This week I had the distinct pleasure to interview one of my favorite contemporary writers, David Pratt, who authored Bob The Book and My Movie. He is the result of that interview:
Q: When did you start writing and how many novels have you published?
I started writing years ago, as a child. In my teens and twenties I switched and did a lot of theatre. I didn’t return to writing intensely until I was almost 30; I was inspired by the playwright John Mighton, who was my roommate at the time and who praised my tentative efforts. I published my first short story at 34, but had no luck getting a novel in print until Jim Currier approached me two-and-a-half years ago about Bob. I had long since set aside writing and had taken a real job. Thanks to Jim, I seem to be back in it!
Q: Was there someone in your family, a teacher, or perhaps a favorite book, that inspired you to begin writing?Initially my family and my teachers did encourage me, and I read a lot of books as a kid, but there was no one trigger moment. I just started. I created my own little folded-over-and-stapled books in order to have my own library. I also made up my own movies, as readers of my story collection, My Movie, know!
Q: Who are the authors who most influence you today?I wouldn’t claim to be directly influenced by specific authors. I am influenced by grow-ing up in New England with Thoreau, Melville, Dickinson and Hawthorne all around. But don’t look for any Thoreau-esque or Hawthorne-esque motifs in my writing. If they are there it is unconscious. I was steeped in that stuff, but I did my own thing with it. Bob the Book is an exception. I don’t know where I learned to write the episodic, picaresque adventure. Maybe the way I wrote Bob (see below) allowed it or forced it to be that way. I was, as a teen a fan of Richard Adams’s Watership Down and Shardik, two episodic adventures. As for the freewheeling, surreal element in some of my short stories, that may have come from all the Vonnegut (and other rebels) I devoured as a teenager, as well as reading Russell Hoban later on. Toni Morrison also joins the real to the symbolic and the fantastical beautifully, and I am a big fan.
Q: Do you need to be in a specific place or atmosphere before the words flow?A two- or three-hour chunk of uninterrupted time at home helps, but I can write anywhere if I have to. I have written on a trains, planes and buses. I just edited a whole chunk of a novel sitting in an airport with this guy alternately humming and giggling next to me. Then on the plane with a screaming child. You adapt.
Q: What’s the strangest source of inspiration you’ve found for a story?I wrote a story inspired by the name of the bridge that runs from Staten Island to New Jersey: The Outerbridge Crossing. I was not inspired by the bridge itself, which is not very distinguished, but by the name, so romantic and mysterious. In the story this little boy who has only heard about the Outerbridge Crossing tries to draw it over and over but is never happy with the result. Later, in adolescence, his obsession shifts from the bridge to another boy, but that fails him, too. Finally we meet the narrator as an adult, living in Manhattan and searching for a lover. He’s wandering through Greenwich Village and has a vision that connects failed past to failed present. I won’t give away details of the vision, as the story may be published soon.
Q: Was Bob The Book your first novel with gay characters, and what was the inspiration behind that story?Bob was my first novel, and so it was also the first one with gay characters. I began it on a day when I was completely out of ideas. I was getting an MFA in creative writing. A bunch of us pledged to write something every day over the summer and post it on a bulletin board. After 70 days or so I was resentful and sick of it and desperate for ideas. So I took a flyer at writing about that old joke, “What is a gay book?”/“A book attracted to other books of the same gender.” If it was terrible, I’d just write something else the next. But it was a hit with my classmates, so I kept going. By Labor Day I had Bob the Book. So that’s how I learned to do the episodic adventure story.
Q: You’re latest book, My Movie, has garnered several excellent reviews. Can you tell us about it?It covers my story-writing career of the past twenty years – everything from growing up as a “different kid” to end-of-life issues, and the styles range from twisted kitchen sink to surrealism (as I call it; technically that may not be the word). It’s dense and heady and sexy and eerie and funny and poignant and obsessive. It’s more of a map of my psyche than Bob is, more revealing, more naked and warty. It’s kind of a challenge to read, but it should be. Getting to know someone isn’t easy!
Q: Do you prefer writing non-fiction over fiction, or does it make any difference at all?I prefer fiction. Narrative nonfiction is more difficult. You have to make a shaped, workable version of what is still the truth. One of my favorite pieces of reportage is Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways. Over the years I have read interviews with him where he talked about how he shaped the basically “true story” of his trip around the U.S. A lot of it is about what he left out.
Q: So, if you don’t mind sharing, would you tell us about your latest work in progress?It’s a “bromance”– a tale of deep male friendship. The word comes out of mentoring relationships in the skater and surfer worlds. It was introduced to the general public by the Matt Damon/Ben Affleck friendship. The bromance in my book is between a young gay man and a straight friend, who has problems of his own. Each boy helps the other in surprising and touching ways. There is also a universe of characters and relationships and troubles moving around these two. It’s kind of epic, though it covers only about four-and-a-half months. But it also flashes back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I hope this is enough to make everyone curious!
Q: Name a book or movie written by someone else that you wish you had written, and why that one?
There are many books and movies I love, but, even though this sounds corny, I really don’t want to write like anyone but me. I do wish, however, that I could have recorded Music from Big Pink by The Band. Being Levon Helm would not be a bad thing.
Q: If you could offer one tidbit of advice for new writers, what would it be?Don’t worry so much about whether it’s “good” or not. What it must be, above all, is finished. Keep checking in with yourself about your plan to finish whatever it is. You may even have to stop worrying if, in your determination to finish, you are compromising the quality of the piece; at a certain point you put finishing before anything else.
Q: What do you like to do when you’re not writing?I love travelling and eating, preferably at once. Writing is great because it gives me an excuse to travel and give readings – before, during, and after which I eat. Wisconsin was my Waterloo. They have evil desserts in the Midwest, and at Outwords Books they put out an amazing spread for readings. And both times in Milwaukee my co-reader was Mark Zubro, who brought more homemade goodies with him. Then you’ve got the beer, and the Wisconsin Cheese Market sells this stuff called chocolate fudge cheese. And have you ever had pancakes from the Midwest? They’re the size of welcome mats!
Q: Had you not become an accomplished writer, what other occupation would you have most liked to tackle?Theatre director. Jerzy Grotowski or Peter Brook. Or actor. If I had the nerve. I don’t mean guts. I mean nerve. I just saw this amazing actor do Arnolphe in a production of School for Wives. Talk about nerve. Talk about nobility.
Q: Do you enjoy writing, I mean, do you find it fun?
Usually. But it’s kind of nerve-racking, too. Speaking of nerves.
Q: What, more than anything else, fills you with rage?Bullies. A few years back I had to deal with two of them in two separate professional situations, and it still enrages me.
Q: Can you tell us something about the place you call home?I am in our living room right now. We have an odd and wonderful assortment of things that reflect a joint, somewhat acquired taste: a framed setting of a psalm my dad composed in 1941, objects and paintings made by friends and family, a mysterious and poetic sketch by an anonymous urban high school student, stuff from travels to Portugal, the Czech Republic, New Orleans, Istanbul, and Brazil, where my partner is from. It just happened. Except for a tendency to deep red, there is no real plan. Next to the living room we have, given the overall size of the apartment, a large kitchen. I believe in that. I can never completely respect Frank Lloyd Wright because the man didn’t like kitchens. I mean, what’s up with a dude who doesn’t like kitchens? Oh, and we have a tree outside every window. Quite a spectacle whatever the season.
Q: How can readers find out more about you and your books?By reading them! But I should have a Web site, shouldn’t I? There is good info on my publisher’s site, www.chelseastationeditions.com, and on my Amazon page. The URL is too long to put here; go to Amazon’s Bob the Book or My Movie page and click on my name and there it all is.
Q: Anything else you’d like to share?Yes! Endless gratitude to friends, family, bookstore owners and managers and strangers (who became friends) who have contributed to the success of my books and of events I have done around the country. I have a raft of cousins who are incredibly supportive. My aunt and uncle were Quakers, and the Society of Friends strongly supports both the arts and the rights of LGBT people. That sensibility has come down through the generations, though few of my cousins go to meetings now. There is a quality of heart that is great to be around. I have also had friends and acquaintances from long ago come forward and offer spare bedrooms, sightseeing, meals, rides, publicity, and so on. People I didn’t even know but who read my books have offered those same things when I have traveled to do readings. Then there are the bookstore owners and managers and people running book fairs. All of them have been lovely and have gone above and beyond the call of duty. There’s a connection here to what I said about my family, in that being in the literary business or having literature as a hobby is in fact like a religion. Stroll into churches or cathedrals during off-hours. The feeling is very much like that in a bookstore, especially a second hand one. People believe in the arts in an irrational way. I think is what I have experienced these past few months.
Thank you, David, for taking the time and effort to answer my questions. For me this was a pleasure.