That first line, the line that follows it. The scraw and the saw. (S)awesome! Something dislodged. How did this opening come about?
The one sound I think everyone associates with that barren landscape is that strange bird’s cry, that high, piercing screech that cuts like a jagged knife. It’s impossible to spell, but it has a sound like metal scraped on metal (I’m not sure “scraw” does it, but it does kind of sound like “scrape” and “raw”). That led to the image of a saw blade coming unhinged and flying, which gives a dangerous, kind of nervous feel. Like a dislodged, torn reality. Makes you wonder what’s coming at you, so to speak.
What’s the key to making humor work in writing?
Real humor comes from how people deal with a given circumstance, not the circumstance itself. With a lot of humor today, in writing and on TV, they start with outrageous situations, and play the situation as the joke. The joke is the premise, rather than the joke being the way the characters behave with it.
I often see sarcasm in writing, where the characters are saying sly things to each other, like on “Friends.” It’s much funnier in literature, I think, when the characters are not aware of the humor of a situation, but rather are the humor. When characters are ironic, they’re uninteresting. Real humor comes from eccentric, obsessive, passionate people behaving in eccentric, obsessive, passionate ways.
Buck and Julie. Love them. How did they arrive here in your story? When did you first encounter them?
God, I don’t know. They were there when I got there!
Really, the scene created the characters. In that dry, quiet environment, every tiny nuance is heightened–a rattler, the sound of a metal chair dragged across gravel, cracking open a beer–and these two crazy people had to be there to enjoy it to a bizarre extent. Buck is a hedonist, like me. The imbalance of the hyper-sensitive person is that he lives for sensations, including the adrenaline of being on the edge–of the road, in this case. It’s like a life/death wish.
A working stand-up comedian. What’s your favorite bit that you do?
I have a strange bit that people love for some reason, where I make air quotes and talk about how I haven’t been “good” at “sex” since I lost my “will to live.” I tell it not in a sad-sack way, but more as a warning to women.
At the recent AWP conference, a number of writers talked about their old flames, books that have influenced them during a formative time in their lives —and ones they return to for lessons in writing and, of course, life. Discuss your old flame, both what it meant to you then and what it means to you now.
Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray broke the dam for me. The flood of imagery in the first chapter had me swooning at a time when I’d just come out of drama school and was a restless artist looking for an outlet. His essays “Critic as Artist” and “Decay of Lying” were great instructional manuals too, particularly where he talks about the purpose of art being to create a mood.
When I began writing, I tried to be overly clever—the way a lot of artists start out—wanting to write like Wilde. Over time, I began delving deeper and finding my own style and how to express my own ideas and sense of humor. Now when I go back to read Wilde, it inspires me in a deeper way.