Big Idea

The Big Idea: Brian Evenson

On the list of “two great tastes that go together,” the genres “detective mystery” and “religious fiction” might not be on the top of your list of things to combine — but then, you’re probably not Brian Evenson, whose latest novel Last Days does just that, bringing a former detective together with a very odd cult for the purposes of giving you, the reader, a hell of a jolt. What caused Evenson to bend these genres around each other? Here he is to give you the clues.


Books for me tend to start with a series of small gnat-like ideas which, if I’m very lucky, develop into a swarm and then evolve into a big idea. Last Days started when I found the first Library of America American Noir volume in a used bookstore about ten years back. I read James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and thought “Why didn’t anyone tell me to read this before now?” I read a few more Cains then moved on to Chandler, Fearing, Highsmith and others, all the time thinking vaguely that I might write something. I was gathering and collecting gestures, moods, and ideas. Then I read Dashiell Hammett.

Chandler has become so much a part of popular culture that even if you haven’t read him, he feels familiar. The amazing thing about Hammett is that at his best he doesn’t feel familiar. There are moments in Red Harvest that are beautifully brutal, other moments that are quite stark, stripped down in a different way than Chandler. You get the sense that Hammett is making his genre up as he goes, that almost anything could happen, and that he’s not interested in pulling his punches. The other books were buzzing in my head, but Red Harvest was buzzing louder. Then the cult he creates in The Dain Curse started buzzing too. Those two books seemed to be calling out to me to do something of my own, but I still didn’t have my big idea.

Then I rediscovered Philip K. Dick, who I hadn’t read for years, and loved the way he grafted noir onto SF in things like A Scanner Darkly. I stumbled onto Jonathan Lethem’s Gun, with Occassional Music (which combines hardboiled fiction and SF) and re-read Peter Straub’s The Throat (which brings horror and the detective novel together). The buzzing was louder now. When I finaly sat down to write all those ideas whirling in my head started to organize themselves, gathering themselves into a bigger idea, something that synthesized Hammett, genre-bending fiction, and my own interest in religious extremism. The result was the novella “The Brotherhood of Mutilation.”

I published that, was happy with the results, but almost immediately I found that I wanted to continue on. Sometimes what you think is the big idea is just a step on the way to a bigger idea, and that’s what it felt like in this case. The bigger idea, though, took a few more years in coming. I’d kept reading noirs and crime fiction. Fredric Brown, Dan Marlowe, David Goodis, Jean-Patrick Manchette’s beautifully violent novels, and Richard Stark all were leading me toward the bigger idea. Then I saw Odd Nerdrum’s painting “One Story Singer.” And then two friends mentioned separately mentioned that Ludwig Wittgenstein’s brother Paul was a one-handed piano player and everything started to fall into place.

As a whole, Last Days explores questions of free will and choice. It’s the story of Kline, an ex-detective who has lost his hand, who comes to the attention of a religious cult. The cult is basically a Christian group with one very odd tenet: they take literally the statement in the New Testament “If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off.” They’re an amputation cult: you move closer to God by letting go of more and more of your physical body. Their belief, though very odd, is also very genuine.

Press-ganged into solving a crime whose details nobody seems to quite agree on, Kline finds himself quickly in over his head, trying to negotiate a set of social rules that are completely foreign to him. An outsider in the community, he’s always at risk. He might be free to act, but he might also be a pawn in a power play that he can’t quite see. He may be making choices that will allow him to escape or the very choices he’s making may be things that have been scripted for him so that his fall, when it comes, will be all the harder.

The first part of the book raises these questions; in the second half, these questions become even more fraught in that cult members seems increasingly convinced that every action Kline takes, no matter how crazy or unpredictable, is predestined to have occurred and is proof that he has a special role to play. As he tries to keep one step ahead of his own death, he also becomes increasingly worried that they might be right, that his actions aren’t free but rather foreordained, and that in acting has he does he’s ceasing to be human. But whether that means he’s becoming inhuman or divine is a question he and the cult members disagree on. “What does it mean to act?” Last Days asks, and where do our responsibilities lie? If our choices are limited are we still responsible for them? If our actions are predestined are they still really ours? And even if they are, can we still live with ourselves after what we, out of necessity or out of fear, feel that we have to do to stay alive?


Last Days: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Powell’s

Read an excerpt of Last Days here (.pdf link).


10 Things to Remember About Authors

Because it appears someone needs to say these things out loud, some thoughts, for the consideration of readers, about authors, particularly novelists. Warning: This is long.

1. Authors aren’t machines: Which is to say, we do not reliably and through a purely mechanical process extrude Novel-Length Textual Product with Extra Added Plot and Character Flavors™ on a predictable schedule. Like all things that live, we do our thing imprecisely. Sometimes the novels come out regularly and uniformly; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes the novels conform to our own expectations of what they should be; sometimes they come out malformed and need to be fixed before they can be sent out into the world. Sometimes they just don’t work at all and have to be tossed. Sometimes production is easy, sometimes it’s not.

Certainly many authors strive for predictable process, which is why so many of them block out a regular amount of time every day, and try to bang out a regular number of words a day. But working at a regular pace and time and with a regular amount of output does not mean that any individual novel will thereby come out on a predictable schedule. Some of those 500 or 1,000 daily words will be unusable; some of those will be spent rewriting other words; some of those words will be so great that it takes the novel in a new direction that the author has to follow to see where it leads, to the exclusion of finishing the novel on a schedule. Predictable process in this case does not necessarily lead to predictable output.

Corollary to the above:

2. Authors are human: Our brains, the organ we use to create our novels, are touchy and imprecise things. They get bored. They get confused. They lose track of plot and narrative threads. They think too much about some things, and not nearly enough about others. They are sometimes ambitious beyond their actual grasp. They are likewise sometimes tremendously poor estimators of their own capacity. Our brains, in short, are a hindrance as much as a help to us — as they are for all humans.

And like all humans, we authors are a vain and rationalizing group, wanting to look good to others and rationalizing when we do not perform to our own expectations or the expectations of others — and often doing a better job of rationalizing our failures than others, because, after all, we’re pretty good with that fiction thing, and what is rationalization but self-serving fiction? Like all humans we screw up and succeed in nearly equal measure, and hope merely that the screw-ups are smaller overall than the successes. As a class of human, we are not notably different than any other class of human, in terms of performance and behavior. Wish we were better (and more attractive!), but we’re not.

Because of the above, the next point naturally follows:

3. Authors have lives: Writing is not all we do. Many of us conned other people into becoming spouses or otherwise being significant others and are thus obliged to spend time interacting with them in a manner that hopefully fosters their inclination to continue said intimate relationship. Some of us, as a consequence of above, might have spawned and are thus obliged to contribute in ways material, intellectual and spiritual, to the development of such offspring. Some of us have even managed to create and maintain familiar association with others in a phenomenon known as “friendship” — which also requires tending.

Beyond these things, we authors also have some required and desired physical and mental activities. We need to eat, sleep, poop, (somewhat more rarely) exercise and (even more rarely, alas) get laid. We may also choose to pursue activities that have no immediate profitable purpose but which refresh our brains through amusement: Watching TV, playing sports, arguing with people about absolutely pointless things online, collecting stamps, traveling, attending conventions or conferences, staring at pictures of other nekkid people, and so on and so forth. Likewise, there are some things we would prefer not to do but have to anyway, like take out the trash, do the laundry, pay the bills, call up publishers/editors and ask where our damn money is, be civil to people we don’t like but have some reason not to say “kindly piss off, would you?” to, attend meetings or therapy, and so on. While none of these things is directly related to writing, it’s likely without doing them, our interest and/or capacity for writing might be in some way compromised.

And beyond these things are the “Life is a drunk driver and you’re the poor bastard pedestrian what just stepped into the crosswalk” items: Someone we love dies. Our day job disappears from under us. We get a divorce. We or someone we know develops a dependency. We get sick (and, if you’re a writer in the US, as a freelance person, likely have no health insurance). Not only does this kick us in the ass because we’re human, it kicks us in the ass because it’s hard to be creative/funny/interesting/engaged in writing when your world is falling apart around you. This isn’t asking for an extra dollop of sympathy. It’s pointing out that being creative often works best in congenial surroundings.

Following all that:

4. Authors frequently won’t tell you about the details of their lives: Which is to say sometimes when you’re wondering why that favorite author of yours is late with a book you’re expecting, you won’t get an explanation that, say, someone close to her is suffering from severe depression and she’s spending her time tending to them, or, say, that he’s decided that what he’s written is crap and he can’t in good conscience inflict it on his readers, or, say, that he’s spent the last nine months playing World of Warcraft and has now totally leveled out all his characters, which is good, but didn’t do any writing, which is, well, bad. And why won’t you get an explanation? Simple: Because it’s none of your damn business.

No, really, it’s not. Perhaps you think it is, but you’re wrong about that. Just as the particulars of your own life need not be discussed with anyone else not actively involved in it, so too are the particulars of an author’s life beyond your purview, unless the author chooses to share them with you (meaning, most likely, sharing with the public in a general sense). And even then you probably shouldn’t expect a full accounting of details, because authors, even the ones with blogs and active public presences, quite naturally decide where their public sphere ends and their private sphere begins.

And no, being a fan of an author’s books or series doesn’t count as being actively involved in that author’s life. You are actively involved with his or her books; that’s not even close to the same thing. Following the author’s blog/Twitter/Facebook page and even commenting there doesn’t get you into their lives either. As personable as an author can be, live, online or in his or her writing, personable is not the same as personal. Authors are under no obligation to keep you informed about things in their lives. It’s nice if they do, but it’s not required. Frankly, it shouldn’t necessarily be expected.

Intimately tied into this: Authors frequently won’t tell you the details of their business lives, either, for much the same reasons.

This is related to the following:

5. Authors do many things for many reasons: Let’s say your favorite author, rather than working on a novel you want him to release, instead decides to edit an anthology. You ask: What is this idjit thinking? I and many other fans are waiting for that novel! He could make so much more money by putting that novel out! What on earth could possibly motivate such a bonehead maneuver?

Off the top of my head, here are some reasons:

a) The author was contractually obliged to edit the anthology before he signed for the novel you’re waiting for.

b) The author has painted himself into a corner with the novel and needs time to think it through, and while doing that wants to keep himself busy and getting paid.

c) The author is bored writing the novel and needs to do something else, otherwise the completed novel will suck.

d) The author is using his name and influence to help out some fellow writers by editing an anthology, which will allow him to help their careers and throw some money their way.

e) The author is curious about this whole editing thing and wants to see what it’s like.

Or: some combination of two or more of the above reasons, or perhaps none of those reasons at all. Point is, what the author does and why he or she does it might not make sense to you, but makes perfect sense to the author. Why the disparity in opinion? Because you’re not the author, and per point 4, you’re likely not get a full explanation of his or her reasoning.

6. One author ≠ another author: Now, perhaps one of your favorite authors jams out a readable novel every six months (or every nine months, or every year, whatever).  If she can do that, why can’t this other author whose books you love do the same thing? Simple: Because they’re two entirely different people. They don’t have the same writing habits, the same writing process, the same life circumstances, the same business circumstances or even, likely, the same career goals and aspirations. They produce similar consumer objects (i.e., novels), but everything else is likely quite different.

Now, one thing to keep in mind here is that the publishing world, in general, tries to select for the writers who can produce good, competent prose on a more-or-less predictable schedule, because people follow authors and want more from their favorites, and publishing wants that pipeline filled. One side effect of this, naturally, is that bookstores are filled with authors who produce good, competent prose on a more-or-less predictable schedule. It does not mean, however, that every author does works this way, or can work this way, or should work this way if the quality of their work suffers because of it. The business practices and tendencies of the publishing industry, and the type of writer those practices and tendencies favor, shouldn’t be used by fans as an argument against the writer whose own schedule does not conform to them. Because, among other things:

7. One novel ≠ another novel: Even the novelists skilled at churning out prose fast enough to make their publishers happy have wide variances in the time it takes to finish one book and another. One novel might take five weeks to finish, another could take five months, or five years — or it might never get finished. Past performance is not a guarantee of future results.

Why the variance? Because some novels are harder than others, and because one’s life is never the same one novel-writing time to the next. A novel that might take an author three months to finish when nothing is distracting her might take her two years if she’s getting a divorce and trying to get her life back together. A novel that she blocked out six months to write might take two months if it suddenly all comes together in her head, and she races to get it on the page before she forgets how all the puzzle pieces fit together. The kicker is as a reader you might not be able to tell a five-week novel from a five-year novel; process doesn’t work that way.

This variance takes place not only from novel to novel but sometimes also within a series; very frequently the first few books of a series are kicked out in rapid order while the final books take longer. This is sometimes an artifact of the series’ world becoming more complex and the author having to keep track of more things; sometimes it might be an artifact of the author deciding not to rush; sometimes it’s an artifact of the author getting hit by a car. Beyond this there’s another salient fact:

8. Authors and their circumstances change over time: It may be the author who earlier in her career could bat out three novels in a year finds she’s only capable of one a year now, or vice-versa. It could be an author plans to write a whole lot of books now in order to build the sort of name that allows her to write at a more leisurely pace in the future. It could be that an author who has built her name writing in one genre gets bored with that genre and wants to write something else entirely. It could be an author decides that being an author is too much damn work for not nearly enough money and decides to do something else with her life. It could be that an author becomes so famous that she decides she no longer needs to be edited, even when she does. It could be whatever creative spark that animated an author to literary heights abandons her and everything else she does from that point is merely competent at best. It could be an author just stops caring — or decides to care about something so intently it colors everything she writes.

Authors change because they are people, and people change, even the ones who hardly seem to change at all (if nothing else, they get older). Most of this change from the reader point of view happens offstage, because your primary experience with the author is their books, but you’ll notice the change nonetheless. Expecting authors to stay constant, in terms of output, quality or novelty, is not necessarily the most realistic thing a reader can do, unless they genuinely feel they are exactly as they were five, ten, twenty or thirty years ago. In which case they might want to get a second opinion from someone a little less subjective.

When we talk of an author’s circumstances changing over time, incidentally, here is something else to remember:

9. Authors’ careers (and choices therein) are not always entirely under their control: An author can write a fantastic book no one ever reads because the publisher goes under before the book is published, or decides to promote another book more avidly, or because the book comes out the same day as a blockbuster hits and it gets swamped. An author can write two books in what becomes your favorite series only to be told by the publisher that they’re not selling, so the series is canceled. An author can write good books that sell well and still get dropped because the multinational his publisher is part of is trimming costs and his next book didn’t get its contract written up in time. Conversely, an author could write something he believes is a silly, pointless trifle, have it become unspeakably huge, and find himself with the really interesting position of being able to become really rich and famous… if he just keeps batting out more novels about something he doesn’t actually care about all that much, which will consume the biggest portion of his creative life.

Lots of stuff that happens in the careers of authors happens to them, with the author then maneuvering either to take advantage of it or to get out of its path of destruction. And while I pointed out events specific to an author above, sometimes it’s industry-wide events that happen, like a massive change in how books get distributed, or one of the big bookselling chains going under, or it’s global events, like recessions, wars or just some really big, stupid fad. Authors are subject to the same chain-yanks and unexpected events as everyone else; the difference is that these will have an effect on the books you were hoping to read. Sometimes there’s not much we can do about it. Sorry.

What does this lead up to? Simply this:

10. Keep all of the above in mind the next time you go snarking off on your favorite author for not jumping through your hoops. I’m not saying don’t snark; that would be like telling the tide not to come in, and besides, I’m the last person to tell people not to snark. I am saying to be aware that behind the books you read is a single person who is trying to bring you something worth reading, while also dealing with all the same basic crap you have to deal with, plus some extra crap that is specific to his or her chosen field.

Unlike in a lot of creative fields, we don’t get to farm out some or all of the creative work to someone else; we’ve got to deal with it ourselves. It’s a fair amount of work, particularly if you’re one of those authors who wants his or her readers to feel like they’ve gotten value for their money. Yes, some writers are lazy; yes, some are inveterate fiddlers who don’t know when something is done; yes, some writers are just basically screwed up, or hostile, or stoned or whatever. Most of them are trying to do a good job for you and get you something you’ll be glad to have read.

So, a small request. Before you lump an author who is not performing to your immediate expectations into the “slacktastic asstard” category, won’t you at least consider some of the above points? Just consider them, is all I’m asking. I don’t think it’s too much to ask, especially regarding someone you’re hoping will give you something good, and who, most likely, is hoping to do the same thing.


Why One Keeps Archives

Because seven years after I wrote it, “I Hate Your Politics” is at the moment the most visited part of the site. And in fact this does not surprise me at all; on any given day “Being Poor” or my writing advice to teens is probably in the top ten of entries visited here, and bacon cat is never far behind. Contrary to the popular opinion that everything written in a blog is evanescent, in point of fact, good material is visited constantly no matter its age, and the visitorship of Whatever’s archives have a significant effect on the site’s overall popularity. Call it Whatever’s Long Tail, if you like.


Why Star Wars in 3D?

In this week’s AMC column, I crawl into the brain of George Lucas (I know: eeeeew) and find out just why it is he intends to re-release the Star Wars films, this time in 3D. No, it’s not just for the money. It involves David O. Selznick. And Scarlett O’Hara. No, seriously. You’ll just have to click through to see the explanation.

Exit mobile version