Taking a fucking sharp knife to it

Posted on February 27, 2009

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By Susan Tomaselli

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N. Frank Daniels’ Futureproof is an exhilarating take on the coming-of-age novel. Drugs, sex, frustration, anger, it’s a modern-day Catcher in the Rye, if Holden Caufield had fucked the prostitute; a Romeo & Juliet for the chemically numbed post-grungers. Frank describes himself as the “luckiest asshole you’ll ever know” but, as you’ll read in the interview below, Daniels is one tenacious bastard. He worked long and hard at getting Futureproof read (including flogging his gear on eBay to fund a promotional tour of his (then, self-published) book). And Futureproof is worth reading. Don’t believe me? Ask Jay McInerney. Or Sebastian Horsely. Or Jerry Stahl. Or, indeed, the Futureproof 500. Like his favourite artist Banksy, N. Frank Daniels isn’t afraid of flaunting authority, of breaking the rules. The name of this interview, I’ve stolen from Bansky – “Think outside the box, collapse the box, and take a fucking sharp knife to it.” It makes sense Frank likes him.

Susan Tomaselli: Before we talk about Futureproof, we need to talk about the book’s gestation. There was an article in a mainstream British newspaper a while back on ‘Literature for the Myspace Generation’, but with Futureproof, you beat them to the punch. For those who may not know, Futureproof was born in another guise. Can you tell me its history? And who were the Futureproof 500?

N Frank Daniels: OK. A short history of Futureproof‘s genesis: I dropped out of grad school to write it after attending a prestigious writers conference in upstate New York called the Skidmore Writers Institute. There I met Jay McInerney, Joyce Carol Oates, Samantha Dunn, William Kennedy, Rick Moody, Russell Banks – I mean, just an incredible roster of amazing writers. If you couldn’t get inspiration there you might as well have hung up the spurs. So anyway, with the continual encouragement of my wife I started writing Futureproof. It was really daunting at first. Not a day went by when I didn’t feel like I had no idea about what the fuck I was doing. It was a mess. And by the time I finished the original manuscript it was nearly 200,000 words long. The average novel is between 90,000 and 100,000 words. Once I had gone through multiple rounds of edits I started actively searching out an agent. This was maybe a year and a half after I’d really put my full concentration into writing the book. No dice on the agents. I hit close to a hundred agents before I had finally had my fill of form rejection letters. So I decided to go another route. I went to Amazon and hit up every reviewer of every book I liked, and asked them if they’d read the first 50 pages of my novel. I asked them to get back to me with their reactions, and within a few weeks the reviews started pouring in. 99% positive, no exaggeration, and this was out of maybe 500 people who had agreed to read. So that’s where the Futureproof 500 comes in. These were the first 500 people to read the beginning of the manuscript. And as is already known, a lot of them were also gathered from Myspace. So then everybody was behind me and I realized that with all of them clamoring to read the whole book, if I self-published it not only would I keep them engaged, but also be able to show hard numbers to a prospective publisher. You know, “These are just a small number of the potential audience that this book has.” That line of thinking paid off in the form of a contract with Harper Perennial a year and a half after Futureproof was first self-published.

ST: You’ve deliberately subtitled Futureproof “A Novel”, but you’ve talked in other interviews about how much of the protagonist is you. In his review of Futureproof for Dogmatika, Henry Baum wrote: “Kerouac, Miller, Bukowski, the big three are all autobiographical writers. They’re not just selling their novels, they’re selling their lives, and there’s something enduring about that. You get a picture of the time in a much different way than a purely fictional novel. It’s the autobiographical writers who have become the underground Gods.” Would you describe what you are doing as anti-memoir, then? Is there much of a difference between fiction and biography for you?

NFD: Anti-memoir – I love how you put that. Yeah, you know, I met James Frey a few months before he was “chosen” by Oprah, and after he was christened and then subsequently eviscerated by her, I went on a sort of crusade to defend the writer-as-confessor. Back in the heyday of the “autobiographical writer”, the books were not designated as memoir or fiction. They were just books. James Frey made this same argument while defending himself. I took it a step further, and in my blog (all these posts are still in my archive at nfrankdaniels.wordpress.com) went on a sort of mission to show that Big Publishing had created the environment where a good writer like Frey couldn’t publish the kind of books he’d written unless he said they were memoirs. Obviously those books were based on his life regardless of whether they were labeled novels or memoirs, but he could only sell them if they were memoirs. So I can definitely understand how someone who knows he’s written something worthwhile would be tempted to take a book deal based on the caveat that your mostly true book is completely true. And for the record, James Frey never would have been called out if he hadn’t been picked by Oprah. That controversy was completely based on, as the Smoking Gun’s headline read, James Frey “conning” Oprah. As for my book being labeled a novel, it was definitely a conscious thing to do that. I’m not saying there isn’t fiction in Futureproof, but let’s just say that I could have easily written a straight-up memoir and probably had more success originally, seeing as memoir has been all the rage for years now. You know, I often said that the next book I published was just going to say the book’s title and then “A BOOK” on the cover – not designating it as a novel or memoir. I’m not saying that I’m anti-memoir, because some of the best stuff I’ve read in the last few years has been memoirs. Jeanette WallsThe Glass Castle was an amazing read. And I’m writing my own memoir now. But the history of the novel, and its roots in confessional-style writing, demand to be carried on. Futureproof is a novel because the tone of voice alone is the voice of a 17-22 year old. And the narrative is in first person present-tense, for the most part. The book had to be a novel, because it was written in the style of the novel and anything else would have been selling it short for the quick buck.

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ST: The novel is an unflinching story of addiction. At one point, the characters talk about the jump, the rail against normality, against “a boring, bullshit-dull life with no bottomed-out lows…smooth sailing all along for the most part…or you can take the jump…I can’t stop taking the jump.” Drug-filled countercultural works are a dime a dozen, but what makes your novel stand out is that you nail the numbness of an entire generation, a generation that has become “futureproof”. That scene at the Rocky Horror Show“There is a certain hopelessness that hangs in the air, and we all feel it. We are all at home with it. Behind the facade of people being irresponsible and reprehensible and in all other ways completely morally bankrupt, there is a hopelessness that that holds us together,” – and later – “It doesn’t matter how much we try to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps, you fucking idiots. Can’t you see? We’re going to be trapped down here forever because we have no marketable skill. We can’t run or jump better than anybody else. We can’t afford college. We can’t act or sing. We can’t do long division. We’re the fucking plebes. We have no hopes other than what we find at the bottom of a bag of dope, the emptying of a syringe into a collapsing vein.” It’s not hedonism that drove this generation to drugs. What was it that bred this kind of hopelessness?

NFD: Yeah, I think that although the mainstreaming of drug culture happened in the late 50s and 60s, its recession back into the shadows is what made it the singularly owned property of the hopeless. Which is why I think so many of us children of the hippie Baby Boomers have had such resentment toward our parents. Our parents had an amazing chance to really change things and make the world better and it basically all just collapsed because one pseudo-hippie asshole named Charles Manson completely turned the entire country against anyone who looked like those psychopaths. And while Manson’s followers did commit those brutal murders, it turned into a witch trial. Every hippie in America was dared to keep up their “alternative” lifestyle at the risk of being completely banished from any means of survival, let alone have a chance to change the status quo. But that isn’t an excuse. They could have taken a fucking bath and cut their hair, then worked for change from the inside but instead they got divorced, put on suits, bought Beamers, and sold out every value they claimed to live by when they were teenagers. So it turned into the perfect storm. We, the children of that generation, were basically born with the knowledge of what had happened just prior to our coming into existence – drugs weren’t as bad as the films said in health class, as the ‘Just Say No’ campaigns said on TV. I mean, shit, I remember being literally told that marijuana was just as harmful and deadly as heroin. That’s just fucking nuts. So when we came out of these now-broken homes and into our own as young adults we started drinking and smoking weed and doing everything our parents had done. Only for different reasons. We didn’t think we could change shit and we didn’t want to. Our idols weren’t The Rolling Stones or The Beatles. Ours were the Sex Pistols and The Ramones and The Misfits and Dead Kennedys. We embraced the dead end because after the failure of our parents to make any positive change, we thought the only way out was literally out. Just accept that everything is fucked, then proceed accordingly. But I didn’t want Futureproof to be just that. I wanted it to show that even though we felt this sort of thing on the surface, deep down we were all still doing what our parents had done three decades earlier: we were trying to find the slightest shred of hope. Because that’s what humanity does. We just didn’t have the unrealistic expectations our parents did.

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ST: Futureproof is one hell of a coming-of-age tale, a strong punt for ‘voice of a generation’. The recklessness, the insecurities, the failures, the sex ‘n’ drugs ‘n’ rock ‘n’ roll; it’s got it all. But your novel did come at a cost. Jay McInerney said that it’s a novel that we’ll be talking about for years to come. A victory, then?

NFD: Of course it’s a victory in many ways. Professionally I couldn’t be happier. I wrote a book (check), I sowed and then reaped an audience that is still growing (check), I have begun what is hopefully a long career in letters, with the support of incredible writers such as Jay McInerney, who I have emulated for years. But was the juice worth the squeeze? Every victory comes at some sort of cost. I guess this could be called collateral damage. In my case the collateral damage was the loss of my family. My entire life was my wife and kids but in the end the trials of trying to break in through the back door of the publishing industry proved too much to endure for my wife. So I have had an incredibly difficult time reconciling the literary success I’ve enjoyed with the loss of literally everything else I cared about. And that’s what my memoir is about: the rise of a literary career (which can be substituted for pretty much any passion) in correlation to the annihilation of a marriage and family. Very Ahab-ian. Obsession as a tool of destruction.

ST: The book name-checks Walt Whitman at least twice, and the protagonist is never far from his copy of Black Boy. Are Whitman and Richard Wright both influences for you? Who inspired you to start writing? Would you consider writing an addiction, too?

NFD: Yeah, both are influences. Whitman in particular really opened up a new world to me when I started reading him my freshman year in high school. He showed me that there was beauty everywhere, and gave me the slightest twinge of optimism when everything in my head said that life sucked. A friend’s mom recently read Futureproof and commented that she couldn’t see how the protagonist could like Walt Whitman and then live the kind of life he was living. And I can understand how that could be confusing. But the underlying hope this character possesses is without doubt pure Whitman. Same goes for Richard Wright. The guy basically writes his memoir (which was labeled neither as a memoir or a novel when it was published) about growing up black amid the most racist people in the country and somehow overcoming all of it to make himself something transcendent in the face of all of that. This is why I had Luke really looking up to that book, and his carrying it around is just small evidence to his inherent hopefulness.

And without doubt writing is an addiction. I’d go so far as to say that for many it is a curse. It really is almost a prerequisite for any serious writer to have at least one divorce under his belt because this obsession ruins marriages, as any obsession or addiction eventually will. It just takes so much focus and single-mindedness to not only write something worthwhile, but to bring it to an audience so that it is actually successful.

ST: Along with Tony O’Neill, you were part of the Riot Lit Collective, the precursor to the Offbeat Generation. The Riot Lit slogan – “We are your voice, you are ours, this is our revolution” – is echoed by the Brutalists (again, O’Neill) — “Here’s a lap-top. Here’s the spell check. Now write a book.” Like both of those groups, a bunch of writers “alienated by a publishing world dominated by marketing,” the Riot Lit Collective was not only a call to arms, but a chance for similar writers to connect. How important is it for you to connect with other writers?

NFD: When I started recruiting writers for Riot Lit, my goal was to bring together writers of a similar bent who could then form like Voltron and have a better chance of having their collective voice heard. The idea was that we had so much more power as a group than as individuals fighting each other for a share of the pie. This isn’t a new concept. The Beats laid the foundation, gave us the blueprint. But unlike the Beats, we had the internet. I think it is very, very important for writers to bond with each other and take their work to the world as a force to be reckoned with. And I make it a personal mission to help, in any way I can, writers with promise who have yet to find that big break. The same was done for me, and I plan to do my part to continue on that tradition for as long as I have a writing career and access to the Powers That Be in publishing. Anything less is, in my mind, unconscionable. If you can go through all this struggle and all the loss that comes with it and then turn your back on others who are in the same position you were in before you ‘made it’, then you don’t deserve your success.

ST: You’ve talked about a shift in the publishing paradigm on your blog, saying “never have the keys to the gates of publishing been placed directly in the hands of readers..You are the great democratizers now. You are who determines what you want to read, in a more direct manner than ever before. So get out there and start reading and promoting those books that you find have merit.” In the current economic climate, do you think that publishers have little option but to listen to the grassroots? To come in at the ground level? And how long do you think it will take before this movement is assimilated into the mainstream, turned around and sold back to us, if at all?

NFD: The current economy definitely makes it much harder for publishers to swallow big losses. The old model used to be that literally thousands of books would be thrown at the wall, with the great majority of profits made on just a few hundred ‘successful’ books. Loss on a massive scale was predicted for the majority of the books they published. Now it is going to be a lot harder to just take the loss. So I’d definitely theorize that publishers are more and more going to be looking at self-published books, whose authors have already found audiences, as a way to know what has a chance in the larger market. Can this be perverted, where this new publishing model can be bastardized and the same old shit can be sold whole-sale to the masses? Sure. I don’t think there’s any business model that can’t be manipulated to benefit somebody at the expense of others. But I think it’s going to be a lot harder to do that now because at the very core of this new paradigm is the fact that the reading public chooses what it wants to read much more directly. It’s no different than people buying individual tracks off of albums as opposed to a band’s entire album for use on their iPods.

ST: We can read a teaser of your next book, Gravity Eats the Dawn, a taste of what comes next for Luke in the back of Futureproof. How far along are you with that novel?

NFD: Well, Gravity Eats the Dawn was just the working title for the novel when Futureproof went to press for Harper Perennial. It is now titled Sanctuary and I’m pleased (and relieved) to report that it is completed. I’m really proud of this book and cannot wait to see its reception with readers. My agent has just begun the process of selling it to a house, but I’m really hoping it ends up with Harper. They are great people over there, and I think are really in tune with what is going on in the publishing marketplace as a whole. Most importantly, they go out of their way to nourish the writers on their list.

ST: What would you like to do after that?

NFD: I’ve got a few projects cooking. As I said, I’m working on a memoir – actually two memoirs. One is my own, the other is a memoir I am ghost-writing for a friend about her time as a foster child and her eventual search for the biological family she never knew. And I’ve got a few short stories and essays going for an anthology here and there. So I’m very happy to say that I’m staying busy. I have to or I’ll go fucking crazy. Nothing like (fulfilling) work to take your mind off of what ails you.

ST: As this is Futureproof: Round 2, is there anything you haven’t already been asked that you would have liked to have been asked?

NFD: Well, I can only say that just the other night I received an email from a young woman in Washington, D.C. asking me about love in regards to Luke and Futureproof. I won’t try to paraphrase the question but it really surprised me because I’d never gotten this sort of question before. Here’s the exchange:

“I have a question, because you are 10+4 years older [I have no idea why she stated our age difference in such a manner] and may be able to shed some wisdom. You are in love with so many people throughout your book, but how do you really know that you are in love? When is it rational to live your life around another person if love can come and go so easily?”~Kristen

Before my response, I just wanted to point out that I find it really odd, even now, that when someone publishes a memoir with some incredible stuff in it, the first thing people want to know is if that really could have happened. When you write a novel such as I have with Futureproof, everyone wants to know if it really didn’t happen. Just food for thought. Anyway, my response to Kristen:

“I can only answer that if love were rational, it wouldn’t be love. And I think the main point of the character is that he’s in love with the notion of love. He wants to be loved more than anything else. The capacity to love, I believe, can only be diminished by yourself. So you keep pushing through despite whatever heartache you’ve endured and hope that this time it hurts less. It never does though.”

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ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Susan Tomaselli is the editor of Dogmatika and a contributing editor to 3:AM Magazine. She lives in Dublin.

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Posted in: Interviews