- When did it dawn upon you that you wanted to be a writer?
When my mother reminisces about my childhood, she likes to tell people that I was a very precocious infant: I walked early, and I was jabbering away by about 8 months. My little brother, by contrast, was late to the party; when he finally started speaking I was the only one who could understand him and translated even for my parents. I was also early to reading & writing. There was never a point at which I said to myself, self, you want to be a writer! By the time I realized I was writing, I’d been writing for as long as I could remember, and I’ve just never stopped.
- You don’t have to be a writer in order to be an author – how true is that?
For me, this is entirely true, but perhaps not in the manner you intended. Notwithstanding the preceding answer, I don’t actually consider myself a writer. I consider myself a contemporary practitioner of the ancient tradition of story-telling: all of my writing is designed with a metre and a tone that are best expressed in reading them aloud. The only reason I write is so that I can share them more easily. By the same token, though, I do think it’s necessary to write in order to be an author. Anything else just falls under the unsatisfying rubric of “performance art”, with all the artifice & pretention that implies.
- What works best for you: Typewriters, fountain pen, dictate, computer or longhand?
Well, so now I have to admit that I am a writer: even though the modern publishing industry requires that pretty much everything be typed or processed or digitized, everything I write starts as a thing handwritten in pen—usually in composition books. Once it’s written, I recite it, to make sure it sounds right. My printing is atrocious (I’ve entirely abandoned cursive, even in Cyrillic), so I can’t even hire someone to do the typing, but I’m moderately efficient with the transcribing. I still have several of my original notebooks. What’s interesting to me, though, is how very little deviation I see from the original manuscript to the published book: what I hear in my head is a pretty complete version of the final product.
- From all that we have been hearing and seeing in the movies, most writers are alcoholics. Your views on that?
Ah, that smells like a giant rationalisation. I’m not saying most writers are not alcoholics; most of the people I know drink too much, without respect to whether or not they write. We’d be better off if we just admitted the U.S. has a drinking problem, one facet of which is our propensity to glamourize it.
- Do you prefer being intoxicated to write? Or would you rather write sober?
I published six books so far; I’ve never once in my life been drunk. I realize that sounds eccentric, but I have the sobering examples of a violent & abusive drunken father (non-writer), a drink & drug-addled late wife (non-writer), several alcohol-addicted girlfriends (non-writers and one wanna-be), and a nearly homeless, disabled drunk brother (non-writer), to remind me of why I eschew drinking: I don’t need it, I’ve never needed it, I don’t particularly want it, and I doubt very much it would improve my prodigious capacity for production, not just in the writing studio, but in the art studio, the kitchen, and many other such places. If one wants to be a successful writer, I would recommend staying away from the fire-water.
- Do you have a day job other than being a writer? And do you like it?
Sort of, and yes! I’ve enjoyed an interesting professional trajectory that has included a lot of volunteerism & business, but always underpinning that was artwork & writing. I own a private art studio, from which I produce everything from small paintings to giant sculptures. I still design gardens (my first company was in landscaping), and spend at least a portion of every day working in my own, which often feels like paradise to me. I sit on the board of directors of a small not-for-profit dedicated to promoting arts, artists, entertainment, & entertainers. I continue to renovate a condemned house I bought in 2013. It’s not exactly a “day-job”, but I work every day, from about seven a.m. until whenever (sometimes quite late!), and I never, ever wake up bored or tired.
- Do all authors have to be grammar Nazis?
Ah, this is a special subject for me. As a kid, I hated most of Picasso’s paintings: they seemed to me grotesque and amateurish. Then I saw some of his representational work—usually neglected by the professional arts community because these pastoral paintings are quite beautiful and unaffected (I often borrow a line from the Woody Harrelson movie The Walker , proclaiming that art must be offensive in order to be good). It wasn’t until I saw Picasso’s skill in painting that I recognized his abstracts as choices, which completely transformed their relevance for me. I still dislike most abstract artwork: the practitioners of this sloppy, often pretentious work are not with intention, but by an accident of incompetence: they simply lack the skill to do anything but splat paint on a canvas and announce its brilliance. My feelings about grammar (and the other appurtenances of language) are very similar: language can be beautiful, and it can be disturbingly expressive, but too much of what passes for fiction (and especially poetry) is a biproduct of accident & incompetence. One should first understand the rules of one’s language, and be able to write well; only then should one consider breaking the rules for effect, and, even then, only occasionally. What passes for writing today—the failures of agreement, the dropped consonant in our indefinite article, the use of words like media as a singular, and phenomenon as a plural, and a host of other transgressions—it just seems so without craft, talent, & imagination. Most of this wouldn’t have been published a hundred years ago.
- How active are you on social media? And how do you think it affects the way you write?
I recently cancelled my Twitter account: I was really dismayed that the user rules were blatantly ignored where our current, so-called president is concerned, and that it seemed to have transformed into a reservoir of misinformation & hate-speech. I dabble on Facebook, which I loathe, for the same reasons I loathed Twitter, but also because the quality of the cognition and language is so deplorable (Hillary Clinton may have been impolitic, but she got a lot of things right). Neither of those media affected the way I write, though my ennui with them is affected by the way I write (I often feel as if I’m wasting my time even commenting on the mindless blather that passes for content on Facebook, and tend to confine my activities to posting photos I’ve made that seem worth sharing). On the other hand is Quora, which may not be regarded very generally as a social medium, but which, nonetheless, engages me not only in interested reading (some of the writing here is of astonishingly high quality, both in style & cognition), but also in some compelling writing prompts that help me hone my own writing skills.
- Do you set a plot or prefer going wherever an idea takes you?
I alluded earlier to writing “with intention”, as it relates to my propensity to grammar-Nazism, and I regard the function of plotting in much the same way: before I ever crack open a notebook, I know where my story starts, where it ends, and every step in between. There was an apocryphal story about Mozart that he knew all the notes of his works small & large before he ever put pen to paper, and merely transcribed the music in his head. Now, I’m not claiming to be Mozart, but I do understand the sentiment: my stories are composed in my head; the hard part is the transcription.
- Have you ever turned a dream or a nightmare into a written piece?
I like to joke that my dreams are so lucid that sometimes it’s difficult to tell when in dreaming & when I’m not. I think part of the reason my work is done before I ever put pen to paper is because so much of it emerges from my dreams, where it repeats itself over and over until it has the feeling of memory. The same is true of my giant sculpture: I’ll make a piece over and over in my dreams until it’s execution is really just assembly. The upside for my writing is that I have a seemingly infinite well of stories ready to write; the downside is that the writing becomes somewhat of a chore, and leaves me feeling more like a scribe than a story-teller.
- Have you ever written a character based on the real you in some part?
I make an appearance in every single thing I write (and even little cameos in my movies). Some of the appearances are more extensive than others. The two most obvious are the mercurial Wizard of the Wood from Fearless Inanna (SM-ARC, inc, 2015), and the irascible misfit, Martin Badger, from The Love of Simon Fox (SM-ARC, inc, 2016) and More Tales from the Enchanted Wood (SM-ARC, inc., 2018). In reality, though, I am part of almost every character I write: I know them all as well as I know myself.
- How much of yourself do you put into your books?
Well, that’s the thing: every character I write is a part of me, and the narrator (I prefer the omniscient type) is the rest of me. That’s not to say that I “pour myself into my work”, or that it is in some way exhausting (the illustrations are exhausting: I’m not a very relaxed draughtsman or painter, and really drain myself on those things); but I live in these stories and they live in me, long after they’ve made it to the bookstore.
- Do you often project your own habits onto your characters?
The two characters I mentioned previously—the Wizard of the Wood and Martin Badger—are as much me as I am. Among many of my friends, I’m broadly regarded as a helpful man, but I’m not trusted: I have the appearance of a “bad boy”, and people are often waiting for me to prove myself unreliable or dangerous—qualities on display in the nebulous, inscrutable nature of the Wizard. Martin badger, by contrast, is an unpolished, sometimes brusque character who demonstrates unfailing loyalty & courage: even when he thinks he might not be up to the task at hand, he’ll be first in line to volunteer. It may be self-indulgent to ascribe those qualities to myself, but I do exhibit them, sometimes quite inconveniently for my critics.
- Do your novels carry a message?
One of the most extraordinary aspects of A Tale of Two Cities is the “message” extolled by the courage and sacrifice of Sydney Carton: even after a life of dissipation, failure, and indolence, he can redeem himself in the end—in his last gesture—by giving up his lost life for the benefit of a stranger, in the same act offering some comfort to another. It’s such a splendid display of humanity, it has rooted itself inextricably in my mores and imagination. My messages may not be quite as grand, and certainly not as sentimental, but they are there, sometimes very subtly. I don’t want to offer the punishing metaphors of John Irving to my readers, but I do want to plant small ideas—always the gardener, I sow seeds wherever I find fertile soil.
- Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?
I read less than I like, but I try to read at least one new book a month (that’s in addition to a plethora of articles in the press, Wikipedia, The New Yorker, and reread books). I tend not to read a lot of fiction or poetry. The last book I read was an odd tome on the life and ruminations of Dutch artist Theo Jansen. The one on my night stand right now is a Tolkien reread: The Silmarillion (an enduring lesson in world-building). My favorite fiction writers are all deeply out of fashion: Dinesen, Dickens, Milne, Carroll, Tolkien, Ecco, & Kipling. My favorite non-fiction writers are Stephen jay Gould (perhaps one of my strongest literary influences), Gladwell, Jared Diamond, & David Quammen. Among my favorite “guilty pleasures” (not literature, but deliciously decadent) are Stig Larsson & Thomas Harris (Hannibal Lecter is in my file of bitter resentments: I wish I’d written this character!).
- Tell us about your writing style, how is it different from other writers?
My “style”, such as it is, has been qualified as “old-fashioned”, “baroque”, and (when I’m very lucky) “eloquent”, and I would submit that it differs principally from other contemporary authors for its formality & verbosity (I love a good adverb or adjective, I’m not afraid of passive sentences) and I think that the omniscient narrator is the only voice that really makes sense (I loathe this sudden popularity of the unreliable first person—what is the point of that!?). I also eschew profanity: truly, if one can’t find a better word than an expletive in our rich and abundant language, one has no business calling one’s self a writer. If, on the other hand, the reader still enjoys the “unfashionable” classics (they’re classic, for goodness sake!), one might enjoy my chatty digressions.
- Who is the most supportive of your writing in your family?
When I was a kid, I mostly wrote in secret: my family on non-reader pragmatists were not especially enthusiastic about the time I wasted scribbling in my notebooks (among all the other eccentric activities that fascinated me but had the effect of rendering me astonishingly socially unpopular). Then I started dating my high school English teacher, whose very presence in my life added an imprimatur of acceptability to my odd habits (she quite enjoyed them for twenty-five years, until her untimely decease). My mother and girlfriend rank today as my most enthusiastic fans (though I always feel compelled to point out that it’s part of the job description, and that I shouldn’t allow their unreserved praise to go to my head.
- Were you a troublemaker as a child?
I was an easy kid: my precociousness was confined to my intellectual curiosity. I simply hadn’t the time to get into trouble: I was too busy exploring my world, building new ones, and reading the ideas of others.
- How does it feel when you don’t get the recognition you deserve?
The most injudicious part of this question is the word “deserve”: with it’s implied entitlement & expectation, it’s an invitation to disappointment and cries of unfairness. As I’ve written in A View from the Tendo (SM-ARC, inc., 2016), “life is not a matter of fairness; it’s a matter of endurance. Some of us are made to endure much more than others.” If I ever do anything for the purposes of recognition, and I don’t get any, I’ll have gotten exactly what I deserve.
- Does a bad review affect your writing?
I write the way I write—it’s old-fashioned and out-of-fashion, and I know very well that it’s not pleasing to all tastes, but it’s the way I write, and that’s that. A reviewer is welcome to advance a criticism of my work (though I’d prefer it’s a review of my work, and not an ad hominem attack). As Terry Cole-Whittaker once observed, “what you think of me is none of my business”; the same goes for my work: it’s really none of my business. The other important feature of this question is the qualifications of the reviewer: unless one demonstrates a depth of knowledge of literature (and specifically the literary forebears of my work) and a keen understanding of language, one may not be qualified to judge me. Our jurisprudence system assures us a jury of our peers; we might apply the same to our work. I write the way I write…
- Do contemporary writers have the kind of animosity that competitors in showbiz seem to have?
I recall once in university I asked a professor why things were so nasty amongst the faculty, and, however cliched, he observed, “it’s because the stakes are so small”. It took me a while to understand, being a somewhat naïve kid, but it’s a function of what we currently call the scarcity problem: we assume there is only a single pie that must be divvied up amongst us all, and we jealously guard our tiny slice. I don’t really associate with other writers, though I did once, and what I observed was a deeply ingrained habit of hypercompetetiveness that sometimes verged on sabotage. The prevailing notion seemed to be that if one helped a fellow writer (or artist), that writer (or artist) might succeed at our expense, so we’re encouraged to avoid helping, and even to be obstructive. It’s ridiculous, of course, but, to a certain extent, it’s human nature, and it’s sad. My own habit is to extend what help I can, especially to younger writers with great ideas: to fail to offer encouragement is just inexcusable.
- Do you reply back to your fans and admirers personally?
I don’t have a huge fan club, but I do enjoy corresponding with such as I have. If my job is to write my books, theirs is to read it, and it’s nice to compare notes. I also put a lot of stock in the faded etiquette of the epistolary art form, and to fail to reply is not just lazy, but rude: if someone has taken the time & effort to write me, the very least I can do is pen a short note of thanks.
- Do you enjoy theatre? Would you ever like one of your stories to be turned into a play?
Hah—it’s so funny: I write plays, I’ve performed in plays, I’ve produced plays, but I really don’t enjoy sitting through them. I love movies, but the artifice of the theatre is just so unsatisfying to me. Having admitted that, I should admit that I do enjoy writing plays—my fifth book, The Bathroom Rule (SM-ARC, inc., 2017) is a collection of short plays. Neither my fiction nor my non-fiction books, however, would be suitable for translation on the stage.
- They say books die every time they are turned into a movie; what do you think?
I think this is just terribly narrow-minded. A movie is not a book, and vice versa. Now, I’m not suggesting that all movies made from books are effective—some are even inexcusable (I’m thinking of David Lynch’s horrendous Dune )—but each should be judged on its own merits, and not as they relate to each other. I personally dislike Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit (the latter I’ve criticized as a cynical, bloated Wagnerian epic), but my critique isn’t because I love the books: it’s because Peter Jackson is an unimaginative filmmaker. I love to see what a good filmmaker can do with a book—how they see the book in their own medium.
- What’s your favorite movie which was based on a book?
I’m not a person given to superlatives—best this, favorite that: my thinking is a little more equivocal and nuanced than that, and sometimes it’s just impossible to decide what thing I like best (which is prone to change minute to minute anyhow). I can hold up a couple of examples of movies I love based on books: Peter Weir’s 1983 The Year of Living Dangerously was brilliant, and far exceeded the slim text of the Koch book of the same name; Ridley Scott’s 1982 Blade Runner, based on the short (and unsatisfying) story by Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, vastly exceeded its source material (I would submit that the same is true of all adaptations of Dick’s work); and Cloud Atlas, by the Wachowskis and Tom Tykwer, was a truly brilliant translation of a good, but not great, book. These movies demonstrate how literate and literary a good movie can be in the hands of a talented interpreter of the original material.
- Which book would you want adapted for the silver screen?
Several of my books, and even a few of my short stories, might translate well to cinema. I’d be fascinated to see what a talented filmmaker could do with Fearless Inanna and either of the Simon Fox books: these are very visual pieces with interesting challenges in interpreting the characters (especially animals who speak and are self-aware), and to see them rendered from page to screen is quite attractive, especially once a score is added.
- Have any of your books been adapted into a feature film?
I’ve adapted Fearless Inanna & The Love of Simon Fox myself, and I’m quite happy with the screenplays as a starting point for a filmmaker, but they’re still sitting in boxes. I have made films myself, but I lack the budget and technical skills to produce these two scripts: they need a much more adroit hand than mine. I’ll keep hoping that, some day, they’ll end up in front of someone who can.
- Is there a particular kind of attire you like to write in?
Hah—oh, yes. I work out of my house most days, and I’m disinclined to attire in the house. Many’s the day my girlfriend has walked in and observed, “oh, it’s no pants Tuesday” (or whatever day it happens to be). Truth is, any day ending in “y” is “no-pants day”: I tend to work au naturel.