I always check out the ‘likes’ on my blog and, recently, one of them led me to a first-time novelist from Canada, now living in Virginia – Steven Baird. I say first-time novelist, but that isn’t exactly true. In fact, it’s not even remotely true. Steven has been writing since the age of ten, and has so far written in the region of 12 novels. What I meant to say is that he’s tried the traditional route to publishing, and even came close once or twice, but is now trying his hand at self-publishing with the release of Ordinary Handsome, which he describes as a ghost story … sort of.
I was intrigued, and thought it would be great to hook up with Steven and ask him a few questions. The internet is awash with invaluable information from successful indie publishers, which is fantastic, but being a newbie myself, I wanted to hear what’s it like from someone else just starting out. So, make yourselves comfortable…
You started Ordinary Handsome 30 years ago, then revisited it three years ago. It must have been exciting when you realised that there was still a strong idea to work with.
I approached with a clean slate. It’s a completely different novel. I very much liked the idea of a man steeped in guilt and how he handles it. That was the core of the first version. In Handsome, Jimmy Wheat, who was the original protagonist, has become the catalyst. And he doesn’t handle the guilt so much as the guilt handles him. He’s not even the main character. And, now that I’m older, I approached the writing with a quieter voice. The younger me tended to shout.
Tell me a little about the book.
Fifty-seven years ago, a boy named Euart Monroe Wasson was killed in a hit-and-run. The driver – Jimmy Wheat – was a small-time thief shaking off pursuit. Except … fifty-seven years later, the boy shows up at the nursing home where Wheat resides, carrying a shotgun and hobo mattress and blows a hole in the old man’s guts. Did Euart survive? Is the old man dreaming, or hallucinating as his life wraps up? What really happened on the night of the accident?
The town of Handsome, Oklahoma is on the edge of becoming a ghost town, with desperate men who bury their mistakes. The story is told from the point of view of four different characters and their unrelated deeds, threading a tragic tapestry of loss and grief.
I’d call Ordinary Handsome a ghost story, but not in the traditional sense. There are a couple of lines near the end that really stood out for me: “Grief is the impetus of ghosts, not death. Death is silent; grief roars.” Each of the characters has lost something and is in the process of grieving, though they’re not aware of it.
In the past you have found revising and editing your work a bit of a chore – what’s different about Ordinary Handsome that has kept you focused?
The story. It kept surprising me. I had four or five different ways to end it, but used none of them. It’s one of the greatest thrills of writing, when things connect in ways you weren’t even aware of, never mind planned. I let the characters do their thing. I knew them well enough to trust that I was on the right path. I really like the idea of using unreliable narrators, having them tell their side of the story, the story they want you to hear. The deeper you get into these characters, the more you start seeing their flaws and contradictions. For me, that’s the pure joy of writing.
How are you finding the self-publishing process?
It’s very new to me – I’m both excited and nervous as hell about it. Setting up a blog, a Twitter account etc. is an entirely new experience. Self-promotion is a necessity, and, to be honest, very stressful, but I’m slowly learning my way around. Once I get comfortable with it, I’m sure it will be fun. I guess. Right now, though, I’ve got a new novel in mind and it’s hard to find the time to put things to paper. I know things will settle down in time, but right now it’s hard to focus on anything other than seeing Ordinary Handsome finally published.
You say have a new novel that you want to get cracking with, but will you be going through any more of your previous efforts? There may be further treasure hidden away…
My wife keeps mentioning a book I wrote shortly after we were married. It’s pretty intense and violent, about a young serial killer. I listened to a lot of Springsteen while I wrote it – Nebraska, The River, The Ghost of Tom Joad – so it’s got a pretty desperate tone. I know I’ll pick it up again, but not just yet.
Will your next work be in the same genre?
I don’t think so. I really want to write something noir. It’s a very different direction, but I’ve always wanted to try it. It’s a genre that’s easy to parody, so it will be a real challenge. And I think I’ve got a different way to approach it. We’ll see. I think it’ll be fun.
What inspires you to write?
I really don’t know. A thought will come into my head and I’ll examine it for a while, see if it works. Most of the time, it doesn’t. A lot of my process is just thinking it through before I even start physically writing. It’s not planning, it’s just figuring it out.
Do you have a writing routine, or do you just grab the opportunity when you can?
I probably break all the rules for a writing routine. I know I should have one, but I write when I have the time and I’m completely focused. I take notes and think about a project. One of the first things I did when I started Ordinary Handsome was draw a map of the town. It was important. And very useful because I knew the geography was going to play a role. Sometimes I wish I did have a routine, but I’ve never found one that works for me. Or maybe I’m just lazy and undisciplined.
You’re a graphic designer by trade – will you be tempted to add interactive elements in future novels?
Probably not. My writing is a separate thing for me. I want it to stand on its own. I’m an amateur photographer, so I can see some of my photos sneaking in.
Finally, I always like to ask – read any good books lately?
I just finished The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler. I love the tone, the language. Impeccable writing. Before that, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers. Beautifully crafted and heartbreaking. Next, probably some Stephen King. Maybe Pet Sematary … I have a weakness for King.
Many thanks to Steven for answering my questions, and I wish him the very best with all his future writing endeavours. Ordinary Handsome is scheduled for release on 1 November.
Steven can be found blogging – and showing off some of his photography skills – at www.ordinaryhandsome.wordpress.com