Welcome to SCRAWL SPACE, Greg’s blog. Here he waxes eloquent on all things relating to writing and the writing life. In other words, it’s where he loves to waste his time and that of his readers. He’s very happy you’ve stopped by. You, too, Dad.
Whenever submitting one of my novels for an award or to a potential publicist or promotion service, invariably I am asked to check a box indicating what genre the book falls under. It’s harder than it sounds.
Thriller? Not exactly.
Suspense? Close, but nuh uh.
Romance? No, my darling.
Fantasy? Dream on.
Sci-Fi? Does not compute.
Young Adult? Whatever.
After scanning and rejecting all the major genre categories, I end up doing the same thing my wife – who is half-Indonesian and half-Australian – does whenever answering the ethnicity question on a form or application. …
I check “Other.”
I’m proud to be an Other. I find it more interesting than being another. Another mystery writer. Another romance writer. Another fantasy writer. Not that I’ve got anything against those who write in the most popular genres. It’s just, what’s the fun in creating books that sell easily?
Being an Other does come with its set of challenges. Namely, a smaller reading market. If I had a dime for every person who has asked me why I don’t write more like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin – or at least more like writers who try to write like those writers write – I’d have enough money to hire a hitman to take out the next person who asks me that.
Now that would make for a good novel. One that wouldn’t fit easily into any major genre category.
I get that most readers are partial to a specific genre. But it seems many readers are completely unwilling to read outside of that genre. Or will start reading something they think falls within that genre only to stop the second a sacred rule is broken or bent, the minute a familiar formula begins to morph. I’m not saying these readers don’t want to be shocked and surprised. They do, as long as it's in a way they expect.
Call me a freak, but when I’m reading or writing a novel, I simply don’t think in terms of genre. I think in terms of STORY. If I’m totally engrossed in a book (or a movie or a TV show), not once do I stop and think, “Wait, is this a thriller or a mystery?” or “Is this dystopian fantasy or sci-fi?” I just keep reading (or watching) and allowing myself to be immersed in the captivating reality the writer (and/or director) has created. At least until my wife wakes me up on the couch, puts my empty cocktail glass in the sink, and escorts me to bed.
Some of my favorite novels cannot be cleanly categorized: Fight Club (and just about every other novel by Chuck Palahniuk); Slaughterhouse-Five (and just about every other novel by Kurt Vonnegut); Geek Love; Trainspotting; We Have Always Lived in the Castle; The Contortionist’s Handbook. These peculiar books thrill and delight me, and naturally they and others (un)like them have had a significant influence on my own writing. What can I say? I brake for broken rules. I heart inventive. I get off on oddly original.
I’m pretty sure you do, too. So, if you’ve never tried it before, grab the wheel and veer recklessly outside your genre lane. Get off at the wrong exit. Drive down an unpaved road. Then just continue on and see how far you can go, keeping the pedal to the floor until you arrive somewhere so mesmerizing and new, it doesn’t even have a name.
Okay, I waited three spaces. I feel that’s sufficient before going ahead and pushing my own peculiar books, The Exit Manand Sick to Death(Note: Sick to Death is currently just 99 cents for Amazon US & UK customers! Deal ends April 25.)
An expert on author platforms recently told me readers love it when writers provide answers to frequently asked questions (FAQs). I’m not usually one to challenge authority, unless I’m conscious, but I’m afraid this expert doesn’t know his ass from a hole in a plot.
Things that are frequently asked are rarely interesting. “Is it hot enough for you?” “How’s the chicken?” “Are you off your meds, Greg?” It’s almost impossible to provide an intriguing response to such common questions. Unless, of course, I’m off my meds.
So, rather than following the aforementioned “expert’s” advice and doing an FAQ post, I’ve decided instead to do an FAQ post. No, I’m not off my meds – the “F” in the latter acronym stands for “Favorite,” not “Frequently.”
Below are some of the best questions interviewers have posed to me during my six years as a published novelist begging to be interviewed.
You write about issues that others would normally tiptoe around. Where does this dark humor come from?
First off, I don't see the point of always tiptoeing around touchy topics. Tiptoeing can cause painful cramping. Sometimes it’s better to dance on top of such topics – just as you would atop the grave of an evil nemesis or a gun lobbyist.
As for where my dark humor comes from, I guess you could say it’s a survival tactic. I don't use dark humor to offend – I use it to defend. Humor is a magnificent weapon, one that, instead of destroying, keeps us from being destroyed. Nietzsche said, "We have art in order to not die of the truth." I feel humor serves the same purpose. In fact, humor – when deftly wielded – is art.
How has your upbringing influenced your writing?
I had a pretty happy childhood, which normally dooms a writing career. But I managed to overcome all the unconditional love and support and still become a tortured writer of twisted tales. That’s not to say my upbringing didn’t help me at all. I was a very talkative kid (surprise!), and when all my family and friends finally got sick and tired of listening to me, I turned to the written word. Nobody can shut you up when you're alone in a room typing... except for my cat, Dingo, who loves to sit on my laptop keyboard right when the prose is flowing.
Is there an underlying message you wish to relay about basic human nature through your characters?
No, I don’t really try to relay any underlying message or universal truth about basic human nature. I don’t pretend to even understand basic human nature – especially after the last election.
With my latest novel, Sick to Death, my intent was solely to spin a captivating and entertaining yarn. To explore what could happen if some terminally ill folks with an otherwise solid moral compass decided dying gave them a license to kill.
I just hope, in writing such a book, the underlying message isn’t that I should be committed to a mental institution.
Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
Dr. Seuss infected me at a very young age. I blame him. For everything. Especially whenever I receive a royalty check and can’t decide whether to laugh or to cry. Aggravated people often mutter, “Thanks, Obama.” I often mutter, “Thanks, Seuss.”
What do you consider the most challenging part of writing a novel?
The biggest challenge for me is remembering to feed my cats. Also, remembering to kiss my wife and hug my daughter every now and again. What I’m saying is I really get into the writing process. So much so, I often forget about the living process.
Besides writing, what secret skills do you have?
I can’t say I have any secret skills; if I’m good at something, I make sure to tell everyone all about it. I will share one of my more surprising skills, though: Freestyle rapping. You probably wish I were kidding, but I’m not. I suffer from chronic hip-hopilepsy. I contracted it when I was about fourteen. At least I’ve learned to apply it to my writing career. For example, here’s a rap about being an author:
My hopes are set high, my prose I let fly
Don't wanna be a writer who just mostly gets by
I wanna be a writer getting checks that let my
chauffeur and my butler go and get my neckties
I’ll give it my best try, I've authored this rap storm
You might be like, "What's an author doing a rap for?"
I'm hoping it will elevate my authoring platform
I have a couple readers but I need to attract more
Your previous book, The Exit Man, was quite successful. Did you ever fear that Sick to Death would suffer from second novel syndrome?
Not at all, mainly because Sick to Death is my third novel. The reason you didn’t know that is because my first novel was very much a first novel. I did things smart – started with a mediocre book so that all my subsequent ones would seem decent.
In all seriousness, as an author there’s no point in worrying if your latest book will live up to those that preceded it. If you’re writing scared, you’re not “bringing it.” And readers today demand you bring it.
Tell us a bit about your writing habits. (Granted, this isn’t a very intriguing question; however, my response is astonishing.)
I’m kind of like Rain Man with my writing. Every day from 8:30 a.m. till 3:00 p.m., yeah. 8:30 till 3:00, gotta write, yeah.
I’m EXTREMELY fortunate to have a wife who not only allows me to write full-time, she insists on it. When I speak of getting a real job, she beats me. I used to have a real job (a writing job, actually, but not a particularly exciting one), and my wife beat me until I quit and focused entirely on fiction. I’m the luckiest victim of domestic abuse alive. (There’s that dark sense of humor again. #SorryNotSorry.)
If you could choose one character from your latest book to spend a day with, who would it be? And where would you take him/her?
Funny you should ask. Not too long ago I tweeted, “I spend all day with my protagonists, but I wouldn't want to be seen with any of them.” Hmmm, I guess if I had to actually hang out with one of the characters from Sick to Death, I’d choose Gage, the main character – even though this might piss of Jenna, the second most important character in the book and someone you really don’t want to piss off.
I’d probably take Gage out for a couple of drinks, then to a Trump speech and just see what happens. Pretty sure after that, the whole world would know about Gage and my book. Call it a PR stunt. Thank me later.
What would you say is your greatest strength as a writer?
I’d say it’s my ability to bring humor to controversial and dark topics while simultaneously revealing the heart and humanity of my protagonists. I love getting readers to root for a sociopath or a serial killer or just a plain loser, and getting them to laugh and cry while doing it.
What are you working on right now?
A bourbon, neat. Oh, and my fourth novel. It centers around a guy who serves on an elite team that goes undercover across the globe to rescue victims of child sex trafficking.
The story was inspired by a humanitarian trip my wife took to Cambodia in 2015. And while the book is technically a dark comedy, I assure you there is no making light of what the girls who are rescued go through. Instead, the humor comes from how the undercover “pedophiles” cope (and struggle to cope) with the extremely challenging and critical missions they carry out, and the odd role they must play during those missions.
As part of my research, I interviewed a lead member of an actual undercover rescue team. When he found out what kind of writer I was, he said, “I’m glad to hear it. There’s no way one can survive what we do without a dark sense of humor.” I aim for the book to do right by him and all the other people who dedicate their lives to liberating victims of child sex slavery. Without depressing the hell out of everyone who reads it.
If you have a question for me about anything even remotely related to writing life (and death), by all means post it in the comment section below. If I can’t come up with a good response, I’ll have my ghostwriter do so.
Fiction writers are weird. You needn’t read novels to figure that out. Just sneak into an author’s house and listen in. Or, if you’re not comfortable with breaking and entering, hire a private investigator to bug the place. Yes, I realize reading a book might seem easier than all that, but who has time to read these days? Besides, you could use a little more excitement in your life.
Following are just a few of the things you’re likely to overhear in a fiction writer’s home that you aren’t likely to hear anywhere else – on this or any other planet.
1) “Coming to bed in a moment, dear. First I have to hide a body.”
2) “I have some horrible news. It’s my protagonist – he’s refusing to talk to me.”
3) “I got paid today – let’s go split a beer!
4) “Fine, I’ll Google it. I just thought you might know what gets blood and brains out of cashmere.”
5) “How can all of you just sit there so calmly and watch TV when I just told you I’m having trouble with chapter seven!”
6) “Go ahead and eat without me. I need another hour to figure out the best poisoning method.”
7) “A reader just informed me of a typo on page 147 of my new novel. I’m going out for razorblades. Don’t wait up.”
8) “You invited THEM over for dinner? They haven’t even bought my book yet.”
9) “I am NOT growing more distant. I just find you harder to talk to than my characters.”
10) “When I find out who gave me that two-star review on Amazon, I’m putting them in my next novel.”
11) “Can’t you get your mother to rush you to the hospital? I’m really in the groove right now.”
12) “Honey, have you seen my pajamas? You know I can’t go to work tomorrow without them.”
13) “Sorry for giggling. It’s just one of my main characters said the funniest thing today.”
14) “What do you MEAN we won an all expenses-paid vacation to Hawaii? Damn it! I’ll NEVER finish this book!"
15) "A divorce? Fine. But you get the kids; I get the printer and all the ink cartridges."
If you are a writer, what kinds of crazy sh*t might be overheard in your home? If you LIVE with a writer, contact my wife to commiserate.
It’s no secret I love dark humor. I read it. I watch it. I write it. I live it. Well, we ALL live it. I mean, what’s darker and funnier than being the only animals totally conscious of the fact they are definitely going to die one day? Hilarious.
And since we’re all definitely going to die one day, I won’t waste any more of your time on a long intro. Following are my favorite lines from my favorite authors who take their comedy black with no cream or sugar:
“At the time, my life just seemed too complete, and maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves.” (Fight Club)
“On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero.” (Fight Club)
“Today is the sort of day where the sun only comes up to humiliate you.” (Fight Club)
“I don't want to die without any scars.” (Fight Club)
“It's only in drugs or death we'll see anything new, and death is just too controlling.” (Survivor)
“People used what they called a telephone because they hated being close together and they were too scared of being alone.” (Survivor)
“All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring.” (Invisible Monsters)
“In a world where billions believe their deity conceived a mortal child with a virgin human, it's stunning how little imagination most people display.” (Rant)
“What if reality is nothing but some disease?” (Rant)
“And I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep.” (Slaughterhouse-Five)
“How nice -- to feel nothing, and still get full credit for being alive.” (Slaughterhouse-Five)
“Seems like the only kind of job an American can get these days is committing suicide in some way.” (Breakfast of Champions)
“Earthlings went on being friendly, when they should have been thinking instead.”
(Breakfast of Champions)
"Maturity is a bitter disappointment for which no remedy exists, unless laughter can be said to remedy anything." (Cat's Cradle)
"All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental." (Timequake)
Bret Easton Ellis
“I'm into, oh murders and executions mostly. It depends.” (American Psycho)
“Disintegration – I'm taking it in stride.” (American Psycho)
“There’s no use in denying it: this has been a bad week. I’ve started drinking my own urine.” (American Psycho)
“I don't want to care. If I care about things, it'll just be worse, it'll just be another thing to worry about.” (Less Than Zero)
“And as the elevator descends, passing the second floor, and the first floor, going even farther down, I realize that the money doesn't matter. That all that does is that I want to see the worst.” (Less Than Zero)
“I only had sex with her because I'm in love with you.” (The Rules of Attraction)
“You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” (Lolita)
“He broke my heart. You merely broke my life.” (Lolita)
“Human life is but a series of footnotes to a vast obscure unfinished masterpiece” (Lolita)
“All the seven deadly sins are peccadilloes but without three of them, Pride, Lust, and Sloth, poetry might never have been born.” (Pale Fire)
“I cannot disobey something which I do not know and the reality of which I have the right to deny.” (Pale Fire)
“Some people – and I am one of them – hate happy ends. We feel cheated. Harm is the norm. Doom should not jam. The avalanche stopping in its tracks a few feet above the cowering village behaves not only unnaturally but unethically.” (Pnin)
“Be glad you're even alive. Be furious you're going to die.” (Catch-22)
“The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.” (Catch-22)
“He was going to live forever, or die in the attempt.” (Catch-22)
“The enemy is anybody who's going to get you killed, no matter which side he is on.” (Catch-22)
“I frequently feel I'm being taken advantage of merely because I'm asked to do the work I'm paid to do.” (Something Happened)
“I know at last what I want to be when I grow up. When I grow up I want to be a little boy.” (Something Happened)
And sorry folks, I just couldn’t resist the opportunity for a little self-promotion…
"Suicide should come with a warning label: 'Do not try this alone.'" (The Exit Man)
“One week I’m helping to end a life, the next I’m stepping in to save one. Seemingly dichotomous acts, but actually one in the same.” (The Exit Man)
“She had become an integral part of my life – just not the part with all the death.” (The Exit Man)
“It’s best to discuss mass murder behind closed doors, and Jenna lived the closest.” (Sick to Death – available soon!)
“Learning he might not be dying really threw a wrench into Gage’s plans. He didn’t see how he could go on killing if there was a chance he’d go on living.” (Sick to Death)
“He never praised me whenever I’d hit a home run in little league, but I kill a few people and all of the sudden I’m his idol.” (Sick to Death)
Feel free to join in on the fun and post one or two of YOUR favorite lines from a book of dark and/or comedic fiction. Or hell, ANY kind of book. (Super-extra bonus points if it’s from one of MY books.)
After spending ten months with my main characters – living inside their heads (and they inside mine), experiencing their fear and excitement and joy and sorrow – it’s over. The last page has been written. All I can do is look back and remember.
Okay, and edit.
Still, going through my manuscript and making tweaks here and there isn’t the same as hanging out with my characters in real time. It’s like going to visit a former lover soon after a breakup. You can take back some things you said, and you can say some things you should have said the first time around, and it definitely helps, but deep down you already know your magic time together is over.
I miss how my protagonist used to wake me up in the middle of the night to tell me something vital. I miss sitting down with him and figuring out how the hell we were going to get him where he needed to go. Do what he needed to do. Overcome what he needed to overcome.
I miss putting him through hell in order to save him.
And I miss his friends. His enemies, too. I miss the whole story. Creating it, living it.
They say the best way to get over a lost love is to find a new one. And I have. I’ve already started working on my next novel. In fact, I’d started fooling around with it even before I finished my last one. So I guess you could say I was unfaithful. But in my defense, I’ve always had an unspoken open relationship with my novels. That said, it is a bit one-sided; I’m allowed to see other stories, but my stories aren’t allowed to see other authors.
Even though I have met another manuscript, the pain of having finished my last one still lingers. I keep seeing the faces and hearing the voices of the characters I’ve come to know so well. Sometimes I even call out their names when I’m getting busy with my new novel, which is awkward for everyone involved.
I realize that, in time, I will come to love my new characters as much as I do my older, more fully developed ones. And that helps to take some of the pain away. But I also know one day in the not-too-distant future I’ll have to say goodbye to those new characters, too. And then I’ll be right back where I am now. Missing my beloved imaginary friends. Wondering what they’re up to. Hoping they’ll somehow be able to move on without me. And I without them.
NOTE: I’ll be sure to keep you all updated on when the novel I recently finished writing is actually available, which should be sometime between Spring/Summer 2016 and the winter of my discontent. Of course, you could always kill the time by picking up a copy of my LAST novel. Just saying.