We’re delighted to have Derek Nikitas join us here at Murderati for two Tuesdays in April, while Ken Bruen is off being fêted and wined and dined as Guest of Honor at Noir Con, and Nominee for Best Novel (Priest) at the Edgars. Derek’s first novel, Pyres, also nominated for an Edgar this year, was published in 2007 and met with rave reviews. "Nikitas’ stellar first novel isn’t just one of the best genre debuts of the year, it’s one of the best releases — period," said Paul Goat Allen of the Chicago Tribune. We agree. But let’s see what Derek has to say about it.
By Derek Nikitas
When Murderati asked me to substitute-blog for Ken Bruen, I feared at first that I’d have to feign Catholicism, use Irish slang, write in prose-poetic lines, and evince a hearty blend of ruffian and gentleman. Instead I’ll save us all the embarrassment of a bad impression.
But to evoke Bruenesque brutal honesty, I’d like to discuss literary failure, not a popular subject among writers. The role of published novelist is new for me, and it’s been wrecking havoc on my precious inferiority complex. My first novel Pyres dropped only five months ago, but in the two years since I finished it, I’ve reflected a bit. Since Pyres has been on sale, I’ve heard other people’s reflections, mostly positives, a few humbling negatives. And I’ve had time to write more and, I like to think, improve. All this reflection had shed a few stark lights on Pyres.
I’ve occasionally heard veteran writers with decades of writing credits voice disappointment with a phase or two of their careers. In On Writing, Stephen King admits displeasure with The Tommyknockers and Insomnia (he also admits he can’t remember writing most of Cujo because he was too drunk at the time). Even James Ellroy, the most cocksure writer to crow his own work, concedes to steady mediocrity before his breakthrough, The Black Dahlia.
Writers are notoriously self-critical, it’s true. Some Greats, like Hemmingway and Plath, have critiqued themselves literally to death. We suffer writer’s block and revise ourselves into full-blown Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. We kill darlings and later lament. We battle a version of post-partum depression over the copyeditor’s notes. But all that hemming and hawing often goes silent when the book hits the shelves. The time to gripe is gone. Rarely will a writer publicly chastise his own published work—and when we finally fess, we wait for the Fiftieth Anniversary Career Retrospective: “oh, yes, my late-70s output could’ve used more polish, indeed.”
Zip it, crybaby—you’re saying to yourselves. I don’t blame you. Compelling reasons to shut up abound, the foremost being: nobody like a sourpuss. And bemoaning one’s product has never been the big secret of salesmanship. Coyness is nice, but who buys a book because the author panned it in print? Plus, the self-effacing author has others to consider: agents, editors, publishers, sources, friends and family—every advisor who helped shape the book. And now you want to claim that shape is cockeyed? In my own case, bashing my own firstborn risks second-guessing those genius, gorgeous, charismatic Edgar judges (whoever they are). Their other nominations are bulls-eyes, so who am I to rain on the parade? What a mope.
Maybe the best reason to muzzle is this: why dwell? If you’ve upped your game, go write a better book and quityerbitchin. All excellent points, thank you very much. Such poignant points that this blog should probably close right here, full stop.
Buuuut… I can’t help myself. Recently, my mentor and former professor subjected her current crop of students to a mandatory reading of Pyres. As part of their discussion, they produced a series of questions, which my mentor emailed to me, and which I then answered. The first couple questions were congenial, as with most interviews (just once I’d like to see an author interview start with: “so what is your deal, anyway?”). A few questions down, the subtle critiques set in. The tone was still friendly, but the undercurrent seemed to ask: “don’t you realize you royally screwed the pooch here?” Paranoia, one of my muses, read between the lines.
What’s weird is this: I don’t think they ever expected me to acquiesce. I think maybe a healthy population of readers, myself included, harbor odd misconceptions about how writers stand in relation to their own work. Do readers think writers see their novels as beyond reproach, that every verb zings and every adjective glows—and if not, then, heck, the failing must be with the reader? Are readers emotionally invested in this ruse as part of the greater illusion of fiction, ye olde “willing suspension of disbelief?” Would huge fissures crack through the middles of all our Hobbitons if Tolkien admitted—from the grave, I s’pose—that he should’ve made Frodo a girl?
Me, I went at it with gusto. Another of my muses, Shame, took to the helm. Until these emailed questions, I’d never had the opportunity or inclination to voice my self-reflexive discontent. It was lovely to be able to say, yes—in retrospect, there are parts of Pyres that suck rotten eggs. I don’t know how your average reader would catch such a curve ball. They were probably expecting some clever explanation of mine to obliterate their naïve sense that something was wrong with the book. They seemed to want me to set them straight. Maybe now what they’ll want is their money back, or at least some in-store credit.
In Pyres, one of my characters gets head-injury amnesia. (I suppose I should’ve given a spoiler alert warning, but this whole notion of showmanship makes me dyspeptic. It’s just my own silly imagination I’m spoiling on you. I feel like P.T. Barnum or some street vendor hawking fake jade bracelets that will tint your wrist green. I was quietly freaked out when one reader told me, “I totally fell in love with Tanya; she made me so sad.” I’m delighted, but Shame at the helm of my mind chants: “Tanya’s just words! Tanya’s just words! And some of those words are wrong!” I must’ve believed and loved Tanya myself when I was writing her, but the flame dies when the book is done.)
Anyway, amnesia. Some readers have suggested amnesia is a cop-out, a bad soap opera plot fix. I wholeheartedly agree. That amnesia crap is the major weakness of the novel—followed by other minor weaknesses, like clunky point of view shifts, the pretentious fairy-tale tone of the climax, the overkill of similes and adjectives in general. The amnesia thing is far too convenient and contrived. It artificially boosts the drama where the drama lags. It comes as a result of a decision made by a non-viewpoint character, so it’s weak as a plot point—an action for my heroine to react to, rather than a result of her actions.
But, despite its obvious faults, the amnesia thing became so integral to the plot that it couldn’t be removed. I tried to compensate by researching real amnesia and its causes, the result of which is slightly more authenticity, but dull pages of a talking-head doctor yammering on about amnesia. I can imagine a much better novel where Blair (the character in question) doesn’t get amnesia and instead we undertake an in-depth exploration of her psyche, without sacrificing plot. Oh well.
As a writing teacher, I’ve noticed how often writers are aware of their own mistakes and shortcomings. But we gloss over them with rose-colored denial or laziness or, frankly, a very good reason: we must let go at some point. We’ve all got to balance perfectionism against progressing to the next project, particularly when deadlines are involved. Only a few writers like James Joyce and Harper Lee seem dedicated enough to let one or a couple books constitute a whole brilliant career.
If your book is good enough to be published, the glasses get an even rosier tint. All that amnesia stuff seemed just fine to me when St. Martin’s signed on, but time and progress removes such euphoria. I’ve re
alized, for instance, that a publishing house banks on promise, not fulfillment. The harshest lesson I’ve learned, yet have known in my heart all along is this: a book good enough to publish is a far, far cry from a book good enough to call a lasting masterpiece for posterity, for immortality.
I should really shut the fuck up now. I haven’t finished my second book, no version 2.0 to tout in lieu of the old model. And worse: readers don’t want to hear this bunk, especially ones who’ve read and enjoyed your book. They might even read your genuine regret as an attempt to fish for compliments. “I look fat in this, don’t I?” This is no pity party, really. I know there’s stuff to admire in Pyres, and self-criticism should be kept to oneself. Put on a happy face, and all that. Readers like to be lured by fantasy, by worlds total and perfect unto themselves. They don’t want some jerk whispering nearby: “it’s all smoke and mirrors, just some schmuck behind the curtain.”
Aw, heck—can I go so far as to suggest that a writer’s negative self-critique might be of value? After all, it’s tied to a vow to do better next time. It’s an indication against stagnation, against “phoning in” the next book by ceding quality to formula or an impending deadline. You might think this talk is rather self-defeating and morbid, and you might be right. It’s a terrible marketing scheme. But let’s face it, I think The Secret is the biggest load of crap I’ve ever heard, so I don’t know jack about the market. Admitting to recent past failures liberates, since the alternative is to admit my best is behind me. Recognizing my literary faults is how I improve. It’s how I can hereafter stand guard against plot contrivance and excessive figures of speech and description, among the thousand other faults that my prose is heir to. It’s what keeps me reaching for better than before.
So how about it? Any confessions regarding past sins of prose, even minor ones? Or virile roars from those who’ve sired only the most pristine of literary offspring? Or perhaps renewed vows not to dwell on the past like this here slouch? Dig in. Oh, and in the tradition of Ken, your title has been brought to you today by the poet John Berryman.