This is a soon-to-be posted Q and A for a goodreads group. If readers have any questions they’d like to ask, please do. Think of this as an open-ended question and answer interview with infinite possibilities.
When did you start writing?
I didn’t start writing seriously until I was eighteen. At that time I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but poetry seemed like a good thing to write. I still write poetry. I have a volume coming from Coffeetown Press late in 2013 or early 2014. The title of that book is Satori, Poems. In it there are twelve sonnets that I wrote to explore all the forms of the sonnet: Shakespearean, Spenserian, Miltonian, Petrarchan. I will always remember the opening of Wordsworth’s sonnet:
THE world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers:
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
The Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;
For this, for everything, we are out of tune…
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
It was more a need than a want. When I was about twenty I came into contact with two real honest to god poets: Jack Moodey and Thom Gunn. Jack Moodey was a well-known minor poet (so-called, but he’s a great poet with many sides and colors). Thom Gunn I met at Berkeley. Through the guidance of these two poets, I discovered that inner need to write no matter what, no matter the conditions. From them, I discovered the essence of the line—what makes a poem, how does a poem work, what’s the difference between poetry and prose. I think the truth of poetry can be found in Jack Moodey’s answer to my question: “Have you ever written an epic poem?” His reply: “Six lines or eight?” To Jack, the density of poetry is the big thing. Make it dense, pure, true, real. Never settle. Take it to the limit. From Thom Gunn, who taught me to treasure form, I learned this; “If you inhabit another man’s universe, it will always be smaller than the one you create for yourself.” This opens up entire vistas for the poet—don’t imitate. Open new windows onto the unseen. This tutelage led me to write this poem:
Hungry I pry the Pearl from its shell
eat the oyster raw
I gouge light out of nothing
I knife-walk the edge,
I trip on a grain of sand
before I learn to weave torn wood
with fingers of torn hands.
I hope that I mean more than
— skin and bone and meat and sweat
— I sense a vague design
— I sense Revelation at hand
— words stick fish-bone
deep in my bleeding throat
and like a lame-tongued priest
I cannot Plainspeak the crackling mystery
wiggling wormlike in the word stream.
How long have you been writing?
Since I was eighteen. But my interest in novel writing didn’t flower until I wrote The Stolen House. That was my first novel and it opened elements into that art that I’ve been trying to refine ever since. The Stolen House is what you have to call juvenilia. It’s not very good, it’s kind of crazy, it shows that I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did it. I finished it. That’s a life-rule for me: Finish what you start no matter how dumb it might seem. Each book helps you get control of the next book. You learn from your mistakes. In truth, I’m not sure I could write a novel such as The Stolen House right now. It would be like asking a pianist to make conscious mistakes—can you actually do that? If you make a mistake on purpose is it a mistake? I don’t know.
What is your book about? (Describe it)
Here’s a quick summary of The Book of Changes: (coming in October 2013 from Coffeetown Press.)
“Beast” is a pure innocent with one simple goal–to become an expert on the Middle Ages. He comes to Berkeley, the Cathedral of Learning, in 1971, a time of political upheaval, hallucinogenic drugs, group sex, and electric, acid, psychedelic, mind-bending rock and roll. On his quest for meaning he hangs out with a Harley-riding dwarf, a raven-haired Gothic artists’ model, a sorority girl turned nymphomaniac, and the heir to a family of French aristocrats with a bloody history dating back to before Joan of Arc.
Beast soon discovers that he can’t live in the past but has to embrace the present, with its traps and land mines and the horrors of bad acid trips and death by napalm and motorcycle.
In the Cathedral, students still go to class, fall in love, get laid, study in libraries, win awards, even graduate, but the world is burning and Berkeley supplies the fuel.
With Falcon I take a different route:
Falcon–A love story in blood and snow.
A dying poker king with one more game to play.
A love-sick mechanic with Jesus issues.
A mysterious black woman in gold chains.
Money and sex, love and death and a showdown in the Sierra Nevada.
Tell us two things about you that not too many people know.
When I lived in Ecuador, I attended the National Conservatory of Music where I studied piano and composition. When I lived in Peru, I hunted monkeys using a bow and arrow. I would not do that now.
How did you come up with the idea of your book?
I love to play poker, but I’m not a gambler. Every Saturday night for years I played in a game with some close friends. As we developed, I saw how each player had a unique strategy, a unique tell, a unique style, and unique gestures when they folded or bumped a bet. Those observations became the heart of the Poker King—Grace Regis in Falcon. I’ve also written a lot of fiction with strong women as protagonists—La Viuda and Gabriela in Gabriela and The Widow, Theresa and Sophie in Valley Boy, Georgia Lee in Book of Changes (coming in October 2013 from Coffeetown Press in Seattle), Olive in Lemon Custard and Greta de Falco in Falcon. Greta de Falco is a survivor. She’s strong, powerful, knows what she wants, but also is a victim of circumstances. In the end, she’s got four men under control—and they love it. I didn’t think the world needed another Poker Novel (Cincinnati Kid among others are all about poker.) I wanted to fuse the notion of an inter-racial love story with a chase novel with a poker overlay and put it all together with an analysis of love itself…Love has a lot of forms, in this novel.
If you could be a character in one of your books, who would it be? (And why?)
In one way or another a writer becomes all the characters in a novel. You have to be them or you wind up writing one-dimensional, cardboard characters who are just strolling through. In becoming the characters you, the writer, step aside and this interesting process develops—the characters are talking and you’re writing down what they say. It’s like having a front-row-center seat in an eavesdropping contest. So you can say that I am already a character, I am all characters. Pete Sellers, that incredible clown and comic genius is supposed to have said that he had no personality. He didn’t know who he really was because he could be everyone, anyone, no one. That’s what a writer has to do—become all the characters. Actors, in the Strasberg Method, become their character sometimes to the extent that they live the role and can’t get out of it. Multiply that by ten or however many characters you have a novel and you’ll see how profound the effect of the characters is on the writer—actors have it easy. They become one character. The writer has to become all of them and if that doesn’t drive you nuts, nothing will. That’s why all good writers are crazy, you know. That said, I suppose I would opt for Mitch in my novel Blood. Mitch is unique. I’ve never written anyone like him before and I probably won’t again. He’s in a world all by himself. Of course in Blood, I also became Squeaky and Geraldine, and the prison guards and believe me, I felt it when Mitch took ears. You’ll have to read that novel to see what I mean.
What’s your background? Tell us a little about it.
I grew up vagabond. By the time I was eighteen I had lived in three countries, twelve states, twenty-six towns or cities. My family had interests in Mexico, Peru, Ecuador. I went to school on the street, in a way, slept where I fell, but ended up at Cal Berkeley where I became a citizen of the world. San Francisco, CA is the city of my core, however, because there I became a poet. After floundering around for a while trying to make sense of life, art, love, sex, people I married a wonderful woman who has kept me alive through a lot of upheavals. In truth, I should have ended up in San Quentin but somehow she’s guided me on the straight long enough to let me become a writer. And that leads us to the next question.
Did your family support you to write?
Yes. In a way. My immediate family—mother, father, sisters—to the best of my knowledge have never read any of my books. My wife not only supports my art but she is herself an artist—she is a world class quilter just returning from a show in Rio de Janeiro. You can find her quilts on display at http://helenremick.com. Be prepared for a visual feast because she’s taking fabric art to a new place.
What’s life being a writer?
I work a lot. In fact, I work all the time. I have now 16 books out there, and I feel that I have another five or so that I need and want to finish. As I said earlier, I have one rule: Leave No Book Unfinished. Long ago I discovered that our ideas often outstrip our technical skills. This means that when you’re young, you have wonderful ideas for stories and novels but you don’t have the faintest control of technique. To me, this means that each time I finish a novel, I am prepared to be lost until I find the techniques or tools that I need to move on. I try to find both a style and a structure unique for each novel. So, for example, Blood is very different from Gabriela and The Widow and Valley Boy is nothing like The Book of Changes. The Deification is very different from Trio of Lost Souls (the fourth volume of my California Quartet, which will see light sometime in 2014). So life for me as a writer is more about pushing the boundaries of story-telling. I don’t reap many of the benefits of the writing life in public, although I do participate in the literary life of Seattle which is very much alive. In June, 2013, for example, I was featured poet at the 12th Annual Allen Ginsberg Marathon, I read at a local series, It’s About Time. In May I ran two workshops for the St. George chapter of the League of Utah Writers and in September, I’ll be a presenter at the annual conference of the League in Salt Lake City. So I get some traction out of being a novelist and sometimes the conferences pay for my travel.
Do you mind telling your age? Do you like readers know how old you are or you rather they don’t know?
I was born in 1941 but I have the mind of a twelve year old. I like to turn over every rock on the beach, peek into every hollow tree in the forest, and read books that most people don’t find interesting. My latest challenge is to understand bacteria. Lynn Magulis who wrote Acquiring Genomes is the kind of profound thinker and writer I enjoy. I just want to be like her—poking around into the meaning of life. I think that writers spend too much time reading novels and poems. They should be reading about neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and physics. We have to understand the universe before we can write about love.
What’s one thing that you went through in your life that was extremely difficult and hard?
My oldest sister died of kidney cancer twelve years ago. My son in law is an eight year survivor of cancer. These two events have shaped my thinking about our transience as a race. We don’t have much time. When we’re teenagers, we think we’re immortal and invulnerable. When you see your family members succumb to disease, you see the truth.
Could you or would you like to provide us a picture? It’s completely your choice. And could you Plz give at least 3 links as to where your book(s) can be found?
Links to my books can be found here:
Jack’s Books on Amazon