FQ: I really enjoyed the way Slade is written. It was unique and refreshing. Can you tell us where the idea for writing it as a series of interviews came from? Did you know this was how you were going to set it up when you first began imagining Slade and his life?
GRINDSTAFF: I’m one of those folks who can lie down and fall asleep within minutes. Almost instantly. Really irritates my wife, who’s more the toss-and-turn-for-an-hour type. But one night, three in the morning, I’m still lying awake in bed. I couldn’t get this character out of my head. I finally got up and started writing.
Years ago, I learned a technique that I’ve passed on to clients of mine (I’m also a fiction editor) where you interview your characters to learn more about them, what their background is, what makes them tick. It’s not intended to be part of the novel you’re writing, just a method to get to know them inside-out as three-dimensional characters. You will uncover bits that might need to be included in your story, but mostly it helps inform your writing, helping to create better, more realistic characters for your novel.
So, I started interviewing this character, Slade. The interview led to more interviews. Slade would mention a character, so I’d interview that character. That interview would raise more questions that I needed to go back and ask Slade. And so on.
Eventually, the interviews started to feel like they could hold up as a novel.
FQ: Are any of the characters in the novel people that you know from your own life or is everyone a product of imagination?
GRINDSTAFF: I never base a character on an actual person from real life. And yet, I assume every character includes parts of several real people, perhaps including myself. An amalgamation of lots of people. Or just a re-imagining of human nature in a totally fictional character.
Sometimes, I’ll write a wholly imaginary character, totally fabricated from the creative recesses of my brain, and then later I’ll recognize bits and pieces of real people. But I don’t think of a real person – someone I know personally or some famous celebrity – and decide to create a fictional character based on that person.
There’s actually one exception to this in Slade, however. As I interviewed the characters initially, the interviewer was me, of course. That wasn’t planned to make it into the novel. But as I turned the collection of interviews into a novel, “The Interviewer” had no name. Nothing is known about him. He’s just there asking questions. The story is totally focused on the characters and their answers.
I thought “The Interviewer” needed a name, so purely as a placeholder, I inserted my name. Then it just stuck. It seemed like it worked somehow, adding some illusion of reality to a work of fiction. I appear as a key character in my own novel. Feels a bit like Alfred Hitchcock or M. Night Shyamalan making cameo appearances in their own movies.
FQ: There are numerous different opinions in the interviews regarding religion and how it is a part of each character’s life. Do you relate more personally to one particular character’s beliefs or are your own beliefs not a part of the story?
GRINDSTAFF: The two main characters, Slade and his wife Annie, have very different belief systems, yet they reconcile many of their thoughts and ideas. I can relate to both of them in one aspect or another. I have my personal faith and beliefs, but I understand that everyone has a different take. I can have more than one take on any given day. At my core, I’m probably more Annie in my faith, but my rational, analytical side can completely agree with Slade at the same time, and I don’t see any conflict between the two. Then there’s Annie’s parents, with completely different thoughts on religion.
FQ: The characters are each so well-developed and different. Do you have a particular favorite in the story who was easier to write than the others?
GRINDSTAFF: I have to say Slade was my favorite since he’s the main character. He was so interesting to interview, so complex and yet so open about everything. But I was also very drawn to Annie. She was even more complex, but she was very guarded. There’s a lot I still don’t know about her. In interviews, she rarely let her guard down and carefully chose what to reveal and what not to reveal.
And no, I don’t do sequels.
I mostly write what is probably categorized as contemporary southern literature, so characters are always front and center in everything I write. They are truly on stage in the spotlight in Slade.
FQ: I saw in your bio that your background is in journalism. How does that help or hinder the process of writing fiction? Which is easier to get on paper?
GRINDSTAFF: Yes, I spent my career in the newspaper and news media business, from small community newspapers to large corporate chains to international publications. I started as a reporter and an editor but spent the bulk of my career in management and executive roles.
Think of some of the top fiction writers of all time who started in journalism: Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, for starters. Many of today’s top fiction writers started in journalism.
Journalism teaches the basics of writing, and teaches to write tight, to convey a story in as few words as possible. It teaches the writer to create a story from start to finish, leading the reader through every step. Journalism teaches you to highlight the important and leave out the unimportant.
There are a lot of differences, but there are key skills from journalism that translate to fiction writing. My journalism background was critical to the interviews that created Slade.
In most cases, a news story is easier to get into words. You do your research, interview people, attend meetings, read documents, then write down the pertinent facts and best quotes, then organize it and write it. You’re dealing with facts. At least you should be.
With fiction, you create everything, starting with nothing but a blank slate and your imagination.
A novel is usually going to be a lot longer than an average news story, and you have a lot more moving parts to keep connected and functioning properly. So many places for a novel to fall apart.
Of course, there are much longer and more complex journalism pieces as well: long-form stories, investigative series, and some that turn into full-scale books (Bob Woodward, for example).
FQ: The book really does leave the reader with one burning question (at least this reader). Is Slade one of the really good guys who wants to help others or is he a manipulative person who is trying to use and brainwash people for money and power? Do you have an opinion on that as the person who created and brought us Slade?
GRINDSTAFF: I pretty much leave that up to the reader to decide. That was partly intentional, and partly because I don’t know the answer. As “The Interviewer,” I tried to remain objective and just present the information for readers to decide.
Isn’t that the way real life really is though? The way real people – even you and me – really are. We’re complex. I like to think I try hard to be a good person, but after a career in journalism and management, it wouldn’t be difficult to find people out there who might not be as kind in their opinions of me.
The character that really intrigued me after I finished writing Slade was his wife, Annie. When I was going through the novel for the third or fourth time, I started noticing things. Little things I didn’t knowingly or intentionally put in. These bits may just be totally innocuous or normal. Or possibly they’re little clues as to who was really manipulating whom. I won’t say any more about this, and again, I don’t know the answer. But there were a few things here and there that made me say, “Hmmm.”
FQ; What process did you as an author have to go through to write this novel in the format you have used? Did you write the “interviews” out of order doing all of one character first or was it written exactly as we read it?
GRINDSTAFF: I interviewed Slade first, but just a couple of short interviews. He’d mention his brother, Matt, so I’d interview Matt next to follow that thread. Then back to Slade to follow up on something Matt mentioned. Then Slade mentioned his wife, Annie, so I had to interview her. The list of characters to interview kept expanding, and each character would reveal something new, so I’d have to go back and interview other characters again to flesh that out.
Pretty soon, I had 25,000 words of character interviews that needed to be turned into a novel. I had no intention of crafting a novel in the format of a series of interviews. This was all just background work. Over the course of writing these interviews, the story gradually unfolded.
I started wondering if a series of interviews could actually work as the novel itself, with each interview peeling back one more layer of the story. Or was I deluding myself? I’d never tried anything like this, didn’t intend to do this, but it felt like it could work. I wrote more interviews, rearranged them, edited, figured out where holes needed filling in or finding interviews that didn’t really need to be included. As I wrote this first draft, I often had no idea where the story was going. I didn’t know what was going to happen next until a character mentioned it.
By the time I had more than 50,000 words of interviews, refined and revised a bit so maybe it could work as a story, I sent it to a handful of friends – some writers, some avid readers, my brutally honest beta team – to see if this could hold up or if it was just a hot mess. Maybe I needed to sit down and rewrite it all into the normal novel structure.
They loved it.
With their excellent input, I revised it several more times. But there was no intent from the start to write it in this format – a “nonstandard storytelling technique,” as my publisher calls it.
I’ve been a fiction editor for fifteen years or more, and I’ve heard all the rules about writing fiction, and taught a lot of those techniques to clients and students. I think Slade breaks them all. There’s virtually no setting, very little description. It’s almost 100 percent dialogue and no narration. And the standard writing advice of “show, don’t tell”? This entire novel is a bunch of characters sitting around talking about events that had taken place in the past. With very few exceptions, it’s all tell, no show. Yet somehow it seems to work.
FQ: What is next for Robb Grindstaff? Will there be another novel and a new set of characters in this format?
GRINDSTAFF: Oh, I sure hope there’s not another novel in this format. This one happened organically, not planned. I don’t think I could pull this off intentionally.
My previous two novels are in standard storytelling styles that readers are accustomed to. My next novel, Turning Trixie, is standard. It’s undergoing the editing process now, scheduled to publish this December. I’m currently writing my next novel, possibly 2024 before it’s published if I’m fortunate, and again, it’s a standard novel format.
I experiment more with techniques and breaking all the rules in my short stories. That way, if it doesn’t work, I didn’t spend months or years on it. Within a day or two, I can see it’s not working and start over or discard the idea. If it does work, maybe I’ve learned something I can use in a novel.
Even in my more standard novels, I like to try different approaches. In my first novel, Hannah’s Voice, for example, the story is told in first person by a young girl who doesn’t speak. I started writing it and immediately thought, “Why did you do this to yourself? You can’t write an entire novel where the first-person protagonist/narrator never talks.”
But I’ve learned over the years that if you work hard enough, long enough, sometimes you get lucky.