Monday, February 21, 2011
INTERVIEW WITH CORTRIGHT MCMEEL, AUTHOR OF "SHORT"
I’ve got a treat for you today. An interview with Cortright McMeel with his thoughts on writing and on the subject of his first novel, Short, which is burning up the sales charts and is in serious consideration to be made into a flick.
“Cort” and I became friends several years ago when he emailed me and asked if I had any stories I could submit to his new noir magazine, Murdaland. I ended up sending him three short stories and he ended up taking all three and combining them into one story, which appeared in the inaugural issue. He titled the story, “Felon.” It was about… well, take a guess… That alone made him my friend… but when he paid me for all three, he became my best friend. More than one editor, under like circumstances, would have claimed that since it became one story, they’d only pay for one, but not Cort. He’s a writer’s editor all the way!
Since that day, our friendship has only grown. We began to correspond on a regular basis, and I was fortunate to have him send me an early copy of his novel. It absolutely floored me with its brilliance. In return, over time, I sent him copies of my own novels, and his response to them amazed and gratified me. He loved them! In fact, he recommended them to both his editor at St. Martin’s and his former editor who is now at Little, Brown.
We both share a love of the same books and writers. It’s not a love of “safe” authors at all, but of writers who took chances, challenged the status quo, who wrote the kinds of books that are banned and even vilified by many. You know… real writers with a set of balls (and I mean, men and women). Who are concerned with only one thing. Truth.
I am proud to call Cort my friend. I think you’ll soon see his particular brand of genius in the following interview and I hope you’ll glom onto a copy of his wonderful novel, Short.
And, without further ado, here’s Cort and me chinnin’…
LES: Let’s not beat around the bush. This is a web site about the writing process. What was the biggest challenge for you in writing your debut novel, SHORT?
CORT: Without a doubt constructing a tight plot that made sense and moved quickly.
LES: In your novel there has to be about a hundred characters, from traders, brokers, executives, lawyers, “beancounters” to strippers, Russian gangsters & sea captains. Did you ever find it overwhelming to fill your novel with such a wide array of characters?
CORT: Short answer, no, but my editor did. I like to write on a large canvas. Just sort of let the whole circus run rampant into one big chaotic drunken carnival, as it were. It makes the writing and creating part more fun because there are more options. The characters just interact like so many electrons jammed in a jar bouncing off each other and the potential for humor is greater.
LES: You say your editor was overwhelmed. Explain.
CORT: Well, John Schoenfelder at St. Martin’s had his work cut out for him. But he’s a brilliant guy and he’s like a master bio-medical engineer who inserted a narrative spine into the book. I helped him some too, of course. But he gave me a “tight plot 101” tutorial which helped immensely.
LES: Which was?
CORT: He told me to read B. Traven’s GENERAL FROM THE JUNGLE and Castle Friedman’s tight, excellent Swamp Yankee noir called GO WITH ME. I studied those books and busted out outlines of them. Both those books are perfectly plotted. They never veer off-course, the heart of the action propels the book, driving it toward the inevitable finish.
LES: I read in The Washington Post review of SHORT that there is a noir element to your book, but when I read it I saw in your hard-drinking, carousing, battling characters more Charles Bukowski than Jim Thompson?
CORT: The trading plot may drive the narrative, but I think you make a great point. The spirit of Bukowski definitely looms here. If I was writing about garbage men or ophthalmologists, I’m sure the scurrilous poets and drunken dreamers would come out within the characters of those professions. It’s hard for me to write a book and not have some character who’s howling at the moon and spouting Coleridge or the 7 Principles of BUSHIDO. By that I mean when you write a book, you can’t help but have your spirit infect certain characters. I remember reading somewhere that Dostoyevsky said all three of the Brothers Karamazov were based on different aspects of himself.
LES: What about writing characters that your “spirit doesn’t infect”?
CORT: I think characters that you are discovering for the first time is like a journalist doing an in-depth interview. They tend be easier to write because there is less danger of going too far. With these characters the writer is less tempted to celebrate or crush them and for me these characters usually come out clean and real. It’s like Yeats said that the artist should “cast a cold eye.” With that cold eye you can fully realize a character’s being. My weakness is that I always like to have at least one or two characters infused with my madness for life.
LES: Why is that a weakness? You say Dostoyevsky did it.
CORT: First of all, I’m no Fyodor. But I’ll tell you about the weakness. It has an actual name. One of my great friends, Michael Langnas, edited the novel throughout and there were parts where I created certain characters who went off the deep end writing-wise. I was too consumed with their story and their back story and their drunken antics and they were derailing the novel. Langnas called them “Leprechauns.” He came in like the Executioner and just annihilated all these scenes where the Leprechauns were working their evil, drunken magic. It’s good to have a friend like Langnas. He, indeed, possesses Yeats “colder eye.”
It was Langnas who when Short was finally done, kindly described it to someone as Bukowski meets Balzac, which I took to mean you get the personal demons and black comedy of personal disintegration you find in Bukow with maybe the wider social arc and look into institutions you find in Balzac. He might’ve just been being nice, but it's a cool thing to at least aspire to.
LES: What would you say to a writer writing their first novel? Any words of advice?
CORT: Since I can’t seem to shut up about Bukowski, I’d say: First off, read his excellent poem “How to be a Great Writer.” I’ve got that taped to my wall and it helped me through 15 years of rejections. Read that poem and if it doesn’t do it for you, find some set of lines or phrases or something that will cheer you up and make you smile while you type the keys in obscurity wondering if you’re embarking on a fool’s errand. That poem and good friends are what saved me from giving up. My friend, Eddie Vega, ex-marine and a tug boat second mate, as well as an award-winning, published poet and a rum-swilling, cigar-smoking Cuban came to my attic like ten years ago. I was really really down in the dumps. My career right out of Columbia MFA Writing Program in 1996 seemed on its way, I published a story called “Fullback Glory” and it was runner up in the Playboy Fiction Contest. I was riding high and I wrote a novel and then… nothing. I wrote a bunch more short stories, not giving up and like 100’s of rejections followed. Eddie called me and I told him I was going to burn down my library and forget about the whole thing. He came down from New York to Baltimore and said: Cort, look. I’m going to come down and read your shit with you in the room. If your stuff sucks I’ll help you burn down your library. I’ll bring the fucking matches myself.
So he came down and I drank tequila and kind of watched him read like ten or twelve stories. It was like five hours so by the end I was pretty drunk. At the end of it he looked up at me and passed me a cigar. Without saying a word he lit mine and lit his. Then he said these words:
Mr. McMeel. You have one good story.
I was so fucking drunk, and had no faith in myself and was so depressed and deranged that all I remember was laughing hysterically like a madman. I was so deranged that my wife knocked on the door and wondered if everything was okay.
LES: And was it? What happened?
CORT: The long and short of it was the story Eddie liked called “Mahler’s Ninth” got picked up for publication by Peter Stitt at the Gettysburg Review within four weeks of me sending it.
CORT: And fuck it. That story was all I needed. I was back, man.
LES: And what now?
CORT: Well, they tell me you got to worry about sales and reviews and all that stuff. What I worry about is getting down to the honest guts of my next novel like I did with Short. I’m proud of Short, but I know my best is yet to come. And there will be no giving up again, not ever. I’ve thrown away all my matches.