Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma interviewed me about the process of writing the book for the latest edition of Catapult Magazine. Catapult is published by *culture is not optional, the (non-profit) publishers of Clutching Dust and Stars.
When did the idea of writing a novel first sprout for you? What was your writing process like?
From a very young age, a number of my siblings and I have had delusions of being famous writers who would be able to travel the world and make a living by writing whatever we wanted. So the idea of writing has been in my mind for a long time, but it may not have been a very accurate picture of what the life of a writer is like. After college, I had moved out to the West Coast with some friends, but I ended up living an hour or two from them and having quite a bit of free time on weeknights. I’d travel to my friends’ places on weekends fairly often, but rarely during the middle of the week. I decided to have a go at writing a novel since I couldn’t think of a better time to do it and because there wouldn’t be a lot of spectators if I made a horrible mess of things. My writing process was fairly secretive at the time and although a lot of my friends and family knew I was writing something, I got pretty good at deflecting when people would ask me about it.
Essentially, I knew I was getting in over my head and I decided that I was going to try to follow the old adage to “write what you know” by setting the story in Bellingham, Washington, where I was living at the time. I plucked certain characteristics and scenarios from people around me and from my own experience, while also being careful not to draw people or events to close to life. I didn’t want any characters to be too representational of any real person (myself included). I did a lot of jotting on scraps of paper and later typing on an ancient computer. I thought of my process as “organic” in that I didn’t have an overarching plot that I tried to force the narrative into, nor a particular message that I was going to try to insert into the story as I wrote. I tried to write without exerting too much control over the story and also tried to insert external elements into my writing process to disrupt it and influence it.
How did you get to know your characters? Was there a model of character development from which you were working?
Before I started writing any part of the story, I did a lot of work developing people who were interesting to me and with whom I identified in some way. For example, one of the things that intrigued me about Natalie was how she had all kinds of negative baggage with the church but couldn’t quite let go of Jesus. (As an aside, I began writing this ten years ago and based it largely on conversations I had and people I knew — recent research suggests that this is far from uncommon and is likely a growing trend). One of Rob’s characteristics that I appreciated was the fact that he didn’t want to just slip into a “normal” or expected life after graduation. I realize that anecdotally Rob is not very popular among folks who’ve read the book, but despite his flaws, I did find that I could cheer him on in his attempts to live meaningfully.
I tried to map out key events in the characters’ lives and went so far as to write timelines and map important dates onto a calendar that I kept beside me as I wrote. I did some writing just as a background development exercise, not intended to be used directly in the novel. I tried to identify formative events and to determine in what ways those past events might play into the present. I noted places where character stories intersected and then began to revise and clean up these stories, working out inconsistencies and refining until I felt confident enough about these folks to invest a lot of time and energy into a vast unknown future. Then I tried to allow the work that I had done in creating their pasts play into the decisions they would have to make in the story. As I wrote events and incorporated outside influences into the process, I envisioned the characters themselves responding to those elements and helping to drive the story forward.
The book as a whole feels like a rich collection of tidbits, not unlike Natalie’s wax memorial, with the evocative chapter titles and quotes like meaningful treasures buried within the narrative. How did your collection form and why did you decide to include these things?
Many of the tidbits are examples of the “external elements” I mentioned earlier — things that I introduced into the writing process to help add a dose of randomness or an influence not completely within my control. As I researched and developed the characters, I also began to keep track of quotes that I came across which struck me as something that Rob or Natalie would be interested in. I inserted some of those quotes into the text itself, and some as standalone quotes in front of each of the two parts of the book. Some weren’t used at all.
As far as the chapter titles, I spent months compiling a long list of bumper stickers that I found on cars in Bellingham. At times I would follow cars past my exit, trying to get close enough to read their bumper stickers and scrawl it down. As I began a new chapter, I’d select a bumper sticker from this list and would keep it in mind as I wrote. The idea was that it would help direct my thoughts in some way, although I couldn’t always say for sure how or if that happened. Repeated rounds of editing may have further detached the final text from any influence the slogan may have had, but I left them all in as chapter titles to acknowledge their role and also because they fit thematically in a more general way. The idea of reducing complex ideas to pithy slogans as well as the youthful idealism of college days are both suggested by the bumper sticker phenomenon, and both play an important role in the story.
It’s interesting that you compare these tidbits to Natalie’s wax shrine, because the idea for the shrine itself was developed based upon a magazine clipping that I collected in this process. I had come across an old article about some of the strange kinds of shrines that people keep and it seemed as though Natalie would have such an object in her life. People tend to collect words, items, phrases, and images that hold meaning for them as they live their lives, both consciously and without realizing it, and I suppose I was doing some of that gathering on behalf of my characters.
How and why does place play a role in the story?
As I mentioned earlier, the setting was partly due to the fact that I wanted to set the story in the place that I was currently living so that I could immerse myself in the setting as I was writing and developing the characters.
Beyond that, Bellingham is a college town and seemed a perfect place to explore the intersection of post-college malaise and youthful idealism. It seems to me that if I tried to drop these characters into just any random place, it wouldn’t work. Their characters were developed in the Pacific Northwest and that is where both of them grew up. In many ways Bellingham itself exuded a definite vibe of revolution and anti-establishment in those months and years following the Battle in Seattle and as I was beginning to write, the local politics began to provide some interesting direction for some of the themes that were emerging. I like to emphasize that everything is “fictionalized” — meaning, for example, that none of the people are based on or representative of real people — but some of the key incidents are strongly suggested by actual events.
In what ways did creating the accompanying artwork for the book come alongside your experience of writing? What did multiple art forms contribute to the process?
Natalie is a painter and there are a number of scenes in which I explore what she’s up to on her canvases. Rob has some rudimentary design skills that he uses for his campaigns. When it came time to think about the design of the book, I knew that I wanted to incorporate something from each of the characters into the presentation of the text. I had an idea for a painting that I thought would work well as a central cover image, and so I began to imagine how Natalie might paint it. It’s an interesting exercise after trying to get into a character’s head to write about them, to then try to get into their head to paint an image as she might paint it. She had done some experimentation in the style of other painters (there is an extended scene where she is painting an image after Bacon) and there is also at least one reference to Van Gogh, so I decided to do an homage to Van Gogh. I think it turned out fairly well.
I also wanted the chapter titles to be written in a looser, more informal script. I always associated the chapter titles with Rob more than with Natalie, given his eventual tendency to run sticker campaigns that involved reducing concepts down to a slogan, and the fact that bumper stickers tie in with that youthful idealism that Rob is trying to tap back into. So I wanted to have the titles be sort of scrawled on there, as though they could have been jotted down in a journal or sketchbook. I initially also wanted to include some additional line-art sketches on each of the chapter title pages, again as though plucked from Natalie’s sketchbook. I had drawn them up quickly so they were of varying quality and after discussion it was agreed that they may have just added extra clutter, so we didn’t use them in the book itself (although we did use many of them in a lesser role on the blog and on a postcard.
I would say that multiple art forms contributed not only to the presentation of the book, but also to a deepening of my understanding and appreciation of the characters.
How do you understand the story within the book as interacting with life outside the world of the novel? Is there anything you hope your readers gain beyond just a temporary immersion in a fictional world?
I don’t think there are any particular take-aways that I was aiming for beyond the type of immersion you describe. It would be hard to write in the way that I wrote (without any real preconceptions about where the story would end up) and also have particular goals in mind beyond creating believable characters in a believable and interesting environment. Perhaps being dropped into another person’s world in a way that is more intimate than our day-to-day encounters is enough. It seems to me that many of us find comfortable ruts to live in which keep us at a distance from a great variety of people who are different from us, and in fact we tend to gravitate to people who think like we do. Maybe one of the primary interactions I am hoping for is the one between the reader and the people who inhabit the story. I don’t particularly feel like there are answers that I’m hoping to impart which are hard coded into the text, but I feel like I have benefited from grappling with the characters and the narrative as I wrote, so my hope is that readers will also gain something as they read. I think that the issues that Natalie and Rob struggle to deal with are interesting and that readers can join them in that process, incorporating their own thoughts and backgrounds into it as they do.
I had heard all the horror stories about book publishing and also was not quite sure how I felt about the idea of selling my book through one of the few mass media conglomerates (not that they were knocking my door down). I have read a few books in which the authors indicate their own internal dilemma with distribution through a subsidiary of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. I’ve also read about the quantities of books that are printed, shipped or stored, never sold, and then pulped. For environmental reasons, I didn’t want to contribute to that. I did inquire at a number of smaller publishers and got a few nibbles before the final edits were done, but no strong bites. I considered the fact that this was probably going to end up as a smaller distribution, niche market publication and found that I actually began to like that idea. A novel about a wanna-be anarchist activist and a disgruntled former Calvinist probably appeals to a certain segment of the population, but it doesn’t bother me that not everyone is going to want to pick the book up. The more comfortable I became with that, the more I began to look for smaller scale distribution channels, and I was considering the print-on-demand options that were available quite seriously. The only issue with these was that almost all the money would go to the print-on-demand company, which I assumed was owned by a media conglomerate. It was at this point that I began to think about *cino’s publications. For me, it seemed like an ideal scenario because with every sale, money is going to support an important and underfunded cause instead of a media conglomerate. Add to that the fact that it would necessarily be a small print run and many of those bulk-printing environmental concerns were less applicable. And these thoughts seem to fit with some of the issues the book raises about media, so it seemed especially appropriate. Rob would be proud.
Why is it important to write and publish fiction now?
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve begun thinking in terms of “niche-fiction” and especially in regard to mass media and enormous conglomerates, it is an important way to maintain a unique and independent voice in the midst of a tendency towards conformity and mono-corporate-culture. Writing and publishing is a way of wrestling with the world, of participating in culture instead of just consuming it. And I think we’re all meant to be much more than simply consumers.
The first part of Clutching Dust & Stars was serialized in catapult magazine—read chapters one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight and nine). You can help support *culture is not optional and Kragt Bakker’s fine work by purchasing the book online.