Tuesday, September 17, 2013

I recently had the opportunity to chat with author Morgan Richter for Praxis Magazine. The interview went live on Sunday morning. But you might have missed it because your Sunday morning was spent singing hymns in church, say. Or sleeping off a Saturday night bender (at times it seems there is no end to long, hard nights of drinking). Or falling over on the couch again (but you know, not all sleep is wasted). Incidentally, anyone who can correctly identify those lyrics gets a shiny new ball point pen from Coyote Moon, my favorite local candle/crystal/Tarot emporium.

Here we go. 

The Praxis Interview: Morgan Richter
Originally published on September 15, 2013

I discovered Morgan Richter’s work serendipitously while searching for images from Sing Blue Silver, the 1984 film documenting the North American leg of Duran Duran’s 1983 – 84 world tour. The search led me to a “Duranalysis” on Richter’s blog, Preppies of the Apocalypse. Her Duranalysis of Sing Blue Silverwas a funny, film scholarly dissection of the celebrated documentary, and I fell in love with Richter’s writing straight away. After reading through more of her posts, I learned that she holds a BFA from USC’s film school, worked in production on several TV shows, authored three award-winning novels: Bias Cut (which is also available in paperback), Charlotte Dent, and Wrong City, and even founded her own publishing company.

Ms. Richter recently took time to chat with us about her novels, her film school background, her work as an associate producer on Talk Soup, and–of course–Duran Duran.

Praxis: Do you feel that you were born a writer?

Morgan Richter: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t write. My parents were both preposterously intelligent and creative, and academic achievement was strongly encouraged in our family. Every summer, our parents prepared daily academic lessons for my sister and me. The subjects changed weekly, but math, science, logic, and creative writing were always heavily covered. I still have a stack of spiral notebooks filled with short stories, most of which I wrote between the ages of six and ten. I was a hardcore L. Frank Baum junkie from a very early age, so many of my stories were set in fantastical worlds that were shameless Oz knockoffs.

I lost a lot of writing momentum in junior high and high school. I still wrote quite a bit—I wrote a feature-length screenplay about motorcycle gangs as well as a very bad speculate script for an episode of, ahem, 21 Jump Street when I was in junior high, plus a never-completed Tolkien-esque fantasy novel when I was in high school. But I didn’t have the discipline I’d had in those very early years.

I don’t know whether I was born a writer. I was born with a good imagination, which my parents encouraged me to develop, and I was a voracious reader from an early age; anyone who wants to write needs both of those qualities. I think there was always an assumption—from my parents, from my friends, from my teachers, from myself—that I would grow up to become a writer. I couldn’t really see myself pursuing a creative writing degree, though, so I went to USC’s film school instead and completed their undergraduate screenwriting program.

P: What’s your writing process like?

MR: The short version of my writing process goes something like this: brainstorm, outline, write, rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. I like spending a few months brainstorming—I write in a journal each morning, in which I jot down fragments of ideas that eventually coalesce into better ideas, until I end up with the general thrust of a story. I’m a big fan of outlining. I’ve written books with outlines and without outlines, and the former method results in a much cleaner first draft. My outlines tend to be ludicrously detailed—almost more like a very sloppy rough draft, with every scene described in as much detail as I can manage and with rough chunks of dialogue already in place.

I like blitzing through first drafts at lightning speed. I aim for about three thousand words a day. My books tend to be on the short side—Charlotte Dentis my longest published book, and that one comes in at under ninety thousand words—so I can usually get through a rough draft in a month, writing every day. Mornings, particularly the wee hours, tend to be my most productive time, but I try to train myself to be as flexible as possible about when and where I write.

I’m very big on rewriting. Usually my general storyline doesn’t change too much from that first draft—I blame my film school training; it’s given me a very strong sense of story structure—but my first-draft prose is inevitably clunky and belabored. During the rewrite process, I go through my entire document over and over again, streamlining my prose, rearranging sentences, deleting repetition, zapping the adverbs and scrutinizing my word choices. My final version is always ten to fifteen percent shorter than the first draft. I don’t talk about the story or, god forbid, let anyone look at it until I’ve gone through several passes and am feeling pretty confident that it’s close to a finished product.

P: What did you learn over the course of writing your first three novels?

MR: I learned that I use the word “awesome” with alarming frequency. I also learned that my characters shrug far too often—really, whenever I need an easy beat in the middle of a bit of dialogue, I add in a shrug. I’m trying very, very hard to eradicate lazy shortcuts like that. I also learned that I am weak at metaphors; whenever I try to write a particularly flowery passage, it tends to stop my story cold in its track. I have a crisp, clean, straightforward prose style; I’ve learned I should encourage this and leave the poetry to other writers. I learned that I write very clumsy first drafts. Luckily, I also learned that I have a knack for rewriting and a good eye for editing, which goes a long way toward mitigating the initial clumsiness.

P: In what order were they written?

MR: I wrote the first draft of Charlotte Dent in 2006, when I was working at a bad desk job while seriously beginning to question whether I was kidding myself about ever finding happiness and success in the entertainment industry. Charlotte is not me and her experiences are not mine, not entirely, but she’s probably the character with whom I share the most common ground, especially with regard to her growing antipathy for Hollywood. Wrong City was written in 2010; it’s actually a sequel of sorts to Anathema, a book I wrote in 2005 but have not yet published–and perhaps never will–it’s in pretty rank shape. “Sequel” is the wrong word, actually; it’s set in the same wacked-out, vaguely supernatural version of Los Angeles, and some of the peripheral characters cross over into both books, but it features a different protagonist, and the events of Wrong City are not affected by anything that happens in Anathema.

I wrote Bias Cut in late 2011; it was a semi-finalist for the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and won a silver medal in the 2013 Independent Publisher Book Awards. Before starting Bias Cut, I was torn between two wholly different story concepts—I wanted to write a surreal post-apocalyptic alternate-history tale, in which the world was largely destroyed in a nuclear attack in 1984 and, almost thirty years later, is still in the process of rebuilding, and I wanted to write a story about an inter-generational friendship between two lost souls. I wanted to write both books simultaneously, I wanted to use the same characters in both, and I wanted to make both books deeply interconnected and yet exist as separate entities—readers wouldn’t need to read one to understand the other.
So… I wrote Bias Cut first. It’s the story of Laurie Sparks, a flamboyant young gay fashion designer, and Nicola, the jaded older woman who becomes his unlikely Platonic soulmate. There’s a nice little mystery involved, but it clearly should be classified as general fiction. And then, after I was done, I wrote the first draft of Lonely Satellite, which is the Bizarro-world version of Bias Cut. This time around, in this alternate version of events, a somewhat tougher version of Laurie is fending his way through a dangerous post-apocalyptic world, running into tweaked versions of the same characters and predicaments he experienced in Bias Cut, only in a more bizarre setting.
There are Easter eggs for Lonely Satellite hidden throughout Bias Cut, by the way. The theme of Laurie’s upcoming fashion collection, the identity of Laurie’s mother, the references to events that happened in the eighties, all of these are tiny clues to what happens in Lonely Satellite.

P: How is Lonely Satellite coming along?

MR: My first draft of Lonely Satellite was a shambles. But I recently finished the final rewrite, and it looks pretty solid. Now I’m coordinating with my graphic designer regarding last-minute cover revisions. It’s set for release in October.

P: What’s your best source of inspiration?

MR: I’m inspired by life and pop culture in equal doses. In film school, a popular exercise in screenwriting class was to flip through a newspaper, find a story, and extract an idea for a feature script from that. My brain doesn’t really work that way; I don’t think I’ve ever come up with a workable plot idea from a news story. And frankly, the whole process reminds me too much of the wayLaw & Order used to smugly proclaim that a particular episode was “ripped from the headlines!”, as if that automatically gave the story more gravitas.
The germ of inspiration for the character of Laurie Sparks, of Bias Cut andLonely Satellite, came from Duran Duran’s Nick Rhodes, circa 1984. Like Nick, Laurie is tiny and beautiful and effeminate and thoroughly spoiled, but with a surprisingly sturdy soul. They’re far from the same person, though; they’re more different than alike, but Nick was my starting point. At the same time, much of Bias Cut (and Charlotte Dent and Wrong City as well) comes from my own experiences in the entertainment industry and from living in Los Angeles and, currently, New York City. It’s a hodgepodge, but hopefully an entertaining one.

P: I had a feeling Nick Rhodes was partially the inspiration for Laurie Sparks! Although Laurie is such a fascinating, multi-layered character on his own.

MR: Thank you! Laurie is my favorite fictional creation to date. He’s just fun to write. Yeah, very specifically, the first fragment of an idea for Laurie Sparks came from watching a behind-the-scenes feature on the making of Duran Duran’s Arena—you know, their bizarre, incomprehensible sci-fi themed 1984 concert film? There’s a segment in which Nick Rhodes is unhappy about his proposed wardrobe for their “Wild Boys” video—the other four Durans get to wear these cool head-to-toe leather outfits, and he’s stuck with this ratty felt cape-like thing. So Nick, who is this tiny, gorgeous, glamorous little creature, sits down cross-legged on the floor of the sewing room and starts gluing sparkly jewels all over a leather jacket to make his own costume. It’s this amazing, strange, hilarious moment. For Laurie, I wanted to capture that weird mixture of someone who seems so over-the-top and shallow and flighty, but who actually has a whole lot going on beneath that very decorative surface.
There were other influences on Laurie along the way—a dollop of both Austin Scarlett and Christian Siriano from Project Runway, maybe some Adam Lambert, maybe some Sailor Moon—but that first spark came from Nick.

P: Okay then, about Duran Duran….

MR: Ah, Duran Duran. Did I mention that my upcoming book is called Lonely Satellite(Ed. note–”Lonely satellite” is a lyric from the Duran Duran song “New Moon on Monday”.) It’s funny—for as much as Duran Duran seems to have taken over aspects of my life lately, I’ve never really considered myself a full-on Duranie, though I suppose I must qualify for the title. I was born in 1974, which put me on the young side of their fanbase when they broke through to mainstream popularity in the early eighties, but I shamelessly adored them anyway. They were beautiful and glamorous and sophisticated, and I loved the universes portrayed in their music videos—the Sri Lankan street scenes in “Hungry Like the Wolf”, the champagne-soaked yacht in the Caribbean in “Rio”, and particularly the post-apocalyptic wastelands of “Wild Boys” and “Union of the Snake.” It’s probably impossible to overstate the importance of that iconic “Wild Boys” video on my creative development.
I moved to Los Angeles for college in 1991, which was sort of a bleak time for Duran Duran—Seattle grunge rock had just broken through in a big way, and the glammed-out New Wave bands of the eighties were deemed terminally uncool in the nineties. I more or less neglected Duran Duran for the next twenty years. Their Decade greatest-hits CD was always on heavy rotation in my apartment, but I dabbled only occasionally into their more contemporary stuff. I don’t think I’ve ever even listened to their Liberty album. Or Big Thing, for that matter. In many ways, I am a rotten excuse for a Duranie.

Then in 2011, I experienced a Duran Duran renaissance. I was fast approaching my lowest point—I’d seen a number of very promising writing gigs fizzle out, I was sad and uninspired, and my father had just been diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. As a lark, I started posting my tongue-in-cheek analyses of vintage Duran videos over on my personal website, Preppies of the Apocalypse. The site name, by the way, is taken from a screenplay I wrote circa 1999, which drew inspiration from, yep, the “Wild Boys” video. It all comes full circle. In a short time, these analyses took on a life of their own, striking a strong nostalgia chord with a wide readership. At one point, the band’s former guitarist, Andy Taylor, started reposting them over on his official website, which was a pretty amazing development.

From Andy Taylor’s Twitter feed:

Vive la Révolution! It’s time to analyze @DuranDuran‘s “New Moon on Monday” video with @morganrichter! Find it here.
— Andy Taylor (@andytaylor_tv) May 9, 2012

I’m sure my current Duran mania stems very specifically from an attempt to recapture the feeling of that long-lost period in time, the early eighties, back when my parents were young and healthy, when I thought I was ever so smart and precocious, when it seemed like anything was possible.

P: I’m curious to know how you come up with character names. So many of them–Charlotte Dent, Laurie Sparks, and most of the ones populating Wrong City–have very distinctive, memorable names.

MR: Charlotte Dent is an easy one. She’s been somewhat damaged by her time in Hollywood, so “Dent” seemed like a good choice. And “Charlotte Dent” sounds something like “charlatan”, which fit well; the whole book is about identity and self-worth, and how Charlotte constantly feels like an imposter in the film industry. She gets cast in a film based on her appearance, even though no one involved with the production has any idea whether she can act. When she’s injured on the set, her stunt double takes her place in some shots, and nobody can tell the difference. She constantly gets confused with other young actresses and misidentified in press photos; after her boyfriend leaves her, he takes up with another actress who looks much like her. So even though she’s trying her best to carve out some kind of unique identity, she has a growing suspicion that she might be a fraud, or at best, a replaceable commodity.

For Laurie Sparks, I wanted to give him a gender-neutral first name, leaning more toward feminine–and “Sparks” is just because Laurie is a very sparkly kind of guy–I would’ve named him “Laurie Sparkle” if I thought I could get away with it. Laurie’s real first name is Laurent, and there’s no way anyone has ever called him Larry. Laurie is a boy who likes kissing other boys, and who likes wearing makeup and dressing in satin and velvet, and he really can’t be bothered to care if anyone has any kind of problem with that. I wanted a name that establishes him right away as someone special—he’s a famous designer and a reality TV star, and he’s got the name to match.
For Wrong City’s Sparky Mother, I wanted a name that would be hard for readers to get a handle on. “Sparky” is kind of an uncool name, and “Mother” really isn’t any kind of typical surname at all. When we meet Sparky, he’s this polished, charming, sophisticated guy who seems to wield a lot of influence in the entertainment industry, but it’s tough to figure out what his deal is, exactly. And he’s got these flat-out dorky business cards, and there’s a lot about him that makes no sense, and there are definitely sinister undercurrents to everything he says or does. So the trick was in coming up with a name that captured all those uneasy, nebulous qualities he possesses. The character of Troy, Vish’s girlfriend, functions as a Trojan horse—she gets past Vish’s defenses, which allows something potentially catastrophic to enter his life—so that seemed like an apt name. Vish himself—short for Viswanathan—is named for Grandmaster Viswanathan Anand. I play a lot of chess.

Not all of my character names have any particular meaning. I’ll often just jam in the very first name that springs to mind when I’m pounding out a first draft. About half of the time, I won’t ever come up with a better replacement for it, so it’ll end up sticking.

P: You mentioned that Charlotte Dent is your longest novel, which is surprising. I breezed through it in a weekend, and loved it.

MR: Thank you. Even though a lot happens to Charlotte along the way, I think the pacing in Charlotte is pretty brisk throughout, without much meandering. A complaint I sometimes hear from readers, which I feel is pretty valid, is that my books end too abruptly, or that they wrap up too quickly. Fair enough, though I tend to think my endings fall right where it’s most natural for them to fall, which is usually only a few pages after the climax. It’s a matter of personal preference, but unless we’re talking about The Lord of the Rings, I’m usually not fond of prolonged denouements.

P: With your experiences on Talk Soup and America’s Funniest Home Videos,plus your life as a writer and founder of Luft Books, have you ever thought of writing a memoir?

MR: Not at all, never. I enjoy reading memoirs, but I’m not inclined to pen one myself. I think I’d have a hard time resisting the urge to mythologize my past and assign deep hidden meaning to the more mundane aspects of my life. I seem very sensible and stable on the surface, but I’m constantly suppressing my inner drama queen. In fiction, I’m okay with streamlining the events in a character’s life down to the strongest, sleekest narrative thread. In Charlotte Dent, for instance, we see the handful of events, positive and negative, that lead Charlotte to start to readjust her thinking regarding a career in the entertainment industry. Real life, though, doesn’t provide a straightforward narrative. If I were to write about my experiences working in the television industry, I’d have to whittle those experiences down to just a handful of events that could support a strong narrative. Knowing myself as I do, I suspect I’d end up sacrificing some honesty to make it a cleaner, stronger story.

I’m probably explaining that poorly. I’ll try again with a clear example: I don’t really know why I’m no longer working in television. There are so many reasons, some that make perfect sense. I had a bad experience working on Job A, and I couldn’t find work after leaving Job B, and I thought I’d be happier writing novels. I had a pretty good shot at getting Job C, but I didn’t pursue it hard enough, and I don’t really know why. If I were writing about this, I’d either have to leave out the reasons that don’t make sense, or shoehorn them into the narrative in a way that makes sense but maybe isn’t entirely true. I think I’d end up feeling dissatisfied with that.
Actually, I could probably write a short, gossipy, shamelessly name-dropping book about working on Talk Soup (“Erik Estrada is awesome!”). That’d probably work out okay. That was a great just-out-of-college job, and one hell of a fun place to work.

P: Tell us more about Luft Books. What motivated you to start it?

MR: Luft Books was born entirely out of frustration and grief. I graduated from film school in 1995, full of promise and ambition. For the first few years after graduation, I was on a pretty good path. I’d worked in production on a number of television shows—I was an associate producer of E!’s Talk Soup, for instance, and a production coordinator on America’s Funniest Home Videos—but, despite having a whole stack of spec screenplays I was shopping around, I wasn’t getting any closer to a career in writing. Production work dried up, and I went through a long series of bad temp jobs, of unemployment and underemployment. The good news is that my creative writing output went way up during this time. I made the switch from screenplays to novels in 2000 and have churned out roughly a book every couple of years since then, along with a few stray screenplays.
It’s such a cliché to complain about the impenetrability of the traditional publishing industry that I can’t bring myself to do it here. I know there are people who will assume I didn’t try hard enough to get my books published through traditional means; I also know there are people who will assume I wasn’t a good enough writer to get my books published through traditional means. The subject exhausts me, so all I will say about that is this: They are wrong.

My mother died in 2008; my father died last year. Throughout my life, they’d been unflinching champions of my talent and potential; after I lost them, I felt horrified and deeply ashamed that I’d never accomplished anything of significance during their lifetimes. So last summer, a couple months after my dad’s death, I took a hard look at the backlog of well-written, eminently publishable novels I’d built up over the years, and decided to do whatever I could to get them into print. Ergo, Luft Books was formed.

Thus far, in its first year, I’ve published four books under the Luft name—three of my own, plus one from an excellent Australian science-fiction author,Disconnected by A.K. Adler. Lonely Satellite is scheduled for an October release. Next year, if all goes according to plan, I’d like to start adding more authors to the Luft Books family. I know a whole slew of very good authors who’ve written publishable, marketable books that they’ve been unable to shepherd through the traditional publishing system. I hope someday Luft can provide them with a viable alternative, should they want one.

Born and raised in Spokane, Washington, Morgan Richter graduated with a BFA in Filmic Writing from the University of Southern California’s film school. She has worked in production on several TV shows, including Talk Soup and America’s Funniest Home Videos, and contributes pop culture reviews and essays to websites such as TVgasmand Forces of Geek, as well as to her own site,Preppies of the Apocalypse.

Ms. Richter is the owner of Luft Books, an independent publishing company, and the author of Bias CutCharlotte Dent, and Wrong CityBias Cut won a silver medal at the 2013 Independent Publishers Book Awards and was a 2012 semi-finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA): Charlotte Dent was a 2008 ABNA semi-finalist. Her upcoming novel Lonely Satellite is scheduled for release in early October. She currently lives in New York City.

*********   Buy my novel Thanks That Was Fun, available on Kindle and non-Kindles  ***********

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