October 30, 2003
Craig Clevenger discusses the potential film adaptation of his book, THE CONTORTIONISTíS HANDBOOK, the near-daily unabashed lovefest provided by FIGHT CLUB author Chuck Palahniuk, and the struggles of first-time fiction writers in Part 2 of his interview with Josh Jabcuga.
To read Part 1 of the interview, click here.
Joshua Jabcuga: Did you take a lot of shit from family and friends for passing up on your first "career" for the less stable, more risky prospect of being a "professional" author?
Craig Clevenger: In truth, no. But there were several people who said I was making a mistake. They said I should stick with tech work, that Ďxí company would make me a
millionaire and then I could write all I wanted to. But I walked away anyhow, and I did that right as the dot.com bubble was about to pop. I received a huge amount of support and encouragement, and that surprised me.
Joshua Jabcuga: THE CONTORTIONISTíS HANDBOOK was recently optioned for a film. That must have been extremely validating and rewarding for you. I know you've said you wouldn't even consider casting the book in your mind at this point. Certainly you must have some preferences, though...a certain style, perhaps. Is there some direction that you'd like to see the movie go in or certain aspects that you'd love to see played up?
Craig Clevenger: Actually, Iím curious to hear other peopleís suggestions for castingóthat would be interesting. I'm not a visual thinker, so I'm looking forward to seeing how the film is executed visually. All said, though, I don't want to be intimately involved
with the film, as odd as that might sound. I'm not a filmmaker. But the only way I can comfortably not be involved is if I trust the person making the film. And I have to make that judgment from their track record. They're going to make changes...novels and film are different mediums and they'll have to make changes to adapt the book. That's what adapt means.
I've probably got more preferences for what I don't want than what I do:
Don't moralize his drug habit. Don't put any violence in there. Keep the sex. Do not, or I will hunt you down, gut your dog and feed it to you, turn the psychiatrist into a 'father figure.' If I had to make one bet on what some hack will do to make it more appealing to the masses is make the psychiatrist a father figure. He's not. Don't try to make the narrator sympathetic. Make him real. When he looks at a battered woman in the hospital and thinks, "her husband must be right-handed," that's not the mark of a sympathetic character. But, when the reader follows him through his life, they understand why he views the world that way.
Iíd also love for the DVD release to have a hidden MST3K commentary track. I canít think of a higher honor than being heckled by Tom Servo.
Joshua Jabcuga: You're breaking through the scene at a very difficult time for new writers. Fiction is barely a tenth of sales in the overall book market.
Someone first gave me that figure about six months ago and I thought for
sure they were mistaken. Surely, people are adding more to their personal
library collections than Dr. Phil diet books and copies of Feng Shui for
Dummies. Why do you think fiction is barely a blip on the radar?
Craig Clevenger: Not only is fiction a tenth of the book market, hard cover fiction is only a fraction of that, and new/unknown authors are a fraction of that fraction. Even the most die-hard bookworms I know donít often purchase a hardcover novel by a first-time writer they know nothing about. Thatís paperback, at best. I remember
lamenting to my editor, Pat Walsh, how the HANDBOOK barely cleared 5,000 copies in hard cover before the backwash from the bookstores started. He just laughed and pointed out that by all the standards Iíve mentioned above, plus the fact that the book deals with copious drugs and some violent sex, the ďHANDBOOKĒ was a colossal hit. As it was, New York wouldnít touch it with a stick. Why is fiction barely a blip on the radar? I honestly donít know. Think about it: Most well-read people I know avoid fiction, for the most part. I heard it constantly from customers at the book store where I worked for a bit, ďI donít bother with fiction.Ē But these same people donít restrict their film viewing to documentaries, or only listen to talk radio. Everyone takes in fiction one way or another, but many people arbitrarily exclude novels. And I have no idea why.
Joshua Jabcuga: From your own personal experiences, what is the best advice you can give people chasing dreams of being professional artists---writers, filmmakers,
Craig Clevenger: Iím never sure how to answer this one, because all of the advice Iíd ever heard rang hollow when I was on my own for those two years writing. Iíll say
this: be your own worst critic. Your own standards for your work should be higher than anyone elseís.
Joshua Jabcuga: You've listed some authors as your influences like Italo Calvino, Steve Erickson, Jim Thompson, James M. Cain, and Seth Morgan. What do you look for in a writer and a good book?
Craig Clevenger: I look for a good story, of course--a good idea driven by a compelling
character. But hereís whatís critical: I look for someone who treats language like a critical component of a novel, not a necessary evil to get from point ďAĒ to point ďB.Ē Thatís what makes for hack beach fiction, when someone writes just to get what happens onto paper. The writers I love are enjoyable to read over and over, to stop and take in a paragraph slowly because the words are so good.
Joshua Jabcuga: In an audio blog, writer Chuck Palahniuk, of FIGHT CLUB fame, said THE CONTORTIONISTíS HANDBOOK was the best book he has read in five years, maybe even ten years. When you hear these highly respected authors gushing over your book, or when you read a good review from a newspaper critic, do you
think to yourself, "Hey, I'm finally living my dream"? For some reason I think you did this for no one but yourself and the accolades are just gravy at this point.
Craig Clevenger: The good remarks mean a lot, absolutely, otherwise I would have finished the novel and then buried it. But the reality checks come daily. The fan mail arrives in tandem with my collections notices; Iíve had my electricity turned off twice during the course of writing the HANDBOOK, and barely escaped a third. My phone gets disconnected every four or five months. In fact, I was without one when MacAdam/Cage made their final decision to publish the book. Iíve lost some weight when I had little to spare in the first place. Dream? Yes. Reality? Double yes. But what really struck me about Palahniukís praise was that it wasnít a formal ďblurbĒ though itís
on the paperback. It wasnít an endorsement, so to speak. Palahniuk has been acting like a fan during his entire DIARY tour. Iím getting letters from people who go to his readings and he talks about the HANDBOOK at almost all of them. A journalist wrote me to say that he had lunch with Palahniuk, and Palahniuk asked him if heíd read the HANDBOOK yet. Thatís what fans do, what book lovers do. They spread the word about a book theyíre passionate about, and thatís very different from getting a galley in the mail, reading it and sending a note back that says ďThis is great: a tour-de-force black comedy for the entire family,Ē with a signed waiver to go ahead and use it for promo material.
Joshua Jabcuga: Recently on your Website, in regard to Ah-nuld being elected, and the
people who voted him into office, you said: "Fuck you, you miserable mouth-breathing, knuckle-dragging, troglodytic, couch-potato fuck nozzles. Fuck every single goddamned motherfucking last one of you. You dumb fucks." I take it youíre not a big fan of the Terminator?
Craig Clevenger: What a relief. I was kinda worried I hadnít made that clear.
Joshua Jabcuga: Last question. When it's all said and done, what do you want your legacy to be?
Craig Clevenger: The biggest rush comes when someone writes me to say they somehow altered their day to read the HANDBOOK. When they missed a bus, called in sick,
stayed up later than usual, didnít go home from the library until late, those are the biggest compliments a writer can get. Thatís what I want my legacy to be, stories about people who somehow altered their patterns, if only for a bit, to keep reading.
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