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Reynald\’s Rap

Lance Reynald, author of POP SALVATION

by Susan Henderson on July 8, 2009

Most regulars of LitPark know Lance Reynald, who is an integral part of this place – not just for his interviews, but for helping to build and maintain a community of enthusiastic readers and supportive writers.

Now it’s Lance’s turn to be front and center with his gorgeous debut novel of outcasts in search of love and identity. POP SALVATION is set in Washington DC during the MTV generation, with its emerging punk scene and long lines at the Rocky Horror Picture Show, and features a boy who dresses like his hero, Andy Warhol, and struggles with the courage to be himself. Please stay and talk with Lance; and thanks to everyone who buys his book!

Talk to me about freaks. Just riff, if you would.

I don’t really see them. I know that it seems that the general public does… and that seems to be something that I don’t really have, or just didn’t pick up. Throughout life there have been times that people have questioned my judgement when it comes to the company I have kept. My outlook is pretty simple; we’re all these beautiful creatures, each and every one unique with boundless potential. The error of society labeling anyone a freak is that it dismisses an opportunity to see beauty that is greater than we could ever dream.

Let’s talk about Caleb – a boy who never felt good enough, whether it was being smaller than the other kids or having problem skin or the way his accent and his walk and the feelings he had set him apart. What drew him to Andy Warhol as his hero?

Caleb and Andy both faced adolescence as outcasts. Warhol was a sickly effeminate child of immigrant Pittsburgh, nothing extraordinary really. But instead of trying to fit in and be just like everyone else he played up the characteristics that made him different… and the brilliant twist from that was he presented everyday objects as the art. Think about it for a moment. Here you have a man that looks like Andy Warhol telling you that the everyday objects you ignore in the grocery store are actually what real beauty is… everything that surrounds you is art. If you hold that thought you begin to recondition yourself and you might realize that Warhol isn’t so strange looking after all. Andy Warhol as an Icon is pretty damn empowering to a boy that feels he can’t ever fit.

I’d transformed myself into a grade school clone of my hero. A pint-size Warhol. My summer with the art school crowd had given me the confidence to not only be different, but also to express myself in an extreme fashion.

So shocking was the art I had made of myself that James and the other children dismissed me with just one word on our first day back at school.

Freak. (POP SALVATION, p. 23)

Do you have any heroes?

I used to.

I think it’s great to have heroes, icons or someone to emulate, but all of that should be a starting point. Everyone feels powerless at some point and you might need the thought of someone greater than you to use as a catalyst to make you stronger.

But those heroes out there are made of the same molecules and energy that you are. They love. They have insecurities, headaches and bad days. And no doubt that they have a part that hurts too. Their actions, achievements or the way they live has made them heroic to you. Your interest should be the point of inspiration.

I’ve noticed that lots of young writers travel down this road to our peril. They attach strongly to their heroes and icons. Everyone wants to be Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Thoreau, Tolstoy, Burroughs or Thompson (the list goes on and on to tedious extremes) but imitation is just dull.

You have your own voice, it’s the only pioneering thing you can do (which brings me to the inevitable grab for some pop song wisdom…because borrowing lyrics is totally different…*smirk*):

I can remember
Standing by the wall
And the guns shot above our heads
And we kissed as though nothing could fall
And the shame was on the other side
Oh we can beat them forever and ever
Then we could be heroes just for one day

-David Bowie, HEROES

I don’t recall when and where my mind changed on it, but I think it’s better to live heroically than to put being a hero on someone else. We all have that potential.

The love story in this book is beautiful, aching, and tragic, but most of it happens via the safety of artistic collaboration and voyeurism. I’d love to hear your thoughts about what’s gained and lost with being so guarded.

This part of the story is a direct riff on some of Andy Warhol’s musings on love, relationships and art written about in From A to B and Back Again.

Voyeurism provides a safe remove. Subject and muse don’t have to engage in a dialogue about rejection or disappointment.

In the Philosophy, Andy makes a point of stating that he preferred the idea of fascinations over love. He goes on to say that love affairs get too involved and aren’t really worth it, and that the version of love you see on the screen is better than anything that happens in real life… The ideas in the book are all the arguments of keeping relationships at a safe remove to both protect your own heart and create the conditions for absolute adoration of subject.

The downside? If you stick to that philosophy you consign yourself to a rather monastic life. Fascinations are but a substitute, not engaged love.

“Remember. Art is what you can get away with. Action!” (POP SALVATION, p. 100)

Riff for me again: Love.

If any of us ever claims to have that one figured out we’ll have nothing left to write for or about.

There’s a line in the book that says, “A full beating heart is the greatest happiness.” Tell me what a full beating heart looks like to you.

It isn’t in the grandest of overtures, it lives in the subtle moments that you can’t ever plan. It can be in the comfort of a reunion between great loves that find life too complicated to be together or in a partner that manages to look at you and smile first thing every damn morning. I’ve been learning that if you pay enough attention it can be found constant throughout life, you just have to look close because it might be hiding beneath feelings you aren’t prepared for.

Talk to me about the process of writing this book. I remember your photo of the pages tacked up on the wall. Walk me through the way you work, how an idea or an urge became a novel.

There is a phrase in a RHCP song (Otherside) that I think illustrates how my mind works pretty well.

I heard your voice through a photograph
I thought it up; it brought up the past
Once you know you can never go back
I’ve got to take it on the otherside

I’m very visual in the way my thoughts arrange. Perhaps this is the product of being the first generation MTV audience. Stories build and unfold for me once I’ve assembled enough raw material to build with. Sure, I tend to write out ideas and dialogues longhand in composition books but I also need things surrounding me as visual reference material. I tear pages out of magazines and collect postcards and snapshots of the world that causes me to imagine my characters.

To build Caleb’s world I had a base of snapshots of DC. The architecture, the cherry blossoms, a garden diagram of Dumbarton Oaks and a streetmap of Georgetown. To this base I added the art. Warhol postcards and prints, a NYC subway token, a copy of a Mapplethorpe portrait of Andy Warhol, a Rocky Horror Picture Show poster and a disco ball…

But, the last piece was torn from a magazine. A DKNY ad that picture a guy and a girl standing in a crosswalk in what seems a moment that could be a reunion of intimate friends. One of those subtle but seemingly true moments. A good reference point for a story.

With those visuals tacked to the wall and evolving I also add music. I load the hell out of my iPods. For Pop Salvation I had a steady stream of 1980s pop going. My ears were constantly filled with the songs the characters would hear on the radio and see on MTV. For me this was easy, it was a nostalgic journey back to my youth through music and I love me some BritPop!

But even with all of that, you have to allow the characters to speak for themselves. I wish I could explain this better, but I think every writer out there knows this in the abstract. You can create the conditions, but the characters come on their own when they’re damn good and ready.

Call it whatever you want; the universe, the muses, the divine or some form of schizophrenia. None of us really ever works alone. It is what it is, and if you think you have the stomach or the talent for the writing game you’d best come to terms with this thing being out there. It is in the realm of the unknown or the deeply felt just being the mysteries you really don’t have to answer for anyone. I resisted this notion at first, then a darling young girl by the name of Brit decided to show up and demanded to be written in. It was as though she stood in the office doorway and challenged me with a tap of her stilettos and the question, “You forgetting someone, fucker?”. She changed the pace of the whole thing and the story couldn’t happen without her. But, she was nowhere in the planning.

Ah, the wall era.

I don’t know if anyone else does this but it works for me.

In the final stretch of a manuscript I staple the whole thing from start to finish on to the walls. From that perspective I can survey the whole thing, get a sense of the size of it and see the holes. At first I just scan the whole of it. Then comes the red pen strike outs and margin notes. I can walk into the room and start reading the story anywhere without having to shuffle through pages to find where I left off or where I should go. I can even randomly go to a section just to see if it reads sharp and conscious in a moment. Once the manuscript is ready for the wall treatment I know I have something that can be an entity without me. Plus you get this really crazy juvenile rush of,  Ha. I did this much! That is a pretty rewarding simple pleasure. I find it important to remember such pleasures in the craft of writing.

Brian ran to a neighbor’s house and started to pound furiously on the door. His neighbor opened the door with a shocked look on her face as she tried to understand the sight of a young boy in a party dress with blood oozing from his chest. (POP SALVATION, p. 119)

There’s an interesting tension between you and your main character here. You’ve told a poignant story about a boy who struggles with the courage to be his true self. But to write this story, you as the author had to put something real and unguarded down on paper. How hard was that to do?

Hmm. The writing was actually easier to do than answering this question seems to be. I understand the question, people tend to think that writing in such a visceral manner is a very dark and taxing practice. Yeah, it is and it can be, but I don’t really know how to do it any other way. Stories of loneliness, outcasts and the struggles to be accepted and loved seem to come naturally to me. It is what I have seen in my family and friends through the years.

The parallel that people may see or presume between Caleb and I is two boys that have struggled with their relationship with their fathers. Sure, I spent most of my life feeling that I was overshadowed and that I might be a disappointment to my Dad. Perhaps some of this was imagined on my part. But, it was imagined under conditions of distance. Writing the narrative as I did allowed me to explore and exorcise some of those feelings.

As Caleb developed and observed his world I distinctly recall having to remind myself to let him feel the things as a boy would. As a child everything is so much bigger than you and you feel powerless. Sure, Caleb is precocious in some of his interests and he grows up a bit too fast at some things, but being the outcast still makes him want to die, and indifference makes him feel he can’t ever be good enough.

Taking that journey through the eyes of a child allowed me to think through my childhood and put a lot of demons to rest.

I was one of those people you ran into and wondered, What had he been before he gave up? (POP SALVATION, p. 204).

Scared or excited about going on your book tour?

Terrified? Prepared? Both!

Over the years I’ve struggled with mild to severe bouts of Social Anxiety. There are times when something as simple as a trip to the grocery store causes me to come unglued. I’m not even on display in that situation, it’s a totally anonymous everyday activity that no one is ever going to notice.

The only way I’ve found to express how I tend to feel about the whole thing is to say that if I had become an actor instead of a writer, I’d be the kind of guy that would never see his own movies. Since that isn’t possible with public readings I guess I’ll have to wing it.

But, when I remove myself from that whole mess I also accept the fact that I am the only person on the planet that can do this. Every moment, word and step has led me to being the last word on Pop Salvation and being Lance Reynald.

Are you the same person now as the guy who first started writing this book?

I don’t think I’m the same person that started this interview.

I think we as writers tune in to life at a different level than most people. Every moment is filled with details that we will draw on some day to fill out the narratives of our stories. In casual interactions here and there, people have commented on the details I note and remember. Life really is an ever changing journey, and all the moments you’re at it can hold entire universes of wonder, split-second opportunities to create new stories. The art will always evolve because of this simple fact. There could be some sentence I said up there a few paragraphs ago that launches another writer on to their debut novel and from that starting point they are the only person on the planet that can tell that story.

{ 48 comments }

Reynald’s Rap: Lance chats with Anthony Tognazzini

by Susan Henderson on May 7, 2008

Some of you may remember that several months ago I took off chasing some dreams. I packed two suitcases and left everything behind. I was determined to get out into a world of my choosing and finally make it as a writer no matter what the costs. It’s been one hell of a trip.

Ask a handful of friends and I’m certain they’ll tell you, I’m pretty handy with postcards. Perhaps it’s the gene deep in there that makes me a writer. A desire to share even the tiniest piece of the world and adventures in it with a few quick words. It’s funny that I’m such a fan of these snippets or word trinkets yet I’ve never really taken much a look at short stories.

I have to admit, I’ve been so deep in edits for the past few months that I could barely pick up anything to read for fun. Then I came across I Carry a Hammer in My Pocket for Occasions Such As These.

THE DIFFERENCE

Although I was never an early riser, my father always counseled me to rise with the sun.

“Early bird gets the worm!” he told me.

“Sure,” I said, “but the worm who sleeps late, lives.”

I actually sat and enjoyed reading each and every bit of it. Pure pleasure and fun in reading. Much like postcards from a friend they made me smirk and imagine the wild ride Anthony Tognazzini is on. With his first book he lets you ride shotgun on the best journey through what it is to be fully awake in this crazy modern world of ours.

Let’s chat him up and you’ll see what I mean.

Welcome to Litpark, Anthony Tognazzini!

*

LR: Your work gave me the impression of a mix of postcards from far flung destinations, eavesdropped conversations, modern proverbs along with some downright spiritual observations. Where do you draw inspiration for such a diverse range of characters?

AT: I’m a note-taking kind of guy. I always have a pen and paper on hand, or a notebook. In addition to writing down lines or ideas that occur to me, conversation – participated in or eavesdropped on – is one of the best sources of inspiration. Recently a friend told me about visiting the set of Sesame Street and meeting all the muppets. I wrote that down. In a bar I overheard someone say, “I love you, but I’m not calling an ambulance.” I wrote that down. I also jot down lines from travel brochures, nature documentaries, whatever. I have stacks of these notes around my apartment, notebooks filled with them. I sort through these, and see what I can build. I might start with “My dog ate my tabla,” or something about the crunch of watermelon or “You were the road I was supposed to keep my eyes on,” or “I went to the store and bought a totally bitchin’ potato masher.” Sometimes one of these will spark a story on its own, other times I’ll assemble a few with wire and string to see if I can make something unusual. Oftentimes they amount to nothing, but occasionally magic happens. It doesn’t seem like the most efficient way to work, but it’s what comes naturally to me – working with these fragments. Barthelme said “Fragments are the only forms I trust,” and I think he had something there.

LR: Ok, I can’t resist asking. But my favorite piece is the last one “Abandoned Belongings”, something in it resonated with me. How did that one come to be?

AT: I love allegories and parables, especially ones that read like riddles, or read clearly, as though designed to impart a lesson, but what’s finally revealed is ambiguous. “Abandoned Belongings” isn’t that ambiguous, because the moral is stated at the end, but the interaction with the monk is puzzling. Sometimes we look for answers and get nothing but a backpack full of tissue. I’m also interested in Zen, and Zen koans. I think I was inspired by that sort of knowing, and those sorts of forms, when I wrote that one.

LR: I’m a bit awestruck by how much story you tell with such word economy. Admittedly, I don’t read a lot of short fiction. Yet it seems that more of it is seeing the light of day now. How do you see the publishing landscape changing for writers of short works?

AT: This is probably a self-serving opinion, but I feel like it’s inevitable that we’re moving culturally toward shorter literary forms. We’re in an ADD world of quick-jump internet links, sound bites, fragments and the like, everything’s faster and more compressed – it seems only a matter of time until literature adapts to this shift in consciousness. People will always tell stories, but the telling shifts shapes. There does seem to be a growing interest in the short form, and more and more avenues for publishing this sort of work, either online, where there are scores of excellent journals, or in print with houses like BOA. Of course, there’s not much in big league publishing to indicate that this trend is catching on in a mainstream way. Novels sell bigger than ever, and it’s hard to get a book of short work published, so maybe I’m just whistling Dixie.

LR: You work has appeared extensively outside of this collection. Do you have any secrets or great tips for other writers struggling to get their work out there?

AT: Perseverance. Thick skin. Now that a lot of journals accept online submissions, it’s less of a laborious secretarial imbroglio printing copies and licking envelopes, which is nice.

LR: Who are some of your influences? (living or dead, contemporaries in the field, other forms of art altogether?)

AT: Franz Kafka, Thelonious Monk, Buster Keaton, Kenneth Koch, Lydia Davis, Tom Friedman, Donald Barthelme, David Byrne, Sarah Sze, Richard Brautigan, haiku poets, Julio Cortazar, Robert Walser, Aimee Bender, Daniil Kharms, John Ashbery, Brian Eno, Yasunari Kawabata, George Saunders, Samuel Beckett, Frank O’Hara, Leonard Michaels, Tomaz Salamun, James Tate, James Brown, Gertrude Stein, the Marx Brothers, Miranda July, Vincent Van Gough, Dean Young, Bob Dylan, Dr. Seuss.

LR: Some of the pieces have a quality like poetry or song writing. Have you tried your hand at music at all?

AT: Everything I do is guided by a love of music. I’m a music head. I listen to most everything, and make part of my living as a music journalist. Rhythm and melody is paramount for me in writing, and the way my writing sounds when read aloud is the ultimate test of its quality and durability (I’m constantly interrupting my typing to read sentences aloud). I also play guitar, sing, and write songs. I’m currently in the process of putting my band back together (the last incarnation split up last summer). When I got my Mac I started tinkering around on Garageband and recorded some rough demos of my songs (without an interface or mics or anything), which are up at www.myspace.com/skyeatsman. I also sing and play in a band that covers the music of the Louvin Brothers, a bluegrass harmony duo from the 1950s.

LR: What would you like readers to leave with as the theme of this collection? Is there a unifying thread that guided the work?

AT: Because the pieces are short, and formally varied, and were written over a long period of time in a variety of places and contexts, there’s not really a unifying thread in terms of formal composition. It’s more that the work is unified by sensibility. Because my approach is more like a poet’s than a novelist’s, my paramount concerns aren’t plot, character, and narrative trajectory, but energy, surprise, compression, and the creation of an experience that’s immediate, honest, and, I hope, emotionally true. Most of the stories are written in the 1st person, and it’s possible, even very likely, that this character can be read as the same anxious, giddy, alert but slightly dense person who is full of yearning and pain and a great capacity for love. I’m not much for autobiographical writing, but there certainly a lot of me in that character, even though it’s refracted through a fictional lens. But the difference between fiction and memoir is that memoir represents the author’s personal experience while fiction (hopefully) creates a direct, personal experience for the reader. So, ultimately, I hope this is what readers will take away from the collection – a personal experience that connects them to the themselves, the world, and the sense of possibility flowering in each.

*

Bios:

Anthony Tognazzini’s first book, I Carry a Hammer in My Pocket for Occasions Such as These, is a collection of 57 short fictions. It was published by BOA Editions in 2007. His work has appeared in Denver Quarterly, Sentence, Hayden’s Ferry Review, the Hat, Quarterly West, Ducky, Mississippi Review, and Quick Fiction, among other journals. He’s received three Pushcart Prize nominations, awards from AWP and the Academy of American Poets, and fellowships to the Prague Summer Writer’s Workshop and Ledig House Writer’s Colony. He lives and works in New York City.

Lance Reynald is the author of Pop Salvation (Harper Perennial, release date forthcoming), the sexy, heartbreaking tale of outcasts in search of love and acceptance. In addition to The Reynald’s Rap you can read him over at TheNervousBreakdown.com. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon where he is developing a serious Bacon Maple Bar addiction and can usually be found lost in the stacks at Powell’s still in awe of it all or passing the hours in one comic book shop or another. You can friend him at Myspace. You can also friend Pop Salvation at Myspace.

{ 22 comments }

Weekly Wrap: Some Fabulous News

by Susan Henderson on January 18, 2008

It’s been absolutely killing me not to share this news. But I’m going to have the amazing Lance Reynald do the honors. I am so very happy for him, you have no idea! Here’s Lance…

This week’s wrap seems such a hard one to start. It feels as though it’s such a long one coming, but it really isn’t. Still, I find myself floundering around looking for some point of origin for the crazy fortuitous journey to begin.

It certainly isn’t a secret around the Park that I really love our craft. In all it’s wild and crazy forms. Everything from some of the classics to the craziest and most random of the bloggers. I find inspiration, insight and some spark within most of it.

A few years ago I started tinkering around in Bloggsville. It gave me a place to explore my writing and get some feedback here and there from what I found to be a compassionate and understanding audience. Initially hidden behind a series of quirky screen names and odd profile photos I overcame a certain timid nature and used the medium to find my voice. The worlds of Journalspace, Blogger and a few others I can’t remember and long ago deleted acted as an incubator for the style of writing I find has become recognizable as my own.

Now, a mild digression moment here. When I started all of this wild blogging the literary world didn’t yet understand the medium or what role it might play. All the writerly magazines dismissed it as a waste of time. I even had a few friends that we’re writers tell me not to invest my time and skills into something that wasn’t the actual “ work”. As though they all adhered to this unwritten rule that they were a breed apart from the common blogger; the writing done in the medium something less than their efforts. This view is still a riddle to me. It’s all words and audience somewhere isn’t it?

And then came MySpace.

Now, this is where the naysayers should pay a bit of attention. Back when I still had fewer than 50 friends over at MySpace my roll call included a collective of memoirists, a major imprint, a handful of talented writers, literary organizations and of course, Jenna Jameson.

They all said serious literature would never catch on in Bloggsville.

Hmm? (how serious are we talking.)

In April of 2006 I added my most valuable friend to that MySpace page. A friend that would help me find a novel in the random blogposts. A friend that would offer unwaivering support to an idea, a dream. A friend that would connect me to some of the most talented writers working with the craft today. The friend that would quickly move from a shared love of thunderstorms to having the affectionate nickname of “the wondertwin”.

It was the wondertwin that saw the very first copy of Pop Salvation. She gave me the push to take it from a few insane blogposts that left my readers mute into a novel length debut.

Certainly, there are a few people in my life that made the growth of the novel possible. But, Susan Henderson is the one that I’d credit with actually pushing me to limits of my own potential with this one. She’s the support that resulted in the book’s completion. That support isn’t just about our friendship, it’s about a passion for our craft. A friendship born in Bloggsville, with a steady foundation here on this page you’re visiting.

[USED TO BE A COOL PICTURE OF A POP SALVATION CAMPBELL’S SOUP CAN, BUT IT’S GONE NOW.]
Click here to “friend” Pop Salvation. Cool mock-up courtesy of iamthatguy.

Looks a bit like serious work to me.

Crazy journey for two years work, huh?

Where does it all go from here?

Well…

Working with friendships, taking chances here and there, taking heed some of the conventional wisdom and doing it my way anyway? Admittedly, I am a bit of a workhorse, and not a patient one at that. Susan can vouch for me there. She saw the first copy of Pop in early October and my worries about what it would do followed soon thereafter. We’re always our own worst critics though.

I don’t have the typical story with this one. I can’t tell you the tale of swimming in the slush pile and having a wall of rejection letters. I queried three agents informally via e-mail and sent along the first 40 pages. I didn’t hear back from a single one of them. Doubtful any of them have seen a single word. No contact is certainly no rejection. One thing I learned about my patience over the past few months; no form rejection letter means they haven’t even found the time to look at you.

I relied on friendship and the strength of my work here at the park to get my foot in a door. I’ve learned that there is a certain code, or compassion, among writers.

When we can, we help one another.

I’ve had a lot of help in the past two years.

I asked one of those friend’s what his advice was regarding how to send my little book out into the world. His response to my worries about the conventional wisdom,

“what’s to lose… at worst you’ll get a form letter back.”

Being ever the rule breaker and anarchist at heart, that was just the push I needed to do exactly what I wanted to do. Was that sneaking in the back door or just a bit of luck on the DIY approach I apply to most of my life? Who knows? It worked.

Pop Salvation ended up exactly where I wanted it. The imprint my gut told me would be the best home for it. Getting it there was through hard work, determination and the friendships built right here in the Park.

So, to all of you and especially to the Wondertwin, Thank You. I wouldn’t have done it without such a great bunch of friends and such a lovely playground.

Now, I’m off to bust out some edits and get this beast on the shelf for you kids in a year or so. I can’t wait to see what it all looks like then!

All my best and all my heart.

Follow that dream, you can get it!

xo. LR

*

Thank you to this week’s guest, Monica Drake, and to everyone who linked to LitPark this week: Rachel Fershleiser at Smith Magazine, M.J. Rose, Reading Writing Living, Kimberly M. Wetherell, A.J. Davis, Anthony S. Policastro, Janet Reid at FinePrint Literary Management, the Amici Forever forum, Charles Shaughnessy, Word Junkie, and Simply Wait.

{ 68 comments }

Reynald’s Rap: Lance chats with Monica Drake

by Susan Henderson on January 16, 2008

One of the most important motivations behind my move to Portland was literature.

The city is home to the Wordstock Festival, Powell’s City of Books, Tin House Magazine and the Independent Publishing Resource Center.

Before I even made my first trip to visit I’d wandered it’s streets with Katherine Dunn in Geek Love, learned its secrets with Chuck Palaniuk in Fugitives and Refugees and the legend of Tom Spanbauer’s Dangerous Writing Program has guided me in my own attempts at storytelling. My new home has proven to be the best literary love affair, a town full of talent and quirks that continues to produce amazing and groundbreaking books. Living here immerses me in a community of writers I’ve found to be as generous as they are inspiring.

I stumbled upon my guest this month at the Wordstock Festival. A friend had sent me to see another writer read. That writer was sharing the stage with Monica Drake.

I sat and listened to Monica’s reading from her debut novel Clown Girl. You guys know by now that I don’t like to give spoilers on the books I bring to the park. All I’m going to say about Clown Girl is that it’s as fascinating a read and as quirky a world as Geek Love. The humour and sensitivity it takes to create Sniffles, the high art clown, is something that I’d say is an artist working craft brilliantly.

As I’ve learned more about Monica and taken time to talk to her she has dazzled me with her wit and generosity. She makes some pretty amazing balloon animals while wrangling an adorable three year old through a reading at Portland’s Central Library. She also travels with a hidden cache of foam noses for photos; what’s not to love about that?

Litpark Pals, Let’s welcome Monica Drake.

*

LR: As far as clowns go, Sniffles and Company are a bit tragi-comic. Where did you find the inspiration for Coulrophilia run amuck?

MD: I worked as a clown years ago. That’s the real-life thread behind the novel, although the final form this story has taken is fiction. Ever since those days of clown work I’ve had moments when it all comes back, when I feel like a clown again, for better or worse. It’s good to feel like a clown in the best sort of way – willing to take risks, to stick one’s neck out. In the novel clowning is the central character’s art, but in many ways it could be any art. She’s an artist and has her own vision, and the world isn’t readily accepting of the value she sees in her work. That could be any of us, couldn’t it? I mean, anyone pioneering his or her own creative path.

LR: Under the greasepaint Nita is a philosopher at heart, her quips a keen mirror of the world around her. Clearly, she isn’t a clown in the tradition of Ronald or Bozo. Who would Nita see as the clowns in our world?

MD: Man, that’s a hard one. In some ways perhaps everybody could be on the list. Clowning takes so many different forms. But if you’re looking for specifics, Britney Spears is definitely there, and so is Courtney Love, and of course Tammy Faye Baker. Then there’s Rush Limbaugh. Should I consider the current president? This isn’t to say that these people are “clowns,” exactly, but only that they’re people playing a certain type of societal role, magnifying and simplifying aspects of human nature, showing humanity on the metaphoric big screen in an exaggerated way.

And then there are ordinary people, not celebrities, who are clearly clown-identified, and allow themselves to play the fool for a greater good, or as a social thing. For a while, there was a young woman around town who wore a pale green satin clown collar over her clothes. She had sort of a pixie haircut, and wore mismatched Converse. She was clearly taking the clown image and making it her own.

LR: You found an imprint for this debut without an agent. A DIY approach to getting a beautiful debut to the reader. Can you share a bit about that journey?

MD: I’ve had three agents over the years, all good agents and all in New York. But these agents didn’t seem to have the conviction to market my work. I’ve heard that major publishing houses now have “slots” to fill, and so are looking for work in particular and easily recognizable categories like “chick-lit,” “memoir” or “mystery.” That’s according to Lance Olsen, author of Rebel Yell, (a how-to-write book) and a few alternative novels.

Hawthorne Books is a smaller press. They asked if I had anything, and I handed them Clown Girl. Hawthorne has been great. I’ve had all the support a debut novelist could possibly want, and the book is doing well. They did a beautiful job with everything from the cover art to the quality of the book design, distribution and promotion.

LR: You have a teaching gig, a beautiful three year old, reviews and articles you contribute here and there; I’m guessing you don’t have so much a writing schedule, per se. How do you fit your writing into the rest of life happening around you?

MD: I spend a lot of time thinking about writing, turning over ideas. I have to be able to hold an idea in my head for a while, because I’m not always able to get to the keyboard. Sometimes I’ll scribble down a few rough notes, but I’m good at handwriting things. My handwriting is so poor, it actually gets in the way of my ability to write, so I only jot down key words to jog my memory until I can find a keyboard. Then, when I do have time to sit down and write, I usually have a pretty good idea of where I want to go with it, what I hope to sketch out.

I meet with a workshop group once a week, and I’m lucky because the writers in the group are fantastic. Workshop keeps me on track in so many ways. It offers a smart and engaged audience, which is invaluable, and also offers a chance to see what other people are doing, and that’s inspiring. Equally important, it’s a self-imposed weekly deadline. Every week we ask, “Who has pages?” I always like to be able to say yes, I have pages, and to know I’ve done a little writing since seeing the group the previous. It’s a way to stay accountable.

LR: Where do we get to see you next?

MD: I’ll have a story on the Hugo House website in February. It’s a wild story. I’m interested to see what kind of reception it finds. I’ll be reading at Hugo House in Seattle on February 15th, along with Rick Moody. I’m a fan of Moody’s work, so I’m thrilled for the reading. I’ve also been working on an essay which will hopefully find its way into an anthology put together by Matt Love, author of The Vortex and Red, Hot and Rolling. (That second book might have a little more to the title…not sure. It’s about the Trail Blazers.) Mostly, I’m working on another novel, but it’ll be a while before it’s ready to send out. Thanks for asking!

*

Bios:

MONICA DRAKE has an MFA from the University of Arizona and teaches at the Pacific NW College of Art. She is a contributor of reviews and articles to The Oregonian, The Stranger, and the Portland Mercury and her fiction has appeared in the Beloit Fiction Review, Threepenny Review, The Insomniac Reader, and others. She has been the recipient of an Arizona Commission on the Arts Award, the Alligator Juniper Prize in Fiction, and a Millay Colony Fellowship, and was a Tennessee Williams scholar at Sewanee Writers Workshop. Her debut novel, Clown Girl, is published by Hawthorne Books.

LANCE REYNALD is the author of Pop Salvation (Harper Perennial, release date forthcoming), the sexy, heartbreaking tale of outcasts in search of love and acceptance. In addition to The Reynald’s Rap you can read him over at TheNervousBreakdown.com. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon where he is developing a serious Bacon Maple Bar addiction and can usually be found lost in the stacks at Powell’s still in awe of it all or passing the hours in one comic book shop or another. You can friend him at Myspace. You can also friend Pop Salvation at Myspace.

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Reynald’s Rap: Lance chats with Porochista Khakpour

by Susan Henderson on November 21, 2007

I have a great affection for debut novels. Having finished my own attempt at one this fall I finally had time to dive back in and see what we have going on out there in the field.

If you were to ask a handful of friends, some of them might say I have good instincts. Now and then I stumble across something that causes a brow to raise and a pause to be taken.

I linger a moment longer than usual, Google a bit. Fire off a note to my nearest and dearest. Something to the effect of,

Watch this one.

That’s how this month’s guest popped onto the radar.

A great debut does something incredible to me.

A sensation I really like. Something I expect if I’m going to pass on the recommendation.

It grabs me by the lapels and shakes me about, challenges me, engages me and then looks me dead in the eye and says, “You got that?”

Oh yeah! Loud and clear.

These are the books that I think serve the rest of us notice.

The books that raise the bar.

They improve our craft and leave us waiting for the next word to come out of their authors.

Sons and Other Flammable Objects (Grove Atlantic, 2007) is one of those books, and I’m delighted to share the author with all of you this week. Porochista Khakpour is one amazing woman, with a debut that gave me a good shaking by the lapels and left me with a very happy smirk on my face.

You guys better start reading her now, she’s going to lead the pack for a while. Let’s go chat her up.

*

LR: Porochista Khakpour, Welcome to Litpark! You’re a very busy woman; I see your name everywhere. How did you find the time to nurture such an amazing debut?

PK: It’s probably a personality thing. I can’t really take a break. Rest, relaxation, vacations, spa days, yogic corpse poses– all that is very anxiety-inducing for me. This ol’ Angeleno has become a true New Yorker, I guess you could say. I have to do things and be a part of the world in some way. Even if that means separating myself from the world for a bit to later rejoin it full-force. I like to work hard and work hard. I was shocked when I found out all the other kids weren’t staying up til 3:30 AM every night their junior year to get their AP homework done. Maybe it’s an immigrant thing.

But, I also work like that to write and not because I have these electric coke-head maniac muses that just won’t quit; I write like that because I feel I have to. On my desk, next to computer and notepad, I always display that endless ever-growing tower of bills, envelopes which generally remain unopened. It’s extremely threatening, like working with a pen in one hand and a loaded gun in the other. My greatest inspiration has always been some degree of serious poverty. It sounds a little crazy and ironic, I guess. uh, perhaps the Alanis Morrisette definition of “ironic” – that I actually write with the intent of making a living.

LR: Your book is infused with a strong sense of New World identity and dichotomy and your characters journey through those things in the aftermath of September 2001. On tour, have you found readers aligned with the experiences of your characters?

PK: The book tour was very confusing. Whereas I imagined a lot of men in their late 30s through 60s as my readers, they mostly ended up to be 20-something girls with artsy glasses and nice tattoos who’d give me these big long hugs after the reading. Lovely, you know? Or, in the case of a few places, homeless-seeming 70+ year-olds–there were a lot of them–but I think they might just go to every reading? Not sure. Once in a while, I’d get some normal bright human who’d thank me profusely for writing this book, because of some personal connection they had whether it was knowing an Iranian-American, being one, being in New York during 9/11, growing up in LA, etc. In one case, an LA editor and blogger called my novel the first great Iranian-American novel, with my being sort of the first of the hyphenates for my people (note to self: The Hyphenates, excellent title for a multi-culti thriller.) I felt very fancy for a day or so.

LR: Your acknowledgments section reads like a who’s who of contemporaries; how have you found your own writing enriched by these friendships?

PK: Hmmm, well some of them were just my teachers. I don’t know if I could call Stephen Dixon my “friend,” as much as I wish I could. But he like many of the others were my teachers at Sarah Lawrence and Johns Hopkins. My writing was certainly enriched by all of them: Alice McDermott who finally got me to understand why they always said “write what you know,” Stephen Dixon who taught me you could do anything you wanted if you did it well. A few of the writers crossed over to becoming good friends of mine though. The only thing the crossovers all have in common that I can tell right now is that they all encouraged my sick humor, which is valuable in a friend or mentor, I’d say.

Donald Antrim and Jonathan Ames got their own line in the acknowledgments because, yes, they were friends. They were both actually very helpful – Ames knew me before I got my book deal and really helped me get through the very scary shopping-the-manuscript months. I remember one day in particular when I saw a young woman die on a subway and then I met Jonathan for coffee in Brooklyn and my agent called three times, with four different rejections to report from major publishing houses. Jonathan offered to buy me a sandwich. We went to the deli next door and bumped into one of the editors who rejected the manuscript. Very awkward. In between bites of the sandwich, my agent called with another rejection. I began crying so hard, the whole baguette was ruined. I wasn’t even deserving of a shitty sandwich as a consolation prize, I kept saying, until Jonathan finally placed me gingerly into a cab. Oh, it was a painful time.

And Antrim was passed the PK-savior baton after my book deal, when I spent an entire summer in the throes of a deadly insomnia that seriously began to threaten my life. His good advice and patient ear just kept me going from week to week, over the phone from NY to LA (I was at my parents’ home). Even just a few months ago, I called Antrim and declared, “I can’t do this reading tonight. I just can’t do it – I don’t even know why, but I can’t.” I was having some strange, stupid “exhaustion”-moment and wanted to pull an Amy Winehouse on a reading for no good reason, really. For two hours, he coached me, scolded me, etc. until I was able to face I was just scared and that we all get scared and such is life, etc., and then I did it. And it was fine.

So yes I have a sort of mild pedigree and my acknowledgments reveal that. But show me one published writer that really and truly doesn’t at all, show me one person that got anywhere with absolutely zero connections in this day and age. . . I’d buy him/her a sandwich!

LR: Xerxes Adam lives a life feeling that his own identity is split between irreconcilable cultures, a man that belongs in no land. Did the human struggle of this narrative help you see a reconciliation between the two that wasn’t apparent to you before?

PK: Absolutely. Initially, I wanted this novel to be far more sadistic, hopeless, and absurd. It took a long stroll down Identity Issues Lane to really see what a very real and serious novel I had on my hands. I didn’t expect it. In fact, I mainly became interested in Iran after I finished the novel. Like the protagonist, I had always thought of myself as more of an Angeleno or New Yorker, never really an Iranian. It was always suffocating me a bit so I latched onto any culture or counterculture that was as far from me as possible and made it my own. The novel retaliated and became like one of those fat mirrors to my face at first – mix of shocking and humbling – and by the end of it I think I fine-tuned the reflection to some fair even balance, but in the beginning it was rough.

LR: Obviously we’re going to see your name around for a while; what do we get to see from you next?

PK: I have pretty much wrapped up the manic planes-and-trains part of my book tour. I have three readings in New York coming up: National Arts Club on Nov 9, The Half King on Nov 19 (a very special Iranian women writers reading that I am moderating as well as reading in), The Happy Ending Series on December 12. I will be on Leonard Lopate’s NPR show on November 12. Then I have some university speaking engagements and conferences and benefits and stuff like that. Somehow through it all, I am also teaching, freelance writing, working on a collection of short stories and a new novel. I think the last one’s gonna wear the pants in the end, but we’ll see.

*

Bios:

Porochista Khakpour was born in Tehran, Iran in 1978 and her first language is Farsi. She was raised in the Los Angeles area. She attended Sarah Lawrence College and the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars MA program, where she was awarded the prestigious Elliot Coleman Fellowship. She has also received a fellowship from the Northwestern University Academy for Alternative Journalism. Her writing has appeared in the Chicago Reader, The Village Voice, nymag.com, Paper, Nylon, Gear, Alef, Raygun, spin.com, Flaunt, Bikini, Bidoun, and nerve.com, among others. She currently lives in New York City.

Lance Reynald is the author of the novel Pop Salvation, the sexy, heartbreaking tale of outcasts in search of love and acceptance. Currently available for submission to interested editors, publishers and agents. He can be reached via his website, Lancereynald.com. He is currently at work on his next novel, Your Next Heartbreak Was the Hardest. In addition to Litpark, Lance is a regular contributor at thenervousbreakdown.com. As of December 1st, he is one of Portland,Oregon’s newest literary residents. You can friend him at myspace.

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