Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest today, writer & editor, Charles Degelman. Charles currently teaches narrative and dramatic writing at California State University, Los Angeles.
Previously, he served as staff writer and editor at a Los Angeles based educational organization while he produced original work for the stage and wrote fiction, screenplays, and political commentary.
In 2010, Charles edited A Voice From the Planet, an award-winning collection of international short fiction, published by Harvard Square Editions.
Recent work includes Gates of Eden, a '60s tale of resistance, rebellion, and love. Gates garnered a silver medal from the 2012 Independent Publishers Book Awards. A Bowl Full of Nails, set in the counterculture of the 1970s, was a finalist in the PEN/ Bellwether Competition and will be published by Harvard Square Editions in February, 2015.
Charles lives in Hollywood with his playwright companion and four cats.
Norm: Good day Charles and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started in writing? What keeps you going?
Charles: I started writing as a teenager. I was an avid reader from the age of five and matured into an odd cross-up between rambunctious youth and book-buried recluse. I was fortunate to have grown up in a literate family and was surrounded by books. I still remember my father reading every novel written by Mark Twain, and listening to his voice grow distant as I dozed off.
My reading lead me to a sense of purpose about the written word, fiction and non-fiction. As a teenager I became a romantic about America, its egalitarian and transcendentalist history, the struggles of the working class, its great, industrial energy, its wilderness.
At fifteen, I began playing folk music and surrounded myself with the musicology of every rag, blues, holler, Appalachian ballad I sang, anything by Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly, Dave Van Ronk and Big Bill Broonzy. And who was this guy named Howlin’ Wolf? Yes, it was music, but folk music is highly literate and informed my understanding of history and the power of the written word.
I keep writing for the same reason I kept reading — I have things I want to talk about. I think art is a powerful tool for social change and — although I assiduously avoid being didactic — I am motivated by the simple words of another writer, Bertolt Brecht who said “Change the world; it needs it.”
Norm: Your bio mentions that you currently teach narrative and dramatic writing at California State University, Los Angeles. Could you describe exactly what is narrative and dramatic writing?
Charles: I’m going to be brief and bandy about an overused writing homily: In narrative writing, authors have the opportunity to — yes — show and tell, to make intimate contact with their audience by telling them stuff. Narrative authors can evoke a wide range of voices to crawl inside and talk about their characters, places, events, even as they are telling a story or illuminating a topic.
Dramatic writers can only show. They have five elements to draw from: setting, character, dialog, action, and imagery. This creates a challenging and often helpful set of limitations for the author. Any transgression from the five elements I just mentioned leads directly to melodrama, in which characters utter the author’s ideas through their mouths, leading to the downfall of their authenticity.
In short, show and tell works nicely in narrative, but the five elements of ‘show’ in dramatic writing must go on alone.
Norm: How has your environment and upbringing colored your writing and do you have a specific writing style?
Charles: I’m a country boy who’s lived in the city since he was seventeen. But I grew up in rural New England around cows and apples and tractors, tools, and farmers and mechanics. Those early years are indelible and I treasure the experience, regardless of the city culture I might have missed. At the same time, I had the good fortune to grow up in a book-filled household where reading was considered a genuine means of communication and where books fueled actions and ideas for my parents, my siblings and myself.
My cultural and political environment has always been as significant to my writing as it is to my lifestyle. I was raised in a left-progressive family. Both parents had been members of the communist party during the 1930s, and my father was blacklisted from his profession as an electrical engineer.
The blacklist made our family life precarious, but the conversation and intelligence of my parents and their friends was always high-minded, intense, funny and extremely elucidating.
Because of my parents’ politics and culture, I grew up a very worldly child, with first-hand understanding of what it meant to live outside The American Dream. No loss of “The Age of Innocence” for this boy. I can still remember the day the Rosenbergs were executed. I was a child, but I felt the horror of that event deep inside.
As I grew, I developed my own sense of politics. As Martin Luther King’s dream revolved into black power, the Vietnam War reached campuses across America. I had been acting in the theater all through high school and college, but the two tracks of my life — my writing, acting, and musicking on one hand, and my political awareness on the other — didn’t mesh until I graduated from Harvard and joined a radical, guerrilla theater group called the San Francisco Mime Troupe.
Working in this visionary, high-profile, high-quality theater company, I was able to combine my dedication to social justice with my love for the arts — in my case, theater, music, and writing. The fusion of politics and art created my own nuclear explosion and I have been arcing along its trajectory ever since.
You ask about style. I avoid any sense of style in my writing. As an educator and an editor, I am often confronted by young writers who “want to write in the style of…” and they offer that desire up to me as an explanation for the hodge-podge they have made of their first drafts.
My question to my students or editees is the same: “Do you think Graham Greene sat down and said ‘I want to write in the style of…’?” No. Graham Greene sat down and tried his level best to tell his stories.
As a writer, I leave notions of style alone. I try to tell the story with the best language, grammar, syntax, clarity and straightforward manner possible, always keeping my audience in mind. I don’t want to lose them. That’s my style. Perhaps in one hundred years I will have developed a style. In the meantime, I find it hard enough just to tell the story.
Norm: Do you work from an outline?
Charles: Yes. My brain is not large enough to create a structure while I write in the linear microcosm of invention. I need structure before I put mortar to the bricks and plop them into place. On the other hand, outlines should never be considered sacred or immutable. My narrative flow always informs my structure, particularly in fiction. And there’s always the computer magic of cut and paste.
Norm: If you had to choose, which writer would you consider a mentor?
Charles: I’m fortunate to have two real-life mentors in my life real life. The first was R.G. Davis, the visionary head of the San Francisco Mime Troupe who taught me that all art is political, that content drives style and that art shapes ideas, not the other way around.
My second mentor is the novelist John Rechy, who wrote City of Night. I studied with John for seven years in a workshop he ran in Los Angeles. He taught me how to write all over again.
For me, there is pre-Rechy writing and post-Rechy writing and the difference between the two is unfathomable.
Norm: Where do you see book publishing heading?
Charles: I don’t know. The Internet and the possibility to own the means of production via computer technology gives voice to many of the unheard. I won’t attempt to separate the good writing from the bad writing that this exciting technology enables. I think the changes are real, and lasting, and — is it should be — the book publishing world will never be the same.
On the other hand, “‘twas ever thus,” as cartoonist Robert Crumb’s Mister Natural maintains. The great publishing purveyors have always risen to the sky like great, dark gray storm clouds, leaving the sunrise and sunsets of new ideas and new expression to fill the vacuum below. Book publishing, like indy music and film, will always have its place and make its mark on the planet.
Norm: What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
Charles: My biggest mistake has also been my greatest asset. I didn’t learn how to write. I wrote about the life I was living, beyond any campus, beyond the purview of any academic pedagogy beyond good grammar. I wrote in the romance of the American worker writer, the liver of life, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Kerouac, Harper Lee. I wrote and led one hell of an interesting life full of risky, foolish endeavors and fascinating experiences. However, I missed out on learning the canon of great literature in any organized way. I missed learning the techniques and skills that can be taught by dedicated and perceptive teachers.
Norm: What helps you focus when you write and do you find it easy reading back your own work?
Charles: Good question. I have terrible focus. I wander away and pull myself back to the task at hand, laying type. I think of it as work, as if I was laying track or building a barn. It’s about production. I bring my acting and even my music to my writing in terms of reading back.
I have an aversion to my own work, but I find tricks that allow me to see and hear my work with a fresh eye. I’m even grateful for those odd computerized readers who will give me distance from my writing with their mechanical voices and odd intonations. So, no, it is not easy to listen, but I love hearing my work read from the outside. I love it because other voices reading my writing takes me out of the solitary madness of word production. Lining track.
I’ve never tried a table reading of a novel. A table reading is the first outward expansion a playwright or screenwriter gets to hear his or her work. It can be tremendously enlightening, giving you distance. Table readings of narrative are difficult to organize, but short passages, read aloud can draw on the same tools that are available to the dramatist.
Norm: What would you like to say to writers who are reading this interview and wondering if they can keep creating, if they are good enough, if their voices and visions matter enough to share?
Charles: Everyone has a story to tell. I keep the cosmic scale of creation at bay as often as possible by considering my writing as work, as craft. I move forward until the story — the job — is finished. Then I begin rewriting. It’s like cutting and sanding the strut of a boat you are building. If you keep sanding, you shape the hull, you keep creating. Anyone who dares write, and who dares to continue to write will get better at the craft of writing. No one knows if they have written Pride and Prejudice or Moby Dick until they have finished, and even then, who knows? But they have proven themselves good enough to write.
It is critical to have something to say, to have voices and visions as you describe them. But again, I like to diffuse such terrifying concepts by trying to tell a story as best as I can, then go back, and tell it again. That way, I trick myself into thinking I have escaped the terrible questions about talent and vision that stop so many writers from continuing. Write your words with love and passion. Never allow the world or your friends or family or your neighbors decide if your ideas and visions matter enough to share. That’s for you to decide.
Norm: Could you briefly tell our audience about A Bowl Full of Nails and Gates of Eden? As a follow up, what purpose do you believe your stories serve and what matters to you about the stories?
Charles: I call A Bowl Full of Nails and Gates of Eden my ‘resistance’ novels because — although both stories are driven by the drama of my characters’ personal lives —both stories are set in the intense rebellions of the 1960s — the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement, and the counterculture.
Gates of Eden follows a handful of young rebels who grow up crazed in the conformist claustrophobia of 1950s America. As they grew into awareness, they begin to notice the injustice, hypocrisy, and inequity that permeated “The American Dream.”
These young rebels began to notice that the dream often resembled a nightmare. They began to share their awareness. The trickle of “freaks’ turned into a torrent of young people flowed into the resistance, rebellion, and love of the civil rights and anti-war movements. As they become aware of the injustices around them — racism, the threat of nuclear war, the assault on tiny Vietnam — the young characters in Gates of Eden chose resistance over apathy.
I decided to write Gates of Eden after a young theater colleague responded to a reference I made to the anti-war movement. “You guys really did all that?” she asked. “Wow. I just thought you hung around, smoked weed and got laid.”
we did plenty of that, too, but this young woman’s cavalier
response made me angry, then thoughtful. She was an intelligent,
talented artist and her ignorance of the anti-war movement was – I
realized– not her fault. She had been more than misinformed; she
had been disinformed.
I decided to set the record straight, to write a chronicle that might capture the excitement, terror, exploration, dedication and focus that brought millions of students, workers, professionals, children and WW I veterans together, under the greatest of danger.
We weren’t beatniks, we weren’t hippies, and we weren’t commies. We shunned labels and became dedicated radicals. With Gates, I wanted to remind people of that, to cut through the trivialization, the dismissal of a passionate, thoughtful — and remarkably successful — rebellion. The result, years later, surfaced as this novel, Gates of Eden.
publisher, Harvard Square Editions is about to launch an earlier
resistance novel I wrote called A Bowl Full of Nails. This
story, as with Gates of Eden, explores the Vietnam-Era but
from the POV of the collective back-to-the-land movements and the
dance the personal with the political. Vaguely autobiographical,
Nails explores these ideas through the eyes of a young, burnt-out
activist who attempts to run away from his now-paranoid life in the
city. In a way, A Bowl Full of Nails picks up where Gates
of Eden, my inaugural tale of anti-Viet protest, leaves
When radical theater freak and antiwar activist Gus Bessemer takes a load of birdshot in the butt, he learns that to get shot in the ass means three things: one, you’re running away; two, they got the guns and you don’t; and three — despite your ingenuity, passion, and resolve — the revolution isn’t gonna to happen today.
Nursing his rage and disappointment, young Gus heads for the hills to get away from it all. It’s only a matter of days before he discovers that — even amidst the rugged beauty of the Colorado Rockies — there’s no escaping the war at home. I won’t tell you more for fear of spoiling the story for readers, but another author who loved outside the system, Mary Mackey, describes A Bowl Full of Nails this way:
“In A Bowl Full of Nails, Charles Degelman reminds us that the ‘60s weren’t just flowers, stoned hippies, and Be-Ins; but a time of serious political struggle by a generation dedicated to ending the war in Vietnam. If you ever thought you could get away from trouble by running from the big city,” Mackey writes, “Degelman has news for you.”
That’s the story and — with artistic license thrown in — that’s the way it was.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your writings?
Charles: That’s easy — just Google my name. I’m all over the place, thanks more to the power of the Internet than to my checkerboard fame and fortune. My latest novels have been published by Harvard Square Editions, and are available via the big online sellers and a smattering of bookstores. I also keep the dust off a WEBSITE that is more of a ramble of my thoughts on writing than an advertisement for my books.You can also find more about me on Amazon.com.
Norm: What is next for Charles Degelman?
Charles: I’m through with the Sixties, I think. I have several Great American Stories to tell about my family, but the urgent finality of climate change has re-ignited a long-standing interest in cli-fi, or climate fiction. I have noticed that our society loves to watch and read about our planet being burnt, drowned, frozen, pummeled by comets, and infected by virus-bearing zombies.
I began to wonder… why do we delight in watching our world destroyed? My resistance machine kicked into motion. The result? I want to write a story about a new rebellion, based in the explorations of the back-to-the-land folks of the 1970s, a multi-species, sex and music-loving rebellion that will — in the near future — rise to re-inhabit the Earth, to tear it away from the collapsing corporate oligarchy. That’s what’s next. A big book about hope!
Norm: As this interview draws to a close what one question would you have liked me to ask you? Please share your answer.
Charles: You more than covered the territory, Norm. Thanks.
Norm: Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
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