Samuel L. Barrantes and the Moveable Feast

whilst making the pilgrimage to Paris for inspiration, I went looking for something special in Shakespeare and Co. Doing so is like searching for the tombstone of the famous deceased amidst the crowded dead and Hausmannian burial chambers of the Pere Lachaise cemetery. After the ritual sweep of the Beats and Lost Generation, I veered around the shelves to find something more contemporary so I’d leave with the best of the new and the old, and happened upon Samuél L. Barrantes’ Slim and the Beast, placed appropriately between the two.

The cover spells out the book’s title on a coaster atop the wood-grained counter of narrator, Lockart’s bar. The approachable recipe of Barrantes’ salt of the earth Southern humour and philosophical studies are summarised before the novel has begun with a page quoting Victor Frankl, whose ‘Will to Meaning’ theory Barrantes studied at UCL in preparation for his next novel, along with the ingredients of Slim’s Famous Burger.

Described as “part Mark Twain, part Coen Brothers,” Slim and the Beast depicts the unlikely friendship of a college basketball star and Iraqi war veteran as Dykes, the depraved, obsessed former-sergeant pursues them.

This is a debut novel written with the control of a seasoned author; character-centric and developed with a perfect balance of the past and present, its narrative perfectly captures the ease and plot-fed drawl of story unravelled from beside its teller on a bar stool. It is also one of the first novels to be published by Inkshares, a crowdfunded publishing company in San Francisco.

By the time I was at the till at Shakespeare and Co. I knew both Slim and the Beast as well as they knew themselves and had found a new author who writes with the immediacy, use of dialogue and setting of the novels in sight on the Lost Generation shelf and yet, like the book’s innovative publisher, offers a contemporary voice for a story that like many great works, may have been left in the abyss of the unread shelves without the je ne sais quois, the particular formula of words, setting and story-telling that makes one pick out an unknown novel, the same as we befriend strangers from a crowd.

Having grown up in North Carolina, Barrantes now lives a bohemian life in Paris where he is currently working on his third novel. In terms of the influence of the city that has shaped so many great artists in the past, he said:

“Hemingway wrote the majority of A Moveable Feast when he was away from Paris, and I do think that distance and nostalgia provide some of the strongest connections to “home.” So in a way, Slim and The Beast was an ode to my North Carolina days. I may never live there again and I wanted to preserve that memory. There’s something to be said about creating distance in order to know what’s closest to your heart … I’ve never been able to write well in North Carolina (“too close to home” type thing) and for me write well I need to feel like a foreigner, a stranger in a far-off land. In my experience, traveling or living abroad allows me to appreciate what has passed (that’s why Slim and The Beast go on the road trip).

Most of the clichés about Paris are true, but its rich history, while historically interesting, doesn’t do much for me in terms of inspiration. What most inspires me about Paris is that people still come here to be inspired. For a writer, from a commercial standpoint almost all of us will fail, and that’s actually quite refreshing to be around people whose main goal is not to live off of the art, but to live with their art. Artists have a willingness to take a chance in Paris that I haven’t found in many other places  … as Henry Miller says in Tropic of Cancer, “But it’s just because the chances are all against you, just because there is so little hope, that life is sweet over here.” In Paris, at least for now, I am utterly happy living day-by-day. Working part-time in order to write in the afternoons, then meeting friends on the Seine with a bottle of wine and a picnic is about as good as it gets in my opinion. I really can’t complain.”

What were your inspirations when writing S and B? Have these changed since?

SLB: I was sitting on a train outside of Paris, traveling towards Brittany, and Samuel L. Jackson’s voice popped into my head. He was ordering a cheeseburger. This led to the first scene I wrote for the book, when Slim first meets The Beast. But on a deeper level (not to take anything away from Mr. Jackson), my main inspirations had everything to do with the importance of brotherhood and upbringing in my life. I grew up with a great group of friends and am also very close with my twin brother and cousin … when I moved to Paris, I wrote Slim and The Beast as an attempt to fill that void. I was lucky to meet some amazing friends here in Paris, where for about a year I had an almost weekly gathering we deemed “Boys’ Nights.”  We cooked meals together, played board games, and discussed pretty much everything that was on our mind, from the songs we’d like to play at our funeral, to the meaning of life, to what it means to “be a man” in the twenty-first century, and of course the overarching question: “What kind of person to do you want to become?” This last question was the main inspiration for Slim and The Beast.

Slim and the Beast

What’s your first rule of writing?

SLB: To sit down and write. This may seem trite, but it’s incredible how fragile the process of writing really is. Like any type of discipline, if I take more than a few days off I lose both my sense of rhythm and that unique sense of joy that comes with an established routine. It is almost impossible for me to write well unless I am in a flow, which generally means at least four or five days of intensive writing per week (2-4 hours, at least 2,000 words/day).  Life is beautiful and distracting and busy all the time, and there’s never any respite from finding an excuse to procrastinate (that’s what I learned from Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art). So even if my second rule is “Have fun” (because if you don’t enjoy it, don’t do it) the only rule I truly respect is turning off the Wi-Fi and sitting down to write.

At what point do you know when something you’re writing is complete?

SLB: Oh boy. This is a tricky question because my knee-jerk response is “never.”  Once I’ve lost the magic of being inside a particular story, it’s time to start editing and move on. I knew my first novel was complete when I realized I had nothing in common with the person who wrote it. Slim and The Beast stayed with me longer because it was somewhat of a time capsule for me. It allowed me to recede back into my childhood and some great years here in Paris, but after two years and change I was also ready for a new adventure. Finding magic in the literary world is about all that can keep me writing a single story … once that magic begins to falter, I know it’s nearing completion (or deletion!).

From Oscar Peterson to Robert Johnson and 2Pac, S & B practically comes with a soundtrack, particularly from the bar’s jukebox. Is that something you were conscious of in setting a tone? In what ways did music inspire you whilst writing this?

SLB: My parents are both theatre professors/voice teachers and my twin brother is a professional musician in New Orleans. I also love to play music and sing, so music has always played a major role in my life. During my “Boys’ Nights” with my group of friends here in Paris, we would always have music playing during our discussions, and it fit quite naturally into the structure of Slim and The Beast, especially as they discuss at the bar and await the coming hurricane. I always wondered why there wasn’t more music playing in books, because for me there is always music playing, whether that is in my apartment at the end of the day, or in a scene at a bar. Music is deeply personal and carries just as much memory as Proust’s Madeleine; in every restaurant and every bar, someone is pouring out their memories onto the stereo. And so the songs I chose for Slim and The Beast not only represent important moments in my past, but are also connected to the novel’s themes. 2Pac’s I Ain’t Mad at Ya, for example, is about a man who’s nostalgic for old times because he’s lost touch with an old friend. Cannonball Adderley’s Autumn Leaves, a heartbreaking song that comes at the end of the novel, is also about the passing of a moment and the beauty of nostalgia.

What first drew you to the characters of Slim and The Beast? What attracts you to characters in other literature, songs etc?

SLB: The Viktor Frankl quote at the beginning of the book—“To be sure, a human being is a finite thing, and his freedom is restricted. It is not freedom from conditions, but it is freedom to take a stand toward the conditions”—defined how I viewed my characters in this book. For those whose tragedies helped make them who they are, do they remain a slave to their past? And for those who are defined by other people, do they break away from the mold, or remain a caricature of themselves? Slim’s attitude was the first thing that caught my attention—he’s an abrasive and loud character, and I wanted to know what about his upbringing made him so intense. For me, Slim’s world was complete the moment his voice popped into my head … it was just a matter of asking the right questions. The Beast, however, was harder to “find” in that he himself doesn’t really know who he is. He is a star athlete with a nickname that he doesn’t really care for, defined by his presence on the basketball court versus who he is outside of the stadium. This is of course a reflection of my own growing pains—while writing Slim and The Beast, I was deciding whether or not I should become an academic (which I was good at), or take a shot at writing novels, which I wasn’t. The reason The Beast kept me intrigued was because his struggle was mine. Whereas Slim and Sgt. Dykes’ stories were quite tragic and “wrote themselves” so to speak, The Beast needed more help throughout the novel, because I did, too. And so it’s these two types of characters that generally attract me in other artistic forms: either someone who is fully developed after uttering a single sentence (like Kramer in Seinfeld), or characters who remain somewhat unaware of themselves and hence unresolved, like Donny in The Big Lebowski.

“For those whose tragedies helped make them who they are, do they remain a slave to their past? And for those who are defined by other people, do they break away from the mold, or remain a caricature of themselves?”

S and B is essentially split into two, with the immediacy of bar-owner’s narrative drawing in the reader with the characters’ histories and then changing in pace as they come into his presence, from which point it is led by philosophical conversations. How did you arrive at this structure to the book?

SLB: The structure immediately made sense to me because of when I was writing this novel. Coming to Paris right after college was the first chapter in my adult life. We all have different upbringings and different demons that somewhat define us, but part of becoming an adult (I think) is making an active choice to define oneself. For me, the first half of the novel is about acknowledging how our upbringings and past demons define us. Yet being an adult is also about veering away from all of that baggage so that it can remain “in the past but not forgotten,” as I say in the novel.

The second part of the novel is all about being present (“being here now.”) This is another thing I learned while writing: learning how to appreciate the moment and have fun. Somewhere along the way I stopped worrying about getting a PhD or finding a career job. I took a deep breath and said it’s okay to not know. I found my rhythm in a simple day-to-day lifestyle, and this is when I truly started writing well. At Lockart’s Bar, Slim and The Beast also learn to appreciate the moment. True, there’s a hurricane coming (and maybe it represents a last flicker of youthful delusion, a fear to plan for the future), but they are where they’re supposed to be, finally digesting life.

I read that you had written another novel before S and B. What did you take from it, and what do you feel you learned from it that made S and B successful?

SLB: The first thing I learned is not to write with music. I was listening to a lot of intense orchestral compositions by Hans Zimmer and Philip Glass, and it made the entirety of the novel too fast-paced and contrived. Now I listen to beach waves or a thunderstorm, which put me in the zone. I think there’s something to ambient sounds/white noise, taking us back to our original “home” in the womb.

The other thing I learned is pretty basic: how to write a better novel. Practice makes perfect, and it will take many lifetimes, but I learned how to care about characters, how to keep up the pacing, and how to know when to stop writing, the use of an editor, and moving on. I didn’t expect nor did I want to write my magnum opus after a second try—I am proud of Slim and The Beast in the same way I am proud of playing my first jazz piano solo, but I don’t want to hang any laurels on it. There’s a lot more to come and that’s what keeps me interested. All that matters is I keep writing. Slim and The Beast was fun to write, and that’s all I can ask for with future novels. I was so caught up in writing something I thought others would like with my first novel, that in the end I hated it. It’s like trying to impress people with a move on the basketball court: the more you force it, the less it comes out.

The Wall Street Journal called Inkshares “the future of publishing” – do you agree? Could you share with us any of your experiences with the publishing world before that?

SLB: I don’t think Inkshares is the future of publishing in that it will replace traditional publishing, but it may point to the future as far as getting writers seen. The very fact that I’m answering interview questions is a testament to the Inkshares model … in February of 2014 I was unemployed and facing the Sisyphean task of querying literary agents. One year and change later, I have had a book tour, sold some books, been to a major writer’s conference, and can say I am a published author. Inkshares launched my writing career, as well as the career of my good poet friend in Paris, Yann Rousselot (he was there at the inception of Slim and The Beast). Future of publishing? That’s a big beast to tame. But Inkshares is certainly the reason I’m answering these questions now.

My previous experience with the publishing world was incredibly limited. I published a few academic articles and a short story in a student magazine, but nothing really substantial. I think I queried three agents for my first novel before I realized it was shit. For Slim and The Beast, I sent two or three query letters as well, but of course ended up going through Inkshares. It was the best decision I could have made. I really was amazed at the interest and support—in less than three months I raised over $10,000 in pre-orders. I was lucky to be Inkshares’ first novel, which allowed me to benefit from extra press and a few high-profile events. More importantly (and even if it sounds sappy I’m going to say it), I’m really proud that 232 backers made Slim and The Beast possible. I may have sold more copies through a traditional publisher, and may have even received an advance, but Inkshares gave me faith in myself as well as in my communities. As a debut novelist and young writer, I don’t think you can put a price on finding confidence and motivation to keep on keeping on.

Author Pic
Author photo: “Paradoxically, I am less aware of an audience than I was when I started out.”

How has being published changed the way you write and think of your writing now? Are you more aware of an audience?

SLB: Paradoxically, I am less aware of an audience than I was when I started out. I wrote my first novel assuming other people would want to read it. It took me almost three years because I kept changing what I thought people wanted. The end result was disastrous. Slim and The Beast was written as an escape from that need for recognition that I was so desperately seeking, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this novel was my first published work. Of course, it takes a lifetime to water down that desire to be “liked” … David Foster Wallace says this is the single most destructive desire for young writers, and I do think it puts you in a delicate position if you’re constantly writing for an audience. This isn’t to say I don’t take the reader into account, but I’ve found that when I think too much about who will read my work, I start to try and impress them with half-baked ideas or plays on words versus doing the only thing that’s entertaining to others in the end: having fun. It would be pretty sad, I think, to spend three hours a day/five days a week in the library, hoping that an audience would one day appreciate my work. The odds are against me, so that removes a lot of pressure. There’s a Bukowski poem, “So You Want to Be a Writer,” that says it far better than I ever could: “unless the sun inside you is burning your gut,” don’t do it.

I read that you’ve been studying Viktor Frankl in preparation for your next novel. Could you tell me anything about your next book? Has studying ‘Will To Meaning’ changed your outlook and those of your characters’?

SLB: Viktor Frankl has been my philosophical idol for some time now, which culminated with a master’s in London. Without a doubt, he has changed my outlook on life as well as that of my characters. I am still young and somewhat idealist, but I do believe that a life filled with meaning (purpose) trumps a life of verticality, in which we are told to pursue professional acclaim (power) and a whole lot of things (pleasure). While I do think human beings are driven by power and pleasure, I believe we can transcend those instincts by looking towards something greater than ourselves. This doesn’t mean we should all become artists, it just means that seeking wealth as an end in itself is a poverty of ambition. You see it all the time—lottery winners who become depressed, Wall Street executives who kill themselves—and yet we are still all trying to make an extra dollar. What makes people happy is a reason to be happy. And that search for a reason is what makes us human, Frankl says.

This human need for a reason for being, however, can go both ways. This is where my next novel comes in. It takes place in a Polish ghetto during the Nazi occupation, and explores the different ways in which people seek purpose, some through creation (of relationships, of art, et cetera) and others through destruction. I spent my academic career studying philosophy and the Nazi regime, and this novel is an attempt to bring it all together, first for myself and then (hopefully) for a wider audience. The subjects I am confronting are delicate, complicated and deeply disturbing, which gives me that much more desire to do it right. I won’t give away too much, but the novel follows three distinct characters whose paths are inextricably linked. I am exploring the ways in which traditionally positive human attributes (love, the will to meaning, solidarity, to name a few) can be used for destructive purposes, especially in relation to the Nazi-imposed Jewish Councils within Polish ghettos and the role of the mobile killing units in the East. There are so many unknown or misunderstood aspects of the subject—the murder of three million Polish gentiles, the Nazi definition of “Jew” versus the reality, the fact that most people died in open air massacres (not gas chambers) and that eleven million people were killed in the genocide, not six—that I feel a responsibility to transpose what I’ve learned into a more accessible medium. It is historical fiction but is highly researched … after so many years of studying philosophy and genocide studies, now I know the reason why.

Last question: If you could have written one book by another author, which would it be and why?

SLB: Harry Potter. All of them. Don’t make me decide. I know how much fun I had reading those books (three times each), so I can’t even begin to imagine the amount of fun J.K. Rowling had writing them. I won’t speak for all writers everywhere, but in general I think we write to escape. The worlds we create are our safe-havens, so to speak—I know for myself it’s sometimes the only cure to a bad day. And the world J.K. Rowling created is one of the most beautiful, believable, and thought-provoking worlds in the history of literature (yeah, I said it). Trying to imagine the amount of fun she had writing those books gives me goose bumps, and almost makes me want to try my hand at fantasy, a genre I stare at like an intriguing constellation but still can’t figure out.

You can buy Slim and the Beast by Samuél L. Barrantes here

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