I don’t quite feel like James Bond, but fuck him. I’m undercover in the seedy heart of Santa Barbara’s literary scene, talking to this Craig Clevenger guy.
This guy, Craig Clevenger, he’s a local author and he wrote this novel, The Contortionist’s Handbook. What’s this to you?
I recently sat down with Clevenger at the Mercury Lounge to discuss his illustrious self and his new novel. Clevenger offered two capsule summaries of the Handbook.
“First,” he said, “I’d call it the autobiography of a child prodigy forger as told via a psychiatric interview following a pain-killer overdose. Second, I summarize it as the end result of a medical textbook editor hooked on amphetamines writing a bodice-ripper romance.”
Clevenger doesn’t need the bar’s ambient twilight to seem mysterious, though it adds to his idiom. He looks and sounds like a heavily-tattooed cross between Dennis Miller, Jim Carroll, and a stock film noir character. Not many people can pull off the noir thing; Clevenger can and does. He’s been wearing his trademark wallet chain and engineer’s boots since before most of you could spell those words.
“Normally I won’t let anyone with a tape recorder or a writing pad within spitting distance while I’ve got one of these in front of me,” he said, gesturing at his already sweaty beer.
There’s a moment of uncomfortable silence, and we look at each other. I’m the enemy here. I’m that bastard that will crowbar incriminating information out of him under pretenses of “off the record” and put it all in front of my vast reading public the next day, fuck you very much. But we’re grown-ups here. Sort of.
Clevenger was born in Texas and moved around a bit. A temp job out of school turned into a career and a couple job changes later was in his early thirties and making close to six figures. He lived abroad for a few years, and by his mid-thirties he’d achieved what many would consider an ideal life: money, travel, culture, contentment, all that. Then it happened.
“After I had the core premise of the story,” Clevenger said, “I verified a few details with a friend who used to work in an emergency room. That was the kickoff. After that, I had a supremely bad day, which was the cap on a supremely bad series of other events. That led me to blowing off the following day – the Fourth of July – to write. I turned off my phone, locked my door, and passed on a half-dozen BBQ and party invites to write my way back to sanity. It was one of the best days of my life. I only left my desk to refill my coffee cup and wrote about 6,000 words that afternoon. I quit my job the next day.”
Clevenger sipped his beer, pointing at a tattoo on his arm, “I got this when I finished the first draft. Not when I sold the book, not the publication, not the first review. The first draft. That’s what it was about.”
Clevenger is a stylist as well as a storyteller. It isn’t just what he says, it’s how goddamned well he says it.
“There isn’t a single core influence in my writing. Many writers and books influence me in different ways. Italo Calvino had a profound effect on me in terms of knowing what is possible with fiction. Steve Erickson has been the writer whom I’ve tried to emulate in terms of making a pure, visceral impact with a story. Stylistically, I’ve borrowed heavily from American, midcentury noir writers – most notably Jim Thompson and James M. Cain – as well as more linguistically acrobatic writers like Seth Morgan.”
I asked Clevenger to tell me why the average, collegiate, counter-culture meathead would want to read his book.
“I think I know what you mean here … most of the literature that is considered ‘counter-culture’ is quite good and legitimately ‘counter’ to the dominant culture, such as William S. Burroughs in his day or modern writers like Chuck Palahniuk. But my guess is that you’re referring to the stuff that calculated to shock, what I call ‘canned rebellion.’ My opinion on this is not just for literature, but for music or film or any other art: If the artist is aiming to shock or upset, then he or she is no better than someone who creates commercial fluff to placate an audience. In either case, the success of the work is measured by the predictability of the audience’s reaction, and that’s fundamentally dishonest.”
“The Handbook,” Clevenger continued, “as offensive or strange as some people might, and already have found it, was written as an honest expression of my mindset at the time, and with no thought or concern as to how it would be received. It’s not always pretty, but it’s fundamentally honest.”