When we were first offered the opportunity to interview Ara 13, we were told that he writes in the literary genre of metafiction, and I’ll admit, I’d never heard of it. I had to look the genre up on Wikipedia, where I learned:
Metafiction is a type of fiction that self-consciously addresses the devices of fiction. It is the literary term describing fictional writing that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as an artifact in posing questions about the relationship between fiction and reality, usually, irony and self-reflection. It can be compared to presentational theatre, which does not let the audience forget it is viewing a play; metafiction does not let the reader forget he or she is reading a fictional work.
Intrigued, we said yes. The book is unconventional, hilarious, heartbreaking, and odd. Ara 13, however, is incredibly down-to-earth. A former Marine and journalist, he has a clear-eyed view of the industry, choosing to be published independently to avoid compromising his storytelling. The gamble paid off, and DRAWERS & BOOTHS garnered an IPPY Award, which recognizes excellence in independent literature.
We are pleased to present part one of our two-part interview with Ara 13.
Q: Had you always wanted to be a writer? Who were some of your early inspirations?
Ara 13: As a kid, I wanted to be an actor, though I remember being discouraged by the school plays. Everything was a musical, but I craved riveting dialogue. Perhaps, this early longing planted the seeds for what would be my future profession. Though I was a poor reader in high school, I devoured Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, even though I wasn’t taking the class reading it. I loved mixture of humor and logic. But education was wasted on this youth, and I didn’t develop a fire for literature until my mid-twenties. Once it was ignited, I took off reading … everything. I initially read a lot of nonfiction, a lot of science and law. I am still a very slow and deliberate reader. My favorite in the arena of the novel is Graham Greene; however, as with actors, it is hard to find a writer whose body of work can be revered in entirety. Particular books inspire me. The Remains of the Day, The Crying of Lot 49, Things Fall Apart, Bread Givers, Candide. Then partial moments from Vaclav Havel, Woody Allen, Bertolt Brecht, James Joyce, Henry James, and on and on.
Q: What was your journey to publication like?
Ara 13: Intentional. That may seem like a cheeky answer, but it is the best way to describe the journey. I believe any business endeavor needs to be as intentional as possible for it to produce a competent product, which is more important than sales, in my opinion. This means my main focus was the writing. I work on my deficiencies, I study my craft, and I take accurate personal inventory. Convincing others of the value of my work is not my strong suit. Yet, I’ve shelved enough earlier attempts to know one of the toughest critics is myself.
Q: How did working as a combat correspondent for the Marine Corps impact your fiction?
Ara 13: Aside from the particulars of military journalism showcased in Drawers & Booths, the training I learned from the Marines molded my style greatly. Writing news and headlines was a terrific drill for cutting to the point. Plus, the editing process taught me to differentiate between my personal voice—which I wanted to defend—and just plain bad writing—which I needed to acknowledge. I quickly learned that the writing wasn’t great merely because it came from me, but because it came from a particular person with high-standards and deliberate goals. Of course there is a fine history of military or newspapermen turned novelists, Hemmingway, Twain, even Churchill. So, I am in good company. But the association of journalism to terse sentences might be a little over emphasized. I think those writers more specifically developed an appreciation for the simple subject, for clarity of thought. When you’ve written for the masses with a specific focus on clear communication, it is hard to embrace train-of-thought type techniques, ramblings. This however does not mean the ex-newspaperman can’t tackle heady subjects; rather, that they are mindful of accurately communicating those thoughts.
Q: What is metafiction? Why did you gravitate to this genre?
Ara 13: I consider a metafictional element to occur whenever the author intentionally causes the reader to take note that the work is an artifact. Some authors describe this as a book within a book, but I think that that is only one manifestation of the genre. A metafiction author pays homage to the notion that any recording of reality is tainted to some degree by the subjective telling of the data. He then intentionally decides how much to insert himself into the story; whether it be mild, by simply having the otherwise omniscient narrator address the reader; or strong, by having the characters acknowledge their role in a novel. Drawers & Booths tends toward the strong or hard metafiction spectrum. I employ the metafictional device because I can use it as a vehicle to deliver wit and as an anthropological tool, creating the distancing necessary to comment on society. Additionally, I consider every novel to contain a metafictional element. Every time a metaphor or simile is used, the author has inserted himself into the novel and given a personal assessment aside from the direct relation of the action. For utility sake, we do not define all novels as metafiction—and we shouldn’t. We reserve that moniker only for those books in which the author intentionally uses the device for specific effect.
Q: What was the inspiration behind DRAWERS AND BOOTHS?
Ara 13: I was inspired to write a fun novel with an interesting theme enmeshed in silliness, hoping to cause the reader to smirk, lower the book, and marvel over the narrative gymnastics—a book that would be thought-provoking and humorous, but that didn’t hamper reader flow. I wrote the kind of book that I would be thrilled with as a reader. When asked by readers why I wrote a particular passage, or employed a certain device, invariably I will answer: because it makes me laugh … then think.
Q: DRAWERS AND BOOTHS starts out as a war adventure and ends as a courtroom drama with God on trial, with plenty of digressions and philosophical asides in between. You even enter the narrative and have characters question your plotting and dialogue choices. Did you deliberately set out to mash genres together? Are you content to let the plot unfold?
Ara 13: Most people read a book with a particular intent, such as to find the killer. I wrote Drawers & Booths so that the reader couldn’t steer the ship, yet I didn’t want them to be mired down in plotless authorial ramblings. I balanced keeping the reader on his toes with facilitating reader flow. For most readers, I pulled it off. Others find the metafiction discordant, which it is, but that’s intentional. I mashed genres together to better disrupt the reader from the common paradigm. Some critics have suggested this is jarring, but I think that is as obvious as stating Poe’s Pit was scary. Whether a reader appreciates this style is another story, but tastes should be parsed from competency of product. I may look at a perfectly realistic rendition of a still life from a Flemish painter and feel nothing, all the while acknowledging his abilities. I may get more joy from Franz Kline’s Kanji-like abstractions. My priority was to create a competent piece regardless of individual preference. To liken my work to abstraction, however, would be way off the mark. I am quite intentional. Even though I enjoy the serendipitous nature of letting many plot points naturally fall where they may, they are anchored to the thematic skeleton. I never lose sight that writing is primarily communication.
Next week, Ara 13 talks about marketing the unusual book, and the state of independent publishing. Don’t miss it!