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His Dark Materials: An interview with Craig Clevenger

By Gregory Frye

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[Pic: Timo Kiipa]

Craig Clevenger‘s work has been described as dark, twisted, drug-fueled and paranoid. In 2003 he published his debut novel The Contortionist’s Handbook about a young drug addict with a knack for mathematics and forgery who is constantly trying to allude legal and mental health authorities. Clevenger’s second book, Dermaphoria, came out two years later. In this one, the protagonist is a clandestine chemist who battles through a case of amnesia by creating a hallucinogenic drug that synthesizes the sense of touch. Experimenting with the drug allows him to piece together his strange past one frame at a time, but this exploration comes at the cost of his grip on the present, blurring lines between fantasy and truth.

Clevenger has been writing on his third book, tentatively titled Saint Heretic for five years now and he recently returned from a three-month writing binge in Bolivia with a working draft. In one of his first English interviews in five years, he talks to me about his time in Bolivia, his struggles with the new book, and his approach to the craft. Clevenger also mentions that a long-awaited sixth printing of his first novel is on its way to book stores now.

3:AM: I’d like to start off by talking about your stay in Bolivia. I understand you went to Bolivia because a friend had a room and you had enough royalty money remaining to ‘get away from it all’ in order to finish off this third book you’d been struggling with. How long were you in Bolivia? In what ways did this experience differ or compare to your other travels abroad, and what was your mindset going in? Would you have stayed longer if possible?

Craig Clevenger: Bolivia was a financial move, pure and simple. I was between apartments, sleeping on my brother’s couch again, and my part-time bar tending gig met with a wrecking ball at the beginning of 2009. The backroom boys’ club of civic string-pullers here in San Francisco took an unscrupulous read on eminent domain law. They used it to shovel out a trove of small independent businesses (including the art gallery/bar where I worked) to make way for… well, they never gave us a clear answer.

I couldn’t stay on my brother’s couch forever, but getting my own place meant working two jobs and putting my writing on hold indefinitely. I wasn’t going to do that. I had an open offer to stay in Bolivia from an old writer friend, Wendy Dale. I could live for pennies on the dollar and keep writing, so that’s what I did. I was there for three months, but I’d been prepared to stay there much longer. It wasn’t so much a question of how long it was possible to stay there, but how long it was necessary. I had to balance the demands of writing with my commitments at home, among other things. So I locked down harder than I ever have. I wrote as much in those three months as I have in the my site. That’s probably not the best approach, career-wise, which is one of the reasons I’m looking for an agent.

3:AM: So going back to your time in Bolivia for a moment, is it fair to say that in addition to giving the freedom to write, the experience also helped you rediscover how to challenge yourself creatively? Can you talk a little about your creative process during the three-month stay?

CC: The short answer is ‘yes.’ I’ve been focusing on style and form over the years, working harder and harder on the craft. Somewhere along the way I lost sight of how I get a rush from writing, and I get that from taking risks. I’m not interested in writing memoir or thinly-veiled autobiographical fiction, but I do need to make my work very personal. My biggest creative charge comes from transforming something very close to me – a good or bad memory, a long-held regret – into something else, something wholly not about me.

I’m always nervous when someone close to me reads my work, not just because it’s dark, but because it’s personal. That hit me hard soon after I’d finished a working draft of my new novel. I wasn’t afraid of sharing it; I wasn’t risking anything. I re-read some of my friends’ work – Stephen Graham Jones and Will Christopher Baer – and saw just how much these guys were putting on the block. So that’s the focus of the next draft.

As for the actual process, I simply woke up, fired up the coffee and grabbed my notebook. I’d stop when I got tired, but without any television or internet, and with limited books in English, I’d usually do work for a few more hours in the evening before I crashed for the night.

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3:AM: From one writer to another, I think it’s awesome you were able to find a place to really work, but at the same time I think it’s a shame that you had to leave the States to do it. I don’t mean to over-generalize here, but I have the impression that America doesn’t appreciate its writers like other countries do. I’ve certainly noticed the distinction upon moving to Greece two years ago. What are your thoughts on this?

CC: Again, I went to Bolivia because I had a cheap place to live waiting for me, and would have happily stayed here if I could have. The U.S. has a strange relationship with its writers. Book lovers are a minority, especially those who love fiction. Few people read for leisure, but it seems like most everyone wants to write a novel or screenplay. Yeah, that’s a generalization, but I haven’t thought much about it. Whether or not I’m appreciated doesn’t factor in to my love of writing. I’m going to do it, regardless, and assuming the mantle of the tortured, underappreciated artist doesn’t do any good at all.

3:AM: Obviously when writing something very personal and then sharing it with an audience comes with a lot of risk. I think we agree this is a key element for worthwhile fiction, for both the writer and the reader. But does this mean that if we write something without any risk, there’s a good chance we don’t really care about the work? How do you think novelists fall into this trap, and what do you think is the best way to avoid it?

CC: Not necessarily. A good writer is a good writer, and a good story is a good story. I don’t have any ideas about how novelists in general fall into this trap, if it’s indeed a trap, or about how to avoid it. I can only speak for myself, about what drives me and how I find satisfaction in writing. It always comes back to raising the bar with each project. Taking personal risks, like I said, and pushing my command of the prose. I want to be not only better with each book, but also a completely different writer.

3:AM: Speaking of taking work to the next level, what can you tell us about the new book at this point? I understand it’s come a long way and has undergone a lot of changes. Does it still revolve around your short story ‘The Fade’?

CC: It germinated from ‘The Fade’ but revolves around it less now than it did when I began a few years ago. ‘The Fade’ is a short story in the form of a letter addressed to someone named Lyle. This novel began with my answer to the question, “Who’s Lyle?” I had a different story in mind for the novel entirely, but when I made the main character Lyle, the person to whom the unsigned letter is addressed, the two stories came together and became something entirely unplanned.

The story has three narrative threads: Lyle, Icarus, and the unnamed relative writing the letters to Lyle. It’s a departure from my first two books in a number of ways. The chapters with Lyle and Icarus are all told in the third person, whereas my first two novels were written in the first person. While there are certainly some dark elements to the story, it’s not the neo-noir that my first two novels were. To say that it’s got a happy ending is simplistic, but I will say that the main character ultimately gains more than he loses.

I’m reaching for a different style this time, as well. Something other than the rapid-fire staccato prose of the Handbook or the florid, acid-fueled prose of Dermaphoria. I’m trying to keep the syntax much cleaner and more linear, and plotwise unfolding the events chronologically, as much as possible, instead of interlacing present narrative with backstory.

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3:AM: I don’t want to spend too much time on the new book since it isn’t out yet, but, before we move to other topics, is there anything you’d like to add? Do you have a new title? Length? Possible release date?

CC: I always get in trouble when I speculate on the status of a work in progress. A friend of mine once said to me, “It seems like you’ve been ‘almost finished’ for the last seven or eight months.’” He was referring to Dermaphoria, and he was right. After I finished my first novel, I figured the second would be a snap. But each one is harder than the last. The Handbook took me just under two years; Dermaphoria took almost three. This one’s approaching the five-year mark, and isn’t necessarily longer because of the time spent. The bar’s a little higher with each one. I returned from Bolivia with a completed working draft, with every point of my outline finally realized on paper. I’m almost settled in back in the Bay Area, so I’m looking forward to returning to my work routine and finishing a rewrite by the end of the year.

The title is still tentatively Saint Heretic. When I first began writing it, Stephen Graham Jones had just released Demon Theory, and Will Christopher Baer was well underway with Godspeed. Chris was visiting San Francisco and we’d holed up in a hotel room for a week-long writing jag. Chris had stashed the TV in the closet; we’d shifted the furniture around and all but stapled the curtains shut. By the third or fourth day the cleaning crews were giving us a wide berth. Somebody would hang a plastic bag of fresh towels and soap on the doorknob each morning and then sneak away.

Anyway, we were brainstorming a title that fit with my story, but one that would also sit comfortably between Demon Theory and Godspeed. Saint Heretic was a natural choice, so much so that it’s a little embarrassing to realize how long it took us to come up with it. While there are plenty of religious overtones to the story, they’re not nearly as dominant as they were in the early planning stages five years ago. The title seemed appropriate back then, but I’m no longer so certain. I’m still brainstorming alternatives, but Saint Heretic makes people go all goosepimply, so I might just keep it.

As for the length, there’s a lot more connective tissue between the chapters that I need to write, but I also trim mercilessly. Any page count I put out there is bound to be wrong.

The release date is up to the publisher, and I don’t know who that publisher will be. I’ve hit a point where not having an agent has become a serious handicap, so I’ve begun the search.

3:AM: I have the impression that sometimes you write in coffee shops and/or bars. How true is this? And why do you like to do it?

CC: I used to avoid writing in coffee shops as a rule. It just seemed so cliché. I try to have a dedicated writing space in my apartment, but that’s not possible with all the couch-surfing I’ve been doing the last year or so. Regardless, the cabin fever sets in after a while. If you live in a one-bedroom apartment, for example, and work there as well, it can be stifling. I’ve learned to be comfortable writing most anywhere, and that’s one of the reasons I work longhand. Lugging a laptop around can be a handicap. In the early days of writing Saint Heretic, I’d leave my apartment with a notebook and not allow myself to return home until I’d written a certain amount. I actually did quite a bit of writing on BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit], just going to and from the airport, getting off at a stop a block from where I got on, so a buck-fifty got me plenty of writing time. I split my writing time now, between home and away. I’ll usually hit a coffee shop first thing, work there for a couple of hours. Then maybe the library-I love libraries-then do the second half of my day at home. But in Cochabamba, I rarely left the house. Like I said, the cabin fever sets in, and it was pretty maddening the last month.

3:AM: What do you mean by maddening exactly?

CC: Maddening? That was a poor word choice on my part. Not literally infuriating, but in the sense of making you a little bit crazy. Time sort of freezes when you’re in a confined physical space and living in your head. It’s weird when you come out of that mode and three days or three weeks have gone by, but you have no recollection of them, nothing with which to gauge the passing time. It’s like being frozen in a vault or something. You also lose practice with basic social interactions after a really long time, and this is compounded when living in a foreign country with only a basic grasp of the language.

3:AM: Reading an old interview of yours, you turned me onto Australian jazz band The Necks (thank you). What other music do you listen to while writing? For you, how big of an influence, if any, do you think music has on your work?

CC: For the most part, I can’t listen to music with lyrics. There are exceptions, most notably the blues, but otherwise I can’t have words coming at me while I’m trying to write my own. The music has to be something I can tune out when I’m working, but it can’t be simple background noise. It has to be something I enjoy, as well, because if I want to pull back and give my brain a rest, I don’t want to hear elevator music. The Necks, yeah, can’t go wrong there. Lots of film score stuff, mostly Thomas Newman, and some classical. Since the beginning of Heretic I’ve been listening mostly to blues. I can’t get enough of Junior Kimbrough. I want to write like he played guitar.

3:AM: One of the reasons I brought up music, is because in ‘Drinks with the General’s Son’ you reference Tom Waits. You strike me as a literary Tom Waits, and I wonder what your impressions are of the man and his music.

CC: That’s an extraordinary compliment. I hope I can measure up to it, someday. I love Tom Waits, especially his ballads. He can make me sad for things that never happened to me, but even his later stuff measures up to his older material. Waits is still in his prime, no doubt. I went to read at a book festival in Dallas, a while back. I’d only been home from Europe for two years, but I was still sick to death of flying, so I drove. California to Texas is a long drive to make, solo. I had Mule Variations with me, and listening to ‘What’s He Building in There?’ during the dead of night on a road in the middle of nowhere is beautifully creepy.

3:AM: You mentioned you prefer to write longhand. For you, what are the advantages of working like this?

CC: Firing up a laptop is almost an event in itself, and the mechanism seems to overwhelm the act of writing. You’re restricted by the weight, the battery life, the frailty of the thing. You can’t spill anything on it or drop it or turn your back on it (whereas I’ve never worry about a notebook). Then there’s email and the web, both lethal distractions, creatively speaking. Don’t get me wrong, I love technology, and I ultimately have to transcribe everything onto my machine, but it all starts longhand.

Aside from the practical reasons for using pen and paper, working by hand forces me to slow down and allows me to get lost in what I’m doing. Working on a machine, I’m always aware of the act itself, and it’s distracting.

Lastly, it comes back to the risk-taking we talked about earlier. When I was living in Europe, I wrote longhand during my travels. Mainly because laptops at the time didn’t have the battery power they do now, and also because of the restrictions on using them during flight. So I had a notebook, just so I could write and help fight the monotony of life on airplanes (I was traveling three weeks out of every month in those days; when someone asked me where I lived, I’d say, “Heathrow.”). I was working on a story that would eventually surface years later as Dermaphoria, but back then I had no title, nor was there any other indication it was a work of fiction. Since I was writing in the first person, it read like the diary of a clandestine chemist. On my way out of Tel Aviv early one morning, I got the third-degree from their airport security, everything but the glove. They went through every bit of my luggage, every garment and scrap of paper, just short of taking a razor to the lining of my checked bags. One of them started leafing through the notebook and I thought, oh shit, this is it. She asked me what it was, I told her the truth, that I was writing a novel to pass the time on airplanes. And that was that.

I’ve come to think that if I’m doing my job right, then I should always be a little bit afraid of someone reading one of my notebooks out of context. It’s a measure of how much I’m putting on the block.

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3:AM: What kind of notebook do you like to write in?

CC: Moleskine, plain and simple. Forget the trend and ignore the contrarians. Finding a notebook that isn’t crammed full of widgets and organizer crap is almost impossible. Moleskines are purely functional. As for other blank books or Moleskine knock-offs, they can’t take a punch. I do not coddle my notebooks; I beat the shit out of them. I write in them, spill things on them, drop them, step on them, use them for scrapbooks as well as writing, and trick them out to suit my needs in a number of different ways, and these things simply do not fall apart. A Moleskine can pretty much take a round of buckshot and still be functional, and when it’s full, I’ve got a pretty cool memento of my labor.

3:AM: Can talk a little about your process, from outlining to your approach in the revision stages?

CC: I start with whatever premise or vague kernel of an idea I have and shotgun write for a while. I’ll set a quota, usually a thousand words a day, and hammer away until ’round about the twenty-thousand word mark the lights will come on in my head and I’ll have the story, the major events from the beginning to end. I’ll set aside the rough copy and start outlining, getting the load-bearing plot points onto paper.

To keep the chronology of events straight, I’ll print out blank calendars and then fill them in with the events from the plot. This shows me any glaring holes in the story or alerts me to plot points that need to be shifted around. In the case of Saint Heretic for instance, the main character and his wife are expecting. So I need to keep careful track of the pregnancy time frame with respect to the surrounding events.

I use index cards to flesh-out the outline. I’ll write a keyword or two along the top, with a one or two-line summary in the body of the card, then post them on a wall and play with their order. The story isn’t necessarily told chronologically, and this is where I determine the best arrangement to reveal events.

With the story in place, I go back to the actual writing. I’ll focus on one index card at a time, treating each chapter summary like a self-contained short story. This keeps me from feeling overwhelmed; it may seem backwards to some, but the more I detail in my outline, the more I feel free to get lost in the chapter at hand. It makes my immediate goal more attainable, so my brain tends to run wild while doing so. This is where the bulk of my brainstorms come from, and the biggest changes I make in the story happen after I’ve planned everything as thoroughly as I can.

As strict as I am with plot, I’m much looser with characters. I know some writers will create a whole dossier on each character before they begin, but I find that to be stifling and artificial. Ironing out a character’s eye color, height, place of birth, favorite food, etc., doesn’t reveal anything more intimate than what the same information reveals about real people. So, just like real people, I get to know my characters gradually. Yes, this often makes for backtracking and rewriting when I fully realize a character two-thirds into a first draft, as the second draft requires reworking early chapters to account for the fully-realized character’s behavior.

I write all my dialogue separately. I don’t like reading a novel in which all the characters sound alike, and/or they all sound like the narrator. And I’m very self-conscious about the believability of my dialogue. I pulled the dialogue from the first draft of the Handbook and formatted it like a stage play, read it aloud and re-worked it, then dropped it into the subsequent draft. With Dermaphoria, I wrote the narrative without any dialogue at all, just place holders with maybe a key phrase or two. Then I wrote an entire draft of the novel’s dialogue from beginning to end and worked it into the narrative, assigned tags and attribution, re-shuffled the narrative as needed. I’m doing the same with my current book, but for the most part I’m writing the dialogue first, then the narrative, so that the story hangs on the characters and not the exposition.

3:AM: I’m especially curious to know how you’ve been tackling and reworking this new book over the past few years.

CC: That’s a tough one. Mostly it’s been a struggle to determine what the story was about, what was going to transpire over the course of events. I had this premise and these characters, and no matter what wall I would hit they wouldn’t leave me alone. It’s taken a long time for the story to come into focus. It’s also the first thing I’ve written in the third person for a very long time, as well as having multiple narratives. The challenge has been a combination of my own different approach and the story itself taking longer to coalesce.

3:AM: Your ideas about dialogue remind me of the recent writing essays you’ve posted over at The Cult: ‘Devil in the Details’ and ‘Talking Heads’. These are some of the most helpful essays on the craft I’ve come across and it’s not the first time you’ve offered insight for struggling writers. Why is it important for you to work with other writers on this level? Can you say what, if any, future essays you have planned?

CC: Thanks, I appreciate that. It comes from my father, this mechanical approach to things. My late grandfather was an aircraft electrician and an auto mechanic, and my dad learned everything from him. As hard as he tried to pass this on to his kids, it just never took. I’m still no good at all with cars, and can’t fix anything that requires more than a hammer. But I learned to appreciate how something can be greater than the sum of its parts, like something mechanical for instance, and how necessary it is to know those parts in order to make possible that greater sum total.

So much of literature, and all the arts, is subjective from the standpoint of both the creative process and the critical evaluation. But only some of it is subjective, not all, and I too often see the mistaken assumption otherwise, that it’s all just a matter of opinion. You can argue the merits of rap versus classical, but you can’t deny that they’re both music. Knowing and mastering the components which constitute a piece of music or literature is critical to mastering your chosen art form. With writing fiction, this means knowing literature, grammar, syntax, the anatomy of plot, character development and the rest of it. I tell my students over and over: mind the craft and the art will happen on its own.

It’s important to teach these things because workshop opinions will always be just that, opinions. Telling someone what you think of their writing doesn’t tell them how to improve it. There’s a big difference between, “I liked your main character a lot” or, “I thought your ending was too neat and tidy” versus, “You use the same double-adjective noun combo in every descriptive sentence and the repetition becomes obvious.”

There’s another essay in the wings that will hit The Cult fairly soon called ‘Night of the Living Syntax’ (I submitted it at the same time as the ‘Talking Heads & Hearing Voices’ piece). It’s about putting the action of the story under the control of your characters. Chuck Palahniuk wrote a very cool piece on a concept he calls “submerging the ‘I’” (which may have been the essay’s title, but I don’t recall). It was about methods for working in the first person without beginning too many sentences with “I (verb)…” The forthcoming is a sort of corollary to that essay. A lot of my students would “submerge the I” in their work with things like “My fingers drummed the table…” It’s effective, sure, but the point I make in all of my workshops is that this structure can be overused, and then starts to disembody the character’s actions from the character. This can undermine that character, especially the protagonist, as a person of will. Voluntary action should be voluntary, ultimately to give your character volition and to make involuntary actions (fainting or falling down stairs) feel truly involuntary to the reader.

I don’t know that I’ll have anything else to add, but there are several lectures I wrote for the online workshops I taught at the Chuck Palahniuk site. ‘The Devil in the Details’ was the first of those. There others cover things like the fundamentals of breaking down one’s syntax during editing; status play (a concept I stole from improvisational theater) between characters, and between characters and their surroundings; and some methods for doing a forensic evaluation of your plot as well as your prose during the re-write process. Some of them, I think, are still under the one-year access provision to the students who last took a particular class. Otherwise, I’ll defer to the good folks who run The Cult to determine when or if they want me to rework them and make them public.

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3:AM: Five years of wrestling with Saint Heretic, finding the story, trying to get it right. I admire the tenacity and the drive to challenge yourself. You mention the characters simply wouldn’t leave you alone and that’s a big part of it, but for you, what else is there to be said about sticking with a project like this as opposed to dropping it or putting it on the back burner in favor of something else?

CC: That’s tough to answer, because I really did try to put Heretic on the back burner, even toss it out completely. It just wasn’t up to me, that’s all. I’ve put things aside before; some I’ve returned to and some I haven’t. I think each writer needs to use their own judgment. I found for myself that sticking with something isn’t about working on it in spite of not making progress, but about working on it consistently, regularly. Too much down time too often drags something out and there’s the risk of it turning to rust before it’s finished.

I read somewhere recently, and I wish I could remember who said this, that passion is not about strong emotion, but about patience and persistence. I couldn’t agree more.

3:AM: Before we wrap things up, would you like to present any Desert Island picks? Films, books, music..

CC: Steve Erickson. I firmly believe he is America’s most significant and yet most overlooked living novelist. The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain is textbook novel, and I use it in all my classes. Will Christopher Baer and Stephen Graham Jones, of course. Yes, we all share a website; while they’re my friends, I’m still very much an unabashed fan of their work.

The Indian Runner and After Dark, My Sweet. I have plenty of other favorite films but I mention these because they’re so overlooked. Sean Penn is a wholly underrated writer and director, and After Dark (from the Jim Thompson novel) is one of the best book-to-film adaptations ever made (though I recently saw Winter’s Bone, which could very likely be it’s equal… that film still has my head spinning).

If I had to pick one, just one, band for this desert island, The Divine Horsemen would be it. A band from the Los Angeles music scene during the eighties, one that never gained as much ground as its contemporaries (X, The Blasters, etc.). Like I said, I’ve been listening to a lot of blues for a while. R.L. Burnside finally got the recognition he deserved while he was still alive (I picked up his recently released early recordings and they’re incredible), Junior Kimbrough didn’t, and I absolutely love Kimbrough. A friend tipped me to Robert Belfour and Alvin Youngblood Hart, so I’ve been lost in their stuff recently.

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
Gregory Frye is a struggling novelist who quit his newspaper job and moved to Athens, Greece, in 2008.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, July 19th, 2010.