Welcome to my very first (but hopefully not my last) olive interview. William Conescu, author of Being Written, graciously offered to answer some of my questions. Being Written is the story of a man who knows he’s a minor character in a book and the lengths to which he’ll go to win a bigger part. It’s about both the artistic and the general life ennui of a bunch of characters in their late 20s, but it’s also a thriller. (I know, a thriller about ennui sounds strange. And it is—in a wonderful way.)
After you read the interview (and the book), check out the reading group guide—William is available to call in to book club meetings and answer your own questions, too. (You can contact him by clicking on his linked name above.)
And by the way, I particularly sympathize with William’s answer to question 5.
1. Daniel desperately wants to be a major character in the novel that he thinks is being written. What made you decide to center your novel on someone who has to work so hard to make an impact, someone who is so much of an outsider?
I was interested in writing about artistically-minded people in their twenties and thirties struggling to figure out how best to live their lives, and then I had this playful idea about a minor character who can hear the author’s pencil scratching when other characters are “being written” nearby. There are parallels in these struggles. Daniel is also figuring out what to do with his unique ability and what role he might play in his universe. So I combined the two ideas: Daniel hears a story being written about these artsy twenty/thirty-something-year-olds, and he works his way into their lives and their story and ultimately hijacks their book.
2. Daniel believes that nothing matters unless it’s “being written.” With constant blogging, constant Facebook and twitter updates, and reality tv, do you think our society is headed toward sharing that belief? Can that impulse to have yourself documented for posterity be controlled?
I hope the impulse to have yourself documented can be controlled! When you believe that being documented—“being written,” like the characters in my novel, or being on reality television—is the one thing that will give your life meaning, then you might make decisions differently from, say, the average rabbi or elementary school teacher.
3. Is Daniel crazy?
Or is he the only character in the novel who understands how his universe works?
4. Daniel uses a writing manual to try to gain some insight into the author’s plans for him, and to try to manipulate the course of events—and of course, things don’t go nearly as well as the manual might have led him to expect. Even though you satirize them, do you think those kinds of books can help writers?
I think books about writing can be helpful or validating, as long as they’re not too prescriptive. Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird is a wonderful book, and I’ve taught workshops using Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction. But Daniel has found a by-the-numbers book on how to write a bestseller, and he’s treating it like a self-help manual for the aspiring protagonist.
5. Graham and Delia are experiencing a post-college slump, where they’ve rejected typical career paths and yet still aren’t successful at pursuing their art. Did you ever experience anything similar? If so, how did you snap out of it?
I did experience something similar, and that was part of the inspiration for this novel. I wrote a lot in high school, college, and my very early twenties, but then I kept putting it aside. I’d switch jobs or move to a new city, and I’d tell myself I needed to settle into things and then I’d write again. But that kept happening, and I realized one day that the story of my life was in-progress. I wasn’t “waiting to get started.” So if writing fiction was important to me, then I needed to make it a regular part of my life. So I did! I wrote Being Written, and I’ve been writing regularly ever since.
6. This was your first book. What about the process of getting published was different from what you expected?
The whole process has been very exciting. I think I was most surprised by how many times I’ve thought, “This is it, the moment I’ve been waiting for.” The day I started working with an agent, or sold the novel, or saw the advance copy, or had my first hometown book reading or New York book reading. The excitement is dispersed.
7. What is the book/publishing/writing scene like in Chapel Hill?
There are a lot of writers living in or near Chapel Hill, in part because of the universities and in part because this is a beautiful part of the country. I moved here from New Orleans and was excited to discover that there are three seasons other than summer.
8. What are you working on now?
I recently completed a first draft of my next novel. It’s not a work of metafiction, but it has its own flavor of strangeness to it.
9. What kinds of cats do you have? (I noticed in the PS that you mentioned your cats being around while you work.)
I have two terrific cats: a calico and an orange tabby. They’re littermates, and they’re big-boned and tall—and tall sideways too.