I write a lot about the writing before I ever start a scene. Right now I’m in a new novel and I have 138 pages of writing but no novel. No scenes. I have written an ending, but chances are it won’t be the final ending. I always write an ending first because the ending is a template for the opening. The novel comes out of the writing about the characters and what they want. To me, all characters are consumed by three things: Want, Need, Can’t. If I can find out what a character wants, I can translate that into story. If I know what a character needs, I have a handle on the psychology and the structure of mind. If I know what the character can’t have, I get a feeling for action, because of the Antagonist—the character who wants what the protagonist wants and so you have conflict and conflict leads to one of two resolutions: either the protagonist (I use that instead of Hero just to be contrary) clams up, closes up and lets the bad guy tromp all over her or she stands up and nocks an arrow in her bow and kills the son of a bitch.
To me, story is a competition for a resource base, and fiction is the artful infusion of the past into the narrative present. This means that I have to know a lot about the characters, so I write about them—where they were born, what kind of ice cream they liked as a kid, how they dressed, how their mother mistreated them, how their father raped them, how that uncle destroyed their innocence. Then, that done, you have a pretty good start on dialogue. How? “Where did you get that scar?” Joe asks Ellen. “I don’t want to talk about it,” she says. Okay, now we have the secret that Joe will do his damnedest to ferret out, and Ellen will fight tong and hammer not to reveal it. So the past comes into the present and through revelation the story gets told. The resource base is that secret. Story is competition for a resource base (the resource base can, of course, be more complex—money, land, even a jeweled falcon from Charles V to the Knights Templar). Joe in the end knows that Ellen’s scar came from that violent encounter with the uncle in the basement when he ripped off her crucifix and cut her with a chisel. Joe either accepts Ellen’s ravishment and loves her to death or he abandons her as impure, unclean, damaged. I have two collections of short stories, several screenplays, and a dozen novels and every story gets the same treatment. Without that process, the characters are empty and uninteresting. I’ll come back to character later in this interview.
Poetry is another beast altogether. In my early work, I wrote in meter and rhyme. I did not know what a poem was and so continued for a long time working the traditional veins. Later, I came to understand something of the Zen of poetry and so started looking deeper into the craft and came up with a set of guidelines—can’t call them rules, because if you disavow rhyme and meter, there are no rules, but there can still be structure. The first techniques I came to understand were these: Music first; breath second; rhythm and beat third; story last. You can see that this is the opposite of fiction where the first element wants to be Story followed by Structure followed by Style. Once the traditional shell was cracked, I got into vowel harmony and from vowel harmony I came to understand the notion of the transposition doublet which is akin to assonance. For example in breathless, the lead poem in Satori, poems you find this:
Seventeen and dreaming,
Bill Hansen and I flew up 99
in a Ford Fairlane—holy barbarians
who craved a satori that never came.
We carved our way out of the valley to the Bay
where the rhythms of poetry
were a junkie’s waking visions
his veins choked with banned chemicals
where spaced out garbage men
thrashed through cannabis hallucinations
of cruel women in black stockings and turtlenecks
women who never said yes
women who smoked and always said maybe
If you read those lines sotto voce you read story—it’s a journey—but that’s the final form. If you read the lines aloud, you’ll hear things, for instance the vowel harmony of –teen and dream; you’ll hear the alliteration of flew-Ford-Fairlane; you’ll hear the leonine rime of way-Bay; you’ll see the transposition doublet craved-carved; you’ll hear the rhythm of repetition where-where; women-women-women; you’ll hear the polarity never-always.
As I wrote more poetry, I developed an esthetic focused more on language and its rhythms than on the story of the poem. I asked myself these questions: Is there an esthetic base we can use, or has the notion of free verse broken us loose so that each poet has a poetics that serves that poet alone? Rather than sit down with pen and “critique” holding to some phantom notion of “poem” can you start with a set of elements and write from it?
But that left me asking the questions—where does a poem start and how does it start?
Learn how to wait.
Quiet the noise.
Sing the vowels
Poetry is pre-linguistic.
Language is a vehicle for capturing emotion
Freedom without discipline is chaos
Energy is language working for you
Patience is killing your ego
Patience plus energy equal discipline
Energy plus discipline equal power
Power plus strength equal grace
Grace is the goal of our writing
The universe is one long poem, and each poet gets a moment, a piece of it from time to time. It doesn’t matter which part of it you are working on at a given moment, which poem, because each one is just part of the larger fabric, given to you to work out in detail. Once it is given to you, the great poem abandons you, says I don’t care what you do now. If you fall on your face, it’s because you don’t have the skill to take the given and do something with it.
In all writing, Discipline is the poet’s obligation to the gift. Music first.
What role do you think fiction plays in contemporary society?
It’s massive if you think of films as fiction. The way I see it, films have rewired our brains to expect a certain sequence in the story line. We are more Aristotelian than ever—three acts, violent action rising to a climax, catharsis—turn off the idiot-box and go have a beer. What we as novelists can learn from the screenwriters is that time is money. What we as novelists don’t learn from the screenwriters is the Mantra of Movieland: stories are told with action and image. The perfect movie is silent. The basic unit of story is the scene. So, get into a scene late, get out early, enter as close to the climax as possible. Don’t waste words. Words are time. Time is money.
Let’s break it down into two categories—entertainment and education. Education—what the European writers call the bildungsroman, what we now call the “coming of age” novel—showing the enlightenment of the hero is now defunct in the novel because of the democratization of experience. Your ignorance is as good as my knowledge, so there is no learning left.
The death of the literary novel lies in the success of the money-time complex we call blockbusters. Entertainment—we are entertained by blowing shit up and killing. Two areas of contemporary fiction interest me—not as a writer but as an observer of culture. A friend of mine just returned from a year in the Balkans. The first words I heard from him were, “America’s primary export is violence.” Okay, so how do we, as novelists, fit into that? In the classical world, violence was always off stage. If you ever saw killing, there wasn’t much blood, but you did see the aftermath and the effect. Now, in this, the Age of Torture and Excess, we see it all. The knife goes in, the carotid artery spurts blood for miles in all directions, the electric shock is applied, the screams give us chills and the blood fills our eyes. When you, as novelist, try to tame that pack of wild horses, you better be ready to self-publish, because you don’t stand a chance. Misguided realism is ruining us at the same time it is preparing us for Armageddon.
The second area that interests me is the paranormal—by that I mean zombies and vampires. I do not understand vampires, but I have a pretty good feel for zombies. It goes like this—fear and collapse. In a way, it starts with the Trojan War and The Iliad. Inside that wooden horse, there is disaster. You let it in, and you’re dead. The Greeks break into the closed circle called Troy carrying destruction, and they kill just about everyone. End of Troy. Collapse. Zombies are an apt metaphor for the modern world where our greatest fears are 1) fear of infection; 2) fear of invasion; and 3) fear of collapse. Zombie-land is always about survival against great odds. In zombie-world, society and civilization are on the verge of total collapse. The writers who succeed in writing zombieish are telling us that we are about finished as a race and that extinction is just a bite away—and it’s our own fault. The zomboid writers show us with the veneer stripped way, the bare wood showing, and our evolutionary truths revealed—we become prey once again. Civilization is a thing of the past and all that’s left is the Tribe. The Unlucky Few who survive. So where does that leave us? Writing the dead genres such as mystery novels and romance? Writing another zombie-blood orgy? How about a good torture movie? The big question for me is: Can there be a non-filmic writing that makes any sense? I’ll come back to that question later.
Most American men put off growing up as long as possible. We hate to let go of our adolescence and so we look back on it with nostalgia which becomes a metaphor for the lost innocence of America and the breakdown of the American dream. We call them The Boys of Summer because they are perpetual hope even though we know that by early Fall, all the dreams but two will be shattered.
I don’t like to repeat myself. Every novel has its own language and style.
In the Quartet, I was as interested in the language as I was in the story so each book has its own style. In Trio, the final book, I wanted to write a novel whose style was the absence of style. Doing that lets you write as close to emotion as you can get because you don’t let language get in the way. The task in Trio was to write without using the word feeling except in a concrete sense—feel the floor, the skin. Sort of like trying to write a novel without using the letter E the way Georges Perec did.
I turned away from the repeating character model when the books were taking shape. I knew I didn’t want the long character arc, but instead imagined what I call Aging the Archetype as a device. This idea gave me freedom to do with time what I wanted so the novels in the Quartet are not chronological but develop their own time and place. Only the Archetype matters. The Quartet works this way: in The Deification, a lost boy living on the street, dreams of becoming a poet. In Valley Boy, you see teenagers at the mercy of the world—they have no idea what’s going on, they don’t have the rules they need to become men and so they make horrendous mistakes knowing they will end up in the same place their fathers did. In The Book of Changes, the boys have become young men acquiring life-tools and as they age, they face all the cruelty and loss that comes with the abandoned adolescence and the wicked truth. In Trio of Lost Souls, the boys have aged into young men and the young men have grown old. They understand life, they have the tools they need and they no longer let life act on them. They become the decision makers. And they are capable. They are flawed, they have been hurt, and their dreams have cost them, they are on the verge of destruction, but they still know they can do more. Trio has a socialist subtext in which the characters recognize that together they can do more than any one of them can manage alone. Trio is the most political of the Quartet. The arc for the Quartet then is from going it alone to understanding that you can’t do it alone. In America, despite the Horatio Alger myth, there are no self-made men. The idea is that the novels have a ring of truth without being factual. Realism is factual and if you obey the maxim write what you know, your novel will tend to be autobiography. I did not want to write a memoir or an autobiography. The characters are not just phases of me.
In Blood and Gabriela and The Widow there is an entirely different way of looking at the novel.
Your characters are very complicated, something most writers struggle with, what advice do you have (or what techniques do you use) to create characters with substance?
I’ll give you a list of what I look for when I’m working. I think that the character with substance is always vulnerable and wounded. The deeper the wound the more complex the character. A wound, coupled with character flaw, gives you a human character. The more obvious the wound, the more likely the reader is to identify with the character.
Pain, shame, guilt, and betrayal. Getting to know the character’s shame and guilt leads you to the essential element of dramatic conflict that all stories must have in order to engage the reader.
I read a novel a while back called The Pilot’s Wife. In that novel the Pilot is guilty of adultery, fathering a child out of wedlock, lying to his wife, betraying his daughter and wife, cheating, stealing, and concealing it all (his humongous Secret). His is a dense packet of drama waiting to be revealed.
Because the Pilot has betrayed his wife, and because she discovers his betrayal, she lives in anguish. A sympathetic or rich character has a history of anguish. If in your writing about the writing you find out what causes your character’s anguish and then ask what makes her happy you get a simple polarity of character emotions that spins out into an array of traits and possibilities.
If you write about your character in the past and then in the present and then the future, you deepen character and you introduce aspects of plotting. What will become of her? Will she find happiness? Defeat? Plotting a future for your character gives you a handle on the narrative present.
Betrayal: How many times has your character been betrayed? How deep is the betrayal? Who? When? Why? How deep is the wound?
Shame: What is she ashamed of?
Want, Need, Can’t:
Want. What does your character want?
Need. What does she need?
Can’t. What can’t she have?
Thwarting Desire and Plot: Because human beings react to being thwarted, Desire always leads to Action. Action is what characters do to achieve their wants, to satisfy their needs. Plot can be defined as what your characters do to get control of what they want. How does your character react when she finds out she can’t have what she wants?
Denial: Denial leads to action. Action leads to pain. Who gets hurt?
Need merging into Obsession: What does your character need? A hundred thousand bucks a year? New wardrobe every six months? A new house? How strong is that need? Is it strong enough to become an obsession? When need becomes an obsession, need melds into drive. Need is the deep, inner aspect of character that cannot be ignored.
The Driven Character: How driven is your character? What will she do to get what she wants? Murder? Steal? Cheat? Betray her husband? lover? children? mother? What will she do when her drive is deflected or even betrayed?
Joining Need to Want and Can’t: When your characters have needs and wants but can’t gratify or satisfy them, you have an equation that screams for Action. Action is what your character does to meet her needs, to get what she wants. Does your character want to be wanted? Are there layers of want? Why does your character need to be wanted? Deepen need and want and can’t with shame, guilt and betrayal and you have character traits that will engage your reader.
Doubt, the Forgotten Element. What does your character doubt? Her abilities? Her sexuality? Her intelligence? Doubt always leads to hesitation—that moment before she pulls the trigger, slashes off her hair, slices her wrist. Doubt is the powerful inhibitor of action. Because the character doubts his physical prowess, he fails to engage the villain in combat. Failing combat, she loses the battle. Losing the battle leads her to the brink of death. Doubt is serious business in fiction.
Childhood and Buried Need: How deeply buried in the character’s childhood is your character’s need? Can we see the buried need erupting in her present life? What caused that need? Who buried it? Why was it buried?
Summary: The coupling of want, need, can’t, guilt, shame, betrayal, and doubt lets you explore action, psychology, and plot. How does plot hook to need and want and can’t? Plot is what characters do when need and want become obsessions.
Character and Plot. Plot means story, story means competition for a resource base. Resource Base means what characters want or –what they don’t want the others to have.
What is your internal editor most likely to say to you as you work though a first draft? What do you do to either silence him, or make him work for you?
Before I answer your question about the internal editor, let me say that in the computer age, I’m not sure what a first draft is so let me ask you a couple of questions—is the first draft your first cut at a piece still with the vernix on it—raw, untamed, slippery, breathing and maybe alive? Is it the first beginning-to-end run through with mistakes and lousy writing and sentences that don’t work? Is it the first readable piece that you give to a beta reader for suggestions? In the computer age with word processors and editors, story software, final draft software, outline software, Don’t Kill the Cat thinking you can change a piece with search and replace, move stuff around, delete whole chapters. And you have grammar/spell checks, so what is the first draft? In my writing world, a first draft—the one I hand to a reader—might be the fifteenth working of the story.
Your readers probably have never struggled with a typewriter, carbons, worn out ribbons, white-out, erasers, scissors and glue. Those were the tools of the pre-computer age writer. If you had to make revisions, you often had to retype an entire page. You could cut and paste and then retype but clean hard copy was hard to come by if you were a hunt and peck typist and it was all hard copy. Often the weight of the white-out corrections added half a pound to the bulk of a novel. In the typewriter world, the first draft was a real thing that had already walked through fire, had mud slung at it, been tinkered with leaving the fewest number of words it took to tell the story.
Now on to the internal editor—she never talks to me because I put her to sleep using a timed writing technique. Timed writing—writing for a set period of time using a kitchen timer, pen to paper. I let the internal editor doze while the clock ticks and I tune into the matrix where all the good stuff hides. I pull it out of the unconscious mind already loaded with archetypes and archetypal patterns. I tell her that discipline is the writer’s obligation to the gift, and my discipline is in the timed writing with these principles—I’d call them rules, but there are very few rules in writing, the main one of which is Make it Sing—Keep the hand moving; don’t cross out anything; take what comes; go deep; go crazy on the page; shoot the moon in every writing; leave nothing in the well (that from Annie Dillard); don’t listen to the screech of Monkey Mind (that from Natalie Goldberg); forget good grammar; let the language bleed through the end of the pen; write what you don’t know; take risks and chances; write wicked shit in fragments without thought and know this—no matter what, you will never be in this place again. Timed writing is a river and you can never stand in the same river twice. That’s what I tell the internal editor. Once the story has a shape, she takes a vacation and the discipline takes over. Remember that discipline is the writer’s obligation to the gift.
What are you working on now?
After answering the first five questions, I should give you the expected answer—another novel. A long novel. A novel within a novel. But as a literary novelist working in the shadow of Zombieism and Vampirism, as a writer working outside the standard genres—mystery, romance, time travel, adventure and all the gazillion sub-genres—I’ve come to an impasse and I’m tired of the standard stuff. The formulas of the age have worn me down—three acts, fifty scenes, character arcs, snappy dialogue, do this-do that, try this-this is the way to, scenes stop time, narration compresses or amplifies it…Writing a novel is not a cake mix. Writing is far too important to be turned into a recipe. Let me go back to Question Two where I talked about films rewiring our brains for certain expectations. That has left us in the grasp of the Reader who says give me what I want or I’ll put your book down and never finish it. Readers, as victims of film’s success, ask novelists to perform like trained seals and if we don’t do that, we have no readers. So where do we end up? Back to the educational vision of the novel—all experience is valid, no one has anything new to say, all the stories have been told, we’re on the verge of extinction so we repeat and repeat and tell the same story over and over. And believe me, Fifty Shades of Gray is already contained in Les cent-vingt journées de Sodom from the pen of the Marquis de Sade.
Last year I met a novelist named Dennis Must. He’s the author of Hush Now, Don’t Explain, and The World’s Smallest Bible. Dennis doesn’t break all the rules, but he writes glorious prose and the prose in his novels set me to thinking that what I want to do is work out a new definition of fiction. Earlier I said that fiction is the artful infusion of the past into the narrative present. I said write about the writing. I said create the complex character, I said…
What if you reject the Dictatorship of the Reader? What if you reject all the Do Thises? Literary fiction is dead, so what do I have to lose by falling over the edge and leaving the safety net behind? What would post-filmic fiction look like? What would it do? How would you do it? Would it be readable? You can’t go back to Dickens or Austen. You can’t go back to Fennimore Cooper. They are the refuge of the disillusioned, victims themselves of the anti-fuckism dictates of the culture police and the language suppressors so you have to go on, go forward, you have to search out the language for another way to achieve story. And that means you have to redefine fiction.
So, I’m writing a novel with the working title of Desire. Within Desire there is a novel called Citadel. Within Citadel, there is a novella called Women in Captivity. Am I simply wrapping three three act novels into one and calling it new? No. The question in all of fiction is two–fold: Point of View and Time. Who tells the story and what happens to time. Time is structure. If you use time instead of Plot Points (the marks of the three-act play) to anchor the novel then the three novels are released into some kind of non-linear development and each can develop its own impulse. Has it been done before? Some of it. But then everything has already been done and that gets me to the question of Story Limitation and the ability of the human brain to devise anything new. Yep. Redefining fiction is going to take a lot of work. But then, as I found when I abandoned rhyme and meter in poetry—there is a way.
Final Words of Wisdom
Practice timed writing; give up your computer; put your pen to paper; get in touch with the paper; talk to your characters, make them talk to you. People will think you’re crazy, but you know that you are because you’re already making up shit. A story can be true without being factual. Write what you don’t know. If you write only what you know, you’ve already limited yourself. Go where the characters take you. This advice is as old as writing.