About Vincent Tuckwood
Vincent Tuckwood is a story-teller working in fiction, song and verse. At any given point in time, he’s proud to be a father, husband, son, brother, cousin and friend to the people who mean the world to him.
He is the author of the novelsEscalation, Family Rules, Karaoke Criminals and Do Sparrows Eat Butterflies? as well as the 2010 poetry collection, Garbled Glittering Glamours. His screenplays are Team Building and the screen adaptation of Family Rules, Inventing Kenny.
You can find out more about him and his work at http://vincet.net.
Q: Thank you for this interview, Vince. Can you tell us what your latest book, Family Rules, is all about?
A: Sure, happy to be here.
Family Rules is the fictional memoir of Kenny Walsh, a former child star turned drug addict turned car thief, who decides to play Dad to a child he accidentally abducts.
As you can probably tell, Kenny’s doesn’t share the same sense of reality as you or I – and that’s really the core of the story: Kenny’s invented life. As this doesn’t come from mental illness, or sinister motive, it allows us to step into Kenny’s head and heart, so that we know why he makes these really questionable decisions.
The story has its own internal logic and poignancy and, in Kenny, a main character that we can root for even when he’s so far from our own normality.
Q: Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?
A: There are really two main characters in this story: Kenny, of course, and his junkie soul-mate, Ivvy. There’s also Bella, the child in the car, however she really acts as a mirror to Kenny and there’s not much more to say about her than that.
To understand Kenny, it’s really important to know that he spent the first five years of his life raised by a television-family, often being treated as little more than a prop or dummy. It’s also worth noting that his addictions began in those years, his minders giving him Valium in honey to keep him calm between scenes. The upshot is that psychologically, Kenny runs away from reality whenever it gets too close. He’s quite a poignant, tragic character; as a writer, he feels very real to me, more-so perhaps than any character I’d written before.
Ivvy is like the Yang to Kenny’s Yin. She’s a junkie cop, working undercover for Vice. Older than Kenny, she’s drawn to normality like a moth bashing its head against a porch light. This push-pull between Kenny and Ivvy is key to understanding their relationship. She’s clinging to him for some sense of a normality she can attain, while he’s repelled by her neediness because it feels too real.
The joy for me in writing Family Rules was to take these two damaged people and make them ‘parents’.
In terms of supporting characters, I think it’s easier to think of it as a story of three families. The first is Kenny, Ivvy and Bella. The second is Kenny’s make-believe television family, who we meet through Kenny’s flashbacks, each one adding further depth to our understanding of Kenny’s formative experiences. And then there are Kenny’s biological parents, who we never really meet as much more than Kenny’s perspective of them. I purposefully wanted them to be his caricature, so that the story stayed centered on him. They don’t seem like nice people… Though maybe that’s because I’ve only heard Kenny’s side of the story!
Q: Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?
A: I would challenge any writer to give a categoric one-way-or-the-other on this question.
For me, characters have a number of sources: stereotypes, people I’ve known, people I see in the street or just sketches that develop over the course of a story.
More often than not, I’ll use snippets of people I know within the overall context of a character, the odd mannerisms or quirks. But very, very rarely do I use a whole person I know as the basis for a character. Most often, it’ll be the energy someone has – what new-agers would call ‘aura’ – that informs my characters, that sense of ‘when this person enters the room, it feels like…’
Q: Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel, or do you discover it as you write?
A: Again, this isn’t an either/or for me. I’ve written a couple of my novels very, very intuitively – Family Rules and Do Sparrows Eat Butterflies? – whereas Karaoke Criminals and, most recently, Escalation, had a more structured plot. In all cases, I knew the critical pieces of the plot going in, the key decisions that the characters would make and the resulting impact. For me, the writing always aims to get the characters to those decisions and actions in way that makes us believe it when we get there. That said, the journey is always a voyage of discovery, even when the plot is defined.
In Family Rules, I had the elements of Kenny – the former child star, the addiction and the decision to play Dad to Bella – but all the contextual, formative experiences I described were discovered live in the writing – it’s exhilarating when such creativity happens, but I know it can take me to writer’s block if I’m not careful.
Conversely, with Escalation, I had the whole structure, chapter by chapter, with the players and outcomes that needed to happen. That way I got to enjoy fleshing out the intrigue and bringing the characters to vivid life. The writing was lean and focused, and the rewrite so much easier than when I’ve had to rework intuitive writing.
From my experience with Escalation, which was such great fun to write, I’ll very likely structure every story now.
Q: Your book is set in New York City. Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?
A: There are a few reasons.
Firstly, there’s something about the Big Apple that allows for weird things happening. It’s a very, very diverse and inclusive city, with a lot of people on the street, and so the idea of a guy being able to hide in the open with his make-believe child is more possible, I think. I needed somewhere for Kenny to get lost without hiding, and frankly, for someone looking to disappear, New York is ideal.
Secondly, I got the idea for Family Rules when we were living in Manhattan for a year. I’ve always been struck by real-life news stories where babies are deserted at hospital doors in the middle of winter and, while walking the streets in NYC the night before garbage collection, suddenly had a vision of a baby lying in amongst the garbage bags crying out. That became the initial “I wonder what would happen if…” that eventually grew into FAMILY RULES – with some additional ideas colliding in, of course, not least of which was having a child discovered by someone totally unprepared for it.
Finally, the city and I have something of a history. I worked summer camps throughout the late 80’s and my first experience of the city was being ripped off by an illegal cabbie and left in the middle of the city with only 3 dollars and a scrap of paper with a phone number of a friend’s sister. If you look carefully in the book, you’ll find that scene reflected specifically, though maybe only my guardian angel and I may know it for definite. But elsewhere, the sights and sounds of New York that populate the novel are all part of my experience set.
Although we’d moved out of the city when I wrote the majority of Family Rules, I was travelling in pretty regularly for work and getting my fix of the energy. I like to think of Family Rules as my own, personal take on a “New York Story”.
Q: Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?
A: Not so much in the development of character and plot. But in the landscape, both geographic and energetic, I think it’s critical. It’s a gritty, compelling, energetic city and I wanted that flow in the landscape of Family Rules; the press and commotion forcing Kenny to quick decisions that align with his invented life.
Q: Open the book to page 69. What is happening?
A: It’s Chapter 16: ‘A Darkening Sky’, and one of the most telling scenes in the novel. Kenny and Ivvy are lying stoned in Central Park watching the stars come out. Ivvy – leaning towards reality as always – forcefully comes on to Kenny, who has a visceral, panicked reaction, fleeing into a flashback of his make-believe Mum and Grandad sparring on the set of ‘Family Rules!’
It’s one of those moments when their Yin-Yang is exposed. It’s a very sensate moment, sight, sound, smell all coming alive. Kenny’s panic in this chapter feels very real.
Q: Can you give us one of your best excerpts?
A: I can’t tell you what’s the best, but I’ll give you one section from early in the book, which, I think, touches on how New York flows into Kenny’s experience:
“I lay on a bench in Washington Square one night, wrapped in desolation.
A wino was crashed out two or three benches along. There had been a minor scuffle earlier, when another guy tried to take his pitch. Little more than hair pulling, slapping and drunken, missed punches, but more than enough to bring my situation home to me.
I was tired, hadn’t eaten for a couple of days and didn’t know what I was going to do about the mess I was in.
I was scared.
It had been two weeks since I’d walked out of my parents’ apartment.
Two weeks. A pitifully short time to grow so despondent. I felt like I’d been alone for a lifetime.
Which, given my parents, was closer to the truth than I cared to admit.
Across the square, a drug deal was going down and I was sure it must have been a set-up, it was so blatant. But there were no flashing lights, no blaring sirens, no S.W.A.T. team dashing from shadows to take them out.
They faded away into the night, rejoining the gloom.
My misery deepened as I lay on the bench.
It was Spring, warm enough to stay out most nights; not like Winter, when my breath felt like it might freeze in my throat. Despite the evening’s warmth, though, it might as well have been ice, desperation and hypothermia, I felt so wretched.
Lying in the darkness, the wino snoring, dealers coasting, awaiting their next buyer, I was so close to tears it made me shudder.
Then it came from a stereo in an upstairs apartment, a minor chord drifting across the square like a whisper.
A guitar, electric.
B. B. King.
Soft horns in the background; Lucille lifting the darkness for a moment.
‘The Thrill is Gone’ filled Washington Square.
Everyone was still.
Shadows within shadows grew apparent, people I hadn’t even known were there, some of them sniffing back tears, some just humming along.
The guy three benches along woke up and railed at the apartment window: “Shut the f*** up, we’re trying to sleep down here!”
A rock came out of the darkness and hit his shoulder.
B. B. played on regardless.
By the end of the first chorus, some of the shadows were singing.
Me, I turned over and let the music soothe me to sleep.
B.B. King’s guitar melted the night into ice cream and shadows.
I dreamt of twirling carousels and red fairy lights, screaming wheels and ozone bitterness, of the yelps and screams of teenage girls; rough answers from over-protective boyfriends, all bravado and testosterone. My dreams left me spinning, dizzy with vertigo and confusion.
When I woke, in the early hours of dawn, the guy two or three benches along had been knifed and I was the only person within twenty yards of him.”
Q: Thank you so much for this interview, Vince. We wish you much success!
A: It’s been my pleasure – I hope to see you over at http://VinceT.net some time soon!
About Family Rules
For some people, starting again is no option.
Kenny is adrift in the city, tormented by the scars and memories of his unique upbringing as a child star in the UK, chasing any addiction that can fill the void he carries at his core.
Increasingly unable to paper over the cracks, to numb himself with street corner narcotics, or build an abiding relationship with his junkie soul-mate Ivvy, he turns to stealing cars to provide momentary escape from his increasingly desolate life.
Estranged from his parents, Kenny has no hope or vision of a better future.
Until one night he steals a car from a gas station in New Jersey and is offered an unexpected, final opportunity for redemption; a radically different role to play.
Family Rules is an intense personal account of an invented life, where all the rules of family life are inverted, and of the damage done when the boundary between reality and television is truly no boundary at all.