If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
John Irving. The Hotel New Hampshire made me want to be a writer. He lives in Toronto which is only a couple hours from Buffalo, so he could hop on QEW and be here in no time. I’d cook a big Greek meal for him: salad, dolmades, spanokopita, pastichio, roast lamb, lemon potatoes, and galaktoboureko for dessert. Then we’d clear the dishes, move the table and chairs, and wrestle best two out of three. Ouzo for the winner.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
Honestly, nothing scares me about the writing process. It’s the outcome of the process that scares me. What if this book isn’t as good as the last one? What if it gets bad reviews? What if it doesn’t sell? Those are the things that scare me. How do I combat those fears? I try to write the best book I can. Then the book goes out in the world and out of my control and I hope for the best. Ouzo also helps.
What books are on your nightstand?
The Eighth Detective by Alex Pavesi and The Fountain by David Scott Hay. I highly recommend both.
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
I don’t have a favorite or least favorite punctuation mark. I do have an unnatural attraction to italics, however. I love to italicize everything. I’m sure it drives my copy editors nuts. The funny thing is, I know the rules for italicizing, but I go ahead and italicize for no apparent reason. It’s a sickness, I tell ya.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
Don’t tell Mrs. Prince from Kenmore West Senior High School, but I never read The Taming of The Shrew in 11th Grade. I don’t think I even started it. I took one look at the cover and decided that the play was untameable. Now I feel guilty and will have to read it. Hell, I bet I still owe Mrs. P a paper, too.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
The MacBook Pro. Sure, the old Remingtons and Royals are cool looking and romantic, but no spell check? No cut and paste? Wite-Out, for God’s sake?? Plus, I do a lot of writing in bed. There’s no way I could balance a typewriter on my chest. The Mac definitely deserves a shout out.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
Well, first off, sneaking into other people’s steamy bathrooms is a little weird. But if I did, and I didn’t get caught, shot, or arrested, I’d simply write, ‘Don’t quit’. That’s it. Just a simple reminder that nothing will be published, read, or reviewed if you decide you’re not good enough or that writing is too hard. So, don’t quit.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
It energizes me for a while, but then when that high wears off I need a nap. I’m an excellent napper. That’s not bragging. If napping was an Olympic sport, I’m definitely up on that medal stand.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Self-doubt is a big one. It can paralyze a writer to such a degree that they can’t write a single word. Then the frustration sets in and they throw up their arms and decide it’s easier to binge something on Netflix than it is to be brave and write something–anything– and risk failure. The opposite is also true. Aspiring writers sometimes think publication will come more quickly than it does. They don’t understand that you got to play the long game when it comes to writing. You have to live and learn and go through all the shit–heartbreak, sickness, divorce, deaths. And you have to go through the good stuff, too–the births, the weddings, the successes, the friendships, the love affairs. Then once you know a little bit about life, you have to practice your craft, improve your skills, learn how to write. All that doesn’t come quickly for most of us. Sometimes inspiring writers are too impatient to wait for all that and they end up pressing that Netflix button on the remote, too.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Late nights. I write from five to seven in the morning. If I’m out late, the chances of me answering that 4:45 bell is pretty slim and then I’m in a crappy mood all day. Luckily, I’m getting older and the late nights aren’t that much of a problem anymore. But every once in a while…
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
I used to travel for my day job. I was a real road warrior, hopping on a plane almost every Monday morning. I did most of my reading in airports, on planes, and in hotel rooms. When I switched jobs about six years ago, travel wasn’t required as much in my new role and for the first time in my life I had to make time to read. This did not stop me from buying books and the To Be Read pile grew higher and higher…
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Technical writers can get away with it, I guess, but not fiction writers. A fiction writer needs to create characters that readers care about. If readers don’t care, they’ll stop reading and pick up another book written by a different author. If an author doesn’t feel emotions strongly, they can’t convey them. How can they expect their readers to feel anything if they can’t? It can’t be done.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
This is an easy one. Carla Damron, Dartinia Hull, Beth Uznis Johnson, and Ashley Warlick. We’ve had a group text thread going for ten years. I’d say 90% of those texts have absolutely nothing to do with writing, but we do critique each other's work, share information about agents, publicists, and editors, gossip about other writers, and complain passionately about our publishers. It’s a hell of a lot of fun. And I couldn’t even begin to quantify how they’ve made me a better writer or a better person. They’re family.
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?
Each book has to stand on its own and make its own way in the world. But I’ve staked out my turf. Buffalo, New York is my hometown, and this is the place I want to write about, the place I want to explore. I’m fascinated by the stories and architecture here. This town feeds my imagination and inspires me to write. So, while each book will stand alone, they’ll be connected by a sense of place, a mythical Buffalo that’s known economic booms and financial busts and is rich with stories about bootleggers, bank robbers, and even the birth of The Lone Ranger, not to mention my own family history. It’s going to be a lot of fun to continue writing about this city and its characters. Oh, and Go Bills!
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I don’t think publishing changed my process, but age certainly has. For years, the alarm would sound, and I’d go up to my attic office and start writing by 5am. Then one day about four years ago, I couldn’t get out of bed. I was awake, but I couldn’t kick the covers off and go to work. It was a mental thing. I remember it was early November, the house was cold, and I just couldn’t physically get out of bed at 4:45. I missed three or four writing days in a row, and was really beating myself up about it, calling myself weak and lazy and just generally hating myself. Then I realized something: laptops are portable. If I couldn’t go to my laptop that early, my laptop would come to me. Since that realization, I’ve put my fully-charged laptop next to my bed at night and when I wake at 4:45, I just grab it and start writing propped on pillows.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Tuition for Queens University of Charlotte’s MFA program. Going there was a game changer. Before that, I had been writing for over twenty years with just a handful of published short stories to show for my efforts. I approached Queens as my last shot of ever having any sort of successful writing life. Something clicked while I was there. The concept of ‘story’ became more clear. My writing became cleaner. I graduated ten years ago and have written four books since then. An MFA might not be for everybody, but for me it changed everything. I owe Fred LeBron and his faculty a great deal.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
You know, it’s probably odd to think that a Pulitzer Prize winner is under-appreciated, but I think William Kennedy falls into that category. Do people in their twenties, thirties or forties even know Kennedy? Do they read Ironweed? Those Albany novels–Ironweed, Legs, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game–made a huge impact on me. I want to do for Buffalo what he did for Albany. Actually, I think I need to go back and re-read those books, to re-learn from the master of historical fiction with a strong sense of place. Hell, I think everyone should.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
I have a one-eyed Shi Tzu named Coco. She’s actually my daughter’s dog, but I’m home all the time so she spends a lot of the day with me. Coco has a bed in my office and has claimed the foot of my bed as her own. She’s been at my side or feet for the writing of all my books. If she’s not my spirit animal, she may very well be my muse.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
Man, I owe them everything: for the inspiration to write about them, for the curiosity to learn more about them and the times they lived in, for giving me a story to flesh out and make my own. I’ve spent so much time with the characters from Rook–Al, Lolly, and Bobby–as that book evolved from a novella, to a trilogy of novellas, to my first novel that when I was done, I actually missed them, even psychotic Bobby. I liked spending all that time with them. I liked getting to know them. In a way, I was sorry that it ended.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
I think I have three early, really sucky novels that were unpublishable. I took one, Slip Kid, and distilled that into a short story that appears in my collection, Muscle Cars. The other two are unsalvageable, I think, but I haven’t looked at those in a long time. Maybe there’s something in them that I can steal. I also have a manuscript that I just finished. I’m calling it my pandemic novel because I started it when we were locked down. I need to revise that one. So, we’ll call it four altogether.
What does literary success look like to you?
Well, that’s an interesting question. I think my answer to that has evolved over the years. First, success was just to get published, and I accomplished that with the publication of my story collection, Muscle Cars. Then success became getting a novel published. Rook is my debut novel, so that definition of success has become moot. So, at least for now, literary success has become the desire to create a body of published work that when read in its entirety people will say to a friend, “That kid had a hell of a career.”
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Developing fully developed characters is the same regardless of the character’s gender, so in that respect it’s not any harder or easier for me to write a female character. And the same rules also apply: be original, don’t be cliched, don’t be lazy in the descriptions, etc. Having said that, I’m blessed that the writers personally closest to me are all women and will call me out if I get something wrong about a female character. Carla Damron, Dartinia Hull, Beth Uznis Johnson, and Ashley Warlick are my secret weapons when writing female characters,
What did you edit out of this book?
Rook evolved from a trilogy of novellas to a novel. The second novella in the trilogy concentrated on Al’s time in federal prison. I had obtained Al’s prison record under The Freedom of Information Act, so I had an understanding of his time behind bars. In addition, he was writing then so I knew what he was writing and where he was being published. He even wrote an account of when Johnny Cash came and gave a concert for the inmates. Plus, I knew about his correspondence and relationship with his writing mentor Dan Marlowe thanks to Charles Kelly’s fine book Gunshots In Another Room: The Forgotten Life of Dan. J. Marlowe. So, I had a lot to draw from from that period of Al’s life. But as the novel came into focus, those prison years no longer fit in Lolly’s and Al’s story. Those ninety pages were cut. It was actually a pretty easy decision once I figured out what the book was about.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I can’t imagine not writing.
Stephen G. Eoannou is the author of ROOK, a novel based on the true story of Al Nussbaum. To his unsuspecting wife, Lolly, Al is a loving, chess playing, family man. To J. Edgar Hoover, he is the most cunning fugitive alive. Al is the mastermind behind a string of east coast robberies that has stumped law enforcement.
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