Mary Akers: Behlor, I loved your piece, “After Philip Marries Mildred.” And I’d like to talk today a little bit about the writing process, if we could. When I was a potter, there were lots of discussions in the pottery community that centered around the simple and related questions What is art? and What is craft? Should the focus be form over function? Or function over form? Hours and hours were spent debating this and those questions still intrigue me to this day. I think there must be a similar sort of question-pairing available for discussions of writing. Perhaps What is literary? and What is mainstream? But the biggest thing about those questions that always bothered me is, Do they have to be two different things? Can art and craft exist together? Can form follow function and still be beautiful? And if they can exist together (I believe they can), why do we (as an art-consuming public) insist on separating them?
Behlor Santi: Well, Mary, I look at this as a freelance writer, creator of (mostly) craft, and lover of haute couture. In my career I write about the link between childhood abuse and autism, but I’ll also write about dessert wines if you pay me enough. That’s vulgar, in the way the Romans meant it — meant for the common people. On the other hand, high-end fashion designers, as well as so-called literary writers, want to build a mystique about their products. They charge $1000 for their small leather pocketbooks, or use Nathanael West as an influence, knowing that most people never heard of Day of the Locust. Am I cynical enough to believe that literary writers try to market to their demographic like everybody else? No. Most literary writers, unlike Louis Vuitton or Coach, are not making gads of money. But the instincts are there.
MA: Another concept I’ve been thinking about lately is the idea of allowing “the process” of creating art to show through to the finished product. That’s kind of an opaque sentence, so let me give you an idea of what I mean by that. Back to the pottery for a moment. There are two ways to make a pot. In one, you take a tool called a rib and you flatten out all the finger marks to make the surface of the pot smooth and perfect–like a machine would make it. Another school of thought is to leave the ridges made by the fingers of the potter because that is what separates the handmade from the machine made and it also celebrates and reminds the user that HANDS created this. Based on my description, you can probably guess under which camp I fall. I like the finger marks. I like to see the struggle and the process.
There is a beauty in the making that goes away when everything is smoothed and the process is denied. So…is there any way to carry that same sentiment into writing? A lifting of the veil, if you will, that still keeps the reader from being pulled out of the story? Would that be stream-of-consciousness writing? How would you imagine “process” showing through in writing in an artful way?
BS: I like that question! Showing the process … it reminds me of a story by the Seattle writer, Michael Byers … it’s called “The Beautiful Days.” The story starts with your typical college kid, blah blah blah … then Byers “breaks” the story in half and has the blah college kid force a girl to give him oral sex … that part is bleakly written, scary, it’s a million sexual assaults that scars people for life … I read that story back in high school, but many years later, it influenced me to write one of my stories in-process … the girl is rich, but fat … the girl slims now, but is still is unhappy … the girl loses her virginity, but the sex sucks … then the story breaks from a “Girls” episode, and the girl discovers Louboutins at Bergdorf Goodman … will you judge her, or be glad that she’s happy — albeit in a materialistic way?
MA: Fascinating. Yes, material gain for art. Is it a blessing? Or a curse? We all have to eat, so payment for art is essential if we want art to continue to be produced. But when publishing success begins to reap the sort of payouts that a pro-footballer would get, it gets trickier. I’m thrilled to see a writer reap monetary success, but I often wonder, when the public has “bought” you, do they then “own” you? Is there pressure to keep “producing”? I think famous artists have struggled with this notion. Would you care to comment?
BS: Of course! I’m not the biggest fan of the Australian musician Nick Cave, but I happened to have read some Amazon.com reader reviews of his novel. The Death of Bunny Munro. It’s has lots of sex, decay, and thoughts on God — yum. But Cave falls victim to a universal disease that “successful” artists fall for. Being famous frees you from having to appeal to editors and publishers who want stuff that sells in Middle America … but eventually, your need to produce and your need to get out there in subject matter collide. I bet that the late Whitney Houston wanted to experiment, wanted to get beyond the stereotypes that black women like me and her endure. But as they say, they own you. The crowd owns you. The moguls own you. It’s a centuries-old problem. Will we solve it in this century? I doubt it.
MA: Could you tell us who some of your biggest influences in the writing world are?
BS: When I was in elementary school, I lived in Jamaica, Queens, a mostly-black section of New York City. So naturally, I learned about literature through great black writers like Langston Hughes, Phillis Wheatley, and Toni Cade Bambara. I particularly loved Bambara. She wrote about the trials and tribulations of black girls in the inner city — almost like Jane Austen, but with swag. When I got older, my English professor introduced me to Zora Neale Hurston, who I love for her feminism and libertarian politics. Hurston taught me that some government support is needed to lift people up; but she also said that Americans — black women especially — should never consider SSI, SNAP, Medicaid, etc. a permanent lifeline. These days I prefer to read non-fiction, especially the books of Malcolm Gladwell. Many people in academia hate him for writing his books in a journalistic manner, without tons of stats. However, he’s a great storyteller. He inspires me in every article or story I write.
MA: Jane Austin, but with swag. I love that. And I like to read Malcolm Gladwell, too. It’s popular science, but thoughtful popular science.
So much goes into producing a written work–idea, style, execution, editing, feedback, finding publication, etc. What is your favorite part of the writing process? And why?
BS: To be blunt, I hate all of it! Just kidding … the socially isolated ninth-grader in me loves the feedback, especially from an older, hardened veteran. When I was in college, taking creative-writing workshops, I hate it. I thought that the other kids gave me negative feedback because I was ugly, fat, dumb, blah blah blah … It took me many years to accept that “negative” feedback, along with rejection, makes my work stronger. I’m not famous now. But to me, that’s better than being successful and publishing shitty books.
MA: I agree. Rejection is rotten, isn’t it? But it isn’t personal and it does have its benefits to the individual who can process it appropriately. So, here’s another (somewhat related) question. Knowing what you know now about the writing / publishing world, what would you have done differently when you were just starting out?
BS: I would have gone to more writers’ conferences and festivals. At my meager wages, they are expensive. But think of the advantages I would have had. Networking with agents and publishers, networking with my favorite authors. And meeting the occasional cute guy.
MA: That’s good advice for up-and-coming authors–essentially “invest” in your career.
And finally, because we are a recovery-themed journal, and because the answers are always so different and fascinating, what does “recovery” mean to you?
BS: 12-step programs say that all addicts hit rock-bottom before climbing back up. The well walls are scratching against my legs, making my knees skinned and bloody … but I am enjoying the climb and the blue sky I see.
MA: Thank you, Behlor! It’s been a pleasure.