I'm taking a quick break from my blog hiatus to do an interview with up-and-coming crime fiction writer, Greg Bardsley, author of Cash Out (just released by Harper Perennial). Greg and I not only share an agent, the indomitable David Hale Smith, but also the bond of seeing our novels released more or less around the same time. (My book won't be out 'til April 2013, but who's counting?).
From the official publicity blurb:
Cash Out "is nonstop, mercilessly hilarious, no-holds-barred fiction for fans of The Hangover and Office Space—an outrageous tall tale that follows one desperate, disgruntled Silicon Valley exec through a surreal three-day scramble to cash out his stock options and leave behind his hated high-tech job before outrageous villains (and even crazier friends) completely destroy him." – Harper Perennial
What inspired "Cash Out?"
You know, as cuckoo as some elements of the book are, Cash Out was inspired by some heavier themes.
It started when I began to think back on what it was like to live here on the San Francisco peninsula in the late 1990s. It was such a remarkable time. The Internet was exploding, billions of dollars were amassing, and irrational exuberance reigned. The Peninsula was ground zero for this explosion. The word, after all, was out: This was where one came to quickly acquire unimaginable wealth, extreme luxury, insane property fortunes and a bit of business immortality. This was where 25-year-olds retired. This is where Elton John performed at your corporate Christmas party, and where marching bands arrived at your doorstep to deliver job offers, where college grads with no experience started off at $100,000. Where power and money, always aphrodisiacs, now were supercharged by a prevailing sense of entitlement, forming a powerful new cocktail of narcissistic indulgence.
What kind of people did this world this attract? Read Cash Out for my take.
Regardless, the end result was that these folks pushed out longtime Bay Area residents, drove home prices into the stratosphere and forever affected the region, its pre-existing culture, its pristine landscape and even its inherent values of inclusion and tolerance. Artists' lofts were transformed into business-incubation offices, hippies were replaced by 6-foot-4 money guys with cell phones pressed against their cheeks, coastal townies are were laughed at and dismissed, longtime residents were pushed into the boonies and the remaining native Californians on the peninsula struggled to maintain not only their sense of self and place, but also their values.
This place had changed.
So I was thinking about of all of this when I met a former WD-40 public relations guy who had become one of the first one hundred employees at Google. And I found myself wondering, What would I do if I were in his shoes and could cash out?
From there, I came up with an idea for a guy who’d be just three days away from cashing out when, suddenly, all hell breaks loose and everything he values in life is at risk.
"Cash Out" is set in 2008--is that when you started to write it? How long did it take you to complete the novel?
I actually set it in 1999, but we changed the date after Cal Morgan at Harper Perennial bought the book and came up with some good reasons to advance the date to 2008. He felt the story could be more accessible for readers, considering the economic crisis that ensued that year. And he was dead-on.
I began to write Cash Out in late 2008, but really started to accelerate my work a year later. It’s hard to know how long it took to write, but my guess is it took about two years. I wrote late at night, after my wife and kids had fallen asleep. Some days I wrote at lunch, or when the family was out for an hour. Some nights I couldn’t stop, and I’d write into the very early morning. I guess you could say the first draft of Cash Out was written during a thousand stolen moments over the course of a few years.
You've got some pretty zany characters and circumstances in this novel. How much, if any, of your book is autobiographical?
In writing the book, I decided to stick with what I knew best. So in some ways, I gave my protagonist, Dan Jordan, some of my own traits and circumstances. Like me, Dan would be a speechwriter in Silicon Valley working with an array of really smart and interesting people. Like me, he’d feel tired and overworked and worried about losing himself in frothy white waters of the Valley. Like me, he’d have a wife and two boys he’d love with all his heart. And like me, he’d reexamine some of the big decisions he’d made over the years. Unlike me, he’d be days away from cashing out a fortune.
People always ask me, who inspired these other characters in the book? So let me clear up a few things and come clean about some others. ... Yes, the book does include a scene where an obnoxious fatty “upper decks” into the water basin of a toilet. But, no, I have never been on the receiving (or giving) end of one of those. ... Yes, the book does feature a man who slathers himself in cocoa butter and throws buck knives at his garage door. But no, he was not inspired by anyone in the peninsula. ... No, I have never been three days from being able to cash out. And no, I have never seen a man eat a rat on a stick in the break room. (Greg, your life is so sheltered --SC)
Dan Jordan, the hero (anti-hero?) of your novel, is having three REALLY BAD days. Have you ever had such a string of bad events in your own life?
Ha! ... Yeah, he's having three very "challenging" days. And thankfully, I have never had anything like that happen to me.
I knew I wanted to put Dan through hell, and I wanted people to believe that he would tolerate it. So I spent a lot of time on his motivations and values (family, balance in life) that would drive those motivations. I wanted to make him highly motivated in a credible and compelling way. And I wanted to put those motivations in extreme jeopardy. I wanted to create a backstory that would put his marriage and family in jeopardy, put his dream for a more meaningful life in jeopardy, put his cash-out money in jeopardy. As one friend said, “Pile it on.” That’s what I tried to do.
I noticed in your acknowledgements that your children helped you create the character of “Crazy Larry.” How did that come about—and were there suggestions that DIDN’T make it into the book?
Yeah, they really did help me with Larry.
Years ago, I came up with this idea for a crazy neighbor who lazes around in a skin-colored Speedo and drinks alone at night on his unlit porch as he listens to Alvin and the Chipmunks. My sons really liked that, so I worked to develop the character for a short story, and I’d test things out with them. There was a point in writing that story (Crazy Larry Smells Bacon) where I was searching for the right Alvin and the Chipmunks song, and found this one my younger son really liked (Witch Doctor), and it just went from there, and actually worked well in supporting a pre-existing narrative thread involving Larry’s collection of ancient tribal masks.
As I wrote the piece, I’d play the song on my notebook, listening to the lyrics, and each time it would draw my younger son, who’d dance around and laugh—I knew I had something there. Later, during the time I was writing Cash Out (and had decided to include Larry), I once saw my older son attacking a cinnamon roll with two forks. It cracked me up, and I thought it would be great if Larry did the same in this one scene I had written, and my son agreed and suggested that it would be funny if Larry ended up scratching himself with one of those forks. And it worked! Larry fascinates them.
Your characters are vividly drawn, each more absurd and quirky than the next. Dan's wife Kate, however, seemed to be the most grounded. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you envisioned her character?
Yes, I agree Kate is the most grounded. To be honest, in this crazy world, I find moms more likely to be grounded. And I really thought I needed some balanced, centered characters in the book to provide anchors for readers, so that the world in Cash Out is not entirely off-balance. I guess I envisioned Kate putting up with her burgeoning buffoon of a husband. I saw here as someone who got swallowed up by the ensuing insanity but still managed to stay above it.
Any thoughts about which actors would portray your characters best?
Some good suggestions have been Zach Galifianakis for Calhoun, and Ben Kingsley for Larry. (Okay, what now? Gandhi? -SC)
What's the toughest part of writing for you? The easiest?
Right now, the toughest part is finding time to write and forcing myself to move forward in a project (i.e., avoiding the recurring desire to review what I’ve already written in a manuscript, as opposed to using that time to do the heavy lifting of story advancement). [I can totally relate! -SC]
Easiest? Hmmm. Writing for me is easiest (or most fun) once I have established: a topic I’m passionate about; credible character motivations; a good conflict; and a workable, fun story direction/flow--and all I need to do is write it out and leave room for discoveries along the way.
Cash Out is your first published novel. What's been the most surprising aspect for you about the writing and/or publishing process?
You know what's weird, something I didn't really anticipate? It’s how vulnerable I’ve felt at times with friends, family and colleagues who might read the book. It's one thing to potentially offend and stun and even disturb strangers. But it’s quite another to do so with your friends and colleagues--especially with all the emotional stuff that I let “hang out” in the open wind.
The other surprising aspects are what folks would call “good problems that to have.” I always envisioned sauntering into a bookstore, finding my debut novel on the shelves and just nodding with a sly sense of accomplishment as I continued to the café. The reality has been, I am going in there to meet the clerks and managers, to share promotional copies, and to see where the book is placed—and I either am bummed by the placement or thrilled. And I’m on Amazon hoping for more “likes” and favorable reviews, wondering how sales are, wondering if the stacks are moving in the stores, wondering what else I should be doing. I never really stopped to anticipate that. Regardless, it’s a hell of a lot of fun and I am so appreciative.
What's your next big writing project?
I hope to be able to share more soon, but right now all I can say is that I am working something I am pretty excited about. Another standalone.
What advice can you offer to aspiring writers?
Write. Write a lot. Then write some more. Ask for feedback from people you trust. Listen to the feedback. Write some more. Have fun. Keep writing. Try different types of writing. Solicit more feedback. Have more fun with your writing, and with the process. Create a writing life that is rewarding no matter how much (or little) external success you realize. Diversify your emotional investments with writing (i.e., pursue shorts and novels, for instance). Then write some more.
Historian. Mystery writer. Researcher. Teacher. Occasional blogger.