Thursday, March 15, 2012

1/2 Dozen for Noah Charney

A half-dozen
for Noah Charney

(Art, fiction, crime, travel,
being a playwright or not, magazine writing, touring, obsessions ...
you name it, it's here.)

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise.

I get these a lot—in fact, it’s almost a chronic habit for me to immerse myself in a sort of homemade interdisciplinary course that becomes a temporary obsession. When I was younger and single, I lived all over Europe (in twelve different cities at last count), to become something more than a tourist but less than a full-time resident. I would set myself up in an atmospheric apartment for at least a month, in Madrid, Florence, Ljubljana, Leiden, Venice, and I would immerse myself in a variety of cultural and historical projects related to the place. In Venice, for instance, I found a suitably Bohemian garret with a mansard roof, and I would sit by candle light, listening to Venetian music (Monteverdi, Vivaldi), reading novels set in Venice or travel books about Venice (Jan Morris, H. V. Morton), cook Venetian food, write, and plot my art-hunting path through the city. In Venice I wandered, Eyewitness guide in hand, and checked off every church that I found open (I have a perhaps weird love of visiting churches to check out the art and architecture), as well as every museum in the city. I chose to go to Venice in February for the stark contrast of Carnevale, which is hideously over-visited but surreal and evocative, with ghost-like drifters in moon-pale masks wandering the streets, and the absolute abandonment of the city for the rest of the month, when it is almost a ghost-town, and I could stand in the middle of Piazza San Marco all alone. So I would voluntarily plunge into obsessive immersion in these evocative cities.

But that was all, in retrospect, a romantic and productive way of staving off loneliness. Since I’ve been married, and divide time between Umbria and Slovenia (where my wife is from), my obsessions have become more targeted. I tend to choose long-term projects that I can write about in both non-fiction and fiction formats, and that also encourage me to stay in touch with the anglophone literary world, which is tricky since I live in central Europe. For example, I’ve been writing a psychological horror novel, and so I’ve created a list of the greatest horror novels and short stories (King, Straub, Bradbury, Lovecraft, Blackwood, Poe, James) and I’m working my way through reading them, all the while keeping notes on the books and the tricks used by authors for chilling effect. This will become a magazine article, then perhaps even a non-fiction book, about this project, but it also provides ammunition for my fiction.

In terms of more mundane obsessions, I ate up “Breaking Bad,” which is just about the best thing I’ve ever seen on television. In still more mundane terms, I’m quite obsessed with Karl Pilkington, both in his “Idiot Abroad” TV series and in his podcasts with Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant.

Having listed that many things, need I mention that I also find making lists to be very soothing?

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

My answer combines two questions (hope that’s not cheating). I love to write, but I also have a hyperactive gland of some sort that is both advantage and occasional disadvantage. I write very quickly, efficiently, producing around 3500 usable words a day for non-fiction, with up to 5000 on my best days. Most authors are content with 1000 words a day. This speed-writing goes along with my speed-imagination. I have a list of about 20 books that I’d love to write, given the time, fiction and non-fiction. Many are thoroughly mapped out, which means 10 page book proposals and chapter outlines for non-fiction and sample chapters plus complete plots for fiction. This would seem like a good thing, but the nature of the publishing industry forces me to slow down, which can be frustrating. Marketing and publicity teams do not want any author to come out with more than 1 book per year (the exceptions are for academic books or co-authored mega-bestsellers, like those by James Patterson plus a cache of essentially ghost writers). The assumption is, probably correct, that you just won’t get media and critical attention for two books in one year. There is also a tendency for the industry to want you to specialize. I’m “the art crime guy” for fiction and non-fiction, which is fine, because I enjoy my area of expertise. But I’ve already gotten away with spreading my wings more than most writers are able to, in that I’ve written both fiction and non-fiction, and I’ve covered art history and art crime in both. I have a friend who is an award-winning literary historian, and he has essentially not been permitted by his agent or publisher to write books outside of that specific field. I haven’t had that sort of restrictions put on me, but publishers are wary of shifting a successful author outside of their established field. I love the research-project-as-memoir format of, say, the wonderful humorist AJ Jacobs, but it would be a harder sell to convince a publisher to let me write such a book, if the research project was not about art or crime. This is why some authors choose to write pseudonymously, to give themselves a chance to break into other genres without hurting their reputation in their main field. So my hyper-active imagination, and the desire to write at least two books a year, in very different fields, has to be reigned in. It’s really only in the world of magazine articles that my quick-draw writing and variety of interests is considered a plus. In the book world, authors move at a controlled pace, sometimes slower than they might otherwise move, if left to their own devices.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick. Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

Combining two questions into one answer again, the real key to getting off the ground with writing is to be iron-bullheaded. If you believe that you are producing good writing and have good ideas (and if enough friends/family/strangers, but not necessarily publishers or agents agree with you), then stick with it. You need the steel-skinned attitude that anyone who doesn’t accept your work as genius is a dodo who is missing out and will live to regret it. There is so much more rejection than success in publishing, that you need to be stubborn and even over-confidence. That doesn’t mean that you should be cocky or think you know it all, but it does mean that each rejection letter should be dismissed as a missed opportunity for the person writing it. DO take in constructive, friendly criticism. But don’t give up, and don’t write what you think people want to read. Write what you love. Readers, especially editors, can tell if your heart wasn’t in something.

I had a trick when I was first sending out agent inquiries (I started out as a playwright, looking for an agent in that field, but was quickly told that novels were the way to go). I would choose ten agents, and send them letters. For every one “no thank you” I received, I would send out another five. I did this for several months, until I finally got a “yes, the plays are all well and good, but do you have a novel?” The answer was “yes,” and then I frantically wrote a novel from scratch. This was The Art Thief, and it became an international best-seller. But you can’t give up.

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

I’m an only child and grew up surrounded by adults, hanging out with my parents and their friends, who were like aunts and uncles to me. I developed a vast imagination. In kindergarten I was drawing and designing monsters to do combat with each other (this was just before the video game era). I played Dungeons & Dragons. I collected comic books, then wrote my own, developing super heroes. I invented new rules for new worlds within Dungeons & Dragons. When I got a Nintendo (the original 8-bit one), I designed new games for it—they still fill many spiral notebooks that my mother is keeping, just in case she can one day either open a museum or cash in on them on eBay. I wrote a novella (entitled Zenla) when I was ten. It was about a British prince and an Arabian prince who were brothers (don’t ask how that works), and who set out to find each other, and fall into a magical land with monsters running around it. I was always drawing as a child, listening to the grownups speak, but also included in their discussions and treated as an adult. The result is that I have a good ear for dialogue (I think my origins as a playwright come across in my fiction, where much of the back story and subtlety comes through the dialogue, and the reader must keep an eye out for it, or it will pass them by). I also had wonderfully supportive, enthusiastic parents who thought everything I do was super, and that, as long as I tried hard, I could do anything in this world. I luckily also had the best schooling I could possibly imagine, in terms of providing a youngster with that key moral support, self-confidence, that is far more important than learning algebra or reading Moby Dick. I went to a renowned, progressive pre-school, Calvin Hill in New Haven, CT, and to a great elementary school, Foote School, both of which cultivated a love of learning and that key self-confidence.

What other jobs have you had -- other than writing or teaching writing? Did one of these help shape you as a writer?

I wear a lot of metaphorical hats. I’m a professor of art history with a specialization in art crime. I’m the founder and president of a non-profit research group on art crime, ARCA (Association for Research into Crimes against Art), that runs a Masters Program that is the only academic program in the world in which you can study art crime. I’m editor-in-chief of a twice-yearly peer-reviewed academic journal, The Journal of Art Crime. I teach art history and art crime at American University of Rome. I teach art and architecture of Rome every summer for Brown University, and I teach writing on the Umbria Writing and Publishing Workshop, and crime writing for Brown University. I also do television presenting, largely in the UK. I have several TV series in development that I would host, on art historical mysteries and art crime. That’s not even mentioning magazine and newspaper writing—I write a regular column for ArtInfo called “The Secret History of Art” and publish a podcast of the same name, and I regularly contribute to other publications, including the LA Times. So while the basic themes are consistent (art), I have many different roles that I perform.

All of these things are about teaching and performing. Giving public lectures, which I really enjoy, is just like television presenting and teaching at university. You stand up, you explain (hopefully) interesting things in a (hopefully) clear and memorable way that (hopefully) is so entertaining that nobody notices that they were “learning.” Writing is the same thing, just in text instead of live and spoken. I think all of this comes down to being a good self-editor. You need to carve away the fat, the boring bits, the unhelpfully artsy bits, and boil it all down to the core—the shortest, punchiest possible bullet of entertaining and educational goodness that still teaches what I want to get across and does not insult the material or the recipients of it.

What’s your take on touring?

I love touring, but it is a rare event these days. Touring is very expensive for the publisher (hotels, flights, and “escorts” as they’re called, who meet you at each airport and whisk you around to bookstores, restaurants, and signings), and it doesn’t always pay off. Most authors don’t like it—it is exhausting, but my first tour was when I was about 27, so I was peppy. I toured 12 cities in 14 days. Every morning I had to catch a flight, which meant 6 AM wake-ups, flights, then a talk at a bookstore, crashing at the hotel, then waking up again. I crisscrossed the country, too—I don’t think the publicist who arranged the tour checked a map of what was near what. I had gigs in Houston and Austin, Texas but I had to fly to San Francisco between them. But I did feel like a proper, old-school writer, traipsing the country, the way they used to do it, in the 70s. Now I even give guest lectures via Skype. I’m glad to have had the experience of the hardcore book tour, but now at the ripe old age of 32, I’d rather do mini-tours. For my last book, Stealing the Mystic Lamb, the pace was just right. I had talks in upstate Massachusetts, New Haven, New York, Baltimore, and Washington DC—all comfortable train rides with no early mornings. I love public speaking, and give invited lectures even when I’m not promoting a book, but if I can keep it to train journeys, with time to sight-see a bit, I prefer it.

Noah Charney holds advanced degrees in art history from The Courtauld Institute and Cambridge University. He is the founding director of ARCA, the Association for Research into Crimes against Art, a non-profit think tank and research group on issues in art crime ( His work in the field of art crime has been praised in such international forums as The New York Times Magazine, Time Magazine, BBC and CBC Radio, National Public Radio, El Pais, Vogue, Vanity Fair, Playboy, Elle, and Tatler among many others. He has appeared on radio and television as an expert on art history and art crime, including BBC, ITV, CNBC, and MSNBC. Charney is the author of numerous articles and a novel, The Art Thief (Atria 2007), which is an international best-seller, currently translated into seventeen languages. He is the editor of an academic essay collection entitled Art & Crime: Exploring the Dark Side of the Art World (Praeger 2009). Recently a Visiting Lecturer at Yale University, Charney is now Professor of Art History at The American University of Rome. He lives in Italy with his wife.

Follow Noah’s regular column on art crime and mysteries in ArtInfo magazine:

Noah teaches writing for the Umbria Writing and Publishing Workshop and for Brown University.

And follow Noah on Facebook and Pinterest.

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