Craig Clevenger Interview
Interview by Dominika Maslikowski
Author of The Contortionist Handbook and Dermaphoria, Craig Clevenger writes gonzo noir about identity and emotional freefall.
How would you describe Dermaphoria?
It’s the diary of an amnesiac LSD chemist addicted to a drug which synthesizes the feeling of human touch.
One critic said the book had a “film-noirish literary style.” Do you see yourself as a noir writer?
Truthfully, no. However, if someone’s going to pin a genre onto me, then I’ll take noir. I don’t consider myself a crime or mystery writer, but I’ve learned more about writing from that genre than any other. Crime writers get the most amount of mileage from the simplest rules of writing. In truth, my work has a real romanticism at its core.
Dermaphoria is so different from your first book that it could have been written by a whole different author. Was the change in style deliberate?
That’s something I hear quite often, and I take it as a high compliment. I don’t see the point in being a writer, only to rewrite the same book over and over (same with a musician or actor doing the same thing). I want to push myself, which means crafting different stories which thus demand the voices of different narrators. The narrative voice with DpH was deliberate, because I’d created a different narrator. The next book will be equally different.
How do you feel about the comparisons being made between your first and second novel?
The comparisons are pretty much what I expected. They’ve been favorable overall, with many people saying what you just mentioned, about them sounding so different. Other people were disappointed that they didn’t get a stylistic repeat of the Handbook. I knew I was going to lose some readers with this one, because I don’t want to be a one trick pony. I’m also gaining new readers and, again, I hope the third book to be as different as the first.
What do you hope readers will get out of this book?
I don’t want to spoil too much but, there’s a feeling I was aiming for with the very end of the Handbook, something akin to being thrown from an emotional cliff and just freefalling, and I mean an almost physical sensation. With Dermaphoria, I’m hoping to elicit that sensation a number of times throughout the story. I think of it this way… Our experiences change us; we encounter things throughout our lives that shape who we are. Really great books can match real world experiences to change us. My favorite books have always left a permanent impression on me. Ideally, I’d like to do the same with a reader.
Both your novels deal with identity. In the first, John Vincent forges a series of false identities. In the second, Eric Ashworth would do almost anything to regain the identity he’s lost. Is this theme something you’ve always been interested in?
Not consciously, but yes, the theme became apparent to me after two novels. I’m particularly interested in brain chemistry as related to identity. If we are the sum total of our experiences and choices, and the center of those experiences and choices is a chemical machine- our brain- how does altering that machine alter who we are? On a small scale, you’ve got people whose personalities alter significantly when they’re drunk. On a larger (fictitious) scale, you’ve got John Vincent, whose brain is abnormally wired, and then Eric Ashworth, whose entire brain/identity is virtually erased and rebooted. Yeah, I’ll probably be exploring that question more in the future.
Your description of how paranoia feels like is one of the best I’ve ever read. How did you put yourself in that mind-set of your character?
Part of it came from reading psychiatric books on the subject, and from interviewing recovering addicts about their experiences. From that, I was able to put together the logic of paranoia. Once I understood that even the most extreme and irrational paranoia has its own logic to it, I could understand it better. I also kept a lot of notes.
Anytime I would catch something out of the corner of my eye and mistake it for something else, I’d make a note of it. If I saw someone I thought I recognized when, in fact, it was someone else, or I saw a shadow I thought was a cat… whatever. We all do that once or twice a day but, when I took those once a day episodes from the course of several months and then compressed them into a much shorter narrative time frame. You see the result.
You’ve mentioned how important music is to you when you’re writing. What were you listening to when you wrote Dermaphoria?
Mostly film score stuff or some jazz. I need music I can enjoy listening to, but also tuning out if I need to focus. It’s got to be instrumental- no lyrics while I’m writing. The last part of the book was written mostly to an Australian jazz band called The Necks.
You gave up a well-paying career in the high-tech industry to write. Do you think you could have written either novel while working full-time?
Not a chance. Even if I could have managed my time enough to do both (which I could only have done without eating or sleeping), the stress and mental demands of my old career would have made it impossible.
Do you have a set routine, or word count quota you try to meet each day?
My goal is 1,000 words a day when I’m roughing out a new novel. When I have a working draft, I try to re-write about ten pages per day. All sorts of things conspire to change that, and I have good days and bad. My routine is wake up, shower, coffee, go to the library and write until my quota’s done.
How many times do you typically edit a manuscript?
I’ll do roughly fifteen or twenty rewrites of a manuscript before it’s typeset, about half of those before my editor sees it, the other half after. After the initial cleanup and reworking of the story, I’ll dedicate each draft to two or three specific tasks. One draft might be sentence structure and verb tenses, the next might be all dialogue editing.
Can you give us some hints on what your next book will be like?
I don’t know the title, yet, but it’s going to be an expansion of a short story called The Fade that I posted on my website.
A lot of your influences are contemporary authors. Do you have any older influences, or books considered classics?
My knowledge of the classics is embarrassing, truth be told. As ‘classic’ as I get would be Edgar Allen Poe. Having more time to write means having more time to read, so I plan on tunneling backward, literature-wise, in the next few years, and learning about all of the literature I slept through in high school and college.
Any plans for a book tour in the U.K.?
No plans, but I’d like to get out there. The Handbook is doing well, with a new edition of it coming out soon, and Dermaphoria’s following in the Spring. With any luck I’ll be there some time during the coming year.
In the meantime, where can U.K. readers get Dermaphoria?
If you mean right now, then they’ll have to track it down online. The UK version is due out in April or May, I think.