Interview: C. Robert Cargill on DREAMS AND SHADOWS and Breaking Out of the Blogosphere
For years, Aint it Cool News film critic and screenwriter C. Robert Cargill had a story gnawing at him. An adult fairytale filled with magic and monsters that now lives in the pages of Dreams and Shadows, his new novel from Harper Voyager.
Here, in our one on one interview, Cargill talks about the long birthing process, the joys and frustrations of film criticism and blogging, how writing for Aint it Cool News prepared him to obliterate writer’s block, and if he has any concerns about this book being too smart.
What’s the history of Dreams and Shadows, the god spark? How long did it take to write and was it always meant to be a novel, or were there other delivery systems on the table like a script or a graphic novel?
C. Robert Cargill: You know, its a story that’s lingered since 1996. It was something that kinda came and went and it was… I was working on novels back in the 90s and that’s a long, horrible story that ended very poorly. But what ended up happening, was it was going to be my next novel before I moved on in 1999 and then it got tabled and at one point, I wrote it as a screenplay and it didn’t work. It just kinda lingered for awhile.
It was a project that I always wanted to write and always wanted to work on and turn into a novel, but I was always busy. I spent 10 years as a film critic. As you know, in the blogging world, you can easily spend 60-80 hours a week doing it to eek by an existence and that’s what was happening. Eventually, in 2008, I was kinda fed up with where everything was going online and I was just like: “you know what, I’m goona start working on this novel that I’ve been kicking around” and so I spent the next 2 years working on it.
The original genesis of it was always meant to be a novel. There was one point in time where I did talk to an artist buddy of mine who really loved the idea of possibly doing this as a graphic novel, but again, it just wouldn’t work. It always felt like it wanted to be a novel and so finally I gave in.
Now, you say that you started working on novels in the late 90s, how far did you get? We’ve all got — we film writers — we’ve all got 50 pages of an aborted novel somewhere in a drawer, with this, how did you push through those inevitable walls that get built up by distraction and other obligations and get to the end zone?
Cargill: In the 90s, I wrote three novels and I actually had an agent. But as it turns out, I had a notoriously terrible agent — in the advent of the internet and things being easily googleable — I discovered just how terrible my agent was at the time. None of those [novels] went anywhere and it ended up… when I discovered that I had spent a year and a half with a company that had no idea what they were doing and it was costing me quite a bit of money to keep doing it, it was one of those things where I finally moved on.
What made me push through was, I did the blog grind for over a decade and it wears you down. Its really fun and exciting and there is a lot of great stuff going on with it, but eventually you hit that point where you realize that all you’re ever doing in that kind of writing is treading water.
You get to Friday morning, the movies come out, then you’ve pretty much got the weekend off until Sunday night when you start writing articles again. And now you’re just writing about more stuff and eventually you start realizing that nobody really wants to spend too much time talking about a movie that came out 3 weeks ago. They want to talk about a movie that comes out 2 weeks from now.
Its just a constant cycle of promotion, more than it is any kind of intellectual discussion or a chance to do a lot of great writing, and it becomes frustrating and it wears you down. Eventually, it was just one of those things where I can keep doing this for the next 20 or 30 years or I can go on and do the thing that I’ve always wanted to do since I was a kid.
That’s just what drove me. I did it on nights and mornings and weekends — whenever I could find the time to do it and it ended up being totally worth it. It was two years work to get the book out in that fashion, but at the end of the day, I was really proud of what I had, regardless of what happened and of course the book ended up leading to the career that I have now.
You mention the grind of writing on the net. What kind of tools do you think you have picked up while doing it that have helped you as a novelist and as a screenwriter?
Cargill: The biggest thing is when you go on a lot of the basic writing blogs or you read people’s advice, one of the things they tell you is to work every day, to write every day. You know, the thing is when it comes to writing, your brain is something of a muscle, the more you do it, and the more time you spend in it, the more of a zen activity it becomes.
Doing the blogging and having to write so much for so little while at the same time being constantly critiqued by millions of people online over the years, it built up all the work habits that have allowed me to write a novel in my spare time and to now be able to work on books and work on movies at a really, truly steady pace.
Because its one of those things where, whether you like a movie or not, you’ve gotta crank out a review. The hardest part of reviewing — as you probably know — isn’t reviewing the really terrible movies or reviewing the really great ones, or books for that matter. It’s writing the ones that you get done with and you’re like “Eh, coulda been better, coulda been worse” its just kinda there, there’s nothing really to talk about, and yet you still have to find 1,000 words to talk about it. Forcing yourself to do that is, um, that’s exactly the tool you need to push through writers block. It’s that “I don’t know where to go from here” and its like, “well, I don’t care, you’re writing 2,000 words today because that’s what you’re doing, so just man up and do it.” So that’s one of the biggest things that its done.
At the same time, its also prepared me, in a way, for dealing with an audience, because I’ve been dealing with an audience directly for years. I know how to take harsh criticism, I know how to take over inflated positive comments. You learn to, kind of, mediate that and balance it out so that you don’t get caught up with it and you keep focusing on the work.
Anecdotal evidence would kinda suggest that this book is the opposite of what some people want. They want breezy material, they want it fed to them. This isn’t breezy. From what I’ve read, it’s a slow burn and every page is really heavy. There are layers to every character and every interaction. It’s lush and that’s obviously by design, people have to work to get to the payoff. If this fails, will it reduce your faith in the ability of people to slow down and take something in and will it alter the way that you tell future stories?
Cargill: Well, no. I mean, the thing is, there is an audience for dense or intelligent material. Not that I’m referring to my work as either dense or intelligent.
Well I will
Cargill: But see, I’m not allowed too.
That’s very true.
Cargill: No, there’s definitely an audience out there that loves that kind of stuff. There’s an audience that really loves thoughtful literature that doesn’t spoon feed them.
Now its not everyone. I mean, my favorite review of the book so far, comes from Goodreads and its a 3 star review in which a girl said: “I don’t like books that make me feel stupid, I can do that on my own.” And then [the review] went on to talk about what she didn’t understand in the book and how she likes books that are just straight forward and tell her what it wants to tell her without playing around with it, because that’s what she wants. And she just reads for fun and she doesn’t want to have to think about it. And that’s totally respectable. There’s nothing wrong with that. I think there’s a big division in the type of readership, where one side thinks the other is an idiot and the other side thinks the other is pretentious. I think everybody gets a little something different out of everything.
There are things that I read where I read for fun and there’s things that I read because I want to enrich the soul, and that was the type of thing I wanted to write. You know, the guys that I love, the work that really touches me, is stuff by William S. Burroughs Herman Hesse, Franz Kafka, Robert M. Wilson, and Kurt Vonnegut. Really heady guys who had a lot going on in there work and that’s the kinda stuff that I was drawn to write.
If it fails, what it tells me is that I didn’t do a good enough job getting it in the hands of the people who like this kinda stuff. I’ve gotten enough positive feedback from early reviewers to know that I didn’t write a bad book, so I know that wont be the problem. But I think that at the end of the day, if this doesn’t do well, its because I just didn’t do what I should have done to get it out there.
Because there are readers out there. It may not be one of those books that sells 10 million copies, but I know that there is certainly enough readers out there who enjoy work like this to definitely give me a career doing it if they end up liking it.
Dreams and Shadows is available now on Amazon.com and wherever fine books are sold.