What literary journeys have you gone on?
Lately I’ve gotten back into audio books. I do quite a bit of driving, and it’s nice to have something other than the radio to listen to. Librivox does a pretty fantastic job at providing public domain content. The journey really ends up being one of listening to books I haven’t read in ages (or perhaps never read).
What is the first book that made you cry?
Not to sound overtly masculine, but I don’t remember a book ever making me cry. I have been deeply affected by books before – two that stand out to me are Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy. More recently I had a rather visceral response to several of the scenes in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
I’d say it’s a little bit of both. Some days it feels like you’re on fire, and coming off of a writing session is an absolute high. Other days it feels like a slog. Regardless, even a marathon session can eventually be exhausting. Those days that are a slog sometimes end up productive, simply because I feel like I’m grumpier with my own work.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Having worked with a lot of young writers over the years, I’ve noticed that a lot of folks feel compelled to get everything right on the first attempt. The big myth is that writing (and many other forms of art) is that everything falls into place in a divine fit of inspiration. It’s a myth, I think, based on the illusion that artists create. Our audience only sees the final polished product, not the endless drafts and struggles and cursing that preceded that final product. However, I also feel that it is a dangerous myth for practitioners, because it can lead to paralysis of the pen.
Does a big ego help or hurt writers?
I think a big ego can hurt anyone – especially artists. My conviction is that when an artist’s ego gets too big they are no longer concerned with quality and craft as they once were. There’s an illusion of the Midas Touch that comes with too big an ego. I think to be successful, to move forward and be a good artist, you have to keep a healthy awareness of potential failure. The easiest thing for a reader to do is to stop reading, and, I think, if you don’t preserve a healthy dose of that fear, you run the risk of lowering your standards.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
I don’t think so. There seem to be occasions when I’m walking through a bookstore that I’m momentarily overwhelmed by the number of things that I could read – but that’s more akin to going to a restaurant and trying to decide what to order.
Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I have, but only recently. I’m tinkering with a sort of YA dystopian story, and it seems to me that it would be better served (and better serve my other writing) if it were not connected directly to my primary work. This is not to say that I disparage such things.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
I think anyone can be a writer. I don’t think that emotion is necessarily key, so much as introspection and precision of thought. I suppose it’s a question of empathy. It seems that good writers are empathic people. I suppose it’s also a question of being a “sensitive soul.” One could argue that people like Hemingway and Woolf were successful primarily out of an awareness of their own vulnerability.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I always wish that I had more writer friends. I have the great fortune, however, to work with a good number of writers through Seattle’s Writers In The Schools program. All of my writer friends humble me, rather incidentally, by being such fantastic writers. It’s easy to question your own skill when those around you are so profoundly talented. I don’t know if this is common for most writers, but I’m rather introverted, and have a hard time maintaining relationships, simply because I go off into my own little world.
Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
I would like each book to stand on its own; it seems to me that there will be an inevitable arc or connection between different works. I think of Hemingway or Atwood or McCarthy, all seem to have a clear progression of ideas. I guess I would also worry that, were I to focus on the entire opus, I would lose sight of the individual work. It seems to me that, in order to follow an authentic artistic development, one can’t try to plan too far ahead of the current project.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of money on developing craft. I’ve travelled to writing conferences, bought books on craft, attended lectures, and completed my MFA. Often I’m somewhat jealous of artists and musicians who have all sorts of physical tools at their disposal. However, I think writers are lucky to have simple artistic needs. We need only our minds. However, for my money the best investment has been pocket notebooks. I like being able to grab a little book out of my pocket and scribble down an idea or a line or a word. They become these little treasure troves for later. I’ve used a variety of these over the years, but, lately, I’m quite fond of Field Notes because they’re slim and relatively inexpensive.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
Umberto Eco for sure. I tried to get through In The Name of the Rose when I was at college. It wasn’t until a good seven or eight years later (at graduate school) that I read The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana and was struck by his cleverness. Which is not to say that Eco is merely a clever writer. I think he’s a writers writer. I think that he has tremendous range and technical ability. The fact that he has a great imagination doesn’t hurt either.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I have vivid memories of my mother telling my brother and I that we weren’t allowed to use words unless we knew what they meant. This lead to a fascination with words and, on some occasions, scouring he dictionary for words I could use to insult my brother surreptitiously.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
One of my favorite books of all time is Don Delillo’s The Body Artist. It’s a short novel, and not one that many people have heard of. The opening sequence is subtle and slow, but so fantastically authentic. I reread the book about once a year, and have done so (more or less) for the past fifteen years or so.
How do you balance making demands on the reader with taking care of the reader?
I don’t think too much about the reader. Andrew Stanton has a great TED talk in which he discusses what he calls the Unifying Theory of 2+2. The idea is to make the reader work for “their meal” without letting them know that they’re working for it. The closest I come to really thinking of the reader is when I try to balance being too subtle against being too obvious.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
I’d have to say my spirit animal/mascot would have to be Boxer, the horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm. I’ve always identified with Boxer – his slavish commitment to the greater good. I feel that I’ve often approached writing the same way that Boxer approaches his role on the farm: I simply have to work harder.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
It’s rare that I could clearly identify a single character that is based upon a real person. Often the characters are such composites that I’m not exactly sure who the character is based on. That said, there is a character in a my upcoming collection This Endless Road who is modeled on my grandfather. It’s loose, but I definitely used him as a template. Sadly he passed away a while back. The character is, essentially, an homage.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Hard to say. At present there must be at least three. One, my first novel, is really close to being finished. I’m hoping that after This Endless Road I can shift my attention to the novel.
What does literary success look like to you?
Any time a stranger says: “I really liked your story” I feel that I have succeeded. I mean, when it isn’t in the awkwardness of passing. I mean when a complete stranger comes up to me after a reading just to tell me that they liked it. When someone goes out of their way to give you a compliment it rings more true than anything else. I imagine I might be equally honored if someone took the time to come up to me and tell me how much they detested a particular piece of work.
What’s the best way to market your books?
I’ve tried most things – but I don’t know what works best. The one that I enjoy the most is giving copies of books to friends and acquaintances who I know read and read well. My colleagues, I feel, are the ones most likely to recommend my work to someone else, especially if they enjoy it.
What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?
I research simultaneously. Often, in fact, I think I don’t really start researching until I have a couple thousand words down. I feel like I have to get the lay of the land before I find out what I need to know – otherwise I try and put in everything that I’ve learned, and it’s harder to be selective.
How many hours a day do you write?
Ideally I would write an hour a day. At present I work three jobs and have a toddler. I’ve been working mostly on editing my current work and pondering other work. In the meantime I read. Hopefully I’ll be able to remedy this soon. Two jobs seems like a cakewalk.
What period of your life do you find you write about most often? (child, teenager, young adult)
I think the period of say twenty to thirty is the age range of most of my characters. I don’t know if there’s a specific reason for that. I somewhat assume that the age I write about will shift as I get older.
How do you select the names of your characters?
I don’t have any specific sort of process. If a name doesn’t come to me at first I use a generic name as a place holder. Often as the story evolves a better name seems to fit. Otherwise female characters end up Sara or Anna, and male characters end up John or Alex. Why those specific names? No idea.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work? And if writing isn't your "day job", what are you currently doing to pay the bills?
Writing is, at present, connected to the work I do to pay the bills. I teach English at a local community college here in Seattle, and also work as a private tutor. Until recently I was also a writer in residence for Seattle’s Writers In The Schools (WITS program). I made the tough decision to take a break from WITS in order to spend more time with my family and more time writing. For a period of about five years I worked as a bartender, and I would say that bartending was incredibly conducive to a writing life. Most people think it was conducive because of the interaction with patrons. Actually, it was simply the fact that I only worked four days a week and never had to take work home with me.
What one thing would you give up to become a better writer?
I’d probably give a up a good number of things if there was a guarantee that it would help me develop my craft. I wouldn’t give something up in a Deal With the Devil sort of way, because I’d want to actually know that I’d exchanged a vice of some sort for an improvement. I suppose pizza and beer would be sacrifices that I would surrender.
What is your favorite childhood book?
My dad signed us up for some sort of Disney Classics program when I was a kid. It seemed like we got a book in the mail every month or so. I loved getting those books in the mail (this was, by the way, way before the Internet). I don’t think the two books that stand out were part of this, but I also vividly remember reading to myself Black Beauty and the a children’s version of the myths of Hercules.
Does your family support your career as a writer?
I’ve been fantastically to have a family that supports my work. Both my parents encouraged my early writing and reading pursuits. I remember showing them stories I’d written in first or second grade. Thankfully there was never any pressure from them to pursue a specific path or career. My wife is likewise supportive – I can’t imagine a better partner. Our daughter, however, would rather I lie on the floor and play than write; perhaps one day she’ll become more supportive.