Monday, October 12, 2009

What the #@&$ is Going on Here???

An interview with Mutt Ploughman.

Mutt, rumor has it that you have abandoned the novel you’ve been working on for almost 3 years. What the #@&$ is going on here???
I wish I knew. Do you know?

Is that your answer??
Nah. The answer is, that rumor is not true. But it is kind of “tabled” for the moment. I haven’t worked on for many weeks. Months, in fact.

What happened?
I’m not exactly sure, but I have some half-formed theories. It was a conscious decision on my part to set it on the shelf for a while. But I made that choice reluctantly. The fact is I had been working hard on a seventh chapter, and ended up just crashing into a brick wall in the middle of it. I didn’t worry too much about that initially, because that has happened with many of the other chapters, and I was able to muscle through it. And I think I probably could have made my way through it in this case, too, and completed some form of a seventh chapter. But for whatever reason, this time doing that didn’t feel right to me. I felt like I was forcing it too hard and the result would bear the marks of that. Although I had written six previous chapters and had a pretty good idea of where the whole thing was going, it got very hard for me to continue. I felt like I had lost something this time around, for some reason.

What was lost, in your opinion? Having had a few months to think it over.
It’s hard to say. But it’s a gut feeling that something went missing in doing that work. I thought about that question specifically for a while. Finally I realized it was my personal struggles interfering too much with my writing life. 2009 has been a very challenging year for me and my family. I have felt more stress this year than in any other year I’ve experienced as an adult. I’ve been struggling on many levels. And it finally dawned on me that my whole life was in too unstable a place to be in the right frame of mind to dedicate myself to this book. I was not able to focus as hard on it as it takes to do it right. Once I realized that I felt the only thing I could honorably do was set it aside.

What sort of things happened to you this year?
I prefer to answer that question in a general way. My wife and I experienced a personal loss early in the year, the kind that marks you forever. We have had a series of financial struggles this year, as many Americans have. And I have had a major health setback. Not the fatal kind, fortunately. It’s treatable. Ripples from all of these things, however, have made the seas rather choppy in my house all year long.

That is a lot to deal with. Are you disappointed with what has happened with your novel project?
Yes, to some degree. I had high hopes to cross the halfway point this year and really make strides towards getting the first draft done. It’s hard any time you fall short of your ambitions. But I have plenty of experience with that, as do most of us. But I believe God is in control of my life, not me. He may have intentions for me that are more important to what I aspire to in my own mind.

Given all this though, it sounds like the book is pretty much dead. I’ll ask you again: is it?
It is not dead. It is on the shelf. I am getting distance from it. I hope to go back to it. My intention is to return to it and finish what I started.

I don’t know.

Do you think your father would be disappointed to know where things stand? It has a lot to do with his life.
Not really. It’s not his novel. There’s nothing he can do about it. For the most part, my Dad isn’t very sentimental. I think he’d want me to complete the novel, but I doubt very much he would be upset to know that I’m having difficulty. He was a scientist, he’s very black-and-white. Some things work out and some things don’t, and sometimes you just have to try again later.

What about your writing life in general? Is that dead?
Absolutely not. If my novel is not dead yet, my writing life is not dead yet. If my writing life is dead, check my pulse, because that means I am dead myself. I will always be writing or thinking about writing – working up to writing – something, until my mind fails. I know that much about myself by now.

Which of those are you doing now then? Writing something, or working up to it?
Both, actually. I wrote one short story a few months back called “Job 4:18” about a delusional angel who crashes to earth, literally, and attempts to enforce God’s will his own way. I sent it around to a couple places and collected the usual rejections. Then I took several weeks to work on an essay I was really itching to write, a critical piece about my relationship to the music of the singer and pianist Tori Amos called “Me and a Girl”. That took me a long time to get right. I got really into it. After that, for several weeks, late summer heading into early fall, I didn’t know what to do next. I had a few very loose story ideas. I thought about writing a book review. But then I decided to begin a short story called “A Chemical Episode”, and something curious happened. Although the very first glimmer of this idea didn’t reveal as much to me, I realized almost as soon as I started it that I was writing about characters I’d written about before. And it became clear immediately who they were – a big surprise for me since I had absolutely no intention of revisiting previous work. It was strange, but interesting too.

Who were/are the characters?
The Meegan twins, Tommy and Terry, from a collection of unpublished, autobiographical stories I wrote earlier this decade called A Son of the Suburbs. Mainly Terry – that is, my altar ego. But most of the stories were written about him anyway, with Tommy having more of a side role, especially towards the end of the collection.

Isn’t that a “diss” to your brother?
Of course it’s not a “diss”. [Looking around.] Who is this idiot!?.......[Turns attention back to interviewer.] Autobiographical stories are about yourself, by definition. If he wants Tommy to be the main character, he can write his own book of stories! And my brother understands that.

Why did you decide to bring back these characters?
As I indicated before, it was almost involuntary. But maybe it was similar to the way many of the previous stories in A Son of the Suburbs had come about – I was remembering various incidents and anecdotes, things that happened to me or to people I knew when I was growing up. I wanted to find some way to work these things into stories that, hopefully, would go a certain distance towards capturing the essence of my childhood, my upbringing. In this case, I had an idea to write a story about an incident that had occurred when I was a teenager or maybe just into my 20s. There was this weird chemical plant down the street from the house I lived in in New Jersey, and one hot summer night, in the small hours, it just blew sky-high. We never really found out why. There was some kind of bad reaction or some accident. There was a massive explosion that shook the house itself and woke up whoever was asleep. For a few days they evacuated our entire neighborhood; my family scattered. We slept with friends. I never knew where my parents went. It was such a bizarre thing, and all these years later, it still felt like something to try to capture in a story. But at the time I had the idea, several weeks ago, I didn’t connect it at all to the earlier stories I had written. After all, I wrote them anywhere from five to six years ago, and it had been some time since I had even thought about them. But as soon as I started the story, I realized I was back into that same fictional world. So I made the story about the Terry Meegan and the Meegan family, one more time.

What happened with the previous stories? A Son of the Suburbs?
They were just sitting on the shelf with all the other works of fiction I have written.

Did you try to get any of them published?
I only tried to get one published. It is called “The Races”. It’s one of my all-time favorite of my stories, if I can get away with saying that. Duke thinks it’s my finest short story. I might debate that, but I think it’s one of my best. I sent it to several places, but it was always rejected. The others didn’t really stand alone very well, and they probably weren’t as well done as that one story.

What do you mean by “the others didn’t really stand alone very well”?
Well, Suburbs was written as a series of connected stories. In fact, I call it “A Novel in Stories” on the manuscript title page. Most of the stories build off of information the reader has from the previous one. But “The Races” could stand with just a few tweaks.

Could the new story stand on its own?
I’m not sure yet. I hope it can. I haven’t gotten very far in it yet, but I am slowly working on it. I feel no pressure to rush it. Why whould there be any? I have a lot of fun saying to people that a fiction writer never really has too much to lose. No one wants to read your dumbass stories! There’s a kind of liberation in that. You’re free to try anything.

Where does the new story stand timeline-wise in relation to the previous stories?
The stories collected in Suburbs take place between 1978 and 1994. The most recent story, “A Chemical Episode”, jumps from around 1996 or so to 2009, the present day, and back again. It goes back and forth between Terry Meegan’s early 20s and his later 30s.

But it’s been six years since you wrote the last of the previous stories?
Well, I wrote the last one around 2005, so it’s been a good four years at least, probably more like five.

How do you feel about the stories in A Son of the Suburbs today?
The answer to that question is interesting. If you’d asked me as recently as three months ago I might have said they meant well, but were pretty weak. But recently I’ve had a feeling about them – maybe this started working on me subconsciously before I even attempted the story I’m writing now – and I wondered what it would be like to take a look at them again. Normally I really cringe through every time I make the ill-fated decision to read my older stuff. I always conclude that I understand why they were never published! Right now I am re-reading the entire collection in preparation to continue on with “A Chemical Episode”. And I have to say I believe in these stories. I think what I tried to do holds up pretty well even under scrutiny. They’re not written very well, but I see where I can make improvements to the writing itself. But the concept is not all that terrible, I think. What I wanted to do was create a series of stories that captured the general essence of my childhood. I remember having a kind of two-fold purpose: first, to work in the mode of fiction about “things I knew”, as the old adage for young writers goes; second, to create a record in stories about my life as a child. And I think I did that. The more time goes on, of course, the further away our way of living in suburban New Jersey in the 1980s and early 90s drifts into the past. I know how important it has been in my life to have some idea of what my own father’s childhood was like. At the time I began these stories, I had one daughter, and I was very motivated by the simple notion of capturing my youth in some kind of record so that she could one day read it and understand a little of what my life was like. After all – who else could do the job? But I also wanted to write stories specifically, and so I created characters that were based on people I knew, but let the stories kind of go in whatever direction they were going to go in. I wove in elements and anecdotes from my life, but I think I created a place and a central narrative of its own, and it all comes to a head fairly successfully, I think, in the last and titular story, “A Son of the Suburbs”. Now, it took me two and a half years to write the stories and most of a third to edit it down to a second draft. And by the time I got through with all that I felt very tired of them and sort of burned out. Having “The Races” rejected a few times instilled the usual doubts about the quality of the entire enterprise. So I just set them on the shelf, much like what I am doing with Only the Dying, my ailing novel. Starting into “A Chemical Episode” made me pull out the old manuscript, and as I read through them, I see a lot to wince about, but I think the stories have some life. Plus they have made me laugh.

Will you try to do anything more with A Son of the Suburbs?
Remains to be seen. I have thought about it a lot lately. Is there anything here which can be salvaged and reborn? The answer could be yes. But for now I am re-reading them as their own collection and thinking about the current story.

What can you say about “A Chemical Episode”? What’s it about?
It’s about darkness. It will be one of my darkest stories. It begins in the middle of the night and it will end in the middle of another night, in the middle of a much different, and even darker, sort of night – metaphorically speaking now. It’s a fictional work that will reflect very much the last year or so of my life, and that is a conscious decision. It’s not about wallowing in difficult times, rather it’s intended to be a kind of therapy for them. I drop a bomb on the reader in the first or second paragraph that would only make sense to those who have read the stories in A Son of the Suburbs, and it concerns only a minor character from the previous work, but it’s enough to provide a pretty good clue as to the tone of what will follow.

Given the subject matter you just described, are you anxious to continue to work on the story? Sounds like your year has been hard as it is.
I'm not really anxious, and I’ll tell you why. For me it’s not about going back to anything that has been hard and sticking my nose in it again. It’s about processing it, thinking about it, deciding what it means today and what it means for my future. In a way, it’s about facing it again and deciding how to go on. And I must say that although it has been a tough year, it could have been so much worse. It’s not that I suffered a great deal. At the same time, I did suffer a little bit, and, worse, I brought some suffering to others. I have to pick up from that, learn some lessons, ask God to see me through it and, more importantly, teach me through it. So this story to me goes a way towards taking that process on.

Good luck on the story, and thanks for taking the time.
You got it buddy.

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