Friday, 9 December 2011

Dancing With Myself: CE LAWRENCE interviews CE LAWRENCE

Big news from me today is that you can get a free copy of 'Beat On The Brat (and other stories)' if you pop over to Blasted Heath.  It's a 24 hour offer that's not to be missed.

Just to remind you that the title story was nominated for Spinetingler's Best Online earlier this year and was the winner of the Watery Grave Invitational comptetion in 2010.  'Too Much Too Young' managed a place in this year's contest, 'Mind Your Step' appeared in Microw and 'Hoodwinked' (one of my favourites) was up at the excellent 'All Due Respect' in March.  There are a few other treats in there, too, so if you feel so inclined, pop over and get yourself a Friday Freebie treat.

Still unsure?  Here's what Heath Lowrance (author, 'The Bastard Hand) said:

'BEAT ON THE BRAT is Nigel Bird's second collection of stories, and it's nice to see that he lives up to the high standards he set with DIRTY OLD TOWN. What makes this collection work, aside from Bird's deft hand at pacing and creating believable, sympathetic characters, is the touching sense of humanity that shines through all of them. These are stories that make you feel pain, heartache, hope, fear. His characters really feel like real people, and reading BEAT ON THE BRAT connects you to them on a level that will startle you.'

And now, talking about her work, CE Lawrence.  Welcome to the dance.

Q: Why did you decide to tackle books about serial killers?

A: I’ve always been interested in hidden behavior, in people’s dark side, perhaps in part because in my family no one was supposed to have a dark side. These things were never talked about, so that made me even more curious. Also, I think most writers have a natural interest in psychology, in human behavior, and what can be more intriguing to a writer than extreme behavior? And it seems to me that serial killers are about as extreme as it gets.

Q: Is that why you wrote chapters from the killer’s perspective?

A: Yes. I think it would be very challenging but almost impossible to write a book in which the killer is the protagonist. It was done in American Psycho, of course, but not entirely successfully, I think. So I knew the killer couldn’t be the hero, but I wanted to explore his mind in some way, so I came up with idea of having very short chapters from his point of view. I’m not sure if I succeeded, but I wanted to try to “get inside the murderer,” in Chesterton’s famous phrase.

Q: Why create a protagonist who suffers from depression? Weren’t you afraid that would turn readers away?

A: I was actually given advice early on that I should stay away from having a “damaged” hero, that readers would want a kind of “super-hero” detective, but I believe that damaged heroes are the only interesting kind (a lot of so-called “super-heroes” are damaged, after all: Superman is an orphan and an alien on a strange planet, and Batman is a weirdo with a bat fetish.) Also, we’re all damaged by the time we reach adulthood, some more than others, of course – but I feel that suffering and loss are two of life’s constants, and that depression is a very real and understandable reaction to the shock of living, what Shakespeare so memorably called life’s “slings and arrows.” And I think a lot more people suffer or have suffered from various degrees of depression than we probably realize. And when I wrote the book I had recently been through my own bout of clinical depression.
Q: What kind of research did you do for this book?

A: I have a huge library of forensic books of all kinds, from “Dead Men Do Tell Tales” by Michael Baden to “Forensics of Fingerprints Analysis.” I spent a lot of nights reading and taking notes – and, of course, there are some wonderful shows on television – Forensic Files, American Justice, 48 Hours, and so on. You can get all kinds of plot ideas from those shows, which are about real crimes and real people. I’ve been studying forensic psychology for some time through books, and I also took a graduate course at John Jay College for Criminal Justice, taught by Dr. Lewis Schlesinger.

He was kind enough to let me audit the class, which was excellent, and also gave me his very informative and scholarly textbook, Sexual Homicide, which was one of the textbooks for that class. Interestingly, most of the students were women – and I found it interesting that they often sat there calmly eating their lunch as we passed around horrific crime scene photographs. The men in the class seemed more disturbed by it than the women did. The research I did for this book was nowhere near as challenging as the research I did for my physics play – for about a year I read physics books nonstop. It was really fun, but after a while, my head was spinning with quarks and muons and neutrinos!
Q: What was the most difficult thing about writing this book?

A: Plot. Plot, plot, plot . . . did I mention plot? Or, as Robert McKee would say, story. It was for this book and every other book I’ve ever written. I think any writer who claims that plots come easily to him/her is either a liar or a fool. It’s a bitch and a struggle and that saying about characters “writing their own stories” is pure nonsense. Oh, you can get away with that in a short story, sure, where you have only one event and one through line. But in a novel, where there are plots and subplots and multiple characters and 400 plus pages to fill with twists and surprises, you bloody well better put your plotting hat on and keep it on until your forehead bleeds, or you’re not doing your job. You have to keep coming up with ways to thicken the plot and twist it and turn the story and make it unexpected without making it feel contrived . . . that is never pretty and it’s never, ever easy.
You know the genre of movie where the hero has cornered the villain in a warehouse, and there are all these barrels around and the bad guy picks one up and throws it at the hero, and he ducks, and the villain throws another one and he jumps over it, and so on? Well, you have to keep throwing barrels at your hero. And then you have to find new ways for him to jump out of the way. Your arms get really tired, and your brain starts to hurt, and you really want to stop, but you have to keep throwing those barrels. You have to make choices that seem original and surprising but are in keeping with the logic of the story. I care a lot about writing style, and graceful prose, but all the pretty writing in the world won’t hide a soft spot in your story.
Q: Did you have any “Aha!” moments while working on this particular book?

A: Funny you should ask. I did, as a matter of fact. I had created a character and I wasn’t sure what to do with him. I wasn’t even sure how important he was going to be to the story. But I just kept turning him around in my head, looking at him from different angles. I think people (and characters) are kind of like jewels – they reflect light differently depending on what angle you’re viewing them from.
Then one day I took a “plot nap.”

I lie on the couch with a notebook next to me, close my eyes and see what pops up. And that character was sort of swimming around in my brain – then, suddenly, I knew why he was in the story. Those are the fun moments. The not so fun ones are where you sweat and strain and think until your brain hurts (one of my favorite Monty Python phrases) but still get no solutions.

I think sometimes that so-called “writer’s block” is when writers try to hard to figure out the answer right now – sometimes you have to let them come to you; you can’t always get there by chasing after inspiration. That’s why we have so many memorable breakthrough when we’re doing anything but writing. You have to do the work – or, as my friend Don Lipper says, Ass in the Chair – but you have to be open to inspiration hitting at the oddest times.

Q: Such as?
A: I once had a truly classic “Aha!” moment. I was resident at Byrdcliffe Arts Colony in Woodstock, and I had just started out on a jog from my cabin on a beautiful evening in mid-July. All of a sudden it hit me: I realized what the book needed was a major twist at the end, and I knew at that moment what the twist had to be. I had been working on this particular book for over two years, and I hadn’t seen it until that very moment. I remember the exact spot on Byrdcliffe Road where I was when it came to me – like a bolt out of the blue. But at the same time I realized that it was as though I had set the twist up all along; I didn’t have to change anything in the rest of the book. It was as if my unconscious mind had been setting it up the whole time; once I saw it, it seemed not only logical but inevitable. And yet it was invisible to me until that moment. As Geoffrey Rush says in Shakespeare in Love, “It’s a mystery.”

Q: Why do you think that is?

A: Well, my mind was relaxed. The very act of running always jolts something loose in my brain. I would get my best ideas while jogging or mountain climbing or riding my bike up there. Of course, I was engaged all day long in struggling with the problems of writing the book, so my brain was “primed,” as it were, to come up with solutions, but I was always struck by how those solutions would present themselves at the most unexpected time – in this case, I didn’t even know I was looking for a big twist at the end until it popped into my head. But the minute it did, there was no question about it: I recognized the rightness of it.
Q: How do you balance being a novelist and playwright? Is it hard moving back and forth?

A: Actually, I find it refreshing. I feel like some stories are just begging to be plays, while others really need the pages of a novel in order to be properly explored. And then others strike me as screenplays. For instance, I just finished a screenplay about magicians. The title is The Assistant.

Q: Doesn’t each form have its own challenges?

A: Absolutely. For example, transition in a screenplay is a whole different technique than transition in a novel, or even a play. But I find it stimulating to move between the different forms. In a novel you have so much space – you can gas on about this and that (within reason, of course), whereas a screenplay is like an epic poem – so condensed, so streamlined. It’s story in its most essential form. And you have to think visually, which is great discipline for someone like me. I think one of the greatest dangers to a writer, who by definition is someone who loves language, is to be “drunk with words.” Look out – danger, Will Robinson! That can lead to undisciplined, flaccid writing. Screenplay forces you out of that really quickly – you’re always looking how to condense, condense, condense. And when you’re writing a play you have to show everything through dialogue and character interaction – I think it helps you to write better scenes when you’re working in prose fiction. You try to make your dialogue character-specific and pithy, just as you would in writing a play.
Q: You write music, too, isn’t that right?
A: Yes. I was trained as a classical pianist and singer, and Anthony Moore, my boyfriend at the time, was a composer. (His great uncle was Douglas Moore, the opera composer). Tony had a show done at Yale School of Drama, and he taught me how to do music manuscript so I could help him transcribe songs. One day about a year later I decided to write a musical, a kind of Faustian tale, and I just sat down at my piano and wrote a song. I called him out at his house in Cutchogue and played it for him over the phone. There was this long silence and I thought he hated it, but then he said, “That’s really good. It’s really interesting.” And I knew it was something I could do.
I grew up playing the Great Composers, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, etc., so it never occurred to me until then that was something I could do. I thought they lived on a whole other plane of existence – which was only reinforced by my classical training. I never studied theory or anything like that, but when Tony said he liked my song, I knew it was something I could do. He is a very gifted composer, so I trusted his judgment. And the only thing I enjoy more than writing is writing music. It is an amazingly joyous and completely engaging, sensual thing to do. I’ve written four complete musicals and am working on a new one, 31 Bond Street, about a real life murder that took place in the 19th century on Bond Street in New York. It was the O.J. Simpson of its time – a media circus, and was referred to as The Crime of the Century. Jack Finney has written a very good nonfiction book about it called “Forgotten News: The Crime of the Century and Other Lost Stories.”
Q: You mentioned Shakespeare a couple of times. Anything special you’d like to say about him?
A: Oh, well, you know, he’s the Big Kahuna, isn’t he? What can you say . . . the man wrote the most exquisite poetry, dealt with The Big Questions in a way rarely equaled. My only consolation is that he wrote some real stinkers. The Merry Wives of Windsor is a wretched, boring play. Thank god.


  1. Interesting interview, we'd love to see one of her plays or musicals! Quite a prolific author for someone so young....

  2. Thank you, Aunt Katie! I appreciate your reading my blog. It's harder than ever to get plays (and especially musicals) produced these days, but if you know any angels, I know a lot of actors! ( :