Tuesday, January 8, 2013

My Author Interview on The Digital Ink Spot

     Matt Bower has had several short stories published in the literary journal, The Crucible and his full-length play, If Leopold Could Talk, was a finalist in the 2002 New Century Writer playwriting competition. He is a writer and performer for the professional comedy troupe, the Cellar Dwellers. At this moment, Matt is relaxing on his deck, sipping on a Dogfish Head IPA, and listening to a Pirates baseball game on his shortwave radio. He resides in Pittsburgh, PA.
The Digital Ink Spot had the pleasure of asking Matt a few questions about his novel, Save Me, Rip Orion.

The Digital Ink Spot: Please tell the readers about your novel.
Matt Bower: The following is a short synopsis for my independently published novel entitled Save Me, Rip Orion: An abandoned house is set aflame. Roscoe stumbles upon evidence that reveals the arsonist’s next target. Evoking his childhood icon, the mighty Rip Orion, Roscoe decides to become the real life version of the superhero and apprehend the pyromaniac. However, the fantasy rapidly unravels when events don’t unfold in classic comic book fashion. To save the world, Roscoe must play the role of villain. However, SMRO is not a typical hero versus villain tale. As the plot unfolds, the classic superhero origin story deconstructs until the line separating the heroes and the villains blurs. Capes and cowls become silly props, and prayers for a savior to swoop from the heavens go unheeded. As the cliché goes, "Good guys wear white, and bad guys wear black." Not so. Everyone wears grey, and superheroes only exist in comic books.

The Digital Ink Spot: Can you describe the journey you took to get your book written?
Matt Bower: An idea occurred to me during the summer of 2009. Although I will not admit the idea here (you’d likely cringe if I revealed it) I decided to clear my schedule the next several months and write a novel. The problem was I had no clear idea of how the plot would unfold, nor did I prepare any outlines, notes, etc. I probably broke every rule in Novice Novel Writing 101. I simply cobbled together the plot off-the-cuff until I realized about 35,000 words in that my work was a meandering mess. I decided to halt my efforts and regroup. Although my first attempt at writing a novel went awry, I was able to flesh out the two main characters (who later became Roscoe and Marcy in SMRO); I had really grown affectionate toward both in the short time I misused them. I conjured a new story for the two main protagonists—more closely resembling SMRO—and set to writing another novel. Embarrassingly, I did not construct an outline again and simply steered the action as I wrote. I’m unsure why I thought I could form a tight, interesting plot in this manner. Regardless, I managed to complete the project. However, once I set the novel aside and began to distance myself from the writing process I gradually began to understand that the manuscript needed much work. So, I scrapped the second draft too. Finally, I took the appropriate time to fashion the novel’s outline. I kept in mind the whole “inciting incident, rising action, climax”, etc. that I recalled from 8th grade English. The plot had now evolved to very closely resemble SMRO, less the superhero angle. I also read three books on novel writing. Again, I took to my computer about 3 hours per night, most nights for the next 6 months. I emerged with a completed third draft of my novel. I knew the plot itself was much more complex, and the characters more realistic and interesting. In the meantime, I also joined a local writing group and received some helpful criticism. Again, after having set aside my newest draft for 2 months or so, I realized I still had more work to do. As had become the tradition, I dumped the third draft in the trash and decided to start anew. By this time, I was struggling with the notion of simply abandoning my novel, or conceiving a whole new plot. I knew the third draft had taken great strides from the first two, but I was unsure how to make it really blossom. One day, during the doldrums of my 9-5 desk job, the idea struck to integrate the superhero element into the plot I had at the ready. Again, I took ample time to cobble together a new outline of the latest version of the novel. I also wrote the details of each scene on a separate notecard and then translated the notecards into a journal. Things seemed to be clicking this time; the superhero angle mended the storylines together extremely well, and added a level of depth to the story that was previously lacking. I went to work and hammered-out the fourth draft in less than three months. I should mention that my wife was pregnant at the time and I had little choice but to complete the manuscript ASAP. Even after finishing the latest draft and allowing a couple of months of reflection, I still felt I had managed to write a very competent novel. I hired an editor and tied some loose ends and set off to independently publish. I once read that a novel is never really finished; it is merely abandoned by the author at some point. My novel, now entitled Save Me, Rip Orion, was abandoned after three years of commitment. If readers are interested in a much more in-depth reflection of the writing process for SMRO, I have posted a 4-part essay entitled “From Negative Zero To Rip Orion” on my blog Crooked Lullabies.

The Digital Ink Spot: How have you conquered editing?
Matt Bower: While writing each of the four drafts, I maintained the same habit: I would write for a bit over two hours, and then go back and re-read what I had just written. After each draft was completed, I would re-read the entire manuscript and tighten up the dialogue and cut out the fat. Of course, writing four drafts, front to back, was all a part of the editing process, too. I also had a few friends read the drafts and provide a few suggestions along the way. I mentioned earlier that I joined a writing group. I admit that I’m not sure this option is for all authors. While I participated in about 8 meetings, only one of those meetings was spend discussing my work. Yes, I did get some helpful comments but I also spent several hours dissecting others’ manuscripts and focusing on works beside than my own. A participant in a writing group also must be able to decide which criticism to consider and which to leave. Finally, after I re-read the fourth and final version of my novel, I hired an editor to proofread and provide both small and big picture suggestions.

The Digital Ink Spot: What was the book that most influenced your life — and why?
Matt Bower: I’m not sure any one book has really influenced my life or my desire to want write, at least not in any significant way. There are certainly a handful of books that I enjoyed very much: Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, Slaughterhouse-Five, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Johnny Got His Gun, and The Stranger to name a few. When I was in elementary school I was hooked on the Hardy Boys novel, and I fondly recall reading Where the Red Fern Grows. During high school English, what most astounded me was reading novels and understanding that what was significant wasn’t just the story itself, rather the universal or timeless subtext which allowed the novel in question to endure generation after generation. Although the authors of many of the novels were long dead, here we were, a bunch of eleventh graders still being quizzed on what the author really meant. I found that concept fascinating.

The Digital Ink Spot: What can readers except from you in the future?
Matt Bower: Good question. I look back at the last three years of my life and consider how many hours of work I committed to SMRO, be it brainstorming, outlining, or actually writing and editing the novel. I have a newborn now and I’m not sure if I can sacrifice the time necessary to complete another full-length novel. The most invaluable lesson I learned, albeit accidentally, is that writing a novel requires tons of work and patience. I was foolish to think I could simply sit at my computer and create a layered plot with multi-faceted characters as fast as I could type the words. On the other hand, I have been encouraged by the results since publishing SMRO, both in terms of critical reception and sales. Recently, I have formulated a few new ideas and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before I set off to write that dreaded second novel.

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

A Superhero Too Late

Superheroes don’t always show up on time. Remember when Superman responded to a house fire call only to touch down at a pile of ashes? Or the time Batman waited until the bulb in the Bat Signal had already burnt out, and the bank robbers had gotten away? Or the time Captain America let Hitler slip out the backdoor because he made a pit stop for a double cheese burger en route to the Eagle’s Nest?  You never hear about the times superheroes are late, but sometimes they are. A certain superhero appeared a bit too late to save me once.

About fifteen years ago during my stock-person days at Kmart I was hanging a
cardboard display signs from the ceiling; there was an Independence Day Blowout Sale. I was using my trusty 12’ pole to attach an over-sized sign to the metal ceiling braces when the plastic anchor dislodged from the end of the pole, causing the sign to plummet straight down toward my head. My short life of gathering carts from the parking lot flashed before my eyes as I dodged the sign milliseconds before it nearly cleaved my head like a guillotine blade into a tangerine.

As I staggered about, a figure emerged from behind a Pepsi floor display. He strode toward me the way a brazen cowboy enters a saloon; he wore a 10 gallon hat, snake skin boots, a tight leather vest worn over an impressive beer gut and an expression that said “I’ve been everywhere and done everything.” He halted inches short of where the near-beheading occurred and then glided his weathered fingers over his scruffy chin and punctuated the most petrifying moment of my life by stoically peering up at the rafters, then down at the sign resting by my feet, then back up at the rafters, then back down at the sign again and shaking his head while muttering, “Well…sonabitch.” Then he simply meandered behind a nearby rack of Martha Steward bed sheets, and out of my life.

"Sonabitch Guy" is a superhero, albeit one a bit too late.

I imagine that Sonabitch Guy’s modus operandi is a lack of punctuality. People should be able to set their watch by his appearance, even if it that means setting the big hand back 5 seconds. When a bumbling waiter drops a heaping bowl of piping hot soup all over his trousers, Sonabitch Guy strolls to the scene from behind the reception desk...“Well, sonabitch,” and out the front door he disappears. A hapless jogger snags her foot on an uneven slab of sidewalk then careens into a park bench...“Well, sonabitch,” before she begins to gather her wits.  Some poor electrician toiling to restore the cable lines slices into the wrong wire..“Well, sonabitch,” as the freshly limp body droops from the wires.
Sonabitch Guy is like Batman or Superman, but rather than showing up seconds before the calamity and saving the day, he shows up seconds too late and simply adds insult to injury.  But I think Sonabitch Guy teaches humanity an important lesson.

In reality, there is no Batman who is going to knock the gun out of the mugger’s hand in the nick of time, and there is no Superman who is going to swoop from the sky to rescue a baby from a house fire. However, I believe that there is a Sonabitch Guy, or at least the spirit of a Sonabitch Guy, who appears mere seconds after every moment of hardship anywhere in the world, muttering the only reaction that is truly appropriate.

In the years since I’ve gathered my last cart and hung my final sign, Sonabitch Guy has granted me a new perspective.  Whenever I’ve suffered a near-disastrous goof or found myself in a dysfunctional situation since, I haven’t expected a Superman or Batman to bail me out.  I haven’t expected anyone to bail me out, for that matter.  However, I have come to count on that unflappable inner voice to materialize from nowhere: “Well, sonabitch.”

And life goes on.