Tuesday, July 5, 2011

“I absolutely could not write Stranger Will today, with a kid" : An Interview with Caleb J. Ross

Caleb Ross is currently on an epic blog tour to celebrate the release of his two novels, Stranger Will and I Didn't Mean to be Kevin. We here at NOÖ Journal are happy to support flamboyantly ridiculous things like blog tours, and that's why we're happy to present this interview with Caleb by Nik Korpon, author of Stay God and Old Ghosts.

The interview covers Stranger Will and a lot more: messenger pigeons, human limbs, writing a book when you have a kid, and trying to please our overlords of search engine technology. Hope you enjoy! (And if you like the interview, check out the books!)

Nik: Why human remains? Also, why messenger pigeons?

Caleb: Human remains removal felt like the perfect vehicle for William’s [the "Will" of Stranger Will] moral conflict. A metaphorical disgust of human life can too easily—for me anyway—come across as trite and nihilistic, while incorporating a literal disgust with human life allows some elasticity with the metaphor. And when working this balance for 188 pages, elasticity is necessary.

I can’t deny the simple morbid fascination of human remains removal, though. Just the job title alone—profession human remains removal specialist—evokes the kind of imagery that I strive for with everything I write. I love a visceral reaction. And not necessarily by way of blood and guts. The grotesque—as in an ordinary story twisted just enough to jar the reader—can elicit a gut reaction often even moreso than blood. Flannery O’Conner’s “Good Country People,” for example sticks with me more than most things; the idea of a traveling bible salesman stealing a girl’s wooden leg simply can’t be forgotten. And neither can, I hope, the idea of a man scrubbing away the stains left by dead bodies.

The messenger pigeons offer a rare combination of curiosity, antiquity, and possible psychopathy. I grew up in a small town. When leaving via a north/south highway on the west end of town there was a small house with a giant animal cage blocking the entire eastern façade. I never saw who lived there, only the pigeons. The image of this house, more metal wire than brick, stuck with me. It was only a matter of time before I used it somewhere.

Together, the commentary on death allowed by the human remains removal and the tenuous human connection allowed by the messenger pigeons created such amazing opportunity to explore universally appreciated aspects of the human condition but through a unique lens. Even saying that—“the human condition”—feels too kitchen sink domestic drama to me; I have to dirty it a bit with a few blood splatters.

2. How did you reconcile the character of Mrs. Rose with the overall theme of the book?

I spent a lot of time trying to outwit Mrs. Rose. I wanted her to be a fluid symbol, something indefinable in much the same way that William is indefinable. Is she good? Does her philosophy make any logical sense at all? Does she have her own arc that crosses, and at times, matches, William’s arc? On all counts, possibly. But ultimately, I had to tone down the intellectualizing and accept that Mrs. Rose really isn’t any greater than a typical comic book villain.

As much as I like to claim my work is “literary,” (though not kitchen sink domestic, right?) and cannot be confined to mainstream descriptors like hero and villain, I simply cannot with Stranger Will. Once I accepted those designations, the book’s theme was allowed to foster, and with it my ability to erase my own ethical concerns from the page. This means that Mrs. Rose was allowed to be evil. She was allowed to be crazy, which allowed me to focus on William and how he shapes the novel’s theme.

3. You've said before that you wrote Stranger Will a while ago, but sold it after you'd already had a kid. How did the time (and child) change your read of the book?

The simple answer, from which a much longer diatribe may sprout, is that I absolutely could not write Stranger Will today, with a kid.

I started the first drafts of the book during my sophomore year of college. I wasn’t thinking at all about kids at the time. But I was thinking. A lot. About everything. I wish I could capture that head-space again; everything meant something to me in college. Every leaf, every sound, every lecture, every textbook. It’s like I was on drugs, 24/7. I am glad I was able to pair that ceaseless pondering with plenty of time to write. What came of that time was the first draft of the novel, a lengthy, unnecessarily angst-driven pile of crap. Years later, with Zoloft, I approached the novel with a more level head, and came away with a much, much better novel. My advice to writers, I suppose, is write your novel when you feel like shit; edit when you feel great.

Some passages I read now, as a father, and shudder. There’s a part in Stranger Will where a boy, eight years old I think, is learning to read. He sounds out the words on a note that was meant for his mother, a note that basically outlines how she plans to kill the boy. The boy is so excited that he knows how to ready, but has no idea what the words really mean. Damn that scene. 

4. How has your authorly understanding of fatherhood changed since then, or since the birth of your son?

I don’t know that my understanding, in terms of how I approach fatherhood in my writing, has changed much. I write the father figure often, and usually as a reluctant authority figure. That will probably stay the same.

Stranger Will is, I believe, the only piece I’ve written—definitely of such length—from the perspective of the reluctant authority. Usually in my writing the father pops in for a few scenes as a device to highlight certain aspects of the main character, and then he drops away.

If anything changes because of my own fatherhood I may begin treating the father figure with a bit more care. I understand the role in a way I never have before (side note: I grew up without a father, only me, my mother, and my two sisters). The father will always be a presence in my stories, and perhaps now just a more informed presence.

5. Being a father, and writing several stories about fathers and sons how do you think your son will react in ten/fifteen years when reading Stranger Will? More importantly, what would you say to him, on walking in and finding him turning the last page?

I’d say, “Wow, you got to the last page. It must not have sucked too much.”

I think my son will react to my work in the same way he might react to any story; I don’t think the thematic weight will affect him. He loves stories, he loves books, and I think the separation of author from author’s work will be a natural concept to him.

Actually, I hope he cares enough about literature to confront me about the book someday. It would be amazing to be able to talk with my boy about my work.

6. You mentioned in a blog post for Father's Day last year that your wife and son gave you a day to write. When faced with all that free time, though, you found yourself distracted and realized that you write better in short bursts. Two parts: Why do you think you function better that way (and is it a result of only having short bursts of time in which to write) and do you feel like you writing is shaped by this practice? By that I mean do you see your work as smaller sections built into sequences (similar to a screenplay) or as one longer narrative? Does that make sense?

Writing is exhausting for me. I spend most of my waking time thinking about what I want to write. Only once I have a few sentences in my head do I sit down to write. Those sentences grow to a few paragraphs, sometimes a page or two, and then I am done. Two hours tops, usually. I’ve always done it this way, even sans-child, though I will say that now with a child I find myself hyper-focusing my writing time. I’ll take my 15 minutes of time and cram my two pages into it. My writing hasn’t suffered through the shift in habit, but it has changed.

I have always written with the goal of producing smaller sections. I then weave these sections into each other as I draft out a novel. So, the finished product may not resemble the fragmented beginnings at all, which I suppose is the point of a novel; it should be cohesive, seamless.

7. I have to say, Stranger Will is a finely cut novel, and reads like the obsessed work of a compulsive editor. How far from the initial drafts is the final copy? Do you find yourself revising more than writing?

I actually really love editing, perhaps even more than the initial writing stage. So, yeah, I definitely revise more than write. For Stranger Will specifically, the final version is substantially different than the earliest drafts. Specifically, the entire first draft was written in first person perspective. There is nothing quite as satisfying, for me, as re-writing an entire novel. The amount of focus I am forced to dedicate to such an undertaking is extremely revealing.

8. You had a really interesting—and relevant (maybe frightening)—column on HTMLGIANT about writing for search engines. You're also one of what I think is a new breed of novelist, one who is using the dearth of social media to both expand your readership and inform the author-as-person. Has this influx of creating content for social media cut into prose-writing? The two seem almost, I don't know, dependent on each other. That you need the prose to back up the attention social media brings, and you need attention brought to the prose byway of social media. How do you make time for each? Do you find one eclipsing the other?

Unfortunately, dedicating as much time as I do to engaging with readers and authors via online networks like Twitter, Facebook, Goodreads, and all the rest has sucked quite a bit of time from my fiction writing. Though, I got into writing not just to write, but to connect with people; novels just happened to be the best way for me to connect with people at length about a specific topic. Online social networking is the supporting converse to the length and intimacy of a novel. In a way, I have found it to be less a distraction and more of a necessary component to being a well-rounded author.

From a marketing perspective, you are absolutely right. The two aspects—writing (the product) and networking (the sales)—are part of the same piece. A lot of authors, myself included, tend to stay away from terms like “marketing” and “sales”; books are supposed to be better than commerce, right? But the fact is that books only matter when people read them. I think of social networking not as selling but more of helping readers find me.

As for time, I tweet a lot on the crapper.

9. You're right that, these days, the writing and the networking are just about equally important. You present a good case for this in the blog tours you've done (Charactered Pieces' Blog Orgy and Stranger Will's Tour for Strange.) How does I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin relate to Stranger Will? Do you see them as parts of an overall whole or two completely different books?

The novels are similar only in that they both deal with parental abandonment in some way. Some readers have noticed this thematic trend with my work, even back to Charactered Pieces. The realization really came to me as more a revelation than a casual observation. I never had a father growing up, so having been forced to see my work as a product of a non-traditional childhood I have to embrace the circumstances. Though, I’m just the kind of anti-establishment hipster that chances are less and less of my work in the future will involve this same theme. In fact, I’ll probably go the polar opposite way and deal with a smothering of parental support as a character’s main conflict. I’m the kind of guy that stops liking a song the moment he hears it on the radio, as irrational as that sounds.

10. When are you going to write a vampire novel?

I’m working on a novelization of The Lost Boys right now.

11. Everyone is debating the rise of e-readers and their impact of the idea of books. I want to go beyond that. When will we be able to download books directly into our brains, or have some Strange Days-type shit? Also, as popular culture seems wont to do, there is the diametrically-opposed use of typewriters on the rise. Which press will be the one to top them all and get Gutenberg on our collective ass?

If Steve, of Gutenberg fame, ever starts a press I think he would be a shoe-in. He’s got name recognition and Police Academy recognition.

The re-embrace of typewriters feels like a natural reaction to the rise in technology. It has happened with other mediums as well: vinyl records and film come to mind, two forms that most people outside musicians and moviemakers respectively don’t see much need for. I think the same about typewriters. Most readers don’t care how a book is composed, they just want the book. The return to a nostalgic medium is generally more a response of the producer rather than the consumer.

12. You talk about the human appendage trade in I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin and feature a fetus-in-fetu in the title story of Charactered Pieces. Are limbs symbolic of something bigger for you or is it more of a way to create a visceral reaction from the reader?

This, like the parent thing mentioned earlier, is also a recurring theme that, until readers called attention to it, I hadn’t consciously acknowledged. Though, unlike the parent theme, I think limbs (their removal, their grotesqueness, and their metamorphosis, as in the case with my upcoming novella, As a Machine and Parts) are probably less a product of my upbringing and more just morbid fascination. However, if I continue the trend, I hope readers will continue to play the role of my couch-side therapist and clue me in to a Freudian correlation. That being said, the image on the cover of Charactered Pieces is a foot…just a foot.

13. Both novels take place in highly specialized worlds. What kind of research did you do for each?

Stranger Will is primary images pulled from my experience growing up in a small town. The fields, the isolated environment, it felt natural to me. I don’t think Stranger Will would have worked if set in a larger town; a small town offers a sense of contention, of not being aware of the larger world, that made Mrs. Rose’s behavior believable. In a big city, she would have been found out much sooner.

I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin has some of the same small town imagery, but has too some settings pulled directly from my college days, which is still a small town but much larger than my hometown. The beef packing plant, the Laundromat, and a couple of the bars all come directly from Emporia, KS (IBP, Norges Laundry, and Town Royal, respectively).

I think fiction, more than anything, has allowed me to embrace and really own my small town upbringing. At one time I resented it. But now, it is more a part of me than any forced environment could ever be.

Caleb J. Ross: Caleb is currently engaged in his Stranger Will Tour for Strange blog tour. He will be guest-posting beginning with the release of his novel Stranger Will in March 2011 to the release of his second novel, I Didn’t Mean to Be Kevin in November 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @calebjross.com. Friend him on Facebook: Facebook.com/rosscaleb

Nik Korpon: Nik is from Baltimore, MD. His stories have appeared in over 20 publications. He reviews books for the Outsider Writer Collective and is a Fiction Editor for ROTTEN LEAVES Magazine. He is writing his second novel. Visit him at http://nikkorpon.com/

No comments: