August 17, 2013
Michael Landweber’s debut novel, We, which will be released on September 1 by Seattle-based Coffeetown Press, has already gotten wonderful blurbs from writers such as Jessica Anya Blau (“a family story…wrapped in a suspenseful, gripping, and totally original sci-fi narrative”), Dave Housley (“a captivating, genre-bending psychological mystery”), and Jen Michalski (“a suspenseful and emotionally engaging novel”). We follow 40-year-old Ben Arnold as he regains consciousness following an accident, only to discover that he is inside his seven-year-old self—and his younger self, whom everyone calls Binky, is not happy about it. Ben would just as soon not be there either, until he realizes he is three days away from the worst day of his childhood—the day his sister Sara was raped, setting into motion the slow, painful unraveling of his family. Somehow, he has to figure out how to get Binky to save Sara.
I first got to know Michael when we joined a writing group that met monthly in Glen Echo, Maryland, just outside of Washington, DC, where Michael lives. We had both quit our jobs to write full-time—in his case, for a year and a half. The time off clearly worked for him, because in addition to a variety of short stories that have appeared in the American Literary Review, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere, he now has a terrific new book out. Recently, I had the chance to talk to Michael about time travel, book titles, and what makes a straight male author create a gay protagonist.
First, I have to ask about the title, We. Is it up for some kind of “shortest title of the year” award? How did you come up with it—or was it the brainchild of the marketing department over at Coffeetown?
I really hope there is a shortest title award because I like winning things. Though I’d probably lose to some self-indulgent book titled “I.” I can’t blame my publisher for the title. That one is all mine. One thing I didn’t think about when I named it was how internet-search-proof it was. You are not going to get my book if you Google the word “we.” Luckily for me, my last name is quite rare. Landweber may not sound that unusual, but I’m related to every Landweber in the world (and there aren’t many of us). In order to maintain some balance in my work, the working title of the book I’m currently writing is nine words and 40 letters long.
OK, I’ll bite. What’s the title—or do you prefer to keep it to yourself for now?
I’m happy to share. It’s called A Practical Guide to Surviving in a Frozen World. Like We, it focuses on time, though in a completely different way.
Speaking of time, what happens to Ben isn’t exactly time travel, because he’s in his younger self’s mind but can’t act independently from Binky. But there is the notion in your novel of going back in time that has been plumbed by so many great novels—H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Audrey Neffinegger’s The Time Traveler’s Wife come to mind. Why do you think writers have such a fascination with the concept of going back in time?
We can exert at least some control over pretty much every aspect of our lives. It may not feel that way sometimes, but we can move or change jobs or convince the idiot in the apartment above us to turn down the stereo. But the one thing that we have absolutely no control over is time. No matter what we do it is going to continue to tick by, second by second, year by year, with no concern for what is going on in our lives. Time is relentless. And that’s why I think that so many writers are fascinated by the idea of manipulating it. We spend a lot of mental energy thinking about everything we’ve done and often wish we’d done things differently. Why’d I date that girl? Why’d I say that stupid thing to my boss? Why’d I eat that meatball sub? I think most time travel novels start out with a writer thinking about changing his or her own past, then spiral out of control into paradoxical situations and unintended consequences, which are also a lot of fun. Plus, who doesn’t wish they knew next week’s lottery numbers?
I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that Ben is gay—that comes out on page 1 of the novel. I’m really curious why you chose to write a gay character—was it a choice, or was he just born that way, so to speak? And did it present any challenges for you, as a straight guy, to write from his point of view?
Thanks—now I’m going to have that Lady Gaga song stuck in my head for the rest of the day. This is another thing I didn’t really think that much about when I was writing the book. My wife thinks it sounds pretentious, but usually characters do tell you who they are. Ben told me he was gay. I didn’t approach writing a gay character any differently than I do a female character or an old character or any character that has different traits from myself. Every character is going to be unique. The key for me is to fully understand them as individuals, not as a demographic. It is always a challenge to make a character on the page feel like a real person. Hopefully, I succeeded with Ben.
Well, I definitely think you did—and you succeeded with Binky, too. Even though the book has a serious and dark side, you’re actually a really funny guy. In fact, some of my favorite scenes as the ones in which Ben feeds Binky information about sex that Binky then shares with his seven-year-old classmates. Did your own kids come to mind when you wrote those scenes?
I was thinking about my kids the entire time I was writing this book. I am roughly Ben’s age and they are roughly Binky’s age. So while the book is about a man interacting with his younger self, my immediate point of reference was my talks with my kids. Of course, what Ben tells Binky about sex is horribly inappropriate for a seven-year-old. I’m just the opposite with my kids. Whenever the subject of sex comes up, I point at my wife, tell them to talk to her, and flee the room. This is just one of the many ways that I am contributing to my children’s future therapy sessions (or possibly their future novels).
Like so many other Washingtonians, you work for the government. Now that you’re back to a full-time job in bureaucracy, how hard is it to balance your pay-check work—not to mention also being a dad—with your writing? When do you fit in your writing?
It is very hard to write with a full-time job and family. At the same time, knowing that I only have a limited amount of time when I can be writing forces me to really focus during that time. When I took time off to write (which was also known as my unemployment), I had these glorious six- to eight-hour blocks of time with nothing pressing to do. But I found that I could only get two to three hours of quality writing done anyway. The rest of the time was spent staring at the wall or staring at the screen or staring at the back of my hand and wondering if that freckle looked different than it did yesterday. True, this was quality uninterrupted time of contemplation that may or may not have actually led to words on the page. But now, when I start writing at 10 p.m. after everyone in the house goes to sleep, I pretty much start typing from the moment I sit down and go until I fall asleep with my head on the keyboard.
You also write TV and movie reviews for Pop Matters. What got you started on that?
I’m a pop culture junkie. Ninety percent of my brain is reserved for movie, TV, and music trivia in areas that sound like Jeopardy categories, such as “John Cusack Films” and “‘80s One-Hit Wonders.” Unfortunately, this crowds out other information such as names of friends and family, things I studied in college, and where I put my car keys. With everything else going on, it’s hard to get away to see a movie. So one of the reasons I started writing reviews was to have an excuse to go on dates with my wife and get to see free movies in the process.
Wait—they pay for your movie tickets? Sign me up! With the book coming out soon, what strategy are you using to publicize your book?
It is an exciting and unique publicity strategy. All I can say right now is that it involves 2,000 marbles, one very talented ferret and the Sochi Olympics opening ceremonies. Stay tuned.
Besides implementing that plan, what’s up next?
I have a couple of things in process. The book with the nine-word title is almost done. And I had a story in Big Lucks recently, called “Superheroes at the End of the World,” that may morph into a novel.