Will Christopher Baer
Introduction by Dennis Widmyer
So Clevenger calls me last month. He tells me he has a proposition for me. He says he’s gonna interview one of his favorite authors, Will Christopher Baer. He says it’s gonna be a great interview and that he’ll conduct it for our site as our next Author Exclusive.
I check my messages and see that JT Leroy still hasn’t called me back nor may he ever. So I say sure. Then I immediately start wondering just who the hell this Chris Baer guy is and why Craig Clevenger, who wrote one of the best books I’ve read in years, likes him so much.
I also begin to think that a lot of Chuck fans would probably wonder the same thing. So I take steps. I already know getting Clevenger to do ANY interview for our site is going to be sick. Hell, I even once offered him a spot as a "correspondent" anytime he felt like writing or reviewing something for us. But this was different. This was Craig actually doing an interview for us. So I had better find out who this Chris Baer character was.
Craig offers to send me Baer’s debut novel Kiss Me, Judas but our ol’ friend Amy Dalton beats him to the punch and digs the book up from her messy room (Amy’s read everything, folks). While I begin reading the book, I get a link up on our front page and before you know it, Kiss Me, Judas climbs into our “Amazon referrals” top 10.
A buzz starts.
Thankfully, the buzz is warranted. Twenty pages into Kiss Me, Judas and I’m fucking loving it. This sonofabitch can write. Take Andrew Vachss and mix him with a little John Ridley… then add in a stolen kidney, S&M, a delirious ex-cop with revenge and tragedy as his best friends, and one of the sexiest written characters I’ve read in a long time… Jude.
It’s safe to say that as the days ticked down to this interview, I grew giddier and giddier by the minute. Craig kept sending me updates. “Dude, I’m so sorry. I’m just formatting the Baer interview and then I’ll have it for you next week….” Yeah, yeah, yeah. In the end, Clevenger delivered with the meticulous detail he brings to his fiction in an interview that’ll make you hunt down Baer’s two books, Kiss Me, Judas and Penny Dreadful before you even get to the bottom of this page. - Dennis Widmyer
Craig Clevenger: Let’s start with the basics. When did you start writing and what kind of things did you write?
Will Christopher Baer: I started writing when I was a kid. My first stories were very genre-hopping, comic book style, sort of wild wild west crossed with Middle Earth… with a little Logan's Run feel. So I had mercenary space travelers, werewolves, cowboys and hobbits coexisting on the same plane, and very little narrative logic.
Clevenger: What about your education? Did you specifically go to school to be a writer?
Baer: BA in English that took me six years to complete because I kept fucking up, dropping out of school. I transferred three times. I eventually got an MFA at the Jack Kerouac School, which was founded by Allen Ginsberg, at Naropa U in Colorado. Lotta wild stories there, for another day.
Clevenger: I’ll get them out of you, don’t worry. I know you’ve been in workshops in school, but what about after? Have you participated in any writing workshops or groups since school?
Baer: Not since I left academia. I never minded workshops... though I guess I got sick of them after a couple years. They can be productive, if you've got tough skin. If not, they can be serious pecking parties, blood sport, crabs killing each other in a barrel. Worse, they can turn into godawful group therapy sessions.
Clevenger: ‘Crabs killing each other in a barrel.’ I just might steal that from you. You told me before how your agent found you, rather than the other way around. Refresh my memory.
Baer: Dan (Mandell) read a couple stories of mine that were published in Bomb. He liked them, got my number from the editor and called me up. He said he loved the stories and did I have a novel, or was I working on one. I had maybe 2 or 3 chapters of Judas at the time. I lied and said “Yeah, I've got 100 pages,” and he said, “Ok, send it to me.” So, I wrote my ass off that weekend and sent him 100 pages. He nursed that book along until I finished it, a year later. He's been a great friend, my most trusted ally, and until he dies will get the first read on my work. Dan is a great editor.
Clevenger: And that brings me to the subject of binge writing. We talked about our respective methods when we first met, and you spoke of writing in binges the way most people talk about drinking or gambling.
Baer: I wrote most of Penny Dreadful in a Motel 6 outside of Oakland. The last half of Kiss Me, Judas, meanwhile, was written in 10 days of sleep deprived glassy eyed hunger strike holed up in a friend's studio space in San Francisco that had a couch, a coffeemaker, a toilet, no shower, a cheap stereo and a lot of sick paintings on the walls. I had one CD, Nick Cave's Murder Ballads, which I listened to over and over.
Clevenger: Good choice. Nick Cave is absolutely one of my all-time favorites; and he’s at the top of his form in Murder Ballads; I can see how it influenced the tone of the book. But you obviously didn’t pick up the binge method in a college workshop.
Baer: No, I didn’t. I learned early on that I do everything in binges, drink, work, relationships: A ten-day day writing binge is ideal but it requires total isolation, solitude— no telephone, no mail. That’s why I started checking into motel rooms, what I called “going under.” And after 24 hours of getting into a flow, I lose all track of time. I’ll nap for an hour, then wake up and I've got my laptop right there in front of me. I won’t even disturb the sheets. I’ll sleep on top of them or on the couch if there is one. If I need to clear my head, I’ll take a shower— hot or cold, it doesn’t matter. I wrote a whole screenplay in a weekend doing that. But I lose all social skills and get malnourished, operating on kind of a runner’s high. It’s bad for your health.
I’ve tried to write for four or five hours in the morning, then do other stuff during the day and come back to it later. And I could never explode, you know? I could never let it rip. It was always a little more…. controlled. I never hit that point where I lose track of the days, where I’m thinking prose faster than I can type. And I can type fast.
Clevenger: Okay, you’re ramping up for a writing binge. What do you look for in a good motel?
Baer: I like Motel 6 because they’re all the same. Day or night, any one of them is going to look the same, so it’s easier to get lost. I’ve got to have a smoking room, it helps if there's a balcony or something. But character’s nice. There’s a place up in San Francisco called the Basque Hotel. It’s in North Beach, you know... where all the famous strip joints are.
Clevenger: So I’ve heard.
Baer: It's right down the block from the Lusty Lady and upstairs from a bar, a nice quiet little bar. You tell the bartender you want to check in, and they always look surprised like, “How’d you know we had rooms?” And the rooms are seriously old-world funky: lumpy mattress on a steel frame, a little wooden table and chair, no TV, bathroom down the hall, and out the window it’s all neon.
"I'm going to drug her and fuck her senseless. Then I'm going to kill her."
- Kiss Me, Judas
Clevenger: Sounds like noir heaven. So, these binges obviously work for you, but they can also be unhealthy. In what way?
Baer: When I catch fire I write 12, 14 hours a day easy. During periods when money has been flowing and I didn't have a day job, I maintained a pretty solid writing schedule from like 6 am until noon, then start again when it gets dark, work until midnight or so. But as soon as whatever I was working on got hot, I wrote until I either finished or was exhausted. It can be unhealthy. And while the holing up in motel rooms for the ten-day writing jags/ hunger strikes is very productive... they tend to be relationship killers and hard on the body and soul. And so if I have a day job, a full time relationship, a hardcore drinking habit, and I’m trying to write… the four corners cannot meet. Something always loses. So I’ve eliminated the drinking. It takes work and effort to maintain a serious drinking habit.
Clevenger: You’ve got an organ thing… or am I reading too much into your work? You’ve got the kidney in Kiss Me, Judas and tongues in Penny Dreadful…is that worth digging into, or is it something you’re even aware of?
Baer: I guess there was a bit of a pattern there. I wrote a whole collection of short stories before Judas that Penguin was maybe going to publish before my editor left, and they’re all dark violent love stories. There’s one where the female protagonist, in a seductive, scary way, gives her boyfriend a haircut and cuts off part of his ear in the process. In the end, while she’s sleeping he cuts off a big fistful of her hair. There’s another one where a girl bites off the narrator’s finger. There are several characters who are cutters on some level. They cut themselves or others. I guess I’ve always had thing about knives. But I’ve gotten past that.
Clevenger: Good to know. But I like the fact that beneath the violence, you’re still writing about love, but there’s an exchange going on that’s more permanent than any wedding ring.
Baer: When I was younger, I dated a string of psychos who in one way or another equated violence with love, and maybe I found that appealing or fascinating. It makes for a good story. Now, I’m married to a nice, normal, beautiful woman, who is sweet and funny, very cool, sane and supportive. She never cuts me with knives or holds a gun to my head. It's refreshing.
Clevenger: That’s the key to a solid relationship, for me. No weapons. But speaking of guns, you mentioned Nick Cave’s Murder Ballads. What other influences do you have? I mean books and authors, of course, but musically as well. What moves you to write?
Baer: My favorite authors are much the same as yours: Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, James Cain, Philip Dick, and then guys not dead yet like Martin Amis, Steve Erickson and Chuck Palahniuk. But I was heavily influenced in the early days by William Faulkner, James Joyce, Albert Camus... and the king of whores, Shakespeare. I’m big into comic books, too. And with each book I write, I seize onto one album or artist that becomes my internal soundtrack. For Judas, it was the Murder Ballads, for Penny Dreadful it was Radiohead’s OK Computer. The third book in the Phineas Poe series--which Viking thought was altogether too dark and depressing to publish and my own agent described as a 300-page suicide note--was written while listening to a lot of Elliot Smith. Go figure. Really broke my heart, when he killed himself.
Clevenger: What are you working on right now?
Baer: I just finished a re-write of the Kiss Me, Judas screenplay. I co-wrote the first version of it two years ago, with a brilliant screenwriter named Sterling Anderson. The story’s evolved so much… in some ways it’s gotten better, but it’s definitely different from the original novel, though over the course of three or four re-writes it’s moved closer to the original story than the first script.
It keeps changing in my head. You’re never done with a book. If I had the luxury and the sanity, I could re-write Kiss Me, Judas until I die. I don’t think anything’s ever done. The paperback version of Penny Dreadful is different from the hardcover because I re-wrote certain sections and added to it in some scenes.
I'm also working with a couple of comic book artists on a graphic novel version of Judas. And I’m working on another script, based on an original idea. Screenplays seem so easy to write… just a blueprint, all dialogue, descriptive action and in 120 pages, you’re done. But there’s something about the simplicity of the form that makes it much harder in some ways.
And I have another novel I’m working on, not a Phineas Poe book. I wrote the first draft in a three-month mad dash, and I think I finished it right around the week of 9/11. My cable was out that month. I hadn't paid the bill, apparently, and never even noticed it was out. Someone called me and told me what had happened. I’d been up all night, completely oblivious to everything. I don’t even know why I answered the phone. So I found a bar that was open, watched some of it on TV then went back to work. I couldn’t begin to process that shit, so I went back into the book. When I sent the manuscript to Dan, my agent, he wasn’t sure what to do with it. It was darker in some ways than my other stuff, but also a lot more hopeful. And it was more autobiographical, probably less plot driven. And since I didn't have a contract at the time, no deal in place, we decided I should work on a rewrite before sending it out.
Clevenger: But you’re taking your time with it, clearly.
Baer: You’ve got your whole lifetime to write your first book, right. Your second book, you’ve got nine months. But it’s the third book that supposedly defines your career and determines whether you’re getting six-figures, or you're getting remaindered. Anyway, that last manuscript festered for another year while my life sorta came unraveled. I went to Colorado for a while. I was going to teach there but that fell apart. I was in a relationship that was very downward spiral...took a lot out of me. I think I mentioned I don't believe in writer's block, I believe in writer's fear. And I had the fear for a while. I put the book aside and came back to LA to work on scripts.
Clevenger: I’ve gathered you’ve been pretty nomadic, during your life.
Baer: I had a rough divorce about six years ago. Moved half a dozen times in the year or two after that, I was really on the run and practically living out of my car for a while… crashed and burned through a couple rebound relationships, landed on friend's couches, stayed at sketchy motels where you pay by the week... When I was teaching up at Evergreen State, I actually lived in a dorm room for six months--very fucking weird. And all of the above are no good at all for your writing schedule. But yeah, I have wandered. I grew up in Memphis, TN. Lived in New Orleans for a while, headed west in 1990 or so. Oregon, Boulder, all over the Bay area, L. A., Washington state.
Clevenger: And the jobs?
Baer: I've been a cab driver, a homeless counselor; various freaky jobs in mental health dealing with schizophrenics and group home lifers--jobs that regularly featured bodily fluid cleanup--I've been a video store clerk, coffee shop jerk... after Judas was published and notoriety was high, I spent a couple years teaching creative writing and literature... I burned out on that fast and headed to Los Angeles, worked on the Judas screenplay for a while, wrote TV specs and treatments... the first ring of development hell. Now I'm an editor at a weekly newspaper, which is very cool, compared to some of the shit I've done.
Anyway, now I’ve begun to work on that last book again. And whenever you let something sit for a year or two, it changes in your head. I’ve had to throw out whole sections… fifty page chunks that were perfectly good.... while I might love a particular chapter, if it doesn’t work for the story any more, I trash it.
I used to have a real sense of urgency, that I had to finish the book yesterday. Now I’m comfortable letting it take a few years. The book's not going anywhere. I wrote Penny Dreadful in six months, sent it to the publisher and did the rewrite in three months. But I always wished I’d spent another year on it, to let it expand and breathe.
Clevenger: Anything else you wanna add?
Baer: Nah. I think I've sucked the air out of this joint long enough.