Dispatch from Interzone: The Monster, the Shaman and La Casa Cero

Peter Maravelis and I meet about once a month back in San Francisco. We exchange one or two brief messages to set a time and day; always the same location, known only to us. Nothing else is discussed until then. We could be swapping Christmas cards as easily as black briefcases, with nobody the wiser. Our cells are turned off, severing us from the noise grid—the phone calls, text messages, emails, status updates, tweets and news feeds—those things we were all perfectly fine without barely a decade ago. For the next three or four hours, we walk. Taxis and public transport are likewise against protocol; walking keeps the eyes open and maintains a shade of the unfamiliar on home turf. Our conversation sprouts an array of tentacles during these walks: writing, publishing, book selling, history, conspiracies, spirituality, furniture, skepticism, martial arts, family, love, death, drinking, comics, travel and whatever else the conversation wants.

Peter frequently speaks of the shaman— the designated messenger able to cross between this world and the next at will. In so doing, the shaman brings guidance and healing back to the people, but not without risk. The trip is dangerous and takes its toll on the shaman, and each voyage could be his last. Like Johnny Truant says in House of Leaves, “Any fool can pray.” Peter likens the role of the writer in our culture to that of the shaman. Some writers go places most people can’t— and where other writers won’t. These writers leave lasting marks on our culture and indeed, a few don’t come back.

Again and again, the shaman came up during our talks. Peter’s message was clear: My departure for South America was imminent; I would be crossing numerous boundaries, both literal and figurative, and returning with a long overdue novel (or so I hoped). Similar but less pronounced sentiments came from my friends, most of whom used the word “adventure.”

That’s going to be such an adventure.

I can wait to hear about your adventures.

While I took Peter’s shaman analogue to heart, in truth I’d been couch surfing for ten months and bartending work was beyond scarce. I came here because I was broke.

I’ve lived abroad before, traveled the world via plane, train, boat, car and motorcycle, and once hitchhiked through a remote stretch of Ireland after my bike died outside a Druidic burial mound (draw your own conclusion). I didn’t want another adventure. I wanted a cheap place to live, one where I could write without distractions. After five years of fighting with my third novel, I wanted back to my internal Ground Zero: that psychic sanctuary harboring no expectations or standards other than my own; no deadlines; no pressures or obligations beyond my notebook and coffee pot. My friends had a room for me in Bolivia, just what I needed.

Our house is on Av. Ayacucho, at Av. Heroinas. The city’s north, south, east and west are determined relative to this intersection, and the sequence of street numbers ascending through those four sections begins here. I live in the navigational center of the city. The Zero Point. And it’s here I’ve written as much over the last three months as in my previous five years back home. I seldom go out more than once a day, sometimes less, and rarely for more than an hour. My previous Interzone posts are not highlights; they account for everything I’ve seen and done more than a few blocks from La Casa Cero. Were it not for checking email or reloading coffee, cobwebs would cover my boots. No adventures. No hallucinogenic rituals, visions in the deep jungle or psychoactive snakebites. I stay indoors and write.

This novel is my best yet, and from the start I’ve been circulating chapters with fair abandon, which is unusual for me. I never show work in progress to anyone, and I’m still apprehensive of close friends reading my published stories. But not this time. My first two novels were deeply personal; I feel profoundly exposed to those loved ones who read them. I’m not referring to the books’ criminal elements, though I’ve been the subject of much speculation regarding the acid required to write what I do. Coming from book critics, this astounds me. Any critic who believes writing about an altered state of mind requires having one is too ignorant to merit the title of critic. And as for “write what you know,” you needn’t be a killer to write a murder mystery (but it helps).

I’ve never taken acid and never will; the monsters aren’t allowed out of the cellar unsupervised. Yes, they can come out, just as I can go down to them. In Night Time, Losing Time, Michael Ventura wrote, “If I can’t get there on my own, I’ve got no business going.” It’s like that with my monsters. Memory, identity, names, self, others, outsiders, belonging, faith and death: my thematic obsessions are just different doors to and from the same cellar. The voices, metaphors and images in each story are code for my monsters. Regardless of the codes or disguises, I’m still never comfortable opening the cellar to those closest to me. As for critics, bloggers and online reviewers, I’ve resented from the beginning any descriptions of my work as pushing the envelope. I resent even more being labeled transgressive. A writer cannot push, break or transgress a boundary without first conceding to the definition of that boundary, a definition which by nature is not their own. Thus an artist who intends foremost to shock, to transgress, willingly trades his own rules for someone else’s. He surrenders his art instead of surrendering to it. And no artist creates anything worthwhile from their comfort zone.

So yeah, I need my monsters. Whatever anyone else thinks, right or wrong, and however much they scare me, I need them.

I finished a first draft last week. There’s more to be done; sections to flesh out and narrative gaps to fill, but the load-bearing story points are all on paper. I needed to recharge, to work on something else until I could return to the manuscript with fresh eyes. I stared at the ceiling for a long while, rooting around in my cellar until I found a story down there in the dark and it was sunrise before I stopped writing. Nothing violent, scatological or otherwise morbid, but something so close to the bone I doubt I’ll let anyone read it. It’s that personal. Yes, I’ll finish it, of course. Then I’ll bury it.

Funny thing, monsters. They’re scariest when you don’t hear them coming.

It dawned on me during that same sunrise writing jag: I’m not afraid to share my latest novel, which is precisely why the first draft took five years. I’d been writing from my comfort zone. It began as a short called The Fade, written back when I wasn’t pulling my punches (the first time I read it to an audience was also my last). Since then, I’ve been skirting those scary spots, tiptoeing around the monsters. Maybe because of that reading or maybe not, it doesn’t matter. I can be a writer or I can be safe, but I can’t be both. If I hadn’t written a single word since coming here, that evening staring at the ceiling would have been worth the entire trip. That was the lesson I came here to learn.

I’ll finish the short piece, the one from the cellar, then return to the manuscript for a second draft. Flesh it out, triple-check story continuity and character arcs, and hone my prose layer by layer. Write and rewrite until I’m scared, until I feel exposed when a loved one reads it. This time around, the monsters will have free reign. But first I’m flying home.

The door’s top hinge was missing and the bottom remained bolted to a spearhead of wood torn from its former frame but it was otherwise pristine. A broad plank without inlays, bevels or carvings. Glossy red like a toy fire engine, lacquered so smooth Icarus could almost see his reflection.

Craftsmanship, the jumpy little man said. Old school. He knocked on the bright red door with the flourish of a stage comedian.

This door of yours, said Icarus. Where does it go?

Go? The man bent over and belly laughed for nearly a full minute, pointed at Icarus and shook his head. It’s just a door, Big Man. It don’t go anywhere.

And what would I want with a door that goes nowhere?

And so on.


Cochabamba, Bolivia

June, 2010

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