The first book, practically completed, is composed of traditional narrative alternating with news clippings, letters, and diaries and—my favorite epistolary gimmick—the exhibit signs in the Beacon Light Museum which shamelessly present bogus facts about everything on display. You could also describe the book as a hybridization of a travelogue or tour guide and a cheesy exposé. As always in my writing, caustic humor abounds. Every dire situation has an unexpected, often hilarious, outcome—there’s no shortage of over-the-top “comeuppance” on offer. And while I have some doubts about the effectiveness or plausibility of certain sections here and there, I’m unequivocally enthralled with the concluding chapter, which, I predict will come as a very pleasant surprise to the reader who remains on the bus for the entire tour.
The second book, Beacon City Concordia, will concern itself with the many love affairs amongst the various residents—including the springtime liaisons and matings of animals in the Beacon Zoo. It will also delve into the attempts made by municipal authorities to coordinate the lighthouse beam with a laser on the Concord Space Station as a publicity stunt. Everyone’s favorite character, the Devil, will make a guest appearance.
The final part of the triptych, Beacon City Centennial, is about the 2020 World’s Fair in Beacon City, coinciding with its 100th Year Centennial celebration, advertised as Beacon 20/20 Vision. In that final volume, I am going to attempt something very daunting: my intention is to script a resolution for every situation, every character—human and otherwise—and every object mentioned previously. No stone will be unturned, and every narrative thread will be undangled. The reader will finally find out what happened to the unopened fortune cookie that Provost Blank, star reporter for The Beacon City Beam, dropped from the top of the PharosWheel in Confidential.
Readers praise Sayville Tales for its attention to detail, wit, seamless transitions from one story to the next, among other things. What has been your experience developing your style? Any advice for writers still finding their voice?
My advice might not work for everyone, because I write what I dream about. I think that makes me a nocturnal panster cannibalizing my own dreams for material, someone who should be banned from giving advice because they haven’t a clue during daylight hours. I’d have to think about what it means to have a voice. Perhaps it’s one that you hear, rather than speak with, and by that I mean—this is a bit convoluted—maybe you’ve found your own voice when your writing speaks back to you. If it sings, that’s even better.
In the world of practicalities, I believe the best method for finding your true voice is through the crafting of short stories. Never mind that Shirley Jackson wrote The Lottery in two hours at her kitchen table—writing short stories is very difficult, much harder than the public realizes. It’s said by some writers that a great short story is harder to write than a good novel. I won’t weigh in, because to me it’s bananas and apples, but it’s something to be taken into account when embarking on a project and you don’t know what direction to go in.
After you’ve written a dozen different types of shorties, you will have a good idea of what works for your readers and what feels like a satisfying accomplishment to you. That last part is the most important because if what you’re doing is marvelous only in the eyes of others, you will not enjoy a lifetime of authorship. It will be no different than a job with a horrible boss. Most unfulfilling and not what fortune put you here for. Try to find your voice in the middle of this muddle, something that pleases some of the audience and all of you. My blog is featuring a series of articles about the ins-and-outs of the shortie universe. You might look there over the next few months and see if you find something helpful. And the blog enables you to ask me questions, which I welcome.
Audiences also comment that Sayville Tales features a brilliant personification of the Devil. Were there any must-have qualities you had in mind when creating his character in your book?
Like The Canterbury Tales (which Sayville Tales takes as its point of departure), Sayville Tales is about travelers who agree to pass the time telling stories—let’s say “just for the Hell of it.” The Devil is not a participant in Chaucer’s version, but in mine, he poses as a Professor of Folklore and prods the other passengers into joining his game of tale-trading. It’s an elaborate scheme to steal their souls, which are exposed and made vulnerable by self-revelation—think of a high-stakes poker game played with tarot cards, every card holding the secrets of one’s past and future. In this context, while he can’t stand out too much, he isn’t able to get a complete grip on his percolating braggadocio. Nor can he keep his cynical remarks fully in check. The key issue was—in answer to the question more directly—a certain degree of subtlety had to be observed by the Devil and by me. I may have taken the subtlety a bit too far—I know of a few readers who had no idea the Professor was the Devil de-horned! And, here, to amuse you, I will state for the first time publicly that my original plan was to have a twist at the end of the book that revealed that the Professor was just a loudmouth, and the real Devil was the Conductor. In an alternative universe, I guess that was a spoiler.
The “Professor” tells two stories in Sayville Tales. Here comes another confession—I admit that the first story he tells, while perhaps being the best in the book, is a complete blunder on my part (pace, dear readers) because the Devil would never, never, never tell that story—there’s just too much tenderness on display. His second tale, however, hits the nail squarely. It’s very clearly the Devil being the Devil in the second tale. So, yes, he’s hiding in plain sight, and he has his agenda, and he says some hilarious things, but even at the end of the book—his entire soul-sucking plan up-ended into a complete fiasco—he still doesn’t tip his hat and show his horns to the others.
Are there any versions of the Devil in fiction you think were exceptionally done? Not so much?
Any version of the Devil endorsed by organized religion is on my banned list, although I’ll confess that I do love the paintings of Bosch—I qualify that by saying that what I actually love about Bosch is the unrestrained mayhem he unleashes with his paintbrush.
Religion-generated Devils are strictly for the Gong Show and Saturday Night Live. That variety of Devil has gotten exceeding tiresome after hundreds of years—it’s like seeing the same horror movie over and over again and pretending to be scared. I gravitate to the French-style Mephistopheles, like the one in Gounod’s Faust. Dapper, likes the ladies, knows how to charm and flirt, can convince people down is up. Who’s more interesting to most writers and more entertaining to most readers? The serpent in the Garden of Eden or Keyser Söze?
Did any of the situations in Sayville Tales actually occur in real life?
Oh, yes! The first one that comes to mind is the story about the twins because it was a jawdropping, once-in-a-lifetime, can-this-really-be-happening? occurrence. Twin sisters run a talent agency for identical twins. One gets married and 95 percent of the guests at the wedding are their clients—identical twins. Mayhem on an epic scale ensues.
Another is the story about the Kennedy assassination. Yes, Kennedy was assassinated. Yes, despite what some fools say, there was someone who fired a gun behind the fence on the Grassy Knoll. Yes, there was a completely disgraceful Warren Commission Report, the greatest work of fiction America has produced since Moby Dick. But, no, Beaver Cleaver wasn’t there and he didn’t see what actually happened, and the commissioners did not give him a baseball mitt signed by Yogi Berra to keep his mouth shut.
Last is the story about the radio tower in Sayville. Kaiser Wilhelm did have an enormous radio transmitter erected in Sayville using Amerian labor. It was part of the largest communication network on the planet, the precursor of today’s internet. Espionage that occurred there, detailed in the story, directly led to the sinking of the Lusitania, and the outbreak of WWI. The story is real, most of the characters are real people, the news clippings are real. Only the dialog is invented.
In your work, do you prefer to build up to an ironic or humorous moment or lay subtle hints of it throughout your prose—or somewhere in between?
Most of the humor comes from subtle manipulations of language; well-crafted verbiage can expose the ridiculous nature of an ongoing situation—the joke is the 800-pound gorilla in the sentence that only you can see. These situations come about organically and unpredictably, sometimes in the editing phase. On a really lucky day, your writer’s pick-ax can strike an unexpected vein of gold or unearth a precious diamond. Most of the time, wearing your editor’s hat, you’re standing in muck and rummaging through lumps of coal. It’s all in day’s work.
Three things I’ve always been amused by in life that elbow their way into my writing are cluelessness, out-of-control behavior, and chain reactions. The second two require a certain amount of scaffolding to be fully effective. In particular, I love the completely outrageous conclusion to The Wife of Bathbaum’s Tale in Sayville Tales where a doting mother is forced by constant nagging into creating a snack out of… well, best not to give it away, but it’s not what you’re thinking. In Beacon City Confidential, there is a simple payback scheme that goes awry and becomes a runaway train of revenge with a gruesome and hilarious conclusion. That type of outcome has to be built up slowly and the moving parts need to be as meticulously laid out as they would be in a Rube Goldberg contraption. If not, you’ve got, at best, a comedy sketch. On the other hand, you can’t stir the stew too much without running the risk that it might end up tasting like a spoon.
Follow Lawrence on Twitter and Instagram.
Check out his website here.
Photo credit: Lawrence Jay Switzer