# Please introduce yourself and your book!
I’m the author of the novel Down in the River (Slant, 2014). This book received some attention when it was published, and it enjoyed a kind writeup in the May/June 2021 Poets & Writers (“The Thousand Pages”).
The novel explores the grief and mental fissure of a teenage boy, Lyle, after he loses his twin sister. Lyle, his older brother, Craig, and their mom have moved from the Idaho mountains to Eugene, OR. A good-hearted but misguided man, Craig has forbidden him to speak his sister’s name, Lila. One night, very mixed up after chucking his meds for a week, Lyle carries his suffering out to the night and robs a mausoleum, an action that haunts the entire book. In his adventure he takes up with a Latina girl, named Rosa, who learns in increments what Lyle has done.
I was heartened by how many readers and reviewers felt that Lyle is sympathetic despite his terrible action. I worked hard to make Lyle more human than monstrous. I didn’t want him to be far away from the reader, but close up, real. He’s not some weirdo with hair in his eyes cackling on the edge of violence. He’s a good, gentle kid who is troubled and needs help.
Below are the first (2014) and second (2018) editions of the novel.
# How do you deal with creative block?
If I can’t write, I sit in the chair anyway. Then I will at least think about the book I’m trying to write. If I let myself go to the beach or the coffee shop during writing time, I’ll start bad habits. Even when the thought of writing is dreadful and unpleasant, I tell myself that all I have to do is sit in the chair. More often than not, I’ll end up doing a little writing on a chair-bound morning.
# What are the biggest mistakes you can make in a book?
Often they are ones I’ve made or might make. One mistake I have seen a lot is to have a cool protagonist and a very uncool authority figure in a scene. The young rebel schools Mom and Dad on how lame corporate life is, for example. The problem is that the author is writing too close to his or her identity, and not going deeper to find the cracks in the protagonist’s persona. Mom and Dad might in fact be irritating, but they could be more sympathetic than the writer believed at first. Similarly, the cool kid could be more flawed. If his arrogance is his flaw, then that flaw needs to be set up and buttressed so we can understand it.
There are many compelling arrogant protagonists, such as Raskolnikov in Crime and Punishment. He compares his own greatness to Napoleon’s. But this successful ego-driven protagonist is great only because his pronouncements about himself are always wrong.
Other mistakes come to mind. One of the worst is to write to the doxa of the moment, whether left or right. Some 19th century and early 20th century authors found it necessary to write in constant charitable sympathy to every house mouse encountered. I imagine they felt they had to write like that to get noticed. But Virginia Woolf didn’t write like that. A literary author, she was reaching after something far greater than popularity or even conventional publication.
# How do bad reviews and negative feedback affect you and how do you deal with them?
The worst review I ever had was frustrating, especially because it was inaccurate on so many basic plot levels. The reviewer writes that my protagonist, Lyle, was carrying around a rotting corpse in his backpack, and asks why parents and friends didn’t smell it. The body is actually a soap mummy, long deceased but preserved in the moist Northwest climate. In fact, there is no smell. It says so in the book. He writes that Lyle’s sister had jumped off a bridge. Not true. I asked the editor to request a rewrite of that review to fix myriad errors, and he did so. I do respect a bad review when the reviewer seems to have read the book.
Negative feedback is a different story—it’s often fruitful. A writer friend gave me a very tough critique of a book draft recently. He happens to be a sharp reader who bases his critique in craft. He liked the opening and the close of my book, but said the middle was treading water, the characters taking the same kinds of actions again and again, and nothing was advancing. Right away I knew he was on to something. Fixing it would require heavy labor. It was painful, his words scalded my back, but I had to take it.
Those harsh, capable critiques are a godsend. I know people who can never hear rough criticism. When writers habitually resist good advice, it usually means they have gone as far as they can go, and ought to give law school a try.
# What were the best, worst and most surprising things you encountered during the entire process of completing your book(s)?
About two years into writing Down in the River, I found there was too much Hemingway in my lines. I love Hemingway, but I didn’t want to publish my novel as an imitator of his work. So I picked up Cormac McCarthy again to clean out the obvious Hem influence. During one complete draft of my novel, I read or reread all of McCarthy’s novels.
Then later, I had to clean out the McCarthy so that my own prose would come through. I spent two more years revising and rewriting, trying to make each line my own. It took five years to write the book, all told.
But Hemingway and McCarthy were terrific teachers. As I was temporarily possessed by their styles, I learned a great deal. And you can still find lines in my novel that resemble their writing. That’s good too. I’m always suspicious of writers who seem to have no influences.
# What role do emotions play in creativity?
I enjoy the giddy moods and wild rides of creativity, and I endure the darker days. But I feel it’s the writer’s job to tend to character emotions first, to ensure that they are believable as human creations, and that’s extremely difficult work. It requires fierce concentration over years, with much starting over and trying again. Characters have their own trajectories to follow, their own urgencies to bear. Authors’ moods shouldn’t get in the way.
That said, all manner of life emotion, hard emotion, is essential to the novelist. Even the day-to-day troubles we encounter can be used as material. A close friend of twenty years, for instance, announces that you are forbidden to discuss anything too painful or difficult with him. It’s a lonely feeling, to say the least, but it’s ultimately useful. Almost anything that’s painful is good for a writer eventually.
# Do you have any creativity tricks?
The writer’s persona is important to locate—especially the romantic role that allows us to persist in our calling. It’s hard to keep the flame high. What I do is read a great book about the creative life, such as Tropic of Cancer, A Season in Hell, Reading Like a Writer, Touched with Fire, Letters to a Young Contrarian, A Room of One’s Own, A Moveable Feast, Fear and Loathing at Rolling Stone.
The works of Hunter S. Thompson are exciting, the way they bring so much warped, risky honesty that might push us to our own bold truth-telling. Lastly, James Baldwin leads to the artistic life on every page he wrote. Reading Giovanni’s Room always makes me feverish to get to work.
# Tell us some quirky facts about yourself.
I think about jobs a lot—good ones and bad ones—and I often prefer work that is considered low. When I lived in Cincinnati two years ago, I worked on a barge in the river, beneath a high cliff. My job was to hold steady a short “fence” that had four cannon-like pieces attached to it. The forklift driver lifted steel spools, each two thousand pounds, and pushed them onto the cannons. When the cannons were laden with spools, a crane lifted this monster, turning in the sky directly above. It was dizzying work in the heat. When the crane lifted the spools, workers in the barge had a break to drink water and hope the load wouldn’t fall.
On other days we cleaned up the shop and smoked on break, sometimes while a freight train passed on the bridge nearby. The owner traveled the grounds on his tractor and yelled at workers often. He was a watcher. He told us he had seen us commit many infractions. I had a good feeling there—a good/bad feeling. I felt alive, quick in the mind. The operation seemed normal on the surface, but perhaps concealing something dreadful below. I recently wrote a chapter based on that hellish and highly interesting outfit.
Near that time, a Prudential office invited me to work for them. They’d found my resume online. I passed the tests and interviews, but soon enough learned it wasn’t my kind of place. Instead, I went to work at a French company where I examined medical products at a big lighted desk. I worked with ten other people in a warehouse. The light coming in the high windows made pleasant shapes on the wood floor. We worked slowly and chatted as we pleased. The managers scolded us only for failing to take the frequent “eye breaks.” Still, I missed teaching, and wanted to get back to it. A New Jersey college told me they had a position opening up.
Though I love teaching sometimes, I find it unfortunate that most writers now want to live in academia. In the 40s and 50s, a lot of writers listed their jobs on their dustjackets or mentioned their unusual labor in interviews. Before Henry Miller moved to Europe at age forty, he had been a streetcar conductor, a newspaper editor, and an employment manager. At some point between jobs, he sold candy in the street. He moved through so many experiences, meeting vivid characters the whole way.
Over the past few years, I’ve worked many jobs in addition to my work on the barge: I taught comp and literature at Ramapo College in New Jersey; pushed tall, heavy carts in a shrieking industrial hanger at the Pittsburgh Post Office; worked on a maintenance crew at a university; and processed new claims in the Oregon Employment Department during Covid. Those were all worthwhile for their intensity and strangeness, and gave me insights into people I wouldn’t have had otherwise.
In general, I enjoy the mix of blue-collar work and adjunct teaching. The only thing I dread is doing the same damned thing for too long.