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*The Contortionist's Handbook* by Craig Clevenger - author interviewAn Interview with
Craig Clevenger

Interviewer Luan Gaines: I would describe The Contortionistís Handbook as quirky and eccentric. Is that an accurate assessment?

Craig Clevenger: Iím not sure whether youíre referring to the style or the content. In the case of the style, Iíve developed my own voice over the years that, like any writer, is a mixture of my particular influences, greater and lesser degrees of emulating/imitating these influences during my early writing years, and my own natural voice. Of course, Iíve tried to tailor that voice to suit the needs of my narrator. The ďHandbookí was written in a deliberately clipped, staccato fashion so as to convey the rapid-fire thoughts of a coke addict (a very smart, fast-thinking coke-addict). The style was meant to sound like the amphetamine-fueled version of talking to oneís self.

As for the content, itís by no means the only oddball book of its kind on the shelves right now, but such books are indeed the minority in publishing. So, ďquirky and eccentric?Ē Yes, I suppose so.

The protagonist has isolated himself from the rest of the world. Why?

The axe I was grinding, the central idea that propelled the Handbook, is the annoying trait of pop culture self help lingo in common language. I donít know if itís people in general, or Americans or just Californians, but the laymanís understanding of psychology is so prevalent now that everyone thinks theyíre an expert. I hear it all the time in casual conversation: ďYouíre projecting,Ē ďthatís because youíre the middle child,Ē ďmaybe you really wanted to be late for your job interview,Ē etc. Itís absolutely maddening to hear people reduce the complexity of life into snippets gleaned from some mass-market ĎOuter-Body Feng Shui for Your Inner Childí paperback. Not to mention itís arrogant and cruel. Even those who have psychology degrees to back their opinions up donít have the years of experience to go with it.

So, I wanted to create a story where this social phenomenon was more than just annoying water-cooler talk, but a genuine threat. To be honest, if half of the world had the authority to back up their amateur opinions, the other half of the world would be in strait jackets. In John Vincentís world, that threat is real. He absolutely must isolate himself from the rest of the world for his own safety. His challenge is trying to blend in and be completely forgotten, in spite of how unique he is, which is a tough thing to do.

Is John Dolan Vincent your alter ego?

I suppose most any narrator is in some sense the writerís alter ego. Do I agree with every one of John Vincentís opinions and attitudes about people? No, I donít. In fact, I wanted to create a narrator that was very unlike me- methodical, heavily left-brained and non-intuitive (not to mention with a flawless memory and solid sense of direction, and I have neither). ButÖ letís face it, heís me. I wrote the novel at a very bad period in my life, and had a lot of things I needed to vent, and I created John Vincent to do the venting.

Could such an edgy character as John Vincent ever sustain a mundane existence?

Well, yes and no. Thatís part of the storyóhis drive to create a mundane existence and stay off the radar of the police and mental health authorities (or everyone, for that matter). But crippling headaches, a six-fingered left hand, drug problem, shady employers and a need for knock-down, drag-out brutal sex just to feel something makes ďmundaneĒ a very elusive goal.

Throughout the novel, John remains a likeable character. Given his history, how does he avoid becoming a cynic?

Itís interesting to hear you say that, because there have been several people who flat-out did not like him as a person, and I canít say I blame them. As far as his not becoming a cynic, Iíll once again address the Ďalter egoí question. Youíve probably heard some variant of the saying, ďA cynic is a burned-out idealist,Ē and I believe that. A cynical and bitter outlook on life only comes from being disappointed, which is only possible if oneís expectations were high to begin with.

In truth, Iím a romantic at heart. My cynicism is fueled by a perpetually positive approach to things (people, events, etc.) that is perpetually let down, yet never goes away. In that respect, John Vincent is my alter ego- an idealist and romantic at his core, but he needs to protect that because thereís too many people out to destroy it. He keeps up his Sisyphean regimen because deep down, against all reason, he believes something better is possible.

Is Johnís excessive use of alcohol and painkillers driven by substance addiction or fear of the oncoming pain? Is this the most critical issue he deals with on a daily basis?

Iím not sure if I can answer this one head on, but Iíll say this: One of the things I wanted to build into his character was the notion of ďself-medication.Ē Iíve got to tread carefully hereÖ thereís something that the general Ďwar on drugsí fails to understand, and this failure is part of the failure of that war, and thatís this: There are people who can take drugs but then canít stop. Some can or canít stop with different amounts of one drug, some can or canít stop with different drugs. But, there are in fact people who can stop, and I know plenty of them. For every person I know whoís struggled with addiction and is clean as a result of rehab and long-term support, I know just as many who simply hit a point in their lifeóa new child, the death of someone, an arrest, or just getting olderóand stopped. And I mean cold-turkey, on their own, and Iím talking about some heavy using, with the latter.

Everybodyís brain is wired differently, so everyoneís proclivity for addiction is different, and everyoneís neurochemical needs are not always balanced correctly. To reduce the issue of addiction to a black and white issue of morality is ludicrous, and Iím passionate about that. I wanted John Vincentís drug use to exist outside of the boundaries of any moral code. I donít portray him as an addict or a recreational user, but someone who self-medicates to survive and in his circumstances, thatís perfectly legit.

*The Contortionist's Handbook* author Craig ClevengerYour novel could be subtitled ďThe Migraine Suffererís HandbookĒ. You perfectly describe migraine pain. Is this from personal experience?

In truth, no, and I always feel strange saying that, given the amount of letters Iíve received from migraine sufferers. In all honesty, I donít trust personal experience very much (only a fraction of the Handbook is based on my own experience) for the simple reason that I consider myself a novelist- not a journalist. What I can do is take certain experiences and extrapolate them to an extreme degree in my imagination. And thatís the writing process for me, really. I want to convey something Iíve never experienced, so I find something that I have experienced on a similar, albeit quantum, level and then I stare at the ceiling or pace my apartment, walking through the situation in my mind over and over until Iíve got it right. And thatís the part of the writing process thatís hard to understandó that I can spend hours or even days on my couch, staring at the ceiling without putting anything on paper because I need to imagine something thoroughly.

As for Vincentís migraines, I spent a very long time in my head, reliving my worst hangovers and dental work to get them right.

You write knowledgably about the drug subculture and the world of petty crime. How did you do your research?

Similar to the above, though most of itís from reading. Itís amazing the Ďhow toí books you can find if you know where to look. As Iíve said before, between the Handbook and my novel in progress, Iíve got a reference library that could land me in jail. And Iím only partly joking- Iím probably going to get a safe deposit box for the stuff Iím not currently using, just so itís not in my house. All of this research hasnít really helped my sense of paranoia.

A great many of the details came from people Iíve met whoíve agreed to answer questions. They want to remain anonymous, of course but, to a one, theyíre willing to share their experience with addiction and the penal system because theyíre driven to help other people via sharing their experiences. Thereís a great many Ďinvisible namesí in my acknowledgments page, and Iíll have more in the next book.

Do Johnís mathematical talents ground him with some sense of normalcy?

Quite the opposite, really. Itís one of the first things that isolated him from the rest of the world. He didnít understand that he perceived things in an unusual way, and his not knowing this is what created othersí perception of him as stupid. It was the beginning of his alienation.

Johnís forgery is a built-in moneymaker. How would he finance his changing identities and drug use without these special skills?

It would be tough, and thatís part of the vicious circle in which he finds himselfóworking for the syndicate that pulls him in deeper and deeper, perpetually threatening him with a fate worse than the hospitals heís trying to avoid.

Would John ever really consider living a normal life?

Absolutely, and thatís really all heís ever wanted. A life without the migraines, with his syndicate ties severed, without ever having to look over his shoulder again. Part of his resolution not lie to Keara is built upon this.

What are the qualities you most admire in John Dolan Vincent?

I admire his complete absence of self-pity. Yes, he does get melancholy quite a bit, but heís never a victim. While he doesnít always own-up to his actions throughout the story, he doesnít blame others, either. He doesnít blame his father for the way he was raised and he doesnít point fingers at the authorities for his lot in life. He created the life he lives, and he knows that.

What are his flaws?

His biggest flaw is his unwillingness to put himself through the same degree of scrutiny that he gives others. If he werenít so wrapped up in his suspicion and paranoia of others- however well-founded it might be- he could probably have found help much sooner than he did.

Did you have any sense that this was an either/or book, that the reader would either love it or not?

Very much so, and in fact Iím surprised that I havenít angered more people. I made a choice early on between making John Vincent sympathetic and likeable versus being honest about where my head was at the time I wrote the book, and trying to make him realistic and believable. I chose the latter. One very critical point came early on when he wakes up in the trauma center. Heís looking at a woman in the ER whoís clearly been a victim of abuse and all he can think is, ďHer husband must be right-handed.Ē When I wrote that, I thought it was an incredibly callous thing to say, and it really cemented him as a sociopath, at least borderline. I almost took it out but as I said, I wanted to be honest. And that observation speaks volumes about this character. I left it in and braced myself for the hate mail that never came.

Did this story come easily to you, or did you struggle with it?

Itís hard to say. I always start with a premise and have to brainstorm for a while before I know exactly where to take it. I worked for about three months, writing about a hundred pages of the book before the whole idea fell into place. After that, I had my good and bad days but overall, it was much easier after that point. Incidentally, almost none of that original hundred pages survived the early stages of editing.

Now that youíve published successfully, is writing a second novel more daunting or less?

Some things are easier, certainly. Iíve established my working methods and I know how to execute, and of course I have an idea and an outline. Still, I have days where Iím plagued with the same doubts I had writing the Handbook, which are the same doubts and fears I had when I was in college or in my early 20ís, sending out short stories to magazines. Iíve come to accept that fear and uncertainty as part of the process. As long as I feel that way, it means Iím stretching myself and taking risks; nobody feels fear when theyíre playing it safe. If Iím ever writing with total certainty and confidence, with absolute assurance that what Iím doing is good, I might as well be writing ad copy.

Any special tips for aspiring writers?

Writing is the only profession that has the luxury of glorifying a bad day. If youíre going to claim ďwriterís block,Ē then you have to acknowledge the existence of ďaccountantís blockĒ and ďarchitectís block.Ē Understand that anything you choose as a vocation is going to have its good days and bad, and theyíre not always going to be within your control. Instead of treating writerís block as this massive, creative struggle, something thatís the exception to the rule, take it for what it is: nothing more than a bad day, and nothing less. Ride it out, maintain your discipline and the words will come.

[Editor's note: The Contortionist's Handbook has been optioned for film and is being developed by IEP and Appian Way.]

Contributing reviewer Luan Gaines conducted her interview with Craig Clevenger via email for Click here to read her review of The Contortionist's Handbook.


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