Q&A with the late Jason Molina

Underground Bee, March 19, 2013 — I had the privilege of interviewing Molina, for an article that appeared in Pioneer Press. It was Sept. 8, 2006, and he asked me to meet him that Friday afternoon at Simon’s Tavern in Andersonville, which was close to where he lived at the time… Read my interview at Underground Bee, which also features audio of the interview.

Listen to the interview via Soundcloud:

Photo by Robert Loerzel

Books Law

F. Lee Bailey Q&A

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times on April 6, 2008.

Husbands suspected of killing their wives seem to be in the news almost constantly these days. A new book by defense lawyer F. Lee Bailey and Kenosha journalist Jean Rabe compiles some of the most famous spousal murder cases into one bloody roll call of botched crime scenes, outlandish alibis and celebrity trials.

When the Husband Is the Suspect: From Sam Sheppard to Scott Peterson — The Public’s Passion for Spousal Homicides includes short narratives by Rabe on each case, along with Bailey’s commentaries. The cast of real-life characters includes a few suspects Bailey defended, such as Sam Sheppard and O.J. Simpson, as well as Robert Blake and other recent headline-makers.

Bailey discussed the book in a phone interview from his home in Massachusetts.

Q. What common elements do you see in these cases?

A. The most common one in the assassinations — the so-called hits for hire — is that otherwise intelligent people seem to hire the biggest idiots in the world to do the job. I represented some really classy assassins, all of whom, in fact, were trained by the government, and they’re almost impossible to trip up.

Q. But the typical person doesn’t have access to these professionals.

A. They really don’t have access to any specialists in the art. It’s like going in to get your brain surgery done by your local practitioner.

Q. You book also includes husbands charged with committing the murder themselves. They often plan what seems like a “perfect crime,” but then they always slip up.

A. These guys … come up with some cover-up story, like the most typical: pushing the wife down the stairs and having her injured in all kinds of places. … I would call it dumb. You have to add in a quotient that there’s probably a strong emotional factor at the time of the killing, and a lot of this is cover-up. But it’s really shoddy cover-up, in most cases.

Q. What are the common motives in these cases?

A. It’s kind of a selfish alternative to divorce. The stupid mistakes suggest a psychopathic, very greedy person who doesn’t want to pay the legal fees or the spouse’s share and thinks that this is a good way to avoid the divorce — and in some cases, to inherit money that wasn’t his. Money is a large factor in my view. Very few people will kill their wives if they’re not feeling pretty greedy.

Q. Does it make a difference to you whether you believe a client you’re representing is innocent?

A. It does. If I can’t satisfy myself that the client is telling me a straight story, I will almost always suggest that the client go and take a polygraph test. That, probably more than any other reason, has enabled me to compile a much greater acquittal record than most other lawyers in the United States — because I’m picking and choosing innocent people.

Q. Many people believe O.J. Simpson was guilty of murder, despite his acquittal. When you try to persuade someone that Simpson was innocent, what do you emphasize?

A. There are three things that stand independently and are all inconsistent with guilt. The first is the timeline. [In the book, Bailey argues that Simpson did not have enough time to commit the murders, return home and catch a flight to O’Hare, as prosecutors claimed he did.] The second was the demeanor, which is extremely important in cases where people known to be non-criminals are involved in a murder case. And the third was his statement to the police, which I think … no guilty person with his background could possibly have pulled off. He spoke to them for three hours … and never slipped one bit. And a guy who had just killed two people the way these two were killed could never have done that.

Q. How has media coverage of trials changed since 1963, when you persuaded an appeals court that publicity prevented Sam Sheppard from getting a fair trial?

A. The quality of news coverage has diminished, because giants of the print media are no longer being nurtured properly. Television reporting is too often a snapshot. There just is no way to devote an evening newscast to the depth of reporting that would describe in detail what the witnesses had to say.

Q. Your book doesn’t include the case of Drew Peterson of Bolingbrook, whom police have called a suspect, but haven’t charged, in the disappearance of his wife, Stacy. What are your observations of that case?

A. There isn’t any question that the circumstances are suspicious. There also isn’t any question in my mind that, with all of the pressures on the police, they don’t feel like they’ve got enough to get a conviction. If they don’t catch a break, this case could go on forever.

Q. Police have not found Stacy Peterson’s body, but as you write in your book, other people have been prosecuted in murder cases without a body.

A. You don’t have to have a body if you’ve got enough circumstantial evidence, so that is not going to be a barrier to charging this guy. But I’ve got to tell you, when you go to a trial with no body, it’s a powerful argument to point to the courtroom doors and tell the jurors: “You can’t be sure the victim won’t walk through there, can you?”

Q. What advice do you give to innocent people who are wrongly accused on how they should behave?

A. The classic mistake is to put up a false alibi, thinking, “Well, since I didn’t do it, it won’t be any crime to give a cleaner explanation of where I was than the truth, which is: I was out with neighbor’s wife, banging the hell out of her.” This is not the kind of alibi you want to bring to a jury, so a false one is made up. Those inevitably crumble, once the police bring pressure.



Audrey Niffenegger interview (2005)

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on December 15, 2005.

Audrey Niffenegger worked for 14 years on her latest book, “The Three Incestuous Sisters.”

The long gestation period is understandable, because this is no ordinary book. Niffenegger, an Evanston native who currently lives in Chicago’s North Park neighborhood, paid meticulous attention to detail as she created 80 illustrations using the time-consuming aquatint etching process. Then she put the book together herself.

“It took me a year just to bind 10 copies,” she says.

Niffenegger sold those 10 handmade, leather-bound books for as much as $10,000 each. That may sound like a lot, but she points out that it was a “total steal” when you consider the number of aquatints in each book. All the while, Niffenegger dreamed of selling her book to a publisher, but she didn’t have much hope. With sparse text and illustrations, Niffenegger’s work resembles a children’s book, but its story — a tale of sex, jealousy, levitation and headache-inducing birds — is too surreal and adult for kids. Who would want to publish it?

But then Niffenegger, who teaches art and printmaking at Columbia College, wrote “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” an entirely different kind of book — a novel without pictures — and it became a best-seller. Suddenly, publishers were interested in Niffenegger.

The editors who came calling included Tamar Brazis, who was at Harper Collins and now works at the art-book publisher Harry N. Abrams Inc. She asked Niffenegger if she’d be interested in writing the text for a children’s book. Brazis didn’t know Niffenegger had created a couple of visual novels in limited editions years earlier, but when she heard about those books, she was interested.

“After I saw this amazing book, it was so special and wonderful, that I thought thousands of people would enjoy it, not just 10,” Brazis says. Abrams published “The Three Incestuous Sisters” this fall (for a list price of $27.95).

Niffenegger’s illustrated books are not easily categorized. Their format is similar to graphic novels, but she prefers to use the term “visual novel.”

“Graphic novel has come to mean a very particular thing,” she says. “People have been taking me to task about calling them ‘visual novels,’ saying that sounds very pretentious.”

But, she says, it’s the most accurate description she can think of. “The Three Incestuous Sisters” is reminiscent of Edward Gorey’s illustrated books, but Niffenegger says that, while she admires Gorey’s work, she never thought of Gorey as an inspiration.

Rather, she traces her interest in visual novels to the Victorian art of Aubrey Beardsley. She was also fascinated by the illustrations in 19th-century novels, which often use an excerpted line from the text as a caption. Niffenegger compares the skeletal, poetic story of “The ‘Three Incestuous Sisters” to the synopsis of an opera.
“It started out as a dream: three women with long hair, sitting in a room, glaring at each other,” Ntffenegger says. “I would call it a melodrama. To me, it kind of resembles a silent film. The text is almost like intertitles.”

The title characters of Niffenegger’s book are a trio of grown sisters — one blond, one brunette and one redhead — who “lived together in a lonely house by the sea, near the lighthouse, miles away from the city.” Their peculiar existence is disturbed by the arrival of the lighthouse keeper’s son.

Each illustration in the book began as a zinc plate. Niffenegger covered the plate with an acid-resistant ground, drew a picture with a needle, then immersed the plate in a nitric acid bath. The acid penetrated where she had drawn the lines, etching the image into the metal. Niffenegger created tones by melting fine rosin dust onto the plate, bathing it in acid multiple times. Then she colored each print by painting watercolors onto the paper.

“There’s no other way to get that look,” she says. “It’s a pretty unique texture and tonality. Also, I don’t know — I just like doing that.”

Although Niffenegger describes the etching process as “working backward and sort of blind,” she has mastered it to the point where she doesn’t have to worry too much about surprises emerging in the final prints. But, she says, “There’s still this moment when you’ve been thinking in your head what it will look like, then you see it — ‘Aha!’”

During her “long siege on this fortress of a book” (as she calls it), Niffenegger used printmaking facilities at the Evanston Art Center and Northwestern University, and also worked on book during residencies at the Ragdale Foundation in Lake Forest. Niffenegger sees an advantage to spending such a long time working on a work of art. In the book’s afterword she writes, “‘The Three Incestuous Sisters’ became itself through the passage of time and gradual changes in my skill and imagination.”

Fans of “The Time Traveler’s Wife” may be surprised to discover this other side of Niffenegger’s work, but she insists, “This is what I really do.”

After years of concentrating on her work as an artist and creator of handmade books, she felt a little odd to be touring the country as the author of a popular novel. “It was really very funny going around being ‘Author Girl,’” she says.

Director Gus Van Sant is now working on a screenplay for a film adaptation of “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” and Brad Pitt is apparently still interested in the project, Niffenegger says, adding that she has not been closely involved with the plans to turn her book into a movie.  [Note: Neither Van Sant nor Pitt was involved in the film that came out in 2009.]

Niffenegger continues working on her next novel (without pictures), “Her Fearful Symmetry,” but she says, ‘‘Nobody should expect to see this novel for several years. I’m not in any hurry.” [Note: “Her Fearful Symmetry” was published in 2009.]

In September, Abrams plans to publish ‘‘The Adventuress,” an earlier illustrated book that Niffenegger worked on as a college student. “It’s about a young woman who is the result of cloning experiments in Napoleonic France,” she says.

In the afterword to ‘‘The Three Incestuous Sisters,” Niffenegger explains the motivation behind creating her unusual visual novels: “I make books because I love them as objects; because I want to put the pictures and the words together, because I want to tell a story.”


Richard Price Q&A

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on February 5, 2003.

Richard Price’s new book, “Samaritan,” is the third in a string of convincingly realistic novels set in the public housing projects of New Jersey.

Price first used the setting in “Clockers,” a story of drug dealers and the cops tracking them. In his next book, “Freedomland,” a white woman creates a storm by telling police a black man has taken her car, with her young child still inside. “Samaritan” is just as much of a page-turner as its two predecessors, but it’s a more intimate story.

A white television writer, Ray Mitchell, returns to the projects where he grew up to volunteer as a writing teacher. After a violent assault, he ends up in the hospital, but he won’t name his attacker. A retiring black police detective who knew him as a child, Nerese Ammons, sets out to solve the mystery.

Price began his career with the novel “The Wanderers” and later wrote screenplays for such films as “The Color of Money” and “The Sea of Love.” Price … spoke last week by telephone from New York.

Q: What was the inspiration for “Samaritan”?

A: In the course of doing “Freedomland” and “Clockers,” I spent a lot of time in these areas, just sort of hanging out with people, and sort of via osmosis learning what I felt like I didn’t know about the small minutiae of life, so I could make up responsible fiction. And in the course of this, I befriended a lot of people. I’m making money off what I’m doing, and they’re helping me, so I’d offer people money if they wanted it. Or if they didn’t want money, I would (say), “Well, what do you want? What can I do for you?” And oftentimes, I would just get closer to the families or take the kids for a weekend, you know, off the mother’s hands. Or I’d work with kids in the schools. And I was having a good time. …

What I wasn’t aware of, was that with a lot of these kids, it was the first time that they had been around an adult (who) was curious (about) them, other than their mothers. It was the first time somebody was really paying attention to them and making them feel like they are something of consequence.

On my end of it, at the end of the day, I just went home. But for a lot of people, it’s like, “What’s he gonna do next?” But the project comes to an end (and) what he’s gonna do next is he’s gonna bail, or he’s gonna move on. And so no matter what I did with teaching or hanging out with people, I always felt like when I left, I left people feeling slightly burned.

And so I was very interested in that intersection between trying to do good things and somehow doing damage — you know, raising hopes and then dashing them. You’re kind of oblivious to the fact that you’ve just done that. And then I read about this guy, Jonathan Levin, who was a teacher in the Bronx. It was big news a couple of years ago. He had been teaching in the Bronx. He had been tortured and killed by a couple of his students for his ATM card. And when I read that article … all of a sudden, I just got this feeling. … I had heard he was the type of guy who was a very charismatic teacher. … He was very beloved, as journalists love to say. There was something about his story that gave me the creeps and made me think about myself — how I might have been oblivious to what was going on in the heads of the people that I’m trying to quote-unquote help.

Q: In “Samaritan,” there’s a questioning of the motives behind altruism.

A: There’s altruism, like people having a fund-raising dinner and raising half a million dollars to do this or that or the other. That’s just like a cash transaction. I’m not really interested in that. When the character pays straight-out for a funeral, he might have had very weak reasons for doing that. But look, somebody gives somebody money, money is needed. That’s a done deal.

The thing I was more focused on was when people get carried away with their own goodness. They have one eye on the mirror, watching themselves be a good person. There are certain emotional promises made to the other, that they might not be aware of, because they’re focused on themselves, and then there’s hell to pay. … If you’re addicted to “Thank you,” you can sort of heedlessly find yourself walking through a minefield. Depending on the neediness of the people around you, you’re playing a very dangerous game.

Q: The other character who is a major focus of tile book is the detective, Nerese Ammons. Was she inspired by people you’ve met?

A: She’s a fictional creation, but she definitely had her inspiration in this one detective I met in the Bronx. I get this rap: He does all this research. It makes it sound sort of journalistic. And throw in a couple of phony names, and it’s fiction. But it’s all fiction. Oftentimes there are people that inspire characters but then I go off on a tangent with them that doesn’t have to do with the real life of the character. She definitely had a source.

Q: What interested you about this character?

A: Just the minutiae of her life. … Because she’s black and female, she sees herself and her career as a product of demographic cosmetics — that she rose off being female and black, therefore making the department look good statistically. … She knows it, and everybody else around her knows it, so she’s kind of alienated from everybody and she has a bone to pick. I just wanted her to be somebody who came from the same projects as him and started off life there. … Now that she’s approaching retirement … if she could solve something, if she could close a case that took place in the very area where she started her life, it would create a full circle for her, and it, would be a satisfying way to go out.

Q: The book reads like a whodunit or a police procedural, and yet it’s not about the sort of crime you normally read about.

A: I feel like I’m borrowing the whodunit format. … I’ve just found, in the last three books, that the structure and chronology of any police investigation, if you look at all the reports and the cast of characters — First of all, you have the arresting officers. Then you have the witnesses. Then you have the victim. Then you have the victim’s relatives. Then you have the perp. Then you have the false alarm — he’s not really the perp. Then you have the alibi people. And if you just follow the jacket chronologically, it’s sort of like a stem cell for the world. It’s a microcosm of human experience thrown against a particular incident. It’s an investigation hopefully leading toward a revelation. I found that if I could borrow that structure … I can drape anything about human experience that I went to go over along the skeleton of this police investigation — and layer on whatever nuances and commentary I want about the world I’m writing about. But I feel more like a borrower of a structure than an adherent to it.

Q: Each of your last three books has two major characters, with scenes alternating between the two characters. Was that by design?

A: Yeah. The last two books were big books. You’d have to join a health club if you bought those books. They were 600 pages.  I found that if I could get a swing rhythm between two perspectives, like A, B, A, B, A, B, it just made them read faster. And then it took on a life of its own. … Perhaps I didn’t need that this time around because it’s a considerably shorter book, but I kind of like that.

Q: Your books raise a lot of questions about social issues: crime, poverty, public housing. Do you have political ideas on how to solve these issues or are you more interested in presenting a realistic portrait of what’s happening?

A: I’m not a political writer. My sympathies are obviously with the underdog, for whatever that’s worth. … What I’m trying to do is present portraits’ along racial lines. I think these days, (with) black people and white people, there’s less dialogue now than there ever was before. It might be getting better now, but it seemed like in the early ’90s everybody retreated to their side of the line, shouting at each other, raising up placards with their favorite victims on it.  What I want to do is create characters of opposite races whose humanity would inevitably impose itself on their counterpart, in a way that their counterpart couldn’t hold onto their assumptions about the other race. It’s sort of like wishful thinking more than anything else.

Q: What reaction do you get to these books from people who live in areas like Dempsy? I mean the real-life reaction as opposed to the literary-critic reaction.

A: The real-life reaction, for those bothered to read it, is good. I get scared that somebody’s going to read it and say, “Is that what you think of me?” When I write about … a public defender, or a drug dealer or some woman who runs a family that she is the sale head of, if these people are reading what I wrote based on hanging out with them, I don’t want them to walk out of the movie halfway through, put down the book after 50 pages, and go, “This guy has no idea what I was talking about.” That’s the standard I’m looking for journalistically. The people who lived this say, “He got it.”

Q: What do you think when you look back on your early novels?

A: I wrote them all in my 20s. They all kind of make me flinch. I don’t know too many people who are proud of anything they did in their 20s. … All I can see is what I got away with. They had all this happy energy in them because I was so pleased with myself. When you’re in your 20s, you know everything. When you’re in your 50s, you know nothing. So I look them and say, “God, this guy thought he really had it all figured out.”

Q: How would you compare writing screenplays and novels?

A: For starters, in novel writing, someone gives me an advance and then I disappear for two or three years. I’m by myself.  Screenwriting, I’m being hired. People are hovering, because they want product … and they want control over that product. And I’m aware of that, and that’s the way it goes. …   The money is phenomenally more (when you’re) writing screenplays. The writing itself is not really satisfying. You write a first draft of a script, and everything you do after that first draft is a matter of collective bargaining — making this guy happier or that guy less nervous or this guy more excited, all simultaneously. So it’s about making people feel good about proceeding to the next stage. There’s no writing in screenwriting. There’s no authorial voice, there’s no narrative, there’s no language, there’s no sentences. It’s a two-dimensional medium. People say things and then they do things. Say and do, say and do, it’s all about momentum. It’s like speed chess. There’s no interior life, there’s no past. Novel writing is just the opposite. It’s all about depth.

Q: Do you feel like you have any particular strengths as a screenwriter?

A: My dialogue is obviously kind of snappy, but that’s not really important. People think that because somebody can write good dialogue, they’ll automatically be a good screenwriter. Good screenwriting is more about architecture: your ability to build a two-hour story that has an inexorable forward momentum.

Q: Do you know what your next project will be?

A: I’m doing a script with Jonathan Demme. It’s an original script.

Q: Do you have another novel planned?

A: Oh, man, I wish. Unfortunately, not. It takes me just as long to figure out what I want to do as it does to do it.


Rick Moody Q&A

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on September 25, 2002.

Readers expecting a straight memoir from acclaimed novelist Rick Moody won’t find it in “The Black Veil.” Subtitled “A Memoir With Digressions,” the new book does include Moody’s account of his battles with depression and alcoholism. But it’s a stranger, more elliptical book than the typical memoir, as it traces Moody’s quest to find out more about a distant ancestor — a minister in New England who was famous for concealing his face and inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “The Minister’s Black Veil.”

The famously reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon wrote that Moody’s new book “takes the art of the memoir an important step into the future.” Moody, whose novel “The Ice Storm,” was the basis of the 1997 movie by director Ang Lee, … spoke with Pioneer Press last week by phone from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Q: Why did you decide to write a memoir?

A: I remember … reading an interview with John Updike where he said that he didn’t like to write novels back to back. What he would do is alternate other sorts of books with novel writing to alleviate the pressure on his imagination of having to come up with novels one after another. … I had found (my novel) “Purple America” so incredibly draining as an exercise of the imagination that I needed a break. … And I just decided I would try to come up with a nonfiction book as relief from the novel. …

If I have one regret about “The Black Veil,” it’s the subtitle. Because I don’t think it’s a memoir in the conventional sense at all, and I never intended it to be. In fact, I think the real obvious kind of American memoir — you know, triumph over adversity and all that — is hackneyed and in need of a good, stiff kick. I never wanted to write one of those.

Really, I thought I was writing about Hawthorne and my family’s strange connections with Hawthorne and the Hawthorne short story, “The Minister’s Black Veil.” In order to do so, it seemed to me it was natural to put myself in as a character. But that doesn’t mean that the book is … primarily recollective or primarily nostalgic. It was meant to be much more ambitious than that and much more sort of protean. It needs to have a lot of different stuff going on in it. To oversimplify it into the condition of memoir is to make readers unhappy, because it’s not going to be that kind of a book for them.

Q: Did the portions of the book dealing with your life take on a bigger role as you wrote the book?

A: It seemed to me that if I didn’t write about the particularly sad part of my life … it was going to be a black hole in the universe of the book, sort of sucking all the energy out of it, because it has so much to do with “The Minister’s Black Veil.” There’s a big section in the middle about my unfortunate stay in a psychiatric hospital when I was in my 20s. To not talk about that — to go all the way through this ordeal of talking about “The Minister’s Black Veil” and how sad and dark that story is without saying that my own life had a sad, dark chapter — would be extremely strange. It just became natural to include the material in this book. The fight really was to permit myself to do that. It was very hard work to write those sections, demanding and sort of scary in some ways. But I ultimately decided that was the best thing for the book.

Q: Why not do a straight memoir?

A: I might do one when I’m 60. The problem is the sort of community I grew up in — Northeastern WASP community — is, socially speaking, incredibly bad at talking about itself. So in a way, this is the kind of WASP memoir, where everything is done through indirection, everything’s done in lateral ways instead of straight-on. This sort of is how WASPs talk about themselves. WASPs, always on the verge of getting to the important part of the story, change the subject or talk about the weather.

Q: Was this all based on memory, or are you one of those people who keeps a journal or diary?

A: No, absolutely not. Never have. Everything that’s of use or of any interest in my life eventually gets channeled into the work somehow, and that’s as close as I get to diaristic writing.

Q: Did it work as a break between writing novels or did it prove to be just as stressful as writing “Purple America”?

A: It was actually worse. Which was too bad. But I am back writing fiction now, and I feel like I have a lot to say again in that form. So that much of the plan was effective.

Q: What’s the novel are you working on now?

A: It’s sort of about television, the medium and the business. … It’s about an independent producer who stakes her career on a television miniseries.

Q: How would describe your evolution as a fiction writer?

A: What I think I’m doing is posing greater challenges to myself with each book. With my first novel, a not-very-often-read-and-for-good-reasons novel called “Garden State,” I was just trying to figure out how to make a novel at all. But since then, each book has been an attempt to conceive of a more difficult, more unusual way to get out storytelling, and that’s how I like it. In order for me to spend three years on a book, it has to be demanding on a really awesome scale. Otherwise, it’s just pushing paper around.

Q: Do you often encounter people who are more familiar with the movie of “The Ice Storm” than your book? What’s your reaction to that?

A: That’s the sad situation in American literature right now. What we (novelists) do culturally doesn’t have the same premium that television and the movies have in terms of cultural impact. One thing that I felt about the movie when it was happening was that whether it was good or bad — and I actually think it was pretty great — it was going to be a big unavoidable billboard for the book. And to the extent that that was true, I’m happy, because it did lead readers to my work. Some of them are only interested in “The Ice Storm,” and that’s cool. But actually, a big bunch of them got interested in my other work as well.

Q: Was the idea of the storm something you thought of when you began writing that novel, or did it come later in the writing process?

A: There’s a great apocryphal story about some 19th-century novelist who said to a friend, “My novel’s all done. I just have to go back and put in the theme.” But actually, the storm was first with the book. There was such a storm in 1973 in the Northeast, and everyone who grew up where I grew up in the Connecticut suburbs or in Long Island or in northern Jersey has a story about the ’73 ice storm. It was a really big deal, sort of a touchstone for everyone’s childhood. So really, the idea was to use something I knew a whole lot about, which is to say, the suburbs in the ’70s, and then I just created characters and set pieces to work with that material.

Q: In “Purple America,” again you’ve got a subtext of something happening. This time, it’s the nuclear reactor. What was the inspiration for using that as a subject?

A: It’s actually a little joke to myself. … The novelist Jeffrey Eugenides … described “The Ice Storm” as a “nuclear family meltdown.” And you know, I’d been thinking about that and the attention to family that seems to come to me naturally, when I was getting ready to write “Purple America.” And I just thought I would make it an actual nuclear family drama, in all the senses of the word. It is true that I like these big deus ex machina forces working in the books, and that the nuclear meltdown is like the ice storm. They are metaphors for theological musings or something, and that’s why like them so much.

Q: By the time of this novel, you were using a lot longer paragraphs. Some go on for whole pages, stream-of-consciousness writing that simulates a dream, for example. Was that part of your effort to challenge yourself?

A: Yeah. John Berryman the poet said, “If you aren’t trying to write a book you don’t think you’re capable of writing, you haven’t been ambitious enough.” When I started “Purple America,” that was the idea. OK, I’m going to use similar material … that won’t shock people who liked “The Ice Storm,” but I’m going to try and really bring my whole bag of tricks with me when I do it this time instead of intentionally restraining the prose, which is what I’d always done. I kind of felt like I’m not allowed to write the way I think, I’m not allowed to write with the kind of intensity that interests me because I’m worried I’m going to lose readers. But by the time I got to “Purple America,” my feeling was just, “I’m going to really go for it, try to hit the ball out of the park, and see if the readers come along with me.”

Q: You’re discouraging us from thinking of “The Black Veil” as a memoir. Typically, authors who write memoirs say things like, “I wrote this book about my struggle with alcoholism, and since then, hundreds of readers have talked to me and shared their experience.” With your book being a little different, I’m wondering if you still get that kind of response.

A: I do, actually. Some of the publicity surrounding the book has concentrated on the depression section of the book, to the exclusion of the other sort of material, which is from my point of view reductive. And I worry that readers who approach the book with that in mind and are thinking it’s going to deliver in traditional ways are going to be disappointed. And yet, a lot of venues in which I read, people came up to me afterwards wanting to talk about depression and about what I’d done to try to overcome that problem and so forth. While I don’t want to reduce the book and oversimplify it, I also don’t want to drive off readers who are getting something from it along those lines. In fact, I would like to be of service and helpful if people are suffering and they want to talk about it. That’s something I know a lot about and I’m happy to show up for it.

Q: What was like it spending so much time delving into Hawthorne’s short story and its possible meanings?

A: When you do deep archaeology on something like that, it’s just enriching and satisfying in so many ways. I recently wrote a radio play about a piece of public sculpture in New York City, this cube that’s in Greenwich Village. … And now, when I see the cube, I feel like a little bit like it belongs to me. And the same thing happened with ‘‘The Minister’s Black Veil.” I sort of feel like nobody in history has ever devoted as much attention to that story as I have. I thought about it so much and so long and from every conceivable angle, and I’ve read that story so many times now, from when I was 15 and now I’m 41, so I’ve been reading it for 26 years. I really know a lot about it. And it’s an incredibly rich, mysterious, open, bleak short story. … Hawthorne probably dashed off in six weeks. And I spent four years thinking about it.

But to me, when you really try and get underneath a story, especially a story like that, that doesn’t allow itself to be decoded easily — when you do that, you really get somewhere. I want books to be as complex and unfathomable as people are, you know? You can’t exhaust a person. You can hang out with them for years, and you always scratch new layers and find parts of their character that you didn’t know about before. And reading experiences for me, really valuable ones, are like that. And “The Black Veil” is really just an account of one reading experience that’s gone on for a really, really long time.


Chuck Palahniuk interview

This article by Robert Loerzel originally appeared in Pioneer Press on July 10, 2002.

Since his novel, “Fight Club:’ was turned into a movie, Chuck Palahniuk has been drawing new fans.

But Palahniuk doesn’t want just anyone reading his books. His most recently published novel, “Choke,” throws down the gauntlet with its opening lines, daring readers to … well, daring them to stop reading:

If you’re going to read this, don’t bother. After a couple pages, you won’t want to be here. So forget it. Go away. Get out while you’re still in one piece.

Save yourself. There has to be something better on television…

It’s hard to tell whether Palahniuk is being sarcastic when you read him on the page. In a telephone interview, the Oregon writer said he was being somewhat serious when he wrote the opening paragraphs of “Choke,” which just came out in paperback. In a way, that opening is intended as an actual warning. Palahniuk knows that not everyone is going to like his dark and twisted comedic fantasies about social miscreants.

“I wanted to address people who wouldn’t like my stuff,” Palahniuk said. “I wanted to weed them out.”

At the same time, Palahniuk said he realized his warning would, entice some people to read on.   Like “Fight Club,” Palahniuk’s latest novel is at times a brutal read. “Choke” isn’t always easy to swallow. This time around, the disturbing elements revolve more around sex than violence. It’s often wickedly funny, though readers looking for wholesome writing will probably find it literally wicked.

The book’s protagonist, Victor Mancini, pretends to choke on food at restaurants so that other diners will leap into action and save him. Part of his motivation is to persuade these “heroes” to support him with periodic checks in the mail; but he also seems enjoy seeing these people feel as if they’ve saved someone’s life.

Victor’s other deviant behavior includes lying to residents at the nursing home where his ailing mother lives. Whenever residents approach him with addled memories about decades-old grievances, he confesses that he’s the person who wronged them years ago, hoping this will give them “closure.” These sorts of schemes — in which a character takes a social situation and turns it upside-down — are typical of Palahniuk’s writing.

He said he was inspired by the con games in movies such as “The Sting,” but Palahniuk wondered if the money was really the main objective of the characters in those stories. “What’s the next step?” he said. “What do they do with that money?”

The characters in Palahniuk’s stories play con games, but instead of seeking money, they’re trying to achieve their emotional needs, he says.

In “Fight Club,” the narrator fills the emotional void in his life by creating clubs where men get together for fistfights. At least, that’s what the story seems to be about, until a stunning revelation comes near the end, totally changing our perspective of everything that has happened until then. (For those who haven’t read the book or seen the movie yet, we won’t spoil the surprise.) The film’s director, David Fincher, followed the same tactic that Palahniuk had used in the original novel to prepare for the shocking plot twist. Both of them preceded it with so many absurd, surreal scenes that the story’s secret wasn’t too hard to accept.

The key, Palahniuk said, is to “get people to swallow a lot of outrageous things.” While many authors are unhappy with the film adaptations of their books, Palahniuk said he couldn’t have been more pleased with the way Fincher vividly brought “Fight Club” to the screen.

“The movie was so good,” he said. “My first panic was people would think I wrote the book after the movie, that it was just some cheesy novelization.”

The success of “Fight Club” prompted some people to contact Palahniuk for information on how to sign up for the nearest fight club in their city. He has had trouble convincing them that the fight clubs were just a figment of his imagination. Palahniuk’s writing seems to inspire a strange devotion among some readers.

“I have received five or six letters from people who want to be my slave,” he said. “If they do windows, I’m totally open to that idea.”

Palahniuk’s fifth novel, “Lullaby,” comes out in September. In this supernatural thriller, a newspaper reporter discovers an old African chant in a book of poems may be causing children to die of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome whenever it is read.

“It’s a really big departure,” Palahniuk said of the book. “I’ve thrown my formulas out the window. I’ve decided to spend my next three books reimagining the horror novel.”

What fascinates Palahniuk about old horror novels, he said, is the subtext. What were people really afraid of in their lives when they shivered about tales of vampires and werewolves? “The monsters personified the fears of the time,” Palahniuk said.

Like most authors, Palahniuk said his fiction is not autobiographical, although it does reflect certain aspects of his personality and experience. “None of it is me, but all of it is me, in some way,” he said. “Usually, I’m making fun of myself, some aspect of my life that’s ludicrous and stupid.”