Leland and Dan Wait for Godot at AWP
Dan Falatko, the author of Condominium, and I met through our publisher, Chicago Center of Literature and Photography. We became fast friends and shared a book-signing table at AWP this year in Los Angeles. Over three days, while waiting for folks to buy our books, we had plenty of time to sit and talk, like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.
We discussed my dysfunctional family comedy The Misadventures of Sulliver Pong, his urban gentrification comedy Condominium, the state of publishing today, our backstories, our processes, and the lasting importance of the band Lightning Bolt.
DF: The main thing that delighted me when reading Pong was that this book is something that just doesn’t seem to exist anymore: A good old-fashioned romp. One that refuses to take serious matters seriously. One that takes its jokes black. One that refuses to play the victim. This type of thing really isn’t “in” anymore. Does this make you feel like an outcast in today’s publishing world?
LC: I agree that mainstream literary fiction has gone away from the comedy, and that comedies (even dark ones like Pong) tend to be devalued. Of course, there was the golden age in the sixties, seventies, and eighties with Pynchon, Tom Robbins, Bret Easton Ellis, Martin Amis, and others. I know I’m naming all white dudes, which is frowned upon. There are plenty of literary comedies written by women, but they tend to be devalued too—as chick-lit, like Bridget Jones’ Diary.
I actually think that if Pynchon or Tom Robbins were writing today, they’d be publishing with indie presses. Look at all the indie press authors here: they’re like ninety percent white guys like you between the ages of thirty-five and fifty-five. Last night, I saw a dinner photo on Facebook with a bunch of indie press authors, and there were eleven white dudes and one woman.
So there are lots of reasons to feel like an outcast in today’s publishing world. It could be your race, your gender, your sexuality, or your genre. There are lots of things that are not “in.” Ultimately, you have to do work that you think would please your idols – the authors that inspired you to write in the first place – and I think that Pong would be looked upon kindly by a writer like Martin Amis or people who like the Coen Brothers. Their fatalism and their scabrous brand of humor have always appealed to me.
Do you feel like an outcast because we’re out on an indie press?
DF: Absolutely. And not in a “jean jacket with an Iron Maiden patch, smoking cigs behind the school dumpster” kind of way. Because that was always a pretty cool disposition. Being an indie author today doesn’t feel very cool at all. It feels like you’re constantly bothering people. Read my book! Review my book! Pay attention to me please! That isn’t my trip at all. I just wasn’t made for DIY. At least not the DIY that exists today where you have to have a Twitter account. I just enjoy writing my silly little novels. Having to beast so hard for even the slightest sliver of the spotlight is making this brother go prematurely grey. So if there are any evil entertainment conglomerates out there that think they can make a dime off my next book and want to take all this nonsense off my hands, I’ll sell half my soul to the first Devil with a contract. But only half. That’s all I have left.
LC: Don’t say that too loud. The Dzanc Books booth is right across from us.
DF: Look, that guy to our left is typing out on-demand haikus on a vintage typewriter!
LC: That’s one step away from bringing your pet goat to the Bookfair. Yeah, I don’t know many authors who enjoy the self-promotional part of having a book out. To me, it’s more of a necessary part of the gig like sitting through boring conference calls in an office. I will say that the best part is actually hearing back from your readers. You don’t need to open fan letters anymore. You can just open Twitter or Facebook. And I do like that there’s a vibrant small press publishing community online that’s championing literature for literature’s sake and leaving the misery porn, the boarding school coming-of-age, and the-young-man-walking-through-a-city-pondering-the-meaning-of-life novels to the New York publishers.
DF: –laughs– At least our books are entertaining.
LC: Shhhh. Literature can’t be entertaining! Rape and murder must be just a shot away!
DF: Who doesn’t love The Stones?
LC: No one. Not even the commies in Cuba, apparently.
LC: Why did you choose to write about urban gentrification in Condominium? You could have gone more polemical, but you didn’t, choosing to write from the perspective of a gentrifying couple that has bitten off more real estate than they can chew. Were you consciously writing away from the political?
DF: There is nothing less interesting to me than modern politics. Current events. The issues. Condominium doesn’t care at all about why gentrification is happening or what the social ramifications will be. It cares about Charles and Sarah, two members of the gentrifying horde. It cares about their relationship, their complex interior realms, their pain, and their grasps for joy.
It all started one day years ago on the L Train, listening to two dudes with fashion mullets make fun of the glistening rows of condominiums being built on the waterfront, dismissing all the day traders, trust funders, people with children (you know, the worst kinds of people) moving into these places from uncool spots like the Upper East Side as one long, drab parade of khakis and Wall Street Journals. Something about their snarky jive made me think this: Can you really just mass-dismiss an entire sub-population of human beings as bland and uninteresting just because they might not know who Lighting Bolt is? These people are on top of the food chain, after all, so whether they were born there or had to fight their way there, they still have more blood on their hands than those two slackers on the L Train. They have much, much more to lose, and their demons are far more plentiful. So in a lot of ways, these people may actually be a whole lot more interesting and complex than those of us wondering where the warehouse party was that night. That was the whole idea for Condo right there. To point out that all people are interesting. Even ones not like you. It’s a utopian novel.
LC: I don’t know who Lightning Bolt is.
DF: What’s wrong with you? You are dismissed.
DF: Your backstory is the kind of thing that life affirming biopics are made of. You were diagnosed with potentially terminal cancer. You got the call that Pong was accepted for publication while in the hospital. Now Pong is out and doing well and so are you. With the recent Salon article telling this backstory, I was wondering this: What percentage of the people who go out and pick up a copy of the novel are expecting an inspirational tearjerker and are instead slapped in the face with a black humor romp? And do you get a thrill out of this?
LC: I always get a thrill out of defying expectations, I guess. That’s kind of the whole point of comedy. I’ve joked that everyone who has read both the essay and the novel tell me that the essay is great. But they are two very different pieces. I wrote that essay thinking that it might be the last thing I publish. I wrote the novel thinking: “I’m a genius, this is so funny and dark and bizarre!” I’m hopeful that readers can enjoy both.
Every book has a book-worthy backstory. Mine just happened to be cancer and a lifesaving stem cell transplant.
What about yours? Did the unspooling of Charles and Sarah’s relationship over real estate and their midlife ennui have personal connections to your experience?
DF: Not at all. I don’t now and most likely never will live in a condominium. My wife is not Sarah, and I’m certainly not Charles. I’d never wear a baseball cap. I don’t know anyone quite like Ruthie and Andrew, as much as I’d love to. If there’s any main character in the book that I may share some traits with, it would be Sarah. But hopefully not many since a lot of people have told me how much they despise this character and some reviews have gone so far as to dedicate entire paragraphs to pointing out the poor girl’s flaws.
I do identify hardcore with the front desk guy in their building who sleeps all day. That’s my kind of dude right there. He perfectly sums up my role as the author of this novel. The guy who is supposed to be the doorkeeper to the whole enterprise but instead just snoozes and stares blankly at the banks of live surveillance monitors, letting all sorts of degenerates in off the street. That right there is my personal connection to this work.
Also, who are you calling middle-aged, Big L?
LC: One-third aged? Forty-percent aged? Look, thanks to wealth inequality, the life expectancy of the non-rich will start decreasing.
DF: Didn’t you just hear me say that politics are boring?
LC: –laughs– My bad.
DF: What’s your “Hey, I’m working on a novel” process, Leland? Do you write pages and pages in a fever dream or assign yourself a certain page count per day? Are you vigorous or lazy? Do you keep to your outline or toss that to the street? Do you even have an outline? Do you have a ritual for the day you finish the novel?
LC: I try to write daily, usually one book project at a time. So, no ritual. I just move on to the next book. I’ll block off a few months to work on a novel, then a few months to work on short fiction, which builds in time for the novel manuscript to sit and age. I outline or write character subtexts when I feel lost. I approach it like a day job. Nine to five, I’ll do writing stuff, which may include churning out new prose, editing old work, answering emails related to writing, or taking a break to get the groceries. When I had a day job, I wrote in the mornings, before work, over artisanal coffee at a nearby café.
What about you? You’ve said you do one page a day. How do you even do that? What if you want to go to two pages? Do you stop?
DF: I come from a working class background. Therefore, my approach to writing a novel is very much like an assembly line. Each day, you do your shift. You punch in. You punch out. During your shift, you produce one perfect page of your novel that syncs up perfectly with the page that went before it. Just like on an assembly line when you put the car door or whatever on the frame that was made in the previous shift. If your novel is 300 pages, you can count on it being completed in 300 days. If it’s 250 pages, it will be done in 250 days. As for writing two pages on a shift? No way. That’s pretty much unheard of right there. After all, you’re only being paid for one. There’s no overtime pay in this factory. It’s just a very efficient way to go about it, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. But it has always worked for me. Just one man in the factory. A lonely assembly line.
When can we expect Pong 2: Son of Pong or whatever your next work will be?
LC: I’m working on a novel about the brief and wondrous life of a fictive famous Chinese-American standup comic. It’s my shtick: sad, funny, American Chinese dude.
What’s the latest with One Thin Dime?
DF: OTD baby. It’s done. It’s ready. It’s more ambitious. Some of it even takes place outside of New York City. It has a real deal plot. Hell, it’s even an international crime caper. It may have a home. It may not. But it will see the light of day at some point soon, and anyone who dug Condo will get a kick out of it.
And the haterz, as they say, are still gonna’ hate.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Leland Cheuk is the author of the novel THE MISADVENTURES OF SULLIVER PONG (CCLaP Publishing, 2015). He has been awarded fellowships and artist residencies including one from the MacDowell Colony, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications such as Salon, The Rumpus, Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, [PANK] Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Bartleby Snopes, The Margins, and elsewhere. He is also an assistant fiction editor at Newfound Journal. He lives in Brooklyn.
Daniel Falatko is the author of Condominium (CCLaP Publishing, 2015). He holds an MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He lives and works in New York City.