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Monday, February 22, 2010

Writer Spotlight: Nicholas J. Carter

Magical Realism is the literary device of taking fantastical elements and placing them into realistic scenarios. What distinguishes Magical Realism from Fantasy is that the fantastical is unremarkable to the characters in the story, or that they react to the fantastic in realistic ways. For instance Harry Potter is not Magical Realism because, though the characters are in fact portrayed realistically, there is a significant break from reality when Harry discovers he is a wizard. It is not taken as a matter of course that the fantastic exists in real life. In fact, characters such as the Dursleys and the Prime Minister of England are explicitly used to juxtapose reality and fantasy.

A good example of Magical Realism is Jonathan Lethem's The Fortress of Solitude, which incorporates a magic ring into an otherwise gritty narrative about 1970s Brooklyn. Those who know about the ring's powers do not remark on the existence of the ring, but rather incorporate the ring seamlessly into their daily lives.

I begin this Writer Spotlight with this little lesson on Magical Realism because this month's writer is one of the best Magical Realists I've come across recently. Nicholas Carter's list of published works is short but not inconsiderable in its power and impeccable blending of the fantastical and the realistic. His writing is witty, clever, and flows effortlessly across the page.

A product of the University of Massachusetts English Department, Mr. Carter's work eschews the stereotypical Northeastern dramas for a more rural, populist appeal, one that suits his minimalist sentence structures and gothic storylines. In particular his story "Moondog" is gorgeous, witty, and heartbreaking in its depiction of a down and out man and his unusual dog.

I sat down with Mr.Carter over email a few weeks ago and asked him a few questions about his methods and background, and where he sees his writing taking him. Stay tuned for the interview after the jump. You can find links to his published works at the bottom of the page.

The Crow: Nicholas, you mentioned in your bio that you only seriously began writing a few years ago. What was the catalyst for you to switch from a reader to a writer? What authors helped you along that transition? You finish your BA in the spring, are you planning on continuing your education?

Nicholas Carter: I needed a creative outlet and as a reader writing seemed the logical choice. My imagination has always been extremely active. I’m sure I’ve lost dozens of ideas simply by not writing them down.

And I love the words themselves. It’s amazing how sensible and orderly they are. Take a look at the word “kick”. It’s short, has a hard beginning and ending and, as such, sounds appropriate to the thing it describes. Or how about “sun”? Sure, it means the star we’re revolving around, but it also means warmth, light, the color yellow, spring, suntan and sunburn, and a fixture in the sky. If a character were described as having “the sun in her heart”, we might think of somebody very warm and cheerful. Someone described as having “the sun in his skin” must be a bit swarthy. Each individual word is essentially a package of meanings. I love how we can use the same word in different situations and achieve radically different results.

Any writer you familiarize yourself with can teach you something, but the two that I feel helped me to develop the most are Ernest Hemingway and Terry Pratchett. Pratchett understands human behavior better than any author I’ve ever read, and his character have a believability that can’t be found anywhere else. They have their own, individual little foibles. Carrot and Nobbs are a great ex
ample. The former is a boy scout; good looking, moral and brave, but is hard to relate to; the latter is extremely relatable despite his awful appearance and numerous bad habits. In short, if I’ve taken away anything from reading Pratchett’s work, it’s that characters need balance between sympathetic and unsympathetic characteristics to be wholly human. Pratchett is also a master at mixing the comic with the tragic, although I think his ability with the former (and the fact that he primarily writes fantasy) leads the latter to be overlooked.

Hemingway is a bit of an odd duck here; I’m not actually a fan of his but it’s hard to argue with his writing style. He’s very plain and to the point, and I think reading him broke me of some bad habits.

Growing up, I never thought I would even attend college. We didn’t have much money and my family never discussed it. I finally decided to go when I was 22 and sick of working at the mall. I took a night job loading trucks for a building supply company and attended Manchester Community College (in Connecticut) during the day.

TC: You were raised in the Northeastern United States yet your work seems to transcend stereotypes of that region. Other than “Poses As Moses” there are no street toughs, hoity-toity liberals, or uber-wealthy socialites vacationing in Cape Cod. In fact “Moondog” and “Who Has The Right?” both have a decidedly rural/suburban bent. Was your youth in Connecticut significantly different than the stereotypical Northeastern experience or do you intentionally set your work in places different than where you grew up?

NC: Despite popular stereotypes, the population of Connecticut is primarily not upper-middle class. My family was (still is) solidly lower class. I don’t think we were below the poverty line, but we could certainly see it from our house. I grew up with a lot of hand-me-downs and used stuff, and I now have a warm spot in my heart for things that are a bit tatty and tarnished, which pretty well describes the suburbs I grew up in.

My father’s foster family lived on a farm in Thompson, CT and when I was young we visited on a semi-regular basis, but that’s about the only experience I have with rural life. Some part of me just associates “working class” with rural more than with urban and I’m sure it shows. It probably also helps that Connecticut’s cities barely qualify as cities. There isn’t a whole lot of urban area in the constitution state.

In short: Stereotypical? No. Typical? Probably more than people realize.

I haven’t consciously been trying to avoid non-suburban areas. In fact I’m currently chipping away at a story set in Albuquerque.

TC: What is your writing process like? Do you write multiple drafts? Do you write by hand or with a computer? Do you write quickly or slowly?

NC: My memory and my attention span are both a bit weak, and so my writing process tends to be sporadic. There are days where I’ll spend three or four hours working at a stretch, and others where I just can’t concentrate for more than fifteen minutes at a time.

I use a laptop for writing, and I’m not sure I could even be a writer if it weren’t for computers. My handwriting is shaky and often illegible. I recently found a college notebook of mine from a few years ago and was pretty appalled when I couldn’t understand half of it. In any event, the abilities of modern technology—which I use loosely because my laptop is five years old and the word program I have just turned ten—are a godsend. Things like cut and paste, built-in thesauruses and spell check are really spoiling us.

I find it easiest to work when an idea has just come to me. I like to belt out 80-100% of a story in one, maybe two sittings at most. Then I go back and edit…and edit…and edit…

TC: One of the main themes of your work seems to be the cult of the absurd. In “Moondog”, “Who Has The Right?”, and “Hell On The Highways” fantastic things happen but no one takes any notice of these fantastical happenings, insofar as they don’t remark on it specifically. Obviously characters react to it, like the drivers in “Hell On The Highways” who avoid the hellholes, but they don’t remark on the fantasy itself; they merely accept it. But what strikes me is how natural the fantasies seem within the context of the story. Magical Realism can be a tough sell sometimes, but you pull it off brilliantly. Is perverting reality what you are most interested in for your work, or is this a writing phase you are in at this moment? Do your stories begin as one-off gags that you expand on, or do the gags grow out of the story idea? What authors have most informed your Magical Realism sensibilities? What author(s) would you say do you better than you do you?

NC: One thing I’m constantly amazed at is how quickly people get used to things. We’ve mellowed to the idea of living on a damp rock swirling around a nuclear fireball, and gotten used to raw electricity falling from the sky. We’re cool with the fact that, for several hours each day, we lay down and will ourselves unconscious, and we’re fine with the inexplicable ability of lumps of watery gristle in our faces that allow us to perceive light, color and depth.

The world is pretty bloody ridiculous and a little terrifying. Yet somehow, everyone has remained calm. Non-reaction makes sense on one level; we’d have a tough time getting anything done if we just want around in constant shock.

But on another level, it bothers me that anything so bizarre can go without comment. I want to be able to grab a man by the shoulders and scream, “By god man, look at that thing!” and though I’m only pointing at a border collie, I hope he looks over and realizes how ludicrous it is (before calling the authorities). I don’t often meet other people with that same sort of reaction, and I guess in some way I’m trying to provoke that same incredulity in others. That idea dominates “Hell on the Highways”. If there ever were hell on earth, I think it would only be a few years before we accepted it.

And I don’t mean to suggest that I don’t get complacent either. Another reason I like to write (and read) about the unusual is simply that I’ve gotten used to this funny little world too. But why keep settling for the same miracles?

Realistically, at this early stage of my career there are dozens of writers who can do the genre better justice. Believe it or not I’m not terribly familiar with other writers of magical realism. Kafka and his slightly-left-of-reality stories have certainly had an influence, but I’ve strayed towards the genre mostly out of a love of folklore and mythology. Magical realism feels to me like a continuation of those areas. It should be noted that myths tend to be contemporary to the eras they were told in. For example, even if the stories of Fin MacCool were considered a retelling of events long ago, the characters in it were still fairly typical of the people telling the story. Essentially people were applying the magical to their own lives, and I think title “magical realism” is just a title we’re applying to what could be rightfully described as our myths.

I think our era deserves to have some myths too.

TC: I thought “Moondog” was one of the funniest, most thoughtful stories I’ve read in a long time so I have a few questions about that story specifically. Firstly, the imagery in the story is very evocative, from the eponymous moondog to the ghosts. What was the initial image that got you thinking about that story?

You somehow managed to make Jiff both outlandish and incredibly sympathetic, and one of the most effective ways you achieved this was through his unwavering, almost child-like belief in the supernatural. In fact, in light of your other stories, it could be said that Jiff is like a one-man thesis statement for your work in that he accepts implicitly the unreality of the world and is therefore open to all of the experiences available to him. Would you agree with this assessment? Was Jiff based on someone you actually know or was he product of your imagination?

There is a melancholic tone to the story (even though it is hilarious) and one senses that it is Jiff’s longing for a connection that informs this melancholy. Was this theme something you were dealing with personally, or was it simply a product of these characters in this particular situation?

Finally, the ghosts at the end: Although their appearance and the resolution of the story seems like a positive ending since all involved find what they were looking for, there is also a sense that true connection is impossible, except through the conduit of the dog, who is able to travel on both sides of eternity. Are the ghosts meant to represent that loss of innocence, which Jiff seems to long for so much? Is his friendship with them a beginning or an ending?

NC: I’d wanted to write a story about a shop/seller of magic creatures and “Moon Dog” was the result. The initial image? That’s a bit tricky to pin down. I think it relates to a half-submerged pining for drive-in theaters. There were still a decent number of them around when I was a kid, but nowadays it seems like they’ve all been abandoned and had flea markets dumped on them.

There’s a sad continuity in that; an old and unwanted space where people sell things that are old and unwanted.

I think sympathy for Jiff comes primarily from that fact that while his life is not a major disaster, the poor guy just doesn’t have anything going for him. To some extent he also seems to understand his situation (loneliness and bad habits), he just can’t find a solution. His quick acceptance of the unreal has a basis in his environment and in his life to that point: Jiff has been down so long that he’s not likely to turn his nose up at anything that’ll make him a little less lonesome.
The setting also helps. I envisioned a small town, so it’s not unlikely that Rum Peet’s “Lejendairy Critters” would be known in the setting.

Jiff is a product of my imagination, more or less. I see some minor shades of my own father in him. Dad had a tough life growing up.

And now that I think about, maybe there is a kernel of myself in Jiff, too, although I didn’t set out with that in mind. Human interaction has always been a bit tough for me. I come from a family of introverts and I was always a shy kid. I still am in many ways.

There are still a few things about socializing that I find strange or insincere. “Hello” is strange. I didn’t say it for much of my late (and very awkward) teenage years and even on. It’s downright odd that there is a set of words and phrases we must select from and verbalize whenever we encounter someone for the first time, or even just for the first time that day.
Variations of “Nice to meet you” always strike me as insincere. Most people I meet for the first time don’t provoke strong opinions in me. It probably wasn’t bad encountering them, but nice? No. Maybe neutral. But I’m sure somebody would be insulted if I were to say, “It wasn’t bad to have met you.”

Basically I’m never certain what’s expected in a social situation and have always had a hard time getting relationships off the ground. I should add that I’m engaged to be married and I do have a handful of longtime friends, so I must be doing something right. At the very least, I do say hello regularly now.

I would say that Jiff’s encounter with the ghosts, and the link the moon dog provides, is the beginning of a friendship. It’s definitely a tenuous one though.

John Donne coined the phrase “No man is an island unto himself.” Which I’ll accept, but I think the best anybody can hope for is to be part of an archipelago.

TC: You use a dead body to great effect, both comic and unnerving, in “Who Has The Right?” What is it about dead bodies that are so darn terrifying, especially when they are used for such bizarre purposes? How the heck did you come up with this story? Why do the kids have opera glasses of all things? Where does this story fall in your evolution? I ask because I feel as though it sticks out a bit. Where in all your other stories bizarre behavior and happenings are merely accepted, in “Who Has The Right?” there is a moment of moral outrage. The narrator doesn’t bat an eyelash at the idea of a flying dead body, but certainly takes issue with the morality of it. Was this meant to contrast with the rest of your work? Or are you merely a vehement opponent of flying dead bodies as kites?

NC: On the heels of that Donne quote, I have a friend who is fond of adding to it, “…but if you tie a bunch of bodies together they make a pretty good raft.”

A corpse is no longer one of us, and yet there’s still some humanity about it. It calls for responsibility on our part, since this “human” is no longer capable of acting on its own behalf. I think we hold the dead in regard at least partly because we hold people in regard, and partly because we don’t want anyone doing weird things to us.

“Who Has the Right?” came about after I got angry at a short story I’d read. I don’t remember what the piece was but I do recall leaving it with the feeling that the author had gotten away with something. Fifteen livid minutes later I had a story.

The opera glasses came right out of my own childhood. Mom had (and I believe still has) an antique pair of opera glasses, which was strange because we weren’t avid theatergoers or antique collectors. My sister and I were allowed to look at them but I was pretty afraid of damaging them.

I date the beginning of my writing career from this story. Although the two shorts that made it into The Watermark are literally the first things I’ve ever had published. Even the later one, “At Bay”, predates, “Who Has the Right?” by a good six months at least. And the prototype of it was a couple of years old by then. Still both of the Watermark stories feel pretty raw to me, like the product of a larval state, and I’ll forever associate them with the college era of my life, which is for all intents and purposes, over.

There wasn’t any contrast intended. It was really too early in my career for it to contrast with anything. Actually I’m a little spooked by how dark some of the things I’ve written since then have been. I’m generally a pretty mellow guy.

I’m not opposed to flying dead bodies as kites so long as it’s tastefully done.

TC: Where is your current work taking you? What worlds are you exploring now? Do you have any plans for a longer work?

NC: I still mostly write flash fiction. Primarily because it lends itself well to my short attention span, but also because I’m only just getting the hang of scenes. I’m finding it amazing how much work goes into a short story when you add a few scenes. There’s just so much to account for, so much that needs to remain consistent and so many places to slip up. A one-thousand word story isn’t just twice the work of a five-hundred word one, it seems more like four times as much. I started a short fantasy piece last October that I expected to be about 500-1,000 words. It’s ballooned out to about 11,000 now and I keep spotting places where I can expand and flesh out what I have.

So I am starting to write longer stories and it’s highly likely that I’ll try to write novels at some point. I have at least a half-dozen ideas that I doubt could be told inside of 20,000 words. The tricky part will be learning how to sustain a plot over such a prolonged space.

I do read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi and would love to write both someday, but they’re tough to pull off. Those two genres are often frowned upon by “serious” writers. I think it’s because a lot of fantasy and sci-fi authors get caught up in their “nifty stuff” (the elves and spaceships) and forget their characters. It’s not enough to know that Kam KelTolleran is the wielder of the spear Graveshovel. Who is the guy? How does he take his coffee? Can he dance? Does he regret not kissing Mindy TomSan by the pond when he was ten?

To hearken back to an earlier question, it seems to me that the moniker “magical realism” means a story with characters around whom strange and magical things happen, whereas fantasy often tends to be strange and magical things that happen to whoever is around. Both can be entertaining to read, and there are some works out there that blur the lines.

TC: Who are you reading right now?

NC: I took an editing position with Flash me Magazine late last year and mostly I’ve been reading submissions, although I also reviewed the sci-fi compilation “Future Bristol” for our next issue, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m incredibly grateful for the opportunity to work for FMM. Having to go through other writer’s stories and figure out what works and what doesn’t has given me some insight into how I can improve. I’ve also been reading a lot of lit journals and blogs, just trying to get a feel for where I should submit next.

On a whim I picked up Diana Wynne Jones’ “Howl’s Moving Castle” at a used bookshop. I’m making my way through that (haven’t seen the movie). My sister-in-law gave me “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time”, by Mark Haddon, for Christmas, and that’s next on my reading list.

Late last year I finished Terry Pratchett’s “Unseen Academicals”, and was halfway through Kafka’s “The Castle” before a combination of library due date and holiday plans forced me to put it down.

I have a tendency to cling to one or two authors for a very long time until a new one jars me loose. I think it shows.

Nicholas J. Carter's published works:
"Moondog" - originally published in rnwrrn
"Who Has the Right?" - originally published in The Big Table
"Hell on the Highways" - originally published in Black Lantern Publishing
"Poses as Moses" - originally published in The Dribble