Could you describe your creative process on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how did you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
When I started "The Great American Suction", back in 2009, I had a vague motivation to write about the Rust-Belt cities and towns I’ve lived in for much of my life, and to capture – in language and character and event – some of their texture and clang, the grit and grime and, also, the energetic weirdness and bleak comedy that animate these places and the people who are marooned in them. At some point, I realized I wanted to glaze all this with a layer of tenderness. Not sappiness, not sentimentality. More like the gentle, slow-cooked perseverance that sometimes emerges midlife, mid-catastrophe, if you are lucky.
That was the original urge. Then I spent almost ten years getting it all wrong – so, so, so wrong. After enough revision, and long spells of setting the book aside and returning to it refreshed, without fluster, it became wrong in the right kind of way.
Observation and research are often quoted as important elements of the writing process. Can you tell us a bit about your perspective on them?
My preferred mode of reconnaissance is to wake up, stumble from bed to desk, desk to office, office to home, the whole time trying to sidestep the human wreckage that still somehow manages to walk upright in the street: faded debutantes nursing deep grudges and regrets, disillusioned hotdog vendors, grandparents at the post office who are mailing letters to estranged children or deceased spouses or maybe themselves, everybody meek with defeat. In other words, I stay out of the library, except when I want to look at a broken grandma or two. Sometimes, I’ll harvest a few random ideas from newspaper headlines, until I remember a thousand other writers are scanning the same headlines, poaching the same muzzy ideas, so I put the newspaper away.
In general, I write what I don’t know, what I don’t want to know, what I’m incapable of knowing. If I had to inventory the tools involved, spread them out on the workbench, they would look something like: befuddlement, curiosity, awe, misunderstanding, wryness and skepticism, overdue generosity, much dread. Having informed opinions and a nuanced comprehension of the world-at-large are wonderful traits for a citizen, even if they’re pretty much impossible to attain. But art? Art vibrates at its own weird frequency, and much of the time, the signal comes from the fried wires and overloaded circuitry between our ears, i.e., our daily failure to accurately process or interpret the absolutely bonkers shit that happens to us and the people around us, constantly, from cradle to coffin. And it helps to see how a lot of this confusion is rather lovely, even sorta funny.
How do you see the relationship between conscious planning and tapping into the subconscious; between improvisation and composition? When dealing with the end of a story, for example, do you tend to minutely map it out or follow the logic of the narrative as it unfolds itself?
Cause and effect will always get you to the end of a story. But sometimes that mousetrap logic can feel too rote, the outcome too predictable. I like stories that are more jagged and disorienting, almost cubist, in their architecture. What they lack in resolution, they pay back in suspense, panic, and a mystification that is evergreen. I’m a poor planner anyway. Everything starts, for me at least, as harmless improv. You flounder forward until you arrive somewhere interesting, then you edit out the bad bits and pretend this is the place you intended to go all along. “Wasn’t I so clever?” you say, and change the subject before anyone can answer.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I don’t know why, but the notion of “being creative” mortifies me. This is probably another form of knee-jerk contrarianism or some Catholic hang-up on my part. That shy arrogance again. I don’t have any occult rituals or grand strategies, only practical concerns: finding the time, the energy, the quiet.
Morning is best because I’m still half-submerged in the bog of sleep. The dream residue – feverish images, sunspots, the mind’s white noise – all that stuff still clings to the surface. Just as importantly, in the early hours, my private reserve of language hasn’t been corrupted by the ham-fisted rhetoric of mass communication: TV chatter, social media preening, the hash-tag sloganeering of think pieces and opinion pages. These things can corrupt your writing with clichés, banalities, petty judgements, all manner of evil sorcery and obvious thought. Also, they are incredibly tempting to indulge in, and I am a total sucker for the distraction.
What are the most important conclusions you've drawn from the changes in the publishing landscape? How do they affect your writing? What role do social media play for your approach?
Some part of me will always experience a giddy thrill watching traditional corporate structures topple and burn. The problem is a lot of decent folks and smaller, adjacent operations end up getting pancaked in the collapse. Thankfully, there’s a thriving ecosystem of independent publishers, writers, savants, schemers, to keep things interesting. Much of indie publishing is wonderful and inspiring, and much of it is just as crass and opportunistic as corporate publishing.
Social media is useful, of course, but it makes me feel like a shill, and I don’t like feeling like a shill. Sometimes it’s really hard to tell exactly whom I’m shilling for.
These days, nobody is absolved from the hustle. Indie writers sheepishly vying for attention. Established authors backed by large publishing houses and publicity machinery. Everyone is expected to participate in the grotesquerie of self-marketing, self-promotion. There are worse tragedies, for sure, than treating yourself like a merkin with a “For Sale” sign. We are all free agents now, at the mercy of our own shabby devices.
Literature works with sense impressions in a different way than the other arts. How do you use them in your writing? From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I am biased towards a kind of tactile language that, in the words of the great fiction writer Gari Lutz, hugs the page. I want the prose to impart sense and clarity and a clean line of action, the usual furniture, but also a riotous sonic throb that is felt deep in the reader’s organs, a shake in the blood. And each sentence needs its own particular shape and ballast that holds the eye.
I’m sure it is tedious listening to writers drone on and on about language, same as hearing a painter rhapsodize about oils and acrylics or a sous chef geeking out about spice. But materials matter. Matter matters. You can try to do all sorts of inventive things with plot, structure, character arc, and so on, but rickety writing will negate it all.
As a reader, the cumulative sensory experience lights up every loose synapse and dead spot in me, every bankrupt brain cell, of which, trust me, I don’t have many to spare.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I fumble blindly about, shut-eyed in the dark, without shame or malice or accountability, groping at crusty wallpaper, randomly flipping switches. Hopefully a light bulb somewhere turns on. But I’ll never see it.
If we’re talking about specific political intent, well, a writer’s politics always seep into the work, along with all their other half-baked philosophies and superstitions. That’s why overtly political art has always struck me as redundant. Also, greatly inefficient and ineffective. If you want to be a source of enlightenment and moral clarity for the general population, there are far more productive avenues than novels, films, paintings, needlepoint, etc. I sometimes wonder if woodworkers or basket weavers spend much time pondering the political ramifications of their craft. And what kind of person gets their political wisdom from fiction anyway? Readers of Ayn Rand? Horrifying.
Despite the radical experiments of the 20th century, the basic concept of writing and storytelling is still intact. Do you have a vision of literature, an idea of what it could be beyond its current form?
I’m afraid I’m too near-sighted for any bold visions or clairvoyance. But I will say the books that often feel most forward-leaning and exhilarating to me aren’t the new, supposedly edgy titles that rack up praise and accolades and listicle mentions. Rather, it is always some old tome from forty or sixty or eighty years ago – chockfull of fusty ideas and archaic phrases, outmoded strategies, quaint mannerisms – that paradoxically feels strange and invigorating.
Every art form is always tottering between exhaustion and innovation. That push-pull is a fruitful tension. I never see any reason to worry. Then again, I can’t really see much because my eyesight isn’t for shit.