December 2004

Geoffrey H. Goodwin

features

An Interview with Will Christopher Baer

Will Christopher Baer’s character Phineas Poe is good at showing readers places they wouldn’t normally want to visit, destinations best suited for fiction. Craig Clevenger, author of The Contortionist’s Handbook, may have summed it up best by saying, “People like Chris don’t write the kinds of things that make for good holiday dinner conversation.” Hubert Selby, Jr. described Baer’s first book with: “The hallucinatory sequences are so perfect I am still not certain what is real and what is not, and I don’t care. I experienced the book, and still am.”

In short, Phineas Poe is an ex-cop, formerly of Internal Affairs, with a dead wife, a missing kidney and serious drug issues. He plays lead in all three of Will Christopher Baer’s books, Kiss Me, Judas, Penny Dreadful, and the recently-released Hell’s Half Acre. Baer makes a point in this interview of mentioning that, in real life, he’s never killed anyone. His website is Willchristopherbaer.com.

Hell's Half Acre is the third book in a series, but hopped through editors and publishers before it was released. How rough was the waiting game?

I was disappointed, at first. Hell’s Half Acre was ready to go in ’02, but my editor was long gone and Viking had been merged or taken over by Putnam, and I was left hanging in the cold with an unfinished trilogy. The lesson learned was, beware of planning for a three book series when you have a two-book deal. But I moved on fast. I wrote another novel that I have since cannibalized for other things. I whored around L.A. for a while and did a couple screenplays, treatments, pitch meetings -- the whole Barton Fink in development hell routine. I wrote some short stories. I had left Phineas for dead. But all along I was half subconsciously hoping that the Judas screenplay would get picked up and Hell’s Half Acre would eventually see the light. And the way it worked out was incredibly cool. Hell’s Half Acre was allowed to simmer for more than a year, and it’s now a much better book. And MacAdam Cage has been a dream publishing house. Putting the first two books back into hardcover for a sort of box set was far more than I’d hoped for.

How deep does the Phineas Poe voice run in you? Does he talk to you when you don't expect it?

Phineas runs pretty deep, into the marrow. The soft tissue. His is my default voice and after three books his backstory is completely ingrained. I close my eyes and I go there without trying, so when I’m working on something else, I have to consciously veer away from him. These days I’m working in third person. I guess the answer is yes, Phineas speaks to me. And now this question reminds me of a psych eval. “Do you hear voices?” Who the hell doesn’t?

There's no way around it, his life is dark and gnarled. Does it rub off on you? What's it like to work with a character who follows around the woman who stole his kidney?

When I was working on Penny Dreadful, and the first draft of Hell’s Half Acre, I was mostly living alone, so it was easier and more tempting to slip over the wall into crazy land. And when I needed to work, I locked myself into motel rooms with a bottle of whiskey, a carton of cigarettes, duct tape, and a big knife. I’m kidding. But I indulged in some method acting, you might say. And on the flipside, I never wanted Phineas to be a criminal genius, or a black belt. I didn’t want him to be fucking McGuyver. I wrote him to be about exactly as knowledgeable of surgery and literature and philosophy and religion as I am. Likewise, pretty much everything Phineas does is something I’ve done. His every addiction and weakness of the flesh is something I have at least visited. Except I’ve never killed anybody.

What else have you written, or what comes next? Are you still hoping to do a collection of short stories?

The short story collection is pretty much cooked. I’ve been giving it a lot of attention lately -- polishing up old stories, working on some new ones, and having a damn good time with it. I love the short story, the form. A good short story is hellish hard to write, so you can agonize over them, but most of the time I’m done with the first draft in a week. It’s like having a summer fling with someone you met at the post office, I guess. A novel is more like a marriage. I’ve been thinking about Lucia Berlin a lot lately -- her death last month was a real heartbreaker -- and I remember something she said to me: To write a good novel, you have to be in love with it. Obviously the same goes for a good marriage, you have to truly be in love or it’s dead in the water. While that girl you met at the post office had no last name. Anyway, I’ve been working on the stories, the Kiss Me, Judas screenplay, the KMJ graphic novel, a new book called Godspeed and notes for another one. But my favorite new project is a seven-pound girl baby named Emerson Jane. My wife did most of the heavy lifting, there.

You've called Master's programs in writing a "necessary evil." Could you elaborate?

I think what I meant to say was “useful evil.” For a while there, writing programs proliferated like rabbits on speed -- they were springing up everywhere and in the early ‘90s it seemed like you could get an MFA at 7/11, so the possession of an MFA became sort of a joke -- when applying for a job I would more often than not leave it off my resume. Experience on a forklift was far more desirable. Someone asked me recently if I still had my diploma and I told them I folded it into an unread copy of Infinite Jest, which I then sold at a yard sale for two dollars. And the actual arena of a writing workshop can be a truly maddening special kind of hell that is one part cockfight and two parts group therapy session, but I had a few teachers who thank God steered me away from being too much of a self-indulgent bastard. The best thing about MFA programs are the other students. It’s difficult to be a writer sometimes, especially when you’re young and you can’t find your own ass without the input of your peers. So while I got some good things out of workshops, I hated them like poison. Does that make sense?

MacAdam Cage has put out new editions of all three of your books. What would you say to someone who's just seeing your novels on a bookstore shelf?

Today’s your lucky day? I don’t know. Personally, I still get a rush when I discover a writer who really blows me away and I flip to the “other titles by” page and see that he or she has two or three other books in print. And after twenty-five years of digging through used bookstores, sometimes literally crawling around on the floor in those stores that have stacks and stacks of books piled up, like you’re in some crazy person’s attic, I still get that rush now and again.

Penny Dreadful, especially, seems to have a Philip K. Dick feel where reality is always slipping. Is that an accurate assessment?

I don’t know if it’s worthy of the Philip Dick comparison, but I have read most of his books. I get asked about Penny Dreadful a lot. One of the editors at MacAdam Cage pointed out that I grew up in a video game culture, and this is something game-makers have been doing for years. The second version of a game is a wild departure from the first. And the third game generally returns to the template laid out by the first. And I guess Penny Dreadful was written from fourteen points of view that slip and slide from one to the other, and there are three discernible realities that are at once separate from each other and overlapping. One question I get a lot is what the hell does the title mean? The short answer is that penny dreadfuls were the pulp novels of Great Britain in the 19th century, a novel is by definition an artificial reality overlaid on your own, and a pulp novel is constructed of the cheapest paper and glue, so a penny dreadful is an artificial reality that falls apart. There’s a fine line between clever and stupid, so they say.

Is it true that a female student wanted to act out the kind of sex that happens in your fiction, perhaps even using a car battery? What's it like to be known for such dark work?

Good god. I hope that car battery thing is a myth. Although I did have one particularly creepy stalker who had read Kiss Me, Judas a thousand times and apparently had pages of it cut out and pasted around her dank little apartment and who had access to a lot of surgical tools and fetish gear. She used to call me up in the middle of the night and tell me things she’d like to do to me, and she did whisper something nasty about wondering what I’d look like with no feet. I got an unlisted number and never looked back.

In Hell's Half Acre, Jude says, "The most interesting art is a little dangerous." Is that a good take on what you do as a writer?

I don’t have a copy of Hell’s Half Acre handy, but I’m pretty sure that Phineas responds with something along the lines of: “Don’t give me that shit.” And she probably smiled, or showed him some teeth, because she was being sarcastic. The notion that interesting or important art has to be dangerous is something that you believe when you’re seventeen or twenty-two and your emotions are overwhelming you and if you have artistic inclinations you don’t know how to harness them, and you are sucked into the myth of writers and artists who pulled a Dylan Thomas or Nick Drake and killed themselves or overdosed or whatever, because there is always something childlike about those guys, and when a child dies he becomes saintly, he automatically goes to heaven. But when you get to be my age, you recognize that Jeff Buckley walking into the Mississippi River drunk and drowning ten feet from the bank was just a stupid, tragic fucking loss, and if you’re like me, you can write all day about the most violent or sexually depraved stuff you can dream up, then crawl into bed with your wife and watch a mindless sitcom in which all the characters are white and cute and perfectly proportioned and the writers get paid fifty times what you do, and be at peace with the world.

A lot of people die on Phineas Poe's watch, but he's a guy who doesn't leave. Most people bail when things get that freaky. What motivates him to hang in there and endure what he does?

This may be one of the places Phineas and I overlap. That is, we used to. He wants to see how things play out and he has kind of an obsession with watching the wrecking ball finish its arc. And so he stands too close and sometimes gets his head taken off. But more than that, Phineas feels responsible for other people in an irrational way that is often damaging to his health. Through most of the three books, Phineas is falling apart and he’s oblivious to it. His fingers and toes could literally be falling off, he could be losing chunks of his own flesh, and still he would be trying to save people who can’t be saved. I guess you could say Phineas has a high threshold for pain and humiliation and he has an unusual ability to detach himself from himself. If you know what I mean.