If Warriors Had iPods: Lee Bob Black Interviews T. M. Rives
Lee Bob Black: Which writers do you admire?
T. M. Rives: For a while now I've been reading mostly nineteenth century writers. [Charles] Dickens, [Leo] Tolstoy. In fact I don't think I've read anyone currently alive in at least a year.
LBB: What are some of your all-time favorite novels?
TMR: If you mean novels that I carry on my person and give to others as gifts, I'm not sure I have any. I've had the unpleasant experience on "losing" a fair number of favorite novels, and now I may be a little more circumspect: I'm more specific in my likes. I like Pnin [a 1957 novel by Vladimir Nabokov] for its camouflaged first person. I like The Time Machine [by H. G. Wells] because it has one very strange footnote.
LBB: What book (fiction or nonfiction) have you read more than any other?
TMR: No idea.
LBB: What book (fiction or nonfiction) has changed or impacted your life more than any other?
TMR: It might be Welcome to the Monkey House, the short story collection by Kurt Vonnegut. I was eight or nine, and hadn't read anyone with any style yet.
LBB: Where did the first impulses for your novel Le Serpent des blés come from?
TMR: It was one situation that I wanted to depict. A confusion. I've heard these moments referred to as the "nerves" of a story: they're generally very small, I guess. The scene occurs in the middle, but it's the first part I sat down and wrote.
LBB: Who (if any) are some of the real people your novel is about?
TMR: The husband of my high school art teacher is there, nearly in the flesh. He worked for the California Forest Service and was a totally artless, totally benign creature.
LBB: What are some of your novel’s themes?
TMR: Small-town widow with daughter. Big-town herpetologist. He comes, something happens, he goes. Any themes--there aren't any--might be found in the middle part.
LBB: So what’s your novel really about?
TMR: Herpetology. And children.
LBB: You're telling me that you novel is about the study of reptiles . . . and . . . children?
LBB: What does the title Le Serpent des blés translate to? Is it The Snake of Corns?
TMR: The Corn Snake. The Linnean handle is “elapha guttata”--it's a very colorful snake that occurs naturally in the United States, and I think it's the number one domestic snake out there. People breed them selectively to make the colors even more vivid.
LBB: For you, the US is no longer “out there.” You've been out of the States for 10 years, granted; however you've been back now for--what?--two months.
TMR: It's the #1 domestic snake here. I'm splitting hairs. Next Q.
LBB: How was researching for your novel? Reptile books . . . etc.
TMR: It was all Encyclopedia Britannica. I wrote it in Italy, and the Querini Stampalia library in Venice has a full set. I was a snake-collector as a child, so a lot of stuff--making a terrarium, for example--I knew already.
LBB: I'm a Wikipedia fan through and through. I've visited that website more than any other, ever. Do you use it?
TMR: It's magical. I really like online forums and discussion groups, too--you can get impossibly precise info from them.
LBB: Chuck Palahniuk used that method for researching disfigurement and sexual identity, which he used for his Invisible Monsters novel. Did you pose as someone else in those online forums and discussion groups, or where you straight with them that you were researching a book?
TMR: The last time I used one, I needed some good stone masonry slang. I just read around; I think they would have sniffed dork on me in about .0212223 seconds.
LBB: How is your novel spiritual, emotional, psychological?
TMR: Funny you ask. My intent was to try out a certain voice, one that I've seen used before, but very infrequently. It's the "emotionally close, psychologically distant third person." You can say what the foil character perceives, but not what she thinks.
LBB: How important is dialogue in your novel?
TMR: It's the revealer: it's how the reader builds the character. The character revealed doesn't always chime with the foil's perception (my foil is a seven-year old girl) and there was a weird and nourishing tension about that, in the writing.
LBB: How did you come to write the novel in French rather than your first language, English?
TMR: It was first written in English; I translated it with a French writer, a good friend, Lucien d'Azay. We took our time and did a lot of fine-tuning, so the translation is very faithful, except for one or two miserable jeux de mots.
LBB: It's only published in French so far, and it will soon be published in Italian as soon as it’s translated. How does it feel not being published in English?
TMR: It makes the "Hey Grandma, look what I did!" part a little less cool.
LBB: How does your editor promote your book?
TMR: High-profile interviews or articles, the whole tango with the press. This, happily, is not the author's domain. A goofy article--I guess even a flatly unflattering article--in a large-subscription magazine, for him, is a good thing. I hang up on "goofy."
LBB: You did 7 or 8 radio interviews in a blitzy week of publicity when your novel came out. How was that? Share some stories.
TMR: At the end of it I vowed never to do another radio interview. The only possible radio show I would agree to do now would have to begin: "And now here is Mr. Rives, playing 'You Are My Sunshine' for us on his harmonica." My favorite was the musty and adorable woman from Frequence Protestante, who had actually read my book. I was grilled by an anti-American of the most boring variety (there is a rainbow of anti-American flavors in France); he began one question: "So you messed up the [US Presidential] elections [of 2000], you messed up Iraq--now what?" My answer was cut out of the eventual broadcast.
LBB: Your novel was published in February 2005. Since then your editor has been hounding you for your next book, yes? How has that been?
TMR: Mostly silence and cunning.
LBB: You're lying to him?
TMR: I don't say anything. Maybe he thinks I'm saving words.
LBB: How is the editing process for you? Do you edit as you write?
TMR: I found out what a good editor does, text-wise. I was ready to throw down the gauntlet over a semicolon; as it turned out he had one or two very cogent, and very correct observations, and straightened out some dialogue oddities (French doesn't use the "x" system of representing speech). He didn't try to give my main guy a limp or anything; content and word choice were my job.
LBB: Did anyone (your girlfriend, Lucien d'Azay, your mother, etc.) read your early draft(s) before you started working on later ones?
TMR: Not a soul.
LBB: Did you always intend to publish your novel?
TMR: Not this one. SOME novel. This was an exercise--I was big into exercises. Writing through the perceptions of a child made the style virtually starch-free, and more interested in--limited to, actually--the tactile and specific. That was fun.
LBB: Who would you like to be published by? Is it your dream to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, or Éditions Gallimard, for example?
TMR: Don't care. Know very little about that part.
LBB: How would you describe your writing style?
TMR: I obsess about style. It's the way things are now: campfire cavemen did not obsess about style. I went back and forth, the difference between the stained-glass and Windex approaches, as John Barth calls them. Or: invisible narrator à la [Gustave] Flaubert, or the ever-present kind like [Nikolai Vasilevich] Gogol. Then for a while I wanted to be [Charles] Dickens: Dickens never worried about style; Dickens WAS style. Then I realized: you just shouldn't obsess about style. So I stopped. Just like smoking.
LBB: What tense do you write in, present tense or past tense? Why?
TMR: Present tense always has a touch of Choose Your Own Adventure in it, for me. I like the past because it puts a frame around your art: “See that over there? Let me tell you what happened...”
LBB: Did you outline any of this novel?
TMR: Every bit. Apparently [Joseph] Conrad got sick while writing The Rover and, in a fever, started conversing with the main characters. That will never happen to me.
LBB: Do you feel that being righteous about plotting detracts from the spontaneity or surprise of writing that flows more and is completely unplanned and unstructured?
TMR: I like well-crafted art. I despise so-called "non objective" art. Surprises are nice at the word or maybe sentence level. I don't think [Leo] Tolstoy got to page 700, sat back, and whispered: "She dies. Holy shit that's great! SHE DIES!"
LBB: The first impulse for your novel came with a scene that's now in its middle. When in the process did you know how your novel was going to end?
TMR: The end is so uneventful I'm not sure it really matters. The dude leaves. We all knew he would.
LBB: What do you want to write books about?
TMR: Some day I want to write the biography of Prester John. He's the medieval king who didn't really exist, but motivated all sorts of people.
LBB: Do you daydream about writing your autobiography or a memoir?
TMR: Never. Really: never.
LBB: What’s your writing routine?
TMR: Late, alone, but with other people in the house.
LBB: What music do you listen to while writing?
TMR: The soundtrack of Grease.
LBB: Do you imagine or visualize an audience while writing? Do you have one of more muses that fire your creativity?
TMR: No. I'd like one.
LBB: What are your fears about writing?
TMR: Cold, hunger, squalor.
LBB: Do you ever read your work aloud?
LBB: What do you think is the function of novels, fiction, and nonfiction in society? What’s the job of books?
TMR: Books are wonderful, marvelous toys.
LBB: What was your first writing workshop like?
TMR: Never done it.
LBB: No workshops? How come?
TMR: What was the “fear of writing” question? My fear is I shuffle into my office with an idea, and find twenty smiling people sitting at my desk.
LBB: What are you reading at the moment?
TMR: Nabokov's translation of [the novel] A Hero of Our Time by [Mikhail] Lermontov. I keep The Selfish Gene [by Richard Dawkins] in my backpack for the subway.
LBB: Do you read poetry?
TMR: No. People are mean to me about this. I need the time element, the gradual unfolding.
LBB: Do you find it difficult to write? Do you suffer writer’s block? How do you deal with it?
TMR: Writing is hard. If I'm not writing I must be on a break. I always think of writer's block as a barrier with a growing volume of unspent writing behind it. I've never had that.
LBB: What are your thoughts on writing being a process and that we can never expect our writing to be perfect?
TMR: Who is the asshole who thinks their writing will be perfect?
LBB: How important to you is it to be in a community of writers?
LBB: How have you set your life up so that you can write?
TMR: Remember the university guidance counselor? Reverse all of that.
LBB: How is being back in the US after growing up here, but not stepping foot in the country for ten years, and then coming back two months ago [circa April 2006]?
TMR: New York softens the angst. New York still has a congenial "otherness" about it for me; there's not all the hassle about "being home." I think I'll stay here a while.
LBB: Weren’t you also getting away from L.A.? It was less getting out of the US, more getting away from CA, no?
TMR: A lot of the things that Europe is nice for not having can be found in a highly concentrated form in California. Mostly southern California. The tyranny of the car. The no-whereness of the public space, the lack of human scale. In Europe they're catching up fast, though. Plus the sense of humor over there is terrible. That's another reason I came back.
LBB: What “gene” do you have that affects you when you’re at Chinese restaurants?
TMR: When I read the menu, I immediately begin speaking in a hilarious Chinese accent. Australians hate this.
LBB: What recurring dreams do you have?
TMR: Only one recurring dream. Tidal wave. I'm swimming, and I see it start WAAAAAAAY out there. No way to avoid it.
LBB: What song have you listened to more than any other?
TMR: It must be "Back in Black", by AC/DC. That song makes me want to do brave and crazy shit, and always has. If gladiators had iPods...
Interviewee: T. M. Rives.
Interviewer: Lee Bob Black, www.LeeBobBlack.com
Interview location: Manhattan, New York City.
Interview date: June 2006.
Buy Le Serpent des blés from Amazon France.
Buy Le Serpent des blés from FNAC.com.