Monday, April 27, 2020

Constantine Singer

Constantine Singer grew up in Seattle and earned his BA from Earlham College and his Masters from Seattle University. He currently lives in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles with his family and teaches history at a high school in South LA.

Singer's debut novel is Strange Days.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

Titles are the most difficult part of a manuscript for me -- they’re the reader’s introduction to the work and they direct the cover design which becomes the primary enticement tool on the shelf.

Strange Days got its final title less than a day before it was sent for cover design. It had previously held at least a dozen different titles, none of which were effective. Putnam had finally settled on Patched! Which they thought was a “tech-forward” title but nobody, including them, loved it.

My agent earned every penny of his cut and more by refusing to allow it and tossing Strange Days out there as an alternative. My editor agreed, saying something along the lines of “whatever,” and I went back and seeded the phrase throughout the manuscript. In the end, it led to a wonderful cover, which is enticing, but the title itself has never pulled its weight.

What's in a name?

Some names in Strange Days are archeological remnants of early versions of the story idea. Alex, Sabazios, Cassandra and Sybil all survived in-tact from the first iteration of an outline in which I thought the book would be a metaphorical retelling of Alexander the Great’s conquering of Anatolia -- Sabazios was the King of Gordia (of Gordian Knot fame) whose cleverness was undone by Alexander’s blunt refusal to play by his rules.

Cassandra and Sybil were placeholder names from that same outline and were more role-descriptions than names. Cassandra would tell the truth that Alex didn’t want to believe and Sybil would speak for the Oracle.

Of course, none of the original metaphor ended up in the final manuscript, but the names stuck.

Also, I chose Alex’s last name, Mata because it can mean both, “shrub” and “He kills” depending on context, and that felt a lot like Alex.

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

I think my teenage self would be unsurprised by the content of the novel -- as a teenager I was fascinated by science fiction, and time travel specifically -- but I would be very surprised I had the wherewithal to actually finish a manuscript and submit it for public inspection.

As a teenager, I was terrified of putting myself out into public view as anything other than an occasionally loveable screw-up who spent most of his time and energy getting loaded. I wouldn’t even turn in homework I’d completed because I couldn’t handle being judged on my merits.

I also think my teenage self would be horrified at how exposed he is in the book. He and Alex have a lot in common.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

Beginnings. Beginnings beginnings beginnings. When I start a project, I assume that the first twenty pages won’t make it through the second draft. I have a pretty reliable story-building technique, so I’m always clear about where things are headed and how they’ll end, but never where to start.

I don’t mind, though. Those extra-long unnecessary edited-out first sections are where I learn about voice and tone and where I get to explore my characters’ personal worlds. It’s where I meet family and learn about passions and fears. It’s also where I get to spend some time literally getting dressed with my characters and eating meals -- if I don’t do that, it’s hard to really know who they are.

Every manuscript I’ve written, I keep a separate file titled “Parts.” It’s where all these things go when I excise them from the manuscript. I keep them because those early experiences are like a baby-book -- a place to remember who they were.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

Alex is a pretty accurate reflection of the clockworks inside teenage me. He is (and I was) fear-bound and afraid of judgment. Alex’s focus on all the ways he’s different from everyone around him is straight out of my experience, too. Most of my protagonists are “inside-outsiders” -- kids who look like they should belong, but who know -- for various reasons -- that they don’t. Alex is Latino, but can’t speak Spanish. His parents own their home and have some money while his friends are poor and from immigrant families. He isn’t physical like his brother and father, and he hides his intelligence because he doesn’t want to stand out from the crowd. Our circumstances might be different, but the fear is exactly the same.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I’m politically minded and that shows up clearly in my writing. Less obvious is probably my three-decade long conversation with God. My spiritual questing began when I was 19 and I have a minor in religion because of it. I was on the road to becoming a minister at one point in my life, too, so the dynamics and mechanics of faith show up as major themes in almost everything I write.

Alex’s story is essentially a story of doubt and faith -- Alex consistently puts his faith in others he sees as better than him while never having any in himself. His story can be seen as a spiritual journey, being betrayed by imperfect objects of faith and finally learning to sustain himself from the small heat of the eternal flame within.

I’m also a recovering anthropology major and tend to see things through a sociocultural lens. Anomie and adaptive culture are regular themes in my work.
Visit Constantine J. Singer's website.

The Page 69 Test: Strange Days.

My Book, The Movie: Strange Days.

--Marshal Zeringue