D.R. Haney is the author of "Banned For Life". He is an autodidact who is fearful of horses and has held a variety of interesting jobs: a model, a Wall Street waiter, a telephone salesman, and a contributor for zines and small publications. He spent 9 years writing Banned, published under Vancouvers And/Or Press, which was influenced heavily by his love for underground music and having survived a near fatal accident. I want to thank him for allowing me this opportunity to interview him. And for being such a warm and friendly conversationalist!
I understand from your GoodReads profile that you read "omnivorously". What was the first book you recall connecting with, and why?
Well, first, I should say that I used the word “read” in my GoodReads bio in the past tense. I used to read omnivorously, but I don’t have the time to do so now, particularly since Banned for Life was published. Promoting Banned, or trying to promote it, has proven to be a full-time job.
In any case, the first book I remember loving was Homer Price, by Robert McCloskey, about a boy growing up in a small town in Ohio. It’s really a collection of stories, and the story I liked best was about a doughnut machine that wouldn’t turn off. My second-grade teacher read the stories aloud, one by one, in class for a week or so. I was born and raised in Virginia, and there was Southern feeling about Homer Price, despite its Midwestern setting, and that may have been why my teacher thought the class would respond to the book. She was right, at least in my case.
What authors do you enjoy reading? Do you have a favorite novel?
There are numerous writers that I’ve enjoyed reading, but there aren’t many to whom I find myself returning. Norman Mailer would be one of them, and so are Kerouac and Flannery O’Connor and John Fante and Nietzsche; and I’d love to get around to those books by Milan Kundera that have so far managed to escape me. I’d also like to read all of Chekhov’s stories, as well as Leaves of Grass in its entirety, and to take another crack at Dostoevsky. I always regretted that I put down The Idiot.
Lately, I’ve been making my way through the diaries of Virginia Woolf. I much prefer her informal writing—her letters and diaries—to her fiction or essays. In the diaries especially, she brilliantly analyzes friends and acquaintances. Mailer, I think, has a comparable genius for character analysis, which may be what I most prize about him. His sketches of the Apollo 11 astronauts in Of a Fire on the Moon are superlative.
I’ve also recently returned to Faulkner. My friend Jeannie, learning that I’d only read Faulkner’s novels and never his short stories, sent me a collection of the latter, and it’s fantastic, as I should’ve known it would be.
My favorite novel? Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night. There’s a very high level of intensity in that book that’s sustained without a lapse from beginning to end, which is what I tried to accomplish with Banned, and I’ll go on trying to accomplish. But I don’t think Celine ever pulled it off again. I’ve read a few other books by him, but only Death on Layaway came close to Journey—close and yet so far.
If your house were to catch fire, which 5 books would you rescue, and why?
Here’s hoping my house never catches fire—and that goes for all houses.
Well, first, I’d have to save my copy of Kerouac’s On the Road, because of the enormous impact it had on me. The cover is now scotch-taped together, reflecting the number of times the book has been handled. I wouldn’t say, by any means, that On the Road is one of my favorite books, but it led to the discovery of my true favorites. Kerouac was, for me, a gateway writer.
I’d also save Shadows of the Sun, which is the diary of the Lost Generation poet Harry Crosby. He shot himself in 1929 in a suicide pact with a beautiful girl he called The Fire Princess: one of his many mistresses. He’s a fascinating character and the subject of Black Sun, a terrific biography by Geoffrey Wolff. Black Sun is still in print, but Shadows of the Sun is not. I love the design of my copy, which was published by the now-defunct Black Sparrow Press. Black Sparrow had a distinctive house style, design-wise. Their covers had a textile-like grain and bold, simple graphics.
Then there’s my copy Henry Miller’s The Wisdom of the Heart, which I’d save because it was a gift from my ex, Kerry, who died four years ago. Kerry was herself a writer—a playwright, and a good one, educated at the Yale School of Drama—and she gave me several books, but Wisdom is the only one in which she included a personal note.
Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! I’d save because I read it at my grandparents’ farm, and I always transpose events in Faulkner to my grandparent’s farm, where a Civil War battle occurred. I think of the farm, which I never visit now that my grandparents are dead, every time I pick up my copy of Absalom, Absalom!
Finally, there’s The Epic of Man, a kind of coffee-table anthropology primer that was published by Life magazine in the early sixties, and includes myriad photographs of ruins and relics, as well as illustrations of Cro-Magnon villages and Pharaohs holding court and the like. I stole The Epic of Man as a keepsake from my grandparents’ library around the time my grandmother died. I was mesmerized by the book as a child, not least because it featured so many naked women, so I’d save it for sentimental reasons, as with most of the books on this list.
But can I really only save five books? I own many worth braving the flames.
Writing "Banned For Life" was a long, personal journey for you. Tell me about the process. How closely does the novel reflect your life?
Well, spiritually, the overlap is significant. I felt a great deal like the narrator, Jason, as a teenager and at many other points in my life, but I wouldn’t say I felt like him always. Jason is more conventional, for want of a better word, than I am. If you met him, you might never suspect his background in punk rock and independent film and all the rest of it. He has an all-American quality that I lack. If he’d lived in Hollywood in the sixties, he might have picked up extra cash as a bit player in surfer flicks—that is, if he’d maintained a tan. Also, I’m more cerebral than Jason, and naturally inclined to rebel (as my parents will confirm), whereas Jason found to hard to rebel, at least in adolescence. He expressed his alienation passive-aggressively.
I lived in most of the same locales as Jason, and I was involved in the same scenes, but his involvement was greater in some cases, and vice-versa. As for the other characters in Banned—Peewee and Jim and Irina, and so on—they’re all, to one degree or another, hybrids of real-life people. Irina—Jason’s romantic Waterloo—is modeled most closely after a single, real-life counterpart, and even she’s not an exact replica.
In terms of the journey of writing Banned, I had the initial idea for it ten years ago, as I write these words, in April 2000. Then it took me a year to begin the book, after many failed attempts, and I moved to Belgrade, Serbia, where I could live cheaply, to write the first draft. I was pleased with the first draft, and naïvely thought there wouldn’t be much revision, but back in L.A., my adopted hometown, I joined a writers group, and that caused me to take a scrupulous look at what I’d written, so I revised and polished until April 2005, when I was sure I had a final draft. I even went out and celebrated with friends—meaning I got unbelievably drunk.
Still, no one had read the manuscript from start to finish, and once people did, I heard criticism I hadn’t expected to encounter, and spent two more years in revision. Then I worked with an editor in New York, who raised still more concerns, which led to another year of revisions. Then publishers read the manuscript, and though they demanded editorial control of a kind I wasn’t prepared to cede, I went through yet another year of cuts and additions bearing their comments in mind. In fact, I was making changes up until the last minute, after I decided to go with a friend’s imprint in Canada. I’m afraid I drove the poor layout guy crazy, with words or whole paragraphs crossed out in the galleys and their substitutes scribbled in the margins; arrows pointed every which way.
It was a nine-year process, all told. I never, ever anticipated that it would take as long as it did, but the book became more personal as I went along, since I was always adding details, sometimes culled from my life, or the lives of friends.
Of course it would’ve been personal anyway. Jason’s my boy, and his best friend Peewee is my hero. I love that kid.
Music is the driving force behind Jason and Peewee's relationship. What kind of music are you listening to right now? Which bands have had the most impact on you?
There have been so many!
When I was a teenager, I was interested in older music, the Beatles in particular. I knew everything about the Beatles, and still know a great deal, though I rarely listen to them now.
Later, like so many people, I was blown away by Nirvana, and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion was an important band for me, since I discovered them at a point when I thought there was nothing new worth hearing, being very out of touch with the underground. But in the spirit of my earlier comment about Kerouac and books, Blues Explosion was a kind of gateway band: because of my interest in them, I discovered Federation X and KARP and Drive Like Jehu and Girls Against Boys and Atari Teenage Riot, and many other great underground bands. And I still listen to most of them. I’m stuck in the nineties, I’m afraid, and I’m partial to music from the Pacific Northwest for some reason. I remember going to shows where I’d see some band I liked, and I’d walk up to them later and say, “Where you are from?” and they’d say, “Olympia.” It happened again and again.
But it’s not a hard and fast rule. Probably my favorite band is Sonic Youth, which is funny because for so long I couldn’t stand them. Unwound (from Olympia) is another favorite, and they were greatly influenced by Sonic Youth, as was yet another favorite, Die Princess Die. I was practically a de-facto member of Die Princess Die. They started in San Diego, but most of the guys ended up moving to L.A., which is where I got to know them. They were stellar. Even when I loved a band, there came a point where I lost interest in seeing them, but that never happened with DPD. Their shows were always electric, including their last two years ago. It was a drunken fiasco, but they still commanded attention, if only because you didn’t know what was going to happen next. You’d think, “How can this get any worse?” And then it would.
Describe your novel in 5 words.
Protagonist rediscovers erstwhile hero, disastrously.
What can we expect next from you?
I’m currently at work on a novel that I’m tentatively calling A Perfect Example. It’s about two brothers and their Cain-and-Abel relationship, though it doesn’t conclude with one killing the other, despite the occasional fratricidal impulse on the part of the “Cain” brother. It takes place over a long period of time, like Banned, and I hope it amounts to a portrait of American culture, as was my intention with Banned. But while Perfect will have lots of drugs and sex, there won’t be much rock & roll, so in that way it’s dissimilar to Banned. Also, the form is radically different, and there’s a thematic emphasis on vanity and changing definitions of masculinity, which weren’t pressing concerns in Banned, though they’re present, I think, in the margins.
What is your take on eBooks and eReaders, as an author and as a reader?
I have mixed feelings about eBooks, which is probably true for most writers. It puts me in mind the old McLuhan thing—the message is the medium—and I’m surprised more people don’t realize how reading on a screen shapes and colors the experience—or maybe they do realize it, and they simply prefer the experience of reading on a screen. But I know, in my case, I don’t tend to concentrate as much as when reading a hard copy. I scan and skim, as the nature of the medium encourages. Staring at a light triggers a different brain wave than staring at something that reflects light—i.e., paper. There’s a hypnotic effect.
I’m sure many of us can agree that the culture has become increasingly superficial over the last few decades, and it can’t be coincidence that technology has become omnipresent in the meantime. There’s more and more emphasis on how things look, so that our most ballyhooed artists, aside from pop stars, are designers—in fact, pop stars often become “designers,” launching their own fashion lines. Meanwhile, as I understand it, fewer and fewer people are reading books (as opposed to online content), so, in that sense, I don’t much care how people are reading books—whether it’s on a screen or it isn’t—so long as they’re reading them at all. I just don’t want to see books as objects perish, as it seems to me our corporate overlords wish, with complicity on the part of the digital-happy public.
Some, of course, say that eBooks will simply coexist with paper books rather than supplanting them, but I think it’s still too early to call. But hard-copy newspapers and magazines are currently in a lot of trouble, as we all know, so that gives me pause when it comes to the future of books.
Do you currently hold a "day job"? If you had to choose a career, other than writer, what would it be?
I’m unemployed at the moment—rather desperately so.
In terms of desired careers other than writing, I’ve already had one of them: I’ve worked as an actor quite a bit, though not always happily so.
Meanwhile, if I didn’t think it were too late and too foolish a thing to do, I’d love to be in a band and make records and tour. I’m not talking about being a rock star; I’m talking about just being a guy in a van, eking out a living. Yet I know many people who’ve done, or tried to do exactly that, and almost all of them came to hate it. It’s a hard life.
What authors/novels/websites would you recommend to our audience?
Well, I always try to elicit interest in Mailer if I can, because I think he’s in danger of being forgotten—many of his books are out of print—and also because I’m afraid his oft-buffoonish self-promotion and reputation as a misogynist have proven a stumbling block for many. I can’t agree that Mailer is a misogynist. He devotes many pages in The Executioner’s Song to a sympathetic portrait of the central figure’s paramour, Nicole Barrett, just as he’s frequently diverted from Lee Harvey Oswald to his wife, Marina, in Oswald’s Tale. That, to me, says more about Mailer than any foolish remarks he made by way of calling attention to himself. His journalism is his good stuff. I generally don’t think much of his fiction.
In terms of contemporary fiction, I don’t read much of it, just because it’s so hard for me to find novels that really grab me, but I’d definitely recommend Greg Olear’s Totally Killer, which I devoured in a couple of sittings shortly after it was published late last year. It’s a thriller, with a healthy dash of black comedy, set in New York City in 1991.
Greg, like me, is a contributor to The Nervous Breakdown, which is an online literary collective. There are a number of outstanding contributors, some of whom have published books (including its founder, Brad Listi, and Jonathan Evison, who brought me to TNB), and some of whom so far haven’t (including Ben Loory, whose story “The TV” was recently published in The New Yorker, and Lenore Zion, who’s now putting the finishing touches on her first novel). I love TNB. I visit the site unfailingly every day, and would even if I weren’t a contributor. Check it out, y’all!
Here is an older blog where Haney posts his very own handpicked soundtrack for Banned.
Do yourself a favor, and pick this novel up. It deserves to be read! But don't just take my word for it (although shame on you if you don't!) - check out an excerpt and see for youself - Chapter one.