Under the Influence
Brandon Tietz interviewed by Gregory Frye.
3:AM: So I’ve got to be honest, your book caught me off-guard. Without reading the synopsis, I had a vague idea that the protagonist was a socialite and there would be clubs and drinking and how I didn’t give a shit about that kind of stuff, at least the clubs. Man, I couldn’t have been more mistaken. You do a great job of exposing that socialite clubbing lifestyle for what it is. A lot of other things going on in the book, but that’s the first thing I noticed. It comes out in a recurring line that Aidin applies to several things: “There’s no soul in there.” What do you think he really means by this line, and do you share his view?
Brandon Tietz: Thanks, man. Well, I think a lot of people actually feel the same way you do about the nightlife thing. They’ve been sort of conditioned to think club culture is the way they see it on TV and in movies, so the darker qualities of the book hit a little bit harder by contrast.
3:AM: “There’s no soul in there” is Aidin’s formal realization that something’s off with him, with his lifestyle. Intrinsically, I think he’s aware of this very early on, but it’s like finding an odd lump on your body and convincing yourself it’s harmless. He’s the type of person that would rather remain ignorant in order to maintain a blissful state. To some extent, I think all people use that defense mechanism. Eventually though, there’s going to be some sort of a breaking point.
BT: I share the view to a degree, but I don’t believe in absolutes or blanket statements. Club culture isn’t “harmless fun” nor is it entirely nefarious. I’ve met the same amount of empty people as I have well-rounded people. The scene is very much hit-and-miss, but there was a conscious choice on my part to concentrate on the women who want to be like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian the same way Aidin consciously presents himself to be this well-to-do playboy. That’s a surface, and in a place like that, it’s all anyone cares to know about you.
3:AM: The style, the language of the book is riveting, the way the sentences move and flow – a lot more slick than a typical debut novel. How long have you been working on the craft and how much work went into the book?
BT: I’ve been a serious writer for about eight years. “Serious,” meaning: this is my career choice. It’s been a lot of trial and error. Lots of reading. Lots of research. Lots of experimentation. I’ll pull influence from the weirdest places, like comic books and trade journals and fashion magazines. I find these to be extremely concise mediums of delivery, and that’s good for a guy like me since I don’t have the longest attention span. I think you’ll hear a lot of authors tell you to read because that’s the best way to learn how to write. What people forget is that it doesn’t end with books. You can read anything from Craigslist ads to Penthouse and find something useful, whether it’s the structure or syntax or whatever. All writing, any writing, is a part of the craft, and whether it progresses your own work or reaffirms what you don’t want to do, it’s all relevant. Figuring that out seemed to open a lot of doors for me.
This book took me about three years, and there was about a year’s worth of research that coincided with the writing portion. It reads slick because that’s the kind of book I wanted to churn out, but honestly, it’s a slow process writing like that. I also edit as I go along, so that doesn’t help.
3:AM: Editing as you go along – how exactly do you approach that? Reading over the previous day’s work or more like Kurt Vonnegut who would perfect one page before moving to the next (or so I heard)? In what ways does this approach help you in the process?
BT: I write my chapters in scene format and I tend to go non-linear, something that Tarantino does in his films. It’s a mosaic. That allows me to be free of timeline restrictions and keeps me from backtracking to reread what’s already down. So in the same way that you have the Mr. Blonde ear scene and Mr. Pink’s tipping speech, you can do that with a novel. Editing as I go along is a methodical and obsessive sort of process. I’m a huge word economist, so if I say something in thirteen words, I’m usually trying to figure out a way to cut it down to ten. I pay attention to how the words look on the page and syntax patterns. I have a list of rules that I’m actively implementing like “submerging the ‘I'” and “show vs. tell,” amongst others. The process is slow, but the end result is that I produce really decent first drafts. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve tried the “get it down quick” approach, but it’s never worked for me. You end up with this big pile of slop that needs a lot of work on the back-end.
3:AM: Let’s go back to Out of Touch for a minute. So much to say about this novel, I don’t even know where to start without giving away any spoilers. The writing is clever yet continually hits upon a variety of truths, but what is this book to you?
BT: That’s a big question, man. It’s four years of work in which I easily could have been doing something else, but I decided to focus on this guy who can’t feel anything instead. I’m not really sure what that says about me or if there are any disguised lessons hiding in the shade. To me, it’s an accomplishment. I’m happy with it. It’s the formal beginning to a career and will lead to bigger things. It also means that now that I’m in, there’s no fucking way I’m getting out. The hard part’s over as far as I’m concerned.
3:AM: So now you’ve got this short story collection in the works. Can you give us the run-down? I’m thinking if the short story is going to make a comeback now’s the time because we all have short attention spans.
BT: Ah yes, Vanity. Well, it’s a collection/novel-in-stories… with sort of a Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots kind of thing going on. It’s themed to keep everything cohesive, but mixes it up enough so that you don’t feel like you’re reading the same shit over and over. Repetitiveness is something I noticed in most of the collections I read, and a problem I’m trying to avoid. For the most part, this is a proverbial highlight reel for the many aspects of vanity, whether they’re physical, social, or spiritual. There’s some pieces that are going to be expected for this theme: crash dieting, cosmetic surgery, etc. There’s also going to be some unorthodox ones, like a story about a cold sore that’s embarrassed by its host and the Second Coming of Christ being used to raise ad revenue by capitalizing on his image. It’ll probably be about twenty-one pieces when it’s done, all tied together by a couple of common elements which I won’t speak to just yet.
I feel pretty damn good about this one, though. Unlike my first book, this one has been tested and seen some publication already. Palahniuk has also read some and his feedback has been quite helpful. My agent will be pitching this in a couple of months.
3:AM: With Vanity and Out of Touch your work seems to hit on a lot of timely social issues. Entertaining yet valuable to read. What do you think about that dynamic? What other issues have you been brooding on lately?
BT: I’m practically obsessed with social trends and their little eccentricities, and I know too damn much about pop culture. I’m a sucker for it though. When Paris Hilton buys a $1000 coat for something that barks and sniffs its own shit or Kate Gosselin is glamorized for having too many kids — my brain is compelled to understand the thing I’ll never understand, so it ends up being satirized in my writing somehow. People understand the humor in this, apparently, and it’s usually about a thing they’re too distracted to think about. You see Meryl Streep and see the Academy Awards and prestigious career, but what you forget is that she picks her nose and wipes her butt the same way anyone does. There’s no celebrity aspirin for when Brad Pitt gets a headache. The President of the United States (Clinton) cheats on his wife the same way any man cheats on his wife. I suppose the “flawed idol” intrigues me, so it’s something that I enjoy drawing attention to. Lately I’ve been brooding over Jersey Shore. Their fourth season is being filmed in Italy which amuses me because the majority of the population considers them an embarrassment and three of them aren’t even Italian, despite how much they “act” like it. Basically, I don’t anticipate a warm welcome. Oh, and Sarah Palin is always good for a chuckle.
3:AM: The word ‘satire’ comes to mind. For you, why is satire important? Do you see yourself as a satirist in a way? I’ve never seen Jersey Shore, and I’m not sure I want to. What’s going on there?
BT: I think not so deep down I’m a satirist, but I just haven’t fully committed to it like say Gary Shteyngart or Max Barry has. It happens in glimpses with me. The concept would have to be truly exceptional for me to stick with it for over 200 pages, and I haven’t come up with anything like that yet. Satire is important though. In moderate doses, I think we need it to keep our sanity and get our daily reality checks. For instance, I watch the news, but when I want to enjoy the news, I’m turning to guys like Colbert and Jon Stewart or watching SNL’s Weekend Update. Both formats have their good points, but I can’t imagine one without the other. Jersey Shore, in its own way, is an obscure take on the pursuit of the American dream (and possibly satirical). That may sound overly grandiose, but if you take the time to isolate Snookie’s motivations and desires for instance, you’ll realize all she wants is a strong man, a stiff drink, and some spending cash to buy some shit. These aren’t outrageous demands, but her self-destructive nature and youth prove to be inherent roadblocks, and this seems to be consistent throughout the cast. It’s a collective journey, but it’s a venture that’s constantly interrupted by petty drama, spray tanning, and massive amounts of alcohol and techno music. They are, in a sense, a representation of American youth, and an important social cornerstone… not as role models, but as the example of what mistakes not to make. Jersey Shore shows us that in order to maintain hope for the future, we need leaders of virtue as well as blatant miscreants to differentiate right and wrong within our society, even if this is done on a purely subconscious level.
3:AM: You’re a workshop moderator at The Cult, Chuck Palahniuk’s site. A good circle of writers seems to be revolving around this place. What exactly has involvement in this site given you, and how would you suggest other struggling writers approach it?
BT: A lot of great writers are in there. Seriously. If I were an agent just starting out or small press, I’d cherry pick the shit out of that place. The amount of talent in there is ridiculous. The Cult basically jump-started my career. Six months in workshop made me a better writer than six years of doing things on my own. I can’t plug it enough. If you join and actively work the system — no bullshit, you will become better. You will never spend a better $40 in your life. I came in with nothing but a self-published novel and have since signed a new publishing deal, obtained an agent, and got my work accepted by some anthologies and lit sites. For the struggling writer, I would say building some credentials should be your first step, especially if you don’t have an MFA. Master the short format. Get about six or seven stories published. Once you’ve got that resume beefed up, you can hit up the presses or an agent with your novel and it’ll get a serious look. Also, make sure to talk to other writers. I don’t mean ask them for favors or bug the shit out of them. Converse. Shoot the shit. Being a writer is a lonely fuckin’ existence. It helps having someone you can talk to who is going through the same thing as you are.
3:AM: Who are some of your bigger influences right now and what do you like about their work?
BT: Jeffrey Eugenides is an all-time great in my opinion. That’s a guy who can do no wrong. I don’t really have any other names for you right now, so sorry about that. I’m finally coming back to the book I put down when I began Chuckshop, so I’ve been studying Christianity and the adult film industry and medical stuff. Kelly Wells is the scariest porn star I’ve ever come across. She says things that’d make a rapist go shy.
3:AM: Middlesex is an amazing read. I guess it took him nine years to write. Nine years! Can you imagine spending so long on a book? His style is amazing though. Very smooth. Enchanting. Out of Touch was so enjoyable, I’ve got to ask: Can you say anything else about this next book?
BT: I think some people are going to be pissed off. I don’t want them to be, but I think it’s in the mail.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gregory Frye is a struggling novelist who quit his newspaper job and moved to Athens, Greece, in 2008.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, March 5th, 2011.