Friday, April 23, 2010

Valley of Fire

Last night (April 22), I went to the Yellow Door to hear author Steven Manners, one my former mentors, read from his latest novel Valley of Fire. I was piqued by the passage he read, so I bought his book. It tells the story of John Munin, a rational and gifted psychiatrist who believes that the soul and psyche are interesting only in dissection. Penelope is Munin's star patient. She suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder and is particularly susceptible to Munin's searching analysis. Munin plans to present Penelope's case at a major medical conference in Las Vegas, but tragedy strikes on the eve of the event and the probing psychiatrist's orderly world crumbles in the crucible of the desert. After the reading, I had the pleasure to talk to him and ask him a couple of questions about this book.
1) How long did it take you to write this novel?

I thought about it for a couple of years. I would go to Las Vegas, sit in coffee shops and sketch out the book on placemats. The writing itself took about a year. I finished a first draft, then put it aside to write a nonfiction book (Super Pills). Then I went back and revised the novel over a 6-month period. The publication process took about another year.

2) How did you come up with this idea?

I'd written a lot about psychiatry, and had interviewed people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The hyphen was what interested me: it's the space between the obsession (the mental drive) and the compulsion (the behaviours).

3) Did you ever get writer's block writing this novel? What advice would you give to aspiring writers if they ever get writer's block?

Writer's block is a peculiar obsession of writers. I'm not sure why. To me there are three types. The first is simple: you aren't writing because deep down you have nothing to say. So figure out what you would like to say, then move to the second type of block.

You may not be writing because you don't know yet what to write or how to write it. That's a sign that you need to lie on the couch, take a shower, walk the dog, or whatever it is that you do to generate ideas. The problem may be that you don't know how to approach the scene. How do you enter and exit? What is the point? Where is it set? So you need to think about it some more. Once you've got it clear in your head, it's just a matter of labour to write it down.

Try reading. Some people may think this is a displacement activity but it isn't. Writing is about solving problems of characterization, scene-setting, tone, etc. and countless other people have addressed these problems - successfully or not - in their books. If you have a library in your head, you can say to yourself: this author solved the problem by doing this. That can be a big help in unblocking yourself. Now if you're thinking that reading someone else's book has nothing to do with your creativity or your self-expression, then I'd suggest that you're misinterpreting what self-expression means. It about expressing yourself, not expressing your Self. You are crafting a story, and you will inevitably be there on every page. So focus on what your characters do and say, not on what you would do/say in that situation. That's why I advise people in workshops to avoid first-person narratives, but that's my particular bias.

But I digress. When you're planning a piece of writing, cut yourself some slack and give yourself some time to sort it out - with the caveat that you have to assure yourself that something will get written at some point. It may not be today or this week, but it will get done.
The third type is motivational - why bother? Isn't there something else you'd rather be doing? That can delay things for quite a while, but ultimately you have to decide: Are you a writer, or not? If you are, then a writer writes. If you aren't, it doesn't matter.

Wise words for all us! Fellow writers, I hope you are inspired after reading this interview. Once again, I thank author Steven Manners for taking time to answer my questions.

The book is available at most bookstores, including Chapters and Amazon. Or from the publisher

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