ALDEN BELL: ON WRITING
27 November 2012
By Louise Buckley
Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to interview Joshua Gaylord, aka Alden Bell, the wonderful author of The Reapers are the Angels and Exit Kingdom. I'm always fascinated by the inner mind and working practices of our authors. Here's what Joshua had to say about the process of writing . . .**
How has your outlook on life informed your writing?
I’m a sentimentalist, so my writing always borders on melodrama. On the other hand, I’ve always been a fan of books and movies that upset my expectations – stories that make hard left turns and go in entirely different directions than I expected them to. I love a good anticlimax – the moment where the book has built to a spectacularly dramatic peak, and then the rug is pulled out from under you and everything stumbles to a close. Stories that pander to your every readerly desire and whim are like overly loyal dogs that live for the simple glow of your approval. I’m a cat person. I like a little aloofness in my pets and my writing. I like a story that makes me work a little, a story that sneers haughtily at me from the windowsill, that nips at me if I try to get too cosy with it. It’s possible that a little masochism is required to enjoy my books.
Your characters have a very distinct style of speaking. Why was language important in The Reapers are the Angels and Exit Kingdom?
Both books reflect a great deal on the inspiration of southern gothic writers like William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, Tom Franklin and Daniel Woodrell – all of whom celebrate the epic potential of language in their writing. My characters speak in a rather hyperbolic way; they use language that’s almost too big for their frames, biblical in tone, oratorical in performance – even, let’s admit it, unrealistic (though realism has never really been my aim). Stories are powerful not just because of the characters they contain or the plots they outline but also because of the language used to convey them. In Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the protagonist Marlow tells a story that engrosses his listeners precisely because of the impossibly over inflated language he uses. He captures his audience with oratory, and he uses language to give immense authority to his perspective. Marlow was in the back of my head the whole time I was writing Moses’ campfire tale. And language is particularly important to people who are disenfranchised by the world at large. Words become not just a way to communicate but rather actions in themselves. A certain combination of words can be like an incantation: it can declare (and by declaring, create) an identity, it can be an attack more brutal than any physical assault, it can function as a gambit in a game of romance or loyalty. The characters in these books are desperately serious about language because, for them, words are all that are left to create meaning, purpose and order.
Do you have a writing routine?
I am very ritualistic about my writing. I get up at 7.15 in the morning and start writing immediately. I write two pages and then take a break to purge the detritus from my mind with inane online searches, or Facebook, or computer games. Then I get back to the work at hand and write another two pages. My deadline for completing these four pages is 11.30 a.m. – at which time I take a walk to get a turkey sandwich for lunch. During lunch, I read twenty pages of whatever book I’m reading at the time. Then I walk back home and write another two pages in the early afternoon. That’s it. Six pages a day is my quota. Of course, this kind of rigid adherence to a schedule is easier if you don’t have to worry about the demands of society. It’s possible that my constitution (like Moses Todd’s) is better suited to the post-apocalypse.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Write what you want. Don’t try to conform to the fickle tastes of a fickle readership. The best audience you can aim for is yourself: write the book that you would buy, the book that you would have trouble putting down, the book that you would want to read but that nobody has written yet. That way, no matter what, whether published or un-, you will have produced a thing of value.
**These questions are taken from part of a longer interview with Alden Bell in the back of Exit Kingdom**