I recently interviewed Bart Bultman about his new novel, Subtle Ties. He’s a young author of fiction, working hard at his craft and self-publishing novels.
LH: Hi Bart. How did you get interested in writing?
BB: Idle hands are the devil’s playthings, but they’ve served me quite well. For a couple summers in college, I worked at the college’s physical plant, under the outfit of “campus services.” We were the guys who fixed/moved everything. If fifty folding tables needed to be taken from storage to an auditorium, for a conference, we did it. If all the furniture in a dorm room, for the entire floor, needed to be stacked and consolidated in the corner so the carpets could be steamed, we did that. The point is, it was odds-and-ends stuff that you couldn’t predict, almost like working for the fire brigade, which meant there was down time. Not right away, but eventually, I filled it with reading. The first summer I worked at campus services was the first summer I didn’t play baseball, as I had been cut from the team the previous winter, and along with it, all of my illusioned dreams of baseball as a career. I wallowed that bitterness, reading the Russians, starting with Dostoevsky. It was two-thirds of the way into The Brothers Karamavoz, that part when you find out who has the money and where it is, that I was hit in some fatalistic way, like how the Titantic struck the iceberg, and that was quickly followed by the realization that to write what I had just felt must be better/stronger than to read it. It was the opening of the possible. I think Keats had a similar moment when he stumbled upon a line of poetry, “the sea-shouldering whale,” or so the story goes. Then I read, and read, until I realized reading is not writing, and I took up the pen. (sidenote: I hate the keyboard, it’s Neolithic and I can’t wait for it to be trumped by thought-recognition technology.)
LH: Do you have any favorite authors who inspire you?
BB: I like the best of the best.
Shakespeare. Shakespeare. Shakespeare.
LH: What do you most enjoy about writing?
LH: How do you get the ideas for your books?
BB: How does rain fall from the clouds, it sort of happens. But without getting mystical, I like to look at the news. Subtle Ties is a treatise on Machiavellian power played out on a college campus. Directly though, it was a response I got from reading The Great Gatsby for the fifth time. Old money, has to have, at some point, accrued that wealth by some sort of opportunistic exploitation, whether by mind or force, something Fitzgerald avoids in his book. So that’s what I tried to show. The rich are rich because they’re smart. Looking back now, I was reading Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, at the time, and that Darwinian rethinking might have influenced me as well.
LH: How much of your own story and experiences do you weave into your fiction? How do you keep the line between fiction and memoir clear?
BB:I think you write from your total knowledge, and I think I only weave something semi-relatable to my own life, into my fiction (I stay away from memoir), if I’m “stuck” and need something semi-important to get me going again that will later, probably, be cut from the finished product anyway. That’s in terms of plot actions. Metaphors are on different grounds, where it’s always open season.
LH: Would you say your emphasis is plot, character, or setting?
BB: It’s hard to have characters without plot, and plot without characters, so those are 1 and 1a, and depending on the day, they might be 1a and 1. Setting, however, is 99z, but something I’m working on, but something that seems to be misguided. It seems to me if you value setting, you should paint or make movies. The flat, black and white letters grouped into words and aggregated by punctuation, does not seem to me, the best medium for setting. What I like is motion, and setting is set.
LH: In your latest novel, the beer pong table, Bellatrix, is close to being a character. How did you get the idea for that?
BB: That might actually be something that I sort-of, somewhat borrowed from real life. One of my college roommates was an engineer student and he crafted a beer pong table that you could imagine strutting forth from the R&D facility at Alfa Romeo. And for the plot of Subtle Ties to work, I needed something desirous, something unique, something college students are passionate about. Beer Pong.
Then there’s the whole MacGuffin theory/technique that was pioneered by Hitchcock. It seems to work. Although I’ve never deliberately applied it.
LH: Where do you get your titles? Do you spend a lot of time working out the right title for a novel
BB: Yes, the need for a title, a good problem to have. But it will probably develop an angst which you could easily misdiagnose as an ulcer. It’s funny to look back at the classics and see how easy they had it, The Old Man and the Sea, David Copperfield, Don Quixote, The Stranger, Ulysses, The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Hamlet, all boring titles. A title shouldn’t matter, but it does, because the marketing of literature deems it so. So, over the dusty covers of time, a few solutions have appeared, mainly pilfering from other texts. That seems to be the common route. But the pages of Shakespeare and The Bible are so pillaged that they suffer from deforestation. However, the titles they have as their text—were imagined—and if you can’t learn the process to sprout-organic imagined things, probabilities are that your book doesn’t need a great title, unless you want it to clash like baby fingers pounding the piano.
Bottom line is that there’s no reason to think a title requires any different magic than what it took to come up with the next line in your fiction.
Where do I get my titles from? Wherever I can. Subtle Ties is the double innuendo of friendship split in two to state quiet significance, which I thought was what the book was about and perhaps, somewhat, how the style of it was written. The end game is that there should be a matrimony between title and text, not a love affair.
As for the time it took me to conjure Subtle Ties, I think Marlowe said it best, Whoever loved that loved not at first sight?
LH: Your ebooks are self-published so far. What can you tell us about marketing? Any tips to share?
BB: Take the following with 4 TBSPs of NA+, to date I have not sold much beyond my circle of friends and family.
For fiction, I’ve heard the best thing to do, in terms of marketing, is to publish short stories. With them, you receive eyes on your work from readers who probably already like your style of writing, and the publisher pays you for your advertisement that’s wrapped-up in a short story’s clothing. It’s supposed to be win-win.
Along with that, it’s also said, for fiction, you need more books to sell a book. Five authors, each with one book, will sell less copies than one author with five books. Readers buy books that are credible.
Time could be better spent writing, and improving, than marketing, as the theory goes.
LH: Who would you consider your idea reader? Do you imagine writing for anyone in particular?
BB: Ideally someone with the same humor and interests as I have. That person (hopefully persons) should be able to pick up on the little clever quips that, to us, would be inside jokes; while, hopefully, the common reader would pass over them noticing nothing good or bad.
Demographically, if I had to pick, I’d go for the 16-30 year olds.
No, I don’t imagine a “reader” while writing the first draft. From thought to words is tricky enough without putting some phantom proxy in the middle. However, if I correct, I try to do if from the perspective of Henry Ford, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
LH: Any other thoughts to share with the blog readers?
BB: No. I try to weave my greatest hits of thoughts into my fiction, and then sell them. (http://www.amazon.com/Subtle-Ties-Bart-Bultman/dp/1493547054/)
Thanks, Bart, and we wish you great writing and sales both.
This quotation adorned the forearm of the new winner of the Australian Open in tennis, Stanilas Wawrinka: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” – Samuel Beckett. I’m sure a lot of you have read the concept that Malcolm Gladwell develops in his book, The Outliers, called the 10,000 hour rule. According to that advice, practice IS all that separates you from that gig in Carnegie Hall, and it’s a specific time commitment that could bring about your change in status from novice to polished professional.
But in Focus, the Hidden Driver of Excellence, Daniel Coleman takes on the idea that it’s just practice. I agree with one of his points, that practicing it wrong many hours won’t help, and I think that’s the underlying message across Stan Wawrinka’s arm. You have to fail better, work at improving, for the massive time input to help. That’s as true in writing as in tennis or inventing or beer brewing. A lot of time writing surface-level prose, with no criticism and no new ideas to open your mind, may help your writing a little. But it won’t make you into a writer who will cause Beckett to sit up in his grave and ask, “Who’s that?”
What makes it so hard to become an excellent writer is that it’s not like proving a theorem. There’s no color-fast, once-for-all answer or end point. Can’t you read the prose of a wonderful writer you admire immensely and ask yourself, “Why did he/she do that? It’s clunky and it would have been so much better to write it this other way.” But it seems to me that thinking about the how-to of writing improvement is important just because we can probably always get better. It does take effort (time in seat, etc) and yes, we need to fail more intelligently, with more insight, with more at stake if we really want to improve our writing style.
Dear readers and writers,
Today, Dec 23, is my dad’s birthday. He passed away but it will always be his birthday to me. He smelled like Aqua Velva and on his birthday, like coconut because we spent all day grating one for his cake. But when I think of him, of what went before and after him and surrounded him as does an odor, I think this: he smelled like laughter. He smiled and looked at the sunny side of life, and he knew a million jokes. After he passed away, I tried to collect a few jokes to tell my mom whenever I visited, because I knew she must be in joke-withdrawal. My kids say I have no sense of humor, and I find it very hard to remember jokes, but I always enjoyed those dad told. He left a trail of happiness behind wherever he went. I love you Dad, and wish you happy birthday!
Dear readers and writers,
Lois Maharg has released a new book about personal experience with insomnia and her delving into possible treatments and further understanding of what has gone wrong. Here is her interview. Enjoy!
Lois, the book was, as you say in the subtitle, a “personal journey” for you as an insomniac. I remember Gayle Greene saying about her insomnia book that she was writing about her obsession. What can you tell us about how you decided to write this book?
Chronic insomnia has sapped my energy and muddled my thinking, and it’s claimed a lot of psychic space as well. But there’s not a lot of public recognition that insomnia is a serious problem. Doctors still dismiss it as trivial, and acquaintances have either been puzzled by my trouble sleeping or attributed it to mental “problems” or habits like drinking too much coffee. I felt driven to tackle the issue for three reasons: I wanted to get to the bottom of my own insomnia (if I could!), explore insomnia in the fullness I felt it deserved, and expose some of the common but mistaken assumptions about it.
You take the reader along as you try various recommendations for treatment, including the surprising Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBP1) that deprives insomniacs of sleep for a period. Why weren’t your acquaintances convinced when you described your gains in sleep from this treatment? Did you write the book partly to provide a stronger rationale?
Changes I made during cognitive-behavioral therapy are just a part of what led to my improved sleep and daytime stamina. But yes, CBT-I helped quite a bit. If my story lends credibility to a treatment that might at first sound misguided (it did to me), well and good. As for why some acquaintances are skeptical of the gains I’ve made, the issue here may be the amount of sleep I get. 5½ hours can sound paltry to those who regularly need 7 or 8. Yet there’s a world of difference between waking up after 5½ solid hours of sleep and waking up after a night of fractured sleep and restless dreaming. I’ll take quality over quantity hands down.
I asked Gayle Greene earlier about the claim that Heath Ledger and Michael Jackson might still be alive if they hadn’t suffered from insomnia, and she responded that it surprised her that all actors don’t have it. Do you think insomnia is an occupational hazard for those choosing some careers?
There’s no doubt about it: high-stress, high-profile careers are a challenge for the sleepless. Some I interviewed were able to manage. Others had to scale down their ambitions and resign themselves to quieter pursuits. But I don’t see the careers themselves as necessarily giving rise to insomnia. I’ve met surgeons and trial lawyers who are champion sleepers. I’m convinced that how we handle stress and how well we sleep depends largely on genetic factors (tempered, of course, by early life experience and coping strategies we may develop later on). Twin and family studies now suggest that many aspects of sleep are under genetic control, including susceptibility to insomnia. A predisposition to insomnia is going to be a serious obstacle if you’re heading for a career in politics or the movies. I say this with regret.
Would you consider your book a How-To guide for people seeking to deal with their own insomnia?
One aim of my book is to help people improve their sleep. Yet The Savvy Insomniac is not prescriptive nonfiction. It presents an array of treatments and outcomes, the idea being that readers will then be able to choose what’s most likely to work for them. Unlike most self-help books, my book does not claim that change is easy. “It’s the rare self-help book that acknowledges the true difficulty of helping the self,” Jonathan Franzen wrote last spring in The New York Times Book Review. Writing my book, I wanted to acknowledge the difficulty of taking action and making changes while at the same time motivating readers to act.
Your subtitle, “A Personal Journey through Science to Better Sleep,” left out a number of things you tried that I (as a biologist-writer) would not consider science. And I know a lot of readers are put off by the threat of reading science. So how did you choose this subtitle?
Ah, the subtitle. I spent many nights obsessing about that! How to suggest the mix of personal experience, cultural attitudes, history, science, and therapies treated in the book? The phrase “personal experience” would, I hoped, clue people in to the fact that the book is partly a memoir. “Science” was the other key element in the book—the element I found to be most fascinating and finally liberating. Will I lose some readers because of it? Perhaps. On the other hand, as one editor remarked, “You haven’t written Sleep for Dummies!” By placing “science” in the subtitle, I hoped to gain readers looking for an insomnia book with some heft. I saw the task as writing about science in a way general readers would find engaging.
You discussed some recent findings of scientists and social scientists that seem promising for future treatments, and talked about the extensive drug-company-sponsored research efforts. Do you consider it a problem that so much of the insomnia research is sponsored by drug companies? Do we need a more basic-science-of-sleep approach as some have claimed?
Of course there’s a conflict of interest when the people who stand to gain from a drug are the ones conducting the trials on safety and efficacy. Like almost everyone doing insomnia research, I’d like to see the NIH pick up more of the tab. I’d also like to see signs that more novel hypnotics were in the works. Right now, apart from the orexin receptor antagonists (which may or may not gain FDA approval), I’m not seeing much activity on this front. Sadly.
When people hear you have insomnia, what is their response? How do you cope with it?
It used to be that I didn’t talk about my insomnia to people unless I knew them pretty well. As I said above, acquaintances didn’t quite know what to make of it. Based on their responses, I could see they were making assumptions about me—that I had unresolved personal issues, was emotionally unstable, or drank too much coffee—that I didn’t care to have them make. Having written The Savvy Insomniac, I can’t hide in the closet any longer. The good news is that now when I talk about my research and my book, I see that some people are receptive to the idea that insomnia is more than a trivial concern. And the recent studies showing that treatment for insomnia can help people recover from depression may do much to change our thinking about what chronic insomnia is.
You’ve connected with insomniacs all over the world through conversations and blogs. What would you say is your most important insight from talking with all these sleepless people?
One thing I’m always struck by in conversations with insomniacs is how disruptive insomnia can be to people’s lives. If every fiber of your body craves respite yet you’re unable to fall asleep or sleep through the night, that’s misery! But the daytime symptoms people talk about sound even more onerous: debilitating fatigue, to the point where some insomniacs worry about their ability to function and survive; mood swings (in particular, how hard it is for some poor sleepers to control their tempers); and impaired cognitive processes, including the ability to concentrate, think, and learn. Surely these are grounds for the funding of further research and the honing of more effective treatments.
Speaking as a non-fiction author, do you have any advice on agents, publishing, e-publishing today?
Regardless of whether you sign with a publisher or self publish, unless you’re Malcolm Gladwell or Doris Kearns Goodwin, a lot of responsibility for publicizing and promoting a book now falls on the author. My advice is to start on this as early as possible. Contact potential reviewers in advance of the book’s publication. Set up speaking presentations and line up radio spots well in advance.
Do you use social media? What are the up and down sides to them for authors today?
I have mixed feelings about social media. I’m active on Facebook and Goodreads, and they’ve certainly helped me spread the word about The Savvy Insomniac. But maintaining a social media presence can take up quite a chunk of time. If you’re trying to keep up with trending topics and blogging as well, it’s hard to find time to move ahead with other projects. Frankly, I’m looking forward to unplugging now and enjoying a bit of down time over the holidays.
Do you want to refer the readers to your blog, and/or do you want to refer the readers to your Amazon book page
It would be great if you could refer people to my page on Amazon. Here’s a link:
Also visit the website for Lois’s book here.