David Seaburn’s third literary novel, CHARLIE NO FACE, was released this week by Savant Books. I first read a draft of this novel in the summer of 2009, and was impressed by its guileless young narrator and by David’s sensitive way of handling a radically disfigured main character. The editors of Savant Books were impressed, too, and he signed his first independent-press publishing contract last year. To coincide with the book launch, I spoke with him about the small press experience, his background as a therapist, and its role in his fiction.
1. You have published your third novel in five years, the first with Savant books. Tell us about CHARLIE NO FACE.
Charlie No Face is a coming of age story about an eleven-year-old boy and a misunderstood, disfigured hermit (based broadly on an actual person) and how their unlikely friendship redeems them both.
It is set in my home town (Ellwood City, Pa.) in the late 1950s. Jackie lives with his father. His mother died when he was an infant. In the summer of 1959 a series of setbacks forces Jackie’s father to leave town to look for a new job. Jackie has to live for a short time with his only relative, Great Aunt Dee. During his time with her, he encounters Charlie and both are transformed by their unlikely connections.
2. When I read an earlier draft of CHARLIE, I was impressed with how little character development needed to be done—you are a strong writer of the human emotional spectrum. How has your background in psychology (and even in the seminary) contributed to your approach to fiction?
It’s interesting that you should ask this question. Although I read extensively, there is no doubt that the best source for my novels has been my experience as a psychotherapist and minister. My other two novels draw extensively from situations I have encountered as a therapist. I feel comfortable with the interior lives of people. That is where I get my creative energy. The themes that are most important to me—loss, fear, hope, uncertainty, connection, separation, meaning, seeking, questioning, love, guilt, wonder, joy, and storytelling—are influenced by my theological training and my own personal journey. In Charlie, among other things, I explore the theme of the “other” in society. How do we create the “other” through our own beliefs and perspectives? How do we treat someone who is “other” than us? What happens when we discover that the “other” isn’t really other at all, but is very much like us; in fact, is us. I thought a child’s experience of this would be enlightening and refreshing. My life’s work has been about relationships. I guess it’s no surprise that my writing focuses on the same thing.
3. Your fiction is inspired almost exclusively by true events. How restricted to the facts do you feel when you write, and where does imagination take over?
I don’t feel restricted at all. In Charlie, for example, I knew of the real life Charlie when I grew up in western Pennsylvania. He was also called the Green Man, because, as I note in the book, his skin was green from a childhood electrocution. I wanted to know the details about his accident so that I could represent that part of the story accurately. But other than that, I didn’t know anything about his character or his life. All of that was created in the process of writing. The line between “fact” and “fiction” is very thin. In each of my books, factual events play a part, but I never feel limited by them. They provide a canvas upon which I can paint my picture.
4. You’re a unique writer, in that you let the story lead you through the writing process, but you are also able to be prolific. Having seen a number of writers get stranded without an outline of some sort, I am curious how you stay on point as you work through a draft.
This is puzzling even to me. When I was in academics and wrote a lot of journal articles, I was often encouraged by co-authors to write more from an outline, but I never did. I always felt that an outline sucked the life out of what I wanted to say; that it preempted the serendipitous; that it limited spontaneity. I always have the story in my mind, even if I don’t write words for days or weeks. It is always there. I often don’t know where the story will go exactly, but I feel confident when I sit down to write, that the characters will figure it out as they leave my thoughts and travel down through my hands and fingers onto the computer screen. Sometimes, after the fact, I will jot down a few words summarizing chapters so I can maintain a sense of flow, or I can move more easily back and forth through time, but usually it’s all in my head. I don’t know how it stays there, but it does.
5. Many writers are surprised to learn how many small presses exist on the spectrum between, say, HarperCollins and self-publishing. What has your experience been with Savant? Would you recommend still seeking a literary agent—and if not, did you handle the details of your contract yourself? What advice would you give to writers who are considering a small press?
It is remarkably complex “out there.” Everything I don’t like about writing happens when the story has been completed. You may not know it, but bringing you on as my editor when I was preparing Charlie No Face, helped me not only improve the story, but feel confident enough to go on to the next step which often is like opening your insides up to strangers who tromp around with hardly a care about what they are doing. My experience with agents has been dismal. I haven’t succeeded in interesting any of them. Several have said I was a good writer, but each of them also said they couldn’t market my books confidently. My stories aren’t Big Stories; I’m not a Big Name; I don’t have a Unique Hook. I found that if it didn’t look like it would make a lot of money (Gee, I don’t have any vampires in my book!), agents aren’t interested. And if they aren’t interested, there is no way to reach the big publishing houses. That leaves small, independent publishers who are willing to take a chance and want to produce good literature. Savant Books and Publications has been that for me. The publisher, Dan Janik, is growing a small publishing house and is trying to attract and keep a cadre of writers who would like to stay and grow together. That is pretty unique.
Would I suggest that other writers forego seeking an agent? No. If you can get good representation, more doors, more options will be available to you. But be ready for a very bumpy ride. As for the contract, yes, I handled the details of what was a very conventional, no frills contract.