Bookpleasures.com welcomes as our guest, William Luvaas. William has published three novels, The Seductions of Natalie Bach, Going Under, and Beneath The Coyote Hills, and two story collections, A Working Man’s Apocrypha and Ashes Rain Down: A Story Cycle, The Huffington Post’s 2013 Book of the Year and a finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Awards.
His honors include a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, first place in Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open Contest, The Ledge Magazine’s Fiction Contest, and Fiction Network’s 2nd National Fiction Competition.
His work has appeared in dozens of publications, including Antioch Review, The American Fiction Anthology, Glimmer Train, Grain Mag., North American Review, The Sun, Texas Review, The Village Voice and The Washington Post Book World.
He has taught writing at San Diego State University, U.C. Riverside, and The Writers Voice in New York, and is Online Fiction Editor for Cutthroat: A Journal of the Arts.
William lives in Los Angeles with his wife Lucinda, an artist and film maker.
Norm: Good day William and thanks for participating in our interview.
How did you get started in writing and why do you write? Do you have a theme, message, a goal for your books?
William: I was inspired early on by Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, amazed that anyone could write with such power and emotional depth. Dostoyevsky seemed to see right into my soul and touch on themes that obsessed me as a young man. I hadn’t considered being a writer before reading the novel, but it planted a seed in me.
However, it was years before I started writing. I found the whole prospect intimidating. Such a huge mountain to climb. Moreover, I was drifting from this to that in my youth, hadn’t yet found my footing in the world and didn’t feel I had anything to write about.
My first novel, The Uranian Circus, was inspired by a year spent living in the redwood forest among other Sixties rebels in a cabin I built in a huge, burned-out redwood stump. The book was 1,000 pages long when I gave up on it, a total disaster. Like so many young writers, I felt my first novel must be a great opus, a tour de force. Actually, it was my practice book. I needed a lot of practice!
Why write? Not a question we can ever fully answer. It’s partly what Thomas Mann said: “Writers are those people who can’t live without writing.” I can’t. I need my work to stay on course and keep my head from exploding. To express my grief for the world…and my delight in it. Maybe, too, because I seem to be good at it.
My theme? I’m attracted to characters who struggle and don’t have an easy time of it but keep going nonetheless. Plucky survivors, outcasts, ne’er-do-wells, hard luck cases. I suppose my message is that as long as we don’t despair there is hope—and, quixotically, it’s through hope that we keep from despairing. Readers tell me there is a longing for community in my work. I suppose so. Community is something I feel we have lost as a society, and its loss has left us unwhole and unhappy. People need each other. Of late, I have turned my attention to climate change and its potential ravages. This will be our ultimate challenge and will require that the entire human community join together in an effort to save our home.
Norm: How many times in your career have you experienced rejection? How did they shape you?
William: Wow! Hundreds. My typical story may be rejected 20 times before it’s taken—then often by a good publication. My second collection, Ashes Rain Down, Huffington Post’s 2013 Book of the Year, is full of stories that were rejected many times. Go figure!
My first novel was rejected 56 times before Little, Brown picked it up. I still have several novels in my ms. closet that were represented by major agencies who couldn’t find homes for them. One of these, Welcome To Saint Angel, comes out next year.
I have learned that rejection doesn’t mean much. It’s a speed bump. You get used to it. Some of us don’t write readily marketable works in a culture where marketing is everything. Publishers and booksellers don’t know what slot to fit our work into. It doesn’t mean the work isn’t good; it just means it doesn’t fit into a clear marketing niche. I’d like to think it’s in a niche of its own. Doesn’t mean it won’t eventually find an audience, but only that it will have to struggle to find one. Quite fitting, isn’t it, for a writer obsessed with struggling in his work? All this has taught me that patience and resiliency are vital. Never give up. Never despair. Sometimes a work needs revision, and if we are hard-headed (as writers need to be) we may resist revising it—until we see there is no choice.
Norm: What do you consider to be your greatest success (or successes) so far in your career?
William: That “Book of the Year” was one, as was winning an NEA fellowship, as was having my first novel taken over the transom by Little, Brown, as has been the support of many fine writers who have praised my work. I greatly value that. And winning Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open contest. There have been a number. But what I feel was my best book, Beneath The Coyote Hills, received little attention, and that was disappointing.
Norm: What has been your greatest challenge (professionally) that you’ve overcome in getting to where you’re at today.
William: Realizing, I suppose, that it was never going to be an easy jaunt to the top of the hill for me. I would have to hang in there and plug away, fight off despair at times, learn to take the punches. Then, too, I started out writing very long novels; I thought that would be my forte. But after I began writing short stories I discovered it wasn’t. I am actually better at filling a small space than filling a large one. I have had to fight a tendency to verbosity. My recent novels have been short.
Norm: What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?
William: Most useful was definitely reading masters of the craft. For me: Faulkner, Dostoyevsky, Flannery O’Connor, Mario Vargas Llosa…too many to mention. We learn to write by reading. Studying what other writers do then trying to do it ourselves. Study Joyce’s Ulysses (as I did as a young writer) and you will find many tools of the craft. Then it’s just practice, practice, practice. Also for me learning the art of compression, as I’ve said, the discipline of short fiction—such a wonderful form.
Most destructive? That verbosity I mentioned. Then, too, working a book or story to death. Not knowing when to let it go. Some works just fail, and we must accept that. Maybe due to a failed conception or one that is beyond us. Or maybe—and this is awful—we lose interest in it. We must let it go and move on. Easy to say, not easy to do when you have spent perhaps years on a book. Such failures have defeated many writers.
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?
William: First, it’s hard work. Writing has been called “the finest art of thought.” I like that. Don’t be too hard on yourself when you are struggling. You will struggle! I am not sure that the self-doubt we sometimes face is a terrible thing in the end if we don’t let it defeat us. It can encourage us to keep growing, doing better. The first real writer I ever met, Frank Dunlap from Chicago, told me, “You have to get so good they can’t ignore you, man.” What a splendid idea. Splendid goal. We must keep trying to reach the summit. At first, I couldn’t write dialogue; mine was stiff and artificial. I worked and worked on it, studied people’s patterns of speech, finally realized it wasn’t because I had a tin ear that I couldn’t get it right but rather that I had a good ear and knew that my dialogue stunk. And I began to truly listen to the words on the page. Now one of the things readers/critics praise most about my work is the dialogue.
And this thought: Your “voice” and your “vision,” are all you really have. You can’t trade them in; you must trust in them. The real question is: Do you need to write? Can you live without writing? If you can, you probably shouldn’t try to be a writer, as Thomas Mann advised us. It’s just too frustrating.
Norm: What do you think most characterizes your writing?
William: Glimmer Train Co-editor Linda Swanson-Davies says it better than I can: “Luvaas depicts the struggles of everyday people facing situations far from the ordinary….[He] breathes life into unlikely but oddly familiar characters in landscapes borrowed from dreams. Luvaas manages to make such swerving and impossible lives feel utterly true and real and maybe—incredibly—even normal.”
Norm: What is your work schedule like when you’re writing.
William: Probably not one anyone wants to emulate. I am at the desk every day, seven days a week. My wife, who is an artist, and I regularly vow to take a day off every week; then we forget all about it. Hopeless workaholics. What can I say? It’s what we love to do. But I don’t get started until about eleven—I’m late to bed, late to rise—and work until six, then take a break for a few hours, and work again for a while most evenings—sometimes on research, promotion or revision. Do I get tired of the regime? Sick of it. Most writers do. But it’s our life. Of course there are other things: the gym, friends, movies, some travel. In my teaching days, my writing schedule was more limited.
Norm: Do you write more by logic or intuition, or some combination of the two? Please summarize your writing process.
William: It’s a combination. When I’m composing it’s mostly intuition; I follow the trace, see where my characters lead me and don’t try to guide them much. I strongly believe in the creative wisdom of the unconscious mind; it does the heavy lifting for us, since it’s far more clever than the conscious mind. The few times I have consciously planned out texts I’ve utterly failed (except for magazine articles that take some planning). But once a draft is finished and I begin the long work of revision and editing, the conscious/logical mind takes control: evaluates the work, thinks it through, asks if it’s working, and decides what needs to be done if it isn’t. They make good team mates, logic and intuition.
Norm: Please tell our readers something about your most recent novel Welcome To Saint Angel that will be coming out in 2018?
It’s something of a romp. My 2013 story collection, Ashes
Rain Down: a story cycle, focused on a mountain community’s
struggle to survive after catastrophic climate events and endless war
led to the collapse of the world economy and social order some time
in the near future.
Welcome To Saint Angel focuses on efforts to stave off environmental disaster in the present day, as a group of zany high-desert dwellers fight to stop overzealous developers and drought deniers from turning their fragile and beloved rural home into a suburban nightmare and depleting their precious water supply to water lawns and fill swimming pools during California’s worst drought. It’s a dead-serious comedy, part environmental fiction, part social satire, about a small community’s—sometimes lethal—fight to protect their precious Arcadia from bulldozers and climate change deniers. It’s peopled with the type of oddball characters who gravitate to arid outbacks like the one where my novel is set, and follows their madcap antics and the unorthodox tactics they employ to stave off developers.
Norm: What served as the primary inspiration for the book and what purpose do you believe your story serves? What matters to you about the story?
William: It was inspired by years spent living in California’s high desert chaparral country at the foot of the San Jacinto Mountains. Also by my involvement in a successful community effort to stop developers from turning our rural community into an exurban nightmare just before the ’07 housing crash—building hundreds of acres of ugly, jammed-together houses. I am deeply concerned about our abuse of fragile natural areas and society’s denial of the oncoming climate crisis and the dire impact we are having on our fragile planet. I hope my novel adds a little to awareness of these issues and suggests some ways we might respond to them.
Norm: What was the most difficult part of writing this book and did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
William: The novel went through many revisions. I’d revise it, then put it aside for a few years, then revise it again, then put it aside…. I suppose I learned not to give up on a work that I believed had something to say, though I was struggling to get it right, to fully understand what I wanted to say. If you believe there’s something of value in a work, you just have to keep carving away at it. That’s really what I did in the end: a lot of carving away to get down to what was most essential in the novel. Early drafts were twice as long as the final manuscript.
Norm: Where did the title come from?
William: From the name of the fictitious town where the story is set: Santa Rosa de Los Angeles, which the locals have shortened to “Saint Angel.” So the narrators—the lead character, Al Sharpe, and the town itself which is the co-narrator—Welcome readers To Saint Angel and try to make them feel at home there.
Norm: Where can our readers find out more about you and your work as well as Welcome To Saint Angel?
William: They can check
out my WEBSITE
I always enjoy hearing from readers—and I do respond, including to thoughts and comments about this interview. I’d like to hear from you.
Norm: What is next for William Luvaas?
William: I am already well into a novel about a woman who flees from her abusive husband with her adolescent son. He is a powerful, dogged, and cruel man, an assistant District Attorney in L.A. with a lot of clout and friends in the FBI and police agencies all over the country. To escape his dragnet is nearly impossible, especially in our age of hi-tech surveillance—facial recognition software, video cameras, big data collection, GPS tracking, etc. It is partly a novel about the invasion of privacy that attends our digital age; I am concerned about that and its potential abuses. My novel poses the question: Can we get off the grid anymore? Is it even possible? Is there any place left to hide? My character, Lori, absolutely must hide to escape her vengeful husband. She has many crazy adventures and close calls along the way as she and her son stay just ahead of their pursuer…Or do they?
Norm: Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions. It’s been an absolute pleasure to meet with you and read your work. Good luck with Welcome To Saint Angel.
William: Thanks for having me, Norm. I’ve enjoyed it.