Today I have the pleasure to post a recent interview with James Anderson, author of the quirky, fabulous The Never-Open Desert Diner. I want to begin by extending my thanks to James Anderson for taking time from his schedule so that myself and my readers can learn more about him!
How long did you work on your new novel, The Never-Open Desert Diner?
- The short answer is six months. But the truest and most accurate answer is all my life. All art—literary, visual, physical —is created and fashioned from life. The Never-Open Desert Diner, which so many have said defies categorization, comes from every book I have ever read, every thought, every feeling, every person I have ever loved, every place that caught captured my imagination. The novel is life, and I mean that both as life in general and my life, as channeled through the protagonist Ben Jones. I do not write from an outline; the rough draft is my outline. The rough draft took six months and was followed by two years and fourteen major revisions. I tend to shy away from grand pronouncements about art. It does seem to me that the problem so many novelists have is that the creative process and the critical apparatus, especially if you’ve read a great deal and studied the literary arts, get muddled and fiction writers try to do both simultaneously. This is why you have writers who work ten years and never complete the novel. They are writing and rewriting the first chapter—even the first sentence. I know this from experience. When you’re writing the novel you have to turn off the critic and editor. The worst completed work will always be better than the best unfinished work. The Never-Open Desert Diner is my first published novel, not my first novel. I finished my first novel when I was sixteen and five others over the next forty years.
What inspired the story and characters, especially Ben?
- Again, so many things go into the stew that becomes a novel. I am sure I could concoct a beautiful answer to that question but it would be false. The inspiration was very simple: I wrote what I wanted to read. Maybe what I needed to read. I needed to tell myself a story. I had invited someone into my home who was struggling with heroin addiction. I had been working on a novel for five years. That novel was on the computer and external back-up hard drive that the person stole from my home and pawned, along with all sorts of other things. We hit the road, running from drug dealers to whom he owed money, and trying to get him off heroin. We traveled around the Southwest staying in seedy motels while he went through withdrawal, an ugly painful messy ordeal that he was to repeat at least two more times. I began The Never-Open Desert Diner on envelopes and hotel stationery as a way of distracting and entertaining myself. In the middle of that very terrible personal journey, I was surrounded by the desert, by nature, by light, that began to illuminate the story I was working on. Because I was living a peripatetic existence the story was restless as well, and I needed a protagonist that lived a nomadic life. Ah ha! A truck driver. An orphan half-Native American-half-Jewish truck driver. The most important part of this story is that my friend has been drug and alcohol free for a year now. And miraculously, though some time later, I found my computer in a pawn shop in Denver and the novel I had been working on was still on it! One day perhaps that novel will see the light of print.
You’ve worked in publishing, logging, commercial fishing, and trucking. Have these jobs contributed to any ideas or characters in your writing? Also, which job was your favorite?
- As I mentioned, my belief is that art comes from everything. Let me tell you a story told my Ray Bradbury, one of my all-time favorite writers. When he was a boy in the Midwest he came down with Rheumatic fever, I think, and was confined to a bed for a year or two. His mother would check out books as the little library to keep him occupied. Pretty soon she was just grabbing sections, several books at a time on everything, which Bradbury consumed. There was very little left in the little library he hadn’t read. Years later he was working on a short story about the temperature at which paper burns. He knew it was 451 degrees Fahrenheit. He wondered how he knew that and if it was correct. Of course, it was and though he didn’t remember where he learned it, his brain had retained it. I believe the same is true for all we experience in our lives—the people, the books, the paintings, the small perhaps trivial conversations we have with others, and ourselves—and into the stew they go! So, yes, Ginny, the homeless, pregnant teenage punk who is the story’s ultimate heroine, is based on my son and some of his friends. Walt comes from a lot of men I worked with on labor crews, commercial fishing, logging, etc., who were part of the Greatest Generation and tough and stoic to a fault.Sometimes I know exactly where in life a character or a phrase or a setting comes from, often not, but I trust these this amorphous memories completely because they are, for me, emotionally true. As for Ben, if I am honest, he is the vessel that holds everything, the eyes and ears and smells and feelings, longings, dreams, of the story, an amalgamation of imagination and fact, through which the reader can access the world of The Never-Open Desert Diner. Some of that is me, though he is a tougher and often better person than I am. This is ostensibly a realist novel, though as many have pointed out, it has a subtle magical cast to it, particularly in its evocation of the natural world. Ben also embodies that certain magical pragmatism which illuminates the story.
Regarding favorite job…
I can certainly tell you which one I disliked the most: commercial fishing! Always wet, cold, the smell of fish on everything mixed with sweat and wool and grease and diesel fumes, day in and day out while the endless sea heaved around me. Maybe that’s why my novel is set in the Utah desert!!!!
I’ve had so many jobs. I loved being a book publisher and editor. I loved being in the car business with the wonderful Wentworth family in Portland, Oregon. When it comes down to it, for me the best job, like the best place, comes down to the people. Several years ago I noticed that what I remembered as the best meals, best food, often had very little to do with the food itself. What I remembered as a great meal depended upon the company at table, how much laughter, how much interesting conversation, what I learned and felt. In that sense, because it brought me into contact with so many and varied people for long periods, I’d have to say working as a car salesman. You have to learn to shut-up and listen. I’m still learning that!
If this book were to be made into a movie – which it absolutely should be – what actors/actresses do you picture playing the characters of this novel?
- This is a question that comes up a lot. One of my many jobs was as a documentary film producer. I was even fortunate enough to have worked with Susan Sarandon, who I love and admire as an artist and a person. But I don’t think much of the possibility of a film of The Never-Open Desert Diner. That is beyond my control and my energy tends to go where it should, which is into writing. I know there is a film deal being discussed, or so I hear from my film agent. Projects are always being “discussed.” Perhaps more than a lot of novelists (judging from their comments on the subject) I have tremendous respect for actors and directors. I have many friends who are actors, male and female, playwrights. I pay a lot of attention to the dialogue in my writing. I often will ask an actor friend to read some of my dialogue out loud and I am always amazed. An actor, a good one, can take three words and deliver those words in fifty different ways with fifty different meanings! And all of them different from what I thought or imagined when I wrote them. I am a big fan of ambiguity and paradox and how a person chooses to say something is just as important as what that person is saying and tells you a great deal about the character. Making a feature film is one of the most beautifully and maddeningly and expensive endeavors ever invented with layers upon layers of creative and talented people above and below the line. For the most part it is completely different from writing, which is just the writer and the blank page. I won’t say I don’t care because I do, though I see a film adaptation of a novel as a sort of translation. I am excited to see what creative people make from my novel knowing it is not going to be the novel itself, for better or for worse. I am not proprietary in that way. BUT, in the spirit of answering your question: The casting list that I was asked for by my agent includes, Tom Hardy and Keanu Reeves and a few others to play Ben. I’ve actually given a bit more thought to Walt, and my first choice is probably Sam Shepard, who I admire on ever single level, as an actor, playwright, writer and physically and in terms of age, and maybe even temperament, Sam would be perfect. He is the whole thing. My opinion. Others include Billy Bob Thornton, Sam Eliot and Tommy Lee Jones, and Robert Forester, who is a personal favorite of mine. It’s a deep, nuanced role for someone who has the chops and weight to pull it off. Overall, my thoughts perhaps go more toward directors. I think a female director could bring something very special to the story and there are several out there. Again, all of that is beyond my control.
What book are you currently reading, or what was the last book you read?
- I am a total book junkie and my tastes are varied and eclectic as hell. I read fiction, poetry, nonfiction, biography and a fair amount of sciences, especially physics and neurobiology. My recent favorites include the novels GEORGIA by Dawn Tripp and WAYS TO DISAPPEAR by Idra Novey. When I tour I often buy copies of my current favorite books and talk about them and buy a few copies from the store or venue at which I am appearing and then give those copies to members of the audience. Other recent faves include JUST MERCY by Bryan Stephenson. I have just completed or am presently reading SEVEN BRIEF LESSON ON PHYSICS Carlo Rovelli, the just released poetry collection DEAD MAN’S FLOAT by my old and recently departed friend and master, Jim Harrison, the first complete English translation of XUNZI by Eric L. Hutton and THE ABUNDANCE, collected essays of Annie Dillard.
What’s your favorite book ever?
- A favorite book ever is a tough question for a writer. It is a book that you have read over and over during a long period of time that always leaves you dazzled and haunted and always feeling as if it is the first time you’ve read it. Such a question is like asking a mother which of her children is her favorite! Here’s a brief list, in no particular order:TOM SAWYER by Mark Twain; ZEN MIND, BEGINNER’S MIND, by Shunryu Suzuki; WOMAN LIT BY FIRELIES by Jim Harrison; ANGLE OF REPOSE by Wallace Stegner; WHAT THOU LOVEST WELL REMAINS AMERICAN, poems by Richard Hugo.
Are you working on anything new or planning to in the future? If so, can you give a tiny hint as to what it’s about?
- Random House asked if I could write another book with Ben Jones, the protagonist of The Never-Open Desert Diner. I agreed that I would and what I proposed to my agent and to my editor was a triptych, or trilogy as some prefer, of three related books of which The Never-Open Desert Diner is the first. There is a longer story arc across the three novels. Now, who knows if my editor and publisher will like the second enough to want to publish it? They have the option to say no. But I will write it. It all depends upon sales, I think. The critical response to The Never-Open Desert Diner has left me happily stunned. As for sales, I don’t know. So for now, Ben and the characters, and new ones, and the story of The Never-Open Desert Diner, goes on. I am having a great time writing it, which is the best a writer can hope for. It’s future, should it have one, is out of my control. In a way, I kind of like that. Embrace the mystery! Man makes plans and God laughs. I, for one, join in the laughter.
Again, thanks so much to James Anderson for allowing me to interview him, learn more about him, and share with my readers!
Still want to know more about James Anderson and his novel, The Never-Open Desert Diner? Visit the author’s webpage at: http://jamesandersonauthor.com/ to read more about him or to purchase his book! You can also purchase this outstanding novel at Amazon or Barnes and Noble!