Reflections on the Writing of Madhouse Fog, Part 2.

To celebrate the release of my forthcoming novel, I’m posting a series of short pieces about writing the novel.  This series is meant to address the questions people tend to ask me about the writing process, the inspiration behind my novels, and the other writers who’ve influenced me.  Here’s the second one.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy workplace had a lot to do with the setting for Madhouse Fog.  It’s an old madhouse.  Sometimes, it would drive me a little mad.

I actually showed up late for my job interview.  I was on campus with plenty of time.  My interview was scheduled to be in a room in a building called Bell Tower West.  I went to the Bell Tower building and I could tell I was in the right place because I saw the actual bell tower.  I walked around that building for ten minutes trying to figure out why the numbers of the rooms weren’t exactly sequential and why the room number I had for my meeting wasn’t close to the room numbers I was seeing.  I was afraid I’d actually miss the interview.  Luckily, one of the interviewers was running late.  I didn’t know who he was, but I stopped him in the hall and asked for directions.  He introduced himself and walked me to the interview.  I was only a couple of minutes late, but I walked in with my alibi.

At the end of the interview, the woman in charge asked me if I had any questions.  I had the typical responses that I’d learned to ask at all job interviews.  They gave me the typical answers to those questions.  Then, I asked a genuine question.  I said, “If this is a brand new university,” which it was; it had only been in operation for about a year at the time, “why are the buildings so old?  What was this place before it was a university?”

The three-person panel looked at each other and smiled.  They all knew something good and seemed unsure whether or not to share it with me.  Finally, one of them said, “It was a nuthouse.”

I guess I looked too confused, so another interviewer clarified matters for me.  She said, “These are the old grounds for the Camarillo State Mental Hospital.”

I laughed.  It was literally a nuthouse.  I knew I should’ve stayed focused on the interview, but all I could think was, there’s a novel here.

The campus at Channel Islands doesn’t seem like a nuthouse anymore.  It’s largely renovated.  Most of the more bizarre artifacts of the hospital have been torn down and replaced with something else.  Either that, or they’re inaccessible.  During my first few years teaching there, though, the relics of the madhouse surrounded me.

An old bowling alley still sits on campus.  It’s tiny and dusty and only two lanes wide.  You can stand on a bench and squint through a dirty, barred window and barely see the old warped-wood lanes.  They’re gone now, but I seem to remember, years ago, you could still see a few balls hanging around, hard chairs and scoring tables.

Underneath the old administration building which is now the library was the former hospital morgue.  Some students claim that the morgue is still there.  It’s not.  I was on campus the day builders tore down the old administration building.  It was an incredible structure.  Wrecking balls pummeled the roof, and the roof barely gave way.  I had the sense that, untouched, the hospital administration building would have stood on those grounds for centuries.  Maybe the new library will.  It’s pretty well built, too.  Like the old admin building, the new library is a beautiful structure.  I don’t mind tearing one of them down to build the other.  I spend a lot of time over in that library now.  I spent almost no time in the old admin building, mostly because it was always locked and I had no business there.  Supposedly, there were all kinds of crazy rooms in the building.  When the hospital was around, they had their own courtroom where a judge sat to try crimes committed on the grounds.  Apparently, the courtroom went down with the morgue and the rest of the admin building.  The courtroom was in an early version of Madhouse Fog.  It didn’t withstand the wrecking ball of my revisions.

On the day the old administration building came down, I stood next to a woman from personnel.  She started crying.  She told me, “I can’t watch this.”  She kept watching for a few more whacks of the wrecking ball, then said, “I can’t watch this,” again and left.  Part of me empathized; part of me saw the other side of the story.  Sad to see the old admin building go, but this was a university, not a museum.  Life goes on.

There used to be an outdoor stage on campus, too.  A small concert shell.  It was in the north quad.  It stuck around until the summer of 2011, when progress took it down.  I didn’t see it come down.  I don’t know why it did.  I hope for structural reasons.  I hope it was just structurally unsound.  Otherwise, it would’ve been a great place for outdoor performances.  Back around the time when I was writing the first draft of the novel, the student government brought in some manufactured “indie” rock band to play the concert shell.  I don’t remember who they were.  I’m sure I could find out, if I cared enough.

There was also a hallway of murals on campus.  I think that came down with all the recent North Hall renovations.

The coolest artifacts were right around the corner from my office on campus.  When I wrote the first draft of Madhouse, my office was in a building called Malibu Hall.  In its previous life, Malibu Hall was the center of worship on hospital grounds.  To the west of my office was the Protestant chapel.  We still hold events in this room.  It still feels a bit like a church.  Behind my office was the Jewish temple.  That was turned into classrooms for the music department.  I think they still use it for that.  To the east of my office was the old Catholic church.  The Performing Arts program uses this room now for classes and plays.  I saw a play about the Donner Party in the old Catholic church a few semesters back.  Recently, Performing Arts put on a presentation of Cabaret in the old church.  I should’ve gone to savor the irony, but I’m just not a fan of musicals.  In the back of the church were the old confessionals.  They were empty when I started writing Madhouse.  A couple of times, I went over and checked them out, my Catholic childhood itching me like a phantom limb.  Now the confessionals are used as closets for Performing Arts junk.

The confessionals and the courthouse ended up on the chopping block of the novel.  The outdoor stage, the hall of murals, and the bowling alley survived, though I bastardized them.  The things from the old psych hospital days that survived the most in my novel were the stories I heard from old employees.  But that’s a whole other column.

Me and The Blue Hearts

Blue Hearts CoverI write a bi-monthly column for Razorcake magazine.  Despite the fact that it’s a music magazine, I almost never write about music.  This is one of the privileges of founding a magazine yourself, I guess.  Anyway, for my seventy-fourth Razorcake column, I decided to write about one of my favorite bands, The Blue Hearts.  They’re a Japanese punk band from the eighties and early nineties who, despite being seminal in Japan, are largely unknown in the US.

You have to actually buy the issue of Razorcake if you want to read the column.  (You can do that here, if you want.)

You can also listen to the column for free.  I recorded a podcast of me reading the column.  I mixed songs by The Blue Hearts throughout.

Listen to the podcast here.

Reflections on the Writing of Madhouse Fog, Part 1

To celebrate the release of my forthcoming novel, I’m posting a series of short pieces about writing the novel.  This series is meant to address the questions people tend to ask me about the writing process, the inspiration behind my novels, and the other writers who’ve influenced me.  Here’s the first one.Foggy Ventura 1

I never enjoyed writing like I enjoyed writing Madhouse Fog.  I set it up to be a liberating experience, a novel written mostly for fun, and that’s how that first draft felt.

I started writing it in January of 2007.  It was a time of limbo in my life.  In November of 2006, Manic D Press had agreed to publish Train Wreck Girl.  When I’d talked over publishing schedules with Jennifer at Manic D, we’d decided that the book would come out in the summer of 2008.  It was too late for the book to come out in the summer of 2007, and I could only tour during summers.  So that novel was written, sold, and sitting on ice for a year.  I’d also decided to go back to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D.  All of my applications were submitted.  There was nothing for me to do but wait on those.  My teaching schedule was hectic that semester, as it is every semester, but I didn’t have to be on campus on Mondays or Wednesdays.  Writing on novel on those days seemed like a good idea.

I wanted to do something different, too.  Before I had an idea of what I wanted to do, I had an idea of what I didn’t want to do.  Specifically, there were two things I wanted to avoid.  First, when I wrote Train Wreck Girl, I had an outline.  I had a few of them, actually.  I wrote the bulk of that novel in the summer of 2005 and I followed an outline pretty closely.  In the summer of 2006, I decided that the outline made the ending too predictable and serious changes had to be made.  I wrote a new outline and rewrote the second and third two-thirds of the novel.  When I got to the end this time, it occurred to me that, if I were the main character, I would act differently in that last chapter.  I broke from the outline and did what felt organic.  I thought it strengthened the novel.  I told myself, “That’s it.  No more outlines.”  With Madhouse Fog, I figured I’d take it all the way in that direction.  Not only would I write without an outline, but I’d write without a clear idea of what was supposed to happen.

The second thing I wanted to avoid was writing for an audience.  Any audience.  I’d been writing for Razorcake for six years by then, and for Flipside for five years prior to that.  I’d published hundreds of pieces in punk rock zines.  I felt I knew my audience and wrote in a way that was very much tailored to fit that audience.  There’s something comforting in that.  I didn’t necessarily want to give that up.  I’d keep writing in that style for Razorcake.  I just felt like, with this novel, I wanted to expand beyond that.

At the time, I couldn’t shake the nagging feeling that a gulf existed between the novels I wrote and the novels I loved to read the most.  Then (as now), if I were asked to name my favorite author, I couldn’t do it.  If I were asked to name my favorite two authors, I wouldn’t hesitate.  Haruki Murakami and Thomas Pynchon.  At the time, I’d read everything published by Thomas Pynchon and everything by Murakami that had been translated into English.

I asked myself, what if I could write my own Murakami novel?

Well, first I knew that I couldn’t.  My voice is my voice.  No matter what I think I’m doing when I write fiction, no matter how different I think the main characters are from me, they always talk just like I talk.  I think that’s a good thing.  I like the way I talk.  I’ve spent decades fostering this voice.  I don’t want to lose it.  And, luckily, I couldn’t lose it if I wanted to.  So if I tried to write my own Murakami novel, the first thing I knew was that it would really be a Sean Carswell novel.  Just as Drinks for the Little Guy was supposed to be my rendition of Tortilla Flat and no one picked up on that (except for Bob, the former drummer for the band Tiltwheel); just as Train Wreck Girl was my version of Chester Himes’ A Rage in Harlem and not even Bob picked up on that, this would be my version of Murakami knowing full well that it wasn’t going to be that much like Murakami.

But I also knew a lot about Murakami’s process.  I’d read about him writing his first couple of novels while standing at his kitchen counter after work.  He’d written his third novel, A Wild Sheep Chase, without any sense of where the novel was going.  Reading the first half of that book, it’s clear to me that he’s trying to find his plot and that his unnamed narrator is groping for a story to situate himself in.  I figured I could start there.

I started working on it the week before the semester began, somewhere mid-January, 2007.  I had a clear idea of where I wasn’t going to go with the book, but no clear idea of where I was going to go.  I also had no pressure.  The big events of my life were nestled in the past or waiting for me in the future.  I had this nice little pocket of time that was just for me.

I started typing and hoped it would turn into writing.

The First Madhouse Fog Reading

Jay_Carswell_ReadingMadhouse Fog won’t be released for another six weeks, but it is printed.  My author copies have come in the mail.  I’ll do my first reading from the novel this coming Thursday, April 25, at 7:30.

The reading is on the campus of Cal State Channel Islands.  I’m teaming up with one of my favorite writers, the poet James Jay, and with one of the most remarkable writers in the CI writing program, Justin Robinson.  The event is free.  It’s open to the public.  It costs six bucks to park on campus.  Once you’re on campus, find Aliso Hall, room 150.  It’s the big lecture hall directly to the left of the doors leading into Aliso.

It’ll be a fun night.  If you’re in the area, please come.

Also, because many of my students will be there and I don’t want to profit off them, I’ll be selling the book cheap.  Ten dollars a piece.  After this, I’ll sell the book at the regular cover price at readings.

Book Trailer

There’s a new trailer for my upcoming novel.  You can watch it, then learn how it came about.

The Making of a Trailer

Book trailers are strange beasts.  I’d never done one before.  And, to be honest, a couple of my books are older than the tradition of book trailers.  I wasn’t planning on doing one for Madhouse Fog, but a few things fell into place.

First, I was down at Razorcake HQ one day.  Most people go to the HQ to work.  I go to hang out and make sure no work is getting done.  While I was hanging out, I met a filmmaker named Jennifer Swann.  She was there to do some video editing for the Razorcake YouTube page.  She and I got to talking.  I asked if she’d ever done a book trailer.  She’d never heard of them.  I showed her a couple, then asked if she was interested in making one.  She said, “Sure.”

I wrote the narration and tried to narrate it myself.  It didn’t sound right.  My voice didn’t sound like the voice I’d imagined for the narrator of the novel.  When I wrote the book, I didn’t have anyone’s voice in mind.  I just knew that the narrator didn’t sound like me.  I talked it over with my wife.  She suggested that I rope a friend into doing it.  I did.  I fed my buddy John Guelcher three beers and made him read the same page into a microphone seven or eight times.  I took the best parts from each reading and mixed them into one file.

I’d also been playing music with some friends who live locally.  They were more expensive.  I had to give them both beer and whiskey.  We hung out one Saturday, during which I taught them the song that I wanted them to play, we practiced it, and we recorded it.   Like John’s recording, our recording went through seven or eight takes.  My buddy Doug mixed those eight takes into one solid one.  He added John’s narration on the top.

We gave this all to Jennifer, and she put together the footage.

And so I learned this: if you want to put together a DIY book trailer, you have to have a lot of talented friends who will tilt windmills with you.