Bash, swoop, swash:
On writing ‘Adios, Nirvana’

by Conrad on December 17, 2010

The author under the West Seattle Bridge, December, 2010. Photo by Eric Shalit.

Welcome reader! I plan to use this blog as a place for articles, journal jottings, photos, videos, FAQs — and even reports on Django the Wonderdog, my chief sidekick in the literary trade. Like the book, the blog seems to have a life of its own. I hope you’ll drop by often and post comments. Here are my answers to the most frequently asked questions about “Adios, Nirvana” and the way I go about writing. —Conrad

How would you describe your writing process?

Kurt Vonnegut divided all writers into two groups, “bashers” and “swoopers.” I’m a basher, a painfully slow writer who tries to perfect each paragraph before moving to the next. (Swoopers are fast, yet a bit sloppy.) As soon as my kids leave for school, I set up my laptop in the kitchen, pour some coffee, and get to work. I bash and bash. Only when I’ve bashed all the bumps down to practically dust do I move to the next chapter. I wish I bashed less and swooped more. The best I can hope for is “swashing.”

What inspired you to write Adios, Nirvana?

I stumbled on this quote: “In darkness, it slowly came to me that what happens to a man isn’t nearly as important as how he meets it.” The author of the quote was Victor Riesel, a labor journalist who was blinded when a mobster flung sulphuric acid in his face. I jotted Riesel’s words in my journal, then added, spur of the moment: “Story about a young man who becomes a stenographer/writer of a blind man’s life, and in doing so exorcises his own demons.” So right there was the seed–an old man experiencing darkness through blindness, a young man experiencing it through grief. I wondered what light might shine if those two darknesses merged. If I hadn’t seen the quote and jotted it down, I probably wouldn’t have written the book.

How much truth is there in your work?

Ernest Hemingway said that every good writer must develop a foolproof bullshit detector. Mine is not yet foolproof — I’m still tinkering with it — but I agree: all good fiction is as true as life itself, possibly truer. Adios, Nirvana is true to the best of my ability. I don’t succeed on every page, but I like to think I’m getting better.

Which writers have most influenced you?

Hemingway, because he opened the door for awkward voices; Kerouac, because he said “Hurry up!” Charles Bukowski, because he said “Warts and all, warts and all!”

Who inspires your writing?

My kids and their friends. I love to hear them speak—because their collective voice mixes confidence, frailty, arrogance, timidity, enthusiasm, laziness, idealism, courage, cadence, spontaneity, and so much more. Basically, all kids are centrally engaged in the evolution of language—their minds make dazzling linguistic leaps that older minds can’t. As a result, new words get born every second. I’d be doing dishes or driving them somewhere and these kids would be handing me golden nuggets, so to speak.

How has your life illuminated your writing?

All things of the heart — love, regret, joy, disappointment, and so much more —help you to write your story. You can’t write without living; observing alone doesn’t work. If you can take a personal disappointment or tragedy, for example, and weave it into your every day, it can heighten and sharpen everything around you, so that you see and appreciate more intensely. The line of a tree becomes more graceful, or the glint in a child’s eye more startling. Understanding that things are hitched together is a vital part of being a writer. It’s a never-ending, bewildering, extraordinary journey. I’m still just getting started.

What do you hope your readers will take away from Adios, Nirvana?

Jonathan, the main character, wants to give up—because something terrible has happened to him. But the people closest to him won’t let him. I’m reminded of what Winston Churchill said to the students at Harrow School in the darkest hour of World War II—what Churchill called the “finest hour.” It’s the message echoed by old Agnes the Oracle, and it’s what I hope readers will take away: “Never give up. Never give up. Never, never, never, never — in nothing, great or small, large or petty — never give up.”

Jonathan seems memorable for his painful odyssey through profound grief.
Was it difficult to create a character like this?

Not only has Jonathan lost his twin brother, he’s lost his best friend and mentor. Once I understood that grief burned at his core, I began to hear his voice clearly. You’d think that voice would sound mournful, but in fact it’s feisty, arrogant, rebellious, at times even joyous. The point is, the voice of grief has many inflections. Jonathan literally stands on the edge several times—of bridges and scaffoldings — but he wants to live; he wants to get better. He just doesn’t know how. That’s where his “Thicks” and David come in. They basically provide the safety net. Jonathan was easy to hear in my head but not easy to create. Everything about writing is difficult for me. It doesn’t seem to get easier — well, maybe a little.

How long did it take to write Adios, Nirvana?

The first draft took just over a year.

What led you to write for young readers in particular?
What about Young Adult fiction appeals to you?

Years ago, I spent a day with Scott O’Dell, the acclaimed young-adult novelist of “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” and “Sing Down the Moon.” Click here to read related article. “I’ve forsaken (writing for) adults,” he told me, “because they’re not going to change, though they may try awfully hard. But children can and do change.” I’m still clinging to hope for adults, but I do agree with Scott that books can profoundly affect children’s lives for the better.

What have you loved reading? What are some works that you’ve admired that have inspired your spare, vivid writing style?

Up until my early teens, I chose books based on subjects, my favorites being the Civil War, the American West, and carrier combat in the Pacific. When I was sixteen, I read “The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories” and a bell dinged. I sensed that Hemingway knew a lot about life that I didn’t, so I better pay attention. From then on, I became interested in the idea of writing as a form of creative expression. How something was said became as important as what was said.

Who are your favorite writers?

Hemingway, Steinbeck, W. Somerset Maugham, Willa Cather, Jack Kerouac, Louis L’Amour, Charles Bukowski, Larry McMurtry, Richard Hugo, and probably lots more. My favorite YA writers are Scott O’Dell, Jean Craighead George, Marguerite Henry, Holly Cupala, and probably lots more.

What book is on your bedside table?

I keep Kit Carson’s autobiography on my bedside table. It’s the world’s driest memoir and most perfect sleep aid.

What advice would you offer to writers just starting out?

Abide by the three P’s and one B: Practice, patience, and perseverance. (The greatest of these is perseverance: Never give up!) The “B” is believe in yourself, because at first editors and agents won’t believe in you. They will probably say “No” many times before they say “Yes.”

What are your favorite books on the craft?

“Hemingway on Writing,” by Larry W. Phillips; “Zen and the Writing Life,” by Peter Matthiessen; and “Story,” by Robert McKee. My favorite memoirs by writers are: “Education of a Wandering Man,” by Louis L’Amour; and “On Writing,” by Stephen King.

Do you play music? Guitar? If so, what kind of music do you play and listen to?

My dad bought me my first guitar—a Harmony acoustic—when I was about seventeen. I’ve always messed around, but I don’t read music. I keep various guitars planted on stands around the house—guitars should not be imprisoned in cases. Noodling on guitar is a good way to anchor and think. Playing with friends is pure joy. Jonathan (the protagonist) is a much better guitar player than I am. And Telly, his brother, was sublime. I listen to rock, folk, ballad, and blues. I love the NPR show “American Roots.”

Is there a back story here for why you chose to feature Eddie Vedder in your story? Do you know him?

Eddie Vedder is a fellow West Seattle resident (“Mr. Wes C. Addle”), and though we have a friend in common, I’ve never met him. I do know, however, that he’s a big believer in the power of music to inspire children, plus a quiet giver to many worthy causes. In the book, he’s portrayed as a musical mentor to Jonathan and Telly. One of my favorite scenes is when the boys visit him, and he and Telly jam on guitar while Jonathan sits “guitarless” on “the timid couch.” I’d always planned to change his name to something fictional, but left it in, as a kind of tribute.

Your flap copy mentions you worked as a tugboat hand in Singapore.
How did this come about?

I was nineteen and starved for adventure. I dropped out of college and got a job as an ordinary seaman aboard the Quenett, based in Singapore. We towed barges to Borneo, Sumatra, and Thailand, through fair and foul seas. It was the hardest physical labor of my life. Three books inspired me to take this step: “Tramping on Life,” by Harry Kemp; “Of Human Bondage,” by W. Somerset Maugham; and (dare I say it?) “My Wicked, Wicked Ways,” by Errol Flynn. All three books were about young men struggling with the idea of living a conventional life, and hungry to get out into the world. My crewmates were from New Zealand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. Plus two scrawny cats and a huge orange cat that had been hurled off a passing ship, for good reason: he was the incarnation of the devil. It was a great adventure, but eventually I had to decide whether to stay at sea or come home and finish college. I opted for college and was a better student when I returned. I’d grown up a lot.

Under the bridge at Schmitz Park, West Seattle, a location I had in mind when I wrote the opening chapter. (From left: Jen Wesselhoeft, Mariah Webb, Kit Wesselhoeft, and Toby Martin.)

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: