I don't want to take up too much time here, because today's interview is rather fine.
I'm going to direct you to Paul D Brazill to see what the news is. I'll be updating when time allows.
Thanks to Paul for taking the time.
And now, with All Due Respect, here's Alec.
Q: Let’s not wallow in bullshit. This is you asking you questions about you. It’s not an interview so much as a kind of aesthetic psychoanalysis. At a writer’s conference last summer, one of your co-writers interviewed you and referred to you as a ‘free spirit.’ I know, for a fact, that didn’t sit well with you. Regardless, you carry on, even as you approach the age of forty, as though you were some kind of rebel. How has that worked out for you?
A: As most probably know, the more you resist the tides of society, the farther you will be pushed to the margins. In our capitalist society, the easiest way to shut up anybody who complains too much is to keep him or her poor. There was a time in this country when truly radical ideas and creations accidentally caught on with the masses and the creators were able to live comfortably. Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, for instance. Catcher in the Rye, as clichéd as it seems now, is another example of a book that should not have become popular with the masses (I realize some might think this isn’t true, but think again. Art can be great without being radical and that is, by and large, what the masses go for). Some of the most radical books ever written are now considered ‘classics,’ which I find interesting. Luckily for the status quo, nobody ever teaches a book like 1984 the way it was meant to be taught. There is something in the American character, traditionally, that yearns to see the status quo kicked in the ass. It was part of the national character from the very beginning when pesky writers questioned the treatment of the native tribes. It was part of the abolitionist movement. It fueled the labor movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The status quo put up with it as long as it remained a fancy of fiction. The moment real social movements are inspired by writers or other artists, watch out! They do crazy things like kill themselves with shotgun blasts to the backs of their heads.
A funny thing happened on the way to the present, though, and that funny thing was (and is) called “postmodernism.” In its endless drive to be cute and clever beyond comprehension, postmodernism, I believe, just about shut the door on truly creative and radical artists in the United States. Postmodernism has become a part of the status quo, co-opted to diffuse any revolutionary thought that might otherwise spring from it. The results of this phenomenon can be seen in a recent commercial in which a “punk” band is screaming out a generic punk song and the singer begins singing lyrics about how much he loves his bank. His producer tells him to stop it. Unfortunately, the demystification of radical art has already taken place before the producer character, with the commercial’s tongue firmly in its cheek, reminds the television viewing audience that Iggy Pop never gave a damn about his or anyone else’s bank. While we’re on the subject of Iggy Pop, his contribution to the great human resistance to oppression and imperialism was all but nullified the moment Nike ran ads using “Search and Destroy” as background music. That’s what happens to “rebels” now—they get the rug pulled from under them. As far as new, radical voices are concerned, they simply aren’t allowed to be heard by a significant, mass audience. The publishing industry might embrace a handful of writers, usually women and “minorities,” who complain just enough to make their work seem radical. But of course, if it were radical, you wouldn’t know about it (that’s not to say that there aren’t women or “minority” writers who are truly radical, they just have a hell of a time getting published). I’m suspicious of anything I see on television or in the movies that huddles under that absurd term, “edgy.” If it were truly “edgy,” it wouldn’t be on television today. It wouldn’t be playing at your local megaplex movie theater. The government and the media, just like us, are slaves to corporations who will tolerate absolutely nothing that might stir a real, evolutionary step towards human freedom and dignity. And that, my friend, is the role any rebel has always played and continues to play, even if it means getting published without getting paid and living in a one-room shithole of an apartment with rodents running around your feet while you write. So, to finally answer your question, how has being a “rebel” worked out for me? Exactly the way society intended. I’m poor and I’ll never shoot the shit with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show.
Q: I’m wondering if you could refrain from being so goddamn pretentious. You are basically a genre writer. What in the world is so radical about that?
A: If we examine literature and even other elements of culture and pop culture, I think we’ll find that the most radical ideas are flown in under the radar, usually disguised in a genre. A most obvious example of this would be Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone. In his famous interview with Mike Wallace he states that he is dressing thought-provoking subject matter up in science fiction and fantasy clothes. Those genres, as well as horror, are notorious for delivering radical ideas without being obvious (the better examples, that is). Crime fiction is capable of doing the same thing. When I say ‘crime fiction,’ I am not talking about detectives solving murders (though no one will deny Raymond Chandler’s books and stories were soaked in anti-social angst). I’m talking about scumbags like myself robbing and hurting people. More importantly, I’m talking about scumbags in positions of power who abuse their power. Lodged within those brutal acts are reasons that good writers quietly ask the reader to ponder long after the story is finished.
The writer I owe the most to in my thinking on this is Jim Thompson. Thompson was accused (rightfully so, oh by the way,) of being a ‘red’ back in the days when such people were demonized and sought for persecution by the government and elements in the publishing and broadcasting industries. We know Thompson was radical because Stanley Kubrick wouldn’t have worked with him otherwise. Because Thompson was dismissed by the mainstream media as a ‘lowly’ pulp fiction writer, his paperbacks sat on shelves in stores all over the country without ever really gaining the attention they deserved, both by those who would embrace Thompson’s brutally honest, cynical view of America, and those who despised his addiction to finding truth through fiction. The most important thing crime fiction does is shine a light on all the things the Norman Rockwell-arm of American society tries so desperately to hide. Poverty is the main issue. We live in a country that has three distinct classes (though we are getting dangerously close to having just two classes) and crime fiction makes this apparent. In the process, if it’s done properly, the reader will be forced to question certain economic fantasies the media insists on perpetuating (mostly because the media, at this point, only serves advertisers, not the other way around). So you ask how can genre fiction be radical? The real question is, how can genre fiction not be radical?
Q: I’m wondering if you can predict the weather with you snout hoisted so high in the sky? Some of your stories might tackle these issues, but for the most part they just seem to be celebrations of bad behavior. Let’s pretend, however, that you are as socially conscious as you seem to think, which comes first, the message or the story?
A: Of course the story comes first. If you write with the intent to pass on your opinion about some social or political issue, you are going to fail. Especially today. Postmodernism has made such overt gestures the joke that they are. There are some younger writers today who feel no shame wallowing in sentimentality, but I’m willing to bet they will all grow out of it. The magical thing I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that meaning reveals itself through revision. The more you revise a story, the more the story will tell you what is being said. At some point, you can tweak things so that the overall effect of the story veers in the direction it’s telling you it wants to go. I am constantly amazed at how different a story looks after six or seven revisions compared to what it looked like in my head when I first sat down to write it. An example would be a story I am still obsessively revising. It started as a regular crime story about a crooked preacher and turned into a (mostly) subtle delineation of recent American history, spotlighting the horrific turning back of the clock, socially, that occurred in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Now, that sounds heavy and, to use your (my) word, pretentious, but that’s what the story became and, save the very last line, I don’t think I ever beat the reader over the head with any particular message. The basic effect it should have on the reader is maybe making him or her taking a step back and examining some of modern American society’s basic, collective hypocrisies. My goal is always to entertain first, because that is the purpose of storytelling.
Q: Don’t hold that ego back, buddy, please. Could you explain how you go about making sure you entertain your readers?
A: I personally think it’s all in the writing. So many ‘big time’ established writers put out what I call ‘glacial prose.’ I’m sure they have a lot to say but I can’t get to the core of their ideas because their prose moves so slowly and, frankly, is stuffed with extraneous information that detracts from what they are trying to do. I don’t want to step on anybody’s toes so I won’t name particular writers (they all live in nice houses and drive nice cars and don’t have to have a nine-to-five because they make tons of money off of their best-selling novels and who the hell am I to shit on that?) I will say this—Last year I read Stephen King’s book On Writing. His advice to kill the adverbs in my writing was worth the price of admission. He was absolutely correct (whoops) and I think that’s just one little way my writing has improved since the time I read the book. But King also claims that one should examine the size of a paragraph in order to determine whether or not there are any good ideas in a piece of fiction. In other words, according to Stephen King, Raymond Carver must stink because his paragraphs rarely have more than two or three short sentences. Obviously, that’s absurd. Carver packed more information in one tiny sentence than most writers can get into an entire book. What would Hemingway say about King’s assessment of short paragraphs? He’d probably pick a fight with him. And make no mistake, I write today because when I was twelve I wanted to be the next Stephen King. I just happen to disagree that you need a whole lot of words to say a whole lot. Let us not forget the Nietzschian hierarchy of writers—The novelist is an embarrassment to the short story writer, who is an embarrassment to the poet. I’m not bashing novels, I just think the best writer requires the fewest amount of words. That kind of prose, I believe, makes for an easier, and thus, entertaining read.
Q: From the guy who doesn’t know how to answer a question in thirty seconds or less… Can we assume that your suspicion of the novel explains the lack of novels you have written, or can we just be honest and call it laziness?
A: It’s a mix. I’m sort of like Travis Bickle, only it’s not loneliness that “has followed me my whole life,” it’s laziness. I was a lazy little prick as a kid. I was a lazy student when I was younger. I was definitely a lazy writer. The adults all patted me on the head and said, “Oh, how talented he is,” and I got the idea that I didn’t have to do the work other writers did and do—Reading and writing all the time. I preferred reading comic books when I was a kid. I would pick up a Poe story or a Stephen King book here and there. For the most part, though, I hated reading until my late 20s when I was finally graduated from college and was able to choose what I read on my own. It was like an explosion. Now I can’t go a day without reading something. The same with my writing. When I was in high school I may have produced a whopping half a dozen stories throughout the entire four years. I was busy doing other things, of course, but I should have been writing every day and I wasn’t. Frankly, I admire people who write one novel after another. I get one chapter into a book I’ve planned out and get bored. It just seems to me that I’m adding 50,000 unnecessary words to a 2000 word short story. Maybe the ideas aren’t strong enough, I don’t know. Other times I think the problem is that I’m not yet forty-years-old, so what the hell could I have to write about? That’s all bullshit, though. If I were to be extremely honest here, we would see that my life, in spite of all the bitching and complaining I do, has been pretty interesting.
Q: Sweet Mary and Jesus, now you’re patting yourself on the back for having a haphazard, disorganized life? Let’s go ahead and be “extremely honest,” shall we? You spent eight years living out the life of the self-destructive artist. Then you sobered up. How does one life compare to the other? Is there anything beneficial to the self-destructive path?
A: There are two terrible, often deadly myths about being an artist. I’ve experienced them both. The first is the idea that you have to drink or do massive amounts of drugs to get to someplace where you can be truly creative. That’s nonsense. My years as an unsober gentleman produced some bizarre writing. I won’t deny that I loved getting wasted and sitting down at the old IBM computer and banging out hallucinogenic nonsense on whatever prehistoric word processor I was using. The sad truth is that I just wasn’t as productive as I could have been. In those days I was writing screenplays and I averaged one per year. Now, screenwriting is tailor-made for lazy writers. It’s just plain easy. There’s no reason anyone should take a year to write one script unless they are writing something that requires gobs of research. I wasn’t writing those kinds of scripts. The moment I was sober, my productivity tripled. By the early 2000s, I would say I wrote ten times as much as I did when I was all hazed-up. There’s the argument that quantity doesn’t matter if there is no quality, but I think without the practice of writing as much as possible, there never will be quality. For anyone reading this who might be dealing with issues of sobriety or its opposite, let me just pass this along—I never judge anyone caught in that life because, obviously, that would make me a hypocrite. I sobered up, cold turkey, shortly after I turned twenty-five. I had been wasted every single day for eight years and my brain let me know that it was going to shut down and exile my consciousness to la-la land for good if I didn’t stop. To paraphrase Iggy Pop, I had simply had enough. Immediately I had a sort of quarter-life crisis, thinking, for the first time since childhood, about my mortality. I housesat for an old couple and I told my concerns to the husband, who was 73 at the time. He thought it was pretty silly for a 25-year-old to be worried about death. He had fought in World War II and been a teacher for several decades afterwards. When he was in his fifties he started running marathons and was still running when he was 73. I’ll never forget what he said—He told me that he had lived a dozen different lifetimes and would live a few more before he passed on. I didn’t understand it at the time, but I get it now. In just under fifteen years of sobriety, I’ve gone from being a delivery truck driver who briefly played minor-league football to a movie director to a teacher right back to a college student. Sometimes it seems as if the years fly by, but the truth is, those have been long, adventurous years. I can’t say I would have gathered the experiences I have without being sober.
The second odious trap young artists can fall into is thinking that poverty and suffering are necessary to be a great artist. Absolute bullshit. After I sobered up, I lived in poverty (technically I’m still poor, but being in graduate school, I can hide from that particular reality). The lowest I got was living in what they call a ‘bachelor’s’ apartment in Koreatown, Los Angeles (one room, no kitchen). It was in a rundown art-deco number on Serrano Avenue. The walls were infested with rats and mice. The landlords didn’t care because the majority of the residents were illegal immigrants who couldn’t speak English and had no desire to rock the boat. I couldn’t afford a mattress so I slept on the floor. At night I would see these little critters roaming the floor looking for scraps of whatever shitty food I could afford. Aside from helping me understand exactly what it means to be poor, I can’t imagine that it was necessary for me to experience that in order to be a good writer. The poverty myth is perpetuated, as Charles Bukowski suggested, by the powers that be so that creative voices get lost in the ghettos of America and go unheard by the status quo. There is no dignity in suffering, only suffering.
Q: I’d like to thank you, at this point, for your brevity. You’ve mentioned Stephen King a couple of times. Your horror output has not, however, been overwhelming. As previously mentioned, your stories are mostly about bad behavior. Have you given up on the horror genre?
A: Certainly not. First of all, crime fiction and horror are not as separated as they might seem. Let’s not forget that the best EC comics were the horror and crime titles and often the stories in Crime SuspenStories could have fit right in with that old vault or crypt. The stories I usually write are not very different from the majority of the stories one might catch on an old episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, save the disclaimer at the end that those engaging in bad behavior were properly punished. Horror was my first love and will always hold a special place in my imagination. I love to be scared and if I can pass that on to other people, I will. The problem is that I think very little horror fiction is actually scary. It could just be that as an adult, things don’t scare me the way they did when I was a kid. I remember watching Frankenstein Create Woman when I was about eight-years-old and having vivid nightmares afterwards. I also remember reading a short story by Stephen King called The Boogeyman in the car on a family road trip and being creeped out right there in broad daylight. My dad used to read Poe stories to my brothers and me before putting us to sleep at night. What wonderful nightmares I had in those days! It’s difficult to find an idea today that will have that same effect. I don’t want to waste anyone’s time with a story that isn’t going to crawl into their brain and lay a nest of fear, so I just don’t tackle the genre very often. It sounds generic at this point to say so, but I also think that the state of the world is so absurd that it’s difficult to compete with anything you might see on the news. I saw Ray Bradbury speak at Butler University many years ago and he warned the audience to avoid local news broadcasts because, according to him, ‘they’ll go around the world to find a dead body.’ How can a writer compete with idiots out in the desert blowing themselves up to bang celestial virgins? How can a writer compete with some local idiot who shoots his entire family and then himself because his wife and kids wouldn’t shut up while he was trying to watch the Super Bowl? Most of the horror I read these days is just somebody attempting to shock me. That’s fine. Shocking is good, especially if there’s a purpose. But shocking me is not the same as scaring me.
Q: I can see you’re getting tired of talking about yourself. Let’s talk about some of the work you’ve done over the years. I mean real work. You’ve had at least a dozen different jobs throughout your life. What’s the point of jumping from one job to another?
A: Everything is about writing. Everything I do is designed to show me something in the world I haven’t seen before, or, at least, give me a better understanding of it. In 1995 I started watching football again, something I had done as a kid, with my dad. As I became interested in frying my brain in the late 1980s, I lost interest in football. The Indianapolis Colts had a bizarre, almost miracle season in 1995 and I took notice. I began to think, gee, if the loser Colts can turn things around, maybe I can turn my own life around. So I was grateful to football for giving me something new to waste my spare time with. Eventually I wanted to write about football and realized I had no experience actually playing the game (organized, official), so I joined the Indianapolis Warriors, a local minor league team. I didn’t last the entire season because my employer at the time made me choose between earning a paycheck driving a box truck or earning nothing but dislocated fingers and broken bones and concussions with the Warriors. That’s just an example of why I drift from one interest to the next. Jobs are kind of the same way. It’s easy to get trapped, however, because of the paycheck. I taught ESL for about eight years in Los Angeles because it was a high-paying part-time job that allowed me to pursue my other interests. At one point I decided I wanted to teach in a public school (mostly for health benefits, which the owners of the ESL schools in L.A. are too stingy to provide). I taught for just over a semester at Crenshaw High School in South L.A. If you want to see why it’s so difficult to create fictional horrors, talk to my students at Crenshaw. It’s tough for anyone in the middle class to imagine what it’s like to constantly fear that a car is going to roll up and someone is going to demand you tell them what ‘set’ you ‘represent.’ Doesn’t matter if you’re a quiet, disciplined student working like crazy to make sure you get to college. One of my students was beaten with a baseball bat into a coma. That was painful, to see someone so young destroyed like that. It was part of a profound emotional weight that came with that job. I could barely stand it. Public school teachers, I believe, have the most difficult job in this country (and are paid about one-tenth of what they deserve to be paid). I quit after a semester and decided to experience the corporate world by working for Farmer’s Insurance. Oh my brothers and sisters, I have never met a more lifeless, humorless, soulless group of materialist swine than I did at Farmer’s. I actually got fired from that job, which was fine by me. I suppose my experience at Farmer’s reinforced my opinion of the middle and upper classes. I had lunch with a group of my “colleagues” once and they began discussing how many millions of dollars they intended to make. I asked them, “How much more than a million dollars could you possibly need?” From then on, I felt like the Kevin McCarthy character in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. That was one place I most certainly did not and never will fit in. That was one of a few jobs I’ve tried that involved sitting for hours in a cubicle. Every one made me suicidal.
Q: So putting you in a cubicle is all we need to do to get rid of you? Duly noted. I notice you seem to harbor a lot of anger and resentment towards the upper classes. Are you a lousy communist, or just jealous?
A: That reminds me of a history class I took back in the mid-90s. The professor was introducing the French Revolution. He said something like, ‘it was your basic case of the haves vs. the have-nots.’ Some little spoiled-rotten yuppie girl in the front of the room raised her hand and said, in all seriousness, “Don’t you mean the haves and the wanna-haves?” If I hadn’t been so wasted at the time I would have picked her up, in her desk, and tossed her right out of the window. It’s funny how some people will always say, just like parrots who repeat what they’re taught to say, that communism is a good idea “on paper.” The truth is, capitalism is a good idea, on paper. If everyone had an equal opportunity to compete in the market, capitalism would be just fine. It would be a natural reflection of evolution. That said, I don’t subscribe to communism because I think it has just as many material trappings as capitalism. I do think that capitalism has reached that point Marx said it would, where it would destroy itself. We have now, in America and most industrial nations, what I would call ‘capitalist anarchy.’ The filthy rich just keep getting richer and the rest of us are asked to pay more and more for the basic things we need to live while our wages go down and down and down and, in many cases, our jobs disappear altogether. That’s a serious problem and if the filthy rich want to keep their heads attached to their necks, they better figure out a way to distribute the wealth just wee bit more fairly. Wanting to see everyone get an equal chance to compete for the pie, I believe, doesn’t make you a communist. It makes you a rational human being. Until things change for the better, I will continue to attack the upper classes in my fiction and I don’t give one goddamn if it rubs some people the wrong way. If I may quote Bob Marley, “This is not a joke.”
Q: Last question. Thank God. Why write? Why not go into politics, or social work, somewhere where closet-idealists like yourself can collect a paycheck and fool yourself into thinking you’re making a difference?
A: That’s such a cynical question I’m apt to believe I came up with it myself! My supervisor at Markey’s Audio/Video, a guy named Joe L_____, once tried to give me what he thought was helpful advice. Joe was a good guy, so I’m not trying to bash him here. He said to me, “Earn your money first, then you can worry about writing.” That was in 1999 and I was already living in poverty. I wrote every night for two hours no matter how tired I was from lifting two-hundred pound televisions and sound systems all day. I had been writing for as long as I could remember, even if it hadn’t always been disciplined writing. I thanked Joe for his advice and then explained, in these exact words: “Writing comes before breathing.” The question, “why write?” makes no sense to me. If it’s in you, it’s in you. There’s nothing you can do to stop it. If I’m homeless, I prick my finger and write stories in blood on hamburger wrappers I find in a dumpster. I’m sure any artist in any field feels the same way. There are some people who view writing as a hobby or a craft. They decide when they’re thirty or forty that they want to write. That’s fine. Some of them actually discover they have the talent. Some of them manage to land huge book contracts and can show me their middle-fingers as they drive by in their fancy cars while I’m waiting for the bus. Anyone who can just ‘walk away’ from writing, I believe, is not, was not, and never will be a writer. It’s like a disease. It’s in your blood and it isn’t going anywhere until they dump you in the dirt.
A hard-hitting interview, AC.ReplyDelete
Thanks, David. I know you have a lot going on these days so I appreciate your taking the time to read this.ReplyDelete
Communism and Capitalism are diagnoses, not prescriptions.ReplyDelete
What a pleasure. Wide ranging as an interview with Dr. Cornell West. A little to argue with (Hemingway's legendary brevity challenged by his 424 word sentence in Green Hills of Africa). Tons to agree with. All expressed with a vivid, life embracing style (yeah, life embracing. Anybody who cares that much -- whether he hides it under a lump of world weariness rebellion or not -- is life embracing). Thanks Nigel. Alec is a treat.ReplyDelete
Ironman, interesting comment.ReplyDelete
ajhayes, thanks for the kind comments. Raymond Carver also got, just slightly, more wordy in his last stories. Writers seem to be the opposite of musicians-- when musicians get old they stop playing every note in a song because they expect the audience to know it themselves. Writers seem to get the idea that they need to be more specific. Then again, maybe Carver's additional words may have been a result of his sobriety.
I'm guessing you don't want my investment advice.ReplyDelete
I don't know how I missed this extraordinary interview, but I'm so glad I caught up and found it. You've stated quite a bit here mister and its nice to see a writer with spunk and backbone. I agree with so much of what you've said, but will say I am surprised to discover nothing scares you. I wonder why this is. I understand that so much "horror" in screenplays and books these days is pushed in the shocking direction. Therefore nothing is shocking anymore. But really? Perhaps it is about resurrecting of walls and only letting so much get through. The goal of a horror writer is getting the readers guard down enough to let it get personal. When horror is personal, that's when it's scary. Rawr. ;-) In any case, love this self interview. Well done, sir.
Austin-- You probably ought to watch how I play poker before you try giving me investment advice!ReplyDelete
Jodi-- I'm intrigued (s.p.) by your comment about 'making it personal' in order for horror to work. I bet we could have a month-long symposium on the subject of horror and how to make it work. I'm going to think about what you wrote, though, and see if that doesn't change my approach to the genre.
You are probably right, Ac. And there is probably a happy a medium between both of our thoughts. I equally admire and appreciate what you have said. So touche'. ;-)ReplyDelete