Mr. Constantine wrote this self-interview for Amazon.com, where his recent novels can be found:
Yo, K.C., why the pseudonym?
It’s not false. Constantine’s 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, it’s 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, I’m proud of the other books I’ve written, even the ones that I haven’t published.
K.C., why no pictures? What’s with you and cameras?
Nearly everybody I’ve 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 I’d 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 that’s 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. Can’t you make things happen?
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 something’s happening doesn’t mean it’s interesting. Great clouds of alien fart dust, man, why bother to write at all?
Because excepting sex, there’s nothing more exciting than taking all the marks of punctuation, the alphabet, and a blank screen, and creating somebody who wasn’t there before, somebody who if you cut them would bleed blood instead of ink.
Done well, that’s art. Done badly, when the characters talk like they’re chewing cardboard and move with all the grace of warped lumber falling off a flatbed trailer as it’s hauled squealing around the bend from Plot Street to Action Avenue, there’s 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, it’s okay if you buy my books; I encourage you to do that. Just promise you won’t read them. •
Crime Time Interview
This is Mr. Constantine’s response to questions about his most recent novel, Grievance, from the British magazine, Crime Time. It is long, but worthwhile:
I think the book’s self-explanatory, but I did write it out of the sense that while we’re 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 couldn’t or wouldn’t 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, that’s 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.)•
I’ve 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 O’Conner, who demonstrated the power of the vernacular. They’re the only two I still read for instruction. Of course, like many beginners I imitated a lot of writers; I think it’s not only unavoidable but necessary to the learning process. Music students aren’t 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.
It’s 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 they’ve copied–mercy mercy, that’s 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 they’re 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 they’re going to copy declarative sentences until their fingers go numb or until they grasp the concept that the pattern we’re after in English is noun, verb, object.
A smart-ass once told me the reason I’d been published and he hadn’t was that I’d been born with talent. This irritated me so much I immediately calculated for his benefit that I’d written more than a million and a half words before I’d sold the first one, thus demonstrating that whatever success I’d 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 I’m dead that it should be published. I’ve 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, isn’t 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, they’ve 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.
I’m 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 couldn’t tell one of his books from another.
I like Carl Hiaasen’s 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 haven’t 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 couldn’t swallow and couldn’t stop laughing. Not many writers can make me laugh out loud, but he’s one, and so is Hiaasen.
I also think Jerry Doolittle’s The Bombing Officer is a great novel.
Because I write novels about police officers and in which crimes happen and because I’m often chided about the profanity in my dialogue, I’m frequently cricitised that I’m 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 it’s got only two sides. You’re 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 you’re against censorship.
And the propagandists always wind things up with a shrug and a wry, knowing smile that this either/or conundrum is one of life’s insoluble problems that we’ll all have to live with–until another misunderstood, bullied loner in high school drags daddy’s 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 we’ll have to have–or at least know how to use–when we’re called upon to crush our enemies, especially those intent on rustling the oil we need to run our SUVs.
There’s 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 can’t 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 she’s accumulated a few dollars, her mother, who thinks this is a fine use of her daughter’s 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 she’s done. Then the teller asks,
“Well, are you going to continue to work for these fine gentlemen? And do you think they’ll 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 you’d 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 I’m 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 hadn’t seen a marine actually die in the supposedly real film of supposedly real combat on Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
The truly explicit violence didn’t 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 government’s 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?
I don’t have the answers. All I’m 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 won’t be blown to bits in the process because if you fail, most of them won’t do it.
So you have to keep at least three ideas in the air without dropping one of them:
1) the wrongness of the government 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; they’ve become masters of avoiding Congressional declarations of war)
3) the hocus-pocus of saying that killing your classmates or relatives or neighbours is forbidden by God’s law, which law is of course the first to be repealed whenever the executive orders you to kill somebody he doesn’t like.
There’s 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. That’s not to say there hasn’t 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 it’s just this crank from south-western Pennsylvania or if there’s a reason nobody takes film of how our wounded vets are treated?
Certain other questions also can’t 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 can’t think of the name of the book Timothy McVeigh read which, it’s alleged, incited him to blow up the federal building in Oklahoma City, so far he’s the only one of many thousands who read that book who’s 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 didn’t then what would be the point of reading good books in school?”
That’s actually not a bad paraphrase of what Richard Nixon said when a commission appointed by his predecessor found that they couldn’t really make any connection between reading porn and bad behaviour.
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 that’s dangerous to the established social order. And I’m 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 I’ve got all that wind out of my fingers, I suppose I should say something about how I work, though I’m always puzzled that anyone else is interested. Oh well, if they are, here’s what I do: I just type and revise it until it looks and sounds like it won’t make me embarrassed to have my pen name on it. Not that it won’t eventually be embarrassing, but at the time I’m working on it, I have to think I’m giving it the best I’ve got or what’s the point?
I 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.
Regarding music, someone once said that all art aspires to music. Walter Pater? Can’t remember. And who was it who said that without music life would be a mistake. Nietsche? Whoever it was, I couldn’t 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 couldn’t use music to tune up scenes. Here’s the pitch I’d like to make to them: you can make any kind of movie you want but it’s 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. I’d really like to see what they’d make.
Sometimes I think I’m trying to write books without plot because I’m 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 I’ll 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 we’re being sold some form of electronic communication, and we’re told it’s as important as the invention of moveable type.
I confess a computer makes my work immeasurably easier. How much easier? I honestly think I’d quit writing if I was told I had to go back to using a typewriter. But does that mean my writing’s gotten any better? I keep asking my computer-worshipping friends these questions: tell me something that’s 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, I’m very curious to see whether e-books fly. I’ve never even held one in my hand so I don’t know how I’d react to reading a book on the screen. Of course I read my own stuff on the screen, but that’s different. How? I can’t say, or don’t think I’ll be able to say until I try to read somebody else’s book on an e-book.
But the idea that the entire OED, for example, is on one CD, as expensive as it is–and it’s 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 I’m going to order one soon–I can, because of the computer’s 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 Gutenberg’s moveable type.
But whether we’re reading pages glued together along the spine of a book or on an e-book, we’re still reading words, still going in our culture left to right top to bottom. And we’re still having to try to find meaning in the arrangement of the words; that’s the nature of English, American or British. Despite McLuhan’s 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 Christ’s 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 I’ve never applied for a grant either, from anybody.)
What I’m trying to say is, what the fuck do you write about if you don’t 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 Buck’s drinking spoiled your family holidays? Or God help us all, how many stories can you write about the politics in the English Department?
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 O’Conner, from whom I learned the power of the vernacular. She had as strong a religious sense as anybody I’ve ever read. She thought that any writer who didn’t 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 can’t 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 where’d they get it? I state emphatically that I’m out of my element here, i.e. I’m not a historian of the Western legal evolution. I’m 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 didn’t like about writing or publishing. And there is. There’s the more or less constant effort by publishers to turn writers into commodities. I despise the effort. What’s happened is a result of people in the boardrooms of these international conglomerates thinking that books are no different from aluminium siding. And what’s 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 they’re 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 who’s kidnapped your daughter and wants all your tax-exempt bonds in exchange for her. I don’t know that this would change anything about publishing, but I’d 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 what’s next. Well, the book I’ve 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 editor’s 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. We’ll see.
Copyright © 2004 by Jerome Doolittle