BOOK FUN MAGAZINE - FREE READ

NORA INTERVIEWS DALE CRAMER








Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer?

I think so. Even as a child I was a prodigious liar, instinctively testing the elasticity of truth and establishing the importance of plausibility in a good lie. I’ve always had a natural affinity for words— not just meanings and uses but rhythms and sounds, the textures of language. I vaguely recall writing stories in grammar school, though I never took it seriously and eventually, like most folks, bent my energies toward making a living.

How did you start your writing career?

I was building an office for an old friend, in his basement— this was not long after I became a stay at home dad in my early forties— and one evening we fell into a lengthy argument over the whole labor versus management issue. He’d always been a white-collar Libertarian in favor of bringing back the feudal system (flogging, debtors’ prison, hanging pickpockets, that sort of thing). I was just a common laborer, so my responses were, of course, well thought out, measured and fair. After a couple hours of heated debate he finally said, “You know, I still don’t agree with anything you’re saying, but you say it very well. If you could shape your views into an article I think I know where I can get it published.”


I spent a week writing a 2400 word piece and then two more weeks learning to edit myself by cutting it down to 600 words. After the article was published I naturally became convinced I was Hemingway reincarnate, so I joined a writers forum on Compuserve (probably, I now know through years of hindsight, the only place on the web where a person could actually learn the craft from real, down to earth, professional writers.) For a year or two I wrote and posted stories to the writers forum, eventually sending some of them out to literary magazines who actually published a few of them.


But literary magazines don’t pay. A little research revealed that it’s actually easier to publish a book than a short story (and they pay money for books) so I decided I would write a novel. It was harder than I thought. It took me three years to write the first one because I kept taking it apart and starting over, but in the end I learned the essentials.

What was your inspiration for your first book "Sutter’s Cross"?

That book started life as an exercise for the writers forum. The assignment was to write a story about somebody who only had six months to live. To this day I have no idea why it happened this way but I immediately imagined this tall, long-haired, grungy stranger standing with his back to me loading a paper plate from a buffet table in an outdoor pavilion, and there was a familiar ink stain on the back pocket of his jeans. I wrote the words, “The first time I ever saw Harley he was wearing my pants.” That was all I knew at the time, but I followed him around for three years and ended up with a 400 page book.

Some authors plot out what they are going to write step by step and others say they write by the seat-of-their pants, which style of writing best describes your writing?

Seat of the pants. I’ve tried outlining, I can’t do it. I really wish I could; life would be so much simpler if I could lay out the whole plot in advance, know exactly where I was going every day and exactly how long it would take to finish the book, but I just can’t do it. Somebody once said that writing a novel was like driving at night; you can only see so far ahead, but you can make the whole trip that way. For me, that’s the truth.

Since "Levi's Will" was so near and dear to your heart, did it make the book easier or more difficult to write?

(Dale's Dad and the setting for Levi's Will)

I think it made the writing a lot harder. The story was loosely based on my father’s life, but I had no desire to invade his privacy or publicize things he’d rather keep private. I went to great lengths, adding and subtracting, changing, rearranging, and sometimes inventing whole characters and subplots in order to give him (and others) a measure of deniability. It was his story I wanted on the page, not his person. It’s a story of one man’s dogged pursuit of redemption, a voyage of discovery. I meant for it to be a positive, uplifting story in the end, and I had no desire to harm any real person in the process.

How much of you is in that story?

Although I’m of the opinion that a writer can’t help putting some of himself into every character, I don’t think there’s any more of me in Levi’s Will than in my other work. Will’s son Riley would correspond to myself in real life (I would be Will’s second son), but I often tell people this is a good example of how I create a character. Riley is an arrogant loser, a contemptuous, chain smoking, drug addicted alcoholic with a terrible attitude, and he’s divorced. That’s obviously not me; I’m not divorced.

How did your book "Levi's Will" affect the relatives who read it?Did you let them read the story before it was published or after? Did they react the way you thought they would?

Out of respect for my father I promised him I would not send one page to the publisher without his blessing. If he had found anything objectionable in the manuscript I would have worked it out to his satisfaction before anyone else saw it. Fortunately, he was quite happy with it. My mother was allowed to read the manuscript, and my wife routinely reads everything I write, but none of my extended family saw the book before it was released.


(Dale & Family)

The most remarkable thing happened after the book was published. My father’s only sister, Mary (who remains Old Order Amish to this day), had observed the ban against him throughout my entire lifetime, never accepting any gift from his hand, never riding in his car or allowing him to eat at her table. Her seventeen children knew very little of his story because it simply was not talked about. It was taboo. But after Levi’s Will came out they all read it, and since it was only about half true they began to pepper Aunt Mary with questions, wanting to know what was true and what was not. She had no choice but to discuss the matter. Endlessly. But sometimes when you open up old wounds a strange thing happens: they heal. A couple of my cousins contacted my father and suggested he write the bishop of their church a letter of confession and apology. So he did, and six weeks later the bishop wrote back to tell him the church had put it to a vote and decided to lift the ban against him. The next week Aunt Mary invited us up for Thanksgiving dinner. I was there when he sat down at his sister’s table for the first time in sixty years. I am still awed and humbled by the fact that all this came about because of Levi’s Will.

"Levi's Will"— how did you come up with the title? Did you have help picking out the cover of that book?

My wife actually came up with the title at the eleventh hour, right before it went to press. I thought it was brilliant, implying three different ideas at once.

Cover art is one area where the author very seldom has any influence or input whatsoever. I don’t even know what the process is like, really. Sometimes a contract will stipulate that the publisher will “consult” the author about cover art, but I’ve learned that this is interpreted to mean they’ll let him see the cover before the book is released. Most publishers shudder at the thought of letting a writer anywhere near the cover design.

Some authors say that their characters have come alive and taken them places that surprised them. Has this ever happened to you in all the books that you have written?

Yes, frequently. I think this is the biggest advantage to being a seat of the pants writer. Very often I feel as if I’m just taking notes, following my characters around and writing down what they do and say. There’s a pivotal scene in Levi’s Will where Jubal Barefoot is talking to Will by a pond. I was concentrating on the dialog at the time, trying to get their words right, and meanwhile Jubal takes their tea glasses and pours them back and forth, mixing them. He did this on his own while I wasn’t really paying attention, and it wasn’t until after the entire scene was completed that I saw the astonishing symbolism in what he had done.

What was your inspiration for "Bad Ground"? Was that the working title for your book?

Bad Ground was the working title for the book. It was inspired by a mining project where I worked in 1985, the miners I came to know there, and an explosion that put me in the burn unit for a month and a half. While the miners in the book are not based on real persons (I never use real people, I create my own characters and then forage among a lifetime of anecdotal stuff for the right story to use in a given situation) their attitudes and personality traits are authentic, trust me.

The title (and the theme of the book) comes from my own experience. After I got my skin blown off people took care of me for a long time. They fed me when my hands were useless, collected money to pay my bills, fed my dog, cut my grass. There was a rape in the parking lot of the hospital one night, and the following day they arrested a security guard for the crime. The next night a couple from the church showed up to escort my wife to her car, and then they followed her all the way home. Next night, a different couple. Every night after that, until I was released, somebody showed up to watch over my wife. Through the darkest time of my life I learned something about people, what we’re supposed to do and how we’re supposed to be. We are the arms of God.

Has being an author been everything that you expected it to be? What has surprised you?
All of it has surprised me. For twenty-five years I was a construction worker, an electrician, and a man pretty much defines himself by what he does. When I became a stay at home dad it was supposed to be a temporary thing, just for the summer. Then I started writing almost by accident, and wrote a book just to see if I could do it. I didn’t expect it to be any good, and was surprised when people said it was. I was surprised when an agent took me on, and again when she landed a two book deal. I was surprised when I won the Christy Award, both times. I was surprised when my books were Main Selections of a book club, and again when they were translated into other languages, and again when they came out on audio. I didn’t expect anything, really. I still don’t. The whole thing still seems a little bit Twilight Zone to me.

What are you working on now? Can you give us a sneak peek into your new book?

My agent is currently shopping a novel about a Nobel Prize winning chicken. No, really. Seriously.

QUESTIONS YOU JUST WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT DALE BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK SO I DID!!

If you could hang out and interview two people in the history of the world (alive or dead) and you had 48 hours to do so, who would you pick and why? You can meet with them separately or together; you are setting up the meeting.

Okay, this I have to explain. My favorite book is Cannery Row, by John Steinbeck. The centerpiece of the book is a party thrown for Doc (Ed Ricketts, in real life) by a bunch of bums. A very young Joe Campbell (the Joseph Campbell, of Hero’s Journey fame) happened to be hanging around Cannery Row with Steinbeck and Doc at that time, and to his dying day Joe swore that the party in the book was actually given for him (Joe, not Doc). If I had the chance to go anywhere in history for two days and just hang out, I’d go to Cannery Row the day before that party and hang out with John Steinbeck and Joseph Campbell.

You have just found a magic lamp and the genie wants to grant you three wishes – what would those wishes be?

I don’t know. Maybe it says something about me that I don’t know what I’d wish for. The usual suspects— fame, wealth, good looks— always have a down side. I’d probably waste my wishes straightening out the economy and injecting some common sense into the government. I would like to see the Braves with a solid pitching rotation for a change, and I wouldn’t mind having a Mini Cooper, but those things (like a government with common sense) tend to break down.

If you had to pick a TV "Reality" show to be on, which one would it be and why?

Survivor, I guess. I’m a true jack of all trades and a born problem solver. I’d make a great Robinson Crusoe.

If you could eat anywhere for breakfast (and money wasn't an issue)where would you eat and what would you order?

There’s this tiny little rustic cabin of a restaurant at the top of the mountain above Zell am Zee, in Austria. I’d get coffee and a Germknödel and watch the sun come up over the Alps.

You have the same deal with dinner – where would you go and what would you eat?

Doug Adams’ Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I’d probably order something light, maybe a grilled chicken caesar salad and a glass of white wine— might have to move fast getting back to the time machine.

There has just been a machine invented that can change one thing about you. First of all would you do it, and second, if you did do it what would you change? What would the change look like in your life?

I wouldn’t do it, sorry. I wouldn’t change anything precisely because I don’t know what the change would look like in my life. Everything about us, every physical attribute, every attitude, every experience, whether we see it as good or bad, is hopelessly interwoven with all our other attributes and experiences. Pull any one thread and you don’t know what part of the tapestry will unravel. Take away the very worst thing and you risk inadvertently removing the best thing.

If you had the chance to be a superhero for a while and you could mix and match powers and costumes, who would you be? Why?

First, forget the costume— listen, Spandex is not my friend. But why bother being anybody other than Superman? He can fly, he has X-ray vision, he’s super strong and he’s bullet proof. What else could you possibly want?

What movies left a lasting impression on you as a child?









Tarzan. The old Johnny Weismuller Tarzan movies. I still can’t get the image of those crossed trees out of my head. Remember the one where the indigenous people bent two big trees together and tied the tops so that they formed an X? Then they’d strap a victim to the X, beat the drums to a crescendo and cut the trees loose. I’m still trying to work out which body parts would go in which direction.

What were some favorite books you read as a child?









Hardy Boys. Frank and Joe were my heroes. I must have read every Hardy Boys book in existence before I finally moved on to Proust.

What was the last movie you saw at the theatre? Did you like it?

We went to see Gran Torino the other night, Clint Eastwood’s new movie. I liked it a lot, though for a writer it was a little predictable. It reminded me of Levi’s Will in a way, the story of an old man seeking absolution, redemption, and having to get out of his old ways of thinking to do it.

Since we faced a fuel crisis this past summer and people are looking for different means of transportation, which forms would you be open to try? Feel free to add the ones that I have left off. Hot-air-balloon, elephant, helicopter, horse, Star Wars space ship,Lord of the Rings Trees, beam machine from Star Trek etc. What would
be your favorite means of transportation?


Well, I’ll try just about anything once, but in the end there can be no discussion of my favorite means of transportation without mentioning sailplanes. There is nothing on this earth so fine as slipping across the sky in one of those graceful long-winged glass birds— ghosting straight toward a ridge and feeling that elevator rush in the pit of your stomach when you encounter the lift near the windward slope, or centering a thermal and holding a steep bank while you’re shoved upward at a thousand feet a minute with only the sound of the wind across your canopy. It’s like waltzing with God.

ANY LAST COMMENTS THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO LEAVE OUR READERS WITH?

I’m afraid my answers might make me sound a little crazy— one part silly, one part profound— but that’s the truth. That’s me, and, I suspect, a lot of other people. Life its ownself is both silly and profound. If you don’t believe it, spend some time with a small child.

Thanks Dale for letting us know you better. We totally enjoyed you speaking to us at book club. You are a delight to know. You are as interesting on paper as you were in person. I appreciate you sharing your heart.

Until Next time Dale when you tell me more about your chicken story!! It does sound interesting - especially coming from you!! :D

Blessings on your writing friend.

Nora :D

7 comments:

  1. Doesn't he live near me? Or used to?

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  2. Nora
    It's fun reading the interviews even after we've already met the author. Dale Cramer was my first book and first author to actually meet at book club. I enjoyed him and the book so much. I've been hooked since then!

    Thanks for all you do!
    Ann Kinamon

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  3. I very much enjoyed the discussion when Dale Cramer visited book club, but he revealed even more about himself in this interview. Looking forward to the book about Nobel prize-winning chicken - can't imagine what that will be like. Glad to hear he was a fellow Hardy Boys fan, but I wonder if he actually ever moved onto Proust?

    angela r.

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  4. Love Dale's books! Thanks for the feature, Nora. I did Levi's Will for my book club last year.

    Dale - thanks for the insight into Levi's Will, Hope all is well with you and yours :)

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  5. What? No giveaway. Drat. His books sound fabulous. *smiling*

    I've never read any of his books, but after this extremely fun and interesting interview, I'm certainly going to.

    Thanks for making me aware of them.

    Debra Ullrick
    The Bride Wore Coveralls
    Déjà vu Bride
    Dixie Hearts
    www.DebraUllrick.com

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  6. I really enjoyed this interview with Dale. thanks, so much! I look forward to reading his next book. I appreciate all that you do, Nora.

    Hope all is well.

    Lisa

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  7. Nora - another great interview! I have all of Dale Cramer's books, and I think he is such a fantastic story teller!

    I'm so thankful to learn about how Levi's Will restored relationship in his family! That was AMAZING!!

    This was awesome! Thanks!

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