Friday, September 17, 2010

[Interview] Joshua Pringle

Joshua Pringle is a novelist, singer and journalist living in New York City.

He is also the web editor for the international political affairs magazine, Worldpress.org. His latest novel, Downward Facing God, is currently being reviewed by literary agents.

In this interview, Joshua Pringle talks about his writing:

When did you start writing?

I wrote a lot of poetry in high school, then went to college and studied magazine journalism. In college I also wrote a lot of songs.

It wasn't until the tail end of college that I started in on prose. I wrote a couple short stories, a screenplay, and then dove into my first novel. That was in 2002 that I started the novel.

Writing has never felt like a conscious decision to me. Instead, a story finds its inception in the back of my head and asks to be let out. With each book or screenplay I've begun, I sit down at a keyboard with an opening scene in my head, start typing, and then ask myself as I go who these characters are, where they're going, what they want. Then the story slowly unfolds in my head over an extended period of time.

So, part of the process is very intuitive for me. But the other half of it is simply hard work, forcing myself to sit down, write, and rewrite. A novel is almost like a marriage in the level of commitment it takes.

As far as wanting to be published, that just seemed like a natural next step after putting all the effort into writing a book. I didn't find an agent for my first novel, so I self-published it, printing enough copies for my inner circle.

With my second novel I'm putting more effort into selling it. I'm currently in the process of sending query letters to agents, which is a drag, especially for an unknown writer, but it has to be done.

How would you describe your writing?

In the literary world, my novels would be described as "accessible literary fiction," which basically means the writing is not the kind of jaw-dropping prose that you'd find in, say, The Great Gatsby or a Dostoevsky book -- it falls somewhere between there and mainstream fiction, which is usually just about plot and not the subtleties and nuances of the writing.

The book I've just finished, called Downward Facing God, is written in first person and is very conversational. It flows pretty smoothly, like you're just listening to someone tell his story. But the subject matter can be pretty loaded, ranging from the main character experiencing a loss of God to reacting to the 9/11 attacks. There are layered looks at the practice of yoga, philosophy, personal relationships.

I think the writing can be light and full of humor on one page and unabashedly vulnerable on the next.

As to whom I'd like to read it, I suppose anyone with a deep well of emotion in them and a taste for thinking outside the box. The yoga crowd will also like this latest one. But I don't think about my audience while I'm writing. I just try to write the best book I'm capable of writing.

Which authors influenced you most?

Ethan Hawke had a significant effect on me while I was writing my first one, because his writing is so fluid. It goes down like clear water. That was a refreshing contrast to some of the other stuff I'd been reading at the time, like Tom Wolfe.

Ethan's stuff made me want to write something that was deep and insightful while also being an "easy" read. Dave Eggers has a knack for this as well.

Other books that influenced me include The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Kite Runner, The Road. The list is a long one.

Then there is the occasional book like Gatsby that just makes you sick because it's so elegant.

Why did they have this influence? I don't know how you answer that. All I know is I was living in San Francisco when I read Kite Runner and there were times I missed my bus stop because I had my nose buried in that book.

Trying to explain why a book is beautiful -- to steal a phrase from a film -- is like dancing to architecture.

How have your personal experiences influenced your writing?

Every experience I have gets stored away subconsciously. When I go to create an imaginary world in a novel, these experiences are the clay I'm working with.

Sometimes I pull directly from things that have happened to me, but most of the time that mysterious artistic laboratory inside my brain concocts those experiences into something else. It's like when two people's DNA combine to create a child. It's clear enough where the child's personality comes from, but that personality is always something completely unique and different from the parents'.

My writing is autobiographical, but only in the loosest sense. The characters and the story develop their own agenda, and I sometimes feel like I'm letting them come through me, like it's not actually up to me how their story plays out.

What are your main concerns and challenges as a writer?

I hit rough parts where I really have to fight to get through a section because it's giving me trouble for whatever reason.

In the editing and rewriting there are always rough spots as well, especially when you know something's not working and you have to cut or re-do something that you really thought was going to be good the first time you approached it.

I sometimes deal with this by taking a step away and coming back to it. Or I re-read, rethink, re-approach.

Sometimes feedback from a friend can be really helpful.

Honestly it's different every time. Solutions to writing problems are often ad hoc.

Do you write every day?

I definitely don't write every day, even when I'm in the middle of writing a novel. This might be different if I were writing novels for a living, but I don't think writing every single day is good for my process.

A lot of my story development actually happens when I'm not at my desk -- on the subway, in the grocery store, in a yoga class. When I'm focused on a story, my characters follow me around. They're in my head. And so little things will trigger ideas about what should happen with those characters. By the time I get home I might have a full page of notes that I compiled in the course of my day.

I'm a very organized and scrupulous note taker, which helps me a lot. Because I figure out how I want a scene to go before I write it, the actual writing is often merely execution of something already figured out. And when I'm writing something that requires a lot of research, having organized notes is essential.

I did a ton of research for this last book on philosophy, politics, yoga, and a couple of other topics. I do the same thing when I'm writing a journalistic article, but the research for a novel is on a whole different level, simply because of the enormity of the task.

A writing session usually starts with me reviewing those notes. It usually ends when I run out of scotch.

How many books have you written so far?

Two.

The first one is called Don't Say the Word Love and is about a psychologist with an addictive personality. It's about sex, drugs, and psychology. It took me two years to write and edit.

The second one, as I mentioned, is called Downward Facing God and is a bit harder to sum up. I guess it's kind of like a male version of Eat Pray Love. There are several ways that that comparison doesn't work, but I make the comparison because both are about a person who's going through some pretty serious life changes. Mine isn't a memoir, but it kind of reads like one.

My protagonist gets hit with some heavy blows (which I won't give away) and is thrust into levels of adulthood he wasn't prepared for. Over a period of five years, spanning three different cities and a few different professions, he battles and stumbles and evolves.

One of the ideas behind the book is that he, like all of us, doesn't reach an ultimate destination. The journey winds, and the learning process goes on indefinitely.

The second one took longer. Just under three years, I think.

Which aspects of Downward Facing God did you find most difficult?

There is a section in the book where I had to work to not impose my own political views too much.

I also had to resist including too much factual context. It can be difficult when something requires a monumental amount of research and you know as a writer that you can use only a small portion of all that information you dug up.

I imagine there are actors who do extensive work to fill in a background for a character, knowing all along that none of it will explicitly show up on the screen. With that kind of thing I just have to grind away and be smart about it, find a way to make the book work as a whole.

On the other hand, there were sections of the book that were really fun to write. A couple scenes come to mind where I was probably smiling as I wrote them.

What will your next book be about?

I don't really know.

I think I have to live the next stage of my life first, so that the book is grounded in experience to some extent. I'm fairly certain, though, that it will have an international aspect to it.

I've become very interested in the disparities between privileged and desperate people. For instance, the amount of extreme poverty in the Global South is simply staggering to me. Living in the United States can bring with it a level of oblivion when it comes to this kind of thing. I'd like to find a way to shed light on another part of the world with my next book, in a way that's positive and bridges the gap between cultures while still telling a compelling story.

But first, I'll have to do more traveling.

What would you say has been your most significant achievement as a writer?

Finishing a novel is always a huge achievement.

However, I think my crowning moment is still ahead of me. Perhaps it will be when I sell my latest book and see it on the shelf at Barnes & Noble. Or perhaps it will be when I get a call from Keira Knightley saying she read my book and wants to go out to dinner and talk about it.

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