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The Compulsive Reader

This ambitious novelist (who also published Jesus Lives in Trenton) takes time to discuss his most recent novel, the current state of the publishing industry, what it’s like to assume the POV of a sexually deviant pyromaniac, and his mentor…ahem, Albert Einstein (yeah, I know, it’s a weird choice for a writer of literary fiction, but Klim actually was a rocket scientist).

Interview by Matt Ryan

Christopher Klim Brings out his Literary Boxing Gloves

Klim, author of the recently released Everything Burns and founder/managing editor of Writers Notes Magazine, has been a busy man of late. He’s in touch with his Sagitarius side, allowing him to take on multiple writing projects, and he’s also in touch with his smart ass side, taking aim at…well, really, I don’t think he cares. He just fires away the way he sees it, if it hits, or sticks, or annoys, or offends, or disturbs, then you can just imagine him saying that’s what a good book/writer is supposed to do..

This ambitious novelist (who also published Jesus Lives in Trenton) takes time to discuss his most recent novel, the current state of the publishing industry, what it’s like to assume the POV of a sexually deviant pyromaniac, and his mentor…ahem, Albert Einstein (yeah, I know, it’s a weird choice for a writer of literary fiction, but Klim actually was a rocket scientist).

You’ve now written two novels with the same protagonist, Boot Means. Both have been well received with solid reviews, including Booklist. Is this the end of Boot Means?

No, there are at least two more stories as yet unwritten, but for the moment, I’m preoccupied with two non-Boot Means novels, The Winners Circle and Idiot! For now, those Boot Means novels assemble in the back of my mind.

You seem to enjoy torturing your characters. Is this personal?

Lately, interviewers have been asking if I’m a violent person. I was born under punches, and in the 80’s, I hit rough patches. Don’t we all have crap to work out?

No one can say the forces of antagonism are missing from Everything Burns. You have created the most twisted antagonist since Hannibal Lecter. Tell us about him.

A two-dimensional antagonist is the hallmark of pulp fiction. No person is all bad, as is no one all good. We are shades of gray. Even Hitler had a girlfriend.

Your first novel, Jesus Lives in Trenton, sold quite a few copies. It also made some enemies along with way, particularly by invoking the “J” word in the title. Has Everything Burns burrowed its way under anyone’s skin?

The mail I’ve received has been just as intense but in a different way. JLIT served as a litmus test, evoking people’s sense of God and religion by the title alone, and of course, much of it was focused on me as the author. On the other hand, Burns has disturbed people, causing them to become reflective and contemplative. I expected the reaction to be reverse for both novels, but God is the hottest of all hot buttons.

In the world of Hemingway and Faulkner, you tilt toward Hemingway with your quick, snappy prose and strong active verbs. Are you a Hemingway fan or just tired of the MFA bullshit that serves as a substitute for a good story?

I read Faulkner as a kid and understood it. I thought Hemingway was too sterile. I didn’t appreciate Hemingway’s compactness. My novels are about 60% fatter in the draft. I trim them down, until one sentence says what three once did without losing the storyline. I trust readers. They are the most intelligent segment of society. I plant the seeds, recreating my notion of a story in their minds. I hope that the three-dimensional image that I see is close to what they see, but I respect the reader’s right to interpret. I don’t insult them with too much detail.

Here, I’ll offer you a soapbox. Anyone or thing in the literary world you’d like to take a swipe at or are you pleased with the current state of the publishing industry?

It’s schizophrenic. The top end is excellent, seated beside art star literati types with no value. Throughout history, there have always been posers mixed with the very best. Time will make them obvious by their absence. After that, you’ll find garbage—commodities passed off as literature and bestsellers. Next, come the commercial publications—the diet books, cookbooks, and exercise books. The latter books have much more value to the public than fast fiction and trendy advice manuals.

Are you writing full-time these days or do you have one of those dreaded day jobs?

At the moment, I hold the dreaded day job at bay, although I supplement my writing life with adjunct work, mentoring, journalism, and editing. This is the life of a modern writer. Publishers get rich. Writers die poor.

How are sales going for Everything Burns? For Jesus Lives in Trenton you were always out in the trenches doing book signings and winning over the literary world one reader at a time. Are you still hungry?

I’m hungrier than ever. Being with a small press keeps me lean. Libraries have taken to Everything Burns, but the commercial market needs to be exploited. In the spring, I was consumed with the launch of my new literary publication, Writers Notes Magazine. Only now am I forming a plan to promote Everything Burns, but that’s the beauty of a small press. The book stays new for a long time.

Who would like Everything Burns? Is it for the When Harry met Sally Crowd?

The book has two main draws: first, mystery lovers like unraveling the questions of why the arsonist burns. This is why I wrote the book. Imbedded in that story is Boot Mean’s affair with an attractive married woman. Many women readers gravitate to that theme.

The learning curve for writing is so steep. Are you yet to the point where you like what you’ve written one year earlier?

In many ways, Albert Einstein is my mentor. I’m driven by the question—the desire to probe deeper. So if I die never achieving my ideal story but always improving, I’ve lived a fruitful life. I’ve complete four novels for publication, each improving upon the other. I try to teach my writing students this: be patient with your current level of talent, strive to do better.

Writers are often asked who their influences are. I think it’s more informative to find out who a writer doesn’t want to be like. Why don’t you take a swat at a literary sacred cow, someone you think is profoundly overrated and why you don’t to resemble them in any fashion.

To me, the literary sacred cows are the art star lit critics who narrowly define literature in their black clad pretentiousness like some kind of Andy Warhol/Lou Reed avant-garde deity, without the slightest understanding of what those people were trying to do. By and large, these people work between the Hudson and East Rivers in a place former known as New Amsterdam. Try to put these people out of your mind. Write for yourself. Write what you’d like to see on the shelf. Read what you’d like to write. Read voraciously.

Now that I’ve brought it up, I’ll let you answer the standard “Who are your influences?”

William Faulkner. Charles Dickens. John Irving. Fred Astaire. — Emotion. Story. Absurdity. Flare.

Back to Boot Means, he’s a photojournalist? Isn’t that a former vocation of yours?

While working in the space program, I moonlighted as a stringer in backwater sections of the US. You can get more assignments as a journalist if you can shoot pictures and write. I got a good glimpse of small daily newspapers and pour much of this into Boot Means.

Now to Oscar Van Hise, the protagonist: He has his own idea of what’s, shall we say, sexy. Is this character autobiographical? Does your wife sleep with one eye open? Is society safe with you walking around as a free man?

I write without fear, not considering who or if it’ll ever be read. It’s the only way to keep the characters and story real. Having said that, Oscar disturbs just about everyone who meets him. I did the research. Pyromania is the height of compulsive disorders, completely out of control.

One thing I liked about your protagonist is that he was a thinking man’s villain. If you hadn’t given him a point of view, this wouldn’t have been the case. Was it ever an option not giving him a point of view?

Oscar is screwed up—sexually dysfunctional, rage-oriented, a spoiled brat, thinks the world belongs to him and him alone—but he’s an intelligent man too. I’d innocently selected him for a point of view character, and after submerging into the details, I considered backing out countless times, after many sleepless nights, but obviously I stuck with him. I dared to be him.

You’ve lived in New Jersey for a good portion of your life and your first novel takes place primarily in Trenton. For Everything Burns, you moved to the southwest. Why Texas? Have you ever lived there or was the whole thing a figment of your imagination?

I’d traveled I-10 for business, from the panhandle of Florida to the border of New Mexico. I like the southwestern desert. I worked there. I camped there too. Concho, Texas is modeled after San Angelo in many respects. I enjoyed Texans too.

Faulkner used chide to Hemingway for his failure to take chances, calling him a coward. Hemingway, the machismo that he was, misunderstood the insult and retorted with anecdotal evidence from his wartime experience. So to clarify, what chances, do you as a writer like to take that others might not?

In my latter work, especially Idiot!, I loosen up more, expanding the narrative, but I must say that submerging into the utterly disturbing psyche of a serial arsonist is as brave as it gets. Furthermore, Boot Means stories are designed like old fashion detective stories, so the narrative must be spare.

Dream with me a bit: Providing you survive the road rage of the New Jersey turnpike, what will your body of work is in the next ten years, starting with what’s next?

Spring 2005 will bring The Winners Circle, named for a lottery millionaire therapy group; it’s the story of a man who wins millions but loses the love of his life. In 2006 will come Idiot!, which asks if a perceived village idiot can save a failing town. I’m kicking around two more novels, Big Exit and Red Heaven. I have other ideas too, but they are probably 7 years out. Let’s see if I’m still alive. Thanks to Einstein, I’m not short of ideas.

You’ve studied for years with Robert Gover, author of bestseller and cult classic One Hundred Dollar Misunderstanding, is he your Gertrude Stein?

I don’t know the full depth of Stein’s relationship to his protégés, but for certain, I’m a protégé of Gover. He kept the student-mentor relationship pure, focusing on the essentials of storytelling. He’s a guidepost in a business heavily dependent on results, trends, and corporate ignorance.

You now mentor other writers. May I call you Gertrude?

I’m a storyteller; have been since birth. I try to nurture the art form. There are basic tools that every writer must learn, like a musician learns the chords and scales. The rest depends upon the raw talent bestowed at birth. Often, I find myself doing what Gover did for me, which amounts to offering support and advice for navigating a life in letters. It takes years to reach publication worthiness, and there are no guarantees at the end of the journey. Many writers die young, poor, and at the foot of barstools. I pick them up and dust them off. It was done for me. I’m blessed to return the favor.

The Compulsive Reader © 2004