Q: If you’re so good, why haven’t I heard of you?
A: Well, you’re good and I haven’t heard of you, have I?
Q: Why bother writing novels at all in a post-literate era?
Q: Does fiction help, or harm, in a post-Truth world?
A: The difference between loathsome propaganda and honest fiction is the difference between a pickpocket and a magician. In a word: intent. Nimble fingers are not, in and of themselves, the problem.
Q: How can people read your novel if they don’t like reading long texts online?
A: Think of a novel as ten years’ worth of Twitter on a closed account. Or you can download the pdf and read it on your futuristic bookscreen thing in a couple of days.
Q: Why would anyone work on a novel for a year to eighteen months without the goal of eventually hoping to sell it?
A: Probably my parental mindset: I’ll never get a check for (co-) raising my Daughter, either. Actually, it’s a cross between the fulfilling-yet-thankless sacrifices of parenting and the compulsion to climb a never-climbed mountain wearing one’s favorite bedroom slippers. Writing a novel is like changing (a mountain of) dirty diapers just because they’re (conveniently) there.
But, to think a little less flippantly on the matter: if there were more money in novel-writing, I would probably (or, at least, possibly) do it for money. But submitting to the process of pretending to hope that either I or my novels fit a template dictated by the input of any corporation’s marketing department, in exchange for as little as a five thousand dollar advance…? Can’t see it. If I wrote for that kind of money it would have to be the year 1958 and I’d have to be writing pornographic Science Fiction at the rate of a book per month.
Q: What inspired you to teach yourself to write fiction?
A: Reading Science Fiction. The ideal kind of escapism for a sensitive, asthmatic, too-brainy ten-year-old growing up in a classic slum. Surrounded by rats, broken glass, dumpster-fires and sexually-knowing gradeschoolers… walking to school (luckily just a block away, at the end of our street) was like taking an eyes-down stroll through one of Hieronymus’s daydreams. It was even more lurid than that, because we lived on the very edge of the Southside of Chicago, in an industrial area near Gary, Indiana: we were downwind from the Sherwin-Williams paint factory (I can still, when I try to, smell that chartreuse odor with its sudden occasional neon orange highlights) and within hearing of the US Steel manufacturing plant on Lake Calumet. On weekend evenings the sound of the steel being pounded into ships (or whatever they were making) was astonishing as much for the decibels as for the fact that I grew up taking the din for granted. The sound of that Thor-hammer going late into the night was a big part of a lot of the dreams I had and probably had a lot to do with why I liked reading Science Fiction: because I so often dreamed of robots. Very big robots at war.
It was the 1960s and long before the EPA. Add to that the fact that our two-storey apartment was at the very end of a block-long, contiguous row of dark-brick apartments, meaning that we shared a wall with the entire block’s incinerator. Yes, there was an incinerator built into our building and our living room wall was warm from it and if we opened the living room windows under any but the most unusual atmospheric conditions, the incinerator’s smoke blew black through the window.
The cherry on top: that there was a NIKE missile silo (I am a writer but I am not making this up) on the other side of the highway behind our school. I had no idea what a NIKE missile was at the time but we could see a sort of smokestack on the site, from the top of which a very vivid flame was always burning…. burning off that highly volatile rocket fuel, as my father once explained to me. In the event of nuclear war with the Russians, during my Cold War childhood, our neighborhood would have been a primary target during a First Strike.
Again: there is a Science Fictionish resonance to all that. Perhaps I wasn’t only reading it but living in it.
Q: There are lots of Sex Scenes in your novels. Isn’t it risky to write about Sex?
A: Sex is a big topic (THE big topic, second only to the lack of Sex, as a topic) that doesn’t, I feel, often get the proper treatment in Lit. Too many writers who are otherwise “normal” enough to make it through the filter, and get lots of press, and who happen also to be genuine Geniuses, appear to have “hang-ups,” as we used to say. Even the late great Philip Roth, I feel, felt Sex was “dirty” (well at least Roth’s chum Milan Kundera only felt/feels Sex is “absurd”: absurd compared to what?) and that it ought to be celebrated for that; celebrated for being a purifyingly savage force within the walls of the neurotically civilized society. The great Roth used Sex as a muddy cudgel against bourgeois hypocrisies and pretensions. Despite his “hang-ups,” he wrote Sex without embarrassing himself, because he never fell for the middlebrow literary trap of waxing lyrical and/or grandiloquent on the topic. Which is not to say that Roth wrote about Sex in a way that made you want to have any of it:
“In a little room above a Chinese laundry, I try my luck with a thirty-shilling whore, a fading Cockney milkmaid called Terry the Tart who thinks me “a sexy bah-stard” and whose plucky lewdness had, once upon a time, a most startling effect upon the detonation of my seed. Now Terry’s skills go for nought. She gives me her extraordinary collection of dirty pictures to look at; she describes, with no less imagination than Mrs. Browning, the ways in which she will love me; indeed, she praises to the skies the breadth and height of my member and its depth of penetration when last seen erect; but the fifteen minutes of hard labor she then puts in over the recumbent lump is without significant result. Taking such comfort as I can from the tender way Terry puts it—“Sorry, Yank, ’e seems a bit sleepy tonight”—I head back across London to our basement, finishing up as I go with that day’s inquiry into the evil I may or may not have done.” (from The Professor of Desire)
On the iffy-technique end of the spectrum, Ian McEwan, for example, very surprisingly does the very thing (falling for the middlebrow literary trap of waxing lyrical and/or grandiloquent on the topic) in his novel Atonement, writing,
“The moment itself was easy. They held their breath before the membrane parted, and when it did she turned away quickly, but made no sound—it seemed to be a point of pride. They moved closer, deeper and then, for seconds on end, everything stopped. Instead of an ecstatic frenzy, there was stillness. They were stilled not by the astonishing fact of arrival, but by an awed sense of return—.”
There’s something silly about that, like breathless, campy, period-piece prose about Sir Edmund Hillary posing his way up a cardboard model of Everest. There’s also the comedically-jarring use of the word “membrane” to consider. Beyond the stylistic question, there’s the technical matter that such prose doesn’t do much to convey Sex-ness.
What if McEwan were attempting to convey the eating of pancakes? He’d probably set the epic stuff aside and get to work using precise tools in his Descriptive Toolkit. He’d be working with flavor/ smell/ textures/ ambiance and the mechanics of eating. Given that much artfully-rationed information, the reader is then able to fill in the epic/ mythical/ metaphysical stuff for his or her self, relying on their own memories of Sex. Isn’t that how (elegant) description works: discreet little prompts to trigger synergistic access to, and borrow (or conscript), the reader’s fund of Experiences?
What I can offer, when writing about Sex, is A) a no-hang-ups approach (my generational advantage) and maybe a slightly “cleaner” ( no pun intended) technique than you might get from the school of Thrusting, Sword-Like Members and Orgasms like Cotton Candy Clouds.
So, for example, in one (key) sex scene, in my novel THIS INCREDIBLE SEX COMEDY, I write:
“She climbed on top with her palms pressed flat on his chest until she shifted her weight into a locked position back around his hips, an alignment of their bones, rocking with a concerned smile.”
And, a few sentences later,
“He cupped her tiny breasts and supported her torso as she lifted her arms behind her head and doubled-down where they connected in the equestrienne rhythm of a trot.”
Sticking with the mechanical, largely, I put the two principals in a very clear relation to one another, without too much fussy prose in the way, and make the speed/ rhythm/ meaning of the action clear enough for the Reader to inhabit. Anyone who has ever had Sex in that position will be able to fill in the purple/ lyrical/ transcendental bits from their own experience. Which is what I think writers should do more of: get out the way, in writing the Sex scene. Let the Reader do most of it.
To cap that scene I write,
“He went to take a piss and saw that her vagina had left a pale sheath drying on his dick, a flaking coating of crystalline snake-skin and he was careful to preserve it if possible, to not shake it all off when he stuffed himself back in his pants. He’d touched a finger to a flake on the head and lifted the flake to his tongue and closed his eyes as though it were a tab of acid, the LSD called Love.”
This is A) to connect with any Reader who has noticed a drying, flaking film on his penis after intercourse B) a bit of humor C) info about the male protag’s very positive attitudes towards Sex and the Woman he’s just had Sex with and D) to offer an earthy treat of the unexpected. There is no description of anyone’s orgasm in that scene, by the way.
Actually, maybe that scene isn’t the ideal example, since I wrote it with a slightly fantastical edge. Two very intelligent characters are indulging in the rare joy of Intellectual Sex (I was inspired, just a little, by a hilarious Sex scene in the film Altered States; if you know the film, you know the scene I mean and the Dissertation-like spiel the protag relieves himself of while nearing climax).
One more thing about Sex scenes, and Action, in general: I find it helps if the speed/ rhythm of the prose matches the Action described, somewhat.
In the end, the point is, I’m from the Congenital Underclass. The Underclass of whatever industrialized nation will tend to be pretty Sex-centric, as Sex is the most thrilling substance at hand, cheap or free, day in and out, in a slum (the ironies start when that Underclass is heavily brainwashed with a Sex-negative control mechanism like Christianity; knew a singer, Black, ‘devout Christian,’ who made a habit of adulterous affairs… his theory being that “Jesus understands I get lonely”). I had a girlfriend, c. 2000, who’d been raised in the DDR (training to be a champion Olympic gymnast for the Soviets when the Wall came down, in fact: she had weirdly short tibias/ fibulas/ calves) and she said that the waiting lists for a TV were years long; what people did in their little villages, in East Berlin, for entertainment, was screw.
Idea for t-shirt: “WE ARE MADE OF FUCKSTUFF”
A: I had two great periods of influence; before and after puberty. Before puberty I was influenced by the great (and uneven) postmodernist Harlan Ellison. Also, Italo Calvino. After puberty… a few years along, in fact, while certain internal adjustments were made… I fell under the mixed bag of hypnotic powers of H. Miller, Kundera, Vonnegut, Chatwin, Brodkey, Didion. Later DeLillo and Pynchon. My imagination was inspired by The Raging Postmodernists (Barthelme, Gardner), who also taught me quite a lot about what not to do (by doing it).
To be embarrassingly honest, I never read the work of a “Black” writer that was original, and inventive, and commandingly self-assured enough to affect me. Well, what can you reasonably expect? It takes centuries for a literary culture to mature and produce a steady trickle of wonders. I can’t say I enjoy the novels of many 18th century Englishmen, either. Further: I’m sure there were a few Black Literary Geniuses working in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s and I’m just as sure they were buried, stunted, stopped and disappeared: anathema. What we were allowed to read instead was the cheerfully and harmlessly second-rate. The “soulfully” acceptable. More genuinely great Black talent was allowed through the psycho-social filter in Music; because, maybe, Music is (mistakenly) thought of as a sub-Intellectual field? Emotional, you know. The mainstream loves the idea of Emotional Darkies.
Q: What can a novel offer that TV can’t?
A: The ruminative tempo of sensual cognition. Imagine relishing a bowl of your favorite soup on a breeze-cooled veranda in August. Now imagine dozens of bowls of the same soup rolling by, at a fixed rate, on a factory conveyor belt, as you’re being ordered to “dig in” by a megaphone.
Also: no casting errors. There’s more, of course, but this isn’t the place for me to vent on my life-long suspicion of TV technology.
Q: What is the strangest thing about your Fiction; the thing that keeps you “outside,” perhaps?
A: I don’t write about Money or Jobs. This is the Golden Age of neither.
Q: Why are you parodying Nabokov in this Q&A?
A: Fuck off (he said, with a smile).
TAKEAWAY APOPHTHEGM: Postmodernism is a seasoning, not a dish.
ONE OF MY FAVORITE ONE-LINERS FROM “THIS INCREDIBLE SEX COMEDY”:
“I promised myself that I was either going to commit suicide or suck a penis today and I think I’ve made my decision.”