CategoryWriting

Talking about writing–Raymond Thibeault

The best thing about interviews, I’m finding, is listening to the voices and stories of other writers. I’m so appreciative of everyone who volunteers for a stint.

Today, I’d like to introduce you to Raymond Thibeault. Ray has an MA in Creative Writing from MSU. He’s had work published in Thema, the Mississippi Review, Rosebud, SIPS, and the PrePress Awards: An Anthology of Emerging Michigan Writers. Another story was a finalist for a University of Illinois Press anthology of Midwestern fiction. He’s also taught creative writing in MSU’s College of Life Long Learning and led a writing workshop for former students.

To begin, I’d like to talk about the fact that you didn’t start writing seriously until you were in your early forties. This mirrors my own experience with writing, give or take a few years, and it’s interesting to me because culturally we place such a premium on youth and being a prodigy. My experience was that I simply wasn’t ready to write earlier, at least not in the way I am now. What moved you to start when you did, and what strengths do you feel you have in place now that you might not have had when you were younger?

I think that, just as you said about yourself, I was not ready to write in my earlier years. I was busy with so many other things–marriage, graduate school, then a child, and later a divorce, from which my recovery was a long and bumpy road. What finally got me going had a lot to do with my English teacher’s response to the metaphors (“almost professional”) that I wrote in high school. That bit of encouragement was always roaming around in the back of my mind–and it was ultimately the long-glowing spark that set me to writing. Once my first short story was published, I remember trying to contact him and pass on my thanks–only to learn that he had died at a fairly young age. That news saddened me a great deal, because of his too short life, of course, but also because I wanted him to tell him how much his one, supportive comment some twenty-five years earlier had meant to me.

As for what strengths I have now that I didn’t have earlier, I suppose it’s mostly a more finely tuned ability to reflect on my experiences, as well as those of others, and to see, not just their immediate impact, but their longtime significance.

You’ve been on the teaching end of creative writing as well. How was that experience? Did it affect aspects of your work, and did being a writer shape your approach to teaching?

Being a writer made me want to provide my students with the basic skills of successful writing–use of the active voice, strong verbs, the rule of three, etc. because I know how important those skills are. Many of them wanted class to be just a workshop, where they would have their writing critiqued. The problem with that approach in an introductory class is that it ends up with the uninformed critiquing the uninformed. So I used tons of handouts and assigned short writing tasks based on those handouts–with class critiquing limited to the skill the writer was trying to develop in that particular assignment. I did, however, also ask them to be working on a short story, in which they would try to incorporate all the skills they were learning as the course progressed. We then work-shopped these stories during the last two weeks of class. I also make it clear to them that, once they had acquired the basic toolbox of writers skills, they could then experiment with breaking those rules, and I would quote Faulkner (I think he was the one) who said there is only one rule in writing, which is that there are no rules. But that is only after you have mastered them, I would always add.

Teaching the course helped me improve my own writers’ toolbox. The old saying that “The best way to learn something is to have to teach it” is very accurate.

It’s easy to find opinions about writing; it’s more rare to find reasoning behind why a piece of writing did or did not achieve its purpose. I think the basic toolbox you mention aids writers not only in their writing, but in being able to synthesize criticism, to separate that which is useful and that which is destructive, something crucial for anyone looking to share their work publicly.

How has the experience of publishing short stories been for you? I admit to always approaching the release of a new story with a touch more terror than glee. It fascinates me that writing is such a solitary pursuit, but that the outcome is one we’re so often driven to offer to the world. I’m always curious how other writers respond to act of publication.

When I began sending out my short stories, I was both eager and anxious to hear back–then, of course, disappointed when the answer was no, which was most often the case. These rejections were especially hard to take at the beginning because the first short story I sent out was actually accepted by Thema (the story had to be about a train wreck involving a circus). Unfortunately, this made me think getting published was quite easy–but the next one hundred rejections (I exaggerate, of course) produced only “Thanks, but no thanks” responses, disabusing me of that assumption. Just as use dulls the edge of an axe, rejections dulls the edge of expectation, so now my response to rejections is quite ho-hum. Sometimes I don’t even remember that I had submitted a story to such-and-such a magazine until I check my submissions list. It’s still a disappointment, but one that is fleetingly, as opposed to my three-month depressions. (Again, I exaggerate, but it was much harder to swallow back at the beginning.)

Yes, the act of writing is solitary, and, yes, we writers are driven to share. That’s why I don’t believe writers who say, “Oh, I really don’t care if my work gets published. I just write for my own pleasure.” I agree that writing is pleasurable, though hard, work, but if that statement were entirely true, why would such a writer submit? We all, I think, do want to share by having our work published. But, your question is, what is behind that desire to share. I think there is a Mulligan’s stew of answers: 1) ego gratification (Look what I did!) 2) having a sense of completion (a story, poem, essay, novel seems to me to need publication to be complete, begs to have as many readers as possible 3) a sense of accomplishment, which is first cousin to numbers one and two 4) the desire to connect with other human beings by moving them to feel something: sadness, empathy, joy, fear, longing–or simply entertained, nothing wrong with a beach read. 5) the hope that reading our words will somehow make someone else’s life a little easier, enjoyable, or better understood.

I think that with the first novel I wrote–I had quit all writing from when I was in my early twenties until just shy of forty–I really did believe that the act of writing was the only important thing. I had no intention of sharing it, told almost no one I was writing it, and I changed my mind mainly because of one very persistent friend. That experience, the intensity of connecting with someone over a story that I’d woven so much of myself into, changed everything. As you said, sharing becomes the final, necessary step.

At one point you mentioned to me that you spent a lot of time alone as a child, time you filled with exploring and with reading. I, too, spent a lot of time alone, and there’s a thread that runs through my life, from my childhood to now, that is storytelling. Not written, necessarily, but the sorts of stories children tell themselves. I’m curious whether you feel something of the same. Just as publication may be the completion of writing, perhaps writing is sometimes the completion of daydreaming as a child.

As for the connection between childhood solitary wandering and daydreaming and adult writing, you raise an interesting point. I never thought of that before, but, upon reflection, I think that’s true–at least for me and, as you said, for you.

Being by oneself a lot as a child results in the need to create friends inside your head, to create events, in general to live inside oneself much more than would a child who is most often surrounded by siblings or neighborhood friends. It’s a life that, by necessity, is more a life of imagining. So, in a way, solitary children are “interior writers.” Their stories just aren’t written on paper. But what training! Even today, I often find myself living inside my head, explaining something to someone, creating a scene for something I wish would happen, or wondering what life in winter is like for Paul, a possum who lives and hibernates (I guess) under our deck.

Exactly–“interior writers” is a perfect description. My shift from not writing to writing was as simple as realizing that the stories I told myself when I was alone could be transferred to paper (or pixel), as long as I could find the time and stamina.

I sometimes think that there is just one true story that I’m trying to write, and everything I do, every single story I complete, is practice toward that end. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about a Kurt Vonnegut quote regarding the writing of Slaughterhouse Five. It’s rather lengthy, but I’m going to stick it in here nonetheless:

“I felt after I finished Slaughterhouse-Five that I didn’t have to write at all anymore if I didn’t want to. It was the end of some sort of career. I don’t know why, exactly. I suppose that flowers, when they’re through blooming, have some sort of awareness of some purpose having been served…At the end of Slaughterhouse-Five, I had the feeling that I had produced this blossom. So I had a shutting-off feeling, you know, that I had done what I was supposed to do and everything was OK. And that was the end of it. I could figure out my missions for myself after that.”

Do you have that sense, in your own writing, of something you’re trying to reach? Not good reviews, or bestseller status, or any of those external trappings of success. Instead, I’m thinking of that daydreaming child, of the arc begun early in life and translated by the adult mind. What elements would be part of your Vonnegut-esque bloom, be it genre, or theme, or setting, or any other aspect?

I think for me the bloom is in the ending. If I have a sense that the ending is just right, then the flower of the writing is in full bloom, and I enjoy the sense of a satisfying completion. Why? Maybe it’s because so many things I experienced while growing up did not have satisfying endings–or an ending at all.

Certainly, my brother’s death was not a “rose in full bloom” kind of ending. Nor my mother’s death from cancer when I was thirteen (I don’t think I mentioned this before.) My father chose not to tell me–and warned others not to–that she was dying, thinking, of course, that it was best for me to keep thinking she would get better (which I did) and not to be constantly upset during the course of her illness. So that ending was quite a shock. To keep the flower analogy, it was as if the rose of that experience was clipped without having had the chance to follow nature’s course, namely, allowing me to deal with my mother’s terminal illness as it wound its way toward her demise.

As well, there were just so many other things not talked about–career choices, books read, friendships, my brother’s alcoholism. Such a non-verbal environment does not make for a good garden, meaning many important events were not fertilized or watered so that they could come to their natural ending, whatever than might be–understanding, resignation, hope.

So maybe that’s why it’s so important for me to have a sense of completion with my short story and novel endings. Unlike Vonnegut, however, I quickly want to start something new and bring that to the right, for me, ending. Maybe it’s as the old Quaker (or Shaker?) hymn would have it–the one about turning, turning, and turning so that things will “come out right.” If I keep writing, writing, writing, things (life) will come our right.

A few truths

There are times I get very quiet here, and it’s because I’m busy, or uninspired, or not home. After all, if the only thing I have to say bores me, then I really have no desire to inflict it on you. Today I drove to buy groceries. Today I took a child for a physical. Today… You get the picture.

Sometimes, though, I don’t write because this is an odd space. The seductive thing about writing a blog post is that it can feel as though you are writing to yourself, or to a specific loved one. The truth is that a blog like this is open. It is a newspaper on a library shelf, one for the obscure country of Jenniferland, read by a few natives living elsewhere, and others–the curious, those interested in foreign policy, those dreaming of trips they’ll never take.

The question becomes, who do the editors of the Jenniferland Gazette seek to reach. To appeal to a potential tourist, one glosses over the matters of poverty, and hunger, and distress. One writes about sunny beaches and elusive birds and shrimp-mango surprise.

The trouble is, I’m really not that kind of writer. The act of writing begs honesty for me. Crossroads has been an exhausting book to work on because it wants to sit at that intersection of magic and reality, where deals sealed with a kiss can steal a voice, and ghosts can pilot a bus, but that magic walks alongside the fact that there are people–men, women, families, children on their own–living without homes in this country. Many of them. It’s hard to write a story and know how much you want to get it right, and also know you won’t. Not all of it.

That’s something of an aside. I came here to say that I haven’t been writing because writing has been hard because I don’t have those warm sunny travelogues to share at the moment.

A few truths. I’ve been waiting, a lot. I waited to see a specialist, and then I waited to get a biopsy, and now I’m waiting to hear that my thyroid doesn’t want to kill me. It’s highly unlikely that it does, but until I hear, I’m waiting. For now, I’ve traded my visible lump for a few tiny holes, the sort of thing a feeble vampire toddler might leave.

My aunt died. This was not unexpected. She had a terrible disease, and it took everything from her. She was warm and funny and loved to talk, and to sing, and to eat, and she stayed that way, even though she’d lost a husband young, even though she lost a daughter. Those things about her were eaten up by her disease, cruelly, because even though diseases have no intent of their own, their actions can feel as cruel, crueler sometimes, than the things humans choose to do.

I had not spent much time with her in years. But…there’s always a but, and in this case, it’s a selfish one, she was part of my childhood, as were my grandparents, with whom she lived, and her daughter. They are all gone now. One headstone, four names, and I miss them all. I miss the dairy my grandfather owned when I was a child, I miss the cows, with their big eyes and long tongues and curiosity, I miss my cousin’s dog, Daisy, and walking her, and I miss being young and having a place that felt as though magic sat everywhere. That was the way my grandfather’s farm felt to me.

It’s all vanished from my life. There are memories that are mine alone now–a wood duck perched in a tree, a flat slab of rock warmed in the sun–mine and the land’s, because I do believe there are echoes of everything–footsteps, water, sun, shadow–held by the earth.

Things happen, and while they do, the rest of life doesn’t pause. There are points in parenting when things continue relatively unchanged, and there are others when you cannot catch your breath, when it feels your children are growing into themselves so quickly, so…there really are not words to describe the combination of grace and awkwardness and need and capability, or to explain what it does to your heart to watch. And that growth can be happening in the midst of grief and fear and all the things life passes along.

Enough truth?

I’ll try to write more often. I have a backlog of wonderful interviews with very patient people to post, so you’ll being seeing those as well.

Peace.

Talking about writing–S.S.Evans

Ta da! Another interview! It’s almost like I’m organized or something.

Today, I have the pleasure of introducing S.S. Evans, an author, nerd, foodie, and country girl trapped in Washington, DC. She can often be found hanging out longingly at the dog park without a pet. When not writing fiction, she is a producer for an international news network and dabbles in the occasional freelance article. She spent two years working in Agriculture for Peace Corps Ecuador and came out of it with great stories and physical scars. She has a BA in Writing and Spanish from the University of Pittsburgh.

Thanks, Sarah, for volunteering your brain to science…er, for showing up for an interview!

You started out writing fanfiction. I didn’t, but reading it was one of the things that started me writing again. I’m not even sure I can articulate what it sparked, other than a sense of…liberation, maybe. A thrill from the energy of the writers there?

In any case, I just got Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell, out of the library, and I read the acknowledgments first, as I usually do, and she says this: “Also: I decided to write this book after reading a lot (I mean, a lot) of fanfiction. Reading fic was a transformative experience for me–it changed the way I think about writing and
storytelling, and helped me more deeply understand my own intense relationships with fictional words and characters.”

So, tell me, what has fanfiction done for you as a writer? Technique, content, anything that feels of importance to you–I want to hear it all.

I love talking about fanfiction. I consider it the best tool for an aspiring writer, for multiple reasons. First, you get a reader base. That is a huge plus for a first time writer, knowing that hundreds of people from around the world are reading your words. You get reviews, and followers – there is nothing like the jump you feel getting a new review in your inbox. You have a community of people cheering you on, reading every chapter, giving advice. It makes you want to write more, it makes you feel connected in a way that writing solo doesn’t. Plus, the readers are strangers – I know personally I’m fine with strangers reading my writing but I cringe when a friend wants to read it. There’s no inherent judgement because all those people don’t know you, your face or past or personality. All they know are the words you write. It’s freeing.

And if you’re reading fanfiction – leave reviews. Some authors will respond and get to know you and you can start a dialogue. Same with when you receive reviews – write back, thank them, let them know you care. You can foster a real community and make friends and personally connect with people who are passionate about your writing. It might even help you find a great beta reader.

And that leads to a tip: Get a beta reader. You can find them on all fanfiction websites (Fanfiction.net, Archive of Our Own, etc). It’s someone who, for free, will edit your stories. Pick someone whose writing you admire, if you can, and who is part of the fandom you’re writing for. And listen to them. It’s hugely helpful to have that gentle voice critiquing your spelling and prose and even plot, especially if you’re just starting out.

Also: Write a lot, then update slowly, maybe about once every week or two. Leave people wanting more!

But here’s why it’s really helpful: Practice. So many hours of writing practice. You already have a world and characters set up for you. Want to see something happen in the show that didn’t? Want to add a new character into the mix and see how that changes existing dynamics? Want characters to hook up? Want to write them all in high school? Write it! Have fun! Go crazy! But whether they’re all now gay/werewolves/teens/gay werewolf teens, focus on still making it feel like the show/movie/book you love.

Focus on the cadence of the characters’ speech and make sure your writing reflects it. Make it match – how they move, how they express themselves. Is the character gruff? Don’t make them too effusive. Is the character relationship-adverse? Don’t make them fall in love immediately and become super lovey-dovey. Work within the framework to make something new. I’m not often a slash fan, but some of the best fic I ever read was slash that took the time to make me believe that these two seemingly straight characters would fall in love. It felt real, and it worked.

Also, pet peeve time, if you want a write a story where you want the villain to win and the good guy to lose, don’t make the canonically good guy a mustache-twirling, drunken rapist villain and the bad guy a misunderstood passionate lover. Just don’t. You can make it work while still keeping their basic personalities intact. I promise. (I’m looking at you, Phantom of the Opera fandom).

At the end of the day it’s just practice, practice, practice. The world is already set up for you. The characters are already fully fleshed out. All you have to do is play with them, so by the time you’re ready to write your own story, you’ll have pesky things like voice, dialogue, movement, and story structure all figured out.

Another thing that interests me is authorial reaction to fanfiction. To me, one of the fundamental lessons of writing for publication is that your world, your characters, cease to be yours, at least in the way they are when you hide away and write for yourself. My assumption is that choosing to write as a fan in someone else’s world is an expression of love for someone’s creation. Do you think that’s true? What drew you to the worlds you wrote (write?) in?

It drives me crazy when authors don’t like fanfiction, or even worse when they won’t allow it. I loved The Dragonriders of Pern growing up but I never liked that Anne McCaffrey had problems with people writing fanfiction. Fanfiction is a labor of love, and fandom fosters interest in your world and characters that would otherwise dull with time. When people can write and talk about their fandom, they buy more books, they make cosplay and attend conventions, they want products and signatures and photos – they’re making you money! They are putting money directly into your pocket and you deny that because of some idea of purity of story.

Here’s the thing: Once you put your story out into the world, it ceases to be yours. It will never be yours again. Every single person who reads it will take something different away, and it won’t be what you intended. Authors who go on record saying people are interpreting their books wrong don’t get it. What the author meant to say doesn’t matter all. It’s all in the interpretation, and you can’t tell someone they’re doing it wrong.

So let people play! Why wouldn’t you get joy out of seeing people love your work? My greatest dream would be to have a panel at a con and see people dressed as my characters. There is so much love out there and people are bursting to share it. It’s the best thing about the internet.

A good example is Supernatural, a show I’ve written copious amounts of fanfiction for: It should have ended years ago. It’s pretty much dead on its feet now (sorry, SPN fans, you know it’s true). It was just a little show about two dudes in an old car fighting monsters with often-cheesy dialogue, but the fandom took hold of it and now it won’t die. It’s been on ten years! Fans will not let it go and they’re so, so passionate that the show keeps getting renewed. Those actors and writers are kind and interact and cater to their fans, and it puts money in their pockets.

I write fanfiction for different reasons. I wrote Supernatural fanfiction because I wanted to add a female into a completely male cast and play with how that would affect the world, and also because I wanted to try my hand at writing dialogue in very specific character voices, a realistic relationship, action, and end-of-the-world stakes. I wrote my biggest Phantom of the Opera fic because I wanted to write something gritty and dark and awful to counteract all the “abduction is love” fanfics that dominate the fandom. I wrote a quick Thor fanfic because I felt that his time on earth was too short to make any sort of realistic difference to his personality, so I juxtaposed a long period of time with a very short story. I got something different out of each of my fics, but they all helped to make me a better writer.

Ah, too many things to talk about and too little time! That’s the trouble with these interviews–I want the chance to discuss much more than time allows.

So, what was the point at which you decided that you wanted to work on your own world and characters? Was the story something you’d carried with you for a while, or something completely new?

I started writing fanfic when I was 14, a long time ago. I’d been writing short little stories of my own since I was a kid, but my first real attempt at a book came when I was about 19 or so. That book was inspired by a dream. It never saw the light of day, but it’s dear to my heart and gave me the gumption and the knowledge that I could write a whole book and actually finish it. During and after that I wrote a lot of fanfiction, especially when I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Ecuador and had little to do. It helped me shape some ideas and improve my writing so I could start on something real.

My latest book, Left of West (represented by the wonderful Alice Speilburg of Speilburg Literary), came out of that time period. I’d actually played with ideas before I left for Peace Corps – it was a very different book then, fantasy but very political. Over about two years things shifted in my mind and I dropped the politics and settled into urban fantasy. I always wanted to write a story with group dynamics, something I wasn’t good at – fanfiction helped with that. Writing a team of already existing characters in fandom allowed me to figure out how to write my own group of disparate people thrown together. I also figured out, after I wrote pure escapist fanfiction with a smartass, asskicking heroine, that that wasn’t what I wanted to convey in my books. I didn’t want my books to be straight wish fulfillment.

I wanted to write something that usually wasn’t seen – I didn’t want to follow the status quo. I knew from the beginning that I wanted characters that were not idealized – no sexy, asskicking heroine, no super hot mysterious dude, no love triangle. That shaped a lot of my ideas. I wanted a weak, average heroine who felt real, who makes terrible mistakes, and who could really grow and change without romance, so she could focus on her own wants and needs. I wanted the mysterious dude to be flawed, often wrong, and an asshole. The person would have been the third wheel in the love triangle, the upbeat best friend boy, is still an upbeat best friend – but the frivolity is a mask and he’s struggling with his own inner cowardice. The adorable child character is a rotting corpse. Another main character is a sickly doppelganger of the heroine. The final battle is less about fighting external enemies and more about defeating that terrible voice in your head that tells you’re worthless.

It’s everything I practiced – gritty writing, fleshed out characters, group interaction, worldbuilding, everything. It came together into a book that I’m really proud of, and I don’t think I could have done any of it without fanfiction.

I understand the desire to leave the ass-kicking heroine trope behind for something more real. There’s a different alphabet of understanding used when we write characters who stumble and struggle, who aren’t irresistible to everyone they meet and who lack the perfect comeback to every line they hear.

It sounds as though you had a sense of what you wanted from your characters from the beginning. Is that true, or was it a messier process to reach that point? I ask that because I tend to overwrite, to document all those steps that get my main character from point A to point B before I reach a point where I understand them and am ready to pare the excess away.

I had a sense of what I wanted from the characters at the beginning but like everything they evolved. Actually, originally June, my main character, was going to be a lot darker, to the point where I worried she would be hard to empathize with. Smoothing out her character also forced a slight change of motivation and personality. My biggest desire for her was to be unwanted and unable to see her own strength – ignored, alone, unloved, unattractive, often how people feel as a teenager or at any age. It’s why I didn’t want romance in the story, because it’s her story, how she comes to be (and feel) strong and brave and worth something, internally. To triumph over self hate.

The other characters went through their own changes as well, especially that of Chess, the super smart mad scientist nerd extraordinaire. He’s every smart nerd that is just dying for the zombie apocalypse. He thrives on a sense of purpose. But as I wrote him, this culmination of every dorky dude I know and love, I found an unexpected thread of cowardice in him. He’s trying so hard to be brave and live up to his dreams, but inside is the kid who played D&D and got beat up by football players, his own inner anxieties he wants to suppress, and his own prejudices he has to come to terms with. And so much of his journey became shaking off that show of bravado to become actually brave.

It’s amazing how much changes when you start to write and characters take on their own personalities – the realer they feel, the more the plot has to shape itself around them, and not vice versa.

There is something incredible about the moment characters step off the page and start dictating their own actions. It’s possibly my favorite part of writing.

Which brings me to my last question: what do you enjoy about writing? What is the thing that makes you get up and continue writing, despite the low points of it, or of work, or of life? Why write?

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember – don’t all writers say that? I taught myself to read at a very young age, and my first “book” was written when I was about six, rose-bordered pages stapled together into a soap-opera story of love, where everyone ended up dead at the end.

Writing keeps me grounded. I’m very caught up in my head, always daydreaming, and when I don’t write all of those thoughts get stuck there. It gets to the point where it’s difficult to pay attention, to interact with people and enjoy my daily life, if I can’t get those thoughts on the page and out of my head. Once I write it down, I can enjoy my life in the moment.

Writing is never a low point for me. I don’t love editing, and the process to get published sucks, but the writing part is always magical. I totally tune out the world, crank up my inner TV, and transcribe what I see playing in front of my eyes. I walk around and enact the scenes out loud, speaking for different characters, to figure out how their dialogue should flow. I’ve written death scenes and sobbed while writing. It’s the closest to magic that I can get. There is this overwhelming joy to putting words on the page and seeing these people that live in my head jump out and become tangible.

It’s awful thinking that your book will never see the light of day. It’s painful to keep editing something that might end up stashed in a drawer. It can feel pointless. You have to really love the act of writing, not just the finished product, to be able to keep going despite all the disappointment.

Thoughts while washing the floor

A brief thought on this lovely sunny day. I am grateful, endlessly so, to the writers who have poured themselves into the stories I have loved. Those who helped me understand what mattered to me, whose characters remind me to be braver than I think I am, or kinder, or truer. Those who have showed me something unexpected about the world, or who have shown me that I’m not alone in what I think or feel or experience, or made me happy for the time I was lost in their world. Those who make me think I’ve set my own writing bar way too low and challenge me to be more as a writer.

Writers, please write. I’m counting on you.

Greetings from May

The hawks are noisy this time of year. They circle and call, swoop past our house on their way to secret hawk functions. Yesterday there was more noise than usual as we walked up to the garage. We peered around the edge of the building and into the massive oak there. Look, my daughter said. It has another bird.

It did, though not at all the way I expected. I’m no stranger to the sexual antics of birds, but I’ve never before been privy to such a display by hawks. It makes me wonder where their nest is, whether I might find it if I go looking.

It’s an exceptional fertile spring around here. Our old wading pool has been adopted by both spotted salamanders and multiple varieties of frogs as a vernal pool. We meant to get rid of it, but they’ve returned year after year, in increasing numbers. I suppose the pool is much lighter on predators than the beaver pond, or perhaps it’s just closer. Tadpoles have begun to hatch, and they float, tail down, tired from the work of exiting the egg.

Even the old lady hens are laying up a storm. I’d assumed we were feeding and housing them in exchange for eggs past, but they’ve taken the increased light as a sign they should fill the coop (as much as three hens can manage).

My own creative output is sadly lacking, thanks to an endless cold and a surplus of life events. I did send out my first new short story in months, and I have a few more I’m working on. They feel much harder than the ones I’ve written in the past. I’m not sure if it’s because the older ones were completed during that flurry of amazement that I was writing at all, or if I’ve regressed in terms of dealing with the Infernal Editor, or if I’m simply writing a bit outside of my comfort zone these days.

The only response to any of those, of course, is to continue on. Surrounded by the buoyancy of life outside, I’ll do my best to follow its lead.

Talking about writing–Benjamin Schachtman

Today is interview day! This is the second in a series begun an embarrassingly long time ago. My goal in doing this is an entirely selfish one. I have my own experiences as a writer, but I have a cannibalistic desire to taste everyone else’s as well. Talking About Writing provides me with that chance.

Today’s guest, Benjamin Schachtman is, depending on when you ask him, a graduate student, a line cook, a writer, or a guitarist. His work has appeared in print from Anobium Literary, The Conium Review, The Bad Version and online at Slushpile Magazine, Vine Leaves Literary, Fuck Fiction, Eunoia Review, and Foundling Review. After a long time in New York City, he’s currently hiding out on the Carolina coast with his wife and dog.

Thanks, Benjamin, for allowing me to pick your brain!

You’re currently working on your dissertation in English Literature. That’s interesting to me because an MFA is the degree of choice for so many writers these days. Is the doctorate an integral part of your goals as a writer, or is it part of your life as a reader, or something more prosaic, like the door to a career that provides you with the time and support to write?

I’d love to tell you it well calculated, or, less cynically, well planned, but the truth is it was a Hail Mary pass. I was burnt out working lousy kitchen jobs in restaurants that always seemed to be a week from going under. The band I was in wasn’t playing much or writing new music (the same old song: artistic differences and drugs), my hours were brutal and I never saw my girlfriend (now my wife, so at least I salvaged that). Grad school was a fairly desperate gambit. I was tremendously lucky that I landed in a small group of good people, and that I ended up being fairly adept at the language and politics of academics. I’ve been fortunate and, if that trend continues, I can see a pretty good gig down the line, at least in terms of having time to write.

That said, I do think that over time the PhD program became a significant part of my life as a reader and writer. I have a healthy skepticism about MFA programs in general, and a different – but equally robust – skepticism about the PhD. But I will say that the PhD program has given me a longer view of literature, about what gets called the long conversation of literature. It humbles you; put you in your place. I don’t imagine my work ever being in the canonical echelon –and, of course, that canon is racist and sexist and a dozen other nasty ‘ist’s – but I don’t think it’s wrong to want what you write to endure, and to be aware and alive to what came before you.

And, of course, teaching literature gives you a whole new appreciation for how it works – and doesn’t work – in the minds of different kinds of readers.

Hmm, there are two tracks I’d like to follow here. Perhaps the more straightforward one first.

How has your grad school relationship with the Western literary canon, and the deepened sense to create work that endures, shaped your current work in fiction? Is it more of a question of theme or genre, or simply pushing further into the spaces you’ve always been drawn to as a writer?

Absolutely, for me, it was about pushing further, or rather, realizing how far people had already pushed. Part of that is just reading: not just the big names but the ‘lesser known’ – one good thing about the modern academy is that, though the canon is still stubbornly white and male, it’s always expanding – you find professors looking for sci-fi and queer erotica and black modernists, wonderfully weird things in places you wouldn’t expect to find them. So, there’s just the experience of reading a lot – the kind of education that many writers, before the internet (not to get all Franzen-ish on you), gave themselves out of necessity, being weird, squirrelly, solitary folks.

And, of course, you end up with heroes. And then you kill those heroes.

One of the things that shocked me when I came out of my very long dry spell and began to write again was the deep divides between genres. As someone who never fit very well in any one camp, either as a reader or a writer, I found it stifling. But it seems to me there is a constant testing of all the walls these days, of knocking parts down and building new structures–fountains, garden benches, rockets–with bits of the old. What influences do you tap into in your writing, and how far back do they go for you? (I’ll admit to having a secret fear that I’m recreating The Little Prince, since I read it so many times as a kid.)

I know what you mean about genres, and though I try to avoid hand-wringing, it can be depressing. I have my literary influences – too many, I’m sure – that crop up in my work (I’ll do a wincing read through and go, ‘uh, Palahniuk,’ or – if it’s bleaker than that – ‘ugh, Bret Easton Ellis,’ or – if I’ve got a pretty, hard little gem, ‘oooh, O’Conner’). I had one hideous monster of a ‘novel’ that was a modernist collage, basically Joyce with a little Bukowski and a heavy dose of Jean Toomer’s amazing Cane. I was in love with that real visceral desire to smash boundaries, I still am. These days, though, I’m more willing to be subversive rather than all-out disruptive (I’m a punk at heart, not a revolutionary). So I’m willing to write a domestic drama that hides a horror-story, or a sci-fi piece that hides a domest drama, and so on… I love films and novels that smuggle in other things (I’m think, right now, of Del Toro’s Mama, but also bolder examples, like Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a historical thriller that was really an existential horror story, or, in novels, of Gone Girl, which had a pitch-black Camus-level nihilistic core, wrapped in pulpy, read-in-one-day beach book prose).

But when I try to tap into things, deliberately, it’s always rock’n’roll. I hear the right music for a scene, and so that often dictates the mood, the pace, the sentence length, damn near everything. That, for me, goes back to my childhood, my dad had some great albums: Allman Brothers at the Filmore, Cream, The Byrds, and my aunts and uncles were big fans of Pink Floyd, Zeppelin, all that.

As an example, imagine a sex scene (doesn’t have to be graphic, call it a love scene). Play Rachmaninoff’s piano concerto #3 – and it becomes amazingly sad, tender and more than a little doomed; play The Stone Rose’s ‘I want to be adored’ and it gets more ironic, play the Deftones ‘be quiet and drive’ and it’s desperate and violent. The same people, performing the same actions, but – in my head – radically different tones. I never think ‘how would Borges or Nabakov or Woolf write this,’ but I’m always thinking about the music I’d want playing while someone read it.

Which leads more or less perfectly into that other path I wanted to follow: how have your experiences as a musician affected your writing? I’m not a musician, and I’m not someone who can write while listening to music (too many things, too little brain space), but songs…they change everything for me. I have a couple I listen to whenever I need to be more grounded in sensory detail; I have others that reconnect me with the mood I need for a particular story, a certain character.

I hear that a lot from writers–that music does anything from enhances to channels their writing. I’m curious about how it works for you as both a musician and a writer. How has writing and/or performing music intersected with your other writing?

I try to be careful of too-easy synesthetic metaphors, to say that a passage – or a whole piece – is the written equivalent of a piece of music, that leaves too much out. But, as I said it’s definitely an influence.

But I think you’re asking a different (and good) question here. So, let me answer in two ways.

First, it’s a release valve. Most people, myself included, are suspicious of raw emotion in prose and poetry. You’ve got to earn it, craft it, measure it, make it strange. It strikes us (a slippery ”us,’ but I’ll say it anyway), as purple, or Hallmarky (or StrifeTimey). You cannot write: ‘x loves y’ on the first page of a novel, because it has no weight. But you can pick up a guitar, and scream it, and people will feel it. A sad blues song isn’t a cliche when you’re there in the audience, and maybe a little drunk. It cuts you right in two. So, it’s a good place to put all those raw and unmediated feelings. I think when I’m feeling too intellectual I’ll usually go work on my dissertation or an article, and when I’m mad at the world or heartbroken or melancholy, I’ll go play guitar. In between, when I’ve got a good hand on the reins, I’ll write fiction..

And, second, it’s the other woman of fiction. I apologize for that metaphor – it could be the other man, too – but there it is. Fiction is like a marriage, it takes work and time and – yes – sometimes endless rounds of revisiting and reworking. It lasts, last a long time if it’s good, but it is not easy, and the effects are not immediate. It takes me weeks, sometimes years, to decide how I feel about a novel I’ve read, all that time to work through it, to grow with it, to really understand it. Rock and roll – excuse me – is just fucking sexy. Rock’n’roll shows up, it’s loud and flashy and offers you immediate gratification. I’ve been lucky to play with a few bands that could improvise, throwing something together on stage, live, with people watching, and when it works, it’s better than anything. Anything. To shift the metaphor from sex to drugs, that’s a high a novelist or a poet could chase all their lives. The best poem, the must stunning twist, the sharpest line, it’ll still be chasing the awesome, almost terrifying power of live music. There’s something almost fascist about rock’n’roll, you see a crowd – or, more often, you’re in a crowd – and they are hypnotized. Swept along. As a writer, how could you not crave that kind of power?

And the relationship, between the quiet intimacy imagined between a writer and his or her reader, and that very different thing, between a band and a crowd, well, that’s something I’ve been writing about, in different ways, for a while now. So, at that meta-level, I suppose the writer wins. The writer always wins.

Thanks–you explain that well. There is an inherent distance between writer and audience, and, while I haven’t done readings, I suspect that distance remains even while sharing work in that format. The highest points I’ve had as a writer feel more like whispering delicious secrets in the dark than they do like taking center stage.

As a final question, what do you want to say about who you strive to be as a writer? This has mostly been questions that interest me, without a lot of room for you to talk about what it is you actually write. Tell me, or tell me what you’d secretly love to write, or what you long to capture in your work, regardless of the shape it takes. And thank you.

All writers get pigeon holed – all artists do – and there’s a compelling case to be made for ‘finding your niche,’ writing about your ethnic group, your sexuality, your background, your nation, you generation. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But I also I think of Joyce, about whom Samuel Beckett said: ‘he’s tending towards omniscience and omnipotence.’ Even Joyce, even in Finnegan’s Wake, but also in Ulysses, he’s excruciatingly concerned with the Irish nation, the Irish people. If Joyce was a god, he was an Irish god.

So who then, are my people? Leaving aside the finer rabbinical and Catholic technicalities, I’m Irish Catholic and a secular Russian Jew, without being quite able to claim either. My solution for this predicament – so tempting to claim Philip Roth and Flannery O’Connor, forebears I can reach but not grasp – was, at first, the punk rock underground (such that it is, there are people who will shoot ice-daggers into your heart with their eyes for dreaming that punk lives on, others who will dress you down, in public, for saying it died). Over time, though, I think I got a clearer picture of who I love, who I love to write about, and what I want to be as a writer.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I’d love to be the poet of the mad – which sounds phenomenally pretentious, but, again, there it is. What I’ve done so far, and what I hope to keep doing, is to write about all the forms of madness. To write about the mentally ill, yes, to deal with suicide and schizophrenia and depression, but also to deal with the particular madness of infatuation and love, the madness or rock’n’roll, the madness of capitalism, of showing up every day to a job you hate in a world you don’t understand and can’t succeed in, the madness of attempting to make art in the 21st century, the madnesses of wealth and poverty, the madness of trauma, the madness of drug addiction and the madness of sobriety, the madness of hatred and the madness of identity. Looking back, very little connects my characters – they are aged homophobes and mixed-race queers, they are wealthy junkies and starving artists, autistic demigods strung out in sci-fi wastelands and drunken good old boys lost in the very real wastelands of America. For some time, I was plowing ahead, writing without a ‘master plan,’ and – by and large – that’s still how I do it. But, every time, I realize, my work is always about madness, about that jarring, stomach-twisting drop-in-your-stomach feeling when you catch a glimpse of the abyss between your world and the world outside. And, if I’m lucky, I can make this work humane – for characters and readers alike. I can make it funny and palatable and a bit subtle, up front at least, and smuggle the madness in. I can write about someone you know, so to speak, and then leave you wondering if I’ve gone off on a crazed tangent or if that person, the one you know, see and speak to daily, is living on some fractured iceberg, calved off from the main ice-sheet of your own reality.

To wrap up here, let me say this: one of the generally held tenets of post-modernism, which is by and large the secular religion of academics, is that we’re all alone, isolated and meaningless, and that our attempts to communicate and connect are ‘always-already’ doomed. It’s a bleak kind of nihilism (yes, there are kinds, some are bleaker than others). But, in my heart, I’m still a modernist. Nothing is real, nothing has meaning, we can’t connect, it’s mad to think we can, but we still try. Our fictions, our songs and our poems, whatever it is we do, we do them in spite of the void. Woolf once called her fictions a tiny little strip of pavement over the abyss. If that’s all my work ever is, I’d be grateful and proud.

Alive! Sort of.

Greetings from the Land of Not Dead Yet! After spending the weekend more or less unable to remain upright, I’ve now graduated to hunching over the keyboard and coughing like a chain smoker. Be very grateful that you’re safely outside of my germ radius.

I’ve not yet written my urban Sleeping Beauty story, but, thanks to M.E. Garber and Widdershins, it is now a giant irritating grain of sand in my oyster of a brain. Bone, spindle, graffiti…some words are best not combined, unless you are prepared to deal with what they conjure.

My other bedridden dreams were of the Antarctic. I recently learned of this program, thanks to my dear spouse. One might ask why he’s travel-agenting me toward the ends of the Earth…the answer is out of the goodness of his heart, of course. Despite my general down-ness on snow these days, I’m fascinated by Antarctica. Unfortunately, the closest I’ve ever come is being stuck in a line of weather-stranded flyers in O’Hare behind a woman on her way back from a research trip there.

So, somewhere in my future is a novel that takes place entirely in the Antarctic. Until then, my non-existent coffee table is laden with this book, a tome only slightly smaller than the continent itself.

Later this week I’ll post the first of those interviews I keep promising. For now, tell me about your perfect grant–where would it take you? What would you write/study/do once you were there? Tell me a dream or two.

April whimsy

It’s April, and it snowed. The snow was the end to a day in which I wandered about in the rain without my raincoat, which I didn’t have because I couldn’t find it because it was hanging on the back of the bathroom door (obviously).

In the midst of wandering in the rain, I went into a used clothes store that had also been a used clothes store way back when I was in high school. It was the place where I bought my one and only piece of cool clothing when I was eighteen. I wore said piece of cool clothing all the time until it became threadbare and tired and gave up on existence altogether. This time through, I was very tempted to buy either a sailor’s uniform (why? because) or a long black overcoat. The overcoat was so long, though, and so large, that I could have used it as a tent as easily as a coat. I decided against it.

(Why, you might ask, didn’t I just look for a raincoat? Because practicality is not one of my strong points.)

After coming home wet and tired, and with a throat that had turned the corner toward sore, I discovered a drip. Kind of like the Telltale Heart, only I hadn’t planted the drip in my floorboards, or anywhere else. This drip had located itself in the ceiling. Up into the crawlspace I went, with great enthusiasm, of course. Who doesn’t love fighting the elements in tight spaces filled with insulation?

(As a side note, I managed to spell insulation as insultation, which I really, really wish was a word. I’m sorry, but you’re about due for an insultation. Let me see what we have available.)

Then, crawl space tasks accomplished, I climbed back down. (Hey, if you have a phobia of…well, I don’t even know what the correct term would be, so, if you have any phobias, skip this next bit.) Only, things weren’t quite right. My finger hurt. A lot, like I’d stuck a nail in it. Or a staple, or anything pointy and not meant to be in fingers.

I looked down. There, sticking off my finger, was a mouse skull. Yes, my finger was impaled on a bit of bone sticking out of the eye socket of a mouse skull.

Occasionally, there are times I want to scream. This may have been one of them. I’m not really bothered by bones, or mice, or even by things stuck in my finger, but…A MOUSE SKULL STABBED MY HAND! It was like Sleeping Beauty and the spindle, only I’m pretty sure there wasn’t a fairy showdown at my christening, and I definitely don’t live in a palace, and…MOUSE SKULL. Really, it was more like the urban fantasy version of Sleeping Beauty, where she gets impaled by a bone and ends up asleep in a unused subway tunnel full of thorn graffiti that comes to life whenever anyone tries to enter it.

Okay, so then it rained more, and then it snowed. That’s more or less all the news from here, aside from my raging cold.

For those of you in the market for more hard-hitting blogging, I’ve got interviews coming! Multiple ones, with writers, about sky-diving. No, not really. About writing, of course. Perhaps not as flashy as mouse skull impalement, but trust me, writing is more interesting.

With that, it’s time for more tea and nap. (For me, though I encourage everyone else to partake as well. Tea and naps have never done anyone any harm.)

Sunflower musing

I have about five different writing projects I should be working on. It’s a bit like battling a hydra–I’m busy chopping off heads and they’re growing back twice as fast and twice as many. It makes me a touch surly as I sit here and stare out the window at the sun and the patches of bare ground here and there.

Today’s my day to work, though, so I will work. But while I work, I’m thinking about an Allen Ginsberg poem, Sunflower Sutra. More specifically, these lines:

“Poor dead flower? when did you forget you were a flower? when did you look at your skin and decide you were an impotent dirty old locomotive? the ghost of a locomotive? the specter and shade of a once powerful mad American locomotive?

You were never no locomotive, Sunflower, you were a sunflower!”

Why? Because I am. Because sometimes something sticks in your head and you must think about it until you’ve reached whatever conclusion your mind is hellbent on finding. For those interested, the complete text can be found here.

A few thoughts about peoplewatching

Thank you for the book suggestions! I appreciate them all. As luck would have it, I’m not picking out books today, but I’m thinking of them as I write. Thinking of them a lot because I’m spending the afternoon in a library. Not mine, not the one of old chairs and old wooden bookcases and books I held as a child, but that’s okay. This one is also full of books, which really is the important part, is it not?

The thing about libraries is that they are quiet and full of books, but they’re also full of people, which makes it hard for me to work. People are rather fascinating, and sometimes hard to ignore, unless, of course, they’re members of my family, in which case I can tune them out like turning down the volume on a radio. Which isn’t, perhaps, something I should admit in public.

But about all those other people…the thing about them is that even when they are quiet, they are expressive. Even when they are still and intent and completely wrapped up in matters of consequence, they give parts of themselves away. Tapping, frowning, smiling, biting on nails (or fingers, apparently), how they sit (legs crossed, feet flat on the floor, chair legs pushed up a little…), how often and when they glance out the window…the list is endless. Our stories trickle out of us everywhere, in so many ways.

If you were watching me, for example, you would notice that I keep rubbing the inside of my ring finger with my thumb. If you were Sherlock Holmes, you might conclude that I’d recently been divorced, or was carrying on a torrid affair with someone who thought me unmarried.

The true, and more prosaic, explanation, is that I made pizza dough this morning in order to let it do a slow rise in the fridge, and I took my wedding band off and set it on top of the baking powder tin so that I wouldn’t get it covered with dough. Significantly less thrilling, but there you have it.

If you write, or daydream, all these little things–motion, emotion, dress, location, scent, habit–all these things are tiny little doorways that you can’t help but want to enter. Does the scowling woman scowl because she is unhappy, or because she is unfriendly, or does her mouth like to go that way and she would smile, fully, warmly, if I were to speak to her? Does the man rubbing his beard find it itchy, and wish that the weather would warm up so he could shave it off without fear of a chilly chin, or did his father have a big beard, and he used to rub it when he was small and frightened in the night, and touching his own beard takes him back to that place of feeling safe and loved?

It is rather distracting. It’s exactly why I don’t tend to write in public spaces–too rich, too full, too hard to stick to my own little universe. This is the sort of thing that happens when I do. There must be a solution, somewhere. Blinders, possibly? Portable cubicles? Aversion therapy?

Let me know if you find an answer. I’ll be your first customer.

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