Saturday, March 05, 2011

12 or 20 (second series) questions: with Peter Darbyshire

Peter Darbyshire is the author of The Warhol Gang and Please, which won the ReLit Award. He’s also published several short stories and dabbles in comics. He blogs at and can be found lurking in the usual social sites online. And some of the unusual ones.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
Ah, that question. The easiest one to ask and the hardest one to answer. 
My first book, Please, didn’t really change my life. I still have to go to work in an office to pay the mortgage. I still have to submit my books to publishers and hope the editors like them enough to make an offer. I’m still delighted to see someone reading one of my books in public, because it doesn’t happen enough for me to be jaded about it.
Then again, the first book changed everything. After it came out, I was writing for an audience as well as for myself. You lose a bit of freedom with that first publication, but you gain a deeper sense of responsibility. 
And you enter into some really interesting relationships. There are the readers who contact you — I’ve made friendships with people because of my books. Some of those people I’ve even met in person! And there are also the people you exchange ideas with — reviewers, bloggers, other writers. Before your first book, you’re often on your own, working in isolation. Once you get that book published, you enter into a broader cultural conversation. And that helps drive you as a writer when you get a little mentally tired or beaten down. The party never stops.
How does my most recent work, The Warhol Gang, compare with Please? Well, Please was probably more personal. Each episode in that book is based on something that happened to me or someone I knew. I wanted to engage with the works of Raymond Carver and writers like that, but I wanted to talk about the lives of my generation, where everyone is a misfit and a loser through no fault of their own. 
With The Warhol Gang, I was more interested in exploring broader social trends more directly, and the impact of market and media forces on people. Please kind of lingers in the ruins of the past, with its suburbs and dreams of television relationships and such, but The Warhol Gang is trapped in the future, with inescapable malls, neuromarketing, fake everything and relationships that can only be understood through economic terms. It’s a lot darker than Please, and much more absurd. In that sense, I think it’s probably truer to life. 
I know that they’re very different books, but to me they don’t feel that separate. The Warhol Gang is many ways a continuation of Please
The new book I’m working on now, though — that one is crazy!

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I grew up reading stories, and I started writing stories back in elementary school. They were the usual fantasy hack-and-slash adventures, although, perhaps hinting at what was to come in my writing, I usually had the heroes lose in the end. 
So I’ve been writing fiction for as long as I can remember because I love reading, and that love drove me to create stories for others to enjoy. 
I experimented with other forms in university. Because university is all about experimentation, right? I tried my hand at poetry, until Daphne Marlatt told me to stop. Wisely, I think. And I write non-fiction in my day job as a newspaper editor, and sometimes on my blog, which is enough for me. But it’s fiction that’s captured my soul. Such as it is.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
I wish I had some sort of standard approach because then I could plan my life and perhaps even my writing career. But every project has been different for me. Please kind of evolved as I was learning to write, so you could say it took my entire life up until that point. The Warhol Gang took years because it took me a lot of attempts to find the right way into the book, both in terms of content and style. I’ve written two books since then (currently with the agent) that took about six months each to write. And the book I’m working on now is coming along quickly — I’ve written about two-thirds of it in two rather feverish months. But then I’ve had stories I’ve been working on for years. 
So I don’t know that I have a process. You know the saying — you only ever learn to write the book you’re writing.

4 - Where does fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
My works almost always begin with the ending. I usually get some scene in my head and I think, “Hmm, that’s interesting. How do I get there?” The book or story is the journey to that ending. 
Please was definitely a book of short pieces that formed a larger narrative. I intended the episodes to stand alone in terms of plot, but to have an emotional storyline that ran through all the episodes and had its own arc. I’m not sure how many people saw it, but it’s there.
I tried to do the same thing with The Warhol Gang — my original plan was another book of episodes, although with stronger links — but it just didn’t work. Then I tried conventional chapters, but that didn’t work either. It was only when I came up with the idea to break the book down into individual scenes, like a movie, that it actually came together for me. 
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Hmm, that’s a difficult one to answer. I’m not really a social or outgoing person, so the idea of a reading is a bit alien to me. I understand their attraction in a historical sense — it used to be the only way to experience the author, as opposed to the writing — but there are plenty of other ways to get to know an author now. In fact, you’ll probably learn more about an author from their blog or Facebook or whatever than you will going to one of their readings. 
Readings used to really unnerve me, because I wasn’t used to being the centre of attention. I don’t crave it, and I don’t particularly like it. But I’ve grown comfortable with the experience of them, and I’ve even come to enjoy the performance at times. It really depends on the event. 
I do think readings need to be reinvented. The idea of just standing up on a stage, reading something that everyone can just as easily read for themselves, is kind of ridiculous in this day and age. Some people are good performers of their material, but even that I find kind of boring and a waste of my time, unless it’s something where the performance is the point — like certain sound poets, for instance. 
I think readings should be more events — take Chuck Palahniuk’s readings, for instance — or at least discussions of the works. Something where you can learn something. I like the idea of going to a reading where the writer talks about the work without ever reading from it. If I’m there to listen to the author, I’ve probably already read the work. 
I’ve tried experimenting with different approaches to readings, where I downplay the reading side and focus more on discussing the cultural stuff that informed the work, and I’ve had really mixed responses. Interestingly, it’s broken down along age lines — the older people tend to complain I didn’t perform my work properly, while the younger people tend to like the different approach. 
It has nothing to do with my creative process, unless you count the performance of the author as part of the creative process. In which case it’s everything.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
It depends on the book. With Please, I was trying to write about the experiences of my generation — I should have subtitled it “Generation Temp.” But I also wound up writing a bit of a historical book in a sense, in that the characters are often longing for something from the past — a lost love, that suburban neighbourhood, the decision they failed to make — and they inhabit the ruins of the past. They live in their own memories, and in social memories, with suburbs and churches and OJ Simpson car chases and such. 
The Warhol Gang is a little more sci-fi in nature, in that like all good science fiction its project is extrapolation. I took a bunch of trends I was starting to see emerging — neuromarketing, holograms, the viral video— and tried to normalize them. That is, I tried to imagine a society where they were the cultural norm. In some ways, I think I failed, because society has already become stranger than I imagined — anime news videos depicting Charlie Sheen rants? Twitter-fuelled revolutions in the Middle East? But we live in an age where the future is happening faster than we can keep up.
In my new book, I’m exploring the idea of the post-future. The characters inhabit a world where they’ve given up trying to keep pace with the future and turn to the past for meaning instead, searching for artifacts and memories that will save them. But that doesn’t stop the future from happening to them. I’m not sure how to discuss it conceptually, because we’re all still struggling to grasp the violent change we’re going through right now, and I think we’re largely unsuccessful at it.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
I think the writer has become more of an entertainer and less of a cultural critic, if I can use such terms. I think people have become less interested in books as social criticism and now more than ever want them to be escapist fantasies. See, for example, every instance of an adult reading a children’s book over the last decade or so. 
There is a growing social dimension to reading, but it’s just the flock instinct at work — everyone has to be reading the same thing, but no one really thinks about why they’re reading it.You can see it play out in public transit. Everyone is carrying Harry Potter, then everyone is carrying The Da Vinci Code. Last year everyone was reading the Twilight novels. This year everyone is reading the Stieg Larsson novels. The writer’s not really playing any role there. It’s just people reading to kill time on their commute, and they’re just reading what everyone else is reading. It’s the book as virus, not the book as meme. 
I like the idea of the writer as social critic — that’s the role I think they should play in larger culture, and it’s clearly the role I’m interested in performing. But I think the only roles allowed for writers now are celebrity or failed celebrity.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Well, that depends on the editor, doesn’t it? 
I think you definitely need someone to cast a critical eye on your work. If you’ve spent any amount of time with a book, you get to the point where you can’t see it clearly any more, especially if you’ve got more than one idea at work in it — or if you have any ideas at all. Let’s face it — some books don’t. They’re more plot romps.
With The Warhol Gang, I was lucky to have great editors who kicked my ass to make the plot better and the story accessible without undermining the theoretical foundations of the book. So in that case it was essential for the book. But for every writer who’s got a great editor story there’s one with a horror story. 
It’s kind of like dating. Sometimes you get married and live happily ever after, and sometimes your crazy lover breaks in to your place and lights everything on fire.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to comics)? What do you see as the appeal?
I’ve got no problem with crossing genres. To me, they’re just mood markers. It’s like eating a meal — am I in the mood for Indian or pizza? Do I want to read some sci-fi tonight or a New Yorker? I’m open to reading anything if the writing is good. I can even tolerate books if the writing is so-so but the ideas are interesting to me, like most sci-fi. 
So I’ve got no problem writing things that fall into wildly different categories. For instance, I took a break from writing my new book, a work of “literary fiction,” to write a weird western short story with plenty of supernatural characters. I worry about the quality of the writing, not the category.
The comics are a bit different for me. Sometimes I just get lines in my head that are one-offs. I wanted to do more with them than just post them in Facebook updates, so I started mixing them with photos from my life. I find them kind of a fun outlet, but I don’t think I’ll ever have a career in comics.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I’ve got an 11-month-old boy running wild through my life. All my routines are now based on meals and baths. I write when I can, how I can.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
It certainly helps that I’ve done it before. In the past, when I hit a block, I would think, “Do I really have what it takes to do this? Maybe I can’t finish this project.” But now, I think, “OK, you’ve hit blocks before. No problem. Write your way around it, skip it, go do something else, but don’t worry. You’ll figure it out.” And I do. 
The best thing I ever learned was to simply skip ahead in a book rather than spend days or even weeks trying to figure out a problem scene. I think that’s why I’m able to write so much more quickly these days. Skip it and come back later to fill in the blanks. Sometimes writing the later scenes is the only way to figure out what you need in the earlier scenes.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I have no sense of smell. Nothing reminds me of home.
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I get a lot of ideas from non-fiction, particularly business articles, or New Yorker type articles that have a business angle. My work tends to have an absurdist bent, and business constantly exploits the absurd to maximum profit. Take for instance, the neuromarketing stuff in The Warhol Gang. That all came from one article I read on neuromarketing, which I thought was just insane. It’s a short leap from “let’s read your mind to see what you like about this product” to “let’s make your mind like this product.”
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I am inspired by any writer who’s managed to write a decent work of literature that isn’t a genre piece. I don’t mean any disrespect to genre writers when I say that. It’s just that it’s so hard to get something published that isn’t mystery fiction or steampunk or romance or whatever. And it’s even harder to get it read by people. So I have huge respect for writers who manage to create something unique, that’s never been done before, and get it out there in the world. That’s what I try to do with every book, and it’s hard. It’s really hard. And it’s easy to get beaten down when your book sells slowly and the latest vampire love story is selling in the kazillions. So those writers are important to my work because they give me hope.
And the genre writers who write good, literary genre fiction are also inspiring to me. You have to respect someone who can take an exhausted form and reinvent it, and make the writing count. 
So, in no particular order, writers like Tony Daniel, Kevin Brockmeier, Chris Bachelder, Annie Proulx, Derek McCormack, Naomi Novik, Lee Henderson, Mark Leyner. You know — writers with vision.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Turn every story idea I’ve had into an actual story. The ones that I haven’t managed to write haunt me. They fucking haunt me.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I want to say a professor, but I don’t know.... I did most of a PhD in English, but I got bored and left before finishing, so I’m not sure that’s the correct answer. 
I’m fascinated by new technologies, but I’m not a techie person. So I’d probably be a tech journalist.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Wait — there’s a choice? Do you mean I could have been doing something that paid me money all this time? Aww, man....
And let’s face it, if I wasn’t writing, I’d probably just be a temp.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great film was Inception. I’m not sure it really worked — in fact, I’m not really sure I liked it. But it tried to do something intelligent. For that rarity alone, I respect it.
The last great book? It’s personal.
20 - What are you currently working on?
The new book that I’ve talked about in some of the earlier questions is called The Apocalypse Corpse. It is about, among other things, a repo man with amnesia, a mysterious corpse and the end of history. It may also be a love story. I’m waiting to see which characters survive.

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