William Lashner’s MetamorphosisInterview by Rob Hart
So, funny story: Tyler Knox is not actually a real person.
After reading his fantastic "debut" novel Kockroach, I consulted Tyler's Web site and shot off an e-mail to his agent, asking if I could set up an interview. She gave me contact info for William Lashner. I figured he was a publicist.
Actually, Lashner is the New York Times Bestselling author of the Victor Carl series - Killer's Kiss, Marked Man, Falls the Shadow, Past Due, Fatal Flaw, Bitter Truth and Hostile Witness, as well as Blood and Bone, a standalone thriller.
He's also Tyler Knox.
So, it was sort of embarrassing to send this long-winded e-mail asking him if he could get me in contact with Knox. Luckily, he's a good sport. Plus, we have some experience around here dealing with imaginary Tylers.
Either way, Kockroach? One of the best books I read last year.
It's a reverse take on Kafka's Metamorphosis, but instead of a man turning into a bug, it's about a roach turning into a man. And instead of a hapless salesman's bedroom, the setting is 1950s Times Square.
We follow Kockroach as he learns how to act like a human. A very weird, very ruthless human who climbs through the ranks of the neighborhood's organized crime, trading narrative duties with wannabe gangster Mite and local disfigured woman Celia Singer.
The book is a lot of things - funny, tense, engrossing, and wholly unique. A line from the Web site sums it up pretty well, calling it a "classic tale of an immigrant's search for the American dream as seen from a stunning new perspective."
Lashner graduated from New York University School of Law and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. He was a criminal prosecutor with the Department of Justice in Washington D.C. before quitting to write full time. He currently lives outside Philadelphia.
He's also a great writer, and an enthusiastic interview subject.
Rob Hart: You've said that you chose the pseudonym Tyler Knox for Kockroach because you didn't "want to fool [your] readers... who picked this up and then were unpleasantly surprised." Kockroach is a departure from the Victor Carl series, but did you think it was such a departure that your readers wouldn't accept it?
William Lashner: It wasn’t that my readers wouldn’t accept Kockroach – I’ve found that the readers of my thriller series have been amazingly open to the twists and turns I’ve thrown them, it was about being fair to their expectations.
When I write a mystery, I go in with a set of strictures based on the genre: there will be a crime, there will be some detecting, there will be a solution of sorts. Within those strictures I can pretty much do anything, and I have. I’ve written about old girlfriends, about the Iraq war, about the rot at the heart of our economic system, about bad sex and Hamlet. I look at the genre requirements like the fourteen lines and rhyming structure of a sonnet. They don’t limit expression, they actually free it. And yet those expectations exist, and if a reader picks up a book expecting certain things and gets a huge bug in the first chapter, then the writer wasn’t really playing fair.
I actually think the publishing world, with its relentless focus on the sales of the previous book, makes it harder for authors, who are making a living writing, to branch out into different types of books. Movie directors can go back and forth between different types of films with relative ease, as long as the budgets match the expected audience, i.e. Steven Soderbergh, but it’s much harder for novelists. I love writing thrillers, and I love writing small existential meditations, but I thought a different name would allow me to separate the two in terms of reader and publisher expectation.
RH: How did you come up with the pseudonym?
WL: In identification with the hero of Kafka’s Trial, I wanted the last name to start with a K and, in deference to Kafka’s hard K, I thought mine should be silent. It was either Knight or Knox, I suppose, and I really liked the x at the end of the name visually. I imagine Knox grew up in Exton, Pa., read X-men as a kid, plays Halo on X-Box, watches Dr. No over and over again.
RH: Were you resigned to the fact that Tyler Knox would eventually be outed? How did it feel when the pieces came together and Tyler had to step out of the shadows?
WL: I knew it would happen, I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly. The Washington Post got it right in its review just as the book came out. We didn’t do anything dark and dirty to hide it, no lies, no false leads. The interesting thing was, that if you had read my thrillers, you would have picked up on it right away. Writers write like they write, no matter the subject matter. I sound like me, and so does Tyler, for good or for ill. But interestingly, after the Post outed me, they hired Tyler to do some book reviews, which was kind of cool.
RH: Why do the Post reviews under your pseudonym? And does writing under the pseudonym affect how you review? I read a few, and you're not using the anonymity as a shield to throw stones, so why stay in character?
WL: The books I wanted to review were the less mainstream titles, more experimental novels, and I thought it was better to do them as Tyler since that was the kind of stuff Tyler was writing. I certainly didn’t want to take up reviewing to throw stones. I know exactly how hard it is to write these things and I have great admiration for writers. In my reviews I try to find the really good stuff in a book and wrestle with the choices and ideas. If I get angry about something I lay it out there, but I try not to hide the joy I get from reading something that engages me on a number of levels. If I can relate how a book gave me that joy then I’ve done my job.
RH: How did the idea for Kockroach develop, and what's the relation to Kafka's Metamorphosis?
WL: Kafka’s story is the obvious starting point for the book. I came up with the idea with a friend actually, a twist on Kafka’s setup. I didn’t think much of it when it popped into my head, just one of a number of ideas that we were batting around. But as I thought about it, the possibilities of the thing beckoned. There were a lot of ways to go with it and I couldn’t stop thinking how much fun it would be to write. And the comedy of the premise spoke to me. So I asked my friend if I could have it back and he graciously obliged, which was nice of him. I don’t know if he regrets it, I sort of hope that he does.
I started the manuscript without much expectation of actually turning it into a full novel, but with each page the whole thing kept getting stronger. I won’t say it’s one of those books that wrote itself, because I sweated like hell over it, but it was one of those books that justified itself page by page. A hundred pages in, which is really when a book either takes shape or dies, I realized I had to finish it.
RH: What's your writing process like, as far as atmosphere and regiment?
WL: For Kockroach, I listened to a lot of Louis Armstrong, especially the old stuff that changed the world. I always had jazz going in the background when I wrote the Mite parts because he has a jazzy slangy way with words. In fact, I always thought Champ sounded a lot like Louis, I even gave him some the slang I was hearing in the songs. And there was a chapter, when Mite blows up New York, where I wrote the whole thing like Armstrong’s band going at it. When I was writing the Kockroach parts, I played Mozart’s Requiem a lot, with its ominous tones. I find the music I play when I write really leaks into the prose.
As for my regiment, I try to write every day. A lot of time is wasted just wasting time, but my mind’s always working on the thing. I’m a big believer in feeding the unconscious and letting it solve the problems in a project. A lot of my dreams end up on the page.
RH: How was writing as Tyler Knox different from writing as William Lashner? Did it affect your habits or your mindset in any way?
WL: It wasn’t as different as you would think. The word choice of course was different, but that came from the characters and the setting. And though I wasn’t restricted by the strictures of the genre, I was certainly restricted by the strictures of the story I had created. Literary books don’t have the same rules as genre books, but they certainly have rules, ones they create for themselves page by page, and you have to play within those anyway.
RH: How did you go about getting Kockroach published? Was it as simple as going to your agent and saying that you had this idea?
WL: Actually, it was pretty simple getting the book published. When my contract was up at my publisher, and we were negotiating a new one, I let them know that I had this other book just to see if they wanted to include it. My editor, Carolyn Marino, passed it on to the head of Harper’s trade paperback house, David Roth-Eye, who loved the book. So Harper bought it along with my mysteries. I worked with David primarily on the editing and the thing came out both in hardcover and then in the trade paperback. I don’t know if I could have sold it to anyone else, I didn’t try to jack up the price or anything. Harper wanted to keep all my stuff in house and that was fine with me. My agent told me she had no idea how to sell a book about a bug, so I was just happy to get the thing out.
RH: Can you tell us how you went about getting hooked up with your agent?
WL: I did it all backwards. I had a contract and then I looked around and then called the agent and asked if she wanted to represent me. She told me I shouldn’t have called, but she read the book I had sold and signed me up on the spot. It’s a hard thing these days to get an agent, harder to get the right agent. But I’ve always thought that it’s the book that gets you the agent and the publisher, not any special code words or search technique.
RH: Mite's narrative has a very specific style of speech - mangled English in the prototypical New York accent. While it reads smoothly, I could see it being difficult to write. How did that work? Did you write his sections and then go back to punch it up? Or did it just come naturally?
WL: While I researching cockroaches for the book, I learned about the Mites that feed off of cockroach colonies and I decided I needed just such a parasitic character in the book. He would be small, and weak, and sharp and his name, I decided, would be Mite. But who the hell is called Mite? There’s a Lawrence short story called The Rocking Horse Winner where this kid has the power to pick horse races and Lawrence gets the fact of this ability out right at the start, which was a lesson to me: if you get the unlikely stuff out early, the rest is easy. So I decided, if I was going to call a character Mite, I had to do it right up front, which is how I came up with the first lines of his first section: “They call me Mite. You got a problem with that?” His jazzy way of speaking just sort of flowed from that. Then I combed over it and over it as I rewrote the thing, to get the rhythms just right.
But the slang was a little harder, since it had to be rooted in the time. I saw a lot of movies from the era to get some of the language right. The most helpful of the lot was “The Sweet Smell of Success” which takes place right in the Times Square of the era and is full of this great hyperbolic language. I also went through books of fifties slang to pick out expressions that were just right for Mite. But as I often do, a lot of the slang I simply made up for the character and let him use it enough so it seemed natural to him and the time. I think the best slang is made up, stuff that sounds right but that when you come to think of it, you never heard before, sort of like they made Mailer use fug in The Naked and the Dead.
In the editing process, what I mostly cut was Mite. I must have cut more than a third of his prose. It was hard, because I thought it was all gold, but my editor thought there was just way too much Mite and I ended up thinking he was right. The way it ended up was much tighter.
RH: I'm a junkie for New York Lit, and I feel a lot of authors use the setting as window dressing, where as you really immersed the reader into 1950s-era Times Square. What kind of research did you do for that, and what attracted you to the setting?
WL: I did tons of research, looking at pictures, watching movies of the times, reading what I could. But I remember going to Times Square as a kid, when it was all porn movies and poster shops, and they still had the smoking Camel sign, which I put in the book. And I remember going to the Automat on 12th Street in Philadelphia with my grandfather, which helped when I wrote the Automat scenes. And I lived in New York for a couple of years so I had a sense of the pace of things. But, since my book takes place primarily before I was born, the thing that really sparked my imagination was the way Kerouac described Times Square in On the Road, one of my all time favorite books, “I had traveled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of a rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road-eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream—grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City.” That sounded just right for Mite. I even put Kerouac in the Times Square Automat scenes for the kick of it.
RH: Do you have any special affinity for cockroaches?
WL: None. But I do like the way the inside sort of pop out when you step on them with a boot.
RH: What drew you out of the law practice and into fiction writing?
WL: I entered law because I figured I would never make enough money from writing to support me in the style I fully intended to grow accustomed to. And then I said the hell with it and committed to the writing anyway.
RH: Can you tell me about your literary influences, as well as anything you've read lately that you've really enjoyed?
WL: My primary literary influences are more old school stuff, think All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren, The Stranger by Camus, The Trial by Kafka, Farewell My Lovely by Chandler, Red Dawn by Hammett. You can see the flavors from all these books in my work. You’ll also see On the Road of course, along with some more recent stuff like Fat City by Leonard Gardner, Fight Club, The Information and Money by Martin Amis, Waterland by Graham Swift. All these books bring a lump to my throat.
Some of the more recent books that I admired so much they pissed me off no end were Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris, John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead, I Smile Back by Amy Koppleman, and Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned by Wells Tower.
RH: Any advice for aspiring writers?
WL: First, write a lot; it takes a lot of words to figure how you sound. Then learn how to tell a story; story gets you out of all kinds of trouble. Finally be crazy ambitious. The only way to write the one thing that only you can write is to go for it completely.
RH: The Cult was born of Chuck Palahniuk's books. Are you familiar with his work, and have they influenced or affected you in any way?
WL: Palahniuk is brilliant and Fight Club has influenced every writer working today to a ridiculous extent. I don’t know of any other recent book that’s been more influential. But the truth is, he is so strong and so individualistic a writer, that if you fall too far under his spell you can lose yourself, and I can point to a number of writers who have. He’s like Hemingway in that way. I like to say the first rule of Fight Club is not to try to write like Fight Club. The second rule of Fight Club is not to try to try to write like . . .
RH: Do you plan on any more adventures for Kockroach? How about Tyler Knox?
WL: I definitely plan to write more Tyler Knox books, I’m actually in the middle of one now. It’s pretty cool, a noir take on the whole meaning industrial complex that has taken over our public discourse. You know, “Love is what it’s all about,” or “God is the answer,” or “The most important thing is family.” The more people tell me how to find meaning in my life the more I just want to float face down in a pool. I’m about a third of the way through, which means it could self destruct. As for a Kockroach sequel, I have some ideas but I’m not sure it’s worth pursuing. Robert Caro wrote an amazing book about Lyndon Johnson’s legislative career called Master of the Senate and that would be my model if I actually went forward, but then Robert Caro already wrote it, so I’m not sure I see the point.
RH: Your blog, PI-Writing, has a lot of great information about the craft of writing. Any designs on teaching writing at some point?
WL: I would actually love to teach sometime. Right now I’m swamped with projects and I’m having a hard time coming up for air. But one of the things I didn’t anticipate in the writer’s life is the cabin fever that you start suffering from as you spend year after year pounding away. I think teaching might alleviate that a bit, and writers always love talking about writing, it’s why we’re so fascinating at cocktail parties.