Brian Sweany’s anticipated sequel to the acclaimed Exotic Music of the Belly Dancer is finally out, and Brian took the time out to answer some questions.
1) With “Exotic Music of the Belly Dancer” you tapped into the universal experiences and emotions of adolescence – bad decisions, hormones, love, worry, substance abuse and inner conflict. How heavily did you draw on your own experiences for that book, and did you feel any emotional vulnerability?
I guess I can come clean at this point. “Belly Dancer” was pretty much a very lightly veiled autobiographical novel. The protagonist lost his father in a tragic car accident and had a godfather who couldn’t keep his hands to himself: That’s all me. The day of my father’s death is recounted hour by hour almost exactly as it happened. I didn’t change the scene of the crime, the day it happened, the hospital, the details of the funeral, anything. I even transposed my father’s actual autopsy verbatim into the book. For me, it was not just therapy, but a way to preserve the moment like a time capsule.
2) That book took place in the 1980s with the protagonist an adolescent. “…Belly Dancer” evoked memories of a time before constant Internet connection, spying, privacy, corporate world of today. What made you choose that period of time and how much did that choice affect your ability to write the story?
The obvious answer as to what made me choose the 80s is that I grew up in that decade. But beyond that, there was just an unbridled optimism and confidence about the decade. It was easy to write about because it was so fun to experience. You didn’t think about tomorrow because today was so fantastic. We were the last generation that listened to music too loud, smoked too many cigarettes, got drunk at age 14, and had too much unprotected sex. Granted, our hedonism eventually devolved into horrible things like AIDS, Newt Gingrich and Candlebox, but we were too young to give a crap.
3) Tell us about “Making Out With Blowfish” – is it a cry of disdain against vanilla suburban life, or does the story and its characters transcend the setting?
I took cues from Tom Perrotta’s satirical novel “Little Children” and used suburban angst as a vehicle to move the story forward. But truthfully, Hank’s disdain is more for himself. His vanilla lifestyle is mere artifice. What’s going on inside Hank Fitzpatrick is hardly vanilla; in fact, it’s pretty damn dark. That being said, minus a distinctive setting like New York City, the author has to be a little sharper in a suburban setting. Cities can be an integral character in a book, and certainly that’s the case with a lot of crime fiction. The city itself can bail you out when you write yourself into a corner. But in suburbia, if all you have is a blank or a “vanilla” canvas, it’s all about character and story.
4) Can you bring readers up to speed on “Making Out With Blowfish” – where Hank is now and what period of time the book occurs in?
“Exotic Music Belly Dancer” ends as Hank is wrapping up his very first date with Beth, a young woman who appears to be the long-sought-after great love of Hank’s life. The year is 1993, and Hank is 22 years old. “Making Out with Blowfish” begins with a prologue in the near-present, 2009 to be exact. Hank is married, he’s getting older, and he doesn’t seem pleased with either of these facts. After the prologue, Chapter 1 starts where “Belly Dancer” left off in 1993 and works its way back to 2009. This first chapter is by design. As the book jacket says, “Gone is the boy you came to love, replaced by a man you will struggle to like.” I want the reader to be pissed off. I want to leave him or her wondering, “What the hell went wrong?”
5) Where did you draw inspiration from for the book?
While a couple things in the new book are rooted in fact—Hank’s wedding day and his vasectomy come immediately to mind—roughly 90% of “Making Out with Blowfish” is complete and total fiction. I’ve already gotten in trouble with one book review of “Blowfish” in which the interviewer said both books are highly autobiographical. For the record, the first book is almost all me, but the second book is not. I was inspired by a lot of things for the new book. One new character, for example, is introduced to the reader as Hank’s bisexual Armenian Mormon stepsister. I got the idea for her from flipping through the channels on my television and noticing back-to-back episodes of “Sister Wives” and “Keeping Up with Kardashians” on the guide. Presto: An Armenian Mormon to screw up Hank’s life!
6) How easy do you find the creative process, from idea to completion?
I find the actual process of writing easy. When I get in “the zone,” it’s almost unconscious. For me, the real problem is just finding the time to write. Being a novelist is not my day job. I’m the Director of Acquisitions for Recorded Books, one of the largest audiobook publishers in the world. That’s a 50+ hours a week job, and it’s my #1 professional priority, not my writing. I also have a wife and three kids under the age of 16 to think about, so my time is at a premium.
7) Some writers have a problem with perfectionism, constantly editing and never knowing when to end the story. Are you one of those writers, and how do you address the editing of the book?
Did my editor put you up to this? I have OCD when it comes to the editing process, and I’m not looking to be cured. The next perfect novel I write will be my first. The best way I’ve found to at least mitigate the issue is to either print out the manuscript on paper or download it on to a e-reader with a screen that’s a very close facsimile to paper. There’s something about a computer screen and revision marks that for whatever reason don’t fully engage my senses, which is weird considering I was an editor for several years right out of college. I can look at a chapter on a computer screen 10 times and find nothing wrong with it. But if I print that same chapter out on paper, grab a pencil, and read it out loud, I guarantee you I’ll want to make a half-dozen changes.
8) Where does the third book take readers?
Good question. The original plan was for a trilogy, but as I neared the end of “Making Out with Blowfish,” I felt like I had said everything I wanted to say. Hank had conquered his demons, and I had conquered mine. I still have an outline taunting me in my desk drawer with the working title “Skirting the Truth” that was supposed to be the first two books retold by the various aggrieved parties in Hank’s life. I have this quote on my wall from Philip Roth that says, “The facts are never just coming at you but are incorporated by an imagination that is formed by your previous experience. Memories of the past are not memories of facts but memories of your imaginings of the facts.” I really wanted to play with this concept and challenge readers’ perceptions about Hank’s life and the larger question about what defines truth after they saw his life through the eyes of all his friends and family. I wanted them to even doubt the veracity of Hank’s version of the story period. But I talked myself out of it. I felt like it would be unfair to Hank. Well, that, and I’ve since written about 200 pages of a YA fantasy novel that has nothing to do with anything. Maybe add ADHD to the OCD equation. What? Squirrel? Where?
9) How did your foray into writing begin?
I’ve always loved to read, and in college I found I had a knack for writing poetry—not good poetry mind you, but poetry that was good enough to convince girls to go out with me. One day my English Comp teacher, a Franciscan nun by the name of “Sister Stella,” intercepted one of my love notes. She challenged me to be a real writer. And when my father died, so did my preconceived notions about success. I stopped taking the classes I was supposed to take so I could get a good job and started taking the classes that made me happy. Calculus and economics were replaced by creative writing and contemporary literature, and I traded in my business major for an English major. It’s a miracle I graduated, and maybe even mroe of a miracle I found a job. After college, I wrote a 100,000-word pseudo-Christian sci-fi epic about cloning Jesus that got summarily rejected by the entire publishing industry–FYI, the book makes a cameo in MAKING OUT WITH BLOWFISH–and eventually honed my style to be more in the satirical, nihilist contemporary fiction vein. Think Dave Eggers by way of Chuck Palahniuk.
10) Who are your favourite and most inspiring authors?
We could be here all day. My favorite contemporary writers include Dave Eggers, Chuck Palahniuk, Tom Perrotta, Frank Bill, Alexandra Fuller, Neil Gaiman, Pete Dexter, Brady Udall, Gary Shteyngart, Sarah Waters, Chuck Klosterman, Jonathan Tropper, Jon Clinch, Arthur Phillips, Colson Whitehead, Myla Goldberg, Jonathan Foer, Junot Diaz, Khaled Hosseini, and probably 30 or 40 others. The ones who’ve inspired me most are the ones who inspire a lot of people: Twain, London, Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mailer, Kerouac, Steinbeck, Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson.