My most excellent colleague and friend Jill Talbot tagged me in this meme, "The Next Big Thing," which asks writers to reflect on work that they've recently finished or that they're working on now. The deal is, you're supposed to answer these questions, then pass the thing along by tagging five other people. I... uh... couldn't find anyone else who would agree to be tagged. So I broke the chain. Sorry. I suck.
Still, Jill is awesome. You can find information about her books (Metawriting: Towards a Theory of Nonfiction, The Art of Friction: Where (Non)fictions Come Together, and Loaded: Women and Addiction) here. You can find her answers to these questions here.
What is your working title of your book (or story)?
I’ve got two book projects going on right now—one is the essay collection that I’ve been working on for, like, years—that’s called Cells, at this point. The newer project is a mixed-genre collection co-authored with Emily Isaacson called The Heretic in Exile.
Where did the idea come from for the book?
Cells began life as my dissertation, a memoir about having had cancer. But since then, it’s mutated into something else—an essay collection that’s concerned more with relationships among people, about trying to develop the capacity to love the world and those who inhabit it. As I get older, I become more of a recluse and a curmudgeon, so “loving thy neighbor” doesn’t come easily for me. But it’s important to keep in mind our common humanity—particularly when other people are being hateful or annoying.
The Heretic in Exile began with my wife and me talking about our own long distance relationship. She’s living in North Carolina this year, in the house we’ve lived in together for the past several years; I’ve taken a job in upstate New York-- basically, our jobs compelled us to live apart. For a variety of reasons, this was the right thing to do, but she and I have missed each other terribly. Anyway, this book is about love too, but it’s also about loneliness, and thinking about how and why we share a life together. Emily and I decided that the best thing we could do, while physically separated from each other, is to turn this pain and sadness into something that’s, hopefully, beautiful.
What genre does your book fall under?
Cells is an essay collection; creative nonfiction. Heretic is a mixed bag—Emily has written several poems and has taken several photographs, I’ve written a few essays, a short story, and a short play.
Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
I’m not sure either of these projects would really be filmable, although with Cells, I could imagine someone approaching it the way Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini approached American Splendor—actors playing the parts of Harvey Pekar and Joyce Brabner, spliced with footage of the people themselves directly addressing the audience, the way an essayist does.
Who would those actors be? Well, when I was younger—in the 90s—a woman once told me I kinda look like Ethan Hawke. If I’m honest with myself, though, I’m totally aging into Louis C.K. Without the wit.
Stephen Root as my father, definitely—he could basically just play the same character he played on News Radio. My wife kind of looks like Aimee Mann, when she’s wearing her glasses. Plus, Aimee Mann is awesome. Although she is almost twenty years older than my wife.
I don’t know who would play my mom. How about Glenn Close? She’s pretty great. Meryl Streep is also awesome in everything.
If someone were to make a movie out of The Heretic in Exile, I think the best approach would be to just make it totally weird and nonsensical. Stop-motion characters reciting poetry while a lonely man catches Bigfoot in a bear trap; animated figures who don’t realize they’ve run over the cliff until they’ve been suspended in midair for several seconds. Maybe puppets interacting with real actors, like Sesame Street After Dark. Although for the short play—where my current miserable slob self meets my cooler, more put-together alter-ego—I’d cast myself as the sullen me and Nirvana’s Krist Novoselic as the me who has it together. I saw some documentary not too long ago about Nirvana, and I was struck by how, as he’s gotten older, he seems like a totally normal, psychologically-healthy guy who is losing his hair and wears sweaters and knows a lot about current events. Like somebody’s dad. And I thought, “That guy’s so cool, he doesn’t even need to try anymore.”
But I think I should probably focus more on finding someone to publish these books first.
What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Cells—“In a series of essays on subjects as diverse as love, marriage, literature, violence, and death, a former cancer patient reflects on his own cynicism and endeavors to become a more patient and tolerant person.”
Heretic—“Two people explore love, anger, and loneliness in a co-authored collection of prose, poetry, and drama; also, Bigfoot is in it.”
Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
Probably neither. I imagine they’ll find a home with a small or university press. Although if you know of anyone who is looking for a co-authored multi-genre meditation on love and loneliness, please send them my way.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
With Cells, I can’t really say. It’s existed in a variety of permutations over the years. Heretic is coming along much more quickly, though—I suspect we’ll have a draft of that one done by the beginning of March. It’s been a lot of fun—if you’re looking for a way to strengthen your relationship, I heartily recommend co-authoring a book about that relationship. Lots of good conversations, and I feel like we understand each other better now than we ever have before.
What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
I think Cells has some stuff in common with Patrick Madden’s Quotidiana, Steven Church’s The Day After The Day After, and Bob Cowser’s Scorekeeping. These are essay collections written by guys of a certain age that all display humor even as they reflect on serious stuff. Although I would say we all approach this stuff differently—Church has a bold, kind of experimental style, whereas Madden is much more of a classicist—a Thoreauvian thinker-on-the-page. My style is definitely influenced heavily by Cowser, who kind of taught me this form, but I think his “voice” is a bit more serious, whereas mine embraces self-effacing humor. I guess what I’m saying is, I see these connections, but I don’t think we’re writing the same stuff by any means.
I don’t know what I’d compare Heretic too. Maybe a really sad Mark Leyner…?
Who or what inspired you to write this book?
The answer to that question would require an essay or two. I’ll simply say that my desire to be a better person than I actually am tends to inspire almost everything I write.
What else about your book might pique the reader's interest?
Well, I mentioned Bigfoot, right? Did I mention that Bigfoot followed the Grateful Dead around the country and has an excellent vegetarian chili recipe? And did I mention that he’s hounded by torch-wielding villagers? And did I mention that the Bigfoot story is semi-autobiographical?
As far as the other book goes, there’s a pretty neat essay about soap operas in it. As well as All-Star Family Feud and William Hazlitt’s “On the Pleasure of Hating.” Some of the essays have been nominated for awards—in fact, one was listed as a Notable Essay of 2005 by Robert Atwan in The Best American Essays 2006.
Okay-- thanks Jill! And what the hell, let's tag Emily Isaacson, if only to see how her answers to these questions differ from mine.
Those of you interested in seeing some of the work we've been producing lately should check out The Pacifica Literary Review, a new-ish magazine that has published my essay "Life on Mars" and Emily's poem "Devil's Race Track" in their online edition.