la_fields: (Sparks)
The Dropout, The Worker
Since I quit that PhD program at UT Dallas (and I still spit on the memory of it quite bitterly), I've been hard at work. First up were the on-the-ground concerns of sudden, full-time working life:

- It took 4 hours of public transit each day to commute to my new job. That lasted for eight months until my lease was up and I had the cash on hand to move to the other side of the city (where I now happily commute about ten minutes a day, on a bike with a basket).
- During those eight months, I was ghostwriting over $3,500 of smut (at one cent per word) to help pay off my remaining student loan debts, start a retirement account, and fund my move. I'm still trying to get the 2016 max into my retirement account before tax day, but I can do the last of it on my salary alone.
- After moving to a better location (that's being built up even as I sit here, with a corner gas station about to open), I asked for a raise based on the copywriting I do at work, and I received one. I'm also getting a bonus for over 15 hours of transcription work I did last year--during which time, remember, I was also ghostwriting a novel a month. There were a couple of tendinitis flare-ups, but every bit of this work has been worthier of my time than teaching at UTD’s grad program, because it compensates me enough to let me provide for my financial future, rewards me for doing extra work, and continues to provide me with health insurance.

The Worker, The Learner
That's all good, but I must miss learning, right? Hmm. When I ask people why they don't balk at the treatment they receive from grad programs like mine, they pretty defensively insist that they love learning, so much, and maybe they care more about learning than money, unlike me. Oh, please; let's examine that:

- That 4 hours a day on the bus (cut down to 2 hours after I got enough money to take Lyfts in the morning, so I could sleep a normal human amount of hours) meant I had a lot of trapped time on my hands. Right around then, my publisher asked me if I was willing to do an annotation of America's first gay novel, Joseph and His Friend (1870), and I said yes. The artistic life has the same rules as improv: the only correct response is, "Yes, and..."
- So I spent that time on the bus reading the letters of Bayard Taylor, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and Walt Whitman, among others; their biographies, their associations, and their works, discovering all the stories behind the story that is America's first gay novel.
- Then last week I took some vacation time and spent 9 days in my apartment sorting, citing, and compiling the connections. The structure of the project is basically little strings of history, personal anecdote, and secret curiosities to go along with each chapter of the book itself (the manuscript of which I had to clean up line by line to match the original). We’re looking for some gayish American pastoral cover art now.

The Learner, The Lover
Out of this annotation research, the big winner was Walt Whitman. He was the best guy. I read his poetry as an undergraduate and still don't particularly like it--not that it isn't good, it's just not at all to my taste; I'm more for post-modernism, or at least structure and brevity, I still like rhymes, can't seem to cure that, etc. I like Whitman's phrases though ("I am large, I contain multitudes" or "dash me with amorous wet, I can repay you") and I love his intentions and meanings, so basically I love him, the man, way more than his work (though the two are completely intertwined, I get that). His thoughts and asides, his boys, his volunteer work in Civil War hospitals for the wounded (which he was criticized for because it was "unmanly" to nurse if he was healthy enough to fight, according to some). I'm so glad I had a real reason to find out about him.

I know more about American history now, the Civil War, the presidents of the time (Lincoln was a sweetheart too) than I ever picked up in a school. I can assure you that if I had stayed in that PhD program, I never would have had time to do a project as large as this. "Uh, but isn't that what a dissertation is?" Shut your educated-fool mouth: poverty trumps study. If you don't have enough money for food, housing, or health care, you don't have enough time to think about anything else. If a professor tells you otherwise, it's because they need you to stay stupid and studying what will not actually help your circumstances, because their tenure is funded by your underpaid labor or your overpriced tuition. That's true, the advisors at UT Dallas know it is true, they are either too powerless or too unconcerned to change it, and I won't contribute to an evil machine if I can help it. One of my brief cohort-mates from the PhD program quit the teaching part of it (because “I am worth more than poverty-level wages and participation in this institutional nonsense"), got two part-time jobs, but... still pays to attend graduate classes? She says she couldn't be happier. Yes, she could be! Like if she went to a better school! She's barely above an anti-union scab in my eyes, but if she thinks she's happy propping up the place that pays her fellows so horribly, I still don't see how I'm the one who's wrong (because I'm not).

I love learning, I'll work very hard for very little money (my publisher offered me $250 plus royalties for the annotation, and it's taken more than a year of work), but for a school to give me a stipend below the poverty line, forbid outside work, and offer no health care or summer assistance, that is so outrageous you could call it abuse. To take copious amounts of money from students domestic and foreign and provide them with inexperienced TAs as their only instructors in mandatory courses (with almost no guidance and certainly no real consequence for inadequacy) is disgusting, and a failure of a school. My friend who completed a PhD at UT Austin was quick to point out that all the all the information I got out of the Walt Whitman Archive is associated with UT Austin, so I can't be too mad at the University overall (haha, yes I can!), but she also made twice what I was paid for doing considerably less grunt work than they demand from grad students at UT Dallas. She never would have put up with such treatment herself.

The Poetry of it All
I did find some bits of poetry I liked (outside of Whitman's phrases) while reading for this project. This excerpt from Wordsworth leads off "On the Death of Joseph Rodman Drake" by Fitz-Greene Halleck, the inspiration of Joseph and His Friend:

“The good die first,
And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust,
Burn to the socket.”
- Wordsworth.

Whoa, yeah? And this excerpt of Byron, that leads off another gay novel of the time (discussed before on my LiveJournal), which I brought up in the annotation to make sure women aren’t left out of the conversation for a book where a wife is everyone’s worst problem. At the top of A Marriage Below Zero:

"I seek no sympathies, nor need;
The thorns which I have reaped are of the tree
I planted,—they have torn me.—and I bleed:
I should have known what fruit would spring from such a seed."
- Byron.

You see what I mean about rhymes? I’m a sucker for them.

The Artist
I went to a good school once, it was my original alma mater, the New College of Florida, and that's where I got all my research skills (I even got to return to topics from my undergrad thesis with Joseph, just like a real dissertation--Oscar Wilde's name as a code word for homosexuality; Whitman's name worked the same way, and did it first). However, since then (including my MFA, the private after-school program where I taught in South Korea, and my PhD program entirely) it's been nothing but people going through the motions and putting in the minimums to get money from the students and then get out. My way out of that fiasco mentally was the fact that I consider myself an artist first before an academic, and I took my lessons from the examples of artists, poets in fact (though I'm a prose-writer almost exclusively): A.E. Housman got kicked out of school for having a crisis on the day of his exams? No matter, he got a job and did scholarship out of school until they took him back anyway. T.S. Eliot got a job in a bank so that his literal fortunes would stay stable enough to stay out of the way of his real work. Walt Whitman held a university education against men, this is from Intimate with Walt: Selections of Whitman's Conversations With Horace Traubel, edited by Gary Schmidgall:

When Traubel tells Whitman he worked for four years in a printer’s shop, Whitman naturally applauds, this being his own employment history: "Good! good! that’s better than so many years at the university: there is an indispensable something gathered from such an experience: it lasts out life. After all the best things escape, skip, the universities.”

I have escaped the universities! Sweet are the uses of adversity! universities! Same difference! From this project has already come another research book that I'll be doing with one of my MFA cohort-mates, the improv one ("yes, and," remember?), and from that project we have material for a recurring podcast segment that we'll record later this month, and from there who knows what else will come up? I have one last planned book to finished before I turn 30 (the final installment of my young adult Disorder Series, and I just turned 29, so the deadline is on), and after that I'm free to work as I please, go where I please, do what I please, because I've got a job that respects me, and money enough to enjoy my life. I can do work on the side that gives me artistic and academic purpose because I have the means for it. I even had the means to buy scans of an unpublished Charles Jackson manuscript out of the archives at Dartmouth, for nothing more than the pleasure of learning everything I can about him. I've got a lot more work to do, and while it's a tragedy that this kind of dedication and zeal for learning found no means of support in a PhD program, it's not my tragedy anymore, and that's still nice every day.
la_fields: (Nathan Leopold)
Homo Superiors comes out later this week (final edits are sent to print; it's as pristine as it can be), and in this interview I talk about its inspiration, my long-standing Disorder Series, why I write, what I do for money, and what I'll be working on next.

Originally posted by [livejournal.com profile] charliecochrane at post



Delighted to have fellow Lethe author LA Fields here today, having my author questions inflicted on her.

What inspired you to start writing?

It was a whim a time or two when I was young, but once I hit about twelve, I found fanfiction and have been writing ever since. I quit fanfiction by age sixteen and started writing original stories, but then again one of my more recent books is a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, and just because it’s a fancy word doesn’t mean it’s not still fanfiction. The most recent book is a thinly veiled real-person fanfiction at the most basic level: a retelling of the infamous Leopold and Loeb crime. Again, in-depth research doesn’t save it from being fanfic. The writing matures but the drive behind it never does: I like something, I want to spend a year reinventing it, I don’t know where that compulsion comes from, but I don’t fight it; it’s my favorite thing about me.

Do you have another job (paid or otherwise) apart from being an author? If so, how do you juggle your time?

Yeah, right now I’m basically a secretary (I’m A.E. Housman in the Patent Office after getting burned out of school; he failed his final exams, I had to leave a PhD program because it gave me nothing but an abusive poverty stipend, and required more pointless work and endless teaching than would ever pay off with the horrible adjunctification of higher ed). I do some copywriting for this job, I’ll segue myself into better-paying copywriting gigs when I can, but the job I have now has a lot of free time trapped at a computer, so I get in daily writing quotas at my desk.

Right now I also spend three weeks a month ghostwriting smut stories for someone else’s Amazon self-pub penname, and I’ll do that until I’m out of debt from the den of thieves that was grad school. I spend the fourth week of each month writing a chapter of my next book, my eighth. If I factor in the word count of the ghostwriting gig, I’ve written at least two more books, but the filler-foam-peanut writing I do purely for money doesn’t count to me the same way, not for copywriting or ghostwriting. I’ve got these pesky principles about the difference between what is profitable and what is valuable, and I can’t seem to shake those things off.

What did it feel like watching your first book fledge and leave the nest?

I have felt irrationally immortal and superior ever since! It changed me from a wannabe into a writer, and I’ve never felt like a fraud for even a minute since then when it comes to writing fiction. Now that book is ten years old, and it’s like having a diary from childhood that I can unearth and treasure whenever I think something from my past is lost or unrecorded. Nothing is lost because I put it into a book; I love that thing. And I love who I was when I made it: so unaware of what life would bring, but still with the weird power of pattern and prophesy. I knew myself pretty well, I just didn’t know what that would do to me once I got out into the world. That first book was written when I was 18, I plan to finish writing the series before I’m 30, so I can seal up my extreme youth in that time capsule I call The Disorder Series.

Are you character or plot driven? What do you do if one of your characters starts developing at a tangent?

Character driven; I don’t even like plots, I skim them in other books; plots are only devices to reveal and showcase character for me. If a character starts developing weird, I either don’t have my head in the game and I’m not really invested in who or why they are, or they’re right and they’ve just surprised me (which is the best—only Pygmalion and Gepetto know how amazing that feels better than I do). It’s happened to me recently, in fact, with the intended end of The Disorder Series; it’s not going to end like I thought it would when I was a teenager, but then the characters aren’t teenagers anymore either, and they’re also a little disturbed by what’s happened to them, and how they’ve adapted to it. That series has always been about weird adaptation and survival, so it’s fitting.

What inspired this book?

This new book, Homo Superiors? A pointless murder inspired this one. I got interested in Leopold and Loeb when I was fourteen, the age of their victim, and it’s been an interest I’ve held for more than a decade since. They’re part of the reason I moved to Chicago for a few years, so I could visit the case-related graves in Rosehill Cemetery, and know the place where they lived. By the time I was experienced enough at writing and research to do justice to my obsession with these two killers, the full transcripts of the trial and psych reports were online, and that’s about 4,500 pages of prime source material (without the moral or social slants all the other treatments of the case often bring to the L/L canon).

That infamous case, with so many points of scandal and outrage, has always been treated more for its courtroom spectacle than its origins. The big question with such a senseless ‘thrill kill’ is why. I know why, and that’s the reason I wrote my book. No one else has thought of it quite like I do. For example: I had to dig deep to find out what exactly killed Nathan Leopold’s mother when he was sixteen; that’s not irrelevant when it comes to how a young man’s life takes such a horrifying turn. The best representation so far is John Logan’s Never the Sinner—that play (though I’ve only read it and never seen it performed) does an amazing job of dicing the public and private aspects of the case into a tight story, giving equal time and importance to both sides. My book goes way far in the private direction; I don’t even touch the case or the fallout. My book is about how two boys went from wunderkinds to killers. That’s my fascination, and so that’s where I’ve focused.

If you had no constraints of time and a guarantee of publication, what book would you write?

I kind of do have that. I have as much time outside of work as I want to spend on writing, and my publishers rarely turn me down. The next idea I’m excited about is a collaboration with my best friend (all we know about it now is that it’ll be a Murder Book of some sort); it would be nice to really invest in something like that, with all the research and refining and revising that I usually do in very minimal, organized amounts when I’m the sole author. What happens to that when I’m working with someone else? I want to find out, and for sure it’ll produce a unique kind of book that I could never accomplish alone.

Is there a classic book you started and simply couldn't finish?

The first book I ever quit was Great Expectations, and I know enough after two decades spent as an English major that it’s a pretty ironic one to ditch. BUT: Dickens was paid by word quantity, and so am I with my ghostwriting gig, so I know good and goddamn well how much of those Dickensian behemoths are filler for the sake of paying bills. I’m okay with Dickens, writer to writer and shill to shill, but I don’t like his work and I won’t try to read any more of it.

What’s your favourite gay romance/other genre book? And why?

I love books with gay characters, but almost never pure romance. I think most fictional romance is boring, happy endings are boring, but I do have an answer: Poppy Z. Brite’s Exquisite Corpse. You want genre, we’ve got horror: there are serial killers targeting gay men; some of those killers are other humans, but one of them is a plague. You want romance, we’ve got that too, kind of: with one couple we have murder husbands the likes of which mere Hannibal fans have barely seen (talk about real-person fanfiction—what if Jeffrey Dahmer and Dennis Nilsen had met? They’d certainly have a lot to talk about), with the other couple you get nothing but the B-side of romance, the passionate aftermath (they’re broken up from page one to done, but the relationship was so intense that neither man is truly out of it; they can’t stop thinking about the other). That’s the kind of romance I like to see: intoxicating, destructive, undeniable. True love! Not at all a guarantee of happy endings, but worth it every time.

What's your next project?

Finish my youthful Disorder Series, then an annotated edition of America’s first gay novel, then the Murder Book collaboration with my friend, and then an existential crisis because I don’t know what comes after that. Probably a break-down or an overdose or a mid-life crisis; I’ll worry about that if/when I actually run out of projects and can’t come up with any more.

Homo Superiors

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