Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Paul Elwork

A 1/2 Dozen for Novelist Paul Elwork
who talks about writing historical,
reading slowly,
surviving childhood,
and offers this line,
The choices we have are hope and despair...
so decide where you want to land and take your lumps."

I despise the perv
asive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

A few different things inspired my novel: the true story of the Fox sisters from the 19th century and the Glen Foerd estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia were the two main sources that got together in my head. I drew the estate in THE GIRL WHO WOULD SPEAK FOR THE DEAD from Glen Foerd (especially the garden tea house there) and took the main story arc of the sisters from upstate New York who started the Spiritualist Movement by convincing people they were communicating with the dead through phantom rapping sounds they created using joints in their toes and ankles. I recast it, fictionalized the whole thing, set things on a smaller stage than the globe-trotting Fox sisters occupied before their time in the spotlight ended, and played with history by putting the story in the 1920s. There were other sources of inspiration, pervasive and specific. I've always been a little morbidly fixated and fascinated by hoaxes, on both the perpetrating and believing sides. Carl Sagan has been a profound source of inspiration--I first discovered the story of the Fox sisters in his book BROCA'S BRAIN and, years later, found deep and textured reflections on belief in another Sagan book, THE DEMON-HAUNTED WORLD.

Having said all of that, I agree that you can't track a novel by the sum of its parts in terms of inspiration. There's deeper stuff operating than we can parse out completely, for one thing, at all sorts of levels in our minds. For another, there's the act of writing itself, filled with moments of pure inspiration and discovery, like when characters do or say something we didn't plan for as writers. Isn't this where the rubber meets the road? Isn't this what the lady meant when she said, "Groove is in the heart?" Anyway, I think so.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

I have a tricky relationship with the page, at times. When I'm in the groove and on a regular schedule, I can be very productive, but as my life becomes busier and the cares pile up, it just gets harder. I can be that disciplined writer--have been at times, for stretches of time--but I'm also quite distractible. The scheduling noise and other pressures get between me and the writing, and I forget all the stuff I know about opening yourself up to it, of getting yourself in that chair, in front of that screen (or blank page--I often like to write in longhand first), and doing it. I forget that it's not really about all of the planning in advance, but about the writing itself. Of course, you need some forward planning--there's research to be considered, timelines to sort, and so on--but deep down I know that such things can become more distraction than planning. There's a danger of being too intentional; of trying to patch things out of whole cloth instead of opening yourself up to ideas and getting down to business, as mystical as all of that sounds. I've made this reference before somewhere, I'm sure, but it's like the scene in THE MATRIX where Morpheus is training Neo to fight, and Morpheus urges, "Stop trying to hit me and hit me!" Yep. Big geek. That's me.

At the moment I have a scene I need to write in which a character tells a story, and I keep hemming and hawing, trying to manufacture the character’s story, instead of relaxing, letting all of that go, and allowing the character tell me his story. I forget sometimes that I can be as intentional as I want AFTER the story is on the page; I can manipulate and mold and alter to suit all of my purposes, but if I don't sit down and produce the words, there's just no making hay at all.

What kind of child were you, inside of what kind of childhood, and how did it shape you as a writer?

I had stretches of loneliness as a child, periods in which it seemed all of the kids in my neighborhood were either several years older or younger, and I dove into books to occupy myself. I guess that's almost a cliché of a writer's childhood, but there it is. I really was that kid who lived a lot in his head, hardly ever played sports, got paralyzed when girls were around--you know, a nerd. Even when I did have close friendships, covering years, it was always with one or two kids at most, around whom I opened up and displayed the goofy real me. Otherwise I scuttled through a lot of my childhood, trying to keep my head down and not get noticed. All of this had a huge impact on my writing, and on my aptitude for the solitary work of separating myself from real people long enough to write about believable people who never existed.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

My reading life is slow more than anything else. I try to read variously, going to classic literature, suspense novels here and there, sci-fi, horror, and contemporary literary stuff (I bristle at "literary" in its vagueness and implied snootiness, but for lack of a better word, I'll let it stand). I used to read more non-fiction and mixed it up with my fiction reading, but now--when I find myself embarrassed to say that it sometimes takes me a couple of months to read a long book--I limit my book reading to fiction. I used to read through a writer's catalog once I found myself devoted to his or her work, but I don't have the concentration for that anymore, it seems. Instead, I get around to reading their stuff or I don't. One exception is James Salter. Over a period of a couple of years I read every novel he has written, his memoirs, and most of his collected short stories. In a class by himself, Salter is--just breathtaking.

Faith. Do you consider yourself religious? If so, how does that manifest in your work and/or your process?

I'm not what you would call a man of faith. I'm not religious in any way, and I'm given to some very skeptical thinking about anything you can name. This manifests in my work through my themes, certainly. My currently available novel and the next idea and the next center around people's personal, altered perceptions of the world and each other, at an individual and cultural level. I'm not above it--I don't claim to look down from on high, sneering at those poor earthbound mortals and their subjective little minds. I'm right there with everyone else, trying to navigate my biases, knowing that I'm surrounded by my own filters and that any access I have to reality is highly personalized within me. In their worst forms, these limitations of perception and bias lead to oppression and even atrocity, and yet there is something so basically human about our cluttered and compromised psyches that we certainly can't just wish them away.

In my process, and in my life, when I'm getting things right and getting the work done, I operate by one main article of faith: The choices we have are hope and despair (indifference, for me at least, is a false middle choice), so decide where you want to land and take your lumps.

What's your worst writerly habit?

Probably the fact that I edit as I go. I reread and tweak and polish the prose as I make my way, rather than plowing through a complete draft and then pulling back to see the big picture. This connects up with my answer above about getting in my own way, about being too intentional, about hemming and hawing. And then again, maybe it's not such a bad habit. I often discover important things about the next scene and maybe the rest of the book in going back and tweaking and polishing as I work. I guess it comes down to my output, this question of whether or not it's a bad habit. Wait--I know it comes down to that.

Paul Elwork lives in Philadelphia and is the father of two sons. His work has appeared in a variety of journals, including Philadelphia Stories, Short Story America, SmokeLong Quarterly, and Word Riot. His novel The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead (Amy Einhorn Books/Penguin Group) is available online and in bookstores everywhere. For more information and links to short fiction and other content, please visit