Chances are you might not have heard of The Contortionist’s Handbook, by Craig Clevenger. But now you have so there’s really no excuse not to follow that link in the previous sentence and buy the book. Go ahead, do it. This interview will still be here when you’re done. And you can thank me later.
What’s it about? 10 second book summaries can be so boring, but I’ll give it a shot: it’s the story of John Dolan Vincent (if that is his real name), a six-fingered (on one hand) con man who takes on various identities in order to survive. He has a drug overdose and is ordered to be examined by a psychiatrist, where we learn…well, your book should be on it’s way so you can find out what happens next. Needless to say, it’s an exceptional debut, with one of the more truly intriguing characters in modern fiction and an extremely strong narrative pulse. In other words, it’s great.
Clevenger, a refugee from the high-tech jungle, sat down with me (by wire and screen, that is – he’s in CA, I’m in MA), and talked about TCH, his next novel, poker, Batman, and why Pedialyte is one of his favorite drinks.
So, like me, you’re in your late 30s. You gave up a 6 figure high-tech job to write The Contortionist’s Handbook. Was it harder or easier than you thought it would be?
It was actually in the high five figures, though with the overlap of severance from one job and the paycheck I was drawing when I quit, I did in fact hit the six figure mark. I never thought that would happen.
There’s always two angles from which to answer this line of questioning, the financial angle and the personal angle. Financially speaking, giving up my old life was pretty much what I expected it would be. I wasn’t going out as much (hardly at all) and learning how to tighten my belt every way I could. The first thing I did was have three month’s worth of rent set aside in cashier’s checks; I made sure all of my bills were current, my car was in good working order and my kitchen stocked as heavily as possible. But the money ran out quickly and getting by was tough. I’d been used to eating out five or six nights a week, and a few months in to writing, I was learning to get by on one meal a day, sometimes every other day.
The really easy part was severing myself from the cult-like attitiude that dominates the high-tech business. People in that line of work give their lives over to a business model, and it’s a point of pride to brag about how many hours you work. Those people eat, breathe and live their company lives, and throwing that out was a relief.
I’m doing bascially the same thing, staying in all the time, sleeping on a couch, drinking caffeine all day and eating one meal for dinner. Usually some sort of pasta concoction. What was your meal of choice?
Any goddamned thing I could afford or get my hands on. Pasta works, ramen, I’m sure you know all of the usual tricks. Dollar sandwiches from fast food restaurants; eggs, lots of eggs. Cheap protein, eggs.
Explain your writing process a little bit. I know you go into these times when you’re in “the pit,” cut off from everyone and everything. I call mine the “isolation chamber:” I get rid of all my bookmarks, try to stay away from the television, close the door to my office, and listen only to instrumental music because the words from rock songs fuck me up royally when I’m working on a longer piece of fiction.
‘The Pit’ is less a function of cutting myself off from the world and more a function of telling the world to go away. That might sound like a subtle distinction (or none at all) but for me, it’s huge. The way I work, eight hours of writing might be five hours of pacing and three hours of writing, but I’ve got to dedicate those eight hours, regardless. In truth, I have very little trouble doing that, though I have days where I’m more productive than others. The hard part isn’t making myself stay in a room with no TV for eight hours, but convincing people they can’t just drop by or call whenever they want, or convincing people that those eight hours are just like a job that I can’t leave whenever I feel like it.
Somebody might assume that my schedule is totally flexible because I “don’t have a real job.” In fact, I regard my schedule as rigid as any other work schedule, and I don’t like to mess with it. As silly as it sounds, those five hours of pacing and staring at the wall are part of the process, and they’re critical to what I get written each day. So ‘The Pit’ doesn’t lock me in as much as it shuts other people out.
As for my actual process, it depends on what stage I’m at, and it’s changed since my first book. But yes, I do have music, something without lyrics; I work from a detailed outline and my revisions are merciless.
Yeah, that’s one of the things that irritates me about other’s view of writing, that’s it’s “not a real job.” And I’m glad you mention that a lot of writing is actually pacing around, staring, thinking. I can knock out articles and short pieces with no problem, but with the novel I find myself talking to myself out loud, pacing the room, acting out scenes to hear how they sound both in my head and as a reader would read them. Really immersing myself into the whole world of the novel. TV always gets it wrong: whenever they show a character who is supposed to be a writer, like the lady on Murder, She Wrote, it’s just this perfect prose that goes from their brain to their keyboard, no multiple drafts, no editing, just bam away at the keyboard and it’s writing!
I know… it’s strange how writers themselves create these TV/movie caricatures of writers, and it’s embarrassing most of the time. One of the few that ever got it right was Billy Crystal’s character in Throw Momma From the Train. I laugh every time I see him pacing his apartment saying “… the night was….” over and over, unable to decide what to say next. It’s meant to be funny, but it’s still accurate.
There’s a scene in Wonder Boys, where Tobey Maguire and Michael Douglas are sitting in a packed auditorium listening to a “literary” writer speak, and he says something so pretentious and artsy that MaGuire just lets out this really sincere laugh that echoes in the silent hall. Great moment.
So you’re working on your second novel, Dermaphoria. What are you finding to be the differences in the writing, research, structure this time? And can you give just a little clue about the book, maybe some little hint that will be so maddeningly intriguing that all your fans will be going to your web site for updates, drooling in anticipation? Heh…
The structure to Dermaphoria is very similar to that of the Handbook. That is, I open ‘en media res’ as they say, with an event that begins a forward arching plot, but the backstory to that event is its own plot arch, and is interlaced with that of the present setting. It’s a structure I’m very comfortable with for many reasons, among them that I enjoy exploring not just what is happening with a character, but also how that character got to where they are at the beginning of the story.
The research is just as deep, but for a variety of reasons it’s going to be less evident in the story. Above all, the repetition of the research in the Handbook was part of John Vincent’s character but, in the case of Dermaphoria, I’ve got a different narrator. More importantly, I’m really trying to lean more on the story to engage the reader, rather than a litany of interesting facts. As happy as I am with the Handbook, I think I exposed too much of the research, to the detriment of the story.
As for the writing, I’ve created a much deeper outline than I did with my first novel, and I’m moving at a much slower pace. I started with a brief sketch of the story’s key events, then wrote an extremely crude, 100+ page ‘draft’ which was really just a detailed treatment. I spent most of last year ripping that draft apart, and created a detailed scene-by-scene outline; each scene has it’s own full page synopsis, including characters, setting, and a bunch of other details, along with excerpts and cuts from the original draft attached. The end result is a much richer outline, roughly seventy-five pages. It’s ironic but the more preparation I do, the more free I feel during the open-ended creative process.
The current draft is just shy of 50,000 words, which is a little less than halfway finished, by my estimate. I count on being done by some time toward the end of April/mid-May. Then the re-writing begins.
By way of hints, I’ll say that I’m researching clandestine drug production, among other things. Whenever someone mails me a book to be signed, I usually send it back with some snippet from my research, such as a location photograph or something. I’ve been very scarce with my web site, lately. I’ve actually taken it down, pending a redesign, and have a simple page in its place right now. I won’t be doing as much activity on there as I have been for a while, while I focus on finishing this book.
Who are some of your influences? I know you’ve mentioned Jim Thompson and James Cain and Steve Erickson. What’s that funny story about Will Christopher Baer, that you had admired his writing for a long time and then found out that he had actually been working at the coffee shop where you got your caffeine fix every morning?
With my influences, I should also mention James Ellroy, Rupert Thomson and Michael Ventura. Different writers influence me in different ways, and sometimes it’s just a single book by a writer that influences me more than the rest of their work, such as Andrew Vachss’s Shella. In some cases, it’s the writer’s style that influences me, in others it’s their take on a certain subject; sometimes it’s the work ethic or a certain philosophy, so it’s not always just about the writing style.
Chris Baer was a huge influence; you pretty much nailed the story. We met through a mutual acquaintance and yes, he was working and living only blocks away from me after I’d read his first two books and was writing the Handbook, and neither one of us knew it. We’ve since become friends and meet for a drink now and then, and correspond pretty regularly. I should stress that we never, ever talk about writing, at least not the creative process. Neither one of us can think of anything more dull and pretentious than hanging out and bullshitting about our ‘inspiration’ or grand themes or some such shit. It doesn’t happen.
As proud as I am of the Handbook, I’m almost just as proud of bringing Chris to MacAdam/Cage, my publisher. They’re going to re-release his first two novels, Kiss Me, Judas and Penny Dreadful this Fall, along with releasing his third, unpublished novel, Hell’s Half Acre.
Speaking of other writers, do you still play poker with Stephen Elliott? And who would win in a No-Limit Texas Hold Em game, you or John Dolan Vincent? Any advice for us poker players?
I’ve only played poker with Steve a couple of times. For the record: I am quite possibly the lousiest poker player alive. Make no mistake about it… I don’t even bother playing anymore. I’ve thought about learning, I mean really applying myself, but that’s just one more discipliine that will have to take a number and get in line with everything else I want to learn.
As for John Vincent’s poker game, no he wouldn’t win. Winning and losing, especially winning or losing big, means you get noticed and remembered, which is the last thing Vincent wants. If Vincent were to play in a tournament, he would very quietly and subtly break even. The only reason he would be there would be to observe everyone else’s tells- both in and out of the game- so that he could incorporate them into future personas. Regardless of his red hair or six-fingered hand, if he were playing at your table, you’d hardly know he was there. At best, you’d forget him as soon as the game was over.
Well, hey, if you really are such a lousy poker player, we should definitely play some time. Heh…
Not to get too far ahead, but TCH has been optioned for a film? You’ve probably heard this before, but I’m picturing something like Memento…
It’s funny, I hear different scenarios from different people but truthfully, I never imagined it as a film, so I’ve got no preconceptions. People keep asking who I’d like to play the lead, etc., but I honestly don’t have any idea. I’m curious to hear who readers would cast in the lead, though.
Name: Craig Clevenger. Really, I swear.
Birthdate: December, 1964
Home: Southern California
Favorite Books: The Black Dahlia, White Jazz (James Ellroy); Rubicon Beach, Tours of the Black Clock (Steve Erickson); The Zoo Where You’re Fed to God (Michael Ventura); House of Leaves (Mark Danielewski); Shella (Andrew Vachss); The Postman Always Rings Twice (James M. Cain); Throat Sprockets (Tim Lucas); Kiss Me Judas, Hell’s Half Acre (Will Christopher Baer); Fight Club (Chuck Palahniuk); The Killer Inside Me, Pop. 1280 (Jim Thompson); The Insult (Rupert Thomson); The Roaches Have No King (Daniel Evan Weiss); Man Out of Time (Michael Hogan); Homeboy (Seth Morgan); If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller (Italo Calvino); Motherless Brooklyn (Jonathan Lethem); Leaving Las Vegas (John O’Brien).
Favorite Music: The Divine Horsemen, The Rev. Horton Heat, Morphine, The Billy Nayer Show, Billy Childish, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Tom Waits, Mazzy Star. The new live Lou Reed album is awesome.
Favorite Movies: otnemeM, Fight Club, Secretary, Donnie Darko, eXistenZ, Naked Lunch, Leaving Las Vegas… man, I just know I’m forgetting something with these three categories.
Favorite Food: Haagen Daaz, coffee flavored
Favorite Drink: Coffee (black), Beer (Sierra Nevada or Anchor Steam), Bourbon (Woodford Reserve), Pedialyte (the best hangover prevention in the world).
The Best Advice I’ve Ever Received: Jim Harrison said in his Paris Review interview, “Start at page one and write like a motherfucker.”
The Worst: “Your writing will never amount to anything. Stay with this Dot.com and you’ll make millions.”
My Idea Of Hell: An office cubicle with an infinite PowerPoint slideshow explaining a company’s ‘mission statement’ for all eternity.
What’s Better, Sex Or A Really Good Bookstore? Hmmm… I can get books online, but then drinking doesn’t make a bad book look better. I love being surprised in a good bookstore, but I hate being surprised during sex. I can’t get in trouble for borrowing from someone else’s library; my older books don’t get pissed if I start reading something new. I don’t like it when people leave marks on my books, but I don’t like it when someone leaves a mark on me. I can loan my books out, but… this is tough. Can I just say “sex in a realy good bookstore” or is that cheating?
Superman or Batman? Batman, absolutely. But by that I mean Alan Moore’s Batman, specifically. None of the others, movie or otherwise. That’s if I really have to choose between the two, otherwise it’s gotta be Marv, from Frank Miller’s Sin City.
Vegas or Hawaii? I’ve never been to Hawaii, so it’s hard to say. I love Vegas; it’s less than half a day’s drive from my front door and it’s easy to enjoy on a writer’s budget (if I avoid the Crazy Horse II).
Paper Or Plastic? I don’t have a bank account or credit cards, so I gotta say ‘paper.’