Interview after publication of The Book of Changes, Book Three of The California Quartet, from Coffeetown Press, Catherine Treadgold, Editor
Reading and Writing Addiction Interview Questions
When did you first discover that you were a writer?
I came to the art very late by most standards. I started out as a poet. I worked with Jack Moodey, who wrote Weather of the Mind, and with Thom Gunn who was teaching at Berkeley when I was there. Both of those writers helped me find direction as a writer, both of them showed me the importance of form, structure and—above all else—the power of the rewrite. Later I wrote some short stories and then I launched into the novella. I really like the novella because it’s the perfect form for adapting into a screenplay. It wasn’t until I understood the nature of screenplays that I understood the novel. At that point, I discovered that I was a person who could write long pieces. At that point I discovered that I was a writer.
What is your favorite part of writing?
I’m in love with writing. All aspects of it, all of it, but I find that the art is in the rewrite. I spend a lot of time writing about the writing before I dig into working scenes. That means I write character work, run the plot tracks on the characters and their objects. For example, here is a bit of work on the Boischault plot track in The Book of Changes:
Guy DeBoischault Plot Track
- Node One of DeBoischault’s plot track starts in the Beginning when Beast and Tim arrive at 2314 Dwight Way. After checking out the apartment, Jim reads the mailbox tags. Three women on the first floor (The sets up the scene where Ellie slides down the banister and gets the splinter in her butt causing the women on the First Floor to call the cops), the Black Magnolia (they have seen her in the hallway to the bathroom that she shares with another tenant on the third floor), DeBoischault on the First Floor and the Mad Electrical Engineer on Second Floor. Tim remarks that it’s a weird house because there’s the Black Magnolia and a Frenchman.
- Node Two comes when Beast meets DeBoischault in his French class (Beast has to take French so he can learn to read Raoul de Cambrai and the other epics in Old French—that’s his goal) and they walk home together. Turning into the driveway, they have a laugh. They both live at 2314 Dwight Way.
- Node Three comes when Beast meets Ariane, pregnant, in the apartment where he sees her books, thousands of books. (This sets up the end when DeBoischault burns her books after Baby Mark dies and she betrays him with Pete).
- Node Four comes when DeBoischault rants about the French teacher, tells beast his name comes from a Fourteenth Century Knight who fought in the Hundred Years War. One of his ancestors had seen Joan of Arc. Beast is captivated. Here is someone with roots in the Middle Ages.
By writing this kind of work, I get a feeling for the movement of a character through the story. I do this for every character—not just the protagonist or antagonist. I work on the principle that every character has to be strong enough to be the main character in your next book. This is something I picked up from Ellen Gilchrist. That way you don’t end up with a bunch of flat characters.
What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing?
When I lead workshops or give talks on writing I joke that writers have just three problems: How to start, how to keep going, how to finish. If you solve those three issues, you’ve got it made. In a roomful of writers, that usually gets a laugh. Then I get serious—the most challenging aspect of writing is learning to take the time. Most writers are in a big rush to get published and so they let the work go too soon. It then comes back at them—all those story holes, all those weak characters, all the bad sentences—and they feel terrible. Once writers master the need to be loved—which means getting the work out so people will read it, review it and tell them how wonderful they are—they can dive into the myth and bring back powerful tales with teeth and lasting power. But letting the work go too soon is the nemesis of the writer.
Tell us about your latest release.
The Book of Changes is the third volume in the California Quartet. I structured the Quartet in a different way not by running a string of characters through all four novels, but by aging the archetypes. Volume One of the Quartet, The Deification tracks a young car thief who wants to be poet. He knows nothing about life, and ends up dead. Volume Two, Valley Boy follows a kid from California’s Central Valley on his journey out of the dirt and into the world of music. In Valley Boy the protagonist is at the mercy of the world. He’s an unknowing victim who has to learn the rules and that leads to The Book of Changes in which college kids in a time of radical change, learn the rules of life and how to live. They experience loss and pain on the way to maturity. Trio, the last volume of the Quartet focuses on mature men with flaws but men who know the rules and how to use them. They are all wounded, sometimes catastrophically wounded, but they find ways to work together to solve problems. In a way, the Quartet is a counter-argument to right-wing ideology. A kind of extended socialist tract. I’m not afraid of the word Liberal.
How did you come up with the title of your book?
The Book of Changes refers to the I Ching. Chance enters into the life equation, a throw of the dice, a chance meeting, a sudden appearance of a character and life changes. In this novel, change is a character just as much as any of the named ones. Throughout the novel, each character has to fight his or her way to the light, and some of them die, some of them make it to the end. But in the end, every character is transformed. I divided the novel into two parts: The Book of Changes and The Book of the Dead in order to index the two books of mysticism that most affected my thinking but my editor/publisher had other ideas about that.
Who are some of your favorite authors?
Cormac McCarthy, the novelist. Some of my favored, as opposed to favorite writers are non-fiction writers—CG Jung, Claude Levi-Strauss, CS Peirce. I read those people in order to find out how they see the human mind working. From them I learn not the craft of fiction, but the art of thinking. I learned a long time ago that you do not want to think while you write, but you must first think, then write. I studied French for a while and discovered Nicholas Boileau who wrote an Art Poetique. In that volume, he admonishes writers in this way: Avant d’ecrire, apprenez a penser. Before you write, learn to think. I practice structured timed writing and have discovered that the worst thing I can do to the writing is to think about it when I have a pen in my hand. Hence, question one comes back: write about the writing before you start to write scenes and you won’t have to think, you’ll be too busy writing. If that sounds paradoxical, recall what Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones: Keep the hand moving, don’t cross out, silence the internal editor.
What do you think has influenced your writing style the most?
At Berkeley I took a course in the drama of Jean Racine. The professor spent the entire semester (at that time we still broke the year into two semesters) on the rhetorical devices in Racine’s plays. From that course I learned to respect rhetoric for the wonderful stylistic possibilities it gives the writer. The way I see it, writing is as much about rhythm and cadence as it is about content. From rhetoric, which I still study, I learned about beat and rhythm, about cadence and especially the power of repetition. Repetition, that bugaboo that most writing instructors warn you about. Once you get exposed to rhetoric, your writing style has to change. For example, the Chiasmus, or crossing. You find it in that great speech by JF Kennedy: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” Most people don’t have a name for that structure, but the Greeks did. Chiasmus. So you go from Kennedy to Stephen Stills and you get this: “If you’re not with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” That’s rhetoric. If you learn and practice rhetoric, you come a long way as a writer.
As a writer what is the accomplishment that you are most proud of?
In jest—finishing any book. In fact—learning how to structure, organize, and bring to light a huge tract of writing such as the Quartet. I could not have put those novels together if I hadn’t worked my way up the ladder from short poems to stories to novellas. When I wrote Blood I felt that I had gotten to a kind of writing that had escaped me before. That is a big accomplishment—to transcend your limitations.
How did you get published?
I was first published while in college. Later I wrote stories, one of which appeared in Carolina Quarterly. I wrote a novel called The Stolen House which Jim Villani at Pig Iron Press liked a lot so he decided to publish it. It’s a beginner’s novel, a first novel, not a very good novel, but a novel nonetheless, and as a result of it, I wrote a series of novellas for Pig Iron. A few years later, I connected with Robert J Ray, the mystery novelist, and discovered structured timed writing. That springboarded me into a number of novels that Catherine Treadgold at Coffeetown Press picked up. I owe her a lot for seeing what I was doing and giving me the chance to work with a professional outfit. Catherine is a novelist as well as editor and publisher so she knows how to make a book work. Both Blood and Gabriela and The Widow owe much to Catherine’s fine editor’s eye.
Do you have any advice for writers looking to get published?
Write more than you’ll ever use. Look at the idea I led with: write about the writing. Those early words might never show up in a novel, but they’re your words. It’s a shame that we have to learn to write on our first novel so my advice is—write it, then put it in a drawer and write the next five novels. The more you write, the more you know. The more you know, the better you get. But the downside is this: as you get better, you ask more of yourself and the art and so it never gets any easier. Remember that. Every time you start a new work, you go back to the beginning, but you have the experience and success of your prior work and so you know you can do it. Knowing you can do it helps you Start, helps you keep writing, helps you finish. I have one rule: finish what you start. Always. Finish what you start.