BILLY LEE THOMPSON Interviews BONNIE KOZEK about the Writing Process, Post Parade August 2008

Q: How long did it take you to write Threshold?

A: Two and a half years. It took fifteen years to publish.

Q: Fifteen years! Why so long?

A: When I finished the piece I sent it out into the world. I got this great agent, Tony Gardner with the Tantleff Agency. About a week later I called to see what was happening. I waited by the phone. He didn’t return my call. So, the following day I sent him a fax demanding the return of the manuscript. I gave him 24 hours. There might have been some sort of explicit threat to his personal body in big bold black letters on the fax. I didn’t have to wait 24 hours: The manuscript was hand-delivered within the hour. So then I said to myself, “Self, do you want to write or do you want to be a public menace?” I decided to write.

Q: Why not go to another agent?

A: Two reasons. First, even though I had writer’s remorse for my psychotic behavior, a few people had heard about the . . . incident. I knew this because when I was introduced to a group of literary folk at a cocktail party, one person said to the others, “She’s that Bonnie Kozek”. Then they raised their eyebrows and slunk away – never to be seen again. So, I figured it wasn’t a half-bad idea to put a little distance between me and the incident. I hoped it would turn out to be one of those things that is just awful at the time and then funny later on. It wasn’t. And secondly, to be disarmingly honest – I hope – I had some hesitation about publishing the work.

Q: Okay, I’m intrigued. Why?

A: I’m sensitive to negativity. I have a heightened understanding of its effects. I’m not saying that negativity is necessarily bad – in fact, it may be just the opposite. That’s a proposition that’s been debated for millennia by people far smarter and more enlightened than me, so I’ll leave that there. However, I wrote Threshold in a genre in which I found a liberating kind of sardonic humor. All that “tough guy” stuff. But I never thought of it as “dark” fiction. Other people read it and found it “very dark”. That gave me pause.

Q: Fifteen years of pause!

A: Right. But, like I said, I kept writing. After Threshold, which is the first book in the Honey McGuinness series, I wrote Just Before the Dawn. And then I got a good way into the third book in the series, The Story of Why. I wrote a poetry book, and another piece of fiction and a few biographies for private publication. I’ve been busy.

Q: Let’s talk about your character, Honey McGuinness. She’s complex: Flawed, weak, tough, outrageous – yet honorable. She goes through a fairly dramatic change by the end of the book. Do you believe that people can change?

A: I do. On the most profound and fundamental levels, I think people can change. Absolutely. One hundred percent. But you have to be a warrior.

Q: You sound like someone who knows. Have you changed in profound, fundamental ways?

A: I have. For one thing, I’m not obsessed with victimization anymore. I could hear the ghosts in my life heave a great collective sigh of relief when I finally put that to rest! For another thing, I’m not addicted to love, sex, or death. Now, I just love the first two items on that list, and am only minimally troubled by the third one.

Q: Okay. Honey seems to have had a particularly difficult relationship with her mother.

A: That’s what happens when your mother is a suicidal, homicidal maniac.

Q: I wanted to know more about their relationship. Do you explore it further in Just Before the Dawn?

A: Yes, it is a reoccurring motif . . . as are some of her other relationships. And, of course, there are new characters as well.

Q: What about Skinner Ochs, the married cop in Threshold? Do they finally hook up?

A: That’s funny! I mean, in a manner of speaking, I suppose you could say they do. But then again, it’s a Honey McGuinness story, so any “hook up” has to be understood in context. And in that context their “hook up” is ultra-ultra-unconventional!

Q: I can’t wait to read about it! When will Just Before the Dawn be published?

A: 2009.

Q: Will there be more Honey McGuinness books?

A: The third book is The Story of Why, which should be finished by 2010. After that, I’m not sure what will happen to Honey.

Q: How do you develop your characters? Are they based on people you know?

A: I have a reservoir of idiosyncratic characters in my head, and of course, some are based on people I have met or observed. I like to observe. So, when I write, I pool from that reservoir.

Q: Do you know your characters in advance?

A: I generally know something about them. It may be on the macro level – you know, this character is a serial killer, this one is a nymphomaniac, this one thinks he’s the Messiah. Or I may know something about them on the micro level – this character has a habit of making a circle-eight on his nostrils with his index finger when he’s nervous. Things like that. But their particular eccentricities really develop when the characters move beyond my consciousness – which can happen pretty quickly once I start writing. At that point they develop their own vocabulary, their own way of speaking. You know, everybody uses different words to express themselves, so your characters have to do the same. One person may get upset and say “motherfucker” and another may say “aw shucks”. You have to know your characters, talk to them. I’m just finishing a book called One Wrong Move. (Not a Honey McGuinnesss book.) It’s set in Minneapolis. It’s an alternating four-part first-person narrative, with each part no more that a page or two. So, it’s imperative that the reader know who’s talking by the words they use, by the way they put their sentences together.

Q: What is One Wrong Move about? Why Minneapolis? Is it in the hard-boiled fiction genre?

A: It’s in Minneapolis because I’ve never been there. And no, it’s not in the same genre. I like to write. I love words and I love to try on new skins. I’m a chameleon that way. So, whatever the story demands, that’s where I’ll go. I got the idea for One Wrong Move when I was in Montreal. I read a one-paragraph article about a 55-year-old woman who has been cannibalized by her 30-year-old newly-wed husband in the local newspaper. There was a tiny photograph of the woman. She was dressed very conservatively and had a sweet smile. She was wearing a single strand of pearls. That was in 1996. I kept the article and thought about it on and off over the years. What interested me was not the sensationalism of the crime, but the circumstances that brought these two people together. I mean, how did they meet? Who was she? Why was she single for 55 years? That kind of thing. In 2004 I decided to investigate. By that time I had created an entire scenario in my head about the circumstances of their union – which I found fascinating in its ordinariness. After going to Winnipeg – where the crime occurred – and speaking to the defense attorney, the Crowne prosecutor, the victim’s family members and co-workers, and the cannibal himself, I realized that the story I had created – which, by that point, was more expansive than just the cannibal and his victim – was more interesting than the real story, so I decided to write it. It’s been four years in the writing.

Q: Can you describe it?

A: Sure. It’s about four people who make ostensibly mundane little decisions which result in big consequences. Little decisions: Big consequences.

Q: Deadly consequences?

A: You’ll have to read it to find out!

Q: When can I read it?

A: One Wrong Move will be published in 2010.

Q: Do your books always start that way? With a newspaper article, or something that piques your interest?

A: No. Usually I start with a nascent philosophical question or concept. For example, Threshold: What happens when the life of a Non-believer intersects with the life of a Believer? And what circumstances might bring such two disparate lives together? I was interested in writing about that the vertex – that exact point of intersection. In Just Before the Dawn the questions were: To what depths will a human being sink when starving emotionally, spiritually, intellectually? What happens in that abyss? And how then can a person lift themselves out, if at all?

Q: Pretty heady stuff.

A: The Honey McGuinness books aren’t heady. Just the opposite. They’re bare, raw, monosyllabic whenever possible. I didn’t want to burden the reader.

Q: Do you feel a sense of responsibility to your readers?

A: Oh, writing is a big responsibility. I mean, you’re creating memories. And it’s so intimate . . . and quiet. There’s only the thought of the writer’s words inside the reader’s head. I mean, it’s an issue of trust. Oh, it’s a big responsibility. Big.

Q: In Threshold your portrayal of transient people and drug addicts – a population often depicted negatively in the media – is very multi-dimensional. You have managed an apposite mixture of sympathy and criticism. Was it your goal to advocate in one way or another?

A: Not really. I just wanted to write an engaging book.

Q: When did you start writing? Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

A: People become artists for differing reasons. Some are born with immense talent, others do it to survive. I am of the latter category. It’s a less intellectual approach, and involves more risk in a sense, but there you have it. So, I came to it very very early on in my life and it manifested in all sorts of ways. I painted, performed, I made perfume. I collaborated and worked with other artists. I made and worked on movies. In fact, it’s funny, because the first professional film editing job I ever had was on a Roger Corman movie, Cockfighter, written by Charles Willeford. I spent hour after hour in a dark room looking at and listening to these bloody cockfights. Very disturbing. I had to drink a quart of Wild Turkey a day, just to get through it. I thought Willeford was one sick puppy. But years later I came to really appreciate him. I think The Burnt Orange Heresy may be the best noir novel ever written.

Q: I’m going to make a personal observation. I hope you don’t mind. You’re wearing a white skirt, and a white blouse, and you have a lovely white flower in your hair. You seem quite happy. Have you always been happy?

A: When it comes to happiness I’ve been a late-bloomer. For decades I only related to really tortured people, poets, artists: Baudelaire, Rimbaud, the usual suspects. I remember reading an interview from 1919 with Djuna Barnes. The interviewer asked her why she was so morbid and Barnes basically answered, “Look at my life”. That’s how small my world was. But not anymore. Now I like rhyming poems . . . and Artaud. I mean, once you clean house there’s room for everything.

Q: Do you enjoy writing?

A: “Enjoy” isn’t the right word. For me writing is both ecstatic and detestable. Sometimes the process is supple and sometimes it’s hard. I can spend two weeks on one sentence – one word in that sentence – or I can write five pages in a day. It’s inconstant. I like that.

Q: What’s the hardest part of the work?

A: Other than everything about writing a book? I would say continuing to refine and advance an authentic open-mindedness. Keeping myself uncensored.

Q: Do you always know what’s going to happen next when you’re writing?

A: No. I’m writing and something happens. I mean, suddenly I look at the page and two characters are in the same room together. Maybe one has tied the other to a chair. Maybe one is holding a gun to the other’s head. Sometimes it’s very shocking, even to me.

Q: Where do you work? Do you have certain rituals?

A: I have to be totally isolated. Totally. And I have to be perfectly disciplined. I have to go to bed and arise at set times. I have to eat breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and I have to eat them at set times. I have to be at my desk between certain hours and I have to take breaks at specific times. If I deviate from this discipline everything goes to hell.

Q: Do you like discipline?

A: Like isn’t a word I’d use. But I do think discipline is highly under-rated.

Q: Are there any drawbacks to writing?

A: Loneliness. That’s the worst part for me. Having to say “no” to my family and friends. Having to put off everything else that I want to do. Plus, after a while, I tend to get a bit off kilter. I get possessed by the characters and become distracted to the point of precariousness. I have to be careful not to drive off into a ditch or fall down a couple of flights of stairs or brush my teeth with suntan lotion.

Q: Why write?

A: Well there’s an irresistible attraction to the words, to the letters. There’s something beneath the surface. A kind of code. And there’s always the hope that if I can decipher the code, some great mystery will be answered. I’ll write something that someone wants to read. Beyond that, it’s what I’ve chosen to do. But then again, I’m not so sure if I chose writing or if it chose me.