October 20, 2013 by Nathaniel Tower
David S. Atkinson is one of the finest people in the indie literary community today. While the community on the whole is friendly and supportive, David takes support to a whole new level. If you are friends with him on Facebook, you can be certain that he will read every story you post, and he will probably share it as well. If you need a blurb, ask David. I don’t know how he does it, but he’ll somehow manage to get through your 600-page novel by the next day. And you can trust that he will read every word and means what he says in the review.
In addition to being an incredible supporter of what we do, he is a great author himself. His fantastic story collection/novel Bones Buried in the Dirt is a must read for anyone who has ever been a kid (I think that’s everyone, right?). Lately, it seems that his writing is almost as prolific as his reading. Almost every day I seem to stumble upon a new story by David S. Atkinson. I’ve yet to read a bad one yet.
With as hard as it is to be a writer, people like David S. Atkinson make it easier and more rewarding. As long as there are people like David around, the literary community will flourish.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down to chat with David. Here is what he had to say about reading, writing, and giant ants.
NT: David, thanks for joining me today, and thanks for all that you do to support the community. I think the first question I have for you is the most obvious. You are one of the most prolific readers I have ever encountered. I believe at one point you were on pace to read over 300 books this year. So I must ask: How do you do it? Do you just not sleep? Is your job just reading books all day? Please share your secret.
DSA: I do have somewhat of a fast reading speed. My parents really encouraged reading as I was growing up and I think that really made a difference in the amount of text I go through in a given period of time. At the same time, it’s not a race. I just go at the speed I’m comfortable at and don’t really think about it too much. Most of what it probably is, honestly, is how much reading time I get. My job is as a patent attorney as opposed to professional reader (though there is reading involved), and I did bill over 200 hours last month, so it’s not like I have huge amounts of free time. However, I don’t have kids and I don’t really watch TV. Given that my wife is always off at volleyball or tennis (or watching programs I can’t stand) whereas I’m a lazy, lazy man, I get a lot of time to read and I use it. That’s probably the big secret, fewer distractions outside work hours.
NT: And how do you have time to write on top of that?
DSA: I actually should spend more time writing. I tend to spend a lot of time writing in my head before I eventually sit down to put something to paper, but even with that I tell myself (no matter how much I do write) that I should be writing more. I’ve always got something going, though, and just as with reading, I go at the pace that seems to work for me. Again though, as for time, it helps that I don’t do much outside of work other than read and write. It’s just what I do.
NT: If you had to pinpoint one moment in your life that inspired you to write, what would it be?
DSA: That’s actually a difficult one to remember. I remember always wanting to be a writer in one form or another. My parents were always big on literature and my dad had always wanted to be a writer (though the Viet Nam stuff kind of knocked him out any serious commitment to it) and it just seemed like a natural thing. How important it was to me at a given time varied, but I’m just not sure that I ever considered not being a writer.
NT: Do you get your kicks from e-books or physical books?
DSA: Physical books. I have a kindle, but I only use it for public domain books, books I get for free, review copies in electronic form, and so on. However, I have 7 5-shelf bookshelves, 1 3-shelf bookshelf, and a bin in the basement of books.
NT: If you could recommend just three writers that no one has ever heard of, who would they be? And of course you have to tell us why.
DSA: Writers that no one has heard of? I’m sure somebody has heard of them, but I’ll pick three that I think aren’t anywhere near as well known as they should be (though I could go on all day about writers who should be better known).
The first is Andrew Wellman. He won a Playboy Fiction contest a long time ago and Random House pushed him for a book before it was really finished: S.F.W. They threw a title on it and just tossed it out there, pretty much letting it fend for itself…other than getting a movie based on it made with Reese Witherspoon and Stephen Dorff. Even unfinished as it was, it has some wonderfully beautiful passages and something absolutely haunting about it. It may be nineties angst in lower class Detroit suburbs, but there’s still something that pulls really strongly about it. But, poorly handled and abandoned as it was, few have read it. Those who have are generally hard-core about it, but Wellman wasn’t really able to get anyone to publish his later Pixie series. No one would touch him because the first book hadn’t done well, even though that was because it hadn’t been handled right.
Next, I’ll pick J.P. Donleavy. Some have read him, but he isn’t as often read in the U.S. as he should be, and usually people have only read The Ginger Man. Admittedly, The Ginger Man is one of his best books, really showcasing Donleavy’s mastery of internal monologue as well as his rolling style, but he’s got so many other good ones: Leila, A Singular Man, Wrong Information is Being Given Out at Princeton, The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, The Saddest Summer of Samuel S, The Onion Eaters, Shultz, The Lady Who Liked Clean Restrooms, A Fairy Tale of New York, and so on. There’s so much more to Donleavy than just The Ginger Man.
Last (And again, I could go on. You just made me pick three), I’m going to pick Kathy Acker. Like Donleavy, she is definitely not one that people haven’t heard of, but I just don’t think people read her work anywhere near enough. Even I don’t. I’ve only read a couple of her books and I’m sure much goes over my head, but it always blows my mind. Kathy has some serious writing power. Whether or not you completely get it, and I’m sure I miss a lot, it’s still an amazing thing to behold.
NT: David, I’ll admit that I haven’t read any of those authors before, although I am familiar with the S.F.W. film. I promise to check all of them out at some point in the next ten years. But onward with the questions. If you had to destroy everything you’ve written except for one piece, what would it be and why?
DSA: I’m going to have to pick the novel I’m shopping around right now tentatively titled The Garden of Good and Evil Pancakes just because it was such a strange situation and I’m not sure I could do it again. Joseph Michael Owens had recommended The Verificationist by Donald Antrim to me. As I was reading, though I loved it intensely, it wasn’t what I’d been thinking of when I first read a summary of it. I was telling Joe about this book I’d been thinking of, and he texted me back: “You should write that.” Suddenly it all clicked in my head and I furiously hand wrote a draft of the novel (about 55-58,000 words, somewhere around that) in two weeks. I don’t think I was entirely in charge at that point so I’m really not sure I could do it again.
NT: And how would you destroy everything you’ve written?
DSA: I’d use it as the base for the sacrificial fire that we use to raise Richard Nixon from his ancient slumber in R’lyeh, allowing him to bring untold horror and agony upon mankind. Wait, maybe I’m thinking of Cthulhu. Richard Nixon, Cthulhu, same difference.
NT: Okay, time to test your loyalty. What’s the best thing Nathaniel Tower had ever written?
DSA: I’m definitely going with the forthcoming Nagging Wives, Foolish Husbands, and not just because I was honored to be asked to provide a blurb for it. Those stories were just perfectly the sort of thing I was working on at the time, looking at the world seriously through absurd stories. The imagination in there is some of the best I’ve seen from you and you really do use the absurd elements as a way of getting the reader to think about aspects of life that we’ve gotten trained to ignore because they’re in front of us all the time. I can’t say enough good things about that collection.
NT: Let me stop blushing and ask another question. What is the one book that you’ve wanted to read but you’ve never been able to conquer?
DSA: There are plenty that I haven’t picked up yet, but I can’t think of one that I haven’t been able to get through once I started. War and Peace gave me a run for my money and I stopped a few times when I was younger, but I got through it. Same with In Search of Lost Time. Not much gives me pause after successfully taking on In Search of Lost Time. I’ve even read Ulysses and Finnegans Wake. I doubt I understood much, but I read them.
NT: Everyone has some secrets that they don’t want to share. Let’s hear some of yours. What are three books you like that would be considered guilty pleasures?
DSA: I’m not sure I really feel ashamed of anything I read. Every kind of book has something good and something bad about it and I think we get compartmentalized too easily. I recently read and had a lot of fun with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and though I might not go bragging about it, I don’t hide the fact that I enjoyed it. I do sometimes not mention that I enjoyed Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat and Queen of the Damned, but that’s mainly because I’m utterly sick of vampires now and don’t want to encourage any more to be written.
NT: What is a book that you are supposed to love but you just can’t stand?
DSA: I’m not sure that I can really give a good answer to that one. There are books I don’t care for, but little to none that I actually ‘hate.’ There is usually something good to be found in almost everything. At the very least, it beats not reading. That being said, I’d have to pick Balzac’s Seraphita. I’ve loved a lot of Balzac so I expected to at least like that one, but it was just a thinly disguised religious tract. I’ve rarely been so disappointed. Balzac wrote a tremendous amount before he drove himself into the ground, but not everything is as good as A Harlot High and Low or Father Goriot.
NT: What is the worst trend in writing today?
DSA: Not reading enough.
NT: If the indie lit community wants to survive, what do you think it needs to do?
DSA: Exactly what it’s doing. I’ve seen some absolutely amazing stuff coming out of the indie lit scene. It finds a way to survive. Indie lit is strong. It cannot be harmed by conventional weapons. It could change to be more pleasing to a larger audience, but I’d rather see the audience change first.
NT: And now for some silliness. Would you rather come home to a million ants in your home or one giant ant that was the size of a million ants fused together and had all the properties of a regular ant, i.e., could lift 20 times its weight?
DSA: I’d go for the giant ant. A million ants would be impossible to get rid of and yet would feel like a petty problem no matter how bad the situation really was. A single ant, regardless of the size, seems easier to deal with even if requiring extreme measures. Besides, you haven’t said that the giant ant would be unfavorably disposed toward me. Perhaps he would let me ride him every day to work. Talk about a status symbol. I’d be the Ant Lord.
NT: Okay, your turn. Ask me one thing. Anything.
DSA: Do you ever go to make a pork sausage, and find that it’s got hairs growin’ all over it? (Sorry, anything that sounds vaguely like “Let me ask you just one question” immediately drives anything other than a certain Dead Milkmen song out of my head.)
NT: Fortunately, I have not had that happen. I can relate to it though. When I was in grade school, we had a crazy lunch lady named Golgi. She was ten thousand years old. We would often find curly white hairs in our food, particularly the mashed potatoes and gravy. We referred to them as Golgi pubes. That might be grosser than hairs growin’ all over pork sausage. What do you think?