Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Conversation with Lance Rubin

A couple of months back I posted a review of Lance Rubin's excellent DENTON LITTLE'S DEATHDATE.  Since then, we've talked a couple of times and it turns out he's a great guy, as well.  Here's an interview I did with him over the course of the last couple of weeks.  Read this, see how great he is, then go order his novel.

Me: Okay, Lance, so you're here because of DENTON LITTLE’S DEATHDATE, but first things first--who the hell are you?  You get fifty words max to tell us your life story.  Go!

Lance: 50 words? Yipes! But, okay. I wanted to be an actor since seeing Back to the Future at age six. And I was one for a long while: theater, comedy, some TV/film. But then my acting career started to feel frustrating and disempowering. Now I'm a writer. I love it.

Me: And really, there's nothing more empowering than playing god with a bunch of fictional characters lives, right?  You pretty much went to the opposite end of the power spectrum really.  What lessons and tricks from being an actor helped you in writing DLDD?

Lance: Ha, yes, it is the ultimate in empowerment. Choosing when and where to write and not having to wait for permission to start (as opposed to acting, where most of the time you can't do it until someone gives you a part) is wonderfully empowering, too. But I've been delighted to discover there's tons of creative overlap between acting and writing. So much of acting is getting inside a character's head, knowing how he/she will respond in any given situation, which, it turns out, is also a big part of writing a first-person protagonist. (And all the other characters, for that matter.) My comedy training came in handy, too: years of sketch writing informed all of the book's comedic dialogue, and years of doing improv gave me the confidence to run with crazy ideas, knowing that you can often make them work if you keep them grounded in the truth of the situation.

Me:  See, I think that's where the novel really succeeds--you begin with a premise that most writers would take the maudlin route, writing a lot of self-reflective, oh-I'm-going-to-die-young-and-life-isn't-fair moments, and instead you chose to write what is essentially The Hangover with a kid who's going to die in twenty-four hours, but is spending most of that time getting laid, getting in fights, and trying to piece together what happened last night, right?  The novel is highly comedic, with, yes, some reflective moments, but it all rings true.  Was there any discussion of you going too far into comedy or not enough into the more serious aspects of Denton's situation?  Was this always a comedic novel in your mind or was it initially something else?

Lance: You're the first person to ever compare my book to The Hangover, and I love that. (As long as you don't compare it to one of the sequels, we're good.) This was totally always going to be a comedic novel. In fact, I was inspired to write it after reading The Hunger Games, which I really loved. I thought, "What if there was a YA novel that was just as fast-paced and dealt with just as heightened a situation, but could also make you laugh?" (Because The Hunger Games series is many things, but funny is not one of them.) I can't think of any moment during the book's journey when I was told to pull back from the book's comedy, which I'm so grateful for, but when I did a big rewrite with my agent Mollie Glick before the book was sold, she encouraged me to go deeper into the emotional moments in the last 100 pages or so of the book, as Denton got closer and closer to dying. That was great advice.

Me:  Speaking of advice, let's play Best Writing Advice You've Received.  Give me the top three.

Lance: Ooh, fun. I'm going to do one better and name the three writing books that have been (and continue to be) absolutely invaluable to me and my writing career: 

1. Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. I return to her chapter on "shitty first drafts" all the time, as I constantly need a reminder to break out of my perfectionist paralysis and start writing something bad that I can make better later. 

2. The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. It's impossible not to be motivated by this book. It's about the powerful Resistance we all feel in trying to create things, that the only way to combat it is to just do the work every day. Don't wait for inspiration to strike, don't worry about whether or not your writing is good. Just punch in, do the work, punch out. (I'm actually in a phase of completely failing to take this advice, and it's horrible. I should go read it again right now.) 

3. On Writing, by Stephen King. I have this book to thank for the idea of writing to meet a daily word count as opposed to just sitting down to write for a few hours. I now know that writing for word count is a fairly common practice that King definitely did not invent, but at the time I read it, I needed guidance and this was so helpful.

Me:  So you wrote, "Don't wait for inspiration to strike, don't worry about whether or not your writing is good. Just punch in, do the work, punch out" and how you're currently failing at that.    Let's play therapist's couch:  Are you struggles related to a post-DLDD hangover?  Pressure of writing a follow-up?  What?  How have you been dealing with this?  (Mostly, I'm hoping you give me some trick so I can get back to writing without whining about it.)

Lance: Ah, thank you for giving me the opportunity to use this interview as a therapist's couch! I could really use it this week. Post-DLDD hangover is exactly right. (It keeps coming back to The Hangover, doesn't it?) It's not unlike the let-down couples often feel after their wedding, when they've looked forward to this amazing life milestone for over a year, and then it happens, and it's great, but they realize they never thought that hard about what would happen after that. And I'd say I've been dealing with it very poorly. In the spirit of full candor, after a couple of weeks of feeling straight-up stuck--like unable to focus enough to get back to work on my third novel or even write a blog post--I had an emotional breakdown yesterday, where I realized I'm experiencing all kinds of feelings--both good and bad--that I haven't really taken a moment to examine. My book came out in mid-April, followed by a series of events around the country, all exciting and surreal and great and overwhelming, which overlapped with me doing a final rewrite on the second DENTON book. And all of that was overlapping with me trying to be a present, engaged dad to my 16-month-old son/husband to my wife Katie whenever I was home. So it's been like a train that hasn't actually stopped or allowed me to resume my regular everyday writing routine. (At least that's how it was for me; I'm quite sure other writers probably handle this much more gracefully than I've just described.) And now that all my events are done and the rewrite has been handed in and the dust has settled, I'm like, "Oh, right, so... I guess I need to sit and work on something new again." And man, that's been so hard. Which is why I need to re-read The War of Art. And get the hell off the internet. And probably start seeing an actual therapist again. (I bet you're glad you asked me that question.) (And by glad I mean mortified.)

Me:  Thanks for your honesty.  I think this is something all authors go through though.  I know I've struggled with it lately, too.  Once DGC sold I looked at how long it took from first draft to sale and the work it took, and shut down like a computer freezing up when you try to run too big a program.  Lately it's just been the refrain of B.I.C (Butt in Chair) and reading Chuck Wendig's blog posts on just shutting up and writing that have helped some.  But yeah, trying to juggle life, work, family, and writing?  It can drive you crazy if you let it.

So let's stick our heads back in the sand for a minute and go to a happier place--List for me your top three promotional experiences with DLDD.

Lance: Ha, I like the redirect. Skillfully done. I want to preface my answer with a completely genuine statement that all the events and school visits and festivals I've done have been lovely in one way or another. Just the fact that people have invited me places to talk about this thing I wrote hasn't stopped being astounding. That said, here's three that stick out in my mind: 

1. My launch party at Books of Wonder. I was so moved by all the friends and family that showed up, people from all different times in my life. To be able to finally share this book with them that I'd been working on for four years was pretty magical. 

2. The San Antonio Book Festival. This happened the weekend before Denton came out, so it was my first-ever book festival appearance, and everything felt exciting and new. I spent a fair amount of time walking around with a stupid grin on my face, thinking, "I'm here as an AUTHOR. What the hell?" I also met a lot of delightful people, did my first-ever signing of actual copies of the book, and got to compete in a Literary Death Match, reading from my book to a drunken audience of authors I respect. Highly memorable weekend. 

3. This interview. I'm really enjoying this.

Me:  Nice suck up on #3, but I'll take a warm fuzzy when I can get it. But wait, four years?  Is that from first draft to publication?  What journey did DLDD go on from your initial idea to it's publication?

Lance: Yeah, I was totally sucking up/finding a fun way to wrap up that answer, but I am having a genuinely great time with this back and forth. And yes, four years! In fact, crazily enough, I realized recently it was almost exactly four years from the day I first put any words down--April 15th, 2011--to the day it came out--April 14th, 2015. But I'd actually had the initial idea, both premise and title, sometime in 2009. I'd conceived of it as an idea for a screenplay, and the characters would be in their twenties. I never wrote it, though, so a couple years later, when I decided I might want to write a YA novel, it occurred to me that idea I'd been sitting on could work well if I made the characters teenagers. A year and a couple months later, I had a first draft. Then over the next year, based on notes from close people in my life who read it--including my wife Katie and my best friend since age 3, Zack Wagman, who's a brilliant editor currently at Ecco--I did several rewrites. In August 2013, I was lucky to have Zack connect me to agent Mollie Glick at Foundry Literary + Media, who responded to the book and signed me. She guided me through one last big rewrite before submitting to various publishing houses, and in November 2013, Denton was sold to Knopf Books for Young Readers. That's the quick version of the journey, anyway.

Me:  Four years is quite a commitment!  There's a sequel, too, right?  Since I'm guessing you were under more of a deadline, how did your process change between Book 1 and Book 2?

Lance: Yeah, with Book 1 no one had asked me to write it, so I could take my sweet-ass time. With Book 2, there was a definitive deadline, which was simultaneously terrifying and helpful, as I work much better when there's a deadline to light a fire under me. But in general, Book 2 was much harder to write. The overall process of writing and rewriting it was roughly half as long as Book 1's process, which meant my neuroses more concentrated and intense. And by the time I was writing the first draft of the second book, Book 1 was in such good shape, and I kind of forgot about all the rewriting it took to get there. So I wanted Book 2's first draft to flow out in just as good shape as the 8th draft of Book 1, which is hilariously unrealistic. It's kind of like how women who've had a child forget how intense and painful giving birth is, which allows them to make the decision to have another kid. (I'm trying to squeeze as many life-milestone-analogies into this interview as possible.) In writing my second book, I conveniently erased from my memory all the blood, sweat, and tears involved in writing my first book and then was surprised when I was having such a hard time. One thing I'm learning is that writing is always hard. You start to learn your own process better, so maybe you learn to be kinder to yourself when it's not going well, but it's always hard.

Me:  Eight drafts, anxiety about the next book, trying to get it right the first time...yeah, you and I have a lot in common.  When starting my next book, I made the mistake of going back and looking back at all of the old drafts just to see how far I'd come.  Instead of being motivating though, it had the opposite effect, sort of like driving the marathon route the night before to see what it's like, but then realizing, shit, I can't run that far!

Back to you though--heh--writers say that finishing a novel teaches them so much.  So what are three lessons did you learn about writing that you're carrying over to the next one?

Lance: I love that marathon analogy. And I love that you're saying stuff about yourself, too. Just another reminder that so many of the struggles writers experience are universal. It's hard to remember that sometimes, both because the day-to-day business of writing is so solitary and because social media will always help support the illusion that everyone in the world is having an easier time than you. 

But as far as three lessons go, I'd say the first one relates directly to your marathon analogy: 

1. Be in the stage of the process you are in. And trust that stage of the process. The perfectionist in me can't help but want to type out a first draft that is so good that it can be the finished book. But that's insanity. First drafting is supposed to be bad. You're still in the process of finding and understanding what your story is, how could that possibly be your final draft? And second and third and fourth drafting should have permission to be bad, too. (Not fifth drafts. Those better be AWESOME.) (That was a joke. Don't cry, Fifth-Draft Writer.) Really, you should always trust that rewriting can be the safety net in your future that will catch you if you fall. That's the only way you're going to feel liberated enough to take risks and truly discover the story you're trying to tell. Don't worry; Future You has your back. 

2. When good ideas for your book come from minds that are not yours, TAKE THEM. Before writing my first novel, I had this misconception that every line, every chapter break, every punctuation mark would come from me. But the thing is, once that first draft is done, and you're getting feedback from people--be it your wife, your husband, your close friend, your sibling, your agent, your editor, your copy-editor--then the book is no longer solely yours. Other brains will see things about your book and come up with ideas for your book that you never could have, and you can TAKE THESE IDEAS. Really. It's not cheating, I promise. This lesson is, I guess, fairly obvious as far as the relationships with your editor and agent go, so I'll give a general example involving feedback from someone else: My wife Katie would read a new scene I'd written and she'd come up with a funnier line for one of the characters than the one I came up with. And I'd feel like, "Well, I can't use that. That's your line. And this is my book." And she'd say, "Don't be stupid. I wouldn't have been able to come up with that line if you hadn't created this whole world and these characters. That's how this works." And I'd say, "Ohhhh. Um. Well. Okay. I'll use that line." It's been a completely valuable lesson, to be able to put aside my ego in that way and embrace the collaborative aspects of novel-writing. And ideally, as a writer, you'll feel so grateful to have help that you'll want to pay it forward to others. In the case of my wife, she's been writing a novel over the past couple years that I've read many drafts of and had sometimes-helpful ideas about. So, I have firsthand experience that the karmic circle of creativity spins on. Embrace that. 

3. Finish the damn thing! Even if you have to write a horrible ending as a place-holder. Endings are hard. With both of the novels I've written so far, it took me way longer to get to the end of the first draft than I was expecting. In fact, with the first draft of my second book, at a certain point I had to just wrap the thing up even though my ending made zero sense. But I knew I'd be able to crack it better once I could take some time away, read what I had, and start rewriting. Giving it a shitty non-ending felt really bad at the time, but it turned out to be exactly what I needed to move forward. So don't get precious during a first draft. Just end the damn thing. 

Me: All great pieces of advice.  I especially like #2 because the collaborative nature of writing is something everyone goes through, but so many writers won't acknowledge, almost as if they're afraid it means they're a fraud or not a serious [insert pinkie in corner of mouth] artist.  So thanks for bringing that up.

And wait, I just realized you performed your own audio book, too!  I'm insanely jealous!  Tell me what that experience was like!  How long did it take?  Ddi you find it difficult or did your comedy background help?  I'm sure you could hear your characters talking in your head, but was it difficult getting them right in "the real world"?  And finally, because this is what would happen to me, were there moment while you were reading aloud that you wanted to go back in time and edit how the line was written in the novel?  

Lance: The experience was really surreal and cool, this beautiful fusing of my old actor life with my new writer life. I've been doing voice-over work for years now, including being the audiobook narrator for the Berenstain Bears (random, but true), though I'd never narrated a full-length audiobook before. And it was a trip! It was recorded over three 10 am - 5 pmdays, which were exhilarating and exhausting. The first day was more of the former, me being like, "I can't believe I'm in this booth reading MY OWN book."  But the second day I remember showing up and feeling like, "I can't believe I'm about to sit here and read my book aloud for seven more hours. Deep breath. Here we go..." I give audiobook narrators SO MUCH credit. Yes, it's just sitting and reading, but it requires way more focus and energy than you might think.

My voiceover/comedy/acting background helped, but it was still so challenging to try and nail down distinct character voices, especially for the female characters. Like you said, I'd heard the voices in my head for so long, but then making my voice sound like what I heard was way harder than I thought. Like, "How do I distinguish two mom characters?" Luckily, I had a superb director, May Wuthrich, who was constantly catching me when my voices were going haywire. 

I also had a bizarrely hard time pronouncing words like "murdered" and "funeral." And yes, I would read some lines and cringe and think, "Oh shit, are we sure I can't make any more changes to this thing?" But ultimately, reading the whole book aloud like that was a nice way to get some personal closure before the book came out a few months later. 

Me:  Like I said, I'm crazed with jealousy that you had this experience.  I'm going to have to hunt down the audio version now, too, if for no other reason than to listen to your butcher the word "funeral."

To finish this up, I'm thinking a few rapid fire questions that you can answer quickly without a lot of explanation.  Just a sort of way to let people know a little about you as a person, or even make you more mysterious depending on your answers.  So to start with one connected to your novel:

Your deathdate, according to the scientists of AstroThanatosGenetics, is tomorrow.  (Bummer, dude.)  Assuming you know the time you'll die, what song do you want to have playing?

Me: One writer, one musician, one actor/actress, and one miscellaneous person (all living, of course) you'd like at your final dinner party?  (Yes, your family and friends will already be there.)

Lance: JK Rowling, Ben Folds, Michael J. Fox, and Pema Chodron

Me: The last movie you'd like to watch?

LanceBack to the Future

Me:  And finally, one mystery of the universe you want answered?

Lance: What's really going on with the Ouija board? That's just two people's collective subconscious moving the thing around, right? But if that is the case, can't we harness that power for some kind of greater good?

Me:  Thank you so much for taking the time to do this, Lance.  You're a great, and clearly patient, guy.  I'll give you the last word.  The floor is yours.

Lance: The open-ended nature of that makes me feel like I should take this opportunity to say all kinds of crazy shit. But instead I will just say thank YOU, Kurt. I'm so glad you asked me to do this interview at this moment in time, as it's given me license to get introspective in the best way.

Also, I'm going to share a quick anecdote. One of the events I did for Denton was a high school visit in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is a city I'd never been to before. So I land in Cincinnati at night (and learn that the city's airport is actually in Kentucky, which blows my mind), and once I check into my hotel at around 10 pm, I see I have a hilarious, lovely email from one Kurt Dinan--who I knew at that point only from some Twitter exchanges--about how much he liked Denton. So then the next morning we're emailing back and forth, and Kurt says he's friends with one of the teachers whose class I'll be speaking to that day. Which is kinda nuts. And then I see on his blog that he LIVES in Cincinnati, Ohio! And I'm like, "Oh man, I'm in your city! What're the chances? I'm only here for a day, otherwise we should have gotten coffee," and he's like, "Oh no problem, I couldn't do coffee anyway because my wife's in labor." And I'm like, "WHAAAA?" Kurt and his wife had their fourth child that day.

I don't really know what the point of me telling this story is, but the synchronicity of me being in Kurt's city of Cincinnati for the FIRST TIME EVER right during the brief window of time when a new human in his family is coming into existence is kind of astounding to me. But, I'm a sucker for coincidence stories like that. Anyway. This has been great, Kurt. Can't wait to read DON'T GET CAUGHT.

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