Once I know who my characters are and what makes them tick, I find by simply putting them in a situation under given circumstances, they talk for me.
Rick Moss – 22 December 2016
The Back Flap
The Colony is in mourning. The residents of the Hudson Valley farming collective share a close-knit life and a vision for remaking urban neighborhoods with the skills they are learning. They have also shared a loss so devastating they fear the shock will undermine all their efforts.
In a scheme to unburden themselves, they turn to storytelling. Through their heartrending accounts, we view blighted American cities from society’s fringes — from the squatter homes of Detroit to the embattled streets of Philadelphia. We meet a veteran who returns home to find his neighborhood walled off into a ghetto, an architect who drafts blueprints from the dreams of the dispossessed, and take a hellish subway ride through a dystopian New York. In their tales, we witness the tug of war between blame and forgiveness and, ultimately, the cathartic power of storytelling.
About the book
What is the book about?
This is of course a perfectly reasonable question but it makes me shudder. I react the same way when I’m asked what I do for a living, which I can best answer as, “Whatever it takes.” The short answer here is that Tellers is about the loss and grief endured by the residents of a Hudson Valley farming collective and their subsequent efforts to heal themselves through storytelling. Through their heartrending accounts, we tour blighted American cities from society’s fringes — from the squatter homes of Detroit to the embattled streets of Philadelphia. We meet a veteran who returns home to find his neighborhood walled off into a ghetto, an architect who drafts blueprints from the dreams of the dispossessed, and take a hellish subway ride through a dystopian New York.
And so, Tellers is about many things. I used a narrative structure that would give me the opportunity to talk about a range of issues — race, the plight of the disenfranchised, religion, the encroachment of technology into our private lives, and so forth.
So what is Tellers about? Whatever I could manage while still delivering an engaging plot.
When did you start writing the book?
How long did it take you to write it?
Technically, that would make it over six years, but most of that time was spent obsessively revising. The first full draft took about a year and a half. I then spent many months cutting passages, writing new ones, reordering sequences and honing the language until I was fairly happy. I say “fairly” because I’m never satisfied that I’m done, but at a point (for my own health and that of my wife), I force myself to declare an end to the process and move on.
Where did you get the idea from?
In terms of the structure, I had the short story collections of Ray Bradbury in mind — The Illustrated Man and The Martian Chronicles. Both books make use of an overall narrative arc that the reader returns to between short stories. I loved these books as a kid but always felt that the main narratives were too thin — obvious devices for knitting the stories together. And I realize it’s heresy to say so, but I would put The Canterbury Tales in this category as well.
In Tellers, I wanted a more complete hybrid of novel and short story anthology. That’s why I came up with the idea to have the main characters tell stories. Between each telling, we flash back to the events leading up the tragedy that affected them, and so by the end, we’ve learned about the horror they endured and know from their own personal accounts why it affected them as deeply as it did.
Were there any parts of the book where you struggled?
I tend to punish myself with tough writing challenges, so I should qualify this by saying any struggling I did was of my own design. I set up a difficult narrative structure and enjoyed solving the puzzle. But the toughest part of the challenge, no doubt, was working out the chronological jumps between present day and past while maintaining an overall dramatic flow. I wanted to keep the tension going throughout while taking the reader on huge storytelling leaps to wildly diverse situations, so that took a lot of consideration.
What came easily?
Dialog. Once I know who my characters are and what makes them tick, I find by simply putting them in a situation under given circumstances, they talk for me. When I can, I let the conversation lead me, much like a director might ask his cast to improvise a scene. I find this to be among the most joyful parts of writing — giving life to characters and then hearing what they have to say.
Are your characters entirely fictitious or have you borrowed from real world people you know?
Simply put, characters are an author’s offspring; they carry our DNA. It’s like asking how that bald, hook-nosed teacher got into your dream. Obviously, dream people come from your own psyche. They’re you, mixed with people you’ve known or seen. In that sense, fictional characters are alternative versions of the author’s own personality. And yes, I did probably borrow certain aspects of friends, public figures and others I’ve known or observed. I incorporate a look or an attitude or an accent that I need, but most of this is not done consciously. At least for me, the characters come together much like in a dream, without understanding how it happened.
We all know how important it is for writers to read. Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write and, if so, how have they influenced you?
The authors I love most write/wrote in a wide variety of styles: David Foster Wallace, Cormac McCarthy, Kurt Vonnegut, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, Doris Lessing, Elmore Leonard, Jorge Luis Borges, José Saramago. When I’m reading one of them, I feel their voice creeping into my writing. If that’s helpful to the work, I go with it, but often I remind myself I need to be more disciplined — “I need more Hemingway here” — to serve the objective. So yes, whether I want to allow the narrative to be colorfully descriptive and free-flowing or spartan, I look to the writers I admire for instruction. What I perhaps find most inspiring is the way my hero-writers broke convention and taught readers how to see literature in a new light, and so when I worry that I’m pushing the limits too far, thinking of them gives me courage.
Do you have a target reader?
Myself. I find that if I try to write something that others say they want to read, I fail to satisfy them because most readers want to be surprised and delighted. If you give them what they want, how can they be surprised? Instead I try to provoke myself and make myself laugh and tear up, and hope others will feel the same way when they read the result. And so, I suppose, my target reader is someone who, like me, enjoys having their sensibilities challenged and loves it when they laugh at something they had never considered funny before.
Do you have a writing process? If so can you please describe it?
I have a full time job and do my fiction writing when I have the time, so my process is haphazard. I have learned to take advantage of ten minute breaks to work on a book and relish the chance to spend a few, uninterrupted hours devoted to it. And so, unfortunately, my process is not efficient. I waste a lot of time re-reading earlier pages to catch myself up and get back into the mindset of where I left off. And I’ll do a tremendous amount of reorganizing and reworking once the first draft is done to arrive at the solution that pleases me.
In other words, don’t write the way I do. There are much better ways.
Do you outline? If so, do you do so extensively or just chapter headings and a couple of sentences?
Yes, I do a very rough outline of the narrative structure to make sure there will ultimately be a beginning, middle and end, but I prefer to leave about 90 percent of the details open so I can let the characters and circumstances lead me in directions that feel natural.
Do you edit as you go or wait until you’ve finished?
As I go — compulsively. It’s awful. I’ll complete maybe half a chapter before feeling the need to begin reworking passages. For me, the attractive thing about writing as an art form is its virtually infinite malleability. It’s the silly putty of art forms. When you paint in watercolors, you need to commit a few choice strokes to paper and leave it be. Reworking will destroy the piece. But with writing, you can change anything as many times as you want and, if you know your stuff, wind up with something that sounds as fresh as a first draft. So that’s the beauty and danger of it — you can edit endlessly.
Did you hire a professional editor?
Yes, I have used editors on both my books. Doing a final edit on your own work is terribly difficult, so I believe that’s a must.
Do you listen to music while you write? If yes, what gets the fingers tapping?
Sometimes, yes. Lyrics can be distracting, so usually instrumental jazz. And if it’s avant guard (not too melodic), like John Coltrane or Ornette Coleman, that seems to stimulate the lazy parts of my brain that I need.
Did you submit your work to Agents?
I submitted both my first book, Ebocloud, and Tellers to agents — between 80 and 100 each. I don’t have luck with agents. They’re looking for writers to fit into their pigeonholes and my books are hard to classify. I get it — the book industry is struggling for survival, so publishers can’t afford to take chances with new forms. Like Hollywood, they go for formulas that work. I believe my books work, but they are anything but formula pieces.
What made you decide to go Indie, whether self-publishing or with an indie publisher? Was it a particular event or a gradual process?
After failing to get an agent for Ebocloud, I self-published. After a few months, a small press decided to pick up the book. We pulled the self-published edition off the “shelves” and I waited 18 months for the book to be published again. But the small press could afford to do very little to support the book and so it failed to catch on. I found that I had done better on my own than with the small press. So after going through the exercise of looking for an agent again with Tellers, I’ve gone the indie route. I like to call my own shots and have experience with marketing in my day job, so I think indie life suits me.
Did you get your book cover professionally done or did you do it yourself?
I designed the cover and the interior myself. I have a background in graphic design, so I’m fortunate that way.
Do you have a marketing plan for the book or are you just winging it?
I have a plan. Much of it involves spending more than I can afford, so I’ll have to see how things go. If the book shows promise, I’ll invest more. But I derive tremendous satisfaction from having even small numbers of folks read my book and offer feedback, so mass sales are not my goal. We authors today have the opportunity like never before in history to publish our own work, position it the way we see fit and communicate directly with our readers. How great is that? How could an author ask for more?
Any advice that you would like to give to other newbies considering becoming Indie authors?
If you’re looking for fame and fortune, be prepared to spend a lot of your own money and spend the majority of your waking hours marketing your book. It’s more than a full time job. Every book is like starting a new business, so all the entrepreneurial rules apply. You will rarely see reward without great risk and you’ll need to spend money to make it. If this gets you excited rather than upset, you’re indie material.
Where did you grow up?
I was born on a U.S. Air Force base in Japan but my parents returned me and my brothers to the States when I was about three years old. We grew up in rural Maryland, near Baltimore, and then moved closer to the city for our teen years. Baltimore was very inspiring in ways only Baltimoreans can understand. (You can b’lieve it.)
Where do you live now?
Brooklyn, just like everyone on TV.
What would you like readers to know about you?
Only that I feel sincerely privileged when someone takes the time to read one of my books. I try with all my power to deliver a worthwhile experience, so it’s terrifically gratifying when I see that people have enjoyed them. The topics I write about are dear to me, so I love hearing what readers have to say. I hope, if you’ve read Tellers or Ebocloud, you will contact me through my book websites or on Goodreads and let me know what you thought. I promise to respond.
What are you working on now?
A third novel. I’ve come up with a scheme for another alternative narrative structure that I’m excited about. Stay tuned.
End of Interview:
For more, visit the book’s website.