First, a word about the writer who nominated me for the blog tour.
I’ve known Vanessa Blakeslee (blog here) for almost a decade now, which is a little bit insane to think about. (Side-note: can something be a “little bit insane”? I don’t know. Anyway.) Vanessa was finishing up her Masters degree at the University of Central Florida, just as I was starting my own. I remember that–just as I had the wide-eyed, over-eager, over-idealistic look of a first-year writing student–she had the exhausted look of a student neck-deep in thesis work, in bureaucratic bullshit (formatting guidelines, graduation forms, etc.), in freshman composition papers that still needed grading…So we met in 2004, I think, but she probably hated me back then because my desk wasn’t yet overcrowded with the crap that ultimately overwhelms most grad students.
I don’t know whether Vanessa had yet published any of her work back then, but I do know that–as a young grad student, and then as a young teacher in the creative writing classroom–I was able to follow along as her career blossomed. Back in 2005 and 2006, we didn’t follow a young writer’s slow build toward success through Facebook status updates or author sites…we followed mostly through hearsay, gossip, grapevine talk, a smile on the face of a professor as she sat down to our workshop and told us about a former student’s latest publication. So I’d hear about Vanessa’s short fiction, and her acceptances at various colonies and writer’s retreats, and I was able to see the career take form in the same way that a little brother watches an older sibling slowly master a sport, going from first lesson to starting pitcher.
Vanessa Blakeslee is now a superstar, of course, one of those writers who makes a lot of internet lists that tell us which writers to watch. Her first book, the short story collection Train Shots, has garnered all sorts of acclaim (as well as a gold medal in the IPPYs), and she’s now got a two-book deal with Curbside Splendor, a Chicago-based publisher that I’ve also been following since they published their first book (Victor David Giron’s Sophomoric Philosophy), which I purchased on a whim during a vacation to Chicago…Vanessa has arrived, in other words, so if you care about the future of literary fiction, you should start reading her now.
So here are the questions for this blog tour that I’ve been tasked with answering. After my responses, I’ll introduce the three authors I’ve “tagged” to keep the blog tour rolling along.
1) What are you working on?
Right now, I’m driving myself “a little bit insane.”
I’m in the final revisions of a novel that I’ve been working on since 2009, I think. It’s a book that’s changed in shape quite a bit (though not in concept) and has grown progressively weirder and more epic in scope. This seems to be the case with everything I write…it’s impossible for me to develop a tiny perfect idea, to write a 150-page novel…no, no, my ideas start multiplying, reproducing, until the 150-page novel is 500 pages and spans cities, states, continents, decades.
The book is called Bright Lights, Medium-Sized City, and it’s my “Great Orlando Novel,” a personal description that has (ultimately) forced me to constantly consider new angles and new approaches. If I hadn’t started describing it that way, maybe it would’ve stayed 150 pages, and it would’ve just been the intimate portrait of an investor at the end of the housing bubble (2009) who finds himself losing everything he’d “earned,” while at the same time Orlando finds itself losing the momentum it had built for four decades on its explosive climb to becoming the nation’s next major metropolis. That’s the story at the heart of the book: this one character, and this one city, experiencing the same downward spiral. And how can they recover? Hell, can they recover, or are they both going to become Detroit? What happens to Orlando if the tourist industry dries up, after all?
But when I started considering the possibilities for this book beyond just this single character, the novel suddenly became a much richer and more compelling experiment. It’s written in the second-person POV, just like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City, but because this is Orlando, I also allowed myself to play around with the idea of the 2nd-person POV being a “gimmick” (what could be more gimmicky than Orlando, except maybe Vegas?), and I looked at the many uses of this POV. I also researched the city itself pretty heavily, and while the main story takes place in 2009, with the backdrop of the Orlando Magic’s NBA Finals run contrasting with the overall tone of despair that we saw in the foreclosed neighborhoods inside and outside of the city, I also zoom in to take a look at several other time periods in the city’s history. We see quite a bit of the Land Boom of the 1920s, for instance, which mirrors the housing bubble of the 2000s. And, because this is a city novel in the Tom Wolfe sense, we get to visit with a large cast of Orlando characters, from Dwight Howard to Mayor Carl T. Langford, and we get an incredibly comprehensive list of set pieces, from the Orlando History Center to the golf courses of Metrowest to the perfect perfect houses of Avalon Park.
So yeah, that’s what I’m working on. And I’m in that desperate phase of final revisions where I just have to stop the self-doubt and believe that what I’ve got is pretty fucking good. Self-doubt, self-doubt: always there on a writer’s shoulder.
2) How does your work differ from others of its genre?
Like so much of the work that I enjoy reading and watching, my work is a sort of blending of genres, a fusion, if you will. Think Star Wars and Firefly, the fusion of western/ science fiction. Think Game of Thrones, the fusion of fantasy/ political thriller. I love this sort of blending, because I think it keeps both the writer and the reader on their toes, while also maintaining some of the things that we love about a specific genre.
In the university setting, there’s been a long-running debate about what qualifies as “literary fiction,” and what is “genre fiction,” but it’s a stupid debate, really, because “literary fiction” is its own genre. It’s got its own tropes. There’s a certain type of character who would appear in a work of literary fiction but would never appear in any other genre, and–in fact–would never appear in the real world. Books of literary fiction have their own super-literary covers, their own super-literary titles. Break it down further, and you can look at alt-lit as its own genre, Oprah lit as its own genre, etc. Genre is unavoidable, and any writer who argues otherwise is mostly just trying to stake a claim to their very own genre classification (which might be true…maybe you wrote the very first thing of its kind…but if it’s successful, it won’t be the last, and then boom: you’ve got a genre).
So my work, I hope, can take some great strategies from the best of the “socially realistic fiction” genre…I’m thinking of social novels (those that attempt to show a specific place/time, and the conflicts that matter in that specific place/time, and that can offer us some social commentary on that particular moment and place) like The Jungle and Anna Karenina, but also Then We Came to the End and White Teeth and The Corrections and Angry Black White Boy…I’m also thinking of the genre of the “city novel” that Tom Wolfe champions, because I love the idea of books that try to characterize a city and its many different facets (or even just one specific corner of that city), books like Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full, but also Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex and Bret Easton Ellis’ Less Than Zero and Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude…these books that just leave you feeling like you know this city better somehow, like you got a tour that no one else has ever received.
I love those types of books, but also love books that play with and twist around “genre” tropes. Horror. Science fiction. Fantasy. So…Ryan Boudinot’s Blueprints of the Afterlife, and Ron Currie Jr.’s Everything Matters! and Stephen Graham Jones’ The Last Final Girl. Even some of the Jennifer Egan work that sort of takes on the “spy thriller” genre. And Bret Easton Ellis’ Lunar Park, and Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policemen’s Union, and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Books that acknowledge how fun the non-realistic genres can be, and don’t shy away from them.
I don’t think that’s the type of writer I’ve always been. American Fraternity Man, my first novel, is much more socially realistic. The story would’ve been weakened by incorporating some other magical element. But more and more, this is where I see myself going: socially realistic fiction, fused with something completely bizarre and perhaps unrealistic, some genre elements completely unbefitting of (pretentious voice here) “literary fiction.” Sounds like a recipe for a lot more self-doubt, right? And a lot of rejections from lit mags.
3) Why do you write what you do?
This is a quick one to answer: because it’s fun.
Reading is fun, and enlightening, and emotionally compelling. And I want to create the same feelings that I have when I read something I love.
Why the specific genres? Not sure. Because that’s what I’ve grown to enjoy reading, no different than someone who loves Mexican fare and Californian fare, and wants to create a Cal-Mex menu. I love what I feel when I read these types of works, and so I feel drawn to continue in their tradition, and build upon them, and to ask the question “What if?” and see what happens.
4) How does your writing process work?
I feel like I talk about “process” a lot. In my classes. In conversation with other writers. In my own head, with myself. But I don’t know if I’ve ever committed my “writing process” to print. In other words, I don’t think I’ve ever written these conversations and lectures down in tangible form. Because the crappy part about talking about writing process is that, once spoken/written, it almost feels like you’re committing yourself to this one particular process forever.
Maybe that sounds dumb. But this is what I mean: the more I talk about process, the more I find myself using that same process just because I’ve told others that this is my process. I don’t want to make a liar out of myself, after all. And so I start to feel weird about stepping outside of that mold. Because this is my process, I can’t use any other process.
This is all subconscious, by the way…lest some snooty internet troll happen upon this and declare me to be an idiot, I’ll just defend myself by saying that we all follow subconscious routines that have been dictated by what we think we’re supposed to do, or what we’ve decided we’re supposed to do. And the more you follow a specific habit, the less likely you are to break that habit (unless you’re aware of it, and really try). And “writing process” is, I fear, a little bit like that for me. I’ve talked about it so much that I now find myself wondering whether this “process” is truly the best process for me, or if I’ve just convinced myself that it is.
Well. Self-doubt aside: here it is, written out for maybe the first time, though it’s been delivered in oral form a half-billion times:
I draft by hand. (Mostly: I draft blogs on the computer, and I draft student critiques on the computer, and emails, etc., but when it’s a manuscript that I really really care about (not that I don’t care about those other things, or this blog, but you get the idea) it’s got to be drafted by hand. I need to unplug from the computer, first and foremost, because I am easily distracted. If I hear the ding of my email, or see a little red notification on my Facebook tab, I’m on it immediately. No matter if it’s an urgent email, or a piece of junk mail, this toggling winds up killing my rhythm. It takes valuable time away from my writing, too…Let’s just say that I give myself an hour of writing time. That’s all I’ve got. Add up the emails and other internet distractions, and I’ve just taken away fifteen minutes from the meager time I’d allotted myself. Not cool.
I draft with a black liquid-ink pen. The kind of pen that I would never use if I was a server at a restaurant, because customers would always be stealing it. I want the pen to glide over the page, and I don’t want to have to be concerned about ink flow, about scribbling the pen until the mark shows, about having to press down extra-hard to leave a mark, or even (later) about the ink fading or seeming too light when I have to reread what I’ve written. I use a dark black ink pen, and I try not to lift it from the page…keep it there, keep it moving.
I use the little half-sized lined notepads, not the full legal pads. I try to write at least ten pages in a single sitting, and the little notepads help to make this a reality. They’re a psychological boost, let me think that I’ve written more than I have. Maybe it’s only three pages of typed text, but ten pages seems like a really productive day. I want to feel good when I’m drafting. When I’m revising, I’ll feel frustrated, discouraged, but I want to have fun while I’m actually writing the story for the first time…if it’s not fun for me, how’s it ever going to be fun for the reader?
I like to draft my work at coffee shops. Outdoors in the winter and spring (it’s Florida), and indoors in the long hot humid unbearable summer (it’s Florida…there is no Fall). I need human activity around me. I need to be reassured that the world is still going on, because that’s a feeling that disappears when I’m stuck indoors revising on my computer. Oh, and I also need caffeine. Lots of it. More. More.
I like music, but I like it when the music disappears. Give me acoustic rock any day of the week, the type that could be happy or sad depending on the particular moment in the song, or even the type of day you’re having, the type that doesn’t get too loud and intrusive, but (again) the type that reassures you that you’re not the last person on earth…the way you sometimes feel when you’re stuck indoors revising on a computer.
And revision? That’s a different process entirely, and unless I want this blog to go on forever, I’ll end it there. Let’s just say that revision can be endless, awful, and that it’s always my goal to find some way to make it slightly more enjoyable: so, for instance, I’ll print out each new draft after I’ve typed, and I’ll take that draft to the coffee shop, and I’ll handwrite my notes and edits and insertions onto that typed-out page with my trusty black ink pen…trick myself, in other words, that I’m still drafting.
The head games I play with myself.
My Tagged Authors:
Next up on the “Writing Process” blog tour are three of my Orlando literary cronies, three writers and gentlemen with whom I’ve shared many a literary conversation, many a craft beer or cocktail. And all three have blogged for John King’s The Drunken Odyssey site, too, so I figured this would feel like a real community conversation, just a bunch of dudes talkin’ ’bout writing, you know?
Mark Pursell is a lifelong geek and lover of words. His publishing credits include Nimrod International Journal, The New Orleans Review, and The Florida Review, where he also served as poetry editor. His work can be seen in the first volume of the 15 Views of Orlando anthology from Burrow Press. He currently teaches storytelling and narrative design for video games at Full Sail University in Winter Park, Florida. I’ve known Mark for almost a decade, also, and we’ve both entrusted one another with our writing on more occasions than I can count…when it comes to writing/viewing interests, there are few writers with whom my own interests align more than Mark Pursell.
Teege Braune is a writer of literary fiction, horror, essays, and poetry. Recently he has discovered the joys of drinking responsibly. He may or may not be a werewolf. Teege is also the reigning “Best Bartender in Orlando,” according to Orlando Weekly, and will always be the man just off camera in my own author photos.
John King’s work has appeared in Palooka, Gargoyle, Turnrow, and others, including 15 Views of Orlando. He is a reviewer for The Literary Review and Shakespeare Bulletin, and is a regular contributor to Celebrations magazine. In 2010, he finished his MFA in creative writing from New York University. He hosts The Drunken Odyssey, a podcast about the writing life. At one point, I shared an office at UCF with John King, and on another occasion, I shared a pizza with him. (Replace the word “shared” with “stole,” and the word “with” with “from,” and you have a more accurate picture of what happened when John King sat down to order a pizza and enjoy his dinner in peace.)