CE: You’ve said in past interviews that you’re a SOTP (Seat Of The Pants) writer. Has your aversion to plotting and outlines changed at all since you’ve worked on a three-book series?
DC: It’s not so much an aversion as an inability. I can’t outline. Most of the time I have a sort of vague sense of the overall character arc, a general idea of where I want to arrive in the end, and some of the anecdotal material I’d like to use if and when it fits, but the motivations that get characters from one chapter to the next come from the characters themselves. I can usually find things for them to do that sort of steer them in the direction I’d like them to go, but the characters simply won’t do it if the motivation isn’t there.
I’ve heard it said that writing a book is like driving at night; you can only see so far, but you can make the whole trip that way. Some people are only comfortable when the whole trip is mapped out in detail, and to be honest I’m sure they make fewer wrong turns than I do. Sometimes I get stuck and have to turn around, which costs me time, but I’m also aware that the really breathtaking moments in stories are the unexpected turns. For instance, a writer has to be willing to make room for a walk-on. In every book I’ve written I’ve had at least one character walk onto the stage completely unforeseen. Those invariably turn out to be the most interesting characters, like Domingo in Paradise Valley. He showed up on his own, constantly surprising me with the things he did and said. If a character surprises the writer you can be fairly sure he’ll surprise the reader.
CE: In writing this series, how did you approach weaving the daughters’ shorter storylines in each book in with the father’s overarching series storyline? (Please don’t say it just fell together. Lie if you must.)
DC: I was concerned about that very thing, so I asked advice from a little guy on the stool next to me in a bar in Darjeeling (long story), four years ago. Turned out he was the great nephew of Tenzing Norgay, and he took me to a wizened old guru in a sacred cave high in the Himalayas. After seven hours of kneeling and chanting I was finally allowed to put my question to the guru, and he answered in a frail, high-pitched voice, “You must have faith, my son. Wing it, and it will fall together.”
CE: Um, I’m going out on a limb and guessing you went with the lie. Thank you for sharing and for confirming my suspicions.
Back to Summer of Light: There’s a scene that made me drop the book and laugh out loud—Mick with the chainsaw on Aubrey’s front lawn. You built that moment up beautifully. You’re a master of wry humor. How do you incorporate it in a novel? Would you say it begins with being an SOTPer?
DC: No, I think it begins with being Southern. I really hate to admit this, but here’s the truth: almost all of the really funny stuff actually happened. I got the chainsaw story from a lunatic cousin; I could never have made that up. Or the pretend cigars, for that matter. Or the goat in the house. Or the dog in the tree house. Listen, if you don’t howl with laughter at least once a day, either you’re wound too tight or you’re not paying attention. Absurdities swarm around us like gnats. For a writer, the real trick is in knowing when and how to use one of those stories.
CE: What has been your biggest challenge or roadblock in writing, and how did you overcome it?
DC: My biggest roadblock is the same as everyone else’s—myself. It’s hard to convince yourself you can write well, that you can write a book, that you can find an agent, that you can actually get a contract with a publisher, that you won’t be humiliated by critics or shunned by readers. Leaps of faith, all of them, with conflicting advice shouted from the sidelines the whole way, and self-doubt nipping at your heels. Ignore them all and leap anyway. Never mind the scars.
CE: How much editorial input do you get from your publisher, and how do you like working with a publishing house editor?
(for the answer to this and the rest of the interview, come back tomorrow for Part 4)