By SUSANNE MARIE POULETTE
It was a cold, wet, sleeting evening outside, but the Neil Hellman Library at The College of Saint Rose was warm and inviting for Dave King’s Frequency North Writers Series presentation. He began by reading of one of his earliest published poems, My Heart Disappears Among the Trees. King then went on to discuss and read two sections of his novel, The Ha Ha.
The reading was the culmination of fifteen weeks of King’s visiting writer instruction in CSR’s Master of Fine Arts program. The event was well attended with a sizable audience which included King’s students and English Department faculty members.
I found it encouraging when King explained that his master’s thesis was an earlier version of The Ha Ha, which he set aside for two years while he studied and wrote poetry. In Part II of his interview, you can read King’s words on his writing routines, ideas about sequential drafts, and advice to writers.
SMP: How long did it take to write The Ha Ha? Did it take longer to write it or revise it?
DK: I think it took seven years, and I don’t really make a distinction between writing and revising,
SMP: Do you have a particular writing routine?
DK: I have two, concrete and conceptual.
The concrete: I turn the internet off each night before going to bed. In the morning, I may read a bit over breakfast, but I try to stay pretty much in my head and not speak to anyone, and I try to get to my desk between 8 and 9. I say an invocation to the muse, naming the qualities I hope to access that day, such as clarity, humor or invention, or simply stating that I want to bring a discerning eye to a particular section. Then I put in my earplugs and get to work. I work until 1 or 2 and try to go back for a less rigorous readthrough later in the day, maybe between 5 and 8. I find that touching base with the manuscript twice in one 24-hour period means it stays active in my subconscious, possibly even while I sleep.
The conceptual: I think of it as a good cop/bad cop routine. At the beginning, I try to be endlessly permissive, following every idea and trying to be open to anything that comes to mind. A kidnapping plot? You can do it, Dave! Martians? Good job, buddy! Why not? Well, maybe not that extreme, but you get the idea.
Then at some point I print the thing out and move to a different chair and become the bad cop, i.e. the disgruntled reader just looking for any excuse to throw the manuscript down in disgust. Hmmpff! You call this a narrative? Oh, those characters would so not act like that—etc., etc.
When I was his student, Michael Cunningham told me that in the first draft of a novel you put in everything you can think of. In the second draft, you take out everything that’s inessential, and in the third you put half that stuff back. I don’t take such an orderly approach, but essentially everything I write is a negotiation and compromise between the good cop and the bad cop.
SMP: Are you currently working on another writing project?
DK: I have a novel with my agent that has not yet gone out to publishers, and I’m working on a short book which at present I’m thinking of as a pair of novellas. I also have a longer novel in the works—it’s about bohemia and AIDS in the New York of the ’80’s—but that one’s farther down the line. I’d also like to write a nonfiction book about literary transformation—Jean Rhys rewriting Jane Eyre as Wide Sargasso Sea, for example—but so far that book exists only as notes. Each of these books is quite different from the others and from The Ha-Ha.
And I’m polishing a screenplay for the film of The Ha-Ha. For years, the property was tied to a range of handsome A-list actors, and a handful of screenplays were written in Hollywood. But the film never got made, and ultimately the rights reverted to me. Not long ago an interesting young director approached me and said he thought he could get it made, so we met, and I liked his ideas, which put priority on some of the book’s dark emotional truths, as opposed to the sunnier cuteness factor. Slowly we’re moving forward, with the idea of possibly shooting the film in this area. I’m hoping he casts a homely guy, but I’m not placing any bets.
DK: Graham Greene said that the difference between writing a novel and writing a short story is this: a short story you might knock out in a week, a couple of months or a year, but generally when you finish it you’re the person you were when you began. But a novel takes longer, and each time you finish a draft you feel you’re quite a different person. So there’s the urge to go back and rewrite the book as the person you’ve now become, but if you do that you will once again find that you’re a new person once you reach the end. At some point, Greene says, you simply step off the revolving contraption and begin some other work.
On the other hand, the one thing I find with students and even colleagues is that they’re not tough enough on their own work. In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose speaks of putting each word on trial for its life, which I endorse. I would say that a writer must question every element of a novel—words, plot points, metaphors, figurative language, dialogue, characterization and so on. It’s pretty hard to move on unless you can say that all these elements are the absolute best you can do.
SMP: Is there anything that you would like to add for our readers?
DK: No, thanks. I think you’ve been pretty comprehensive. Thanks so much for your interest, and good luck with your book!
THANK YOU, DAVE KING FOR YOUR GENEROUS INTERVIEW AND PHOTOS.
My Heart Disappears Among the Trees, poem by Dave King: http://www.nycbigcitylit.com/jun2003/contents/jun03poetryfeaturea.html#Kin
Dave King’s official website: http://davekingwriter.com/
Frequency North: The Visiting Writers Reading Series at The College of Saint Rose, http://frequencynorth.strose.edu/