Wednesday, June 17, 2009

12 or 20 questions: with Daniel Allen Cox

Daniel Allen Cox is an ex-Jehovah’s Witness turned pornstar, and author of the hit novel Shuck (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008), which was shortlisted for the 2008 Lambda Literary Award for Gay Debut Fiction. His novella Tattoo This Madness In (Dusty Owl Press, 2006) was shortlisted for a 2007 Expozine Alternative Press Award. In the 2009 Montreal Mirror readers poll, Daniel was voted one of the top 10 best local authors.

Daniel has performed widely, including at the Ottawa International Writers' Festival, the Lammy Finalist Reading Series in New York City, the San Francisco Sex Worker Arts Festival, and on Canada's national radio network,CBC Radio One. His work has appeared in many magazines and anthologies and he writes the column Fingerprinted for Capital Xtra! Daniel lives in Montreal.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

My novella Tattoo This Madness In (Dusty Owl Press, 2006) taught me about how writing connects me to the communities I’m a part of, and to those I orbit. It gave me confidence in my voice as a writer, and taught me how to sharpen my writing with potency. This book deals with my upbringing in the Jehovah’s Witness cult/religion—a belief system founded on literature published by a relatively clandestine society of leaders in Brooklyn, New York. The literature can’t be questioned, because it is “inspired of God.” Writing Tattoo, you can say, was my way of deconstructing the authority of literature: to prove that I can do it too, without a ‘green light’ from above.

I got to explore different terrain with my novel Shuck (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2008), this time using desperation as a motivator. I needed to capture my memories of pre-millenial New York City before I forgot too much of it; I haven’t owned a camera in 15 years. I recognize many of the same themes as in my first book, namely, young outcasts using sexuality to discover more about themselves and to achieve their notions of freedom. Shuck, unlike Tattoo, is a novel of place, and New York City is very likely the main character. It mourns a city that where sexual outlaws have slowly lost many of their institutions over the past two decades. Tattoo, on the other hand, celebrates loss, the shucking of religion. Est-ce que c’est clair?

2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?

When I first started writing, I thought that to write non-fiction, you had to know shit about shit, which I knew nothing about. I eventually discovered that no matter what format you use, writing pours out most deliciously when you frame it as personal truth.

3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing intitially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?

My writing projects have a gestation period, during which I take notes in a Moleskine notebook. That can last for days or months, depending on the size and scope of the project. In general, I edit all drafts about 10 times before I’m satisfied with them. Of course, after 5 drafts the story says more or less what I want it to say, but it takes another 5 to shape the words into objects the reader can use in their own lives. I enjoy editing as much as I do writing.

4 - Where does a piece of fiction usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?

As they often say in Poland, “It depends.” Shuck was written in snippets, and then assembled using giant poster boards, hundreds of snippets of paper, and Scotch tape. With my novella Tattoo, it began as a 300-page work, and I trimmed it down to 100. I keep on breaking all of my habits. Is that a good thing?

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

Until recently, I have always been afraid of readings, because I stutter. My stuttering is heightened when I read, because there are words on the page that I can’t substitute if they are rife with consonants that give me trouble (if you’ve spoken to me or heard me speak, then you know what they are.) And so, I have organized performances where I do everything except read: retell scenes improv-style, hold game-show quizzes, give author talks, and have other people read for me. This has all been great, giving my events an interactive spin. It was a treat to hear my work come alive in Steve Zytveld’s brassy baritone, and in Adriana Palanca’s sauciness.

I finally decided, though, to try reading in public, after much urging—and encouraging—from friends. I picked one of my favourite passages from Shuck, rehearsed it, and realized that it was no different than the last stage of my editing process, where I mouth the words in a final read-through. I guess I found my physical voice in the confidence of my literary voice. It was quite a moment, and then I replicated that success at Hard Cover: A Book Club for Men into Men, in Ottawa. My stutter is not an enemy. It’s a friend. Coming to a reading near you!

6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?

What things go unsaid? Why are people afraid of sex, and how can we reverse that? What can we do to empower young queers in a homophobic world? What can I do to link the disparate parts of my life together, and how desperate am I to find those threads?

7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?

To ask questions, and to motivate readers to take personal risks.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I have always prized the relationships I’ve had with my editors. The key to doing that is to understand what they bring to your writing that you can’t, and to beat down your ego with a crowbar, if necessary. Your editor may have different reading influences than you do, and can bring such richness to a text with the most minor suggestion. Because I enjoy editing so much, this shared refining is key to my writing process. It’s great when you can achieve a symbiosis; you know you’ve learned something when you can predict what language your editor will flag.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

“Don’t be afraid to read in public. People will love to hear your voice, because it’s you.” Francisco Ibañez-Carrasco, on the steps of his East Vancouver home.

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to more performative works)? What do you see as the appeal?

11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?

There are two periods of the day when I’m a firecracker. I’m at peak “creative mode” between 9 pm and midnight, and at peak “execution” mode between 8 and 11 am. I try to get most of my writing work done in those slots, even though much of it is bound to happen on the subway, against my will.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

This may sound silly, but I turn to the shower for inspiration. There’s something about the hot water hitting my cerebral cortex that gets my brain’s sleepy neurons jiggling again. Maybe the smell of Irish Spring soap plays a part, too.

13 - If there was a fire, what's the first thing you'd grab?

Funny you should ask. My apartment building burned down on November 2, 2007, while my lover was asleep in it (he escaped, holding our wriggling cat). After the firefighters had extinguished the flames, they gave us 10 minutes to collect essential items. Our home was a soot-covered battle zone—the firefighters trashed it when they chopped the walls, floors and ceilings to see if the fire had spread, breaking whatever furniture was in the way. They have a tough job, so I’m not complaining.

What do you pick up when you have 10 minutes, not sure if you’ll ever be allowed back in again? Our loving friends turned out en masse to help in this 600-second rescue. I directed them to hunt for my photos, and then my passport. This intrigues me, because prior to that, I hadn’t cared enough about photos to even own a camera. And I recently let my passport expire, not renewing it until days before a trip to New York City. It seems that fire brings out priorities in me that otherwise lay quite dormant.

14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?

A loamy, summer wind will always tint whatever piece of writing I’m working on. Low-quality Youtube videos—the ones that look how vinyl sounds—have the same effect.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

There are dozens of authors—many of them friends of mine—who have taught me much about writing. I’ve had a few intense author crushes in the past, though they abated when I learned how to pull off some of their literary tricks.

Extravaganza by Gordon Lish has had a lasting hold over me. It is a novel told in the form of a vaudeville routine between showprincesses Smith and Dale. It’s not until the last few pages that you realize this joke-book is about the holocaust, and then you’re mortified that you’ve been laughing all along. I lost that book and I miss it. I would kiss profusely anyone who sends me a copy.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

Meet Karim Nasser Miran, the guy who’s been living in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris for the past nineteen years.

17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?

I would love to be baseball player or a baseball announcer, to either steal bases or to announce the thefts. It would be amazing to coin a new phrase for a home run, like “that ball just flew standby”, or something of the kind. Know what I mean?

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

My stutter made me take up writing. I’ve never been quite satisfied with my verbal articulation (for those of you who have never heard me, my speech is peppered with hesitations, prolonged sibilants, and compensatory clicks). It used to be more severe when I was younger, and I think I learned quickly that if I wanted to communicate what I was thinking with the best clarity, I had better write it down, rather than subject it to a speech rollercoaster where who knows what would come out on the other side.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Rat Bohemia by Sarah Schulman is the only book I have ever read in a single sitting. The last great film is Naked States, a documentary about the work of photographer Spencer Tunick, famous for his public nudes. I’ll never forget how he brought a volunteer model to the streetcorner where she had been raped, and then asked her to undress for the camera. She later said “Doing the shoot with Spencer was 90% of my self-therapy. It was like I am free to be me, and I like that a lot.”

20 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a new novel. More details to follow.

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