Monday, February 21, 2011
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.
Thursday, February 10, 2011
Sorry it’s been awhile, but had a busy week with my class and my own writing and… to be honest, they come first. I love you guys, but most of you are writers so I know you understand.
Anyway, today I was glancing at my local newspaper while in the “reading room” (yeah, you’re right—that room) and trying to figure out why I still pay for the local newspaper. Just about everything I read in it I read a day or two before on the Internet. For in-depth articles the Internet doesn’t give me? Sorry, the majority are the same articles from the same sources. In fact, most of the time I get more depth from the Internet articles—the local paper usually doesn’t run the full articles. Most of the other articles are from The Washington Post so I try to avoid those...
The local color? Please. I live in Ft. Wayne. We just had our first national news-worthy story yesterday when it was reported that the city fathers (or is it mothers? Midwives?) were debating if they wanted to name a downtown erection after a former mayor named… ready?... Harry Baals. (You can’t make this stuff up…) Even better, it turns out his first wife’s name was… ready?... Minnie. If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’…
Anyway, it wasn’t any of those items that justify paying for this rag. In fact, I heard about the Harry Baals thing from my friend Tom in Phoenix who read about it while taking a break from watching for illegal aliens who keep ruining his yard by running through it. Tom's from this area originally and burns a candle every day in thanks for not having to shovel snow... (which happens to be the subject of this--it all comes 'round.)
I thought perhaps the value of a newspaper might be justified from local writers with their unique take on things. I picked up one of the main sections, the one labeled “Living” and the feature article caught my eye instantly. It had a photo of a woman dressed all in black and wearing a fedora (or, witch’s hat, I’m not sure…) shoveling a mound of snow and on the shovel’s handle she had tied what looked like a pillow case to look like a flag of surrender. Not sure what that was all about—it looked like it was there in case she fell into a snowdrift and could perhaps hoist it as a distress signal.
The headline read: “If you can’t beat it, use it.” It was about… snow. Hey, good stuff, I figured. We’ve been dumped on for the past week or so and about all we do is shovel it ad nauseum.
Her essay question and theme was: “So what do you do with all that snow?” Well, personally, I hadn’t thought much about it. Having a somewhat limited imagination inasfar as piles of snow go—look at it when you’re forced to and hope it goes away—is about the extent of any thought I’d given the subject, but by golly, this person had actually come up with some uses for the stuff. She even got a byline for the article and it was on the front page of the section, so I assumed this would be some pretty scintillating stuff. Kind of thing you’re not likely to get on the Internet and probably why I keep shelling out bucks for this rag.
So, I read on. Her illuminating first answer to her own question was: “Sure, you could wait for it to melt, but what fun would that be?” Well, she had me there. That had been about all I’d ever come up with on the (very) few times I’d considered the question.
Now, I was excited! This intrepid reporter had actual uses for the piles of snow that were everywhere. Fun things. At least, that was the implication… By golly, maybe I’d underestimated the content of newspapers. At this point, I was ready to pick up the phone and renew my subscription for another three years. But… something told me to read further. Be cautious.
Her first fun suggestion:
Make some yard art. (Her words, not mine.)
Now that your lawn ornaments and multi-colored, solar-powered mushrooms are underneath a large blanket of snow, you can make some new ones. Be creative. You could make a deer, or some other woodland creature, or how about an army of mini-snowmen to protect your fortress?
When I read her first fun-filled activity suggestion, I began to suspect it was a good thing that I hadn’t renewed that subscription just yet. First, we don’t have any lawn ornaments except for that politically-incorrect statue they’re always circulating petitions in the 'hood about, and I’m not quite sure what “solar-powered mushrooms” are, and I’m reasonably sure we don’t have any, covered by snow or not. Is that an Al Gore thing? It’s minus 7 degrees outside with the wind chill, so crawling around in snowdrifts sculpting deer or other “woodland creatures” (whatever those are… skunks and feral cats?) doesn’t really match up with other potential activities that might rival that for fun… such as watching a basketball game in a warmer place with a brew in hand. How long does it take to sculpt a deer (and what do you use? your hands? a chain saw?) or a woodland creature? Even a skunk would take some modicum of skill, especially from fingers numb from frostbite. I’m afraid I’d be exhausted just doing the deer and don’t know if I could last long enough to mold an “army of mini-snowmen.” How many are in an army, anyway? Fifty? Two hundred? Even a couple of hundred doesn’t sound like much of an army—sounds more like the local PTA meeting. And, I don’t really see my house as a “fortress” to be honest. It’s more like a… house. That’s about to get repossessed. Maybe I do need an army of mini-snowmen. To help me fight off the bank and the guy who’s trying to repo my car. The more I think about it, that army of mini-snowmen sounds like a good idea. Give ‘em M-16s. Wait. Those are outlawed now, aren’t they? Well, are pea shooters still legal? This is gonna be some sorry army…
Her second suggestion:
A natural outdoor freezer.
Take some of your frozen goods and set them outside to be kept cold by nature. Cold beer, anyone? What better way to chill a brewski or pop than than shoving it in the snow. Just be careful that you don’t set something outside that can attract wildlife.
I wish I could make stuff like this up! On the surface, this sounds doable. It’s for sure cold enough to use “nature’s refrigerator.” On the other hand, with unemployment over 10% for this area, I’m not too sure I should be sticking foodstuffs outside. I can see the lines already—this would look like the food pantry the Salvation Army runs for the indigenous. Although, I suspect the teenagers on the block will be ecstatic if I start sticking my brewskies outside. Maybe that’s what she means about not putting something out that can attract “wildlife.” Are teenagers considered wildlife? Perhaps so… I’m going to have to think more about the brewski thing as well. How long does it take beer to freeze solid at 7 below? Another drawback to this—I’d have to go outside in this stuff both to stick it in the snow and then retrieve it. Maybe I could time it for halftime.
Third fun activity:
Save on water usage.
Melt snow and use it for things around the house that may take a lot of water, such as flushing the toilet, watering the plants, cleaning, etc. On average, about 10 inches of snow is equal to one inch of water.
Or, the way I figure it, one sculpted deer equals one flushing of the stool. Or, six and a half mini-snowmen from my army. (Or, “white and yellow infantrymen” as I refer to them… we have a lot of dogs on our block) Is it just me, or does it sound as if you need to haul an awful lot of snow in for a tiny bit of water? And, where do you put all this snow when you’re melting it? For a bath, I figure I’ll need to fill up the spare bedroom. And then, how do you warm it to bath temperature? Also, if you’re using this much snow, aren’t you going to be exposing your “solar-powered mushrooms?” Is that wise? I need to call her up and ask her if these are legal mushrooms or the kind we used to call “schrooms” and paid a lot of money for and threw out the window when the cop car red light went on...
Help for ouchies. (I swear I wish I could make this stuff up!)
Fill a plastic sandwich bag with snow, zip it up and use it as a homemade ice pack. Great for injuries, icing down knees or for headaches.
Mary! Make me a sandwich bag snow pack! I have a raging headache! Make one for yourself, too, for later on when we go to bed and I want to get frisky. My knees are pretty banged up as well, from crawling around outside in the snow, sculpting woodland creatures, but I can’t stop shivering so maybe a sandwich ice pack isn’t what I really want to be holding on them right now…
Are you ready? Hold on. Here’s the next one:
Use some snow on freshly spilled candle wax. Freezing wax can help get it out of carpets or off tablecloths easier.
I don’t know about you, but I’m having more fun just thinking about all these fun activities than I’ve had in months. Why is there “freshly-spilled candle wax” on the carpet anyway? Oh… yeah. From the six hundred candles we had to light to help warm the house from the spare bedroom full of my developing bath water…
You’d think the quality of these suggestions would begin to flag, but you’d be wrong.
Eat it. (The reporter’s words, not mine. I’m too polite to say something like this to you.)
Grab some clean snow (the cleanest you can find) and make some ice cream. A simple recipe includes getting 1 gallon of snow, one (14-ounce) can of sweetened condensed milk and 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. Mix the ingredients together and eat up.
This really works and is fun to do! I made lemon ice cream! Mary’s calling a lawyer—I wonder why. She only had a spoonful and then I revealed the recipe. The dog liked it. He even took his bowl and made it even more lemony… I confess I'm a bit worried about the cleanliness of this snow. Don't we have an acid rain thing going on?
Two more to go. You guys taking notes?
Make snow cones.
Get an ice cream scooper and scoop up some snow into a bowl. Use juice, Kool-Aid or flavored drinks and pour on top. Grab a spoon or just dig in face first.
I have a tip. I just used some more of that yellow snow I used for the ice cream for this. And, I ended up “digging in face first” as per our intrepid reporter’s advice, but it wasn’t exactly my choice. Mary kind of did that for me. That hurt, Mary! Well, she’s gone. Up to bed with her sandwich bag ice pack. Looks like I might have to use the spare bedroom tonight. Oh, wait! My bath water’s only about half finished making.
And the last one.
Make some snowballs and freeze them for later for the ultimate summer snowball fight. They’ll never know what hit ‘em. Now that’s using the snow.
At last! A fun activity I already know how to do! I have a twist on mine, though. I put rocks in them. Just imagine my neighbor’s surprise when he gets whapped up alongside the head in July with one of these puppies! Some fun!
Well, I’ve completely changed my mind on the value of newspapers. I’m calling the delivery lady up right now and renewing my subscription for the next ten years. You can’t get this kind of article on the Internet, no way! Well, I would call her but I can’t find my phone. I think it’s in the spare bedroom at the bottom of my bath.
First thing tomorrow though. Right now, I’m going to go out and see what those teenagers are doing in my yard. They better not be after my brewskies in “nature’s fridge.” I might have to break out my snowballs early.
If you’re interested in getting a copy, this was in today’s (Thursday’s) Ft. Wayne Journal-Gazette. I’m sure they’ll appreciate the publicity and extra sales. For some reason, I’ve heard receipts were kind of down… It’s just heart-warming to know our journalism schools are still turning out outstanding reporters and editors. Not to mention Ft. Wayne is keeping up the standards of the town. This is the place that gave the world the “Potato Chip Lady” for those of you old enough to remember her. She worked at a potato chip factory here in town for years and collected chips off the line that looked like famous people. True story. Johnny Carson heard of her and flew her out to his show. Had to pay for two tickets, because she had to have a seat for her favorite chip, who was a lookalike for (I think) Richard Millhouse Nixon. While on the show, she was pointing out all the famous people her chips looked like and Johnny reached over and grabbed Tricky Dicky and ate him! It was hilarious. I understand she had a bit of a mental breakdown because of the trauma, but she recovered. Not sure Ft. Wayne has…
I wonder if she had a chip that looked like Harry Baals… I'd like to see that one.
I hope my mini-snowmen army look threatening enough if the locals read this and head back down with their pitchforks and torches again…
Y’all come back, heah?