Questions and Answers
Interview of Asher Black

Why write fiction as a form?

Locked up inside of us is a thing we don't often put words to. So I'll say it. I write because I want to be loved. I want to be loved, but I know a thing: you can't be loved, not fully, not for who you really are, until you have shown the world, or some world, some audience of people who might be open to it, even an audience of one, who you really are, what you are, what's inside you.

Storytelling connects with the most basic impulses of the human ape. Good stories rivet us, because there's really just one story, and we've been telling it since we sat cross-legged at the fire and opened our mouths to talk. It follows the same basic format every time: an aspiration (or problem), a hurdle or barrier that stops us, and the act of trying to overcome it. This is why fiction works. When we create great fiction, it pulls on the things that make us apes move, literally bother to move at all, to get out of bed, to do anything, to build that fire in the first place.

Creating fiction is partly a venture to connect to other people and to a narrative of what our lives mean, even if expressed tangentially in the plot and vicariously in the characters. We are creatures built for meaning, wed to meaning, seeking the transcendent meaning of ourselves, the world, and our relationship to it. We get those answers if we stay on the questions long enough, in increments, with bits of clarity coming through like sunlight filtered through the leaves of a maple tree under which we've sheltered from the unapproachable sun. The act of authorship, of being an auteur, of creating anything—a kata, a song, a story—engages the part of us that searches for those answers.

How would you describe your voice?

I'm told it's protean: "Asher Black's voice is that of the hyphenate--at once streetwise but book-smart, explosive but precise, lucid but descriptive. It ranges from terse and economic when a scene demands to imagistic when a scene allows."

Unless it's hype, no one else can tell you who you are or your thesis, but only another person can say what they think you sound like. A hyped-up version could be: "Action-driven storytelling with psychological depth, genre-blending, terse but sometimes poetic prose with a vocal style, multi-layered with keen observations."

Why crime novels or hard-boiled action novels?

I love that genre—Mickey Spillane, John D. MacDonald. There's so much opportunity to comment on the world in fiction, and those guys did. Genre fiction has incredible potential. You'd otherwise have to write an essay to convey the same ideas. But essays don't reach as many people or land on us the same way. Story hits deep. We've been telling stories since we came down out of the trees and built the first fires in front of the caves to drive away the snuffling in the night. Stories of what lurks out there, stories of our confrontations with it, stories about the lush valleys on the other side of the mountain with cool streams and fruit dripping from the trees, stories of the hunt and the hunters, of our tribes and how we came to be. I think genre fiction in particular enables us to weigh the essential conflicts in life in a way that's digestible to everyone—it's fundamentally human.

Specifically, I prefer the crime novel or hard-boiled action over mystery and noir. Mystery and noir are about the moral frailties of the characters and assert a naturalistic (some would say 'realistic') view of the world, specifically that duty, honor, and values are situational and no one lives up to a fixed moral standard. Noir is the refuge of the anti-hero. I don't care for anti-heroes. Mystery focuses on the puzzle, with pressure to deliver a surprise ending with a twist. I don't enjoy puzzles.

Crime novels and hard-boiled action are about a character who won't lay aside his or her honor in the face of a world and circumstances that continue to demand otherwise. I like that steeper curve. It's a condemnation of situational ethics and the assertion of a moral order containing clear distinctions. The genre's realism will allow that this will be rare but also achievable. The distinction in genres can be summarized in this debate from the film (1998) Man in the Iron Mask: Athos: "When a king is dishonourable, you are removed from your oath." D'Artagnan: "An oath is an oath because it cannot be removed!"

Why literary fiction?

I write specifically coming-of-age fiction and autobiographical fiction. John Knowles could say what a thing felt like so vividly in A Separate Peace. I just finished writing a book about growing up in Appalachia and another drawn from living in Korea. I have my own things to say, insights into what things felt like in another place and time, that I want to bring forward in time and give lasting breath to.

Both genre fic and lit fic have surprised me. I don't think anyone tells you this, or maybe I just didn't hear it, but I've wept, struck to the core by the act of sometimes telling a truth that's entirely pure and pristine—of saying the unsayable, speaking the unspeakable, showing the thing that only my eyes have seen or that was seen in a particular way.

That's the commitment it takes, the courage to stay in the ring when you bleed. I got a busted rib in a karate tournament fight. It hurt so much I could barely stand. All I could do was grin around the mouthguard and tell my opponent, "This is fun." The joy is being the person who can say that when you're wounded. Writing can be like that.

Why autobiographical fiction?

All writing is autobiography in some way, or there's no soul to draw upon. In other words, autobiographical fiction is not much of a stretch. The thing no one says, or seems to say, about authorship is that it's replete with pain. "Do you enjoy writing?" people ask. I don't know how to answer. That's like saying, "Did you enjoy Schindler's List?" The best I can answer is, "I found it meaningful—for me and in general." Meaning is the thing, not pleasure. If you're in it for pleasure, maybe it's a hobby. If you're in it for enjoyment, maybe it's a sport. For it to be an art, you have to take on its punctuated nature—it has moments of transcendent ecstasy and equal, perhaps more, moments of agitation, anxiousness, and reflective suffering.

I began writing books as soon as I decided to engage some of the suffering I've experienced and reflected upon by consigning it to the page for others to gawk at. Before that, I'd imprison it, because I wanted to appear normal, and I can't do that and do this. An artist must sometimes become an escape artist, and I needed to enable what was in me to escape to tell its tale. You hold truths only you can be certain of, and I had to escape normalcy and the normality of keeping those on the inside.

Before that, all my writing was unsatisfying. Authorship is doing whatever injury to convention is required to be able to look at something we've done and say, "Ahhh. That's it." I'm now able to produce work I feel that way about.

Is writing your profession or a hobby?

I avoid hobbies. I don't do anything consistently that I don't take seriously enough to do relentlessly and as well as I can. I put my energy into the reasons I get out of bed. I don't do avocation, only vocation. My profession is really thinking, reflecting, researching, and creating. Two things come out of that: talking and storytelling. I write and talk in order to know what I think. When I write stories, I write how I talk.

The last piece of that puzzle for me was accepting my weirdness. An artist is going to be weird. Everyone is weird, but you're weird in this way that externalizes things, and you gotta stop trying to be otherwise. David Lee Roth, in a Rolling Stone Interview, famously said, 'You think we're this way because we're in rock and roll. No, man. We're in rock and roll because we're this way.' I don't pretend that I can't help it. I just know what my own clothes feel like. You spend your younger years trying on hats. "Am I a crested blazer kind of guy? Am I a white pants kind of guy? A cologne guy? Am I cut out for this work or that?" Eventually, you have your watch, your wallet, your wardrobe, and your shaving kit, and it doesn't need to change. You know what kind of person you are. Unless you're one of those lost souls still searching, you get that stuff set, and you become unmessable.

When did you know you were a writer?

I never wanted to be a writer. I spent years as a writer, and I think I'm finally cured of it. What I wanted was to write things I was satisfied with. I think writers build an identity and authors build finished stories. Writer is an identity we put on. Author is an action, the source of an outcome we created, a thing we've done, a contribution to the tangible and visceral things in the world. Authors create worlds or build this one larger.

Faulkner said, "Don't be a writer. Be writing." A writer talks of it; an author makes something—butt in seat until there's an outcome. It may not be stellar the first go, but it beats 'writing' as a posture, a lifestyle, an identity. Not everything is an identity. I don't want an identity. I know who I am. I want an action.

It can be hard to hear, but taking that position has helped me immensely by being unforgiving with the pose of prose for myself. I think if I were content, merely to be a writer, I wouldn't have written anything I really like. We need to be hard on ourselves in that way to produce anything substantial. Hard on the part of ourselves that resists doing the work in the name of wearing a hat. Authorship is work, and work is tough and often painful, but work is glorious and satisfying. Work gets us from here to there.

What are the key ingredients in your authorship?

Learn about everything, follow tangents, observe assiduously, listen to conversations, construct taxonomies of things, develop encyclopedic knowledge to the degree you can, and trust that 'there's always something' you can use, that you'll be able to lay hands on, so to speak, when you need to solve a problem, to fabricate a solution, like how a character gets out of a jam. Have a lot of data inputs you can apply across domains. I'm a native interdisciplinarian (to coin a term)—in other words, a polymath.

Other than that, it's just butt in seat, a little familiar music, a sandwich, and the laptop open with fingers flying. I've received, in increments, the grace of needing very few things to be in 'writing mode'; I think that's a worthy goal for anyone intending to do this continuously. The main things that get in my way are car horns, church bells, low-flying helicopters, and an army of flying insects. I write outside whenever I can.

What's your writing process?

On a macro level, I have two days carved out every week dedicated to progress on my books—to anything that pushes the ball forward. I meet with two writing coaches on a third day to review the drafts, and I write down their feedback. I've another couple of half-days for editing. This, and I say "no" to a lot of other things.

I'm committed to doing no more than five things in my life regularly. I love boating, dancing, and a host of other things, but I deliberately don't do them on any consistent basis for the sake of the things that MUST happen consistently. No one writes the great American novel by seeing all their shows, hanging out with all their friends, and going to bed on time, let alone playing video games for five hours. There are trade-offs. Most people will struggle past three things they're deeply committed to. Five is the max. For me, they're my relationships, my business, fiction, karate, and music.

At a micro level, I start with a story premise, build a plot arc, and a list of elements I want in the book, because I'm creating a world, even if it's set in this world—it's the world of the story. I create character lists and beats that need to happen, then flesh that into a rough outline. I create taxonomies of things (like types of fights, modes of escape, means of revenge, whatever) that I'm going to need, and then filter and draw upon those to flesh out the outline. Meanwhile, I write warm-up scenes, either standalone stories with those characters in that world, or character point of view scenes, background scenes, or some combination of those. Then, I start writing chapter scenes when I've got the rhythm and voice of that story.

How much do you write?

I'm keeping up with Stephen King, but I'd like to hit Asimov levels. Currently I bang out around 1300-1700 solid words per hour when I'm moving at a good clip, and generally somewhere between 7500 and eleventy-five hundred per sitting. I do that a couple of times a week, spending about seven hours each in a go. First novel took 11 months, second one 9 months, and I'm working to cut that down to 6 months and even 3. I've got a lot of books planned, so I need to hammer down.

Where do the ideas come from?

Space. I stare into it a lot and dream, remember, and fabricate. I'm a really effective blender of the hypothetical, the actual, and the outright lie that sounds plausible. It's 80/20: experience and imagination. You don't have to have had tons of experiences, but you need to have paid a ton of attention to the ones you've had. Living like that, hyper-attentively to details others pass over, will make you a bit weird, but it'll give you a core ingredient of storytelling in long form.

How do you deal with Writer’s Block?

I don't allow it. I don't accept having it. If it makes a run at me, I murder it, salt the fields, and stick around to re-educate its children. I won't live with it. I write down ideas constantly. I write down ideas about those ideas, and I jot outlines for potential books. I write down more ideas than one could make books in a lifetime, but ones I'd be perfectly happy to make.

I've also got two superb writing coaches, Noah and Matthew, who, if I was ever blocked, would act like colonoscopists for the soul. They'd push until I was connected with whatever was driving me inside. It helps that I keep list of what I care about at any given time—where the music is playing. If you don't know what you care about, or what you're about as a person, it's a lost cause unless you stop and go after those things, which ARE answerable if you have a lion's heart.

Until you connect with yourself, how will anyone, like a reader, connect with you? I think this is where a lot of people get discouraged and quit, and a lot of people who have taken on 'writer' as an identity sit and stare at the page, or walk around and think of a virtual page while engaged in avoidance behaviors—not just of writing but of personal learning and connection. "Know thyself" is axiomatic for a reason. So is "the unreflective life isn't worth living". 

Of course, I sometimes don't know how to START what I'm doing. I have a rule: just start. The first few pages are always awkwardly executed. I don't care. I'll fix them in the edit. It's like making a song. Start humming. Your body and mind, your heart and soul, your gut and bowels know what to do. Lay down the rhythm inside, and your song will find its legs.

Did being an editor help?

It helped me avoid writing but, in the end, that's not what I wanted. Thinking like an editor certainly helps for taking a more objective approach to one's own fiction, for thinking about what works and what doesn't and knowing why. But a lot of things help for that, including deliberately studying fiction you like and are motivated to read.

Editing was part of the mix of things I'd simply tag "paying attention". I think authors pay attention to a lot of things people pass over without noticing—patterns, behaviors, distinctions. Every bit of paying attention has been useful: editing and studying lit, writing down things that happen, capturing what I think at the time—even cracking jokes about what I hear is a way of coding and imprinting it. There are all kinds of ways to pay attention. But obviously, at some point, you have to kick out the pages.

What inspired the first hard-boiled book?

I had two characters I created, because I wanted to think about two different directions my life might have taken vocationally and could take when conflict arises. They're options for me, emotionally. I could respond to challenges as either character. I got them pretty darned spanking right on. To understand better what they would do in a given situation, I needed to put them in a situation from which I could extrapolate. That led to me telling a story and, as soon as I started doing that, I knew I had something and wanted to tell more than one.

What inspired the first coming of age book?

I had an extraordinary childhood in a number of ways, and I've wanted to tell those stories for a long time. There are a lot of them. I wanted to do it in fictionalized form, so I don't have to wrestle with anyone over the details. I think you can tell a story in a way that, even if it's fiction, people can tell you know what you're talking about. Dashiell Hammett was a Pinkerton, so you can tell he's coming from that experience in his work. Same thing. What really interests me here is genre-hacking and cross-genre work. It's lit fiction that is also action fiction. The potential to get the deep meaning out of both traditions appeals to me.

What additional books are you planning?

I'm knocking out additional books in each of two series' at the same time: one hard-boiled action (genre fic), the other lit fic, coming of age, autobiographical fiction. I'm planning to write several in each series, and then branch out to some ideas I've had for a long time for novels I want to write in science fiction and general fiction as well.

How do you feel about AI in fiction writing?

I don't rely on it for a single word of prose. AI is a research assistant, at best, and that's it—a glorified search engine. AI can't tell an effective story, in my judgment, despite the hype. The glue that connects with the soul isn't there, just like the air and breathing—the sag—that classic rock has it in from those tube amplifiers. Analog recording feels human, where the digitally compressed chugga-chugga deedly-deedly that came later feels contrived, like a computer could do it.

I can usually tell if a drummer is human. I listen to a record, and there are microbeats we don't measure in Western music. Musicologists and music theorists study that in Non-Western cultures. There's a lot of indigenous African music we don't even have notation methods to document, because of that. You can hear when a drummer takes a breath—when he's technically on-beat, but there's a segment of time smaller than the official time signature, in which that humanity is conveyed. We can feel it, even if we can't hear it. That's why analog music is still "the music" for a lot of us, along with the great old jazz, blues, and other Americana.

AI produces work like the computer backing tracks like those in a lot of recorded music, as if someone's just phoning it. The vocalist works and the musicians are optional. Drummers go into studios and do a track, and the technician will hand that off to an algorithm to produce a "perfect", and therefore sterile imitation. I dig Sia, her story, her vibe, a lot. But I don't like the music behind Titanium, for instance. It doesn't match what she's really saying. It's not human enough. It doesn't ache with her. It doesn't connect with the ache in me.

I don't like things airbrushed or "photoshopped". What makes something spectacularly unique and human, like us, is the weirdness, the divergence, the universality of the freaking weird. By that I mean open your gut a little. Get a little dirt on the page. If you sanitize it, it feels like one of those coffee shops that come off like a science lab. Stainless steel chairs and tables, coffee made in test tubes—no one relaxes on a sofa in such a place. Let your hair down and have a drink with the unwashed.

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Thanks to all 5500 (approx) Twitter followers. Maxims, ramblings, insights, and random ideas expressed are those of the author and not any agent, publisher, or bookseller.

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