You list existentialists as an influence on your work, as well you've spoken of depression, a lowered mood often linked to hopelessness. Are the existentialists fuel for your fiction? Or does their work erode your energy? If fuel, what do you find inspiring in them to keep your fingers tapping on the keyboard?
Usually they inspire, especially when I’m down. I’ve had depression and severe anxiety for as long as I can remember. Someone like Sartre, or Kierkegaard’s not-so-religious stuff, or Spinoza, can fuel me, can help me embrace the darkness and, even if abstract or unexplainable to anyone else, can help me make some kind of sense of certain things going on inside me. Something like the book 10,000 Things to be Happy About (I guess it’s now 14,000) just doesn’t cut it, and I don’t see how a book like that could really help anyone, honestly. It certainly doesn’t pull me out of depression or suicidal ideation or any of the other issues I deal with, anyway. The book itself, I guess, is a good idea, but it’s merely a list of random things. I don’t mean to knock any book, and I’ve no doubt that book has been instrumental in helping people, but it isn’t the kind of thing for me.
I was just in the Boston Logan Airport and didn’t need a book like that in order to find one of those things and know it was one of those things. From the airport I posted on Facebook: “I have to say, something that still melts my heart is seeing a small child's excitement about getting on an airplane.” But I digress.
It’s also the language of the existentialist writers that often excites me. The way the words are put together. The prose is often so beautiful that sometimes I only need to read a paragraph or two and I get fueled.
How has your father or his writing shaped your own writing?
My father was very encouraging with anything any of his kids did, especially creative stuff. I was a musician for a long time and he encouraged that. When I got more serious about writing, he encouraged that. He may have been a bit more encouraging with writing, but I think that’s only because it was what he did, and therefore he knew it a lot better and could be more helpful. I’m a fan of his writing, there’s no question there. The things that get me most about his work are his prose and the philosophy he’d incorporate.
You mention that Jane Lindskold was a mentor. How did she help guide you?
She had the patience and the kindness to deal with me. She knew my educational background and that I was trying to learn and figure out all this crazy writing stuff on my own. She was always willing to look at whatever I wrote. She’d mark them up, tell me what she felt worked and what didn’t. The final edit of To Sleep Gently, actually, is the Jane Lindskold edit. A lot of folks don’t know, I guess, that I wrote To Sleep Gently six or seven years before it was actually published. The first full-length book I ever sold was the tenth full-length book I’d written. Out of the first nine, the only one I still truly believed in was To Sleep Gently. The last thing she read of mine, at least as a mentor, was Destination Unknown. She told me it would sell, and she told me the exact moment in the book that was going to make it sell. She was right. While one of my lesser known books overall, it was the book I received my biggest advance for me to date.
What about Lindskold's method of editing did you come away with?
She taught me a lot about simplifying, that I was often making things far more complex than they needed to be, or should be. In To Sleep Gently I had a fairly lengthy paragraph describing something on the Santa Fe Plaza. She crossed out almost the entire thing and, in the side margin, wrote, “Just say it was an obelisk.” She also, at length, lectured me on the comma. It’s been quite a long time, but I know I wouldn’t be nearly as far along as I am had it not been for her help.
What is it about David Goodis' work that you admire?
Simple. His prose and his honesty. Really, his plots are rarely very memorable, and I think I’ve read pretty much everything at least twice, but his characters linger and make you think, his prose sings to some kind of jazz tune neither Miles Davis or Thelonious Monk would have been able to touch. Even the books of his I consider to be the weak ones still profoundly move me.
Joe Lansdale, another favorite author of mine, showed me, or taught me, if you’d rather, to not be afraid or run away from what was going on inside me. Goodis then came along and helped smooth that out for me, and got me more comfortable with being honest in exploring myself.
Any answer I could give here, if indeed I could give an answer at all, would be beyond nebulous.
Music, you say, is a mood enhancer for you, but not while you write. So do you plan ahead the moods you will invoke or do you just change it up when necessary? What are some of your book's soundtracks?
The book or story creates the soundtrack. I never know what the music is going to be until the book tells me what it likes. It’s pretty cool, actually. I’ve been turned on to music I might never have given a chance if not for a specific book telling me that’s what it generally listened to.
I love music, but when I write I need silence. So when I know the book’s soundtrack I make a mix on my iPod and play it pretty consistently during the entire first draft. I was psyched when I watched an interview with Kevin Bacon and he said one thing he does to get into his character’s mind is to make a mix on his iPod of the kind of music that character listens to. I was psyched because I was already doing that, I’m a big fan of Kevin Bacon, and he kind of validated that as a legit part of the creative process for me.
Not every book has a soundtrack, but most of them do. Destination Unknown is pretty much all eighties pop, while Too Late to Call Texas is mostly country with a bit of seventies folk rock. Fractal Despondency, Shadowboxer and A Crack in Melancholy Time were all pretty much Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I wrote a book recently but decided to put it away (at least for now) in which the entire soundtrack was essentially one band: the Fleetwoods.
Cool. What advice would you give a new writer? and to a writer with some experience?
The same advice you’d probably get from most writers. Read a lot, and write a lot. Don’t only read in the field or genre you want to write in, though continue to read that most. But also read at least a little in as many genres as you can. It’ll help enrich your writing, whether you personally realize it or not.
For a writer with experience, do your best to stay confident. Know you’re good but don’t fool yourself into thinking you’re great. There’s always so damn much to learn, and while you may think lots of things are great—as I do—time is the only lord of true greatness.
Ha, that sounds pretentious as hell!