Friday, June 15, 2007

Author Interview: N. Frank Daniels

N. Frank Daniels is the author of futureproof

Where did futureproof have its origins?

In large part futureproof is based on experiences I've had, as well as the experiences of friends and associates I've known over the years. After discovering this fact, people have asked me why then this "novel" isn't a "memoir". There are several reasons, the foremost being that I wanted to be able to take literary license with the subject matter and not have the focus shifted off of the work itself. Personally, I believe that all memoir is just another form of fiction, and all fiction (non-genre) a form of memoir. I think this is the license that James Frey took, and in order to get his foot in the door he was willing to compromise and call his book a memoir. If not for the scrutiny that comes with being on Oprah he would have been fine. I'm friends with James and know for a fact that he is one of the few stand-up people I've met in this business. Fact is, nobody tells the whole truth, even when they think they are. Everything is colored by memory and personal bias. BUT—that being said, I've also in some ways been regretful over the way I marketed futureproof as a sort of anti-memoir—that this novel stood as a testament to the power of fiction above and beyond anything a memoir could accomplish. The reasons I chose to do this lie in the fact that when somebody sells a book to the public as a memoir, readers then focus almost exclusively on the reality of the story and the author-as-subject-matter as opposed to reading between the lines, which comes easier when reading fiction. But back to the regret: I've been conflicted about not going ahead and calling it a memoir because then I know it would have sold to a larger publisher. The two biggest requests I've had from agents and publishers since futureproof started getting noticed is to add more "plot", followed by asking if I could possibly call it a memoir (codespeak for "did all of this really happen?"). In the end I decided against doing either of those things because I felt it would be compromising myself too much artistically. Life isn't about "plot", nothing is ever really tied up neatly, and that's what I wanted to do with this story: give an accurate representation of how life is really lived in this segment of the population. This is no more evident in pop culture than in a show like The Sopranos. And look how successful that was. There IS a hunger for that kind of story telling. The flipside, of course, is that my audience has been sorely limited because of these decisions. So I often go back and forth on the business decisions I've chosen, but in the end I'm at peace with sticking to my guns. I think that for the next book I'm going to refrain from putting either "A Novel" or "A Memoir" on the cover. I think I'm going with "A Book by N. Frank Daniels". That makes me laugh every time I think about it.

What made you want to tell the story?

In your review you focused on the dichotomy between the Baby Boom generation and Generation X—the Baby Boom's offspring—and this was an intentional differentiation that I made with futureproof, a conflict that I really wanted to accentuate in the book. Specifically, I wanted to highlight how the failure of the promises of the Boomer generation have in large part led to the malaise experienced by not only Gen X but also Y and Z or whatever the fuck they're calling the kids these days. And this is why I think so many younger people—high school and college age kids—relate to this book. It still rings true today even though the events depicted take place 10, 15 years ago.

What is your view of Gen Xers who are now in their 30s.

I think I'm in large part disappointed with the promise of this generation, much in the same way I've been disappointed by the Boomers. The Boomers were idealistic, probably too idealistic, but they wasted themselves on drugs and even though they are the largest generation this country has ever seen they still somehow elected Reagan twice, Bush I once and Bush II twice. It makes no sense to me other than the fact that all these idealistic hippies sold their souls, and it wasn't for rock n' roll, it was for cash and a fleeting sense of security. I guess Gen X never really had as big a shot to change things as they weren't as well-numbered a generation, but it seems like most everyone sells themselves eventually and all you have left is another group of people driving Beamers and trying to forget where they came from. Medication helps facilitate this process—legal or otherwise.

What happened to people like Luke and other Xers?

I'd say the majority of them are still out there going in and out of institutions or are already dead—I've lost several friends to early graves. Very few who descend that deeply into addiction and dysfunction ever right themselves again. There's a whole generation—or a significant segment of a generation—that has been lost. And I put a lot of the fault at the feet of their shitty parents. The values and standards you set for your children are what they're going to follow the rest of their lives. Most wife-abusers were abused as children. Same with molesters and rapists. It's a vicious cycle that's very hard to break away from.

What are your feelings about the medicalization of the problems of living and existence that had taken place in the 90s, and is still taking place?

Look, I'm not Tom Cruise, there's no question that there are situations and people that require medication. I know firsthand that depression is real. But when you have parents who don't try to talk to their kids, specifically teenagers going through puberty, their hormones literally driving them nuts, and the parents' solution is to throw them in some posh resort treatment center—I see this as a copout and a disgrace. And I'm not just talking out of my ass here. I have two kids of my own. They're still very young, comparatively, to the age group we're talking about, but I intend to take a much different path when they do reach that age. I guess in that way I'm thankful to have been able to witness the mistakes that were made in the name of helping my generation. I know what I don't want to do with my kids because of those mistakes. I think that our society over time has grown further and further apart, they care less and less about each other, and more about how they can get ahead as individuals. This phenomenon seems to extend even to the dynamics of the nuclear family. Who pays the price? The kids. You can see this manifested all over American society. Nobody wants to give a shit about anyone but themselves. It's too inconvenient.

What kind of a nation will we end up being for this attempt to medicate away the existential angst that life brings?
I think for the most part the damage has already been done. We're a nation of unquestioning zombies. I hate to keep bringing politics into this but politics are part and parcel of the discussion. That being said, I find it disgraceful that only after going to war on false pretenses, only after a slew of civil rights violations, do the great majority of Americans finally open their eyes to the disgrace that is the leadership of this country. The waking up has happened about six years too late. My children and grandchildren, if not beyond, are going to be paying for this lack of attention to detail. I just hope it isn't too late to make serious changes in the system happen in my lifetime. I'm not too optimistic though. If history has taught me anything it's that we have short memories and tend to make the same mistakes over and over again, and usually with exponentially worsening consequences.   

What is your writing process like?

I try to write every single day, whether it be a short story or a blog post—anything to keep the juices flowing, the mental muscles flexing. Some days this is harder than others. In fact, most of the time I sit down to my computer dreading the work ahead. But I have to remind myself that every time I feel like this, it is merely my own resistance trying to keep me from doing what I have to do (a great book on this subject is THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield. It's my bible). And I've found that literally 90% of the time I'm rewarded by some truly awesome stuff showing up on the page. There's nothing like wowing yourself with your own writing. It's the greatest feeling a writer can achieve.

How do you approach a story?

I have a very specific method that I try to adhere to. I like to write in an almost stream-of-consciousness vein, just let it all flow out of me before going back to edit. This applies to first or third person fiction writing, as well as critical pieces or editorial. Same thing goes with this interview. I'm not stopping to check spelling or how much sense any of what I'm saying is making. I'll circle back after answering the last question, then go over it all with a fine-toothed comb. I like to tell my wife, who is also a writer/poet, that writers are like sculptors except we don't have a block of marble to work with when we start. We have to write out a rough draft and then go back and chisel the shit out of it until we've created a David.

What are your favorite books on writing?

I generally try to stay away from these sorts of books, as my experience with them is that they only muddy the waters of my creativity. I'm not saying these sorts of books can't have a positive affect on anyone—I think quite the contrary is true for some—but books that tell you "how to write" are for the most part useless to me. I'd rather go the trial-and-error route. I know what I like, and if I compose something that I wouldn't keep reading after three or four pages, I know the writing is subpar. As Lord Chesterfield said, "The best authors are the severest critics of their own words." On the flipside of this, however, I do like to read stories of successful writers that tell how they succeeded. It's nice to know that no matter how hard a time you're having as a writer, somebody else has already gone through the same hell and come out on the other side. Stephen King's ON WRITING is a great example of this type of book about the writing/publishing process.

Have you taken any creative writing courses?

I have an English degree with an emphasis on writing (as opposed to emphasis on literature). I also spent two weeks in 2002 at the Skidmore Writers Institute with such luminaries as Jay McInerney, Ann Beatty, Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody and William Kennedy. It was an incredible experience and was the germination for futureproof. I realized when I was there that it was time to shit or get off the pot, as the proverb goes.

What advice, if any, would you give to writers of independent novels using POD?

I'd tell them to make sure this was the right road to go down. I think POD is a great way to get yourself into print if you have a plan in line to market the hell out of yourself. But you have to have that plan or you might as well be throwing your book into an abyss. I'm talking about using Myspace and other networking tools offered by the internet; using as many of your local bookstores as possible; getting local papers to review your book, and then expanding outward from there. It takes an incredible amount of legwork. And then there's the downside of trying to get a mainstream publisher to pick your book up after it's already been in print through POD. Most publishers shy away from something that's already been in print, no matter what form that printing has taken. That's why I'm taking futureproof off the market at the end of summer, after it was available via POD for the greater part of a year and a half. I didn't wait long enough to try to get published via traditional routes before going the self-publishing route—I was so eager just to have the book read. So I'm taking it off the market for six months or so while I try to get it published through a smaller press (I'd only focused on the biggie houses before going POD). Don't get me wrong, POD is a great thing, and I believe that it has changed, and will continue to change, the face of publishing. But there's a glass ceiling. It is very hard to get a POD book reviewed by major papers and even harder to get into major bookstore chains, which is the main venue for selling books—and without these avenues it is very hard to sell a significant number of books. I have to also say, though, that I've been extraordinarily lucky with futureproof. This book has been reviewed in alternative papers in New York City, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Richmond Virginia, and even in Entertainment Weekly. But again, no major newspapers—at least at this stage of the game—will even open a POD book, no matter how many readers you've snagged. Same goes with the major chain bookstores, which I've come to discover is mostly because they have specific deals in place with the major publishers. All those books you see on the front tables at Borders and Barnes and Noble are placed there not because they are better than other books but because the big houses paid for that space. Independent writers just can't compete with that kind of money. I think this is symptomatic of what is wrong with the entire corporate structure in this country—you have to be connected to be seen—but at the same time if you want to make a living creating your art you have to be willing to make at least a few compromises and then work from the inside to change things.

What was your experience like with

Most of the books I've sold have been moved through Amazon. Amazon is a great resource and I think essential for anyone trying to sell a POD book—this is just the best and only option when you don't have visibility in a bookstore. My only complaint is that they artificially jack up the prices of the POD books. They charge $20 for my 300 page paperback book and I only see less than $2 a copy. This is standard when you publish through a major house as well, but then you're getting an advance and your book is selling for far less money. Those "deep discounts" Amazon brags about only come about because of incentives provided by publishers. If you're your own publisher you can't offer such a discount and are therefore at a severe disadvantage. If it comes down to your book, which costs twenty bucks, and another book they've thought about buying that only costs eleven bucks, guess which one they're going to buy.

What happens when customers want to return their books purchased through Amazon?

As far as I know, once one of my books is bought by a customer through that avenue I've got the royalty. They're only eating a buck or two anyway if they have to take a book back.

Are you writing a new book?

Smack in the middle of a new one now. It's a continuation, of sorts, of the story that took place in futureproof. I have a four-book cycle envisioned for this whole concept, with an overall arc that takes place over a twenty-five year period, sort of following these characters around for a third of their lives—the time of biggest changes in a life. This newest one is written in a very experimental style. I'm aiming for finishing by the end of summer, at which point that hardest part begins: selling the book to agents and publishers. The first ten chapters, available for review by anyone who's interested, are on my Myspace blog:

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