Interview with Garrett Dennert

What's the story behind your latest book?
The origins of Wounded Tongue likely date back to a childhood fascination with doomsday scenarios. I mean, I loved the apocalypse. And then, as I grew older and my tastes changed, I hated the apocalypse. For some time, I really felt that the genre was lacking, that it had become far too formulaic, and that the human elements that had made it so wonderful before had been swapped out for shock value.

Readers, writers, and viewers alike seemed to be more fascinated by how the world ended, not in how it would be rebuilt.

Fast forward a few years, to a college fiction class, when a professor of mine whom I to this day deeply admire, challenged her students to demolish a fictional world that they'd created, something she sold as, at the very least, being a fun exercise in which to test the strength of the world you'd built. To search for its holes. To patch them, if necessary, or to let it all crumble.

Fast forward yet another couple of years, to when I ditched the only world I'd known and opted to struggle in a new city -- no friends, no family, only a part-time job -- and sitting at a chintzy bistro table by my kitchen window, penning what would become the first draft of Wounded Tongue. It was a short story, first, roughly 25 pages, though I had a feeling that it couldn't sing unless it were longer -- a feeling confirmed after I sent the first draft to a friend of mine (who'd sat alongside me in that aforementioned class), and received his note, "You know this isn't a short story."

From there, I went about turning Wounded Tongue into a novel. I created character dossiers. I envisioned each setting and created a mood board of sort for each one. I even drew out a plot map by hand – an actual mountain-like map that’s still push-pinned into the bulletin board above my old desk, inch-long points jutting above and below the peak.

And then I wrote the damn thing. I wrote, and then researched, researched, and then wrote some more. And honestly, I can’t recall how long it took for me to complete that first draft. Four months, five months, maybe?

What I do recall, and what I find to be so fascinating, is where Wounded Tongue followed me over the course of three and a half years. From that bistro table in Seattle, Washington to my childhood home in Hart, Michigan. From Hart to Holland, Michigan. From Holland, back to Hart. From Hart to Muskegon. From Muskegon to Grand Rapids. From Grand Rapids back to Seattle. From Seattle back to Grand Rapids.

Looking back, it's clear that Wounded Tongue was more a part of me than I'd ever realized. It's as much a love letter to a genre I once loved and wanted so badly to revitalize as it is a stylistic channeling of my reality -- what I hope to be a potent combination.
Describe your desk
Distressed wood. Three drawers, each with plastic handles I can't wait to swap out. The desk doubles as a library of sorts, as there are two shelves on each side housing a variety of books. As it usually is, the surface is a little cluttered right now - outdated laptops, local entertainment guides picked up while out and about, an old TV I sometimes use when I want/need to dual screen.
What are you working on next?
First, I'll be revising my short story collection, Strays Like Us, but then I'll be putting my "Writer" hat back on and going after a novel that's lived in my brain for the better part of a year now. The novel's protagonist is a two-spirited member of the Lakota tribe in the mid 19th century, who struggles to accept their role. Eventually exiled, the protagonist is faced with acclimating to the roar of a fast-moving society, to friendship, to love, to morality, taking up with a gang of outlaws on the move, as well as a self-sustaining family devout in their faith. The novel, I hope, will be a period piece, sure, but also an unflinching coming of age tale able to transcend time and space.

I'm beyond excited to get started.
Who are your favorite authors?
Colum McCann
George Saunders
Adam Johnson
Dave Eggers
Caitlin Horrocks
Charles Portis
Joan Didion
Michael Chabon
Malcolm Gladwell
Jonathan Franzen
Flannery O'Connor
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
I enjoy cooking, hiking, riding my bicycle, camping, exploring, reading, the occasional bingeing upon a new TV show, playing with my dog, fantasy football, real hockey, brewing beer, flinging a Frisbee around, among many other things.
What is your writing process?
It used to be that my first drafts were absolute garbage, and that I'd impatiently go into them with the mindset of, "Just barf it all out." From there, I'd let that draft sit for a while, and then I'd revise, revise, revise, and revise some more, paring down what I'd overwritten. It was a process that I like to believe improved my skills as an editor -- being honest with myself, with my work, and with my intentions.

I think my process is a bit different now, though. I'm much more patient. I thoroughly outline, I create character dossiers, I draw plot maps. There isn't a whole lot of just diving in head first, and I think that's because of a limitation on time -- as a full-time writing student, not only is a social life built into your class schedule, but your sole job as a student is to read, write, and workshop. And that changes once you graduate and begin to navigate the real world. You might spend a lot more time actually thinking about your writing than you did then, and that's so the time you actually allocate to the physical act of writing can be maximized.
How do you approach cover design?
Cover design is one of my favorite parts of the publishing process. It can be tricky for me sometimes, though, as I tend to lean towards minimalism, which, the cover (usually) being the first association a potential reader has with your work, can be quite risky. No, really, I've had to be kept in check before by those I hold close -- I remember with the first cover design of Wounded Tongue, I wanted to go with just an image. A powerful image, sure, but with no text whatsoever. No title, no author, nothing on the spine.

"Part of the experience of the novel," I'm sure I argued.

I soon after discussed the idea with whom I consider my ideal reader. And she was awesome about it. She liked the image. She understood what I was trying to do. But then she calmly pointed to the nearby bookshelf, to dozens of paperbacks, all with text on the spine. And she went on to remind me why people really care about something like text on the spine -- their book collection is a part of them. It's part of the fun.

It's part of the experience of reading books, and I absolutely needed to be reminded of that.

I went on to add text to the front cover and the spine, on two separate designs. I then created polls pitting one design against the other, and then posted them to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, asking fans and followers to weigh in. It was a lot of fun.

So I guess my approach to cover design is one of, yes, going with your gut, and, yes, being invitingly stylish, but also having people around you capable of giving useful feedback. Why? Because you, the author, is so close with the work that your idea of perfect design could be unclear and exclusive -- two things you don't want from your book cover.
What do you read for pleasure?
I read a lot of literary fiction, both for pleasure, and for productivity. But, day to day, I mostly read nonfiction. I love reading experimental essays, but also, I love reading scientific works, both in print and digital form. I love reading about the environment. I love reading about space travel. I love reading about the future, and, in turn, I feel like it does a lot to impact my writing, even if I'm not going into it with that mindset.
Published 2016-11-11.
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