Tuesday, April 16, 2013

From Gina Sorell's blog, an interview with David Rotenberg, author of A Murder of Crows

David Rotenberg is not only a highly acclaimed bestselling mystery writer, and skilled master of tightly wound suspense thrillers, he is a renowned acting teacher and founder of The Pro Actors Lab, andPro Actors Lab L.A. 

Check out his website for more about his novels, and the great reviews they have received at: www.davidrotenberg.com

Full disclosure, David and I go way back. Back to when I was a young actress, studying with him. He taught and mentored my husband acting, and now my husband acts and teaches his famous technique. I taught his daughter improv, and have shared holiday gatherings with his lovely wife and family. We were out of each other’s lives for years after I moved to Los Angeles, and recently got back in touch. And though we are both older and hopefully wiser, some things never change…and for me that is how much we both love a good story. My favorite part of David’s acting classes was always talking about the imagined lives behind the stories of the characters I was asked to play. Who were they, what drove them, what scared them, what gave them joy, and what were the secrets that they kept buried deep within themselves. Secrets. As a writer I love secrets, and David does too.

David’s latest book A Murder of Crows, the second installment in The Junction Chronicles, is about protagonist Decker Roberts, an acting teacher, and a man with a secret. Decker has the dangerous gift of being able to know when someone is telling the truth. In the first novel, The Placebo Effect, this gift turns from a lucrative side business that he uses to help corporations in their hiring process, to a life threatening hazard that turns his world upside down and sends him on the run from an unknown enemy, and a government agent determined to find him and others of “his kind”.

A Murder of Crows has Decker trying to stay off the radar of the NSA, searching for his estranged son. But when a vicious attack wipes out the best and brightest of America’s young minds, devastating the country's future, Decker is forced to step out of the shadows and help track down the killer. The hunt brings him in contact with other people of "his kind," and Decker begins to realize that the full extent of his gifts, go beyond his wildest imagination.

I am thrilled to have David here today to talk about story, his stories, and his writing process!

This book is the second installment in the Junction Chronicles. Did you know when you were writing the first one, The Placebo Effect, that there were going to be more, or did you just fall in love with your characters and want to keep going?

I knew that it would be several books. My first contract with Simon and Schuster was for two books. In fact now we have a bit of a dilemma – I’ve pretty much completed a draft of book three which would wind up the plot lines of the series – but, I really feel that I’m not finished with these characters and the ideas driving the books. So Simon and Schuster and I (and my lawyer) will have to sit down and discuss the possibility of extending the series.

That should be interesting.

Your protagonist Decker Roberts has an extraordinary gift that comes with an extraordinary responsibility. As an artist do you feel that we have responsibilities with our gifts? To share them? To help others find and realize theirs?

I’m not sure about the ‘as an artist’ part of this. I think people with gifts have a responsibility of sharing those gifts – beauty (see Anouilh’s play Mademoiselle Colombe), strength, intelligence etc.

All eight of the novels that I’ve had published deal with the problem of people who have special gifts of some sort. Many of the novels deal with that gifted person wanting his/her gift acknowledged by others while at the same time wanting to be simply part of the greater society. This was absolutely central to my first five novels all of which are set in modern day Shanghai.

In fact I was faced with this issue when I was invited to Shanghai to direct the first Canadian play in the Peoples Republic of China. The very first thing that the Artistic Director of the Shanghai Theatre Academy said to me – through my translator – was: “You are to remember that you can be replaced.” No welcome to China, no how was your 28 hour trip, just: “You are to remember that you can be replaced.” Hard to hear when you were a Broadway director, but central to a lot of what I’ve written.

As a teacher I think it’s absolutely my duty to help others realize their gifts, no matter how different they may be from mine. 

 What obsesses you? 

I am obsessed by secrets and really, by choices. All my work deals in some way or another with choices, and the ramifications that they have for us later on. Right now I am obsessed with this idea of “how did I get here”? Cue, the Talking Heads soundtrack. What about you? What is obsessing you these days?

Dave Alvin’s version of Route 61 Revisited. Early Dylan altogether. Namibia is in my thoughts a lot. High desert. The southern sky – especially the constellation Scorpio (no I’m not a Scorpio). Why the behavior of so many people seems to have been learned from bad tv acting? Would police officers know how to walk? Talk? Be? Without bad examples on TV? When did every cabbie think it was his job to be a witty raconteur? When will I hail a cabbie who actually is a witty raconteur rather?

When did life begin to imitate art – rather than vis a versa?

And what kind of world are we generating where everyone has seen virtually everything so that we have programmed responses to every situation? We know what every line of text should sound like – jeez, we even know what a nun having a baby is like!

By the by – that voice reading your lines to you is not your voice or your first impulse. It’s the voice of big media talking to you. Want to find your own voice? You’ve got to kill the voice of media in your head.

Can you tell me what your writing life is like? Do you outline? Do you have a writing ritual? I find I am completely lost in a fog for months, sometimes longer, driven by a thought or a line of dialogue that I roll around my brain and body forever, until I trust that there is more there. And I outline, but wait until I absolutely have to.

My refusal to do outline drives my editors quite mad. I also refuse to show them things until I totally understand what I’ve got. Over and over again things that I know any talented editor would have crossed out proved to be the very hook that I needed to make the plot turn – and I didn’t know it until well after I’d written it.

I always know what I’m writing about – always. But the circumstances, plot and details can take me a long time to find.

On a scene level, because I was a stage director for so many years, geography is important to me. I can write the scene if I know where the door is, what’s out the window, who stands and when. Looking at and looking away become important to me.

I was an extremely disciplined stage director. But as a writer I’m a mess. When I finally have a full day to myself I usually cook and clean. Sometimes when I have absolutely no time I find ideas. I can go an entire week without writing a word worth keeping then have a fifteen page morning where almost every word is a keeper.

I love the ocean to help me clarify my thoughts – especially plot, which is not my forte. I tend to write scenes first – heavy on character. Once I know the characters I can imagine them in various circumstances – some of which I keep – most of which I discard. Writing a series is fun that way – surely by the end of the first novel you know the basic characters. I often keep them somewhat close to my age – usually ten or fifteen years my junior so I have a bit of distance to understand what they are going through.  

As for writing rituals … depends totally on the project. Some novels I wrote with the same music playing over and over again – didn’t make me all that popular with my kids. Some novels I wrote in complete silence.

You’ve lived and worked in New York, Toronto, China, South Africa, and most recently Los Angeles. How does this effect your writing inspiration? Does each new location become a possible setting for your next work? As writers I know we are constantly mining people and places for story, but is there one place that speaks to you more than others?

I’m a terrible tourist and seldom find that kind of travel helps me. I like to go places and work. I’ve directed in China and South Africa as well as a great many American cities. I ran a major American regional theatre in North Carolina. It’s living in places that allows me to understand – or begin to understand – them. I spent a lot of my formative years on NYC and still somewhat think of it as my home although I haven’t lived there for 25 years. I was born and raised in Toronto and came back to raise my kids. It’s an unusual city. Over 50% of the people in Toronto were not born in Canada. So there are many times when you look at things here – that there simply is no ‘there’ there. Sorry Gertrude. I never found that with NYC or Shanghai for that matter. Those places have deep roots, you can push hard against them and they won’t give. They are easier to write about, and from.

I’m deeply influenced by architecture and interior space. So different cities often give me ideas for stories. 

What question should I have asked that I didn’t?

I think unfortunately the one question that all novelists must now face is why exactly are you still doing this? Do you not sense a tidal wave approaching? Can you not see the trend away from valuing what you do?

And there are times that I feel that – but I’m attached to story. I continue to believe that story itself is important to the human spirit. And that the novel still presents the most intimate way to tell stories. It doesn’t hurt that after all those years in the collaborative art of the theatre that it’s downright fun to actually not collaborate – to control the process virtually from beginning to end.

I also think that “Does long form TV invade the space of the novel?” is an important question. Perhaps the best of such – The Wire, Breaking Bad etc. – does. Yet the experience of taking a book and controlling your pace of consumption, of being able to go back and re-read or skip sections – still strikes me as the most truly interactive of the media … besides, I can’t imagine a world without novels. 

Thanks for a great interview David!!

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