Whenever I finish a really good book—one of those books that keeps you up at night, begging to be finished, that makes you think about something completely differently, that inspires you to create something that beautiful and thought-provoking, yourself—I immediately wish I could talk to the author. Sometimes I’m dying to ask the writer about their plot choices, but mostly I just want to know how. How’d they do it? How did they come up with the idea? How did they survive the grueling process of writing and editing? I want to know all about their process and experiences and habits, anything to give insight into the amazing feat of writing a book.
If you’ve ever felt the same way, then you’re in luck. We’ve invited some of Unsolicited Press’s fabulous poets and writers to join us for a little round table Question-and-Answer. Some questions are serious, some are silly, and all are interesting. Read on to meet some of our authors and find out about the behind the scenes process of writing.
To read what the authors had to say, click to read the article. This is a longer piece, but I hope it stimulates conversation!!!
If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
Darci Schummer: Although I would be completely intimidated by her genius, I’d cook for Margaret Atwood. Before making a green salad and vegan mushroom barley soup, I’d do extensive research on the history of the ingredients so I could sound smarter than I actually am. I’d also try to secretly record the dinner so I could hold on to whatever bits of brilliance she graced me with.
Mick Bennett: I would fry good country ham and eggs on an outdoor fire for Ernest Hemingway. I’d have some good bread to dip in the hot fat, and good Irish whiskey to drink. He’d tell me the main character in my novel is a crippled sissy. I’d tell him most of his major female characters are one-dimensional. He’ [d] call me sissy, I’d call him a misogynist, and we’d fight and bloody one another before finishing the whiskey.
Emily Kiernan: Walt Whitman. I once had a dream that he was still alive and came to speak to my poetry class. Afterwards he invited me to hang out on his private island and ride ponies. He was very funny and king and indulgent, in a grandfatherly sort of way. It was absolutely one of the best dreams I’ve ever had. I would serve oysters, which I hate, but think he would enjoy.
Cara Long: Edward Lear. I love nonsense writing. One of his dearest friends was apparently his chef, whom he deemed unsatisfactory. So no pressure for my dishes to turn out well. Also, when his cat died he gave it a proper funeral ceremony. I’m convinced Edward Lear and I would be the best of friends.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
Bill Alton: The empty page. I have a lot of false starts. When I get [to] that point of asking what happens next, I panic, thinking this is it, this [is] the last think I’ll ever write.
Susan Pepper Robbins: Someone reading it who hates what I’ve written.
Emily Kiernan: …I think the bigger fears, for me, are external to the writing itself, and are generally all about career—whether anyone will publish the piece, whether anyone will read it, whether readers will like it—etc. The best I’ve ever managed to do with all that stuff is to muscle it out of the way while I’m actually working; I never actually get rid of those anxieties (they get plenty of my time and energy every day), but I can mute them for a bit while I’m getting the words on the page.
Cara Long: I don’t have a process. I just write. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t. I used to be afraid that I would wake up one day and the stories would be gone from my head. But then I told myself that if that happened I would just do something else, I was fine.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
Mick Bennett: Melville. I re-read Moby Dick every other summer to reinforce the fact that I’m not very gifted or smart.
Susan Pepper Robbins: Penelope Fitzgerald and Chekhov.
Laura Bear: Hmmm…that’s a tough one. I tend to fall in love with whatever character I am reading at the moment, as long as I am lost in the story. Same goes for the author: if they can pull me into the story I’m a fan.
Darci Schummer: It’s a tie between Junot Diaz and Richard Bausch. I’d probably just mumble and blush if I ever came face-to-face with either of them. And then I’d overanalyze every aspect of our near silent meeting for about two weeks.
What books are on your nightstand?
Bill Alton: The Color Purple. Stranger in the Strange Land. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The Hotel New Hampshire.
Mick Bennett: I have three books on my nightstand. Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, and Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From.
Cara Long: True crime. I’m a bit obsessed with murder. What healthy adult isn’t?
Laura Bear: Pablo Neruda’s collected poems with both Spanish and English versions. He’s amazing in any language. I came late to the Outlander books, but appear to be addicted now…Also, Mary Sarton’s House by the Sea, re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird, and a book I borrowed from a recent writing retreat called The Magic is in the Extra Mile by Larry DiAngi.
Where do you get your ideas? What inspires you?
Emily Kiernan: This has never been particularly consistent for me, and I’ve never been very good at tracking the origins of my stories. Usually I start with a feeling—a kind of semi-musical, semi-emotional tone—and characters, setting, and plot slowly start accruing to that. Lately, though, I’ve been working on a manuscript with a major historical component (The Manhattan Project during WWII) and those stories have come from a more obvious place of interest in specific events or people. There is still plenty of alchemy in the way things come together, though, and the parts I don’t quite get are my favorites.
Susan Pepper Robbins: Ordinary Life, its miracles.
Darci Schummer: I get ideas and inspiration in many ways: working with my students, riding city buses, listening to the wind blow through the leaves on the big maple outside my porch, reading poems and stories, watching water move over rocks, seeing metal bands play ripping guitar solos.
Mick Bennett: I get many of my ideas from nature, especially the ocean, and of course other books. I’m partial to the Transcendentalists and their close observations of nature and I suppose I included human nature in there, too. I love watching people. Thinking back, all of my jobs in my lifetime involved close observations of other people in all kinds of settings, and I always got a kick out of walking home from elementary school and noticing a big nose or funny walk on some poor unsuspecting adult coming down the sidewalk.
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
Bill Alton: The comma. My high school English teacher told me that commas are like gold coins, the more you use them, the poorer the paper.
Emily Kiernan: The semicolon! Admittedly, I go a little overboard with these. There are a lot in Great Divide, and there are many, many more that I took out in editing. I love the flow they enable, the slipping from one idea to the next. I am suspicious of full stops: sentences are meant to move together.
Cara Long: Let me start off by saying that my least favorite is the exclamation mark—I hate it. And if you use more than one, I will plot against you. But my favorite is the comma. I love pauses.
Susan Pepper Robbins: The period gives a partial solution to things.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
Darci Schummer: Oh geez. Well, I have to confess that I’ve never read Hamlet (It’s a play, but still, a sad gap in my reading.) or To Kill a Mockingbird. Within the past year, I’ve seen productions of both.
Bill Alton: Paradise Lost.
Emily Kiernan: Middlemarch. This is a deep, dark secret I’ve never told anyone. I’ll get to it someday.
Laura Bear: I think I read all the books we were supposed to read because I was a total nerd when it came to English, my favorite subject in high school, a long with theater. Why I chose a science heavy college degree later is part of the oddity of my life.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
Susan Pepper Robbins: My coffee cup, a window.
Darci Schummer: Three-subject, college-ruled notebooks? Gel pens? Whiskey?
Emily Kiernan: My absolutely giant, black and brown mug. It holds about half a pot of tea, and has been keeping me warm while I write for over a decade.
Cara Long: The first thing that came to mind was bananas. I mean, they are good.
Laura Bear: I love my keyboard. It frees me to write with much less inhibition than my pen. The words appear before I have time to judge them.
Why do you write? The first 5 words that come to mind. Go.
Mick Bennett: I love to tell stories.
Susan Pepper Robbins: I love words and sentences.
Bill Alton: Because I have to.
Laura Bear: Because the need to write haunts me when I’m not writing. It’s always after me!
Cara Long: Because I want to.
Emily Kiernan: Not hiring at the circus.
Darci Schummer: Because I can’t not write.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
Laura Bear: Do it anyway and do it now. Write through the muck to find the pearls.
Bill Alton: You are the God of a beautiful world.
Darci Schummer: Get to work.
Mick Bennett: “Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.” James Baldwin.
Thanks for reading along. I hope you enjoyed hearing from Unsolicited Press’s talented authors. What do you think? Do you agree with their answers? Were you surprised, intrigued, confused? How would you answer the same questions? Comment below and tell us what you think!