Friday, May 14, 2010

James Curcio: Interview with John Wisniewski

(This was an interview that was conducted a year or so ago, meant to go into publication elsewhere but it never made it. So I thought I'd share it.)

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Through his work, James Curcio is able to create a mind-altering style of writing, which merges fantasy and reality in a unique way. In this talk James speaks about the creative process, his music, writing, and myth making. -John Wisniewski


What was the subject of your first writings?

It's probably a cliché, but there's that advice that gets tossed at most beginning writers: "write what you know." It doesn't mean you need first-hand experience of it, though it helps - but the underlying emotions, thought-process, whatever it is... that has to come from your experience. Fantasy, Sci-Fi, myths... they all speak to us because they resonate directly with our experience. Now, I can't assume that something that is informed by my experience is going to resonate with everyone. Fact is, it won't. But I think there's a fair chance it'll hit some people in unexpected ways.

So I started from my experience, and though I'd like to think every project I work on is different from the previous - sometimes vastly so - that's a common thread. "Write what you know" might be the only common rule I did follow writing that book, by the way. I'm talking about my first novel, Join My Cult! (published by New Falcon press in 2004.) I broke a lot of rules, and I think some of that worked and some of it was a complete disaster. But the parts that worked did so in a sort of brazen, maniacal way that I probably couldn't do now. I've moved on to other things, and my approach is always changing.

I guess you could say Join My Cult! is a 'coming of age' story for those of us who came to self-awareness in a culture that exists without a myth, and so had to try to build our own myths. Maybe that's always been the case in some way, though there's something especially alienating about modern, capitalistic society.

When did you begin that story, and what inspired it?

Like most sixteen year-olds, I took myself and everything around me far too seriously. It's a certain strength to that age too, it gives everything so much damn gravity and importance. But it also leads to endless posturing... and really, really long monologues. I wrote a sort of journal about a trip to a mental hospital. That's where the story begins and ends.

Later, maybe at the age of nineteen or twenty, I returned to that text. But at that point I realized that it was part comedy, and started reworking it. I think it struck a chord with some people because a lot of us have been that alienated teenager. You're smart enough to start processing abstract concepts, but too inexperienced to know any better when it comes to clinging to ideals. Though it's childish and all that, there's something for all of us to learn from the cause of that adolescent angst, even if how we likely dealt with it was well... adolescent. It is something for us to remember, and try to bring back into our lives as adults. If you don't you could very well wind up serving the very machine you railed against as a kid.

I worked and reworked Join My Cult! for several years, and ultimately it was published. I still think it could use better editorial... but I guess it isn't an easy text to edit.

Could you tell us about Aleonis de Gabreal? His writings are often quoted in "Join My Cult." What other writings have inspired your writing?

Actually, Aleonis de Gabrael is fictional - he is kind of the teacher within, and an idealized form that the character Alexi has of himself. A lot of characters appear in this story who exist inside the minds of other characters, though they might be portrayed as external. This is one of the many reasons that it can be a particularly confusing read if you want everything to make sense in a linear way. Nietzsche wheels himself into a Denny's at one point to pontificate, and give a warning to those around him, which of course no one either understands or heeds... Much as Nietzsche himself did. I figured, it is a story, why not give all of these things equal reality? After all, what makes one thought or sensation real and another unreal? External and internal is a matter of perception, which we can play with in literature. In a story you can jump from one person's mind to another, which is not something we regularly do otherwise. But people who couldn't get past that won't get more than a chapter in. Which is fine, I didn't write that book for everyone. In many ways I wrote Join My Cult! for myself. I don't write everything for myself, but that one was a purgative, transformational form of psychotherapy.

Other writers who have inspired me... this would be a really long list. I honestly wouldn't know where to begin- different authors or works came to me at different times, a lot of times it was pretty serendipitous. When I was writing Join My Cult!, I was steeping my brain in James Joyce, Jean-Paul Sartre, Carl Jung, Frederich Nietzsche, Soren Kierkegaard, Aleister Crowley, Carlos Castenada, Robert Anton Wilson, Joseph Campbell... many others but those come to mind.

When I came to my second novel, Fallen Nation, I was working off of many of the myths and stories of Dionysus, especially Euripides' play The Bacchae, and Lilith, and a lot of other mythological motif's, worked on top of my own experience... but I was also on some level probably influenced by Grant Morrison, Warren Ellis, Neil Gaiman - mostly authors who cut their teeth on graphic novels or comics.

Fallen Nation cover
Something often happens when I'm working on a project...I'll be wrapping it up when a friend turns me on to a writer, or a book or a movie - and it'll be like, "fuck. This is really similar to what I'm doing." At least in one way or another. I'm not sure if inspiration can happen retroactively, but it sometimes seems to.

Your writing has a dreamlike-quality and can be nightmarish at times. How do you go about writing in this style? Is it improvised or do you plan out each chapter, seeing it as a film script might be viewed?

Again, this really depends on the project. Join My Cult! was a palimpsest - layers added on top of layers. There was no forethought in terms of the plot, only afterthought, rearrangement, re-writing, re-interpreting - beginning that process over. This is incidentally the kind of process I used when producing the album subQtaneous: Some Still Despair In A Prozac Nation. There are tracks on that album where the original "underpainting" tracks were pulled away entirely, so you hear people's reactions, or reaction to a reaction, but not the material they were reacting to. Those underlying sketches became superfluous. It gives it a kind of dreamlike, meandering quality, that I think you either really like or simply don't get. Again, that's not an approach that's right for all projects, but it's something I wanted to explore specifically with those projects.

5x7" promo for subQtaneous

Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning was intentional. I had a very clear idea of what I wanted to accomplish, what the plot arcs would be - I charted it all out in Viseo as a series of flow charts before getting much writing done. Then I wrote the key scenes and narratives as the mood struck me, pieced them together in order, and then brought them all together and sanded off the edges. After some reflection I decided that it still wasn't right, and I went back to the drawing board, I mean really went back to the drawing board. The result was Fallen Nation: Party At The World's End ... 

As a result of the different processes you get different end results. I think your process should be picked based on what the intention of the project is. Also, as you grow as an artist, your repertoire grows... by that I mean the processes and techniques that are available to you.

I also do my best brain-storming for writing in the state between awake and asleep. When I'm working on a writing project I will often meditate, or simply let myself relax to the point of slipping off into sleep, after having asked myself a question. Sometimes it'll just be an image or something even more ephemeral, a fleeting feeling. But if I can capture that in my notes enough to "tag" that state of mind, then when I'm sitting down to really get to work, I can look at my notes and gather inspiration from that collection of "tagged" shards or impressions. You can imagine, a lot of my notebooks seem a little schizophrenic.

Usually, I do this when I'm at a point with a story where I simply don't know where to go next, or how to deal with a problem that I'm feeling with a passage or character. Then, more often than not, the solution will present itself in that twilight state. The trick of course is to bring it back up, rather than slip off into sleep, because you'll lose it.

I also really enjoy writing scripts, I suppose there is a cinematic quality to how I write stories, especially recently. Join My Cult! would never translate well into that format, but I recently completed the screenplay adaptation of Fallen Nation, and I honestly think it works better than the book did...

Do the cults in Join My Cult! and Fallen Nation: Babylon Burning exist?

This ties into what I'd call "myth building." In a sense yes, and in a sense, no. With Join My Cult!, there were times when there were groups in various cities, and going by various names, which were directly connected to the story. But the title was meant to be ironic, and the fact is that when any group of people get together, when they share similar beliefs, they become a cult of sorts. Which isn't to say they're all going to go out like Jim Jones' crew. Fallen Nation is a little bit more hypothetical. But like I was saying earlier, it still all comes from "real life." Whatever that is.

You've been involved in a wide range of musical projects as well. How do you incorporate so many different styles into your music? Is the process of creating different in your music than in your writing?

I'm not sure how to directly answer those questions. The styles that appear in the projects I work on has to do with my inspiration and influences, but also those of the collaborators involved. That process is alchemy, plain and simple. Right now I'm in the process of recording the album Murder The World with Marz233 (previously of Elektroworx), Johan Ess, Scott Landes (of Mankind Is Obsolete and Collide), and William Clark. We all have very diverse backgrounds and influences, the end result is the alchemy of that- and the push and pull that happens during the production process. We're presently trying to work out the vocals; we've had a hard time finding the right vocalist for the project.

It's all about the process for me. The same end result might be enjoyable, inspirational, terrifying, or downright horrifying to different people. You can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out what the audience is going to think.

Nothing Is Sacred - early design
So the specific process is unique project-to-project.  Working in so many different mediums, I recognize that my strength has become about arranging the big picture. I'll never be a virtuoso - that requires a constant one-pointed meditation, a kind of single-minded dedication that I have neither the time nor interest in. One year I might do a lot of writing, another year might be spent working directing the production of a graphic novel or an album. I get antsy when I'm stuck doing the same thing for too long, though I make a point to see everything through that can be seen through, circumstances allowing.

Maybe I'm also afraid of typecasting myself. Heaven forbid one of my projects really blows up, that would be great but there's always a danger there too. If you have success with one thing everything gets evaluated in comparison to that. You'll get fans who will be downright offended, or worse, if you do something different the next time around. Everyone wants you to put out some kind of reiteration or reassemblage of the same material - especially if you're getting pressured by a label or a publisher with a shrinking profit margin. In my opinion, if you hit gold with something, that can be a sign to you that it was the right place and time, but that place and time can't be reproduced. You always need to move forward. There are artists who I think get that, like David Bowie. But so long as the end result of the process - the product - is given absolute value, and so long as it's commodified, you're going to mostly have sugar water posing as myth.

This is one reason I've mostly worked on independent productions. I'll admit another reason is that most of what I've worked on is far too bizarre and demanding, from the perspective of mainstream culture, for a major to invest in. I've been working a lot on scripts lately, for comics, for independent films, and struggling to get them fully into production. It's really a tough needle to thread. I'd certainly love to see what kinds of myths we could build with larger budget productions, but not if they're going to be hamstrung by execs that don't understand what we're about.

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