The characters in Paul Carlucci's A Plea for Constant Motion (House of Anansi Press) are not necessarily people you'd want to befriend, but they are not people you'll ever forget. From the damaged to the demented, the characters who populate these stories are fascinating and utterly unique. Between this compelling cast and the book's interesting structure (a beautifully bizarre intermission separates the book's two parts), A Plea for Constant Motion is one of the year's most unmissable story collections.
We're pleased to welcome Paul to Open Book today to talk about his strange, compelling, and often terrifying characters as part of our In Character interview series. He tells us about times when writing feels like conducting, how and why brevity is important for good dialogue, and about making "cocktails of other people".
Tell us about the main character in your new book.
Plea’s a story collection, so it’s got a slate of characters, and a couple of them jump out at me in particular.
First, there’s Christine from “Dream of a Better Self.” She was born without legs but weathers the story’s dystopic setting and themes with more grace than the rest of her family. She’s considerate, whereas they’re selfish. She’s kind, whereas they’re cruel. And her imagination is a lush and loving place, whereas theirs are paranoid, insecure, and violent.
Then there’s Giuseppe from “Rag.” He’s got a similar spirit. He’s naïve, easy to manipulate, and surrounded by the sort of class-hardened jackals you might expect at the poverty line. But he won’t be corrupted. You get the sense he knows what people are actually doing, knows who they really are, but he won’t lower himself, and it’s not because of some righteous moral code—it’s just because it wouldn’t feel right.
There aren’t a whole lot of gentle people in Plea, so these two definitely stick out, even if they don’t play too big a role in their respective stories.
Some writers feel characters take on a "life of their own" during the writing process. Do you agree with this, or is a writer always in control?
I think some definitely do. I usually have the big arcs in mind before I get going, but some characters drift off course. Other times, they stick to the arc but gather up little details that seem to occur spontaneously. It’s a cool feeling when that happens, a bit like conducting, as opposed to creating. In general, at least for me, I think it’s good to go in with an intention to control, but then let it go if things lead you to interesting places. You can always go back and smooth out the inconsistencies.
How do you choose names for your characters?
Not usually with a whole lot of thought, to be honest. Some characters, like Sissy and Bev from “These Rats Have a Job to Do” have names that took more thinking through than others. You learn some concrete stuff about them, and their mother, when you find out how they go their names. Others, like Gordon from “Hippos,” just sound right in my head. When I find the right name, there’s this uncanny click, and that particular detail falls into place with all the others. Even when names don’t have much symbolic value, I still spend a lot of time making sure I hear that click.
What is your approach to crafting dialogue, particularly for your main character? Do you have any tips about writing dialogue for aspiring and emerging writers?
Dialogue’s tough. It has to have rhythm, not just line by line, but right across the exchange. Reading out loud is a good way to figure that out. I also play around a lot with speech tags and short descriptions in place of attributions. In general, my characters don’t say a whole lot all at once. Rarely more than three sentences. I think, at least for me, brevity does a good service to dialogue. It allows other characters to butt in, and that creates dynamics, which can do all kinds of crackling things. You can escalate your conflicts, crack a few jokes, kick the plot along, or tear at a theme from multiple perspectives. Also, my dialogue tends to work best after my characters have already been sketched out. I haven’t been able to boot up a story with a good exchange the way some writers can. Whenever I try, I get this sense of displacement. It makes me anxious, so I stop.
Do you have anything in common with your main character? What parts of yourself do you see in him or her, and what is particularly different?
I’m sure I must, at least obliquely. Maybe even directly. But a lot of my characters are composites of other people I’ve met or wondered about. They may move through certain settings I’m familiar with in the real world, and so react to them in ways I’ve reacted myself, but even in that case, I tend to appropriate the reactions of other people, or cocktails of other people. To be totally honest, I’m not really sure I’d admit to having anything in common with the people I write about.
Who are some of the most memorable characters you've come across as a reader?
First one that jumps to mind is Tintin. Those comics have been passed around my family since I was a kid. I still have a few hard cover editions in French, plus one mini-omnibus translated into English. I love how he’s always sleuthing, always globe-trotting, and always so damn classy about it, especially when you stand him next to the besotted captain.
Of fiction more recent, I loved McGlue from Otessa Mosshfegh’s debut. He’s sickly, violent, and completely outrageous, but somehow sweet, full of longing and haunted by loss. Seen from afar, he’s not unlike the narrator of Ablutions, Patrick deWitt’s first book, another guy who traffics in some pretty vile stuff, but has about him a certain nobility, which must be caught up in his intense desire to escape, change, and recover.
What are you working on now?
I’ve been day-jobbing a whole lot recently, so unfortunately not writing too much. But I’ve always got stuff on the go, even if I don’t get the chance to spend a lot of time on it. Notes. New stories. Revisions. More notes. I do have my share of creative droughts, but I’m lucky that they don’t come along that often or last too long when they do.
Paul Carlucci is the author of The Secret Life of Fission, which won the Danuta Gleed Literary Award. His stories have been widely published, appearing in The Puritan, Little Fiction, The Malahat Review, Descant, Carousel, EVENT, Riddle Fence, among others. A recovering transient, he now lives in Ottawa after almost ten years of roaming across Canada and abroad.