Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Me (and Alyse Knorr) on Entropy!

Today marks the launch of an interview series I'm doing for Entropy called "Books I Hate (and Also Some I Like)". The idea is that I interview a bunch of authors about books they hate, and thus comes fruitful conversation about books and perhaps writing generally. This one's been in the works for a while, so I'm thrilled to share.

My first interview subject (and I believe the first person I have interviewed since, oh, 1999) is Alyse Knorr, a poet whose book Mega-City Redux I have been giving to all my friends since late last year. Up next on the interview docket are two more poets, which is appropriate, since 

Because this is the Fictator, and it's what I do here, I'm going to explain how this thing came together, and how what happened to me can benefit you if you are a not-yet-famous writer.

A few weeks ago, a playwright visited my grad school capstone class and advised us that if we wanted to get our work in the world, we needed to "hustle". He used the word hustle about 67 times in the hour or so he talked with us, but when we asked him what that meant in terms of writers other than playwrights, he seemed unsure. I raised my hand and said what about book reviews? or interviews? Sure, he said, and then he said "hustle" a few more times and let us go. 

In the last six months I've been trying to do book reviews, because it's a good way to get my name in the world and familiar to publications (and it's helpful for sharpening my brain, and it keeps up my familiarity with what's in print). Book reviews grease the way into literary circles, a little, and sometimes, if you do them well enough, you can get paid for them, and even establish a reputation because of them. I don't write them very well or very quickly or to people's specifications, so it's not as ideal an avenue for me as it might be for others. But in doing small-press reviews, I have nevertheless connected with writers I admire, and I've learned that connecting with those writers is not as hard as it seems from your little solitary writer-garret. Sometimes you can just email them and say hey, I liked your book, and they'll email you back. 

Which is how I met Alyse. Around the same time I emailed her and said how much I loved her book, my friend Chris, who's an editor at Entropy, asked me if I wanted to do an interview series for the site. This idea terrified me, because I only have journalist-type interview experience, and that very amateur indeed. But it dawned on me that Chris was trying to help me get my name out there the same way that writers of good book reviews can. And I realized that, in the past two years, I have met a LOT of writers, many of whom know other, quite well-known writers. 

An idea that's been coming together slowly, for a long time, for me - workshop material, maybe - is that you can learn more from bad art than you can from good art. When you break down why something is bad, it teaches you how to avoid mistakes. I am pretty sure similar lessons exist in art that is fine, but that repels certain readers. I'm much more interested in why people don't like books than I am in why they like them. People can dislike books for so many reasons, and those reasons sometimes reveal aspects of the person's character that would never surface otherwise. 

Chris gave me free rein on a theme for the series. So I thought, why not ask writers what books they hate, rather than asking them same-old questions about their work? It seemed possible that talking about the books writers hated would reveal resistance against those books existing in their writing. That's a much more interesting angle to me than asking "What inspired you to write about X?" 

So here we are. Granted, I was asked to do the series, rather than having to pitch it, but I'm pretty sure that the idea sold it better than my personality could, so put that in your pocket as advice. If Entropy hadn't wanted it after all, for whatever reason, I would have looked around to other websites to pitch. Also, my list of possible subjects has three divisions: "Can get", "Can probably get," and "Pie-in-the-Sky." This has turned out to be a useful way to look at the series, and I'm betting it's a strategy that'll be of use in other projects, too. (Of note: one of the Pie writers has half-agreed to do the interview, and it's becoming possible that I'll get all three. Writers are not as scary as you think.) 

As for this particular interview: Alyse was a terrific subject and I was excited to be able to bat ideas around with her. (Our emailed conversation was a good deal longer than the resulting interview.) Read and enjoy. 


Marc Criley said...

The idea of talking about books one doesn't like unexpectedly resonated with me.

Some of the books I've read and didn't like (not the ones I started, noted their craptaciousness and put down, but those I read all the way through) have stuck with me, and I've not really been sure what to make of that.

A case in point: Neal Stephenson's Seveneves. I've been a fan of Stephenson since "Snow Crash". "Seveneves", though, just really irritated me. It REALLY annoyed me that some characters were lazy copies of real life individuals, and I found the ease of survival and the development of technology and social structures to be wholly unbelievable.

Maybe throwing a critique framework over how to think about "books we don't like" can prove helpful in some manner.

Good luck with this!

Katharine Coldiron said...

Your reaction to Seveneves makes me think that, for instance, you wouldn't enjoy Proust much, because so much of what he does is throw a thin writerly veil over real life. But I'll bet you'd really like Ann Patchett, because her work is pretty distant from normal experience. On the other hand, maybe you wouldn't like Patchett, because you have to suspend your disbelief in order to read her, and you found the believability of certain stuff in the Stephenson book to be suspect. And I presume you would like hard sci-fi much better than soft sci-fi, and perhaps that's what you'd prefer to write, too.

This is how I'd dig into your answers if I were interviewing you about books you dislike. Drawing deeper into why this reaction to this book has so far been pretty fruitful in the interviews so far. I'm honestly not sure what you mean by "critique framework" - that sounds either too technical or too forced for an interview, since the subject will preferably lead me rather than the other way around - but I appreciate you offering me your thoughts. :)

Marc Criley said...

The thing that bugged me over those Seveneves characters was that it seemed like Stephenson decided that he was just going to put Neil deGrasse Tyson, Hillary Clinton, and Malala Yousafzai directly into the book. Very little effort was made to make the characters anything other than those people in this book. Julia Flaherty wasn't "Clinton-like", she was a take on a conniving Hillary Clinton.

It just spoke (shouted) to me of lazy characterization, and I expect better of Stephenson.

The technical problems I had was just the unparalleled reliability of complicated life support systems over centuries. Everything just isn't going to always work, forever. Especially when the maintainers are now generations removed from the original builders. (Conversely though, I get just as annoyed at stories where everything is always breaking and putting people in constant life-or-death scenarios, because this stuff is in fact built quite well.)

The social/societal issue was that a societal partitioning based on the founding birth mother could remain intact over thousands of years. At the beginning, when all that remained of humanity was a few dozen people surviving in very close quarters maintaining such partitioning is completely infeasible.

I guess a basic requirement of a story is that the characters, setting, and plot be feasible/plausible--within the story's world. I try to always go into a story with little in the way of preconceived expectations of how things should work. If you do it gracefully and plausibly I'll buy into most anything. But no deus ex machina or out-of-character behavior/actions that conveniently advance the plot.

Make it all believable, and don't be lazy. That's what I like to read, and that's a ruler I use to rap my knuckles when I'm writing.