Monday, June 12, 2023

Craig Clevenger

Craig Clevenger was born in Dallas, Texas and raised in Southern California, where he studied English at California State University, Long Beach. He has travelled extensively and lived in Dublin and London, but currently resides in California.

His new novel is Mother Howl.

My Q&A with the author:

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

When I first began work on the novel, Stephen Graham Jones, Will Christopher Baer and I were a virtual trio of sorts; we had separate web sites that we linked to a shared readers’ forum (this was before social media as we know it today). Stephen had just released Demon Theory and Chris was neck-deep in Godspeed; I wanted a title that bridged the two, and came up with Saint Heretic. But the story was still forming in my mind, and forcing a title to create some sort of verbal triptych felt misguided in the end, so I abandoned it.

But my usual obsession with names, identity and memory kept bleeding through as the story took form. While I’m not religious, there are elements to the old and new testaments that I find quite poetic: creation as a product of god not only calling things into existence, but naming them (yes, I’m aware there are different translations and even more interpretations)… “…he called the light day and he called the darkness night.” Then we go to John in the new testament, where ‘god’ and ‘word’ are one and the same. So this notion of naming and the power of naming took hold, and gave me a way to present the two main characters.

When Icarus first appears, his name is the first word in that chapter, and the first word he speaks. And in imagining how a newly incarnate celestial being such as Icarus might view the world (and everything else), my crude knowledge of physics crept in. Icarus sees all of creation as variants of a wavelength, so references to sound and light occur throughout the story, particularly sound. This underscores the idea that these two characters are each creations of their own doing, such as when Icarus speaks his own name as he takes form during his freefall… not a messiah, but still “word made flesh.”

Lyle is at the story’s center and appears first, but his arc—his self-creation—is gradual. Unlike Icarus, Lyle fades into focus. We don’t learn his name for the first several pages, but only know him as “the boy.” He eventually takes on the surname Edison, but keeps it at arm’s length, introducing himself by saying, “My name’s Lyle (Edison).” Eventually, he claims it fully when he says, “I’m Lyle Edison.” Ultimately, he’s forced to choose whether to acknowledge (and speak aloud) his real name—the “Jr.” to a serial murderer—or keep hiding under an alias at the expense of losing his family.

Their voices, the words they speak, the world they see… every wavelength of light and sound, every superstring vibration, all of it eminates from a single divine frequency that is the source of all creation. That’s what Icarus calls the Mother Howl.

What's in a name?

I shy away from being too symbolic or allegorical with names. As for Lyle, I simply like the name; there’s no real significance behind Edison, either… I just like the rhythm of the two together. The particular spelling of Sera’s name is a nod to the late John O’Brien (Sera was the female protagonist of Leaving Las Vegas).

Icarus, believe it or not, wasn’t meant to invoke Greek mythology. As with Lyle, I just like the name… but I suppose there’s some level of metaphor that’s going to come with it, no matter what.

For a year or so, I volunteered at the Aids Foundation needle exchange program while I was living in the Bay Area. We had three different syringes—longs, shorts, and micros—that were different combinations of needle length and barrel size. If someone didn’t have any to exchange, they could still have up to twenty, just for the asking (it helped move clean needles into circulation and encourage their return, which mitigated the health hazard). Throughout my Saturday morning shift, folks would arrive saying, “I’m looking for twenty long…” That’s where my underground street surgeon, Twenty Long, got his name.

I made the decision early on that we would never learn Lyle’s real last name. Whatever name I chose would be anticlimactic to the reader, I was certain of this. His name’s significance—being the Jr. to a serial-killer father—would weigh on Lyle regardless of whether it was Smith or Anderson or whatever. The same way movie monsters are scarier when they aren’t overexposed, I wanted to evince the gravity of Lyle’s real name by keeping it out of sight (but if anyone asks me what his real name is, I say it’s MacGuffin).

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

Very. As a teenager, I read (and watched) exclusively fantasy and science fiction. While Rod Serling and Richard Matheson were (and remain) profound influences, the rest was purely for escape. And I wanted badly to escape. I college, I simultaneously discovered mid-century pulp noir and magical realism (particularly Italo Calvino). Those two sources have been slowly merging in my head ever since then.

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

I wouldn’t say that beginnings are particularly difficult, but I do spend more time on them. Endings, however, always come to me in an instant and very early in the process (even if I don’t have a clue how I’ll reach it). And I don’t mean the final scene, but the very last line. With Mother Howl, I had the closing line of the novel in my head years before I finished the first draft. When I had a steady workspace, that line was written down and pinned to the board above my desk. Otherwise, with every new notebook I unwrapped (my working drafts are always longhand), I would write that closing line on the very bottom of the last page, then go back to the first page and write toward it.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

Politics, definitely. Not so much news or current events, but larger social issues. I don’t write to express my particular stance (not in my fiction), but certain issues always bleed through. Music, art and film all have an influence on me, but it’s usually a tone, mood or emotional reaction that I’m responding to. With a story or specific scene, I might have an photograph, painting or song in mind; whatever my emotional reaction to it, I want to evoke the same feeling from a reader. I’m always moved when someone posts about my work online, pairing the reading with a particular musician or album. They’re all vastly different, but somehow nail it.
Visit Craig Clevenger's website.

--Marshal Zeringue