Saturday, June 8, 2013

Karl Geary on Writing and Acting


As told to Kathryn Buckley
From a very young age I would replay conversations to my advantage which I realize now is what I do as a writer. Part of the reason I used to do it was because I think in our lives we can feel very powerless, and when I would recreate the scenes without the intention of writing I would readjust things so that we were all a little bit more heroic. I specifically remember being given an assignment at school to write. I couldn’t stop rolling it around in my head and it was the same tool I was using to reinvent the conversations. So instead of using conversations in life, now I was using fictional characters and having them come to various outcomes. That was really it for me.
In terms of conflict as a writer, I think I find it extremely difficult to take myself seriously because I don’t have an academic background, if that makes sense at all. Writing was a vehicle for expression that was useful and I still find this useful. The more isolated I was the more authentic my writing felt. Not because I was necessarily writing about isolated characters but because in some way I was channeling something I didn’t know I had access to or wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. So initially it was a way for me to bring that stuff out of myself. And in terms of craft or satisfaction with craft or with my work in general I feel mostly quite disappointed. I feel like there’s something I’m surrounding all the time but can’t quite get to; there are moments I sense I am getting to them but not really. Maybe that’s just the way it goes. I think I’ve gotten better though and I’m fairly judicious when it comes to editing.
I’m quite lucky because I don’t put pressure on myself to write. I never have. If I’m writing something I’m writing something. It always starts with a character and then the world builds around him. Once I can get a couple of lines in that character’s voice then I have something to work with and it just keeps kind of rolling around. I’m not impatient with the time frame and I think that helps a lot.
If you’re being lofty about it when you talk about a good story you are talking about good art. Certain technical attributes make the thing work, make it stand up but then there’s something else, that other aspect that makes us respond to it as humans. And I think that’s the part where when a line is correct, we feel something. It moves us in whatever direction it’s supposed to. It’s very powerful when that happens and I don’t think it can really be denied. I know for myself I care a lot about dialogue being honest and yet if not done right it’s the quickest way for something to sound false. If dialogue is not authentic it falls down, flat. We all have our pet peeves and I think I’ve read some technically brilliant lines but have just not cared. There has to be something at stake.
I’ve been fascinated lately with very ordinary things and how in these almost microscopic snapshots of people and situations we can really read the world through them. My characters are humble people for the most part. If someone can read something I’ve written and come back from that with a sense of something greater then I feel like I have achieved something. There have been interpretations of my work that have puzzled me but my stuff isn’t for everybody. It’s not supposed to be. I remember hearing something and I’d love to take credit for it but it’s not mine. This writer John McGahern talks about the idea that even though we write it is not until the work goes and has its own life that we understand what it even was. I believe that you don’t write in a vacuum; it is designed to be read so that others can have their own experience with it.
Whether or not my work is based on my own personal experience is a subject that has come up before. It’s manipulated in such a way that it should feel that it is me to someone else. I have some horrific things happening in Eve in Dublin, the novel I’m working on now, but thank God it’s not about anything that’s ever happened to me. The logistics and the plot points are pure fiction but you have to find your way into that. I like to have death in my writing. It seems to work. Most of my stories start with a funeral.
I’m genuinely fond of Eve in Dublin. Now in six months I’m sure I’ll hate it, but right now I’m enjoying it. It is a love story of sorts. There is a random beauty and cruelty in young Sonny’s life. He wants to escape Dublin in the 1980’s and the narrow future that awaits him there when he finds Eve, an older woman, who seems to be everything that he has wanted. But Eve has a dark past and many secrets that will eventually test Sonny, dividing him from his community, his family, and finally Eve.
My career as a writer has been narrow for someone my age and I would like that to change. When you are doing anything outside of the norm you are the vehicle that perpetuates the thing.  It’s self motivated work. I have to get up at five to write but that works for me; I’m actually a morning person. So most mornings, like this morning, I wake up at five, work for a couple of hours and then start my day. The point is that you get up every day and you go to work. Times where I have not done that, work didn’t get produced. It’s as simple as that.
I’m rewriting Eve in Dublin now and it’s a bit easier. My work schedule is also different than when I was writing it. What I would do then was work on it at about nine. I started off at the library, but then I found it was better to actually sit in the car outside of the library. Then the cops started looking at me like I was this weird guy for doing that, so I would ask myself where I could park each day so that wouldn’t happen. I would write eight hundred words daily at that time, but now that I’m rewriting I’m working on a chapter a day from home either at my kitchen table, or if it’s winter, beside a fire. There are fifty small chapters in the novel and I complete a full cycle of rewrites per month. Someone actually once said to me that writing is like a boxer or athlete getting into shape. I thought to myself, “Well, I’m neither of those types but I do get that idea.”  I know that if I haven’t written for awhile the first day back is sluggish. It’s really after a week back that I feel like I’m doing some work.
My writing is good old fashioned fiction. I wish it was more specifically genre driven because it would probably be easier to find a home for it, like The Hunger Games which I won’t read but am not knocking. I haven’t tried multiple genres and have no interest. I know people talk about it in terms of publishing but at that price I couldn’t.
When I’m reading something one of the worst things I can say – and this applies to not just writing but also art, painting and music – is that it’s clever because it just says to me that it’s all cloak and mirrors. There’s nothing authentic about it. I also think a lot of clever writing doesn’t sustain itself. It doesn’t last; it has an expiration date. I like work that I can pick up in x amount of years and still find something in it.
I’m reading James Salter’s new book now. I’m a huge fan of his as well as the writer I mentioned, John McGahern. I think when he died it was a huge loss to Irish Fiction- no one in the last two hundred years has been in the same class as he was. I enjoy the classics and think American fiction from the twenties and thirties is unbelievably good as well. Tender Is the Night cut me in two and continued to for days afterwards, and a book called All the Living by C.E. Morgan was just gorgeous writing. It’s the most dark, simple and beautiful book. I think what’s great about the south where it was set is that you can still be eccentric down there and they’re the people we like to read about.
I’d never belonged to an established writing group, so I took some writing classes. After that a few of us broke off and met up for a while. It was fantastic but then it got real social, which I didn’t have a problem with, but people wouldn’t talk about the work until about an hour in, and when they weren’t even reading it anymore I stopped going. What I liked about the gathering initially was that it had started off as a writing group. We didn’t know each other. And then of course people get more familiar and we fell apart, but it was a shame because we were a good writing group. I don’t think that happens often.
I don’t really have a picture of myself as a writer. I’m deeply committed to my work at the moment, and I want to know how Eve in Dublin will read as a completed piece. I know how it ends, and the rewrite is so different than what I set out to produce, which is great. There are these constant little surprises that keep me interested. I knocked out a whole chapter this morning; it’s all gone but that’s fine. To set myself up for grandeur wouldn’t work for me, but if I’m writing simple stories then hopefully they’re all grand in their own little way.
I got my start as an actor after I came to New York from Ireland in 1989. Michael Almereyda was making a black and white film in the early nineties called Nadja that was being produced by David Lynch. It was a vampire story and he wanted to pay homage to Bram Stoker, which is a nice old tie into some literary Irish world. His way of doing that was trying to find a Renfield character who was Irish, and I might have been the only Irish guy knocking around his neighborhood then. I was running a café on St. Mark’s Place called Sin-é and he asked me to be in the film. Until then acting was completely outside of my field.
I’ve done theater on Broadway and this sounds pretentious, but I didn’t like it. I don’t like live performances. What I like about acting on film is that there’s a technical aspect that I respond to; I think visually, and I can mold myself into a visual understanding of a character. Put me on a stage for two hours and I am lost. I’m naked but not in the way I would like to be. A lot of the contemporary plays are unbearable, and I think they’re written for a narrow audience who can afford them, whereas what I like about film is that there’s socialism to it: we all have access and we should have access to art. And I think that’s what is nice about writing as well; we still have our secondhand bookstores.
I recently had an experience in Dublin where I worked with the director Ken Loch whom I adore and admire. I think he’s one of the great icons of contemporary cinema. I love his ethos, his goals, his political views, everything, and so to spend two minutes in his company was golden for me. The man is seventy eight years old and he bounces around like Leonard Cohen. He’s amazing. If I have the opportunity to work in independent cinema with someone like that, I grab it.
I’ve done scenes in cinema where I’ve felt a tremendous amount and watched it afterwards and the camera didn’t pick up on any of it. And vice versa as well. Once I was thinking about whether or not I washed the dishes before I left the house while filming. When I watched the film I thought, “Wow, that’s such an emotional scene.” I think men don’t become interesting until they get a little older and have more baggage on their face that they can bring to the part, and that’s just pure aesthetic. What I mean is that a John Hurt type can say hello to you and you’re in tears. A lot of acting is about that. I, unfortunately, have a face closer to a Justin Bieber’s than to a John Hurt’s, so I’m waiting for my face to catch up with me. I think when I am decent as an actor I can bring stillness to a piece, and I can ground it, but not every piece requires or wants that. I have to be in the right part for it to work.
My all-time favorite role was my gig in Morocco on the second day of the war in Iraq. America had just invaded Iraq and Morocco is a progressive Muslim country. However, there was a very strong anti-American sentiment present at the time and my character, Deecy was his name, was a drag queen. I had to walk around Morocco under less than friendly circumstances in a mini-skirt and heels. It was a road trip movie and I really got a lot out of doing that, not so much for the tiny part but because I insisted on staying in drag for the duration. Oh, it was a learning experience.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Among Those Characters: Gary Guinn

My great-great-grandfather, a second lieutenant in the 1st Kentucky Mounted Rifles, CSA, brought his family to the Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas following the Civil War. His solemn photograph, taken in his later years, hangs at the head of a family collage on the dining room wall. But even in the old man, without the uniform, with his stark face and white beard, you cannot miss the Confederate officer. The long thread of history that precedes him—the Protestant Rebellion in England, the Plantation of Ulster in Northern Ireland, the long struggle with poverty ending in the potato famine and the long voyage to the hard scrabble of a new start in Appalachia—is of little consequence compared to that moment when the young second lieutenant rode away from his Kentucky home. Or so it seems to me as I look at the photo. His shadow lies over my sense of family, even though all the other photos hanging on that dining room wall are cast in a very different shadow, the shadow of the Ozark Mountains. There is the second lieutenant’s son, my great-grandfather, who developed a process for melding metal that made him a blacksmith of some renown in the region, and who ended his days in the state hospital for the insane. And below him, there is his son, my grandfather, who built up a mercantile business, lost it in the Depression, and became an alcoholic.
On various branches of the family tree hang distillers, horse traders, thieves, preachers, and teachers. Especially teachers. In the first half of the twentieth century, my father’s generation—the Guinns, the Faubuses, the Bucks, and the Gages—was fertile ground for teachers, men and women who, in the 1920s and 1930s taught in one room or two room schoolhouses in small rural communities like Delaney or Crosses or Greasy Creek, after finishing their own high school education at the county seat in Huntsville. They were readers, all of them, and it surely must have been they who turned me and my cousins to books and gave us a love of language. The thick hillbilly accent of the rural Ozarks prior to World War II, the language of the novels of the late Donald Harrington, was mostly absent in my family. I cannot remember an aunt, uncle, or cousin who sounded as if he or she was raised in rural Arkansas. A product of the Great Depression, they had recognized the value of speaking and writing well and had cultivated the skills thoroughly. When they left the hills for the economic opportunities of the larger towns and cities, they became businessmen, bankers, and even a governor of the state.
And they were storytellers. At family reunions, over a plate of fried chicken, they became animated: the six hungry boys of the Delaney basketball team on mules, returning from a game on the other side of the mountain, fed cracklings and cornbread by a family of strangers along the way who were slaughtering hogs; the shell shocked veteran of World War I, putting his big Radiola Grand, powered by a car battery, on the front porch and playing it so loud every evening that the road crew from Fayetteville, camping down by the White River, poked a screwdriver through the speaker; the philanderer whose wife locked him in the outhouse and left him there all night to stall an escapade; the local bootlegger, shot in the leg, fed by a committee of local women while he lay recuperating in the local jail, and the fear and trembling of my aunt Lake, ten years old, who was sent all alone to carry his lunch to him. The dirt basketball court on the Delaney square, the cannery whistle that called people to seasonal work, the train that came down the Frisco line from Fayetteville in the morning on its way to Pettigrew and returned in the afternoon, the swimming hole at the old mill dam, the swinging bridge. Story after story. The little hamlets that populated the White River in the early twentieth century are almost as real to me as my memory of my home town when I was a child. If writing is a process of self-discovery, then my writing has been an attempt to find myself in those places, among those characters.
Robert K. Gilmore says in the preface to his book Ozark Baptizings, Hangings, and Other Diversions that the people of the Ozarks have always had a strong sense of belonging to a particular place. They are suspicious of strangers, fiercely independent, and cherishers of solitude. The land of the Ozarks, “the hills, the gullies, the hardwood, the rivers, the small communities,” has formed the character of the people who live here. And it forms the characters in my work. When Sherwood Anderson advised William Faulkner to go back to Mississippi and write about that little patch of ground Faulkner knew so well, Anderson understood the power that a place can have over a writer’s imagination. The Ozarks are that for me—a patch of ground and the characters who are grown from it.
I’m a little embarrassed to confess that, having grown up in this fertile story-telling ground, I did not know, as so many writers seem to have known, at the age of six, or eight, or ten, that I would become a writer, and that the desire to write burned in me from that early age. I do, in fact, remember, after having seen the movie Bambi, at about the age of ten, sitting down that very evening and writing a long tale about a young deer, a story that was, I’m sure, to my parents indistinguishable from the movie. And that was the extent of my burning passion to write at that age. More like a little spark than a burning flame. The truth is that I was, as my uncle used to say, a lost ball in high weeds for most of my youth. Like many other young men, I began writing poetry in college—vague, romantic, anti-war, anti-social. It was terrible poetry, but it felt good to write it and to share the praise of other dreamy young men and women who were also writing bad poetry. The compulsion to write fiction didn’t strike me until I had been teaching literature in a small college for several years. I was immersing myself and my students in the usual suspects from Southern literature—Faulkner, O’Connor, and their progeny—when the long recessive family story-telling gene began to reassert itself. Early on, I leaned a bit too heavily on the great-great-grandfather, and I will always be thankful to Alan Cheuse, who in a writing workshop at Peugeot Sound advised me to put the old soldier on the closet shelf, and let all of that material be a hidden reservoir to the real stories that would come. There is, after all, in most of our lives, plenty of material. For me, the alcoholics, the quiet women who end their lives with pistols, the disappointed ambitions, the unfaithful husbands, the jealousy, the bitterness. And, of course, the few grand successes and the many simple, long lives of work and pleasure.
I frequently discover stories in small-town or area newspapers. I’m not likely to find high crimes and felonies there as much as the petty thefts and audacious accidents that are part of most of our lives. A story about a pickup truck crashing into a small country church, reported a few years ago in the local county paper, gave me the idea for a story titled “The Scar” that ultimately found its way into the Editions Bibliotekos anthology Puzzles of Faith and Patterns of Doubt. The obituary section of the local paper is a treasure of names that seem to carry a heavy weight of story.
For most of my adult life, I have been deeply involved in theater, both acting and directing. As an actor, “creating” a character from the script of a play has always come naturally to me, developing a personality with a particular voice and way of moving, a strong yearning. I have often thought that acting was that other career that I might have pursued, that other road I might have taken. Some writers have discovered that acting is a first cousin to creating fictional characters. Charles Dickens, as a young man, considered a career in acting. Throughout his career, he acted in and directed a traveling troupe that raised money for the families of stricken writers and that once played before the Queen. When he gave public readings, he acted the characters so powerfully—Bill Sykes killing Nancy in Oliver Twist—that women in the audience fainted. My fiction typically begins with a character—a face, a voice, an attitude to life. When I write that character into a piece of fiction, sitting at my desk, I “get into character,” as I do when acting, so I can feel and think like the character. I have been somewhat surprised to find that some of my best characters are women, though I have never played a female role on stage.
A good friend and fiction writer, Roger Hart, once told a room full of students that he thought of story ideas as pictures that hung a little crooked on the wall. Something is not quite right, is a little crooked. It suggests a setting and a few characters, and the story becomes an exploration of what that dislocated something is and how the characters find their way through it. I like that image of the crooked picture. Desire is at the heart of all tension. Characters yearn for something. If the yearning is wrongly placed or frustrated—sometimes even when it is satisfied—the result is pain. Most people will do whatever it takes to make the pain go away. I have to wonder what good happiness and success in fiction are if they do not spring from suffering and failure. And what good are suffering and failure if they do not offer a chance of redemption? All of my stories look for that redemption. It can be hard to come by in this world, and it doesn’t always look like happiness. But the world being a place that is both awful and beautiful, redemption must always be a possibility, whether or not it is realized in the story. When I discovered the work of Lewis Nordan, I felt a shock of recognition and a refreshing sense of something new and true and wonderful. After reading his novel Sharpshooter Blues, I spent the following year reading all the fiction he had published. His is a violent, magico-realist world populated by weird and wonderful characters looking for love in all the wrong ways. But it’s a redemptive world for all that.
The only kind of fiction I’m interested in writing is realism. I admire genre fiction, such as science fiction or fantasy, when it is well written, but I have little interest in writing it myself. I admire genre fiction that uses the tools of realism, when it does so in a literary way, as is often the case in crime fiction or western fiction. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove is a favorite summer read. A few years ago I began reading the Belgian crime fiction writer George Simenon, both his Maigret detective series and his roman durs, the hard novels that are a match for Camus and Sartre in tone and style. McMurtry and Simenon are writers who have transcended their genre. Over the past few months I have begun to read Scandinavian crime fiction, writers such as Kerstin Ekman, Arnold Indridison, and Lars Kepler, but especially the Swedish writer Hakan Nesser, whose Inspector VanVeeteren reminds me of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Scandinavian writers are highly influenced by their environment—long periods of dark, cold, and wet, opposed by short bursts of summer. Place is an abiding power in their work. Darkness pervades their treatment of humanity in the same way it pervades Camus and Sartre, and the better writers among them seem to be influenced by the mid-20th century existentialists.
Influence for a writer is a sticky question. When I’m asked which writers influenced me, I hesitate. Everything a writer reads influences how he/she writes. But the question of discernible influence gets at a complex issue. Having a PhD in 19th-century British literature and being steeped in that period, I struggled, when I began to write fiction, to silence those ponderous Romantic and Victorian voices and find the contemporary voices that ultimately reproduced themselves in my fiction. Out with Dickens (though surely not quite totally absolutely) and out with Thomas Hardy, and in with Louise Erdrich, Lewis Nordan, and Cormac McCarthy.  I would like to claim kinship with Faulkner and O’Connor, and any writer raised in the South could make that claim, but in fact, those writers, whom Lewis Nordan calls “the family,” are surely the outer verge of style for contemporary writers, are in fact, as they are called, the “gothic” of southern style. I admire the minimalism of Raymond Carver, and I love the rich, layered prose of James Joyce. But exactly how have these very different styles affected my work?
I confess to being one of those writers who struggle to establish a disciplined schedule of writing. I’ve always been able to blame my teaching, scholarly work, raising kids. But I’m running out of excuses. Charles Dickens sat down at his desk at 9:00 in the morning and worked until 2:00 in the afternoon, regardless of whether he wrote one page or twenty. Writing fiction does take a block of time, enough time for the writer to move himself or herself into the world of the work, to crack open the characters’ hearts again. It takes time to step out of the real world and into the fictive. So creating some kind of schedule that allows you to do that becomes a fundamental decision about whether you are able to write or not. I tend to be streaky—when a story is working, I ignore other things and stay with the story.
A colleague of mine at the university teases me for being old fashion in my writing method. I write with a pen on a lined pad of paper until I have finished a chapter or a story, revising whenever I start a new writing session. Then the chapter/story is transferred to the word processor, and revised again. I tend to do a lot of revising as I go, until the story or novel is complete, at which time I look at the bigger structural revision questions. At that point, the word processor is a great help, especially in the ability to move material around and to save deleted material unchanged or simply delete it altogether. In the initial writing of the piece, I like the feel of the pen on the paper. My colleague laughs when I say it, but I have a heightened sense of physicality in the writing, a sense of carving the images and lines out of nothing onto a piece of highly processed wood. I like that feeling, and I go so far as to believe it makes me more physical, more concrete, in my writing. I’m an Episcopalian, and so I have no problem at all with that idea. Episcopalians are very incarnational in their view of the world. We bring our physical bodies into our worship—kneeling, bowing, crossing ourselves, focusing on the Eucharist, the body and the blood.
I am currently trying to finish the revisions on the second novel of a projected Ozark trilogy. The first novel was set at the beginning of the 20th century, this second during the Depression era, and the third will be set in the late 20th century. Daniel Woodrell’s highly successful novel Winter’s Bone, and the movie made from it, project the dark side of life in the Ozarks, a vision of meth labs and gratuitous violence, but that subculture is not representative of the broader life in the region. The southern Ozarks are populated mostly by hard working rural and small town people, whose lives are governed largely by the forces of nature and of social and religious strictures. Their roots go back through Appalachia to Good King Billy, William of Orange, and his Protestant army. And overwhelmingly Protestant they remain. Their religious sentiment still runs deep, with their sense of moral rectitude. My family has been shaped through five generations by this ethos. My writing abrades constantly against it, like a knife blade against the whetstone. With deep religious sentiment and a strong sense of moral rectitude come the potential for both great love and terrible abuse, both grace and judgment, gentleness and violence, sacrifice and manipulation. These are the poles between which my characters move and between which I seek to place myself and my work.
In spite of writing so much bad poetry in college, I never gave up writing it. It still excites me, as one poet has put it, to write a novel in a few lines. I spend part of my writing time on poetry. I love the poetry of William Stafford, his Buddhist view of the simplicity of life. The intensity of poetic language, and its concreteness, make the reading and writing of poetry a good exercise for a fiction writer. The caveat there for me is that I have to be careful of getting bogged down in beautiful language and stifling the plot.
As I think about what I really want to communicate in my work, I remember a course I taught in Modernist literature a couple of years ago. Our only texts were Eliot’s The Waste Land and Joyce’s Ulysses. One of my objectives was for the students to see that what seems to be darkness can sometimes be light. Another objective was that students understand that great literature creates highly complex characters who can be both despicable and sympathetic. Enter Leopold Bloom, protagonist of Ulysses. Working slowly through that difficult text, most of the students came to see that we are all Leopold Bloom, all outcasts, all keeping a tight lid on our deepest self, all noble in the little ways that make us human. Leopold Bloom is Everyman/woman. In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the character Satan, when asked about Hell, says, “Where e’er I go is Hell, myself am Hell.” After teaching Ulysses, that line became for me, “Where e’er I go is Bloom, myself am Bloom.” The great humanistic objective of great literature, after all, is to communicate vividly our common humanity. I hope my own work does that.

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Copyright©2013 by Gary Guinn