We’ve all been there: stuck on the train, plane or bus, with nothing to do but stare at the strangers around us and imagine their recent heartbreaks, past fame, sordid histories and innermost dreams. Eric D. Goodman, however, has gone the extra mile when it comes to this imaginatively-invasive kind of people watching in his new novel, Tracks: A Novel in Stories. Following an array of passengers on a train from Baltimore to Chicago, this ideal summer read takes us into the mind of each, confirming all our suspicions that everyone else’s life is more interesting than our own. With the novel’s June 30 release date rapidly approaching, we’re sharing our tete-a-tete with the author himself, who shares everything from his original inspiration to John Waters’ plans for the movie (we can dream, can’t we?)
Atticus Books: Rumor has it that Tracks is the new Polar Express for adults. Our publishing house made up this rumor just now to drum up further interest. Would you care to corroborate with us on this marketing ploy? What other shifty publicity stunts do you have planned for the launch of your debut novel?
Eric Goodman: Sure, I’m on board with that angle if we can make it work. I hear there’s another rumor that if John Steinbeck and Flannery O’Connor’s lovechild had written the Great American Novel and set it on a train traveling from Baltimore to Chicago, it would be just like Tracks. But that one may be a little far-fetched.
Honestly, I would love it if I could just focus on the creative writing side of things. When it comes to work, I’m happiest when I’m actually writing or pacing the floor working out plot lines and character motivations. But if I want Tracks to be noticed by potential readers, I realize that I have to take off the conductor’s hat and put on the public affairs hat. (Some readers of my blogs and Facebook page may have noticed that it’s a big hat.)
The Baltimore Sun’s book blog actually asked me to write a piece about e-marketing a book in today’s market. And I’m guest blogging, writing about writing and trains and writing on trains. I’m doing what I can to take any “news” item—a blurb from an author, a review, a reading event—and promote it with my blogs and on Facebook and Twitter. The Conductor, a fictional character from Tracks, has his own Facebook account. And there’s a Tracks Lounge Car on Facebook.
I’ll be reading from Tracks on The Signal, on Baltimore’s NPR station, 88.1 FM. It airs the day after Tracks comes out, at noon and 7 p.m. Then I’m interviewing on NPR’s morning show. And I have a number of readings at bookstores, festivals, and events set up, and more to come.
The better question may be “what are you NOT doing to market Tracks.” And I have an answer for that. I’d love to get Amtrak on board (since Tracks does take place on an Amtrak train) and do a whistle-stop book tour. And Oprah. She lived in Baltimore and moved to Chicago for a career (not unlike one of the characters in Tracks.) So Oprah, if you’re reading this, please call me.
AB: The shifting point of view in Tracks gives readers the refreshing ability to see characters both as they see themselves and as others on the train (often complete strangers) see them. What prompted you to write with such a wide array of perspectives?
EG: For as long as I can remember, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of multiple perspectives. I’d watch a movie or read a book and imagine how it would be different if told from the other guy’s point of view—or the point of view of a minor character. I’m also interested by the idea that every person, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has a story to tell. The guy who gets pulled off a motorcycle and thrown aside by the hero or villain and you never see again … that person has always interested me. What story he has to share at the dinner table or neighborhood bar. Where was he headed before the main characters took over his bike? What’s he going to do now?
So with Tracks, I thought it would be interesting to see these passengers on the train from multiple perspectives. And, appropriately, sometimes in very short sentences or passages. Some of the characters really are simply the guy who got pulled off the motorcycle—in one story. Then in another, that same character is the star and you see there is so much more to him than what another character perceives. How much thought do most people give to the person next to them on a train in the supermarket line? And yet, they all have as much complex emotion and activity going on as anyone else.
Also, I find it interesting that one person can be so many things, and sometimes these roles are the “whole picture” for some of the people in their lives. For example, a woman may be a powerful executive to her staff, just a woman in a pants suit to the cashier who sees her every day at the supermarket, “our little girl” to her parents, “the girl of my dreams” to someone sharing a drink with her, and mommy to her kid. One person with so many roles in isolated places.
AB: In many of the stories, we see a passenger observe and reflect on a stranger, constructing elaborate stories for someone he or she has never met. Is there a universal need to place people in narratives and, if so, where do you think it comes from? Did this tendency play any role in your inspiration for the book?
EG: I don’t think that every person is a people-watcher, but there certainly are a lot of us. Maybe I’m interested in people because I’m a writer, or maybe it’s the other way around. If I’m at an airport, in a mall, or anywhere there are a lot of strangers, I find myself imagining lives for them. You see a man and you wonder: is he going home to his wife and three kids; is he divorced and going home to watch youtube with a beer and TV dinner; is he going to watch a game with his buddies or read a book with the cat on his lap? It’s sort of a game. And the truth is, for those who play it, you’re probably never right. That woman I mentioned earlier, with all of those various roles? She’s so multi-faceted; how could you possibly peg a person without getting to know them? With fiction, you can get to know them—or versions of them—on your own. So yes, I think the tendency to create stories for people you don’t know, or imaginary people, did play a role in writing this sort of book.
AB: You didn’t really write this book on a train, did you? Didn’t you make other passengers uncomfortable by closely observing their actions and dreaming up their imaginary lives? Were you ever escorted off a train by the conductor for inappropriate eye contact? What are your writing habits when you’re not stalking strangers?
EG: No, I wrote it in my home office. In fact, I recently realized that (coincidentally) every first draft of a novel I’ve written has been at the same desk (although in several different locations). A simple pine desk that belonged to my father. I’ve been writing on that desk ever since he gave it to me back in the mid 1980s. In fact, I used it before that, when it was still his.
So I didn’t write Tracks on the tracks, but I did take the Cardinal line from Baltimore to Chicago after I’d written a couple drafts, just to make sure I didn’t have any major mistakes in the details. No, I didn’t actually approach people and ask, “are you a hit man?” or “you’re trying to make it big again, aren’t you?” I did talk to some of the conductors, told them I was working on a novel set on the train, and asked for a tour—which they were happy to provide.
My writing habits? I know a lot of writers say sit down and force yourself to write every day. When it comes to fiction, that approach doesn’t work for me. I like to submerge myself in my writing, so I tend to work better in long spurts. I do write something almost every day (non-fiction, PR, blogs) so I stay in practice. But when it comes to fiction, I may go months without writing anything more than notes or passages. Then, I’ll dive in and for a few weeks or months I eat, breathe, and live the book. During those periods I’m writing 10-15 hours a day. When I read or watch a movie or documentary, it is somehow related to the book I’m writing. I’ll write an entire first draft that way, put it aside, and a year or so later write an entire second draft that way, and so on. So I may only write fiction “full time” for a few months out of the year, but during that time, I’m in all the way.
AB: How important is geography (particularly that of Baltimore) to the story? Is it significant that all of your characters are in a sort of geographical limbo when we meet them?
EG: Baltimore plays a big role in the book. I wanted the scenes to be set in real places that people would recognize in Baltimore, Chicago, and on the train. Because the departure point of the train and book are Baltimore, most of the characters are from there, so Tracks is very much a Baltimore book. It can be seen as regional fiction.
At the same time, I think the stories in Tracks are universal. If you know Baltimore or Chicago or the train, you’ll recognize the settings. If you’re not, you’ll still get the feelings and situations in the book. I think the train setting—being virtually unset—helps with that universal feeling. It also underlines (excuse the wordplay) the idea that all of the characters are on a journey internally, faced with decisions that may alter their path ahead and cast past decisions in a new light. The train, being in transition, is a perfect setting for the stories of people considering changes in their lives.
AB: To add to the unsubstantiated Hollywood rumors, we hear that filmmaker John Waters has expressed an interest in directing a movie based on Tracks as long as the characters all dress in drag. How far would you go to option the rights to your book? Has Amtrak come calling?
EG: I love a good adaptation of a book as much as any moviegoer. I’ve always thought, however, that it’s a good idea to give the movie version a different name and perhaps subtitle it “inspired by the novel by so and so.” Because the movie and the book are seldom the same. I think a movie like Adaptation was a good example of the movie version being something different than the book, but both worked well.
Movie buff friends and I have talked about the idea of Tracks as a film or mini-series. There are so many different kinds of stories in Tracks, and a movie script would probably only use a fourth of them, so I think the script and which stories were adapted would have to depend on the director. It could be several different movies.
If John Waters ends up directing, will it be called The Divine Train or Drag Tracks? And how likely would it be to become a Broadway musical?
AB: While the stories and their vantage points vary, each passenger struggles with the possibility of personal change or switching tracks, so to speak (pun inevitable). Could you talk about this theme?
EG: In most good stories, there has to be something at stake. For Tracks, I wanted the conflicts to be the sort that most readers could relate to. Yet I wanted to emphasize that smaller conflicts can be huge when it’s your conflict. So each character in Tracks is not only on this shared journey by train, but also an emotional or internal journey. And the paths ahead are not as clear as a line of railroad track.
AB: Given the variety of personalities and backgrounds in your characters, readers are likely to find one or two with whom they identify most closely and in whom they see some of themselves. Is there such a character for you?
EG: It’s hard to say. There isn’t any one character in the book I can point to and say, that’s me. They’re all fictional. But there’s a bit of me in every story and every character, emotionally. I care about all of these characters and situations, which is why I wrote about them. But the connection can be as simple as an overheard conversation that made me dream up a situation, or a scene from a book or movie that inspired me to conjure up my own variation.
AB: Were there specific storylines you enjoyed writing more so than others? On the flip side, were there any that you found yourself dreading and avoiding?
EG: For me, a story usually begins with an idea, then characters, then the plot. But when the idea comes, sometimes I have no clue what story will express it. For example, “Freedom” is the one “war story” of the book. The seed of the story was really the idea that people tend to become like those around them. But as the characters and story developed, it became a war story and probably the most political story of the book.
I don’t really have a most or least favorite story in Tracks. But I’d say the easiest to write was probably “A Good Beer Needs a Good Stein.” It was a fun story to write, and the dialogue just jumped onto the page. The most difficult story to write may have been “She’s Gone,” because I was writing about a grown man with a mental impairment and I wanted to treat him with dignity and respect, but also show him as others saw him and as he saw himself. I wanted to be honest about his actions, but careful not to offend any readers. So I had heavy hands as I wrote and rewrote those pages.
AB: Are you working on a new book? We see potential in threading “people watching” narratives at airport terminals, car rental agencies, and doctor’s offices nationwide. What do you think? Will your next novel-in-stories be called Air Traffic, perhaps?
EG: There is some potential there! In all honesty, I do love the novel-in stories format and would love to do another one. I think the novel-in-stories is great because you have the best of both worlds: stand-alone stories and a larger narrative. I’d like to do another. But the book I’m finishing up now, Womb, is strictly a novel. I started to say “a more traditional novel,” but there’s not much traditional about it. Womb is narrated by a child who hasn’t been born yet. My agent and I are discussing the revisions now and I plan to have a manuscript ready later this year. Unless John Waters wants me to adapt Tracks for his film. Then I might have to hop back on the train for awhile.