By Caleb J. Ross, Nik Korpon, Richard Thomas, and Axel Taiari
Several years ago at an AWP conference, there was a conversation about writing a shared universe novel. It happened over drinks and scary movies (Paranormal Activity, I believe) and while it started out being called Four Corners, it ended up becoming The Soul Standard. When I think about the history between myself, Nik, Axel, and Caleb—it goes way back to a website we all haunted, The Velvet, and to a private workshop called Write Club. For many years we were simply fans of authors such as Chuck Palahniuk, Will Christopher Baer, Craig Clevenger, and Stephen Graham Jones. In time, we would all start writing and putting our own spin on the genres (and sub-genres) that make up contemporary dark fiction. Each of us brought our own unique history and love of different authors to this project, some from a place of neo-noir, others from fantasy and science fiction, with a heavy dose of transgressive writing thrown in. In the following essays we talk about the project—our inspirations and influences, the creative process, and how we managed to connect four novellas in four different parts of The City over four seasons.
Writing in Shades of Velvet: Caleb J. Ross
I only had a few items on my writing bucket list when I started out.
- Publish a novel before I turned 30
- Get praise. But honest praise.
- Make money.
You’ll notice “write a collaborative novel” isn’t on this list. The impetus to my writing endeavors was—though I’d only recognize this later—steeped in solitude. I don’t like conflict with other people. I don’t have passionate opinions. A collaborative writing environment by definition demands that I confront these aversions. It’s not that I’m antisocial. It’s just that, as I get older, I realize that knowing what I want and don’t want is an awareness that cannot be understated.
At 20, when I started writing, I didn’t have the language to express that disinterest. So, collaborative writing never even percolated as a possibility. The romance of a collaborative novel didn’t leech into my system until years later when a few writing friends—no, wait, co-authors—came together with the idea. I couldn’t tell you who first brought up the concept. My guess would be Pela Via, long-time writing friend and endless supporter of the creatives that were part of the now-unfortunately-disbanded The Velvet writing group. Sure, we all shared periodic space with fellow Velveteers in online fiction journals and the occasional anthology, but none of us would claim to be writing partners (and not because the term “writing partners” should be reserved only for songwriters, comedians, and scriptwriters, lest it sound more pretentious than a blog post about an author’s writing habits…damn).
The discussion thread’s dark color palette—black, a muddy blue, and deep red; velvet red, if I may—tacitly welcomed liked-minded individuals. In hindsight, it seems ridiculous to think that this online cauldron wouldn’t be the impetus for something like The Soul Standard.
The specific The Soul Standard forum (then called Four Corners) is still seared into my brain. Our dialog lacked the affectation that many writers display with such consistency that it seems a rote 101 college semester focus. “Okay class, here’s how you start every conversation with a statement about the influence of your own emotions on your narrator’s persona…” I’ve learned over the years to shut down when writers start talking about their precious process (so thank you for enduring this blog post so far).
The four of us would-be co-authors discussed setting, characters, story arc, but not too much about tone as we were all very familiar by that time with each others’ voices. In hindsight, the voice and tone were already subconsciously established.. A desire to expand the gritty, sometimes lyrical, and very much visceral styles that we had each developed alone into a cohesive whole simply felt obvious.
The Velvet’s forum thread is an inseparable component of the final product. I’m not kidding to say that when I think of The Soul Standard, I think in shades of Velvet.
Pulling No Punches: Nik Korpon
I tend to be an obsessive person. Not like, I have to unlace my shoes every time I take them off and store the shoes under my bed in their box or have someone make phone calls for me (those are real; I had a friend in high school who did that, had to stand in doorways too because he couldn’t walk into rooms). But more in that I fixate on something and become consumed by it.
My first book, and most of the stories written around that time, focused almost solely on drugs. Dealers, addicts, robbing stash houses, whatever. My last couple books have centered on revolutions and uprisings; the ones before that, thieves. Punhos Sagrados came during my boxing phase.
I liked the idea of the boxer, especially because it seemed like a way to tell a grounded story as a contrast to the others that were a little weirder. But then the problem became: who gives a shit about boxers? I’ve seen Rocky, I’ve seen The Set-Up, I’ve seen Raging Bull. There’s nothing to add. My initial thought was to run the opposite way completely and make it a boxing story that had little to do with boxing. Then I realized I’d done that before in a novella: a boxer takes a kid, who happens to be a Fats-Waller-playing jazz piano prodigy, under his wing and he, along with his ex-con best friend, tries to help his girlfriend put on a Brendan Behan play, but things go wrong really quick. I was really proud of it and thought it was a great story, and I’m sure that all eight people who bought it thought the same.
That, of course, led to the thought: Stop trying so hard. Just tell a damn story. Tell a story about life in the City. Make it a way to explore this city, to see what impact the events of the other sections would have. A little later, while grading papers, I put on an Edith Piaf record, which made me think of the film La Vie en Rose, and hey, wasn’t there a boxer in that? and what if the boxer in the story falls in love with a torch singer and and and . . .
It seemed to fit in well with the themes of the other stories—nestled in-between a man pushing against the systems of a new society and a man pushing against his past—to have a man who was literally fighting for his livelihood and metaphorically fighting for his future. Tying the story to the others was a little tougher, but, in the same way that I wanted to make sure each boxing match was a microcosm of the larger novella—a beginning, middle, and end, with their own twists and turns—the key was looking at the smaller details, the ones that lend authenticity to a story. What plays on the television. A favored drink. A familiar landmark.
What I didn’t expect was the background storytelling, like the presence of Arthur Reiss throughout the book, or the shock of seeing the dark turn that Marcel’s story took in Golden Geese. But sometimes, it’s fun to collect the world in your hands, creep out to the edge, then throw it all into the void and see what happens.
Living on the Edge: Richard Thomas
With my novella, Golden Geese, I went into it not knowing what the other authors were doing. We wrote at the same time, so we only had some broad ideas, and maybe a few names. We knew that we’d each have a different part of the city (financial district, red light district, the outskirts, and ghost town) and that these would take place over four different seasons, but beyond that—it was all just a concept. We had a few rules like the idea of trading organs as currency, but really, that was about it. Which was both terrifying and exhilarating. I knew that I could trust Caleb, Nik, and Axel to pull their weight—that was never the issue. But how did we get it all to sync up, to make sense, to create four arcs, which were really one massive arc?
Once we’d all written our drafts—mine written on a writer’s retreat I was awarded called, Writers in the Heartland, surrounded by cornfields and dying ladybugs—we shared them, made comments, cut a few things, added a few things, and then really got to talking about how we could overlap and also hand off the baton of our stories properly. Let me give you a few examples.
In my story there is an event, don’t really want to spoil it for you, but suffice it to say that there is something seen in the sky, a meteorite, and I asked the boys if they could work it into their narratives as well. So they did. It’s was pretty subtle, and readers may not even notice, but I loved the idea of each section having a moment—maybe a protagonist looking up to the sky to see a streaking, burning star—that ties back into my story.
My protagonist, Trevor, runs into Axel’s protagonist, Jules. I think originally I made Jules skinny, emaciated, but that was a mistake. He was the opposite. So I changed it, his stubbled face now doughy. Instead of hugging him as a bundle of sticks, he was a sack of potatoes. Little things like that.
Nik mentions in his essay here that he was a little startled to see how his protagonist, Marcel, turned out in MY novella. We talked about it a lot, and I asked for certain permissions—which was kind of funny, like asking for his daughter’s hand in marriage—and if we’re honest, we DO sometimes think of our work like our babies, don’t we? I asked certain things—would Marcel ever cry, was he loyal, what was his greatest weakness, etc. In the end I had to make sure that I honored Nik’s character, because Nik knew him MUCH better than I did. I had to be careful, because the world was now in my hands, and I had a responsibility to carry that torch forward.
What I like about these four novellas is that you can read them as individual stories, you don’t have to connect all four in order for it to work—they all stand alone, as novellas, that work by themselves. But there are places where they overlap, Easter eggs hidden here and there, little nuggets of goodness if you look close, and pay attention—and I think that helps to create the world that we have built here.
Overall, I think the journey from district to district, across seasons and time is a wild one, a rollercoaster ride—one that hopefully leaves you spent. If we did our job right, then the emotion will be there throughout, as well as at the end of each novella, exclamation points, and the end of the book in its entirety. Not every story has redemption, and that’s okay.
Nowhere to Hide: Axel Taiari
I never thought of myself as a crime writer. You ask me, and I’ll tell you that I’m standing way over there, where orcs and ghosts and spaceships somehow co-exist, where there’s not one, but several realities, and none of them are particularly trustworthy—especially not our own.
Writing Jamais Vu was terrifying, although not for the reasons one might expect. I trusted my co-authors because I knew what they were capable of. The book’s format, which had a couple of publishers scratching their heads and wondering how they could sell it (Is it a novel? A novel-as-novellas? An anthology?), seemed more exciting than anything else. Being the last story in the book, having to weave multiple threads together, carrying the emotional and structural weight of two-hundred-something pages and delivering a grand finale while telling my own story? Tricky, but okay.
No, I was terrified because there was nowhere to hide. Those territories where I usually dwell, they’re so perfect for that. Here’s a grotto where the walls bleed magic. Over there is a building filled with depressed androids. Sewers harbor vampires who’d love your company, mountains can open their mouths to let you in, and, if needed, there are always other planets to visit.
The great crime stories, though, they strip you down to your core. Forget the noir tropes; they’re just sugar-coating on a cyanide pill. Forget the gorgeous sentences crafted by James Ellroy, William Gay, and Megan Abbott. Hell. Forget voyeurism. Crime is human behavior splashed out on the page: very often ugly and brutal and debased, sometimes touching and kind and beautiful, occasionally cathartic and redemptive. Crime makes the other genres tremble when it’s honest and you feel it “in the marrow”, as Will Christopher Baer once put it.
I hear the term “hardboiled” and I don’t think of prose; I think of skin peeling and organs melting to reveal the skeleton underneath. Crime, in all its mutations, is at its greatest when it elicits empathy and recognition, forces you to acknowledge what people and society are really made of, rising from the page and giving you a wicked grin that says, I know exactly who you are. You can’t hide from me, because I am you.
I could write at length about Jamais Vu and tackling honesty. I’d tell you that the name of the missing child, Amelie, is my niece’s name—the closest thing I have to a daughter—and why it was important to imagine her vanishing from my life. I’d tell you about interviewing people who suffer from prosopagnosia, and parents whose children are either missing or dead. Or how I chose, here and there, to discard honesty entirely and lie to the reader by re-wiring the opening paragraph of Lolita and harvesting chunks from Prometheus Unbound. But does it matter? None of those facts can (or should) shield me and the story from criticism. Only the story can speak for itself. And I hope so badly that it will. I hope it’ll do so when it rises from the page and winks at you. This is a twisted book about ugly men and the ugly things they do. The setting may be fictional, but the sins that plague it aren’t. I hope you’ll pay The City a visit—just make sure you buy a return ticket.
About The Soul Standard: Across four different districts of a city that has torn itself to shreds, four different interweaving tales (each written by a different author) play out. In “Four Corners,” a morally dubious banker must keep his employer happy at any cost. The next story, “Punhos Sagrados,” concerns a boxer who finds himself torn between honor and the woman he loves. “Golden Geese” follows a hardened criminal with a terrifying condition who must come to terms with the life he’s led. Finally, “Jamais Vu” provides a stunning denouement as a man searches endlessly for his missing daughter, a task which is complicated by a peculiar condition: his inability to recognize faces. Told in rugged, bare-knuckled prose, The Soul Standard is a nonstop thrill-ride down the darkened avenues and through the shadowed alleys of a nightmare town.