Novelist and poet Jim Krusoe will speak with critic Michael Silverblatt at LA's Central Library on July 15th. Krusoe is a long time LA literary figure who teaches creative writing at Santa Monica College and edits the Santa Monica Review. His novel Erased, just released by Tin House Press, takes on the supernatural in a reportedly natural way.
Here's a recent interview with Krusoe that appeared on PDX Writer Daily.
After reading Erased, PDX Writer Daily had (what we hoped were) some writerly questions for Mr. Krusoe, and emailed them to him. He graciously indulged us, responding with the following.
PDX WRITER DAILY: A quick general question: How do you find a balance between teaching, family, and writing? In other interviews, you've mentioned a commitment to revision as not only revision, but as further discovery, which implies long hours at the desk. Do you write by the clock? A certain number of hours per day, or week? And do you try to fit your writing around teaching and family, or do you have a consistent writing time that you don't allow other obligations to intrude on very often?
JIM KRUSOE: A long general answer: When I think about it, I think that if a person could write one good page every day (with weekends off), at the end of a year they would have a book. If it were only that easy though, because to really, really pay that sort of concentrated attention means a cushion of uninterrupted time and a mind capable of making use of it. I don’t have the luxury of either, but I do have a couple tricks that help.
First, as a teacher, I make sure that I read everyone else’s writing when I'm tired. I save my clearest moments to work on my own. Second, I try not to turn on the car radio while driving, but in that empty space, to think about whatever I happen to be struggling with. Third, while the creation stage of fiction does require longer periods of concentration, one of the things I like about revising is that after the initial draft is finished, I can pick it up and put it down almost anywhere and whenever I have a chance, and use those ten or twenty good minutes to focus fairly intensely. Beyond thirty minutes my attention starts to wander anyway, so working in short efficient bursts seems helpful, at least to me. It is concentration, but spread out over several years, like that joke about the Polish lottery. I work on two or three books at once. I finish a draft of one, then put it aside for a few months to get some distance while I work on another.
Also, because the writing process for a single book may be four or five or more years, it’s useful to know I have a topic that will keep me interested. If I’m bored, that’s a sign to let it go.
The way it works is this: a first draft of a novel will take from six to ten months to write out, but it’s just a starting point, a center around which to accumulate interests and new material as the process continues. I think of it as a recipe where you are given half the ingredients to start, but you aren’t sure if it’s a main course or appetizer or dessert.
The other big secret about revising for me is that while I used to think it meant that something was wrong and needed to be “fixed,” now I see it as a pleasure, a gift where I am able to re-enter the same dream I left behind the day before, at exactly the place where I left it. It centers me and steadies me.
As for family, that steadies me as well, and helps me sort out what’s important from the rest.
PDX WRITER DAILY: In Theodore Bellefontaine, Erased's narrator and main character, you're working with a character who is occasionally baffled by events--there is a distance between what readers understand and what Theodore understands that makes him, to use a broad term, an unreliable narrator. What did you learn about this kind of narration by tackling the challenge of Theodore's voice? Were there differences between working with Theodore as a narrator and Theodore as a character?
JIM KRUSOE: My main characters, here and elsewhere, for better and worse, are all the voice of my subconscious, and in Erased, all Theodore wants is what he wants, and to forget everything else. And sure, he’s unreliable, but so am I. If you are stuck using a first person narrator, as I often am, I think it's important that the narrator be a little tricky; that way a reader has to pay attention to him, and a writer can (hopefully) create layers and more tensions in a scene.
Oh, and speaking of being baffled by events—that’s my life on both the conscious and subconscious planes.
PDX WRITER DAILY: You've inserted chapters into this novel that are transcripts of interviews between people who aren't characters in our main story. Is this technique of thematic insertion something you've worked with before? How did you make decisions about the content and placement of the transcripts?
JIM KRUSOE: When you have a narrative that, at face value, is so straight-forward (boy looks for mom) as this one is, I think it's important to break it up, and by doing so, maybe add some additional layers to the book. Originally these transcripts were quite varied, but one of the early readers suggested that it would be less confusing if they had a theme in common, which mostly they do.
Actually one of the transcripts is a sort of ur-version of this novel, back when I thought it might be about a taxidermist. It took about ten starts (at sixty pages each) just to find out that it wasn’t.
PDX WRITER DAILY: Theodore spends the novel looking for his mother who, though she sends him postcards, may or may not be dead, and there are a number of moments that feel inspired by mythic characters or situations. What kind of mythic stories or characters were you looking at when working on the novel? How did you make decisions about how and when to use that kind of material for inspiration?
JIM KRUSOE: The chief story that wound up informing Erased was the medieval morality play, "Pride of Life," a play that has stuck with me for decades. In it Death comes for a person who doesn't want to go with him, so the person (a king, I believe), sends off various of his subjects to postpone Death’s request. He dispatches ambassadors to strike a treaty, soldiers to fight Death, a woman to distract Death, etc. (though I'm remembering this from a long time ago). Then in a dream the king sees his dead mother and dead father and, through that vision he realizes that he is a part of the process as well. In the morning his queen wakes to find him dead.
Also sweetly present was that great children's book Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman, about a baby bird who goes looking for his mother (the last object he asks is a steam shovel). I love the idea of going from spot to spot searching for something so elemental.
Finally, there’s the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I used (considerably abridged) as a sort of decorating scheme for the places Theodore goes to search for his mother. Of course the whole piece is also a classic initiation story, with a quest and a guide, too. My rule of thumb is to never let the myth dictate the story, no matter how powerful the myth may be. The story has precedence, and if it’s mythic, that will be there anyway.
PDX WRITER DAILY: You also work with some doubling in the novel: there's a sex shop in St. Nils, for instance, and a sex shop in Cleveland. How did you arrive at the decision (or solution?) to use this kind of mirroring, or to set up those kinds of connections between St. Nils and Cleveland?
JIM KRUSOE: The doubling wasn't so much as to compare St. Nils and Cleveland, as to underscore Theodore's essential innocence, and to imply that wherever he goes, nothing much is going to change. He is a child really, a man who has never grown up. Sex is happening beneath where he sleeps and all around him, but he’s not a part of it.
PDX WRITER DAILY: Any response to the book yet from residents of the actual Cleveland?
JIM KRUSOE: Only one so far—who liked it, thank goodness—but I'm not so sure many of the residents of Cleveland ask a lot of questions, or want to analyze their city. The only question I heard during a recent short visit, repeated one way or another and from practically everybody, was "Why am I still living here?"
PDX WRITER DAILY: You've said that Erased is the second book of a thematic trilogy, but that you only realized this after finishing Erased. How has your sense of working on a trilogy affected your approach to the third book? Has it changed your process at all?
JIM KRUSOE: That's an interesting question. On the one hand knowing there were not one, but three related books, gave me a sense of patience and a sense that I didn’t have to solve the question I was asking (about the connection between this world and what follows) all at once, but even more than that, when I realized what I was doing, it raised the stakes for the ending of the last book considerably. The first one, Girl Factory, was about trying to bring several almost-dead women back to life, the second, Erased, was about trying to decide who is dead and who isn't. The last will be, I hope, about actually bringing people back from the dead.
Or something like that.