“a murder-mystery set against the world of rock n’ roll. But not just any rock star is knocking on heaven’s door. The murdered rock legend is none other than Bob Dorian.
Suspects? Tons of them.
The only problem is they’re all characters in Bob’s songs. Not to mention they all hold a grudge.” [from his blog]
1. A good writer is like a sponge, some would say. What influences, growing up, shaped you into the writer you are today?
I probably have Ms. Pierce, my third grade teacher, to thank, or berate—depending on how you look at it—for my affinity for absorption. It’s funny. Most kids in elementary school hate writing essays, terms papers and so on. But I loved those things. I’d plan for them weeks in advance, diligently marking the due dates on my calendar, always leaving time for several drafts. I guess even as a kid in fourth and fifth grade, Ms Pierce instilled the importance of rewriting. For me, writing has been more than simple observation and absorption. It’s problem solving. Whether it’s writing advertising copy, political direct mail, screenplays, novels—all of which I have done since leaving Ms. Pierce’s class—writing is a way to step back and give some perspective. And, if you’re lucky, occasionally you get some wonderful results.
2. If you had to pick three writers, each from a different medium to cite as your mentor, who would they be? Why?
I’ve always been fond of saying: “I don’t read fiction; my life is interesting enough as it is.” The irony, however, is that when I’m asked to name one, much less three, non-fiction writers I can’t think of a single name. So when confronted with this question, it only calls attention to the fact that most of the writers I admire are, in fact, fiction writers. So who are they? Well, let’s see. I love Thomas Wolfe—that’s Look Homeward, Angel Wolfe, not Bonfire of the Vanities Wolfe. Some people have criticized the former Tom Wolfe’s writing as verbose and longwinded. Personally, I think the lyrical beauty of his prose is mesmerizing. On the other side of that coin, I am amazed how Kurt Vonnegut is able to so skillfully, and precisely, point out the absurdities of life. No one is going to ever peg Vonnegut as someone who talks around the issue. And, of course, I’ve always been partial to a good mystery. My favorites are by Agatha Christie. I know she’s not as ‘sexy’ as say Dan Brown or Michael Crichton, but I’ve always been more attracted to intrigue than action. So let’s see—that’s southern fiction, social satire and mystery. Apparently, I need to reassess my earlier statement. I guess I do read my share of fiction, after all.
3. What’s your writing routine like?
(a) I’m always writing (more on that in question #6), but in terms of sitting down and actually staring at the blank screen, I do it in the morning. Typically, I wait for my wife to go to work. And then, when I know I have the whole house to myself, I start sticking the bamboo shoots under my fingernails. I’m kidding. I usually work from an outline, and I typically have a word count. A thousand, fifteen hundred words a day is ambitious, but doable. At that rate, I can have a first draft of a novel in three and a half, four months. I’m told Hemingway used to stop in the middle of a sentence so he could ‘pick it up’ the next day. I stop when I write my thousand words, and when I am ‘out of the scene,’ so to speak. I hate leaving things unresolved, which is exactly what Hemingway was doing by stopping mid-sentence. I also understand Hemingway used to rewrite what he wrote the previous day before he started anew. I rarely go back and revise during a first draft. That’s what an outline is for. I also listen to music when I write. Mostly jazz. I tried listening to Dylan when I was writing Blood on the Tracks since the murdered rock star was inspired by a Dylanesque character. But I kept finding myself actually listening to the songs, trying to figure them out. So I went back to Coltrane.
(b) I had bought “The Heavyweight Champion: The Complete Atlantic Recordings” at a yard sale. Never listened to Coltrane before. Put that six disc set on heavy rotation. That was the core. But of course he recorded for other labels, so I went to the library and started to listen to all the stuff with Miles Davis, etc. So no one album in particular…though ‘Giant Steps’ is a great one. As is ‘Ole.’
4. How do you approach new material? What set of criteria do you check with to conclude “yes, there’s a book in this’?
I approach all material differently. Some stories are scripts; some stories novels. I imagine some material might be great fodder for a short story, but I don’t think I’ve written a short story since I was in the third grade. Since you asked about novels, however, I’ll address that one. In a perfect world, the novel is the true haven for a writer. He or she can go in any direction they wish. Digressions are welcomed, even encouraged. The novel is unique in that way. Scripts are very formulaic. If you go off on a tangent, you loose your audience. Books are different. You can put them down, think about the direction the story has taken, then pick up the book and start again later. I say in a ‘perfect world’ because that’s the way novels should be. That’s the way the ‘classics’ I read in grade school where written. Sadly, that’s not how most writers conceive their stories today. They think of their novels as the ‘source material’ for film. Can you imagine if James Joyce or García Márquez selected their material based on how it would translate to film? It would be a very long film or a very short book. Either way, the story would suffer. Now, I’m not so shortsighted as to think that novels should be absent of a ‘hook.’ Having a central idea around which the material revolves is paramount. But some stories are just inherently visual. Those are better served by film. And there are ideas that have a central premise that attracts and sustains the reader’s interest but benefit from more thorough, thoughtful rumination. That’s a novel. It’s a tall order, I know, but the later—a story that attracts you instantly and keeps your attention for four, five hundred pages—that’s what I’m looking for when I’m thing about my next book.
5. What’s your take on writer’s block? If you have faced it yourself, how do you overcome it?
In addition to being a writer, I also teach writing. As a result, I not only have to deal with my own apprehensions about sitting down every day and doing the ‘heavy lifting,’ I have to deal with a room full of writers who occasionally hit that wall as well. Here’s what I tell them. I think it’s important that you sit down every day at your computer and ‘write.’ I put the word ‘write’ in quotations because the word is misleading. It implies that when you are sitting in front of the computer you are actually typing words, and those words are appearing on the screen before you. That’s not always going to happen. And when the words don’t come, I’ll be the first to admit it’s one of the most excruciating experiences you can encounter. But if you have committed yourself to an hour, you have to sit there for an hour and deal with it. The reason? Because all of the barriers you are unable to get around at that moment will be worked out later in the most unsuspecting places: the shower, the car, in a conversation. A lot of writers say their writer’s block is overcome in dreams. I buy that. I buy it because you are always writing, whether you are physically engaged in the act or not. But the only way you can get around the wall is to hit it first. And it’s okay to hit it hard. You might get lucky and knock it over right then and there, and save yourself some sleepless nights in the process.
6. What surprised you most about the business of writing?
Having been in the entertainment business for many years now, the realization that publishing is a ‘business’ was not a major revelation. I had hoped that the commercialism would have been less invasive, but it’s called the publishing ‘business’ for a reason. But if it weren’t for the fact that my first novel wasn’t deemed ‘commercial’ enough, I’d have never written Blood on the Tracks. And trust me—a book about a murdered rock star in which all the suspects are characters from his songs certainly has more mass appeal than a 500-page tome about a three generations of a dysfunctional family set in the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina. So in the end, I think I benefited from what I initially saw as a setback.
7. Name 3 mistakes you find new writers make and how would you advise them?
Well, considering that Blood on the Tracks is my first published novel, I would imagine a lot of people might consider me a new writer. I don’t. I am a newly published writer…there’s a difference. And that’s exactly the advice I would give to anyone who wants to see their work in print. If you write, you are a writer. Period. And don’t ever let anyone tell you you’re not. Someone may not like what you write. They may not think they can sell what you write. Believe me, there’s no shortage of reasons someone might have for not wanting to publish you. But as long as you are writing, they can never tell you that you are not a writer. And with the advent of the Internet—not to mention the numerous other outlets available to writers now—you can put your work out there and find an audience. So my advice is two-fold. First and foremost, keep writing. Don’t stop, don’t question it, don’t stop doing it. Second, while you should always listen to criticism, never let anyone or anything they say stifle your creativity. At the end of the day, your creativity is your greatest asset. Don’t let anyone rob you of it before you have a chance to fully develop it.
8. Recommend a new writer to us and tell us why we should read his/her work.
My favorite ‘new’ writer is Jasper Fforde. He’s been writing for close to a decade now, but considering most of my other favorite authors have been dead longer than Jasper’s been alive, it’s all in the way you look at it, I guess. Anyway, Jasper writes these really cool books that incorporate fairy tale characters and figures from classical literature into his books. In fact, in many instances the characters he selects inform the plot itself. Jasper has accomplished the balance that I referred to earlier when you asked me how I approach material. His novels have a ‘hook’—something that attracts us to them—yet he infuses the story with a ‘take’ that makes us look at the expected in a new and unexpected way. So even though Jasper’s been writing for a while, his approach is remarkably refreshing.
9. How has the existence of your book, ‘Blood on the Tracks’ changed you as a person? What have you learned about you as a person during the course of writing this book?
Oddly enough, I didn’t have that cathartic, ‘I’m holding my book in my hands’ moment so many newly-published authors have when the book is finally published. I think that’s largely because I’d already seen the cover, seen the page layout, seen all the elements of the book as it was being put together. So I think that ‘wow’ moment was largely reserved for my friends, family and colleagues. For me, hearing them say, ‘I’m holding your book in my hands’—that was the real reward.
10. What have you learned not to do as a writer over the years?
Answer too many questions.
Blood On The Tracks will be featured at LA’s Skirball Cultural Center bookstore during the upcoming Bob Dylan’s American Journey, 1956-66: Feb 8 – June 8, 2008.