by Tyler Woodsmall
I was introduced to Craig Clevenger my first semester at Goddard. The recommendation came from a fellow Goddardite, Andrew. This was the nature of the recommendation:
Andrew: You read The Contortionist’s Handbook?
Andrew: You need to. It’s great.
So, I bought the book and finished reading it the same day. I was hooked. I don’t usually read books more than once, but I’ve read this one about six times. Its place on my bookshelf is empty; it stays on my desk for easy access.
In effect, Clevenger’s book has infected and corrupted my temporal lobe, and rereading the book hasn’t served as a cure. I’ve toyed with the idea of having a lobotomy, but I’m not comfortable with the health risks. Clevenger’s forthcoming book is Mother Howl. I’m looking forward to the book hitting the shelves in the near future. I recorded the following phone conversation that I had with Mr. Clevenger:
Tyler Woodsmall: If you hear Christmas music, it’s because I live in a bed-and-breakfast, and there is some strange themed party going on in the living room.
Craig Clevenger: I saw that on your bio. You actually live in a bed-and-breakfast.
TW: So I’m just going to jump right into the questions. Was it a conscious decision to write in the noir genre? Or is that what came out naturally?
CC: I did not consciously decide to write noir. I gravitated to it from a point of pure craftsmanship. I’ve always thought crime writers get the most amount of mileage out of the simplest rules of writing. And if you want to learn plot, setting, character, structure, arch, and all of those things, a really well-done crime novel will have those basic conventions done in a very un-experimental, no-avant-garde kind of way.
Crime novels are executed in a textbook fashion, but that isn’t to say they won’t be surprising or enjoyable.
When I was learning writing, studying in a lot of workshops and reading books, the closest you got to craft was detailed discussions of character and motivation. Plot, in terms of prose in fictions circles, was considered a dirty word. And anybody with highbrow aspirations didn’t discuss plot; that was for beach reads. I really just think that’s a shame. So I learned about the mechanics of plot from crime novels.
On a personal level, it just reflected the world I knew. I won’t get too personal here, but I spent most of my childhood after Texas growing up in Orange County, California, which is the embarrassing suburban bedroom community. And I went to Catholic school. So on the surface, the life I had seemed to be very middle America, right out of the sitcoms. But in fact, what I knew to be true was a lot different from that. I read science fiction to escape. Then when I read James Cain and Jim Thompson, I knew what I was escaping from. That was the world that I knew. The idea that something ugly is brewing beneath June Cleaver’s sink was something I responded to.
TW: So back to the plot-and-structure statement. Do you think that is why both of your books have been optioned? Because they have a clear plot and structure?
CC: I hadn’t thought about any of those reasons. I suppose. I’m not a screenwriter. I’ve tried screenwriting; it makes my head hurt. I’d like to try it again, maybe someday. Haven’t really thought about it, to be honest.
TW: You have one film that’s been made [Dermaphoria], and The Contortionist’s Handbook has been optioned a couple of times. Are you involved with the scriptwriting process?
CC: I haven’t really been involved. For the first Handbook script, the studio asked for my notes on the script. And the notes I gave them pretty well excoriated the script. I just did not like it at all. They bought my story, not my opinion. But they did ask for my opinion, so I wasn’t speaking out of turn. In my notes, I said, “I’m willing to bet this will be the last time I ever hear from you.” And I was right.
The Handbook has been optioned again. I had a very nice meeting with that director. The director has been very receptive and wanted to know why I wasn’t happy with the original script. It’s a very long process. It’ll be under option for a while before it turns into film.
TW: I’m curious to know what your favorite films are.
CC: The 90/120-minute cinema has kind of lost its luster in the last decade. There have been a few brilliant ones that have come out. But my favorite films are David Lynch’s Blue Velvet and anything by the Cohen brothers—Barton Fink in particular. That one is my favorite. Barton’s room number 621 pops up in my fiction now and then. Dermaphoria all took place in room 621.
Sean Penn’s The Indian Runner is also great. The most recent one that left me slack-jawed and speechless was Birdman.
TW: Good choices. You don’t hear a lot of people talk about The Indian Runner.
CC: Oh, you know it?
TW: Oh, yeah. I’m going to segue abruptly here with this next question. Do you think that there is a difference between literary and genre fiction?
CC: I think there is a difference between genre and non-genre fiction. Even though my stuff is definitely influenced by noir, I consider it mainstream literary fiction. As in “no genre.” I think the distinction between genre and literary fiction is, by and large, arbitrary and unfair. To both parties. More unfair to genre writers than anything else. Watching the inconsistencies with which exceptions are made kind of shows how artificial or even hypocritical that distinction is. It is really a loss for people who want to read capital-L literary fiction. [Craig uses fancy voice.] They are missing out on some really good stuff.
When you start drawing the lines between literary fiction and genre fiction, the default is, you know, dudes like me. And I like me. But there are other voices out there and other perspectives.
Scott Heim is a wonderful writer. I met him briefly. HHe is a lovely dude. Had his books not been on a face-up literary table and shelved in “Gay and Lesbian Fiction,” I never would’ve seen them. So when we start saying “literary” and “genre,” that is a dangerous default. For reasons beyond just dismissing science fiction. That default of “literary” is exclusionary even in the mainstream reading community. Does that make sense?
TW: That makes perfect sense. I’m going to jump subjects on you. In The Contortionist’s Handbook, your book has a lot of specifics for a psychiatric evaluation of a drug overdose. The book is filled with information on how a psychiatrist determines if the patient is “safe” or “suicidal.” How did you go about researching that?
CC: That was, frighteningly enough, one of the easier things I was able to figure out. To qualify, even though I researched specific psychological techniques, a lot of what is in the book is of my own invention. So anyone who uses The Handbook in a literal fashion is in trouble.
I just thought that the psychological diagnosis of a character was a cool spine for a novel. The psychiatric interview was natural. It isn’t the first time it has been done. But I’ll be honest. I found the information on a bookshelf in a bookstore, a big textbook in the psychiatry and self-help section called Basic Psychiatric Diagnosis.
I read through the book and laid out interview questions on index cards that a psychiatrist might ask a patient. I had it vetted by one psychiatrist and then a friend of mine who was pursuing a doctorate in psychiatry. They both said it was pretty accurate.
TW: Where does this dark writing come from?
CC: If you’re talking about the style in The Handbook, that came organically. If I had to pin two writers together, I would say Andrew Vachss, because of this book he wrote called Shella, which is phenomenal, and then James Ellroy and his book White Jazz.
Those things alone were not the ways I would always write. But given that I was writing a book from the perspective of a cocaine addict, I wanted to stay in his head and sustain that mania for as long as possible.
TW: Side note … you and I share a favorite book: Kiss Me, Judas.
CC: Yeah, I’ll tell you a story about that author, Will Christopher Baer. After The Handbook came out, there was a coffee shop I would go to. I gave the manager of the coffee shop a copy of my book. And then the manager asked if I liked a writer called Will Christopher Baer. I said, “Yeah I’m a huge fan.” The manager said, “He used to work here.” So it turned out I was writing The Handbook like twenty feet away from the guy. And neither one of us ever knew it. So that is how we met.
TW: That’s crazy.
CC: We met at a bar. We had the same car; our birthdays are a week apart. Both of us dressed exactly the same way, both have forearm tattoos. I lost touch with him, and I miss him dearly.
TW: You went to CSU–Long Beach. Do you think college developed your skill as a writer?
CC: Absolutely. I don’t know if it necessitates college. I had one writer who told me flat out that college was a mistake. But there is no substitute for reading and writing if you want to be a writer.
I never got my degree from Cal State. I fell a few credits shy and never bothered chasing them down to get that BA. I had taken all the English classes and workshop classes I could. And I figured the certificate wasn’t going to make me a writer. It’s doing the work.
The advantage to college in particular, if you have the funding and don’t have to work, is to just be free to read, study, and be creative. I don’t think it is absolutely necessary. I say that knowing the current economic divide we have in this country. Not having an MFA hasn’t hurt me at all. Devoting time to the craft is better than any degree.
TW: What are you currently reading right now?
CC: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins. I’m making an effort to read people outside my comfort zone. I’ve been focusing a lot on female writers lately.
TW: Do you have a method for getting a novel on the page?
CC: My method has changed over the years and with each book. I know I do my best work during the best part of the day. I won’t say morning, because I’m not always up that part of the day. I have a finite amount of brain juice to get me through the day, so I want to make sure I use it productively for whatever I’m writing. And if there isn’t enough left over to navigate traffic or pick out a pair of socks, so be it. I don’t like working in coffee shops or being seen writing. I’d hate being that guy.
CC: (laughs) That said, I also know that being isolated or blocked in isn’t healthy for the long term. And not communing with the world doesn’t make me a better writer.
TW: I don’t know how much you can tell me about it, but I’m excited for your new book, Mother Howl. You said you’ve evolved since your first book [The Contortionist’s Handbook]. Are we going to be seeing a different evolution from the last book you wrote [Dermaphoria]?
CC: Yeah, I finished Mother Howl over a year ago. And I spent a while shopping it to agents. I finally have an agent. I did a couple of rewrites on the book, and my agent has been circulating the manuscript. There’s been some interest, but big publishing houses usually go dark around the holidays. So I’m learning to be patient.
It’s a different book. I’ve just turned 51. My last book was a decade ago, and that was written with the last vestiges of my angry young man from my late twenties and thirties. I have a much different worldview now. That isn’t to say my stuff won’t get dark. It’s a very different story. It isn’t a noir story. It’s written in the third person, and it is two interwoven storylines. I’m not very good at summarizing plots because I spend so much time doing the opposite.
I think the best indicator is a short I wrote on Rumpus called “Vapor Trail.” That is very dark. It is told from the point of view of a very old man reminiscing about his life. So I’d like to think I’m breaking out into different types of stories and narrators. Having crossed the age-fifty threshold, my worldview has softened a bit.
It’s easy to be an angry young man when you’re a white male living in the richest state in the country. And then, when you get old, you realize how good you have it. And hopefully, you learn some empathy along the way instead of entitlement. Pardon me. I just turned 51, so I’m feeling very reflective these days.
TW: I keep jumping subjects on you here, but I wanted to ask about your publisher. Or should I say your previous publisher. [MacAdam/Cage went out of business in 2014.] How has the process of finding the right hands for your new book been?
CC: That was simply a matter of just getting an agent. With MacAdam/Cage, I didn’t have an agent. I should have. I feel I have a moral obligation to tell writers to get agents. If it’s good enough for a publisher, it is good enough for an agent.
If a publisher says they just want to work with writers and not agents, that’s a red flag. A writer not having an agent only serves the publisher’s best interest. An agent is there to safeguard a writer’s interest, even if it’s for just small presses. At least having someone vet things for you.
If I’d had an agent, I wouldn’t have been dragged down in the MacAdam/Cage muck.
TW: Last question. Any suggestions for young writers?
CC: The landscape for writers starting out has changed radically. It is the stuff of science fiction. Now there are so many respectable venues for having your work online, I wouldn’t know where to begin.
My only piece of advice for writers is this. Write everything like it is your last. Don’t plan your portfolio. Write like this story is the last thing you will put on paper. If it is important enough for you to do on your own, with no guarantee of money, then do it. And don’t think about the next thing until you’re done with what you’re working on.
TW: Thanks so much for doing this. I hope I didn’t keep you too long
CC: No, I don’t have any plans. After this, I’m going to grab a cat and watch Netflix.
Keep an eye on the Duende twitter account to find out when "Mother Howl" hits shelves in bookstores!