Welcome to Center Stage, Julian. I first discovered your work at The Rye Whiskey Review in the form of a short story called ‘Patriots.’ I next saw an enticing review of your latest novel EXISTENTIAL LABYRINTHS, which a Brit Grit crime author shared on his Facebook page.
Curious, I recently ducked over to your Amazon author page and discovered you also penned 16 prior novels and 9 books of poetry—and that Alpha Beat Press published your first book—a poetry collection entitled, “Standing on Lorimer Street Awaiting Crucifixion” in 1996. That’s a helluva lot of writing, sir! Congrats on your achievements. But since you live and write in New York City, let’s put to you to the Test: please sum up your entire writing career in a New York-Minute. Sixty-second-sound-bite. Ready? Set? Go!
Just kidding, Julian.
Q. At what age did you feel you wanted to be a Writer? And how did your Writing Life evolve once you embraced that Revelation?
A. I’ve been writing in one form or another since I was a kid. But for most of my youth music was my main love and I played in bands for years. Whatever writing I did, I did purely for myself and my own amusement. I wrote silly surrealistic short stories in composition notebooks that I never intended to let anyone else see, never mind publish. None of it was any good, anyway.
I always had a plan that if the music didn’t pan out, I’d turn to writing. But it wasn’t until I was around 30 years old that I began to make a serious go. I began with poetry since it seemed to be a natural extension from songwriting.
I was going through a particularly rough period in my life, and I followed William S. Burroughs’s lead by trying to “write it out” of me as a “therapeutic thing” with no intention of publishing. Before long I had a stack of poems … and not knowing what else to do with them, I thought I’d try submitting them to the literary magazines. This eventually led to the publication of my first poetry chapbook in 1996 with a very small press. The book only had a limited run of about 200 copies—but they did sell out and I suppose that gave me the confidence to make a serious go of it.
From then on I jumped headlong and continued to follow that path. At the same time I always wanted to write fiction, and I began writing my first novel, “November Rust”—which took years since I really didn’t know what I was doing. Once completed, since most of my favorite writers are novelists, I decided fiction was what I really wanted to write. So poetry slowly took a back seat, and I’ve been working on the fringes of ‘the literary world’ ever since.
Q. Set in NYC, your coming-of-age tale ‘Patriots’ takes place during the so-called Cold War with Russia. Meanwhile, the events surrounding EXISTENTIAL LABYRINTHS also occur in NYC—but this time in the late 1990s. Is there something about “the past” that calls to you when you’re writing? Or is the fact that both these works are set in the past merely coincidental?
A. Not everything I’ve written takes place in the past—or is even drawn from events in my life. I think every person’s life is a well of material a writer can draw from, but isn’t necessarily autobiographical in the strictest sense. I tend to follow Raymond Carver’s notion that a little autobiography and a lot of imagination can go a long way.
‘Patriots’ for example was drawn from my early teenage years. But the story itself is pure fiction. None of those events actually happened. The same goes for “Existential Labyrinths.” It’s rooted in the social circles I was running with in the mid- to late-1990s—dysfunctional writers, artists, photographers … all groping in the dark and trying to find their way.
I suppose in some ways I’m trying to work out past events or the “age” in which I was growing up. But I think this comes from using the past as a starting point, then finding a fictional framework in which to tell a story. I tend to explore issues of identity, memory—how events of the past figure into who you are in the present; existential issues and so on.
Q. My thoughts are traveling in two completely different directions here. You mentioned your early love affair with music. What kind of bands did you perform in, Julian? And does music directly or indirectly find a place in any of the novels you’ve written?
A. Over the course of my life I played in three bands. I joined Distorted Youth, a punk rock band, when I was 15. Though short-lived, we played a few shows at the now-renowned A7 club on the Lower East Side in 1982. Our “claim to fame” was that we once opened before Sonic Youth when they were just starting out.
Then I played in a band called Third Eye Butterfly. We had some nominal success: appeared on a few compilation albums; released a few records; and got some decent press before disbanding in the late 1990s.
I spent the bulk of my youth with this band, and it was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had. Not only for the music, but also for exposing me to what was going on in New York City’s art, music, and literary circles at the time. It opened me up to a new world of creativity and possibilities—and also steeled me against the types of folks I’d eventually encounter afterwards.
I then went on to play for the band Bitterweed, who did two albums and toured quite extensively.
My experiences in music did work their way into my fiction. In fact, music’s rather prevalent in three of my novels --
“Be Still and Know That I Am” is set in and around the punk rock scene in the early 1980s. The protagonist in “Breathe” is an ex-singer/songwriter from the 1990s Anti-Folk scene who’s living in self-exile on a Greek island. While my more recent novel “Maqām” involves a composer. This novel is set in Tunis at the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring.’ There are a lot of allusions to experimental and avant garde composers in this one—as well as traditional Arabic forms such as the ‘maqām’—from which the book earned its title.
Q. Wow, that’s quite a musical career as well. I’m glad we didn’t limit our chat to a New York sixty-second soundbite.
When you mentioned “existential issues” what specifically were you referring to? Because of my school days, when I think of Existentialism as a literary genre, I tend to think of Franz Kafka—and his works “The Metamorphosis” and “The Hunger Artist.” In “The Metamorphosis” Kafka’s character Gregor turns into a giant bug. Odd event to say the least.
How do you portray Existentialism in EXISTENTIAL LABYRINTHS?
A. I would say it’s existential with a small ‘e’ and not necessarily the philosophies of Sartre, Jaspers, or Camus—though there are some allusions to them throughout the novel via the protagonist’s worldview.
It’s not a “heavy” novel by any stretch of the imagination, more like a presentation of a social circle I used to run with in the 1990s. The book doesn’t pretend to answer any existential questions. There’s a lot of brooding and introspection on the part of the protagonist who’s meandering the labyrinth of his life trying to find his place in the world—though not having an easy time of it.
He’s a young man, not only in age but emotionally and mentally as well. He sees his problems as the worst thing that can happen to a man and is so self-absorbed he doesn’t realize that he’s really engaging in extreme solipsism. The main protagonists in this novel are not likable people. They’re full of drama and themselves. They’re based on an amalgam of people I’d known—as well as their attitudes and worldview—which is why I needed to make a break from them and rediscover my own path.
Q. When you say “solipsism” in this instance are you referring to an individual who’s so “wrapped up in himself” he has no awareness of other people’s feelings?
A. Exactly. He sees the world through a straw with himself at the center. His relationship to the world is fraught with nonsense and trivial matters, but they become of great importance. His pursuit of an obviously emotionally unstable woman and not having his desires reciprocated—at least in the beginning—is tantamount to “abuse.” The world is “against him” because he’s not where he wants to be in life. He “suffers” more than anyone else, ever.
I knew a lot of folks like this at the time, and perhaps I was a little like this myself. It takes a lot of effort to open one’s eyes and see the wider outside world—to have empathy, to understand that the world doesn’t revolve around us. There are far more important matters to consider; things could be a lot worse.
Q. Regarding “characters”—your story ‘Patriots’ largely hinges on a selfish-duplicitous young lady who’s learned quickly how to “prey” on individuals still living in a state of so-called “innocence.” When reflecting on your musical endeavors you mentioned that touring exposed you to certain types of people you learned to “steel” yourself against.
Generally speaking, what kinds of “circumstances” did you suddenly find yourself in? And have your personal learning experiences shaped you as a writer as well as an individual? For better or worse, I met a lot of creeps before I turned 7—and its people who darkly possess a “hunter-prey” mentality that spurred my interest in Crime Writing.
A. Whenever someone decides to pursue any artistic medium, one usually enters innocent and naïve. You have all these ideals and you think everyone else shares them because you’re all doing the same thing. But you soon learn this isn’t the case. You encounter a fair amount of pettiness, envy, needless competition, jealousy, criticism, and drama—and these attitudes are more prevalent than one might think.
I’ve always been a huge fan of Noir fiction and films and you see the hunter/prey mentality taking place in virtually all of those stories. A shadowy element always lurks behind what people see as ‘normal’—and naïveté often sucks good people into a darker existence. My novels ‘Mediterráneo’ and ‘Europa’ have a strong Noir influence and explore these themes. While they aren’t ‘crime novels’ both deal with the hunter/prey mentality you referred to.
A similar dynamic also runs through my novel, “Last Tondero in Paris.” Two selfish, aging individuals are both hunter and prey as they try to exploit each other for various reasons, mostly sexual—but with disastrous results. To me, it’s a dark comedy. A sort of satire on the film Last Tango in Paris. The film figures heavily in the story— and the narrator is fully aware of those parallels.
In ‘Patriots,’ the three boys are going through puberty—just dipping their toes into the waters of adolescence: discovering drugs and girls. Some of this story is drawn from my own experiences, and works its way into the writing. The boys are growing up under the specter of nuclear annihilation, and have already learned that the adults who were supposed to nurture them perhaps didn’t have their best interests at heart. So they’re adrift without a rudder, vulnerable to anyone willing to exploit them.
Q. Speaking of exploitation ... did I mention that I'm now charging my guests $25,000 if they want their appearances on Center Stage to go Live?
Yeah, you got me. Just kidding again. Truly appreciate you joining us under the spotlight, Julian. Same goes for our fine audience. And yes, folks, audience admission to Center Stage stays free as well. I've always been a lousy capitalist.
Speaking of free, if you haven't experienced any of Julian's work, you can read his story, "Patriots" at no cost whatsoever at the Link below. You can also visit Julian on Facebook and find scores of his books easily on Amazon.
Mick Rose (Amazon Author & Reluctant Poet)