Wednesday, September 15, 2010

interview with dan leo

like a drop of water forming endlessly but never falling, or an arrow that can never reach its mark because it has to keep covering half its distance, the internet novel railroad train to heaven revives the glory days of high modernism when "only the exhaustive was truly interesting". we caught up with mr dan leo, the author of railroad train and many other fine works, in the shadows of his cork lined study, overlooking a rocky windswept beach somewhere east of valhalla.

does the blog/twitter/internet novel have a future? does it have a present?

Sure. The problem is that most of what people put on the internet is going to be crap. Who can sift through all this garbage? Who has time?

did you set out to write an "endless novel" or did it just happen?

This of course refers to my Railroad Train to Heaven, which runs on my own blog. No, I really didn't plan it this way. It all started after I spent a year or so not writing anything creative; all I was doing was writing query letters to agents for another novel (Uncle Buddy's House). I had read that it was a good idea to have an "online presence", so one night on a whim I followed the Blogger instructions on how to start a blog, all the while thinking I wouldn't know how to do it and that I'd just give up. But then all of a sudden, sure enough, I had a blog. At first I just put up a couple of funny photos I found, with made-up captions. Then I had a story that an old friend of mine named Brian had sent me. He only writes about one story every five years or so, and all he does is send them to me and then apparently forget about them. A real outsider artist. But I always liked Brian's stories, which used to come hand-written, and then eventually typed; then, finally, with this last one he had gotten a computer and an internet connection and he sent it to me electronically. I asked Brian if I could put the story on my new blog, and he said yeah, but not to use his real name. This is the story ("Gangsta Dream", by Kevin McDoom AKA Frank Scattergood), if anyone wants to check out some really original insanity, just as it appeared on my blog on that fateful date of March 25, 2007.

So now I had one story up by a friend and some funny "found" pictures with captions. Now what to do? I had two supposedly "finished" novels in the can, but I was reluctant as yet to put them on the blog. (Although later I did revise them and put them up.) So, inspired by Brian's story, I started writing these odd little stories supposedly about real people and events set (as Brian's story was) in our old neighborhood of Olney in Philadelphia. I presented them as if they were true tales, written in a sort of neighborhood-weekly jargon, even though the events described were rather outrageous. Oddly enough I have gotten more than a few e-mails over the years from former Olneyites asking me if such and such really happened, and I always have to tell them that sadly all this shit is made up. (And I discovered an odd thing about the internet, i.e., that if you don't clearly label something as "fiction" some people will always think you're describing real events.)

So for a couple of months I occasionally knocked out these little tales of old Olney, this quartier perdu that no one outside of Philly has ever heard of. (I'm still waiting for another story from Brian by the way, but he's on another one of his extended hiatuses apparently). One day I remembered this strange demotic poet who would write sentimental little poems every week in one of our local papers when I was growing up, poems about a mother's love and a puppy's eyes, that sort of thing. I decided to try to write one of these poems, and I invented a persona for the bad poet, "Arnold Schnabel", a 42-year-old bachelor who worked for the railroad, lived with his mother, and who was an usher at the local Catholic church, St. Helena's. On the side he wrote one poem every week for the local paper, the Olney Times, a noble publication which did actually exist for many years but which sadly folded last December. I continued to write or channel these poems and I found that they were starting to tell a story, i.e., Arnold's descent into madness.

Arnold did lose his mind, on a dark night in January of 1963, but he continued to write his poems once a week like clockwork, and, despite their growing strangeness, the Olney Times continued to print them. He comes home from the mental hospital after a few months, but he is still too psychologically fragile to go back to work as a brakeman, and so the railroad puts him on an open-ended disability pension at half-pay. That summer his mother decides to take him to the seaside resort of Cape May, NJ, to stay at her sisters' boarding house, and (she hopes) to recover his mental health. All of this was documented in Arnold's weekly poems.

Then one day I thought, hey, I'll have Arnold write his memoirs, as a sort of therapy for him, but also to pass the time (his time, but mine too I suppose). And that's how this particular endless novel, Railroad Train to Heaven, started. I didn't really mean it to be a novel, or endless, but it developed that way.

(I get a kick out of working on more than one thing at a time. Currently I'm serializing an older novel called A Town Called Disdain on flashing by. My method with this is not to think about it at all until I'm ready to put up a chapter, and then I look it over and rewrite whatever seems too stupid and then put it up. Another online rag, Troubadour 21, is running "the early years" of Arnold's tale, and I use the same method: don't think about it until the editor says it's time for more stuff, and then I look over the old chapters, make any changes that seem necessary and send them off.)

There's something insane about writing an open-ended and possibly endless novel, and I very much doubt that I would have ever started it if I hadn't started a blog. There are precedents of course -- Proust, Henry Darger, and other novelists who write these long novel-cycles. I think the open-ended blog novel is also a bit like the long-form TV that's developed in the past fifteen years or so -- The Sopranos, Deadwood, Mad Men. Why not try to do in prose what those excellent shows do on film? The trick is to make each chapter feel like a separate story in the story-stream, to have something happen, something real, something that will make the reader want to read the next chapter.

do you have now , or have you ever had, any interest in "experimental" writing - "cut up" or randomly produced writing? does the phrase "rub out the word" make your heart beat or your blood boil?

I'm always interested in experimenting. I look on each time I sit down to write as an experiment. Like, will I think of anything worth writing? But as for "cut-ups" and that sort of thing, no. When I'm writing a new chapter I hardly ever have any idea what's going to happen next, and that's plenty random enough for me.

if herman melville and nathaniel hawthorne were alive today, would they be movie directors, tv writers, video game producers or jonathan franzen?

It's amazing that you should ask me this, because I'm seriously thinking of putting Melville and Hawthorne into the next Arnold chapter! God knows what these guys would be doing today. Haven't looked at Franzen's new one yet, couldn't get through The Corrections. To me that sort of thing is really boring. I really don't like writers who seem to be trying to show you how clever they are, and, by extension, how clever you are because you get how clever they are.

the supreme cultural council takes away all computers, smart phones etc from schoolchildren and commands them to dedicate their lives
to reading one author. which author? (besides yourself)

Boy, that would be a tough one. I do really like writers who have a rich body of work you can just sink into. And you discover that some of your favorite authors really are just writing endless novels, but they just put them out in installments and change the titles and the names of the characters. But you can read a page of some of my very favorites (Richard Stark, Patricia Highsmith, Muriel Spark, Kingsley Amis) and it could just as well be in one novel as in another because their styles are so distinctive and they write about the same themes over and over again. Cormac McCarthy totally is that way, although his last couple of books got a lot less florid.

can literature be fun and meaningful again?

Sure, but first writers have to write from their souls and not from some idea of what they think a writer should be writing. But you have to have talent, it's either there or it isn't. And even talented writers squander their gifts, trying to write great novels when they really don't have anything interesting to say. And talent comes and goes, inspiration comes and goes. Great writers tend to write not-so-great novels toward the end of their careers, if they live too long. A funny thing about even good writers is that they often don't know when they're writing crap. A musician will know when he's played badly, but a writer will put out the most arrant bilge and think it's good. I remember reading Norman Mailer's book on writing, and I had to laugh because this book on how to write well was chock full of bad writing. Oh well. And even your best friends won't tell you when the inevitable decline sets in...


Unknown said...

Wonderful interview. Dan's right, of courses, that sometimes writers can't see when their writing is bad. Is it equally true, as I hope, that they don't always know when it's good?

Dan Leo said...

Oh, I think that's true also, Kathleen. Y'know, I read an interview with Woody Allen yesterday, and he said he hasn't seen a single one of his movies after he's finished them. He said that if one of them turns up on the TV when he's channel-surfing he quickly changes the channel, because he knows he'll just think, “Oh God, this is so awful, if I could only do that again.” A nice thing about what both you and I are doing here at "flashing by" (Note: Kathleen is currently serializing her wonderful novel "Diary of a Heretic", with illustrations by the incomparable rhoda penmarq) is that we get to revisit these older works, but, unlike Woody, we can change the stuff we don't like.

Jason Gusmann said...

this was fantastic. just what i, and perhaps some other neophyte readers of dan's, needed. "can literature be fun and meaningful again?" couldn't have been better phrased, and a great answer too. thanks, folks.

Dan Leo said...

Ah, you're welcome, Jason.

JoËoL said...

This was particularly inspiring to me, and encouraging. Writing for me has always been easier when I release it in parts. When I have the entire thing to edit constantly, it is difficult to focus on one thing. Yet when I have a mental map and "finish" it (and publish it) part by part, it unfolds very naturally.

Something interesting I read about Rumi at some point was that he would not write a word for years, and then suddenly he would write every day for a year, hundreds of works. Anxiety over art can be very stifling to an artist who maybe ought to just be waiting for the right time - as you say in the article, when they have something to say.

Anywho, thanks.

Dan Leo said...

Thanks, JoËoL. Y'know, I think it's great to write when you feel the flow, but I also think it's good not to write when you're not feeling it. The world will always have too much uninspired writing, and after all there's lots of other fun things to do, like reading, watching bad movies, having idiotic conversations with people, avoiding idiotic conversations with people, sleeping, staring at the wall. When a real writer is ready to write again -- if he's ever ready to write again -- then he'll know it.

By the way, I thought of a couple of other good parallels to the open-ended internet novel: daily comic strips and soap operas. Nobody blinks an eye at "Mary Worth" or "The Guiding Light" going on for thirty-five or forty years, so why not a novel?

human being said...

really enjoyed reading this interview... every word of it... clever questions and answers...

it's always so fascinating to know what's happening behind the scene ... especially when it's a writer's mind...

or short

swimming in the ocean
or drinking a potion


Dan Leo said...

Thanks, human.

As the poet Li Po once put it:

Writing shite
every night
is just not right.

human being said...

but i think those who write every night are as brave as those who swim in the ocean...

by that short poem i wanted to convey this idea that both short and long works are precious as they porvide us with different perspectives... or experiences...

in one you swim in the water...
in the other the water swims in you!


Dan Leo said...

So true, h.b.

Peter Greene said...

A most enjoyable interview. I was able to use and warp it to help me justify a nice night off. I like your take on Li Po (or was that actually?). It's true what you say 'a writer will put out the most arrant bilge and think it's good' - but never about me! No, no.

Awesome stuff, and enjoying a night off from writing shite to read some of Disdain - pretty fun. Thanks for all you do, monsieur Leo (I'm using a fronch accont here, so your name comes out LLLLay-O).

Dan Leo said...

And a very belated thank you to you, PG.

Treasure those nights off! These are the nights we fill up the tank, get the engine tuned up and the oil changed and the windshield wipers fixed while we sit and have a good meal and then watch a kung fu movie. Next day, we're out on the road again...