Q. and A. with Chris Belden

Q. Where on earth did Carry-on come from?

A. I took a trip to the Pacific Northwest in 1994 that resembles very much the trip that Caleb takes in the novel. All those places Caleb visits, I visited (I’ve changed the names of establishments such as bars and motels). Cape Disappointment, the Octopus Tree, Ape Cave—they’re all real. I even stayed in a bed & breakfast above a porn theater. While I was on that trip—which I took by myself—I wrote a long, detailed story about the recent dissolution of a relationship. Over the next several years (I honestly can’t remember how long it took), I fused the two experiences together into this novel.

Q. So is the story of Caleb true?

A. Like many fiction writers, I’ve taken certain dramatic events from my life and fictionalized them, changing details (not to mention names and characteristics of people who might otherwise get mad at me) to suit the story. In the end, I had something that was not factual, necessarily, but was, I hope, truthful. There’s a difference. Factual is something you’d find, one would hope, in a biography or history book (unless it’s written by a politician). What the author says happened should truly have happened, as described. Truthful is something we find in fiction and even in memoir. The author creates a story around facts, then leaves the facts behind to get at a truth that is more universal, less tied down to what actually happened to that one person.

Q. So how much do you resemble Caleb?

A. At that time in my life, I’d say I resembled him quite a bit—passive, anxious, angry. As I wrote the novel, I became a different person (not because I wrote it, but because I changed my way of thinking as I matured), so that now I don’t resemble him nearly so much, thank goodness.

Q. Where did the idea of the carry-on bag come from?

A. As I was stitching together the two (and, eventually, three) strands of the novel, it occurred to me that the present tense sections (those set in the Northwest) were too episodic, so I needed an element of some kind to run through it, like a brightly colored thread through a quilt, that would make the story more cohesive. To tell the truth, I’m not sure how I settled on the bag—maybe I’d seen a horror film around that time—but it seemed appropriate to have something mysterious going on with this piece of baggage that Caleb lugs everywhere. It worked on a literal level as well as a metaphorical one.

Q. The therapy scenes feel very realistic.

A. Martin, the therapist, is loosely based on my own shrink, in terms of what kind of probing questions he asks, and his single-minded determination to get Caleb to feel something. When I was writing those scenes, I almost felt like I was channeling my therapist, and the dialogue came very quickly. I also wanted to make sure there was a clear voice in the novel that presented an alternative path to Caleb, and could push him toward being less passive about his feelings.

Q. The novel is written in first, second and third person. How did that happen?

A. I knew a novel of any length—not that Carry-on is that long—could not easily sustain a second person narrator. It just gets tiresome & there is the gimmick factor. But I really felt that the second person sections were working, so I didn’t want to change them. Instead, I wrote the flashbacks in third person, with Caleb as the protagonist. Later, I added the first person sections narrated by Sara. At that point I felt we needed another major character’s point of view. To have Caleb tell the story of their courtship would be too much Caleb, for one thing. For another, it seemed that Sara was getting short shrift, and was coming off as two-dimensional, and maybe even a little villainous. I thought hearing her voice would make her more complex. I also wanted to show how Caleb’s reality was not Sara’s reality, which is the case in all relationships, but this does not often get dramatized. The honeymoon section is a good example of how these two characters had completely different experiences of the same events, and it also shows how their marriage was doomed from the start.

Q. What’s up with Boyd Hart, the movie star?

A. I just liked the idea of this ever-present celebrity, the movie star who is in every damn movie, and then of course he shows up at the end and is shorter than he looks on screen. It’s nothing profound—it just tickles me, and it creates a sense of cohesion as well. I also suppose I was, on some level, thinking of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, in which Binx constantly refers to movie plots, and early on sees one of his favorite actors, William Holden, on the street.

Q. There are a lot of stories within the main story, including film plots and tales told by minor characters.

A. I like that kind of narrative—one that incorporates other peoples’ stories, or quick plot outlines from movies. This is a novel about a writer who, throughout his journey around the Pacific Northwest, writes down the things that happened to him—he is telling us the story of Carl in New York, even though it’s in third person. There are many times when he’s interrupted while he writes this story, and people comment on his notebook, or say, “What’re you writing?” So, much of the novel is a story within a story. Or two stories within a story, really, since we also have Sara’s version. There’s even a chance that Caleb’s version of events is not trustworthy, just as the drifter’s story is called into question by the kid at the sub shop. Who knows what really happened?

Q. What writers or books influenced Carry-on?

A. I can’t remember what I was reading at the time, but I’m sure it had some influence. Philip Roth, probably, just because his protagonists are so tortured and funny at the same time. When I was writing my first book, Squirt, which is a collection of stories narrated by a ten-year-old, I purposefully sought out books that were narrated by kids. For Carry-on, I couldn’t really find any specific book that matched what I wanted to do. People might point to Bright Lights, Big City because it’s in second person, but I’d read that much earlier, and it doesn’t have much else in common with Carry-on. I’m not that hip.

Q. In your Acknowledgements, you thank the Renegades. Who are they?

A. At the time I was writing Carry-on, I was in a writing workshop that we nicknamed The Renegades. It’s not as though we were rebelling against anything, really, but, like most artists, we liked the idea of being misfits. Several members had been in Philip Schultz’s fiction/poetry workshop at The Writers Studio. Phil is an amazing teacher and poet, but after a while in his master class workshop you realize you’re only writing a few pages every week, which is great for a poet, but lousy for a fiction writer. We felt we wanted to write novels, stories, poems—whatever it was we were into—without getting bogged down in the psychology of it all. The Renegades were very supportive of this novel, and gave me a lot of helpful feedback.

Q. What are you working on now?

A. I’m finishing up a new novel, a psychological horror story called 49 Love Lane. It’s sort of like The Shining had it been written by someone like Tom Perrotta. But in between Carry-on and 49 Love Lane I wrote another novel, Shriver, an absurdist comedy about a recluse who is accidentally invited to a prestigious writers conference. On the strength of Shriver, I found an agent who shopped it around to pretty much everyone, only to find that no one is willing to publish an absurdist comedy about writers, even if they loved the book.

Q. The publishing business seems to be going through a tough time.

A. It’s probably always a tough time in that they never really know what people want, so they look for whet people seemed to want last year—vampires, zombies, whatever. Throw the whole e-book thing into the fray and you have a crazy situation. I don’t see myself ever not writing, but if this new book does not make it to the marketplace via an old-fashioned publisher, I’m going to give up and get a job at Costco. Actually, I may get a job at Costco, anyway, since you can’t make any money by publishing literary fiction.

Q. You teach creative writing at a high-security men’s prison. How has this experience changed you as a writer?

A. It’s so hard to say, but I know that it’s changed me in some way as a human being, and as a citizen, which means it must have changed the way I write, since we can only write from our own experience of life and the world. I am more aware of people’s complexity, their good and bad sides. Every week I work with inmates who have done terrible, sometimes violent, things–rape, murder, child molestation, drug dealing. And yet these guys will write the most tender poems about their families, or their wishes for their children, or whatever. Through their writing they become remarkably vulnerable, as all writers do, in an environment where vulnerability is, to say the least, frowned upon. I also recognize, through these guys, the capacity we all have for change. Some of these inmates were stone cold bad guys and are now working toward earning college degrees, reading Socrates and Proust and Shakespeare ( as well as law books and James Patterson thrillers), and you look into what used to be ice cold eyes and see only curiosity and eagerness and gratitude.

Q. Do you think anyone can learn to be a good writer?

A. I subscribe to Tobias Wolff’s theory that you cannot teach someone to be a good (never mind great) writer, but you can teach someone how to be a good editor and reader. If someone has talent (and it remains a mystery to me where that talent comes from), they can go from being a good writer to being a great writer if they read a ton and learn how to revise their work in a way that pushes them forward.

Q. In addition to writing fiction, you’ve written screenplays (Amnesia, starring Ally Sheedy), plays, and songs. How are all these genres similar, or different?

A. I don’t like to think too much about this stuff, because then it becomes intellectual, and one of the things that all art forms share is that they emerge from the unconscious, and thinking and talking about the process consciously can take away from the beautiful mystery of it. But, generally, I would say that the job of all these genres–and I would add poetry, the visual arts, dance, etc.–is to tell stories. Sometimes these stories are linear, sometimes they are more impressionistic, as in the paintings of Jackson Pollock, or in dance. The main difference is the format–how to get the story across. Colors, movement, chords and melodies, words … if they are successful, the audience will interpret a story on an intellectual level and/or an emotional level. I recently reread Madame Bovary, and in the Introduction Flaubert is quoted as saying that he did not worry about the lack of “action”in the novel, because the action is in the telling–the way the words are put together, the flow of the sentences, the images and details.


Q. So what the hell is in the carry-on?

A. I honestly don’t know. Nor do I think it’s that important. It’s like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction. The main thing is that Caleb is dragging this piece of his past around with him, and until he gets rid of it, he is destined for anxiety and depression. As for what’s literally in there, it might be his wife, it might be the cat. I obviously want you to start to wonder about it as the novel goes on, and I imply that he may have murdered his wife, but then that last scene with Dilsey the cat implies that it’s just as plausible—probably more so—that he flipped out when she (the cat) would not come to him. It would certainly be easier to fit a dead cat in a carry-on than a person, especially since the latter would require some gruesome, Sopranos-like surgery.

Q. What do you think happens to Caleb upon his return to New York?

A. I like to think he’ll be okay, maybe even ask out the yoga instructor, if he can get past her name (Sara).


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