Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Author Q&A: Craig Machen

I couldn't resist using this scowly pic...
Craig Machen, film and television writer, is the author of Still Life With Brass Pole, a remarkable memoir about coming-of-age as a strip club bouncer, finding his way amidst a culture of sex, alcohol and drug abuse, and disfunction, and finally realizing his dream of becoming a dad. Still Life is above all, a story of personal redemption, and what struck me most about it was the heart, humor, honesty, and compassion with which Craig writes. Craig was kind enough to indulge me in a few questions about the book - and more.

What motivated you to write Still Life? Who do you hope to reach with your story, and what do you hope readers will take away from your memoir?

Well, I'd grown weary of making a living a wage and wanted to try my hand at something that could sink me below the poverty line. So I thought, "A memoir! Just the thing to bring my finances in line with my self-image."

Ah, but… The truth is kind of corny. At its heart, Still Life With Brass Pole is about the helter-skelter journey I took to become a father. That was a dream for me since I was a little boy. As a matter of fact, being a dad was THE dream for me, and it preceded music and writing, and all of my other passions. So as my oldest son was getting ready to leave for college, I found myself kind of paralyzed. It was crazy. Here I was with the best jobs I'd ever had in Hollywood, writing screenplays for Ivan Reitman and DreamWorks, Ben Stiller and Fox - broad comedies, mind you - and it got to the point where this sadness, or whatever, made it very difficult to focus on screenwriting. I kept going over the events that brought me to fatherhood, and fearing that it might all be over now. Anyway, I just sat down and started working on this book, and basically disappeared from sight, professionally speaking. Then, about ten months later, I was done. My son was in college (ironically, in Oklahoma), and he still loved me (as did my other son) and amazingly, the sky didn't fall.

As far as ideal readers go, I guess I had two groups in mind. The first was women of almost any age because part of me was trying to say, "I'm sorry. If I ever barreled through your life and seemed sidetracked or self-involved, this is what was happening in mine. I was confused and I didn't mean to be a jerk."

The other people I was thinking about, perhaps for obvious reasons, were young guys. And to them I guess I wanted to say, "Try not to let your mistakes define you, and if you can have a sense of humor about them, so much the better. Like Lauryn Hill says, 'Every day's another chance to get it right this time.' And…  If you're lucky enough to wind up with someone to love, make sure you do love them, with all your might. Because nothing else is even half as important."

You faced a lot of adversity in your childhood and teen years, but you not only overcame it, you also tell your story with plenty of humor, and even compassion. Where does that come from? How has your perspective changed over time?

I guess humor is how I've always tried to explain things to myself. There were long stretches in my young life where my decision making was not great. It was painful to blow it so often and to continually end up in places where I knew I shouldn't be. So when I've screwed up - then and now - after an extended period of self-flagellation, I'm usually looking for a way to address my inadequacies and get on with life. Humor helps me do that. Maybe more importantly, though, being a father constantly reminds me to get over myself, if only so that I can return to that stable emotional baseline from which you need to parent. I also have a few amazing friends that I can talk to about anything and a dog who loves to go on long walks, so I feel like I at least know where to start climbing when I fall into a hole.

My feelings about the period in Still Life have changed a great deal. Before I started writing about them - in fits and burst at about age 27 or 28 - I felt like that stuff was proof that I was a flawed and untrustworthy human. Writing forced me to take a closer look, and helped me to find the funny, some of the reasons, and a lot of the common threads in my background and behavior. I guess now I'm proud to have made it from there to here, emotionally and familially. 

Every time you mention being a dad, or wanting to be a dad, in your book or on your website, it sounds like you are beaming. What is your very favorite thing about being a parent? What surprised you the most? What is the hardest thing?

Definitely! I love it so much I feel ridiculous sometimes. I love being a person my sons can depend on. I love having a reason to be a better man. Mostly, though, I just love my boys. That's my favorite thing. So much good comes from just standing next to that fire and, at least in the early days, being responsible for keeping it lit.

And though I anticipated being blown away, I was most surprised by simply looking at my sons' faces for the first time.  I'm an adopted person so I guess it starts with seeing a blood relative for the first time. It was way bigger than that, though, and definitely the reason I believe in God. 

The hardest thing for me was convincing myself that I deserved this amazing gift, and fearing that I was on the cusp of blowing it. I was confident that I would do everything in my power to be a good dad, but my fears were more about not recognizing fatal flaws in my character or just failing at the job. Finding time to write has been a challenge too!

Any memoirist has to make choices about what events and details to include, or not include, in his or her story, but I imagine these choices are especially difficult when you are writing about youthful, er, indiscretions, shall we say- and your children may eventually read the book. How hard or easy was it to write frankly?

I decided up front that if I was going to talk about this stuff I needed to be harder on myself than anyone else.  I thought constantly about my boys, but their mom and my close friends were very encouraging. As a matter of fact, I got called at the last minute to do The Adam Carolla Show early last month, which felt in a weird way more official than even writing the book. I was really scared to be talking about some of this stuff, so I called my former spouse and she said, "Just tell the truth." It was such a relief, I almost broke into tears. Then I went and did the show and thought I sucked. That night my son called from Oklahoma. He hadn't heard my appearance yet, but he could tell I was worried. He said, "Dad, relax, worst case scenario, you were boring.  Let me listen to it and I'll call you back." The next day he posted my interview on his Facebook page. Then I felt like everything was going to be okay.

I was also worried about my parents. Those relationships have always been bumpy, and sometimes non-existent, and I guess they still are (or are again). But I just decided my story is my story. I'm entitled to tell it as long as my motivation is not malicious. Eventually, I was just worrying about the writing, and asking myself, "Did it happen, and is it relevant to what you're trying to say?" If the answer was yes, then I kept on writing, and thinking, "The truth will you set you free." Amazingly, it has, and I don't really have any regrets.

Up until recently, you co-wrote a blog On The Fence With Jesus with Dr. Travis Collins, a Baptist pastor. In a world in which people on the right and left of everything seem mostly to holler at (and past) each other on television, it is refreshing to find such thoughtful and respectful discussion between two people with very divergent views. How did that blog come about, and what is the most important thing you take away from that experience?

I met Travis at a funeral. My sister had a baby, Stephen, who lived for about ten months with a degenerative disorder, and then passed away. Travis was her pastor, and we had a very random conversation after Stephen's service that went on for about an hour. We couldn't be more different, but I really enjoyed going back and forth with him. We traded emails about all manner of things for a couple of months and then decided to do the blog. It was a great experience. We agreed to post three times a week, so eventually we wandered into all of the topics that divide liberals and conservatives, the religious and the "spiritual," for lack of a better term.  There were certainly days when we got on each other's nerves, but the best thing for me - and I think for Travis - was the candid exchange of ideas with a first, last, and always acknowledgement of each other's humanity. There were also surprising moments for me where we agreed on things I was sure we wouldn't.  Anyway, my main takeaway is how important it is to listen to people and take them individually. Maybe that's obvious, but when I'm tempted to stereotype it's often Travis that jumps into my head along with the word "friend." I don't bat a thousand in that respect, but knowing Travis has definitely helped.

Finally, how has the book writing/publishing experience been so far, and what is next for you?

I loved writing the book. Publishing has been time consuming, but rewarding. Again, my accountant would probably prefer that I get back to screenwriting, and I have, but I'm also working on a novel too. I just love the way it feels to write prose. You get to be interior in a way that you really can't when writing for the big or small screen. There's also a lot of cooks in the kitchen in the movie and television worlds, and it's kind of like being in the crew of a cruise ship (or a garbage scow, depending). Writing books is like surfing, and I hope to keep doing it for the rest of my days.

Thanks so much to Craig for his generous answers to all my questions as well as providing a complimentary review copy of his book. Still Life is for readers who enjoy a heartfelt, often humorous story of overcoming adversity and personal redemption, and who are also very comfortable with plenty of mature content (language, sex and substance abuse) and tackling some tough subjects (parents who aren't there for their kids, or worse; life for the young women and men who work in strip clubs). What I liked above all else was the way the author's personality shines throughout his story, and I was so glad to have this opportunity to talk further with him.

You can learn more about Craig on his blog and find him on twitter, Facebook, and GoodreadsStill Life With Brass Pole is available for purchase on Amazon.  I will also refer you to ErinReads' blog for her excellent review of Still Life.

Happy reading!


  1. Very cool interview. Thoughtful questions and it's interesting to learn more about you, Craig (you already know I enjoyed your book).

    Glad to have found your blog, and I can't wait to go read your short story reviews, Jennifer.

  2. what a wonderful interview. i love his sense of humor!

  3. Thanks so much Lori and Marie for the kind words- and glad you enjoyed the interview and Craig's wonderful sense of humor!

  4. thanks for such a thorough interview. I find humor helps me overcome adversity as well. Wishing him much success in his literary journey.

  5. This was a fantastic interview! I literally just stumbled across a review of his book browsing a new-to-me blog, then I saw this -- fate! I love your questions and like Marie, I really appreciate Machen's humor -- but also his honesty. It sounds like his book takes on some complicated history and I really appreciate memoirists who can do that well, with humor and grace -- and some clear-eyed distance! I'm definitely going to pick up this book now -- I kind of wanted to because of the cover, but this interview just sealed the deal!

  6. Lena and Audra, thanks so much for checking it out and so glad you enjoyed it. Audra, very well said.

  7. Great interview! I loved your thought-provoking questions as well as Machen's honest answers. As you know, I recently read and enjoyed the book, so it was really interesting for me to get this other perspective! I particularly loved this comment: "Try not to let your mistakes define you, and if you can have a sense of humor about them, so much the better." I think Still Life really embodied that.

  8. Thanks Erin- yes what a great quote! and sound advice, though not always easy to follow. His story and interview answers I thought were a great reminder that we are all just in this crazy human struggle together. humbling.


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