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Friday, February 5, 2010

Linton Robinson's Sweet Spot

Linton Robinson is here to discuss his latest book, Sweet Spot.


Lin, when did you start writing?
I’ve been a writer since I can remember, scribbling little stories and weirdo comics. I’ve published my own work since grade school: little hand-written, hand-distributed neighborhood newspapers…I went nuts when I got a little plastic print set with rubber type in fifth grade. I owned several publications during my twenties and publishing always came natural to me. I like working with printers, screwing around to get copy and graphics ready. I’ve had at least three skill sets extinguished by technological progress. I had a line of poetry books in Seattle in the Eighties, and for the last twenty years have self-published (often self-printed and self-stapled and self-flogged to tourists on the beach) book on Mexican slang that pays my rent and is sometimes my sole means of support. I don’t see the whole “traditional” vs. “self-publishing” dichotomy that people waste hours arguing about. I see a spectrum with true, total self-publishing on one end and J.K Rowling on the other end. Anybody interested in self-publishing, by the way, I would advise to make an early stop by a series of blog posts I wrote, read the info in the many links and definitely check “The Chart” mentioned in the first one to see what I mean about a spectrum.

I’m currently published by a couple of presses, including Adoro, which is a sort of experimental outfit that’s kind of like “being self-published by somebody else”. They are exploring ways to use POD and other means of publishing, and I’m sort of their Guinea Pig In Chief.

What kind of writing have you done?
I have written just about anything you can think of: newspaper articles, magazines, mail-order catalogs, poetry, songs, novels, ad copy, PR flack, screenplays, T-shirt slogans, billboards, short fiction, html code, online serials. I haven’t done fortune cookies yet, but would in a heartbeat if the money was right: a literary soldier of fortune should certainly do fortune cookies. I’ve gotten money for all of those types of writing and don’t really see any big distinction, like a pianist switching from classical to jazz to blues doesn’t have to go back to school or change costumes or anything.

At this point, I pretty much consider my life wasted, literarily. I spent my youth doing magazine work and short fiction too berserk to get published, writing poetry and bizarre stuff like creating an I-Ching driven poetics using valenced “molecules” of words and syllables…which made even less sense back then when there weren’t computers for it.

Now, in my sixties, I find myself finally writing novels like I always figured I would do when and if I grew up and ironically find that it’s the worst time ever to sell new novels and people don’t like signing older writers who don’t have a long self-life to cash in on. But I’ve always, my whole life as a writer, been able to come into new fields and prevail or even dominate so I’m just figuring out how to break and enter. Stay tuned.

Which project are you most interesting in having people see at the moment?
All of them. But seriously, Sweet Spot has a sweet little spot in the heart of my drum-beating right now. It’s a kind of unusual situation because the book has been out since spring of 2009, but hasn’t really gotten a big publicity/marketing push because it’s set in Mazatlán, Mexico and most English-readers don’t show up there to read the paper until winter. So the reviews and such are just starting, really. See samples and video and all that jazz on the Adoro Books site: http://adorobooks.com/booksweet.php

So is it a book about Mexico like your “Imaginary Lines”?
Yes and no. It’s set in “The Land of Maz” as we used to say, but it’s really a fairly typical crime/politics thriller. Or something. The main character, Mundo Carrasco, is a local baseball hero turned journalist who gets sucked into the corrupt city government because of a gorgeous, amoral “femme fatale”. So it’s really a story about what’s going there, though foreigners reading it would be seeing a lot of travelogue about Mexican scenery, Carnival, politics, and such. Somewhat like “Gorky Park”--if I can commit the sin of mentioning my work in the same breath as the amazing Martin Cruz Smith--in that it’s a local story, but most readers would find it informative about Mexico and the remarkable city of Mazatlán in particular. I guess I play up to that a bit: every chapter has a lead-in quote from “Mundo’s writing” that explains or expounds or possibly confuses issues in the chapter.

So your protagonist is a Mazatlán newspaper writer, like you were?
No, I wrote mostly for tourists, except for articles in cultural journals and A&E pages explaining American culture to Mexicans. “It’s interesting that all of these words--jazz, boogie, and rock&roll--all originally meant “sex” in the American negro dialect…” Most people, especially young people, in the world are fascinated by American music and film.

Mundo, on the other hand, is a hard-core investigative reporter who covers the most notorious beat in that area: the narcotics industry. But he’s not really a writer type, certainly not an intellectual. And not a tough guy, though he experiences some very rough treatment in Sweet Spot. He’s basically a good-natured jock with a fondness the ladies that is reciprocated. Both men and women seem to like Mundo.

Is Mundo based on you or people you know?
Well, I’ve been a journalist and a baseball player, but no: no resemblance whatsoever. There are other characters in the book who have some resemblance to those living and/or dead, however. Anybody who’s lived in Mazatlán over five years will recognize the Mayor immediately, although the real-life Mayor was impeached, not murdered in a grisly fashion. A bigwig who “owns the town” will ring bells with residents, though my portrayal of him is pretty generous compared to the reality. Anybody in downtown Maz who reads about the bayview rooftop perch Mundo calls home would immediately know where it is and who lived there. One glaring “steal from real” is Mundo’s downstairs neighbor, whose inspiration for the character would be instantly recognized. He’s a colleague and friend, but not too happy about being immortalized. I toss friends into my work, thinking they’ll be pleased, but they usually aren’t. Go figure.
Next time I’m just going to toss in all my enemies for revenge.

How do you determine voice in your writing?
Glad you asked this one. I’d say it’s the other way around. I’m a strident online critic of people I call “POV nazis” who yap about different brand names for point of view and tsk-tsk about “head-hopping” and such. One of the only workable tips I ever picked up in college was the concept of “narrative voice”. Which is the main thing writers should be aware of in this respect. Even though it’s kind of like “unconditional love” or something: hard to chase down and own; but once you hear the phrase, you’ve learned something important to keep an eye out for in relationships.

I would say that a story has a way it “wants to tell itself”. Once you find that “voice” it starts writing itself, to a degree. Without it, you bungle around in vain. Some of these are odd enough that we’re aware of them: story dictated by somebody deceased, told from the perspective of a child or deaf-mute, story told three times by three different people (“Leaving Cheyenne” by McMurtry does that in one way, “The Embezzler” by Louis Auchincloss in a different way: both masterful and highly recommended reads for anybody struggling with narrative voice of POV issues.)

On a practical level, what I’d say that means is that the writer is not using “techniques” or “tools” to “construct” that voice, but is more like a lover searching for it, open to possibilities, listening for the beat below the melody.

To give one example of this train of thought, I was talking with Ken Kesey in Seattle (and yes, NorWesterners, in the Blue Moon: where else?) and he mentioned the character of The Chief in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. Perhaps you recall the huge, silent, catatonic Indian who is witness to the whole thing without speaking. He said, “It was making me crazy, trying to get the perspective and viewpoints for this thing, and the tone of the narrative. Then The Chief popped into my mind and as soon as he was on the scene, everything just fell into place and moved forward with a sure step.”

How does your environment/upbringing color your writing?
I’ve lived in Latin America most of the last twenty years, most of it in Mexico. But beyond that, I was born an expatriate and peripatetic Army brat. The only place I ever got homesick for was Taiwan, my junior high years, and a great time for me. I like the Third World. I like being a minority. I like dealing in more than one language at a time. The first time I stepped off a ferryboat and was really in Mexico (Juarez and The Baja don’t count) something just hit me, a feeling like being home. It felt odd and I finally realized it was like Taipei: sidewalks clogged with little shops, peoples selling food cooked right there in the street, lots of human and animal labor instead of machines, just a different feeling that I recognized and responded to. As opposed to stepping off a boat in Havana for the first time and feeling like I was on a different planet, even though I spoke the language. I’d love to do a novel in Cuba.

What is your marketing strategy for your work?
My short term plan has been to tick people off on writer’s forums and get kicked off. My long term plan involves being a best-selling idol and making those kickers-off lick my huaraches.

Seriously, Adoro and I have been concentrating heavily on getting into libraries--which has been pretty successful--into bookstores--some success there, requiring a lot of explaining that they are available from distributors and returnable--and direct internet sales from the Adoro site as well as online retailers like Barnes and Noble.

A big factor in getting eyeballs to purchase points is the use of video “trailers”. Used aggressively: doing a video and leaving lying around on YouTube doesn’t help. I try to create videos that reflect my writer creativity, are interesting enough to be passed around and reposted: then I go put them where people will see them.

You produce your own videos?
Oh, yeah. For awhile there I was viewing writing as a distraction from my video craze. But the “bug” is in remission now. I’ve won some awards for videos, which helps spread the word. Most of them can be seen on my page: I’m particularly proud of the “Engines of Desire” and “Flesh Wounds” vids, which go beyond promotion into being artistic works in their own right. I’d strongly advise people to have a go at making their own video trailers, instead of paying somebody else to punch one out that looks just like all the rest of them. It’s not rocket science and even if you have no experience, you just might do something that gets more attention that the “cookie cutter” vids.

Can you give an example of how a writer can make a better video than a video pro?
One that comes to mind is a woman with a book she wrote for kids. She bought my manual, then wrote to me that she couldn’t afford to pay her cover artist to do more work for the video and couldn’t find any children-type artwork. I said, “What’s on your refrigerator?” She ended up scanning a bunch of crayon illustrations done by her kids, editing them together using tips from my manual, and created a very popular video. The soundtrack, made using a free program I recommended and a $20 Radio Shack microphone, was a bunch of kids singing a song from the book.

Did you write the manual you mention?
Thought you’d never ask. Yes, I have a six dollar pdf manual that helps writers with no experience make book trailers for free, using simple programs and free resources. Having an e-Book to work from is great because you can just toggle between your on-screen work and the manual. You can see the page for the “eManual” at http://adoroworks.mexipost.com/tutvideo.php

After hours of intense writing, how do you unwind?
Same as any other writer: drugs, rock and roll, mindless violence, weird sex. Oh, that and free-diving in Caribbean caves and tunnels, pursuing my unspoken personal goal to become lobster chow.

What are your current projects?
I think it’s about time to do a screenplay. And I’m thinking of one about a single mother. Sort of.
Actually, what is exciting me right now is not individual books, of which I have several in the fire, but formats and venues and methods. I’m working on online serials and have done some e-books in different forms, and looking into a podcast, and am very excited about books for iPhone and other phone apps. This is where things are heading (NOT the evil, monopolistic Kindle) and I see a lot of areas I’d like to mix it up with.
I wish this stuff had come around when I was twenty and wasting my time doing magazine articles and girly photography and felonies. It’s like there’s all this COOL STUFF coming out and I have limited energy to crawl all over it like I’d want to.

Where can folks learn more about your books and events?
I’d like to invite people to my website at http://linrobinson.com/
Check out my video poetry. I have a page on the Adoro site: http://adorobooks.com/author1.php

Lin, thanks for letting us take a closer look at you and your world. Best wishes on all future endeavors, and please don't become lobster chow!

5 comments:

Sun Singer said...

"The Cool Stuff"--however we define it for ourselves--is what keeps writers writing. It's the ultimate kick.

Great interview and a great read on this rainy Friday morning.

Malcolm

Susan Whitfield said...

Sun, Lin is traveling but he'll check in later. It's pouring rain here as well. Ready for some serious sun.

Wallace J Swenson said...

Interesting fellow and great interview. So much to do and so little time left. I feel his pain.

Wally Swenson

John Garrett said...

Linton is a veritable font of knowledge, people. Thanks Susan for the interview!

Susan Whitfield said...

Thanks, you guys, for stopping by.