How did you begin your career as a writer/author? Was it something you always did alongside your other work?
I wrote my first story when I was ten years old and never stopped writing after that. I never thought of being an author or making a career out of writing. It’s just something I’ve always done. Eventually, I became a social worker but continued writing during my years as a social worker.
How do you feel that your experiences in the social work field have impacted your writing and in particular Goshena?
My work as a social worker and in the mental health field in general covered over 20 years. I’ve never used any clients or co-workers as characters as that would be unethical. However, everyone has certain unusual, fun, interesting, even aggravating nuances to their personalities, so I may have borrowed a few of those along the way. In addition, my work as a social worker gave me an incredible ability to look deeply into trying to understand human motivation, behavior, thought processes, relationships, etc. It really helps during character creation and development.
You’ve said that a series of deaths in your life is what got you writing. Can you elaborate on that?
I’ve always written and my first experience with death came young, at age three when my grandmother died. This was my grandmother who had been a medium. So death was not a new experience to me. However, the years 2000 and 2001 were laden with death. I think there were at least eight during that time, and all were people very close to me.
I’d also always had an interest in what happens after we die. I never actually consciously thought that I would write about death. It’s more like death found me and it melded with my writing.
The Goshena series has an irreverent view of death. People will find themselves laughing over a subject that is usually serious or even frightening. What was your intention in writing about death in this way?
There are so many dark, serious, even violent books about death and the afterlife. My writing in general has always veered off course into humorous takes on just about everything. We all take ourselves so seriously, and I am the guiltiest of this. I wanted to present death in a way that says, “I don’t think it’s anything we have to worry about.” Yes, death is an extremely painful loss to all involved. I’ve been there. I’ve felt that. I still do. But I don’t want it to rule my life.
Since we must go on, why can’t we laugh? One of my all-time favorite authors, the late Erma Bombeck, once commented: “When humor goes, there goes civilization.” I write from that perspective. I live from that perspective. These are horribly troubled times, and I wanted to give people a break from all that. Goshena is pure escape so readers can have fun.
How do your characters come to you? Are they based on people you know, experiences you’ve had? Are any of them based on you, or parts of you?
My characters show up at all times of the day, night, even while I’m sleeping they wake me up and say, “Hey! Time to write the next scene, sentence, chapter, whatever!” I don’t create them inasmuch as they find me. I usually hear their voice first, then I feel their emotions, then I get an image of what they look like, and last of all I get to choose their names, which I do by searching road atlases. Flannery O’Connor said it best: “Our characters tell us where we need to go.” I can’t write any other way. None of my characters are based on anyone I know. They’d see right through that, although some have certainly had me in them.
How did the character Goshena develop into a whole series?
The only way I can answer this question is: when I finished Book 1, it ended in such a way that I knew already there would be a Book 2. I just sat back and said to the cosmos, “You’ve got to be kidding?” And then there was Book 3, and so on, and so on…it was never planned. It was completely accidental.
Has your experience with Goshena changed over the course of your writing? What has your experience with Goshena been like through the 10 books? How is it different now from when you began?
I think it’s impossible for the entire process not to change. I’ve actually rewritten the first six books three times each. I’m presently rewriting Book 7 for the third time. Chopin rewrote everything he composed at least five times, while Mendelsohn was so compulsive he never actually finished some of his work because he kept rewriting. Tennessee Williams was rewriting his plays even after they had become smash hits on Broadway and turned into Academy Award winning films. I think it’s the nature of the beast. Writers are never satisfied with their work. It always changes.
I think it’s the nature of the beast. Writers are never satisfied with their work. It always changes.
Goshena is a fairly complex person who is limited in her ability to trust and love, and hangs out between life and death. What do you feel she symbolizes for each of us?
First, I really like to let the reader interpret my characters and their behaviors and respond spontaneously. I think part of the fun of reading is how individual readers react. But if I had to pin something down, I would say that trust and love are difficult areas for most people. We don’t always know what love is. And even when we do we have others telling us we’re wrong because it’s different from what they think it should be, should being the operative word here. Trust is difficult, period, for everyone.
In Goshena’s case, she’s stuck in a place that actually forbids love and trust. Imagine a world where love and trust are entirely forbidden, no matter who, what, where, when, and how. Goshena isn’t allowed any space in this area. Now think about how you would feel under those circumstances. Think about how most people would react. Goshena is the ultimate oppressor, bound to the circumstances, choices, and beliefs of her own oppressors. She is not allowed to disagree or challenge the authorities that lord over her so she rules the In-Betweena with an iron fist. And anyone who disagrees with Goshena is in for trouble, big trouble with a capital G!
Soul #24 is also a complex character, seemingly not playing by the rules or accepting death and frightened about passing his death quiz. What do you see his role in the series to be?
If Goshena represents the ultimate oppressor, #24 is her opposite. He has the freedom to choose and to love, think about, if not obsess and ruminate about his circumstances. Goshena is only allowed negative options: hate, violence, oppression, coercion, power and control. She appears to be very powerful but she’s constrained in many ways. He represents to her and to us everything Goshena is not and is not allowed to be. He challenges her, sometimes naively, sometimes knowingly, ultimately wisely, but he remains true to himself all along the way. The question arises as to who is playing with whom? Is Goshena toying with #24 or is he toying with her? Or both in a love-hate type of relationship?
What brought you to turn the story into a graphic novel? And what has it been like visually defining your characters after writing about them?
It never occurred to me to write a graphic novel until I was finished with Book 9. I’d had many people read what I had written and because I am not a traditional novel writer, I write lots and lots of dialogue, I’ve been asked: “Is this really a play?” “Is this a film?” “It doesn’t really seem like a book.” I wanted at one point to call it a “plovel,” which is something that could be a play or a novel or both. But then I enrolled in Diana Ossana’s screenwriting class at the University of Iowa’s wonderful Summer Writing Festival in Iowa City and she knew immediately what to do with me. And I quote: “Chuck, I think you’ve written a graphic novel and you don’t even know it.” I’d always loved graphic novels and always read them but never connected it with my own work because I can’t draw. Again Diana’s response to not being able to draw: “Then you’ll need to work with someone who can.” So I did and here we are. And seeing my characters visually in this way is like seeing someone come to life right before your eyes. It’s like your imagination walking right out of your head and sitting down in front of you and saying hello.
Can you say something about the collaborative nature of working with award-winning illustrator Maureen Burdock?
I think I’d like to be Maureen’s biographer. And since I write mostly dialogue I’ll just record what she and I talk about and that will be the book. Maureen is a gem. We hit it off within five minutes of meeting. We met in Santa Fe to look over each other’s work, my writing, her art. She looked at me and said after reading page one: “I have to draw this.” And I loved her artwork. Maureen is a free spirit and although I am much less of one I try to let myself go free now and then. I think what worked so well is that my belief in the creative process, particularly during collaboration, is that you can’t set boundaries or constraints on your collaborator(s) or yourself. Don’t micro-edit. My only instructions to Maureen were: “See what happens, let it go, I’m not going to say anything about how I want it to be drawn. Just let it flow 100% and she did and she nailed it from the first three pages she sent me.” Maureen also has a crazy sense of humor like I do so getting silly was part of the process.
The first book of Goshena is also a three-act play. Can you talk about how that is different and how it is similar to the graphic novel? What were some of the changes that happened in the making of it as a play?
I could write another book just about this. I love reading, writing, and watching plays more than any other medium. And because only dialogue pours out of my head onto the page and because plays are so wonderfully economical, I only need fill in the sets and stage directions. It works very well for me because it’s how I think. Goshena the play is actually quite different from the graphic novel. Goshena, #24, and Stanley are probably the only three characters to make the successful leap from graphic novel to the stage.
Who do you feel you are writing for and what do you feel that your readers will gain from reading Goshena? (Or how do you aspire to affect your readers?)
I’ve never liked the question “who is your audience” because all that is really talking about is money and who is going to spend it on your book. I’ve written Goshena for everyone, for anyone who wants to read it no matter who, where, or what they are. I won’t constrain my audience to a select few. Goshena is there to be read and hopefully enjoyed.
As for what I want readers to gain from Goshena, it’s simple. I want my readers first and foremost to laugh. If I make readers laugh I did my job. The social worker in me needs to say that laughter, laughing, humor of all sorts is extremely healing and healthy. OK, now I got the touchy, feely part out of the way. I’m not trying for deep, significant meaning if only to suggest that I really do believe we continue when we die. It isn’t the end and there is no human being who can really know what it is. Goshena is one perspective and it’s fiction. So if anyone is offended they are offended by make-believe.
You also have a series called Dr. Chucky. Is he based on you?
I must confess. How can I not? Dr. Chucky is based on me, but only in that I am the main character. Once again, it’s fiction. I always said I would never use me as a character, particularly the main character because I’m not that exciting. But the story is not written in first person. Dr. Chucky is still written in third person. It’s me writing about Dr. Chucky. I have a terrible time writing in first person. I just cannot do it. I think that’s the social worker in me who sees that as very narcissistic. And now I’ve just offended about a million and a half writers, or more.
Is there any advice you would like to share with aspiring graphic novelists?
There are purists out there who are offended by the fact that I might call myself a graphic novelist because I don’t do my own artwork. I say that’s nonsense. A good collaboration with a brilliant artist, like Maureen Burdock in my case, can change all that and beautiful books can be created. I wanted to see Goshena in pictures, in art. It was exciting just thinking about it. And then it happened because Maureen and I made it happen. So my advice would be, if you’re like me and artistically challenged, don’t let that hold you back. You’re still an artist through your words. And words are as powerful as pictures.
If you’re like me and artistically challenged, don’t let that hold you back. You’re still an artist through your words. And words are as powerful as pictures.