This is a real treat for me today. I'm a huge fan of Scott's work. His prose is lush and compelling, and makes you think about every word he uses. I've had the privilege of reading two of his novels, and most of the excerpts he posts on his blog, and I'm just in awe. Yes, I'll say it, the guy's a bloody genius. I wish all his other work would be published NOW so I won't have to wait to read it. Gush much? You bet'cha!
I've known you for a couple of years and I would describe you as a literary fiction writer. I know what that means, but for those of my readers who only read genre fiction how would YOU describe the term "literary fiction"? And would you describe yourself as a writer of such?
The term "literary fiction" is an awful term, and nobody really knows what it means. I guess when I think about my own books, I think about what I'm trying to do, which is to write about humanity as honestly and as beautifully as I can. So there's tragic and comic and lyrical and obscene stuff all at once, just like real life. Everyone dies, so you can't avoid that, but hopefully everyone experiences love and truth and beauty, too. My books, at least so far, have all been set in the real world, either in contemporary times or in some historical past, so I don't write fantasy or science fiction. Though every book I've written has had sort of fantastical dream sequences, and lately my books have characters who undergo mystical, maybe even religious experiences. Look how handily I describe my books while avoiding your question! Yes, I try to write literature, but no, I don't know what the term means.
I am constantly amazed by how many books you read during the course of the year. Nothing "fluffy" about your reading list either. Thomas Hardy, Dickens, Chekov, Faulkner...Why is that? Do you find "modern" authors aren't smart enough, or does it have more to do with the "style" of the prose?
(I use "smart" in this sentence in reference to British verbiage. I don't know any other way to describe the word I want to use.)
We are very dull at my house. We don't watch TV and we own thousands of books, and we're constantly buying more books. I just pick up whatever novel calls most loudly to me. I try to read as much contemporary work as I can, but there is a huge amount of brilliant stuff already lying around that I also want to read. Basically, I want to have read every novel ever written, no matter the genre or culture or time period. That way I could have the luxury of only reading new books, and of re-reading all of my favorites from the past. That would be a nice reading life. I do have a fondness for a certain kind of 19th-century English prose style, though I am reading a lot of stuff from the first part of the 20th century now, Modernists like Woolf and Joyce and Hemingway, and Faulkner and those sorts of people. I'm also reading more translated novels, especially French, Japanese and Chinese books. Just to get a different perspective. A lot of modern American novels seem to all be saying the same thing in the same way, and so I'm looking around for something different. A lot of old books are really creative, wacky mind-bending things. They're not stuffy or formal or dull at all. Dostoyevsky was insane and unpredictable. Chekhov always surprises. Shakespeare's plays are fresh and new every time I read them. But I'm also looking forward to the next books by Peter Carey and Umberto Eco and Jamie Gordon and Hannah Pittard. I have piles of newly-published books at home; it just takes me a while to get to them. There's all that unread Dickens and Chekhov in the way, that's all.
I know that you write every day with pen and paper on a bus going to and from work, and then transfer those words into your computer. Having only gotten my first computer five years years ago, I remember late nights at the kitchen table scratching out my first drafts as well. Now I find I only revert to pen and paper when I'm stuck. Do you find the subtle art of pen to paper fires more cohesive thoughts in the first draft? Or is it too hard to write on a laptop on a moving bus? (I'm being semi-cheeky here.)
Writing longhand forces you to slow down, and makes you hold the thought longer while you write. This has been a good thing for me, because the longer I think about each sentence, the longer I hold onto each specific image from which the story is built, the more likely I am to write something imaginative and fresh and surprising, and to avoid cliches. The prose becomes more important when you write each word, each letter, by hand. And you also ignore how it's laid out on the page. Word (or whatever program you type into) sort of forces you to consider how it looks on screen, not how it sounds in your head. Also, the revision process is better for me on paper than on a computer, because when you mark up pages with a pen, you see the entire history of the sentence at once, and often what you really want is something in between what you originally wrote and what you first revised it into. Computers lose that history of the writing. Hit "delete" and it's gone forever. I like the process, I like to show my work. Also, I work with computers all day. Computers are ugly; word-processing programs are ugly. Excel is ugly. Facebook is ugly. Writing fiction is a break from all that. Pen and paper is quiet, and you use your eyes differently, which is also nice. I should also say that even though I write longhand, which is slower than typing, I tend to get a first draft of a novel written more quickly than most of my writer friends who write directly onto a computer.
You've written an historical novel set in 18th century America concerning two thieves and a prostitute, a book about a transcendental detective (coming in 2014), another about a woman who travels the US highways in the 1950's (which I desperately want to read), and your next endeavor is a man's pursuit to the South Pole in the 1914...These are certainly very different characters. Do you find characterization far outweighs plot in your stories? Or do you take ordinary characters and drop them into extraordinary circumstances?
My concern is mostly about the characters, because my work is concerned with the problems of being human; specifically, I find myself writing about identity, self-worth, love and the idea of home. Plot's got nothing to do with those things, nor does setting, really. The primary thing I try to do with my writing is say, "Look how hard it is to be alive. The best thing we can all do is to be more kind to each other." We are all extraordinary characters; we just don't remember to respect that about each other. So I try to show people in difficult but realistic situations, and how hard but vital it is for us to be kind to one another. I don't really set out to build stories that teach lessons or anything, it's just that I keep finding myself writing about kindness. As for how each specific story comes, I guess I get a strong image, usually the final image of the story, and I try to figure out how the characters could have gotten to that point. That's how the plots are built (in reverse, from end-to-beginning), and the setting comes from the original image. For the 18th-century criminals' story, I had an image of William Bull, in a tricorn hat and a frock coat, sitting on the steps of a wooden church, holding a box of money, waiting to be arrested. The year 1749 and the location of Maryland was what I found that fit that image. The detective novel is set in Oregon, in 1935, because that's the time and place that best fit the character and what she was doing in the story. So I have to piece all of this together bit by bit to make something that seems to form a whole. The woman walking along the highway in 1950 is set in 1950 because she's wearing a 1950 cocktail dress and also because she's more-or-less of my mother's generation. The South Pole thing came about in the same way: just fitting together pieces of fabric until the quilt looks good. I make it all up as I go along; I don't have a plan for the type of novels I'm going to write.
Again, THE ASTROLOGER is not your everyday light reading. Taking a page from Hamlet, you decided to tell a unique story, one I certainly would never imagine. How would YOU describe this novel? Is it a quest for truth? Or just a crazy idea you had one night after knocking back a few brews?
THE ASTROLOGER is about my favorite themes: identity, self-worth, love and home. I had the image of a guy looking through a telescope, in love with this brand new technology. So it had to be a Renaissance-era story. I also had the "Hamlet" story going through my head, with its themes of betrayal and revenge and father/son relationships. Then I stumbled across the theory that, in 1601, the king of Denmark had the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe murdered. The story fell into place around my ears, as it were. I tried to make it an exciting adventure story, with swordfights and mysterious castles and palace intrigue, but it's also concerned with ideas like being a genius versus being ordinary, innovation versus tradition, loyalty versus honesty and things like that. Big, timeless themes. It's also really funny, I think. It's got ghosts and jokes and adultery. And swordfights.
And let's not forget about eels.
Scott, I can't thank you enough for being here today. You can buy Scott's book here.
You can also find THE ASTROLOGER on Amazon, or buy it from Rhemalda Publishing.
"As long as Denmark, looks backward, there will be bloodshed."
It is December of 1601. Soren Andersmann, the Danish royal astrologer, has smuggled a trunkful of poisons, daggers, and a venomous snake into the royal castle at Elsinore. Though Soren knows nothing of the assassin's trade, he has sworn to be the instrument of justice. King Christian IV has murdered Soren's mentor and spiritual father, Tycho Brahe, the most famous astronomer the world has seen. Soren will have his revenge.
The Astrologer takes us into the world of Europe on the edge of the Renaissance. It is a world ruled by the sword, where civilization is held in place by violence and blind loyalty. The birth of science is still overshadowed by medieval religion, but men are learning to think for themselves. In 601, a man who thinks for himself is a dangerous man. Soren Andersmann, the astrologer, is becoming a dangerous man.