Monday, 9 April 2012

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants by Robert Pobi

Today’s guest blog is by Robert Pobi whose debut novel Bloodman was recently published.

Now that Bloodman is hitting the shelves (in atoms and bits), the questions have started. I find them unsettling. Surreal in a way. Years of isolation taught me a certain independence – I used to live on very little in the way of encouragement. I wrote. The novels got built. The drawer got fed. End of story. I never really discussed my work because no one was interested. Then I sent Bloodman out into the world.

All of a sudden I have become interesting. People want to know about what I do. Where I get my ideas. Why I write what I write. What my favorite food is. I am asked to do blogs, interviews, answer questions about a process I am not quite sure I understand and am even less confident I can explain. In a way, it’s something that isn’t that complicated: I sit at my desk, open my head, and after a finite number of decisions, I have a novel.

The first time I let Bloodman out to play was at a tavern on the fringe of SoHo. We had a table in a quiet corner – something I have learned to negotiate since I blew out a good chunk of my hearing in a handgun accident. Cocktails ran sixteen bucks a crack and they had foie gras thrown on everything in sight. Between rounds of their cheapest most inferior booze, my agent asked if I was working on anything new. I nodded. Gave her a few sentences. Some character traits. Maybe a scene or two. When I had finished she just stared at me for a while. I could see the gears grinding around behind her eyeballs. She finally shook her head and asked me where I come up with this stuff.

Where did Bloodman come from? The kneejerk answer is that I don’t know. If I think about the question a little bit, I start to wonder if maybe it has always been there, buried somewhere in the static in my head. The truth is I have been writing for a long time – a lot of books in a lot of years – and I have learned that the secret to a good book is in the decisions. That first answer is partially true, of course – I don’t really know where the idea came from. In a way I never do. All I know is that there are more than enough. Everywhere. All the time. And if you are going to be a writer, you have to learn to make decisions on which ones to follow and which ones to leave in the ditch.    

The crime novel is well-trodden ground – hallow to some. And fertile. What could I bring to it that hadn’t been done before? Cormac McCarthy nailed it when he said the ugly fact is books are made out of books. There are a finite number of basic story lines when it comes to the novel – only one if you narrow ancestry to Robinson Crusoe. So it’s been covered. More than once. But you know what? No one had written the crime novel I had always wanted to read. And it seemed like the kind of place where I could open up the throttle.  

I wanted to bring something new to the genre – something that resonated – something that was my own. I’ve read a lot of crime novels and by extension I’ve read a lot of novels that focus on serial killers. But I’ve never read the book that dealt with all the things I wanted to see in one place. The book that cranked the dial to eleven and kept it there. I wanted to write my crime novel.  

The only thing that a writer can bring to the table that no one else has is his – or her – voice. That voice is the only tool we have to fall back on. Everything else is just fancy footwork. The talent is in the telling. Like the man said, books are built out of books. It’s not about doing something new – it’s about building on what has gone before. It’s the keystone of writing. A lot of Bloodman’s bearing walls were built out of books that other people have written. Again, I had decisions to make. All writers do. And we get to learn from the blood of others.

The only real challenge in writing Bloodman was figuring out which tried and true elements I could make my own. It was a dark and stormy night has become clichéd. Why? Because it’s been there forever. Nothing loses impact with lightning strikes - it’s been working since Macbeth. So I ripped it off. And turned it into a Category 5 hurricane bearing down on my characters. Damaged protagonist? I could start a list of broken literary loners and never finish it. But no one has written him like I did – that sonofabitch is mine. Abusive alcoholic artist? Read it a thousand times. Maybe more. Mine paints in his own blood. See what I’m getting at? This stuff has been around for ages. The trick is making it your own.

I used to plan. Outline. I’d start off with a beach house on Long Island where a family out of central casting spent their time. Wrote a dog into the narrative. Made the father a painter. Gave the mother a vintage convertible. Everything read like a big happy smile. Problem with me is that it wouldn’t last past the second paragraph – just when I started to lay down the tracks according to the outline, my characters went screaming off the page in search of something else. So I don’t outline any more. Or plan. I just fire up the prose machine and sit back to see what happens. You’d be surprised at the things I’ve seen happen.  

Bloodman was built in 110 days. If I compare the first draft to the final edit, the foundation was there from the beginning. I’ve written enough now that I trust the voice to be there for me. To help me with the choices. He tells me when I’m trying too hard and bitches at me if I start believing my own crap. If I get too cute, he’ll kick the chair out from under me. He’s a bit of a prick but he does his job and if I listen to him, I get to do mine. Everything works out well.

Whenever I hear a writer say that it isn’t a job, it’s a vocation; I slap him (or her) and try not to spill my drink in the process. Vocation? That’s a load. The reason we write – at least the reason I write – is pretty simple. To get there, I have to go through a few of the reasons I don’t write.

Money? If someone starts to write because of the money, it doesn’t last long. It takes years to get this ship into the air. You have to learn your chops (although self-publishing is rapidly changing that). You have to develop good work habits. And you have to be relentless. If money is your motivator, it’s hard to develop good work habits and keep at it when no one is paying you. Trust me that gets old real fast. When a writer starts making money, it’s usually at the point that they’d keep doing it for nothing – it’s become a part of them.

Fame? If you put five of the five top-earning writers on the planet in a line-up, how many could you identify? Exactly. Fame is not coming to this gig.  

Do we do it to travel and meet interesting people? I was hanging out with interesting people before I was writing full time. Now that I do this, I get out a lot less. Never, some of my friends would say. Travel? I’ve seen a lot of hotel rooms in the past year. A lot of lunches and dinners. But sitting on a beach chilling out? No time. Too much work to do. A book a year doesn’t sound like much until you add in all the business that has to be done in the name of the game. I used to spend 100% of my work time writing. Now that the book is out there, 50% or maybe even 60% of my day is taken up with business. Interviews. Blogs. Guest blogs. Mailings. Email. Agents. Editors. Publicity people. Marketing. Phone interviews. Radio interviews. Skype interviews. Newspapers. Updating the website. It’s endless.

So it’s not a vocation. It’s not about money, or fame, or traveling to exotic locales. It’s not about wearing tweed jackets or the free booze at book signings. So why do I write?

Because it’s fun. 

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