Interview with an Author: Derek Felten
Where were you born?
It’s a Chicago suburb, I just forget which one.
I recently started a new job in an office building in downtown Ann Arbor. Before that, I worked at the State Theatre for a number of years.
When did you began writing? What kind of stuff was it?
This is kind of a tough question to answer. I found an old journal not too long ago with the beginning of a very derivative science fiction story in it. I’m pretty sure there was another section where I’d written a fictionalized diary entry to throw my parents off my track if they ever found the journal, but I’m not 100% sure parts of it weren't real. An unreliable narrator! Very advanced stuff.
I didn’t start writing regularly until high school, though. I wrote some fiction at that time, but I was mostly writing really awful poetry. Not that the fiction was good, either, but in some ways I think I learned more from it than I did from the poetry. I only wrote fiction sporadically—the poetry was much more consistent. I also started writing creative nonfiction sometime during the end of high school or in my first stint in college. The stuff I was writing in that vein was totally bankrupt, artistically speaking, though, and took me away from writing fiction for a while. It was when I quit writing poetry and creative nonfiction that I got serious about writing fiction, and that’s when I generally think of myself as having started writing for real.
Where can we currently access your work?
Pretty much nowhere. You could break into my house, I guess, or hack my Dropbox. Other than that, you’d have to dig pretty hard to find anything I’ve written.
What fuels your creativity?
Reading other people’s fiction makes me excited about the project of fiction generally, and makes me want to contribute to that world. Other forms of art get me excited in a less specifically applicable way. With movies, for instance, I find my tastes increasingly bending in a direction that’s very hard to translate into prose.
As far as what informs my point of view as a writer, it’s mostly a vague feeling of alienation and a desire to create something that’s aesthetically interesting—but a feeling of alienation that’s not really that bad to experience. In part, this is probably a reaction to a lot of the stuff I used to write (which was all centered on trying to achieve some sort of grand catharsis, but which I don’t really feel a connection to anymore). Now, I’d rather the focus of my work be on its formal elements, or on a marriage of formal tomfoolery with the more conventional aspects of storytelling. I definitely think of writing as an art; though I think, unfortunately, it’s often expected to be intelligible and to entertain people in a way that the so-called "fine arts" aren’t. This is especially true of fiction compared to poetry, I think. Basically, I want to be a painter or some other kind of artist who’s allowed to traffic in the abstract, only I feel my best shot at creating art is through using language—which for better or worse is also the tool we use for a lot of more utilitarian purposes. Oh well.
Do you have piece of work you feel especially close to?
I feel close to all of my own work the same way I feel close to, like, my body or hair. You rarely feel really good about it, and when you do, it’s almost always really fleeting. My main relationship to my own work is a kind of deep familiarity, and a nagging feeling—like it can be fixed. In terms of personal thoughts and feelings that show up in my writing, I feel almost totally detached from most of the personal stuff I worked into my early stories when I started getting serious about writing. Now, I don’t really write about myself (except in an oblique way). With some of the earlier stories, I feel like putting my real feelings into a character sort of separated me from those feelings—at least as far as the story is concerned—because now, I have to think about what’s best for the story, even if that means fudging the details or decreasing the resemblance a character’s situation has to my own.
As for other people’s work, I feel like the scene with the white alligator in V is, like, a perfect moment in fiction, and kind of captures that "low-stakes" feeling of alienation and confusion I mentioned earlier. I also feel really close to the speaker of Louis Glück’s poems in The Wild Iris, and to a lot of David Bazan’s music. In general, I don’t really feel like a piece of art needs to get me, or express an experience similar to my own in order for me to like it. But Glück and Bazan totally nail the emotional experience of reluctant atheism or agnosticism—which I realized recently is present in almost all my work to a (sort of annoying) degree. I also really relate to Jude Law’s character in Closer during the scene where he’s drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette while fucking with Clive Owen in a sex chatroom.
Tell me about your writing routine.
Writing is part of my daily routine—I realized recently that this whole routine has become sort of essential to me having any kind of sustainable happiness in life. What I do is: I get up and eat breakfast, then exercise, shower, and write before going to work. I used to have to make up a schedule for each day with specific times for each of these activities. Now that my work life is more regular, I pretty much write from 10 AM to noon every weekday. I’m more flexible on the weekends, and sometimes I let myself take weekends off from writing. I’ll write in the evenings sometimes, too, but if I had to guess, I’d say 90% of the writing I’ve done in the past year-plus has happened after I got out of the shower and before I went to work for the day.
I write on the computer: I usually edit what I’ve written the day before, before starting to add to whatever project I’m working on. Usually, I do this in a green recliner I bought from a resale shop, but sometimes I sit at a desk—especially if I’m editing, which I’ll sometimes do with pen and paper. I use a distraction-free writing app called Byword and occasionally a similar app called Ommwriter. I almost always have the Apple dictionary app open in one corner of my screen, and a browser window open in the background. I end up on Wikipedia a lot. I also have spell-check turned off in my writing apps; I find that it helps me to not worry about spelling in the middle of a sentence.
Is there a source of inspiration; a mentor?
I don’t know that I’ve ever really had a mentor, unfortunately. There was a teacher in high school who got me into writing poetry in a more public way. That has probably had more influence on my development than I really give it credit for, but now, the poetry stuff doesn’t seem to be a big day-to-day presence in my writing life.
Reading One Hundred Years of Solitude definitely opened up a world for me and changed my mind about what was possible and worth pursuing in the world of writing. Before that, I was mostly interested in coming-of-age stories. I had read Everything Is Illuminated before that—and loved it—but I think I was mostly drawn to love stories and the opportunities for catharsis at that time. I definitely noticed the language and magical realist elements—I wrote a couple magical realist stories in high school—but it was Marquez that eventually got me on an alternate path in fiction long-term. After that, I read Infinite Jest, and even though it seems like David Foster Wallace has become sort of an icon for snobby self-important white dude-writers, I would be lying if I said his work hasn’t had a huge impact on me. I’m actually re-reading Infinite Jest right now, and plan to follow-up by re-reading V and One Hundred Years this summer, in order to see where I’m at with three books that have made really big impressions on me—now that I’m (hopefully) past the point of just ripping these authors off in my own work. David Foster Wallace got me into Pynchon, Saunders and Calvino. Pynchon is definitely the writer I’d call my "favorite" now. From him, I got into William T. Vollman, who, in addition to Pynchon, was a suspect in the Unabomber case. My main desire as a writer is to write such weird sentences that the FBI thinks maybe they're subversive. I also recently read To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, and it’s insane to me that Woolf isn’t recommended to fans of Pynchon and Wallace, while writers like Vonnegut and Don DeLillo are. Woolf has much more in common with Pynchon syntactically than either of those other writers, and syntax is such a big part of what makes Pynchon great. It’s a pity that she seems to have this rep as a stuffy old Victorian when she really strikes me as an important experimental writer. Women are all too often left out of conversations about important, heady writers, too, and I know my reading experience and development as a writer has suffered as a result.
Can you share with us an excerpt of your work we can expect to see in your summer release?
"It is raining. I remember -- am remembering -- all this from the bed in my room, half in and half out of sleep again, dreaming the same dreams over and over and not knowing it. I am entering a hotel room after a long day at a big debate tournament. It is a nice hotel. Standing near the window in the muted light that shines off the polished surfaces of the TV stand, the dresser, the coffee table -- it’s Patricia. She’s glowing a little. She turns her head and her hair is smooth and unmussed now as it falls like a sheet down from her skull. Her face wears a teasing look as she slinks toward me, completely naked, saying: “I’ve never seen such a creative 2AC.” And as she gets within maybe 3-4 feet of me (I am dressed in an immaculate suit) everything disappears and my eyes are adjusting to real light again as they open back up in my dorm room. I cover my face in my hands. Everything is very bright, like I have disappeared into some heaven where all about me is calm but foggy and confused. I keep rolling over and going back to sleep again, trying to clear my head. And so for the fourth time this dream takes hold of me, and waking with an erection and a vague sense of longing, recounting the blurry circumstances of my real surrounds: the trips to church, my journey down the street, the final practice round -- now it’s suddenly clear to me that I’ve had this dream before. I think, OK I AM DREAMING I KNOW THAT I AM DREAMING I CAN CONTROL THIS IT IS MY BRAIN. Patricia approaches, her hips easing back and forth as she pads across the soft carpet toward me. Her mouth nears mine and I go to place a finger to her lips-to stop her-to say wait the world is not ended yet. Just an inch from my mouth, I want to touch her mouth with an upheld finger and look in her eyes all reluctant-like as I say somebody’s gonna have to pay for our sins. But I don’t, and I can’t, because now the dream is backfiring. I’m in the water. I know, somewhere down deep in this soul of mine that what has happened -- of course it has happened because I tried to touch the dream, to shift it just a bit, maybe smooth the fabric a little or peek behind it. But it’s fallen from in front of me. And so it is surprising and not surprising to find myself suddenly in the ocean, a big dark rough ocean -- the waves capped and flashing as lightning cracks the sky and a boom shakes the waters around me. Something big and deep is rising."