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Interview With Kurt Davidson Author Of What The Shadow Told Me

Author: Kurtis Davidson

ISBN: 1597660027

Publisher: Eastern Washington University Press


The following interview was conducted by: NORM GOLDMAN:  Editor of Bookpleasures &CLICK TO VIEW  Norm Goldman's Reviews:

To read Norm's Review Of What The Shadow Told Me CLICK HERE      

Today, Norm Goldman, Editor of  is pleased to have as our guest Kurt Ayau, one half of  Kurtis Davidson,  author of What the Shadow Told Me. (Kurtis Davidson is the pen name of Kurt Jose Ayau and David Rachels. Most of the replies are largely from Kurt with editing from David)


Kurt, when did your passion for writing begin? What kept you going?


I guess I was one of the nerdy kids in fourth and fifth grade who liked working on book reports.  I remember that I would work on reports with my best friend in the fifth grade, Gary Wilder, who liked to draw.  Our finest work was titled, “The History of the World,” and covered everything we could from the dinosaurs to the manned moon landing in July 1969. 

It was largely paraphrased from the World Book encyclopedia and ran about ten pages.  In the sixth grade I read The Lord of the Rings and was hooked, so I date my serious aspirations to be a writer from December 1970.

 I can’t logically explain what has kept me going.  Certainly being singled out for praise in school was intoxicating.  But after a certain point it was completely internal, divorced from outside input.  I had the bug and it was an incurable disease.  I have written for the past 30 years largely because I cannot NOT write.


I notice from reading the back cover of What The Shadow Told Me, that Kurtis Davidson is the pen name of Kurt Jose Ayau and David Rachels. Why are you using a pen name?


David and I have a full writing partnership—screenplays, short stories, creative nonfiction—that is not a matter of one person doing one part of a project, the other doing the second half, and then cobbling the pieces together.

Our collaboration extends down to the sentence level.  We negotiate sometimes over individual words.  As an example of what we DON’T do, look at Stephen King and Stewart O’Nan’s Faithful, a book about last year’s Boston Red Sox and their World Series victory. 

King and O’Nan alternate sections throughout the entire book, and it is explicitly clear who wrote what.  David and my collaboration is the antithesis of this process.  Every word, every piece of punctuation, has been a collaboration.  We knew, therefore, that we had to have a pen name that reflected this reality.


How did your book come about and how did you come up with ideas for What The Shadow Told Me?


Our first completed collaboration was a screenplay, Flagrant Fouls, a black comedy about basketball-obsessed professors at a small American college who compromise their honor, their dignity and their professions to rig a job search in order to hire a ringer for the English department’s intramural basketball team.

Our frustration in getting any traction in the film world became the genesis for What the Shadow Told Me, oddly enough.  After several frustrating experiences with Hollywood, chief among them the debacle known as Project Greenlight, the HBO-Matt Damon/Ben Affleck contest/show, I wrote an email to David’s father, complaining about our plight.

We had been told recently by a manager out in Hollywood that he liked our screenplay, but that since it was an ensemble piece, and so unlike anything else out there, he wouldn’t be able to represent us.  “Go to your local video store,” he said, “and pick out two different movies and put them together.   That’s what Hollywood understands.  Speed meets Tootsie.”

In despair, I wrote to David’s father:  “I’ve got it!  ‘They’re young, they’re black, and their father is a famous white guy.  Eddie Murphy, Christ Tucker, and Martin Lawrence are Santa’s Bastards!” We all thought it was a funny line, but then we started thinking about it some more and came up with a storyline that ran something like this:  Santa Claus, in addition to bringing joy to the children of the world on Christmas Eve, has also been bringing a certain kind of joy to lonely mothers as well.  As a result, he has thousands of bastard children all over the globe.

When evil dot-com etailers kidnap his elves to force him to be the distributor of toys produced for slave wages in South Asian sweatshops, Santa saves Christmas by recruiting his bastard children to come to the North Pole and take over toy production.  But we realized soon enough that this script would never fly in Hollywood, so we decided to incorporate it into the text of a novel.  One thing led to another and before we knew it, we had created the plot for the novel and the screenplay became marginalized and, finally, upon the advice of our agent, removed from the book altogether.

So now the story is about Rufus Eddison, who is a doppelganger of sorts for the American writer Ralph Ellison, and the search for Eddison’s second novel after his death by heart attack and the arson of his house in a Kwanzaa protest gone horribly wrong.

We wrote the book over the course of 18 months, exchanging email files, having long phone conversations, doodling notes at lunchtime on napkins.  The ideas percolated up from everywhere:  from our relationship, from popular culture, from jokes, from the history of American literature, from damned near anywhere.


What challenges or obstacles did you encounter while writing your book? How did you overcome these challenges?


Surprisingly, the least of our challenges was working in a collaborative relationship.  We’ve done three screenplays, ten short stories, a novella, and the novel, so somehow this thing we do works.

The main challenges have been external:  time constraints, the inability to land a contract with a large publisher, technical problems with transferring files from Word for Windows to Word for Apple.

Our agent, Jeff Kleinman of Graybill and English, has worked his heart out, bless him, but couldn’t place us with any of the “big boys,” so we had to enter the fray and look for a publisher, which we were happy to find with Eastern Washington University Press.

We feel that if we had the time we could produce two books, a dozen stories, and a screenplay a year.  And that’s not even counting our own, individual work, which we continue to publish independent of the Kurtis Davidson enterprise.


In the last year or so have you seen any changes in the way publishers publish and/or distribute books? Are there any emerging trends developing?


Well, from our own experiences with a small press with a limited budget, we are having to fully engage our imaginations and energies in guerrilla marketing.  For starters, we have two websites up,  KURTISDAVIDSON.COM  and  SPINEMONKEYPRESS.COM 

The latter is a whole other different story.  Basically, we have taken one of the characters from What the Shadow Told Me and given him life as an author in his own right, complete with his own web page, and are using Barnes & Noble and Borders to market our books, but in ways unknown to them.  Shhhhh!  It’s still a secret!


Who are your favorite authors, and why do they inspire you?


My favorites have been Hemingway (stylistically; I emulated his writing early on and his work has given me my base); Dreiser (An American Tragedy is a monumental, completely absorbing work); Flannery O’Connor (such an audacious, wicked talent, and a lady of great faith); Walker Percy (The Moviegoer, which is a guy book that many women I know just don’t like, got under my skin); Charles Baxter (a writer of elegant, humane, perceptive work); Richard Ford (his stories are perfectly balanced, ruthlessly honest, true to the quirkiness of modern American sensibilities); Tom McGuane (the rascal as damned funny writer); Lorrie Moore (sophistication, cleverness, daring); Toni Morrison (a skilled crafstwoman and great, generous storyteller); Kurt Vonnegut (I devoured everything I could get my hands on in high school; he’s a truth teller and a magician);  William Goldman (his books move);T.C. Boyle (my thesis advisor and friend, he is so smart, dexterous, multi-faceted and dedicated); Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man is one of the giants of the 20th century); Tim O’Brien (he’s Vonnegut with some Hemingway DNA spliced in there).  The list could go on and on and on. 


What is the biggest reward of life as a writer?


I would say that changes with time (and success).  For the longest time it was completely internal, just the satisfaction I had from doing the work (even though I was getting nowhere professionally).  Now, though, I have to sum it up with this story:  my eight-year-old daughter telling me, with tears in her eyes, that she was so proud of me for publishing my first novel.  That is hard to beat. 


Many writers want to be published, but not everyone is cut out for a writer's life. What are some signs that perhaps someone is not cut out to be a writer and should try to do something else for a living?


Well, we’re not doing this for a living yet, so I’m not quite sure I qualify to give advice in that sense.  You have to love what you do.  If I didn’t love writing, I would have given up long ago.  I’ve had some success so far, and won some prize money, but there’s no way I could have made a living at this.  I would say, though, that if you can’t take criticism and rejection, can’t stomach the sometime obvious idiocy of editors who reject your work for inane or insane reasons, then this is not the life for you.  If you don’t have passion, drive, a certain level of insanity (laboring in the barren fields for season after season wouldn’t work for a farmer, would it?), then this is not the life for you.


Have you ever considered turning What the Shadow Told Me into a play?


Nope.  We would love it, of course, if someone wanted to give us $500,000 for the film rights. 


Is there anything else you wish to add that we have not covered?


What the Shadow Told Me won the 2003 Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society of New Orleans award for best novel.  Julia Glass, who won the 2003 National Book Award for Three Junes, was the final judge.  Without that recognition, we never would have found a publisher in Eastern Washington University Press.  We are eternally grateful to Julia Glass, the folks at Pirate’s Alley, and our friends at EWUP and want to thank them for their faith in us.

I am the product of three different writing programs—the University of Virginia, Warren Wilson College and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro—and want to give a shout out to all my teachers and mentors over the years.


Thanks once again and good luck with your book.

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