- The history of a writer’s first draft.
- Pen and notebook geekery.
- Different mediums for writing (notebooks, computers and typewriters) and their effects on our writing.
Like many writers, a trail of failed novels came before this one, but they were only failures in the sense that they weren’t completed, not that I didn’t learn from them.
Welcome to the twentieth episode of Interviews from the Void, where I interview writers about their writing process, discussing the mechanics and physicality of the craft.
In this episode, I chat with writer Joseph Patrick Pascale about his blog and new book, HOW TO GET A PROMOTION WHEN YOUR BOSS IS TRYING TO KILL YOU, which comes out September 1, 2018.
Arthur: You have an awesome blog where you discuss many of the fascinating physical tools associated with writing: the notebook, in a series you titled THE PHYSICAL WRITING PROCESS. How much research did you have to do to write each article? What inspired you to start this project?
Joseph: It can take quite a bit of research to gather sufficient material to write one of these articles. The series explores how writers are approaching their first draft stage. What tools do they use? What form have they created before they type it up into a proper manuscript? That’s not something writers always talk about, so it often has to be pieced together. Reading through several interviews, I can sometimes find bits and pieces of their approach to build a picture of their drafting process. Finding libraries or institutions that house writers’ papers can be great too because I can actually see what their initial drafts look like. Some of the discoveries have amazed me, like Octavia E. Butler’s words of inspiration written to herself throughout her notebooks or Donna Tartt writing phases of revision in different colored pencils before moving onto typed drafts in different colors.
While I always had an interest in this phase of the writing process, it was Jack Kerouac’s legendary typewritten scrolls that inspired me to start researching and writing about this for my blog. Kerouac would tape rolls of paper together to feed through his typewriter so he could type fast and keep moving without having to stop and change each sheet of paper. Even though he had “secret scribbled notebooks” that he wrote while traveling, he used these, his memory, and his inspiration to type the first draft of ON THE ROAD on a 120-foot scroll in three weeks. I finally had a chance to see that scroll manuscript in person last summer when the American Writers Museum opened. I took a road trip out to Chicago where they had Kerouac’s scroll displayed as one of the first exhibits. It seems so fragile, having been typed on Japanese tracing paper so that it’s translucent to read backwards when you look at the other side of it. You can see the way his typewriter was broken and the lines slowly leaned to the side until they had to be corrected and it starts leaning again. You can see Kerouac’s cross-outs and handwritten changes in the margins, which ruins his myth of writing a first draft that was never to be changed. All these little imperfections make it more human and relatable. My wife pointed out that he made a typo in the first line—”I first met Neal not long after my father died.” He typed the word “met” twice. We both agreed there was something reassuring about the fact that he could have started with a mistake and gone on to write one of the classic American novels.
Arthur: In your article about the Lokta notebook from Nepal, you note the use of the “inky Bic pen” seemed to work best on the thick paper. I’m very much the notebook geek, having tested Moleskines and Rhodia among others with various pens to find a combination which works for me. What other pens and notebooks have you found to work best for you? Do you recommend any specific notebooks or pens?
Joseph: It’s great to meet a fellow notebook geek, Arthur! I very much would love to share with you what I consider to be the best pen in the world, although they are difficult to track down. The pen I use on a daily basis is called a “Pilot V Corn.” It’s a 0.5 mm water-based ballpoint pen. I have only ever found them in a tiny stationary store located within a Japanese bookstore in Edgewater, NJ for $1.50 each. Even when I went to the branch of that same Japanese bookstore in New York City a couple weeks ago, they didn’t have the same pens there. I need a pen where the ink flows smoothly without me applying much pressure at all. The problem is that most pens like this release too much ink.
The ink bleeds through even nice paper like a Moleskine, and it gets easily smudged and smeared. The inky Bic pen I mentioned (it was a Bic Z4+ Roller, 0.7 mm) worked well on that very thick paper that just drank up the ink, but even in nice notebooks with good paper, it would bleed through. The Pilot V Corn is the only pen I’ve used that has a perfect flow, but it doesn’t release too much ink, so no smudge or bleed. I once found a “Pilot V-Ball” that looked a lot like the Pilot V Corns, but it wasn’t the same and had too much bleed. I am surprised that I’m Googling it right now and finding results, since I couldn’t find anything about it when I tried years ago. This looks like the official website: http://www.pilot.co.jp/products/pen/ballpen/water_based/vcorn/. In terms of notebooks to write in, I’ve used Moleskines for years, although I’ve been pretty excited about Leuchtturm 1917 notebooks as well recently.
Arthur: You also discuss re-learning cursive to increase the speed of your writing. My handwriting is terrible and I do write by hand as well, but only when I’m outlining a story and developing the structure, not when I’m writing prose. Do you feel your writing is better when writing by hand, even though it’s slower?
Joseph: I wouldn’t say it’s better, but I’d definitely say it feels different and produces different results. Because of the way these differences can seep into the writing, I like to write in a variety of mediums. Even though I write my novels primarily on a computer, I always carry a notebook with me, and in addition to writing down ideas in it, I also write out full handwritten scenes. My perception is that reflective writing works best by hand, but intense, fast-paced scenes in a novel are better when typed quickly.
Recently, I’ve been doing some writing on an antique Underwood typewriter from 1936. My fast typing skills of hitting the keys ever-so-gently on a scissor-switch keyboard do not transfer well to this mechanical machine. I’ve gotten better at it after using it for a few months, but you really have to hit each key deliberately in order for the bars to punch each letter into the paper. I’m going to keep practicing at it with the goal of creating a Jack Kerouac-style scroll to feed through it this November for National Novel Writing Month. I’ll attempt to write the first draft of a novel on a physical scroll, which I’ve always wanted to do ever since I learned of Kerouac’s writing process. I will livestream the attempt on Twitch. I think the most difficult thing for me will be the fact that I won’t be able to jump around like I usually do on a computer. I’ll have to start at the beginning and keep pushing toward the end. That’s a perfect example of how the medium can have a huge impact on the writing process, which will surely affect the outcome.
It’s important for writers to experience diverse cultures and see how different people’s lives can be, while also connecting the similarities.
Arthur: Your blog has various articles about the notebooks and physical writing process of writers no longer with us. Christopher Ryan, in my interview with him, talks about our writing living forever. What do you hope people will find in your notebooks and writings in the future? What kind of legacy do you hope to leave behind in your writing?
Joseph: Oh wow! It’s tough for me to imagine anyone having an interest in looking through my notebooks after I’m gone. Although, considering the way things like digital humanities are progressing, I can imagine my notebooks becoming additional data points in a study on writing from this time period. I read about the Stanford Literary Lab, where they use the idea of “distant reading” to analyze literature via computer. The example given was that even if a scholar of literature managed to read the 200-odd novels considered part of the Victorian canon, they’d still only read a fraction of the 60,000 or so novels published during that time. They think computer analysis can do a better job uncovering the truths of literature than people because our sample sizes of books we can analyze are so small due to our mortal limitations. It’s crazy to contemplate because clearly these novels were written to be read by other humans.
In terms of leaving a legacy with my own writing, I hope that I manage to capture the unique feeling of living in this time of rapid technological and social change. I try to capture what is compelling and interesting about people’s mundane and everyday experiences, particularly in the workplace. I strive to put my characters in absurd situations that will make readers laugh while grasping the emotional truth to the scenarios.
Arthur: You and I are both fascinated by the physical writing process. In another article on your blog about Jonathan Franzen, you share that he rented an empty office and destroyed his internet connection to focus on his writing. These types of techniques are also described by Cal Newport in his book DEEP WORK, believing that creatives are able to produce their best work in a distraction-free state of mind. How do you free yourself from distraction to write?
Joseph: While a distraction-free state of mind sounds ideal, many years back I resigned myself to the fact that I’m inhabiting an unideal existence. I had to avoid the tendency to wait for an ideal quiet setting when I was in an ideal state-of-mind to work on writing. That just results in procrastination and never getting any writing done. I had to learn to embrace the distractions of our age and try to bake them into my writing in an attempt to create accurate explorations of this era. So I write where I can, when I can. Related to Newport, it’s concerning how many writers and other kinds of artists don’t have the opportunity to focus solely on producing their best work because only a small fraction of artists are able to make a living from their creative work. Like most Americans, I have to work a job with long hours to survive and support loved ones, so my writing has to fit in around that. I think we’re shortchanging ourselves as a society with this lack of support for the arts, as well as lack of time for people to appreciate the arts. However, I’m so used to writing under these conditions now that when I saw a post announcing writers could be chosen for a residency to write in a treehouse in Switzerland, I wondered how I would actually manage if I was suddenly expected to write in that kind of solitude. There were many times in Jack Kerouac’s life where he tried to get away from it all to focus on his writing, like the fire lookout job on the mountaintop he describes in the novel DESOLATION ANGELS or the cabin he stays at detailed in BIG SUR. When he found himself alone with his thoughts, he’d have a mental breakdown. His writing was so inspired by traveling and the crazy characters he met along the way that a certain chaos was a necessity for his writing. Everyone’s muse is different.
Arthur: Where did you come up with the idea for your book, HOW TO GET A PROMOTION WHEN YOUR BOSS IS TRYING TO KILL YOU? What was your writing process in bringing the idea to written form? What was the editing process like for your book, HOW TO GET A PROMOTION WHEN YOUR BOSS IS TRYING TO KILL YOU? Did you have an editor prior to it being accepted by a traditional publisher?
Joseph: This novel was the culmination of years of reading, writing, and thinking about the nature of literature as an exploration of existence (a concept from Milan Kundera). When I sat down to write, I didn’t so much have an idea for the novel as I had the correct soup of ideas in my brain, and the right amount of writing experience to create a novel. Like many writers, a trail of failed novels came before this one, but they were only failures in the sense that they weren’t completed, not that I didn’t learn from them. I started this novel with a scene of an office clerk, and I just kept pushing forward, adding in more trouble for the clerk to deal with. I completed the rough draft—only the skeleton of the novel—in about a year. I spent the next three years expanding and revising the manuscript. At times when I thought it was in pretty good shape, I would ask a friend or family member to read it and give me feedback. I wouldn’t ask for advice, but for their impressions and experience with the book to see how things were landing. Based on that, I’d revise further until I was finally ready to try to get it published.
When Waldorf Publishing picked up the novel, they assigned me an editor, Carol McCrow, and the book underwent further expansions and revisions. Carol was great to work with. She wanted to make sure she understood my vision and approach to writing. All of the feedback she gave me was presented as her suggestions. My contract with Waldorf makes it very clear that I have the final say on the text, so I maintained control of the manuscript, and it was up to me if I wanted to make any changes as we worked on it. However, Carol has a keen eye, and the majority of her suggestions were well taken. Because I had the opportunity to see how certain aspects of the novel were coming across, I think this afforded me the opportunity to make the novel the best it could be.
I strive to put my characters in absurd situations that will make readers laugh while grasping the emotional truth to the scenarios.
Arthur: How do you promote and publicize your work? Is there a strategy which yields a better return on the marketing investment?
Joseph: This is still a new arena for me. With my first novel being published in September, I’m trying to figure it out and promote the book as much as possible. One of the reasons I was excited to work with Waldorf Publishing is because they do provide authors support in this area. They send out tons of press releases, and they set up author appearances for me. I’m excited to see the book trailer that’s currently in production for my novel, which they’re creating as well. However, even with support, it’s important to market yourself as a writer. When I was at a recent conference in Florida, I attended a seminar by writer Pete Conrad and his editor Erika Tobiassen. Pete’s a colleague and friend of mine who has been successful as a self-published author. He had a lot of great advice that still applies to me when working with a publisher, such as participating in review exchange websites and planning new release promotions through websites like booksends.com and bookgorilla.com. Something Pete does that I’d never thought of is write screenplays of all his novels, which people can buy the rights to for turning into movies. His novel THE SUICIDE FLOWERS was turned into a film that was shown at film festivals.
Arthur: Your short story, PAGETURNER is amazing. Such a cool way to think about one particular version of our future. What was your inspiration behind this story?
Joseph: My inspiration for this story was to provide hope for myself and other writers struggling with doubt as they attempt to write in a world that’s constantly inundated with ever more text. If people in the not-too-distant future could read thousands and thousands of pages over a cup of coffee, literature might be in high demand. Even though I know from experience that it’s worthwhile to engage in the writing process in its own right, after you spend years writing a novel, who wouldn’t want other people to read it? This is a recurring theme in my work, from “Žižek’s Memory,” a short story presented with images and audio in the form of a Prezi where we see what happens to a person who instantly absorbs everything the philosopher Slavoj Žižek ever wrote, to my short story “Forbidden Welcome,” in which literature is continuously fed to a robot for it to keep functioning.
Arthur: CYBTECH DISCONNECT is also very well-written. How did you hone your writing craft to produce such “punch” in your short stories? Showing much with less?
Joseph: Reading is an integral part of honing my writing craft. Regarding short fiction, the Russian writer Daniil Kharms is my biggest influence in seeing how powerful a tiny piece of literature could be. Many of his stories don’t even take up an entire page, and his longest work is only about twenty pages long. Reading something absurd like “Blue Notebook #10” or “An Incident Involving Petrakov” and seeing such raw creativity that simultaneously documents honest truths about everyday life in Soviet Russia – all in only a half of a page – made me reconsider just what a writer could achieve in short fiction.
Reading is an integral part of honing my writing craft.
Arthur: You discuss “daily travels” on your blog. Do you travel a lot? Does travel and the experiences gained during your travels influence your writing? How?
Joseph: I travel as much as I can. I usually take at least a couple of big trips each year. The time and money can be tough to come by, but in recent years, I’ve been able to do some traveling for work and experience different locales along the way. It’s important for writers to experience diverse cultures and see how different people’s lives can be, while also connecting the similarities. It’s also interesting how being someplace else can give you a whole new take on your own everyday existence. I always take a lot of notes when I travel. I’ve been surprised when a scene or a setting I’ve jotted down on a trip turned up fitting into a project I was working on years later. My second novel, THE PROBLEM DEPARTMENT, called for scenes of traversing the wilderness, and I was fortunate to have taken a self-driving tour of Iceland with my wife. We hiked the largest glacier in Europe and traveled the sparsely inhabited Eastern Fjords, which provided the perfect inspiration to draw on for the novel.
Arthur: Tell me about your journey to becoming a writer. When did you start writing and how did you get to where you are today? Are there successes and failures you learned from?
Joseph: I’ve been writing my entire life, and when I was 17, I decided that a writer was what I wanted to “be.” At the time I was wholly absorbed in Robert Jordan’s WHEEL OF TIME series of novels, and I undertook writing my first novel. Everything about that initial, incomplete novel has long been abandoned, but I was surprised to discover—very recently—that a little bit of that novel made it into HOW TO GET A PROMOTION WHEN YOUR BOSS IS TRYING TO KILL YOU without me realizing it. In that first attempt, I thought it would be original to write a novel where none of the characters were named. All these years later, in HOW TO GET A PROMOTION, I referred to the characters only by job title—none of them have a given name. This makes me think of cryptomnesia and other connections I’ve realized that formed in my writing without me being conscious of it.
I also get stuck on the thought that I’ve only reached this point as a writer because I’ve remained dedicated to a decision I made when I was 17—a volatile age for me, in which most decisions were stupid, yet this one I’ve stuck with throughout my life.
Regarding successes and failures, I think that all writers have to learn that failure isn’t a bad thing, but a part of the process. If you read Franz Kafka’s diaries, he reflects on his failure as a writer, having no idea that his three unfinished novels would come to be regarded among the greatest literature of the twentieth century. Every writer carries their failures with them, even after becoming highly successful. The key is to turn the failures into strengths. Each time a story doesn’t come together the way you expected, you can learn from that. Each rejection email you receive is the next stair you’re climbing up the path to ultimately being published. If you give up, you’ll never make it, but anyone can do it if they try their best and keep pushing ahead.
What a cool interview! We’ve covered a lot of ground. Thanks, Joseph, for telling us about your well-referenced and unique approach to writing. Be sure to check out Joseph’s website for his book and other works.