Interview with John Lauricella

Continuing along in my new interview series today I have been able to interview John Lauricella. I’ve reviewed one of his two novels, the dystopian fiction 2094. Despite not having much love for the novel it pays homage to (1984), this novel was a good one.

45458e7bJMelmoth1. Q: I’ve read your novel, 2094, and loved it a while ago. I was a bit hesitant at first, but really got into it. Why would I read your other novel, Hunting Old Sammie?

A: First, a million thanks for taking a chance on 2094. It’s a novel that nibbled at my imagination for a very long time – possibly since I first read Brave New World and 1984 many years ago – and I’m very lucky to have been able to write it and grateful that a few people have read it.

Hunting Old Sammie you might read if you were in the mood for a piece of realistic fiction depicting some fairly bizarre events – with these happening right next-door! The novel dramatizes what can happen when psychological and emotional stress grow terribly large and paranoia rages day and night. The novel also shows how something can seem comic to one person and tragic to another – not to make sport of varieties of craziness, but to illustrate how different persons are more or less imprisoned by their respective assumptions, prejudices, fear, love, hate, and so forth.

Sammie is set just few years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in NYC and Washington, D.C., during a very rough and discouraging phase of the United States’ wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The neighborly conflict that is the novel’s story is pretty obviously a manifestation of how carnage, destruction, and death occurring thousands of miles away distort the perceptions, and the minds, of these isolated characters ruinously caught up in fighting private battles, real and imagined. If most of this sounds interesting to you, you might like to visit GoodReads, where the first 50 pages or so are readable for free, no obligation, no sign-in required, no questions asked. If you enjoy those chapters you’ll probably like the book because it gets better as it goes along.

2. Q: The title of your next book might cause trouble. How am I going to explain to people that I’m not actually studying to become ‘The Pornographer’s Apprentice’?

A: That title has raised eyebrows among the few who’ve seen it. What you tell anyone inquisitive enough to ask, is, “It’s a novel, not an instructional manual!” At that point you might find yourself enmeshed:

— Oh sure. What’s it about?

— It’s about what can happen when immoderate desire cancels good judgment – as well as personal integrity, human decency, and all sense of fair play.

— Huh! Sounds to me like a dirty book.

— It’s not! This author uses sex in all his novels to enrich the characterizations and complicate the story.

— That’s what they all say, all them porn fiends.

— Do I look like a porn fiend?

— Not you. That writer. What’s his name?

[holds up book to show author’s name]

— John … something. Unpronounceable. Whoever heard of a novelist with such a name?

— Never judge a book by its author’s name! You’ll miss out on some really good stuff.

— That’s all right. I don’t care to read smut, myself.

— It’s not smut, it’s thoughtful, well-crafted fiction.

— Imagine you, talking such nonsense and reading smut in public where children can see.

— I’ve told you once, it’s not smut.

— Well then, what’s its redeeming social value?

[pondering …] It does what good novels do: shows us that all human beings, even people superficially very different from us, have fantastically rich and complex inner lives that are every bit as real and present and intense and precious to them as ours are to us.

— Huh! Hoity-toity! Think I need some damn dastardly dirty book to tell me that?

— Well it sounds as if you could use some reminding.

“Or you could just say that The Pornographer’s Apprentice is a story about sex and death, art and money, poetry and pornography, life’s brevity and our yearning for permanence.”

3. Q: When you were younger, did you know you would be an author? Did you study at university because it was expected, or because you enjoyed it?

A: I think I knew, or maybe sensed is more accurate, from about age 13 that I was a writer. That’s different than knowing I’d become an author, which I assume we’re defining as a writer whose writing is published by some means and eventually paid for by readers. I never knew, in the sense of, “was certain,” that I’d make it to author status, although I wanted very much to do so, until I discovered it was possible to take control of the publishing part of the endeavor. Up to that point, I was always a writer who was trying to become an author. It was very frustrating; all I could control was the writing, which I believed I could do well – certainly well enough to qualify as an author – and continued to do well without much encouragement and no support whatsoever from agents and editors.

As for university, I attended several degree programs over the course of many years and earned those degrees because I wanted to learn. I was and am greedy for knowledge, some of which finds its way into my fiction.

4. Q: How does writing fit in with your day job? What does your writing process look like? How do you fit it in around what sounds like inevitable other work?

A: Writing fiction is not compatible with working a job. That is my experience and I would be astonished if any novelist claimed otherwise. It’s very simple: every hour you spend on the job is an hour you cannot spend writing. Time-wise, life is a zero-sum game. Everyone knows this. Everyone also knows that money is necessary to live and that the only licit means of getting money is to earn it by doing something someone else considers worth paying you to do. I’ve made a little money from things I’ve written but those were mostly commercial writing projects done on contract. From fiction I’ve earned very little; taken all together, it’s not enough to starve on. So it’s fair to say that my day job helps to keep me alive and therefore facilitates my writing because I cannot write if I am dead.

My writing process is terrifically protracted and insanely painstaking and entirely wonderful. It calls upon pen and ink, several typewriters, and the inevitable computer running Word. A story begins with a sentence; I do not know where these sentences come from but, one day, like something strange in Telly-Tubbie Land, they appear:

“Airpods gleam in the skyways as the century dwindles and men like J Melmoth are amazed to be alive.”   ~ 2094
“Soul-lonely days of stay-at-home plant Luke Robideau in Dad’s old chair.” ~ Hunting Old Sammie

The first sentence of Sammie turned out to be the opening line of the novel’s second chapter but it got the ball rolling.

Usually I compose the first draft with pen on paper. No outline, no notes, no pre-fabbed character sketches, no canned set pieces. Typically there’s some background research to do, just to confirm facts and understand physical settings and other nuts-and-bolts matters, and I might have to fill-in with more of this as the book develops, but for the most part I write and the story grows. I like to think it happens organically but the process might actually be something psychotic. In any case, I rewrite and tinker as I go along and when the number of paper pages starts making me nervous (because paper has a way of getting lost or recycled when that’s not what you wanted), I start typing up the manuscript using whichever typewriter seems appropriate for that story’s mood and texture. I rewrite as I type, all in flow. This business of typewriters is irrational and impossible to explain, especially as the choice of typewriter changes as I transcribe handwritten paper to typewritten pages. It’s a little embarrassing to have multiple typewriters crowded into my little room and to alternate amongst two or three and sometimes four of them during one book but as it hurts no one I just trust it.

A long (sometimes very long) period of composition ensues – two years, three years; more. At some point the stack of typewritten pages starts making me nervous (because paper, etc.) and then I begin transcribing/rewriting the whole thing into a Word document. Then I write back-and-forth from typewriter to computer to typewriter and so forth until the manuscript is complete in terms of beginning, middle, and end, and the whole thing is in Word. Then I commence to rethink, rewrite, revise, copyedit, etc., until it’s polished-up as smooth and gleaming as I can make it. Then I proofread and correct typos; then do it again.

The time required to accomplish all this is dismaying. As you’ve probably guessed, this process does not fit well with that day job, which returns us to the top of the column.

5. Q: Can you tell me about a typical week? Have you ever been on a scheduled writing retreat?

A: My standard week is not interesting, as it’s basically just me in my office, toiling away at my job and wishing I were elsewhere. On a good day, we get through dinner and clean-up by 7:00 or 7:30 and I beat a retreat to my little room and try to coax my mind to go the place where stories live. This effort is not always successful. If it does succeed and everyone leaves me in peace, I can work for two or three hours. At that point the energy’s gone and if I’m lucky I’ve gotten something down that isn’t completely stupid and useless. It’ll almost surely have to be rewritten, or maybe just refined a bit. That’s a very good day. On a bad day, dinner’s deferred and there are chores to do or trips to make or the household is in some degree of relative chaos and I don’t get within ten feet of my desk. Weekends are a bit better but somehow there are always more chores and trips with kids that empty-out the hours. In nice weather there’s golf, which at this point I guess I have to consider a vice because it, too, keeps me from writing.

No, I’ve never been on a scheduled writing retreat – unless we count the two years I spent in the M.F.A. fiction-writing program at Cornell University. It might legitimately be considered a writing retreat scheduled for two years’ duration. It’s a great program and I recommend it. Several very talented and productive fiction-writers have come out of it, namely Lorrie Moore, Junot Díaz and Stewart O’Nan. There are others – Susan Choi, Paul Cody, Julie Schumacher, Melissa Bank, others whose names are eluding me, which is unconscionable – but I guess Lorrie and Junot and Stew are the most well-known.

6. Q: Why did you go for self-publishing? You say you got blocked by some traditional publishers – do you feel comfortable divulging some of the reasons for that?

A: I self-published Hunting Old Sammie in April 2013 because for several years I had been trying to get agents interested in it and felt I had no more time to waste on people who mostly were not responding. I mean they were actually not responding, as in not answering in any way query letters or emails addressed to them, despite advertising themselves as accepting queries. Almost no one was interested reading Sammie, and I’m not sure how many of those agents read even the query letter. Rejection signaled by no-response and based on a query letter is still rejection but it is not a persuasive argument that book itself is a poor piece of work. So, yes, I felt as though I were being blocked – by agents, not by publishers, as no publisher or editor ever saw the manuscript.

The breaking point came when an agent who did read the manuscript telephoned me to say how much he enjoyed it. I was more than ready to believe the best and figured that here at last was my reckoning – because what literary agent telephones an unknown writer whose manuscript he’s picked from the slush pile unless it’s to say that he thinks the book is terrific and would love to represent it? The first part was accurate, even to the point of some very complimentary and encouraging comments about Sammie. I won’t repeat the agent’s praise just I will not state his name because he is not here to confirm; and in the end it was all for naught. Because the next thing he said was, “I’m calling to explain why I can’t offer to represent your novel.”

Oh, why?

“I have no idea where I could sell it.”

Even now, I don’t quite understand. I wanted to say, “If the novel’s so fine, why don’t you try selling it to Knopf? Or Viking? Or FSG?” The problem, as he explained it, was that he had 15 manuscripts in hand that he couldn’t sell, and as he had already committed to those authors, he could not also commit to me. Well, I guess that’s right – he certainly thought so – but it seems to me that a really good first novel usually gets its chance, even if with a small print run of a “testing-the-waters” type. But it seems neither he nor any editor he knew had any interest in a project of that sort.

If I’d had a connection to traditional publishing – someone to introduce or refer or recommend me to a suitable agent – maybe the manuscript would have gotten under the eyes of someone who would have known where he or she could sell it. But I had no one I felt I could ask for such a favor, and so I did not ask. That was my fault; if I’d maintained certain relationships I had at Cornell, one of those authors might have been willing to help me (as they themselves have been successfully published) and together we might have succeeded in getting someone to pay attention to Sammie. Maybe the outcome would have been different, or maybe not. But lacking such assistance, I was, I felt, out of options and so I had to do it myself.

When 2094 was ready it seemed very sellable so I began again to write queries to agents. I wrote and sent maybe six queries, and after roughly a month had gotten no replies. As I began the next round, I realized I did not want to go through this process for another few years or few months or at all. So I stopped trying to pitch to agents and began working instead on designing the book’s interior pages and covers, and in a few months published 2094 as I had published Hunting Old Sammie. For The Pornographer’s Apprentice I haven’t queried anyone. I figured from the start that I’d publish it myself; and in a few weeks, I will.

The very steep downside of self-publishing a novel is the challenge of persuading potential readers that it is a legitimate piece of fictional prose. The assumption, which is not wholly unwarranted, is that self-published novels are generally sub-standard and sometimes (often?) just amateur work, a kind of unsophisticated folk-art. I’ve tried to counter that assumption by making samples of my novels readable for free. Anyone who enjoys the samples, which are fairly substantial, will almost surely enjoy the novels.

7. Q: You’ve commented that 2094 risks being misunderstood. Do you feel that most reviewers are inattentive and perform ‘skim-jobs’? How can you tell the difference between a ‘bad’ review, and a ‘badly thought out’ review?

A: Most reviewers start out with every good intention, I believe, of reading a book attentively and writing a judicious review. Some succeed very well or well enough, others fail more or less obviously. The reasons for failure are probably as various as the reviewers and the circumstances, which sometimes are very difficult, under which they’re working. It does seem, however, that some reviewers either do not read attentively (but think they are) or possibly do not quite understand how to read a novel.

The main problem, I think, is the expectation that within every novel is a character or set of characters who act and speak and think, etc., as the author’s surrogate(s). It’s not an unreasonable assumption and many, perhaps most, readers share it. Many novels do feature a character who seems to represent the author and his or her beliefs, opinions, concerns, world-view, and so forth (I’m thinking of works as dissimilar in other respects as Great Expectations and Moby-Dick). Trouble begins when a reader brings that assumption to a novel in which the characters speak and act only for themselves, as in 2094. In that sort of novel, the author is effaced, invisible, “refined,” as Joyce memorably wrote, “out of existence.” The outstanding recent example of such a novel is Atonement, by Ian McEwan, which also is one of the greatest novels ever. If a reader of Atonement insists on aligning this or that character with the author, his understanding of the story can hardly avoid being skewed dramatically away from the novel’s manifest meaning.

What I call “skim-jobs” typically lead to what I consider “badly thought-out” reviews for the obvious reason that no one can represent any book justly on the basis of a selective, fragmented reading. If you have not actually read the book, you cannot think about the book astutely enough to write a smart, relevant review. Even when a skim-job review cherry-picks details or quotations, it does so in ignorance of the greater context in which those details and lines have their existence and create meaning. Taken in isolation, almost any sentence can be made to seem ridiculous – especially if a reviewer is intent on making it seem so. Every element of a novel needs to be read and interpreted as part of the narrative to which it belongs: the coherent, internally-consistent fictive world that describes and implies a cosmos in small. To pick sentences, characters, and scenes out of context for the purpose of denigrating the novel to which they belong is not just critical malfeasance. It is intellectually dishonest.

2094 risks being misunderstood because it does not deliver platitudes and easy morals through a simple “good guy vs. bad guy” scenario. Its characters are complicated and their motives are often ambiguous and conflicted. The main challenge of reading it is to recognize that the author is not purely aligned with any character or point-of-view. The author is not anyone’s advocate. He is not passing judgment on any character. He is a presenter whose job is to represent plausible characters and actions in sufficient, significant detail for the reader to understand the nature of those characters and actions. The author presents the story. It is the reader who interprets it and passes judgment. Who acts justly? Whose beliefs and assumptions are life-giving and whose are death-dealing? Who demonstrates faith and integrity? Who evinces cynicism, opportunism, and greed? Then, complicating the model, who succeeds and who fails? Who survives and who dies? Yes, the author is responsible for all this but only as a function of pursuing these characters and the various workings-out of their respective stories, not because he is grinding some personal axe. Given the narrative’s specific conditions and observing its outcome, the reader might ask, “With whom do I sympathize? Whose actions do I endorse and whose do I despise? Do I believe that each character gets his just desserts or do I feel that injustice has prevailed?” If the author has presented the story without bias and represented the characters even-handedly, without favoritism, different readers should be able to reach different conclusions about what the novel is “saying” and what it “means.”

“2094 is not an easy book. Maybe it seems simple but, really, it is not. It is not a comforting book. It is a disquieting book that challenges pretty much every assumption a reader might bring to it at the present time. And so it risks being misunderstood – especially by readers who skim it.”

8. Q: I love this quote: “Feeling the need to write is like having an itch,” Fred Busch said. “Scratch that itch.” Can you explain it more to my readers?

A: Fred Busch was my teacher in college many years ago. Sadly, he passed away in 2006. He was a tremendously fine writer, particularly of short stories, and his collected stories have recently been published in hardcover by Norton. His novel, A Memory of War (Norton, 2003), is brilliant and moving and completely wonderful. If you want a quick idea of the kind of man and writer Fred Busch was, just read the dedication to A Memory of War. All you have to know going in is that Judy is his wife.

Fred was respected by every writer I’ve ever met, known, or read about, and with good reason because he was a craftsman in prose, fiercely intelligent, aggressively honest, and purely and deeply committed to reading and writing and other writers, whom he did a great deal to encourage and assist and promote and just plain help.

The quotation I attribute to him was something he said in one of his fiction-writing workshops at Colgate University (the undergraduate college I attended) when I was his student there. He probably said it at other times, in other settings, to other young, wannabe writers, and what he meant was that the desire to write is something natural and real and physically compelling. It’s that last part, physically compelling, that most beginners maybe do not recognize, but when he likened the writing-desire to an itch that needed to be scratched, I completely understood because even then and, really, before then, from the time I was a teenager, I felt this weird need to put words on paper. I ignored it for awhile, tried to, because I did not understand the point or the reason, but the more time I spent ignoring it, the more miserable I felt because something was telling me that I was meant to be writing, that I should be writing, was supposed to write, that writing was in some mysterious way my duty or assigned work. Assigned by whom, I had no idea; nor did I know what I was supposed to write. I was just a kid! A kid with an itch to write, he knew not what.

Fred Busch was encouraging us to get on with it. Just write. Right? That’s the only thing you can control: whether or not you write. Don’t worry what it’s about or what anyone might think. Even you won’t know what to make of it until you’ve worked on it for awhile. So get going. Scratch that itch, it feels good to scratch it and to ignore it, to try to, is torment. So: write. You know? If writing’s what you’re meant to do and you know that or just sense it, to do so lends a beautiful satisfaction to the core of your being.

9. Q: You’ve given only one other interview that I could find, at Smashwords. Where does maintaining an online presence and social media outlets, as well as ongoing promotion of your novels, come into your never-ending hierarchy of mundane tasks?

A: Maintaining a Web presence and promoting one’s books are definitely necessary chores. But they are chores. I do as much of both as I feel is within my capabilities of time, energy (psychic and otherwise), and money. Speaking from my own experience, I’ll say that novel-promotion can be costly and also completely ineffective. Buying a listing from Publisher’s Weekly, commissioning a review from IndieReader or KirkusIndie, paying to have one’s novels listed on BookBuzz by way of offering review copies to potential reader/reviewers are all fine & good but you do not necessarily get what you assume you’re getting and in some cases you get very little or nothing for your money. The worst was the so-called review from KirkusIndie: $425 for 340 words, most of which summarized the plot simplistically and inaccurately, and committed errors of fact. And it was poorly-written.

Social media has been, for me, not hugely effective as a means of selling books. People notice that the books exist but they don’t buy them. I quit Facebook some months back because I began to realize that my posts about my novels’ being published or reviewed, or myself being interviewed, were probably being regarded by the few dozen people who saw them as pathetic self-advertisements and no more important or interesting that the standard sort of post about, “Now I’m eating lunch in a great new deli,” or “Today I bought a cool pair of running shoes,” or whatever. Trivial stuff everyone feels happy to ignore. Now I limit my Web presence to sites whose viewers might be at least potentially interested in the books.

10. Q: Are there any questions you wish people would ask, or wouldn’t ask?

A: Any question that is mainly about the books is fine by me. I’m not so interested in answering questions about myself – autobiographical details, personal background, likes and dislikes, that kind of thing. And people generally don’t ask me such questions, so we get along fine.

For me, it’s about the books – the stories. I, personally, am not important. I’m just the writer who happened to bring certain stories into the world. In 50 years I’ll barely be a memory, assuming my children live that long. But my books might, with a lot of luck, still be alive in the hands and minds of readers.

You can find John on a range of platforms:

See my review of 2094 and go read this book!
Find it on:
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Smashwords

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