This print interview-conversation is a partnership between two writers, Mark Beyer and Carl Purdon, who have become interested in exploring each other’s mind regarding process and work “beyond the page.” We hope to engage readers, and other writers, in the world and work of making a story.
I first met Carl Purdon through a Twitter conversation, and shortly discovered we had in common a desire to write good novels, not the garden variety “new literature” or genre or even (and the dreaded) BESTSELLER. Both our sensibilities wound around the relationship-based novel: men & women, parents & children, buddies, friends, even enemies.
Over those early months of “meeting” we traded comments on our respective blogs. We bought the other’s books and read them, enjoyed them, wrote about them, and discussed them. We learned that we wrote completely different kinds of stories from each other, but also that that cannot get in the way of good storytelling. All of this talk and comraderie took place in print. I have not met Carl in person, and have not yet spoken to him over the phone (though a podcast discussion is in the works, so someday I hope to hear the voice behind the narrative voice(s) I have read).
Here begins Part I of a series of questions that have a thematic appeal. Part II can be found at Carl’s lit blog “Fiction, Lies, and Carpal Tunnel” from July 2nd. The questions are mostly identical, and for which we have written our answers, independently, before compositing the conversation for readers. Several questions are author specific, yet correspond to the theme. We had hoped to see for ourselves, and to show others, how two very different people, with contrasting backgrounds, have found a passion for writing, and how-and-why they put it all together.
A WRITER’s IDEAS
1. What inspires you to write?
CARL: The need to write has just always been there for me, so I suppose you could say I’m inspired by observing people and trying to imagine what secret burdens, hopes, and dreams they have. I read a lot of biographies, so reading about people with amazing talents, or people who buck the odds and become great successes, makes me want to write so bad I can barely wait to get to the keyboard. I’ve always had a very strong need to create something that will outlast me.
MARK: First of all, I write out of desire, passion, and necessity. Secondly, the combination (or juxtaposition) of humans’ robustness and frailty intrigues me; I look for story everywhere, and when found, I play with it in my mind to tease out possibility.
2. How often do you come up with ideas that could become a novel?
CARL: I try not to think about it if I’m working on a project. Too many ideas makes me lose focus. Mostly ideas come to me in my sleep, or when I’m waking up in the morning. I do my best work when I’m asleep.
MARK: A couple of times each month I come across a “character” who I’ve met in person, or imagined in day-dreams or night-time dreams that are suited to investigate and then ponder the possibilities.
3. What percentage of these ideas make it to the “serious planning stage”?
CARL: Very few. I never write the ideas down. A long time ago I read something Willie Nelson said — that he never writes down song ideas when they come to him. He waits a few days and, if he still remembers them, he tries to make a song of it. Otherwise, it probably wasn’t worth the effort. I subscribe to that mentality. If it’s a good idea, I won’t forget it.
MARK: About 10%, actually; I’ve got enough projects listed for the next 15 years or so. Sometimes, as with “Max, the blind guy”, I needed to put them aside in order to work on a another story (in this case, the story of Minus Orth that became “What Beauty”) that had taken all of my attention for that moment. As a writer, I don’t forsake the stories that cling to me like good plastic wrap.
4. Have you ever abandoned writing a book?
CARL: Yes, I abandoned several books before I finished THE NIGHT TRAIN (which had been previously abandoned). My third book, BLINDERS, was also resurrected from the boneyard.
MARK: Yes. The count is up to 12 now. They simply didn’t work (vague characters; too plot driven; no understanding of how – or why – the ending takes place) and, oddly enough, I realized this at about the 150-page mark for each of them. The blessing behind these abandonees is that I found another story somewhere else and … back to the typewriter.
5. Is there one subject you would never write about as an author?
CARL: What is it? None that I can think of.
MARK: No, I can trust my inner resolve to take on anything. Nabokov accepted the challenge, and risk, with Lolita, and made fabulous art out of a grisly subject. That’s a masterstroke.
6. ONE FOR CARL: RED EYES is the sequel to THE NIGHT TRAIN: what was the hardest part of writing this book?
CARL: Keeping my “facts” straight. I wrote THE NIGHT TRAIN first in Microsoft Word, then finished it in yWriter (where I did all of my character notes). For some reason I still can’t explain, I deleted the yWriter version after exporting it to Word, thus losing all of my character notes. Other than that, I typically don’t like sequels because they are so often a rehash of the original, so I had a great fear of doing that myself. I wanted RED EYES to be different — able to stand on its own merit — yet appealing to the readers who liked THE NIGHT TRAIN. I had so many requests to do this sequel that I just didn’t want to let anyone down.
ONE FOR MARK: MAX, THE BLIND GUY is about a painter who loses his sight (and thus his ability to produce his art). Do you ever fear losing the ability to write due to some physical tragedy?
MARK: It’s known that a sustained brain injury affects language-communication ability. Yes, this is a fear. I’ve been thinking about buying a helmet for snow skiing; but after 45yrs without one, would I be tempting one of the Fates who have otherwise been kind to me? Sounds like there’s a story in there somewhere.
1. Do you draw your characters from life, or are they entirely imagined? (example?)
CARL: Mostly imagined, though they sometimes inherit traits from real-life people. Creating characters is the part I enjoy most about writing. Probably the character I had most fun with was Pap from NORTON ROAD.
MARK: This question has proven the most difficult (this is now my third attempt to answer it rightly): I once wanted to wholly imagine all of my characters (which hurt my ability to complete things); and then I sought to steal the character of people I knew (which got me into trouble, using thinly disguised characters). Now I use an amalgam process, and this has shown me a way to capture the true essense of my individual characters. The problem with drawing characters from life, and I’m speaking for myself, is that if I can’t use everything of this person I know-or-have-known, then I feel the character has been cheated. On the other hand, a writer cannot use everything about a person; there’s not enough time or space in a novel to make all of this happen. Both are dilemmas I continue to juggle with. For example, the North Carolina couple in MAX, THE BLIND GUY are people I knew first hand (kind people, but absolute nightmares in their steroetypical views of race, marriage, religion, etc); likewise for this novel, there was the priest I read about, years ago, who had been married and had kids, then found the church, from whom I devised “Father Paul” in all his strange and ominous glory. Minus Orth on the other hand, from WHAT BEAUTY, is a composite of about five artists I knew in New York City. The lesson is, “Don’t worry how or where characters come at you; see who they are and look for their sublties that will, at the right moment, show their value in the story.”
2. ONE FOR CARL: Each of your stories is immediately engaging. I see this as a product of how well you draw your characters – they are real in every sense that an imagined character can be – yet your novels are not very long. How do you get so deeply into each character without sacrificing story depth?
CARL: Dialog. I love writing dialog, and find that I can convey more about a character with a few words they speak than I sometimes can with a page of narration. I want my readers to get to know my characters by engaging with them, or watching them in action, the way we get to know people in real life. Characters should also keep some things to themselves, because we all have secrets.
ONE FOR MARK: Your books read like classic literature, especially when it comes to the very detailed descriptions you apply to characters and setting. How much do you know about your characters before you begin writing?
MARK: Inevitably, not enough. This seems to be one of the axioms of fiction: you learn more about your character(s) as you write about them, see them in action and hear them in conversation. All the material an author can compile – a la “a dossier” – has always been mere background for the author. How those traits and tics and recurring verbal flubs devised is the ghost within the machine. Nevertheless, when I feel I know my main characters as well as I can, then I begin writing the major scenes which require the full depth of who these people are.
3. It is often said that a writer has something of himself in every character. Is that true for you?
CARL: Yes and no. While I like to tell myself I’m capable of creating characters independent of my slant on things, I’m sure some part of me bleeds through. One of my favorite exercises is to try to “become” the main character. I practice it in my quiet times (lying in bed, riding my motorcycle or the lawn mower, or driving to or from work) and find it really stimulates the creative process.
MARK: Yes. Both the sensitive side and the thoroughly dark side. Writing allows for both of these to live wholly outside your self. It can be a cathartic experience to develop characters who display these good-bad connections to self, but I don’t design them for that purpose. Not by a long shot.
4. What do you expect from a reader in understanding your characters’ actions and desires?
CARL: To understand that no one is totally good or totally bad. Heroes have flaws and villains have something good about them. Stalin, for example, doted over his children even while he killed hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, without mercy. Sometimes I want my reader to struggle with whether a character is good or bad, as was the case with Farley Milo in THE NIGHT TRAIN and RED EYES.
MARK: I expect a reader to have an interest in discovering a character (and his/her story) who can challenge their own beliefs on multiple subjects. For example, I’ve been criticized for developing a few characters who are, as the criticism is levied, “too confident and self-assured.” Okay, I’ll listen to that criticism. However, some people (characters) are indeed confident and self-assured – nothing wrong with that. Self-assured and confident people often get what they want because of these very traits; I also don’t use these traits as a story trope to knock them off their pedestal. Fiction, as in life, often has its own way of evening things out. This comes without the demonstration of grand tragedy.
5. ONE FOR CARL: NORTON ROAD is the story of several people: the good, the bad, and the awful. Was it difficult for you to write wearing
the “black hat” that was Bodie Craig?
CARL: The short answer is no, it wasn’t difficult at all. The long answer requires me to slip back to my first novel, THE NIGHT TRAIN, and say that one of the last things I did with that novel (and I think the thing that made it all come together) was to add the POV of Jonce Nash, the abusive father. In doing so I discovered that I really enjoyed writing the bad guy. By the time I got around to writing Bodie in Norton Road, it seemed natural to me. Not sure what that says about my inner self, but writers aren’t supposed to be “normal” are we?
1. ONE FOR CARL: You live in Mississippi and write about small-town life. Why do Small Town stories have as much drama to them as Big City stories?
CARL: First, small towns are what I know best, so there’s a comfort zone component there, I suppose. Small towns have as much drama as big cities because the people who live in small towns are real, just like the people who live in cities. The stereotypes of Southern people is almost always overdone. People have been producing drama since Adam and Eve ate the apple.
ONE FOR MARK: You left America to live in Europe. How has your writing style changed because of your travels?
MARK: I think the style has remained the same, but the voice has matured. My advancing years … wink-wink (I’m 52 this September) … has helped along the way. Life in Europe can have as fast a pace as American life, but the nuance of cultural differences (thought and debate as much as food and sense of place) have made me take a closer look at my surroundings, and the people, and their activities. What I “was” in America (a corporatized editor/writer/teacher) is also far afield from my simplified life in Europe. Overall, I’m far more thoughtful with the handling of my characters: perhaps this is why THE VILLAGE WIT, and WHAT BEAUTY, and MAX, THE BLIND GUY were each written in Europe.
But there’s something else: methodology. The simplified life I lead allows for the advantage of time, and therefore a slow method of developing my stories. That, and the free-will scene/character exposition I practice early in the writing process. This is something which I want to write about for budding authors (soon). Essentially, it requires you to disabuse yourself from outline and even “form” for a few months, until something takes shape (characters; story arc; and ending that makes sense to the beginning), and then you can simply put a loose order to the story before you fill in the gaps with “new” scenes. That’s the other two-years’ work.
2. Is setting important to you? Do you draw maps, see the place as real (if imagined), or do you use a set town from which you change names & etc.?
CARL: Setting is not as important to me as characters. I typically use an imaginary place and borrow heavily from a place I know. In THE NIGHT TRAIN and RED EYES, my characters did a lot of traveling, so I did a fair amount of research, even using Google Earth, to try and get the settings correct.
MARK: I find that setting presents itself as an opportunity to explore story in a more thorough manner. Perhaps this is why I write long books. In THE VILLAGE WIT, the story of Richard Bentley took place in the fictional English town of Heath-on-the-wold, which was an amalgam of several hamlets I visited in the Cotwolds, and for which I did draw a map because Bentley moved about town, meeting people for various means, and I needed to know how this was going to happen. For my novel WHAT BEAUTY, the city of New York was its setting and part of its character; it’s a city I know well (having lived and worked there for several years) and, for the novel’s purposes, I used as subject, character, a foil, as well as its setting role.
3. Both of you write books in which your writing displays a particular gift for keeping the reader grounded in “place” and “time.” Does this come from a need to control story movement?
CARL: I only wish I could control story movement. The fact of the matter is that my characters are constantly dragging me here and there. You can almost bet that if you come to a point in one of my books where you are surprised by something a character does or says, odds are I was just as surprised when I wrote it.
MARK: Absolutely “YES.” As much as my characters do as they would without me there to “think it up”, without some control of the story, it becomes a mash of events, internal monologue, or simply imagery for no purpose than self-indulgence-disguised-as-art. That’s what Hemingway called “sh*t” and which has no place in a writer’s craft (much less the story).
4. ONE FOR MARK: How important is location when you are developing your characters and storyline? Could “Max, The Blind Guy” have worked equally well in New York, or Moscow, or a small town in Iowa?
MARK: Location is important when an author wants to use that location as either a juxtaposition to character (as with Maximilian Ruth, blind or not, traveling through Europe), or a sounding board for the positive-negative relationship between the story and “the place” (read Kafka, Atwood, Nabokov, Murdoch, Norman Rush). Otherwise, any “story” and “character interaction” can take place anywhere, albeit the differences will have something to do with what happens: one can walk without much notice in New York, while in a small Iowa town, this is not possible. I think Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio plays this out quite well. Yet a character does not change his/her spots simply because the location is other to what they are completely familiar with; in fact, the normalcy of who they are can make for some fun, danger, enthusiasm, and tragedy.
1. How often do you NEED to put words into a character’s mouth?
CARL: Seldom. I generally give them their heads and write what they say.
MARK: Perhaps one-quarter of the time. Personally, I don’t think this is a bad percentage. A writer needs to design a story to make things happen, and sometimes those things require specific verbal signposts (or starting guns, if you will) for which dialogue is best suited. I say best suited because dialogue exposes character, and demands some reaction from another or multiple characters, which then brings out more of those characters. This is just one process.
2. What’s your key to listening to your characters and transferring that language onto the page?
CARL: I try to “become” that character. People so often think I’m in a funk, or sad, when in fact I’m a thousand miles away pretending to be a character in whatever story I’m working on. There have been times I’ve made wrong turns on my way to work and driven miles out of the way before realizing it.
MARK: Once I’ve found the character’s voice, it doesn’t change; however, finding that voice (which has as much to do with who this person was, is, and may become) can take several dozen pages. This is why re-writing is an all-important task for me (which I taught my fiction writing students to embrace, with varying success). This is why I work at the first 50-100 pages far more intricately than I need to for the middle 100 pages (or last 50): the voices of the characters must be adjusted within the first 100 pages during the second draft of the book, because I know more about them than when I first began the book. Such adjustments are natural for me as writer, and, ultimately, integral, to the success of the overall story.
3. ONE FOR MARK: I’ll admit to having to get out my dictionary a few times while reading your books. Is it your intention to educate your readers while entertaining them, or does your expansive vocabulary come natural to you?
MARK: No, I’m not out to educate, but rather to entertain. People, however, come to literature for all sorts of reasons. One way I entertain is through encouraging readers to think about themselves in the situations that my characters find themselves; this is about as time-honored a writing trope as can be found. Frankly, though, I educate myself when I write. The worming I do inside characters has a mirroring effect on me. The vocabulary I use, common or rare, come from “me the writer” finding the right word for the moment. Sixty-percent of English is made up of nouns, and the right word makes all the difference. I also like verbs.
4. ONE FOR CARL: Your language is almost wholly of the “everyday,” rooted in the Southern tradition of Eudora Welty, Faulkner, and Flannery O’Connor, the same stock from which you hail. What do you think the effect of this language is on your readers?
CARL: They seem to enjoy it. I wanted the dialog, especially, to seem natural, and what can be more natural than the way the people I am surrounded by actually speak? So often we see the Southern dialect overdone to the point that it is barely readable. People love to stereotype Southern people. Let me step back a moment and qualify that: people love to stereotype people who are different from them. Southerners stereotype Northerners, too, so I’m not bemoaning it. Now, when my next novel comes out, people may be surprised to see that it is NOT Southern. I wanted to do something different, and this one will be different.
5. ANOTHER ONE FOR CARL: THE NIGHT TRAIN has a teenage protagonist, Jayrod Nash. NORTON ROAD has Pap, a man into his seventies. Dale Criss in BLINDERS is forty-something. And Frank Mayo (a.k.a. Farley Milo) in RED EYES is middle aged. Are these age differences, and varying points of view, intentional? What’s the difference for you in terms of capturing the language they use?
CARL: Not really intentional, though I certainly wanted to mix it up a bit. The main characters have always come to me more than I’ve gone looking for them. Jayrod Nash refused to leave me alone until I told his story. I had put THE NIGHT TRAIN aside because I couldn’t make it work, but he haunted me until I picked it up again. Pap came to me while I was writing The Night Train, and I didn’t know what to do with him. I didn’t want to make him an extra in The Night Train because I felt he needed his own book. I spent a lot of time talking to Pap before I figured out his story. Dale Criss is the one character I sat down and created from nothing. Frank Milo began as an extra in The Night Train. I had no particular plans for him beyond that first scene where he lit the cigarette in the pitch-dark boxcar and scared the boys to death. When they jumped off the train. he worked his way into the next scene, then the next, and before I knew it he was an integral part of the story. When I decided to write the sequel, I knew right away it had to center around Farley Milo, a.k.a. Frank Mayo.
Part II of “About Writing Fiction: Carl & Mark’s dual interview” appear on Carl’s blog, “Fiction, Lies, and Carpal Tunnel” beginning July 2nd.
My new novel is now on sale: “Max, the blind guy” is the story of Max and Greta Ruth, their 40-year relationship, and all the demons that show up as they find that life rarely goes according to plan. This book is available in print at Amazon.com and the digital edition is available as a serialized novel — 12 parts, published every fourth week. Come by MarkBeyer : Author to read an excerpt that you won’t find at on-line bookshops.
The Village Wit (2010) is a humorous and sometimes dark odyssey through village life, love’s fall, sexual politics, and that place where memory and modern love intersect. Read an excerpt here. This book is also available as an ebook.