Q: What is your cause about?
“Freedom meant being liberated, but also exposed. Openness was a key to both a treasure chest of knowledge about the past and a Pandora’s box of unanswerable questions.” This is a quote from Marci Shore in The Taste of Ashes. She is referring to life in Eastern Bloc countries post 1989. My novel follows a protagonist who goes to the Czech Republic in 1994 to search for relatives and to uncover buried family past. What he exposes is a Pandora’s box of stuff certain people would rather keep hidden. What interests me is the idea that freedom can be both a liberation and an indictment. This operates on a family level as well as on a state level.
Q: What’s the most important thing in your life right now?
Good reviews/sales. Six months from now I will be deeply immersed in the next project, but tomorrow is pub day for Better You Go Home and I want to know that at least someone will read it and find it provocative in a way that enhances life for them.
Q: How did you become antagonistic?
Oh, early on. I grew up in a fine family, no trauma, no suffering, lots of love and support, but at the same time there was an unspoken code that required being nice. This has never been easy for me. I am too likely to dig and dig until I find out what is being covered up by that veneer of niceness. I am in no way interested in causing anyone trouble, as long as I don’t have to adhere to the “nice” rule. For example, when I was a student in my undergrad days, I got a dopey birthday card from my grandmother on my mother’s side. This grandmother was actually a step-grandmother. She had a few years prior divorced my grandfather and left for Vegas with another man (this in their 60s). Okay, my grandfather was a lonely, taciturn man and recovering alcoholic, not much fun to be around. Okay, so I simply wanted her to go away and stop this pretense. So I told her that. She called my mother and Mom called me and on it went. But, at least one unseemly person was no longer mine to pretend niceness with.
Q: What do you hope nobody ever finds out about you?
That I truly do love to teach writing. I know this is considered to be the province of writers who can’t support themselves with their writing (so few can), and it began that way with me as well, but then I discovered this to be one vocation I truly love. So forgive me. And now I guess a few readers will find out the truth of what I am not supposed to admit.
Q: What do you like or dislike about the other characters from your book?
There is one particular bad guy in my novel, Jungmann by name, whom I particularly did not like, mainly because he represented for me the apparatchiks who used their position to profit from the switch to a private economy, but who were rarely, and not at all in his case, brought to task for their outrageous human rights violations. I wanted him to pay. Somehow. But in the course of re-writing, I discovered that he had another side to him. When not busy torturing enemies who refused to toady up to the state, he had his own desires. To be loved. To be the father of a certain character’s child. To vindicate himself for an event in the past that lead to the premature death of a boy who might have been the only one to truly love this troubled man. Finally I had to accept that he was very probably the only one with enough courage to actually support that same character who had been essentially abandoned by everyone else, including the father of my protagonist.
Q: Where do you live?
Describe it: Is it messy, neat, avant-garde, sparse, etc.? In a craftsman house on a quiet residential street in north Seattle. Streets are narrow, houses small, neighbors know each other, but not too well. Yards have mature trees and moss. It’s the lucky one with a good sunny spot for veggie gardening. It’s a short walk from here to restaurants, a few bars, coffee shops, various amenities. Decent schools. It is not an upscale neighborhood, but it is a safe neighborhood with lots of young families gradually replacing the retirees who are moving on. It is a good place to be for a family man. A boring neighborhood for a person on their own without kids. But where I “live” is really in the basement, where I keep my office. Clutter of books. Cobwebs. Desks that very rarely see a cleaning cloth. A half dozen black valises (soft cloth variety) lined up on the floor because a: I don’t have shelf space for them, ad b: they contain my notes/files for teaching various classes and lacking a proper filing system, they do the job for me. My “must read” stack of books resides on a chair upstairs in one corner of the dining room (banished to the chair because my wife got tired of having them occupy a quadrant of the kitchen table we eat on, as if they were a guest at every meal).
Q: What's the worst thing someone ever did to you?
When I was 19, a student at CSU (Colorado), for winter break I drove with three friends south to warmer weather in southern Arizona. One night in the Superstition Mountains not too far from Phoenix, while searching for a spot to camp, we came across a small celebration. A group of folks in late middle age (a club of some sort) were having a gathering in the clubhouse attached to the campground. They invited us in. We had to buy our own drinks, and we avoided the food table as we hadn’t paid for any food, but the music was good and the women who wanted to dance were happy to have a couple of teen partners. We were having fun and killing time before returning to tents. About 11 PM, a very tall guy wearing cowboy boots and a denim shirt with snaps, western style, demanded that we leave (without identifying who the hell he was or why we had to go). I had the gall to question him and to plead our case, not that I was so keen on staying, but simply because we weren’t causing any trouble and I wanted things to be fair. Without another word or warning, this big beefy ham-fisted guy swung a well-practiced fist at my mouth and knocked out two front teeth. I was stunned. By the time the room stopped reeling, he had left. The concerned woman I had been dancing with helped me find my two teeth and explained that I should keep them and get to a dentist as soon as possible because they came out so cleanly, roots and all, they could probably be re-inserted. The next day we drove to the nearest dental office in Phoenix, but it was too late. A dental bridge would take care of the dental issue. The issue for me was more psychological. That man’s unwarranted violence and cruelty was my first taste of what exists in a world that has not been designed to be nice. It was a costly awakening. A coming of age moment for me. The world would never be the same again from that night on, I realized that even then, but I have never written about this experience because it seems trivial compared to the oppression visited upon people I much later came to know (distant family).
Q: What's the worst thing you've done to someone?
Not take them seriously. Well, once as a prank in boarding school in 9th grade, I dumped sugar into the open mouth of the snoring student in the room next door. What I did not know then was that he suffered terribly from asthma and had to sleep on his back with his mouth wide open so he could breathe at all.
Q: What annoys you more than anything else?
People who don’t read. People who think browsing Web sites and blogs and texting is the same thing as reading. I am speaking now of our culture. Reading novels increases our empathetic abilities. Much entrenched ignorance and dangerous hate mongering is caused by lack of knowledge about the world beyond our self-imposed filters. If everyone had to read novels, then defend their views in book reports in order to get a job, get a promotion, get elected to office, get hired by a sports team, we would live in a different world, I world I am pretty sure I would prefer.
Q: What's the most beautiful thing you've ever seen?
A child being born, no doubt about it. Next to that expressions of love, truly felt. When I was a younger man, I thought the existentialists had gotten it about right. We are born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Life is meaningless. Balance peas on the edge of a knife. Accept your Sisyphean task, what life essentially is. Now I see it differently. Now I actually believe that we are more connected than perhaps we like to admit. We can honor that. We can be kind. We can use what we have learned to help others learn more. We can love. We can leave the world a better place than we found it. We can be genuine. We don’t have to settle for nice.
Q: What time of day is your favorite?
Mid morning and late night. Mid morning I am focused, alert, energized, ready for action. Ready to write, for example. Late night, the world is pretty quiet, there is nowhere you need to go, nothing pulling at you but your own imagination. It’s a good time to think your thoughts unmolested.
Q: What do you find most relaxing? (Not as in stress relief, but as something that actually calms you down.) Riding a bike. Commuting by bike with my son to his school, then home again from after-school whatever. Riding tough hills. Long rides through urban areas into a world of green. Motion is relaxing, and the pace of a bike is just about right.
Q: What do you think of drugs and alcohol? Are there any people should not do? Why or why not?
This is something to pay attention to. My brother in law very recently died of alcohol related illness. He was a very smart, very kind man, musically gifted, a composer who’d found his niche and was achieving success, but who couldn’t stop drinking. Because of it, he lost his relationship to his son, distanced his family, and died very prematurely. He was a gift to this world, though I am not sure his son would see it that way, at least not right now. But alas, this weakness took away this gift. Drinking and drug use are not good ways to escape depression. Nor do they convey hero status. Nor do they make life more exciting. Used modestly, they can certainly enhance pleasure and add texture to life. But it is a balance that must be respected, or the consequences will be ugly and fatal.
Better You Go Home
A Life-Altering Journey to the Czech Republic Inspired by a True Story
Coffeetown Press, Seattle
Life often obscures more than it reveals. Writing well is about knowing how a story is built, and then pouring the raw material of life into it. One must find material he or she cares about and stiffen it with the scaffolding of voice, character and premise―until a story emerges.
Oct. 2nd – Book Launch at Richard Hugo House – 7:00 pm
Oct 5th & 6th – Writers on the Sound
Nov. 13th – Third Place Bookstore – 7:00 pm
Nov. 15th – University Bookstore – 7:00 pm
(Seattle, WA.)— A married man’s unexpected departure from Czechoslovakia― with the neighbor woman and her children―is at the heart of a mysterious trail of true events that has inspired University of Washington writing instructor Scott Driscoll to write his first novel, Better You Go Home. “At a family funeral in the early 90s, I learned about a cache of letters written in Czech to my aunt. I had them translated and learned that a male relative had left his wife and three children in a remote farm village in Bohemia prior to World War One.” Driscoll continues, “I learned my relative and the neighbor woman married bigamously in Iowa. The other fact revealed was the presence of a child named Anezka―who seems to have simply disappeared. I suspect she was their illicit child.”
Not long after, Driscoll visited his relative’s village and began to speculate. “What had become of the unidentified child? What if my life had deployed on her side of the Iron Curtain? Once that question lodged in my psyche, like a small wound that wouldn’t heal, I knew I had to write this story.” The work of literary fiction that trip inspired is Better You Go Home. The novel traces the story of Seattle attorney Chico Lenoch, who is diabetic, nearing kidney failure and needs a donor organ. He travels to the Czech Republic in search of his half-sister who may be able to help save his life. What Chico does not count on is unearthing long-buried family secrets.
It begins when he searches through his father’s attic after the Velvet Revolution and discovers letters dated four decades earlier revealing the existence of a half-sister. That sets him on a quest to see if he can find her. Once in the Czech Republic, Chico meets Milada, a beautiful doctor who helps him navigate the obstacles. While Chico idealizes his father’s homeland, Milada feels trapped. Is she really attracted to him, or is he a means of escape to the United States? Chico confronts a moral dilemma as well. If he approaches his sister about his need for a kidney, does he become complicit with his father and the power brokers of that generation who’ve already robbed her of so much?
Better You Go Home is about a son seeking his father’s secrets, but in a larger sense it’s about the progeny of exiles. Says Driscoll, “Much has been written about the survivors of WWII and its aftermath; I want to draw attention to the lives of their children.”
“Moving, powerful, and compulsively readable, Better You Go Home is the unforgettable story of a man's journey to save his own life, and how he discovers himself along the way.”
—Garth Stein, New York Times bestselling author of The Art of Racing in the Rain