How did you get on board with “Naked Came the Cheesesteak?”
Shaun Haurin: The lovely and talented author Kelly Simmons is an old friend, and she tipped off the editors to my existence.
Mary Anna Evans: I came to the Cheesesteak family through a circuitous chain of connections. I had recently moved to the Philadelphia area to study for an MFA in creative writing at Rutgers-Camden. A friend from Florida introduced me to a friend of hers who had recently graduated from Rutgers-Camden, but who is now in a PhD program in Tennessee. He heard that Mitch Sommers was looking for Philadelphia-area authors for a collaborative novel. Mitch and I got in touch and shook hands on the deal, electronically speaking. Because there is always a significant lag time in publishing–Great writing takes time!–and because I was scheduled to write the last chapter, I had graduated and taken a job at the University of Oklahoma by the time I wrote my installment. And all this multi-state activity took place by email, yet resulted in a pretty cool book, if I do say so myself. Amazing!
Don Lafferty: I can’t remember if Tori or Kelly Simmons approached me first, but when I heard they were on board, along with my good friends, Merry Jones and Gregory Frost, I was honored that they’d thought of inviting me to be part of the project.
Diane Ayres: Accidentally. I was at the annual Xmas Writer’s Party which my husband and I co-host for our fellow writer friends and acquaintances every year who don’t work in offices. We all miss out on those wild parties, so we have our own,( although it’s relatively tame). It was December 2014, and I was catching up with my old pal Greg Frost at the party when Merry Jones approached, and they started telling me about the serial novel they were writing with eleven other local writers. They mentioned that one of the writers had dropped out recently. Since I just happened to be standing there, they were both way too kind and polite to let me feel like the odd author out, so they asked if I would I be interested in doing a chapter. I was well into my second martini so I said “sure!”
Tell me a little about the characters and story in your chapter.
Shaun Haurin: Without giving too much away, my chapter is a character study of Detective Chelsea Simon’s restaurateur husband, Arturo. He’s about to open yet another new restaurant and is contemplating the wisdom of such a decision the night before Halloween. He also has his Uncle Bull on his mind (the eatery’s namesake) as well as the recent death of his mistress, Chelsea’s colleague on the police force. Needless to say, it’s not an especially enjoyable evening for him (though I hope it’s enjoyable for the reader!).
Mary Anna Evans: By the time the manuscript rolled around to me, the setting had moved to a completely new city. None of the previous chapters had been set there, and I’ve never been there. The character list was down to two, unless I wanted to stop the narrative action by plunking them on a plane and sending them home to Philly. Thank you, Warren dear, for that little curve ball.
Don Lafferty: I can’t. My chapter is a spoiler. This also gets me out of public readings.
Diane Ayres: Unfortunately, I’m incapable of telling “a little” about anything, as the audacious length of my chapter demonstrates. For this, I can only beg the forgiveness of my worthy peers and fellow Cheesesteakers. But a serial writer’s gotta do what a serial writer’s gotta do. And in my defense … There was a lot going on in chapters one through ten, with many entertaining characters and plot twists and turns, but it was a little short on any pending resolution. With only two more chapters to go, I felt a great deal of responsibility to braid some of those loose threads together. I did my best to work in some aspect or element of every chapter, although I did not succeed with a couple that were self-contained—not that there’s anything wrong with that. There were quite a few narrative points of view, including Nathanial Popkin’s chapter in the first person, which added another refreshing dimension and perspective. Randall Brown picked up on the voice in one of his scenes in Chapter 9, which I felt was the perfect set up for me to carry it on and give it a name, Steven Barr.
My opening CNN scene was purely satirical because I decided that the only way to handle all of those dead bodies and unanswered questions was to take it over the top, making all of that confusion a seemingly intentional and integral part of the plot. In addressing the absurdity in that first scene, the following scenes would seem more plausible, by comparison—more real. The “realest” scene being the conversation between Ben and Chelsea at Dirty Frank’s—which was my take on Nathaniel Popkin’s dive bar of relevant and/or irrelevant characters. (And also nostalgic because it’s in my old hood.) I also felt the need to flesh out at least two major characters, who had been emerging as a potential love interest all along whether on purpose or unconsciously. These two were always clashing in chapters from the get-go, out of proportion to the problems—protesting a little too much, I thought, which could only mean one thing. They were hot for each other. This revelation afforded me the opportunity to have them meet privately so I could work in some crucial plot points and explanations while also slipping in a sex scene, such as it is, a gritty make-out moment behind Dirty Frank’s. (I don’t know about other readers, but I need a love interest in a novel to hold my interest.)
As for Steven Barr, I thought he needed something in his background to explain all of that deviant, homicidal, sociopathic, domestic terrorist kind of behavior, so I had a field day with the Freudian stereotypes, as well as the neurobiological psychiatric updates (i.e. genetic implications of having a clinically depressed father who committed suicide). I even threw in a warped Hitchcock joke: “Mother’s” waspy blonde hair that turns out to be a wig—perhaps even a wig made out of Mother’s hair before she lost it to cancer. How creepy is that? Yes, of course, my take on Steven Barr borders on camp, but it was also a chance to pick up on another, more serious undercurrent in the novel. The one wherein certain writers out of thirteen do a little riffing on the nature of being writers in the subtext. From Greg Frost’s satirical portrayal of the journalist—“journo”—as buffoon, Vincent “Pants” De Leon, at the Pen & Pencil Club in Chapter 3, to Steven Barr declaring the difference between fiction and nonfiction writers. And in the final scene, journalist Ben Travers insists he is incapable of writing fiction while also denigrating the fiction writers he envies for sitting around in their underwear all day making stuff up.
How did you go about writing your chapter now that the story’s coming to a close?
Shaun Haurin: I left the rollicking plot lines to the mystery-writer professionals and in effect hid behind my imaginary paisano.
Mary Anna Evans: As it turned out, these tight constraints sparked an idea that I think tied up the narrative tightly and unexpectedly. I believe all of us felt the tension between the story handed to us and our own plot ideas and our own style, but that’s not a bad thing. Tension is inherent in any art. In fiction, it is what drives the story forward. I got a real creative jolt when I saw what I was going to have to do to resolve this tale. It was fun.
Don Lafferty: I was traveling, and so unable to attend when the team met at Cordelia Biddle’s crib to discuss the premise of the story and map out the chapter assignments. Email summaries of that meeting made their way to me, but I still didn’t quite grasp the voice or tone toward which the group had decided to aim. When the project got underway and I finally read Kelly Simmons’ opening chapter, I became acutely aware that I was in for something completely different from any writing project I’d ever been part of. Since I had nine months before my chapter would have top be written, I decided to wait until all the chapters were written before I would read any more. When one of the contributors bailed right out after reading Kelly’s chapter, I had a real WTF moment. And then when, a few weeks later, Cordelia bailed out over the direction the book was headed in light of the Pope’s upcoming visit to Philadelphia, I began to wonder if I’d somehow consigned my immortal soul to the dark side. All the while the chapters came in month after month. And I let them pile up. When it was finally my turn to write, I read the book in one sitting, and then, with my mind completely blown, feeling totally inadequate to move the story forward in a meaningful way, thought about it for a couple of tortured weeks. Then I wrote it. Then I strung poor Mitchell and Mary Anna out for a couple of weeks more. Then I sent it.
Diane Ayres: [See answer above.]
What do you think of the story overall?
Shaun Haurin: [insert string of thumbs up and ecstatic eye-patched ghost emojis]
Mary Anna Evans: It’s creative and weird and fun and engrossing. It hangs together as a whole in a way that I never expected it could, coming as it did from thirteen very different brains. It says a lot for the authors that the group was able to create together a work of art as large as a novel, while still staying true to themselves as individuals.
Don Lafferty: I think the story is an honest reflection of each author’s unique perspective on the city we all call home, seen through the lens of each one’s storytelling sensibility. As a movie I see it as possibly, the Coen brothers’ first chick flick.
Diane Ayres: It’s a lot of fun.
What have you taken away from this experience? Did it meet your expectations?
Shaun Haurin: It was great fun! As someone who’s become conditioned to working (and receiving criticism) alone, I highly recommend getting a dozen other people to help write your next novel!
Mary Anna Evans: I take a lot of satisfaction from the finished product, and that’s particularly true because I wrote the summing-up chapter. While the other chapters were being written, I lived for months with worries like “What if there’s no way to make this thing internally consistent, much less fun to read?” More to the point, I worried that I personally wasn’t up to the task. I got a huge rush on behalf of all thirteen of us when I typed the last line. I’m grateful to have had the experience of working with everybody involved.
Don Lafferty: I went into this without expectations, that is, I knew this would be a learning experience, so I was going open to wherever my collaborators led me. Little did I know that it would turn me upside down, shake me up creatively and teach me to jump off a whole new ledge in my personal journey as a writer. And like every piece of writing I’ve ever delivered to an editor, I am reminded in the process, that while I know what I like, I don’t know the first thing about good writing.
Diane Ayres: It was a fascinating meeting of the minds and methods of fiction writers, and also good for me to share a creative experience, because I have always been exceedingly isolated in my work, and it’s good for me to get out occasionally. In regard to expectations I had none, but I would like to add that initially I made light of Greg and Merry being accidentally trapped into asking me to join the project, but it was, in all seriousness, a great honor and pleasure to participate. And I hope my effort didn’t disappoint.