Wednesday, April 20, 2005
A conversation with . . .
At one time,
|Conversations: Looking back|
|More arts talk|
How did you get into writing?
I got my M.F.A. from
Has it been pretty successful?
I think so, I mean I’m not retiring … but yeah, I think it’s done all right. … It’s done especially well in the Southeast.
I’m reading your book right now, almost done. Which is really saying something for me. The only books I think I’ve actually finished all the way through in the last five years are "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and "The Clown."
"One Hundred Years of Solitude" is a great book. Well, that’s an honor.
I really like the book. Within one page you’ve already created a real character who exists on the page.
He’s a little bit smart-alecky, but he’s not the worst guy in the world.
He’s somebody who you can’t help but like.
The mean stuff is stuff he thinks. … He’s kind of in a bit of a rut, and whoever’s been in a rut can identify with him a little bit, I think.
One thing I particularly enjoyed about it is, you have a lot of really honest exposing moments, where he looks like this pitiful young boy that we all act like a lot of times. And some of the sexual stuff to me is particularly cool. In movies, for example, how often do you see a male with sexual hang-ups? If they do they’re all so easy to fix.
What are his sexual hang-ups?
He doesn’t have hang-ups about sex itself, but he uses sex the same way that he uses booze or whatever.
Yeah, there’s some empty moments sometimes. … He’s like, "Yeah this is empty, but it’s still probably better than watching TV."
But they’re both probably still on the same plane in terms of motivation.
One of the things that’s hard about first-person narration, and one of the things that’s cool about first-person narration, is that I’m hoping that readers can tell that he’s not telling you everything he thinks. Just because it’s first-person doesn’t mean you reveal everything. I think in a lot of ways his actions are a direct result of dire circumstances. … He’s probably having his mid-life crisis about eight years earlier than some.
Chasing some comfort or another.
We’re catching him at his absolute worst. He’s been a better person, a more civilized person. And he will be again. But right now he is just doing whatever he can to avoid thinking about how crazy his life is. … I’d say it’s, what, 80 percent comedy and 20 percent serious, or maybe 90 / 10? Comedy is very hard to talk about, so almost all the reviews have said, "This is a really funny book," and then they’ll start talking about, "This guy’s down and out, he’s recently divorced," and it doesn’t sound funny. I think a lot of humor comes during the times in our lives when things aren’t going that well. That gallows humor — I can either laugh or I can cry, but I gotta do something.
Is that the way that the words come out of you naturally, with a sort of dark humor? Writers tread that line with serious subject matter. The classic amateur thing that gives people away and makes their books suck is when they take themselves too seriously. Even if you’re totally right about everything, it just doesn’t work on a certain level.
Yeah. Wanting your readers too badly to think what you want them to think is one of the cardinal mistakes of writing. You just have to present your characters and let them be real people. … You know, "Hamlet" is one of the greatest tragedies, and there are still a lot of funny parts in "Hamlet." … It’s hard to maintain that same serious tension. Readers need peaks and valleys. I never intend to write a serious book. The serious stuff kind of came accidentally. My whole intent was to write the funniest book I could. I didn’t care if it had a plot, I didn’t care if it had a theme. I was just trying to write and make myself laugh.
And that probably frees you up. Any meaning that people do glean from it, it’s meaning that comes out of the character in a very realistic way.
Yeah that’s exactly it. Do not worry about scenes, do not worry about symbol. … You start trying to premeditate that stuff, it’s gonna be stiff and your characters aren’t gonna be real people. … My first book had some comedic moments, but it was basically serious, and I thought, I just can’t do that again. And I never thought the book ["Wonderdog"] would get published, so I just let it rip. … And so I was pretty surprised that it did get published, to be honest.
How did it get started? Did you have a story line worked out, and characters?
I’ll tell you exactly how it started. I was in graduate school, and all my friends were reading John Grisham. It was when "The Firm" first came out and it was really hot. And they were all saying, "Man you gotta write like John Grisham, this is awesome, this is awesome." And I’ve got nothing against John Grisham, but I just don’t write like that. … That’s harder than people realize, to come up with those really intricate plots. So just to be ornery, I wrote down the line, "Like everyone else in the world I am a lawyer."
Which ended up being the first line in the book.
I thought, that’s a pretty good line, that’s pretty funny, so I just kept that in my pocket for about five years. And after I wrote that line, I started thinking that I had forgotten that I had actually applied to law school my senior year in college and gotten in. And then I started thinking of what kind of lawyer I would have been. And then it just went from there.
So it came from a lines and a few ideas, and it went from there.
I just followed the character where he wanted to go. I had very little premeditation. In my first book I cut 180 pages, this book I cut close to 100 pages. So I go down some long roads. I do a lot of editing after I write the first draft. I write the first draft just to see where the story wants to go.