Welcome to the four hundred and fourteenth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, biographers, agents, publishers and more. Today’s is with literary novelist, guest blogger and spotlightee Christopher Profeta. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further.
Morgen: Hello, Chris. Please tell us something about yourself, where you’re based, and how you came to be a writer.
Chris: I live in a small suburb of Detroit, Michigan. My current novel, Life in Pieces, in inspired, in part, by a classic story I read in the newspaper. During the 2010 congressional elections, members of the Michigan Democratic Party got in trouble for trying to put fake Tea Party candidates on the ballot to siphon votes away from Republican candidates. I read this story about an elderly woman who went to vote and saw her own name on the ballot and I just thought it was hysterical.
Morgen: I love taking real life situations (the second novel I wrote is) and Mark Twain said that truth is stranger than fiction (although I do hope some of the things I make up aren’t real). Do tell us more about your book…
Chris: Life in Pieces tells the story of an unemployed stay-at-home-dad who wakes up one morning and reads the paper only to find out he is running for congress. The unlikely candidate’s thoughts serve as a pointed satire of politics and the economy, as well as a moving love story about the strength and importance of family.
In the second “piece” of the story, Michael Langley, a college freshman, struggles to find his place in a new setting that doesn’t make much sense to him. When he finally meets a group of friends that make him feel at home, he realizes that if he is to build a life with what might be the woman of his dreams, he’ll have to give up everything he thought he ever wanted.
And somewhere, a crazy old man couldn’t care less about either of these stories. This last “piece” follows two old lovers who have figured out a way to ignore the struggles of the world around them and be comforted only by their love as they reach the end of their earthly lives together, and resolve the conflicts of their past.
In Life in Pieces, all these stories come gracefully together to show that we are never too old to come of age.
Morgen: Did you have any say in the titles / cover of your book? How important do you think they are?
Chris: I came up with the title Life in Pieces, and I did struggle with it a little. The story is told through a disjointed narrative that shifts perspective and point of view, then comes together in the end to create one unified story. I like the way the title picks up on the idea that life is made up of several smaller pieces, or moments, that come to define a person. At one point I had considered the title, A Man in Pieces, but I didn’t think that lived up to the idea of the book. It seemed to focus too much on the person, too much on the character, and not enough on the smaller moments in life, not enough on the story.
As for the cover, I was able to design the cover myself, with final approval from my wife. The cover was much more difficult for me than the title. There is a scene in the book in which the crazy old man character is sitting in a beach chair by the side of a busy road, relaxing and enjoying life while the world speeds past him. I thought if I could create a photo of that it would make a good cover, but I couldn’t make it work. Then I toyed with the idea of a picture of a giant political rally on the cover, but like I said before, this isn’t really a political book, so that didn’t seem to make sense.
Ultimately, I went with a ‘less is more’ approach. The cover is very simple, a stark red background with the title written in block letters that themselves look like puzzle pieces. The words are staggered to emphasize the disjointed elements of the book’s narrative. I love the simplicity of the cover, and how it captures a lot of what I was trying to say in the book.
In this sense, titles and covers are important. You want something simple and to the point that captures what your two to three hundred page story is all about in a few words and a single image. That is no easy task.
Morgen: ‘Less is more’ is a good idea. Some covers try too hard. Do you plot your stories or do you just get an idea and run with it?
Chris: With Life in Pieces, the idea came from a short story I wrote and really kind of snowballed into a big mess of ideas that I knew fit together, but didn’t know how. In that sense, I did just kind of get an idea and run with it, but I also spend a lot of time thinking things out before I write too. Usually it’s when I’m in bed trying to fall asleep. When I’m writing something, I pretty much fall asleep every night thinking about it. Then, when I get a chance to write, I take the idea and run with it.
Life in Pieces was a bit different in that it was made up of so many different stories that I was trying to fit together. Finally, when I saw that article about the woman who inadvertently found herself running for political office, I was able to use that idea to bring everything together.
Morgen: “a big mess of ideas” I love that. What point of view do you find most to your liking?
Chris: That’s a very interesting question because Life in Pieces is told from three different narrators from three different points of view. The story about the unemployed stay-at-home-dad who runs for office is told in the first person. My reason for doing this was that I was able to get his anger across a lot better. The parts of that story that are made up of other short stories I’d written had to be changed from third to first, and I think that’s when I got the idea to shift the perspective for each piece of the story. So, the more traditional coming of age story, the college freshman trying to find love, friendship, and himself for the first time is told in the third person. The crazy old man story starts in a very straightforward third person, almost like stage directions in a play, then moves into a long first person monologue from the old man.
I really liked the way this changing point of view played into the same themes I was able to emphasize with the cover and the title, that everything in life seems so disconnected and irrelevant sometimes, but it does all make sense in the end.
Morgen: It does sound intriguing (and I’m a big fan of monologues, and write one every Wednesday for 5PM Fiction ). Do you manage to write every day? Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
Chris: Like the main character in Life in Pieces, I am a stay-at-home-dad. I write whenever my daughters give me the chance. I won’t say that I don’t experience a lot of the same frustrations and loss of freedom as the character in the book does, but I think I’ve also come to a lot of the same conclusions that he does. That it’s all the stresses and struggles of life that make in interesting. Frustration comes from not accepting that, once you do, all the negativity doesn’t go away, but it doesn’t seem to bother you as much.
I have the same philosophy with writer’s block. I never really suffer from it because if I’m struggling with what to write, I just stop. I’ve learned from my children not to try to force anything.
Morgen: What genre do you generally write?
Chris: I don’t do so well with genre definitions, but I’d call Life in Pieces literary fiction. It’s not at all an overtly political book, it’s actually kind of anti-political in its overall message that people would be a lot happier if they just let go and stopped trying to control things.
I’ve never really thought much about what genre I’m writing in. Great writing crosses genres and, in a lot of ways, doesn’t really pay much attention to classification or restrictions. It just is what it is.
Morgen: I’m not a great example as I write a bit of everything… I hadn’t really written westerns or sci-fi before but did a piece of each for Story a Day 2011 and some readers have said they’re their favourites so maybe I should write more. Do you have an agent? Do you think they’re vital to an author’s success?
Chris: I tried to get an agent and a traditional publisher for Life in Pieces, but not very hard. I’m proud to be doing this independently. There is a stigma about it, but I think that’s kind of hypocritical. You can’t say that writers should be free to create without inhibition and be all, for lack of a better phrase, artsy fartsty when it comes to content and writing style, then, when it comes to the business side of things, say that everything has to be done the same way, that all books should be represented by an agent and published by a traditional publisher. Leave it to writers to be so short sighted.
Morgen: Oh I’m the same… I tried 14 or 15 agents and prefer to eBook my writing myself. I love the freedom (power). Are your books available as eBooks?
Chris: Life in Pieces is available in Kindle, iPad, and Nook formats, it’s also available in hardcover. I’m a big believer in the idea that everyone has a story to tell, and that everyone’s voice should be heard. That’s not to say that everyone is a great storyteller, but what I like about eBooks is that they give everyone a chance. I can write a book and go out and market it and try to share it on my own, and if it’s good, people will respond. The impact that technology has had on democratizing, not just the publishing industry, but the music, film, and television industries as well is incredible.
Morgen: Isn’t it just, it’s certainly an interesting time right now. How much of the marketing do you do for your published works or indeed for yourself as a ‘brand’?
Chris: Life in Pieces and all of the work I do is there for everyone to read. In the same sense that I try not to think in genres, I also try not to spend too much time thinking in target markets. You have to a little, because not everyone is going to want to read everything you have to write, but overall, as a writer I am a very normal person. I’m not sitting around in a leather sofa somewhere with a tweed jacket and a pipe trying to tell people how to live their lives. I’m just a guy with a story to tell and a computer with an internet connection. I don’t think there are a lot of traditional publishers that would get anywhere near someone like me, so I have done all of the marketing for Life in Pieces on my own. I held a release party, hosted a radio show on self publishing, sponsored a writing competition, and have been everywhere from independent bookstores to blogs like this trying to spread the word about my book. I have a website (christopherprofeta.webs.com), a facebook page (Christopher Profeta Fan Page), and a twitter account (@ProfetaChrisJ). I hear a lot of people say that this is the hard part of the job, and it is, but I’m having a blast doing it.
Morgen: A release party sounds like fun. I’m off to Jane Wenham-Jones’ launch party for her latest novel (Prime Time) on Saturday… I can’t wait. What do you think the future holds for a writer?
Chris: On my radio show I interviewed Jim McGaw, a traditionally published technical writer, and I think he said it best. It’s a great time to be a writer, not such a great time to be a publisher. I think the future for writers is full of limitless possibilities.
Morgen: And probably less so to be an agent. I’ve heard some agents are becoming publishers and I can’t say I blame them. What advice would you give aspiring writers?
Chris: The best advice I ever got as a writer is that the story knows what it wants to be better than the writer does. I tell people all the time, anyone can come up with an idea and write it down, but a good writer won’t force to story to be something that it isn’t.
Morgen: Absolutely. I love the unknown of creating fiction, definitely my favourite aspect of my writing life. If you could invite three people from any era to dinner, who would you choose and what would you cook (or hide the takeaway containers)?
Chris: Woody Allen, Steve Martin, and Bob Dylan. I know it’s a strange group, but I always feel inspired to write whenever I watch, read, or listen to any of their work. It never fails. Since they are all so different, I probably wouldn’t cook anything. I’d make it a pot luck.
Morgen: I think it’s a great group. There’d certainly be interesting conversations. Where can we find out about you and your work?
Chris: The best place to go would be my website, www.christopherprofeta.webs.com.
Morgen: Thank you, Chris, lovely to have you back and hope to ‘see’ you again soon.
I then invited Chris to include an extract of his writing and this is from ‘Life in Pieces’…
Though it didn’t make much of an impression on him at the time, the image came back to Mike later, when he realized who this girl was and who she would be, it came back to him every time things happened to him, good or bad, that seemed to have no explanation. It came back to him every time he wondered whether or not there was a controlling force in the universe, some kind of a god or something like God that made things happen for a reason. He would ask himself this question frequently, and that image would come, of her standing there at that party, her nervous smile slowly becoming more confident as time further removed him from the memory, in small ways altering both him and the memory itself, as if the image were saying to him, “yes you idiot, of course things happen for a reason.”
And a little more about ‘Life in Pieces’:
An unemployed stay at home dad who opens the paper one morning to find he is running for congress, a young man struggling to hold onto a life that is slipping away while meeting the love of his life, and a crazy old man who couldn’t care about any of this all cross paths in Christopher Profeta’s debut novel, “Life in Pieces,” to show that we are never too old to come of age.
Chris teaches writing at Macomb Community College and Davenport University. He has had various works published in the Foliate Oak online literary magazine, one of which was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He attended school at Wayne State University where he was awarded two Loughead-Eldridge Scholarships in Creative Writing, and at Michigan State University where he was a winner of the Jim Cash Creative Writing Award. He lives in Clawson, MI with his wife and two kids.
Update November 2012: Chris was recently named one of “50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading” by The Authors Show. Congratulations, Chris!
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