Month: May 2013

Things That Most People Zoom Past: An Interview with Christopher Meeks

9947085_origI’ve been a fan of Christopher Meeks since reading his short story collection Months and Seasons several years ago. Whether short fiction, a drama, or his novels, each story, while serious, is layered with the odd. As author Gina B. Nahai says, “If the object of art is to capture the reality of the human condition one glimpse at a time, then Christopher Meeks succeeds gloriously.” Critic Grady Harp says, “Meeks is a master craftsman.”

I recently caught up with Meeks to chat about his new novel, Blood Drama.

Tell us a little bit about the novel.

Blood Drama is the story of Ian Nash. He has lost his girlfriend, just been thrown out of a graduate program in theatre, and is taken hostage in a bank robbery gone awry. He must fight for his life. He’s determined to exact revenge, with or without the FBI’s help.

You’ve published two excellent short story collections–Months and Seasons and The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea–a literary novel titled The Brightest Moon of the Century, and a cerebral romantic comedy titled Love at Absolute Zero. Now you’re experimenting with the thriller genre. What accounts for this latest move?

Most of my short stories and the first two novels were connected to events that have happened to me. I had no more major events to draw on, so at first I was stumped. What now? In the meantime, I’d been correcting my students’ papers in a Starbucks in the lobby of a bank. It was a gorgeous setting with a lot of marble, a fireplace, and comfortable chairs. I was there often, until one day I realized I could be a witness to a bank robbery if I didn’t watch out. I pictured being taken hostage after a lot of gunfire—and that was the start of a story idea.

Over the years, if ever I wanted something fun to read, I’d choose a crime story, such as novels by Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, or Raymond Chandler. I asked myself, why not write in a genre?

Once I learned that bank robberies are a federal crime that involve the FBI, I wanted someone nearly the opposite of Ian, an extremely driven woman, Aleece Medina. She’s making her mark as a special agent focused on bank robbery. Where Ian was taking his time finding his niche in theatre, she was focused on her goals. However, once Ian is kidnapped, his life changes so dramatically, he too is driven, and he and Medina often lock horns.

Because I was new to this world, I did a lot of research, including interviewing two FBI special agents. I wanted the details right.

And along those lines, what do all of your works have in common, regardless of genre? What matters to you as a storyteller? 

What matters to me the most is having interesting characters. Plot is simply what interesting characters do. I don’t consciously think “quirky,” even though reviewers commonly cite this as a good quality in my work. That tells me my characters are memorable.

I also never consciously question how my stories might connect to each other—that they might share common qualities. However, reviewers who really examine my books deeply, as you do, find things. I love when reviewers see intersecting themes or quote some of their favorite lines. This shows me that my struggle and obsession over meaning and making the right image, the right simile, is worth it.

I reviewed books and theatre for nearly a decade for newspapers, so I know that writing informative and interesting reviews takes work. The most difficult reviews were often the really great books and plays because I needed to explain WHY, and sometimes it’s hard to understand why something works because the great works also have a mysterious quality that can’t necessarily be explained. I grew a lot in understanding stories and story structure by having to write reviews under deadline.

When I first started writing fiction, I noticed humor threaded its way in, and at first when editing those stories, I’d yank out the humor. After all, I assumed that serious fiction meant I had to be serious. The stories then seemed flat to me. I restored the humor. When I’d send those stories out, I was rejected hundreds of times, yet sometimes I’d get little notes with them back that said, “This one really made me smile. Thanks. Try us again.”

Stories that had been rejected more than forty times, I stopped sending out, figuring they needed more work. One day I read that the Santa Barbara Review was looking for literary stories with humor. “We just don’t get a lot of stories with humor,” an editor wrote. I sent her “Divining,” one of my favorites, and three days later I received a call from her. She wanted to publish it and did.

After it was published, I photocopied it and included it with my next submissions to prove I was established. That improved my acceptance rate a lot—to about one acceptance to every nine rejections. That’s the thing with writing—you’re rejected more often than not. Ironically, some of the places that turned my new stories down said, “If ‘Divining’ hadn’t already been published, we’d take that.” No they wouldn’t—because they had rejected it the first time.

As you were working on Blood Drama, who were some of the authors who influenced you? To put it another way, are there authors whose fans will especially enjoy Blood Drama?

Authors who write crime novels that also have humor include Carl Hiaasen, Donald Westlake, and Robert Crais, but we’re each unique.  My voice is different than any of theirs. The authors who have most influenced me include Tim O’Brien, who I admire for his details and his idea that fiction is truer than nonfiction.

Kurt Vonnegut has always been a touchstone. Beneath his humor are always serious points. He’s more of a sociologist than I am. I’m more intrigued by the psychology of individuals.

I’m a huge fan of Margaret Atwood, too. She’s like Vonnegut, completely fascinated by societies. I’m eagerly awaiting Atwood’s MaddAdam, the third in a series.

In short fiction, I’m forever fascinated with the works of Lorrie Moore, Ernest Hemingway, Raymond Carver, and J.D. Salinger.

From the outside, writing appears to be a solitary endeavor, but a lot of writers rely on a team to help them get through the long and frequently arduous process of seeing a novel to publication. Who was on your team, and what did your process look like?

The first team members are the people you trust to read your first polished draft. My stories and novels seem to find their backbone and polish around draft five, and so I use the people who read the early drafts to discover where I may have jumped over something or not made something clear. That includes my sister, Laura, my father-in-law, David, some writer friends, and my wife, Ann, a voracious reader and librarian.

Writing is indeed NOT solitary because as writers, we have to find the gaps between intention and what is understood by readers. The reverse is true, too—what’s overstressed or abundantly clear early on that doesn’t need redundancy? I need other sets of eyes to help me see what’s missing, confusing, or is too much.

I used to work with agents—and I loved them—but despite my last one finding enthusiastic editors, the publishing companies’ marketing departments would balk at my novels. “How will we market a story of a quantum physicist falling in love? People are intimidated by science,” was the challenge with Love at Absolute Zero. I’ve never written out of a formula. I’ve written to explore the human condition. I followed my own odd interests.

Thus, when the agents didn’t help, I started my own publishing company, White Whisker Books. After all, I’d seen publishing from the inside. Over the last few years, I’ve used two editors, two book designers, a handful of proofreaders, and a publicist. Some of my colleagues have come to me asking me how I did it, and now I publish three other writers, too. Kirkus Reviews asked how I did it, and I wrote an article for them. (Click here for it.)

What I do makes me feel part of a community. It’s not a solitary endeavor at all.

What do you do when you’re not writing? How do you make a living? Does it relate to your writing? How do you fit writing and all that goes along with it into the bigger picture of your life?

One day three years out of college, selling tile at Color Tile, I realized that even though I was writing, I wasn’t immersed in the arts the way I had hoped. I needed to surround myself with writing. Thus I went to an MFA writing program at USC.

For my first job out of grad school—a month before I graduated—I became the senior editor for a growing new imprint, Prelude Press. Its first books were The Personal Computer Book and The Word Processing Book by Peter McWilliams—some of the first computer books ever. It was 1983, when personal computers were new. One of our covers had a photo of a PC on it with the subtitle, “It’s like a typewriter but with a TV.”

While this put me solidly in the world of books, the only writing I did was ghost writing for Peter McWilliams. He had a weekly national computer column that I wrote. I became a computing expert, but I wanted to write plays, which I then squeezed in somehow.

I quit Prelude Press after four years to be the institute writer at CalArts. There, I wrote about all the arts and interviewed some of the top people in the fields of dance, theatre, fine art, film, music, and writing, including Tim Burton, Werner Herzog, Alexander Mackendrick, Don Cheadle, Mel Powell, Morton Subotnick, Charlie Haden, Carolyn Forche, and more. I also interviewed many fascinating but lesser-known people. I learned from all that the best artists were thinkers, driven to explore.

I also learned vividly that most artists are unsung. That is, most artists of any sort are not known to people because Americans tend to equate success with money. Outside of movies, there are not a lot of rich artists—few wealthy playwrights, dancers, videographers, musicians, landscape painters, actors, stop-motion animators, etc.

Still, artists look at things that most people zoom past in their walks and drives. Most people are terrible at relationships, for instance, but don’t think about it except in seeing a movie or play or talking with a shrink. Most people get stuck in life’s tar pits of one sort or another, be it failed marriages, horrible debt, drug problems, dead-end jobs, stress, poor health, bad self-esteem, and many other things. It’s amazing many people make it to sixty.

These are the things I like to write about, and at CalArts and now at Art Center College of Design where I teach, I see a hell of a lot of drive. These are people who pursue interests that may not bring in a lot of money but, for instance, there’s something about writing a great passage with an amazing simile that most people just can’t do. The arts offer purpose and meaning.

Right now, I have a great balance in my life. As someone who used to be deathly afraid of public speaking, I overcame that to teach writing. To write is to think. I’m fueled by my students, who are interesting. I also teach English at Santa Monica College, where, in Introduction to Literature class, I get to teach great writing all the time, and I continually search for ways to show how poetry, drama, and fiction are as necessary as oxygen.

And know what? I may not be rich, but my wife and I have great kids, friends and family, and we managed to buy our dream home. I can validate Joseph Campbell’s dictum: Follow your bliss, and you’ll also find a good living.

What’s next for you?

I’m writing a mystery, tentatively titled Ten Days to a Bad Habit. I heard on the radio that it only takes ten days to form a good habit. I laughed thinking it’d probably take as long to form a bad habit, too. I started with the notion of a married man at a convention in Las Vegas who is attracted to a woman despite his better instincts, and then finding her dead in his hotel room, where he’s blamed. He has to find out who framed him and why before the police grab him. I also needed to put it in the context of ten days and forming a habit. I’m on draft five.

The Conduct of Saints

ConductSet in Rome in the wake of the Second World War, The Conduct of Saints reveals Christopher Davis as a writer who remains at the height of his powers at the age of 85. The novel follows a Vatican lawyer named Brendan Doherty (who wins points in my book being a native of South Philadelphia) as he plays devil’s advocate against the man who murdered  Maria Goretti yet now claims to have been saved through the soon-to-be-canonized saint’s intercession. At the same time, Doherty is also attempting to prevent the execution of Nazi war criminal Pietro Koch — not out of any sympathy for Koch or his worldview, but out of a firm belief in the sanctity of all life. The result is a complex novel that explores the intimate relationship between faith and doubt while simultaneously delivering a moving and thoroughly engaging story.

Throughout the novel, Davis’s gift for setting is especially apparent. The streets of Rome come alive on every page. Indeed, one doesn’t so much read this book as enter its perfectly imagined world of bicycles rattling over cobblestone streets, urchins begging for money, and olive trees providing the only respite from the hot summer sun. What’s more, the time period provides the ideal backdrop for a rigorous interrogation of faith and justice, as the atrocities of the Nazis are enough to raise doubts in even the most pious among us. Yet we are all fallen in some way or another, The Conduct of Saints insists on every page. And the world is highly adept at shaking our faith–however we define it and whatever we believe. Ultimately, however, it’s our power to forgive that renders us so deeply human, and this is the ultimate, uplifting message of Davis’s fine novel.

Highly recommended for fans of historical fiction and spectacular writing.

Want, Wound

Want, WoundI’ve admired the work of Nicole Monaghan for a long time, so I was very excited when she asked me to provide a blurb for her first collection of fiction, Want, Wound. The blurb I provided reads, “A loving exploration of the tender corners of the human heart and the empty spaces we all long to fill.” While this blurb does a decent job of capturing what Nicole does so well in all of her work, I’m not sure it does her book justice. Throughout the volume, she takes every opportunity she can to inhabit the skin of “the other.” Sometimes this involves imagining what it must be like to be a man. Other times, she explores the inner world of children yearning to impress their parents or insecure teens trying to make sense of the world or adult women struggling with addictions. In every instance, Nicole come across as a true empath, an author with a preternatural ability to feel the pain and love and longing of every character she imagines. As a result, Want, Wound is a moving, touching, tiny wonder of a book.

Commenting on the Times: An Interview with Steven Mohr

The+Listless+coverTell us a little bit about your book. What inspired it? Who’s your ideal reader?
I’m a fan of so many types of literature, but when I started writing The Listless, I wasn’t looking to just write some action adventure that can make a person jump but hardly think. And I didn’t want to just write some romance that plays on a person’s emotions but not on their sense of cultural ethics. I wanted to write a piece that had elements of both these while commenting on the times we live in and the situation it presents for those in the young adult (or should I say youngish adult?) age group who have been most affected by it. Really, The Listless was my attempt to combine the freedom of Kerouac’s On The Road and the introspection of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises… I’m not saying I succeeded, I’m just saying I tried! There’s no doubt that’s a hefty goal for a first novel.

I had fun writing it, though, and I enjoyed putting together somewhat realistic dialog you might hear from the indie music lovers, which are probably the ideal readers of the book. I hope, though, I added elements that nearly all can relate to.

It’s a YA novel, yet your protagonist, Conor Batey, is a college grad. Do YA heroes tend to be so old? (Granted, “old” is a relative term!)
Ha, that’s a good question and one that I somewhat wrestled over as I was thinking about where this book really did fit in. To me, the YA (young adult) fiction definition is getting wider than just the age range it was originally designed for. I mean, isn’t Edward Cullen from Twilight over 100 years old? Haha, a little different case… But I look at the YA fiction designation as talking more about the topic than the age of characters or readers (though they both play a big part). The topic of this book is about indie rock and regressing from a business life back into (at least a summer of) road trips and concerts. I think that topic is more in the field of YA than anything else.

Along similar lines, have you observed that YA readers are getting older? How “Y” is “Y” these days?
It certainly seems like the readership of YA fiction has been the biggest change in its overall designation. It went from adolescents right out of juvenile fiction in the 90’s to adolescents, young adults, older adults… the whole gamut today. Creative minds like J. K. Rowling, Suzanne Collins, and many others have really opened this genre up to a larger spectrum in the past fifteen years.

 What do you see as the difference between YA fiction and more traditional “adult” fiction?
Well, in full disclaimer, my definitions for these phrases are probably very different from the standard ones. When I see something that is cataloged as fiction without being further explained as romance, mystery, sci fi, fantasy, urban fiction, classic literature, or one of the many other sometimes helpful sometimes not helpful at all descriptions, I assume it’s going to be either a Nicholas Sparks book about some guy/girl who lost his/her memory or some Amish town where a recent visitor causes worlds to collide… Not so much a rock group of childish young adults. To take that even one step further, I don’t really like seeing books like Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk called “Contemporary Fiction.” Until there is a good genre title that describes books that vie for a younger sentiment, YA seems to best fill the void.

Part of your novel is set in Detroit. Why that setting?
It starts off in Detroit for a few reasons. This Rustbelt metropolis was and is the source of a lot of great art in America. From Motown and other classic pop music genres to urban farming and decorative city block art projects, this town continues to endow the world with that outsider’s perspective. Between these artistic surroundings and the roughness of the inner city, Detroit is the perfect setting for a band on the run from everyday life.

You mention that your protagonist is in a rock group called Listless. What do they sound like, and who are some of your own favorite bands?
I guess I can answer both of these questions together because I imagine their style being a blend of some of my favorite pop bands from the past. I imagine them with the sounds of soulful minor chord breakdowns like the Beatles, awesome choral harmonies like the Beach Boys, a punkish disregard for the norm like the Pixies, and a dorky grunge look like Weezer in the 90’s.
Do you play music yourself? Are you in a band?
I do play a few instruments; though, not necessarily well. I’m mainly a fan of stringed instruments that can be used to play silly love songs. My favorite instruments to serenade my wife are the guitar and ukulele.

What’s next for you?
I’ve always been a pretty eclectic reader. And I definitely have no desire to be pinned down to writing in one genre, either, so I’ve started a couple of projects that are pretty distant from The Listless. Growing up, one of my favorite authors was Isaac Asimov. I loved his series sci fi. I’m certainly no Isaac Asimov but I thought why not give it a shot? I’ve started writing my own series of sci fi short stories that I might at some point put together into one novel. I’ve also started a new novel that I’m writing in a very very slow fashion set in the Asheville, North Carolina region that includes a journalist, a death, a town in turmoil, and an unexpected twist. If that sounds to you like just about every other contemporary title written in the past twenty years, I’ll let your imagination fill in the rest!