Lavinia Ludlow is the author of two novels, alt.punk (2011) and Single Stroke Seven (2016). Both titles explore the successes, failures, and eccentric lives of independent writers and musicians in Northern California. She currently divides time between San Francisco and London. Her portfolio and small press reviews can be found here.
Curtis Smith is the author of three novels, five story collections, and two essay collections. His most recent book is Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five: Bookmarked, part of Ig Publishing’s new series where authors are invited to write about a book that influenced their lives and careers. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife and son.
CURT SMITH: Hi Lavinia. Here’s a fact—we share a birthday—July 23rd. I once read July 23rd, in astrological terms, was one of the weirdest days of the year, with its mid-year cusp between Leo and Cancer. I never thought much of the whole astrology thing, but as a kid, I felt lucky because when I read my horoscope in the newspaper, I could pick between the two. Then someone did a more accurate chart on me and said I was definitely more a Cancer (which I kind of sensed all along). What side do you think you fall on?
LAVINIA LUDLOW: Hi Curt! Although I don’t follow astrology, I identify with being a Leo since its main elemental association is fire. I’ve always had this searing ambition to pursue my interests and speak my mind, and like fire, my expression often runs rampant and uncontrollable, and can be incredibly destructive when left unmanaged. As I’ve matured, I’ve learned to tame the intensity by directing it into positive pursuits, such as writing. And here we are.
When did you first start writing, and was there a moment where you absolutely knew writing would always be a part of your life?
CS: I started writing in my late twenties. In other interviews, I’ve said the main reason I write is rooted in my inability to draw or play an instrument–and I’m still sticking by that story. When I started writing, I was also dabbling in other mediums—woodwork and 8mm film—but then I wrote a story, and to be honest, I was hooked. Since then, I’ve written almost every day, often twice a day. I think what I had was a desire not to write per se, but to create—or be creative. Now I understand what I wanted was some activity that would allow me to lose myself in time, that would draw me in and absorb me at a deep level. Some writers need quiet—and while quiet is nice, it’s not always easy to find. I can often make my own quiet, which is cool. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve looked up from my work and been shocked an hour has passed. Allowing one’s self to become lost in voices is one of the greatest things about the process.
Outside of the actual work of writing—the pen to paper, eyes on the screen—what about the process appeals most to you?
L^2: I can definitely relate to getting lost in a narrative. For me, writing has never been just an outlet. I write because I have to, otherwise the words, dialogue, and content end up sequestered in my head, and drive me mad. The Beatles’ Across the Universe sums it up well: “Thoughts meander like a restless wind inside a letter box…”
What appeals to me most about writing is the potential each new project has to grow larger than the mere sum of its parts, and to communicate a global message larger than I could have ever imagined. I’m sure you’ve had many instances when your writing surprises you, whether it’s two characters reacting to each other, the plotline takes a twist you didn’t anticipate, or epiphanies emerge from the text that you never worked out.
Talk to me about your current project and its association with Kurt Vonnegut, the conception of the manuscript, and finally getting it to print with Ig Publishing.
CS: I love that song. I did a playlist for LargeHearted Boy for the new book, and I had to add Across the Universe. Truth be known, I grew up more a Stones person than Beatles, but it was a close call.
I’m one of those who need to have their work planned out before trying to pin down a first draft. I like to have a vision of where things might go—that said, I know what you mean about being surprised by one’s work. Despite my outlines and plans, I’m always surprised by where my characters demand to be taken—it’s a new kind of vision, one seen from the ground and up close rather than from afar. It has its own type of wisdom.
The Slaughterhouse book was an anomaly in many ways. Kirby Gann, the Bookmarked editor who also wrote one of the series’ first books on A Separate Peace, and the folks at Ig asked if I’d be interested in participating in the project. It sounded interesting, but I had some reservations. I didn’t feel qualified to write a piece of literary criticism, and I felt nervous about accepting an advance about a book I had yet to write (or even really think about). They assured me what they wanted was more a personal take on a book that had an influence on me and my writing—and I figured if I failed, I could always give the money back, so I said yes. I’d just finished an essay collection (Communion, from Dock Street), and I was kind of in that nonfiction state of mind, so I was in a good place when I started work on the Slaughterhouse book.
So I returned to Slaughterhouse—and I was happy to say it really held up for me—in fact, I think I admire it now more than ever. I’d first read it (along with all the other Vonnegut books I could get my hands on) as a teen. I started to take notes, and I identified a number of themes/issues that I used to structure my take. I examined the history of PTSD and military massacres, theories of time, ideas about death and space. I then tried to weave these running strands with other bits—tangents about religion, permanence, examinations of scenes and characters from the book, quotes from Vonnegut and others. My book adopts Slaughterhouse’s fragmented structure—a bunch of mini-scenes that all kind of blur together (and hopefully coalesce into a whole). As I wrote, the project picked up its own momentum—and things really fell in place. At the end, I was pretty happy with it—I couldn’t ask for much more than that.
Let me ask the same about Single Stroke Seven’s origins. What came to you first—character? A situation? A concept? You write about modern millennial life—in what ways do you think the life of young people today differs from my generation, one before email and social media and all the rest? In what ways is it the same?
L^2: I seeded Single Stroke Seven from a flash fiction piece about a band called the Coming Cunts. At their first concert, the frontman announces their name and a girl in the audience hurls a steel-toed boot at his face. He spends the night in the ER and the band never plays a single song.
This concept of failing at one’s art because of external forces (or one’s own idiot behavior) inspired me to draft up a full-fledged novel. In Single Stroke Seven, a group of best friends and aspiring musicians struggle to survive against their dead-end jobs, the Bay Area’s cost of living, and the lack of accessible health care. After all’s said and done, they never make it to the stage to even play a single live concert.
As for how modern millennial life may differ from a generation ago, in my experience, our world has become much more attention-deficit. We are bombarded with technology promising to help us communicate quicker but not necessarily better, to save us time that we inevitably fill with more social media activity, and to bring information to our fingertips–but is it really the information we need and seek out, or just is it all just an overabundance of white noise? I feel the intimacy in our personal interactions has waned the more we glued ourselves to Netflix, Facebook, and digital print.
You mention that you examined intense content such as death, PTSD, and military massacres for Slaughterhouse. What sort of research went into this, for example, did you interview people or delve into texts and memoirs? Were there any instances when the content affected you on such a deep level that you had to step back, distance yourself, or approach the heavy matters from another angle?
CS: I know what you mean about “unplugging” though—sometimes I feel a real sense of peace when I do so. Then sometimes I’ll also feel an itch—to check my inbox, to see a new picture on Facebook. I know in my last few years of teaching high school, I constantly had my laptop out—such was the demand for communication with teachers and parents. Just being away from it for a few hours feels like a vacation. But it often left me feeling like I was missing out. And health care in this country—don’t get me started.
I did do a good amount of research for the Slaughterhouse book—all online stuff—and it wasn’t traditional research that allowed me to go deeper into subjects—rather, I often used the information as a springboard for questions I asked of myself. One of the book’s running investigations was the history of massacres. That was pretty dark—but it was also so common and easy to find, that I grew (sadly) immune to it. There’s a quote that’s attributed to Stalin—something along the lines of the murder of one man is a tragedy, the murder of a million is a statistic. And unfortunately, the same saying, in varying forms, has been attributed to others throughout history.
But that kind of harkens back to both the horror and beauty of Slaughterhouse. Dresden was so horrible that it plucked Billy Pilgrim out of his own sense of time. It was his way of coping. Yet one of Vonnegut’s real masterstrokes is that he gives us this horrible tale in such a humane tone—it’s full of humor and wonder and—in its own way—a kind of positivity, despite the subject matter.
When I was first approached about the project, Slaughterhouse was my first pick. I briefly considered 1984 or Lord of the Flies. If you were to pick a seminal book in your life, what would it be? Why?
L^2: I hate to sound cliche, but Catcher in the Rye had an immense impact on me as a kid, especially during my teenage angst years. In retrospect, I identified with Holden’s bitterness and unraveling because I was just as naive, immature, and impressionable as he was, and I truly felt he was the only one in the world who knew exactly how I felt.
I’m curious, what projects, short stories, or novels do you have in the works? With half the year gone, what does the rest of 2016 look like in terms of release schedule and other projects?
CS: Catcher was important to me as well. Would it sound depressing if I admitted that I reread it every Christmas for many years?
I’m currently finishing a solid first draft of a new novel. I should be done with that before the end of the summer. I’ll put it away and return to it in a few months. I’m also working on a cycle of short stories—just first drafts—but it’s fun to have different projects at various stages. It allows me to pull out whatever I’m in the mood for. For my next nonfiction project, I’m considering writing about my career of teaching special learning at a public high school. I retired last year—and while I think it could be interesting, I’m also not sure if I want to write about it. We shall see where the process takes me.
How about you? Do you ever feel the pull of writing nonfiction?”
L^2: I look forward to seeing your future releases, and I agree having multiple projects in the wings is optimal. Doing so allows one to prevent and/or reduce burnout with a single venture. That’s precisely how Single Stroke Seven was conceived. I had been absolutely burned out editing alt.punk and needed reprieve from the painstaking task of staring at the same manuscript, same content, and same narrative voice for weeks on end. I needed a refreshing and upbeat change.
Right now, I’m working on a third manuscript that combines my experiences of living abroad in London with a few Ludlow-esque issues and dark humor peppered throughout the text. Although this is another work of fiction, recently I’ve taken an interest in non-fiction articles such as culture blogs and editorials, and carve out a place for my voice outside the restrictive and often isolating walls of fiction.
It has been amazing exchanging words with you. I look forward to reading the upcoming title, and your future releases.
CS: Best of luck with the project–and congratulations again on Single Stroke Seven. I hope it gets all the love it deserves.