My long-time colleague Joseph G. Peterson is also a novelist whose first book, Beautiful Piece, was published last year by Northern Illinois University Press in their Switchgrass imprint.
The book is a stunner, pulling the reader straight into the troubled mind of Robert as he struggles to make sense of . . . we aren’t sure what, in the midst of a suffocating Chicago summer.
CAROL: Joe, you’re a Chicago guy. Talk about Chicago and Beautiful Piece.
JOE: I am a Chicago guy, with proud working-class roots going back to the turn of the last century—though I was raised in Wheeling, a northwest suburb of modest split-level homes. I was traumatized by the Chicago heatwave of 1995 and this book acknowledges that, but a lot of my early experiences in Wheeling were smuggled into the book. Most of the folks I grew up with were working-class kids like me. We had a lot of Korean and Vietnam vets in the neighborhood. I remember a girl showed up in first or second grade with a Purple Heart her dad brought back with him from Vietnam. In my neighborhood everyone was rebuilding a broken-down car. A guy down the street had two Corvettes he was repairing; other kids were jacking their trucks up, putting fog lamps on the bumper. Horsepower, which was the holy grail sought by my gear-head friends, was boosted with nitrous oxide, and everybody was in love with the rotary engine of the Mazda RX7—this car makes an appearance in my book. I also grew up near the Des Plaines River, and I used to shoot carp with a bow and arrow. Growing up, I was obsessed with carp. I studied their behavior carefully in the spring when they would spawn in the little bays formed by flooding. I’d shoot them with my bow; I’d drag them home and bury them under the tomatoes in the garden. I think I did this because they were good “fertilizer.” It’s funny—you could shoot a carp, let it sit in the sun on the driveway, come back six hours later, and its gills would still be going. Anyway, these sorts of cars and the guys who work on them, as well as numerous paeans to carp, make their way into my book. Of course there’s a woman who drives the RX7, and Robert is in love with her. He drives a lowly AMC Hornet.
CAROL: Okay, I’m going to try to forget about the carp in the driveway. Meanwhile, tell me something about the voice you chose for your narrator, Robert. It’s a strong, distinctive, and effective voice. Here’s a sample:
With that he grew quiet, and when he grew quiet I knew he was transforming himself from a man named Epstein into a stone named Epstein, there in our spot in the wilderness, the muddy water moving quietly by, our little bells twittering at the motion of the current and two herons with their long thin beaks standing stealthily in the water pecking quickly at the mud and caw caw from the tree overhead and the echo of the crows as one and then another resound like the beat of a note through a telegraph line and the woods were virginal and the woods were mystical and out there in our spot, the sun, which, as it set, bled through the tops of the intensely green trees with an intensely red red. Bloodred red—7,000 bloodred-angstroms red. (Beautiful Piece, 65)
Is that narrative style Robert’s alone, growing out of the character, or is it also a style that you lean toward in other works? For instance, will we see it in your next book?
JOE: Good question, Carol. The book was told in the first person, so on some level the voice is inimitably Robert’s. To some extent I felt I was writing Robert’s mind. However, because I wrote the book, the voice is also mine to some extent—so it’s difficult to separate out what parts of the voice belong to the character and what parts belong to the writer. Robert’s voice is the voice of an obsessive—one of his quirks is that he literalizes metaphor. In the quote above, Robert’s friend Epstein becomes still as a stone while they’re out fishing for carp on the Des Plaines river, but Robert sees Epstein as literally becoming a stone. In the nature scene that you quote, Robert literalizes what he sees and he puts it in a language that helps him process what he sees—thus the blood-red sun is recorded by Robert at the wavelength of light in the spectrum of red. I view writing to some extent as being a slightly obsessive behavior—you certainly have to be obsessive to write a book—so Robert’s voice became a private metaphor to me on the obsessive act of writing. There will be other books written in this vein partly because I like thinking about writing in this sort of metaphorical way. However, my next book, Wanted: Elevator Man, will be in the third person and will be told in a more traditional, slightly comic, narrative format.
CAROL: Speaking of obsessions, does Elevator Man in any way involve carp? (Just kidding.) What I’d really like to know is how you were able to summon Robert’s obsessive mindset and sustain it the way you do in Beautiful Piece. I know you have a full-time job and young children, so I doubt that you had tons of uninterrupted writing time. In spite of that, did you write the whole book fairly quickly, or if not, did you have some technique for getting back into Robert’s frame of mind when you had time to write?
JOE: I’m sorry I’m responding to this so late at night (12:00+ a.m.), but I think it’s apropos your question: I do my writing by the midnight oil. As you point out, I have a full-time job, a busy family, and a social life, and that doesn’t leave much time for writing, so I have learned how to write in little snatches of time, and in the late evening hours trying to make the most of it. I try to be as unobtrusive about my writing as possible, and I hope for the best. In terms of your question: I tend to be a fast writer—I like to follow the heat not so much of the story, but of the language—and once I hit upon the sound, I try to lay down as much of that language in the shortest possible time I can manage. I’m a firm believer that spending more time on something doesn’t necessarily make it better. I feel like a miner in search of veins—a vein might be the sound of a voice like Robert’s—once I hit the vein, I mine it as quickly as I can before it goes away. When I hit a hard spot, I drill around until I find the vein again. When I no longer am hitting the vein, but mostly just blasting at hard rock, I wrap up the story and call it a day. If I’m lucky, I get enough of the language under my belt to form a book. I know this is a slightly metaphorical answer, but the joy of all this for me is in the making of metaphors. And it is joy, it makes me happy. Oh, and Elevator Man does not involve carp, though don’t be surprised if carp make an appearance in future books. Maclean had his fly-fishing and trout; I have my bow-fishing and carp.
CAROL: Joe, what a wonderful picture of you mining words in the wee hours! I love to hear how other writers work—how each has a unique process—and I’ve never met a writer who couldn’t talk about it. I wonder whether I could write faster at night. Here I am, writing at the crack of dawn before work. I just finished a project I started seven years ago: as I figure it, I averaged a little under eleven words a day.
But tell us about Wanted: Elevator Man. It’s an intriguing title. Where did it come from?
JOE: I seem to recall writing a scene many years ago about a guy in a jumpsuit tethered to an elevator shaft with rappelling gear for mountain climbing, falling through the shaft several stories, landing on the elevator hood, and breaking through to find a woman he’s trying to save cowering in the corner of the elevator. He breaks through and the fiberglass hood comes tumbling after him, as does a coil of ropes, which have broken free of their lashings in the elevator shaft, and all of this debris piles on top of the stricken elevator man. He’s knocked unconscious, and right before, he’s hoping that the little flicker of light he sees signifies the end, because he’s tired of living, tired of feeling like a failure (look—he couldn’t even properly rappel down the elevator shaft)—when this woman he’s come to rescue helps revive him and bring him back to life. That was the scene, anyway, that I wrote in the dark of one sleepless night, and many years later I remembered it, dug it up, and started wondering who this guy was. Why did he feel like such a failure? Who was the woman who saved him? The book that resulted is Wanted: Elevator Man, which is the story of a guy who believes he is destined for some great corporate job in the corner office of a downtown building, but discovers the only job he can get is as helper to an elevator mechanic in one of those grand sky-rises. The book is a bit of a meditation on failure, on not achieving our dreams; it’s also a book about mechanics and the machines they labor to repair.
CAROL: What a great preview! My readers are going to be annoyed that they’ll have to wait until spring to read it. In the meantime, though, I can recommend Beautiful Piece with enthusiasm. Joe, thanks so much for a delightful and revealing chat.
JOE: Thank you, Carol, for the great questions. This was a lot of fun.