Linda Castellani (castle) Thu 13 Apr 00 23:31
Please join me in welcoming our next guest. Randall Silvis is a writer of many talents. He has published six novels, with two more forthcoming from St. Martin's Press. He adapted his novel "An Occasional Hell" for a film by the same name starring Tom Berenger and Valerie Golina. His twelve plays have been produced regionally across the United States and Off-off-Broadway. He has also published essays, short stories, poetry and creative nonfiction, including several cover stories for The Discovery Channel magazines. His literary awards include the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. When not writing he teaches in the Graduate Writing Program at Seton Hill College and in the MacGregor School of Antioch University. Pulitzer Prize nominee William Allen says Silvis is "this country's most pitch-perfect stylist ... and one of the few writers in his generation who will make a difference." Leading the coversation with Randall is Mina Yamashita, who has been a book designer, editor, and consultant for the print and publication arts for nearly 35 years. She designed and illustrated some of Hallmark's first children's pop-up and adult gift books, and Edward Abbey's last limited edition of "Vox Camantis in Deserto". Her work has received many awards and has been exhibited in international and regional exhibitions. Her graphic works range from permanent airport displays to pastel paintings. Recently named senior book designer at University of New Mexico Press, Mina's independent work largely focuses on writing reviews and essays. She is excited to extend this pursuit to Inkwell.vue's interview with Randall Silvis.
Mina Yamashita (writetime) Fri 14 Apr 00 01:51
Hello, Randall, and welcome to Inkwell.vue. Here I am, again, up during the wee hours, as I have been since I began reading "Mysticus"! I suspected this would be the case when I saw the intro copy for the book -- Marilyn Monroe...a fetus named Ricardo...a roving band of mystics known as the Kerouacs. How could I not be intrigued when the New York Times tells me this will all be made available to me by a "...masterful storyteller"? And on the cover, the icon of a maze to draw me in. In fact, you weave an amazing basketful of images into a compelling read. And you tell me you're now cached away "by the dim light of a bulb" writing new tales. Shall I give you a moment to clear your mind of your present work, to bring "Mysticus" back to the fore? When I see the variety in your writing, and the range of works you've accomplished, I'd like to know what moves you to take an idea or cluster of ideas to a finished work? How do you decide, one day, that Marilyn and the fetus and the maze wind up in one book?
Randall Silvis (randall-silvis) Fri 14 Apr 00 04:09
Hi, Mina. Well, first there was the fetus. This image was born as a literary device back in 1982, when a doctor I knew told me that when he was a boy, his mother had had a spontaneous abortion and, because she wanted him to be a doctor, she saved the fetus for him in a jar. Gruesome but true. And, as a writer, I naturally thought, I can use that! Sometime later--four, five, six drafts later--about the time, I think, I got rid of a plotline involving the murder of four astronauts on the moon--Marilyn came tiptoeing out of the moonshadows and whispered, "Put me in, please." The maze came in the final draft, circa 1998. I had managed to talk the publisher into letting me design the dust jacket (this was after my editor wanted to put a "Seven Year Itch" image of Marilyn on the cover, and I went apoplectic.) I ran through six hundred or so possibilities for artwork, had approximately four minutes left to make a decision. That was when, out of nowhere, I remembered a line of Ronald's from near the end of the book. "What a maze life is," he says. "What a labyrinthine notion." And so, because of the many connotations associated with labyrinths, I listened to him.
Autumn Storhaug (autumn) Fri 14 Apr 00 06:41
Welcome to the Well, Randall!
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Fri 14 Apr 00 12:31
What a pleasure to see you here, Randall. I have a few questions I'd like to lob at you, but I think I'll wait a bit and let Mina get a word in edgewise first. :-)
Linda Castellani (castle) Fri 14 Apr 00 12:59
Welcome Randall and Mina! What a tantalizing beginning! Let me just take a second and invite people who are not the WELL to send their comments and questions to email@example.com, and we will see that they get posted during the interview.
Mina Yamashita (writetime) Fri 14 Apr 00 20:49
I like the idea of Marilyn asking to be included. Do you often have a dialogue with characters, or characters-to-be, in the process of your writing?
Randall Silvis (randall-silvis) Sat 15 Apr 00 03:32
I don't want to give the impression that I'm Saint Joan and hear voices all the time. (Though now that I think of it, a little heavenly instruction from time to time couldn't hurt.) But the way it works with me, a character enters my consciousness and simply refuses to leave. For some reason while writing Mysticus, I became very interested in the pathos of Marilyn. In some ways she seemed as much a victim of ambition as Ronald. I'm not really sure what it was that made me so intrigued by her, but I felt, perhaps, that I understood something about her, understood it in a deep but inarticulable way. And that made me want to write about her. The funny thing is, she appears only briefly in the book. But, because of her effect on Ronald, her presence is felt, I think, throughout the novel. It's hard to say what kind of emotional and artistic forces collude in a project like this. Yesterday during a magazine interview, my interviewer pointed out that Mysticus is very much about women, that it revolves around the lives and actions of women in a way my other books have not. So maybe the time was right, when I was writing Mysticus, to consider in an artistic way the influences of the women in my own life. The interviewer also pointed out that several of the characters, male and female, share my initials. What that means, I wish I knew.
Mina Yamashita (writetime) Sat 15 Apr 00 06:04
One often speaks of finding the writer's voice. Jorge Luis Borges or Tom Robbins come to mind as writers whose stray paragraphs could identify their authors with as much authority as a fingerprint. In this passage, from "Dead Man Falling", you write: "But in 1964 he had no thoughts about the virtues of obscurity. Until that night he had remained fairly single-minded in his desire to make a name for himself, to become another Jimmy Breslin or Norman Mailer, another chronicler of all the songs and screams and impossible desires in the tesselated carnival of America. On this September night he had no idea that he would soon abandon the exercise of words altogether, that he would live by images alone, those he courted and those impossible to push aside." This passage gave me a "frisson", that little prickle on the back of my neck that I call a confirmation chill. I've always felt that voice left to depend on choice of words alone rings hollow. What you've described in this passage seems to be a highly intuitive and inquisitive life that is compelled to use writing to express itself. How much can I assume that you and your characters are a mingled life? I guess I'm making a distinction between a storyteller who narrates to entertain as opposed to one who is driven to divulge something about his humanity.
Randall Silvis (randall-silvis) Sat 15 Apr 00 12:11
You're kind of spooky, you know that? I get nervous when people understand me too much. But, in all fairness, I should at least try to answer your question. Yes, I'm an intuitive and instinctive writer. I seldom pause in my writing to think about the "right" choice of action for my characters, seldom analyze what they should or should not do to best serve the plot or drama of the story. I wake up in the morning, pour a cup of coffee, sit down and start writing. Two or three hours later I stop. Between the beginning and end of each writing day, very little conscious thought takes place. A director who produced three or four of my plays once said that he thought I must have a direct pipeline to my unconscious mind. I can't say if that's true or not; if it is, I wish I could be conscious of it all the time.
Mina Yamashita (writetime) Sat 15 Apr 00 12:34
Don't want to spook you! I suppose the reason I'm enjoying reading your books is because I work pretty intuitively myself. You've hit a nerve. I'm also intrigued by the variety, not only of themes, but of the forms you choose for your work. When I first began making art, I floundered a lot, looking for something that would identify a work as mine. Now my portfolio looks like a hodge-podge of works by a raft of people. But at some point I decided the art served its own agenda, and my agenda keeps changing. You've worked in so many forms. Is there one that appeals more than others? Do you know when you get into a work whether it's going to wind up in a book jacket or on stage?
Randall Silvis (randall-silvis) Sun 16 Apr 00 04:15
In most cases the story occurs to me in a certain form--as a play, a novel, a story, a screenplay. In a few cases, probably because I didn't get at the heart of the story in the first effort, the story will stick with me and I'll later decide to try it in another form. For example, several years ago I wrote a short story called "In A Town Called Mundomuerto." Usually after a story is "written out," I can then forget about it, but this time I couldn't. Apparently I hadn't expressed it fully, hadn't explored deeply enough. So, because screenplays tell their stories through the characters' actions and dialogue, I wrote it as a screenplay. This helped me to see my characters more completely. Yet still the story wouldn't leave me alone. I finally realized that it needed to be told in a very rich language, the lyricism of magic realism. Plus, I like to play with structure, with shifting points of view, and to experiment with time and memory. For this story I envisioned that it must take place neither in the past nor the present but in that place where, if you dropped one stone in the ocean of time-past and another in time-present, the concentric ripples expanding outward from each time period would meet and overlap one another. This could only be accomplished in a novel. So I wrote "Mundomuerto" again as a novel. And I'm finally satisfied with it. Knock on wood. What form do I like best? Without question, the novel. It's solitary,it's all-consuming, it's the most challenging literary form. Writing a play, a story, an essay, even a screenplay might be like a lone walk at midnight through an alley of the soul; the walk might be a bit frightening but it doesn't last very long. Nothing is as difficult as writing a novel. Well, making a marriage endure is harder. Raising happy children is harder. But no creative endeavor undertaken in solitude is as demanding as writing a novel. To my mind the novel is the highest artistic achievement. Another reason I prefer the novel is because it doesn't get diluted and altered by other people. My editor might suggest changes and additional scenes, but there's never any of that abitrary fiddling that so often occurs with a stage play and especially, always, unavoidably, ad nauseam, with a screenplay.
Mina Yamashita (writetime) Mon 17 Apr 00 06:13
I want to look more at "Mysticus", but your comments on others fiddling with your work remindeds me to ask: Your bio mentions that you've written "creative nonfiction". One of the difficulties of writing nonfiction is that, whether one wants it or not, the state of people and things demands a certain integrity of information, however one interprets it. I realize this is not exactly intervention by others, but it does constrain or require something of an author that the novel does not. Another author once said he prefered fiction to nonfiction because he could change the geography of a situation to suit the needs of a story. When one writes as intuitively as you do, it seems that fiction and non-fiction might become hard to distinguish. What is it that you mean by "creative nonfiction?
Randall Silvis (randall-silvis) Mon 17 Apr 00 12:09
There are different genres of creative nonfiction, just as there are with fiction. One of my favorites is the personal essay. In this case the goal, as Thoreau said, is to begin with a fact and hope that it will flower into a truth. It's generally recognized in this form of nonfiction that the essence of truth is more important than the literal truth. So, a writer can compress and even rearrange the chronology of events for dramatic purposes. He can also create dialogue, as long as that dialogue remains true to the essence of the character speaking, whether the character actually ever spoke those words or not. A more exacting kind of nonfiction, yet still creative, is the kind I used to write for The Discovery Channel magazines. Whether the subject was Tecumseh, Blackbeard, roseate spoonbills, The McDonald Observatory, or the Alaska Highway construction workers, I had to find the drama of a few well-chosen anecdotes and depict those in a way that would reveal the whole subject. Again, dialogue, description, tone, pov--all the elements of a comprehensive narrative, whether fiction or nonfiction, can be employed. A writer can't deliberately lie or present an untruth as fact, but he can and necessarily will omit facts because they don't build toward "the essence of truth." There's a lot of disagreement among nonfictionists in regards to how creative the writing can be and still be called nonfiction. In my experience, writers with a more journalistic bent call for an absoute adherence to known facts. Writers who also work in fiction allow more of the facts to be manipulated for dramatic purposes. As one other creative nonfictionist once said (and forgive me, but I can't recall his name), this genre is a very baggy pair of pants.
Alan Thornton (sd) Mon 17 Apr 00 12:40
Hello Randall, I hope you'll enjoy your visit to the Well. In fact, I hope you'll stay around after the dance is over here in inkwell.vue. May I throw a few things out to see if there is anything you'd like to discuss? I'm glad to hear from the co-designer that the cover illustration is a maze. I thought it was a Keith Haring-ish candle as in "Candle in the wind". I'm a great deal happier with the maze. I normally dislike chapters that skip around but was really drawn to your use of the device. Its like architecture, not Palladio but Frank Lloyd Wright, fresh and distinctive. At least that is what I was thinking until I realized that you were labeling the chapters as movements. Then I wondered if you meant the piece to be a sort of symphony. Themes and variations... The way that events unfolded rather than occuring in broad daylight seemed rather musical, too. You know someone is likely to do something, they drop a few hints, they tell you outright, then the deed is done, almost glossed over, and you're working with the consequences. That feels brand new to me. Ricardo retardo reminds me of Frank Zappa's "The Idiot Bastard Son" (Kenny will stash him away in a jar, the child will thrive and grow...). I liked the remnants of the Astronaut theme, too. The Moon fixation caught me by surprise though, I went back to see if I'd missed earlier references. Reading Mysticus was like going into an antique store where there are lots of touchstones to keep your thoughts occupied. Lots of fun, thanks.
Linda Castellani (castle) Mon 17 Apr 00 13:33
I am enjoying _Mysticus_ immensely, and I, too, want to know more about Ricardo and about whatever could have possessed his mother to do that, but I figure that <writetime> will lead us to that discussion when the time is right...
Randall Silvis (randall-silvis) Tue 18 Apr 00 03:32
Thanks, Alan and Linda, for your comments. The Zappa parallel to Ricardo Retardo is very interesting;I hadn't been aware of it before Alan pointed it out. It's funny how often an image like that, a fetus in a jar, pops up. It truly is gruesome, and many people are aghast at the mere mention of it. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I know of an individual whose mother did exactly that, and precisely because she wanted her other son to grow up to be a doctor, and believed that this specimen would somehow inspire him. That mother, of course, was not thinking as clearly as she might have. Not surprising considering the shock to her own senses which must have been caused by the miscarriage. I also remember seeing such a specimen in a doctor's waiting room when I was a boy. The walls were lined with medical specimens and curiosities: large jars filled with alcohol, and each containing a small floating corpse. No wonder that place terrified and intrigued me. And if I'm not mistaken, there's a similar image in one of Ray Bradbury's stories, from my favorite book as a teenager, "October Country." A final influence might have been my own relationship with a deceased brother. My oldest brother died at nine months old, while my father was fighting on Okinawa. My father never saw his first son alive. Strangely, maybe because this brother and I shared a birthday six years apart, I felt a connection with him, and often visited his grave when I felt most troubled or confused and alone. But no; he never talked to me from the grave. Darn it.
jarring lyrics (sd) Tue 18 Apr 00 08:16
Mina Yamashita (writetime) Tue 18 Apr 00 11:10
<sd> slipped with Zappa lyrics in the hidden response. ---------------- Randall, I've come across a number of stories with the fetus, or brain, in a jar themes. The birthday connection to your brother is intriguing. In Mysticus, Ronald's introduction to his brother made me cringe. The passage seems a huge paradox to me, especially his mother's words: "...Look in the jar. That is what power does to the powerless. Life created, life destroyed. And it could very easily be you or me inside that jar, Ronald, because we don't have any power either, do we? A child doesn't have any power, and neither does a woman. But you son...you can get power for both of us. You have to....I want you to keep reminding yourself, over and over again, that a person without power isn't really alive or free. A person without power is no better off than what you now hold in your hands...your little brother in a jar." That paragraph keeps me pondering. I say paradox because the fetus is introduced to Ronald as a victim, something dead, un-created. In my mind, I connect the fetus to the roller-coaster nausea caused by Ginger's unborn child. Yet, there is tremendous power in the fetus, in the memories of Marilyn, in all of the beings who are physically unavailable to us, yet who influence our lives. When you speak of freeing one's self, I think again of the maze, of finding ourselves inside or outside of circumstances we don't understand, and over which we have little or no control. Do you feel that writing is a kind of Grail quest -- a way to reclaim one's power?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Tue 18 Apr 00 11:18
> I also remember seeing such a specimen in a doctor's waiting room I saw similar specimens as a child when we took our dog to our local vet. I was creepily fascinating to stare into jars with pig fetuses and pickled skunk babies and so forth. I'm also sort of surprised that you drew upon your own childhood experience of having a deceased infant brother with whom you communed over the grave, so to speak. Now normally I *expect* writers to draw from their own life experiences when they create their characters. But the situation Ronald was in with Ricardo is, um... er ... so "out there" that I'd presumed you made it up out of whole cloth. What other parts of Mysticus track in some way with your own life experiences? Were you raised on a secluded island? Have you had a lifelong obsession with Marilyn Monroe look-alikes?
Cynthia Dyer-Bennet (cdb) Tue 18 Apr 00 11:19
southerndiscontinued (sd) Tue 18 Apr 00 13:17
Forgive my pummeling you with impressions but Mysticus still has me in its grasp: Do the neuters relate to the space brother suicides of late comet fame? Was I wrong to wait for a neuter to get a whiff of Moon Over Eros to see what would happen? Funny that the Kerouacs could also have been the name of the folks who drank themselves to death on the government 'reservations'. Those were rather like Methadone programs, too, eh? Likewise, I seem to recall that Morphine was another government substitute for Heroin at one time?
Linda Castellani (castle) Wed 19 Apr 00 13:01
Here's a question from the Internet: From N.MYER-PSYCHIC-DET@prodigy.net Wed Apr 19 12:59:58 2000 Date: Wed, 19 Apr 2000 13:12:29 -0400 From: NANCY E MYER <N.MYER-PSYCHIC-DET@prodigy.net> To: firstname.lastname@example.org Subject: Mysteries As a hopeful mystery writer in the Seton Hill program, and a published non-fiction writer, I'm curious about what kind of novels you most enjoy writing. Are mysteries your favorites? Why? Nancy Myer
Autumn Storhaug (autumn) Wed 19 Apr 00 20:19
I don't have a question, just a comment. I finished reading =Mysticus= a week ago and can't stop thinking about it. Tonight, I leafed through it until I found the part where Ginger is spending the night in the abandoned Trailways terminal and sees the mural showing the young Marilyn Monroe jogging along a beach. "But for the old-fashioned clothes and the platinum hair, she reminded Ginger of herself; or, more accurately, of the kind of quiet, contented moment Ginger used to fantasize for herself." Nice.
Randall Silvis (randall-silvis) Thu 20 Apr 00 03:24
First off, let me thank all of you who have commented since my last post. I'll respond to each now, starting with the most recent. Thank you, Autumn. And it's interesting to me that the Trailways scene should be a memorable one for you. Just yesterday a freelance writer who is doing a profile of me asked for an excerpt to include with the profile; I suggested one, but she said she would rather use the same scene you mentioned. I went back and reread that scene and realized that a large portion of the novel is foreshadowed and/or summed up in that scene. Nancy, hi. You know, I really don't have a favorite genre. I prefer writing novels that are character-driven, regardless of genre, and less driven by plot. But for me, both as a reader and a writer, there must also be action, movement, a character arc. Even though two of my books were categorized as mysteries, and my next two from St. Martin's will be marketed as historical thrillers, I consider myself a literary novelist--but one who hasn't abandoned plot. SD, yes, the SADfacs are much like the methadone programs. With the exception that the SADfacs encourage dependency and make no pretense about it. But the Kerouacs abstain from all alcohol and drugs, even coffee (my own favorite vice), so there were no Kerouacs in the SADfacs. There was a Kittawaia trustee; maybe that's what you're thinking of. In any case, to me the SADfacs seemed an exaggeration of the old welfare system as I saw it practiced here in the boondocks of Pennsylvania. The day the welfare checks were issued, every bar in the county was packed to the rafters until the money ran out. I was an emergency caseworker for a while in the early eighties, and, in the aftermath of every welfare check day, escorted my share of individuals to the local jails, hospitals and psych wards. Cynthia and Mina; both of you commented on Ricardo, so I'll address that topic now. Yes, to Ronald too, and to me, Ricardo is a source of power, a source of strength. Rosemary, on the other hand, has been thwarted in all her aspirations, so she views Ricardo as yet more evidence of Ed's usurpation of her own power. It's the beginning of her journey toward a skewed reality. Ronald becomes her last hope for some power; ironically, her influence over him "bottles" up his own potential. In the end my feelings toward these characters all depend on the choices they make. While I feel a great deal of affection and empathy for both Rosemary and Ronald, I most admire Ginger. She's the one character who takes life into her own hands, who makes her own choices and takes positive action accordingly. Ronald manages to redeem himself a bit in the end by doing the same.
southerndiscontinued (sd) Thu 20 Apr 00 10:04
I was unclear. I only meant that whereas Jack Kerouac drank himself to death, those who are doing the same could potentially be called Kerouacs for that reason. Meaningless connection in the larger picture, though. Interested in your use of "bottles" above. Ricardo is in a jar (bottle?), Moon over Eros is in a little bottle, even our dear old Granddad is bottled. The Dome over Xanadu III on the moon... Have I gone too far?
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