Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Novel Road Interview: Sean Ferrell

NUMB by Sean Ferrell   I have an incredible list of authors that are gracing The Novel Road pages with their wisdom and humor. 

  All, from the debut authors to the Mega-Successful, are so incredibly talented in the art of the written word.

  My guest today, Sean Ferrell, offers me personally a chance to talk to an author whose work I absolutely admire and (please forgive my arrogance) you should too.
  It’s rare to find anyone that walks the Literary line, to create a work of mass appeal. Sean is one of those rare people. His novel entertains, as well as carries the heart and mind from first word to last.

  He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York

  I’m pleased to welcome Sean Ferrell to The Novel Road and in case anyone is wondering… I’m a fan.

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Sean Ferrell

  Me: I’m a huge fan of your novel, “Numb”. Your short stories "Billy Echo" and "Building an Elephant", which won the Fulton Prize from The Adirondack Review, have a "Literary DNA" that shows itself in "Numb". Talk about your past work, and how it has helped build you into the author you are today.

Sean: The term “literary” gets a lot of flack and a lot of respect, depending on who is doing the talking. In my mind it's just another genre, one that a lot of authors could be placed in if there weren't such an overwhelming marketing desire to label a book once and be done with it. It is often a label put on a book when people don't know what else to call it. I know powerfully good mystery novels that are literary. I know literary novels that are wonderful mysteries. And sci-fi. And horror, and women's lit, and YA, and on and on. The fact that my novel doesn't focus more on an element like the mystery of Numb's past, or the science/medical causes for his condition, may lend weight to the idea that it is “literary.” But you also mention Billy Echo (which floats in a magical realist stream) and Building an Elephant (is it sci-fi, magical realism, I don't know) and I think the main thing they have in common with Numb is that I was concerned with how the story was told as much as telling the story. I think when a writer is equally concerned with how the story is told as much as the story itself, that is when you find “literary” writing. I am thinking of books that are equally concerned with word choice and language, with new turns of phrase and putting words together in a way that is “just so.”

I think of it in the way that the musician Robbie Robertson once described his approach to writing music. He said that it never occurred to him to take a standard blues progression and use it in his music. He said that he thought it was his job to come up with his own phrases and licks and that he was shocked to meet older blues musicians who happily admitted to using other people's inventions in their music.

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Sunste Park, Brooklyn
And I think that all writers, to some degree, have the literary lurking in their writing. It's just a matter of scale, the amount of focus they give to the telling in balance to the story, and there are certainly those who push it so far to the telling that some readers think “literary means no plot.” But as I said, I've seen many a great “genre” book that was clearly written with one eye on plot and one on the telling. Right now I'm reading Lost Dog by Bill Cameron, and you can't tell me that his control of voice and masterful eye for details of life, and wonderful way of illustrating those details, isn't literary. I'm laughing at this right now, because I know that Bill bristles at the greater respect that “literary” types get. He'd probably slap me for saying he's got a bit of the lit-rah-chure in him.

Me: What was the first thing you ever wrote that told you “I can do this?”

Sean: My first holy-cow-comma-this-is-working piece was a short story entitled ,“The Phrenologist's Collection.” It was the last story I wrote while in graduate school, and it was the first that felt like it was really mine. Up to that point I had written a lot that felt forced. I was trying to write in a way that would be accepted and encouraged. I didn't trust my own voice. “The Phrenologist Collection” was the one that told me I was finding my voice.

Numb: A NovelMe: Give me a two sentence “Hook” for your Novel.

Sean: Numb is the story of an amnesiac who wanders into a circus and discovers he can't feel pain. This “talent” leads him toward celebrity and self-destruction.

Me: You show a tremendous connection to your subject matter, as evidenced by your crisp plot and characters. Talk about your characters and how they crystallized in your mind?

Sean: I live with my characters chatting in my head for a long time. A lot of what I write doesn't make the final cut, but it's necessary to know them. Numb started as a man telling me about his morning routine, his cleaning of new wounds and working to keep old scars from tightening up. Mal appeared when Numb walked into the circus. He quickly demanded attention and was angry when he couldn't get it. Hiko appeared when I began to think of her artwork—I worked my way backward to her, starting with her work and finding my way back to the woman who made it. Emilia... who doesn't long for a little bit of Emilia in their life? And who doesn't fear it? In the end I get to know them by not forcing anything out of them. I write to discover what they do, not to talk about what I think they did.

Go to fullsize imageMe: You get to have lunch with any author, from throughout literary history or present. Who would it be and why?

Sean: This is a horrible question, because who can I leave out? I choose Pynchon because I'm sure he'd order the entire menu. No, I choose Vonnegut because I'm sure he'd order something that used to be on the menu and then point out that it's no longer on the menu and so it goes. No, wait, I choose Italo Calvino because he'd order something the restaurant didn't realize was on the menu. Or maybe Margaret Atwood, to see her order something that should be on the menu. Or Ralph Ellison, to watch him choke down something that should never have been on the menu. No, Hemingway, because he'd eat at the  bar. Or Faulkner, just to have drinks.

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Me: I read an interview you gave on Writers on Process  . You had me wondering about how you wrote on the subway, in long hand?

Sean: Short answer: uncomfortably.

Yes, I used to do this. My process changed after I wrote my third novel. It had to because I was getting novels out but not in a format I could pass to my agent or editor. Having two-hundred thousand words in cryptic Seanskrit does me no good. Now I have a laptop that I work directly into. I still miss my longhand process. If I ever find a million dollars on the street I'll go back to it. That is an invitation for someone to give me a million dollars.
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Me: Talk about editing your book. How did you know when to stop? What advice can you give other writers on the editing "Stop line"?

Sean: Keep going over it again and again, but stop before you lose your sanity. Put it down for a long time and come back to it later. Write another book before your final edit. Or don't. It's your book, you know what it needs. Be honest with yourself, especially the scary “I don't want to have to work on that part” stuff. The stuff that scares you is the heart of your work. Every book is different. Don't measure how much work this book will need based on how much the last one needed. Every writer is different. Don't measure how much your work will need based on how much your friend worked on their book.

Go to fullsize imageMe: Tell us about your agent and why the match is perfect?

Sean: What can I say about Janet Reid that hasn't already been written on the men's room wall of the Old Town Bar? She laughs at all my jokes, whether they're funny or not. She knows when to kick me in the kidneys. She's not afraid to have one too many rounds. She is viciously protective of her writers. She is a better evaluator of work than she gives herself credit for. She is unafraid to do what terrifies me.
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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 lengthy word journey?”

Sean: If something feels like a novel and then partway through it loses steam and you feel like you simply can't get back to it unless someone puts a gun to your head, why are you working on it? Work on something else, come back, or don't. I stopped working on my second novel to write all of my third, and then returned to my second. I thought I'd abandoned it because I'd lost my interest, but I did return to it, refreshed, and churned out another thirty thousand words to finish it.

You will know when a story is a novel. I knew with Numb. Up to that point I had only written short stories, and I assumed Numb was another. Suddenly he was going into a lion's cage to wrestle a circus lion and I realized that when he got out he would be going somewhere else, that what would happen in the lion's cage was the beginning of his story, not the end, and I took a big gulp of air and said to myself, “Holy shit, is this a novel?”

Go to fullsize imageMe: If Sean Ferrell ever wrote a Non-Fiction book, what would the subject be?

Sean: “How to be Unsuccessful at Avoiding Work: A Multi-step Program.”

Seriously, I think that if I ever wrote a book of non-fiction it would probably be something incredibly esoteric and academic involving nudity and Star Trek.

Me: The publishing world is changing. Share your thoughts on what you think these changes may hold for authors.

Sean: More heavy drinking, worry, stress, opportunity for self-flagellation. You know, more of the same, only with faster download speeds.

Me: I hear Jeff Somers has sworn off alcohol, become a vegan and that you and he can be found wondering the city streets at night singing songs from "West Side Story"... Care to comment?

Sean: You've got some of the details mixed up. While on a bender, Jeff was found on the West Side swearing. He was wearing nothing but a sandwich-board advertising a neighborhood cooperative organic garden project, of which he knew no details when questioned by police, referring repeatedly to his sandwich-board as his “wash-n-wearables.”

Seriously, Jeff is a talented and good friend, and if it weren't for our mutual restraining-orders against each other we would probably get into a lot more trouble together.

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Me: Can you give me your “must read” list?

Sean: I shy away from “must read” as a phrase. The contrarian in me immediately responds to “You simply MUST read/see/eat this” with “I'd rather not.” This attitude drives my mother crazy.

So “must” read, no, but I will list some authors I've been enjoying lately. I already mentioned Bill Cameron. There's also Marcy Dermansky, Colson Whitehead, Thomas Pynchon, Jess Walter and that rapscallion of screen and stage, Jeff Somers.
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