September 5, 2012

Alan Flurry Q&A

His New Novel, Literature and the Writing Life

Recently, before the launch party for his latest novel, we spoke to author Alan Flurry about Cansville and why and how he writes. Here is the interview in its entirety.

Flagpole: Let’s talk a little about the South and writing to get things started. What’s the purpose of the storyteller, and how important is a Southern storytelling style in contemporary literature?

Alan Flurry: The purpose of the storyteller is to share with us life, love, memory and color—local and otherwise. Fred Newman told me a couple of years ago that while other animals make tools, sing and count, humans are storytellers; it’s what we do. Through our stories we relate to each other the experience of our fragile humanity.

The style of Southern storytellers, per se―Eudora Welty, Faulkner, Walker Percy, Penn Warren, Tennessee Williams—was more important to literature in 1960 than it is for us as Southerners now. A Southern literary style today is more about a creolized experience of assimilation and overcoming, one someone is probably having in San Francisco right now. There is still that gentility coursing through us, though unless it is unhitched from the oppression on which it prospered, it's just nostalgia. Literature today is hopefully less about documenting intransigent inequities and more about the triumph of a shared, if uncertain, future.

FP: When do you first start writing?

AF: I went careening through college thinking I was meant for law school. When that plan finally fell apart, I went through a couple of years of wandering/wondering and came out the other side with my first novel idea, along with a couple of other things. But prior to that, I had never considered writing, though even then, like many people, I could have named 40 books that were very important to me.

FP: Do you write very easily?

AF: Routine is of utmost importance. People who write only when the spirit moves them probably don't get a lot accomplished. They may experience some glorious days now and then when they really feel like a writer, but these will be followed by a series of inglorious days where they experience the cliché of writer's block that will convince them otherwise, that can actually kill what you're trying to do. That's just a lack of familiarity with what you're doing. You have to leave yourself a place to begin the next day, something for your subconscious to work on while you're not physically writing. Because it's not the one glorious day that is important; it is days, and weeks and months that are crucial.  That's  what you're doing.

So, I mean it when I say that when you're working, you really never stop. But I do quit at the right time to have a place to start tomorrow, which is always the most important day. And there are discoveries, there has to be. Otherwise, you're some kind of mannerist where you already know what's going to happen and you're just filling in details. That's what crossword puzzles and job applications are for! Writing is very active engagement with what's about to happen in the story, what characters might do. That's how you recognize things they wouldn't say and determine tone when they do speak. These are not craft techniques, though they are often construed as such. The energy that comes from this process of discovery is crucial to powerful writing; I have to be on the front edge of that wave to keep everyone honest, myself including and perhaps foremost. Otherwise, you become guarded about what a character might do or say; you might think your wife or her parents or their neighbors will be embarrassed by something in your story. But you have to escort all of those people out of the room to make way for the story, for it to go where it goes.

With that, I would say it comes pretty easily, because I have learned that the above guidelines work for me, and I stick to them pretty ruthlessly. I expect to get started and move, to inhabit the rhythm of the story myself, which is how it opens up to you. In  Cansville,  I tried to show Toby [the protagonist and narrator] experiencing the madness of this giving himself over to the story of the big house and the consequences that spill out into his life, all as a way of illustrating this reality. He has to do that to find out what happens; his role is equal parts arbiter, medium, servant and master.

FP: What do you like about writing?

AF: In order to write you really must love doing it, and doing it involves a significant amount of thinking about the story you’re writing. So, I’ll admit to liking that. But working on something for several months, keeping it all straight and figuring out what is going to happen is something I really love. It’s fraught with peril: it may not be possible, you may fail, and you have to look out for wrong turns and hope that you recognize them after a couple of days rather than a couple of weeks, without being too afraid to consider them and go down scary paths. You have to love that, though it’s not without its own mental toll. But they say ships are much safer when kept in harbor, too, except that’s not what ships are for.

FP: It looks like you had the luxury of writing it over a two-month period of time in another country. What was that like?

AF: This has been an important part of my writing life from the very beginning, and looking back, I think it was a way to find self-discipline before I really had it. So, yes, I move away from friends, bars and band(s) but not family. My wife Amy and I began moving away for us both to write many years ago: New England, then a farmhouse in France a couple of times, and the last few times it has been Paris. I was very lucky at the beginning to have what one might call patrons—people who believe in your work and will give you places to live—as well as understanding employers who let me go and come back after several months, probably as distant and preoccupied as you can imagine. And then we’ve had to get creative to keep something going that worked for us. But these challenges are merely difficult, and if really you want to go and do your work, you’ll find the ways. Make believers of people, but make one of yourself first. None of our methods have been exactly mystical; they have just worked and allowed me the time, concentration and openness to write.

So, now it’s a built-in part of our life, and also our kids’ lives. Cansville was written in Paris over the course of about seven weeks—perhaps one of our shortest duration trips. We rented a small apartment, and they left me for a few hours each day to work. But we’re living on top of each other, and that’s very helpful, because writing comfits well with living. All the time spent, walking around the city, getting lost in millions of people and then re-establishing your routine with those close to you; it’s a lot like building a story. And over that time, I was really never not working, but also never not being a husband or a dad. So, now these things kind of go together, and when there’s a good story, I make as much of them as I can.

FP: You are very close with [local poet and world-famous translator of the Persian poet Rumi] Coleman Barks. How has this friendship shaped your writing?

AF: In likely immeasurable ways, though our work is quite different. I’ve actually never been one to hang out with writers; my best friends have always been painters and people I play music with. But to have a great soul poet as a confidant has enlightened me on my own work in some surprising ways. He’s a great sounding board, and we can be like comics, trying out new material on each other. And if he cares about your work, he can be an unsparing critic and an unyielding champion. He knows so much about literature, so it’s always good to have someone you can ask certain things. But more importantly, Coleman keeps me in some tension with the mind of the poet, and that it is a mind we all have, though we mostly let this part of us go slack. His lifelong fidelity to the beauty of words as well as to what’s beyond them is precisely how so many can know Rumi though him.

FP: Over the years, what changes have you noticed about your writing?

AF: It’s funny but, outside of hoping it’s continuing to improve, I think I take less credit for my work than I once did. Whereas earlier, when I finished a new novel, I had a great sense of personal accomplishment and ownership of the feat. Now I am much more in awe of a story that simply refused to die, that refused to not live. It’s humbling, and I’m not sure which is better or even if one is. I think it’s age.

FP: What would you like to change about your writing?

AP: I think I’m still early on in this, frankly, and so I just want to continue to have another story, to think of a beginning that needs a middle, then wonder if it is possible, then realized I’ve started again. I think this last one is the simplest, closest-to-the-surface narrative so far, so if I could continue that arc toward simplicity and hinge it with the complexity that I find intriguing about humans and human emotions, then that would be good.

FP: What was your experience like writing Cansvillle?

AF: I took about 10 pages to the Paris third and wrote the rest in about seven weeks. I work every day, ideally from late morning to late afternoon, but keep thinking about it all evening, wake up in the middle of the night with something, then be ready to keep going the next day. Rinse. Repeat. I take about every 10th day off; that’s been a longtime habit. It’s all a construct anyway. But on that day, no working; just leave the apartment, celebrate a birthday, meet some friends, go to a museum, sit in the grass and oh, yeah: think about the story.

FP: Why this novel?

AF: It’s so close to what we do, and I hope it’s not me getting meta. But if you think about what anyone does who makes art, it’s quite easy to actually write about telling a story and the imaginative side of how that unfolds, or doesn’t. Making anything can be brutal, and I like to openly conjecture about art and all that goes into it. So, this character does the same thing, as he is feeling his way through this idea; that there is a difference between understanding something and knowing it. Of course, there is! But he has to experience this as a way of trying to find out how to tell a story he thinks he already knows. Fun! Life lessons!

FP: Flaubert said something like that whatever you invent is true. How does this apply to Cansville?

AF: I have a quote on my wall, and it could be by M. Gustave, as well: “A convincing impossibility is superior to an unconvincing possibility.” It’s been my rule of thumb for years. Never be worried that what you imagine couldn’t happen, only that you’ll make it sound boring. What I can make you believe in this way is merely a question of the powers we are willing to grant each other. Toby isn’t an archetype for a director, who might write a play this way. He is the director who is writing his play this way. And we’re off.

FP: What can writing recover? Did you find anything you had lost in writing this novel?

AF: A sense of humor in my work, and I don’t think I had lost it so much as kept it clear of my work. My novels always seem so serious and grand, and the thematically heavy seem to be the most sexy to me. But this time I remembered that I wanted it to also be funny. Or I didn’t remember that at all and it just happened; take your pick. These things aren’t mutually exclusive.

FP: Cansville succeeds in the places where the theme is not apparent. There are various movements within the novel that make sense within the structure you’ve created, and that includes where the ideas of the novel are apparent. Why did you wish to stress the ideas?

AF: I wanted to be explicit about some things; for instance, art doesn’t care about you or me or our little problems. Art can be meaningful to us because it only cares about one thing: beauty. And it will stop at nothing to get this. And I say this about us individually; I think we can be a bit too careful about what we should be doing and waiting for perfect conditions that never arrive. Just go ahead! The problems you make for yourself are part of your crucible. And they might make you quit, and if they do, you probably should quit. But if you don’t... I’m getting optimistic again. I wanted Toby to weave in and out of that story-as-admonition. Maybe that’s why it needed to be kind of funny, because it’s kind of harsh, and we’re kind of tender and pathetic.

FP: Which characters surprised you? Charlotte and Grey seem like they are flesh and blood. You want more of them? When you were writing the novel what did you find you wanted more of?

AF: When Amy first read the Charlotte character not long after she arrived, she was afraid I was going to turn it all towards her. But I knew I wouldn’t. Still, I was following that character progression with great attention and here, pacing is very important because like a ship out of ballast you can sink the whole thing by paying too much attention to a particular part. The most uncanny thing happened to me while writing that part, and the whole story, that perfectly mimics what Toby experiences as he’s writing his play.

FP: How do you feel about Toby?

AF: He performed more than admirably as a stand-in, and he's probably a lot like me: emphatic, not afraid to try something new nor of what he doesn't know for sure; believable even when he doesn't know, and trusting of forces outside himself. He's kind of a dictator, like you have to be with imaginary people, who otherwise can get very unruly. But he's sensitive and not a wise guy. He has no use for the merely clever. But we're equally dissimilar in many ways as well, and though I don't try to make characters like myself, some of that is just occupational hazard. This one was particularly close to home because I had him trying to tell a story, so he was easy to inhabit in that way. But you have to be on guard for letting any character veer too close to anyone you know, including yourself. So, I was quick to rule out things he said and did on this basis alone. And yet still, like in any good painting you can always pick up the lightest light and the darkest dark, there was a lot of room for him to find himself and discover what he cared about most in the re-telling of The Big House. The Johnson hotel is his perfect home, and I imagine he remained there on the top floor for quite some time if not years, long after The Big House closed its holdover two-month run at the Cansville.

FP: Is Cansville a farce?

AF: All the ways it could be considered farce are undermined by Toby’s genuine affections for his cousin, Virginia. His realizations about longing, home and himself lead the story to a place closer to Thomas Wolfe when he realizes how closed off he is to his most recent past; no matter how successful he is at creating a facsimile of the more distant one.

FP: What are some of your other written works? Is there a fidelity to your writing or all your works different from one another?

AF: All of my books differ from each other in fundamental ways while probably guarding some general, literary similarities. There is a misnomer that novels need and are the product only of great ideas. I've only had two, I think, but have now written three times as many novels. The reason is, you can't wait on great ideas; they are exceedingly rare and you've got to keep working, and sometimes a humble idea can also reveal a strong story. Sometimes all you need is a place to begin that seems like it can hold up to the form. And yes, you must be able to do this even in the face of rejection, which though subjective always feels universal. It's harsh and I don't recommend it - just write a commercial best-seller the first time. But again: there are always reasons to quit, and as I said, if you do you probably should. But if you don't...

My second novel,  Sea of Favors, was my first novel idea and is probably my opus. It's about a painter in semi-rural South Carolina who supports herself with prostitution. The prostitute has allowed the artist in her to flourish but as she comes to a place where she wants to begin to support herself with her painting, the battle of these two seductions ensues. It's very cinematic, with very deeply literary set pieces and lots of sex. It was an ambitious work that was my first idea, one I wasn't ready for at all and so it profited greatly from being the second novel. I wrote most of it in the South of France in eight months; brought back a huge draft with no ending, let it sit for five months while I worked construction and then finished the first complete draft at a farm in Kansas within that year. No publishers wanted it, but I did finally find an agent in L.A. who loved it, someone who really knows literary fiction (she represents the estate of Isak Dinesen) and gave me lots of encouragement. Alas, even she couldn't sell it and it still hasn't been published.

The next is about a fireman on Martha's Vineyard who experiences a crisis of confidence about his public role,  No More Real Fires. It’s a very simple and subtle story that left me wondering for the only time if there was actually enough there; but friends convinced me there was and I moved on. Again, crickets from publishers and agents, along with backhanded compliments on my originality. I know - insulting to us both (them and me).

The second one after  Fires, and just before Cansville is Dark Polska, the story of a reporter for a small town daily in the Midwest who discovers on the book's first page that he has a hitherto unknown to him twin sister. Oh, she's African-American and he's white, Polish-American. This is the other big idea, and it sprawls over two generations and a middle part unknown to the characters in the first and third parts, so by the third section the reader knows more than the protagonists. It also touches on changes in the media landscape that mirror the chaos and confusion in the reporter's personal life, and this provides room for some exposition in the story that has some, many, correlatives in our own culture. But the story is ultimately about this man getting to know his new sister and understanding how to live with the lie that was at the center of his life all along, which changes his view of the person he trusted the most. This one as well, had several publishers and agents hot and bothered but no pants came off. They all seem such an indecisive and frightened herd. I think by this time they were all already searching en masse for YA vampire stories.

So I’ve left out two books here, and not because I don’t like them. The very first is Penumbra, an autobiographical novel, which I think is what a lot of writers start with. It will always be very important to me, your first experience with a form. It was very difficult to do; the book is very literary and overwrought and I probably love it more for what it stands for than for how it reads. Another is Love for Theory, which I referred to as Le IVième (The fourth) for a while. It’s a good idea, a love story centered on the metaphor of quantum electrodynamics; but it kind of got away from me. Once with the kids getting ready to leave for Greece, I drove off from the print shop with a copy of it on the roof of the car and it didn’t blow off, if that tells you anything. I still believe there’s a good feature film script in there somewhere, though I haven’t been able to find it.

Any one of these could have broken out and pulled the others along and I've worked for them all separately, long after they were completed. I'm guilted into it, in a way, because I think they're good; a couple of them, maybe three, are great. My personal satisfaction and sense of accomplishment could not be higher in regard to these works; I simply feel bad for them to be sitting there without an audience, because that's what they're for.

And here's where I have changed course with  Cansville. The publishing landscape has long been in flux, but has changed dynamically with the advent of e-books and tablet readers. After being encouraged by a few people, including by some at the big publishing houses, I decided to go ahead and try it. The launch has been great so far. A far bigger deal than I expected going in and I'm actually enjoying it—maybe because this book has found the light of day, even if it's pixel light you can adjust as desired.

Darin Beasley