How long have you been writing novels?
ROBB GRINDSTAFF: I’ve been writing all my life, from a pretty early age. Telling stories as a kid and writing them down. Avid reader since before I started school. I went to college to major in English, planning on becoming a writer. But I decided to add journalism as a double major just so I could get a day job until I wrote the Great American Novel and became rich and famous. That was one of the few good decisions I made as a teenager. It turned into a 40-year career in newspapers and media that let me travel the world and even live in other countries.
Then, life happens, you know. Married, kids, career, mortgages. Writing fiction fell by the wayside for 20 years or so. But in my early 40s, about 20 years ago, the fiction-writing bug hit again. And now I had 20 more years’ experience with life, hopefully at least a tad more insight into human nature. I’d been writing and editing and managing newspapers, raising a family, all that stuff, so it felt like I had something to say that might be more attuned to people than the self-absorbed stuff I wrote as a teenager or in college.
What are your influences? Who or what inspires you?
ROBB: Lots of writing influences over my life, and a wide variety of current influences on what I find interesting to write about. From my childhood, I was a huge fan of Mark Twain, then Jack London. I moved on to Edgar Allan Poe and J.D. Salinger as a teenager. As a freshman in high school, Salinger’s “Catcher in the Rye” was required reading, and that was the book that kicked me in the head. I knew when I read “Catcher” that was what I was going to do – I wanted to write something that would impact others the way that book impacted me.
In college, Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald. Later, John Irving, Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Amy Tan, the list goes on and on. Most recently, Chuck Pahlaniuk and a whole bunch more.
As far as what inspires me today, it can be anything. A song lyric. A news story. Someone I meet on the street, or a memory of something or someone from my past, whether from a small town in Texas or from Tokyo or DC. Sometimes I have no idea where an idea comes from. A character just shows up in my head and starts talking. They won’t shut up until I sit down and start taking dictation, writing down what they tell me, until a story starts to come into focus.
What can you tell me about your new book "Slade"?
ROBB: The short description or blurb: An unlikely celebrity with a self-help book becomes a reluctant spiritual guru to the Hollywood elite, spawning a cult he wants nothing to do with.
It’s a bit of satire of our cultural obsessions with self-help superstars and celebrity worship. People are always looking for that magical answer to all of life’s issues. And our culture has a strange relationship with celebrity, I think perhaps related to the fact that we don’t have royalty to fawn over.
Slade, the main character, is basically a good ol’ boy from Texas who gets thrust into the limelight and finds himself at the center of attention from celebrities and others who clamor for his insights and attention, but he finds them all a bit self-centered and pitiful.
What has the writing process been like for this book?
ROBB: This was definitely a case of the character showing up in my head and not leaving me alone until I started writing. I’m the guy who can lie down and fall asleep in five minutes. I don’t even have to be sleepy. Sign of a clear conscience, I always say. But one night I tossed and turned as this character wouldn’t leave my head. Finally, at 3am, I got up and started writing.
I didn’t know what the story was, just this rough sketch of a character and his voice. So I used an old writer technique: interview the character. Ask him questions and let him answer. See where it goes. It’s a great way for writers to get to know their characters.
As I interviewed Slade, he’d mention other characters.
So I interviewed them also. Layer by layer, the onion peel came off and a story emerged. I had about 40,000 words of interview notes. I knew I had to take all these notes and then craft it into a novel, a pretty standard narrative format. But as I arranged the interviews, the thought occurred to me: What if I didn’t rewrite it into standard narrative style? What if I put out a novel that consisted almost wholly of interviews? Nah. Crazy idea. No one would ever go for it.
But the more I worked with it, the more I thought it might be worth trying. I did a few more character interviews. Decided to include some “outside source” materials, such as newspaper articles, diary entries, police reports, that sort of thing, to help fill in gaps in the characters’ knowledge of facts.
Once I had it all together, rearranged a few things, rewrote and revised some parts, I sent out this early draft to some trusted beta readers – guinea pigs. People I trusted to tell me this was a pile of crap and I should rewrite it like a normal book.
But they didn’t. They raved about it. Every one of them. That’s when I knew I might be onto something unique. These early readers also had great feedback and suggestions, so I wrote a few new scenes, revised a few others, and polished it up a bit.
Then the big test. Would my publisher love it or think I’d gone completely bonkers?
Well, they must have liked it okay because they offered me a contract within 24 hours.
Do you create art with a specific message? Or do you prefer art for art's sake?
ROBB: I don’t like messages in my art. Not in my face messages, art created for the purpose of making a point or delivering some message – social, political, religious, moral, whatever. I like entertainment that makes me think. I don’t want to be preached at by a novel or a movie or a song. But I want it to make me feel something first, and make me think about things, maybe even question my understanding. Help me see something from a different perspective without browbeating me.
So no, I don’t create a novel with a message in mind. I have a character and learn his or her story, and then I write it in the most entertaining way possible. If we let engaging characters interact in a compelling story, the underlying message or theme will emerge. If the character is realistic enough, three-dimensional, relatable, his humanity will shed light on the issues he deals with from his perspective.
How long have you considered yourself a libertarian?
ROBB: I know I’ve definitely grown and changed over the years. If I haven’t, what’s the point? I’d always considered myself pretty conservative. The old-school conservative. Came of age politically during the Reagan years (didn’t vote for him the first time he ran). But his message and style of communication drew me in. Reduce the size of the federal government. Lower taxes. Less regulations. More individual liberty and individual responsibility. The closer the government is to the people, the more responsive it will be. States, municipalities, school boards. The federal government is as far away from real people as it possibly could be. The federal government has so far exceeded its constitutional boundaries that it is wholly unrecognizable today. Doesn’t matter which party is in control, it’s a battle between authoritarians.
The Republican Party today doesn’t believe any of that. It no longer even pretends to be conservative. For several decades, they campaigned as conservatives, but governed as big-government, crony-capitalists. Economically, I’ve been influenced over the decades by Walter Williams and Thomas Sowell on economics and policy. William F. Buckley before that. P.J. O’Rourke was a genius.
I don’t believe the government should be telling anyone else they have to live according to my personal principles. Everyone is different, has different beliefs and perspectives, and should be free to live their own lives, pursue their own happiness, in whatever manner they see fit, as long as they’re not hurting others or taking their stuff.
What do you think the role of art should be in the libertarian movement?
ROBB: Art, as I mentioned above, doesn’t have to be about the message. But every artist – writer, musician, songwriter, poet, film maker, whatever – has a perspective on life that will infuse their work organically. That’s where libertarian artists can make their perspectives known without being overtly political or smacking people over the head with a “message.” Although there is a place for overtly political art. It’s just not what I do, and not what I prefer to read, view, or listen to.
Where can people go to find your new novel "Slade"?
ROBB: It’s available at all the usual online suspects: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, Kobo, probably some others that I’m forgetting. Amazon is the big gorilla, of course. It’s available in all e-book formats and paperback. An audiobook version might be out later this year, I’m hoping.
If you like shopping at a local bookstore (good on ya!), drop in and ask if they carry “Slade.” If they don’t, they can order it for you, and you help support your local independent bookstore at the same time.
In addition to “Slade,” my publisher has decided to make a collection of my short stories available as well. “June Bug Gothic: Tales from the South” will be released May 16, also on all those same retail locations.
Here’s a link to my books page on the Evolved Publishing website, where you can view all my books and click on the link to whichever retailer you prefer: https://evolvedpub.com/robbgrindstaffbooks/