Thursday, May 12, 2011

Q's Conversation With Doug Worgul, Novelist, Barbecue & Whiskey Enthusiast

Dear Readers,

Awhile back my UK publisher asked me to blurb a book by a first-time American author named Doug Worgul. They felt the book in question was right for me, implying that it was similar to my work.

Stylistically and structurally, it wasn't so similar. Thematically, it very much was.

Shortly after the manu made its trip across the Atlantic, I found myself immersed in the world of THIN BLUE SMOKE and in love with the characters who inhabited its pages.

I sent my blurb to the UK--"As Norman Maclean’s A RIVER RUNS THROUGH IT does for Montana fly-fishing, Doug Worgul's THIN BLUE SMOKE makes the poetry of Kansas City barbecue accessible to all readers. ... Communion has never tasted so good.”--and rushed to contact Doug via e-mail.

As it so often happens, the author of the book I enjoyed turned out to be a great person. We've become e-mail friends. I've since described Doug as Kansas City's answer to Pat Conroy.

Below you will find our most recent discussion. Please welcome Doug Worgul.

Q: As you already know, I absolutely loved THIN BLUE SMOKE. From where did this bighearted absorbing novel come? Why did you write it? Tell us!

DW: Well, there was a story in me that needed to come out, and it happened to be Thin Blue Smoke. Lots of writers talk about their stories as if those stories have some sort of preexisting autonomous life independent of them as writers. I'll admit that to a certain extent I experienced the writing of Thin Blue Smoke in that way. However, writing the book was hard creative work. I created this story. I made it. I wasn’t just the scribe writing a story that the characters were narrating to me. I gave the characters their lives. But the book did feel like it grew from a seed that was planted in me. In my soul. Does that all sound contradictory? Probably.

Q: Makes perfect sense to me. It’s a balance between the conscious and the subconscious always, or the art of making preconscious conscious; shaping to illuminate what was previously in shadow, I’ve heard other writers say. You say the book grew from ‘a seed.’ Looking back now, having harvested, can you describe that seed in one sentence?

DW: Like a movie pitch? Probably not. But mainly it’s about love and redemption and belonging to one another. But that doesn’t get all of it.

Q: When I was an MFA candidate I heard many published writers say, “Write the book that only you can write,” which sounded a little esoteric at the time. I remember thinking, How could anyone else write my book? But I have since come to understand that readers are looking for a unique point of view, the product of one-of-a-kind life experiences, and so it's best for writers to offer up their truths and nothing but. TBS is one of the most authentic-feeling books I have ever read. I felt like I knew you intimately after reading, and yet the book never came close to reading like veiled memoir. How did you accomplish this?

DW: The themes and questions raised in Thin Blue Smoke are themes and questions that have characterized my life. Love, loss, squandered gifts, despair, hope, the relationships between fathers and sons, the silence of God, race, whiskey, the blues, second chances, and barbecue. My hope was to create a story that communicated something about these things in an authentic way, with slightly more humor than not.

After my wife Rebecca read the novel she told me that there was something of me in each of the main male characters, and that there was something of her in each of the main female characters. That’s a good insight. And it was probably inevitable. It’s not a story about the facts of my life. But it is a story about the truth of my life.

Q: I loved the characters, especially the men, all of whom were fully developed and so so human. I felt as though your men were strong, but emotionally vulnerable at the same time. Male friendship was explored in a serious thoughtful manner too, which I appreciated. Could you talk about your inspirations and process for creating such characters?

DW: Thin Blue Smoke is not a plot-driven novel. It’s character driven. I’ve always admired Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon monologues on his radio program “Prairie Home Companion.” He’s an absolute master of creating characters that his listeners come to know and care deeply for over time. It’s his characters that drive the stories of Lake Wobegon. Also, at the time I was writing the early chapters of the novel I was watching the HBO series “Deadwood,” which is perhaps my favorite television show ever. “Deadwood” was also mainly character driven. Its plot arc developed very slowly, which gave viewers a chance to develop strong feelings about the characters. That was my goal for Thin Blue Smoke. The things I wanted to say in the story I wanted to say through the characters, rather than through the action, or the plot. It’s not devoid of plot. But the characters are the main thing.

The male characters are the focus of the story. I suppose that’s because I’m a man. That’s how I’ve experienced the world. I also wanted to explore father and son relationships and how, for better and worse, they shape the lives of men. And the story and the characters would not have resonated with readers if I hadn’t been honest about the vulnerability of the characters, their weaknesses as well as their strengths. This goes for all the characters, even those that aren’t as lovable or likable as others. 

My objective was to create whole people.

Q: If I remember correctly, you published without an agent, right? Please tell us about your path to publication.

DW: The path to publication was the road less traveled, in my case. I always feel somewhat guilty telling other writers about my experience because it was so smooth and easy and not at all what I know most other authors experience.

I finished the novel over Labor Day weekend 2007. I then took the next several weeks to polish and fine tune the manuscript. During that time my sister, who is also a writer (it runs in the family), learned about a program offered by the publisher Macmillan (UK) which was accepting manuscripts directly from writers, represented by an agent or not. The premise of this program was the belief that many writers who don’t have agents have nevertheless produced novels worth considering for publication. The purpose of the program was to discover new writing talent and publish their work. So, I e-mailed my manuscript to them in late October and on November 17 I received an e-mail from a Macmillan editor telling me that he’d like to published the book. So, no multiple submissions. No rejection letters. Just one submission to one publisher and that was that.

The Macmillan New Writers program offers a take-it-or-leave it contract that provides no advance in return for a higher share of net revenue. It’s a two book contract, in that Macmillan is given right-of-first-refusal on the author’s second manuscript. Which I have thus far failed to produce. 

Q: Would you like an agent now, or are you content without one? Are there advantages to being agentless?

DW: I do not have an agent now. I think I’d like to have one. But, frankly, I’m not willing to do whatever work I might need to do to find one. I’d rather focus that effort on the second book. However, if a reputable agent were to approach me on the strength of Thin Blue Smoke, I’d be thrilled. I don’t have any experience with an agent, so I can’t really offer an opinion about the relative advantages or disadvantages of having or not having an agent.
Q: Food and drink play a large role in the story. Barbecue and whiskey, in particular. While reading, the word that kept coming to mind over and over again was communion. The book is somewhat about religion too. Bourbon and smoked meats are not necessarily words that are readily associated with spirituality in most American circles. Can you tell us more about the link between food, alcohol and spirituality in the book?

DW: Communion is implied. It’s an image or idea that I hoped would come to mind in the reading of the story. In the novel, barbecue tends to bring people together. It’s communal and familial. The process of making barbecue is slow. But the result is a feast. And barbecue takes the lowliest cuts of meat and makes something heavenly of them.

Whiskey tends to be more reflective. More inward looking. Which can be dangerous or self indulgent. Sharing a drink with someone is much more intimate than sharing a meal. And drinking alone is either contemplative or sad. Or both.

Q: One of my favorite scenes is when LaVerne and Angela share a moment on the Kansas City Athletics’ field after all of the fans and players have left for the night. It’s a simple, but beautiful scene. Baseball plays an important role in the book. I’ve heard people compare modern stadiums to cathedrals. The scene felt holy to me in some ways. Please talk about that scene and your choice to write about baseball throughout the book.

DW: The first character that came to me was LaVerne. I knew from the start he would be a black ex-pro athlete. Actually, he was a character from another story that migrated into this book. When I decided that LaVerne would grow up poor in a tiny little east Texas town it seemed most likely that baseball would be his sport, not football, which his school couldn’t afford. Also, baseball is a more poetic sport.

The scene you’re referring to is holy. It’s when LaVerne and Angela meet and fall in love, which is a holy moment in a relationship. The scene also takes place on the night Satchel Paige pitched for the last time in a major league ball game. The details of that aspect of the scene are factual. The actual event was described in wonderful loving detail in a Kansas City Star article written the night of the game. I credit the writer, Richard J. Olive, in my acknowledgments. Satchel Paige was/is a true and righteous legend. A transcendent personality. That gives the scene a certain weight.  

Q: As you said above, this is a character-driven novel. It’s also an in-depth look at the history of a place and its people. Please tell us about the challenges of keeping reader interest when you have so much information to convey. What techniques did you use to keep readers turning the pages?

DW: The trick is to create characters that are real and accessible, yet more interesting than the people that readers are likely to encounter in their daily lives. There has to be a balance of sad and funny, as there is in ordinary everyday life, but there also has to be enough out-of-the-ordinary in the lives of the characters that readers stay engaged and curious.

And, as a former newspaper and magazine journalist whose main beat was writing about the cultural and civic identity of Kansas City, I was keenly interested in communicating a strong sense of Kansas City as a unique place. I was hoping that readers would care about Kansas City in the same way they care about the characters in the story. To do that, I knew I’d have to weave lots of interesting and unusual details about the place into the narrative.

Ultimately, I wrote the kind of book I like reading. It seems to have turned out alright.

Q: You are not a full-time novelist, right? Many of my readers are also writers currently working ‘day jobs’ to pay the bills. Tell us about your nine-to-five and how you found the time and energy to write such an accomplished novel. What advice do you have for up-and-coming novelists who need to make a living while they write?

DW: My current — and hopefully final — gig is Director of Marketing at Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ in Kansas City. It’s an awesome job. Oklahoma Joe’s is probably the most popular barbecue joint on the planet right now. Anthony Bourdain named us as “One of Thirteen Places to Eat Before You Die.”

Most of the time I was writing Thin Blue Smoke I was an editor and writer at The Kansas City Star. I was deeply frustrated with my assignment at the newspaper at that time and desperately needed something to fill the creative and spiritual void I was experiencing and the novel emerged from that place of profound unhappiness. I wrote every spare minute I could find. Often it was only a sentence. I kept my notebook with me at all times and would makes notes or write passages no matter where I was. I know that my family suffered a loss of my attention and presence while I was writing, and I don’t feel wonderful about that. But at the time it seemed like a lifeline I had to hang on to.

I’m working on a second novel now and it’s coming very slowly. Slowly with a capital slow. It may be that I only had the one novel in me. I worry about that. But it’s more likely that it’s coming slowly because I’m happier now than I was when I wrote Thin Blue Smoke. I also live in a busy child-centric household and I’m generally unwilling to trade attendance at my fifteen-year-old’s basketball game or my twelve-year-old’s musical for a couple of hours writing. Having said that, I do want my children (four daughters) to know that writing is at the very core of my identity and that what I have written is one of the most important things I will leave behind for them. They understand that sometimes sacrifice is necessary to fulfill a calling.

It’s rare that novelists can work at it full-time. Even heavyweights like Marilynne Robinson have day jobs. My only advice is to try to make time every day for a little writing. It takes a lot of discipline. It helps to have a supportive family. But there’s no secret formula.

Q: What do you hope readers will take away from TBS?

DW: It’s most rewarding for me when readers tell me that they were moved, that the story touched them at an emotional or spiritual level. It’s also very satisfying when readers tell me they laughed. But there’s not a lesson or moral that I hope readers will take away. Mostly I just want readers to love these characters as I love them, and to care what happens to them.

Q: Thanks so much for your time, Doug, and also for your good words.

Good news, readers! I'm giving away two paperback copies of THIN BLUE SMOKE. To be entered into the giveaway, just make a comment below. I'm sure Doug will be following along, so feel free to write directly to him here. If you wish to purchase THIN BLUE SMOKE, please do so. I've added links below for your convenience.

Buy TBS: Amazon / Barnes & Noble / Indiebound / Powell's

To be continued, and please keep being you.



Scott Humfeld said...

Thanks to Doug for writing TBS and thanks to Matt for turning me on to this terrific novel. The characters in TBS were captivating and learning more about BBQ than I ever knew was a lot of fun. For me, you can't go wrong if you add baseball into the mix.
This was a great interview and I enjoyed reading about how the novel came to be. I highly recommend TBS.
I don't suppose Oklahoma Joe's would consider opening a second place in Iquitos, Peru, would they?

PK said...

I really enjoyed reading this interview, especially Doug's comments on the writing process and what drives a story. I'll look forward to getting my hands on a copy of TBS - as well as one day eating at Oklahoma Joe's. Thank you Doug.

Reenie said...

"But mainly it’s about love and redemption and belonging to one another. But that doesn’t get all of it." OK you got me right here! I am totally going to order (not borrow says my author child) this book today. Great interview Doug..thank you! And Oaklahoma Joe's sounds awesome by the way!

Alicia said...

I really enjoyed this interview. Doug, I like how you say THIN BLUE SMOKE concerns the truth of your life, not the facts of your life. So much of what I experience goes into my writing, and yet, it all belongs to the story, not really to me. I guess what I'm talking about is the process of releasing yourself into "hard creative work," as you call it, and seeing yourself reflected back through fiction, through imaginary people. Kind of a strange, surreal experience. Probably a spiritual experience, too, if you go there .... Thanks for the generous thoughts on writing & publishing. I look forward to reading TBS. Matt loved it and I know I will too.

Q said...

For some unknown reason, Blogger crashed and I had to repost this. All of the many insightful comments were sadly lost. I think I remember most of the people who commented and I will enter all I remember into the giveaway contest, but please repost your comments if you have the time. Sorry for the hassle.

Thanks again to Doug for the fantastic interview and understanding.

Alicia said...

My comment went something like this. I love the point Doug makes about THIN BLUE SMOKE divulging the truth of his life, not the facts of his life. Oftentimes, my day-to-day experiences make their way into my fiction. But the fiction isn't about me. And I wonder if Doug would consider that parsing out, that creative process, spiritual. If not spiritual, it's definitely intense. I look forward to THIN BLUE SMOKE. Matt loved it and I know I will too. Thank you Doug for a candid and illuminating interview.

kent said...

Great interview! Look forward to eventually reading the book! Thanks for sharing, Doug.

Sister Kim said...

Well if the book is as good as the interview then I will be teaching the book in my theology class next year. Doug you made so many theological points that my interest is so peaked. I can not wait to read the book!

Scott Humfeld said...

Thanks to Doug for writing TBS and thanks to Matt for turning me on to this terrific novel. Captivating characters, baseball and BBQ. Great interview.

Q said...

Thanks to all who commented. We entered all names above (and also the names of those who commented before Blogger went down and erased the comments) into the hat. The names selected were Paul King and Sister Kim. Please send your addresses to matthewquickwriter [at] and I'll send you copies of THIN BLUE SMOKE. Congrats!

Doug Worgul said...

Thank you, Matt, Alicia, Kent, Scott, Paul, and Sister Kim. I'm deeply grateful for your interest in the book. If, after reading it, you like it, please spread the word.

Sister Kim, if you feel that the book has merit and you're inclined to share it with your students, I'd be delighted to correspond with you if you have questions.

doug worgul

Sister Kim said...

Doug that would be awesome! I am a pro at connecting everything to God so after this interview I don't doubt that the book has merit. I will be in touch! Thanks so much! Q you are the best!

Sara Z. said...

Great interview, you guys.
(And I love the cover of the book - love.)

Q said...

SZ, I think you would absolutely LOVE THIN BLUE SMOKE.