors. Because they're waiting around all day while you're doing other scenes, and then it's like come on and do this death scene. And you have to do it in 20 minutes because you've gotta get it, because the light's going or whatever. That's one thing, while working in theatre has its own limitations, I don't think that there's that fear of the clock like there is in filmmaking.
Michael: How long did it take to make the film.
MT: I think we had 22 shooting days total ...
Michael: So from the script to the final cut, how long did it take?
MT: [Laughs] Forever! I turned in the script in June of 2007. Principal photography was October-November 2007. The film sat almost all of 2008. We had a music video sequence to shoot, but we couldn't shoot this until the song was written -- it was an original song -- so we spent the first half of 2008 getting the song written and recorded -- so we shot the music video in July of 2008 and then things sat around some more while Jeff finished editing another film. The rough cut of the film was just finished last month, in February. So we're just now looking at some composers -- there are a handful of composers that have just submitted a workup of a particular scene, to kind of say "here's what I would do with the soundtrack." And so we're looking at those now and choosing a composer. And although we have a rough edit there's been no audio correction, no color correction, there's a lot of tweaking to be done, that'll happen at the same time as we continue to work with the composer. And then the film is coming out in September this year. So 2 1/2 years from June of 2007 to Fall 2009.
Michael: It's a long time, but there were a lot of gaps.
MT: Yeah, there were a lot of gaps in 2008.
Michael: So where will this play? Where will be the venues for it? Just in the Chicago area?
MT: They'll premier it in Chicago, at a local theatre. We're booked for the last week of October at the Center on Halsted, and I don't know if that's the premiere or if there will be screenings somewhere else before that. Split Pillow has also premiered stuff at Chicago Filmmakers and the Gene Siskel Film Center, so I'll be curious to see how that rolls out. Anyway, it will be one or more local theatres here, and then they will try to get it into festivals and seek a wider distribution for it. I think the process is local showings, then hopefully festival distribution, theatre distribution, and ultimately DVD distribution, so it becomes available through places like NetFlix.
Michael: So eventually, October 2009 this year, we can see it at a venue here, and if it's a huge hit, it will spread!
MT: That ... Yeah!
In close proximity to primordial Florida swamps, branch-shrouded canopy roads, and Kafkaesque state capital intrigues, Jeff and Ann VanderMeer are Tallahassee’s greatest unnatural resource.
Ann is the fiction editor of Weird Tales Magazine, its continuing mission to publish brilliantly strange original material unavailable anywhere else. Jeff is on the cutting edge of the “New Weird,” infusing literary proficiency back into gothic fantasy and sci-fi with such novels as Veniss Underground, City of Saints and Madmen, Shriek, and most recently, Finch.
Cost, Roxana Robinson's tense novel about a disintegrating American family, begins in a mood of heightened sensitivity. Katherine, an elegant elderly woman visiting her adult daughter, caresses her combs and frets that she is losing her memory. Her daughter Julia roams the kitchen of her Maine beach house, "her movements hurried, slightly inept", and when she opens a jar of mayonnaise she feels the glass threads give way beneath her hands.
These moments of awareness, the reader knows, must be interrupted -- and soon Julia's older son Steven arrives at the summer house bearing the news that younger son Jack is a heroin addict. Cost, a knowing portrait of a family in crisis, is notable for its refusal to offer easy answers. Julia's father, a retired brain surgeon besieged by raging emotions, declares that rehab programs have terrible success rates for heroin addicts. An intervention/rehab expert ("found online") arrives, but also announces that there is little chance of success. The climactic intervention, seen through the eyes of the miserable, pain-wracked Jack as well as the other family members, turns out to be a holy mess -- several of the speeches only manage awkward sentimentality, Julia's sister cringes when the leader uses the word "love", and at the end it's Julia, not her addict son Jack, who has an epiphany and breaks down crying.
This is a brutally honest story about a modern family, sharper than Jonathan Franzen's Corrections and at times almost as bleak as Ken Kalfus's A Disorder Peculiar to our Country. Cost also reaches back to one of the greatest family tragedies, Shakespeare's King Lear, which it refers to in numerous details. At times, Cost reads like King Lear reflected in a broken mirror, mainly because Julia's stubborn and arrogant father, a well-meaning tyrant prone to feeling insulted, resembles Shakespeare's King to the depth of his being, and because the young brothers Steven and Jack pointedly recall Gloucester's two sons, the earnest Edgar and the "bastard" Edmund. Numerous other design patterns in the novel recall the great play: a rivalry between three siblings (one of whom is completely absent), an unsteady walk on a beach, a "storm" in the shape of a boat adventure, a disguised child mistaken by his parents for a bum. It's as a fragmented "Lear", with all the kaleidoscopic interpretations this makes possible, that Cost moves farthest beyond the limits of realistic tragedy to achieve greater cosmic truth.
I haven't found too many novels to get excited about lately, but Cost is a knockout, and I think Oprah Winfrey would do well to consider it for her next selection (no joke; it's better than Corrections *and* A Million Little Pieces). I got a chance to ask Roxana Robinson a few questions via email recently, and did so with so much hasty enthusiasm that I think I oversold my questions about Shakespeare. I'll leave those embarrassing sections of the conversation out, but our other exchanges were fascinating. It was a privilege to be able to read this book and quickly follow it up with my rapt inquiries, below:
Levi: Cost was my first encounter with your fiction. Can you tell me something about where the book is meant to fit into the wider context of your career?
Roxana: Cost turned out to be the third in a trilogy. The two earlier parts of it are This Is My Daughter and Sweetwater. I hadn't really planned to do this, but when I finished Cost I realized that I had been exploring certain kinds of entitlement that I think are particularly American.
This Is My Daughter is about two divorced parents who marry and then try to create a "blended" family. At the time I wrote it -- the early '90s -- it seemed to me that everyone around me was getting divorced and remarried, with an implacable disregard of the consequences, as though there would be no consequences, if they were smart enough, and responsible enough, and possibly affluent enough. That they deserved this, and the children would simply bend to their wishes.
It seems to me this notion is connected to the American sense of the landscape. We have always luxuriated in the knowledge that our continent is 3,000 miles across, and that if things get bad we can always move west and start over. The land is ours. So this idea of remarriage - as though all you needed, to make a success of it, was determination - seemed to me particularly misguided and particularly American.
The second book in the series is Sweetwater, and that also comes from a misguided sense of entitlement -- the notion that, no matter what we do to it, the environment will always be whole, healthy, and generous to us. That, too, seems to relate to our notion of ownership -- of our vast country and our enormous natural resources. To our sense that we deserve them, and that they will always be there, and they will always be ours, no matter what we do. Again there is the misguided notion that there will be no consequences to our actions.
The third book in the trilogy is Cost. Here the notion of entitlement started out as a smaller issue -- the notion that, if you are responsible and focused, and hard-working, that there will come a time in your life when you can live it for yourself. When your children are launched, and your parents still healthy, then you can address the things in your own life that only concern you.
This, too, seems profoundly misguided, and as I wrote Cost it became clearer and clearer to me that the bonds of family are never loosened.
Levi: As a stark portrait of heroin addiction, your novel calls to mind a few articles I've read recently about the failure rate of rehab for serious drug addicts or alcoholics. There seems to be a growing realization that rehab simply does not work, even when carried out according to the highest standards. Did you intend this to be a theme in your novel? Do you think Amy Winehouse had it right? What do you think offers the best hope for a drug addict like Jack, or for the family of a drug addict like Jack?
Roxana: When I started the novel, I was unaware that it would be about heroin addiction. I thought it would be about the problems and complications of being an adult child, about how difficult it is to relate to your parents in the way you'd like.
When I learned that it would be about heroin addiction, I had to learn about a whole world with which I was unfamiliar.
I learned about the sad statistics, the sad prognosis of most addicts. All these were things I recorded, but this is not a point I set out to make. (I don't know what Amy Winehouse says about it.) As a novelist, I think my task is to bear witness, not to offer a solution.
I think the best hope for a drug addict is a real sense of dedication to quitting. It must come from him. The best hope for a family is to learn to negotiate this awful terrain, offering both emotional support and love, but withholding any kind of enablement. It's a terrible lesson to have to learn. As far as I can tell, there is no one correct treatment method that is always successful.
Levi: I believe it's Wendell [Julia's ex-husband] who defends the use of cliche in one of the book's conversations. Does Wendell's point express a literary principle of yours, and does the idea that we should embrace cliche point to any larger truths in this book?
Roxana: I think Wendell makes the point that cliches are always based on reality. As a writer, I detest cliches, and I wouldn't at all suggest that we embrace them. But as a desperate mother, I'd suggest that Julia recognize that the reason her situation seems so commonplace is that humans all have the same capabilities, we share the same emotions and the same experiences. It doesn't lessen her experience to realize that it's shared by many many others. My point was more about the commonality of experience than about literature. Does this point to a larger truth? Yes, I'd like to think so.
A self conscious 'movement' calling itself 'the Offbeat Generation' has been emerging in the blogosphere. This generation got its name from Brit-lit Andrew Gallix, founder and editor of 3:AM magazine, who has been described by underground writer, artist and activist Stewart Home as "the Breton of the post-punk generation, the Rimbaud of the Net, Beckett to my Joyce, and Trocchi to my Beckett."
Home also says: "Leaving myself aside (although I don't really see why I should), there aren't many writers I'd rate higher than Gallix" And who wouldn't agree? This is from Gallix's 'Forty Tiddly Winks':
Others can just doze off as soon as their heads hit the pillow. Not Tim, though. He needed knocking out flat by dint of drinking himself into a stupor. Otherwise, he was condemned to toss and turn till dawn at the thought of Time's winged chariot hurrying near: Chitty Chitty Bang Bang you're dead.
Instinctively, Tim would tune into the hypnotic ticking of his wristwatch on the bedside table. Like a clock in a crocodile, it grew closer by the minute with the implacable inevitability of tragedy until the din became truly deafening. Now, he just knocks back another stiff one and waits for the effect to kick in. The clockodial starts melting, Dali-style. The ticking gradually fades into a tiny, tinny background backbeat. Soon it is drowned out by Pomme's sonorous snoring. Forty tiddly winks.
Another major author in the Offbeat scene, and possibly the most revered, is Tony O'Neill. His debut novel 'Digging the Vein' is an accurate portrait of the life of heroin addiction, with its superficial relationships and endless searches for drugs. This book supports the idea that 'addicts tend to befriend other addicts', and the constant activity of the protagonist reflects someone desperately attempting to avoid introspection.
Mathew Coleman is another "Offbeat Generation" player who predominately writes erotic fiction. Yet his erotic stories are emotionless, misogynist and often downright vulgar (though he may take this to be a compliment.) His stories are more interesting when not alluding to sex, and he shows more depth in his 'Rants, to Self':
My greatest challenge in life is to try and let go, to pull off the many masks that I wear and to try and be who I am, to not be afraid anymore. This is perhaps one of the hardest things to conquer -- the self.
Joseph Ridgwell, the only true 'East Ender' of the Offbeat bunch, writes engaging stories that are strikingly real and down to earth. His stories manage to be edgy without straining to be so. Ridgwell's stories take you down the dark alleys of the underground, as only someone who has quite literally 'lived first and wrote later'. You can find Ridgwell's stories on his blog.
Ben Myers is my personal favorite of the Offbeats. His debut novel "The Book of Fuck' is a pleasure to read, uproariously funny, story-driven, and remarkably sensitive for a book with such a hard-core title:
I locked up and left the flat dressed for war: knee length overcoat, beanie hat, scarf wrapped around my head PLO-style, hooded top and a couple of jumpers. I had decided that i wasn't going to allow a British winter to get me this year, I was going to hoist up the portcullis, pull up the drawbridge and close myself off to the world and its cruel elements. No chinks in the armour, it's all about layers.
Myers is a pugilist poet, novelist, biographer, and frequent journalist for The Guardian'. You can view his writings on his blog, Ben Myers, Man of Letters.
The Offbeats often delve into the unpleasant experiences of the lower middle to lower classes; engaging their characters in 'street smart' behavior that supports their struggles to survive. The stories are mostly commonplace and unheroic, the fate of the characters the necessary result of the controlling force of society. Drugs, poverty, alcoholism, alienation, anger and nonconformity are recurrent themes.
I recently asked Andrew Gallix a few questions about the Offbeats, beginning with the definition of the generation.
Andrew: Offbeat writers are nonconcomformers who (at least in their work) feel alienated from mainstream publishing, which is increasingly dominated by marketing people, and often draw inspiration from non-literary material. In some ways, it's a continuation of the post-punk Blank Generation writers. Some Offbeats also have an offbeat, experimental style, but that's certainly not the case of all of us. It's not a movement with a manifesto. All of the Offbeats write in very different styles. What brought us together was our hostility to mainstream publishing."
Jennifer: Is there a criteria for inclusion or exclusion?
Andrew: It's not a club, so in theory anybody can be an Offbeat writer. There is no criteria as such. There are webzines out there made by people we don't know who claim to be Offbeat publications, which is great because it means that the movement is growing. In fact, some people who were very dismissive, and even hostile, at first, are now blowing the trumpets for the Offbeats. The original Offbeats coalesced around 3:AM Magazine, and in particular the events we organised in London. We started 3:AM in 2000. By 2003, we started organizing readings and concerts: The future Offbeats started coming along, but didn't know one another. By 2006 I became aware of the fact that all of these people needed to be brought together. The first thing we needed was a name so I started speaking of the 'Offbeat generation'.
Jennifer:I have to wonder if it is not the writers who reject the mainstream, and alienate themselves from society through their writing, rather then being rejected and alienated by it. Should we compare this movement to the Naturalist/Realist movement? Why are these periods being repeated in modern literature?
Andrew: Well, I would partially disagree. Some Offbeats like Tony O'Neill are writing in a naturalist tradition, but others like HP Tinker, Tom McCarthy, Steven Hall, or dare I say me, certainly aren't. The Offbeat scene covers many genres and styles.
Jennifer: Why do you feel that the marketing departments are dictating what is being published?
Andrew: Publishing houses used to support authors simply because they were good or interesting; that's almost unheard of these days. More and more books are being published, but alot of them aren't worth publishing (one thinks of Ecclesiastes: "Of the making of books there is no end"!). More and more books are being published, but there's less and less choice in book stores.
Jennifer: If there is a large market out there of writers who want to read ( and buy) more literary type books, then why are the marketing departments not seeing this as reflected in sales?
Andrew: I think they are, when they're ready to take a risk. Tom McCarthy's extraordinary success is a good illustration of this. The good writers are not being drowned out by the dross; there's just more choice out there. If a band creates its own label and releases a record, everybody applauds their sense of enterprise; when a writer does the same, some people cry out "vanity publishing"! However, writing is not all about marketing and money. Or at least it shouldn't be.
I do sense some contradictions in Gallix's responses. He proclaims that there are less and less choices out there due to the increase in books being published that are basically just crap; and then he says good writers are not being driven out by the dross! With this in mind, I have to wonder why the Offbeats are "feeling alienated from mainstream publishing, which is increasingly dominated by marketing people, and often draw inspiration from non-literary material." Are good writers being published, but no one is buying? Or are the Offbeats just not adhering to golden rule of thumb of book publishing: you have to write stories that people want to read, not just stories that you want to write?
In photo above: Andrew Gallix and Travis Jeppesen eating sushi.
Branching Out, a joint project of Poets House and the Poetry Society of America, with funding from the National Endowment for Humanities, presents Hettie Jones on the Beat Poets, Tuesday, May 6 @ 6:00 PM.
In New York’s Greenwich Village from 1957 to 1963, poets Hettie Jones and her then-husband LeRoi Jones (who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka) published a magazine called Yugen, showcasing poetry and writings by Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Philip Whalen, and others. Hettie also started Totem Press, which published poets such as Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Gary Snyder, Frank O’Hara, and Edward Dorn.
Jones is currently involved with PEN American Center's Prison Writing Committee and teaches writing at the New School in New York. She also runs a writing workshop at the New York State Correctional Facility for Women at Bedford Hills. The Bedford Hills workshop has published two books of poetry, More In Than Out and Aliens At the Border. I purchased a used copy of Aliens At the Border and I agree with Bibi Wein of the PEN American Center when she says, “Each of these women has a unique voice, and the writing is luminous, surprisingly lyrical, tender, and hopeful as a candle in the dark.”
You can enter Shelby’s Coffee House from the street, or through the new Downtown Public Library in Jacksonville, Florida. I arrived early, hoping I could meet Hettie Jones in person before she took the podium. It paid off. Hettie arrived an hour before the event was scheduled to begin, accompanied by a guide from the city. I introduced myself and she invited me to sit at her table while library staff rearranged the chairs and tables to face the microphone.
“This is a beautiful library,” she said. “With a great children’s section.”
When I gave her a brief summary of the revitalization projects of downtown Jacksonville, Hettie’s first question was, “Has anyone been displaced by all the new construction?” I didn’t know for sure.
I said I was interested in her prison writing classes, and wanted to if she would be talking about that aspect of her work. Jones said she wasn’t really supposed to talk about anything but the Beats. “That’s what they brought me here for,” she said.
“Will you take questions from the audience later?” I asked.
“Sure,” she said.
“Well, then, if I raise my hand and ask about Bedford Correctional, they can’t blame you for talking about it.”
“True!” she said.
I apologized for being a pest, but I wanted to talk some more, in case we ran out of time later. Hettie is as cool as anyone I’ve ever met. “No, it’s quite all right,” she said. “I like talking about the prison workshop. It’s important to me. The thing about teaching in a correctional facility is, you accept people for what they want to become, not what they have done in the past. I got my start in 1988 when I got paid $50.00 to teach a prose workshop in Sing Sing. It went well, but the funding ran out. Soon after that, I got the chance to teach at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility for Women, and I did that for about a dozen years.”
“Is that through PEN?” I asked.
“No, PEN is different. I was elected to PEN in 1984, and because of my involvement with prisons, PEN insisted that I join their Prison Writing committee.”
By now, most of the chairs were filled and it was time for Hettie Jones to speak to the audience. She gave a brief introduction to the Beats, and spoke about several key players individually, reading a sample of each writer’s work.
“I first met Allen Ginsberg,” said Hettie, “When I was 24 years old. Allen needed to hear the Jewish prayer called the Kaddish, to help with the poem he was writing. He had never learned it. LeRoi brought me over to Allen’s place because I knew the Kaddish. And here you have a good picture of how the Beat movement mixed people from different backgrounds together. Here I was, a Jewish girl disowned by my parents for marrying a black man (LeRoi Jones), chanting the Kaddish to a homosexual poet who would later become a Buddhist!”
Speaking of Kerouac’s spontaneous prose, Hettie said that Jack didn’t say that writers shouldn’t rewrite or keep journals. The best thought may be the best thought, and you write that thought in a journal, but you still must “Edit, edit, edit,” said Hettie. “And that is a hard lesson to learn.”
Asked about LeRoi Jones’ relation to the other Beats, Hettie said, “The fact that he was a black man was less important than the fact that he and I were publishing people.”
Someone wanted to know about William S. Burroughs. Hettie said that Burroughs was a loner, didn’t hang out at parties, and was hard to know. “Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, although gay, still had female friends to whom they showed love. Burroughs seemed to have no use for women at all.”
I raised my hand and asked if there were any paid positions for teachers in prisons.
“Nobody wants to pay you to do it,” said Hettie. “You have to raise your own funding, that’s what I did. Prisons are like little fiefdoms. It’s hard to get in the door. Most prisons have an Office of Volunteer Services, and that would be the place to start.
“If you teach at a university, it’s a good antidote to go teach at a prison for a while. The poetry is as good, sometimes better, than poetry written elsewhere. It’s rewarding. You go in with the attitude of accepting people for what they want to become, not what they have done.”
The last questioner asked if their were any writers today that Hettie would compare to the Beats.
“We have one running for President,” she said, to a smattering of applause. I assumed she was talking about Barack Obama because of articles like this, and when I asked her later, she confirmed that I was correct.
“We have many good poets today,” Hettie continued, “And a lot of them are not coming from universities. In New York, we have the Bowery Poetry club run by Bob Holman, a dear friend of mine. We have the Internet. We have Hip Hop. We have Def Poetry on television.”
After the event, I had one more question. A friend of mine wanted to know if there was ever a rivalry between Hettie Jones and Diane De Prima. This was a sensitive subject because both women had been involved romantically with LeRoi Jones during the fifties.
I got up the nerve to ask.
“You should just tell your friend to read my book, How I Became Hettie Jones,” she said. “I tell all about it in the book.”
Hettie Jones, to me, is a reminder that we have to keep improving. An important question for fans and students of Beat Literature is, where do we go from here? We know about the restless few, post-World War II, seeing beyond suburban conformity, crafting fresh free forms of verse, and of course, looking for kicks. But a lot of young writers seem to ride Kerouac’s Mobius road in circles. Hettie Jones is moving forward.
Linda Plaisted is a visual artist whose work I've been following on Flickr for a few years now (full disclosure: sometimes Linda and I send each other neat stuff in the mail, and I have a few of her prints around my house). Lately, I've been thinking about storytelling and how it has a broader reach than writing alone, and while browsing some of Linda's images, I was struck time and again by the narrative quality of much of her work. Linda agreed to let me interview her about her art, and about being an artist, and her answers are interesting not only from a literary standpoint, but also from the perspective of being a person who is driven to create. Enjoy. -- Jamelah
Jamelah: Where do your ideas come from?
Linda: I am informed and inspired by literature, mythology, popular culture, history, current events, my personal life experiences, and by my roles as a woman and mother. I pull in bits and bytes of data and imagery by osmosis and allow these pieces to gestate in the back of my mind until larger thematic ideas emerge. I find I get the best results when I just allow ideas to develop organically without overthinking or trying to analyze the process or even the product.
Jamelah: I see a narrative quality to much of what you create. Do you see your work as a form of storytelling? What stories are you interested in telling?
Linda: I have been making up stories since I first found words and crayons to use as a small child. In addition to driving my mother crazy, I guess I have just always found a way to express something in whatever form was at hand, hence the origin of Manymuses Studio. I have always drawn, written, painted, sang, acted or otherwise found a narrative voice. I am interested now in telling the stories that often go un-noted in our world; the simple, small truths about being alive and aware. The subtle suggestion in the gesture of a woman's hand or the particular arch of a bare branch against the sky speak more to me about what is real than the constant barrage of "must-see" media.
Jamelah: While it's true that looking at images allows a lot of freedom of interpretation on the part of the viewer, do you have something specific in mind when you create that you hope viewers read into your final creations? How do you direct them? (Examples?)
Linda: I have learned that the lens through which I see is not the same one that others use to view and interpret the work. Though I do sometimes use archetypal symbolism or suggest an underlying message in my work, I don't otherwise like to direct viewers. So, while it pleases me when people "get it" or make a connection with a piece, I am happy to allow for other interpretations. I am sometimes surprised when people read into some of my images a "darker" meaning than I had intended, but perhaps the images act as a collective clearinghouse for the subconscious hobgoblins that might otherwise rattle their chains at midnight. Examples -- Four and Twenty Blackbirds series.
Jamelah: Describe your process.
Linda: I try to get out nearly every day to shoot a steady stream of images of my sights and surroundings. This is my daily practice and well of ideas that I draw upon just as a writer would make notes in a daily journal. I use this "stream-of-consciousness" archive as my starting point to express larger thematic ideas that pique my interest, but I also send myself out "on assignment" with specific project ideas in mind, whether it is shooting a model, a still life set up or a specific kind of landscape for an evolving theme. These images are my "rough drafts." I also shoot a large body of texture images, backgrounds, lighting effects, borders and incidental images to use in my illustrations for future reference. I then come back to this varied archive of photographs when inspiration strikes and layer many different images to create my finished narrative pieces. I like to work in series to expand on a concept and see an idea through to some sort of resolution.
Jamelah: How much of what you read finds its way into your work? How does it influence you?
Linda: I have always been an avid reader of everything from children's picture books to literary fiction and everything in between, so I'm sure what I read finds its way into my work, but it's not an immediate process. I tend to internalize stories and characters that might reappear months or even years later in some form. I just did a series based on Shakespeare's female characters, harking back to my years as an English major.
Jamelah: In looking at some of your series, particularly Girlie, Thy Name Is Woman and The Women, I see images that confront the notion that women -- their bodies, their names, their lives -- are objects to be acted upon by outside influences (scientists, writers, lovers). Do you see your work addressing the gap between this tradition and reality? How?
Linda: In my own quiet way I am certainly out to confront the rusty, ill-fitting notions of a woman's place in society. The honest history of the world's women has yet to be told. The story of women's lives are still not being told when history is written as the dates of wars and the men who won them. By heredity, by history and by simple biological necessity, our voices have been muted and the full spectrum of our powers reduced to black and white. Simone de Beauvoir wrote, "The torment that so many young women know, bound hand and foot by love and motherhood, without having forgotten their former dreams" applies to so many of us, myself included. I have made it a personal goal of mine to show and tell more womens' stories in 2008 and going forward. The pretty pictures I make pay the way for the important work.
Jamelah: Whether it's writing or painting or photography (or some other art form), many people dream of being able to create for a living, and that's what you're doing. Do you have any advice for people who want to pursue an artistic path?
Linda: I spent nearly a decade giving my creativity away to others while not creating anything from my own heart or for my own soul. Your creativity is your gift. Share it. Do what you love and the universe will reward you.
Jamelah: Bonus: Anything else you'd like to add?
Linda: Always wear sunscreen. Seriously.
Photos -- October, Ecce Cor Meus, and Baptism -- copyright Linda Plaisted, used with permission. Manymuses.com.
As teenagers, James Morrow and his friends made short 8mm movies based on Coleridge and Poe stories. Morrow went on to earn a master's degree from Harvard University, then published his first novel, The Wine of Violence, in 1981. His latest, The Philosopher’s Apprentice, prompted the Library Journal to compare Morrow to enlightenment luminary Denis Diderot, “A man who believed that literature and philosophy marched hand in hand and who was not afraid to discuss serious matters in a comic tone.”
For his numerous books written between 1981 and 2008, Morrow has received the World Fantasy Award (twice), the Nebula Award (twice), the Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire (once), and the 2005 Prix Utopia at the Utopiales SF Festival in Nantes, France.
Morrow and I discussed his latest two novels. The Last Witchfinder concerns a brave 18th century woman who teams up with Ben Franklin to discredit her zealous father’s persecution of witches. Philosopher’s Apprentice is the fantastical tale of a graduate student hired to teach morality to a teenage girl with a blank slate for a conscience.
Bill: You once said it took eight years to develop The Last Witchfinder. When you are writing a book, do you ever worry that someone else will have a similar idea and “beat you to the punch”? Is there a battle between taking your time to get it right vs. getting it published before someone else does steals your thunder, like Tesla vs. Marconi?
James: For me, the greatest pleasure of novel-writing is living inside the same fictive world for several years running, playing with its possibilities. The composition process normally finds me drawing inspiration from the cultural mood of the moment, though by the time the book actually sees print that same cultural mood will have shifted. I can easily imagine some posthumous biographer noting that James Morrow always managed to be slightly out of phase with the zeitgeist.
My satire on the Reagan-era arms race, This Is the Way the World Ends, followed in the wake of a half-dozen Armageddon novels. That’s probably one reason my publisher released the novel with no particular fanfare. I like to think my treatment of nuclear war was unique, but Henry Holt never figured out how to make booksellers understand what set This Is the Way the World Ends apart from Riddley Walker or The Postman or Warday. Had the manuscript landed on my editor’s desk a year earlier, it would almost certainly have generated more in-house excitement.
A similar fate befell The Last Witchfinder, which features an unusual fictive take on Benjamin Franklin. While I was writing that novel, the country in general and Philadelphia in particular were gearing up for a Franklin tricentennial -- he was born in 1706 -- and I had high hopes that these celebrations would offer me some promotional opportunities. Alas, by the time the book appeared, late in 2006, Philadelphia had been “Ben Franklined out,” or so my publicist was told by an impresario who’d spent the past two and a half years organizing Franklin festivities throughout the city.
Presently I’m writing an historical novel about Charles Darwin, who’s been in the news lately. I’m thinking of both the landmark “intelligent design” court case in Dover, Pennsylvania, and the Darwin exhibit that’s been traveling around among the major natural history museums. Once again, I’ll probably miss the critical period for capitalizing on the media attention being accorded my chosen subject. The Darwin brouhaha will peak early next year, in honor of his 200th birthday, and yet my novel won’t be ready until 2010.
Of course, any serious novel is intended to live outside its time, and the writer who rushes to capitalize on the zeitgeist is probably committing artistic suicide. For whatever reasons, This Is the Way the World Ends remains in print, and it’s still taught in several college classes, to students who weren’t even alive when Reagan was rattling his nuclear saber, so in a sense I’m having the last laugh. And I believe that both The Last Witchfinder and the Darwin novel (tentatively titled Galapagos Regained) touch on universal themes, so in theory they’ll attract future generations of readers who won’t especially care how popular these books were when first published.
Bill: You mentioned on your blog that The Philosopher’s Apprentice is, among other things, your homage to Frankenstein, both Mary Shelley’s original novel and the various movies from Universal Studios and Hammer Films. Which of the Hammer Frankenstein films is your favorite and why?
James: When I read your question, Bill, my answer was immediate and instinctual -- and yet I’m prepared to defend it. The Revenge of Frankenstein is not as scary as The Curse of Frankenstein, as cleverly plotted as Frankenstein Created Woman, or as emotionally wrenching as Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. And yet it has a cadaverous elegance not found elsewhere in the cycle. Director Terence Fisher and writer Jimmy Sangster suffused The Revenge of Frankenstein with a graphic sense of the unhallowed Nietzschean bravado, at once diabolical and darkly glamorous, through which the medical profession established itself in the Regency and Victorian periods. This is a wholly subjective reaction, of course, doubtless informed by the fact that I first saw The Revenge of Frankensteinwhen I was only thirteen, an age when horror movies are especially resonant.
Bill: In his book The Art of the Novel Milan Kundera speaks of “the truth that is to be discovered,” by which he means that, beyond a writer’s conscious realization of their novel’s theme, there is also, as Kundera says, “The poem hidden somewhere behind.” Kundera calls this discovering of truth in one’s own novel “the dazzlement.” Do you experience this dazzlement when you write a book? That is, of discovering a theme or a variation on your intended theme, which you didn’t anticipate?
James: I regard most of my novels as “thought experiments,” analogous to the Gedanken calculations --unstageable demonstrations conducted entirely within the confines of one’s skull -- routinely performed by physicists, cosmologists, and philosophers. It’s never enough simply to ask “What if?” You must actually run the thought experiment. You need to write the damn book. And that usually entails being surprised by the outcome.
No matter how carefully I outline a novel, it will normally get away from me during the composition process -- and that is all to the good. If there’s “dazzlement” in the writer, then there will probably be “dazzlement” in the reader. Indeed, the only reason I go to all the trouble of writing fiction is the expectation of discovering some hidden but astonishing potential in the themes and premises with which I’m experimenting.
One of my favorite James Morrow novels, Blameless in Abaddon, finds the hero, Martin Candle, trekking though the brain of a comatose Supreme Being in search of counter-arguments to the great theodicies, a theodicy being a rational explanation for God’s apparent indifference to human suffering. Martin needs these anti-theodicies so he can successfully prosecute the Almighty before the World Court in the Hague. Strangely enough, God proves perfectly willing to make the case for his own depravity. And as I was writing those scenes, I said to myself, “Of course, wow, damn, yes, that’s exactly what a Supreme Being would do. This is God, after all, not some cleric or politician or demagogue. God’s not out to defend his reputation. God’s out to be God.”
The Last Witchfinder involved a similar moment of dazzlement during its gestation. When I outlined the plot, I knew that my heroine, Jennet Stearne, would write a book that effectively critiques “the demon hypothesis.” But I didn’t realize that, to advertise her argument, Jennet would end up posing as a witch and arranging to be put on trial for Satanism in colonial Philadelphia. I was delighted when I stumbled on that idea, because it elevated Jennet to truly heroic stature.
Kundera has evidently articulated all this better than I could. Thank you, Bill, for drawing my attention to his insight.
Bill: We can both thank Jamelah Earle for hipping us to Kundera’s book on novel writing.
Besides the 8mm movies you made in high school, you also made some 16mm films as a young adult. Could you tell me about those films?
James: Most of these films were sponsored efforts celebrating the Philadelphia Cooperative Schools Summer Program, which ran for four successive summers between 1966 and 1969. The idea was to bring together adolescents and pre-adolescents from the public, private, and parochial schools -- students, in other words, whose formal educations had heretofore allowed them to interact only with people from similar backgrounds. Nobody was claiming that the racial, economic, and religious diversity of the PCSSP students would prove enlightening per se, but the program’s directors did believe that if you led such a heterogeneous group through a carefully structured humanistic curriculum, they would learn as much from each other as from the formal lessons. I would describe the movies as poetic documentaries that attempted to show how the students grew in self-knowledge over the course of each summer. You’ll find vestiges of my PCSSP experience in The Philosopher’s Apprentice.
But I also made my own independent films during and after this period. The one that springs to mind is a comedy called A Political Cartoon, which I produced with two of my best friends from high school, Joe Adamson and Dave Stone. I suppose this 16mm short foreshadows some of the more outrageous social satire found in This Is the Way the World Ends and The Philosopher’s Apprentice, though it’s a much gentler, less sardonic endeavor than those novels. A Political Cartoon combines live action with animation to tell the story of Peter President, a cartoon character who gets elected to the highest office in the land. It was ultimately released on a VHS anthology from Kino on Video called Cartoongate!, and it’s easily available via various dealers at Amazon.com. By the way, both Joe Adamson and Dave Stone went on to success in Hollywood. Joe won an Emmy for his PBS documentary called W.C. Fields Straight Up, and Dave received an Oscar for cutting the sound on Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula.
Bill: Do you think The Philosopher's Apprentice fits into the “cyberpunk” category? Do any of your other books fit into the cyberpunk category?
James: I must confess to a certain ambivalence toward cyberpunk. On the one hand, the movement was certainly a breath of ... not fresh air, exactly -- gritty air, I guess. Gibson, Sterling, Shirley, Cadigan, and company recognized that, for most citizens on planet Earth, the future was not going to be a gleaming utopia of domed arcadias linked by hyper-efficient monorail systems, nor would it be characterized by off-the-shelf jackbooted dystopias. Something else lay in store for us, something urban, grungy, corporate, computer-driven, world-weary, hardbitten, and alluringly noirish. The cyperpunk vision was a real breakthrough, and I salute it.
That said, I have always been much more in the romantic-rationalist camp. It’s difficult to find much affirmation in cyberpunk. I felt that the movement contained the seeds of its own enervation -- a kind of unearned cynicism verging on adolescent whining. Nihilism, I find, is often sentimentality by other means. Of course, I’m as vulnerable as anyone to the glamour of the abyss. Several critics have argued that my second novel, The Continent of Lies, features some Gibsonesque conceits, most especially in its use of what we would now call virtual reality. As for The Philosopher’s Apprentice, while it indeed contains some hi-tech cyberpunkian imagery -- the ontogenerator is the most conspicuous example -- I would say that its sensibility is ultimately humanistic.
Bill: In The Last Witchfinder, when Jennet finds herself surrounded by bottles displaying embryos with birth defects, in the wagon of Dr. Cavendish, it made me think of being down among the unfortunate “unblessed” people, those who would tell the Church, “We are human, too.” It reminded me of the story of when the Buddha left his safe kingdom of his father and walked among the common people. It also reminded me of the bottled people in The Bride of Frankenstein, although I know it’s not the same idea.
James: I’ve always been wary of Christ figures in fiction -- it’s too damn easy to create parallels between your protagonist and the hero of the Gospels. Much as I love John Irving’s work, I really thought he dropped the ball with A Prayer for Owen Meany. (Beginning with that inversely symbolic name
The Litblog Co-op has chosen Matthew Eck's debut novel The Farther Shore as the Winter 2007 READ THIS! Selection. This war story by a young veteran of US actions in Haiti and Somalia is one of the most impressive books I've read this year, and I was happy to have a chance to interview the author via email last week.
Levi: Your novel's main character joined the US military to pay for college. Why did you join the US military?
Matthew: I joined the army because I always knew that I wanted to be a writer. I'd been reading Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut and Tim O'Brien and Ernest Hemingway and it just seemed like the right thing to do to gather life experience and meaning and understanding all those cliches. But the GI Bill was a huge attraction as well. And I knew that I wanted to go to college one day as well. I actually enlisted for four years because I wanted as much of the GI Bill as I could get, and my reasoning at the time was this: high school went by pretty fast. I also joined because I never thought at 18 that I'd be in a war. At 18 death seems so far away. I felt invincible. Somalia was one long memento mori.
Levi: I hope your real-life experience in Somalia was not as harrowing as that depicted in The Farther Shore. But would you mind sharing some details about what you personally experienced when engaged in actions overseas?
Matthew: I appreciate that "hope". It wasn't as harrowing as that depicted in the novel. But after I wrote that book I felt like I owned Joshua Stantz's experience. These days the line between the reality of my war and the reality of Joshua's war runs a bit blurry.
We were mortared a lot in Somalia. It was surreal early on. I worked during the night most of the time I was in Somalia so it was rare that I was scared out of sleep.
I was telling a story to a friend about the war while I was working on my novel. I was telling this story about a mutual friend and watching as mortars landed all around. About how I remembered watching as bright orange bits of burning shrapnel sprayed about him. And my friend stopped me and said, "That was you. That wasn't Zoldak. That was you." It all came back and my heart just dropped. I remembered it all.
The story goes thus:
"Zoldak and I were working at the "hot point" when mortars started landing in the camp and we jumped out of our Humvee and hid in a trench that ran the entire length of the runway. When the mortaring stopped we were walking back to the Humvee when I noticed that I didn't have my radio on me. I was walking back to get it when my friend yelled at me and I turned around to see this luminous green round flying at me. I took off running for the trench and it was like I was underwater, the world was going so slow. I dove into the ditch at about the same time as this green little glowing round started its decent into the same trench and only a few feet away. I remember vividly thinking in that moment of Wile E. Coyote. I remember thinking, this is un-fucking real. This thing just followed me down here. It landed a few feet away and bounced a couple of times and just sat there glowing. It wasn't a mortar it was a flare. And I just sat there staring at it. I was shaking as I climbed out of the trench, again forgetting the radio. I turned to jump back down in the trench for the radio when three mortars landed in quick succession around me. That orange flash, "the big spooky," someone called it, all that bright orange burning shrapnel flying about me. When the mortaring was over I slowly crawled back down into the trench and just sat there until my friend walked over. That moment led to the line in the novel about how you never know where to stand in a war. I should have known to get out of there when I saw that green flare. It was someone gauging the distance for the mortar rounds. They were spotting us."
In the end the radio was destroyed and the Army seriously considered making me pay for it because it wasn't on me at the time. That radio did me a huge favor.
Levi: How did you become a writer, and which writers and books have inspired you the most?
Matthew: Obviously the writers that influenced me the most with this novel are all those creative writing instructors I've had over the years. Kevin Canty and Deirdre McNamer were highly inspirational when it came to the writing of the novel. I took a novel workshop with each of them at the University of Montana and they helped me tremendously. I really learned the workings of a novel from the two of them. Kevin was reading my stories and knew I was writing about war and he bought me a book for my 30th birthday, a copy of The Red Cavalry Stories by Isaac Babel. Kevin told me that if I wanted to write about the absurdity of war I needed to read Babel. He was right. But most of what I learned from Kevin and Dee, I learned from their writing.
I read James Crumley's One to Count Cadence right before I moved to Montana for my MFA. That's one of the most beautiful novels about war I've ever read. Then one afternoon in Missoula I'm drinking at a bar and in walks James Crumley. I couldn't muster the courage to go over and tell him how much that book meant to me, then my wife just walked over and introduced herself. I walked over and Jim and I hit it off immediately. That man taught me a lot about writing and being a writer over Coors at Charlie B's in Missoula. I heard him say two of the most beautiful things I've ever heard. Right after his great friend James Welch died, I walked into Charlie's and he was sitting at the end of the bar by himself. I sat down and I could see that he'd spent some time crying that day. Then he said about the loss of one of his greatest friends, "I feel like I've been gut-shot and left alone to die on a ridge."
The other is, and he said this to me just last night, he was telling me that he needs heart surgery soon. And he was explaining how he'll have to travel to Seattle for the surgery because the heart center in Missoula just doesn't have the right equipment. He said, "The irony is that my heart's too big." Jim has one of the greatest smiles ever. Big as a bear.
The other big one: Walter Kirn. Walter is a great friend. I first met him in a workshop he was teaching. People were offering up advice for a story when Walter stopped them and said, "You don't need a workshop, you need an editor." Walter asked to look at a draft of my novel. A week later he said he wanted to mail it to his editor at Doubleday. In my eyes Walter is a huge reason The Farther Shore was published. Walter was championing me when I needed it the most. And just like others, I learned even more from Walter when I started reading his books closer. All of his books are gorgeous. The man's a fucking genius. Let's just leave it at that.
Shakespeare and Dickens. I can't get enough of them. It's a wonderful moment when you connect with either of them, when you see the beauty and the anguish there.
The biggest influence for my next book has been my editor at Milkweed, Daniel Slager. Watching him edit The Farther Shore was absolutely beautiful. He found the heart of the novel and edited it true. Watching him help my novel and my writing taught me to appreciate the editor and writer relationship.
Levi: There have been several recent novels about Americans engaged in foreign wars, but yours seems to me the most minimalist, and the most intensely focused of all those I've read. Was this a desired effect? Does "stripped down" prose come naturally to you, or did you have to work hard to achieve this?
Matthew: I always knew that the novel had to be immediate and intense in order for the audience to go through all of the trials and tribulations with Stantz. I'd write those sentences out as long as possible and then edit them down. That's just Stantz's voice.
I like to write first paragraphs over and over. I like discovering the voice the novel needs. I like finding that key.
Levi: I could find very few explicit literary references in The Farther Shore, so I was pleased and surprised when one of your characters suddenly spoke about a classic writer who had been shocked on his wedding night to discover that women had pubic hair. What was Pre-Raphaelite John Ruskin, of all people, doing in Somalia? Do the Pre-Raphaelites have special significance to you, or to this story?
Matthew: That's great. When I was in Haiti an ex-girlfriend sent me some odd little book about sex and that was in there. You caught me on that one. The Pre-Raphaelites, I had to look at that one to spell it out. Perfect. One of the best questions ever.
I was glad to make Matthew laugh, but I still insist there is something about his book (tragic, strange, intense) that resonates well with the Pre-Raphaelite allusion. Please check back with the Litblog Co-op this week for much more coverage of Eck's fine new novel.'
Eco-Libris is a company created to help the book publishing industry adopt more environmentally aware practices. Activities include tree plantings in collaboration with organizations like RIPPLE Africa in countries like Malawi (shown in photo). I recently got a chance to ask the company's CEO, Raz Godelnik, a few questions.
Q: How did you first become involved in environmental causes, and how did you become involved in the specific cause behind Eco-Libris?
Raz: After I completed my MBA in Tel Aviv University, I worked as an economist and in several business development positions in high-tech and advertising industries. Following this, I served as an Advisor to Israel’s Minister of the Interior and worked on policy issues relating to foreign workers, refugees and citizenship which introduced him to social causes. It was very different from being an economist or in the high-tech industry. I felt like I was making a difference and doing something for the benefit of many groups that were, for lack of a better term, weaker groups in society. When I finished working at the ministry, I was determined to do something that would make a difference.
My interest in hemp and other environmental issues brought me to Hemper Jeans, an eco-fashion venture I co-founded that makes fashionable jeans from hemp, a more sustainable alternative to cotton. I also started writing about green business for a newspaper in Israel.
The idea of Eco-Libris started when I began thinking about paper and the environmental impacts of its production. I realized that it might take a while to get to the point where eco-friendly alternatives (from the use of recycled paper to e-books) will replace virgin paper. Then, I talked with some friends about the idea of giving people the opportunity to balance out their paper consumption by planting trees and received good feedback about it.
The decision to focus on books was made after learning that only about 5% of the paper used for printing books is made of recycled paper and because most books don’t have yet an online eco-friendly alternative (e-book), like magazines and newspapers. So, if you want a book, you usually can’t avoid purchasing the paper-made version, unless you go to the library or get it from websites like BookCrossing or BookMooch, which are all excellent choices. You also can’t tell people to stop reading books, so it seemed to me only natural to give book lovers a new alternative to make their reading habit greener -- planting trees for the books they read.
Q: I'm surprised to read on your website that even the "greenest" publishing companies don't often use recycled paper. What are the hurdles to overcome before this changes? Is there a visible difference when a book is printed on recycled paper that readers might resist? Or is it a matter of cost, or something else?
Raz: I know that it is common to think that the main problem is with the price, supply or quality of recycled paper, but I think this is not the main barrier -- recycled paper has achieved today a very high quality and it meets the same technical specifications and performs as well or even better in some cases than virgin paper. The cost is also more competitive than ever and even capacity is not an issue. Just look at the last Harry Potter that is a bestseller and was printed with partially or fully recycled paper worldwide.
Harry Potter is in my opinion a good example that this is mostly about awareness, will to make a change, vision and leadership. I definitely hope to see publishers follow this example and act to become greener. We also aim to become a strong voice of all the eco-conscious readers out there. I am positive that if publishers will know that many readers care about this issue, it will also contribute to move them towards printing books in an eco-friendly manner.
Q: Does Eco-Libris interact directly with publishing companies about these issues, and if so, at what level? What kind of response have you gotten from the publishing industry to your initiatives?
Raz: Yes, we certainly look to work with anyone involved in the book publishing industry, including bookstores, writers and publishers. We already correspond with few publishers and we receive very good feedbacks. There is more awareness to the impacts of printing books on the environment and to the need to make things differently. Our goal is to assist publishers to move in the green direction by balancing out books printed on virgin paper and increasing the awareness to the need to use more recycled paper. I see Eco-Libris as the first step towards sustainable reading and for many publishers looking to start making these steps, we're a perfect fit.
Q: To help put your company's mission into perspective, can you describe how the ecological impact of book publishing compares with, say, the ecological impact of newspapers and magazines, or (more broadly) of other industries more commonly discussed as environmental concerns, such as the automotive industry, the construction industry, etc.?
Raz: Deforestation is a significant contributor to climate change. If you look at the last IPCC report that was published this month, you can see that it is responsible for 17.4% of GHG emissions. Only energy supply and industry contribute more. You asked about cars - well, transport contributes 13.1%. Forests have also other important ecological functions, and anyone who is interested to learn more about this issue, the damages created by deforestation and the need in reforestation is invited to check out the Billion Tree Campaign of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).
The paper industry on all its uses (books, newspapers, catalogs, etc.) is a large consumer of the trees cut down worldwide. Just one example - 65% of the trees cut down in the Boreal Forest in Canada are used to make paper - 80% of it goes to U.S. consumers.
Q: I've noticed that your website doesn't address the ecological difference between hardcover and paperback book publishing. Also, what about the industry's "peculiar tradition" of printing and shipping huge runs of potential bestsellers, which are more often than not shipped back and pulped? Shouldn't we examine whether or not publishers like Random House are printing (and then destroying) far more books than they can sell before we call them "green"?
Raz: There are many issues related to the book publishing industry that have environmental impacts. Eco-Libris is focused on the usage of virgin paper for printing as we see it as the most significant issue. It doesn't mean that improvements shouldn't be made in regards with other problems like the current wasteful working models. On the contrary. Still, I think you would agree with me that the materials books are made from are the basic layer of the industry -- take care of it and you got yourself an healthy foundation that can guide to more changes on the way to making this industry eventually environmental friendly.