My guest today is Chris Delyani, whose contemporary novels set in San Franciso have achieved critical acclaim and who also writes articles for the Huffington Post in addition to holding down a full time day job.
Thank you, Chris, for taking time out of what be an incredibly busy schedule to answer my questions.
Elin: Can you tell me a little about yourself? For instance, do you have to have a day job as well as being a writer?
Chris: Twenty years ago I moved to San Francisco with a plan to get a day job and then write on the side. For twenty years (more or less) I get up early in the morning to write before heading off to work – otherwise, the day would seem wasted.
But I’ve never thought of any of my day jobs as just “day jobs.” I sometimes wish I had more time to write, but I also think it’s important to get out in the world and interact with other people – real, actual people who need to work for a living and for whom the prospect of getting published is not the least bit necessary to their happiness. In this respect, I’ve had great luck: my various jobs have put me in touch with a wide variety of great people who are not only fun people in their own right, but have informed (and continue to inform) my writing.
Elin: When you aren’t writing, is there any other creative activity you enjoy? Have you ever written about it?
Chris: I wish I knew how to do other creative things, but I’m afraid I don’t. I can’t sing, I can’t draw, I can’t tap dance or play the piano. I do like to visit museums and marvel at the paintings, which, I suppose, is what impelled me to make painting the driving force of Peter Bankston, the hero of my latest book.
I’m an avid practicer of yoga, which I discovered only a few years ago and wish I had discovered sooner. I enjoy it so much that I couldn’t resist making one of the characters in my newest project a yoga instructor, although I know I personally will never be able to achieve that level.
Elin: Can you name any author/authors, past or present, who have been a great influence on your work?
Chris: Among the dead authors, the ones I turn to the most for inspiration are the usual suspects: Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Austen. I also find myself turning again and again to my favorite short stories by Edith Wharton and Flannery O’Connor.
Among the living authors, my favorites are Anne Tyler, Alice Munro, and William Trevor. They seem to make the ordinary seem extraordinary.
Elin: What are you reading? Something to be clutched to the bosom or tossed aside with force? Fiction or non-fiction?
Chris: I’m about two-thirds of the way through Saul Bellow’s “The Adventures of Augie March.” I had long had that book on my list and managed to nab a hardcover version of the book at a used bookstore in Berkeley, Calif., not far from where I live. It’s a dense read, but a satisfying one – at times I don’t feel like I’m reading words but, rather, At times, reading it makes me think of listening to a symphony, that is, I’m getting only a general sense of the book’s overall greatness, but that I’d have to read it a second or maybe even a third time to appreciate the individual words and phrases.
Before that, I read Robert K. Massie’s excellent biography of Catherine the Great. The book read more like a novel than a regurgitation of dates and facts: Catherine comes alive in that book, from her rise from an obscure German princess to one of the most powerful leaders ever to live. Best of all, Massie’s voice is clear and sure, and yet his modesty allows the reader to think the story’s telling itself. Catherine comes across as a woman of many contradictions – passionate, ambitious, empathetic, cruel, sometimes flat-out wrong in her decisions, both romantic and political. To think she actually existed is hard for me to believe.
Elin: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Chris: For my first two books, I pantsed. I would write scenes and then figure out after I’d written them what I was going after. It took me years to finish both of them.
For my current project, I followed the guidelines put forth in Alan Watt’s book “The 90-Day Novel.” Following his directions, I did nothing but outline for the first 28 days, and then spent the remaining 62 days writing the first draft from the outline. I’d plan out a week’s worth of plotting (get from Point A to Point B the first week, then from Point B to Point C the second, and so on), and then proceed from there. Thanks to the increased attention to plot, I think I should have this third book out in a much less time it took me to produce the first two books.
But I also took Watt’s advice to hold the outline “loosely” – that is, to avoid committing to the outline so rigidly that I miss a good detail or a good plot twist.
I suppose this is my longwinded way of saying that I plot when it suits me, and I “pants” when it suits me. After all, it’s my book.
Elin: Do your characters arrive fully fledged and ready to fly or do they develop as you work with them?
Chris: They develop over time. I have a general idea of what I’m going for when I create a character, but in my head I try to maintain a certain flexibility so that if a character does something or says something I didn’t expect, I can let that happen. Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate the value of “listening” to what a character is trying to tell me. And I think it’s important to take the time to let them develop. It’s kind of like getting to know someone worthwhile in real life. You just can’t expect to know everything about them right away.
Elin: Do you have a crisp mental picture of your characters or are they more a thought and a feeling than an image?
Chris: The image of them come to me slowly, kind of like a photographs developing in a dark room. The way they look, the way they act, their moods and gestures – all of them are part of a large puzzle that I trust will come together by the time I’m ready to say, “This book is done.”
Elin: Put together your ideal team of men – drawing from all and any walks of life, fictional or non-fictional – who you would want to come to your rescue if menaced by muggers/alligators/fundamentalists?
Chris: I’m delighted to report that I’ve not yet been menaced by a mugger, an alligator, or a fundamentalist. But if I did, I can’t picture a team of men saving me. Instead, I picture a team of women. Wonder Woman and Xena Warrior Princess would of course be leading the rescue squad (Xena by herself would probably be enough), and then to round things off I’d probably include Michelle Obama, Cate Blanchett, and Emily Dickinson (who I can picture dressed all in white, stunning the enemy into silence with her mysterious stare). I’d also want to include California Attorney General Kamala D. Harris, who is protecting marriage equality from the attacks of more than a few fundamentalists as I write this. Oh, and I definitely want Catherine the Great.
Sadly, writing about relationships among gay men means that my female characters have so far played only supporting roles. I’d love to be able to create a great female character, like Henry James’s Isabel Archer or Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, but I’m worried about getting it wrong.
Elin: Villains – incredibly important in fiction since they challenge the main protagonists and give them something to contend with beyond the tension of a developing relationship. What sort of villains do you prize? A moustache-twirling nightmare or … ?
Chris: The villains that I prize the most are the ones who have the power to test the hero’s mettle. Luke Skywalker wouldn’t be Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader; Dorothy wouldn’t be Dorothy without the Wicked Witch of the West.
And yet I kind of feel bad for the villain – he (or she) plays such an indispensable role in making the plot fun, and all he (or she) gets of out of is the audience’s contempt or outright hatred. I can’t help thinking sometimes of Malvolio, the villain of Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night”: he’s a jerk, true, but the fate he meets in that play always makes me feel bad. So sometimes I can’t help feeling compassion and giving my own villains a break.
I also enjoy villains who are in touch with their inner villainy – among these, my favorite is probably the Marquise de Merteuil in Choderlos de Laclos’s novel “Les Liaisons Dangereuses.” I suppose it’s her self-awareness, her cheerful willingness to exact her petty vengeances, that’s her biggest appeal.
In the moustache-twirling nightmare department, I doubt if any villain can top Shakespeare’s Iago – probably the most vivid fictional representation of human evil ever set in the English language. I can’t help but be in awe of Shakespeare for having not only the brilliance but the courage to create such a monster, to demonstrate the corrosive effect of jealousy on the human spirit.
Elin: What are you working on at the moment? Can you discuss it or do you prefer to keep it a secret until it’s finished.
Chris: Yes, I am working on a third project, but I’m not quite ready to reveal the plot (or even the title) just yet. Let’s just say I’m glad marriage equality has returned to the State of California. More choices available to actual gay people means more choices for the person who likes to write about gay people.
Elin: Could we please have an excerpt of something?
From “You Are Here”:
“A few days ago I was walking around the shopping center downtown,” Ben said. “And I stopped at one of their floor maps, you know, so I could figure out my way around the shopping center. The map itself was a mess, a jumble of all these boxes that were supposed to be stores, but in the middle of the mess was a little red star that simply stated, “You are here.” It seemed so basic, so obvious—“you are here”—but it got me to thinking. Here I was in this big old shopping mall, with no real reason to be there, surrounded by all these people I didn’t know, under all this unspoken pressure to buy a bunch of crap I didn’t even need, but here was this map with its little red star to guide me, assuring me I’m a person, I exist, I’m here.”
Peter looked at Ben, skeptical. “You want me to paint you a floor map?”
“Well, not a real floor map, but a—a life map. Maybe you could paint a big and mysterious universe, a concept of something we don’t know and can’t know, but a map that has a marker on it to remind us we aren’t lost, a place that reminds us, ‘You are here.’”
Peter looked at the wall and refrained from saying what he felt, that Ben’s idea had to be one of the lamest and stupidest ideas he could have come up with.
“Which is the point of today’s parade, if you ask me,” Ben went on. “I know a lot of what goes on there seems frivolous, but the point of the pride parade is so you can show up and let yourself be counted—and not just for the people living today, but for the people who’ll be living here years from now, centuries from now, anyone who cares enough to take a backward look, wanting to know how we lived. Who knows? The way they talk about global warming and rising seas, maybe San Francisco itself—the whole city—won’t be on the map in a hundred years. Everything around us, houses, streets, parks, bridges, the goddamned Transamerica Building, will simply get washed away. Who knows what the world will look like in the future? So that’s why you need to paint a painting as soon as possible—and why you need to go to the parade today, if only to let yourself be counted for a few minutes. You’re here, Peter. You’ve got to let people know you’re here.”
Thanks again to Chris for visiting. If you would like to follow him on Twitter you can find him as @chrisdelyani or you may follow him at his website, on Goodreads and on his page at the Huffington Post.