Tag Archives: Vladimir Nabokov

The Intel: William Giraldi

William GiraldiEarlier in the week we reviewed William Giraldi’s cold-blooded meditation on savagery and belief, Hold The Dark, and its mesmerising images burned its way into our brain and stayed there.

Giraldi is a hell of a writer — he knows every which way around a sentence — so we’re delighted to say that he’s agreed to give us the lowdown on Hold The Dark. You’re going to like this. Giraldi talks the cold landscape of violence inside of us, cigarette smoke and the ‘touch of audacity’ that fires a writer’s imagination. Make no mistake, it’s fascinating stuff — enjoy.

How would you describe Hold the Dark to a potential reader?

A story about a parent’s incorruptible love for his child, about spiritual breakdown, about the ancient bonds of tribe or clan, about the majesty of nature and myth, and the absolute purity of evil.

Hold the Dark is a crime novel, but it’s very much a literary novel with a strong theme and myth system – what made you decide to write in the genre?

I can’t speak definitively for other writers, but I suspect that most novelists don’t decide their material: their material decides them. It was that way for me with Hold the Dark, and with my first novel, Busy Monsters, too: I began with only the vaguest notion of its shape and form, its pitch and tenor. I was surprised to see Hold the Dark turning into a crime novel, although, to be honest with you, I still don’t necessarily see it that way, because for me it began as an investigation into an older man’s spiritual crisis.

The book is about evil, yes, evil as we commonly conceive it, but I began by thinking of St. Augustine’s definition of evil, which is a complete separation from God, a turning away from God, that cold and that dark of self-damnation. In the novel, the embodiment of the Augustinian notion of evil is the cold and the dark of the Alaskan tundra.

The book is very much about two very different men – Vernon Slone and Russell Core. What do these two men represent to you?

Russell Core is the reader, and he’s also the guide for the reader in this alien place: like the reader, he’s dropped into this enigmatic and ancient land at the end of the world, does not have his bearings, knows that nothing works here as it works back in civilization. At the same time, Core is the reader’s chaperone as he tries to make sense of these uncommon people, these rituals and rites of blood, the animality of the human being in situations of extremity.

And Vernon Slone is that animality incarnate: he is what happens when all the strictures of society are removed. I should say, too, that although Slone is by every definition a sociopath, he is loyal to Medora Slone and Cheeon and the memory of his son, he is devoted to them, lives by an ancient code of devotion, absolutely inviolable, and this is something too little seen these days. I mean to say that Slone, for all the horror housed within him, has a dignity of a kind.

Hold The DarkThe violence in Hold the Dark is very shocking and often sudden. Do you think that stories are one way we make sense of our lost primal, savage instincts?

Yes, I do, and I’d add that stories should be the only way we make sense of our lost savage instincts. I abhor violence in the world, am sickened by it. As I write this, it’s just twenty four hours after the terrorist attack in Paris, the bastards who slaughtered the magazine staff at Charlie Hebdo, and I’ve been on edge, nauseated and disgusted since the news broke. This one feels very personal to me: writers and artists being slaughtered for their humor, for their ideas.

But in a novel . . . no actual person is ever harmed in a novel, or in any work of the imagination, and so the question of evil or violence becomes an aesthetic question and not a moral question: Does the style, does the pitch and torque of the prose correspond to the climate of the narrative, to the roiling inner lives of the characters? Does the tenor of the prose offer pleasure and intimations of wisdom? Martin Amis says that style is morality, that style judges, and I think he’s right about that. Style tells you all you need to know, even when you’re reading about violence and evil.

The violence of Hold the Dark is an organic outcrop of the novel’s agon with evil. There’s no gloating over the bloodshed in this book, no pride taken in the lives lost. The women and men in Hold the Dark are violent because nature is violent—living hand in hand with the wilderness, they harbor within themselves an identical wilderness, a savagery just as startling and just as necessary as the savagery on display in the Alaskan wild. I’m speaking of the outlaw spirit in man, an outlaw spirit that pervades nature and cannot be altered. Actually, there’s more cigarette smoke than bloodshed in this book. I’m half surprised the anti-smoking league hasn’t picketed my publisher. Someone’s smoking on every page of this novel. I found myself coughing one afternoon at about page 100 and that’s when I realized how much cigarette smoke I was funneling into this narrative, perhaps because cigarette smoke is the perfect omen for impending death.

The unforgiving Alaskan landscape is very much a character in itself. As a guy from Jersey, how did you get under the skin of that remote region?

Astute question. You’re right, it wasn’t easy. I don’t mean this to sound facile, but I used my imagination. I marshaled a lifetime of reading. As a devotee of the sublime Oscar Wilde, I believe that the artist’s only loyalty is to his own imagination, to what his imagination can grasp and assert. Be very cautious of those who tell you that the novelist is not permitted to write about certain subjects because he wasn’t there, because what they are really telling you is that you are not permitted to think about certain subjects, and that’s one of the indispensable traits of the despot. So, books were how I had the audacity to imagine my own Alaska, which of course doesn’t correspond in every way to the actual Alaska. (Goethe said that, that a writer requires “a touch of audacity” to create something bold.)

Jack London, of course, was big for me: his stories of the unforgiving Yukon and of the human/animal clash. The Call of the Wild and Whitefang, especially, have been in my mind since I was a child. Sentence for sentence he’s not the best prose stylist, but he really understands that mythic territory, and he knows how to tell a story. “To Build a Fire” is a tiny gem. The other important book for me was John McPhee’s famous narrative of Alaska, Coming Into the Country. I remember reading that before I ever thought of Hold the Dark and thinking that it had the epic sweep of a great novel.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

I wish I could! I don’t have a typical writing day because I have two lovely little monsters who hurricane through my house every hour, my sons Ethan and Aiden, ages 5 and 3. They dictate when I write. The truth is that I don’t like writing all that much, it’s very hard for me, and so I’m always looking for a reason not to do it. So I’ll stop in the middle of a sentence if they storm into my room and I’ll spend an hour grappling with them on the bed. I certainly don’t write every day. But a good day might look like 4 or 5 hours, maybe a solid page to show for it, two pages if I’m lucky.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

To make every sentence alive with uncommon energy and precision. Walker Percy says this, that even throw-away sentences must achieve a high level of poetic truth and beauty. Very hard, that.

Who are the authors you admire, and why?

Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov, above all others. Why? Simple. Their sentences. It always comes down to the sentences. Memorable, vibrant, deep-seeing sentences.

Give me some advice about writing…

Read Saul Bellow and Vladimir Nabokov. There’s no other way. Writing can’t be taught. But if you’ve been given the cursed gift of talent, then you can improve by reading the masters very closely.

Do you plan to return to the crime genre?

Perhaps I will, yes. I have another story in mind, only very opaque to me now, but I can already smell the gasoline and blood.

The Intel: Nicholas Kaufmann

Nicholas KaufmannOne of the joys of being a commissioned writer is that sometimes you get to play in someone else’s sandbox. Nicholas Kaufmann is the author of Hunt At World’s End, one of the popular Gabriel Hunt series.

Created by Charles Ardai, Hunt is a world traveler and man of action, a strapping six-footer who travels with a classic six-shooter in a holster on his hip and has an insatiable hunger for discovery. He’s an old-school Pulp hero, one of those Saturday morning serial guys who travels to far-flung corners to find lost cities and artefacts. All the Gabriel Hunt novels are available right now from Titan Books.

Nick is a Bram Stoker Award-nominated writer and a member of the International Thriller Writers. He’s kindly agreed to give us the intel on Hunt, the importance of persevering  as a writer and how to travel the world from the safety of your office chair…

Tell us about Gabriel Hunt…

I think Gabriel Hunt could best be described as the spiritual offspring of Indiana Jones, Doc Savage, and Allan Quatermain. Maybe with a little James Bond thrown in, given his contacts and almost limitless resources, thanks to the Hunt Foundation that bankrolls his exploits. He’s a two-fisted, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later adventurer who excels at finding trouble as frequently as he finds exotic artifacts and lost treasure. But he’s not just some dumb bruiser. He’s got a sharp, strategic mind, too, and a great deal of compassion for the underdog. Also, judging from his companions in the six books of the series, he has a way with the ladies.

Why, in this day and age, are we so attracted to devil may care heroes like Gabriel?

That’s an excellent question. I suspect the attraction is less about the devil may care attitude and more about the freedom of Gabriel Hunt’s life. Most of us live very regimented lives. We get up at the same time every day, follow the same morning routine, take the same route to work, do the same things at work that we did yesterday and the day before, then take the same route home, eat dinner, watch some TV, go to bed, and do it all again exactly the same the next day.

Gabriel Hunt’s life is different from ours. If he gets a whim to travel to an exotic location in search of a lost civilization, he does it. For the rest of us that’s just a daydream, but for him it’s within reach. I think that’s why readers are attracted to these kinds of heroes. They live the lives we only dream about. Of course, in the end that’s probably for the best. I don’t think I would personally be very good at swinging on a vine across a bottomless chasm while bad guys shoot at me. I’m much better at sitting at a desk and writing about it. It’s a lot safer, too.

At World’s End is a rollicking action-adventure – what’s the secret of writing action?

Action scenes are my favourite scenes to write. I find them absolutely joyful, even if terrible things are happening, because the momentum speeds up, takes on a life of its own, and keeps going. The days when I write action scenes are the days when my word count impresses me instead of depresses me. But the secret to writing action? I’d have to say the answer would be to plot the scene out first. Even with leaving room for improvisation, which is where the real magic of creativity occurs, you’re going to want to know most of the parameters of the scene before you start. Will it be a long sequence or a short one? Will there be fighting involved, and will it involve weapons or fists? If it’s a chase scene, how much ground do you want them to cover?

But of course the most important consideration of all is this: What do you want the scene to accomplish? A good chase scene is great, but a good chase scene that reveals important plot or character points along the way, or that helps the reader better understand the setting by having your heroes being pursued through it, is even better. For me, it also helps to think of an action scene as a set piece. It’s thrilling to have a shoot out in a dark city alley, but it can be even more thrilling to have it on a swaying rope bridge. Or a speeding train. Or on horseback. Of course, the tone of your story is important in determining all of this, too. If you’re writing a back-alley noir, it’s probably best to avoid rope bridges and trap-filled temples and keep events to shady, urban settings. But even then, set pieces still work great. You’ve got all sorts of seedy locations you can use, from strip joints to dive bars to vacant tenement buildings.

Whatever works for what you’re writing. Just make sure you know 1) where the action scene is going so you don’t write yourself into a corner, and 2) what, besides simple excitement, it is intended to accomplish.

Hunt At World's EndGabriel travels the globe in his adventures – how do you get the spirit of a place that perhaps you yourself have never visited?

Well, I’ve never been to Borneo, but a good chunk of the novel takes place there. Same with Turkey. The best thing to do, short of spending your savings on a plane ticket, is research it. Research is your friend. Research will tell you a lot more than the population size and major exports of a place. It’ll tell you about the culture, what people do and eat and wear and believe.

The best thing about research, though, is discovering the little gems you never knew about your topic but that work perfectly for the story, or add just the right dash of authenticity to sell the rest of it. It also helps enormously to look at pictures of the place you’re writing about. Technology like Google Image Search makes it easier than ever before to see pictures of far away lands that can give you a real feel for the place.

Take us through a typical writing day for you?

I don’t write all day like some other authors I know, nor do I do much writing in the morning. I can barely write an email before three cups of coffee, let alone a chapter. My best writing is done in the afternoon, or in the evening if I can, though that’s rare these days. I write from home occasionally, but I’ve found it can be very distracting to be home all day. I start thinking about errands that need to get done, or washing the dishes, or cleaning the litter box. Also, when I’m by myself there’s no one around to keep me honest, so I’m likely to spend more time than usual surfing the Internet or sneaking in an episode or two of a TV show on Netflix.

So a few years ago I decided to start leaving my apartment to do my writing in the main branch of the New York Public Library. It’s such a beautiful building, so inspiring and breathtaking and stimulating that I really love working there. I love that lots of other people go there to work as well, because that keeps me honest. I can’t slack off in front of other people! So I’ll write at the library for between four and six hours, then come back home in the evening. I’m one of the only full-time writers I know with a commute, but I’m really enjoying having the brain-adjustment time between home and work. The commute also gives me more reading time, which I appreciate.

What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?

There are so many it’s almost impossible for me to narrow it down to the single hardest! If pressed, though, I’d say the hardest lesson about writing is just how often your work will get rejected. You can’t go into this business with a thin skin because rejection is part of the game. It’s not just a rite of passage; it happens continually throughout a writer’s career. Even the best writers still get their work rejected from time to time. It can be hard, though. I don’t know of any other business except maybe acting where rejection is such a constant cost of doing business. Some writers can’t handle it; they give up and stop writing. Others start making really bad business decisions out of a fear of rejection, such as signing with terrible micropresses that accept anything or just throwing their book up onto Kindle and hoping someone will notice it.

The key to success in this business is perseverance, plain and simple. Just keep writing. I believe that every word you write makes you a better writer, so if you keep writing, keep working at it, you get better and better until finally your work isn’t being rejected nearly as much. Just keep in mind that to be a writer you will have to deal with rejection throughout your career. It’s best you know that up front so there won’t be any surprises.

How do you deal with feedback?

I love feedback, but only from people whose opinions I respect. I’m not going to pay attention to a snotty, one-star review on Amazon, for instance. I wouldn’t even call something like that feedback, really. And that goes double for snotty, one-star reviews where the author can’t spell or doesn’t have even a passing knowledge of grammar. But good feedback—which isn’t necessarily the same as positive feedback—is something I relish. I’ve been workshopping my fiction with a group of other authors in the New York City area for over ten years now. They’re all accomplished authors who work I admire and whose opinions I respect. Without them, I’m convinced I wouldn’t be half as good a writer as I am today.

I highly, highly recommend authors put together their own workshops with other authors they like and respect, or at the very least that they get a first reader or two. Other eyes on your work will reveal plot holes and character issues that your own eyes can’t see. When we write something, our brains tend to think everything important is on the page when in fact it may not be. That’s why first readers are so important. They catch all the missing stuff and the bits that don’t make sense.

In terms of reviews, well, my philosophy is to believe the good reviews and call the very act of reviewing into question for the bad ones. I think I’m like pretty much every other writer that way.

Who are the pulp authors you admire, and why?

I don’t read a lot of pulp, actually. I certainly admire groundbreaking authors like H. Rider Haggard, Robert E. Howard, Mickey Spillane, Ian Fleming, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler—especially Raymond Chandler—all of whom were called pulp at one time, but I feel like the term “pulp” has qualitative connotations, as if it is somehow lesser than other kinds of writing. Disposable and unimportant. It’s not. Honestly, I’m just as happy reading Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita as I am reading Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and though there are obvious differences between the two, I don’t subscribe to the theory that the authors deserve different labels.

Give me some advice about writing…

I’ll start by repeating what I said above: Perseverance, perseverance, perseverance! Keep writing. Keep working at becoming a better writer. Creativity is like any other muscle, it gets stronger the more you use it. And don’t be afraid to submit your work. Agents and publishers aren’t going to come knocking on your door asking if you have anything for them. You need to send it to them. Every agent and publisher wants to find the next big thing. It could be you, but how will they know if they don’t get to see your work?

What’s next for you?

The second book of an urban fantasy-noir series I’m writing for St. Martin’s is out. It’s called Die and Stay Dead, the sequel to last year’s Dying Is My Business. It’s about a thief for a Brooklyn crime syndicate who discovers he can’t stay dead, although every time he cheats death someone else has to die in his place. I’m very excited about the series. I’m working on book three now. If the first two books do well enough, you should see book three, which is tentatively titled Only the Dead Sleep, out in 2015.

As for Gabriel Hunt books, I don’t know if Charles Ardai, the mad genius behind the series, is planning to produce more than the six novels already out there, but if he does I hope he’ll give me a call again. I loved spending time in Gabriel Hunt’s world and I would visit it again.

Nicholas has got a terrific blog full of news and scary stuff. You can check it out right here.