This is a guest post by Caleb J Ross as part of his Stranger Will Tour for Strange blog tour. He will be guest-posting beginning with the release of his novel Stranger Will in March 2011 to the release of his second novel, I Didn’t Mean to Be Kevin, in November 2011. If you have connections to a lit blog of any type, professional journal or personal site, please contact him. To be a groupie and follow this tour, subscribe to the Caleb J Ross blog RSS feed. Follow him on Twitter: @calebjross.com. Friend him on Facebook: Facebook.com/rosscaleb
Book clubs seem to have gone the way of most communal niche gatherings: they’ve gone online. Of course, we don’t use the term “book club” in the same way. Instead we say “forum” or “Facebook group,” just as book reviews are now called “blog posts” and “Good reads reviews.” Book clubs, I would argue, have actually become more prevalent even as horror stories of dropping book sales (which I don’t agree with, but that’s for another post) appear all the time.
One of the main ways that onlineification has enlivened the book club is by more easily allowing authors into the fold. Now, any author with some time can log onto a forum, join a group, or post a comment. The super sneaky ones can even create fake personas to defend or praise their work. Some authors give away free copies in exchange for feedback. Some even travel to any ol’ fashioned book club willing to have him. The point is book discussion is thriving, and as an author I love that so much potential exists for my book to meet your eyes.
I love that authors are not only able to receive real-time feedback on their work, but can also participate in the dialogue. Which brings me to the current discussion around my novel, Stranger Will, happening at The Cult, the official Chuck Palahniuk site. Though I’ve stated to the members that I wouldn’t post responses in the forums until toward the end of the discussion (I want people to be as honest as possible, without having to worry about my lurking), I wanted to explore a few of the responses so far here. I promise not to go Anne Rice on anyone.
Quick overview of Stranger Will: think a noir story of apathy and abortion. So, yes, a bit dark. Sad at times. But ultimately redemptive. William is a man with a first child on the way, but is very unsure about his role as father. Mrs. Rose is an elementary school principal who takes a eugenics approach to realize her version of a perfect world.
“Interesting to see how Caleb is quite intimate with Will’s feelings despite the perspective, more so than most 3rd person stuff would be. I was impressed at how quickly he got me under Will’s skin. Seems to me like this character is a bit of a prick, and is rather bleak, yet I am finding myself getting behind him.”
The trick here—and this is less a trick than a horrible problem patched over—is that the original few drafts of the novel were written entirely in first-person perspective. At the time, I was heavily influenced by writers like Chuck Palahniuk, who really created a new level of detached intimacy with first-person narration. What I discovered after those first drafts was that first-person perspective tuned my intended bleakness into nihilism. The magic of first-person is the ability to relay sensory details through the character. This means that the character can (and often does) have an opinion on everything; otherwise, why would the narrative point it out. This gives off a very intimate feel that, considering Stranger Will’s abortion and apathy theme, came across heavy-handed. Third-person allowed just the right amount of distance for sympathy to swell into empathy.
“I like the concepts but the fact that I have a very young daughter and very new baby boy makes a little bit of a rickety bridge between me and the character, where I also deal with the deceased quite often as an EMT and know first-hand what it feels, smells and looks like when you have to help clean up the mess.”
The bridge was rickety for me as well. When I wrote the first drafts of the book, I didn’t have a kid and honestly didn’t have much of a desire for one. Using children as the basis of the central metaphor for the book came about not because I held any specific animosity toward children but because children were so far from my life at the time.
My boy, now two years old, was born during that strange time from final draft to published book. That window of time, where I could have pulled the plug on publication if I felt it absolutely necessary was trying for me. Should I stop publication and avert any associating my philosophies with those of the protagonist and antagonist? Or should I allow the book to be published and potentially spend the rest of my life navigating accusations? Lucky for me, I may have underestimated my audience as I haven’t received hate mail yet.
That being said, I am happy that I wrote this book when I did. Stranger Will would have been impossible to write as a new parent.
“but they are going to have to admit that much about Mrs. Rose makes more sense in this world than it ever should.”
This comment reads a bit strange out of context. Basically, the reader is saying that despite the horrible things that Mrs. Rose believes, there are aspects of her philosophies that make logical sense. This is true. Her thoughts regarding the futile nature of idealism makes a lot of sense to me. I can see the logic in her idea that a child’s role—as far as the human species is concerned—is to get one step closer to an ideal (yes, this belief and her previous contradict; thus much of the conflict of the novel).
Deciding exactly how much emphasis to put on the belief systems was a difficult determination to make. Some readers feel the philosophizing came off heavy-handed. Some wanted more. In the end, I had to do right by the characters. Mrs. Rose, the antagonist, is a teacher by trade and, let’s say, an entrepreneur of the human spirit, by passion so I felt comfortable letting her proselytize.
“Sheila’s character in general, seemed to meander a fair bit.”
Shelia was a difficult character to integrate properly into the novel. She is important as a fulcrum to support and extend the conflict between William and Mrs. Rose, but at the same time isn’t so integral as to support any more page space than I gave her. There is a definite transition with her character, from the quiet body found almost dead in an abandoned basement to the talkative follower of Mrs. Rose.