Friday, June 24, 2022

Read widely and other things my father taught me, by Josh Stallings


Q: Do you read only crime fiction? If so, why? If not, what else do you read? Does it affect your writing?

A: My taste in books is wide and wild, always has been. I do read more crime fiction than anything else, BUT, I have a wide view of what that means. I was told by a perspective agent that Young Americans was a coming of age novel mixed up with a crime novel and “you just can’t do that.” Thought about this for a while, and found it was bunk. What is To Kill A Mockingbird if not a coming of age story mixed with a crime novel? Shakespeare was an amazing crime writer, just look at how many crime stories are based on his plays. 

This past year I’ve read a lot of post-apocalypse novels. Partly because reading books that are outside my norm allow me to see how they work with structure. And partly because life is too damn short to only eat molĂ©, regardless of how good it might be, sometimes you have to have a shepherd’s pie.

I’ve also read several amazing horror/crime novels lately. Children of Chicago starts out with a police detective trying to solve the case of murdered children. It gets weird when you discover creepy fairytales coming to life. But ultimately it was about children, and how disposable our culture has made them. 

So yes I read widely, kinda. What I read depends on where I’m at in my writing process. If I’m editing, I pretty much hate everything. A few exceptions are if James Lee Burke drops a new book, Joe R. Lansdale, Jamie Mason… Ok the list could go on, but when I’m editing what I’m reading has to sing to me, and yet not be too close to the style or subject matter I’m working in at the moment. So when I’m editing if you ask me to read your book and I say no, thank me. Reading the right book at the wrong time won’t do either of us any good.

Lately for reasons both personal and new book related, I am reading almost exclusively John Steinbeck. I read his greatest hits when I was younger, but now I’m digging deeper into the b-sides. The way Steinbeck sees characters lovingly, is helping me find a tone I need. When I was starting out I was afraid if I read other writers I might cop their style. Along the way my voice has become trustworthy enough that even writing with Steinbeck in my head I know it will ultimately be a Josh Stallings book. 

I also read a ton of nonfiction. Not going to college has left me afraid I might get my facts wrong. So I am always learning new weird shit. The LA Times archive is a good starting point for a quick skimming of facts. First person non-fiction when done right takes me on a deep dive into a subject. 

My father was an artist. Over the years he and I talked often about creative process. So many similarities in our work regardless of the medium. Seeing that we were talking about a land beyond language, we developed metaphors as an approximation of how creation feels. 

One comes from Werner Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo. Or maybe from Les Blank’s documentary “Burden of Dreams” about the making of Fitzcarraldo. The pivotal moment in both films is when they try to manually haul the 320-ton steamship out of a river, up a hill and back into the river on the other side. This became my father and my shorthand for creating any work. It starts always with a dream big enough that you think dragging a ship over a mountain is worth it. The strain of this early work inevitably leads to a moment or moments where as Herzog put it, “I'm tired of it all and I couldn't care less if they move the stupid ship – or finish the fucking film.” But if the idea is sound, or if you have the needed stubborn streak you will get the beast over the hill and down to the wide beach. Then you drag it across the sand, push it into the water. With pole and sweat you move it until it is in the deep currents. That is when it gets exciting. As it rushes down stream your only job is keeping the ship from hitting the rocks and destroying itself. This is the point Charlie Huston calls you to “Write with velocity.”

What does a 1982 German adventure film have to do with crime fiction? Everything. Apocalypse Now, the Coppola film and its companion documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, and book Eleanor Coppola’s Notes: The Making of Apocalypse Now are all brilliant examples of how creativity works and feels.

A term that came from chatting creativity with my pops was “finding the bell-tone.” In a novel it is that one sentence or paragraph that finally doesn’t suck. I may be ten or fifty thousand words into a MS before I discover it. It becomes the tone I hold up against every other in the work, if they resonate together, then I know they fit in the larger work. For Pops this was a moment in a painting where a shape and several colors snapped into place, like a jigsaw puzzle it allowed him to feel what came next. This discovery of a unifying tone, also applies to the building blocks of a novel. That one line that tells me who a character is. The line I hold everything written about that character against.

Bell-tone explains why I have to be very careful what I’m reading in the beginning of a project. Part of my brain is scanning everything in its reach for this tone. What I read can muddy the search or send me off down the wrong path.  

All of this is an analytical way of discussing an entirely intuitive process. It may be real, or maybe these explanations are just my way of whistling past the graveyard that is creation. Either way, it’s the best I can do to describe the maze that is my psyche.

Reading this back, what I am stuck by is - creation is creation regardless of form. We all struggle with the same issues, we just give them different names. 

I read from every section of the library. “Crime fiction” is too small a box to put my interests in, unless we admit everything is crime fiction. I draw inspiration from films, music, paintings, sculptures, conceptual art works, and conversations overheard in coffee shops. It is all raw material to be chewed up and delivered as fuel for my work.

The other thing I see clearly is I miss the hell out of talking process with my father. Having an artist dad had many hard parts, and just as many brilliant parts. But having Tobias Jean for my father helped form who I am. A fact I’m grateful for.

Where ever you are, Happy belated Father’s Day Pops.

1 comment:

Susan C Shea said...

Writing about how creativity works is a bit like capturing lightning in a jar. I enjoy the way you search and chew on the topic and circle around. You're telling it like it is! The creative connection between you and your father is great.