“The Underisables” is a fast paced World War 2 adventure. At times gut wrenching and laugh out loud funny. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Chad about his book, his research and dogs.
In so many ways The Undesirables feels like a movie in my head when I was reading it. How does your screenwriting background effect your novel writing process? Was it a hard or easy transition?
I would describe the transition as liberating. It is very difficult to express the inner voice of a character in a screenplay. You largely have to rely on actors to bring that out and express it, which is great and is certainly rewarding to see and experience. But I live inside my head a lot, and as a result, my characters live inside their heads. Part of the reason I decided to write a novel was I yearned to explore that inner dialog myself. I may have gone overboard — most of the early Karen and Bobby chapters are almost entirely inner dialog. But I absolutely loved writing that. On the other hand, as a screenwriter, action scenes are kind of my jam. So I had the confidence, or maybe a better word for it is a security blanket, of thinking that if I got stuck I could always write a kick ass action scene. But I hope that what you’re really feeling when you describe the book as a movie in your head, isn’t so much the action or the dialog, but more the cinematic scope of the story. I very much wanted some beautiful spectacle juxtaposed with the dreary horror of the war and a city under siege. Bobby and Jack’s romantic adventures in Palm Beach, Petr and Karen’s hobo-hippie journey from Leningrad to Moscow, and then the much more luxurious ride on the Trans-Siberian rail line were all attempts to give both the readers and the characters a chance to step back from the darkness and enjoy majesty, instead, because majesty is something I always really appreciate in a great film.
One of my favorite characters is Duck, the large German Sheppard. Often when a dog is a character in a book they are given human qualities, however, with Duck, he managed to still stay a dog but yet be a fully fledged character in his own right. How were you able to keep him a dog?
I am honored that you felt that way because it was very important to me. Jack London is one of my favorite authors, and I really strove to channel his voice in the depiction of Duck. Additionally, I really enjoyed Robert Crais’ description of the dogs in his novel Suspect and reading that gave me great ideas on how to relate to an animal as a writer. But ultimately I think Duck feels real because he’s based on real dogs that I’ve owned and loved. He is a combination of three different dogs, taking each of their qualities, and acting in the unexpected ways that I’ve seen them act.
In previous Creating Herstory posts we’ve talked about the importance of creating flawed characters and Karen is no exception. In so many ways she is a 17 yr old screw up, the more she tried to fix her situation the more trouble she got into. What are your thoughts on creating flawed leading characters?
I think flaws are what make characters interesting, and protagonists are no exception. As a reader, I like to relate to the lead character on some level. That might be difficult if the character has a completely different background or worldview than my own. But if he or she has flaws, that’s a way for me to relate to them. I know how flawed I am so I can empathize with another character’s flaws. I think there is still a fine line, though, because I also like to admire characters on some level. I want to see something in them that makes me want to root for them. So I strive to find that balance between giving characters the flaws they need to make them feel real, but also something great about them that makes a reader want to watch them succeed.
I think this is the first multi-perspective book that I have read that instead of giving us the name of the character specifically it gives us a nickname. I found it clever and scene setting. What made you decide to do this?
I wish I could say I planned it all along, but in some ways, it was sort of a happy accident. In my first draft, I tried to be clever with the chapter titles, using little turns of phrase that related to what happened in each chapter. But what I eventually came to discover (which I think you quite astutely mentioned in a previous blog post) is that when you shift perspectives within a story it’s easy for the reader to get confused. I decided that I should name each chapter after the character it’s about, providing the reader with a sort of anchor. As soon as you start a new chapter, you immediately know whose perspective you’ll be reading, so it’s not as jarring or confusing. Now back when I was trying to be too clever for my own good, I named the first three chapters The Cellist, The Organ-Grinder, and The Choir Boy. I quite liked those names so I decided to use them for the chapter headings instead of Karen, Petr, and Bobby. Once I started using nicknames, I realized I would have to use nicknames for the side characters, too, to stay consistent, which is how I came up with the Goatherd, the Troublemaker, the Subversive, and so forth. And of course I can’t leave well enough alone, I really like breaking patterns, so I had to name the last chapter something completely different.
Our three main characters; Petr, Bobby, and Karen all have specific nicknames. The Organ Grinder, The Choir Boy, and the Cellist. Can you tell us why these nicknames?
I like to think there are several levels of meaning to each of their nicknames. First, there’s the surface level. Karen is the Cellist because she’s a brilliant musician, and the cello is her instrument of choice. Petr is the Organ-Grinder because he is assigned to the Katyusha rocket batteries, which the Germans call “Stalin’s Organ”. Bobby is the Choir Boy because he follows the rules and always does what is expected of him. And they’re all musical nicknames, which I like to think is clever because music plays such a thematic role in the story. But I also like to think the nicknames have a deeper significance. Every one of those characters rebels against their nickname in the first six chapters.
Karen is a cellist who hates her cello. She destroys it in a fit of rage, symbolically striking a blow against music and art in general. She denies the romantic part of herself and focuses entirely on the practical. But as you point out earlier, the more she does that the more trouble she gets into. Slowly she begins to learn the value of the impractical, as represented by her music, and it’s not until she once again becomes the Cellist that she makes possible her escape from Russia.
Petr isn’t just an Organ-Grinder because he operates the Katyusha battery, he’s also someone who survives Stalin’s Russia by keeping his head down and losing himself in the daily grind, the drudgery. He’s learned to keep his real feelings buried deep inside of him because he’s seen first-hand what happens to people who are too free with their emotional and intellectual expression. Yet, like Karen, he rebels. He basically commits suicide against a German advance and only survives by way of miracle. He’s always thought for himself, but he’s always refused to act on those thoughts. But when he begins to care first for Duck and then for Karen, when he begins to feel responsible for other creatures, he decides it’s too important to keep his ideas buried and hidden. That ultimately has consequences beyond just his relationship with Karen but includes his relationship with Russia as a whole. At the end of the day, he’s still a grinder, though, because he’s willing to do whatever it takes to protect those he loves.
Bobby, too, rebels against his Choir Boy nickname. He defies his parents’ wishes first by dating Karen, and then by joining the Army. He begins to pal around with Jack, who has more than a little bit of the devil in him. But although he’s defying his parents, although he’s no longer doing what is expected of him, he can never escape his own sense of what’s right and what’s wrong. He becomes a Choir Boy to his own conscience, even to the point of giving up military secrets.
What we know about the events in Leningrad (aka St. Petersburg) during WW2 has only recently been uncovered. This story is not one of the main narratives of that war. Why do you feel that it is important for us to tell these “outlying” stories?
I’ll admit that I first became fascinated by Leningrad as a result of the movie “Smoke”. In it, the character played by Harvey Keitel briefly tells the story of Mikhail Bakhtin, who allegedly turned his manuscript — his masterpiece, apparently — into rolling papers and smoked the entire book during the Siege of Leningrad. As a writer, that story immediately captured my imagination. What could possibly motivate someone to destroy the only copy of their life’s work? At the time I was a graduate student at UCLA. When I visited the library to do research for my actual classes, I’d take a side trek to peruse the shelf of books relating to Russia during World War 2. At that time, as you point out, the NKVD files on Leningrad hadn’t yet been released (or they may have only just recently been released) because the Soviet Union had only just fallen. But the story about Shostakovich and the Leningrad Symphony were well known and well publicized as a grandly romantic and artistic act of defiance. For whatever reason when I read about Shostakovich’s heroic composition I immediately juxtaposed it in my mind with Bakhtin’s shameful destruction of his own book. And I thought that Leningrad was the perfect setting for a story exploring the importance of art — after all where could art be less useful than a place where people are literally starving to death? They didn’t need art, they needed food! And yet that was the very place and time where art was most celebrated. I had to write a story about it; I just didn’t know it would take me twenty years to do so.
What was your research process in uncovering what happened in Leningrad?
When the NKVD files on Leningrad were released for scholarly review, a number of authors wrote about the siege. I relied on Michael Jones’ Leningrad State of Siege for a detailed description of the major events that occurred in the first months of 1942. Mr. Jones relied both on the aforementioned NKVD files and oral histories, letters, and diaries of survivors.
Find out more about Chad’s book at Boca de Oro Literary Festival March 4th.