Clevenger's HandbookInterview by Dennis Widmyer
Some of you know the story by now. Most of you don't. A Chuck fan by the name of Wendy Dale contacted me earlier this year with a recommendation email about a novel she had read. I get these emails all the time from Culsters, but Wendy was so damn passionate about this book that she actually went out, bought it, and then sent it to our PO Box. The book was The Contortionist Handbook.
I remember being intrigued by both the title and the cover, but with a stack of other "recommended" books before me, Wendy's choice got shelved for the next few months. I didn't pick it up until I first read an advanced reader's copy of 'Diary'. Once I had re-entered Chuck's world of prose, I needed a similar fix. I picked up 'The Contortionist Handbook' hoping to get that fix.
It's safe to say I got more than I bargained for. Not even halfway through the book and I knew I had to talk with this author. At the time I was already planning this "Writers Exclusives" section for The Cult. I planned to interview up and coming obscure authors that could use the exposure, yet at the same time, have a story to tell our young would-be writers. While Craig was already 38, he still fit the profile, as "the Handbook" was his first novel and had been written after many false attempts at choosing and sticking to the career of a writer.
Days after I had the epiphany that I must interview Craig, Wendy saw him at a trade show and passed on my contact info. We traded emails, then phone calls, and before I knew it, we were talking via Instant Messenger. Our interview would span over the course of a week (June 10th - 18th) and would comprise over twenty five pages of raw transcript. Craig and I discussed everything from writing regimen to his music and movie influences.
June 10th, 2003
After some quick banter about verification of identities, Craig and I got into it. God, did I love interviewing this guy.
Dennis: How old are you and where do you live?
Craig: I'm 38, currently living in Santa Barbara, CA, where I've been on and off for the last six or seven years.
Craig: Single. Never been married, no children. Living alone with my books and manuscripts; dating sporadically.
Dennis: Sounds like my type of life.
Craig: It's a little weird at this point, when so many people I know are getting married, buying houses and having children. It's not that I'm envious, but it becomes more and more clear that I've made a choice to do one thing and not the other. I gave up chasing a 401k and having a real safety net in order to write. I've never second-guessed that choice but I do feel like a perennial adolescent at times.
Dennis: I've read that you also gave up a six-figure salary for this career. Any regrets?
Craig: Strictly speaking, no. My last salary was actually in the high five-figures, and six-figures wasn't far off. I miss having the freedom that I had with that kind of income of course, but I wouldn't trade it for having finished and subsequently published a novel. I was offered another high-paying tech job when I had to start working again, but passed on it. I went with a minimum wage gig at a bookstore in order to keep my brain free for writing.
If I had a mortgage to pay and a family to support, it would be a different story, but I don't. As much as I'd like that kind of money, I don't want it more than I want to keep writing.
Attention To Detail..
Dennis: Let's back up a bit and talk about the early days. Tell me about college. What you went for, what you processed from it and when you found that you no longer enjoyed that "process".
Craig: I studied in the Creative Writing program at Cal State Long Beach and gained quite a bit from it. For one, being in writing classes/workshops where I had to deliver work for criticism, I learned to sit down and write, first and foremost. There's no room to complain about 'lack of inspiration' or being 'creatively blocked' when your grades depend on turning in work.
Secondly, there's the criticism of the group. While that has obvious limits after a while (and I avoid writing groups at every cost, at this point), they were extremely valuable in teaching me to get out of my own head, to look at my work with cold eyes.
Dennis: I've had some of my own experience with writing groups. I'd like to know your opinion on them, if you think it is better to show your work as it is being written? Or to wait until you have a first draft completed first?
Craig: There are two separate issues here. As far as groups are concerned, again I think they're valuable if you're just starting out and you've never had the experience of a group before.
But I avoid them now for one very simple reason: Nobody, and I mean absolutely nobody, is tougher on my work than I am. To be blunt, a writing group is a waste of time for me because no group or individual in that group is going to be as tough on my work as I am.
That's not to say I don't listen to my editor(s) very seriously but, by the time one of my editors gets a piece from me, I've put it through more paces than any group ever could. That way I don't waste an editor's time. As far as when I show something, I wait until it's as polished as I can make it on my own, for two reasons.
First, I want to get valuable feedback from an editor. If I don't give them my best writing, then they're going to spend time addressing problems I could have and should have found on my own, instead of giving me their insight that I couldn't get otherwise.
Secondly, if I start showing work too early in the process, my motivation to see a story through is eroded.
Dennis: Exactly. That is an issue I have faced myself. Stephen King explains it this way: The first draft you write with the door closed. On the following drafts, you open the door to outside thoughts.
Craig: By way of example: I didn't show the 'Handbook' to anyone until the fifth re-write of the entire novel, and MacAdam/Cage didn't see it until I was on the thirteenth draft. The final hardcover represents the TWENTIETH re-write of the story, with only the last three being copy editing.
Dennis: 20 DRAFTS! Dear Lord, man! Is this part of an obsessive, perfectionist behavior? Similar to…maybe the main character in ‘The Contortionist’s Handbook’, Mr. John Vincent?
Craig: Indeed it is, but obsessive, perfectionist behavior only as far as my writing goes. It doesn't apply to things such as, well, house cleaning or calling people back promptly.
The truth is I get really annoyed looking at so many contemporary, “literary” books, best sellers and otherwise, that haven't undergone that kind of scrutiny. Passive verbs, authorial proclamations that aren’t backed up by descriptions of action. And/or descriptions that are little more than a list of traits but lacking in any sensate detail i.e. smell, sound, touch. These things all bug the shit out of me.
Dennis: Yeah, you're talking about abstracts. This is something Chuck [Palahniuk] detests too. It's a writer's way of being lazy. Cutting to the chase, but shortchanging the reader.
Craig: I couldn't agree more. It's simple biology to me. Language is an arbitrary construct, while our brains are biologically hard-wired to process sensory data - again, sound, smell, touch, etc. If I don't put that information into a story, then the reader has to take my word for it.
While I ask for a lot of trust from a reader, I'm not prepared to abuse it. I don't want them to trust me that a character stinks, for example. Instead, I want to give my readers a stench that they're either familiar with or can relate to, or is at least a vivid and memorable one. Even if they've never smelled it.
Saying someone “stinks” or “smells like death” is one thing; saying his breath "smelled like rotting grass clippings in the summer heat" is something else entirely. A poor example, but you get my point.
Dennis: (laughs) It's actually a very good example. I mowed my lawn today…
Craig: "A lot of this is transparent to the reader, as in the case with some of John Vincent's linguistic specifics. For example, I had to go through the manuscript meticulously and eliminate ANY use of vague qualifiers for him. Vincent never uses words such as 'about' or 'roughly' or 'I think.' He's always very specific. But, since I do use such words routinely, they turned up in his prose in rough drafts. I had to cut them out, one line at a time.
Also, he never uses 'Mom' or 'Dad' when speaking to anyone. When speaking of his false past from a false persona to the Evaluator or anyone else, he says 'Mother' and 'Father' of his fake family. It's his distancing mechanism. But when he tells the reader the truth, he uses the more intimate 'Mom' and 'Dad' of his real parents. Again, details that few people notice, but details that I'm really strict about.
Dennis: I respect that sort of detail. As a screenwriter, you have about 120 pages to make a story work. But you also have to make every word count. Therefore, EVERYTHING has subtext. Everything means something. Every word.
Craig: Yeah, screenwriting is much less forgiving, I think. Playwriting as well.
Dennis: Well, sometimes it's fun just to "hang out with the characters," but even then... you're learning something new about them.
June 18th, 2003
After a week hiatus in our interview, Craig returns from a meeting with some producers about the possible option of his novel "The Contortionist Handbook."
Dennis: So what's the story on a possible option for The Contortionist Handbook?
Craig: I know there's at least one, very likely two, screen adaptations of 'the Handbook' floating about in the glittery ether of Tinseltown. But they're spec projects, not attached to anything.
I will more often than not try to visualize a scene as a film when I'm stuck. If I've got to get something down, and usually it's a dialogue scene, and I'm completely jammed, I'll start playing it through my head 'on screen' to see how it sounds, then go from there. It's very helpful.
Dennis: That’s very cool. I’m sure more writers do that than will admit it.
Craig: It's especially helpful for me because I'm not a very visual writer. 90% of 'the Handbook’ was written blind, with no images in my head, just the sound of John Vincent's voice.
Dennis: Yeah, isn’t it weird how that happens? I sometimes try to imagine actors as my characters, but then, every now and then it will hit me how I have no idea what they look like as I’m writing a scene.
So I want to ask you about a few topics today.
Craig: Fire away.
Dennis: First, the cover of the novel. A lot of people have already commented to me how much they like it. Explain the origin of the cover and whose decision it was to go with it.
Craig: Originally, I was planning on self-publishing and I'd enlisted the help of a friend of mine, a very talented artist, to come up with a cover. His name is Javier Roca, and he lives out in your neck of the woods. You can probably see why I wanted him to do it.
But, for a number of reasons, I felt compelled to let MacAdam/Cage take over the cover design, even though my contract said I had final say on the cover.
First, Dorothy Smith, the Art Director, is the one who read the book and passed it to my editor. Needless to say, I owed her big time. Secondly, and this is hard to emphasize correctly, MacAdam/Cage had designed my cover before I'd returned my signed contract.
That was a show of faith on their part that you will never, ever see from a major publishing house. They will never stick their necks out like that, expend resources on an author that they've not formally signed. It was a real display of trust on their part that they've maintained to this day.
But as for the cover itself…I was very happy with the title... it was accurate, yet ambiguous enough to invite the reader in (I hope, anyhow). My big fear was that they'd put a contortionist on the cover, and it was all I could do to keep myself from calling Dorothy and saying 'please don't do that...'
I had nightmare of seeing some dude wearing a diaper with his ankles behind his neck.
Craig: But I never thought of Dorothy's approach. I'm a big fan of midway banner art, and her fusion of a circus freak poster with a vintage family photo album was fucking brilliant. When I first met Pat and he showed me a print, I was almost doing cartwheels in the bar.
But even before I saw the cover, I knew letting MacAdam/Cage handle it was the right thing to do, so I wanted to tell Javier personally. I called him and let him know and he just laughed. In his wonderful Spanish accent he said, "We had an agreement. I promised to do an illustration for your book, and you promised to write me an introduction for an exhibit catalogue. We still have deal, yes?"
And we do... even if I'm in ICU, when Javier calls with a major exhibition and needs catalogue copy, he's got it.
As for Dorothy, she's pretty much responsible for getting me published. Some of the phrasing in the acknowledgements might make more sense, now…
Gads, I'm getting longwinded here but I should point out one more thing...
Dennis: Take as long as you need to answer anything. It’s interesting.
Craig: I have actually seen people, on multiple occasions, put the book down and complain that there are no pictures in it. That's the truth. A customer even complained at the bookstore where I work.
I've asked MacAdam/Cage to keep the cover for the paperback, but to make the words 'a novel' bigger.
Dennis: It's funny, I never would have thought family portrait. I thought maybe you’d say that it was Houdini or someone famous.
Craig: I don't think it's intentionally a family portrait, but the presentation comes off that way, to me. Like I said, it's not some yogi in a diaper.
Dennis: I think the cover is great. Both it and the title attracted me from the start.
Craig: The chaps name is F. Velez Campos, and he's from Puerto Rico; the shot was taken some time in the 30's.
It's being released in Germany this fall as a hardcover, and I'm curious to see how they handle the cover.
Dennis: Okay, I want to talk about polydactylism. This is something I have never really seen covered in a novel before. Yet you very aptly made this additional finger both an interesting and unique character trait for John, yet a burden and a "scar" as well.
Basically, what I want to ask is... where did this trait come from? Did it go hand in hand with your contortionist research? Or was it something that came from left field which you sort of were able to tie to everything else? The headaches, his being bullied as a child etc.
Craig: Okay, another long-winded response, here goes....
To preface everything, the process of putting a story together, for me at least, is sort of like 'Junkyard Wars' or 'Monster Garage'...
Nearly everything holds some sort of fascination for me, and I just let my brain latch onto whatever it will, and when I have a bunch of disparate elements that seem almost impossible to thread together, I say 'Okay, make a story.'
That's an oversimplification to a degree, but it's true to the challenge I give myself.
Polydactylism was one such element in my mental junkyard. I first tripped across it in reading the Thomas Harris novels many years ago. It's not mentioned in the films at all, so few people know it but, Hannibal Lector actually has a six-fingered left hand. Clearly, Harris was implying some connection between his mental state and his physicality, but he never states it explicitly.
It was well over a decade ago that I read those, and I can remember little else about the books. I read very little modern crime. But that image stayed with me and never let go of my brain, year after year.
I didn't know why, so I thought I'd find out. It seemed like an easy trait to add to a child prodigy, again implying a connection between the mental and physical, so I did. I let it play out over the course of writing the book to see what happened.
I have a scar from a cleft lip that I'm terribly self-conscious about. It doesn't bother me most of the time, but I am LOATHE to be photographed. That dust jacket shot was a day of near agony. A friend of mine said, "I get it. The six fingered hand is your scar, right?"
It was several drafts in before I realized what captivated me about it. It's that the six-fingered hand is a physical manifestation of Vincent's personality, i.e., people project onto it their own neuroses. Whether they think it's fascinating or ugly depends on where their head is at. And it's that very mechanism that Vincent is on guard against, people dumping their own baggage onto other people; a lack of self awareness at the expense of others. The whole novel is driven by John Vincent being watchful of someone's lack of self-awareness at his expense.
Am I making any sense at all?
Dennis: I understand that from reading the book. Don't worry, your hard work wasn't lost on me. (laughs) I was just interested in where the inspiration from that trait came from.
Craig: I was in Seattle visiting family, and I was having lunch with a good friend of mine, along with his three sons. I mentioned the polydactyl when he asked about the book and he said, "Michael, show Craig your hand."
Wouldn't you know it... his oldest boy has a scar from having an extra digit removed at birth. They used the word 'supernumerary,' which I also like.
Dennis: I play guitar so I think if I had an extra left finger. I'd be in paradise. I'd also warn women I dated that they didn't call me "McGropenstein" for nothing.
Craig: (laughs) I was waiting on people with extra fingers to send me letters complaining of my ill treatment of the subject, but that hasn't happened yet. I shouldn't hold my breath.
Dennis: You look very "on edge" in the author photo on the dust jacket.
Craig: MacAdam/Cage flew the photographer down to Santa Barbara, and he was very patient with me. We spent almost all day strolling around town, looking for appropriate backdrops and waiting for the right lighting and having pints in between, of course.
Looking through the digital contact sheet on his laptop toward the end of the day I said, "Well, it looks like I finally loosened up, after a whole day of drinking."
He points to that very shot and says, "You call that loose?"
Dennis: (laughs) With me, either I look intensely serious in a picture or if I smile, my whole face becomes a large goofy grin. There's absolutely no in-between.
Craig: I'm exactly the same way. So I usually err on the side of intensely serious.
Dennis: Is there anything you wanted to talk about or get out that I haven't covered yet?
Craig: I'm consistently referred to as being an 'edgy' writer. That word keeps coming up again and again, and it's always with the best intentions. But, here's the truth: I'm not interested in being 'edgy.' I'm not trying to be shocking or avant-garde. Trying to shock someone is the same as trying to placate them. In either case, they're the easiest targets to hit.
I'm not interested in pushing somebody else's definition of the envelope, or teetering on an edge that's been mapped out for me. As a writer, the most dangerous things I can do is be brutally honest, to trust my own instincts and not pull my punches. But when I start trying to be rebellious or defy convention, it means I'm fighting the limits someone else has set for me, and I don't want to do that.
Dennis: Well, you wrote a character driven novel that explores traits, topics and themes not explored often. So I would say you wrote a unique book which is tough to pull off these days.
Craig: Thanks very much. Like I said, I know it's always meant in the proper spirit, but I want to be clear that I'm not out trying to be some kind of literary 'bad boy.' I write the stories that I'm compelled to write. If they're edgy, then so be it.
Dennis: I think I'm gonna read 'the Handbook' again. I can't stop thinking about it. I got a close friend reading it. He's halfway through and so far he loves it.
Craig: Good to hear. There's little hidden bits in there that people sometimes catch on a second read. A second read being among the highest compliments a writer could get.
Dennis: Especially within one month of the first read.
Craig: Here's one, maybe you caught:
"I can count my overdoses on one hand:" If you actually count them, there's six. That chapter was written several months into the first draft, but it made much more sense to open the story with it, so I nixed the original opening in favor of that one. It set the story up much better.
Dennis: Before we tie this up, I HAVE to ask you more about your new novel. Any details you're willing to give up?
Craig: As you might expect, I keep it to myself in order to maintain sufficient motivation to write it. I'm usually comfortable divulging details after several drafts, when the major creative work is done.
I always answer this question by telling people what I'm researching, which satiates their curiosity but keeps my motivation intact. [I'm] currently researching clandestine drug manufacture, Pentecostal snake handling and long-term trauma of lightning strike victims, among other things. Like I said, it's like 'Junkyard Wars.'
I was hoping to have it out this Fall, but I've had to delay it, mainly because of work. There's a chance it'll be out in the Spring, but I'm prepared to delay it until Fall of '04.
I don't have the luxury of writing full time, like I did with ‘the Handbook’, so it's tougher.
Dennis: If there was any inspiration you could pass onto young, aspiring writers in the field, what would it be?
Craig: I’m not sure if I have anything new to add. I will say this: Trust yourself, trust your gut, and be brutally honest. And then be your own toughest critic.
Dennis: Works for me! Thanks, Craig.