He is a down-to-earth kind of guy, who lets his characters inspire him, rather than trying to inspire his characters. He teaches his students to write with an emotion in mind, rather than a plot. His writing is like no other.
I want to thank him for allowing me the opportunity to get to know him better by participating in this interview!
When did you first become aware of your love for the written word?
Always. I was a big reader from the time I learned to read.
Who are some of your greatest influences?
The earliest I can recall are Lawrence Durrell, who wrote The Alexandria Quartet; Jean Genet, Our Lady of the Flowers, but by now there are too many to mention. On the reading list I keep for students at UCLA, there are three hundred books I’ve read and loved and that have all been an influence at one time or another.
Right now, I’ve rediscovered Richard Brautigan, who’s most famous for “Trout Fishing in America.” I also read a lot of philosophy, Slavoj Zizek-type stuff. Also, art has been a big influence.
Right now I’m really digging the painter R.B. Kitaj. And music: used to listen to jazz but now I like punky stuff again. For movies, I really like Wim Wenders old stuff, and the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas.
How would you describe your writing style?
Others have said it’s like jazz, or like the beats. It used to be poetical with lots of imagery and metaphor -- what could be called “flowery.” But now it’s a pretty stripped-down style, taking out all the extra words. It seems like, today, everybody has seen and heard and read and said everything; there’s an oversaturation of sensory input. So I like to leave out all the stuff everybody has already seen and heard and said.
When researching your history as a writer and an instructor for the UCLA Extension Writer’s Program, I came across this quote:"Writing is not about having "ideas," about plot, structure, or narrative. It is the creation of a feeling, a nuance, a brief picture recalled, and establishing it, letting one scene suggest the next, allowing the work to create itself.” How does this apply to the way you create your stories, and how do you teach your students to do the same?
I try to see a picture, or rather, to picture a mood, the mood of an emotion, and to discover characters who embody that mood, then set them in motion and see what they might want to do. That’s where my plots now grow from. I want to let the characters find their own answers, without me getting in the way or pushing them around. I’ve never had a “great idea” for a book that’s worked out. As far as how I apply this to teaching, I try simply to aim the students toward what seems to be the most emotionally resonant in their work, and I urge them to keep writing in that direction, toward what’s working best. Typically, those are the parts of their work that have the strongest voice. At the same time, I do pay a lot of attention to the basics like sentence construction, because writing is also a craft.
When I read your novel SLOW LIE DETECTOR, I noticed it was published without a jacket blurb. What was the reasoning behind the lack of summary?
Well, I think we simply didn’t think of it. While I like jacket blurbs that give me a sense of the style of the novel, I don’t care for descriptions of the plot. That doesn’t interest me. Someone once asked Martin Amis, “What’s your novel about,” and he said, “it’s about 440 pages, you’ll have to read it to find out.” I really hate the emphasis that’s put on synopses and summaries. They don’t really tell you anything about a book. But I always know after reading a page from anywhere in a novel whether it’s going to interest me.
What can you tell us about your latest novel WHO I WAS?
It’s the unmediated thoughts of a college girl during her love affair with a college guy. I tried to write it completely from her head, without any authorial intrusion. Corny as it sounds, I channeled her.
As a writer, I am sure you get your fair share of feedback. What is the best compliment you have ever been given? What was the hardest constructive criticism you were ever given?
I gave a 16 year old kid “Who I Was” and he said, “this is really about me.” That was awesome. I knew I’d got it right. The most constructive crit has always been, “what’s going on here? Where are we?” To generalize, the best criticism (positive or negative) lets me know how the novel is being perceived. For example, if a reader thinks my main character is 19 but I’ve intended her to be 35, that lets me know I can do one of two things: try to make the character seem more 19-ish, or: I guess she’s 35 after all! And then I take it from there.
What books are you currently reading?
A short story collection, “Daddy’s” by Lindsay Hunter, published by Featherproof Books. Also, rereading The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony by Roberto Callasso, a retelling of the Greek myths. He is a genius.
As an author and a reader, what is your take on eBooks and eReaders?
They’re not for me. They give me a giant headache. The paper book still does the best job of presenting fiction.
What authors/novels/websites would you like to share with our audience?
Richard Brautigan, who I first read in college, really knocked my socks off all over again, if I wore ‘em -- particularly “A Confederate General from Big Sur,” “The Abortion – a Historical Romance” and the short stories, “Revenge of the Lawn.” They’ve all been recently reissued in nice paperbacks. A couple of really cool websites are squareamerica.com, which has thousands of vintage photos, and Overheard in New York, which has great quotes right from the streets of New York and all over.
What was the best question that an interviewer asked you? What was the worst? How did you reply to them?
The best was, if you were to meet your 12 your self, what would you tell him? My answer was, don’t be a wuss, do what you want to do. The worst was, “what’s the difference between men and women,” in the sense that I’ve been trying to figure that out in my books my whole life.
What is one thing that no one knows about you?
Come on. Why would I tell? Everything anyone wants to know is in the books.