Part II: "The Return"Interview by Dennis Widmyer
Return? For many of you Craig Clevenger hasn't gone anywhere. He's been right here on the web, posting topics, answering questions and even revealing some new work. For others waiting for this new book has been like standing in line on opening day for a long-awaited summer release. Craig's debut novel The Contortionist Handbook was, in Chuck Palahniuk's words, one of the best books he had read in maybe ten years. Now, really let that sink in for a second. In my opinion, Chuck isn't far off.
As webmaster for an author-driven site I've been sent countless books in the mail over the years. It was rare though when a person would selflessly send a book they hadn't written and instead, offer you a book they just thought you'd enjoy. In 2002 this happened. A fan named Wendy Dale sent me The Contortionist Handbook, and for months it just sat ontop of a pile of other books on my shelf. Until one night, the title, the cover, and even the author's last name, just drew me in and I started reading it.
As many of our long-time members will recall, this set off a chain of events that led to me phoning Craig to pitch him on an interview for The Cult. For the first time I felt so inspired to hunt down an unknown writer and make him KNOWN that I was overwhelmed by the feeling. Craig was a kindred soul and we were soon friends, yapping on the phone about movies and books, and then even meeting each other face to face finally for beer and good conversation. But it was the book itself that propelled me to send a copy one day to Chuck... just to offer him a great story to devour, the way Wendy had to me.
"I swear to God this is the best book I have read in easily five years. Easily. Maybe ten years." - Chuck Palahniuk
But when Chuck read The Contortionist Handbook the buzz just spread even further. Soon, you were hard-pressed to find a book reading where Chuck was not declaring Craig's name and urging people to read his book. Chuck even offered his enthusiastic review of the book as a quote for the front cover of the trade paperback.
Fast forward three years and Craig has returned. He's greeted by a lot of pressure. Most of it, brought on by himself. But I'm hear to tell you all not to worry. Dermaphoria is better than 'The Contortionist Handbook'... at least, in my humble opinion. Craig has done it. He's written a book that is a notch up. And I think he's solidified our trust in him as one of the best writers of the new millennium.
Dennis Widmyer: It's been three years since the hardcover release of your word-of-mouth debut 'The Contortionist Handbook'. Now, we're greeted with your long-awaited follow-up, 'Dermaphoria'. So what's the book about, and what took you so long!?
Craig Clevenger: It's the diary of an amnesiac LSD chemist who's hooked on a drug which synthesizes the feeling of human touch. I started writing it shortly after I'd finished the Handbook, but by then I was working again, so was back to writing in my spare time versus full time. As for the second half of your question, that answer's a little tougher. For starters, I had a character in mind for the Handbook, which made developing a story much easier. John Vincent had been evolving in my head for some time, so the story came naturally. With Dermaphoria, I had the premise for the story first, but had no main character. For me, that's a much tougher way to begin something.
The greater roadblock to getting it finished came from constantly fighting to get myself back into the headspace within which I wrote the Handbook, which is to say a complete vacuum, free of expectations from critics or readers. As the Handbook gained more momentum, I was having a tougher and tougher time trying to live up to it with a second novel, one which didn't read like The Handbook II. Which takes me to the third obstacle- creating an entirely different voice and narrative style for this novel, and spending long periods of time in the mind of a new, more deranged, narrator.
Dennis: Do you enjoy writing books in this sort of dense, audience-expectant, paranoid headspace? Or do you want to try something different with your writing method for the next one?
Clevenger: For me, writing is the chance to pull the gloves off, to work from a vantage point that's different- to the extreme- from my own. I've never thought about whether or not I 'enjoy' writing from those viewpoints, they're just a natural part of the stories I tell. With Dermaphoria, I did have more fun with the narrator's paranoia than I did with the Handbook, with Ashworth's picking out the Morse code from cricket chirps or dissecting cockroaches looking for radio transmitters. Next to Eric Ashworth, John Vincent is almost sane and rational by comparison.
As for my third novel, I've just started working on it. As usual, my narrator's a little off, but to what degree, I have yet to determine.
Dennis: Like the Handbook with identity forging, with 'Dermaphoria' a ton of work seems to have went into the study of drugs, chemistry, and black market dealings. How did you go about doing all this research?
Clevenger: Honestly, I didn't do nearly as much research for Dermaphoria as I did for the Handbook. While I started out with a lot of library time, I decided early on that I didn't want this second book to be a compendium of criminal factoids. Instead, I wanted to focus on story and character, more than data. Any of the early research which didn't find its way into the story was abandoned in favor plot turns and character development. As a result, I know I missed a few factual details but, I'm hoping the story speaks for itself instead of reading like a how-to manual.
Dennis: As the novel deals extensively in the underground California drug trade - primarily with this new drug, Derma, as almost a heightened form of ecstacy, I have to ask: have you yourself experienced any of the drugs you write about here? And if so, did any of your experiences help with the crafting of the novel?
Clevenger: Drugs are against the law, Dennis, and I would never break the law.
The central drug of the story is fictitious- the compound which creates tactile halluctinations. As I mentioned before, I'd had the idea for the story in my head for some time, and this drug was it. As for the others, let's just say that I've done my share, but my share is far less than most people assume. I will say emphatically that I've never touched acid, and probably never will. The stories I write are the result of the voices in my head being carefully controlled, and I don't want to know what would happen if I let all of those voices out of their cages at once. I am far, far too paranoid to mess with hallucinogens.
Without any direct experience with the drugs in the story (you don't have to kill someone to write a murder mystery, though it helps), the fictitious drug, 'Skin,' shaped most of the story. I built the thread of the backstory from the string of sensations Ashworth feels with each new dose of the drug, and built the present-day narrative from my imagined feeling of withdrawal from that drug, which meant taking my own, natural paranoia and turning it up to eleven.
"Everything in the universe is everything else...
The Devil is just the angel who asked for more."
Dennis: Okay, if you can sleep with that answer, I guess I can ignore your shaking.
Let's talk about the research a little bit more though. I remember about a year ago you visited the desert and took photos. I remember at the time thinking of how the desert would be used in this story, I had not yet read. I think I saw Jim Morrison doing a dance with a Shaman. Nothing that original for a story that deals with drugs. But honestly, what you did with the desert in this novel just completely captivated me. Gave me all together new visuals apart from any cliche I could conjure up. I'll stop licking your ass crack for a second to get in this question: How were you able to make the desert such an important character in this book?
Clevenger: My editor, Jason Wood, and I did a road trip out to the Mojave with a couple of disposable cameras for what I referred to as a literary location scouting. I knew the area where I wanted the story to take place, but I needed some concrete visuals. I ended up tacking the snapshots to my wall along with the map, or clipping them to chapters for a solid visual while I worked. In some cases, I dropped one into a copy of the Handbook when someone asked for a signature.
You're right about the desert/drug cliche, though, and I wanted to avoid that (though I stepped into another-- writing about a drug lab in the middle of nowhere has become another cliche). Especially with the rise of Burning Man, I wanted to avoid the Jim Morrison Shaman dance. The movies might make that look mystical but, in real life, you'd end up dehydrated and sunstroked, if not dead from a rattlesnake bite.
The desert has fascinated me ever since I was a kid and our family moved out to the West Coast. The terrain was unlike anything I had ever seen, and had everything my little boy, science-geek mind had been reading about: dinosaur fossils, petrified trees, meteor craters, volcanoes, everything. There's a stretch of Arizona called the Painted Desert, for good reason. The colors in this inhospitable, dead expanse of dirt and sand are unbelievable. A couple of years ago, I read at a literary festival in Texas, and decided to drive, because I was itching for another road trip. There's something really humbling about driving for hours at a time and having the scenery not change, about seeing that mountain in the distance not get any closer because you have no idea how far away it is without any visual reference points around you. You have no cell reception, you're sick of your tape selection and the radio sucks, and you know that you'd die on foot in less than a day if your car broke down. It's as close to a religious feeling as I've ever had, that of admiring nature while knowing nature is oblivious to me.
Of course, you have the pockets of civilization that exist there, and the weathering that those pockets endure- both people and buildings- take on a characteristic you don't find anywhere else. I'll tell anyone who's never made a cross-country drive to do it, put it on your list of things to achieve before you die. It will change you.
On a side note, I will say that one of the creepiest things I've ever experienced was driving alone through the desert in the dead of night, without having seen another car for hours, while listening to "What's He Building in There?" by Tom Waits. No horror movie has ever come close to giving me chills like that. Try it sometime, if you can.
Dennis: Okay, your avatar just trigged another question I've been meaning to ask. A question that can only be phrased as: Talk about the bug thing. And so...
Talk about the bug thing.
Clevenger: The bug thing... it started out small. Bugs are a recurring theme in medical accounts of drug withdrawl or amphetamine psychosis, so they were a natural for the story, especially given the conditions of Eric's hotel room. They were also an obvious choice to make with Eric's language confusion, and I had a lot of fun blurring Eric's distinction between bugs as vermin versus bugs as hidden recording devices. As I got deeper into Eric's head, the bug imagery took on a life of its own. I started to see how everything could could somehow, in his mind, be linked back to an insect origin- insects which are monitoring his movements.
It helped that I had a couple of bizarre encounters with bugs while writing the book. For the first year of writing, I was living in a basement apartment which was, I'm convinced, built directly above the world's largest underground ant colony. During one particularly heavy rain, I had ants swarming out of a wall socket near my desk.
"More bugs will drop from the air at any second.
Armored insects with polished, carbon fiber heads, giant eyes that shine
like black mercury and can see in the dark."
The early versions of the story had Eric recalling part of his youth spent with Pentecostal snake handlers, so there was as much narrative devoted to reptile imagery as there was to bugs, but I cut those sections out. They weren't important to the story, so they had to go.
Dennis: You talk about cutting certain sections out of the novel that weren't as important to the novel. So can you talk a little bit about how that process of editing and redrafting goes with you? For instance, how many other versions of 'Dermaphoria' existed before this one, and how do you know when something should go and something has to stay?
Clevenger: It's hard to say how many other versions existed... I lost about fifty pages of the original story I'd been working on years ago when I left it in the seat pocket of an airplane. The first initial draft was so bad I ditched it almost entirely, and I lost a chunk of the new version when my old laptop died. As for the version now, I didn't write a complete draft and then re-write a series of drafts one after the next. Every chapter existed as a separate document up until a couple of weeks before I strung them all together for the press galley. Until then, there was no single manuscript. I worked on each chapter individually, re-writing some more than others, and rarely working on them in sequence. While they had a pre-determined sequence from my outline, I shuffled among them depending on whether or not I was stuck in one place and needed a change, or simply needed to make certain I maintained continuity between two sections which were chronologically close together in the storyline but far apart in chapter sequence.
Toward the end of the process, I'd strung rows of picture framing wire across my wall, with the chapters hanging from them in order from floor to ceiling, each with my "to do" list at the top.
There's a number of reasons something gets cut, but the shortest explanation is that it has to serve the story, which is a sequence of events shaped by the actions of the narrator, actions which come from the developed character traits of that narrator. So, if I've got a scene which I'm fond of, with some phrasing I like and which perhaps sheds some insight into the narrator's behavior, I have to decide if that scene takes too long to convey a certain amount of information, and how critical that information is to the storyline. Just because something gives insight and might be interesting, that doesn't justify it sandbagging the progress of the story.
In some respects, I've become more merciless when cutting material but, in other respects, I had to sacrifice better material with this book, for the book's own good.
Dennis: I know you and fellow author Will Christopher Baer traded off manuscript drafts this past year. What if any insight or valuable criticism did he bring to 'Dermaphoria'?
Clevenger: The most memorable piece of feedback he gave me was regarding my original description of the stripper/drug-dealer whom Eric meets early on. I have the unblocking method whereby if I'm stuck on something, then I look at whatever my initial reflex is, and then run the opposite direction. When it came time to describe the stripper, I absolutely refused to describe a tan, curvacious California blonde... that would be boring and cliche. So I ran in the opposite direction, and described the skankiest, most nasty-looking woman possible. I think that description was in tact when I read at Soft Skull a couple of years ago, something about "an emaciated mime who'd been shoved through a tail pipe."
Chris read that, and the rest of the description, and said it was too much. Now, if Will Christopher Baer says you should tone it down, then you've definitely gone over the line. It's like making a friendly jab at someone and having Triumph the Insult Comic Dog say, "Hey, dude. That was uncalled for. I think you should apologize."
Dennis: That's awesome. Although I think I disagree with him. The original description seems spot on. :)
During the writing phase of 'Dermaphoria' did you see any films, TV or read any books that inspired the book more in a certain direction, or perhaps lend some new ideas or motivation?
Clevenger: Not really. I read very little fiction while writing this one, and almost none at all during the last year, with the exception of Stephen Graham Jones's "All the Beautiful Sinners" (mind-numbingly brilliant, by the way). Most of the films I rented were repeats, with a few exceptions, and my writing music hasn't changed much. The things which spurred the growth of the story in my head were some late night walks through some bad neighborhoods in L.A. and San Francisco, several desert road trips over the last couple of years and, as I mentioned before, some bizzare insect encounters.
Dennis: Being on the inside loop a little, I can't help but ask about the current climate at MacAdam Cage. If you don't mind speaking about it, could you explain some of the big moves that have transpired with your publisher during the writing of this novel?
Clevenger: The biggest change is that my original editor, Pat Walsh, moved on to pursue writing full time. He'd recently published his first book, "78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might" and has been actively promoting it, along with writing his second book, a poker memoir, I believe. Jason Wood is now one of two senior editors, along with Kate Nietze, and is responsible for redlining Dermaphoria (which means he read it only slightly fewer times than I did). I work well with Jason. He and I have a mutual respect and trust, combined with almost complete disagreement about everything-- film, book, music, food, everything. So he felt no need to pull any punches when editing.
Dennis: Do you feel that the industry has changed at all in recent years? What sort of environment can a new writer be expected to be stepping into should they have their first novel published?
Clevenger: That's hard to say. Every year, I read more and more news articles about the decline of reading in the U.S., about the consolidation of the publishing industry- independents going out of business, chain stores giving more space to gift books and self-help in lieu of fiction- about major newspapers and magazines giving less and less space to book reviews, and always, especially after BEA, more gloom and doom about big publishers or chains losing money.
But, people keep reading, and doing so passionately. Our respective sites, the Cult and the Velvet, are full of nothing but people who love the written word. While our site members are a minority of the general populace, I refuse to believe they're the exception which proves the rule. A book like House of Leaves could not possibly have succeeded like it has in a climate of illiteracy like the one I keep reading about. I remember working in a book store when the fifth Harry Potter book came out. We stayed open late so we could start selling it at midnight of the release date, and the place was packed, I mean packed, with young kids and their parents. A few of us started wheeling out boxes of the latest Rowling book, and about three or four hundred kids, roughly middle-school or a little younger, started applauding. Applauding. Not for an author reading, but a book. That gives me hope.
I suppose the short answer is that it's rough and getting rougher, but it's always been that way.
Dennis: What sort of advice then would you give to a new writer, intent on setting out to be published for his/her debut novel?
Clevenger: That depends on what you mean by "selling out." For me, selling out isn't about money, it's about effort. A person sells out when he or she knowingly creates beneath his or her abilities, when a person does less than what he or she is capable of. If someone thinks that approach will increase their chances of publishing success, then I don't have any advice for them.
Dennis: Scroll up, buddy. 'Setting out', not 'selling' out.
Clevenger: Okay, so I my glasses are old and I can be a little quick on the draw... oops.
On SETTING out to venture into the cold world of publishing... all I can say is do it with your eyes wide open. Know the risks you're taking, and be realistic about the possibility of failure, at least in the publishing arena, though not necessarily in the personal, artistic arena. If you're driven to write and you know the cost, then godspeed.
Dennis: Did the slow burn success of 'The Contortionist Handbook' change the way some of your family and friends thought about you? Describe an encounter you had with someone you knew who hadn't seen you in a while after the book had started to get a little fanfare.
Clevenger: The only thing my friends and family have done is threaten to snuff me without mercy, should my ego get out of control. As I'm still sleeping on a floor, as well as washing glassware and emptying trash at a downtown bar, there's no danger of that happening. The oddest encounter I've had thus far was when sitting in the office of an IRS collections agent who asked me, "Are you the guy who wrote that book?"
On the other end of the spectrum, I rang up two customers at the bookstore who were buying copies of the Handbook. I put their receipts into their bags and wished them a good afternoon, and they had no idea who I was. If I'd had a high horse, it would have fallen over dead.
Dennis: So what's next then? Tell me anything you can about the next novel.
Clevenger: I wrote a short story called The Fade, which I posted on my site a while back. I'm still in the very early stages of the new novel, but it's going to be an expansion of that short piece.