Archive for the ‘interviews’ Category
When one hears the words “geek” and “dating” in a single sentence images of awkward guys wearing taped glasses, too-short pants, and pocket protectors come to mind. Most likely they’re inching towards a girl who’s out of their league and scurrying off just as she’s about to notice.
While it’s true that many geeks, whether self-professed or labeled by others, might need a bit more help than the average person when it comes to socializing, Eric Smith is optimistic. Smith, a geek of the self-professed sort, believes that geeks are well-prepared for dating and, to prove it, has written a guide specifically for this vibrant and varied subculture.
In The Geek’s Guide to Dating, Smith harnesses the innate passion that connects all geeks, whether they’re spending their paycheck at the record store, on video games, or the latest epic fantasy series.
For the release of his book, Eric and I chatted about the definition of “geek,” why they’re well-suited for romantic involvement, and gay geek culture.
Contextual Life: This is a basic question but I feel like you might have an interesting answer, what made you write The Geek’s Guide to Dating?
Eric Smith: Actually, the book idea came from Quirk’s publisher, Jason Rekulak. He’s one smart guy that loves pulling ideas out of thin air.
I’d been writing essays about the intersection of relationships and my geek life (a few of which you can see on the Bygone Bureau), as well as rambling about local geek culture on my blog here in Philadelphia, Geekadelphia. He encouraged me to take my love of all-that-is-geek and mash it together with a dating book, one that we’d potentially illustrate with 8-bit artwork.
It was a natural blending of interests for me, and incredibly fun to write.
CL: You’re the Social Media and Marketing Manager for Quirk. What did it feel like to write a book for your own company?
ES: It was interesting! I mean, how many authors get to see the day to day creation of their book? I got to see incredibly early artwork, the “dummies” (blank copies of the book) floating around the office, specifics about the print run, publicity updates right from my colleagues who sit next to me; all that good stuff. I even put my own book on the company’s website!
There were also some challenges though. I promote all our titles via our various social media accounts. On the blog, Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, you name it. I had to make sure I was balancing out promoting my book with everyone elses! It sounds silly, but it’s something I’ve been keeping very aware of. I adore all our authors, and I didn’t want them thinking I forgot about them.
CL: Another basic question, say we just met at a social gathering and I asked you to define “geek,” how would you answer?
ES: After I recovered from the shock that you didn’t know, possibly after sitting down and taking a deep breath, I’d explain that a geek is someone who is so invested in a hobby or a passion, that it becomes a part of their everyday life.
CL: In your book you differentiate between different types of geeks, which one are you?
ES: Me? I’m a video game geek and (much like yourself) a book geek. I’m the sort of guy who gets a kick out of midnight releases, takes days off to play new games, and plans evenings around gaming with friends on Xbox Live. I also love surrounding myself with books, from comics to classic literature. I spend a lot of time writing about both of those passions and love doing so.
CL: I’m so far out of the video game loop it’s not even funny. What kinds of games do you play and why?
ES: You know, it’s never too late to start a hobby that’s cripplingly addictive, Gab.
I really just love a game with a great story. Perhaps that’s my book geek shining through. Games that have epic narratives really get me excited to sit down and experience a new world. Some recent favorites include the Mass Effect series, Bioshock series (Infinite was incredible), and The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. I still haven’t stopped making “I took an arrow in the knee” jokes.
CL: We’re kids of the 80s so I have to ask, what was your favorite Atari game?
ES: The Halo series holds a special place in my heart. I’ll admit it, I’ve even read the Halo novels. I know, I know.
CL: You seem to believe geeks have an extraordinary amount of potential for dating. This is counterintuitive. What made you come to this conclusion?
ES: I’ve always felt like geeks are social creatures at heart. We thrive in communities where people share our interests.
I mean, just look at an event like San Diego Comic Con, DragonCon, or [Insert City, Video Game, or Genre] Con. We descend on those conventions en masse, eager to meet our peers and talk to the people who produce the things we love.
You can’t play Magic the Gathering or D&D without a bunch of friends. There’s no going raiding in World of Warcraft by yourself. I mean, I’m sure you could find a way. It’s just more fun with others.
CL: Speaking of Cons, what’s one of the best experiences you’ve had at one?
ES: Probably two years ago, when I went to Philadelphia Comic Con in my Master Chief suit for the first time. I’d never tried walking a convention floor in a costume before, and I was actually a little nervous that my armor wasn’t going to size up to the rest of the outfits there. My best friend Tim (who runs Geekadelphia with me), showed up in his Stormtrooper armor, and we made quite the pair, wandering the con together.
People stopped me every few feet to take a photo and it took me all afternoon to make it from one side of the convention to the other … and I loved it. We made so many people smile that day. Such a great, great feeling.
Also, the 501st Legion invited me to change with them, which was great. I was getting suited up next to a Boba Fett and a Darth Vader. No big deal.
CL: You acknowledge that The Geek’s Guide to Dating is written from the male perspective and that you use the male pronoun throughout; however, you say that your “sweeping generalizations” apply to both sexes. Do you find that geek guys and geek girls adhere less to gender stereotypes?
ES: That’s an interesting question, and one that’s always a hot one in the geek community. Stereotypes and what makes a geek a geek. What constitutes a geek girl? A geek guy? I think, unfortunately for us, there are tons of stereotypes slapped onto those titles. Real geek girls should do this, real geek guys should do that … personally, I don’t think we adhere to them at all, but some people assume that we do, or worse, should.
Sidenote, the amazing writers over at The Mary Sue dissect this issue a lot, and way better than I can. This tag rounds up all their outstanding pieces.
CL: How does this stereotyping affect geek dating?
Then again, if you’re the kind of person passing those kind of judgements, I really don’t want you talking to or dating any of my awesome geek friends in the first place.ES: The way all things do when you make assumptions based on no facts. Negatively. You’re judging a girl or a guy before you get to know either of them? Well, you might be missing out on someone totally amazing.
CL: Agreed! So, big news, you recently got engaged. Meeting your fiance seems to coincide with the writing of your book. This leads me to wonder what your research was like.
ES: Hah! Yes, it was pretty serendipitous! We met a few months before I started working on the book, leading her to ask me if there will be a Geek’s Guide to Engagements and Weddings.
My fiancee was actually a big fan of reading dating books, so, while I was doing research, she let me borrow a few of her old books. It helped a lot with some of the sections in the book. I also let her read bits and pieces. Though as a very non-geek girl, she had plenty of questions. I didn’t mind though. It actually gave me a chance to teach her more about all the stuff I care about.
So I guess, in a weird way, my book helped me with dating as I was writing it.
CL: That’s beyond adorable. By now people can tell that you are a heterosexual guy. Your book focuses on heterosexual relationships but I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on gay geek culture.
ES: Just that they have an amazing geek network! Geeks Out! does outstanding work, and now there’s the Gaymer X video game convention. All geeks rally together to support their passions, so it’s really no different.
And their gay geek icons are pretty damn incredible. Ian McKellen? Neil Patrick Harris? Sean Maher? So awesome.
CL: Huge thanks for taking the time to talk about your new book. I hope every geek reads it!
ES: Anytime! Thanks for having me! And hey, if you’d like to watch some cute geeky couples talking about their relationships, there’s an adorable webseries tie in to the book. You can catch them on the Quirk blog and on Geekosystem every Tuesday! Here’s a link to the recent videos.
This interview first ran on The Rumpus. You can read it in full here. Below are a few excerpts.
I first became aware of Scott McClanahan when Lazy Fascist Press released his short story collection, The Collected Works of Scott McClanahan Vol. 1, in May of 2012. The cover looked a lot like a Penguin Classic and it made me laugh. Who was this guy, risking a lawsuit? I asked myself. It was clever, reckless, and endearing. However, it wasn’t until a year later, with the release of Crapalachia, published by Two Dollar Radio, that McClanahan’s words were put in my ears.
The subtitle, “A Biography of a Place,” highlights one McClanahan’s strengths—capturing place. Many of his stories are set in West Virginia, the state from which he hails, but to think of him as a regional writer would miss the point. McClanahan, in all his work, explores people—and those people exist everywhere. A keen observer of the world around him, McClanahan often taps into the characters who populate his family, breathing life into them, and exposing their motivations, their frustrations, and their struggles with the day-to-day.
Through the stories of his Grandma Ruby, a true matriarch; his uncle Nathan, wheelchair-bound from cerebral palsy; and the neighborhood kids who play pranks on unwitting strangers, Scott draws readers into a world that is both harsh and relentless, but also full-hearted and smirky—a cold reality with a sense of humor. Now, just out with Hill William, a short story collection from Tyrant Books, McClanahan shows once again that words can mesmerize.
Defying the laws of geographical assumptions, Scott spoke with me from California—early in the morning on the East Coast, a punishing hour on the West. He assured me that I hadn’t made him get up; he still hadn’t been to sleep.
Rumpus: No one has to go out on tour unless you get paid a lot of money for your book and the publisher says, “You need to go do this,” so what made you decide to take the trip?
McClanahan: Well, I did that kind of Southern leg with my friend Chris Oxley. He played the guitar part of the time. It’s a good show—you’d love it if you saw it. Then I also did, with some friends of mine, what we call the the Future Dead Friends tour last fall, and that was through the Midwest. People were smoking crack, but why do I do it? It’s um…oh gosh…yeah, that’s a good question. Maybe I should think about it a little bit more and I wouldn’t have the financial difficulties that I’m having. ‘Cause they’re not big tour budgets by any means.
I stayed in a place in Mississippi called the Ole Miss Motel and it was a den of prostitutes and pimps. It really was. I’m talking P-I-M-P as pimps. I almost went into the wrong room one night, and they came and let me know I was going into the wrong room. Big girls with black eyes type of thing.
So it’s fun that way but, this is my answer: I think it’s important for writing to connect back to actual people rather than somebody—you know, a big publisher in New York telling you you should like something. Because you know this is a game, you’re a publicist as well. We know it’s a game. Somebody knows somebody who knows somebody, and all of a sudden you’re in Cosmopolitan or something talking about your book. I don’t want to be in Cosmo. Well, that’s not true. I do, but only if I’m on the cover.
I think it’s important to connect back to individuals who are out there—and by “out there” I mean, we’ve had cultural movements that have been in the middle of nowhere—Memphis, Tennessee in the 1950s, right? Absolutely nowhere, and they’ve not only changed American culture but they’ve changed the culture of the world. These bunch of country boys at Sun Studios. And so I think when you are out there and you read for people and you see people, there’s not that disconnect of literature with a lower case L—it’s not literature, the oral word. It’s Carl Sandburg, it’s V. Lindsey, it’s Dylan Thomas. It’s attempting to get back to that place…oh, I don’t know.
Shit, that answer makes no sense.
Rumpus: Your stories have a darkness to them—or they could be very dark—but there’s something that keeps them from going to this place where you’re buried. I’m going to reference that movie again but you were saying how you had this story about a dog that you thought was fun, but the whole audience was devastated.
McClanahan: Yeah. It’s a different perspective. You bring up a dog that committed suicide and some people aren’t going to find that humorous. But it’s all those things together. It’s like your daily existence. Are you in New York?
Rumpus: I am.
McClanahan: So, you know, you’re about to get on the train and go into work and probably within an hour, an hour-and-a-half, you’re going to have all different experiences. Oh my god, like whoa fuck, whoa haha, that’s hilarious, but that happens anywhere really. But I think those are the good things. It’s like being in a relationship. Like, you hate the person, you love the person. There’s darkness there, there’s lightness. That’s part of any relationship—a real, a real relationship.
Rumpus: What are you working on now?
McClanahan: The Sarah Book. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. The hardcover is going to cushy like a pillow. You know how some children’s books are like? So you can dream on it or use it as a sex aid. Sometimes people need to sleep instead of reading.
This is an excerpt from an interview that ran on The Rumpus. Read it in full here.
When I first saw Concrete Fever on the front table of a local bookstore, I knew it was something special. With e-books on the rise, smart publishers are taking more care to create physical books that are also art objects. With its colorfully-splashed, slightly-ribbed cover, French flaps, and interior illustrations, Nathaniel Kressen’s debut novel stood out among the sea of many new releases.
Kressen, a playwright, screenwriter, and a graduate of NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, brings to his fiction a love of acting, a knowledge of stagework, and a desire to tell stories without waiting for permission.
We met up at Café Grumpy in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and talked about Kressen’s experience creating the book from start to finish, the importance of editing, the difference between self-publishing and independent publishing, and what writers can learn from musicians.
The Contextual Life: I saw your book in the store and found myself picking it up over and over again. It’s so gorgeous. It’s well-designed and the textured cover feels so great when you handle it. I immediately needed to know who published it. When I looked on the spine, I saw it was a small press I’d never heard of, Second Skin Books. On closer look I noticed it was you who was behind it. You are also the author. To me, this felt like it was more than self-publishing, like you were taking it to a whole other level. In my mind, it’s more like indie publishing rather than self-publishing.
Nathaniel Kressen: I think that’s definitely a phrase that’s worth noting: independent publishing versus self-publishing. I think the difference is, an author by themselves who can’t wait to get their stuff out to people might not necessarily take the time to edit everything, think about the design and the materials. They’re just so happy about finishing their product they want to get it out to people, which is totally valid, but I think that’s what self-publishing is. Indie publishing is where you do research and look at other small presses. You see what fits what you’re trying to do, what you would like to explore. You make sure it’s edited to a T, no typos. Make it tight as can be. You give it out to people to look it over and give you notes, and then you make the best possible product you can; make something that people will pick up off the table time and time again. That’s what I think the main difference is.
There are a lot of people doing that around this area. I’ve spoken on a couple of panels about indie publishing, at Spoonbill and WORD, where there are a few people coming from the same place I am. Authors who aren’t necessarily writing stuff that’s so outside of what the mainstream wants, but for whatever reason it doesn’t get the initial traction. So we decided maybe we’re chasing the wrong dream; let’s just make this the best possible thing we can, make it look sexy as all hell, and get it out to people.
The Contextual Life: A stage is public. Performing is public. Do you see the novel as a stage? Is there any connection?
Kressen: Recently, I’ve been thinking about novels as physical art objects, with everything from judging a book by its cover to how it feels in your hand; we chose this textured stock because I wanted something that feels really great in your hand. I mean, I’m a no-name author at this point; I need this to be my marquee. You walk by a restaurant and you see a great typeface on the awning and you think, Oh, I bet they have good food.
The Contextual Life: What have you learned about publishing from doing this?
Kressen: Tons. One thing is that it’s accessible. It’s not this monster out there that one day you hope to get into as a writer, that somebody believes in your piece. Nobody is going to fight for your piece as much as you. It’s like anything else. As long as you write the hell out of your book, get somebody to look it over, take notes, and revise it fully, as long as you pair up with a designer who understands your vision and really makes it fly, and as long as you’re willing to work your tail off, go around the stores, talk to people, come up with really unique events, just work tirelessly on behalf of your product, at the same time making new writing because that’s the only way you grow, and just go ahead and do it. Nobody has to give you permission.
Canada’s national newspaper The Globe and Mail was curious to know about New York City literary life. They were kind enough to ask me a few questions about bookstores, bars, and readings. You can read the feature in their travel section. Here are my answers in full.
What are your three favourite bookstores in NYC – please give a brief reason for each.
The best part about being a bookworm and living in New York City, and the surrounding area, is that there are so many independent bookstores, each with their own personality. Since I have so many favorites, depending on my mood–or current location–I’ll say that when visiting New York one should make sure to check out the iconic stores: McNally Jackson in SoHo, Strand near Union Square, and St. Marks Bookshop in the East Village.
One of the first things you’ll notice about McNally Jackson is that their fiction titles are shelved by region based on the nationality of the author. It makes for interesting perusing since you might not always know where a certain writer was born. The store also has a cafe where you can sit and read the books you’ve purchased or have brought with you. As one of the largest independents in the city, they host excellent events almost every night in the downstairs space. One of the liveliest stores in New York, it’s a great place to visit day or night.
If you’re looking to get lost in stacks of books, The Strand is the place for you. Started in 1927, Strand has 18 miles of new, used, and rare books. They also host many interesting events in their rare book room. Admission is the cost of the book or a $10 gift card. Definitely worth it.
St. Mark’s Bookshop, not actually on St. Mark’s Place but very close to it, opened in 1977. They’re known for a great collection of political and cultural studies books that are hard to find elsewhere. They also have a wide selection of poetry, literary journals, and zines.
Where are the best places for author readings, poetry slams or other similar literary events/performances (and what’s the best online resource where people can check for listings?)
Now you’ve tapped into one of the hardest parts about being a bookworm in New York City. As the evening approaches one is faced with a nearly unsolvable dilemma: which reading should I go to?
For this one, we’ll branch out to Brooklyn, which is a quick subway ride from Manhattan. WORD in Greenpoint devotes their entire basement to events; powerHouse Arena in DUMBO is known for hosting parties, not just readings; Housing Works is doing some creative programming and the crowd is usually packed with people in literary industry, whether it’s publishing or criticism; the Franklin Park Reading Series in Crown Heights is a monthly series that hosts a lineup of local and visiting authors; Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene not only brings in top authors but the storefront is a big glass window, which makes it an excellent place for those who like open spaces; Bluestockings on the Lower East Side is known for it’s LGBT events; and Community Bookstore has really ramped up their readings over the past few months since bringing the tireless Michele Filgate on board.
Two other places of note are the Bowery Poetry Club where you can find poetry slams and KGB Bar on West 4th where you can see rising literary talent, established local authors, and magazine launches.
As for finding out about events, my friend David Gutowski of Largehearted Boy and I started an online calendar, Book Boroughing, a little over a year ago. While it’s far from exhaustive we do include the major indie bookstore readings and some of the larger series around town. Before starting the calendar, I relied heavily on Slice Magazine’s (and still do). Time Out New York is also a great place to check for local happenings and can be found on newsstands.
Are there a couple of bars/coffeeshops where you’re likely to run into writers and other literary types – please give a brief description of each.
That’s a tough one. I think the nice part about the New York literary scene is that many local authors come out to events, so you can often run into them there. However, if you’re looking for some iconic bars, there’s the Blue Bar at the Algonquin Hotel, the White Horse Tavern and the Kettle of Fish in the West Village, and The Half King in Chelsea, which is owned by Sebastian Junger, Nanette Burstein and Scott Anderson.
Any other tips for bookish visitors to NYC – festivals, events, tours etc. – anything you can think of really that a travelling bookworm might enjoy.
My first piece of advice is to explore Brooklyn. It really is very close and the literary scene there is thriving. Nothing makes that more apparent than the growing success of the annual Brooklyn Book Festival that takes place at the end of September. Although the festival itself is on a Sunday, the events leading up to the day are staggering. There are a ton of readings and parties that take place all around the borough.
There are two annual Lit Crawls, one for New York City and one for Brooklyn. During the one-day event multiple readings, panels, and literary games take place around a designated area. Authors, publishers, and literary magazines all participate.
Book Expo America is a large publishing industry convention that takes place at the Jacob Javits Center. They’ve just opened it up to the public but, in true New York fashion, there are tons of parties and readings that take place after convention hours. During that week, while all sorts of literary and publishing types are in town, bookstores, publishers, and various publications use the opportunity to mingle with those they don’t have the chance to meet face-to-face during the rest of the year. Many of the parties are open to all.
While I’ve never been on a literary tour of Manhattan, I did come across one for Greenwich Village on the Fodors blog that is worth saving for your visit.
And finally, traveling bookworms might want to stay at the Library Hotel. It’s within walking distance of the New York Public Library, which is also a bookish place one should be sure to visit.
In Chuck Wendig’s debut novel, Blackbirds, a mix of gritty fantasy and noir, death and torture wait in the wings. Miriam Black, a broken-down, take-no-shit, young woman, has a terrible affliction: she can see the future. At the slightest touch, skin on skin, the other person’s death flashes before her eyes. She’s seen horrible things, fates she’s tried to alter but whose warnings have had no effect.
Now, while hitching a ride with Louis Darling, a lone trucker going her way, Miriam shakes his hand and witnesses his end. In just thirty days he’ll die a torturous death … while calling out her name.
In a fight to outwit a seemingly unalterable outcome, a battle between free will and determinism forces Miriam out of complacency and into the role of fierce heroine.
Wendig is the man behind the website Terrible Minds, a site where he offers weekly writing tips in his column “25 Things You Should Know About Writing.” Not your average instructor, Wendig’s advice has included “25 Reasons I Hate Your Main Character,” “25 Ways to Unfuck Your Story,” and “25 Things I Want to Say to ‘Aspiring’ Writers.” In one of his recent lists, “25 Things I Learned While Writing Blackbirds,” under the second tip, “Your First Novel Usually Ain’t,” Wendig writes, “Blackbirds is my debut original novel, but it damn sure isn’t the first one I wrote. It’s just the first one that mattered. It’s the first one that deserved to live.”
Author, screenwriter, and all around “penmonkey,” Wendig took some time out of his busy schedule to discuss his difficulty with plot, the importance of reading nonfiction, and what self-publishing and traditional publishing can learn from each other. After reading what he has to say, I urge you to follow Chuck on Twitter.
THE CONTEXTUAL LIFE: What made you start your “25 Things You Should Know About Writing” series?
CHUCK WENDIG: The writing advice in general is there for me above all else. I like to yell at myself. Whenever I run into problems with my writing or see funny things about the writing life, it feels a good place to both vent the steam and mine the “cray-cray.” That’s what the kids are saying these days, right? Cray-cray? Whew.
The “25 Things” in particular are my attempt to pare down the advice – which sounds, er, strange because those lists are pretty huge. But I pack a lot into ‘em, with each of the 25 items ideally being a weird Zen nugget of dubious writer wisdom.
This sounds like a good writing routine.
It helps me focus. Helps me tackle problems. Helps me help other authors, which in turn helps me by inflating my ego and making me feel like I actually know what I’m doing (and I most assuredly do not). Plus, on the barest, most simplest level, I’m writing. Any writing I do helps me to write better.
Plot is your trouble area. What have you done to overcome it?
Who told you that? Do you have cameras in my house? Is my computer bugged? Are you some kind of publishing witch?
Ahem. Yes. Plot is my biggest stumbling block. I countermand my own weakness by planning, plotting, scheming. I am a pantser by heart, but a plotter by necessity. If I don’t outline, then the book is lost in the woods for 5,000 pages. Covered in briar scratches and hunted by bears.
How was it to plot the first book in a series?
I did not know that Blackbirds would be the first in a series, necessarily. It was written to stand on its own, with the hope that it would one day earn a second in its series (which Angry Robot Books was good enough to grant me at the outset).
The trick in plotting was again outlining. I wrote an epic – and frankly unfinished – first and second draft that was meandering, unfocused, so blurry that as an artist I must’ve been considered legally blind. I found the first draft recently and read some of it. The core of the story and character are there, but it’s almost painful to read the way it stumbles around, zombie-like.
The way I focused the book was… erm, unorthodox, and just goes to show that every writer digs his own tunnel into this practice and business. I won a screenwriting mentorship with screenwriter Stephen Susco, selfishly thinking to use it to help develop Blackbirds both as a film property and then as a revived novel. First thing Stephen told me was to outline, and I laughed. “Ha ha ha, ohh, silly-man-from-Hollywood, I don’t do that. That would steal my thunder. It would wound my creative spirit!”
But he kept on me. And grudgingly, I tried it. Suddenly, I had a story that was gaining focus – and by the second outline, had a laser-like focus. So my fumbly bumbly book suddenly had a spine and a place to go. It was a zombie no more. So, I write the script, then used the outline and the script to rebuild the novel. The book that will be published is almost no different than that first post-outline draft.
What I find interesting is that Blackbirds is both the start of a series but can be read as a standalone. I find that refreshing, why did you set it up that way?
It was important in consideration of selling it. I didn’t want myself or my potential publisher to be pinned down in either a single or a series book. Plus, from a reader’s perspective, I didn’t want them to pick this up expecting it just to be a part of a story. It’s a whole story. A real boy. Nothing missing. All fingers and toes attached.
The next book in the series, Mockingbird, will it also be written as a standalone?
Well, it’s not precisely standalone – I mean, it helps if you read the first one. But I don’t think that’s precisely critical, either. You could pick up Mockingbird and it still gives you the information you need to move forward into the story. Further, the concept surrounding Miriam is, I think, relatively simple to understand: she touches you, sees your death, and then the question becomes, can she do anything about that and how hard must she fight fate to achieve it?
You’re also a screenwriter. The draft of Blackbirds was massive — about 90,000 words. Did your screenwriting background help you pare it down?
The screenwriting thing is all about brevity and focus. Each page of the script matters – in screenwriting terms, a single page equals a minute of screentime, and a minute of screentime is like, in Hollywood money, a bajillion-fajitallion dollars. So, you can’t blow up your script to 150 pages and expect to sell it. You have to compress. You have to possess an elegance of language – only including the dialogue that matters and the most critical descriptions.
Though there’s a lesson for screenwriters, too – the script still needs to be readable. I don’t mean legible, I mean, write to be read. Write to entertain even at the script level.
So, from screenwriting I borrowed that level of focus, particularly in descriptions. Dialogue, less so – and even still, Blackbirds still has to feel like a novel, still deserves to dig deeper than what you get in a script and on screen. I didn’t want to abandon what makes novels awesome, but I wanted to take some of the beauty and potency of scriptwriting and jack that into the novel mold.
As such, the novel is pretty mean and lean, I think.
I think so, too. It really moves along. It’s also a visual story. Is this because of your screenwriting experience? What are some things you’ve carried over into your novel writing?
I do write more visually. Some novels spend a lot of time in character heads or dally in scenes that, on-screen, would never work – oh, how often you see scenes of dialogue where it’s like puppet theater, just two characters standing there as mouthpieces for their respective ideas. Over-sharing, too. “Let me tell you my evil plan!” Blah blah blah. An expositional karate punch to the reader’s mouth.
I try to keep things moving. Try to show instead of tell – though there’s certainly a place and a way to “tell” the audience things, and that’s okay, but even there you kind of need to nest it in a process of showing. The way a character tells something or demonstrates a thing is powerful and meaningful. Or can be, at least.
You consider the author Robert McCammon a major influence on your writing. You first read him in your teens and would still read him today. What’s made you stick with him? How has he affected the way you approach your writing, and writing as a career?
McCammon’s Stinger was not the first horror book put into my hand, but it was the first I read and relished. My sister tried to get me to read some Stephen King and, as a young teen, wasn’t into it. But then she put Stinger on my desk and it was like – BOOSH, mind blown. Next came Swan Song, and that book blew even Stinger away. Epic 1000-page post-apocalyptic nuclear America. Powerful and horrific and with a spate of incredibly strong and damaged characters.
That book alone is plump with writing lessons if you care to find them.
But at that point I was reading McCammon – or, rather, devouring his entire back catalog – as a reader, not a writer. I knew I liked writing and telling stories but I wasn’t really sure it was a thing I could do. (Though I certainly wanted to.)
It was his book Boy’s Life that clinched it. It’s a coming of age book, not strictly horror, but it’s also very strongly about storytelling. And that told me: this is what I want to do. I want to write. I want to tell stories.
Interesting note is that, not long after, McCammon retired – despite being a bestselling author he had troubles selling non-horror work and he was moving away from that genre. So he dropped off the map for years, which was troubling to me: and it was my first glimpse of how being a writer was as much a business concern as a crafty, artistic one. It showed me that this would be a tricky industry.
You read nonfiction as well as fiction and consider it something all fiction writers should do. What kind of nonfiction do you read and how does it help you with your writing? What are the benefits of stepping away from fiction?
I do think that’s important! Reading fiction is reiterative. You’re reading other people’s creative pursuits and the best you can do with that as inspiration and research is remix and regurgitate (and you can see in Hollywood how much of it is a remix culture – some of that is fun and clever, but the lack of original ideas can be troubling).
Non-fiction can still be creatively delivered but is not itself reiterative or regurgitative. You read non-fiction and you get ideas that cannot come out of reading someone else’s story. It’s a far more fertile seed-bed in terms of both idea-farming and bringing pre-existing ideas forward through research and pleasure reading.
You read fiction, you can learn the craft and pick apart what XYZ writer is doing. Which is good, and essential. But it’s also an act of diminishing returns. Non-fiction doesn’t suffer from that.
As to what I read?
I’ll read anything. My non-fiction shelves are 75% of my total bookshelf space, with fiction only taking up 25% of it. Right now I’m reading a book about ants. Specifically: Adventures Among Ants by Mark Moffett. But I’ve got books on mythology and symbols and gun repair and Medieval weapons and warfare and the NSA and sex and culture and death and… well. The list goes on and on. And on.
In Blackbirds, your main character, Miriam, if she touches them, can see how people eventually die. What was it like to imagine peoples’ deaths? How did you come up with the idea?
Coming up with deaths are both fun and horrible. Some based in things I’d heard and seen. Others just straight up plucked from the twisted folds of my parasite-ridden brain.
The idea for Miriam comes out of that helplessness of death – both the helplessness you feel when your loved ones die and when you realize your own death is fast incoming.
A few years ago, there was a lot of death around you. At one point a few of your family members had passed away. I’ve heard it said before that much of fiction is working out personal problems. Do you think Blackbirds, specifically Miriam’s ability, which leads her to question free will, was a way of working out your thoughts on immortality? Maybe as a way to take control of it or maybe to face it head on?
Morality more than immortality – but yes, this is definitely me ripping off the scabs and letting the blood flow in an issue like this. Blackbirds in that way represents a harsh dose of reality (hey, holy shit, people die, you’re going to die, your dog will die, we’re all going to die) and also the fantasy (what does it take to move the seemingly immovable boulder of fate and force one’s free will by turning away the Grim Reaper’s hand?).
You’ve self-published in the past and were almost considering self-publishing Blackbirds before Angry Robot picked it up. What aspect of traditional publishing have you enjoyed so far and what are you looking forward to as your book goes out into the world?
I do think that writers these days – especially writers looking to make a living solely on their rampant penmonkeying – need to have a diverse publishing strategy which means taking advantage of all the publishing options that exist for us.
But while I do self-publish some work, I’m certainly enjoying traditional publishing, too. Listen, self-pub is tough stuff. You have to do a lot of stuff which is not writing – cover design and e-book formatting and needling self-promo. Admittedly, some of that is there with traditional publishing, but it’s amazing to me how much of what I do with self-pub just… magically gets done with traditional.
It’s like, out of nowhere reviews for Blackbirds started popping up like spring-time daffodils and I had nothing to do with it. And I see blogs talking about this kick-ass cover from Joey Hi-Fi, a cover I wouldn’t have earned by my lonesome, a cover that is most certainly a book-seller all by itself. (I cannot stress enough how lucky I got on the Kick-Ass Cover Artist lottery. I may not have won the Mega-Millions, but I won that one, for sure.)
I’m having a Blackbirds launch at Mysterious Galaxy in LA – also not an easy option for self-published authors. Sold German rights for it – not an easy option for self-pub. Talking to agents and filmmakers about film and TV rights – repeat after me, not an easy option for self-pub.
What are you working on now?
Eating some waffles.
Oh, wait, you mean creatively? Oh. Ahh. That makes more sense.
Well. I’ve got a lot of irons in the fire. I’ve got the third Miriam Black book outlined and ready to roll. I’ve got the start of a new series with Abaddon (tentative series title: Gods & Monsters). Got the next two of the Dinocalypse trilogy to finish now that the Kickstarter for that has gone through the roof. Plus, the Kickstarter for my Atlanta Burns novel, Bait Dog, went over 200% funded, so I’ve got that going on, too. I am, it turns out, a busy little ink-slinger.
Plus I do work with my writing partner, so there will be films and other digital endeavors. Fingers crossed on those!
Fingers crossed here. Thanks so much for speaking with me.
Thanks for having me, Gabrielle!
If you were a teen in the mid 90s and had cable television, most likely you know Michael Ian Black from The State, the sketch comedy show that aired on MTV. His new memoir, You’re Not Doing It Right, is best summed up as an unflinching look at finding love, getting married, becoming a father, and dealing with all the trying moments that inevitably come with that life. Black’s humor makes this a wince-inducing, laugh-out-loud-in-public take on adulthood.
Since the 90s, Black’s been busy acting in films (Wet Hot American Summer), on television (Stella, Ed, Michael and Michael Have Issues), and has even written a few children’s books. Recently, he’s moved into stand-up and can be found talking about food on the podcast Mike and Tom Eat Snacks.
I had a chance to ask Michael about his career in comedy, his thoughts on the industry today, and what his wife thinks about his honesty. You can read the interview in full at The Rumpus. Here are some highlights:
I’ve heard you talk about how seriously you take your comedic career, The State was meant to rival Saturday Night Live, yet anyone who knows your work could easily describe it as “ridiculous”. Your sketch comedy in particular is truly absurd (in that good, over-the-top way). How do you balance these two, seemingly at odds, versions of yourself—both personally and professionally?
Michael Ian Black: To me, the two ideas are not mutually exclusive. From my early work with the sketch group The State until now, I’ve thought a lot about comedy. Probably too much. In some ways, The State was more of an intellectual exercise than a comedic one. What I mean is, we were deliberately attempting to push a new kind of comedy out there. It was a reaction to what we were seeing on shows like SNL and in the observational stand-up that was out there at the time. We wanted to do a more aggressive, edgy, surreal comedy. All of that was very conscious and almost analytical. Of course I don’t know how analytical you can get about fart jokes, but we tried. The point is that silliness can be very serious. Sorry if I come off like a pretentious prick, but comedy is one of those things that, as soon as you start talking about it, you automatically sounds like a pretentious prick. Also: poetry. Also: fashion.
If you were just starting out, how do you think this environment would affect you?
Black: It’s much easier now, particularly if you don’t live in New York or LA. Because you broadcast your work so easily it’s much easier to find an audience. On the other hand, the flood of stuff that’s out there sometimes makes it hard to get noticed. I do believe that the best stuff will always eventually make itself known, though.
Speaking of, in your new book, I was impressed by how strong your voice is. How do you approach your essay writing and how does it differ from when you write sketch and stand-up?
Black: Essay and story writing versus sketch writing. All writing is basically the same: beginning, middle, end. The difference with sketches, and why sketches are actually harder, is that you generally have to establish an entire new world every few minutes with its own rules, get to the joke premise, explore that premise, and then end the thing all within tight time constraints. That’s very hard to do well. Even the best sketch shows generally fall on their faces half the time.
With essays and story-telling it’s a little different. For one thing, my current essay work is all very personal. It’s based on my life and so the world remains consistent. That makes things easier. Also, it’s anecdotal by its nature, so I usually have some idea of how it ends before I start. Finally, I don’t feel the same pressure to be funny when I’m writing anecdotally. The flip of that is that I do feel pressure to actually say something, to make some larger point about something. I don’t feel that pressure when writing sketch comedy.
Go check out the rest. In the meantime, you can buy Michael Ian Black’s memoir, You’re Not Doing it Right, at IndieBound (or find it at your local indie). You can also follow Michael on Twitter at @michaelianblack.
Kris D’Agostino’s debut novel, The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, captures perfectly that anxious time after college graduation — the time when you realize everything you’ve been told about your education is wrong. Many of us, especially among the middle class, are raised to believe that with a college degree in hand the world is yours. For the majority of us, it doesn’t quite work out that way.
We’re never told of that in between period where we move back to our childhood homes, go on endless job interviews, possibly pick up a local retail job in the interim, and wonder when the glorious life we were promised is going to begin. In his afterword, Kris sums up the story he set out to tell: this is a coming-of-age story about a “generation’s grossly delayed plunge into adulthood.”
Instead of a position at the hometown bookstore, as was the case with me, Cal Moretti, our floundering protagonist, finds himself teaching autistic children at a local preschool, hoping to one day put his film degree to use. However, for Cal, life becomes more complicated. His father is diagnosed with cancer and his job as a pilot put on hiatus; his mom, having a tough time making ends meet, is forced to look into selling the family home; and the older brother, his younger’s polar opposite, steps in to help, putting the pressure on Cal to pitch in as well. Then there’s his teenage sister, who accidentally becomes pregnant and decides to keep the baby.
The Morettis are a family to root for, and The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac is the sweetest story about family dysfunction you might read all year.
I sat down with Kris at a local coffee shop to talk about the personal nature of his story, the influence of screenwriting on his prose, and the lies we’ve been told about college graduation. You can read the full interview at The Nervous Breakdown. Here are some highlights.
The first question I have is going to be the hardest. Your first sentence is “I work with retards.” This book is so sensitive . . .
And that isn’t.
Right. I feel like that had to be a conscious decision.
Yeah, it was. Part of it was inspired by the fact that I was a huge fan of What’s Eating Gilbert Grape when I was in high school—probably college, actually. His treatment of that word, he does the same sort of thing. Not as overtly, but Gilbert has his challenged brother who they definitely use that word to describe and it came from someone who has some angst and is angry about some things.
But then, it’s also not about that. I have a problem when people get shocked about things like that. I worked at a preschool with autistic kids for eight months and there’s this weird gallows humor. I don’t know if it’s totally analogous but doctors make weird jokes about patients dying because they’re so in it. It’s not from a place of insensitivity; it’s just that sometimes things are funny and sad and I don’t like to draw black and white lines. I just think everything is gray.
I feel that when I come up to defend it, it’s many little things that equal a view of life.
How do you research the way people talk?
I don’t. I imagine people talking in my head or imagine real people I’ve heard talk about something analogous to what is going on and then take parts of that. Take two people having a fight about a relationship, I’ll think, “Wait, when have I heard two people arguing about their relationship in my presence?” and then I’ll pull little things from there.
I don’t do any research — unless I’m reading other books, taking things in, and not realizing I am.
When you read other books do you feel you pay more attention to dialogue?
Yea. I’m a huge movie person. I dropped out of film school. I consider myself way more versed and knowledgeable about film than I do about books. When I was in my MFA program at The New School I was the worst read person there. I’d be in class and everyone would be like, “And we all remember in Madame Bovary when this happened” and I’d be like, “I’ve never read that.” And all of my examples would always be movies. I think I got this reputation for being illiterate.
I thought you caught that period after college so perfectly.
That was one of the main things I wanted to do.
That anxiety. I remember graduating from college and thinking, “Wait, I thought I was supposed to have an awesome job.”
That’s exactly what I was saying. I feel like it’s so true. I talked to someone who had read the book who is 23 and it’s the same. Nothing’s changed. I was very immature, not ready for anything, when I graduated from college. I had no idea how to navigate the real world. I had no ambition to have a real job. I had no idea what I wanted to do. I mean, I had majored in literature and writing and all these people that I went to school with were putting on suits and getting these business jobs. Even they didn’t have it figured out but I had no idea what I wanted to do and I didn’t want to graduate. I was like, I’ll go back to film school and party for two more years; and that totally backfired on me.
After I dropped out of grad school the first time, I moved back home with my parents because I had no money at all and I had no job. I think I was 23. There were a bunch of people I knew who were in the same situation; it wasn’t just me. I had three friends in the same situation and we would do what I tried to portray in the book. We’d drive around in our cars and listen to music and watch movies and just talk nonsense the whole time. It was the post-college floundering around. That whole period — two…three-and-a-half years — it was the weirdest time.