Lavinia Ludlow is the author of alt.punk, her debut novel/sensation from Casperian Books. And she was a trooper in this interview process, sticking with me through what turned out to be a long and often absentee process on my part.
RWB: You are a musician, and alt.punk is obviously rooted in music. What artists or albums did you find yourself listening to while writing and/or editing the book?
LL: Aimee Mann had a lot to do with how I shaped the protagonist, Hazel. The track titles in Mann’s album Bachelor No. 2 say a lot: “How Am I Different?” “Nothing is Good Enough” “The Fall of the World’s Own Optimist” and lyrics from other songs such as Deathly “Now that I’ve met you/would you object to/never seeing each other again/’cause I can’t afford to/climb aboard you/no one has that much ego to spare.”
“Just Like Anyone” was one song of Mann’s that I played over and over when I was trying to depict the hopelessness in scenes where Hazel and Otis were alone together on the bathroom floor. I wanted to depict dreary defeat in her, that feeling of wanting so badly to help someone (Otis) who was so far beyond saving. And I think a big theme of alt.punk was clearly underlined in Mann’s “Ghost World” with lyrics such as “All that I need now/is someone with the brains and the know how/to tell me what I want.” And because I just want to rattle off a song of hers that I think is absolutely brilliant when it comes to auxiliary is “Momentum.”
When it came to writing the secondary characters such as Otis and Landon, and when it came to the angsty scenes at the bar or in the heart of novel’s conflict, I’d turn up live recordings of The Sex Pistols and The Stooges. There’s something about the unpolished distortion that brought back my own memories of going to clubs like The Campbell Gaslighter, The Cactus Club, The Great American Music Hall, the Warfield, Slim’s, and I remembered all the grungy floors, piss-smelling bathrooms, hand stamps, show fliers, and the uncouth patrons spitting and puking and sweating all over the place. These live recordings set my mood in the direction to write about all the gross-out fests in “alt.punk,” as well as the anarchic angst that Landon radiated throughout the book. In Otis’ more lucid moments, I’d play a lot of Pogues. I guess I’d play a lot of them too in Otis’ out of control moments to. The Pogues are a well-rounded bunch.
RWB: It seems like you put a lot of initial thought into your characters before they hit the page, or maybe that’s hindsight, but what is your process like? Did you plot out the novel before sitting down to write it, or are you more stream-of-conscious with your work?
LL: Why thank you. Ha ha. I plot nothing. All my first drafting comes from a fleeting stream of consciousness. The characters in my first drafts are always rough around the edges, missing pieces, lacking sense. As we all know, editing sharpens the characteristics of the main and secondary personalities. While editing alt.punk, one of the most important (yet basic) lessons was drilled into me time and time again: show don’t tell. The editor, Nathan Holic, would say things along the lines of “don’t tell me he’s an asshole, show me reasons behind what makes him an asshole.” Nathan always wanted more, and challenged me to the nth degree to bring out the characters’ true colors. I owe a lot to him and his talent as an editor.
RWB: I’ve often read you mention how the editorial process became a very personal venture, even going so far as to say that it saved your life. What about the process was so life altering and how has that effected your writing since alt.punk?
LL: Without getting into too much detail, in early 2009, I lost almost everything in my life in a single day. Pulling a quote from an old blog post from back in 2009, “A month ago I was lying flat on my back at the rock bottom of rock bottom. I spent the last two years (or 4 depending on your definition of hedonism) rebelling against some pretty major social rules. I got into a shitload of trouble and I somehow lost all sense of myself, and here’s the ironic part, the whole venture started out as an attempt to figure out my shit. I wasn’t writing or playing music or working toward anything constructive.” And that year in September, Casperian Books sent me a contract to sign, and I figured I could either do this whole-heartedly, or I could continue to drunkenly wallow on my friend’s couch. I got off the couch and found work. Food and shelter followed. I was christened with an editor who would forever change the way I read and wrote. I cut out all drinking and other. I worked during the day and sometimes into night, and edited in every minute of my spare time. As cliche as it sounds, the editing process gave me a reason to better myself as a person and a writer. Also, editing all the psychosis and addiction in alt.punk really wore me down. I just couldn’t take all the darkness and cynicism any longer, so I naturally excommunicated all those nasty things from my worldly view. In a nutshell, the whole process of taking alt.punk from rough draft to publication changed everything about my life, my outlook, and all decisions going forward.
RWB: This doesn’t sound like you’re run of the mill line editing for a finished product. Is it safe to say there was more to it than minor alterations? What kind of edits were you and your editor going back and forth on, and, since it seems the editor played a large role in shaping the final product, was it hard at first to accept another voice into your process with the novel?
LL: I’m going to be honest, even if it makes me look like a total idiot, but I thought editors just fixed misspelled words and made sure all paragraphed were indented with five space bar clicks. I turned alt.punk into Casperian Books thinking it was as good as it was going to get, and that they were going to immediately print copies and put the book up on their website for sale. Then reality hit, and well, I can say there were a lot of blows to my self-esteem that year. In a good way.
An editor is everything, at least it was in my case. Scenes were cut only to be expanded, dialogue was snipped only to be enhanced. The ending was hacked, and a new one written. Characters were no longer just pawns on a board, they came alive and developed complex emotions or thoughts that I had never engineered in the initial draft. Nathan Holic, the editor, said something along the lines of, a character is like an iceberg, that the reader may only see what’s above the water, but a writer must be responsible and know everything below the water line. In no way, would my manuscript have been ready for the market in the initial draft.
And yes, accepting Nathan’s suggestive edits were, at first, impossible for me to swallow. I thought to myself, “there’s no way this guy knows anything about where I’m coming from.” Big bold red wrong. I was so wrong. And he is just so very smart. He is a working professional who spends a lot of his time reading and critiquing manuscripts, even writing his own. He challenged me to bring out the very best in the characters, and also to give meaning to a lot of my scenes. And he critiqued my writing in a very professional yet humorous manner. Example: “Though I don’t know for certain, I think the plural for snatch is snatch”
RWB: The editorial process is one that always intrigues me, whether it’s the writer’s own revisions or those done under the tutelage of an editor or professor or what have you. Can you think of an example of how the editorial process for alt.punk has changed how you write now? Are there ways that you approach writing now that were born out of the experience?
LL: “Show don’t tell” has become an integral part of how I write , and it was instilled in me by alt.punk’s editor. It’s also something that I keep in mind if I am critiquing a peer’s work, or reviewing a book. One may think that this is such an elementary rule to abide by when writing, but only when editing this novel could I really grasp what it meant. This is a crass example, but it’s based on reality. Early in the editing process, Nathan Holic came to me with something to the effect of, “Don’t just tell me Landon is an asshole. Show me what makes him an asshole.”
This showing and not telling rule did not come naturally to me, and it still doesn’t. At times, I have to remind myself not to take the easy route out and toss out descriptions that mean nothing. “This author’s narrative was awesome,” is not going to convey anything to a reader. Use of clear-cut examples as well as comparisons make content rich and
easier to understand.
RWB: Have you come up with any tricks (for the lack of a better word) with how to conquer this problem? For me, I lost myself in writing dialogue to create scenes in action, but a lot of fiction writers don’t like to use too much dialogue.
LL: I have gotten better at conquering the “show don’t tell” issue. I try to read through a scene and make sure the scenes and characters are introduced to the fullest capacity. I try to come up with unique ways of doing this so not every character is introduced the same. That’s the neat thing about fiction, as Nathan once said to me regarding fiction, “if something isn’t believable, you just make up more shit until it is believable.”
I didn’t realize writing lots of dialogue was not a good thing. I know I use a lot of dialogue in my scenes, and I think it’s a great way to convey personalities, and what type of person that character may be. Is he/she meek, sarcastic, a smart-ass, etc. Dialogue is a great tool for “showing” and not “telling.” There are only so many ways a writer can describe how much a person is an asshole without dialogue. In fact, writing Landon’s smart-ass “one-liners” as they’ve been referred to in reviews was one of my favorite parts of editing the book.
RWB: Okay, now that I have perhaps beat the editing process to death, let’s talk about post-editing. As a a debut novelist what has the experience been like for you with your book coming out, holding it in your hands, having it reviewed and read?
LL: One of the most daunting feelings in the world is going to bed knowing real people have my book in their hands. They have real thoughts and judgements, and also word-of-mouth influence. It’s one of those things though that a person just has to get over, such as submission rejections. One should not hold back because of possible rejection, just as one should not hold back or be discouraged by the thought of a bad review. Though I think this will always remain one of my personal struggles.
RWB: Now that your debut is out of the way, let’s move to the obligatory question of what you are working on? Personally, I was very fond of the story in Pear Noir, any chance we’ll see a story collection?
LL: Thank you! Would it be factual to say that we both fell for each other’s writing based on Pear Noir! #4? I believe we met after that and the rest is literary history.
Arg. This question is hard because I have to admit that short story writing does not come naturally to me, or perhaps I should say,
easily, or should I say, rarely if ever at all. I’ve been asked to query a collection on more than one occasion, but unfortunately, I
don’t have a stockpile on hand at all. In terms of other stuff, I’m knee deep in reviews. I’m also trying to get in some pleasure reading
so I can stop hauling around a ton of books everywhere I go (don’t mention an e-reader unless you want to get punched). And I’m trying to get back to the basics of who I am. I’d like to spend more time with my guitar, less time online. So that in a nutshell is what I’ve been up to lately.
RWB: We did, in fact, bond over Pear Noir #4. And our shared birthday, of course! And now our distaste for e-readers.
Now that we’ve covered the usual ground, let’s end with something a bit different. If you could have written one book out there, one book in all of history to have authored what would it be and why?
LL: We do! And I’ll wish you a happy early/late birthday wholly dependent on when this runs!
Without a doubt, if I could, I would have wanted to write The Great Gatsby. I feel the writing as well as the content was advanced for its time. Everything about it is perfect, the content, the delivery, the way Carraway presented the succession of events. It also highlighted issues which are still socially relevant today. I know Fitzgerald toiled over the manuscript time and time again, shelling out drafts only to tear them apart for more revisions. In my mind, it remains one of the finest pieces in American literature.
RWB: Good call! Thanks for taking part in this rag-tag interview, I appreciate you putting up with what turned out to be an arduous process!
You can find more on alt.punk at Casperian Books!