“Music to Def Ears” – Outsider Writers

Interview: FLASHOVER Author, Gordon Highland
by Pela Via

from Outsider Writers, 2013 (now offline)


Pela Via: Your new book in a single sentence.

Gordon Highland: A man of questionable clairvoyance survives electrocution, deafness, and small-town America in the search for his missing loved ones.

Christ, sounds like airport fiction, doesn’t it? Which was intentional. I set out to frame a story with familiar genre conventions—yes, to appeal to more readers—and then subvert them with sharper prose and deeper characterizations than usually found in those kinds of books. Like sneaking into their party and spiking the punchbowl with LSD. Well … more like swapping their Bud Light for Samuel Adams.

Someone recently asked me for a three-word synopsis, and I suggested “music to def ears.” Fortunately, I write better than I count.

PV: Ha. Your favorite scene from Flashover?

GH: Our hero gets electrocuted and falls from a church rooftop, triggering everything that follows. You learn a lot about the guy when he’s confronted with his mortality during the suspended/expanded time of that fall, flashing back to childhood. That sequence has some vivid, sensate stuff I’m proud of.

Wait, no. The most fun to write was where our badass antagonist has to break down and ask his older brother to help him out of a jam. Their interactions and power shifts remind me a little of Vincent Vega’s dynamic with “The Wolf” in Pulp Fiction. I love that even Darth Vader’s gotta answer to The Emperor sometimes, ya know?

PV: How about the evolution of this novel from conception—what was it, from first spark to the moment you spotted a crux?

GH: I recall having recently seen the documentary Jesus Camp, about the breeding and indoctrination of these little evangelical terrorists. Scariest thing that’s seared into my eyeballs in years, especially living in Kansas City in such close proximity to them. Not to mention Fred Phelps’s Westboro Baptist clan nearby. I knew I wanted to set a tale in a conservative small town that gets shaken up. Had also been reading lots of southern gothic, and, while I’m not fluent in rural, outdoorsy description (wouldn’t know a whippoorwill from a weeping willow), I thought I might be able to capture their brand of dialogue and its social aspects, having lived in a couple of them.

Around the same time, I found myself musing about all these clichéd clairvoyant characters in movies and TV always helping strangers, and wondered why no one ever made it personal. Why not have them confront their own abilities and limitations, even be suspicious of them? I wanted my character to ultimately rely more on his wit and will than the spectacle you’d expect from such an advertised book. So it’s a supernatural novel in denial, I suppose.

PV: That’s good. I see what you mean, as one who’s read it. You’re a renaissance man. Can you list your areas of interest?

GH: Professionally, I make videos, which is where most of my interests intersect, from directing and cinematography to editing and animation, plus stuff like voice acting and graphic design. My day job keeps me sharp on those skills, so I spend my evenings writing fiction or making music. I’ve got a home recording studio, and currently perform in a local acoustic duo called Winebox.

Basically, if something involves words or pixels or sound, I’m your guy, but I can’t draw or paint or sculpt to save my life. More craftsman than artist.

PV: I think that’s a good distinction to make. Where in your work have you drawn from your own expertise?

GH: My first novel, Major Inversions, centered around a struggling musician, and my stints in various bands helped me encapsulate that experience, putting the reader right there in the dude’s spandex both on stage and off. I explored that lifestyle from all angles: performance, composition, business, and especially its fiends in the periphery of it all. That description makes it sound like nonfiction … but I wouldn’t wish upon anyone what actually happens to the guy, which definitely arose from the time-tested “making shit up” methodology. He put the “meth” in methodology.… Anyway, there’s also a subplot where he scores a film, so I got to detail some of those production phases I mentioned before. The bulk of that book’s official research had to do with adoption processes and some North Carolina geography.

PV: How do you approach ‘official research?’

GH: My writing style necessitates a great deal of authority, and research and experience are what enable that. You’ve gotta get the story’s universe down cold so your characters can inhabit it without questioning yourself at every turn. Flashover required more research than anything previous, especially about burn victims and cochlear implants, and what such lifestyles are like. I read dozens of survivor accounts, medical extracts and diagrams, court cases. It’s tough to unsee some of those burn-unit photos.

The book spends a lot of ink describing Tobe’s deafness and “hearing” through his CI, which was one of its trickiest aspects to write. It amplifies the conflict (pun intended), but also provides some laughs when he’s annoyed with someone. Today they’ve gone viral, these heartwarming YouTube videos of patients getting their CI turned on for the first time, but four years ago I’d barely even heard of the technology. I found audio clips that simulated the sound, discussion forums for the hearing-impaired, supply shops that sell household deaf-tech, on and on. This isn’t sci-fi, so I felt a respectful obligation to render those aspects accurately for those so afflicted. Then there’s the less-interesting stuff like brushing up on my Irish slang and Church doctrine.

Doing research sucks when you just want to be making pages. It’s eating your vegetables. Left-brain versus right. I saw Flashover as a chance to mature as an author, to cover unfamiliar territory and get outside my own head: something often missing from early works. That said, I do continue to use personal experiences to breathe life into scenes with sensory details. It’s easier to fake something you see than something you feel.

PV: Interesting. Elaborate please.

GH: It’s like a method actor. He has to live as the character, think his thoughts. Well, that’s not always possible, so I simulate it as best I can using substitutions. Over the years you accumulate a massive vault of these, which you can draw from to get in the emotional ballpark. For example, I’ve never had sex with Minka Kelly. (Wha?) But if I needed to fictionalize such a scene—legal ramifications notwithstanding—well, I know what she looks like; the visual evidence exists, so I could easily write some bodily descriptions using my own language palette, or at least composite something from what I’ve seen of others. No idea what that experience feels like, though, which is what the reader really cares about. But, even if I had never been with a famous and/or beautiful woman before—no basis for direct comparison—I certainly do know what it’s like to feel out of my depth yet grateful. So maybe I describe his cowering intestines punishing him for not having used the restroom when he had the chance, him fighting the smile involuntarily creeping up his face, or his insecurities about the inevitable performance comparisons made of him to those who came before. And that’ll do the trick, even though I’m actually recalling a memory of being called up to speak in front of a crowd after winning an unexpected award, not the time I banged a celebrity. I’m not faking the feeling, only the event it’s attached to.

Hey, you mind if we take a fifteen-minute break? haha

PV: Is much of your work autobiographical?

GH: It’s becoming less so over time. My main character in Major Inversions was a courthouse and airport security guard by day: jobs I had in college. Many of those side anecdotes were completely true. The one about the briefcase full of dildos on its way to teach a condom-unrolling class for juvies? Happened. Making assholes miss their flights? Yup. The danger I felt and assertiveness I learned to convey proved very real, as he described. The musical autobiographicals were things like being so shitfaced on stage that you fear getting unplugged by concerned bandmates, distracting thoughts as you scan the audience, the “scrodies” who help load gear, the dynamics between the players. Many scenes were embellished truths, but the plot-relevant happenings were total fiction.

Also contributing to its oft-misunderstood sense of “memoir” (which I prefer to take as a compliment) was the use of first-person point of view, though my reason for employing it was to heighten his unreliability, as a manipulative device.

PV: I do love that character—he stuck with me. Does Flashover attempt the same realism?

GH: Thanks, Pela; I appreciate that. Yeah, I think so; it just uses a different engine to do so, being far more plot-driven this time. Part of that was switching to third-person, needing to be inside multiple characters’ heads in a “true” manner that wasn’t just defined by one character’s impression of them. Here, sometimes the reader knows more than the characters, and sometimes less, which was another way to exploit tension. Because Flashover’s happenings are often sur-real, I tried to ground its settings in reality and detail. Most of the locations are inspired by real ones (bars, hospitals, churches, casinos, etc.), while the cast and plot were its primary inventions—the opposite approach of Major Inversions.

Early on, though, it does feature some callbacks to the previous book’s musical themes. One scene in particular, a radio-station intern is setting up a remote broadcast before a concert. You could’ve pulled that from any given week in my summer of 1994. The soundchecking guitars wanking in the distance, vendor ice bins filling, unwashed/weary rock stars both eager and reluctant for airtime, the hard-livin’, middle-aged raspy deejay “goddess” with the face for radio.…

PV: Have your books taught you anything?

GH: Some people say that dreams function as a safe arena for our brains to work out life problems, to make sense of them, explore alternate choices and whatnot. I’m realizing that I use fiction that way, too. It forces you to take sides, consider other viewpoints to do what’s best—or preferably worst—for your characters. My obsession with story structure and continuity has also forced me to accept that I’m more left-brained than I’d care to admit.

I also now recognize patterns in my work. I was neck-deep in Flashover revisions before it hit me that both of my novels are ultimately about the same thing: musicians whose lives are turned upside-down by the arrival of a special girl and their desire/failure to do right by her, that manic-pixie thing. They just exist in two different genres. Probably some subconscious vicarious living going on there. All those “renaissance” hobbies have me spending too much time alone.

PV: Or maybe just enough. Thanks Gordon. It’s always a pleasure.