by Josh McCall
Q: Fifteen years ago you published your first book, Martin and John. Since then you’ve published two more literary novels, copious amounts of literary criticism, two Young Adult novels, and now Body Surfing, an adult thriller, is due out February 17. Can you talk about your reasons for migrating toward more commercial fiction? Is the change permanent, or do these genre distinctions even matter to you?
A: The genre distinctions matter only inasmuch as I think it’s important to remember what you’re writing and who you’re writing it for. I really enjoy writing children’s books and thrillers, but I don’t feel the need to pretend that it’s high art, or even literary for that matter. I don’t think these kinds of books have to be literary in order to be good, and, in fact, when a writer tries to “improve” a commercial genre by dressing it up in literary clothes, he or she usually ends up producing an awkward, unattractive hybrid. That doesn’t mean commercial fiction has to be stupid or sloppily done (though much of it is). There are great satisfactions to be gleaned from a cleverly manipulated narrative and artificially inflated action sequences and vibrant but definitely two-dimensional characters who get to act out the kinds of impulses—usually sexual or violent—that we usually repress. It’s just not literature, per se.
As for the latter category, I haven’t given up on it at all. I have a nearly completed book of short stories, and I was going to have a literary novel out a little over a year ago but, as happens with increasing frequency these days, the publisher went out of business. It was in fact the second time a publisher had gone out of business with this particular book, and there’s a fairly long recovery period afterwards. New books were already in the pipeline, and you don’t want to end up publishing them on top of each other or they’ll cut into each other’s review space. And, as well, I’ve been toying with the idea of starting a publishing company with some friends to bring out my literary stuff. At least this way if it goes out of business, I’ll have no one to blame but myself.
Q: Does working in these various genres—literary, Young Adult, commercial—challenge you in different ways?
A: You could call them challenges…or you could turn that frown upside down and call them opportunities! I actually think I’ve learned a lot from writing in commercial modes. My plotting has gotten both more intricate and more deft, and I’ve learned how to shorthand certain things without resorting to the kind of postmodern fragmentation I was fond of in my early career. I also think my writing’s a lot funnier when, aesthetically speaking, there’s less at stake, and I hope I can carry that with me when I turn to my next literary novel.
Q: Body Surfing is, primarily, the story of eighteen year old Jasper Van Ardsdale, who has the misfortune to not only die a virgin but to do so while possessed by a malevolent demon. In the world you’ve created, this means that Jasper becomes a demon himself and must then deal with his new, less-than-corporeal existence. He also finds himself enmeshed in a battle—a chase, really—that spans not only the planet, but much of world history. In fact, the book is, in some ways, an imaginative retelling of history. Was it challenging writing a book of such scope? Also, was it difficult describing the actions of beings—demons—who never really have bodies of their own?
A: Body Surfing is a book that surprised me with its imaginative possibilities. When I originally conceived of the premise, I was looking for something that would take the contemporary urge to sexualize every form of commercial entertainment and push it past the realm of bourgeois propriety. But then, as I got into the world, I found the demons to be increasingly compelling and complex, and the ways in which they could be retroactively imagined into world events was sometimes eerily resonant. Look at Leo, for example. He’s born—which is to say, he dies, and is reborn as a demon—during the reign of Nero, when the Roman Empire was at its zenith. But what a strange place it was: on the one hand, so many of the intellectual, political, and artistic constructions that our own society is based on were being developed, but at the same time it was a society constructed around the idea of mass murder as a spectacle, of grotesque indulgences of the fleshly appetites (at least if you had the money for it) and of massively inflated egos—which, when you get down it, is all a Mogran really is.
Q: The concept behind Body Surfing seems unlike any other book I can think of—all-but-immortal spirits wreak havoc on everything from the Roman Empire to the love lives of high schoolers. On the other hand, it seems to owe something to more familiar stories, especially vampires myths and conspiracy novels. Were there particular books or stories you were drawing on when writing this book?
A: The initial idea, I have to say, was just one of those inspirational flashes: “What if there was a world in which…?” But in developing it, I did think a lot about early Stephen King novels, of which I was (and am) a huge fan. I’m not the first person to notice that one of King’s greatest strengths as a writer is his insistence on locating horror within the domestic context, and in Body Surfing I wanted to make sure that readers experience Jasper as a real teenager before he became a demon—that the loss of our everyday existence is every bit as big of a loss as the destruction of the world or the universe or life as we know it, which seems to be the stake in so many thrillers these days. I also was inspired to some degree by the relationship between Lestat and Louis in Interview With a Vampire—by the need for companionship, erotic or otherwise, that even immortal beings feel. As wicked as Leo is, I wanted readers to understand why he would be pissed when Jasper rejected the life he offered him. After, what, 1700 years of solitude, all he wanted was a peer, and instead Jasper has to be a goodie-goodie and say no. I’d be pissed too.
Q: Last question on Body Surfing: the book doesn’t exactly end on a cliffhanger, but it’s clear that the battle is not quite over. Can we expect a sequel?
A: I hope so. I certainly planned for a couple. I think there’s a lot to be done with the world, both in terms of developing a new generation of Mogran spawned by Jasper and exploring who the members of the Alpha Wave [the oldest of the demons, i.e., Mogran] are as well as their objectives, and then casting Q. and Michaela as the inheritors of the Legion, and how a couple of normal American teenagers might go about that. And I have a few surprises in store too.
Q: I’d like to ask you a couple of questions about your time working as a critic for The New Republic, during which you rather infamously panned everyone from Rick Moody to Terry McMillan. You upset quite a few people, not only authors but other critics who, for the most part, wrote considerably more positive reviews than yours. I’m curious not only if there was a larger point you were trying to get across in these reviews, something you were attempting to say about the state of fiction in general, but also if, after all the hubbub, you think you managed to get that point across?
A: In fact I do think I managed to get my message across, but it wasn’t a message that many people wanted to hear, let alone believe, namely, that fiction is broken now, and that the way to fix it isn’t by looking for the next program or school or aesthetic system, but rather by getting rid of them. There are a million and one ways to nuance that statement, and lots of people jump on one or another aspect—the insistence that certain books that are commercially successful must also be literary, or the fear/nepotism that makes it difficult for many books to get bad reviews because most novels are reviewed by other novelists. But as I said in the afterword to Hatchet Jobs, all I wanted to do was hack away the dead wood. I had no desire to propose an alternative model, because I think that’s precisely when the problems start. Since literature is largely the province of people with classic liberal arts educations—i.e., people who are schooled to believe that culture is both cumulative and moving in progressively more complex and interesting directions—the idea that I would reject this notion, or at least sideline it as ancillary to good writing, didn’t sit well with them.
Q: In an interview with The River Cities’ Reader, Rick Moody described the effect your review of The Black Veil—in which you called Moody “the worst writer of his generation”—had on his career. “It’s like he came into my house,” he said of you, “lobbed a bomb in there, and the body parts were scattered for miles. And the people who liked the work said, ‘That was a really interesting writer. It’s really too bad that he’s dead.’ And everybody else said, ‘I hated the guy’s work. I’m glad he’s dead.’ But the one thing they all agreed on was that he was dead.” Are you surprised your review had such a dramatic effect on Moody? In retrospect, would you have done it differently if you could?
A: Well, you know, a writer’s gotta stand by his work, even when it has entirely unforeseen consequences. If you ask me, I’d written more devastating reviews before, and they’d received almost no attention, and as far as I know had no real impact on the writers in question. And, as I’ve said a million times before, the sentence that follows the famous line cops to the fundamental meaningless of the assertion save as a measure for how frustrating I find his writing. And the reason for that frustration—also mentioned in the review—was that I believed he does have real talent, and that he traduces that talent by subjugating it to his ambition rather than his reason or his sympathies. I can’t speak to how he feels, of course, and what was the real impetus for his feelings, but I’ve always felt that everyone who repeated that line in a supposed attack on me was being willfully ignorant about the effect it would have on him. My career might’ve been reduced to a one-liner, but his career was reduced to the butt of a one-liner. And no, that wasn’t my intention (to harm his career, let alone mine), but it happened, and when you decide to enter into a public conversation, either as a writer or a critic, you have to be prepared for the fact that your words might have consequences that you can’t anticipate, and the only thing that could make it worse would be some kind of retroactive cowardice about what you said. I don’t feel the need to take any responsibility for what other people made of my words, but I stand by the words themselves. I was not unaware that they might hurt Rick—I’ve taken various degrees of umbrage at reviews before and since the Moody piece—but, at least in my case, that wasn’t their point.
Q: Last question about that part of your life: has your reputation as a critic had a noticeable effect on your career as a novelist?
A: Hugely, and mostly negative. It made me a lot more “famous,” to be sure, at least in the publishing industry and the blogosphere, but it also so completely overshadowed my reputation as a novelist that it made it hard for me to have my work taken seriously by editors or readers. A revenge narrative developed: unsuccessful novelist turns his pen against his more successful peers. The fact that I was living off a quarter-of-a-million-dollar advance for my most recent novel at the time I wrote the Moody review and that I had a stack of hundreds of good reviews to my name suddenly meant nothing. I think part of that has to do with the very specific historical moment when the Moody review came out: my previous books were essentially pre-internet phenomena, so there was no electronic record to which the blog writers and readers could turn. Essentially I was a tabula rasa for them to create, and “revenge of the failed” was a much sexier story than “acclaimed midlister vociferously voices dissent with the luminaries of contemporary fiction,” or some such. I mentioned before that most novels are reviewed by other novelists; because of this, most editors felt that I would have a hard time getting good reviews of my work, since they felt that people were lining up to take potshots at me—which, in fact, they were. As a consequence, editors would—cynically or wisely, depending on your point of view—reject my work, often without reading it, simply because they felt that external factors would make it impossible for it to succeed in the marketplace. At the same time, when I submitted my children’s book anonymously, nearly every publisher in town bid on it, so I knew the problem wasn’t my writing, but how people thought about my writing—or, even more ridiculously, how people thought other people thought about my writing. It’s all pretty tedious, and still dogs me to this day. At the same time, I’m probably one of the few guys who can toss off a review of, say, a Star Wars movie, and have NPR call him for an interview about it. That’s fun enough, in its way.
Q: This summer the industry rags were alight with the fact that you had signed a deal to co-write three novels with Tim Kring, the creator of Heroes, to the amount of $1 million per book. I’m curious what it’s like to go from being what you yourself described as a “wildly overpaid” mid-list writer to a writer whose price tag makes its own headlines?
A: Mostly it’s just comforting to know that I’ve got a good source of income for the next few years, assuming publishing doesn’t go the way of banking, of course. Let’s face it: the paycheck was for Tim’s name, not mine, and I’m just very, very fortunate to be working with him. And not just because of the money: Tim’s a smart, creative, and extremely nice guy, and working with him on these books has so far been a lot of fun. And really, I’m not the kind of person who would say that if it wasn’t true.
Q: You and Kring are collaborating on these books. Any thoughts on the difficulties/rewards of working so closely with other writers?
A: I love collaboration of any kind. It’s rare in the literary world, which is funny, since it’s so common in the other narrative arts, theater and film and television. You and I worked together when I was developing books for children and young adults, and I also had a creative partner in that enterprise, Calvin Baker, who contributed to every book. In the best cases, collaboration is a chance for every writer involved to add their unique strengths and sensibility to the work in question, and, if the process is done thoughtfully, what emerges is a single multifaceted entity that looks different from the work of any one of the participants. TV and the movies have always scared me a little. There’s so much money involved, and so many people, that it seems hard to stamp the work with a single vision. But two or three people developing a story idea can mesh pretty easily, and produce something that none of them could individually.
Q: Many of your works have explored homosexuality. And you are currently working on a Young Adult novel that revisits this subject. Has writing about homosexuality changed for you over the years?
A: I just received an email the other day from someone who read my first novel, Martin and John, and commented on the explicitness of the sex. That seems very much a product of its time, as well as my youth, and it’s not particularly important to me to put it all on the page any more. Even Body Surfing, which, page for page, has more sex than any of my other books, and more extreme sex to boot, is probably less explicit than Martin and John and some of my early stories. Other than that, I think the only thing that’s changed is my level of maturity, and the perspective that brings. I wrote M&J when I was in my early twenties, mostly about characters in their teens and early twenties. Sprout, the new book, is written by a forty-year-old man about a sixteen-year-old boy. I’m much less close to him, much more paternal, and also more sympathetic to the adults in his life, whom I would’ve given short shrift in my younger days.
Q: Has the publishing industry’s attitudes changed with regards to GLBT characters and stories over the course of your career?
A: Yes. It got better and then it got worse again. Nowadays, adult books featuring gay lead characters rarely if ever do well. Gay people are more visible certainly, but they’ve been pushed to the side—they’re best friends, hairdressers, decorators, etc., rather like they were in the half century before the big breakout in the 80s, only this time it’s okay for them to be gay. I have to say, that sucks, and I’m not sure whom to blame: audiences, who by and large don’t want to universalize gay themes to their own life, or gay writers, who, I have to say, tend to write pretty awful, petty, cloistered “gay” stories that really aren’t particularly universal. That said, gay YA books seem to be extremely popular right now, so who knows, maybe Sprout will find its audience.
Q: Any other projects in the works you’d like to mention?
A: As I said at the very beginning, I’m trying to start a publishing company with some friends. I’m very excited about it, and particularly about our sales model and the kinds of work we’ll be doing, but it’s still in the planning stages, so I can’t say much more about it than that.
Q: What kind of child were you?
A: Huh? This question came out of left field. Um, I was actually a pretty happy child, despite all the rigors of a grand guignol bad childhood. You know how one sibling is the fuckup and another is the overachiever? I was the overachiever. My friends’ parents would always tell their kids that they should be more like me—which made it really hard to keep any friends. I also knew what I wanted to do at a really young age, which helps A LOT, and as an added bonus I turned out to be pretty good at my chosen life path/career. A part of me always wishes I’d come out earlier—I didn’t have sex until I was twenty, for God’s sake—but another part of me is pretty sure I’d be dead if I had, given the times, and the fact that I am, at heart, a slut.
Q: What’s your relationship with rejection like?
A: I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it, probably because I’m fortunate enough to be able to see each rejection in its own context, rather than label them all under some monolithic rubric. Sometimes it sucks, sometimes it hurts, sometimes it’s no big deal. It just depends on how it comes. I will say, at 41, that I think I’ve demonstrated, to myself if no one else, that I’m pretty good at rolling with the punches. And I also think that, in the grand scheme of things, I haven’t had to deal with too much rejection, especially in terms of my career. Sure, it would’ve been nice if my first book had hit like Running With Scissors. But then, you know, I’d have to live with the fact that I wrote Running With Scissors.
Q: What book do you feel you suffered for the most? How?
A: Oh, that’s got to be The Law of Enclosures. It’s my most and least favorite book at the same time. The one that I absolutely had to write, for me—anyone else’s enjoyment or edification was incidental. It was the great exorcism of all the parent-child drama that would’ve otherwise dominated my work, and it took its toll, especially on my relationship with its father. Any time a reader likes that book I’m especially touched, because I know how insular and personal it is, but at the same time I also think that’s what makes it my solidest achievement. A strong runnerup would have to be The Garden of Lost of Found, which is the novel that was twice slated for publication, and twice had its publisher go out of business. That poor book has been a decade in the offing. Has had something like twenty editors, most of whom inherited it from previous editors who’d been fired (and in one case actually died) and were inherently hostile to the project. And to top it all off it’s about a crazy person, which, as anyone who’s ever written a book about a crazy person can tell you, can make you a little crazy as well.
Q: What was the greatest surprise for you in writing these recent pages (Body Surfing)?
A: I think mostly that I liked it more the more I worked on it. With the Drift House books, my previous venture into commercial writing, I was pretty much done when I was done. But with Body Surfing, I was still coming up with tons of interesting ideas even after I’d finished composition, and was just revising. That really kept my energy level high, which I think is one of the reasons why the book came out as well as it did (at least in my opinion).
Q: Do you have a writerly habit you’d like to break?
A: I spend way too much time setting the scene. This is good for me in the sense that it lets me know the world I’m writing about, but it really slows me down too, and the process of removing all that excess verbiage is laborious and frustrating. But I’m also not a writer of consistent habits. I find that once I notice I’ve fallen into a successful routine, it immediately begins to fall apart, and I have to find a new way to write. One day I’m sure I’ll wake up and realize that the book I’m working on is completely lacking in scenic detail, and I’ll have to go back and add some.
Dale Peck is the author of five novels, including Martin and John, Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, and, most recently, Body Surfing. He has written two novels for children, Drift House and The Lost Cities; one YA novel, Sprout; and one book of criticism, Hatchet Jobs. His fiction and essays have appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Conjunctions, Granta, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, the New York Times, Out, the Threepenny Review, Tin House, and the Village Voice, as well as numerous other publications and anthologies. He is the recipient of a John Simon Guggenheim Fellowship, two O. Henry Awards, and one Puschart Prize. Since 1999, he has taught in the Graduate Writing Program of the New School. He lives in New York City with his fiancé, Lou Peralta.