Melanie and Steve Rasnic Tem – The Man on the Ceiling
What were some of the difficulties in combining real life with fiction?
The underlying creative reason for using that combination technique was to say more about the themes and events (factual and imaginary) than either straight-ahead non-fiction or pure fiction could have done. So the ongoing requirement was to find the right balance, the most illuminating angle, so we could tell the most truthful truth. We also had to grapple with the question of when we were being self-indulgent and when we were being creatively honest, and the converse: when were we withholding something out of timidity, and when did the story demand a less direct approach?
I’d say giving up one’s natural urge to self-protect, or at least severely compromising it, was the most difficult part for me. I’m generally willing to do anything a piece demands. In this case the piece demanded that I not worry about how I, personally, was coming across to the reader—that was difficult to swallow sometimes. I had to just grit my teeth and push through.
One of the stranger aspects of this writing experience, and it’s in keeping with the goal of the book itself, was that throughout the writing of THE MAN ON THE CEILING I never felt as if I were writing fiction. The childhood and young adult delusions and fantasies were the very ones I had experienced at the time. They were an important part of my reality. I grew up fairly isolated in a town of 600. I wasn’t allowed to go out much, even within that small community, and because of my father’s alcoholism people rarely visited. So much of my experience was inside my head. To call that experience fiction would have been to call a large segment of my life fiction.
As much as anything else, TMOC is also about spiritual experience and the spiritual aspect to fiction. Is spiritual experience fiction? I would tend to say yes, but with the caveat that it’s fiction of a peculiar sort, in that it’s fiction created because no other narrative tools are adequate to capturing the experience you’re trying to illuminate. I’d say that spiritual fiction is as valid and as important as everyday reality. But that its validity is most sound within a personal context. Once you have a number of people authoring that spiritual fiction as a group collaboration and proselytizing it to others as something that should be their fiction as well, things become a bit dicey. I get antsy inside churches, or around large groups of people who all seem to believe the same things.
There's a lot of things you end up doing with Point of View in the novel. How did you decide who'll write each scene and what does it feel when the other person is writing from "your" POV?
Seeing how far we could go with point of view was one of the most exciting aspects of writing this book for me. Writing from each other's point of view had the interesting effect of showing me aspects of my own experience that I hadn't considered before.
POV changes everything, really. If you change a story’s POV you’re writing a completely different story, assuming that POV is adequately realized. That became so obvious when writing this particular book it was actually a bit intimidating. There could have been potentially a dozen or more very different versions of the book. I think finally aspects of the story were divided up according to who felt the strongest about a particular area of content. Some chapters are practically “life testimonies” for one or the other of us. And some sections were a kind of indirect answer to what the other had written. Some of the more unexpected uses of POV were an attempt to break things open, to help us find out things we had forgotten, or never knew.
How did you decide which elements to fictionalize and which to maintain? How do you think your novel interacts with the reader-writer relationship?
We ask a lot of the reader in this book. We ask a particular kind of suspension of disbelief--really, we ask the reader to set aside the belief/disbelief paradigm, to put on hold the impulse to figure out what "really" happened and look at what's "true" in a different way. It seems to have worked for some readers. No doubt others are still annoyed by it, or just stopped reading when they realized what we wanted from them.
Bottom line, The Man On The Ceiling was an attempt to use the tools of fiction because no other tools seemed adequate to the task of trying to capture the breadth of everyday lives which have both an exterior and an interior, an observable shape and an invisible shape, a forward progress not only in consensus reality, but in the imagination as well.