Kris Saknussemm is the author of the cult sci-fi novel ZANESVILLE, and now the psychoerotic thriller PRIVATE MIDNIGHT. He has won First Prize in the /Boston Review/ and /River Styx Short/ Fiction contests and the FC2 Award for Innovative Writing. For more information, please visit privatemidnight.com.
Tell us a bit about your current project.
I’m on tour now for a novel called PRIVATE MIDNIGHT, released on March 5 from Overlook Press. On the surface it’s a crime/detective story that has been described by Publisher’s Weekly as, “James Ellroy meets David Lynch in this addictive mix of noir and supernatural horror.” It’s also an allegory about the war between the sexes, gender politics, and the secrets we try to hide from ourselves—and of course the cost of that hiding.
We are all about journeys…unique ones at that. How convoluted was your path to your first published book? Share some highlights or lowlights from your path to publication.
ZANESVILLE, which was ultimately described by Booklist as, “The most creative, entertaining and edgy book sci-fi has produced in a decade,” and which the Austin Chronicle called “the most original novel of the year” was my first novel…and a long, long time in the birthing. Innumerable rewrites, rejections, nay-sayers and hostile receptions. Only to be followed by a modest avalanche of raves and a growing cult following. I think my journey was longer than I can express and harder than I would wish on anyone. I found myself literally on a journey that strangely mirrored my lead character’s—with friends and enemies, traps and hope along the way. I believe what is successful about the book derives from that long, lonesome valley quest that I went on.
I stood by that book and it continues to find new and ever more enthusiastic readers. Similarly, my latest work, PRIVATE MIDNIGHT was strenuously rejected by many major houses in New York, and my own agent struggled with it at first. But I remained steadfast, and the reviews which have emerged prove that I was right in my assessment. It comes down to faith and tenacity—and the willingness to risk being very wrong. That’s a big risk. One should never gamble beyond one’s means. But within those parameters, gamble all you have—all you are.
Do you still experience self-doubts regarding your work, or struggle in a particular area such as writers block or angst driven head-banging against walls? Please share some helpful overcoming hints that you’ve discovered.
I’d be very suspicious of anyone who doesn’t experience self-doubt—and I particularly savor it in my writing—because then I know I’m working with a real challenge, something worth my time, and potentially other people’s. But the self-doubt is always balanced by a deep inner assurance once I really get the scent of the story.
I’ve had one really terrible experience of writer’s block—with a book under contract and part of a cycle or series. It almost drove me under psychologically. I’m still recovering. Now beyond it, I see the core problem was perfectionism and an unrealistic expectation for the book. I was striving to create a lifetime masterwork in a single volume. Writers need to be dreamers, but a little pragmatism goes a long way. Think process. Play the notes. Don’t worry about the packaging.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication? Or to narrow it down further what’s something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I spent a good ten years writing prose that I still believe in very much—but was it for publication? I wonder about that. I think now that this body of work is only for publication when other works of mine get real notice. I was writing interesting stuff for a highly select audience that is increasingly difficult to reach. Beware interesting stuff. America at least has an aversion to it. Dumbing down is a real phenomenon. Now when younger writers ask me about writing for publication I ask them back specifically which publishers they’re targeting—and which editors. When they know the names of some editors I know they’re serious and focused. I don’t regret my experimenting, but that’s what it was.
What is your favorite source for finding story ideas?
I’ve never had a shortage of ideas, and most of the writers I admire say the same. I know there are some authors who seem to have the ability to focus very narrowly on the idea they are working with at any one time, but overall, I think if one is short of ideas, writing isn’t the right direction. For true writers, ideas rain in on them all the time from all angles. The problem is the shortage of time, energy and concentration to bring them to fruition.
Have you ever had one of those awkward writer moments you’d like to share with us, the ones wherein you get “the look” from the normals? Example, you stand at a knife display at the sporting goods store and ask the clerk which would be the best to use to disembowel a six foot man…please do tell.
I’ve always had a knack for asking tricky technical questions of specialists (of every kind, from street people to skilled tradesmen, doctors, lawyers, etc)—I seem to get on their wavelength and make them feel comfortable. Where I’ve had some plucked eyebrows raised is when I’ve asked specific questions of women about being a woman. Usually this has worked out OK, but I’ve noticed a big gap between information women want to volunteer and how they field questions posed to them. Generally speaking, I think people enjoy being asked questions they’re confident they have the answers to. It’s when they have to think a bit that they get touchy.
With the clarity of experience what advice would you offer up to the wet-behind-the-ears you if beginning this writing journey today?
Write what you enjoy writing about. If the process isn’t satisfying for you, the result won’t be either—for anyone. And there is so much discouragement and so many hurdles to overcome you really have to feel good in the doing. Maybe not all the time but on the whole. Start with smaller scale works that you can see as complete, and when you’ve fine tuned them as best you can, share them—whether that’s with friends and fellow writers or via submission. Always be working on something, making notes about something, and have something out.
Be realistic about the publications, websites, etc you submit to. Avoid the lottery mentality of shooting off stuff to the New Yorker or high-end publications before you’ve developed a track record and some real confidence on a smaller scale. And by all means don’t submit material to the New Yorker if you’re not a New Yorker style writer. Seek out outlets that truly suit your material and vision. And don’t disparage writerly events like conferences, etc—but don’t give them too much credence either. Faced with the choice of attending a writer’s conference or having an adventure, choose the adventure. Flood yourself with material and ideas and your own inner editor will find the right assignment.
What event/person has most changed you as a writer? How?
This will sound odd, especially in a literary context—and perhaps I’m thinking this way because I’m on the road reading and performing in support of PRIVATE MIDNIGHT. But the person that comes to mind is Chubby Checker. Years ago he came to a town near where I live in Australia, once a fabulously prosperous little city during the 1850’s gold rush. He was performing in a lavish Victorian theater with gilded angels on the walls and I cynically thought it was going to be an evening of ludicrous entertainment. I mean, here he was, really chubby now, a has-been when I first heard him decades ago and my sister and I would dance in our pajamas. I was prepared for a ridiculous spectacle—and it got even more delicious when I saw the whole front two rows were filled with a group of mentally challenged people proudly wearing Rock’n’Roll Therapy jackets. A scene out of a movie I thought.
Then Chubby came on and I mean to tell you he rocked the house. He brought the gospel of the rock’n’roll spirit, doing all his famous Twist and dance numbers with completely sincere passion and a whole lotta energy. Then he did a repertoire of stuff I’d never known about as well as credibly mixing in some funk and hip-hop. I felt very humbled when I thought about how I’d planned to laugh snidely at his act. The next week he was back in the States headlining at Disneyworld and on the Today Show. He proved why he’s a survivor. As Tom Waits says, “You bring the stories and songs with you.” He demonstrated total belief in what he was doing and genuine respect for the audience. A gentleman and a trouper.
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why? (Doesn’t have to be one of your books or even published.)
I’m very proud of PRIVATE MIDNIGHT. It’s a challenging, confrontational book that still entertains, while dealing with some gritty issues that affect us all, but which too often go unexamined.
Do you have a pet peeve having to do with this biz?
Just one? I’ll start with Credentialism, the conveyor belt mentality/process of getting an MFA, accumulating publications, jockeying for position. Second, the insane cutthroat politics of major New York publishers, which has seen a lot of good editors leave the industry and those who remain become embattled rather than supported and celebrated. Third, blatantly manipulative feel-good writing which leads to a blandness of fiction at large.
Share a dream or something you’d love to accomplish through your writing career.
I would love for my work to be an inspiration for others in the way that my heroes have inspired me. My father was a minister; my mother was a teacher. I was born into the inspiration business.
What gives you the greatest writer buzz, makes the trip worth the hassles (besides coffee or other substances, or course )?
Saying something that I didn’t know I thought—and better still—discovering some kind of truth that had not been previously articulated. For example, at one point in PRIVATE MIDNIGHT, the protagonist says, “That’s the reason most marriages fail—they aren’t conspiratorial enough.” I think the model of intimacy as conspiracy is a sharp and more insightful take on the subject—as opposed to say the predictable teamwork. My character explained something to me about why my marriage failed that I hadn’t seen before.
What is one of the more unique or strange life experiences that has really given you an extra oomph in your writing?
I was the victim of an attempted rape and violent attack when I was 9. That experience opened ways of seeing and understanding that I never would have had otherwise. It made many aspects that power literature (evil, kindness, salvation, predation, redemption, courage) real for me.
I attach a photo of my office at home. I’ve had both bigger spaces and smaller spaces over the years, but what you see is a little like Dr. Who’s TARDIS, a kind of ship I sail through time in.
What aspect of writing was the most difficult for you to grasp/conquer? How did you overcome it?
After the initial rush of creation/composition there comes the tidying up process. I find that tedious some times, but it’s crucial and I treat it with great respect. I have a great love for the well-made thing, whatever it be. Care and discipline on the continuity and fine print levels pays off in ways that many readers may not even be conscious of. I think of it as where the West African drummer inside me meets my Swiss watchmaker.
What is the first thing you do when you begin a new book?
I write my ass off. I get the fever and I let the fever have me. It’s not my story. I may get to take some credit for it finally, but if it’s good, it’s not mine. I’m just a vehicle and a vessel. I have to cop to the responsibility for what emerges—and I do—but I’m just listening. What’s good is not my doing, it’s my grace. I celebrate that but take ownership only in name.
Writing rituals. Do you have to sit somewhere specific, complete a certain number of words, leave something undone to trigger creativity for the next session? Some other quirk you’d like to share?
I’m such a naturally ritualistic person, and one who has seriously studied ritual at a Ph.D. level, I don’t conjure many rituals in my writing. I approach the process more organically and pragmatically. What I do do though, is surround myself with talismans and personally magical emblems of power and support. These may be art objects I’ve made, things I’ve collected or special gifts/findings I’ve accumulated. I have, for instance, a Hohner harmonica given to me by the great blues harp genius Little Walter in 1968 (during a rainswept concert in the San Francisco park known as the Panhandle not long before he died). Little Walter said the reason he loved the harmonica is because, “No one can see how you’re playing it.” I think that’s an interesting clue/metaphor for writers. We may appear to just be “typing”—but no one can see exactly how we’re playing. They only hear/read the results.
Plot, seat of pants or combination?
Ultimately, a combination. Feeling the characters become real for me, understanding the arc of the story even in a fragile not fully defined way, throws into relief a few key dramatic scenes. I often attack those out of sequence (as one in film making might shoot a really difficult scene early). They in turn warp the field of the plot—and I think plot is best thought of in as non-linear a way as possible, even if it is essentially linear in the end. As in composing music, there’s plenty of time for fine tuning and adjustment. The first and most important thing is to get a grip on what I think of as the basic rhythm and melody lines. What key is the story in?
What is the most difficult part of pulling together a book? Ex. Do you have saggy middles, soggy characters, soupy plots during your first drafts…if so, how do you shape it up?
Honestly, I don’t think a book deserves the effort of being “pulled together” unless it has some distinct momentum and point of difference. You have to feel that and take the risk of your intuition. The ability/courage to abandon projects is how real work gets done. Be mindful and heartful of process and the products will take care of themselves. No one can be with their children all the time. They have to stick up for themselves. Some birds learn to fly and some don’t.
Have you received a particularly memorable reader response or peer honor? Please share.
PRIVATE MIDNIGHT received a Starred Review in Publisher’s Weekly. I’m proud of that. I’m more proud of the fact that a single mother on a limited income in a struggling milltown in North Carolina bought the book, having taken a long bus trip to the local library to read my first novel ZANESVILLE. And I’m proud that two senior police officers, one a current homicide detective in Seattle, the other a retired LA cop (the first white guy to head a major gang unit in LA County) thought my writing was real and valid. I didn’t set out to write an “accurate” police procedural story—but I’m pleased to pass muster with those who really know the score—and have lived the story, so to speak.
Have you discovered any successful marketing/promo ideas that you’d share with us?
There’s no substitute for hard work. Building relationships with readers is what we’re really talking about here, and as with any relationship, that takes time, energy and sincerity. On this note I strongly encourage start-up writers to share their “secret identities” with those closest to them first. Face that challenge, confront those doubts and awkward elements and win over this audience first—then work out from there. (Many, many writers resist this, preferring the company of like-minded strangers. This only prolongs an eventual confrontation and detracts from a support group that might be more supportive than is supposed.)
Practically, I’d say find some ways (through other media for example) to share your work in what might be described as abstracted, abbreviated or more immediately accessible ways. This doesn’t mean compromising the writing in any way—it means developing some supplementary angles. The CD of music based on my novel PRIVATE MIDNIGHT, which my group Clamon and I composed and recorded, is an example.
(Oh…and have business cards printed and hand them out—sounds obvious but always be prepared to follow-up any query or inquiry.) And team up with other writers and artists of all kinds wherever you can. Two people can be an army. Three people and you’ve got a Movement—or the beginnings of one.
Parting words? Anything you wish we would’ve asked because you’ve got the perfect answer?
Reading and writing are changing every day—both in industry terms and actual artistic terms. Be flexible and optimistic. See your writing as “language as art” and look for opportunities. They can be found in unexpected places.
And more simply, just never give up. The prevailing wisdom is—when faced with a larger opponent and hit hard, stay down, so you don’t get hurt even worse. I say, straggle back up. Long ago I was arrested and thrown in with some very serious folk who were used to and expert in physical violence. I learned a powerful lesson…claw your way back up…whatever it takes. The attacker who’s preying on you is more vulnerable than you are actually. You will win the respect of the Others if you fight yourself back to standing form.