How did you break through as a published author?
I’d wanted to be a writer since I was a kid, after I got over the social pressure as a boy to say I wanted to be a cop or a fireman, and spurned my father's dream I become a doctor or an architect, or, short of that, a plumber.
I began writing seriously in, of all things, high school French class; students were supposed to keep a journal, and so, in addition to my daily dark teenage thoughts, I began writing poetry in my journal. I wrote poetry for years—in English—all the way through college.
By age 28, I’d written four novels, numerous chapbooks, short stories, attempted a couple screenplays, joined writing groups, attended writer’s conferences. When I was 21 I’d even managed to get an agent, who unfortunately turned out to be a scam artist whose illegal exploits the investigating FBI agent wrote about—and published!
In the earlier days of the Internet, I posted a book online, but I couldn’t break through. I couldn’t get published. Eventually, my long-time girlfriend and I split up; she’d wanted to start a family, but I was a self-centered artist who couldn’t reconcile my dreams with settling down.
I began dating another writer; we shared the same goal—to publish our books—which was great. However, and to my surprise, she too began to feel the biological pull. I resisted her at first, but I really wasn’t writing much. I had chronic writer’s block, or more accurately, a crisis of faith about my writing, particularly this new book I was having a lot of trouble with, about these cat people. Because at 33 my life was little different than when I was 23, I felt it crucial to move in a new—in any!—direction, so I committed to starting a family.
As soon as I made that decision, a fellow writer called me with some incredible news: unbeknownst to me, he had shown my manuscript to a local publisher, Hawthorne Books. Hawthorne wanted to publish Core: a Romance.
Is Core: a Romance a romance?
Ha! No, Core is not a romance novel. “Romance” here refers to Romanticism, or Gothic romance, with its elements of fear and horror, a world fraught with darkness and decay and a distrust of the human, as opposed to the natural, world—Edgar Allan Poe, Frankenstein, Dracula, Wuthering Heights, like that. One reviewer pointed out it took place in cornfields as opposed to moors, but hey, it's got a pretty ominous fen, too.
What is Core : a Romance based on?
Core: a Romance began as a writing exercise, in a class I took with author Craig Lesley. Write about two characters who want the same thing. I changed the assignment slightly, made it a tale of unrequited love--I want her, but she wants him. Around the same time, I had read Heinrich Böll's Billiards at Half-past Nine, and was intrigued by his use of repetition--certainly I'd known about repeating a phrase or image in one's writing, but until then I hadn't experienced the way such a simple device could generate power, could grow in significance and meaning. That's the real world explanation.
From another standpoint, the novel is a translation of the Persephone myth. “Core” is a misspelling of “Kore,” which is Greek for “maiden,” which was Persephone’s “name” as an innocent child.
In embodying the myth, I wanted the narrative to have the aura of an epic poem, something colossal and antiquated and operatic. The language, then, displays poetic rhythms, music. That’s the mythic explanation.
The language also puts the reader inside Hades’ head. Most if not all of what happens in Core occurs in Hades’ mind, mostly as memory. Core is also a meditation on how we see. “My eyes were playing tricks on me” is a funny saying, because its not the eyes playing tricks, it’s the mind. The eyes don’t lie, they show what’s there, like a camera. The mind interprets what the eyes see—perception—and so can misperceive. That’s the philosophical explanation.
I continued to work on Core in a writing class I took with Tom Spanbauer, and completed the novel while a member of the workshop Tom ran out of his house, back in the mid to late 1990s.
I took to corrupting or eliminating standard punctuation, to emphasize the connection between internal and external and to cultivate a sense of immediacy and continuity to action and sensation (‘she grasped his hand she dipped and spun laughing under his arm’ or ‘She clutched his workshirt Can I? she shouted…’).
In longer narrative stretches, or to emphasize the rhythm, I insert commas and periods to break up the flow of language or to show the places where Hades breathes, or simply where he is sane.
When a word or image is interjected into a sentence, it represents an immediate perception that invades Hades’ mind—“She sidestepped stringless manikin” or “he rolled her hay bales to her back” or “head flung back mealy apple to the mud”—again, to put the reader inside Hades’ head in a more intimate way than using similes and metaphors. To have the reader see how he sees.
When that interjected word or image is capitalized, it represents a special emphasis, the moment when I hear the chorus melodicize and inform the narrator’s speech; ‘it Envy pulled his hair’, ‘her mouth Breath her tongue…’ ‘she lay back Mud with her knees pulled up Hands between her thighs’, ‘he pushed until the end of he bumped Stars the end of she…’ or ‘he was a fool when the tears came Yes abandoned to the mud Ah dancing round the fire Oh lost among the stars.’
That capitalized word can also denote where a new sentence is introduced, riding up on the heels of the previous sentence to again represent a unity in memory and perception and also to mitigate the loss of helpful punctuation (‘her hands unfolded Anthers trembled in their cups Creak of reins and rust…’). Again, I hear the choral voice harmonizing with the narrator.
Yes, it’s true, I wanted to make an opera but I’m not a composer, so this piece is conducted by feel, by the fractured and poetic, the base and exalted language which represents Hades’ madness, rambling, immense, lonely, lovely, grotesque, fearful and horrific.
Where’d you get the idea for The Pet Thief? Its experimental style is challenging to read.
It was challenging to write! I started on The Pet Thief in 1998, if you can believe it. I’d finished the final draft for Core the year before. While I tried to find a publisher, I spent a year reading and casting about for my next book idea.
I am fascinated by how the mind imposes order on the world, and how language drives that imposition, and how I, the writer, can intimately present character point-of-view. I envisioned a narrator who had no language…this narrator can’t speak, read, write, nor even think in words. An impossibility, right? How do you paint without paint? But I wanted to top Core, to push further toward that border where language breaks free of its referents, its ties to the world, to become something new. What I'm talking about is idealized, which is a nice way of saying impossible—words can't break free of the world or what they refer to and still have meaning for the reader—I just wanted to get close...
I never considered The Pet Thief to be experimental. I am a literary writer, a modernist, even, in the vein of Faulkner, Eliot, like that. Like most artists I’m a perfectionist, I mean it’s got to be just right, right? But I’m not a genius, and I actually used English to write this thing, so anyone can read it, just put your attention to the book. Think in images. It's all images.
I envisioned the story being about these human-animal hybrids—cat people. I say envisioned, but it could’ve been any scenario that portrayed a wordless character; this contrivance was just what came to me.
After a few false starts, my solution was to constrain language to its most concrete—articles went, and prepositions, pronouns, conjunctions, no adverbs, no quote marks or apostrophes, little punctuation at all. How easy! These constraints didn’t come all at once; I’d incorporate one stricture, get a ways into the narrative, and then another idea would come to me. I’d start over, subtracting out more text. I boiled off anything abstract or could not be visualized, really. The story is told in present tense. No flashbacks, flash-forwards, none of the looping in time as with Core.
Like Hades in Core, I wanted the reader to see how Oboy sees; Oboy runs toward a door, and he perceives the door getting bigger. The door comes to him. In his perception, he’s always the immoveable object. The outside world’s the subject, gravitating toward him. Oboy can only see things as their parts. So, a building is ‘bricks,’ a floor is 'floorboards,’ and people are rendered as their details: eyes, nose, arms, clothing, hair, glasses, etc. The appearances of others are constantly changing, then.
In one of her books, Temple Grandin talks about how autistic people see—see as in perceive—similar to how animals see. Her comments confirmed an extremely broad and simplistic theory I had—with no offense meant to anyone—I interpreted similarities between the autistic and the feline mind. Oboy embodies those similarities.
I also wanted the reader to "hear" how Oboy hears. Thus, the font size shifts throughout the book. It’s easy: loud noise, big font, quieter noise, small font. In 2007, I reviewed a book that celebrated the 50th anniversary of Jack Keroauc’s On the Road, which lead me to reread On the Road and also to read Kerouac’s next book, The Subterraneans. Kerouac was heavily influenced by Jazz, needless to say, and incorporated pure sound into these and other works. I coveted that device. The first line of The Pet Thief reads, “Tsokka tsokka tsokka”—the sound Freda’s boots make clattering down the alley.
Syntax was the final consideration in devising this story. As I say that, I realize it’s incorrect: I didn’t invent this narrative, I discovered it.
I once read but can't find the passage that gave me the idea, but I credit Grandin with the syntax—object, subject, verb, rather than the standard subject, verb, object: not “I threw the ball,” but “The ball I threw.” Or, more in Oboy’s voice, “Ball my hand throws.” Easy enough of a shift, right?
It’s the same artistic philosophy behind Core, inviting the reader to meet the text on its own terms, and in so doing, being rewarded by gradually, then suddenly, being able to “see.” In both novels, it’s like learning a new language. The process of acquiring language is absolute magic. That’s what I’m in it for. The magic.
How long did it take you to write The Pet Thief?
I’d written about 20 pages of The Pet Thief in two years. Pitiful. I could not conceive how to write this book. Eventually, my productivity ground to a halt. In fact, I hardly wrote anything for the next three or four years. Sand in my gears. The Pet Thief I threw in a cardboard box forever.
I felt awful.
But in 2004 Hawthorne Books bought Core, and this gave me the confidence to return to The Pet Thief five or six years after I’d left it for dead. It took me another four years to complete what felt like a final draft. Originally, I’d forced myself to write the story from beginning to end, and I realized later this ruined my creativity. Now, I operated between manuscript and outline, giving myself permission to work on the segments that called out to me, simply putting the pieces in order later.
But I really felt like I’d never finish the thing—again. My outline I’d color coded to show the written and unwritten segments and the unwritten just outnumbered the written by a wide margin for, literally, years. Every time I sat down and looked at the outline I’d want to give up, but the depression and terror of a second defeat kept me at it. And “suddenly” the book was done.
How did you get The Pet Thief published?
So I completed the manuscript, and felt I’d told it as honestly as I could—it took me 12 years to get a final draft, for pete’s sake, it’s got to be as honest as I could make it. Or as awful. It was what it wanted to be.
And that was the problem. I didn’t know what I had. I was in a writing group when I began working on this novel but had dropped out during that period of writer’s block. I felt burned by the workshop process; the zeitgeist wants to define things, confine them, in an effort to guide the writer and deliver honest feedback, sure, but really the process was crushing this weak little creative flame I was trying to build into a fire. Don’t remind me what I said last week; that’s all changed. I decided I had to complete a draft without any intervening criticism, useful, positive, or not.
But while I gained the freedom to experiment and explore, to change my mind, to be a liar and a hypocrite, I lost the benefit of feedback, of regarding the work through someone else’s eyes. So when I submitted the manuscript to Hawthorne expecting publication, I was crushed to find my book rejected. Hawthorne couldn’t make heads or tails of it. What? Really?
This was winter 2010. At a New Year’s Eve party I talked to author Lidia Yuknavitch, who encouraged me to enter a novel contest hosted by Fiction Collective 2, a publisher of unconventional fiction. Winning the contest is one way to get published by FC2.
So I entered the contest, but didn’t win.
The other way to get in with FC2 is through a sponsor; authors published by FC2 become part of the board and can champion work in which they believe.
So this writer friend, Lidia, sponsored me. She really went overboard to help me, and I can’t thank her enough. And it’s through her efforts, and those of the other FC2 authors who read and accepted my work, I found a publisher for this book, finally, in 2012. Fourteen years after I put the first word on paper. Fifteen, if you go by publication date!
FC2 was the publisher I wanted most. As with Core, I was published in what felt like a dream, a fantasy, a too-good-to-be-true kind of out-of-the-blue kind of good luck story. Much as I control the worlds I create, I still needed the help of others to make them real. And for that assistance I’m eternally grateful.