Friday, June 3, 2011
Interview with David Rocklin, Author of "The Luminist."
Thank you for joining us, David. Could you start by telling everyone a little bit about your book?
“The Luminist” is set in nineteenth century Ceylon. Eligius Shourie is a Tamil Indian boy whose father is killed by English soldiers after a melee at the Court of Directors, East India Company. He thereafter becomes a servant in the house of Catherine Colebrook. Catherine is a very independent and driven woman, married to a fading Court Director. She is chasing an obsession: the nascent art and science of photography. Catherine is a very unusual creature, a woman in that era who relentlessly pursues her passion despite all expectations of class and gender. Eligius becomes her apprentice in the quest, and a family neither of them expected is formed while all around them, Ceylon pitches into unrest between the native populace and the colonials occupying their country.
The novel is very (emphasis on very) loosely inspired by a period in the life of Julia Margaret Cameron, an English woman who became involved with photography in its infancy. She produced beautiful, startling portraits and images. The novel has very little to do with her life factually, though. Rather, she was my jumping off point for what the novel became, at the end: the price exacted when one lives to arrest beauty.
Well it sounds like a great read. Now, I know you've been writing for a while. Could you explain how you got your start in writing?
I think I’ve always written, no matter the phase of life. There was a time when I wanted to be, in no particular order: an only child, a champion hockey player, the next Bruce Lee, parentless, the next Jaco Pastorius, a better man, a good father…and on. The only thing that links these disparate parts of my life is the fact that I wrote about them, through them, in order to understand them.
I can, though, trace the moment that I realized what writing could do to me and for me – eighth grade English, when my teacher (who is acknowledged in the novel) gave me a copy of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Then and there, I discovered that writing could be subversive, sneaky, thrilling, powerful. It could do things I couldn’t do.
It must have been a hard journey. You threw out your first attempts at a novel, after you finished writing them. Any regrets?
Not really. Anything I might have salvaged from my earliest attempts has probably made its way into my writing one way or the other. I’m not really very sentimental about my early writing and can’t really see myself paging through it, unless I felt something had merit and could potentially be reworked – in which case, I probably would have kept it. I do have one, which I occasionally think about revisiting. I just might.
You sound like you must have a wide variety of reading material. Do you have a favorite genre?
I can’t say that I have one. I look for the beating heart of a novel (or any other creative endeavor, really). If I can see what it was that made its creator burn until they produced that work, I’m probably going to like it. If it reads as a purely mercantile effort, I won’t, no matter the genre.
And where do you find your ideas?
“The Luminist” was inspired by an installation of Ms. Cameron’s photographs at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. I’m not a photographer, I had no previous experience with India, but something about those images really captured me (read here for the story behind the novel’s cover). I had no idea that a visit to the museum would yield a notion – the obsession to take a moment out of the world and hold it still – that would in turn become a novel. The idea found me and wouldn’t let go. That’s how it is for me. It’s like driving in the desert. First, quiet. Then, the crackles of a radio signal still too far away to really hear. Then, it comes in.
How did you know that this book was ready for publishing? How did you know it finally 'came in,' as you put it?
I’ve been staring at this question for ten minutes, trying to think of a good answer! The flippant response would be ‘my publisher said it was,’ but honestly, I think I knew the novel was truly complete when I could think of it as two things, simultaneously. First, as a series of decisions (storyline, character choice, conflict and resolution) that I could defend as the right decisions from among a thousand possibilities. Second, as a kind of memory of something that actually happened to me. Not to say that I’m taking the “Million Little Pieces of Three Cups of Tea” route and trying to claim truth where truth is in question. Obviously, this story has nothing to do with my life. But at a certain point, my sense of the story occupied a different place in me. It no longer lived in that part of me that makes stories up. It lived in the part of me that remembers emotions, sensations, repercussions of experiences I had. It became that intimate to me. I’m hopeful that the new one will get there as well. It’s early yet.
Oh, you're onto a new book? When you write, are you a plotter, or do you fly by the seat of your pants?
Both! I tend to outline a rough plot from beginning to the end that I think will come about. Then I break that into a narrower, closer-to-earth outline of sections. That in turn becomes even more granular as I break down a scene or sequence. Within those frameworks, though, I never know what’s going to happen, what the characters might say or do, and they have unfettered freedom to make their choices. I hope they do things that surprise me. That’s how I know they’re alive. As I go forward, all my outlining goes out the window, which I love.
Every author is different in that regard. Which authors would you say influenced you the most in your writing?
I don’t know if these authors have influenced me, but their work has been so important to me: John Irving, Chang Rae Lee, Dickens, Steinbeck, Andrew Sean Greer, Francine Prose, A.M. Holmes, Susan Taylor Chehak, Richard Powers, Paul Auster, Michael Ondaatje – wow, I could go on for a long time. I would say that writers who remain with me (whether it’s one of their books, or all) are emotionally generous. They’re expansive in what they give, whether literally or by the suggestions of their otherwise spare writing.
Was it hard for you to land an agent? What would you tell authors who are struggling to find representation?
I gained representation for a previous effort via the query route. From that, I learned that a well-written query letter and a manuscript that is really, truly ready to be seen can get you evaluated by agents; they don’t all just pass whenever they receive an unsolicited query. It’s important (even critical) that you do your homework on them before you query. What do they represent? Who do they represent? How does your work fit into their list or their professed interests? Again, that query letter should really be as polished as your book.
“The Luminist” went a different route. I’d determined to seek new representation for it. A mentor read it and forwarded word of it to my agent, Christy Fletcher. Christy asked to see it and (every writer’s fantasy) wrote me the day she commenced reading to say that she wanted to represent me. I already knew of her; she’s respected, successful and has proved since to be more than I could have hoped for. I’m very lucky to be with my agency.
If you didn't find an agent for this book, would you have released it as an Ebook? Would you have scrapped it and started again?
I believe in “visibility at all costs” when it comes to writers and writing. As writers, we undertake two actions, only one of which is voluntary. One, we write (for so many of us, not voluntary – we have to). Two, we put our work out for others to see and respond to. That’s voluntary on our part. If we’re compelled to share what we wrote, I do believe we should exploit every possibility. That said, we should also recognize and acknowledge why we feel compelled to do it. Is it that we want to complete that wonderful circle of reading/writing? Or are we looking to make some money for our efforts?
Knowing me, I probably would have commenced a new novel. I definitely would not have discarded Luminist, though!
King said people never ask enough about the language. In that spirit, do you have any favorite words?
I wouldn’t know where to begin – I love them all equally! The simplest words can be powerful. Even the words I hate in life, I love on the page. They pry me open.
Good answer. Another off topic question, if I may. If you could change one thing about our schools, what would it be?
Practically speaking, I’d love to see teachers paid for what they truly do – prepare our children to live in worlds ruled by numbers, by history, by politics and the laws of science, by communication in multiple languages. It seems that these days and for far too long, they’ve been paid as if they were babysitters.
As long as we’re talking wishes, I wish schools made as big a deal out of a student’s success reading/writing as they do when he or she scores the winning point.
All of those are solid points. One last question. I've read a lot of Hawthorne Books, and I always love them. How has your experience with Hawthorne Books been? Any funny stories from the trenches?
Hawthorne has been amazing to work with. This is my first experience with a publisher, and particularly during the editorial process, I prepared for the worst. ‘Cut out this character,’ ‘lose a third of the length.’ The things you hear about in writing circles. Every step of the way, Hawthorne has had two primary motivations for all that they do, from jacket image to story to marketing and publicity: making the story better, and making the book appealing to people who buy books. They approached me, and this novel, as artists and business people at once. As a bonus, Rhonda Hughes, Adam O’Connor Rodriguez, Liz Crain, Adam McIsaac (their designer) are all wonderful, warm people.
I have a feeling the funny trench stories will come once I’m on the road doing readings and signings. I hope that they aren’t of the “I read a book to no one tonight” variety! Seriously, if I’m in your readers’ vicinity, please come see me. I hate crying myself to sleep.
Thank you for your time, David.
Thank you for having me, Draven.
You can find more about David Rocklin at http://www.davidrocklin.com/ or Facebook