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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.

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Question of the Month: Hero

by Susan Henderson on July 6, 2009

Who’s your hero?

And bless all of you who want to tell me about your moms, but try to keep your answers to public figures.

Wednesday, Lance Reynald will be here to talk about heroes, freaks, art, music, and his debut novel, POP SALVATION. Don’t you dare miss it!

litpark susan henderson lance reynald joseph papa in times square

Here, by the way, is a photo of me and Lance (and a little piece of Joseph Papa in light blue) last week in Times Square. Photo by director and screenwriter extraordinaire, Kimberly Wetherell.

One last thing. Want free stuff? My pal John Griswold (Oronte Churm on McSweeney’s) has something for you right here.

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Lac Su

by Susan Henderson on May 6, 2009

Lac Su left his homeland of Vietnam under gunfire, and at age five, began his life in America in an apartment teeming with drugs and prostitutes. His memoir, I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE*, tells the story of his search for a sense of worth and belonging from a violent father and local gangs. It’s a harrowing story, but told with heart, humor, and wisdom. I’m glad to have Lac here to discuss his book, and I hope you’ll leave him a comment at the end of the interview.

*LitPark encourages you to buy books from your local independent bookstore. Click here to find the store closest to you.

~

Your wife was pregnant with your first child when you decided to write this book. Talk to me about what it’s like to have the pain from the past collide with your hopes for the future.

It feels like I’m running in place, like someone fashioned a rope around a boulder and tied the other end to my waist. The only way I can break free from this rock is to cut the rope. The only way I can do this is to face my past, come to terms with the baggage I’ve been carrying with me for so long and learn from it. Writing I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE—plus therapy—helped. I sought therapy for the first time in my life while writing the book.

I was half way through the third chapter when reliving my childhood turmoil became unbearable. Gentleman Jack found his way onto the table beside my computer during my late night writing sessions. The book was dragging me back into a dark place where I didn’t want to go. I tried to convince myself that my life was different now. My hard work was beginning to bear fruit—all the blessings that would make a man feel content with life. But my soul had not rest. Unresolved issues left me like an agoraphobic trapped inside his home; he looks out the window, sees a beautiful spring day, but is unable to set foot outside and enjoy it. It was dangerous and unhealthy to continue living this way.

So, I tried therapy. The biggest thing therapy taught me was that I’d been living my life in denial. I always figured if I didn’t think about my past, it would just go away. But on a subconscious level, old memories that were out of sight and out of mind affected me far more than I realized. The embers of pain were still smoldering deep inside me.

“Please make him smarter so he doesn’t have to endure any more beatings. That’s all we ask, great ancestor of ours.” She looks desperate and distressed. I try to make her feel better by staring straight down at my paper, with my pencil poised. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 63)

You were raised by a survivalist—a father wanted by the communists, who once had to eat insects and tree bark to stay alive. How did his perspective on the world shape you?

My world still revolves around this tiny man. In spite of 25 years of bad health, he’s still alive and kicking. He’s even smaller now—doesn’t stand more than 4’ 8”. He molded and shaped the man I’ve become. It was in college that I first began to challenge his perspective on life. College taught me a lot of things that contradicted what my old man had plastered onto me through the years. At first, I didn’t trust what the professors or books were telling me—they were all lies. I remember reading in a child development class about the importance of demonstrating affection. In my father’s house, I love yous are for white people.

My father is a hard man; he’s lived through a lot. Many of his lessons contain grains of truth, as long as you can sift through the twisted parts. Let’s see…a perfect example of this is in the Alhambra chapter when he decided as a 13-year old it was important that I know that, “Money and women are the two most wicked things in the world. The sanest person you know will become lost and irrational the moment he sees cash or smells pussy.”

I walk into the kitchen to tell Pa I’m home. The four beating sticks on the table are various sizes and shapes. One of them is new—a three-foot section of eucalyptus tree branch that’s a good inch thick. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 194)

Talk to me about what it’s like to live in a country when you don’t understand the language or the culture.

Overall, it was a fun experience. The confusion and frustration that I carried bred curiosity, which forced me to look for answers. My parents didn’t provide answers for me, so I had a lot to figure out on my own. People-watching is still a favorite pastime. As a kid, I would sit by the window or on my porch and just absorb the happenings of street life. It was the 1980s in Los Angeles—there was never a dull moment on Sunset Blvd.

English was my fourth language. My father spoke two Chinese dialects to me, and my mother spoke to me only in Vietnamese. I had friends who spoke Armenian, Swahili, Spanish, Spanglish, and Ebonics. Yes, it was perplexing at times. I learned quickly to read body language. Sometimes, words that I understood didn’t have to fall from my friends’ mouths for me to know what they were saying.

Our trips in Pa’s little red Chevette are conducted in the bike lane on the far right side of the road. They are marred by a merciless barrage of honking cars. Pa yells and curses back at them, convinced that he’s done no wrong. He stops every few blocks to check his map—a tattered little number that’s dotted in the red ink he uses to earmark the route. Pa can’t read the English street signs, so the map isn’t much help. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 134)

So much of what’s happened to you is devastating. But there’s a surprising sense of humor in this book (albeit bittersweet)—a little boy chewing on thrown away condoms, the inevitable teasing of Phat Bich, scamming the YMCA Santa, and your uncles—just having emigrated to the U.S.—breaking the necks of geese down at the local park and bringing them home for a feast. When did you start to find the humor in your story?

I started to see the humor in these stories when sharing them with a white friend of mine. As I said before, many of these events I’d never shared with anyone, but as I was writing my memoir I had a friend I’d tell the stories to, just to see what he thought of them. I actually found it funny the way he thought my stories were funny. I find that when you put people from different cultures into one place, you will often get a humorous, dynamic, and irreverent exchange. I hope I was successful in capturing this in my book.

Finally, Ma comes to the table with the main course, a huge glass dish holding the roasted geese. The birds’ heads are still attached, and the birds are so large that their necks hang down over the side of the tray. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 210)

You were taking your family’s food stamps, selling them for well below their value, and also stealing money, and this resulted in a brutal and humiliating punishment. But it’s the reason for the stealing that’s so utterly devastating—to try to buy friendship from someone who gives nothing back. If you found a kid today who felt worthless, hopeless, without a sense of belonging or purpose, what do you think might make a difference to him?

I’d write the kid a letter—a letter that I wish someone would have written to me when I was that kid.

Dear Kid,

The world is not like what you see on television. Things don’t always turn out OK. Real people sometimes feel lost, hopeless, and sad. The pain you feel makes you real. I think you would have a bigger problem if you weren’t feeling what you’re feeling under the circumstances. The psychology books call these people “crazy.” So, be glad you’re not crazy. There are reasons why you feel this way; don’t ignore them.

How much do you hate your life right now? I ask because the feelings weighing you down will remain if you don’t do something about what is causing them. What can I do about them, you ask? There are two important things for you to do:

1. Surround yourself with smart people. I mean really smart people. Learn from them. Soak up everything they have to teach you. Ask them a bunch of questions.

2. Keep these three phrases on the tip of your tongue: “I am sorry.” “Will you teach me?” and “Thank you.” There’s actually another phrase to hold close, but you can’t use this one unless you really mean it. When you do, you better damn use it: “I love you.”

Good luck, kid. You can turn your T.V. back on. Actually, turn off that T.V. and read a book.

Love,

Lac

“Do you remember how to get back to where we were, Big Head?” Pa asks.
“No.”
“Why didn’t you keep track?”
“Because I’m sleepy.”
….”We’re almost there at the old trash bins. You know how I know?”
“No.”
“Because of that big number eighteen on that wall. That’s how I get around. Remember things that pop out at you. Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, Pa.”
“Okay, now you can walk home alone without me. I’m leaving you now.” (pp. 38-9)

You joined a gang when you were a teenager, and I was very, I don’t know, I think the word might be touched to find out it was a graffiti art gang, and all these little thugs had sketchbooks. What’s the connection for you between art and healing?

The beauty of art is that you can dump your negative energy into a medium and make it beautiful. It’s called “channeling”, I think. I understand how the most tortured and grieved writers and painters can create such beautiful masterpieces. When you look at a Van Gogh or Pollack, those intricate scribbles, patterns, and colors come from somewhere. Writers, like painters, tell stories with emotion. For a long time, I had a lot of negative emotions that I kept bottled up inside. Being able to release these bad vibes and make art out of it is soothing. Art says things that you’re unable to otherwise express. Writing is cathartic, and you hope that someone will connect with your art. For someone to say, “I know what that’s like,” serves as a form of healing for me.

My newborn brother never made it home from the hospital. The doctors said the Raid was the culprit. The crib that Pa pulled from the Dumpster—and was so careful to fix and polish to perfection—sat in our apartment collecting dust for nearly two years, until the day that Vinnie came home. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 74)

The scene of you rubbing Tiger Balm on the wounds you gave your little sister was a really pivotal moment in the book—a wake-up call that you didn’t want to become what you hated. But where does all that rage that was inflicted on you get released? How does your mind find peace when you carry such memories of fear and shame?

There are two things available to me: a quick fix and life-time maintenance. When I was younger, I wrote poems and drew pictures. These days, I paint and garden. Music has always been soothing. These are quick fixes—a bandage to cover my pain. (This is a great question, Susan. I’ve never really thought about this.) For the long haul, the way I heal and reconcile my past is to love people—and do things differently than what my father did to me.

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