If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
I don’t cook so all I could offer is a can of soup. I can’t imagine anyone showing up other than Bukowski. We’d sit at a small card table glowering at each other, slurping our gruel like a pair of slobs. I’d eventually confess to how much his work meant to me as a young jerk in my twenties, all that glorious self-destruction, until I saw a documentary where he threw a temper tantrum and kicked his wife. He wasn’t much of an underdog after that and the Bukowski spell had been broken. I imagine he’d listen intently before cursing me and hurling his bowl of soup at my head. The meal would come to an abrupt end before desert, leaving more Entenmann's crumb cake for me.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
Some writers believe they plateau at a certain age, their talent and skill leveling off before diminishing each year. This troubles me and I hope it isn’t true. I plan on getting better until the end. The only way to combat this, of course, is to do the work.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
I spent a good portion of my youth reading and re-reading S.E. Hinton novels so let’s go with Cherry Valance from The Outsiders. Becoming a young reader is an invitation to a great ball. Cherry was my first dance partner so I’ll stick with her.
What books are on your nightstand?
On my nightstand you’ll find The Secret History by Donna Tartt, The Life of Raymond Chandler by Frank MacShane, and Hemingway’s Brain by Andrew Farah.
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
A good comma always comes in handy, a brief pause before hitting the next turn.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
Melville’s Billy Budd still makes me wince. I took the Cliff Notes route when it was assigned in the tenth grade and got clobbered in the exam.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
Many of these stories were written and edited in a parking lot outside of August Martin High School near Kennedy Airport. Administration won’t allow faculty inside the building until seven. Due to traffic and limited parking, I need to get on the road well before that. So I’ve been writing inside my car these past five years from six to eight. I’d like to thank Baisley Pond Park for providing a tranquil body of water to ponder in between sentences, as well as the ‘99 Nissan that served as impromptu writing studio, particularly in the months of January, February, and March.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
Less brooding, more writing.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Imitating the style of the latest book they’re reading. It’s fun to impersonate our heroes, but they have to be let go at some point.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
I’m not a very good typist. You’d think I’d get better eventually, but I never do. As a result of all the hunting and pounding that goes on, my pacing suffers quite a bit. After one or two sentences, I’m compelled to take a peek at the damage left behind, a mishmash of unintelligible jargon and misspellings, and invariably have to stop to clean it up.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Other than life experience, reading is the source so no.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Maybe if they wrote textbooks for a living, otherwise no.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
I love the idea of a circle of writers bantering ideas back and forth with their mentors, but that’s never been my experience. The one thing I learned from my MFA days is that I’m completely alone in this.
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?
My first book is a compilation of essays, mostly about my teaching experiences in NYC. The novel I’m currently working on is about the closure of a NYC high school as a result of mayoral control so there’ll be some obvious connections. Each work, however, will stand on its own.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
My writing process is very workman-like. I don’t see this routine changing for any reason.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
I won a writing contest in grad school and published my first national piece around the same time. I used the money from both to pay six months rent.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
Fitzgerald and Ian Fleming, only because I was exposed to them too early before I could appreciate them.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I had very long hair as child in the seventies, particularly ages 5-8. This boggled the minds of some of the older kids on the school bus and they teased me quite a bit. I learned very quickly that words had power, even coming from the mouths of idiots.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Midnight Cowboy by James Leo Herlihy, the source novel to the film, is sad and beautiful.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
In my twenties I would’ve answered with something nice and syrupy. Now, however, I don’t owe anyone a thing. We’re all living in the same world. I happened to take notes.
What does literary success look like to you?
Literary success, if I’m to answer this question honestly, is a cabin in the woods on a lake surrounded by mountains. There’s a town nearby for mail and groceries, and a city several hours away to see an occasional play or exhibit, and every expense I incur is paid through my writing.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
The difficult part is getting readers of the opposite sex to trust you, especially nowadays. The proper way to earn this trust is to create a believable person first then consider the details of that character’s gender during the editing process.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I’ve been teaching in New York City for fifteen years.
J. Bryan McGeever is the author of Small Rooms and Others. He was born in Southern California and raised on Long Island. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Post, The Christian Science Monitor, and Newsday, with fiction in Hampton Shorts, Confrontation, and The Southampton Review. He teaches English in New York City Public Schools and lives with his family in Brooklyn.