Tag: interview

Talking about writing: Kell Andrews

It’s been a while since I’ve had a guest here. Thankfully, Kell Andrews has agreed to take the hot seat and share her thoughts on magic, ecology and, of course, writing. Kell has always wanted to be a writer, but before she rediscovered her love of children’s books, she mostly wrote and edited trade magazines, websites, textbooks, and marketing copy. That was fine except that magic is frowned upon in math textbooks and business press. Today she writes fiction for children and nonfiction for adults.. Her first novel, Deadwood (Spencer Hill Press), was published in 2014, and her short fiction will appear in an upcoming issue of Spider Magazine. A member of SCBWI, Kell holds a humanities degree from Johns Hopkins University and a master of liberal arts degree from the University of Pennsylvania. Born and raised in Philadelphia, she now lives in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. You can contact Kell here, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, or Goodreads. Kell is represented by Kathleen Rushall of Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.

You’ve mentioned enjoying reading and writing fantasy set in the here and now. Not urban fantasy so much as the places where magic slips into life. In fact, your recent book contains magic involving a tree, correct? What draws you to that type of story, and how does Deadwood fit in?

Deadwood has magic rooted in a very real world setting of a depressed inner-ring suburban town. A tree has been cursed via carvings on its bark, and it uses those carvings to spell out messages and communicate to two seventh-graders who have to lift the curse before it spreads.

Deadwood is a bit further on the fantasy line than magical realism but the magic is not as pervasive as urban fantasy or contemporary fantasy, where more often fantasy creatures and settings exist within the human world. I’d say it’s about the level of something like Bigger Than a Breadbox by Laurel Snyder or Half Magic by Elizabeth Enright. Maybe half magic is a good descriptor of my subgenre. I keep the magic limited and give it a pseudoscientific spin because I want it to seem to readers as if it could happen to them if they are in the right place at the right time.

You say that you want it to seem to readers that it (magic) could happen to them if they were in the right place at the right time. I’m curious about that idea, mostly because I also like finding that point where the possibility of magic feels abundantly real, some point of seepage between what we know and what we don’t. Where does that come from in your writing–do you think of yourself as someone inclined toward the unknown, or does it come from who you’ve been as a reader, the types of stories that drew you in as a child? Or both?

As a reader, I am willing to suspend disbelief and trust any world a writer can create if they do it well. But when I was a kid, I suspended disbelief in real life too. I wanted to believe in magic. In fourth grade I had a tree that I would talk to and I pretended it could hear me. I tried witchcraft and spells and Bloody Mary in the mirror at midnight. I worked hard at believing in Santa Claus until I was in sixth grade — then my little sister stopped believing, and I couldn’t maintain the fiction any longer. I still have my childhood teddy bear — she’s a mess, but I loved her enough that she became real like the Velveteen Rabbit, and she never became unreal.

Giving up magic is a hard transition. In Deadwood I wanted the magic to be believable for those who still want to believe — or at least want to pretend to believe.

Rationally now I don’t believe in magic or the paranormal of any kind. But I still know my teddy bear loves me.

I like to think that there’s something in that need to believe that has very tangible benefits. Believe in enough cursed trees and you might begin to look at the trees around you, really see them, find reasons to save them, magic or no. It’s not about dogma as much as it is about connection. Are those types of ideas in your head as you write, or is the story the thing?

I have an ecological theme running through this book, but it wasn’t the primary idea. The theme emerged from the story, not the other way around. All living things in an ecosystem are connected, and in my story I augmented the connection so it’s a bit magical.

There’s a moment in the book when a character says of the Spirit Tree, “It’s not like it’s a living thing.” But of course it is! In my book, the tree has a consciousness. In real life, they don’t, but they still strive towards life. Plants don’t “want” anything, and yet they “want” to live and reproduce. I was looking for a kind of magic that might be plausible in the real world, and I thought of the interconnections of plants and animals.

I hope that readers think about how what they do influences other living things, but it wasn’t what drove the plot. The story came first, but it came from my mind and ecology is something I’m concerned about.

I love that sense of connection in an ecosystem as a type of magic! I think I’m drawn to it because I also spent a great deal of time as a child trying to find magic–talking trees, fairies, weather that I could control–and it was all through nature. Yes, I did check out the backs of a few closets to make sure there weren’t portals, but the rest of the time I looked to the woods.

I think writing about that kind of magic, that openness to the world, is much easier to do through children’s fiction. Adults are often too stodgy. What specific things have led you to write for the ages you do–was it a conscious decision, or just where the writing took you?

Like a lot of people, I started writing middle-grade books because of Harry Potter. When I read those books, it was one of the first times I read a novel and thought maybe I could actually write one. Now I realize I had that moment of recognition, not because Harry Potter was for kids, but because it was genre fiction, and more specifically fantasy.

I read children’s fantasy, mysteries, and fairy tales up to seventh or eighth grade, when I started reading books in the Modern Library or on the college-prep reading lists — mostly 19th century novels. Then in high school, college, and post-college, I read literary fiction. I started out majoring in writing in college, but I never could figure out how to write a contemporary literary novel like the ones I read. How would I plot it out if it wasn’t plot-driven? Plus my own limited experiences were not really anything I’d want to read about — I didn’t want to write them either.

So when I decided to write middle grade, it was partly because I wanted to write about magic, but also because I love how plot-driven middle-grade fantasies are. My story was a puzzle to figure out, and my outline gave me something to follow. And I actually got it done.

So far I’ve only written middle-grade novels, but there are stories I want to tell for older readers too. And they’re still fantasies — it turned out that Harry Potter was a gateway drug, not just to middle grade, but to adult fantasy and genre fiction of all kinds. I’ve realized I love beautiful writing and unforgettable characters even more within a gripping plot, and I have a lot of reading to catch up on.

I also struggled with the idea that I should be writing literary novels, that anything else wasn’t important enough, even though I was moved by stories from all sides of the genre lines. I’ve been working with kids and writing in the last year, and I love how they don’t feel any of that stress. They write what feels good to them, and it’s fun to be able to talk magic with them.

So, as a final question, knowing what moved you as a child, what would you most like to provide to your readers? What would your dream piece of fan mail tell you?

This is the hardest question so far! One of the reasons I wrote about magic is because I so often wished it were real, but in this book, wishes don’t — and shouldn’t — come true. Martin and Hannah are seeking to restore balance, and power to grant, receive, or demand wishes throws that off. So my dream fan mail would be from someone who told me they had stopped wishing for something to happen, and started to make it happen. I hope readers get a sense that they themselves can change the world, starting with their own lives and communities.

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.

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.

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.

The business of writing–Alice Speilburg

As promised, today I bring you the talented and charming Alice Speilburg, of Speilburg Literary Agency, here to answer my questions on books, agenting, and some of the things writers can do to help achieve their goals. Alice began her career in publishing on the editorial side of the equation, working at John Wiley & Sons. From there she transitioned to the agent’s life, first at the Howard Morhaim Literary Agency, and now at Speilburg Literary Agency. More information about her and her agency can be found at speilburgliterary.com. In addition, she blogs on books, writing, and the business of writing at lamplightandink.wordpress.com.

She’s also my agent, and I’m delighted to have her here.

I like to believe that every good agent comes to agenting following a path paved with wonderful books. What books spoke to you as a child, and what have you read recently that you’ve really enjoyed?

Your belief is quite right and rings true for most other agents and editors I know. As a child I always loved books with strong female leads like the Laura Ingalls Wilder series, Caddie Woodlawn, and Tamora Pierce’s Alanna the Lady Knight books. Tamora Pierce was my gateway into fantasy, which led me to one of my favorite authors Philip Pullman, and the His Dark Materials series.

Two books have recently stood out to me as somewhat different and marvelous: Alif the Unseesn by G. Willow Wilson, which I highly recommend to anyone who enjoyed Philip Pullman’s series, and Albert of Adelaide by Howard Anderson. I also like to stay current with literary novels, so I recently read The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. (If you notice, each of these novels is the respective author’s debut, which I love.)

What attracted you to agenting? It’s right up there on the list of careers I think I would be terrible at, along with air traffic controller and long distance trucker. It’s clearly a job you feel passionate about though, given your choice to continue it following your displacement by Hurricane Sandy.

When I graduated, I don’t know if I even knew agents existed. I just knew I wanted to work in publishing. So I did, and slowly realized that I would be better suited to the agency side. I liked the discovery part, but I also really enjoyed the business side of publishing much more than I could have imagined. The contracts, the negotiations, understanding how the money comes in and goes out, etc. I think the turning point for me was when I was trying to convince my department to buy a book, and ultimately they didn’t think it would work financially. I wanted to continue working with that author, suggest a few other places that might be more willing to publish it, but of course, she already had an agent who did that for her. So I started applying to jobs at agencies.

The traditional publishing world can often feel very cold and confusing to writers these days. What are some positive developments that you think writers should take to heart?

To me, the publishing world seems so much more transparent now that everything is online. It feels cold because writers can actually see the entities that are ignoring them in a way they couldn’t before. It’s also a lot easier for an agent to send out a form rejection email or ignore a social networking invitation.

That said, it’s easier to find a list of agents to send your work to, a list of publishers who might accept unsolicited work. There are also some great blogs and other online resources out there written by publishing industry professionals that guide writers on how to write a query letter, or the best way to build a platform. Writers who take advantage of these resources can improve their work and bring it up to the industries standards more easily.

Given that increasing transparency, what do you feel novelists can be doing to help their careers, beyond writing brilliant books? What role, for example, do you think networking–through conferences, contests, social media, publications, etc.–plays in helping them along the road to that elusive book deal?

I think it’s incredibly important for a writer to be comfortable with social media and build a fan base. This can be as simple as a blog that features some writing along with tips or interviews (like this one!), or an active twitter account that interacts with other writers and editors. This “platform” might lead to a bit more notice, but perhaps more importantly, editors are expecting you to take on some of the marketing load once your book publishes. If you can show that you’re already reaching out to potential readers, a publisher will be more inclined to make the deal.

As for conferences, contests, and small publications, I think these are things that will give a writer the advantage in the submissions pile. If I talk to you at a conference, I’m much more likely to put your submission at the top of my pile, and even if I don’t like it, give you some critical feedback as opposed to a form letter. If I see that you’ve won a contest or I read your short story in a literary magazine, I know that someone else out there likes your work, and I might contact you to see if you’re looking for an agent.

Your submission guidelines state that you’re interested in “character driven novels in historical fiction, mystery, fantasy, and literary genres.” (It’s that “character driven” bit that led me to query you about Wren.) Would you like to expand on what qualities you’re looking for in fiction submissions?

This may go without saying, but I’m looking for books that I pick up and then don’t want to put down again until I’m finished reading them. I tend to fall for genre fiction because I like falling into other worlds, and I like character-driven novels because I get to see the world through their eyes, slowly discover what it is that that person is dealing with, and how it might be similar or different to things that I might be dealing with in my world. I think the “slowly” part is really important. Too often I see stories with great potential, but the author explains everything up front and I don’t have time to get to know the character on my own, or the plot is so similar to other stories that the character is just a pawn and not developed beyond the plot he or she is running through.

You ask for a query letter and the first three chapters of the novel from writers interested in querying you. Are there any other helpful hints you’d like to share for writers considering Speilburg Literary? I’ve heard rumors that letters written in crayon are right out…

Haha, you know, the queries I’ve been receiving — for the most part — are nicely done (and none have been in crayon). I would say that both the query and the chapters need to be pitch perfect. If the query is more than three paragraphs long of detailed book description and character explanations, I might not get to the sample chapters. Make it short, to the point, and entertaining. You should try to match your writing style so that someone who would enjoy your book would also enjoy the query. That said, if you have a brilliant query letter, but your manuscript isn’t ready, I’ll pass. Make sure you have other people read your work, other writers if possible, and try reading your query and the first few sentences of the sample out loud to yourself before you send it to me.

Thanks so much for stopping by for an interview! Are there any questions that I haven’t asked you that I should have? Anything else you’d love to share regarding the business of writing or Speilburg Literary Agency? I realize I’ve totally shortchanged the non-fiction crowd, and I apologize for that.

That’s all right, I think this blog has a fiction crowd anyway, but my nonfiction guidelines can be found on my website. I want to thank Jen for having me here, it’s been a pleasure! I don’t have a whole lot more to add, but I do want to encourage people to keep writing and submitting your work. And along with that, keep reading. It helps to see what publishers are putting on the shelves at your local bookstore, and who knows, something might inspire you.

That concludes the interview portion of this event. Alice has also graciously agreed to field questions this afternoon until 4:00 E.S.T. If you have a question for her, please head on down to the comments.