Graham Elliot, author of A Pact for Life, on why he drinks and writes in Denver
Graham Elliot scribbles notes at a local bar
Not long ago, Graham Elliot moved to Colorado to chase a girl. Unfortunately, his quest for love didn't conclude with a picturesque Hollywood ending. So Elliot did what most spurned lovers do: He wrote a novel, of course. In 2012 Elliot released A Pact for Life, a story about a hot-and-cold Denver couple who make a potentially eternal (or rather, "paternal") decision after a casual night of drinking. Now in the process of writing a second novel, Elliot sat down with Westword to talk about what drove him write in the first place, why Kurt Vonnegut has had such a profound influence on his life, and everything in between.
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Westword: Briefly describe the plot of your first novel, A Pact for Life.
Elliot: It's about the pressures we feel from the ages of about 21 to 35 -- having a family, getting married and so on. It's about where all that comes from and how we should react to or approach that pressure. In the end, basically, it's really not a big deal. You should do whatever makes you happy. That's the key. A big part of my book is also existentialism and how whatever is important to you should be the meaning of your life. The two main characters, Cale and Diana, they struggle with these concepts until the end, when they realize they've had a great life but just didn't understand it until they fucked things up badly, I guess I should say. You know, you don't see how good you have it until everything starts going to shit.
In the preface of your novel, you mention how it's influenced by the music of The National and Rilo Kiley. Can you expand on what those two artists, and any others mentioned throughout your book, mean to you?
In my novel and when I was writing, I tried to find a band to make my novel sort of reflect the feeling you get when you listen to their music. With The National it's a sad, drunk but real-life feeling. I always describe their music as getting drunk in a bar alone wearing a suit; it's perfect for just that one moment. Rilo Kiley, though -- "A Man/Me/Then Jim" is probably my favorite song of all time. My main character's name is Diana, which came from line in that song "Diana, Diana, Diana, I would die for you." It just fit so well that I decided I had to have Rilo Kiley's music as part of my book, along with The National.
What about Denver inspired you to make this the place where your novel unfolds?
I've probably been here for about five years. There's just such a fun culture here. I know there's assholes everywhere you go, but here it seems like everyone's just trying to have a good time. Everyone here goes at their own easy-going pace and doesn't seem to face the same pressures you'd face back East or down south at younger ages. It's a perfect place to make a novel about a guy who loves to party and a girl who's trying to be the best person she can be. Even everything outdoors, I feel like that makes people strive to be better in some way -- but they also have fun while doing it.
Why did you decide to move to Denver in the first place?
Why do guys move anywhere? There are only two reasons: a job or a girl. It was a girl for me. I was on vacation up in Winter Park and met a girl. Birds were singing, trumpets were blaring, so I decided to move there. Eventually she moved away, but I stayed up there doing the ski bum thing for a while. But I don't regret it for a second. It's so nice to have four seasons now instead of ten months of summer and two of some weird winter thing like I had back in Florida. What did you do before you were a writer and how did you decide you wanted to become a writer?
I was an accountant and I always wanted to be a writer but I never had the motivation to do it. It was April about six years ago when Kurt Vonnegut died and I was online looking at all these message boards and watching TV and all everyone was talking about was Don Imus and his comments on the women's Rutgers basketball team. I was so pissed off that nobody was talking about him that I just grabbed my notebook and started to write. I wrote about thirty pages that night and I started thinking that I could actually write a book, that it was doable. And I haven't stopped since then.
So what is it about Vonnegut's writing that has influenced and captivated you the most?
It's so easy to read. It's just plain old English. He uses plain English to convey the most misunderstood things about life, like the atrocities of war or just getting up and going to work every day and how much of a struggle it is. He was the biggest inspiration for my writing because of just how easy he was to read. I didn't want to be a writer who uses big words just to use big words, ya know?
Have you gotten a chance to try the Wynkoop's "Kurt's Mile High Malt" that's dedicated to Vonnegut?
No, I haven't. It was a limited edition and I wanted to get a chance to try it but I just never did.
Some of my favorite authors seem to have an unhealthy attraction to booze. I was reading your bio on Amazon and it said you spend a decent amount of time in bars. so I was wondering, what is it about writing and alcohol that makes them inseparable for some people?
[Laughs] Yeah, I'm at a bar right now, actually. But to be a writer, I think you have to be sort of fearless, which alcohol helps you with. It's a scary thing to be a writer. To write your thoughts down and have other people critique them is a pretty scary thing. When I'm at a bar writing I usually have about three to four drinks before I have to cut it off. My writing is usually decent at that point but after that it gets sloppy. But yeah, I'd say it has to do mostly with fear of some sort.
If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring novelists, what would it be?
Develop a routine. Whether it be one hour a day, one day a week -- just do it. After about a month it will start to become a routine and once you get that down, you'll be able to write a book no problem at all. It's just a matter of getting into the habit of doing it.
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