Friday, May 18, 2007

Interview with Joe Redden Tigan - author of "Waggle"

Today, Juanita Watson of Reader Views talks with Joe Redden Tigan about his humorous, yet thought-provoking sports novel "Waggle."

Joe Redden Tigan was born in DeKalb, IL, the youngest of seven children. Shortly after he was born, the family relocated to California, and a decade later returned to northern Illinois, settling in St. Charles, a western suburb of Chicago. After attending several colleges that included University of St. Francis, Northern Illinois University, and University of Copehagen, Denmark, Tigan eventually graduated with a B.A. degree from the University of Massachusetts in Amherst. He focused on literature and journalism, and later attended Illinois State University, where he received a fellowship to study creative writing in the graduate Creative Writing Program. At that time, the creative writing faculty at ISU included David Foster Wallace, Curtis White, and C.S. Giscombe. Tigan has had poetry published in "The High Plains Literary Review" and other literary journals. He currently lives in Chicagoland.

Juanita: Welcome to Reader Views Joe, and thanks for the opportunity to talk about your stunning first novel "Waggle." What's your background with the sport of golf?

Joe: Thank you, Juanita. I appreciate the opportunity as well. Golf has been part of my life for a very long time. Highlights include my time as a caddy at St. Charles Country Club in the western suburbs of Chicago, being selected to caddy in the Western Open during that time in high school, working on the greenskeeping crew at the local 9-hole municipal course during summers home from college, and anytime spent playing, of course. I can usually keep my handicap in single digits, and I actually came pretty close to winning the St. Charles city tournament not too long ago.

Juanita: Joe, you've written poetry for years. Would you tell us about your writing history, and why you decided to pen your first novel?

Joe: My writing history has a lot of stops and starts, and I think that "Waggle" was a long-awaited personal response to that. I would receive praise for some of my writing at various points in my life, after which I would stop writing for like 5 years. Why I would do that I have no idea, nor do I really want to find out. In other words, I would have some poetry published in a literary journal then I wouldn't write for a long time, or I would receive a fellowship to study in a graduate creative writing program then leave after a year and not write for a long time, etc. "Waggle" kind of said "put up or shut up" to me in that haunting way that only inner monologues about novel ideas can have.

Juanita: What inspired this particular story?

Joe: First and foremost, a lot of time spent listening to conversations while playing golf. That was already in the data banks when I started writing the book. After that, I think I just finally hit a point in my life where I wanted my writing to say something to me and to my community.

Juanita: What happens in "Waggle"?

Joe: I hope "Waggle" conveys the feeling that maybe something has already happened, and that what transpires in the book is a reaction to what has happened. And what has happened is that a beautiful far western suburb of Chicago has been ravaged by commercial and residential real estate development, and the unbridled greed combined with the exploding population have finally hit real estate appraiser Conny Bromenn in a deep enough spot to where he may want to actually do something about it. Like get involved. He knows he can't go it alone though. His challenge is to convince his long-time friends and golfing buddies that they should join him in his quest to do things like: participate in preserving the environment, beat back commercialism, outfox governmental bureaucratic oppression, and learn how to play musical instruments, as just a few examples. Conny knows the only way he could get these guys to participate is if they lost a bet. And that's literally how he approaches getting their buy-in.

Juanita: Would you tell us more about your lead character Conny Bromenn?

Joe: Conny is, at 40, beginning to question not only where his life has been but also where it's going, and he's probably not super-enthusiastic about either, you could say. Like pretty much everybody else, his life has not turned out the way he thought it might. But a ridiculously beautiful day in Carlsburg, IL has injected him with newfound hope and enthusiasm. Conny is awash in pure-grade personal awareness, and he simply can't escape a mounting desire to make more out of his life, starting that day.

Juanita: How did you come up with him as a character? Did he evolve on his own through the writing process or did you have a definite idea of his progression?

Joe: I would say a little bit of both, but of all the characters in the book, Conny was probably the most pre-conceived. He obviously drives the book. I knew what I wanted him to be and I adhered to that preconception, but I also gave him room to expand. Truth be told, Conny originally developed from my own personal backlash to what seem to have become staple hero roles in fiction today—either an adolescent from a dysfunctional family who's really confused or a single woman living in the city and all the ensuing drug use and sexual escapades of both therein. I wanted to write a character or several characters who were truly adults.

As such, Conny carries the burden of being conscientious (at last), but he's also quite human. I knew I needed this in him from the very start, but when you ask how did I come up with him, all I can think about is how much he evolved naturally as I wrote him. The starting place for Conny is difficult to describe, because he wasn't born from a "spark" so to speak, but more from experiences over a long time.

Juanita: Joe, have you always been aware of the "bigger picture" or did you have a day/ event that catapulted your expanded awareness?

Joe: I think I've always been a big picture kind of guy. One of my early interests was to become a journalist so I could "see the world" and I developed that interest through high school and college by being editors of school newspapers. The plan was to be an observer of great note. However, somewhat conversely, I can remember the day I decided to write "Waggle" quite vividly, and that was a decision made in answer to stop being an observer and start becoming a player. I really can remember the day, but that day was the result of many years of writing and running.

Juanita: Who are Conny's golf mates? And, what real-life representation can you attribute to them?

Joe: Conny is lucky enough to form a foursome with Buck O'Royerson, Clark Sweet, and Tom Blair, the foursome making up three real estate appraisers and one regional mortgage sales director. And putting aside the theory that everything writers write is about the writer and his experiences, I have to say I was surprised by how little these guys—and anybody in the book, really—were related to real-life people I know. They have some broad strokes that could apply to just about anyone, which is by design of course. Buck is a gambling and alcohol addict; Sweet lies about his talents as a golfer; Tom Blair is affixed to a cell phone constantly. But they also have distinct personal idiosyncrasies, and this is where I was taken aback by how much stuff I could actually make up, because these personality traits are unrelated to anyone or anything I've ever known. And man, is that ever the fun part of the writing.

Juanita: Would you elaborate on the personal awareness theme in "Waggle," and the way the game of golf lends itself so well to this topic?

Joe: Golf is well known for its psychological requirements. The kind of focus required to play golf (well) is beyond any other sport, period. This is why golf lends itself so well to a story about four guys experiencing burgeoning personal awareness. They couldn't do that on a football field. Plus the fact that they're 40 years old. But what tends to get lost in the shuffle about golf in our ESPN2 age is that you're spending 4-5 hours walking close to 5 miles when you play 18 holes. Just physically speaking, this is going to induce the kind of deep, regulated breathing necessary for Zen-like meditation on life, which in turn leads to heightened personal awareness. I'm quite devoted to the topic of walking in the book and its incredible ability to provoke things like self-reflection and clearheadedness.

Juanita: Joe, do you think Conny is going through a mid-life crisis?

Joe: I'm one of those people that has a problem with that term. I was raised by a father who was born in 1918 and a mother who was born in 1922, so what I was taught to be an actual crisis was formed by people who spent their adolescent years in an economic depression we can't even imagine only to move into their young adulthood engulfed in a world war we can't even imagine, during all of which they still functioned quite well, so, by proxy, my definition of "crisis" tends to differ from a lot of my contemporaries. Discovering that your priorities have changed because you're maturing does not mean "crisis" to me. In "Waggle," I use the term "catharsis." That seems more appropriate.

That being said, I still wouldn't even use the contemporary application of the term "mid-life crisis" in reference to Conny because he's not going out and buying a red Corvette and trying to score with 19-year-olds or quitting his job with a secure income to run off and be a bartender at a resort in Cabo San Lucas, which, from what I've gathered, tends to be the normal kinds of psychological associations with the term. He's really not confused or wayward. Quite the opposite. In fact, he's so focused on this particular day that he's worried his friends might become concerned about his newfound clarity. Conny's not avoiding. He's pursuing. Well, at the very least, he's trying to avoid avoiding things anymore at this point in his life.

Juanita: For those readers who don't play golf, what does "waggle" mean?

Joe: I like the definition Reader Views reviewer Cherie Fisher found: "To make small movements of the club head back-and-forth at approach, prior to grounding the club…It can be a nervous habit, or it can be an intentional movement designed to help the golfer trigger the swing or achieve the tempo they are looking for." Achieving tempo. I like that, and tempo is a very important achievement for me as a writer.

Juanita: Why did you decide to bring the idea of social responsibility into the golf realm?

Joe: A round of golf, for me, has always had a way of clearing my head. In a way, the aforementioned definition of "waggle" could be construed as meaning a way of finding an almost Zen-like comfort level first, the swing away. This is the kind of meditation required to decide you will finally eschew your singular goal of making money and create new goals centered on community involvement and improvement. Triple-the-Pines Golf Course became a giant Zen garden for Conny and the guys, and greater community involvement (or any at all) was their revelation, I guess you could say.

Juanita: Joe, you bring the golf course into this story almost as if it is a character in itself. Would you comment?

Joe: Triple-the-Pines Golf Course is indeed a character in this book, and sometimes it's my favorite one. Each hole receives its own introduction, and in rather personal terms. I wanted to give the golf course a sort of ambition of its own, which is to break the ego of every golfer that treads upon it while clearing their heads via a good dose of fresh air, exercise, and camaraderie. The course is helping these guys make some pretty heavy decisions. I actually had a line in an early draft of the book that didn't make the final cut, but that I still like very much: (After cordial greetings on the 1st tee) "Triple-the-Pines is quickly relegated from a long-time friend and possible sleeping partner to a faithful minister and does so without question, though there are times guys have looked back at Triple-the-Pines after 18 holes to see its horizon fashioning a smirk at how breaking 80 was never even close to being broached that day." The golf course is a character, and with its own complexities.

Juanita: Joe, what are your thoughts on the listlessness of suburban life and affluent complacency?

Joe: The one thing I want to set straight is that, yes, this book certainly does allude to the oftentimes-vacuous nature of suburban consumerism. But that's really not what the book is about. We already kind of know that, you know? "Waggle" looks for solutions to this particular brand of lethargy, and hopefully in an entertaining way.

But in a more direct response to your question, the commonplace listlessness and complacency you can find in affluent suburbs flat out scares the hell out of me sometimes. I think it's because I absolutely love the suburbs, but I love the 1985 version of them. They're getting bulldozed hard and fast these days, and I know we need places to accommodate the growing population, but I can't help but think a lot of times there's got to be a better way. But those better ways aren't just going to happen. When I hear people complain about the state of affairs, then tell me they need to run out to Super Target real quick to get their shopping fix in before Dr. McDreamy comes on tonight, it flat out scares the hell out of me sometimes.

Juanita: Do you think that changes to this type of "suburban consumerism" will predominately come through an internal catalyst as Conny represents in your fictitious community?

Joe: Most definitely, Juanita. Great point. I firmly believe that change can only come from within; it starts with your self. Can you be prodded into doing something as monumental as sacrificing time with Dr. McDreamy to campaign for city council? It's unlikely without a pre-existing, intense individual desire. You can pass the homeless veteran begging for money on the Canal Street bridge in Chicago a thousand times and never give a damn about homelessness; you can be handed a thousand pamphlets about joining the organization trying to save a city landmark from being turned into a parking garage; you can be bombarded by doorhangers asking you to sign up for Habitat for Humanity. And God bless the volunteers that try to raise awareness. But let's be honest, it's going to take your own personal smothering of oddly fresh air, as Conny experiences on July 28, 2003, to finally get up the energy do something about it. That air representing some kind of awakening, obviously.

Juanita: Joe, there is quite a bit of humor in "Waggle." Would you comment on your writing style and the funny nature of your novel in the context of a male oriented personal discovery story?

Joe: Humor is imperative to human existence. I don't mean that figuratively. We need humor like we need air or water. We would literally die without it. To call anybody left standing without humor in the world "boring" would be a monumental understatement. I tend to want to communicate with people in a humorous fashion, especially in writing. For one thing, it's really challenging. So, the thought of telling a story about four real estate appraisers in Chicagoland during the real estate boom suddenly "finding" themselves requires humor. There's just no way around it. Putting that story on a golf course was just pure fun for me, and something I have an extensive background in. If something is both practiced AND fun for you, your writing process is going to be that much more enjoyable and successful. This is going to sound really cheesy, but I've always felt that the old axiom "write what you know" should really be "write what you love." Cheesy quotient pretty high on that one, I know.

Juanita: Fans of "Waggle" are full of praise and calling for a sequel. Do you have any plans to oblige?

Joe: I do. It's in the works as we speak.

Juanita: How was the experience of writing your first novel? What about in comparison to writing poetry?

Joe: Even though my book is humorous, the experience of writing it was not always fun, not by a long shot. Granted, there's also a very serious strain of "what the hell are we going to do about the state of the world these days" running through "Waggle." But writing a novel is quite different from writing poetry, at least for me, in that the spans of time spent sitting and writing are quite different. I can write one line to a poem and love it so much that I'm happy and done for the day and gone to play 9 holes. Novel writing can really suck the time right out of the air. You can spend 3 straight weeks holed up in an efficiency apartment outside of San Diego and emerge for groceries one day only to find that you're not relating very well to the people in the grocery store because you've been holed up in an efficiency apartment outside of San Diego writing fiction for 3 straight weeks. My poetry writing is rarely paced like that, if ever. However, I have to say my experience with poetry did feed my novel writing process more than I would have thought. I was surprised. And I'm talking pure mechanics here, as well as little things like word choice and tempo.

Juanita: Joe, what do your friends - in particular your male friends – think about your book?

Joe: I get quite a wide range of feedback. So far, it's been extremely positive and, boy, am I grateful. Very. But you know what's funny? Women tend to be the ones who will actually recite favorite lines back to me, and they're often lines I consider to be fairly submerged in the rest of the text. For example, I have a bit of a running thing where when a character has an intense reaction to something, it's precluded by what I call a "Christ-golfer" line. It could be along the lines of "Christ in a plaid pair of pants! Hit the ball already!" Women will say to me, "Christ in a pair of Foot-Joys, Tigan! That's a great book!" Guys don't do that nearly as much, which makes me hope to God that they're not living up to the statistic of women reading much more than men, and more smartly. Guys tend to comment on how the story has been laid out and like to kick around the broader topic of how the wager that is so pivotal to the book actually works. That kind of thing. Like maybe they leafed through it. I'm not making accusations here.

Juanita: Joe, how can readers find out about you and your book?

Joe: My page is actually getting to be quite thorough, with Search Inside capabilities and a good number of what I think are helpful, incisive reviews. That's the best way to get to know the book at this point. There have been some requests for a web site and I'm considering that.

Juanita: Thanks so much for talking with us today Joe. We have enjoyed hearing about your novel "Waggle," and are thrilled to hear that you are in the process of writing its sequel. Do you have any final thoughts for your readers?

Joe: Thank you, Juanita. And I appreciate the kind words toward a new book. I would just also say thank you to those that have grabbed a copy of "Waggle" and taken the time to read it and even offer some feedback. It is truly a fast-paced world out there these days and I know the pleasure of reading can get lost in the shuffle sometimes. Plus there's that damned Dr. McDreamy. I'm glad to hear from those that have eschewed it all to get through my book.

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