Thank you. My approach to my fiction and journalism are entirely different, though I suppose there are inevitable points of comparison regarding style, in particular the sweep and rhythm of language. At The Wall Street Journal, there’s a tradition of long-form features where reporters also had to be fine writers, so I came up in the field reading terrific writing and aspired to do it as well. Thirty years ago, magazines were publishing long-form nonfiction by the likes of Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe. There was no shortage of flash there. Norman Lewis is one of my favorite writers and his reporting, especially from Italy in the World War II years and thereafter, is dry – in the sense that it places fact above flash – but he knows how to set up his points and they arrive with full power. He seemed to strike the balance between journalism and opinion that I prefer, more so than what was called “the new journalism” or Truman Capote’s “nonfiction novel,” as much as I admire “In Cold Blood.”
When I look back some of the columns I’ve written for the Journal – I’ve been preparing an anthology – I can tell which ones I wrote when I was also writing a novel – as opposed to researching or editing and re-editing and re-re-editing various drafts of a novel. The language is more fluid and in service of an emotional connection. That’s not necessary a plus: My column is about 800 words and I need to get right to it for busy readers. But every once in a while it works to keep things fresh.
2- Which form of writing is more satisfying? Fiction or nonfiction?
I enjoy both quite a bit. I’m one of those lucky writers: I love to write; and I find all kinds of writing satisfying. It was difficult for me to learn how to utilize the novel as a form – I don’t think I fully understood it until “Narrows Gate,” which was my sixth published novel. Journalism came a little bit easier. I had a bit of a voice as a young writer and by the time I began to write for the Journal, I was surrounded by reporters and editors who were the best in their field. They helped me improve. To be in their company, I had to strive for excellence. If I had to choose, I’d say it’s more satisfying to write a successful novel – successful in the sense that the story that emerges organically from setting and is well told in service of the reader – just because it was so hard to raise whatever sense of craft I had to the level of art.
3- The main character in Road to Nowhere and Billboard Man is nameless. Does that offer any more freedom than a named character? Or do you feel that adds more intrigue to the narrative?
Halfway through “Billboard Man,” his real name is revealed. The character who we meet as Sam is disassociated completely from the world in which he lives. His name doesn’t matter: He exists, but doesn’t live. Over the course of the two books, he is moving inexorably toward recovering his self, even if he believes he can’t or doesn’t want to, so it was inevitable that he’d be Donnie Bliss again. By the way, there’s a bit of a logic at work in the aliases he chooses. Just a little foreshadowing.
4- Road to Nowhere is set in Chicago and Billboard Man starts in Arizona. Since you live on the east coast, how did you choose these locations as the setting for your books?
I wanted to give Sam a sense of dislocation so I chose places that I’d visited, but didn’t know all that well. As a journalist, I travel often. I arrive in a city, stay a day or two, talk to a few people, walk around a bit, take in the atmosphere, make notes and do my story. If I have a visceral reaction to the city, I can recall it for my fiction. For example, the town of Jerome, Arizona – which is where “Billboard Man” begins – is home to the vineyard and wine shop of Maynard James Keenan, the singer in Tool and A Perfect Circle. We spent a nice day together in Jerome. I’d been there before, but to have Maynard as a guide was special. I thought I’d revisit it in a novel. I would be writing from a perspective that was slightly surreal, not unpleasant and yet alien. Then the story moves to Memphis, a city I don’t know as well as I should. But I thought maybe it was time to put some music in one of my novels. Several key scenes take place in or near Sun Studios, which is where Elvis and Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison and Jerry Lee Lewis made so many of their hits. I guess the point there, however subliminal, is the past is a thing you can’t escape.
With Chicago, I always feel a bit lost there. Those big buildings on Michigan Avenue, the El and the lake: They don’t really care if I’m there or not. I wanted “Road to Nowhere,” the first Sam book, when he was just emerging from his darkness, to ring with that sense of alienation.
5- With the reduction of paper books and bookstore signings, how does digital publishing change how you market your work? Or does it?
It does. Very much so. I miss working with the owners and staff at independent bookstores, and I miss talking to readers. In the six years it took me to write and publish “Narrows Gate,” I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed the experience of coming into a town, visiting the staff at the bookstore, doing a reading – though I’m a dreadful reader of my own work – and then spending time with readers. I loathe the idea of author as celebrity, but I have to confess that getting good feedback from smart readers feels a bit like a reward for the effort of writing the book.
In a sense, I’m conflicted about the new world of publishing because I don’t really care about delivery systems – for me, a book isn’t paper and ink. It’s a story by an author written for readers. I like the immediacy of downloading, and I can use social media and my mailing list to alert people to when there’s a good discount on one of my books on Amazon.com. But I’m the kind of author who really profits from hand-selling. My books aren’t for everyone, just as my column isn’t for everyone. Independent book sellers have been very good to me and I believe the sales of “Road to Nowhere” and “Billboard Man” have suffered because I haven’t made it possible for those book sellers to introduce the books to their customers who they know would enjoy them. I have to do something about that.