He’s one of literature’s most lethal rising stars and highly prolific with not one, but four new releases in 2011.
His debut novel from earlier this year, Stranger Will (Otherworld Publications), established Caleb J. Ross as a true talent to be reckoned with. His writing can be described as stylistically beautiful while depicting some of the darkest and most disturbing worlds that fiction has to offer.
Picking up on concurrent themes throughout his work pertaining to family, some have begun to refer to his style as Domestic Grotesque—a genre all his own.
His upcoming novel, I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin, is set for release this month, while his novella As a Machine and Parts, will see a release in December.
Mr. Ross has also released an e-book collection of his short stories, titled Murmurs, while a popular story from that collection, “Click-Clack” was featured in this summer’s bestselling Warmed and Bound anthology.
Your stories involve characters who are either afraid of family, or afraid of a world without family. In your debut novel, Stranger Will, you have William who is not at all thrilled with the idea of becoming a parent, versus Jack in your short story “Click-Clack,” who very much wants to raise a child, and even fights for the chance. We see that point of view shift in your upcoming novel, I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin, from “parent” to “child” in the sense of a character who longs to connect with his mother after a motherless childhood.
The conflicts and psychology of the parent/child relationship seem to drive your work, especially with regards to your male characters. What is it about this relationship that draws you to explore the related dynamics through your characters?
What started for me as a way to gain easy mileage from familial relationships ended up being a bit of a psychological breakthrough. When I first began writing these child/parent relationships I did so motivated mostly by laziness. I figured, everyone can relate to having a parent or at least can sympathize with having no parents or poor parents. But what I learned, and what has been pointed out to me from many of my writer friends, is that my characters all seem to have daddy issues. It seems obvious now, but believe it or not when I first started writing I didn’t think much of the familial tensions. I just wrote. But the truth is, I’ve never had a father (mother and father divorced when I was five) and so I have never had a positive male role model in my life (extended family excluded). The family dynamic sort of seeped into my writing. But now that I recognize it, I can consciously focus it for maximum effect. That’s why I think “Click-Clack” works so well; it’s one of the most focused stories I’ve ever written.
William develops “parental” emotions toward Eugene in Stranger Will, by which William learns to identify himself and find purpose, and justification for his stance against Mrs. Rose when disagreeing over certain “parental techniques” if you will.
Do you think that the idea of your characters finding enlightenment through accepting responsibility is perhaps more the interest for you as a writer, where “family” is actually just a vehicle for making that happen for your characters?
Absolutely, I do. Great question. Your phrase “accepting responsibility” is an especially apt observation, particularly considering my response to the first question. Having no father means that I’ve always identified as a product of someone refusing to accept responsibility. Exploring how characters react to responsibility and what causes them to skirt that responsibility has been an obsession of mine for as long as I’ve been writing.
The relationship between Eugene and Will—Eugene being a possibly mentally handicapped child and Will being a man who may or may not have killed his own child—becomes especially poignant during a scene later in the novel in which they play catch—father son baseball type catch—with a dead raccoon. This is the first time William has ever really interacted with a child, and the experience changes him. I find something inherently interesting with taking the trope of father/son catch and twisting it just enough to be jarring (re: dead raccoon) but still remain entirely relatable. These subtle twists are where I get the descriptor for my work, domestic grotesque.
You’re a father in real life, and congratulations, by way. You’ve also made some interesting comments in public forums with regards to how being a father affects your work. Stranger Will, for example, was chosen as a book club selection by the folks at The Cult (chuckpalahniuk.net) in May—an event in which you participated to answer questions. While discussing the novel, you made the statement “Stranger Will would’ve been impossible to write as a new parent.
What is it about the world and characters of Stranger Will that would make it difficult for you to explore today, as both a writer and parent?
It’s such a cliché to say that having a child changes a person, but unfortunately for my writerly constitutions the cliché is apt and it’s one I have to embrace. Though I never thought of parenthood in quite the murderous ways William does, I’d be lying to say that through William I wasn’t exploring some of my own hesitations toward someday being a father. William thinks of parenthood as murder, cynically citing the fact that all children will someday die. I had always thought of parenthood as a responsibility greater than my dick-and-fart joke loving brain should handle. What I’ve realized is that dick-and-fart jokes don’t have to go away once you become a parent. The truth is I’ve changed very little since having a child.
I can’t watch shows about children getting kidnapped anymore (not to imply that at some point in my past I enjoyed marathon sessions of Lifetime channel shows on that very topic). I can’t stand to see children cry; emotional crying, not bratty crying. There’s an innocence with a child that I never fully grasped until becoming a parent.
All that being said, I still feel Stranger Will brings up some incredibly important ideas that are worth discussing, even if only to help a person understand exactly how serious a responsibly parenting is. You know, pretty much what Teen Mom does for the non-book reading demographic.
“Stranger Will is the Teen Mom of books.” Slap that on the cover.
You created one of the most harrowing and memorable antagonists in recent new fiction with Mrs. Rose in your debut, Stranger Will. How do you top a villain of that caliber—Can readers expect you to do just that with I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin, or will your upcoming novel be a completely different beast from Stranger Will?
I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin is a novel without a true antagonist; it’s a true man versus himself conflict, which is honestly the type of conflict I prefer to write. In fact, it would be difficult to cull my entire catalog for very many other examples of definitive hero vs. villain fiction. Stranger Will may be unique in that respect.
I remember very vividly the moment I realized that Mrs. Rose needed to be a capital-V Villain. I had already written a few full drafts of the novel and was combing the manuscript for ways to enhance the overall tension. Stranger Will was, at that time, basically a 250 page novel with no direction. I wasn’t too concerned; I actually like a meandering read. But for this particular novel, because the content had the potential of being so polarizing, I felt that meandering wasn’t the best way to map the book. Then, like a damn light bulb, I realized Mrs. Rose should be a villain. A Boris and Natasha, Gargamel, Shredder and Krang no-question-about-it villain. Then I calmed down a bit to end up with a happy medium between evil and sympathetic; think if Shredder was trying to kill Splinter solely because Splinter had a super contagious strand of rabies. There’s heart behind that evil.
I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin is about the son trying to find validation without the aid of a parent, quite similar, though subconsciously so, to my own fatherless upbringing (I think I traded my absent father for the novel’s absent mother so my own mother wouldn’t send me to the psychiatrist’s couch). The narrator, Jackson, slowly begins to understand his position in the world without the external validation of a parent. He and I are similar in ways.
Characters with handicaps and deformities also play a role in your stories—Eugene not being able to learn at the pace of others in Stranger Will, Ernie’s deformed head in “Click-Clack,” and you have a character with a missing ear in your upcoming novel I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin.
What’s the relationship, if any, of these characteristics to your overall themes?
This is something, like parent-child tensions, that just sort of organically took over my writing. I’d probably blame Palahniuk and his deformed characters, notably the narrator of Invisible Monsters, as seeding my interest. But as I started writing these types of characters, I became so interested in how external appearances shape the internal. A deformed character, as a narrator, has to be strong. A deformed character, as the object being commented on by the narrator, has such the potential to anchor the story in a very specific, very focused way. Take my story, “Legs Unwilling,” for example, about a mother who brings her handicapped child to a playground late at night in hopes that someone will kidnap the child. This story isn’t about the deformity. It is about understanding a mother’s reaction to her child’s deformity. This approach goes beyond shock value, instead aiming for emotional value.
My goal with everything I write, “Legs Unwiling” and Stranger Will included, is to set up a situation that makes empathy seem impossible (“who the hell could have compassion for a man who may have killed his own child”) but bring it back just enough to shake the reader out of his/her moral comfort zone. If by the end of Stranger Will the reader questions his/her own moral affirmations, then I’ve done my job.
In your upcoming novel, I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin, we see a debate over the necessity of having a mother play out between two characters, Creg and Jackson.
Is the close friendship or bond between Creg and Jackson designed to explore the “sibling” role within a family, as much as it’s designed to explore the role of a “son?”
I felt that in order for Jackson to come across as at all sympathetic we needed to see a “straight man” character, one bright-eyed, innocent boy who shares Jackson’s position as a mother-less twenty-something boy, but lacks Jackson’s pessimism. Creg, unlike Jackson, wants desperately to find his mother (though we slowly learn as the book progresses that Jackson’s hard stance against wanting to find his mother may just be a false display). In this way, they do act as siblings in a way. Jackson, the older-brother type eager to teach, and Creg, the younger-brother still anchored by hope.
In a way, Shelia, Mrs. Rose’s hench-woman in Stranger Will, plays the younger sister dynamic, too. It could be argued that Will and Shelia rival each other in much the way that siblings with a 5-10 year age gap might. In this case the younger sibling has a life-experience (actually giving birth to children) that the older sibling is only beginning to approach.
For fans who were introduced to your work after reading Warmed and Bound, Is Creg’s search for his mother in I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin an expansion on a theme involving Ernie’s search in “Click-Clack?”
They are related, but not directly. I actually wrote “Click-Clack” at an interesting time. I had just finished doing the initial promotion for Stranger Will’s release and was just getting into the final edits for I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin. This is to say that my head was floating in a parenting limbo. I wrote Stranger Will, a book about a man not wanting to be a parent; then I wrote IDMtbK, a book about a boy desperately wanting a parent; and “Click-Clack” felt like a third piece to round out the various explored familial relationships: a story about a man wanting desperately to be a parent. Taken together, they could very well be my Childhood Trilogy.
In a way, this is what Murmurs represents, a collection of stories all fitting into the domestic grotesque, parent/child relationship pie. I think the collection accurately maps my own exploration and evolution with these themes, as it contains my first-ever published story (“Petty Injuries”) as well as my most recent published story (“Click-Clack”). The collection also contains a few paragraphs of author commentary on each story, so interested readers will have the opportunity to read about my own views toward this evolution.
Your official home touts itself as “The World’s First Author Blog”:
The digital revolution of e-publishing, online lit journals, and downloadable print media seems to be the most efficient way for a new writer to reach more readers these days, especially as online social media becomes more dominant.
Would you agree with that statement? If so, about how many years do you give traditional print novels to die out (in terms of relevance and dominant sales)?
I would agree with that statement. When I was in college (2000-2005), the world of online publishing was just beginning, so was not held in very high esteem, especially in the world of academia. Therefore, I was initially hostile to online publication. Then one day it hit me that I did 90% of my lit journal and short story reading online. Another light bulb moment. Having a story in print at The Paris Review or Tin House may gain a writer deserved attention in academia, but I am certain that far more people read fiction at the top online lit sites than subscribe to and/or read either of those two aforementioned journals. They are great journals (I’ve, in the past, subscribed to both), but they just don’t have the readership or reach that some online sites may. I don’t have the circulation numbers, but it’s a hunch I believe in.
Portability is also an extremely important factor to note. I can read a short story in line at a grocery store. It’s harder to lug a copy of Glimmer Train everywhere I go.
Regarding the second part of your question, I see traditional print novels going away, in terms of being the dominant selling medium, within the next five years. Tablets and ereaders are simply too sexy. That being said, I also see the overall sales of books (as we know them today) declining. As dedicated ereaders give way to tablet/ereader hybrids, the temptation to check Facebook rather than start a new chapter is too great. I think the storytelling mode must adapt to the inevitable growth of options. I’d love to see Mark Z. Danielewski re-write House of Leaves for a tablet reader; that is the future of books, I think.
Stranger Will was released through Otherworld Publications, while I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin is being released this month through Black Coffee Press. Even your short story “Click-Clack” is available through two different channels, one being a traditional print anthology with Warmed and Bound, and then as part of your short story e-book collection, Murmurs.
This seems to recall the mid-90’s model of musicians releasing records through different labels, thus giving the artist more control of output and profits from their work. Given the evolution of that model in the 21st century through the world wide web, how important is it, from your experience, for authors to have these kinds of options or broad avenues for releasing their work—Is this a model that most new authors should strive for vs. scoring a contract through a major/traditional publishing house that claims rights on all of your work?
For me, the diversity of my publishers was luck. I had been sending both novels out to publishers at the same time, and it just happened that interest from publishers came about simultaneously. Both books could have very easily come from the same publisher given slight changes in any number of variables.
Book publishing has only recently come about as an industry with choices. Recording technology has moved faster than book publishing technology, which is why this new era of choice in book publishing seems almost cute by comparison. The history of the recording industry is a good place to find the future of the publishing industry.
Authors simply have more choices to publish these days, and increasingly valid option is self-publishing. The do-it-yourself mind-set is slowly shedding the stigma of “not good enough to make it with the Big Boys, so I’ll do it myself” mentality. The simple truth is that most new authors stand to make a lot more money if they self-publish than if they get involved with traditional publication process. It’s a simple matter of fewer hands chipping away at potential profits. I’ve written a bit about this before, but basically if a writer has the time and resources to promote (which absolutely cannot be overlooked), then consider self-publishing.
All that being said, if a traditional publisher came knocking on a new author’s door with a sack full of money and promises of extensive marketing and promotion, then the author should snap up the offer. I’m just saying that time dedicated to querying and praying could be better spent networking and engaging with future readers.
And there is definitely benefit to establishing one’s self with a single publisher. Nurturing such a relationship can provide more leverage for negotiations in terms of advances, royalties, and promotional efforts. Constant skipping among publishers weakens a trackable history of performance and may cause publishers to look at an author as being less experienced and less proven than is actually the case.
You’re active in making the best use of technology to promote your work—You released a trailer for Stranger Will, and while you’re not the first author to do that, you’ve publicly questioned the effectiveness of using trailers as promotional tools for a novel.
What’s your final verdict on novel trailers, if you’ve reached one, based on the response you received for Stranger Will?
I don’t think they sell books, but they do generate awareness. Or, to put some marketing speak on it: they aren’t conversion oriented, they are branding oriented. If they do sell books, I’d love to see the ROI data if anyone can provide it.
As cheesy as it sounds, I made the trailer, and every other book video I’ve created, entirely for me. I like learning new software. I like being creative with mediums other than words. I had a ton of fun making the videos, and I’m glad to have my image and name associated with them.
My fear, should book trailers truly catch on, is that they will act as substitutes, or unfair primers, for elements of a book that should be better left to the imagination of a reader. I hate when book trailers give literal voices to characters. I hate when book trailers depict characters visually. The fun of reading is to create your own image. This is why every book video I’ve made has been distinctly removed from the actual content of the books. The videos could be about any random book and be equally as effective. This approach goes against most traditional marketing, which is why book trailers shouldn’t be categorized as traditional marketing avenues.
Also, I like that you specifically said “novel” trailer in your question. Non-fiction books would surely not be subjected to the same level of scrutiny, and rightly so. I can definitely see book trailers working for non-fiction.
You also have a novella set for release in December, titled As a Machine and Parts, and early buzz indicates that it’s “one of the best things you’ve written.” Can you try to speak to why that might be, based on early reviews?
As a Machine and Parts began as a poor-man’s version of House of Leaves. As a lover of anything meta and unique, reading House of Leaves was for me quite honestly a religious experience. It changed me. It showed me things that I didn’t know could be done. I had to dip my toe into the illustrative meta-fiction world. As a Machine and Parts plays with the look of the text in interesting ways (which is why it likely won’t be available as an ebook soon).
Of course As a Machine and Parts became something much different than a poor-man’s version of the Danielewski novel. Basically, the novella is about a man who is slowly turning into a machine. Simple, right? But the story manages to play on the idea of metamorphosis in a way that I haven’t seen done since Kafka’s famous work. The characters don’t react to the protagonist’s transformation in any visceral way. Instead, the transformation is more a mere annoyance. This allowed me to explore the change not from a scientific perspective but from a human perspective.
My hope is to continue my history of aromatically infusing preorders by introducing motor oil somehow. I haven’t asked the publisher about this yet. Cynthia, if you are reading this, pretty please….
Well whatever happens, we wish you much success with I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin and As a Machine and Parts, in addition to continued success with Stranger Will. It was great discussing your work with you, Caleb. Thanks for sharing your passion with Solarcide.
Stranger Will on amazon (available through paperback, kindle and hardcover): http://www.amazon.com/Stranger-Will-Caleb-Ross/dp/1936593076/ref=tmm_pap_title_0?ie=UTF8&qid=1321328037&sr=1-1
Or you can order through Otherworld Publications: http://www.otherworldpublications.com/apps/webstore/products/show/1905075
I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin (Caleb’s New Novel): http://www.calebjross.com/works/booklength/i-didnt-mean-to-be-kevin-a-novel/
Murmurs (Short Story collection) on amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Murmurs-Gathered-Stories-Vol-ebook/dp/B005ZEWJIC/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1321328212&sr=1-1
Charactered Pieces (Caleb’s first collection of stories from 2009): http://www.amazon.com/Charactered-Pieces-stories-ebook/dp/B0036FURTU/ref=sr_1_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1321328212&sr=1-2
As A Machine and Parts: A Novella (Coming in December –Check back with Solarcide then for links to where you can purchase, or at Caleb’s site: http://www.calebjross.com/