Paul Elwork: The Terribleminds Interview

So, here’s Paul Elwork. He’s someone I don’t really know but, when I pinged for interviews, there he was. And I thought, okay, let’s take a look at his book and — well, from that point forward, I knew it was a good idea to get him here. Plus, he’s a Pennsylvania citizen, and that means he gets special privilege. And a hat made of cheesesteaks. Anyway. The paperback edition of his novel, The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead, is available now. Visit his website at: www.paulelwork.com. And check him on the Twitters (@paulelwork).

This is a blog about writing and storytelling. So, tell us a story. As short or long as you care to make it. As true or false as you see it.

There once was a man from Nantucket. Nice guy, but a little self-indulgent.

Why do you tell stories?

Because it’s what my inefficient brain does best. And because I feel most myself when doing it, as opposed to doubting myself, making excuses about why I should be doing something else, etc.

Give the audience one piece of writing or storytelling advice:

Write as often as you can. Form that habit—fit it in wherever possible—just write and write. I’m a really big offender on this point, in that I often “can’t” write unless the conditions are ideal, and it has cost me untold hours of mistakes and discovery and great stuff I couldn’t have imagined I had in me. I have to teach myself this lesson over and over again, for some reason.  Damn inefficient brain.

You live near Philly, yeah? What’s your favorite—and least-favorite—thing about the city?

I think the noise and bustle of the city—of any city—are both my favorite and least favorite things, depending on my mood. That’s why it’s great to live so close on the outskirts, only a short drive even from downtown Philly. But I can turn around and hurry back to where it feels like I’m living in the woods out in the hinterlands.

What’s great about being a writer, and conversely, what sucks about it?

The best thing is probably the excitement of a new idea, one you know has legs. It’s like Friday evening driving home from work—full of possibility. That sense of renewed hope, as if all your battered wishes could be fulfilled with this shining thing, this idea. What sucks is the inverse; the feeling that you’ll never have a good idea again, and that it may as well have been someone else who had the past ideas. And the waiting. All of the waiting inherent to the writing life sucks.

The Girl Who Would Speak for the Dead—where did that book come from? What’s the originating point for you?

The idea for the book came from two places: the true story of the Fox sisters, the claimed spirit mediums who started the Spiritualist movement in the nineteenth century, and a historic riverside estate at the edge of Philadelphia, Glen Foerd on the Delaware. I borrowed heavily from Glen Foerd as the setting—taking the garden playhouse pretty much straight from the estate—and in using the germ of the Fox sisters’ story, I recast it, moved it in time, and fictionalized everything.

What does this book say about death?

The book definitely proceeds from the idea of death as an end. The story concerns itself with how the living deal with each other and those they’ve lost in the face of mortality, and the roles of grief and belief in doing so. It’s also about secrets, or maybe more precisely, about the secret lives people lead.

Favorite word? And then, the follow up: Favorite curse word?

“Ridiculous” seems to be my favorite word. Over the years I’ve been made fun of for using it a lot. My favorite curse word is easily “motherfucker.” Those consonants kick.

Favorite alcoholic beverage? (If cocktail: provide recipe. If you don’t drink alcohol, fine, fine, a non-alcoholic beverage will do.)

I love India Pale Ales. I love beer in general—and wine and the occasional single-malt Scotch or vodka martini—but if we’re talking about favorites, I have to say a nicely textured IPA. There are so many great ones, but I’ll throw Stone Brewing’s Arrogant Bastard Ale on top of the pile. Make of that what you will.

You don’t get away with just one IPA recommendation. Recommend three more good IPAs folks should try.

Ah, IPAs—so many good ones. Dogfish Head’s 90-Minute IPA (sometimes called an imperial IPA) clocks in at 9% ABV and is absolutely fantastic. Each one packs a little wallop, though, so careful about knocking them back. Victory Brewing’s HopDevil IPA is very rich and complex—definitely one to try if you like such things. I also have to mention Yards Brewing’s IPA, now an old favorite of mine. And all of this beer talk is making me thirsty…

Recommend a book, comic book, film, or game: something with great story. Go!

I’m going to sound like your middle-school English teacher, but I recommend Great Expectations. The pure storytelling of Dickens’s novels still astounds me, and this one has got to be my favorite. If this book seems like kid stuff in your mind (and boring kid stuff, at that), consider this passage: “And then I looked at the stars, and considered how awful it would be for a man to turn his face up to them as he froze to death, and see no help or pity in all the glittering multitude.” Oh man, I really am like your middle-school English teacher.

What skills do you bring to help the humans win the inevitable zombie war?

I’ve never fired a gun, I’m not very handy, and I don’t have even a Cub Scout’s wilderness skills. Really hoping they’ll need someone delivering smartass asides amid the horror and gore.

You’ve committed crimes against humanity. They caught you. You get one last meal.

Salmon stuffed with crab and covered in Béarnaise sauce. That would be a high note at the end of a murderous career.

What’s next for you as a storyteller? What does the future hold?

My sons have asked me a number of times if I’ll ever write a book for kids—especially my older son, who’s eight. I love so many children’s books, and it is a dream of mine to write one. So right now I’m doing that—writing a creepy book for my sons and for the kid that was (is) me. We’ll see how it goes.

You’re writing a kids’ book? What’s the trick to storytelling for children?

I think the literary/storytelling values are pretty much the same. It’s still about Faulkner’s line regarding the “human heart in conflict with itself” for me. You want to infuse the work with your best conception of truth in a thousand ways, even while providing excitement and adventure, even if supernatural elements are at play (as they are in the book I’m writing). If you’re writing for 10–12 year olds, say, you don’t want to write too far over their heads. I’ve found that this makes me strive even harder to say things simply, which I can’t help but see as a good thing. My prose is sort of stripped down, anyway, so I don’t find this to be too confining stylistically.

On the other hand, maybe the bigger danger is dumbing the work down too much because you think kids can’t handle it. Obviously it makes you think differently about adult issues in whatever you’re writing—and any violence gets special handling, as well—but it can’t be condescending. The classics for children we keep returning to—in books, movies, anything—don’t present themselves as if for little imbeciles. Kids have complex emotional lives, too. They share the strange compulsion of adults to lose ourselves in narrative even while grappling with the complicated and confusing elements of our lives within these narratives, however they are staged or play out. And it seems to me, if we’re not striving to achieve both effects—in any kind of fiction writing—then why bother?