April 15, 2010
DH: Derek, thanks for answering my questions about your collection, New World Order, published by Autumn Press. I wondered if you realize how rare it is to find a writer who is interested in what his characters do for a living.
Most of your characters either work for big global corporations or are freelancers living abroad. The nature of their work is often critical to the story.
Why did you choose a focus on corporate types abroad? What about such characters do you find interesting? I’m asking because so many writers find business executives uninteresting. So I am wondering what you see in them.
DG: Thanks for the questions, Dennis. I agree with your point that not too many fiction writers seem interested in what people do for a living. This is curious, to me at least, because what people do for a living is so integral to their concept of self and the place they hold in the world. This isn’t superficial either—who we are is deeply influenced by what we do. So I think it’s an important facet in telling stories, especially character-based ones.
There were two main reasons I decided to focus on corporate expats. The first is sort of mundane: I had spend several years as a consultant on the international circuit. So it was a world I kind of knew.
More interestingly, though, I think the use of these characters allowed for a certain kind of dramatic contrast: business executive as a group are generally confident—often to a fault. Placing them in unfamiliar territory where they don’t fully understand (or misunderstand) the rules of the road creates what I like to think of as story conditions. To link these characters and stories, I invented an only-in-America company called Mason Worldwide. It’s sort of Halliburton, if Halliburton is as evil as a lot of people think it is.
Thematically, New World Order is partly about how we as Americans thought the new century would unfold and how it actually has, since 9/11. So much of what we as a people are all about has to do with commerce and trade and economic might. It sort of defines our place in the world. But suddenly it all looks a lot more shaky than we had believed. So the company and the people it touches provided a world for these types of stories to take place.
DH: One of the most admirable features of your stories is that you are always thrusting your characters out of their comfort zones. Sometimes the discomfort is subtle, like in ‘Cultural Awareness’ where a hot shot, young male executive has his complacency overturned by a female corporate trainer. Or it can involve life-threatening risk like in the aptly named ‘Blood Money’ where a lark by some friends into the desert results in an unexpected horror show of cultural differences. You’re a very “physical” writer. Something that JE would endorse. You throw your characters bodily into the soup and you have the writer’s toolbox to do so convincingly.
It gives your writing a very distinctive character. What accounts for this, I wonder? Are you a big sports fan? Are you stimulated by physical risk? I was thinking in this connection that your stories would make a great recommendation for a “guys” read…maybe even the sort of adventure stories that teenage boys would love.
DG: Thanks for the compliments! To take your points in order: breaking point…
For me the point of fiction is revelation of character. One good way to really see what people are made of is to see how they respond to situations of unrelenting, escalating stress—which is what a story is at its base.
Travel provides a perfect pressure cooker for character. Sometimes the character learns he’s not what as tough as he though—as in Cultural Awareness. Or in Blood Money, where a miscalculation by hardened expats leads to disastrous results.
The stories are physical—stuff happens. This is partly just the way I write. I believe stories are about character and it’s through action that character is best understood. We are what we do not what we say….
But there’s another level to this. I think the stories reflect a sort of physicality that is particularly American. Americans do things. This can sometimes be unfortunate—a shoot first and ask questions later issue. But Americans are doers. And so this for me needed to be a major part of the book. In the novel I’m writing, this physical dimension will be even more important.
DH: Several of your stories feature encounters with uncanny or supernatural elements. In one story of corporate revenge, voodoo plays a role. In another story, there’s a strange native character whose drawings appear to foretell the future. I had several takes on your sometime affinity for the weird.
Your characters are coping with life abroad, with cultures where their understanding of what’s going on is fragmentary. So it’s not surprising that they would react to the impact of myth and folklore in such alien surroundings. Your characters are uprooted and grasping at straws.
But these folkloric elements also remind me of the colonial literature of several generations back. I appreciated the links to older writers on the exotic like Kipling and W. H. Hudson. Does the older literature about Americans abroad interest you? Why the occasional spookiness in your stories? What do you like about it?
DG: I definitely wanted to have at least a whiff of the supernatural in these stories and I think that’s partly because I just find those stories a little more interesting than straight realist stories. It’s just too tempting when you’re placing a character in another culture—especially one like Latin America, which has a powerful tradition of the supernatural.
You’re very perceptive, by the way, to point toward slightly older writers, too. In my case, the immediate influences were H.H. Munro, aka “Saki,” and Roald Dahl. Paul Bowels, too, though he’s not so much a writer of the supernatural as the simply plain horrific! All, by the way, wrote about strangers in strange lands quite a bit….
DH: Derek, when I was thinking about what I liked about New World Order, I came up with two vital basics. First, having started one of your stories, the reader wants to read it to the end. I never for a second wanted to lay one of your tales aside and not find out what happens.
The second basic is virtually uncanny. It is that you have a knack for presenting your characters to the reader swiftly, so that they immediately have a sense of who the character is, as if they had just met them. That’s real writing magic.
As far as I can tell, it’s not done so much with description, which can be static, but by presenting your characters situationally…so we grasp who the person is by visualizing their setting and by what they are doing.
Where does this writer’s magic come from? Silly question, right? It seems to me that writers are born with the talent to tell a story. You can train for it but you have to be built to do it in the first place. I know you’ve taught a writing course or two. So what is your take on what makes a writer and also…would you like to tell us what you are working on now? And thanks, Derek, for some great storytelling with such memorable characters.
DG: Well, thanks again, Dennis. I do believe there’s a certain magic to stories but not much magic to writing them. You just have to work at learning the basics of what a story is—and there are a surprisingly large number of writers, even very good ones— who really don’t seem to understand story-telling. Or they understand it and are simply interested in something else—language or some other important aspect of writing that isn’t story telling.
In other words, story-writing is a craft. I’m not saying I am a master craftsman myself—just that stories have certain features and if you understand them, writing stories is something that is within reach.
I think you hit the nail on the head for what I am trying to do anyway—which is to place a certain type of character into a certain type of situation. When this person acts, you get an immediate sense of what she is made of—and you enter the land of story. Of course the, character then encounters more difficulty—the situation escalates, the stakes rise. And the reader wants to know what happens next.
There’s a lot of discussion about character- or plot-driven fiction but I think that’s mostly nonsense. Character is plot, in dramatic fiction. So, you get a character capable of action a bad situation, and there’s a certain logic that unfolds and the logic result in a story. And it really is magic once it’s done!
Thanks again Dennis and look forward to more conversations about writing!