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vol 6 - issue 03 (nov 2003) :: interviews
CRAIG CLEVENGER
interview by d.j. kirkbride

CRAIG CLEVENGER'S FIRST NOVEL, THE CONTORTIONIST'S HANDBOOK, IS THE BOOK CHUCK "FIGHT CLUB" PALAHNIUK CALLED THE BEST HE HAS READ IN FIVE YEARS. IT'S ALSO ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS THAT I, D.J. KIRKBRIDE, HAS READ IN ALL MY 26 YEARS. HERE, I TALK WITH CRAIG ABOUT THE BOOK, SWIM FINS, DODGING CREDITORS, AND MORE.

Craig: I was checking out the website just a little bit ago.

D.J.: Sweet.

C: Sort of cramming before the big test. You write a lot of CD reviews.

D: Yeah. I do, I guess.

C: How'd you get stuck with this?

D: Well, when the book got sent to us, they gave it to me because I'm the only tastes like chicken staff member who can read.

C: (laughs)

D: You are being recorded, so watch what you say.

C: I broke my cardinal rule a while ago to never ever drink with a journalist. Beer and tape recorders don't match. I have my fingers crossed now.

D: Holy crap. What happened then?

C: We had a good time; it was great. All was good. I'm just hoping that there's nothing about me in a zebra suit or swim fins or something.

D: (laughs) That's what I'm wearing right now.

C: You're recording it, so now it can be in the column.

D: Yeah. That'd make a good illustration. So, you're working at what kind of company?

C: I've got a part-time tech writing gig. I was on a two year sabbatical-- loosely speaking-- I took two years to work on The Contortionist's Handbook, and at the end of those two years I promised I wouldn't go back to the high-tech dot com world. I wanted to stay writing, so I worked at a bookstore, which was a ball. But I spent a lot of time working for very little money. It did leave my brain free to work in my spare time. I just didn't have as much as I wanted. In this case, it's a part-time gig, three days a week. It pays enough to make ends meet for the first time in four fucking years.

D: Oh my God. That's excellent.

C: It's been pretty ugly. But now I have four day weekends to work on the next book. It's been really nice.

D: It's funny you mentioned working at a bookstore, because I used to work at one-- and am looking again-- because I love working at bookstores. But you're right: they don't pay great.

C: Yeah. You can wade through the retail horror stories, but at the end of the day it's books. It's funny. Now, since I've been here, I get really agitated when I realize it's been a week since I've been to the bookstore. I just have to go to touch things and look at the stacks and see what's new. It's a compulsion. I keep my finger on the pulse of things.

D: I'm kind of the same way. There's a Borders by my work, and a couple independent bookstores I almost always go to on my lunch break. I don't buy anything, but I look around.

C: Like going to the zoo or something.

D: Yeah. But I like books better than animals.

C: And you can't go to jail for getting naked in a bookstore.

D: Actually--

C: You're recording this, aren't you?

Both: (laugh)

D: Now we've got the evidence we need. That's great!

C: (laughs) There's a pull quote!

D: So, I read your book a couple weeks ago and I really dug it.

C: Thanks.

D: I was wondering-- because odds are a lot of people who read this interview haven't read the book yet--

C: I'm hoping that's the case.

D: Right. So what would you like to say to potential readers? I don't want to give away too much. But maybe you can give as much as you feel people need to know.

C: I've always had a tough time describing it, because most writers I talk to feel the same way. You work so hard drafting the entire thing, summarizing it is the antithesis of what you spent X years doing. The best I could say is that it's the autobiography of a child prodigy mathematician as told via a psychiatric interview following a pain pill overdose. How's that?

D: That's pretty good. Yeah, I have trouble with that. I hate writing a synopsis. Like what you said about your book. There are so many different avenues and nooks and crannies that get lost. But that's an interesting description.

C: I try to summarize the elements without giving too much away, and the trick is to make it not sound like a bad TV crime movie. Because, you know, the wrong twist, and it can be like that. It's funny reading book reviews. One of my favorite parts of reading them is seeing how the reviewer summarizes the book. And most of you are really good at it. I wish I could tap some of these guys.

D: Yeah. Actually, I'm writing a book review of The Contortionist's Handbook for tastes like chicken. I want to get the word out, because I really enjoyed it. I'll try to summarize it well.

C: Feel free to steal mine. Not a problem.

D: Yeah, I got it on tape now. I'll take it out of the interview and use it for the review, like I did it.

C: No worries. No worries at all. (chuckles) So are you going to review it in one issue and have the interview in another? Or do them Siamese?

D: Probably do them both in one issue, and have a link to one in the other.

C: Okay.

D: So, the book is fairly complicated, but everything adds up in the end. Were you really meticulous with the plotting at first? I know a lot of writers will get note cards and hang them up. Or do you just write and then go back and shape it as you're writing it?

C: It was an iterative process. The version you're reading, I mean, I literally did 20 rewrites of the book.

D: Wow!

C: A little more than half of those were substantial changes and tweaks. When I was younger, writing shorter stuff, it was easy enough to make out a few notes and blast out a dozen pages. But in this, I wanted to outline in detail, for no other reason at first, that it makes attacking my writing a little easier. If I can take a chunk out of the outline that's well defined and push everything out of my brain, I'm not sitting down to this daunting task of writing a novel, I'm writing X number of pages about this subject. It's a little less intimidating, and each day eventually adds up. At first, I was a little nervous when I realized how the structure of the story started to materialize, and was going to work best in this convoluted fashion; I got very, very detailed. Once I'd locked down the narrator's birth date, I went to my computer and backdated my calendar to that date. I printed out 30 years of blank calendars-- even though he's only 27 in the book-- and color-coded every character's event on that calendar. With every salient incident I started randomly, within certain parameters, making certain dates for his jail time, his headaches, and assigning him certain drug overdoses on certain dates. I had everything literally locked down to the day, to the minute. I was very meticulous that way.

D: Holy crap.

C: Yeah.

D: That's pretty amazing. It takes a lot of discipline. Like, everybody thinks, "Writing! It's a burst of creativity!" But structure and everything involved, especially when making a novel--

C: Yeah. I get really frustrated hearing people talk that way, because creativity isn't something you can control. It's gonna be there or not, depending on a number of things. But you can control, I can control when I write, how much I write, and all those other things. So I take a very methodical approach and trust the creativity to be there. If I'm doing the nuts and bolts, it's just gonna be there. An architect can design a gorgeous building, but if it collapses, it's pointless.

D: Yeah. That's a good one. I agree. It takes a lot of discipline. (Which is why D.J. fears he'll never write a novel,.. or pay his bills with writing.)

C: Yeah. Tricks for fooling myself, though, like I said, like focusing on one small,... Hey, if my cell dies, I'll call you right back as soon as I plug in.

D: Oh. Okay.

C: But I got a while here.

D: Okay. So, this is kind of a generic question, but I'm interested in where the genesis for The Contortionist's Handbook came from. Do you know something like that, or--?

C: Believe it or not, very few people ask that question.

D: Oh yeah?

C: You'd think they would, but they don't. It came from a number of things. I'd had the notion of writing from the standpoint of somebody with a prodigious mind for a long time. It's something that's always fascinated me. Working in technology like I have, I've met a lot of guys that think this way. Not to the degree of John Vincent (the book's protagonist); not being able to navigate his way out of a paper bag--

D: (chuckles)

C: --That kind of a brain fascinates me. Now, the obvious thing to do is, when you create someone like that, you need an Achilles' heel. Typically, with people of that intelligence, there's some kind of trade off. John Nash was schizophrenic. Autism, of course, is troubling with autistic savants. I didn't have any interest in doing that with the autism. It's something that I didn't think I'd treat faithfully, and it's been done a hundred different ways. I mean, Rain Man, of course. So, I started thinking about what this guy's trade off could be, and I came up with the headaches. And when I had the idea for the character-- this person who has this brain power and compensates by having these periodic, horrific migraines-- I just started brainstorming. Originally, he was more of a mathematical prodigy. But as the story evolved, I had this click-- here's a good arch for a story. He's perpetually in hospitals for treatments. I talked to a friend of mine who used to be an ER tech, and asked him what happens if you have an indeterminate overdose. He said you're detained for a psychiatric evaluation; and that was the click. That was the story right there. I had the character, and I had the situation to put him in. That gave me a way to vent a lot of frustration about psychiatry, and he shifted from being a math prodigy to more of an artistic prodigy, as a result.

D: The math prodigy thing is interesting, but it has been done. The art angle is very original to me. I liked the twist. Did you do any research, as far as the process or psychological evaluations go? I mean, I bought everything. If you made it up, you did a really great job, because it seems really believable.

C: Well, thanks a lot. I researched exhaustively, if that's the right word. I research everything to varying degrees, but I hit a certain point in the research where I realized there's only so much I'm going to convey in the book. So I stopped. With a lot of the criminal stuff, I made up as much as I researched or extracted facts from research. I didn't want people to be pointing back at me saying I learned to do this from reading the book. I'd look at each fact and say, "By taking this fact out, am I pulling my punches? Is the story going to have less force if I take this piece of data out?" And if I answered, "Yes", I'd leave it in. The story was always first. But, eventually, there's enough data in there that wasn't critical to the story, that had obfuscated the actual facts of forgery. In terms of autism, I read some things, but mostly I was just trying to expand on the way that I feel a lot of times when looking at the rest of the world. I wanted to write a book that feels like viewing the world through glass. I sometimes feel three steps behind the rest of the world, and this was my way of unloading that, by exaggerating to the nth degree. I've had a lot of people get back to me on that saying it's a spot-on depiction of Asperger's Syndrome. Which was strange, because I didn't plan that.

D: Wow. That's interesting.

C: If I'm babbling, I apologize.

D: No. Talk however much you want, when you want. That's how these interviews are.

C: Okay.

D: That's how we like to do things at tastes like chicken. I read some stuff from MacAdam/Cage about the process of your writing, and it seems like you went to some fairly extreme measures to write this, and giving yourself the time to write; maxing out all your credit cards and holing yourself up. How long did it take to write this?

C: Just shy of two years. I had always wanted to be a writer. My whole life, that's all I've ever dreamed of doing. The older I got, it got further and further on the back burner. Just prior to my quitting to write the book, I just admitted, "Okay. There's a lot of people who grow up and wish they'd done one thing and don't; they bite the bullet and move on." That followed an extremely shitty year, and I just figured that the stock options and everything else weren't worth it. I didn't have a wife or children. Didn't have a mortgage. I had no obligations to anyone, so it was an easy thing to do, in that respect. I just said, "I'm losing my mind. If I don't make one last, honest attempt at doing this, I'm never gonna live it down." I wanted to write a book and finish it. I wasn't thinking about publishing. I just wanted to prove to myself that I could sustain an idea and finish it. I wanted that satisfaction. I quit my job with 30 days notice, and walked out. I didn't want to be an old guy who said, "I wish I'd been a writer." So that's how I did it. I lived off credit cards. I went into serious debt. There are people who want my head on a stick right now. But, yeah, that's pretty much what it was. I just dropped off the face of the earth for a couple years, minus a girlfriend I was seeing at the time and a handful of other people.

D: Goddamn.

C: Sorry. I'm babbling again.

D: No. That's really interesting. You say it kind of matter-of-factly, but that was a brave thing to do. I've felt that way, a lot of people have. The years keep going on. You're like, "When am I going to do this?" The 9-to-5 pays the bills, and you have your DVD player and stuff like that, but--

C: Right.

D: Actually, I really related to that when I read it. I was like, "Holy crap. He did it."

C: I just didn't want to regret not doing something. That's really what it came down to. I was totally prepared to accept if it never saw the light of day. I was actually bracing to self-publish this thing, and I started looking into agents and editors as an afterthought. I was gonna self-publish for no other reason than I didn't want to regret not doing this thing, and I was fully prepared to go back into the 9-to-5 world and resume my former life. I trashed that idea about six months into the publishing deal. (laughs)

D: Self-publishing is rough, I think.

C: Yeah. I have some opinions about that on both sides of the fence.

D: Really?

C: I'm glad I went with MacAdam/Cage; I'll just say that much.

D: How did they get involved? Did you submit to them personally, or did you get an agent that brought them to you?

C: I don't have an agent. I sent it to them directly. It's funny, because the story I'm fond of telling is when Pat Walsh, my editor, called me, I thought he was a collection agent. I almost hung up on him.

D: (laughs)

C: I had forgotten they had the book, and I didn't recognize the name MacAdam/Cage when he left the voicemail. Had I not been a little more awake and even-tempered, I might not be having this conversation with you right now.

D: Man. So, you said you'd forgotten MacAdam/Cage had it. How long was the process from when you sent them the book to them getting back to you?

C: It was odd. I sent it to them in May. Shortly afterward, I got a response to an agent I'd sent it to prior, who asked for a two week exclusive. MacAdam/Cage asked for the rest of it as well, but I asked them to wait. This was all by email. I asked them to wait, because I had an exclusive, and I realized that was a stupid thing to do. I should not have overlapped my submissions like that. The agent turned it down, and gave me some very, very good feedback that substantiated a lot of my feelings about the book. So I went into a three month rewrite mode. In August/September I re-submitted the book to MacAdam/Cage. And I heard from Pat around October. There was a bit of back and forth from October to December, before Pat called me and gave me the word that they were actually going to do it; they wanted to put it in their catalogue. It takes patience.

D: But the rest is history.

C: Yeah. I still got the phone card that I used to call them. When they decided to publish it, my phone had been turned off, which happens two or three times a year with me. And my electricity. So I had to call from a liquor store payphone after I got his email, and I still have the calling card in The Contortionist's Handbook scrapbook, along with everything else.

D: Calling from a liquor store. That's cool.

C: Yeah.

D: So, you did send it to some agents and other publishers. Did you receive a lot of rejection letters? Did people get back to you? Do you have a collection?

C: This is always really awkward to tell people, because that's always the toughest part. To be honest, I got the responses very quickly. I sent it to five people, to MacAdam/Cage. I got three form rejections. One agent said he wanted to see the rest of it, and I had another agent say the same thing. So, of the five submissions I made, I had two favorable responses. The second agent I never got back to for a number of reasons. The first one turned it down, but offered me some good criticism. But I kept the door open. I said I was working on another one, and, "If I don't have a home for this, can I submit my next one to you?" And the agency said yes. Honestly, it was a pretty rapid process for me. I was braced for circulating this thing for a year before something came of it. I was shocked. It was my fifth or sixth attempt, but then MacAdam/Cage picked it up.

D: The only reason I asked about that is that I got a rejection letter from Marvel Comics today.

C: Yeah?

D: I didn't realize I'd really submitted to them. But this rejection letter has a picture of Spider-Man on it, so it's even cooler.

C: I keep all mine. I have all of them, but none have Spider-Man. (laughs)

D: Just submit to 'em, and maybe you'll get one. You never know. Or you'll end up writing a comic book.

C: There's an idea.

D: That'd be interesting.

C: I started--

D: I'd read one of your comics.

C: I'm sorry?

D: I said I'd read one of your comics.

C: Well, thanks. If I ever move in that direction. I started getting queries from agents after the Kirkus review came out. I got a star in Kirkus, and started getting agents saying, "We've seen your review. Do you have an agent?" I'm toying with the idea of printing up a mock form letter that's a writer's rejection to an agent saying, "Dear agent, thank you for your interest, but we are currently not looking for representation at this time. Better luck elsewhere."

D: (laughs)

C: A form letter just to be smart-ass. I never got around to it. I am waiting to get an offer from someone that previously rejected the book, so I can enclose a photocopy of the first rejection letter they sent to me.

D: That's a dream.

C: Just because I'm a petty, vindictive bastard sometimes.

D: That's the way to be.

C: (laughs)

D: Teach lessons. You mentioned the second book you're working on right now. Is there anything you can say about it, or is it top secret?

C: I don't mind talking about it when it's at a certain stage, and it's really coagulated to the point where it's taken on the right form. All I'll say is this: Anyone that writes me a letter or sends me a book to sign, I've started sending stuff back. I've been taking artifacts for the research I've been doing for the second one, and sending it back. I'll say that much. So if anybody's curious, they can try and connect the dots. I'll drop in the page of a textbook I'm using, or some kind of manual or photograph-- I'll just let people figure it out.

D: That's cool.

C: How's that for cryptic?

D: That's pretty cryptic. I'm thinking maybe I'll send you my book.

C: Bring it on.

D: Also, my editor, Wayne Chinsang, sent me an email about how The Contortionist's Handbook has been optioned for a movie. Is there anymore news on that?

C: There's no more news. It's been optioned. Everybody's happy. Looking for the best case scenario and this that and the other. There are some interested parties, and I'm interested in having them do it. But I'm really not at liberty to say right now. And it's just an option. It's not for the full rights, so,.. I'm dying to say more. I really am. But there's nothing to report right now. The option was the result of a year's worth of work on Jeff Aghassi's part, the agent who represents MacAdam/Cage to the film community. It took a year to get the option, so getting the right director, writer, cast, and crew assembled is gonna be a while. I'm just trying to focus on the next book right now.

D: It's great to know that you can focus on the book and have people you trust.

C: Yeah.

D: It'd be a tricky movie to make. I love the book, but it'll be interesting to see how it's done. Because one of the reviews compared it to Memento, I think more in feeling than anything else.

C: Right. That was very flattering.

D: I can see it being that type of movie.

C: It's funny, because I never wrote it with that in mind. I wrote it thinking it was never going to get published. So when people say it'd make a great movie-- and I hear this a lot-- it shocks me, because that was the furthest thing from my mind when I wrote it. It's always strange to hear people say that. But I'm going to trust other people that they're right.

D: Well, the important thing is that it made a great book. A great movie, too? That's like icing on the cake, right?

C: Yeah. I hope so. It's hard to make a living as a writer unless you're sitting on a huge push like that.

D: I always used to imagine that you publish a book, and there you go. You're done.

C: (laughs)

D: Now it's like, "What? You're serious?"

C: Yeah. You hear that going in, but it's funny. I've met a lot of other writers-- published writers-- as a result of the book, and I've always avoided the company of other writers for the one reason that I don't want to sit around and get into the whole circle jerk, talking about creativity and exploring the self and all that bullshit. It's very prevalent out here on the West Coast. When I sit down with other writers, we will never talk creativity or process or anything. We always talk about royalty agreements and agents and whose editor left,.. you know, the spell checking that never got done. We might as well be a bunch of Lockheed engineers, the way we all talk to each other, you know?

D: That's a surprise.

C: Yeah.

D: Well, it looks like my time limit is about up with my little recorder here.

C: Okay.

D: I'm using Wayne Chinsang's phone, so you can't use it too long.

C: Is that right?

D: He's like a teenage girl. He has to take every call and talk to everybody. (I say this knowing Wayne is more man than I'll ever be. Why are the words coming out of my mouth?)

C: (laughs) And that's on tape.

D: Yeah, it's on tape. I'm gonna play it for him while he's sleeping. I'll sneak into his room and play it by his ear.

C: (laughs)

D: One more question. Do dogs have lips?

C: Do dogs have lips? (pauses) I'm wondering what's the trick question here.

D: There's no trick. There's a debate. A long time ago, before I was on staff, there was a debate. So now we ask everybody we interview.

C: They have teeth. They have gums. Their mouths can, in fact, close completely. So, in terms of skin touching and concealing the mouth, yeah, they have lips. But since they can't pronounce consonants, which is the bulk of what my lips do, I would have to say no.

D: Alright.

C: Just to kind of mix it up a bit. Try this one with the staff, it'll drive people batshit: Was Gumby a ball or a slab?

D: (laughs)

C: "He once was a little green 'mmmm' of clay." Was he a little green ball of clay, or a little green slab of clay? People will start fighting. They'll start swinging.

D: I'm gonna say,.. right now, I'm gonna say ball. Yeah. Personal opinion.

C: I'm a slab guy. The dog lips,.. I'm gonna go search on a veterinarian site right now.

D: Yeah. I want you to research it.

C: I can do that.

D: We need some documentation.

C: I think the churches are pushing the lip theory, and the public schools are teaching the no-lip theory.

D: (laughs) What came first? The dog or the lips?

C: So you can throw that in there if you want. Whatever the church stance is, I have to go the opposite. And I think the church is supporting the lip theory here.

D: I'll buy that. I'm changing my answer to "No", too.

C: (laughs)

D: That's an idea for a third book.

VISIT CRAIG HERE.

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