The Accidental Author: For the first part of my yearlong series of interviews entitled “Inspiration to Publication”, I'm focusing heavily on Inspiration. Regarding your fantastic new novel, The Lights in Vegas, can you tell us a little about the inspiration behind your main character, Brigham Detroit?
Justin Kramasz: Brigham Detroit is partly a personification of the identity diffusion that I feel as an American adult male and the trials that led me to this point. Brig is in no way a carbon copy of me and my life, but for all intents and purposes I lived and breathed this character; I have worn his skin and sat at his table. The genesis for this character comes from a persona that I occasionally find myself taking on when I play poker. When I play in a live game with friends or whoever, real people, and my focus is great, I sometimes become this intense being who is juggling probabilities and outs and psychology behind a mask of varying shape. The thoughts that I think, the emotions I affect, the things that I say while in this state; that is Brigham Detroit. Everything is designed to gather knowledge and make judgments. You could write a master’s thesis in psychology based on one hour of observing a good poker game. So my “what if” moment was “what if someone did everything in this Zen-poker mindset?” What I did with Brigham Detroit is take this mindset, this persona, and gave it to him and let him run with it. This is all he is, his whole life down to his every last thought, Brig is working angles and running numbers. Brig is so imperfect in every other aspect of his life, but Brig is the perfect poker deviant.
AA: I'm wondering if the old cliché, “write what you know”, applies for this novel? Are you an avid Texas Holdem player?
JK: That is a complicated question. As an actor, I was once told to “always act from your own experiences, even if they’ve never happened.” I believe strongly in this advice. As writers, we act through our characters. Each character is a piece of our larger self, and as such, they share nuances of our id, ego, and superego; we are bound to play them truthfully or the story suffers. Writing what you know is great, if you can do it; far better to write what you love and let your technical advisors correct your mistakes and inconsistencies. That being said, I am not necessarily an “avid” player, but poker is something that is very close to my heart. I grew up playing poker and I have a lot of special memories attached to it. Here is a game that caters to all personality types and skill sets. A person may excel in poker because he has a special knowledge of psychology, a person may excel because he has exceptional math skills, a person may excel because he has great instincts, or some combination of the three. Poker is truly a game that imitates life, and the student is forever learning.
AA: You have a very incisive narrative, especially during the poker games. Where did you conjure up your voice for these scenes?
JK: My voice… This brings back memories of my senior year high-school English teacher, Ms. Young, who introduced her classes to various style guides; APA, MLA formats, Strunk and White, etc. as preparation for college. One of the most important things she taught her students was to develop a natural voice for their writing; she taught us that this was the way to speak through your writing as an extension of yourself rather than simply as a creative device or technical manual, as the case may be. Specifically, I try to write in a sort of semi-delirious waking-meditation. The more I can detach myself from the tangible, the brighter will be the tapestry of the world I am trying to project. For me, poetry has been an excellent tool for developing voice. I consider myself a short story writer first, each chapter in my book was written as such and it is my feeling that writing this way helps one to develop voice. Long ago I read a book called The Marshall Plan for Novel Writing, and though I don’t necessarily recommend this book for anything more than an organizational tool, I took one great piece of advice from it that can help any writer who struggles with voice, and I’m paraphrasing; imagine your right hand as your creative hand and your left hand as your editing hand. One should only write with one hand at a time. I know it is sort of biblical, but the bottom line is this: Don’t edit your work as you write. The creative mind is a beastly presence that lurks in the darkness in between sanity and coherent thought. When you write, let the beast come forward.
AA: What was your major inspiration for the plotline of The Lights in Vegas?
JK: The non road-trip aspects are greatly inspired by popular fiction and my own reflections on our society, not as a whole, but on an individualistic level. I am a big fan of satire and self improvement. My greater inspiration comes from my own natural restless spirit. Consequently, most of my writing is anything but stationary. I fell in love with the great American road-trip long before I had ever touched H. S. Thompson or Steinbeck or Kerouac. Once the American spirit was of westward expansion and eminent domain, my spirit tells me to go back and rediscover. I have always gone west to east. My vision of America is shaped by this. Leaving the California desert by way of route 66 or the sprawling mountains through 80, you experience some of the same things. The country opens up and unfolds before your very eyes with fields of black volcanic rock or sprawling mesas and limitless skies. For me this has always inspired a sense of wonder and a feeling of contact with the great unknown. Naturally, my instinct is to jump in and see where it takes me. Writing a novel is like a road trip for your soul, I have always been captivated by the romance and promises therein.
AA: Besides a computer, what is necessary to have nearby when you are writing?
JK: Food, caffeine, quietude and some form of lesser inspiration. For some, this may be a physical activity, for others a painting, for others still it may be a Buddha shaped lamp in a San Francisco hotel room. Any of these lesser muses may suffice. My writing style is pretty demanding of me. I cannot simply write 1,000 words a day and be done with it. I often don’t write for a few days or weeks or more, and when I finally sit down I might be at the machine for upwards of eight hours. So I need to have something nearby to keep me flying. And I need to know I don’t have to go far for calories or a small jolt of inspiration. You shouldn’t have to leave the sanctuary of your inner psyche for something so base as chicken salad.
AA: Does it have to be silent when you are writing, or do you have music or some other background noise?
JK: Depends on how I feel that day. If I feel like listening to music as I write, the music must not have lyrics, which distract my focus and steal my attention. I choose classical music, which is believed by some to stimulate alpha brain waves, go figure. So if I simply cannot find quiet on the outside, I have to at least find quiet on the inside.
AA: What types of literature do you enjoy reading?
JK: I enjoy anything with an element of satire. I abhor romance, Emily Bronte eat your heart out. I once read a passage from one of the Twilight books, which I see as reprocessed bodice-rippers with fangs, and I’m done forever with the whole genre. To each his own, but that is not for me. Other than that genre, I run the gamut from Raymond Chandler to Arthur C. Clarke, Stephen King to H. S. Thompson, Chuck Palahniuk to David Gemmell. I am also fond of Edgar Allan Poe’s writing. Yeah, I may poke fun at romance readers and their “Authors” as paper recycling factories or cookie cutter novelists, but I am a sucker for Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Oh, the shame…
AA: What are you reading right now?
JK: I am almost through with Duma Key, by Stephen King. Somewhere, I am in the middle of The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson, if I can ever find it I’ll finish it. I am also reading a novel by a fellow [Untreed Reads] author, Tor Hansson.
AA: What's next from Justin Kramasz?
JK: Well I haven’t made up my mind yet. I have three different novel ideas that are rolling around in my head and I am waiting for one to come all the way forward. The one that seems to be asking to be written first is a thriller with a splash of horror about a cop who is trying to get a job in another state but during his drive for the interview, he falls asleep at the wheel and wakes up in a different world where he uncovers a secret that has him being hunted by… Well, I guess I have some writing to do, Goodbye for now, and thanks for the interview.
Justin Kramasz is an author, screenwriter, and poet. Justin was nearly born on the steps in front of Washington Hospital in Fremont, California when doctors turned away his uninsured parents. He was raised in various urban settings in the East-Bay Area. He won his first poker hand at the age of eight, and he finally beat his father in a heads up match when he was seventeen. After frequenting card rooms, casinos, pool halls and home games, as well as online poker games, Justin decided to write a novel that would capture the strange qualities and habits of the modern gambling mind in action. He currently makes his abode with his German Shepherd/Chow mix, Foxie-Moxie Karmalita, in the estranged Pacheco, California.