Craig Clevenger is a true rising star in American literature. His novels, The Contortionist’s Handbook (2002) and Dermaphoria (2005), have been blurbed with glowing praise by authors such as Chuck Palahniuk and Irvine Welsh. He’s made an impact on an international scale – Contortionist’s has been translated into five languages and his books have gathered notoriety around the globe. (Craig was a The Times summer reads pick in the UK) Talk of film adaptations continues to surface and tease us. Without a doubt this is an author on the up-and-up.
Growing status as an author hasn’t stopped Craig from being involved with the ‘underground’ writing scene though. The Velvet, originally formed as a fansite for Craig, alongside fellow authors Will Christopher Baer and Stephen Graham Jones, has gone on to grow into a lively community and recently published the rather excellent anthology, Warmed and Bound. Craig has also contributed essays and short stories to The Cult, the popular Chuck Palahniuk fansite, and has led intensive classes over there on the art of storytelling.
And then he has been involved at Litreactor, a new website designed to embrace everything the online writing community might need. His craft essays are available to the members there and his intensives have taken off as quickly as they did at The Cult. Those that have taken his classes (including our very own Nathan Pettigrew) have been full of praise for his abilities as an instructor.
It’s not all been about teaching though. Fans have been devouring a number of new short stories, most of which have been released in anthology projects. Warmed and Bound and Thunderdome’s brand new anthology, L.A.: Tales of a Lost City, are two recent releases to feature Craig’s work.
Craig was kind enough to join Solarcide for a few questions about his recent projects.
First things, welcome to Solarcide. Great to have you here.
The pleasure’s mine. Nice to know my name is still warm out in the reading world after I’ve been silent for so long.
You’re gaining quite a reputation in the online world of education, most recently as an active participant and teacher at LitReactor, where you share your knowledge on writing in addition to your highly acclaimed essays on craft. Your class 200 Proof Storytelling has become a hit, as it has been previously at The Cult, and many of your students are going on to forge writing careers of their own. What is it that compels you to help and share your knowledge with less experienced writers?
Honestly, I resisted the idea of teaching, at first. There are so many books, courses, seminars, etc., out there that I didn’t think I had anything to add, not to mention I still feel like a novice after all of these years. I’m always learning and raising the bar for myself, and the more I do that, the more flaws I see in my earlier work. Teaching, ultimately, is a way for me to share exactly how I go about raising that bar.
Act of Contrition is your short story contribution to this year’s bestselling Warmed and Bound anthology. Much like the protagonists from your earlier novels, the character, Ezekiel, is on the run from himself and going to great lengths to carve out a new identity. Readers with biblical knowledge will be familiar with The Book of Ezekiel, but what is about the biblical prophet that your character from Act of Contrition identifies with, or hopes to identify with?
I didn’t have any specific metaphor in mind when I chose the name, other than it’s one of the more obviously Biblical names I could depend on to drive my point home. Ezekiel, the character, doesn’t as much identify with the prophet as much as he dis-identifies with himself, if that makes any sense. His is a classic case of denial, sexually speaking, but it’s that denial that manifests itself as sexual deviance when, in fact, if he weren’t so religiously hung-up, he’d be a perfectly straight-laced dude.
Act of Contrition received some criticism from Spinetingler magazine, part of which said: “there’s a real power in this mini-road-movie of a story, a haunting hybrid of Flannery O’Connor and James M. Cain. Its flaws don’t keep it from being good, but they keep it from being great,” and then specifically saying that with this story, you take “too long to say too little.”
On the flipside, The Rumpus praised the story, taking a completely opposite viewpoint and calling it “restrained,” and “sexy,” and that you know “tension like a family pet.” Do you read or pay attention to reviews of your work? If so, what factor do reviews play in your perception of your own writing, especially when those reviews hold conflicting viewpoints of the same work, as in the case with The Rumpus vs. Spinetingler?
I try not to pay too much attention to reviews, but it’s tough. So much depends on them that I really want them to be positive, but then don’t want to get my ego tangled up in them. My attitude about criticism is pretty straightforward: it should be in service of making a writer better, and the only difference between a book reviewer and an editor is that a reviewer comes after the work is done, while an editor comes before.
In truth, Act of Contrition was an experiment on a few levels, one of them stylistic. So Spinetingler’s review may not have been flattering, but it was helpful. And the Rumpus review indeed helped cushion the blow, not simply because the Rumpus review was favorable, but because the reviewer, Antonia Crane, writes almost exclusively about sex work and really mines the deep psychic territory of sex. So her reaction to the narrator carried a lot of weight with me.
You’re also featured in Thunderdome’s anthology, L.A.: Tales Of A Lost City, with the story, Obsolescence. This book is a collection of stories that are all exactly one thousand words long and are all based on photographs of the Los Angeles area. What does L.A. mean to you as a setting? Were there any specific images or locations you just had to include in the story?
Honestly, I wasn’t thinking of L.A. specifically, when I wrote that story. It’s a cross-country trip between a father and son, and I chose the photograph from Michael’s (Gonzales, the editor over at Thunderdome) portfolio that I did simply because of the rattlesnake warning sign. I’d recently spent two months at a friend’s place (fellow writer Rob Roberge) out in the Mojave writing, so that picture resonated with me.
I lived in Los Angeles for roughly ten years, maybe a little more. Still, I’ve never thought of myself as an Angelino and don’t really identify with the city in any specific way. It served as the backdrop for the Handbook because it was the big city I was most familiar with, and it worked nicely with John Vincent’s name changing on a metaphorical level, given the nature of Hollywood.
How do you feel about this kind of writing, working in direct response to a prompt you are given? Do you outline and draft a story like this any differently to how you would a story that is purely of your own invention?
My methods for outlining and drafting each story are in a constant state of flux. They change from story to story and it’s almost impossible to discuss my specific method because by the time I’m done laying it out, it’s changed again. I typically don’t rely on prompts for writing, such as Michael’s idea of giving each author a photograph. However, I’ve been building bigger and bigger fires under myself to write more; to write for longer stretches during the day, with more of those long stretches, and gradually lower the priority of all the noise in my life that gets in the way of writing. My time in Bolivia and the desert were both incredibly productive, and I’ve come to understand that the circumstances that lead to me being so prolific were really a matter of my own choice. So, I’m radically changing the choices I make and how I spend my time. In all, the prompt from Thunderdome was just me forcing myself to take on a set of challenges (a specific prompt, with a tight word count and a deadline) in order to kill a few more non-writing excuses. That said, it probably won’t be a regular thing for me. My notebooks are crammed with plenty of ideas.
A while back your story, The Numbers Game, was featured in another anthology, San Francisco Noir 2. This book is pitched as a ‘classics’ collection and your story holds company with those of names such as Mark Twain and Dashiell Hammet. How did this gig come about, were you approached for a collection like this or did you submit the story to them speculatively?
This collection is kind of ‘through the years’ affair, with a range of stories from 1865 right up until your own effort from 2009. What kind of response did you get for this one, being featured alongside a very different group of names to your more usual peers from places like The Velvet?
Peter Maravelis, the editor, approached me for that one. The idea to show the birth of San Francisco noir as happening outside a lot of the traditional definitions of noir (hence the inclusion of Mark Twain, Jack London, etc.) was his, and while the book was to be a collection of classics, he wanted the timeline to stretch right up to the very present. That, of course, put me in good company, with the likes of Seth Morgan (a personal literary hero) and William Vollmann. As for the response to it, I never really had my fingers on that pulse. The story represented a radical stylistic departure for me, and I was happy with it, and honored to be among the heavyweight names in that book. When an editor sandwiches your work between Morgan and Vollmann, that’s all the response from anyone you need, really.
Since Dermaphoria your published stories seem to largely have been released in anthologies (with the exception of the ‘Icarus’ stories at The Cult) What draws you to these projects, do you enjoy reading anthologies yourself?
Would you say anthologies are a good market for a new writer to aim for?
Wow, this could be awkward. First, I should clarify that the Icarus stories are excerpts from my third novel. But as for the short stories, I don’t really circulate too many of them. Like I said, I’m only recently getting in touch with my inner Stephen Graham Jones and thus getting more writing done in a smaller amount of time; the shorts I’ve done in the last year are a very recent development for me. The few that I’ve done have been by invite, and some of those have been from anthologies (San Francisco Noir 2; Warmed and Bound; Thunderdome) and some have been from magazines. I’ve got a new piece that just came out in Barrelhouse Magazine; their latest issue is noir-themed and, coincidentally, involved another prompt (hmmm… didn’t I just say I wouldn’t do that anymore?). The editor sent out vintage mugshots to the writers, along with their backstories, and asked us to write something short (500 words, pretty much flash fiction). Given that I collect antique mug shots, I jumped on this one and had a lot of fun doing it. I’ve also got one or two on the magazine horizon for this spring, but I’m not certain about those, yet.
Anyway, the anthologies were lucky invites, so I can’t say whether or not anthologies are or are not a good market for new writers. All told, I’ve never been able to get my brain around the magazine market, as embarrassing as that is to admit. Most literary mags stress that you should read a few issues to get an idea of what they’re looking for, and frankly I’ve never been able to deduce any sort of unifying theme, style or subject matter in any that I’ve read. As a result, the more I write, the more I’m going to have shorts that I have no idea what to do with. I try to focus on markets that either pay or at very least, have a print publication. But, yeah, I’m probably the wrong guy to ask about the short story market.
There have been hints from you recently that a new novel is in the works. Judging at the praise The Contortionist’s Handbook and Dermaphoria have gathered, interest in this book is sure to be high. Any sneaky whispers on what we’re in for? What sort of time scale do you put on a project this size? Has this been brewing for a while now?
Like I said, the Icarus stories on the Chuck Palahniuk web site are excerpts from that; some filmmaker buddies of mine are ramping up to do a short film based on one of the Icarus chapters, as well (the Kickstarter campaign will go live very soon; I’ll put word out on Facebook when it does).
I hope interest in the book is high, of course, as I’m counting on that interest to land me an agent, and perhaps a new publisher. But as nervous as I was with Dermaphoria, I’m even more nervous with this one. I wanted to make it clear that Dermaphoria was not going to be the Handbook II; and the new book is going to be a far cry from both of my first two. It’s a far more uplifting book, this time around. You’ll still know it was written by me, but the main character is going to gain more than he loses, unlike my first two. It’s not a noir story; it’s got three different narrative threads, two of which are told in the third person; while my usual thematic concerns are in there (memory, identity, etc.) I mix in a few questions about faith, God and redemption and, once again, it’s a big stylistic departure from my earlier stuff.
I never have a time scale up front, I just write until the book’s done. It’s just that each book gets harder and harder to write, so even though I’ve spent so long on this one, it’s not going to be House of Leaves or Infinite Jest. As frustrating as that is—I’d like the quasi-Freudian satisfaction of throwing down a big slab of paper after six years—I have to accept that the book takes as long as it takes and is as big as it is. It’s not up to me, it’s up to the story.
Finally, you’ve recently been vocal on Facebook about your support for Occupy Wall Street. Those in opposition to OWS have stated that the goals of the movement would actually hurt our economy, while others have voiced uncertainty around what the goals of the movement even are.
What end result or shift in our society do you hope to see take place as a reaction to OWS, and what are your thoughts regarding criticism of the movement?
Yes, I’ve been very vocal. Those who say the goals of the movement would hurt our economy really mean that it would hurt their pockets, personally. I’ve been very involved with the movment, yes—I was part of the Port of Oakland shutdown a couple of months back—but I also have issues with OWS. It ultimately comes down to this: the economic desparity in the U.S. is at an all-time high; there’s more money in fewer hands than in any time in U.S. history; jobs are being shipped overseas while the underclass pays more taxes than the companies who outsource our jobs or companies who cut corners domestically in order to buffer their own bank accounts (PG&E nearly burned down the city of San Bruno recently, with their shoddy maintenance of the gas lines). I’m not a socialist, I’m not an anarchist. I’m a big believer in the free market, but that free market has been slowly and silently rigged in the favor of a small minority of people.
If the OWS movement has done nothing else, it’s put that debate on the front pages, which is exactly where the richest 1% don’t want it. As for the ambiguous goals of OWS, look at it this way: when this many people take to the streets this quickly, it means the problem has hit critical mass. There was no town hall, no focus group or survey or committee or agenda or action items. When this many people are this pissed off, it’s too late for that. And to dismiss this many pissed off people as not having a clear message is the living definition of disingenuous.
That said, I think it’s time to move out of the streets and into the voting booths.
Many thanks, Craig, and we wish you every success for the future.
Craig Clevenger can be found online here.