Mr. Constantine wrote this self-interview for
Amazon.com, where his recent novels can be found:
Yo, K.C., why the pseudonym?
Its not false. Constantines my middle name, K is the
initial of my last name, and C is the initial of my first name. In any
bureaucratic organization where taking names is part of the drill of
subjugation, its the last name, first name, middle initial. Rearranging that
order is my protest against alphabetizers everywhere.
K.C., why have a pen name at all? You ashamed of what you do?
When I do it badly, yes. I hope nobody reads The Blank
Page because I screwed up large in that one. Otherwise, Im proud of the
other books Ive written, even the ones that I havent published.
K.C., why no pictures? What's with you and cameras?
Nearly everybody Ive met with a camera either takes my
picture without asking, which is rude, or else is a closet Nazi: Short
people in front; Stand still; Say cheese.
K.C., why sign books in the storerooms? Why not in public?
Strangers make me nervous, especially ones who say,
Inscribe it, To Marv, and sign it, Your pal, K.C...
K.C., everything you do is designed to keep you poor and anonymous.
You un-American or something?
If I ever went into a bar where everybody knew my
name Id know it was time to quit drinking. However, I would like to be rich,
just to find out whether the rich really have the same problems as the rest
of us. I suspect thats plutocratic propaganda to keep us lowlifes just
anxious enough to look for jobs but not ambitious enough to start a real
revolution. Where the corporate welfare bums are not executed exactly; just
deported to Paraguay.
K.C., your books are all talk, no action. Cant you make things
Rock concerts, sports crowds, the Fourth of July, the 1812
Overture, they all hurt my ears. Some mornings just hearing the water boil
for my rolled oats is more stimulation than I can stand. But just because
somethings happening doesn't mean its interesting. Great clouds of alien
fart dust, man, why bother to write at all?
Because excepting sex, theres nothing more exciting
than taking all the marks of punctuation, the alphabet, and a blank screen,
and creating somebody who wasnt there before, somebody who if you cut
them would bleed blood instead of ink.
Done well, thats art. Done badly,
when the characters talk like theyre chewing cardboard and move with all
the grace of warped lumber falling off a flatbed trailer as its hauled
squealing around the bend from Plot Street to Action Avenue, theres
nothing more contemptible. Except the half-time show at the Super
Bowl--unless you consider what precedes it and what succeeds it. If you like
that sort of stuff, its okay if you buy my books; I encourage you to do
that. Just promise you wont read them.
Crime Time Interview
This is Mr. Constantines response to questions about his most recent novel,
Grievance, from the British magazine, Crime
Time. It is long, but worthwhile:
I think the books self-explanatory,
but I did write it out of the sense that
while were entering this wonderful New World Order, it appears to be one where
the emphasis and empathies have shifted away from the worker bees toward the
investor bees, i.e. capital searches for cheaper and cheaper labour.
The fall of the Berlin Wall caught a lot of
people by surprise, especially
those in American government and media who made their careers by keeping alive
the fiction of the Cold War--that the Great Russian Bear was a nearly omnipotent
adversary, despite one fact the CIA and the news gatherers never seemed quite
able to grasp, that the Soviets had to buy wheat from capitalist farmers to feed
their own people. And if Westerners couldnt or wouldnt grasp that fact, what
were they to do with the other unassailable fact that the Soviets were getting
their collective ass kicked in Afghanistan? How to perpetuate the myth of the
Cold War with those two burrs under the Western saddle?
But perpetuate it our
leaders did--until the Wall came down. Then what? Our leaders scratched around
in the dirt like so many hens, found an oil rustler, and promptly turned him into
the new Hitler, thats what. And then they went to work finishing the job of
convincing the masses that capitalism is the best form of government, because it
was the opposite of communism, which was the worst form of government. (Some day,
some smart, courageous soul is going to examine in depth the propaganda
techniques Western governments and news media used to turn capitalism from a form
of economics into a form of government.)
Ive been asked many times (okay, five
times) who my influences were, who
inspired my early efforts. I was influenced primarily by Eric Hoffer, whose The
True Believer I copied in longhand to learn how to make a sentence, and by
Flannery OConner, who demonstrated the power of the vernacular. Theyre the only
two I still read for instruction. Of course, like many beginners I imitated a lot
of writers; I think its not only unavoidable but necessary to the learning
process. Music students arent asked to compose something different from Bach in
order to practice scales and basic fingering; nobody chides them for their lack
of compositional skills at that stage. And the same with art students who are
sent into the museums and told to copy the masters.
Its only with writing that
the old biddies who profess to teach it seem obsessed with the idea that students
must submit original work. To turn in something theyve copied--mercy mercy,
thats plagiarism--hold their hands over the gas ring until they vow never to do
it again. What horse shit. In America a football coach who tells his players
theyre either going to run a play until they drop or get it the way he drew it
on the chalkboard--whichever comes first--is viewed as a fine taskmaster and
disciplinarian. But God help the writing teacher who tells his students theyre
going to copy declarative sentences until their fingers go numb or until they
grasp the concept that the pattern were after in English is noun, verb,
A smart-ass once told me the reason Id
been published and he hadnt was that
Id been born with talent. This irritated me so much I immediately calculated for
his benefit that Id written more than a million and a half words before Id sold
the first one, thus demonstrating that whatever success Id had was a result far
less of talent than of bull-dogged determination. Most of my early writing was
such sorry crap I hope nobody ever gets the idea after Im dead that it should be
published. Ive pitched most of it already and will probably pitch the rest the
next time I move.
I raise this point because, with the exception
of those rare
geniuses who seem born to every art or craft or science, the rest of us have to
work our asses off to get anywhere. To mollify students by telling them that
writing, unlike football, isnt meant to stretch their boredom threshold does
them no service at all. They need to hear that English is a hard language and
that for all but a very few of us learning it has been anything but easy, and if
they want to do it, theyve got to do the drills--the boring, repetitive stuff
which is no less boring or repetitive than the scales the piano student must do
or the minute sketches in the live-model class the beginning painter must do.
Im often asked (okay, five times) who I read,
whose work I never miss. I used
to read Simenon a lot--in translation of course--until I reached the point
where I couldnt tell one of his books from another. I like Carl Hiaasens stuff,
for his outrage and for his wild sense of humour. Native Tongue and Sick Puppy
come to mind. Larry McMurtry is a great storyteller, maybe one of the greatest in
American English, though I havent read more than a half dozen of his books.
McMurtry almost killed me once. I took a sip of beer at the wrong time in a story
of his, started to laugh, and very nearly choked because I couldnt swallow and
couldnt stop laughing. Not many writers can make me laugh out loud, but hes
one, and so is Hiaasen. I also think Jerry Doolittles The Bombing Officer is a
Because I write novels about police officers and in
which crimes happen and
because Im often chided about the profanity in my dialogue, Im frequently
cricitised that Im adding to the so-called coarsening of America (as though no
one ever cursed before I started writing). I will readily admit this is a problem
for writers. But not for the reason most propaganda sellers on commercial TV want
us to believe; like every other emotional hobbyhorse they like to ride while
calling it news, they want us to believe its got only two sides. Youre either
against explicit violence or explicit sex in the arts because they provoke or
incite the same behaviour by the consumers of the art, or youre against
And the propagandists always wind things up
with a shrug and a wry,
knowing smile that this either/or conundrum is one of lifes insoluble problems
that well all have to live with--until another misunderstood, bullied loner in
high school drags daddys pistols into school in his gym bag and shoots a half
dozen of his classmates. Then the idiotic debate begins anew, followed by the
smug preaching of the political hacks trying to suck up to the religious nuts
decrying our lack of family values--at the same time of course keeping secure
our God-given right to bear arms which well have to have--or at least know how
to use--when were called upon to crush our enemies, especially those intent on
rustling the oil we need to run our SUVs.
Theres an old joke about a father,
mother and pre-school daughter moving into
a house next to a vacant lot. Very soon a construction crew arrives and begins to
build a new house on the vacant lot. The daughter is fascinated by all this
activity and cant stay away. The tradesmen come to look out for her and give her
jobs, like filling their water bottles, etc., for which they pay her. When shes
accumulated a few dollars, her mother, who thinks this is a fine use of her
daughters time, takes her to the bank and helps her open a savings account with
the newly earned wages.
The teller approvingly asks the little girl
how she came
to earn the money. The little girl tells proudly what shes done. Then the teller
asks, Well, are you going to continue to work for these fine gentlemen? And do
you think theyll continue to pay you?
Oh yes, the little girl replies with a
bright smile. If those stupid cocksuckers at the lumber yard ever get around to
sending us the fucking wood we ordered.
Let me tell another story, one that took more
than forty years to complete.
When I was a marine recruit at Parris Island in the early 1950s, I was, like all
the other members of my platoon, shown films of marines in combat during World
War Two battles in the Pacific: Tarawa, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, etc. Oddly enough,
when the combat photographers were hit by Japanese fire and the cameras tilted
crazily as the photographers fell, that footage was left in.
And while we saw
many images of Japanese soldiers, sailors, and marines being killed, wounded, or
set afire by flame throwers, or committing suicide by jumping off cliffs, I began
to notice that we never saw a marine being killed. We saw lots of bodies floating
in the water and saw the wounded bandaged and hobbling about and being helped by
the Navy corpsmen or being carried on litters by their truly brave comrades, but
it began to dawn on me that we never saw a marine being killed or wounded at the
moment his wound happened.
Now youd have to be an idiot to believe
that all the
marines wounds were flesh wounds, or that if they received a fatal wound--like
John Wayne in the movie The Sands of Iwo Jima--it was the kind that hardly ever
bled. Just last year however, and forty-six years after I survived boot camp,
Steven Spielberg, et al., put together a story for TV distribution on the history
and bravery of combat photographers, splicing their footage with the
photographers own commentary. Spielberg was universally commended for his
patriotic act of assembling the footage and the photographers (those still alive
anyway) who took it.
But as I watched one particularly grisly
scene of a German
tanker, his torso nearly torn in two by the shell which had destroyed his tank
and killed all the crew, the photographer who took the film said very quietly
(and Im paraphrasing here), We never took pictures of Americans like that. We
were told not to. The officers told us that if Americans saw what actually
happened to them in battle, they would refuse to serve. And then I knew for the
first time in forty-six years why I hadnt seen a marine actually die in the
supposedly real film of supposedly real combat on Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
The truly explicit violence didnt have to be edited out because it had never
been filmed in the first place. And we recruits were told--and doubtless
believed--that we were seeing the real war that ordinary citizens never saw.
So how does this pertain in the so-called
debate about whether explicit
violence or explicit sex in the arts leads to actual violence or actual sex,
especially in light of the US governments explicit orders that its combat
photographers were not to film the physical destruction and disintegration of
Americans dead as a result of combat in WWII? And where does it pertain in the
filming of all those body bags in Vietnam that were shown on the evening news
during that war? How often has it been said that TV in American living rooms did
as much as anything to bring about the end of US involvement in Vietnam? And how
often have right-wingers claimed that reporters in Vietnam who grew up to be
celebrity interviewers like Mike Wallace and celebrity news readers like Dan
Rather were living proof of the liberal bias of the Eastern news media?
have the answers. All Im saying is that violence in the arts and news is not
anywhere near as uncomplicated an issue as a lot of people want the rest of us to
believe. Certain contradictions are inescapable: if you want soldiers to obey
your order to kill your enemies, you have to convince them that they wont be
blown to bits in the process because if you fail, most of them wont do it.
you have to keep at least three ideas in the air without dropping one of them: 1)
the wrongness of the governments trying to take away US citizens right to own
firearms; 2) the greater glory of giving your life for your comrades in time of
martial law (which is whatever the sitting executive says it is; theyve become
masters of avoiding Congressional declarations of war); and 3) the hocus-pocus of
saying that killing your classmates or relatives or neighbours is forbidden by
Gods law, which law is of course the first to be repealed whenever the executive
orders you to kill somebody he doesnt like.
Theres one other troubling fact about
our governments and our propagandists in
regard to this question of violence: when was the last time anybody in the US or
Britain took cameras into the veterans hospitals to show up close and personal
the living victims of our wars, the ones who fought for our freedom and kept us
free? I honestly cannot remember ever seeing such a program in my lifetime.
Thats not to say there hasnt been one, but is it just me? Can anyone else
remember seeing one? It would be interesting for some brave journalist to ask the
network news directors if its just this crank from south-western Pennsylvania or
if theres a reason nobody takes film of how our wounded vets are treated?
Certain other questions also cant be
ignored: how many young men who saw Taxi
Driver and lusted after Jodie Foster shot Ronald Reagan? How many young men who
read A Catcher in the Rye shot John Lennon? And while I cant think of the name
of the book Timothy McVeigh read which, its alleged, incited him to blow up the
federal building in Oklahoma City, so far hes the only one of many thousands who
read that book whos actually done it.
Whenever a commission appointed to study
the effects of pornography declares that they can find no connection between
pornography and any other sexual behaviour besides masturbation, the people who
appointed the commissioners rise up and say something like this: Of course
reading bad books promotes bad behaviour, because if it didnt then what would be
the point of reading good books in school? Thats actually not a bad paraphrase
of what Richard Nixon said when a commission appointed by his predecessor found
that they couldnt really make any connection between reading porn and bad
Which brings me to this curiosity: until
slavery was repealed by
Constitutional amendment in the US, teaching a slave to read was a crime. So it
might be that the problem is not content at all. McLuhan might be right. It might
be the act of reading itself thats dangerous to the established social order.
And Im sorry, but I have to ask: can any one of us describe how we learned to
read? Or what goes on in our brains as we read? Damned if I can.
Now that Ive got all that wind out of
my fingers, I suppose I should say
something about how I work, though Im always puzzled that anyone else is
interested. Oh well, if they are, heres what I do: I just type and revise it
until it looks and sounds like it wont make me embarrassed to have my pen name
on it. Not that it wont eventually be embarrassing,
but at the time Im working
on it, I have to think Im giving it the best Ive got or whats the point?
used to ponder why so many writers continued to write as though cameras had not
been invented. I quit trying long ago to compete with them. My stories are more
and more becoming radio plays: I write the dialogue and let the audience fill in
whatever images they choose. Is that a copout? Probably. Do I care? No.
music, someone once said that all art aspires to music. Walter Pater? Cant
remember. And who was it who said that without music life would be a mistake.
Nietsche? Whoever it was, I couldnt agree more. At the same time I hate the
false emotion that music provides in films. I keep wondering what kind of films
Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino would make if they were told they couldnt
use music to tune up scenes. Heres the pitch Id like to make to them: you can
make any kind of movie you want but its got to be exclusively visual and verbal.
No music except where the characters have to dance. And the dance has to be
integral to the plot. Id really like to see what theyd make.
Sometimes I think Im trying to write books
without plot because Im thinking
characters first, last, always. I just finished a book of about 320 typed pages
where the only real action takes place in less than a couple of seconds. All the
rest is talk and more talk.
Someone asked me recently (really) if there
was a city that got my creative
juices flowing more than any other. The only one I could think of was the one I
was born and grew up in because I think you never truly escape from that one
psychologically, no matter where it is. I also happened to have been born at the
height of the Great Depression in an industrial town that nearly dried up and
blew away as a result of it, and Ill never shake that experience.
I heard a really interesting question recently:
Is reading important these
days? Or is it a pleasant throwback to a vanishing past, hanging on by the skin
of its metaphorical teeth? Well, what can I say? Every time we turn around these
days were being sold some form of electronic communication, and were told its
as important as the invention of moveable type.
I confess a computer makes my
work immeasurably easier. How much easier? I honestly think Id quit writing if I
was told I had to go back to using a typewriter. But does that mean my writings
gotten any better? I keep asking my computer-worshipping friends these questions:
tell me something thats come out of our national leadership in the time
computers have been extant that will stand with the stuff that was written with
quill pens, or tell me one speech written on a computer that can rival what
Lincoln wrote with a pencil on the back of an envelope.
That said, Im very
curious to see whether e-books fly. Ive never even held one in my hand so I
dont know how Id react to reading a book on the screen. Of course I read my own
stuff on the screen, but thats different. How? I cant say, or dont think Ill
be able to say until I try to read somebody elses book on an e-book.
idea that the entire OED, for example, is on one CD, as expensive as it is--and
its not nearly as expensive as the whole OED in twenty-six volumes--that idea
enthrals me. I mean, to imagine that I can insert one CD in this laptop and be
able to look up any word from that book in a matter of seconds is amazing. I have
the two-volume edition, but even with the magnifying glass I find it cumbersome
and awkward to use because my eyes, not good to begin with, are getting worse.
But with the OED on CD--and Im going to order one soon--I can, because of the
computers capabilities, display the definitions in whatever font and size I
choose. And when I see myself doing that, I think, yes, computers are as
important historically as Gutenbergs moveable type.
But whether were reading
pages glued together along the spine of a book or on an e-book, were still
reading words, still going in our culture left to right top to bottom. And were
still having to try to find meaning in the arrangement of the words; thats the
nature of English, American or British. Despite McLuhans notion that the medium
is the message, and despite the fact that computers have indeed changed the
medium, it remains for someone much more astute than I to explain whether the
message has been changed and how.
The same person who asked if reading was
important asked me if writers need to
be of this world or remote from it. I believe writers absolutely, definitely,
positively need to be of the world. If you doubt that, just try reading the stuff
that comes out of all those graduate writing programs. Yes yes, I too attended
one of those programs. But when I went there were only three.
Now, for Christs
sake, there are more than 250. Fortunately, I ran out of money and had to get a
job to take care of my wife and brand new son. But until 1993 when I was fired
from my last job, I always had a day job, and sometimes two. (And Ive never
applied for a grant either, from anybody.)
What Im trying to say is, what the
fuck do you write about if you dont move around in the commercial and political
world? How long can you keep writing about having your first sex or observing
your first death or how your Uncle Bucks drinking spoiled your family holidays?
Or God help us all, how many stories can you write about the politics in the
This same fellow, and a bright one he is too,
asked if the religious sense was
a help or a hindrance for a writer. I immediately thought of Flannery OConner,
from whom I learned the power of the vernacular. She had as strong a religious
sense as anybody Ive ever read. She thought that any writer who didnt have a
religious sense, and in her case, a Roman Catholic sense of the mystery of the
Christian Resurrection, was hopelessly devoid of vision.
I never shared her
religious sense, either generally or particularly, but having said that, I cant
explain where I get my sense of fairness about crime if not from the Jewish
Commandments. I mean, where does Western law come from? You can talk Greeks,
Romans and British Common Law all you want, but whered they get it? I state
emphatically that Im out of my element here, i.e. Im not a historian of the
Western legal evolution. Im just saying that anybody who writes about crime and
punishment or the lack thereof or the injustice thereof has to get some part of
his motive from a religious sense of right and wrong.
Same fellow asked if there was anything I
didnt like about writing or
publishing. And there is. Theres the more or less constant effort by publishers
to turn writers into commodities. I despise the effort. Whats happened is a
result of people in the boardrooms of these international conglomerates thinking
that books are no different from aluminium siding. And whats required to sell
siding to a housewife is a salesman with poise, charm, affability, congeniality
and boyish good looks.
So writers who fit that description, regardless of their
sensibilities and technical skills, are marketed aggressively because theyre
seen--and therefore used--as their own best salesmen. I have none of those
attributes, so my complaints can be called sour grapes.
But I have a fantasy
about writers and publishing: In my perfect world, every manuscript would be
submitted anonymously and every writer who appeared on TV would have to wear a
paper bag over his head and all the pictures of his lovely wife, delightful
children and cuddly canine companions would be burned before he was allowed to
speak from within the confines of his paper bag. And his voice would be distorted
to sound like a guy whos kidnapped your daughter and wants all your tax-exempt
bonds in exchange for her. I dont know that this would change anything about
publishing, but Id like to see it tried for a year or two.
And finally, I suppose the few hundred people
who read my books want to know
whats next. Well, the book Ive just finished is about three patrolmen on the
same 3-11 watch. All were characters in previous books in the Rocksburg series,
but I decided to use them to try to tell a story about the tedium and danger of
dealing with feuding neighbours, angry, bitter, and resentful over tree leaves,
dog droppings, parking spaces and furtive glances. I have yet to hear my editors
reaction, but I liked it and so did my wife. My agent read only the first 165
pages or so and he liked that much. Well see.