Find your Zen – the art of sublime writing with author Robert Crawford
“Apollo is smiling down on us tonight.
He’s gotten with the times and has traded his lyre for a plugged-in
Strat. He’s playing through me, through all of us, pleasingly pounding
the marrow in our bones. It’s that kind of night when even chaotic
feedback is exploitable and my vibrating skeleton recycles that energy
through my fingers. Maybe Apollo had a hand in helping Jimi Hendrix
control and incorporate feedback. But he and perhaps all the gods are on
our side tonight.” Robert Crawford, from the prologue to American Zen.
This week I’ve got quite a treat in
store for anyone who’s ever read a book that makes the hairs on back of
their arms stand on end – or for anyone out there who’s trying to write
something that comes close. Joining us is author and political blogger
Robert Crawford, author of American Zen and The Toy Cop, so grab a cup
of tea, an English muffin (we just call them muffins here) and settle in
for the ride:
Welcome, Rob. I promised you some tea when you come round for this interview, so what’s your brew?
Twining’s Irish Breakfast tea, which I have almost every day, believe it or not. A tart would’ve been nice, but OK…
Who you calling a tart? Get that
tea down you and let’s get started. Primarily, I’d like to take a
little bit about your novel American Zen. To help readers get up to
speed (and to save me the task of writing it myself) can you tell us
what we need to know about this book?
What you “need” to know about American Zen
depends purely upon what you need out of it. It’s got liberal politics,
it’s got laughs, it’s got rock and roll (It even comes with a sound
track that I can send on CD if you wish). But at its most fundamental
level, AZ is about the strength yet the fragility of human love
and friendship. It’s about four guys who’d made up four fifths of a rock
and roll band who reunite after nearly 30 years. They don’t greet each
other with man hugs and merrily pick up where they leave off. There are
conflicts, there are tests of their character and nothing can be more
testing to one’s patience and good will than a week-long trip in one van
up and down the eastern seaboard.
Can you sum up the book in six words or less?
Coming of age, coming of middleage (Alright, I had to cheat a bit. Never said I was great at loglines.).
So, for me the pace of the book
was surprisingly fast – especially when I checked the word count and
realised you were just a few words shy of the 150k mark – which suggests
you spent a lot of time tweaking the structure and composition of the
novel to keep the pages turning (all 500 of them). How do you decide
where to add more detail, more words, more action, and where to cut some
First off, the Create Space version
is only 358 pages long (although there are over 40 lines per page, well
past the standard 32). Secondly, I really can’t take credit for the
fast pacing because it was a rare case of an author not writing a book
as one writing the author. I may have mentioned to you that the four
months I was writing the draft was my Richard Bach moment. Richard Bach
said about 40 years ago that a voice in his head screamed, “Jonathan
Livingston Seagull!” And his book completely took over his life. Bach
said it was unlike anything he’d ever written before or since.
Whatever the impetus behind his book or
mine, whether it be supernatural or simply riding the surf of a new and
strange inner inspiration, this is what American Zen was like for
me. The first draft was knocked out in exactly four months flat and
during those four months, I’d taken only 14 days off. I wrote it at
work, I wrote it at home, I wrote it on the beach. I was fortunate
enough to have two friends and fellow liberal bloggers (Alicia Morgan
and Steve Benson) as technical experts because they’d been in the music
business and had performed with some heavyweights since the 70’s. My
protagonist, Mike Flannigan, had to sound as if he knew what he was
talking about regarding being in a rock and roll band, the gear that was
available at the time, etc. Since I’d published it, people have asked
me if I ever belonged to a rock and roll band. One or two were convinced
What to add, what to cut out. Aye,
there’s the rub. That’s one of the greatest challenges of a novelist and
luckily, I was on something like autopilot to the point where I could
trust my muse to make the right decisions even during the revision
process. I was very lucky in that I had all the dramatic spikes (or
story arcs) lined up in my head on the first or second day and it was as
if some voice in my head was telling me, “Robert, if you don’t write
down this parade of images now, you’ll be sorry because you’ll never see
it again.” It was almost as if I was taking dictation from a higher
creative power, as if I was writing the biography of an alter ego. Other
than that, I just tried to end each chapter on a little cliffhanger,
such as when Mike gets cold-cocked in Billy’s garage or when they saw
Dave’s old van parked in front of the Rock Garden. I usually have a
pretty good sense of when and how to end a chapter and American Zen was certainly no exception.
The book deals with some pretty
heavy themes – life, death, sexuality, youth, middle age, disease,
frustration, and, of course, the music. How many of these big themes are
borne from your own life experiences?
Probably just the
middle age and frustration and even then from a literary mindset. I’ve
never been in a gay relationship, even though I’m bisexual, never known
anyone who had HIV or AIDS, and I never even learned to play guitar. As I
said, this was the story as it was presented to me, almost as if I was
writing someone else’s memoir. It was written so differently (I’d never
written in first person before nor in a purely chronological way) I feel
almost guilty putting my name on the cover. I know very good and well
I’d written it. But at the time and in retrospect, it just didn’t feel
Yet, at the same time, little incidents
and snippets of conversation from my life in the late 70’s, when almost
half the book takes place, found their way in AZ. I’d always
wondered why I held on to those meaningless little recollections that by
themselves don’t really mean a whole lot but I was able to somehow make
use of them in AZ. The Jimmy Carter Show was a real group that
was around Massachusetts in the late 70’s and the teleporting drummer
gimmick they used in AZ was the same exact one they’d actually
used. Dave’s and Rob’s physical appearance was based on two guys I knew
at the leather shop I worked at when I was a kid (the same one at which
all the band members but Billy worked.).
Mike is my idealized version of myself:
Steady family man, well-paid and respected liberal journalist. He’s
where I want to be. Billy is the opposite side of the same coin and he
is where I’m trying to move away from. Minus the conservative
principles, Billy was where I was: Former Special Forces, haunted,
embittered, with a dark side threatening to overwhelm what good is left.
Between these two very dissimilar men stands yours truly. I never knew
that these two polar opposite guys were actually me until long after I’d
finished the first draft. What unites them and maintains their
friendship is not the music but a common, inexplicable love these guys
feel for each other and others in their circle.
Have you ever been in a band? If so, what did you play, and were you any good?
See above. Like Mike
and Jo Jo when they went to junior high together, I played incredibly
uncool instruments like the coronet and French horn. I doubt I even know
how to read music, anymore. But as I’d said, several people have asked
me the same questions you just did and I take that as confirmation that
as a novelist, I’d done my job well and got them to willingly suspend
How did you manage to create
such vivid scenes involving the band mates of The Immortals? Are any of
their hi-jinks semi-autobiographical?
As regards the vivid scenes and hi-jinx, you’ll have to ask my muse. Writing American Zen
was like watching a movie with my third eye and conscientiously writing
down what I’d seen. The dramatic spikes such as the fight in the
graveyard, the Immortals playing White Zombie in the church, the
practical joke Billy pulls on Rob at the wedding, to name just a few,
are pure fancy. And yet, despite willingly ceding much self-conscious
control and outsourcing my critical acumen to this muse, the discipline
never left me and this higher creative being still kept these characters
consistent, the events compelling and plausible and narrative snappy,
lyrical or whatever the situation called for. To create a world from the
ground up and sympathetic, identifiable and interesting characters to
populate it, all aimed toward a satisfying denouement requires
tremendous discipline if not talent. Essentially, the novelist succeeds
where God fails.
Tell us about your other books – and, out of all your tomes, which is your personal favourite and why?
Well, in a lot of ways, American Zen
still stands as my high water mark, IMHO. As I’d said above, it was by
far the most atypical novel I’d ever written and the only one I’d ever
written that made me, me the author
, laugh so often or literally cry out loud. Typically, I write thrillers. The Toy Cop
is the only other novel I have in print and on Kindle. Whereas AZ
took me merely four months to draft, TTC
took me close to 14 years. The latter is a classic case of a book that
just kept growing and growing, sort of a literary black hole in which a
lot gets sucked in and doesn’t escape. What began as a “what if?”
question eventually yeasted its way up into what I think is the best
hostage negotiation novel ever written. At the very least, The Toy Cop
is the first novel to get crisis negotiation right, a point my expert,
former FBI negotiator Fred Lanceley, insisted on making. But as good as TCC
is, I still think American Zen
my best sustained effort because not only did it radically change me as
a human being, it helped write me as much as I wrote it. AZ
wisdom and rationale behind it that was hidden from me until after it
was on paper. There were several times where I’d be proofing a chapter
and I’d find myself saying, “Oh, so that’s
what I meant!”
You live in Tax-achusetts, a
location that features heavily in American Zen, famous for its
propensity for wasting perfectly good tea leaves, world class
educational institutions (U-Mass, of course) and the greatest rock band
in history – the Pixies. What makes MA a special state for you?
So, I take it you’re
not an Aerosmith fan? Before I’d enlisted in the Navy, I’d enlisted in
the Air Force (my father was my recruiter). That didn’t work out so well
and the Air Force sacked me at about the same exact same time my father
retired. His new civilian job brought him to Massachusetts and he
picked me up at my grandfather’s house at Central Islip, New York and
took my mother and me to Massachusetts. My first lasting job was at a
leather shop in West Concord in which I made little keepers for belts
just like Mike. Except for brief periods (Navy, out of state
girlfriends), I’ve been here ever since and cannot imagine living
anywhere else. The winters are brutal but my sons live in the next town
so I have some family to keep me tied here.
As well as being a novelist, you’re also a political blogger. What’s your area of focus, and where can people find your columns?
I’ve been blogging
politically for well over eight years. I’m on my third blog (I’d deleted
the first two) and the current one is Welcome Back to Pottersville
, which has a It’s a Wonderful Life
motif to it. My area of focus? Name it. It’s a chaotic,
catch-as-catch-can, all purpose liberal blog and I guess one of its few
saving graces is when you surf in, you never know what you’ll get.
Occasionally, Mike Flannigan even chips in with his own byline! I
haven’t been tending to it as well as I suppose I should be which segues
neatly into the next answer. I also allegedly maintain a dedicated book
and writing blog called Kindle in the Wind
which I maintain even more sporadically. Like many other authors, I’m
also on Twitter, in both a literary and political capacity as @Jurassicpork59
. I’m also on LinkedIn and Google+.
What’s next for Robert Crawford?
I’m chuckling as I’m writing this
because you of all people know what’s next. But for the sake of your
readers, we’re collaborating on a thriller entitled TATTERDEMALION
in which Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Sitting Bull, Arthur Conan-Doyle
and Sigmund Freud go after Jack the Ripper in 1888 London. The first
four chapters, on which your host collaborated on the third and fourth,
can be found on Scribd here
This past weekend, I’ve been
proofing and reformatting a satirical dictionary I’d cobbled together
during the 90’s entitled The Misanthrope’s Manual
and a sample can be found here
. If you ever read Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary
, you should love this as it’s a somewhat more updated version of TDD
or what I fancy Bierce would write if he were around today. It should
be available on Kindle and Create Space within the next couple of days.
And, as proof that American Zen
was an isolated peak as regards literary discipline, I’m also in the middle of American Zen 2: Rock of Ages
which, along with the Misanthrope’s Manual
was featured on Scribd. In addition, I’m also working on what I call
the Joe Roman trilogy (although it can easily go beyond that) and have
in the works three novels in various stages of completion/disrepair.
Roman’s a unique character in that he’s a former Soviet/NYPD detective
with dual citizenship who occasionally works for the Russian mob in
Brighton Beach but has a soft spot for missing, abused children. It
starts with The Saipan Seven
, continues with The Puppet Children
and concludes with Chernobyl Dreams
In the future, I may also print a volume of my poetry written in the
80’s and 90’s. Multiple self-published authors often sell the best so
it’s always important to keep lots of irons in the fire.
Nick says: thanks for dropping by, Robert – and thanks for taking the bait and mentioning our new project, Tatterdemalion. The book is essentially The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen vs Jack the Ripper,
and has been an absolute hoot to write. The book should be completed in
time for the close of 2013, so watch this space if you’re a fan of
thrillers, mysteries, and histories or fill in the contact form at the
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If you would like to get hold of a copy of Robert’s sublime American Zen just click here for his Amazon page
and check out the sample – I defy you not to go ahead and download the
whole thing. And, after you’ve read through to the end, go back and
re-read the prologue – it will give you some serious chills.