Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Novel Road Interview: Jeff Somers

Product Details
Available June 28
    Readers respond to powerful stories, to inventive Jeff Somers stories. The power and pace he brings to the pages of his novels, marks him well as one of the foremost authors of his genre. His fans are legion. Viewers of his videos can't wait for the next appearance of a whiskey bottle, glass and guitar lead in.

   His wild sense of humor seems on the verge of breaking loose every minute of the day.

   Have I been looking forward to his visit to The Novel Road? Heck yeah! Having read his books, and watched his video, I can tell you Jeff Somers is pure entertainment.

I'm pleased to welcome Jeff Somers to The Novel Road

Me: In a world gone mad, replete with post apocalyptic semi-dead in a land of midnight’s midnight… So you live in New Jersey?

Jeff: Oh! Jersey humor! I LOVE JERSEY HUMOR. Lord knows I never hear jokes about Jersey. I can see the tone you’re trying to set here: Erudite, sophisticated, worldly...
   ...Not just living in New Jersey, I was born and raised in New Jersey. I currently live just 5 minutes from the literal spot of my birth, a sawdust-covered tavern floor where, legends say, a stain remains to this day, resistant to any type of detergent. I was also educated solely in New Jersey, first at overcrowded public schools, then at St. Peter’s There but for the Grace of God Academy, then at Rutgers University. Here’s something I wrote in a short story a few years ago about St. Peter’s There but for the Grace of God Academy:

    In the fall my brother Yan and I matriculated into high school. Our parents maintained a long arm and enrolled us in St. Peter's There But For the Grace of God Academy, which was a pseudo-religious-slash-military establishment stressing Latin and self-mutilation. We awoke one fine September day to find the ancestral home surrounded by Jesuit Commandos, who piled us into an armored truck along with several other frightened boys. Yan and I cheered our fellow kidnap victims by singing The Sound of Music (Yan's voice indistinguishable from Julie Andrews') and we plotted a brisk escape from the truck; but once the rear doors were thrown open Yan and I were inexplicably ratted out by our fellows. My brother and I entered St. Peter's as prisoners, and spent our first weeks there being beaten on a daily basis by a burly priest named Father Hump, until we could speak perfect Latin, although we could no longer remember our own names.

    St. Peter's There But for The Grace of God Academy was designed to instill in its charges a sense of discipline and a love of God. Towards the first goal, we were enrolled in classes such as Sewing Leather Sneakers for Nike Inc. and Kathie Lee Gifford Clothing Line 101. These classes taught us to be patient, to endure hardship, and to manage complex and minute tasks with broken and bloodied fingers. Towards the second goal, we were beaten unto insensibility, at which point we often hallucinated that Jesus came down from heaven to deliver us from our living hell, which certainly made us love him....until we awoke for Cooking for the Jesuits 101 at 5am the next morning, an advanced class that often resulted in failing grades and thrown food, at which point we started resenting Jesus all over again.

    Yan and I look back on our years at St. Peter's There But for the Grace of God Academy fondly, of course, or at least Yan would if he had not perished in the Great Failed Escape of 1989 (or so I thought), in which thirty-one boys lost their lives attempting to tunnel under the fences surrounding the campus. His loss was doubly senseless, since we were set to graduate later that same year. Perhaps the looming specter of the final examinations (which are rumored to have cost more than one senior his life) had driven Yan to this extreme, or perhaps it was simply the girls academy situated across the way from St. Peter's, where nubile and uniformed young women often spent the hot afternoons washing cars in cut off T-shirts.

    At any rate, I did manage to graduate with only a few broken bones and permanent scars in the spring of 1989, and as I said I look back fondly on my years at St. Peter's; so fondly that when I returned some years later to burn the place to the ground in a blaze so hot it liquefied windows in surrounding buildings for miles, I shed a tear or two as I sipped a strong Martini on an overlooking hillside. Or perhaps that was just the dry air and the heat.
So yes, I live in New Jersey. I know diners, I know traffic circles, I know the New Jersey Turnpike exits like I know my own skin. It is the greatest place in the world. Or so I imagine, as I’ve never left it.

Me: From essayist to dystopia, you’ve proven your versatility and talent. Give me the title  and story line for a Jeff Somers YA novel.
Jeff: Let’s call it The Really Cool Kids who Drank and Smoked a Lot. It would involve an accidental homicide at an unchaperoned party, furtive attempts to cover it up and displace the body. The kids would swear secrecy and eternal silence, but one by one would start killing each other off as they get paranoid. In the end, one of the kids would survive, completely free of suspicion. As part of the marketing, we’d insinuate it’s actually autobiographical. We might have to kill a few people to make it look good.

Me: Avery Cates is a unique dystopian archetype. How did he evolve?
Jeff: Indiana Jones. Seriously. My brother and I had a long discussion once about how Indiana Jones was one of the best movie heros evah because he got his ass kicked. In a lot of action stories, the hero is just supernaturally capable. They take punishment and shrug it off and come roaring back, maybe with some dirt and blood painted on to make it look dramatic. It’s boring. We liked Indy because when he got beat up, he looked like he was getting beat up, and he had bruises and scabs. He looked like a guy trying desperately to avoid physical pain, you know?
    So when I started working on The Electric Church all those years ago, I wanted the character to be tough and mean, but I wanted him to be human. He avoids pain, because that’s what people do. He’s tough and mean, but it’s only because he knows that any sign of weakness will get him killed. And he feels that pain, buddy.
   That’s the key, I think, to Avery, aside from his father-son issues that keep manifesting as a doomed desire to save and protect people coupled with a conviction that things Used to be Better, you know? Avery feels that pain, and tries to run away from it.

Me: Hollywood and Jeff Somers. I hear your suggestion that Justin Bieber play Avery Cates in the film to come was shot down, though Sean Ferrell is still considering an offer to write the screenplay. Any other news on the film front?
Jeff's just finished custom home.
He designed it himself...
Jeff: Ferrell’s screenplay was bosh. He tried to go all Charlie Kaufman and wrote himself into the story as some sort of observing angel, floating around glowing or something—it’s unclear. He gave himself all sorts of funny lines commenting on the action, too. By page 350 of the screenplay it’s really just Ferrell sitting at a park bench chatting with the audience. It goes on for hundreds more pages. At one point he starts singing “Pennies from Heaven” while dressed as a clown in the moonlight. A CLOWN IN THE MOONLIGHT. Think about it.
   My own casting suggestions involve me, playing mutliple characters. My emails and phone calls are no longer returned.
   The news on the film front is that there is, in fact, still a film front to get news about, which is pretty damned exciting. I know they’re very close to a first draft of a screenplay. Beyond that it is blissfully out of my control, and I like it like that.

Me: Talk about the day you became a Wikipedia star?
Jeff: “Star” is perhaps a strong word. More accurately “The day I actually showed up on Wikipedia.”
   Plain and simple, whining works. Every now and then I wake up wearing someone else’s pants and I stand in the bathroom, urinating, for about fifteen minutes, and I scowl at myself in the mirror (the whole bathroom is mirrored, for obvious reasons) and think, today I will see what I can get other people to do for me. This was one of those times. I posted on my Blog that I wanted a Wikipedia page. I’d created one for myself several years ago, back in the Wild West period of Wikipedia, but it had been deleted. So I began complaining.
   People got right on it, but it was like that Monty Python bit from “Holy Grail”: They set up a page, but it was deleted for me not being notable enough. SO someone put up another page with more details and that was deleted. And then another, and another deletion, and then finally the fifth or sixth one stuck. I was pretty proud of myself for a while, then I saw this episode of Deep Space Nine, which is just as detailed as my own page: Damn.

Me: This question, courtesy of Jeff Hall : “I'm a shortstory-ist. Writing a novel is like a crazy long marathon, only harder. How do you maintain a clear sense of that first passion that inspired you throughout a 200K word journey?”

Jeff: First of all, 200,000 words? Holy crow, man, what kind of books are you writing?
   I’ve never had this problem. For me, stories are as long as they are. Sometimes I write 2,000 words, sometimes 80,000, but I rarely struggle to extend something. I tend to think that if you’re struggling to write your way into official novel territory, maybe what you’re writing isn’t a novel after all. What usually happens with me is I keep writing a story and then I get to the end, I check the word count, and then I decide what to call it.
   One thing I think I do almost unconsciously is break the plot into sections and treat each one like a short story, in a way. It’s like that time you decided you were going to eat an entire bucket of fried chicken in one sitting: If you just keep going eventually your jaw locks up and you die of heart failure. But if you treat it like sixteen normal-sized meals, you’ve got a fighting chance!
   As for inspiration, the answer to that question, no matter the context, is whiskey. Scotch, to be more specific. Glenmorangie 10-year to be even more specific in case anyone out there likes to mail bottles of booze to authors.

Me: Lunch with you and any author (except Sean) you choose, from throughout history or today, and why.
Jeff: Lunch with Ferrell! The mind boggles. I’ve seen the man drink. It’s disgusting enough. Who would want to watch him eat? He reminds me of BrundleFly.
  Myself, of course, forming a stable time loop that in essence grants me immortality.
  My god, I need to have a genie appear and offer me wishes. I would crush that scenario. I’d end up ruling the universe and the genie would be weeping in a corner, totally destroyed.
  If I have to get all serious about a question involving the ghosts of dead writers, I have to ask if I can bring recording equipment with me, so I can steal ideas. 

Me: Publishing is going through an evolution right now. Talk about how this has or will affect you.
Jeff: As an author, it hasn’t really. I haven’t been publishing long enough to gas on and on about the good old days. I used to write on a manual typewriter, but that was part affectation and part being born before computers were everywhere.
   Well, I’m lying; here’s one way things have changed for me as an author: The long tail. I can think of dozens of writers I read when I was a kid in the 1980s who no longer have any presence whatsoever on bookshelves. Regardless of where they went career-wise, the books I read and loved 30 years ago cannot be found on a real-life bookshelf, and back in The Day that would be the end of it. People write books, try to sell them, and then fade away if they don’t sell enough.
   Except today that isn’t necessarily true. There are so many options, so many sales channels. You can self-publish, re-issue your old books. People can find old copies of your books online pretty easily. We’re inching towards a place in history where “out of print” doesn’t mean anything any more, and that’s pretty amazing. I’ll bet there are a lot of writers throughout history who managed to put out a book or two and then faded into obscurity who would have been delighted to have the Internet around to keep their books available, or to publish new material if publishers were uninterested.
   That, and the fact that my last publishing contract required me to wrestle a bear or forfeit my advance. This was new.

Me: Talk about life experience. How important it is to an author?
Jeff: It’s as important as anything else. I’m reminded of a quote from Laurence Olivier when he was working on The Marathon Man with Dustin Hoffman. Hoffman was a method actor playing a man who’d been awake for days bing tortured, so he’d stayed up for days straight prior to filing th scene to get some verisimilitude. 

Olivier saw him and said something along the lines of “My dear boy, why no try acting?” The thing about writing is, you are making shit up. I don’t care what you’re writing, unless it’s nonfiction, you are making shit up. Yes, writing what you know will capture honest details that will ring true, but generally speaking I don’t hesitate to write about things I’ve never actually experienced, because I can make up the details, you know?
    Life experience is the ultimate inspiration. You go somewhere, you do something, it leaves marks on you, and one day you see something else and it clicks with this old memory and you have a story in your head. But never, ever forget that you’re a writer. You. Can. Make. Shit. Up.

Me: Tell us about your agent and why the match is perfect?

Jeff: Why? Did she make you ask that? Are you working for her? Is she having me followed again?
    My agent and I are perfect because when I was sending out query letters a few years ago trying to entice an agent, she’s the only one who wrote back that my letter made her laugh uproariously. She then mentioned that my sample chapters had some “disturbing” copy-editing errors, but that she wanted to see the full novel anyway. I knew she was perfect.
   Plus, when we meet to discuss business we meet in bars, and she buys me whiskeys until I fall off my chair. That’s how you run a writing career, folks.

Me: Talk about editing your work. What advice can you give other writers on the editing "Stop line"?
Jeff: I don’t edit much, honestly. I write one draft. I take that draft and stare in horror at the awfulness of it, then I do a line-edit. I read the whole thing over and revise as I go. That’s it. I stop. I’ll do more revision when I get feedback from people, depending on how good or bad the feedback is, and then I stop for reals.
   I don’t think anything I’ve ever written has ever improved due to a third or fourth or whatever revision. I think the event horizon for diminishing returns in the revision/editing process is much closer than you think, and very quickly you are grinding the gears. I know people who have been working on one book for two decades. Is the 198th version significantly better than the 100th, or the 3rd? I doubt it.
  So my advice: Stop editing, sooner rather than later.

Me: Give me a two sentence “Hook” for “The Terminal State”.
Jeff: Avery Cates gets pressed into the army, has augments implanted in his brain that allow people to control him, and then gets bought out of the army by the two men he wants to kill more than he wants to kill anyone else: Canny Orel and Wa Belling. Hilarity ensues!

Me: If Jeff Somers ever wrote a Non-Fiction book, what would the subject be?
Jeff: Probably "Stop Drinking Before You End Up Like Me". Or, possibly, 
 "Why Wearing Pants in Public is Largely Unnecessary".

Me: You have some great fans in your blog’s forum. The “Official Jeff Somers Thinks Too Much of Himself Forum”, how did it come into being?
Jeff: Well, one day I was sitting in my office, wondering if my hangover might be cured by a good old-fashioned forced-vomit, wondering where my pants were, wondering when, exactly, my office had come to reside in someone else’s house, and wondering, of course whether the people yelling and pounding the locked door to the office were friends or foes, it occurred to me that I did not have a forum where people could post about how cool I was. So I created one.
   Creating it myself was a bad idea. The forum gets spambots constantly and has been compromised a few times, because I am lazy and incompetent. But no one else was volunteering to create one, so I took care of bidness, as they say. Hence the title of the forum, because, really, did I really think the world needed an online forum to discuss me? I dunno. Discuss.
   I don’t actually check it much, though I should, because I think the forum-dwellers enjoy provoking me into saying things I shouldn’t. I dive in once and while. I have organized my “Street Teams” via the forum; volunteers who get promotional stuff from me (stickers, bookmarks, etc) and agree to distribute them round the world to promote Cates when a new book comes out. That’s been a blast.