Thursday, July 2, 2015

Part II : About Writing Fiction: Carl & Mark's dual interview

Red Eyes / Max, the blind guy
Writing novels absorbs an enormous amount of time, effort, and dedication. The overwhelming majority of writers never get rich or famous. Most of us have day jobs to pay the bills. You may ask why we do it. Why do we spend our spare time bent over a keyboard, or staring off into space building plots and characters?

Because we must. Passion not placated will eat you alive.

How does one go about writing a novel? What's the process? There are as many answers as there are writers. A few weeks ago, Mark Beyer approached me with an idea he had for a dual interview -- a glimpse behind the curtain. Two curtains, his and mine. Mark and I have been friends for a couple of years now, though we've never met. We write with different styles, we live half a world apart, but we've read each other's work and we share a deep appreciation for the written word.

A few days ago, Mark posted Part I of this interview on his blog, BIBLIOGRIND, Adventures in Writing, Reading & Book Culture. Today I follow with Part II. What's next? Anything's possible.

Thus begins Part II


1.    Tell us the challenge you work through to find the center of a relationship (man-woman; father-son; mother-daughter; friend-friend, et cetera) in your stories.

CARL: I think the biggest challenge is in getting the characters to react differently than I would react were I in their situation. Second is in getting them to react differently than each other. It’s so easy to let your characters mirror each other, so I have to be careful. Relationships are as much about how people deal with the other person’s flaws as with the things they find attractive.

MARK: I’m simple in nature (and action) but complex in thought. In other words, I think before I speak. That helps with relationships of any sort, but particularly the love-lust sort. Fortunately, I’ve found someone who shares those symptoms (and who is actually better at it than me). So we did the next best thing: we got married.


2.    What type of books do you read most, and has that changed since you started writing your own novels?

CARL: I mostly read biographies and historical non-fiction. Writing has changed my reading habits significantly. For one thing, I have so little time for reading, and for the other, I find it almost impossible to switch off the editor when I’m reading now. Before I started writing, I read mostly classic literature because I really disliked almost everything I found on the New Release shelf.

MARK: My love for books and passion for good story has led me on as complicated a path as the stories I now write: I used to read genre fiction – sci-fi, horror, detective, historical, true-crime, mystery, espionage, to name a few – but then, at about age 30, I returned to classic literature, reading the Russians, the French, the Germans, the English, the North & South of the Americas, et cetera. I had discovered that books about relationships (b/w men & women, but also between people and society, work, government, or whatever else) had a far stronger draw to me. That, and the fact that I wanted to create art, not merely write fiction. Now I’ve backed off and can enjoy a Beach Book almost as much as Coetze or Roth, Zadie Smith or Marylin Robinson, Knausgaard or Houllebecq, Mantel or Naipaul.

From the writer’s perspective, I believe – as I’ve learned through action – that when you read good sentences, you write them; and if you read poor sentences (have you been able to get through even one insipid paragraph of Fifty Shades, or Dan Brown’s nonsense characterization?) then you will inevitably write poor sentences. This is not elitism, or even taste; this is aesthetics, grace, a love for language.

3.    Who are your literary forebears that have influenced your writing?

CARL: James Fenimore Cooper, specifically THE PIONEERS, for the way he could take a page to paint a single movement and leave you wanting more of it. You do that, Mark, and I’ve always loved that type of narration, though it’s so unlike my own writing style. William Faulkner, because he was from Oxford, Mississippi, less than an hour from where I grew up. I’ve never been able to complete a Faulkner novel (I’ve tried), but I remember as a boy always being told that the only thing a Mississippi boy could become was an electrician or construction worker, or some other blue collar job. Worse, I remember believing it, even though all I wanted to do was write novels. Then, somewhere around the fifth grade, our class took a field trip to Oxford to tour William Faulkner’s home. I’d never heard of him before, and it was a turning point in my life because I knew it was possible. That may sound silly, but it was a very important thing to me. Then, later, John Grisham, also from Oxford, broke onto the scene, like lightning striking twice. John Steinbeck, because of the way he could paint a character so real you would catch yourself wondering what they were doing weeks after finishing the book. Lastly, Stephen King because of the sheer volume of material he pumped out. I’m not a fan of horror, but I absolutely loved THE STAND (the unabridged version).

MARK: Margaret Atwood, Norman Rush, and Iris Murdoch helped me to see more deeply (than my own experience) into the female mind, in terms of how to work them in the shadows of a story and bring them into the light. Writers as diverse as Nabokov, Roth, DeLillo, Eudora Welty, and V.S. Naipaul have influenced my narrative construction. As far as digging deeply into the human psyche, there is Nabokov, Dostoevsky, Murdoch, Roth, Naipaul, and Dickens.

4.    What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was most destructive?

CARL: Practice, practice, practice. If I have one talent, I think it’s in being able to look at something I’ve written and say it’s crap, or that it doesn’t belong in that particular book. I’ve done some of my best writing with the delete key. The most destructive thing was early on, when I was desperate to learn how I was “supposed to write”, joining some of the writer groups online and falling for the “never do this, always do that” mantra so many writers were regurgitating. It infuriates me when someone says it’s not possible to write a good book unless you do x, y, or z. It finally dawned on me that I had never heard of a single one of these writers before joining the group. Basically, they preached mediocrity. Write to the template. I hate templates.

MARK: Reading has helped me the most, and then emulation: of sentences, paragraphs, pace, character portrayal, even vocabulary. On the other hand, teachers and “methodology” had, for a time, put themselves in the way. Attending school was, mostly, a waste of time; I had already known the important parts of storytelling, which I only needed to practice. On the other hand, getting an MFA has opened doors across the globe that would not have even shown themselves. The most useful thing for a writer is to have a friend or two who act as “first readers” and tell you what they could seeing working, and what they didn’t understand, about the story.

5.    What are some day jobs you have held? How has any influenced you as writer, or for a specific book?

CARL: I’ve had three jobs in my life. First, I worked as an electronics technician repairing cash registers, copy machines, and office equipment. It was my first real exposure to people outside my own circles. I quickly learned that many, many, people are assholes behind the curtain. I hated it. Second, I worked as an electrical maintenance technician in a tire plant. It was hot, brutally hot at times, and nasty work, but I enjoyed it and learned so many of the skills which brought me to the job I hold now. Third, now, I am a programmer for a systems integrator. We automate industrial processes. I enjoy that, too, though I wouldn’t mind falling into a full time writing gig. The job I have now involves a fair amount of travel, so I’ve gotten to see different places, different cultures, and dispel the myth that there are no rednecks north of the Mason Dixon line.

MARK: I’ve worked with words and language for my entire working life (even as a paperboy!), first in advertising, then in publishing (textbooks, careers books, and library curriculum-related books, including history, the sciences, sports how-tos, biography), and as a writer of books, journalism (literary and art reviews; news features and travel). Now I teach English as a Second Language to European business professionals; I’m a “Language Consultant” more than a teacher, and I enjoy it. The most effect these jobs have had on my writing is in having discovered so many different people to use as characters; a colorful, mellifluous, malodorous band of humans any writer would be happy to meet … and then grind up for story.

6.    ONE FOR CARL: As of today, you've written four books in four years -- successful stories, and well received -- but you're not a "young Turk" writer. Where have you been keeping your talents?

CARL: As I’ve said many times, I “knew” I would write novels when I was five. My memory of that is very distinct. I suppose it just took me a very long time to actually do it. I had a lot of things to sort out, and I was so brutally impatient that I couldn’t imagine starting something I couldn’t finish in a day or two, so I put it off. I never once stopped “knowing” I would do it. Now here’s where I may sound a bit off kilter: I was so certain I would write novels that I bounced through life thinking nothing could happen to me because I hadn’t fulfilled my purpose yet. One day I looked around and realized I was 40, and decided I’d better stop daydreaming and actually put my shoulder to it. It took much longer than I ever imagined, because it was much harder than I ever imagined. In some ways I wish I had started sooner, but the simple truth of the matter is I wasn’t ready yet. I didn’t have the kind of stories in me that I needed to write.


7.    What cultural value do you see in writing/reading/storytelling/etc.?

CARL: Reading probably saved my life a time or two because it allowed me to escape reality when life grew heavy. Books are where I discovered at a young age that I wasn’t alone in the things I thought, or the feelings I had (some of which scared me). Storytelling has great value to me because my mother’s side of the family had some gifted storytellers who influenced me quite a bit, though I didn’t realize it at the time. My uncle Charles, for example, showed me that you can tell tragic stories (he was a rifleman in Vietnam) with humor and sarcasm. Sad stories don’t have to be sad to get the message across. Writing is a way for me to give back.

MARK: Any artistic craft is a study in the self, be it society-self or family-self or political-self or TV-watching-self or art-self or individual-self. I think that when people deliver themselves to art, in any form, they accept a challenge to look inward. That kind of relationship invigorates humanity; this is needed more today than in the last 200 years, I believe.

8.    ONE FOR CARL: Your newest novel, RED EYES, is the sequel to THE NIGHT TRAIN. What were your goals and intentions in this book, and how well do you feel you’ve achieved them?

CARL: A couple of schools that I know of use THE NIGHT TRAIN as part of their curriculum, so I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to speak to some of those classes. After the first event, every single student in the class wrote me a letter asking me to write a sequel. Every time I spoke to a class, several of the kids asked for a sequel. People sent emails, Facebook messages, and even a few phone calls asking me to do a sequel. I resisted because sequels so often fall short. When I finally decided to do it, I wanted it to be a stand-alone book that complimented, but didn’t rely on, the original. I think … hope … I accomplished that. One thing I did fail on, though, is that I fully intended to write a book free of any bad language so those kids could read it in class. One of the teachers, after reading RED EYES, said she didn’t think she could read it to her class because of the language. She asked why. I told her I tried, but the characters refused to listen to me, and that’s the truth.

9.    What do you think most characterizes your writing?

CARL: Reality, I hope. I write about fictional people in real-life struggles.

MARK: The status of a relationship over time. I think most people take this for granted, especially when it relates to family. But any relationship (friendships) has two sides, and both sides must be active for that relationship to last.

10.   ONE FOR MARK: What one message do you hope your readers take from Max, The Blind Guy?

MARK: If there are some temptations you are able to resist, then you’ll be able to see yourself in a wholly unique way as you lead yourself towards an inevitable death.


11.   What are you working on now? Where has the story come from?

CARL: I'm 40k words into a novel about a writer who has come home to his mother's funeral with two failed novels (after three best-sellers) and a pending divorce weighing him down. He hopes to spend a few days enjoying his local celebrity status, but the discovery of a mysterious trunk in his mother's attic turns everything on its head. It's different from my other books, mostly in the fact that the characters aren't Southern (I actually don't identify the location). Of course it could be completely different two months from now.

MARK: I am working on the narrative voice and characters for a novel about a person’s life, as it moves forward, long after being involved in a school shooting (hint: not as a victim). It’s also the story between Earnest and Charlotte, and why men and women do as they do. I found this story within The American Experience.

* * *

To read Part I of this interview, click here.

Mark's new novel is now on sale: “Max, the blind guy” is the story of Max and Greta Ruth, their 40-year relationship, and all the demons that show up as they find that life rarely goes according to plan. This book is available in print at and the digital edition is available as a serialized novel— 12 parts, published every fourth week. Come by MarkBeyer : Author to read an excerpt that you won’t find at on-line bookshops.
What Beauty was published in 2012. It’s a story of art, obsession and ego. Read an excerpt here. It’s available as an ebook, too.
The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.
Carl has four novels, all available in e-book and paperback. His first, The Night Train, is the story of Jayrod Nash, a boy tragically abused by his father, neglected by his mother, and bullied at school. When he and his only friend, Arnold, stow away aboard a freight train, they fall into the hands of a hobo named Farley, who guides them on a cross-country adventure that forces them to become men.
Norton Road, published in 2013, is the story of Oscar "Pap" Jones, an eccentric old man who declares war on the furniture factory next door to his rural Mississippi home. Leading a series of after-hours raids, he forces his nemesis -- the county's most elite citizen -- to hire an unscrupulous security guard to protect his business interests, resulting in a deadly feud that rocks the community.
Blinders, published in 2014, follows Dale Criss as he steps out of Parchman Penitentiary determined to avenge the wrongful conviction that cost him twenty-five years, but the people who think him guilty have ideas of their own.
Red Eyes, published in 2015, is the sequel to The Night Train, and finds Farley Milo living in Atlanta as a fry cook going by the name of Frank Mayo. When an old acquaintance shows up with information on the abduction of one of the boys he traveled with in The Night Train, Frank is reunited with Jayrod and lured into a cross-country game of cat and mouse.

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