Monday, February 04, 2013

Q&A: David Corbett

My friend David Corbett is a writer of marvelous crime fiction; see my review of his most recent novel, Do They Know I’m Running? David’s latest book is something different. The Art of Character draws on his experience as a writing teacher and focuses explicitly on characterization. Read excerpts of the book at Zyzzyva and Narrative Magazine – but after you read this VKDCQ&A.

Q. What can you tell us about THE ART OF CHARACTER?

Gee, thanks for narrowing it down. Short answer: Too much.

It’s a book that grew out of my teaching and my own writing in answer to a need I felt. Everything’s ramped up these days, the speed of life never seems to decelerate, people’s attention span is nil, and this is reflected in our stories.

Pacing is more important than ever, plot is king, “high concept” (the greatest misnomer in lit) still commands the biggest paydays, and I just felt this need to stop, take a deep breath, and say: What’s missing? And what’s missing is character.

When you emphasize story and plot as heavily as we do now, characters can easily gravitate to roles at best, tropes or stereotypes at worst – Always Second Best, Captain Oblivious, Evil Jesuit – and this creates characters based on ideas, not people.

To get to the level of awareness and imagination where you can create the kinds of characters a reader or audience never forgets, you have to take time. The process of creation and discovery, the back and forth between letting the imagination run free then bending it to your will – this all takes a quieter, more patient – more loving for lack of a better word – mindset.

I wrote The Art of Character to begin a dialog on getting back to a more patient, human brand of storytelling.

Q. Quoting from the book, on writing: “This is not a science. It’s barely a craft.” That being the case, how do you even begin writing a how-to?

You accept the fact that you can’t merely instruct, you have to inspire. (I cringe at the phrase “how-to,” by the way.)

The most crucial aspect of characterization will always take place within each writer’s imagination and heart. I tried very hard to elevate the style and tone of this book so that readers would never think they were reading a manual. I can only point you in the right direction, I can’t lead you there.

But pointing you in the right direction is no small thing. The difference between a novice writer and a more experienced one lies in the knowledge of what questions to ask. The Art of Character is basically an encyclopedia of probing questions, with examples of excellent answers provided by great writers. Plus a few decent tips, pithy anecdotes, and jokes.

Q. You’ve said you were motivated to write the book in part because so many writing texts focus on structure as opposed to character. Are there additional demands in balancing structure and character in genre fiction?

The irony is that structure serves to illuminate character. The two are inextricably linked. But if you start with structure, you can often see character solely in its role as serving the demands of plot, premise, theme, and so on. This again steers you toward characters as ideas, not people.

Since genre fiction is so story-centric, the problem gets amplified there. It’s not just world-weary cops, politicians on the take, and hookers with a heart of gold that are clichés. It’s hard to envision new characters in a well-worn format. But that’s the job – especially in genre writing. The pursuit of romance or justice is pretty much the same as it always has been. The great writers find a way to bring someone new, someone we’ve never seen before, into that arena, and convince us they belong.

Q. The book’s subtitle is Creating Memorable Characters for Fiction, Film and TV. You regularly use films like CHINATOWN and MICHAEL CLAYTON in your teaching. How big an influence has film been on your work?

I use films for teaching tools because it’s more likely the whole class will have seen a given film than read a given book. (And it’s easier to teach structure with films because they’re so tightly plotted, especially in Hollywood these days.)

But for some of the same reasons I cited earlier, I think that the demands of TV and film writing – especially tight deadlines and the need to please very broad audiences – make deep character work particularly hard. And so it gets fobbed off on the actors.

Instead, from the writers you get – at the risk of repeating myself – Always Second Best, Captain Oblivious, and Evil Jesuit (which are the names of character types taken from the website TV Tropes). I’m modestly hoping to swing the conversation back a little toward character.

To do that, you have to show that great characters have created some of the greatest stories – if not all the greatest stories. Chinatown and Michael Clayton being two good examples.

Q. What effect has this golden age in long-form television had on characterization? Has it made anti-heroes more palatable? Are there dangers of formula there, too?

Long-form television has in many ways replaced the novel as a narrative medium, which is good for character (bad for all but a few novelists). Characters are allowed to be more complex, more open-ended, less rigidly defined by role. And yeah, that’s a boon for anti-heroes.

Wherever you have tight deadlines, a broad fan base, and a lot of money on the line, you’re going to have the risk of formula. The great lie of capitalism is that people with money are risk takers. Money abhors risk. Adam Smith said that. He just forgot to write it down.

Q. What can we expect next from you?

Well, my whole fiction backlist has been prettied up and reissued by Open Road Media and Mysterious Press, with a brand new story collection titled Killing Yourself to Survive. You can check out the books by following the links.

I’m also working on a new novel I’ve almost finished and intend to complete as soon as all the rest of this brouhaha settles down.

Jazz Q. You were lucky enough to attend the inaugural concert at the San Francisco Jazz Center last month. Highlights?

Oh geez, there were dozens. But the two that stand out for me were, first, a duet between Esperanza Spalding (bass and vocals) and Eric Harland (drums) that was unlike anything I’ve ever seen or heard. It reminded you that jazz is a great art form because it’s based on the players listening to each other, giving to each other, not sticking to a chart. And second, Joe Lovano and Joshua Redman played a post-bop sax duet that was just stinging hot – it growled and got angry and cried like a baby. Or maybe that was me.

Baseball Q. You live in the Bay Area and root for the San Francisco Giants. Any strong feelings about the Oakland A’s?

I was happy to see them make the playoffs, but I’ve got to admit they were largely off my radar until late August.

Embarrassment of riches, being a sports fan in the Bay Area. Almost makes up for the Raiders.

Movie Q. You spent many years working as a private investigator. What movie offers the most accurate depiction of that profession?

That’s much easier to answer for TV, actually. The Rockford Files was pretty decent, but Terriers stole my black little heart.

At the risk of repetition, Chinatown and Michael Clayton (he’s a lawyer, but his job isn’t far from a PI’s) are both pretty good. (As Jake points out to Evelyn Mulwray, most days aren’t as rough as the ones she’s around for.) The Conversation is based on Hal Lipset, who was the granddaddy of San Francisco PIs, and it has that frisson of authenticity.

But the most accurate portrayal of a PI in film or TV was Paul Drake on Perry Mason. Hands down. He was a little thick, but I recognized his job.

Cocktail Q. You’re in a well-stocked bar. What do you order?

Three ounces El Jimador tequila reposado, one ounce Cointreau, one ounce each of Meyer lemon juice and guanabana nectar, shaken not blended, salt on request. It’s how we do our margaritas at Casa de Corbett.