If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
Kurt Vonnegut, though I have a feeling we’d skip dinner and cut straight to the bottle of whisky.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
The scariest stage in my writing is transporting a good concept onto the page, and into good, compelling writing. There are endless ideas for stories floating around in my mind – the question is always: which ones will translate well into fiction, and which ones will result in a great waste of time? And while it’s impossible to tell in the moment, the way that I always overcome that block is by remembering that there is no wasted time. If I write 9 terrible stories for every decent one, my one good story isn’t the best despite those other stories – it’s the best because of them, and the time that I spent writing all ten.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
It’s a kind of man-crush, but I’d have to go with George Orwell. His reckless idealism and embedment in the Spanish Civil War screams of the same kind of lust for adventure and stupidity that led me to jump on a 36-foot sailboat for Cape Horn. That, and 1984 might have been the first book I ever really, truly read.
What books are on your nightstand?
Right now, it’s The Overstory by Richard Powers and Awakening Osiris – the Egyptian “Book of the Dead.”
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
I love the double dash. Bordering a non-essential clause with “—” is a habit I’ve yet to break, and I often have to go back through my writing and limit myself to one dash-distinguished clause per page.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck. I just read the sparknotes (and sped-read them, at that.) I regretted it so much later in life that I went back to read it, and then I read Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath AND East of Eden (which is a behemoth of a book).
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
My thermos. It followed me across three continents, and more journeys and adventures than I care to recount. While I was scrapping by during the first year of my PhD, it was how I drank my coffee slowly at coffee houses – ensuring that I could wring a good 6-8 hours out of a single 16-ounce cappuccino, without having to buy more (I am the bane of every cafe manager’s existence).
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
There are probably enough inspirational quotes for aspiring writers on twitter and Instagram. I’d probably just write what I’ve found to be true – “abandon comfort.” People adjust to their circumstances, and there’s no paved road forward. You just have to carve your own path. During the first year of my PhD, I lived off of 50 GBPs a week. Before that, I lived out of my car – travelling the country and working part-time jobs in 10 different states. I’m not saying you have to be prepared to starve in order to succeed – just that, when you find what works for you, trust it, and roll with it.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Writing fiction energizes me. Writing almost everything else drains me. (Except for this Q&A, of course.) When I’m in the middle of creating and writing a good story or scene, it becomes a force of its own. I’ll lie awake at night thinking about my characters and their journey. I’ll walk right past a giraffe in the road without looking up, I’m so engrossed in their world. And yet, it’s invigorating. Writing, and getting into flow, is one of the most life-affirming experiences that I’ve ever practiced.
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Believing in the artist mythos. Creative geniuses don’t exist in a vacuum. Originality and craft comes from practice, experience, and study. I always told my students that writing is only 33% practice. The other 67% is reading, work-shopping, and research.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
I often get inside my own head about flow. If all I have in a day is one hour to sit down and write, I’ll sometimes convince myself that it’s not worth it. That, unless I’m able to dedicate the entire day to writing, and getting into a flow, than it might as well be a waste.
The truth is, however, that writing anything is better than writing nothing at all. Even answering these questions is better practice than forfeiting an afternoon to menial tasks and busy work
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Oh, definitely. Readers block can be tricky, because reading on some level feels like a luxury, or a past-time. If you take the morning to read, you’re wasting time that could be better spent writing or working or being productive. The reality, of course, is that reading is a crucial part of writing. And that, sometimes the best way to break through writers block is simply to read.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
Absolutely. See my previous comment about the artist mythos. Artists often aren’t as they’ve been portrayed by romanticists, or the eccentric “creatives” who wander production houses/advertising firms/etc. More often than not, the individuals who propagate those myths have serious insecurities about their own creative process.
What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?
My best “author” friends were my peers and supervisors during my PhD. And I believe it is essential to surround yourself with writers, creatives, or storytellers of any form – to learn, to listen, and to talk through your own ideas. But you don’t necessarily have to be “friends” with them. Relationships are complex, and while I thrive in creative environments, etc. I often find myself connecting more with non-writers about non-writerly things. The key, as with all things, is balance. If you’re in an MFA, and the only people you surround yourself with are writers, you’ll exist in an academic bubble. But if you have no writers in your life, you’re probably not challenging yourself or work-shopping your writing like you should be.
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?
A little bit of both, I think. From the Land of Genesis was actually the catalyst for my idea behind Hell or High Seas, the documentary that set me sailing for Cape Horn two years straight. While FTLOG explores a variety of narratives from various veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars, Hell or High Seas is a deeper, more involved investigation of a single non-combat veteran, former-navy-rescue-swimmer Taylor Grieger. The two compliment each other, I believe, and moving forward I might build on those themes. But I’m also working on projects that are completely outside of the military experience, and I’m really looking forward to fleshing those out.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Publishing my first book has been really helpful in terms of affirmation. It took over two years from when I completed From the Land of Genesis to when heard back from my first publisher. After two years of crickets, I got offers from three different publishers… within the same week! Before that week, I was really struggling with self-doubt and whether I should abandon my efforts to publish FTLOG and just move on to my next book. And I did move on from FTLOG, and I began writing for the documentary and for magazines about our journey, and I started writing a memoir of our sailing journey around Cape Horn. But I didn’t stop querying agents or submitting to publishers. So I learned that you don’t have to give up on one book in order to move on to the next.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
When I got accepted to the post-graduate creative writing program in Glasgow, Scotland, I received a scholarship that covered my tuition for the first year. It was a gamble, because accommodation alone in downtown Glasgow was going to cost more than I’d ever had in my bank account. But I sold my car, bought a one-way flight, and signed a year-long lease with graduate-student housing. It took me three months to find a job bartending in Glasgow, and even afterwards I was only earning minimum wage. I scraped by that first year, working weekends, teaching undergrad courses, and completing mandatory courses for my masters of research course. Then I received a studentship with an additional living stipend to complete my PhD. Those three years ended up being the most formative in my life. So I think the best money I ever spent was that one-way flight to Scotland.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
Oh, there are plenty of those. Shakespeare and Chaucer, to start. Then there was Hemingway, who I despised at first, then idolized, then eventually settled on the middle-ground of respect. Steinbeck was another I grew to love. Stephen King I grew to admire, though I think I was only ever put-off by the genre of horror and not really his style as a writer. Countless short story authors. I think the trick is to give them a chance. Once you get into the rhythm and style of their writing—especially the more traditional, historical authors—the craft itself falls to the side and you’re able to absorb and appreciate the message and themes at the core.
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
It must’ve been my junior year of high school, when I started taking my English assignments seriously. We learned the ethos, pathos, and logos of arguments, and at that time I thought the powers of persuasion were limitless. It didn’t take long for that view to falter, and so I returned to writing stories to expand the mind, rather than trying to change it.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Probably “Treats” by Laura Williams. I bought the book from a small, independent publisher based out of Glasgow that has since gone out of business, and I bought it for about five quid. I really didn’t expect to like it, and then I was instantly pulled in by the humor, wit, and sharpness of tone. The book itself was a collection of vignettes and flash fiction, and I can’t tell you what half of them were about, but I remember savouring the entire book.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
I had to ask my fiancé about this one, since I don’t know much about spirit animals or avatars. She said my spirit animal is a brown bear, though I was kind of hoping she’d say “turtle duck,” in reference to The Legend of Korra cartoon series.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
More than most authors, I imagine. My situation is unique, since most of the inspiration for my characters and their experiences are drawn directly from interviews that I conducted with veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. To them, I owe my sincerest gratitude: for being who they are, for enlist to serve on our behalf, and for sitting down to help me, and all of you, better understand what they’ve endured, and how their difficulties in transitioning home have been disregarded and misunderstood by the public at large.
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
Fortunately, just two. One of which I wrote while I was in middle-school (yes, it’s a 600-page handwritten fantasy novel). The other is underway, and the rest are still incubating.
What does literary success look like to you?
Being able to tell meaningful stories as my career.
What’s the best way to market your books?
No idea. I imagine, most of the time, that’s the publisher’s responsibility. I think as an author, maybe the best marketing technique is to be kind and gracious, to express gratitude to the people who have supported you, and to be proud and confident in – not bashful of – your book. A large part of your early audience is going to be your community. And the best way to reach your community is to serve them.
What’s the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Not allowing my own biases or diction to slip into the prose. But, honestly, it’s no different than writing any character that’s from a different background or culture than yourself. As an author, you must constantly be exercising empathy, immersed in backstory, and reminded of the subtle cues that give yourself away.
What did you edit out of this book?”
More than half of the stories that I wrote. That, and a lot of clichés and adjectives.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
Anything that allowed me to create. Stories, ideally, in whatever medium I could. But if not film / writing / radio, I’d probably be an architect or craftsman of some kind.
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