Craig Clevenger: The PBJ Interview (Part 2)

What was the biggest difference in writing Dermaphoria from The Contortionist’s Handbook? Not just the actual content but also the differences in how you approached it: writing habits, research, etc. Was a second novel “easier” than the first?

The second book was much harder, especially since I’d expected it to be so much easier. The weight of expectation was with me from day one, and I was determined to not write the Handbook II.

The biggest difference between the two is their respective narrators. Having a different narrator meant having to adapt a completely different prose style. While I did just as much research for Dermaphoria as the Handbook, much less of that research turns up. I wanted to focus more on story and less on data. I also didn’t write this one in a straight line. I actually didn’t compile the individual chapters into a single manuscript until a couple of weeks before the galley went to press. Up until then, I’d been working on the chapters individually, as separate stories, and seldom working on them in order.

You seem to focus a lot on identity. In the Handbook it was someone who had many identities, and in Dermaphoria it’s someone who’s not quite sure of his identity. Why the recurring theme? Anything happen in your life that had an effect?
 
I ask myself that same question over and over, and I still don’t have an answer. If I knew, I suppose I wouldn’t need to write.

We talked a couple of years ago about how you quit a great paying tech job to write full time and you’ve never looked back. In the past two years, have you ever “looked back?” Meaning, has there been any moment where you thought, “fuck, I’d really like to have some security again…the paycheck and the 401 K and the vacation time and the stock options and the 2.3 kids?”
 
The last few years have had some rough stretches, especially these last ten months. I still worry about my long-term security but, remember, I spent almost a decade in the office world, while I’ve only been out of it for a few years. I haven’t forgotten what comes with the stock options and the 401k: dress codes, employee manuals, office politics, “you are the backbone of this company” speeches… As I’ve said before, if I had children to support, I would never have done something as irresponsible as writing a novel. I’ve slept on a couch for the first three months of the year and have been sleeping on a floor since March, with no certainty about where I’ll be living come January. But no, I don’t look back.

I have a theory: becoming a millionaire is one of the easiest things in the world to do. Not that a person doesn’t have to work to make a million, but I mean that if you’re willing to do work you don’t want to do just to make the money, and you don’t care where you live, and you don’t care about all the little things in life, a smart person can make a million fairly easily, because he doesn’t have anything else in life. I think you’ve made a decision to get to the life you want via another way, much like I have. 

Seeing my best friend with the wife and kids and making over $100,000…I’m happy for him but it often kills me, but I know that I made a choice.
 
I sometimes think that on some level, the choice was made for me. In truth, there’s nothing else I can really do well.

Is that really true though? A lot of writers say that, but I sometimes think it’s more of a romantic stance than anything, saying that writing is the only thing that they can do well. Most of the writers I know are actually pretty smart guys and could do many things, though writing is what they *want* to do most.
 
Maybe it’s true, maybe it’s not. What’s important is that the writer believe it to be true. In my experience, if I have a safety net or a Plan B, I end up using it. I have to write every book as though it’s my last, and I can’t do that if I believe I have other options.

I remember Jerry Seinfeld saying something like that. That he never had another job to fall back on if his comedy failed, because then he’d probably fall back on it. 

What have you been reading lately? I don’t know if you’ve ever read anything by James Sallis? Incredible writer. He’s been a writer of all kinds (noir, crime, essays, poems, reviews) for several decades. Can you actually read anything novels or other books while you’re in the middle of your own, or does it get in the way?
 
I read something by James Sallis years ago, called Death Will Have Your Eyes, an absolutely beautiful book. Otherwise, I read very little fiction while writing Dermaphoria. I swapped manuscripts with Chris Baer a few times, so I had some early views of his work in progress. I also read All the Beautiful Sinners by Stephen Graham Jones, with whom Chris Baer and I share the Velvet. Sinners is massive, with a huge cast of characters, so it was ideal for jumping in and out of while I worked.
Glad to see you mention your buddy Chris, because I’ll be talking to him at some point about his new book too. 

So tell us a little about the tour. I’m going to get you into Boston by hook or by crook, but where else are you going? Anything special planned for the tour, anything the Velvet members are going to do to promote Dermaphoria?
 
I’d love to get to Boston, absolutely. It’s strange, for the Handbook, I did maybe half a dozen readings spread out over a year or so as the book slowly gained an audience. This time around, they’ve got my schedule pretty packed for the next few weeks. I’m hitting most of the major spot: Seattle, Portland, LA, NYC, San Francisco, plus a few others (Austin, Philadelphia), and there’s more to come. I don’t have anything special planned, though I might dig through my archives and read some of the material I cut from the book. Not sure yet. The Cage is preparing materials for anyone on the Velvet who wants to get the word out, but those things are more of a shows of thanks to the Velvet than anything else.

I will be reading with Chris Baer at some of the West Coast venues, which is something he and I have wanted to do for a while. At some point in the future, I’d love to have Chris, Stephen and I do a reading together.

Any plans for what you’ll do in those cities? Are you a “just do my reading then go back to stay in your room” type of guy, or will you go out and explore each city, the restaurants, the bars, the bookstores?
 
I’m going to savor any downtime I’ve got when I’m traveling. I don’t tear it up as much as people think I do, so I’ll be in my hotel room, working on the next book. Friends of mine are scattered everywhere, so I’m looking forward to catching up with people I haven’t seen in a while.

No drunken orgies? No non-stop parties? 

You once described hell to me as “an office cubicle, with an infinite Powerpoint demonstration explaining a company’s mission statement for all eternity.” So what’s your idea of heaven?
 
You obviously have me confused with someone else…

My idea of heaven? I couldn’t tell you. Heaven means the afterlife, which means death, which means some time in the future, unless I’m hit unexpectedly. I haven’t thought more than three weeks ahead for the last year and a half, my eyes have been focused on the ground at my feet, and nothing else.

Do you still go into “The Pit” when you’re working? What is your social life like when you’re in the middle of a book?
 
Yeah, pretty much. What I call the Pit is just my way of trying to tune out distractions, most notably the passage of time. I find I can get lost in a story if I’m not aware how long I’ve been immersed, which was the reason I used to block out my windows in my old apartment. That’s not practical where I live now (the roommates wouldn’t appreciate that), but I still hide all the clocks, turn off my phone, etc.

My social life gets dimmer as the book nears completion. The final months of writing Dermaphoria had me completely cut off from everyone, though I’m aiming for a more balanced approach to my life with the third one. Isolation and focus are critical for a project like novel writing, but too much for too long just isn’t healthy. I’m still a bit shell-shocked since I handed in the final manuscript to my editor.

OK, since you brought it up yourself – ha! – I’ll ask: what are you working on next (I hate asking that when your current book just came out, but since you brought it up…)
 
I’m still figuring that out. I’ve got a short story, “The Fade,” on my web site, that’s written as a letter to someone named Lyle, a relative of the man writing the letter. I’ve been working on something to figure out who Lyle is. That’s as much as I know, at this point.

Short stories – who do you read? Right now I’m looking at a stack of short story books on my coffee table are Kevin Canty, Rick DeMarinis, Ron Carlson, and David Sedaris’ Barrel Fever.
 
I haven’t read short fiction in a while, except for what I’ve seen from Stephen and Chris, so it goes without saying I write very little of it. “The Fade” was the first short piece I’ve written in over a decade, and it will be a while before I do any others.

What have you been listening to music-wise lately?
 
An Austrian improv band called The Necks. Their music’s perfect for writing. I can listen and tap my foot to them, or let them fade into the background while I work. A very happy discovery.

What’s a typical day like for you?
 
My typical day is up late morning (I’m a night owl, especially still working at a bar part time). I try to hit the manuscript as soon as possible, because I find that my mind is most creative when it’s still full of post-slumber fog. I usually start the coffee pot, hit the shower, and knock back my first caffeine fix while I’m getting dressed. By the time early afternoon rolls around, I’ve killed a pot of coffee, I’ve usually hit my word quota, and I stop to eat, read, answer any email or take care of any business I need to attend to before the end of the normal working day. Then I’m back at it for another few hours, usually re-writing and transcribing any major edits from the next day.

So, the cover of Dermaphoria. It would have been funny if you gave the hand on the cover six fingers! Heh…
 
I think that idea actually surfaced, but was quickly nixed. I love the cover. Dorothy, the art director, really nailed the thematic heart of the story without being obvious.

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