01 August 2007

Author Answers with Eric Stone

This week's author is Eric Stone. Stone has worked as writer, photographer, editor and publishing consultant. His first novel, Living Room of the Dead, is out and his second book comes out next month.

For more about Stone, see his website or his blog.

WN: Your second novel featuring ex-pat journalist-slash-detective Ray Sharp ("Grave Imports") comes out in September. How and why did you decide to do a series of books?
STONE: Actually, in the second book Ray has given up journalism and taken a job with a corporate investigations firm. I figured that would give him greater scope for getting involved in, rather than simply reporting on, the sort of investigations that might lead to interesting stories. It allows him to be an immediate participant, rather than simply trying to affect change through reporting his observations.
As a reader, I've always loved series books, at least to a point. I like seeing how the characters develop and change from book to book. If I like the character, or even if I don't but I find them interesting for some other reason, I want to know what's going to happen to them next. People are more interesting to me than the specifics of a crime or whatever tale they get caught up in. I'm mostly interested in crime or politics or economics or anything else, from the standpoint of what impact it has on people, or on a specific person.
As a writer, a series is a real challenge of my skills to try and keep it fresh. I want my characters to learn from their experiences and be affected by them as the continuing personal saga progresses. There's nothing worse than a static series character, or one who is bogged down by all the baggage they bring along from previous books. It's a juggling act to give a series character a personal life - which is important in order to give them context - but not have that get in the way of the story. I might have to kill off some girlfriends or colleagues along the way. I don't know if I'd be capable of doing that after a dozen or so books, but I'd be happy to find out. I figure that people buy series books because of the character, but they like each book in the series because of the story and how it affects the character.
As for how the series came about, the first three books (I just finished the first draft of the third one) and the planned fourth book in the series are all based on true stories that I covered as a journalist, or know well from my work as a journalist, in Asia from 1986 to 1997. I wanted to fictionalize the stories in order to better show the impact of these big, real events and issues on regular people. Making them a series, with a central character to act as the eyes and ears of the reader, gives them a continuity and focus that I think makes them more accessible and entertaining to a broad range of people.

WN: What kind of character is Ray Sharp? What kind of reader will really like him?
STONE: Ray is a smart, open-minded, but confused guy. He's a long time expatriate (an American in Asia), and he understands that he's an outsider in the world in which he's chosen to live. He knows that he can never be fully part of that world, but he'd like to understand it as well as he can. At times he can be morally ambiguous because he wants to respect things the way they are and knows better than to try and impose his cultural or personal judgements on them. But he also wants to do the right thing and sometimes his idea of the right thing and respecting the local ways of doing things, come into conflict with each other.
And sometimes he overthinks these dilemmas. He has a prostitute for a girlfriend and he can't bring himself to condemn what she does or even to ask her not to do it. In some ways he even sort of likes it. But at the same time he clearly sees the terrible economic and political forces that have pushed her and other women into it, and tries to do what he can to fight the people who exploit women like her.
In some ways he's too smart for his own good, and so he never quite knows what to make of things. When he acts, it's often on instinct, or to help a friend, because when he's thinking, his intellect often paralyzes him. Still, he's good at thinking his way out of bad situations.
He doesn't much care for violence, but he's seen more than his fair share of it. He's not any kind of expert in any of the violent arts, but he's willing to do what it takes to protect himself and the people he cares for. He's dogged and loyal. He likes to drink, a lot. He likes sex, and is happy to have it with hookers, as well as with women he has actual relationships with. (Although his longest current relationship is with a hooker.) That said, he avoids sex in the second book (GRAVE IMPORTS), having been traumatized by what went on in the first book (THE LIVING ROOM OF THE DEAD.)
Ray's an everyman, he's not a superman. He's confused sometimes, inconsistent. He judges himself but tries not to judge others. He's honest in ways that bother other people sometimes. At his core he has a very good, deep heart. And he's smart and funny and observes a whole lot of really strange, quirky stuff that he describes well. What's not to like? I think some readers might disapprove of him, might want to slap him around from time to time, but I think that makes some people like him even better.

WN: What’s your writing process like?
STONE: I write every day, even on weekends if I can. Even if I'm not working on something specific I make a point of writing something just to keep in practice. Even if it's only for an hour. When I'm working on a book, I usually write for three to four hours in the morning, then desperately look for someone to have lunch with so as to talk with a real human being. Then in the afternoon I do research and editing. (My brain is too swamped with all kinds of thoughts to be very creative in the afternoon.)
I don't outline, although I do usually end up with a few sheets of notes to keep track of who's who and what's what and bits of research that I want to sneak into the story somewhere.
I've now written four books, and with each one there has come a point where I almost felt as if the book started writing itself. That's usually somewhere from half to two-thirds of the way through. By then the story and the characters have all built up their own internal logic to the point that they've come alive in my head and I feel like I'm simply reporting on them. It can get strange. In the third book, the one I've just finished writing, one character unexpectedly hauled off and shot another character toward the end. I hadn't planned it that way. And when it happened it made me change a whole lot about what I had planned for the end of the book. But, there I was, innocently writing, when all of a sudden it just made perfect sense that the shooting would happen. And so it happened. And so that changed how I ended the book. But it was better that way, a lot better. Damn characters can get uppity that way sometimes.

WN: Having tried your hand at writing non-fiction and fiction, what’s different in how you approach writing each?
STONE: For non-fiction I do enormous amounts of research, until it reaches a critical mass at which point the book (or article - I've written one non-fiction book, WRONG SIDE OF THE WALL, but hundreds of articles) kind of writes itself. I rarely do any more research once I've started writing. Occasionally something I write in non-fiction will spark a question and I'll have to look it up, but generally it's a well-defined two part process.
The easy thing about non-fiction, too, is that it doesn't have to make as much sense as fiction. You can rely on simply reporting the facts. If you've done your research and got your facts straight, it doesn't matter how bizarre or illogical the story is. If that's the way it happened, so be it. If a non-fiction reader comes across something that doesn't make any sense to them, but you've done your research, they might react by saying, "Wow, that's sure strange. Truth really is stranger than fiction."
But you can't get away with that in fiction. If a fiction reader comes across something that doesn't make any sense, they might say, "Yeah, right, what's wrong with this idiot," and throw the book across the room. (At least that's what I tend to do.)
I can also speculate more in fiction, which makes it, in my mind, a better medium for getting ideas across. When I was a journalist I adhered very strictly to the concept of non-advocacy journalism. I would never go into a story thinking that I wanted to make such and such a point with it. I'd just report it and let the chips fall where they might. If there weren't fully documented, usually with at least two sources, facts to report, I wouldn't report them. You can get away with a lot more in fiction. In THE LIVING ROOM OF THE DEAD, some of the most gruesome scenes take place in a brothel on an island in the South China Sea that is either run by, or certainly tolerated by the Chinese Navy. Such brothels exist in real life. And they exist with the knowledge and sometimes participation of the Chinese Navy. I know it, every reporter in Hong Kong, Macau and southern China knows it. But that's not enough to write about it in a non-fiction book. If you want to do a conscientious job, you'd need actual, on the record or eyewitness sources to back you up. I can get away with writing about it in my novel. It's fiction. (Yeah, right.)

WN: Were you a reader as a kid… what turned you on to reading/writing books?
STONE: Reading was one of my favorite things to do as a kid. In part it was because I always hated sleeping and I had a good flashlight that I kept fresh batteries in - for reading under the covers when I was supposed to be asleep. My parents are both huge readers, and I think that's what set me off. I learned to read fairly young and never much cared for kids books. My favorite books, starting when I was about five or six, were a series called Landmark Books. They were history and biography and some science, written for kids, but not in a particularly childish way. My parents were both also great story tellers. Our family would go on drives to explore the city - Los Angeles - or other places around Southern California and my parents would spin yarns about all the places we'd see. That led to a lifelong addiction to urban exploration and learning about and telling stories about new places. Writing just always seemed like part of it. I've been writing stories as long as I can remember reading them. Once again, it was something my parents always encouraged.

WN: What’s the best part of being a writer to you? What’s the most challenging part of writing for you?
STONE: I can't imagine doing anything else. Most writers will tell you that they'd do it for free, or even pay to do it if they had to. And I'm like that. It sounds dumb. But after breathing and food it feels like the most natural thing I do. I love the sound of it in my head. Sometimes I'll be writing and I'll be tapping my feet to the rhythm of it, or laughing and shouting and carrying on at some of the things that are coming out of my brain, or cackling with glee over some particularly swell (so far as I'm concerned) turn of phrase.
There are also physical reasons why it's so great. I work at home. Even in L.A. I almost always avoid traffic because I can pick and choose when I go places. I can wear shorts and a t-shirt or sweatpants and no shoes to work. Strangely, and maybe this will change if I ever become a really famous writer, but I also love the promotional side of it. I love driving around to bookstores and libraries and talking with people about books, especially my books, and other subjects that pop into my head. I'd do that happily anyhow. And now, sometimes I get paid for doing it.
It can be challenging. When I'm actually writing, it's a solitary enterprise. Email is both a good and bad thing. Send me an email in the middle of the day and I'm likely to respond to it immediately - because I want the human contact. Whenever I email a writer friend in the middle of the day and they email me back right away, I know they're trying to write. But then I email them back right away and before long an hour can be shot with exchanging emails. Actually knuckling down and doing the job and not getting distracted is tough. There are times when my house is way cleaner than it needs to be. Or I cook a much more elaborate and complicated dinner than I might have otherwise. Discipline is the tough part.
For most writers, money is the toughest part. They need to find time to write around their day job. I'm lucky in that I don't, at least for the foreseeable future, need a day job. If I needed to go to an office to earn a living every day, I'd still write, but I wouldn't have as much time for it and I'd have to sacrifice a lot of other things to do it.

WN: What is the best/most influential book you have ever read and why did it inspire you?
STONE: MOBY DICK. I read it for the first time when I was about 10. I'm not sure I fully understood it, but one of the things I love about it is that I don't think it's a book that can be fully understood. It is so rich, so full of things at every level, that I don't think I'll ever entirely get it. I reread it about once every 10 years and it seems fresh to me every time. It's a great adventure story. It's full of history and science and folklore and mysticism and philosophy and all of that is enhanced by the sheer, powerful, raw emotions contained in it. It's full of remarkable characters - the people, of course, but also the whale and the ship and the ocean and even the seabirds, all of which are some of the best realized characters in literature. I think the problem that some people have with it is that they can't quite catch onto its rhythm. "Call me Ishmael." is one of the greatest opening sentences ever written because it immediately sets out a tone and a tempo for the book. (And it does it in only three, perfectly chosen words. When I was a kid I loved Mad Magazine's version of it, that started: "Call me Fishmeal.") If you can hook onto that tone and tempo, it's like hooking your car up to one of the tow hooks in a carwash, you just get pulled straight through.


Janet Reid said...

Nice interview!

Kelly (Lynn) Parra said...

It's nice to read about other authors who don't outline--then I don't feel so chaotic. haha. As I get into the book, I start writing down threads to keep track of and try and make sure I tie things up. :) :)

Eric said...

I did try to outline once, and came up with something that I then completely ignored. Some people say that the process of outlining helps you focus, whether you use it or not. Maybe that's true for some people. I just felt like it was a waste of time for me.